Brown Noddy and Aleutian Tern, Qigu, August 29th

Menacing-looking dark clouds at dawn promised a reprieve from the relentless heat today – and maybe even some rain and grounded migrants- but it took just the duration of a 7-11 breakfast stop for the clouds to melt completely away, leaving the usual August agenda of strong sunshine and hazy skies. My first stop on the outskirts of Sangu came up trumps with an adult Little Stint showing well among legions of Red-necked Stints. This scarce migrant is being regularly reported in coastal Taiwan at the moment, and you get the feeling that this species is almost guaranteed among the thousands of stints at this time of year, providing you have the patience to look!

Steve M was already in position at the lighthouse when I arrived at 8.30am, and together we enjoyed a fruitful seawatch for the rest of the morning. Common Terns were sporadically moving south, with just over 300 recorded during the morning – apparently a very low count for the time of year. Of much greater personal interest was a long hoped-for target lifer, Aleutian Tern. Two of these fine birds flew south, and I managed to get onto one of them quickly enough for just-about-tickable views. Without Steve’s expert eye, I doubt I would have been confident enough to pick it out myself. This is a regular migrant past Qigu in May and August, although vastly outnumbered by Common Terns later in the month, and unlike the latter species is more strictly pelagic and doesn’t pause at the sandbar.

Much better views were enjoyed of the Brown Noddy that passed close inshore, which was doubly satisfying because I was the first one to spot it! It’s been a long time since I saw two lifers in one morning. Another good record was a party of three Brown Booby flying south. Although frequent enough in the east, this is a rare species in the shallow waters off south-west Taiwan.

Next, we checked out the remains of the coastal forest, which due to continual encroachment by the sea is now only half the size it was when I last visited it in late 2014 – and a mere fraction of the lush and extensive forest that stood at this spot a decade ago. Migrants today were represented by a lone Arctic Warbler and a handful of Brown Shrikes. The degradation of the habitat means we probably can’t expect too many birds here this autumn, although I will continue to check it anyway.

The tide was out, so it seemed like an opportune time for the now-familiar trudge out to the sandbar. This proved to be a worthwhile excursion, with three Gull-billed Terns hawking over the saltmarsh, and a Chinese Egret dancing around on the tidal mudflats. One of the Gull-billed Terns was still in full breeding plumage, and later on the sandbar I saw another three of this species, all of which were in non-breeding plumage, so at least 4 and possibly as many as 6 individuals were involved. The sandbar itself held large numbers of Common, Little, and Great Crested Terns, with a couple of Roseate Terns and a Black-naped Tern among them – but again no sign of that holy grail of terns, the Chinese Crested.

A brief but efficient stop at Tucheng on the way back produced an Asian Dowitcher, my first in Taiwan this autumn, and three Temminck’s Stints. All of these birds have been reported on and off here for at least a week. The presence of three Avocets, seemingly the same birds I saw here a week ago, reinforced the impression that lots of stuff is just hanging around at the moment. Let’s hope for some decent weather to get things moving again.

Lifers: Aleutian Tern, Brown Noddy (total 2,131).

2016 World Tear Tick: Brown Booby (total 798).



Dark-sided Flycatcher and Little Stint, Qigu area, August 20th and 22nd

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Dark-sided Flycatcher, Qigu, August 22nd. Record shot taken in bright sunlight. Seen in the shade, this bird showed much more clearly its smudgy-grey upper breast, thick white post-ocular crescent, mostly dark grey-brown head, and long primary projection.

Shorebird season is well and truly underway in south-west Taiwan, with 28 species personally recorded so far this fall. Literally any flooded field or muddy margin usually holds a handful of Wood Sandpipers, Long-toed Stints, Black-winged Stilts, Little Ringed Plovers or Common Greenshanks – the total numbers of common species such as these in the Qigu area alone must run into the thousands.

I started the day on Saturday in the area to the west of Km 146/147 along Highway 17, which I used to have all to myself but which has now been “discovered” by Taiwanese bird photographers. I later learned this was thanks to a vagrant Lesser Whistling Duck there earlier this year, putting this spot firmly on the map among local birders. I’m not sure whether I should be referring to these people as birders, or merely photographers – but in any case, there were plenty of them around.

One visitor whose presence was much more welcome was Steve M, a fellow Brit who also happens to be Taiwan’s top bird lister. I had somehow – but not deliberately – managed to evade him throughout my last stay in Taiwan, despite spending lots of time birding at his usual stomping grounds in the Tainan area. It turns out that Steve is doing a Taiwan “big year” in 2016 and is already on 427 species for the year. Unsurprisingly there weren’t any ticks here today for Steve, but he did give me some excellent pointers on separating Little Stint (a rare but regular migrant) from the abundant Red-necked Stint.

As with other very subtle and difficult species pairs, identifying them reliably comes down to the sum total of a number of tiny differences combined with observer experience. Compared to its commoner cousin, Little Stint is smaller, daintier, longer-legged, and longer-necked. Its bill is thinner and distinctly “droopier” at the tip. Structurally it can even resemble a Long-toed Stint, although of course it has black legs like Red-necked. Moreover, when it feeds, Little Stint tends to lean further forward and stick its rear end up in the air more. All of this makes it sound as if Little Stint stands out like the proverbial dogs’ b*llocks, but of course nothing could be further from the truth – it takes a great deal of practice and experience to casually pick one out with a sweep of the binoculars like Steve did on Saturday.

