Mountain Plover and Burrowing Owl, February 4th-5th

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Burrowing Owl, near Granger Lake, Austin, Texas, February 4th – about 4 feet from the car!

After failing to see any of my main targets at Granger Lake a couple of weeks ago, I suppose it was inevitable that I would return and try again. Saturday was pretty much a carbon copy of my previous attempt, involving a very early start from Houston for the 2.5-hour drive to Williamson County. I felt a certain sense of deja vu during the first few hours of daylight as I drove around staring at endless empty fields. At about 11.00am a carload of birders stopped to tell me they had also seen no Mountain Plovers, nor McCown’s Longspurs. A passing redneck tried to sell me a child-size broken telescope for $10. To cap it all off, it was cold – not England-in-winter cold, but definitely on the chilly side for Texas with daytime temperatures hovering around 10C (50F).

There is only so much staring at dirt a man can take, so in what felt like a pathetic holding pattern, I returned again to the San Gabriel Unit to look for some sparrows. The overgrown field near the parking lot still held several Field Sparrows, and this time not one but three Grasshopper Sparrows popped out of the grass in response to my “pishing” them.

Back to the dirt fields yet again, and finally just before 1.00pm I picked up a small group of Mountain Plovers in flight, which alighted on the ground miles away. Views were far from great, but relief turned to delight just a couple of minutes later when I found another much closer group on the opposite side of the road, for a combined total of 25 birds in both flocks. Shorebirds are one of my favorite families, and having seen most of the Old and New World migratory species, I don’t get to add one to my list very often. Mountain Plover is a really good “world bird”, declining in numbers with a breeding and wintering range confined to central North America. As a nice bonus, the closer flock also sheltered a group of 15 Horned Larks, always a great bird to see.

The birders I had met earlier had given me a location to try for Burrowing Owl. These small, nocturnal owls perch prominently by day at the entrance to burrows and natural holes, and also their man-made equivalents – roadside storm drains, bridges and culverts. However, they are very scarce, with just a few individuals typically scattered over an enormous area. I went to where I had been told, and slowly cruised up and down the road for several miles, checking all likely spots, seeing nothing. I returned later in the day, and was about to give up when I suddenly spotted a Burrowing Owl right beside the road. And by right beside the road, I mean just four feet from the car, standing at the edge of a culvert. He lazily squinted at me as I took a photo.

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Long-tailed Duck, Braunig Lake near San Antonio, February 5th.

I stayed in New Braunfels on Saturday night, and on Sunday decided to check out somewhere a bit more local. Birding in Texas often seems to involve covering huge distances, and I don’t seem to have the stamina for endless driving any more. Teaming up with Martin and Sheridan, and later with Willie Sekula, we made our way to Braunig Lake on the outskirts of San Antonio, where a Long-tailed Duck has been in winter residence for some time. We found the bird without too much trouble, as well as a drake Greater Scaup, a scarce bird inland in Texas (and none too common on the coast either, being heavily outnumbered by Lesser). A moment of pure luck with my point-and-shoot camera caught the Greater Scaup with its wings open, nicely showing the diagnostic white wing stripe extending almost all the way to the end of the wing.

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Greater Scaup, Braunig Lake, February 5th. Note the white on the wing extending almost to the tip.

Our luck seemed to run out at this point, for we then spent several fruitless hours looking for a male Black-throated Blue Warbler which had been videoed in a private garden early in the week. However, a Grey Catbird (rare in this area in winter), and some good-looking “common” birds including Pine Warbler and Blue-headed Vireo enlivened proceedings while we waited near the overgrown garden in which the warbler had been seen.

After lunch, we embarked on a final mission to an area of dry open country and sod fields to the south-west of San Antonio, and despite dipping on our target bird (Ferruginous Hawk), still enjoyed some real stunners including a male Vermilion Flycatcher, Pyrrhuloxia, Verdin, Green JayHarris’s Hawk …. and a flock of 30 Mountain Plovers on a sod field. It never rains but it pours. I’ll have to return to Granger Lake one final time in March, and hopefully nail my final target McCown’s Longspur in its full breeding finery.

Lifers: Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owl (total 2,144)

2017 World Year List: 269

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Tropical Parula and Broad-billed Hummingbird, South Texas, January 28th.

