The fact that there is colony literally within five metres of an active campsite is amazing enough, and a reflection of the determination of birds here to find a way to breed despite the close proximity of people.
Despite the radio silence I have been out and about a fair bit on Lantau in the last few weeks.
A second nightbird survey (walking down to Tung Chung from the Big Buddha at Ngong Ping delivered three Large Hawk Cuckoos and four each of Collared Scops Owl, Slaty-legged Crake and Grey Nightjar. Indian Cuckoos have been calling in Discovery Bay for a couple of weeks now and I also had a calling Collared Scops Owl last night whilst walking the dogs.
We're now on the fourth day of an extra long weekend - with Buddha's Birthday on Thursday and Labour Day on Friday giving me three opportunities to get out to Shui Hau, a site on the south side of the island I haven't written about for a couple of years. It's a tidal sandflat with a wonderfully rich benthic fauna and a stand of rare mangroves up against the beach.
Despite the seeming attraction of the habitat it attracts waders in far smaller numbers than Mai Po, but here there are no hides and very few other birders or photographers, although the bay is also used by kite surfers and clam diggers, and a small herd of Water Buffalo that wander down from the abandoned fields behind the trees at the top of the beach.
It's an attractive site - surrounded by low well-wooded hills with the steep and angular Lantau Peak looming over from almost 1000m. The bay has a narrow east-facing mouth with a decoratively placed rocky islet and a few small boats providing some attractive silhouettes for the early morning light. Other birds here included 24 Cattle Egrets in various stages of breeding plumage hanging out with the Water Buffalo on the marshier areas inland and several Black Kites from whom this is obviously a favourite area. A couple of Striated Herons also feeding in the shallows and a loudly calling Indian Cuckoo added a little more interest.
Over the last three days it's been fun to walk out onto the sand, sit on my old man backpack/stool and watch the waders come to me as the incoming tide and the clam diggers push them from one spot to another. Red-necked Stints, peaking at 71 birds on Saturday morning make up the bulk of the numbers. They are in the full range of plumages from monochrome winter birds to the full glory of red throated and rufous-fringed breeding glory. Unfortunately they are also the hardest to photograph, constantly in motion as they feed in the shallowest water between the ripples of sand.
On my first day two each of Greater and Lesser Sandplovers, two Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and a richly ferruginous Curlew Sandpiper came close to me as they wandered across the drier patches, hunting tiny crabs and worms. A solitary Marsh Sandpiper was more cautious, keeping its distance while hunting in slightly deeper water and I had only the briefest glimpses of a couple of Common Sandpipers and a distant but nonetheless distinctive Terek Sandpiper that hid among the mangroves and only twice showed in flight.
As the tide rose four more sand plovers - one winter-plumaged Greater Sandplover and three more Lesser Sandplovers, all very close to their full breeding plumage, dropped in, adding a little extra spice to a gentle, but highly enjoyable morning's birding.
After I got home I had a go looking out the window of my flat to see if there were any birds out in the bay or on the small mangrove stand by the school - . I was delighted to pick up two Terek Sandpipers - easily identified by their black braces, upcurved bill and sausage dog-like short legs.
Having enjoyed the first visit so much I came back on two subsequent days so that I could position myself in better light. There was a little variety in the shape of a Common Redshank, unfortunately missing the entire right leg, a Ruddy Turnstone,, a pair of busily feeding Red Knot, and three Grey-tailed Tattlers.
I was pleased to get decent shots and some snatches of video of some of these, as well as the little gang of Greater and Lesser Sandplovers and the solitary Curlew Sandpiper, but the real highlight were the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and a Long-toed Stint that had taken a liking to a grassy knoll and a remnant puddle right up on the edge of the beach close to the kite surfers' preparation area. Over time I was able to get to within a few metres without disturbing the birds as they foraged on the grass and in the wet sand, where the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper proved itself a master at catching long thin red worms.