After getting our fill of the stint, plus a nice range of common migrant waders (including Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, a year tick for me), we headed back south to Jiangjun, where Steve wanted to have another crack at a long-staying party of Swinhoe’s Snipe in the area to see if something rarer could be found. We had just the one Swinhoe’s fairly distantly in flight, which gave me my year tick but again was nothing new for Steve.

Early Monday morning saw me heading north to Tainan again, where I started at the seawatching spot beside the lighthouse – to be greeted with literally nothing passing at sea. Apparently Saturday and Sunday were similarly bad, suggesting that a weather system is currently blocking southbound seabird passage. While I was contemplating my next move, a phone call from Steve had me jumping onto my scooter and heading to one of the few remaining woodlots in the area, where a Dark-sided Flycatcher was showing well for its second day. This is a rare migrant in Taiwan, not even annual in the south, and just the kind of bird that might fire up my interest in my Taiwan life list once again. Actually, its rarity in Taiwan is arguably the only reason to get excited about a Dark-sided Flycatcher, which can hardly be called the most spectacular-looking of birds. Elsewhere in the region it is far from rare – for example it is common in winter at Kaeng Krachan in Thailand, and it was a regular migrant this spring at my erstwhile local patch in Hanoi, Vietnam.

My next stop was the Qigu sandbar, which I felt duty-bound to inspect on the offchance that a Chinese Crested Tern might stop by among the 50 or so Great Crested Terns that are always lingering there. The innocuous-looking creek that it is necessary to cross on the way was today – as a result of the tide – a chest-deep and surprisingly fast-flowing channel of uneven depth and lined with quicksand. Anyway, I emerged from the experience alive – if a little damp! –  and the sandbar yielded scant reward with just a few Sanderlings of note, as well as the expected Great Crested, Common, and Little Terns. A group of estuarine waders on the pool halfway out included a Grey-tailed Tattler as well as several Greater Sandplovers, and numbers of smart summer-plumaged Mongolian Plovers.

My final stop for the day was just to the south of the river, at Tucheng. This is a fine site at the moment, with the water levels just right, and huge numbers of waders present. I spent a couple of hours here in the heat of the day, coming away with sightings of a Ruff and a Temminck’s Stint for my efforts, both very scarce migrants in Taiwan. More common but arguably of greater personal value (= year tick!) was a group of three Pied Avocet. These will no doubt become much more numerous as the autumn progresses, and indeed they winter in good numbers at Cheting and other west coast locations.

East Asia tick: Little Stint (total 1,163).

Taiwan tick: Dark-sided Flycatcher (total 291).

2016 World Year ticks: Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Swinhoe’s Snipe, Pied Avocet (total 795).

Chinese Egret, Roseate Tern and Grey-tailed Tattler, Qigu, August 9th

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The long walk across the mudflats to the Qigu sandspit, August 9th 2016 – can you see the Chinese Egret in the picture?

Encouraged by eBird reports of a long list of midsummer seabirds lingering offshore from Qigu, I finally found the motivation to haul myself out of bed before 5.00am for the familiar 90-minute scooter ride to south-western Taiwan’s foremost migration and seabird site. With such species as Aleutian Tern, Brown Noddy and Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel all seen recently from Qigu, my only realistic chance of an out-and-out lifer in Taiwan these days is probably to spend lots of time peering at the horizon through a telescope.

I arrived at around 7.45am and set myself up at the North Bank, next to what is described as a lighthouse but in reality resembles nothing more impressive than an overgrown tripod. It quickly became apparent that today would not be a classic day for passing seabirds, and after 45 minutes my haul comprised just a handful of lingering Great Crested Terns, and four Common Terns heading south. Lone seawatching is a real test of patience and endurance, and in my experience it is bearable only when there are plenty of birds to see. By contrast, when you’ve got company it can be enjoyable even when nothing much is passing through. In my formative birdwatching years, I would spend many hours in the seawatching hide at Dungeness, sometimes seeing next to no birds but still enjoying the banter between the birders.

Giving up on the sea, I drove inland and made a circuit of some of the areas I remembered to be good for passage waders. The usual suspects have already started passing through in decent numbers – common migrants in these parts include the likes of Marsh, Broad-billed, Curlew and Wood Sandpipers, Long-toed and Red-necked Stints, and Mongolian, Kentish, and Little Ringed Plovers.

By the time I reached the Qigu seawall, it was already starting to get seriously hot. I stopped the scooter when I heard the distinctive flight call of a Grey-tailed Tattler, and got onto the bird in flight – my first year tick of the day. Shimmering in the distant heat haze was the Qigu sandspit, with what appeared to be quite large numbers of terns milling about. It’s a bit of a schlep across the sand and mudflats to get there, and involves wading through a creek halfway out, but the terns were a tempting draw and despite the realistic prospect of catching sunstroke, I headed out.

