Heuglin’s Gull, West Coast Wetlands, November 18th

Adult Heuglin's Gull ("taimyrensis" form), seen from Highway 17 on the estuary at approximately Km 120.

Presumed adult Heuglin’s Gull (“taimyrensis” form), seen from Highway 17 on the estuary at approximately Km 121.

Living and birding in England for many years until 2005, I saw most of the gulls on the British list at one point or another. I used to enjoy scanning the vast gull flocks at Dungeness looking for a stray Caspian Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, or a winter Glaucous Gull. However, the identification and taxonomy of large gulls is not a subject that one has a lot of opportunity to get involved with in southern Taiwan, where they are generally very scarce winter visitors.

Driving south on Highway 17 on Tuesday afternoon, I was crossing a big river bridge at about Km 121 when my eye was caught by an adult gull on the estuary below. Even before I even stopped the scooter, my immediate reaction was that it was very dark on the mantle. The bird was wary, and I wasn’t too far away from it, but it was reluctant to leave the dead fish it had found. The mantle was a slaty-grey in color, several shades darker than on the Mongolian Gulls I had seen earlier in the day. Its legs were very bright yellow-orange, again quite unlike the dull pinkish legs of Mongolian Gull. The wings appeared especially long, another feature good for Heuglin’s Gull. Scanning identification papers and photos on the internet when I got home, the only feature that was perhaps abnormal for taimyrensis Heuglin’s Gull was the very white head (Heuglin’s Gull typically shows a lot of head flecking in winter), but there is much variation between individuals; this bird could have just been very late moulting out of breeding plumage.

According to the literature, the taimyrensis form of Heuglin’s Gull is a regular but uncommon winter visitor to Taiwan. The science of large gulls is very much a work in progress, but I am happy for now to be able to add it to my life list. It’s my first lifer since Slaty-legged Crake back in August.

In other news, visits to Cheting, Qigu, Budai and Aogu today produced a respectable total of 70 bird species. Perhaps noteworthy were a Black-faced Bunting and two Daurian Redstarts in the coastal forest at Qigu, two Ospreys on the estuary there, and a couple of Greater Painted-Snipes flushed from marshes along the Qigu embankment. At Budai, two adult Mongolian Gulls, 12 Common Pochard, a Garganey and a Richard’s Pipit, plus a huge flock of at least 800 Whiskered Terns resting on the marshes near Highway 17 at Km 134.5. At Aogu, no sign of the reported Hooded Crane, but plenty of wintering birds including Avocet and Black-headed Gull.

Of interest to birders visiting from overseas, Black-faced Spoonbills are currently common and easily found at all the sites mentioned.

Lifer: Heuglin’s Gull (total 1,790).

Eyebrowed Thrush, Tengjhih National Forest, November 16th

Birds seen and heard:

  • Taiwan Hill Partridge 1 heard only
  • Black Eagle 2
  • Crested Serpent Eagle 2 heard only
  • Eyebrowed Thrush 1+
  • Pale Thrush 2
  • thrush sp. 20+
  • Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler 2 heard only
  • Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler several heard
  • Eurasian Jay 1 heard only
  • Large-billed Crow 1
  • Fire-breasted Flowerpecker 1 female
  • White-rumped Munia 15
  • Black-faced Bunting 1
  • Green-backed Tit 1
  • Black-throated Tit 10
  • Taiwan Yuhina 5
  • Taiwan Sibia 4
  • Steere’s Liocichla 25
  • Rufous-faced Warbler 20
  • Olive-backed Pipit 3
  • Daurian Redstart 1 female
  • Taiwan Barbet 4
  • Rufous-capped Babbler 2
  • Striated Swallow
  • Barn Swallow

A lovely clear, cool morning up at Tengjhih. Kaohsiung’s smog could be seen creeping closer and closer during my visit, but it never seems to get all the way up to Tengjhih. I made sure to fill my lungs with plenty of clean air before driving back down the mountain.

I walked the main blue trail, starting at the village at Km 15 and proceeding clockwise. At birding pace, the walk takes 2.5-3 hours. Bird activity was high today, with plenty of thrushes seen and heard – however, only a few of them were positively identified, as they were very flighty and elusive in the abundant dense cover.

I heard both Taiwan Hill Partridge and Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler, and other notable Tengjhih records included Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Black-faced Bunting, two splendid Black Eagles (reliable here), and the return of wintering Olive-backed Pipts and a Daurian Redstart.

Year tick: Eyebrowed Thrush (total 255).