It is exactly such intimate close views that its difficult to get in Deep Bay, and I was delighted to grab a good selection of pix and video as these birds wandered ever closer.
Other bits and pieces included my first calling Chestnut-winged Cuckoos of the year, as well as hearing Plaintive and Indian Cuckoos and a female Chinese Goshawk seen from the bus stop while heading home.
It would take a better birder/scientist than me to answer that one Tom. Here's a few more pix:
1. Greater Sandplover - coming into breeding plumage
2.Long-toed Stint - showing of its toes
3.Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - posing outrageously
4. Lesser Sandplover - with clam diggers.
5. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - crouching to hide its shadow from a passing Black Kite
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First time I've consciously seen it action Gretchen. I may even be wrong, but I did find the sharply defined black shadows helping me to find brownish-coloured birds against a brownish-coloured background - so if figured that it would help raptors too!
Entirely makes sense, Mike. I can attest to that shadow being a real aid to spotting the cryptic patterned and colored birds in the marshes. Also, I often find well hidden birds, or other animals, only by being highly tuned into noticing any movement, which is just highlighted by an even larger and more clearly defined shadow.
I see a new strategy for spotting birds which I need to put to work! Of course, now I'm on the shores of Lake Superior, and when not looking for birds in the forest, am looking for ducks on the lake! Nevertheless - it's good food for thought.
It's been a while since I posted but a few bits and pieces have popped up as we enter the summer doldrums.
In ascending order of quality a Pacific Swift scoped from the window early this morning was immediately different from the resident House Swifts that breed here at Discovery Bay.
A couple of weeks earlier I was pleased to watch a Whimbrel flying southwards and into the bay where the DB Ferry Pier lives. This was just my second Lantau record after the injured bird at Yi O a few weeks earlier.
A Yellow Bittern flushed from the causeway across the Central Park pond was a nice reward for walking the dogs when it wasn't my turn and a Lantau as well as a DB tick.
Saving the best til last I was absolutely thrilled to take a hopeful squint across the bay on the morning following the tropical storm that went through last Saturday and discover the unmistakable long-tailed, kink-winged silhouette of a Lesser Frigatebird gliding effortlessly above the waves around 4 kilometres out! Despite the ridiculous distance I was able to make out a white head and belly patch separated by a broad black breast band. This definitively identified it as a juvenile, but it took some great photography by Thomas Legg who lives on Peng Chau island, which forms the southern edge of the bay, to provide the necessary detail of the shape of the belly patch and the axilliary spurs to confirm that it was indeed Lesser and not the much rarer Christmas or Great Frigatebirds, which muster less than ten records between them.
Needless to say my long range scanning will continue!
Shocked to see it's been a month since my Frigatebird sighting, but hardly surprising that I haven't had much more to post as it's so hot now and we are firmly between migration seasions.
Today I broke my long range record by scoping an adult White-bellied Sea Eagle being chased down the West Lamma Channel by a dozen unidentified terns (most likely is Black-naped) somewhere between 9 and 10 km away.
Yesterday I had a wonderful encounter with a pair of Black-necked Starlings and their two bratty Asian Koel "offspring". I initially came across a rather young, short-tailed male Koel begging noisily on the ground in a small grassy patch by the road while walking the dogs. As I returned with the camera a second, also male, and fully fledged Asian Koel was also calling from a tree above the same patch of grass. I spent the next 90 minutes watching the younger bird squatting on the grass, screeching steadily for food, the parents foraging steadily and offering food to the chick every five minutes or so. When they did it would bound across the grass, flip its tail up, spread its wings and with redoubled shrieking present its cavernous pink maw into which a variety of worms and grubs were stuffed.
I absolutely loved this as it was my first ever chance to watch cuckoo parasitism.