While I was taking off my shoes and socks to cross the creek, I spotted an egret that was racing around in the shallows, low to the ground in the typical hunting style of a Chinese Egret. Setting up my scope, I was able to enjoy excellent views in good light of this uncommon passage migrant, quickly checking off the key features that distinguish this bird from the abundant Little Egret and also the potential pitfall of a white-phase Pacific Reef Egret – namely the green legs, relatively long, slender bill (compared to Pacific Reef), and all-dark upper mandible. Also in this area were several Eurasian Curlew and one Whimbrel, and small numbers of Oriental Skylarks flushed in the drier, grassier areas of the mudflats.

Once out at the sandspit, I spent quite some time with the terns. My first priority was to look through the 50 or so Great Crested Terns in the hope of finding a Chinese Crested Tern among them, a holy grail of a bird which has been reported several times here this year. Such extreme good fortune was not to come my way, but I was partly compensated by several Black-naped Terns.  I was confused for a time by some pale, full breeding plumaged sea terns that structurally appeared to be Roseate Terns, but with all orange-red bills with no black tip whatsoever! Seeing the birds in flight appeared to confirm that they were Roseates, and subsequent research indicated that tropical races of Roseate Tern can indeed develop an all-red bill by late summer. This was not only a Taiwan tick for me, but also an addition to my Oriental Asia list. Looking back to those Dungeness days once again, Roseate Tern was always one of the very best birds to hope for on a May morning – that site provided me with my first ever sighting of this species, a pink-flushed, black-billed, long tail-streamered spring-plumaged adult at the power station outfall.

Trudging back across the baking sand at around 11.30am, I felt I was beginning to understand what it might feel like to be lost in the Sahara Desert. Back on the scooter, my continued circuit of the seawall turned up a surprise Pheasant-tailed Jacana – a breeding-plumaged adult, no less. This is the first eBird record of this species at Qigu, although they breed not too far inland from here. A final throw of the dice with the wader-watching produced a Terek Sandpiper and seven Dunlin among the commoner species in a flooded field.

Oriental Asia tick: Roseate Tern (total 1,162).

2016 World Year ticks: Black-naped Tern, Sacred Ibis, Grey-tailed Tattler, Oriental Skylark (total 788).

Terek Sandpiper and Greater Painted-Snipe, Donggang area, August 7th

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Shorebird habitat at Dapeng Bay, August 8th. It appears that the mangroves are being allowed to regenerate at this site, but for now the pools are still suitable for passage waders.

With August already a week old, I figured it was finally time to brave the excessive heat and try and find some shorebirds. Having added the vast majority of East Asia’s regular waders to the year list back in February in Thailand, my hit list for fall migration in Taiwan comprises a handful of the more easterly migrants, namely Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper, and Grey-tailed Tattler, as well as that widespread but elusive rice-field lurker Greater Painted-Snipe.

Dapeng Bay is one of those places that still somehow retains some interest as a wader site, despite huge amounts of human encroachment. The area where I’ve had the most luck in the past with finding shorebirds is along the eastern side of the bay, where an expanse of open mud and pools always seems to hold something of interest during migration season (I’ve had Asian Dowitcher, Great Knot and Chinese Egret here in the past). Mangroves seem to be re-establishing themselves at this spot since my last visit in September 2014 – it’s not clear whether this is deliberate or accidental, but it can only be a good thing in general environmental terms that the mangroves are making a comeback, even if it will lead to reduced open mud for the shorebirds.

When I arrived at about 8.30am it was already stiflingly hot, with barely a breath of wind, and that milky-sky smog which is common in these parts in winter but unfortunately without the accompanying cooler temperatures. A cycle road skirts the eastern edge of the area, from which the pools can easily be scanned (Google Maps location). I fairly quickly located one of my year list targets, an energetically feeding Terek Sandpiper. Other waders were more lethargic in the heat – they included several near full summer-plumaged Mongolian Plovers, a mixed party of Common Greenshanks and Common Redshanks, and about 15 Long-toed and 2 Red-necked Stints.

On the strength of an eBird report of 12 Greater Painted-Snipes just a few days ago, I then drove a few kilometers inland to a low-lying area of rice fields and boggy grassland (Google Maps location). Literally the first bird I saw when I stopped my scooter was a Greater Painted-Snipe – apparently a brightly-plumaged adult female – which I watched in flight (unfortunately without binoculars, which were still in my bag), until it plummeted back into the marshy grassland I had flushed it from, not to be seen again. This turned out to be a lucky break, as it was the sole individual of this species I saw during my visit. Further interest in the area was provided by a Ruddy-breasted Crake feeding out in the open in a ditch, an Oriental Pratincole, a Barred Buttonquail flushed from under my feet as I took a walk through the grass, and ridiculous numbers of Red Collared-Doves (at least 100).

Finally, I had some nice views of a flock of some 15 Indian Silverbills, feeding in weeds along the roadside – an established “exotic” in Taiwan, and one which – given the slim pickings at this time of year – I will feel no guilt at adding to my year list.

2016 World Year Ticks: Terek Sandpiper, Greater Painted-Snipe, Indian Silverbill (total 783). My full year list can be viewed here.