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Green Heron, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, Port Aransas, January 28th 2017.

Today, I joined forces with Martin Reid and Sheridan Coffey, two birders I originally met last February at “birder ground zero” in Thailand – the Ban Maka resort just outside Kaeng Krachan national park. At the time, we made vague arrangements to keep in touch, little realizing that within a year I would find myself moving to their home state. As much as I enjoy solo birding, today proved that having company can make for an even better day. Martin and Sheridan are familiar faces on the Texas birding scene, and genuinely lovely people to spend time with.

I met them at some unearthly hour at their home in San Antonio, and we immediately hit the road to Refugio, with just the briefest of stops for breakfast tacos and strong coffee en route. The main target was the Golden-crowned Warbler, a bright yellow denizen of the Neotropics which had returned to the Lions/Shelley Park in Refugio for its second successive winter. Having already tried for this bird last year and dipped, I was keen to get it on my list, despite the fact that it’s not an out-and-out lifer (I’ve seen plenty of them in Central America).

Lions/Shelley Park always has some interesting lurkers in winter, and personally I was doubly keen to see the Tropical Parula and Louisiana Waterthrush that were also present in the park, both of them being potential lifers. We arrived at 9.00am to overcast but calm conditions, and quickly ascertained from other birders that none of the “special birds” had been seen so far this morning. Still, birding was productive with lots of interesting things around, including a wonderful day-roosting Barred Owl, a Green Kingfisher (an excellent addition to my “seen-while-peeing” list), several Great Kiskadees and Couch’s Kingbirds, a Black-and-White Warbler, and frequent views of Green Jay and White-eyed Vireo.

About three hours into our visit, someone spotted the Tropical Parula near the car park, and about 30 birders quickly assembled to enjoy great views of this brightly-colored wood warbler. It turned out to be a male, a really lovely bird, and while not infrequent in Texas (and widespread throughout the Neotropics), could hardly fail to elicit genuine appreciation from its crowd of observers.

With the Golden-crowned Warbler still flying under the radar (it was eventually relocated by Willie Sekula much later in the afternoon), we decided to hit up another of the day’s targets. Not too far away, in Fulton, a male Broad-billed Hummingbird had been visiting a garden bird feeder for several weeks. We got into position in the car, peering into someone’s private garden, and waited. On the plus side, no angry householder emerged – but unfortunately neither did the hummingbird. After half an hour, we were just debating whether to grab some lunch and try again later, when our target appeared for all of 8 seconds at its chosen feeder – so briefly that another nearby birder missed it completely. Tickable views, but not the kind of prolonged observation I would have preferred for a lifer. Still, it was safely on the list and with time at a premium we decided to head to the coast.

Birding with people who know the turf has definite advantages, and stopping here and there at likely spots produced lots of typical Texan coastal species, among them Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron, Long-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Curlew, White-tailed Hawk, Common Loon, and Black Skimmer.

Our final such stop was exceptional for some quality observations of normally secretive species. At the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, a short boardwalk cuts through the marshes to a tower offering panoramic views of a lake. This area is heavily trafficked by birders, photographers, and general day-trippers – with the result that the resident birds lose their fear of humans and can be stunningly tame. First of all, we stumbled upon a Green Heron, which was standing just below the boardwalk less than six feet away from us. It was even within range of my iPhone’s camera, a good thing because the battery in my regular camera was dead. Then an American Bittern stepped out of the reeds and proceeded to spend 20 minutes in the open in perfect light, preening. Finally, a Cooper’s Hawk in a small tree cared not a jot about the excited photographers snapping it from below. What a day – and there was still time to head to the beach at the “magic hour” for views of an Eared Grebe diving among the breaking waves and an adult White-tailed Hawk on a pylon. I wonder what next weekend will bring.

Lifers: Tropical Parula, Broad-billed Hummingbird (total 2,142)

2017 World Year List: 252

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Martin scanning for Northern Gannets at Mustang Island, January 28th 2017.

Harris’s, Fox, and Grasshopper Sparrows, Granger Lake, January 21st

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Wide open spaces west of Granger Lake, near Austin, Texas, January 21st 2017. This area hosts several sought-after but hard to find specialties in winter.

