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).