Mongolian Gull and Common Pochard, West Coast Wetlands, November 11th

Complete list (63 species):

  • Eurasian Wigeon 100s
  • Northern Shoveler 1000
  • Northern Pintail 100s
  • Garganey 3 (2 Cheting, 1 Budai)
  • Eurasian Teal 100s
  • Common Pochard 27 (7 Cheting, 20 Budai)
  • Tufted Duck 70 (20 Cheting, 50 Budai)
  • Little Grebe
  • Sacred Ibis
  • Black-faced Spoonbill 400+ (54 Cheting, 300 Qigu, 25 Budai)
  • Black-crowned Night Heron
  • Eastern Cattle Egret
  • Grey Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Little Egret
  • Great Cormorant 2
  • Peregrine 1 (Qigu)
  • Osprey 2 (Budai)
  • Black-shouldered Kite 1 (Qigu)
  • Common Moorhen
  • Common Coot
  • Black-winged Stilt
  • Pied Avocet 2 (Budai)
  • Pacific Golden Plover
  • Grey Plover
  • Kentish Plover
  • Bar-tailed Godwit 5 (Qigu)
  • Eurasian Curlew
  • Common Redshank
  • Common Greenshank
  • Marsh Sandpiper
  • Common Sandpiper 1 (Qigu)
  • Dunlin
  • Red-necked Stint
  • Mongolian Gull 1 (Budai)
  • Black-headed Gull 1 (Budai)
  • Caspian Tern 100s
  • Little Tern
  • Whiskered Tern
  • Feral Pigeon
  • Red Collared Dove
  • Spotted Dove
  • Common Kingfisher
  • Grey-capped Woodpecker
  • Brown Shrike
  • Black Drongo
  • Common Magpie
  • Grey Treepie
  • Grey-throated Martin
  • Barn Swallow
  • Pacific Swallow
  • Striated Swallow
  • Plain Prinia
  • Chinese Bulbul
  • Japanese White-eye
  • Common Myna
  • Javan Myna
  • Oriental Magpie-Robin
  • Daurian Redstart 1 male (Budai)
  • Tree Sparrow
  • Scaly-breasted Munia
  • Eastern Yellow Wagtail
  • Richard’s Pipit 1 (Qigu)

A few hours on the west coast, from Cheting to Budai, showed that autumn migration is all but over, and winter birds are back in good numbers.

Ducks were much in evidence from the viewing tower at Cheting, including most notably seven Common Pochard on the right hand lake. This is a scarce winter visitor to Taiwan. Also here, 54 Black-faced Spoonbills, two Garganey, and high numbers of Sacred Ibis.

Qigu coastal forest was deserted by birds and birders, with no migrants seen there at all. Resident birds in evidence today included Oriental Magpie-Robin, Grey-capped Woodpecker, and a beautiful Peregrine soaring overhead. On the nearby Qigu reserve, thousands of waders on the mud were mostly too far away to identify, but Dunlins made up the overwhelming majority of the closer birds. Distant Eurasian Curlews and five Bar-tailed Godwits were seen. At least 300 Black-faced Spoonbills huddled together, with 150 resting Caspian Terns nearby. A Black-shouldered Kite drifted through, and there was a lone Richard’s Pipit on the embankment.

The Budai area was teeming with birds, with the best place being the complex of pools to the south of the road at Km 134.5 on Highway 17. Thousands of ducks included a further 20 Common Pochard – evidence of an unusual influx so far this winter? I added another Taiwan tick here – an adult Mongolian Gull – and a Black-headed Gull also flew through the area.

Taiwan ticks: Common Pochard, Mongolian Gull (total 263).

Mugimaki Flycatcher, Red-flanked Bluetail and Goldcrest, Qigu, November 4th

Highlights:

  • Goldcrest 1
  • Mugimaki Flycatcher 2 (1 male)
  • Red-flanked Bluetail 1 female
  • Daurian Redstart 6 (3 males)
  • Yellow-browed Warbler 2
  • Arctic Warbler 1

A significant change in the weather on Monday, with much cooler air across southern Taiwan, raised hopes that something good might finally have arrived at Qigu.

Nonetheless – being well used to disappointment at Qigu over the last few weeks – I reined in my enthusiasm, slept a little later than usual, had a leisurely breakfast, and finally arrived at the coastal forest at 9.30am. Initially it didn’t look promising, with no birder’s cars parked at the site – which is usually an indication that nothing much is around.

The first part of the forest seemed quiet, with the only bird of note a female Daurian Redstart. Then, near the pond, a lone Taiwanese photographer (English name Gordon) got me onto a bird he had just found. After something of a team effort, we managed to get reasonable views of a beautiful adult male Mugimaki Flycatcher. It was very mobile and stayed high in the trees, often obscured by branches, making photography difficult even for Gordon’s long lens.

Already the trip was worthwhile, and I wandered off along the eastern shore of the pond, where two male Daurian Redstarts were chasing each other around, and then an ever better bird appeared – a female Red-flanked Bluetail giving great views perched on a fallen log. I went to find Gordon, who managed some excellent shots of the bird.