One of the joys of birding is that you never quite know what to expect. In May 2015, a trip to Hungary gave me 8 species of woodpecker including the sought-after White-backed, Grey-headed, and Middle Spotted – but inexplicably we failed to find a Green Woodpecker, normally one of the commonest and certainly the most conspicuous of them all. Meanwhile, I have yet to see Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker at the summit of Doi Inthanon in Thailand after more than 15 visits – this is a bird that literally everyone else seems to connect with on their first or second try, and they all post nice close-up photos on Facebook to prove it.

On Saturday, I started early from Houston and headed over to Granger Lake to try for two regional wintering specialties – McCown’s Longspur and Mountain Plover. I missed them both, but instead came away with two completely different and relatively unexpected lifers. Such is birding.

Granger Lake lies to the north-east of Austin, and like almost all large bodies of water in Texas, was artificially created – in this case by damming the San Gabriel river. The area is of interest not so much for the lake itself, but for the open fields and prairies lying to the west. McCown’s Longspur and Mountain Plover both have fairly small breeding and wintering ranges restricted to the central U.S. They are found in flocks in winter, and range over large areas of wide-open habitat – meaning that birders are likely to find either a lot of them, or none at all.

Having driven around minor roads staring at empty earth fields for a while, I happened to stop by the San Gabriel unit, a wildlife protection area near the shores of the lake. An overgrown field here seemed potentially “sparrow-y”, and being keen to add some birds to the rather slow day list, I decided to thrash around in the field and neighboring scrubby woodland for a while. This turned out to be an excellent plan, with a nice range of sparrows popping up including Field, Swamp, Song, and – lifer number one – a Grasshopper Sparrow which responded to my “pishing” and gave prolonged views on a low bush. This is supposed to be a fairly common resident in Texas, but has a reputation for being rather secretive, so I counted myself lucky to get such good views.

Emboldened by my sparrow success, I continued a few miles to Willis Creek park, where a scrubby area near the boat ramp produced another good flock, this time including a Harris’s Sparrow – surely one of the handsomest of sparrows – and a second lifer, a smart red-and-grey Fox Sparrow.

I left the area feeling very satisfied with my haul, until later in the evening when I read another eBird report by a birder who had found both Mountain Plover and McCown’s Longspur, along some of the same roads I had driven down. It’s always a little galling when that happens – maybe this weekend I’ll get a chance to go back.

Lifers: Grasshopper Sparrow, Fox Sparrow (total 2,140).

2017 World Year List: 225

Mikado Pheasant and Central Mountain Endemics, November 5th-7th

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Mountain views at Dasyueshan, November 6th 2016.
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Male Mikado Pheasant at Dasyueshan Km 47, November 6th 2016.

With just a few weeks left of my second stay in Taiwan, and with the weather cooling off nicely over the last couple of weeks, I decided to take the opportunity for a three-day jaunt to the central mountains in the hope of connecting with some Taiwan endemic birds for the final time. I’ve seen them all before but needed quite a few for my year list, and the mountains are a particularly pleasant place to be at this time of year.

I set off early on Saturday morning, and once out of greater Kaohsiung I plotted a route north along Highway 3, past Tsengwen Reservoir. This road boasts sweeping bends, glorious vistas, and an almost complete absence of four-wheeled vehicles – although motorcycles being driven at high speeds are a common sight. It used to be one of my favorite destinations for a weekend blast on my Kawasaki Ninja, but this time I had to make do with my Kymco Racing King 180, which while “only” a scooter is still a quick and entertaining mode of transportation – I was having so much fun that I almost forgot I was supposed to be looking for birds.

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Early morning at a viewpoint on Highway 3, overlooking Tsengwen Reservoir.

My first year list target was Russet Sparrow in the village of Dapu, halfway along the eastern shore of the reservoir. Dapu is a regular location for this rare and declining species, but today I drew a blank not only here but also at another site for this bird halfway up Alishan. I wonder if they desert their breeding villages in winter and retreat deeper into the countryside. Despite the absence of the sparrow, the area was quite “birdy” and I observed some interesting species including Black Kite, Maroon Oriole and Collared Finchbill.

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Black Eagles, Tataka, Yushan NP, November 5th 2016.