It was interesting to me that the older Koel continued to call but made no effort to drop onto the grass and compete with the younger bird. It did twice get fed up in the tree branches during the period, leaving me with the question of whether this was a bird from an earlier brood, a faster-growing sibling from the same brood (broods of up to three are known from Hong Kong in Black-necked Starling nests), or an unrelated bird that was simply trying it on. My belief is that both were raised by the same parents as one one occasion the parent B-n S flew up to to the bird to feed it. I'd be interested to hear of anyone with more knowledge about cuckoos.
The younger Koel was generally left alone while its parents were foraging, which opened the door for a Greater Coucal that had been lurking in the undergrowth at the edge of the grass to make a dash for the youngster, which flopped awkwardly into the air and to safety. I was surprised to see a coucal go after such a large bird, but presumably barely fledged youngsters may well be dopey enough to get caught. As it retreated to the bushes it posed nicely on a log, showing off a stylish spattering of mud on its upperparts.
The youngster finally decided it had been fed enough and flopped and scrambled its way up into the canopy of a tree on the edge of the lawn to digest its breakfast, giving its parents a well-earned respite.
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I have often hoped to have the opportunity to photo document some interaction between cuckoo fledgling and their "adoptive" parents. Though hearing cuckoo regularly here and even in the US, I have never managed to even see any such behavior.
More unexpected summer quality appeared in the shape of a mystery owl that was found by John Holmes during the ongoing Nightbird Survey. Initially discovered by its distinctive slightly slurred two-note call, which sounded like no owl previously recorded in Hong Kong it was eventually seen in mid July revealed itself to be at least superficially similar to Oriental Scops Owl, which is a less than annual late autumn migrant - and therefore highly unlikely to be turning up in Hong Kong in July!.
There is also one subspecies - malayanus - that is apparently native to southern China. However they sound nothing like this bird, giving the regular "toink...toink-a-toink" call. Great research by John Alcock found a good match with Lanyu Scops Owl. The problem is that this is a single island endemic, confined to Lanyu Island to the southwest of Taiwan that has never previously been known from anywhere else. The upshot is that the evidence points to a highly unlikely identification, and one that the Records Committee will have to resolve.
Anyway I went see it a couple of weeks ago and was delighted to record the song and get a few photos - it seemed completely unconcerned by the appreciative birders lighting it up while it sang - at one of Hong Kong's odder twitches.
First up I was pleased to scope three Striated Herons in the small mangrove stand from my home 20 floors and 700+ metres away. I had seen adults all summer and a brown-winged and streaky juvenile a few days earlier, but it was nice to see the whole family yesterday.
Three Common Sandpipers on the breakwater that protects the mangroves marked a slight uptick in autumn wader passage. I'd had two yesterday and a singleton back at the end of July.
The same scanning from the window a few days earlier had also shown that the terns being seen from the inter-island ferries could most likely be seen from shore, and much closer if I headed over to Peng Chau. I did this on Saturday morning, and it worked a treat - delivering 30-odd Bridled Terns (a Lantau tick), 40-odd Roseate Terns and 15 Black-naped Terns that came into the bay to the south of Peng Chau and foraging in the wakes of the various ferries. The show lasted for about 40 minutes before the terns all headed out in to the deeper waters of the West Lamma Channel, loafing on a pair of large yellow channel markers until the next boat made a big enough wake to disturb the fish they were hunting. It turned out I was only just in time - the next day no terns at all were seen from the ferries!
Last week I finally went birding on Lantau outside Discovery Bay for the first time in a very long time! In between I have done a couple of underwhelming night bird surveys that have produced nothing but differing numbers of Collared Scops Owls as I follow the route down from the big buddha at Ngong Ping back to Tung Chung. More interesting have been the herps - with a couple of the local race of the massive and impressive Tokay Gecko and a lifer Short-legged Toad the highlights.