My favorite area of Qigu coastal forest is also the area that is hardest to access, because it’s the part that’s covered with the most driftwood and damp gullies. It’s about two-thirds of the way through the forest, on the landward side, and today it seemed especially sheltered from the breeze and rich in insects here. In one small area, I quickly found two Yellow-browed Warblers, a second Mugimaki Flycatcher (this one a female), an Arctic Warbler, and outstandingly a Goldcrest, which was calling frequently and keeping to the tops of the pines. I went to fetch Gordon again, who spent an hour or so at the spot and eventually came away with some very satisfactory photos of this difficult-to-photograph species. Goldcrest is a rare migrant in Taiwan, especially so in the south of the country.

Leaving the forest, a drive along the length of the Qigu embankment produced a couple of Richard’s Pipits, another Daurian Redstart, and plenty of extremely distant Black-faced Spoonbills and Caspian Terns on the mud.

At Cheting Marshes, halfway back to Kaohsiung, I spent an enjoyable twenty minutes in the viewing tower, from which large numbers of herons, ducks and other water birds can be easily seen. Perhaps notable were three Garganey, an Avocet, two Whiskered Terns, plenty of Sacred Ibis, a Eurasian Kestrel, and a beautiful Long-tailed Shrike.

Taiwan ticks: Mugimaki Flycatcher, Goldcrest (total 261).

Northern Boobook and Daurian Redstart, Qigu, October 18th and 21st

Northern Boobook, Qigu coastal forest, October 21st.

Northern Boobook, Qigu coastal forest, October 21st.

A couple of fairly uninspiring visits to Qigu coastal forest, the highlight being my second Northern Boobook of the year on 21st, which was fairly flighty but I eventually got good enough views for a record shot.

On the 18th, the long-staying Asian Brown Flycatcher was seen again, plus a male Daurian Redstart, about four Arctic Warblers, and a Eurasian Kestrel. On the 21st – with the notable exception of the Northern Boobook – there was virtually no evidence of migration whatsoever. The weather has been clear, with light north-easterly winds, for a long time – we need a weather system to pass through to shake things up a bit.

The following resident species can usually be found in the coastal forest – the first two in particular may be of interest to birders: Oriental Magpie Robin, Grey-capped Woodpecker, Japanese White-eye, Scaly-breasted Munia, Chinese Bulbul, Tree Sparrow.

Brambling, Qigu, October 14th

Bramblings, Qigu coastal forest, October 14th. Two of the three birds that were present.

Bramblings, Qigu coastal forest, October 14th. Two of the three birds that were present.

A couple of hours spent at Qigu in the afternoon produced three Bramblings in the coastal forest, a personal Taiwan tick. The birds were feeding among the piles of driftwood and showing very well. Otherwise, the forest was extremely quiet – just one Arctic Warbler and two Brown Shrikes provided the only other evidence of migration. The breezy, clear and sunny weather of recent weeks means that migrants have probably been overflying the area without stopping.

Nearby, on the reserve, at least 300 Black-faced Spoonbills showed distantly – but in excellent afternoon light – from the embankment. Accompanying them, nineteen Caspian Terns also back for the winter, two passage Gull-billed Terns, and two Eurasian Curlews.

Just west of the terminus of Expressway 61, a drained lake is currently an excellent place to view very large numbers of common waders and a scattering of terns, with the most numerous species being Dunlin and Red-necked Stint. A scan of the flocks revealed nothing unusual, but several White-winged Terns and a lone Gull-billed Tern were perhaps noteworthy.

Taiwan tick: Brambling (total 259).

Northern Boobook and Striated Heron, Qigu, October 4th

Northern Boobook, Qigu, October 4th.

Northern Boobook, Qigu, October 4th.

Even on quiet days, the coastal forest at Qigu can still come up with quality birds. This morning, a splendid migrant Northern Boobook showed very well, to just a fraction of the number of photographers who were here for the Siberian Thrush on Tuesday.

Another personal Taiwan tick – a Striated Heron – dropped out of the sky in front of me at the pond, but it remained for less than a minute before flying off south. Otherwise, the coastal forest was quiet, with just an Asian Brown Flycatcher and at least eight Arctic Warblers of note.

Elsewhere there didn’t seem to be much happening, although I didn’t spend much time looking. Perhaps noteworthy were a Richard’s Pipit along the embankment, a late Broad-billed Sandpiper among much-reduced numbers of common waders on the south side of the Tsengwen Estuary, and a fly-through Eurasian Kestrel near Highway 17.

This weekend I also spent some time double-checking my Taiwan and year lists, and found a couple of mistakes which boosted each list’s total by one. So my totals are now 258 and 249, respectively.

The nine species I saw in 2013, but not so far in 2014, are: Mikado Pheasant, Bulwer’s Petrel, Pied Harrier, Oriental Plover, Chinese Tawny Owl, Taiwan Varied Tit, Chinese Hwamei, Eyebrowed Thrush, and Eurasian Siskin. Of these, I hope to at least get Mikado Pheasant and Eyebrowed Thrush before the year is out, but I won’t be holding my breath to see the likes of Bulwer’s Petrel, Pied Harrier or Oriental Plover again!

Taiwan ticks: Northern Boobook, Striated Heron (total 258). Year tick: Eurasian Kestrel (total 249).