Pressing on quickly past the Alishan tourist buses, I made a two-hour early afternoon stop at Tataka, some 2,500 meters above sea level at the highest point of the road in Yushan National Park. Golden Parrotbill is the specialty here – in fact it is the only place I have ever seen this bird. Dwarf bamboo is the place to look, but this bird roams widely in big flocks and – like many parrotbills – can be very unpredictable. I didn’t score, but did year tick some of the common high-altitude endemics including White-whiskered Laughingthrush, Collared Bush Robin, and Taiwan Fulvetta. The laughingthrushes can be absurdly tame here, hopping around in the car park scavenging for handouts from the tourists. Less common was a flyover Ashy Woodpigeon, while two soaring Black Eagles gave nice views. I also bumped into a Yellow-throated Marten by the hostel buildings – a nice animal but oh if only it had been a Formosan Black Bear, which is apparently being increasingly encountered in Yushan NP.

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White-whiskered Laughingthrush, Tataka, Yushan NP, November 5th 2016.
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Male Collared Bush Robin, Tataka, Yushan NP, November 5th 2016.
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Yellow-throated Martens – photo from Doi Lang, Thailand, in February 2016.

I had booked overnight accommodation in Taichung, so I still had a lot of driving to do, and I left Tataka at around 3.00pm for the long descent towards Sun Moon Lake, keeping an eye out for the first 10km for roadside Mikado Pheasant (no joy, as usual). By the time I arrived at my hostel at around 7.45pm, I had driven 430km since setting off from Kaohsiung – beating my previous personal best on a scooter by some 50km.

My utter exhaustion after such a long drive, combined with a poor night’s sleep in a crowded dormitory, meant that I had a “lie-in” (by birding standards!) until 6.00am the following morning. An hour’s drive to the foot of the mountain at Dasyueshan, plus the need for a lengthy 7-11 coffee/breakfast stop, meant that I wasn’t in “birding mode” until around 8.30am. My first stop on the way up the mountain was Km 15, where a rocky stream is a reliable location for Brown Dipper. In what was becoming a theme for the trip so far, I dipped on the Dippers, but I did see Striated Heron, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Besra, and numerous Plumbeous Redstarts on territory in the river, while a Taiwan Hwamei sang but didn’t reveal itself.

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Brown Dipper habitat at Dasyueshan Km 15. The bird on the rocks is a male Plumbeous Redstart.

Km 23 used to be a completely reliable spot for Swinhoe’s Pheasant, but was oddly completely deserted by humans and birds when I passed, both in the morning and the late afternoon. This being a Sunday, I would have expected there to be crowds of photographers, and the pheasants all over the road doing their best to get run over. Hopeful of bumping into a Swinhoe’s Pheasant elsewhere instead, I pushed on up the mountain, intending to invest several hours at my favorite spot, Forest Road 210. The entrance to this trail is just past the main entrance gate (where the fee for entry is 200NT per person plus 20NT for a scooter). On a right hand bend is a small shrine, next to a wide trail protected by a locked gate and prominent no entry sign. However, birders in the know can nip surreptitiously around the end of the fence, and this is exactly what I did. As it is officially “out of bounds”, this trail is blissfully quiet, quite unlike the circus that the rest of Dasyueshan is on a sunny Sunday.

The highlights along here were many, including a White’s Thrush (of the big, long-billed migrant race), and a second much smaller, shorter-billed individual with more rufous tones in the plumage which could well have been of the resident race (“Scaly Thrush“). Two Eyebrowed Thrushes also showed, but I didn’t find Taiwan Thrush which I was hoping to encounter here and which has showed for me on this trail in the past.

I got my Swinhoe’s Pheasants here – a male and three females feeding quietly along the edge of the trail – satisfyingly “wild” birds, in contrast to the tame individuals I had been expecting to encounter at Km 23. Also of note: two Brambling (part of a big influx to Taiwan so far this autumn), two Spotted Nutcrackers, and a Eurasian Nuthatch.

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Swinhoe’s Pheasants at Dasyueshan, Forest Road 210, November 6th 2016.

Probably eclipsing all the bird sightings was a Formosan Serow, which I disturbed at point-blank range. For some inexplicable reason, it chose to turn and stare at me instead of running quickly away, allowing me to fire off some photos of this seldom-encountered endemic mammal:

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Formosan Serow, Dasyueshan, November 6th 2016.