On Thursday last week I finally decided to visit San Tau on the north side of Lantau just to the east of Tung Chung. This has a nicely forested valley that cuts a way inland from the coast and the path to get there runs past the mangroves at the mouth of the Tung Chung river and though some nice woodland. The usual suspects were inhabiting the mangrove edge - Black-crowned Night Heron, Grey Heron, Little and Great Egrets and a single Chinese Pond Heron - plus a Common Sandpiper, a noisy but invisible Common Kingfisher and a White-throated Kingfisher playing silent sentinel from the top of a mooring post. I was more surprised to pick up at least five Dabchicks, which I think of as much more of a freshwater species, but there they were and it was unto watch one hunting the shallows from the bridge over the river.
Just at the mouth of the river there is a patch of open land with some scraggly acacias along the edge form which I could hear Dusky, Yellow-browed and Pallas's Leaf Warblers, the latter my first of the winter, calling. They all duly appeared, along with a flock of Scaly-breasted Munias, a female Daurian Redstart and something else giving a sharp high pitched call note that just wouldn't show. Eventually it flipped and showed a flash of tail and gave a ratchet "tzzzik" call that sounded too fast for Asian Brown Flycatcher and too slow for Taiga Flycatcher, which meant it ought to be Red-breasted Flycatcher. This is indeed what it turned out to be, but it took thirty minutes of determined stalking to get the couple of shots and a sound recording to get all the pieces that needed to be put together to confirm the ID.
Indeed I'd be interested in others' opinions of what was not a straightforward bird. While the call immediately sounded right for Red-breasted to me, the bill was mostly dark and the uppertail coverts were if anything a very slightly darker shade of black than the rest of the tail (favouring Taiga) , while it had nice big thorns on the tertian tips, limited tertial fringes and warm buffy underparts which favoured Red-breasted. All the pieces are there below, so make you own mind up!
This turned out to be the highlight of an otherwise pleasant but far from exciting morning as I picked up a handful of Siberian Rubythroats (all but one calling only) two Asian Stubtails, a Manchurian Bush Warbler and two separate Two-barred Warblers, plus my first Verditer of the winter and a closing Asian Brown Flycatcher, which helpfully provided its rattling call to prove how different it is from the morning's Red-breasted Flycatcher.
A busy period of birding on Lantau started with a complete bust on the last day of 2020 with a night bird survey that delivered a big fat zero species on a chilly and occasionally windy night.
However things improved with my 21st January survey when, in addition to four Collared Scops Owls, I was delighted to record and eventually figure out that I had connected with a calling Brown Fish Owl close to the end of my route at Shek Mun Kap. It took a little detective work to match the call with one from a bird filmed on Cheung Chau a decade ago and helpfully posted to YouTube, but the sonogram below provided the final confirmation. The rest of the story is on Facebook : here
Buoyed by this success I offered to do another route along the catchment on south Lantau between the Tung Chung Highway and Tong Fuk prison with Carrie and the dogs which delivered an amazing 11 Collared Scops Owls on 26th January - the joint record for CSO for a Night Bird Survey!
In between that another walk with the dogs on 23rd January - this time at Mui Wo - was rewarded with a fabulous male Black-naped Oriole and a couple of Hair-crested Drongos in a flowering cotton tree. The marshy buffalo fields on the other side of the stream produced a surprise Northern Lapwing (a Lantau patch tick) and ten Chinese Blackbirds in what has been a poor winter for thrushes. Inspired by this a return a couple of days later - in the vain hope that a winter Black-naped Oriole might in fact have been something more exciting - added a lovely male Verditer and a heard but unseen Taiga Flycatcher, an unexpected Eastern Crowned Warbler plus another somewhat dubious Lantau tick in the shape of a White-headed Munia.
Another outing to a barely visited Water Services Department road at the back of Shek Pik reservoir on 27th January produced my first White's Thrush of the winter, a Grey-backed Thrush several other unseen thrushes,a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and my first Mugimaki Flycatcher - a nice male - for a couple of years.