After exiting the trail and continuing my drive up the road, I soon found myself stopping again for a mixed feeding flock containing two Taiwan Barwings – a welcome year list addition, as they are not the easiest of endemics to find. I pressed on up to the top of the road at Km 50, where the huge numbers of people made me want to beat a hasty retreat. It wasn’t hard to guess where the Black-throated/Red-throated Thrush had been recently showing, judging by the large crowd of photographers, but having very little interest in a confirmed hybrid – especially if getting a sighting might involve a long wait – I opted instead to take a stroll to Tienchih Lake. Along the way, a nice male Taiwan Rosefinch gave good views, while at the summit lake another small group of Brambling showed well, although birds of any kind were greatly outnumbered by hordes of loudly chattering day-tripping humans.

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Male Taiwan Rosefinch, Dasyueshan, November 6th 2016.
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Brambling, Dasyueshan, November 6th 2016.

My main target bird for the whole trip was Mikado Pheasant, a bird I had seen only once before, and for just a few seconds, beside the road in Yushan national park. Km 47 at Dasyueshan is undoubtedly the site where birders put in the most effort to connect with this most enigmatic of endemics. Even here, its appearance along the roadside is hard to predict and far from guaranteed – before today I had tried and failed to see it at this spot on at least three previous occasions.

I had been reliably informed that late afternoon is a good time to try, so at 3.30pm I arrived at the site ready to stay until dark if necessary. Just two other birders were present, the clouds had started to close in, the weather was cold and gloomy, and the forest was completely and profoundly silent. I wandered down the road, but returned quickly when the other birders started waving frantically at me. Lurking in the shadows under the pines above the road, there he was: a fine male Mikado Pheasant! I reeled off dozens of photos of the bird standing in the gloom, but I needn’t have worried, as after 20 minutes the pheasant walked right past us and out of the forest, where it proceeded to gobble up the grain that some thoughtful photographers had left at the side of the road.

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Female Mikado Pheasant, Dasyueshan, November 6th 2016.

Calling quietly all the while, he was soon joined by Mrs Mikado, and the two proceeded to pose around the moss-covered stones and logs in an almost perfect imitation of plates in early bird field guides. Allowing us to approach to within six feet, this was a quite ridiculous way to enjoy a stonking bird – probably the toughest Taiwanese endemic to find, and one of the most beautiful to boot.

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Male and female Mikado Pheasant in “field guide” pose, Dasyueshan, November 6th 2016.
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Mikado surprise! Heading for the grain at Dasyueshan, November 6th 2016.

Thoroughly satisfied with my second and probably final Mikado Pheasant experience, I headed back down the mountain. There was still time before nightfall to call in at Km 15, where two Brown Dippers sang and hopped about on rocks below the bridge as if they had been there all along – although there had been no sign of them during an hour’s search earlier in the day.

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Brown Dipper, Dasyueshan, November 6th 2016.

After a somewhat better night’s sleep in a now-empty dorm at the hostel, I awoke early to a bright and cool morning. Having had my fill of long drives, I chose to return to Kaohsiung via the most direct coastal route along Highway 17, stopping here and there for birds along the way. Just 5km from my overnight accommodation, Taichung Metropolitan Park proved to be an excellent choice for a visit, producing a year tick (Golden-headed Cisticola), a flock of at least 25 Brambling, and a fine male Daurian Redstart, my personal first of the year in Taiwan.

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Male Daurian Redstart, Taichung Metropolitan Park, November 6th 2016.

One of East Asia’s most sought-after birds, Oriental Stork, is resident on a huge river mouth along Taiwan’s west coast (up to six birds are present). This is probably the wildest area along this generally rather developed stretch of coast, and with a lot of ground to cover, I didn’t rate my chances of encountering one. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a more conspicuous species than an Oriental Stork, a huge black and white bird that favors open country. As luck would have it, I found one within about 15 minutes, predictably extremely distant, year-tickable for sure but I wouldn’t have been very happy with those kinds of views if this bird had been a lifer.

My final stop at Aogu, in Chiayi County, produced little of note except for the common wintering ducks – but I was surprised to discover when I entered my checklist in eBird that the humble Tufted Duck was actually a world year tick for me, bringing my year list to 867 and certainly within reach of my target of 1,000.

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Afternoon views at Yushan national park, November 5th 2016.