More recently the discovery of a Eurasian Eagle Owl on the hills above Discovery Bay had me marching uphill on 12 February, and happily connecting with a distant but undoubtedly identifiable bird that sat nicely silhouetted on a ridge top boulder and also gave its deep haunting call a few times. The same evening Savanna Nightjars called from close-by, a Russet Bush Warbler 'tzeep'-ed a few times and a calling Barking Deer, a cliff-full of pitcher plants, and the ultra endemic Romer's Tree Frog calling from the stream below as I headed back downhill added further interest on a fine evening's birding.
And finally, this morning 15th January... although the story starts yesterday morning...when John Alcock sent a Whatsapp message that he'd found a Pale-footed Bush Warbler on the path that leads from right behind my block onto the ridge that runs (rather bumpily) the length of Lantau. Until this winter PFBW was a very difficult species to connect with. To realise that this bird was half a kilometre way from where I received the message on the sofa broke all records in terms of proximity to a twitchable bird. And I still couldn't go for it! We were heading out for the day and the dogs needed to be walked and fed, presents required wrapping etc.etc. I even got see two other Discovery Bay-based birders, Morten and Ben, up on the slope, ticking the bird while I walked the dogs! Thankfully I have seen PFBW a couple of time previously. I found one at Ng Tung Chai more than 15 years ago, and I watched another being pulled out of a net another decade before that! But wait, there's more! Heading further up the hill and walking the ridge westward John also found a Brown Bush Warbler which, if not quite as rare, is also very difficult to connect with. Again its a bird I've seen previously, but in the equally dim and distant past. So while I enjoyed my day on the boat it was always with the thought of two patch ticks sitting there literally within shouting distance of my home!
Back to this morning...
With a sunny unencumbered day breaking I decided to take the dogs up the hill to look for the Bush Warblers. The hillside was far birdier than I expected, with Yellow-browed Warbler, Daurian Redstart and Siberian Rubythroats calling, a couple of Black-faced Buntings flipping about and Yellow-bellied Prinias, Magpie Robins,Blue Whistling Thrushes and Cinereous Tits all in good voice, plus the usual Chinese and Crested Bulbuls, there were plenty of sounds that a twitchily over-sensitised ear could string into a Bush Warbler. A Russet Bush Warbler did indeed start singing, but its song is so distinctively bradypterus-like that there was no mistaking it for the more fluty and explosive notes of Pale-footed. The path is pretty steep so I hardly run up it at the best of times, but stopping to listen to every call soon exhausted the dogs' patience and they zoomed on up without me.
I needn't have worried. When I got to the spot the Pale-footed Bush Warbler burst into joyful song as if it was the most important bird on the hillside and absolutely demanded to be noticed. And there is absolutely no mistaking it for anything else. PFBWs are cettias - and their song is as loud and distinctive as any of this family. Here's a short excerpt of it singing at full blast right next to the path. It did not however deign to show itself before I had to head off in search of the dogs.
I decided I didn't want to chase after John's Brown Bush Warbler on Tiger's Head partly because it's steeper, partly because there are lots of people on that trail, and partly out of a preference for finding my own birds. So instead of turning left on the spine of the ridge I turned right and headed east instead. This path has delivered very little except an owl pellet on any of my visits but today I struck gold as a Brown Bush Warbler barked out a couple of grumpy alarm calls and then started its distinctive thin humming 'ditditditditditditdit' song right at the trig point where I intended to turn round - result! I was absolutely delighted to record that too on my iPhone (below - the vertical bars between 2,000 and 4,500), but the quality of the recording is very poor that the only way to really share it is as a sonogram because Soundcloud seems not to have the range to capture low volume low frequency sounds - at least not that I can hear on my dodgy 8-year-old MacBook Pro. True to form, as a bradypterus, it showed not even the barest flicker of a grass stem never mind any of its actual body.
On the way back down I did get the briefest of views of the PFBW, which was still cheerfully attention-seeking like the youngest child in a very large family, but since the dogs had disappeared downhill and I needed to get after them I will have to come back to give this little cracker another go.