Common Chiffchaff!

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Birders enjoying “my” Common Chiffchaff at Tianliaoyang on October 15th. Only about the third-ever record for Taiwan, it devalued itself somewhat by staying for several days and being very “twitchable”!

What better way to spend a mid-October weekend than on a British birders field trip to the far north-eastern corner of Taiwan, in the company of Steve M, Richard Foster and Dave Irving? We drove up with Richard on the Friday, arriving at Tianliaoyang around lunchtime to heavy rain, ideal for grounding some migrants but less than perfect for birders and their optics. Never mind – Tianliaoyang has to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing birding hotspots in Taiwan, with its rolling green hills and low-intensity agriculture, and despite the rain we saw some excellent birds during the afternoon including Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler, Dusky Thrush, Red-rumped Swallow, Chestnut-cheeked Starling, a flyover Forest Wagtail, and at least 10 Pechora Pipits. The latter species is a highly sought-after migrant in East Asia, whose entire population migrates through Taiwan – it is numerous for a short period in mid-October but it is hard to see on the ground and most records are of birds passing overhead in flight uttering their distinctive Grey Wagtail-like flight call.

The following day was even better. Mid-morning, halfway through a discussion about a possible Japanese Leaf Warbler we had seen earlier (which turned out not to be one), I noticed a warbler-like bird fly out of a patch of scrub and plunge into the grassland nearby. Thinking this to be odd behavior for an Arctic Warbler, I alerted the others, and closer views revealed what initially appeared to be ….. a pale Dusky Warbler? It took several seconds for the penny to suddenly drop – we were looking at a Common Chiffchaff of the tristis race (“Siberian” Chiffchaff), an extremely rare vagrant to East Asia. The identification of this bird proved straightforward – it was a cold pale grey above with only a hint of green on the primaries, clean white below, with an all-black bill and legs, plus an endearingly distinctive Chiffchaff habit of pumping its tail.

A true rarity on Taiwan, this was only the second or third national record, and the first “twitchable” mainland bird. The Chiffchaff unsurprisingly turned out to be the bird of the day – if not the year! – but it was amply supported by a nice flock of buntings including 6 Yellow-browed Buntings, 10 Little Buntings, and a huge and brutish juvenile Red-headed or Black-headed Bunting (most likely the latter). My elation (smugness?) at finding the Chiffchaff was dampened somewhat later in the morning, when I wrote off a couple of distant swifts as Fork-tailed Swift without looking at them closely enough, only for Steve to show me some photos later which clearly depicted Silver-backed Needletail!

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Birders and bird photographers at Taipei Botanical Gardens, where a Northern Boobook and several colorful Narcissus Flycatchers were showing well.

After our epic Tianliaoyang visit, I had an hour to spare before heading back to Kaohsiung, so Dave and I went to the Botanical Gardens in the heart of downtown Taipei to check out the Northern Boobook, which had originally been found yesterday. Although the owl was fairly close, it was partly obscured by branches which made good clear photos impossible. Up to three Narcissus Flycatchers were also present, which I saw regularly enough at Qigu during October to almost relegate them to “list padder” status. Almost, but not quite …. the males of this species are simply stunning, and they certainly warranted the enormous amount of attention they were getting from the local bird photographers.

Elsewhere in October, Qigu continued its remarkable run until late in the month, with a Kamchatka Leaf Warbler finally confirmed in the coastal forest by sound recording (thanks Steve). This bird stayed for several days and offered close views on occasion, although it didn’t call as often as I would have liked! More satisfying were the three Long-billed Dowitchers I discovered in a flooded field along the Qigu embankment. Primarily a North American wader, a tiny population also breeds in extreme NE Asia, and this is presumably the source of the scattering of annual records in Taiwan.

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Long-billed Dowitcher, one of three at Qigu on October 18th.

I also enjoyed a Red-necked Phalarope at a small muddy pool in Tucheng. These diminutive birds breed in the high Arctic and winter far out to sea on tropical oceans – they rarely encounter humans and can therefore be delightfully approachable, as was the case with this individual:

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Red-necked Phalarope, Tucheng, Tainan City, October 18th 2016.

Jenna and I took a non-birding weekend trip to Hualien and Taroko Gorge on the east coast in late October, with a couple of good “seen from the train” birds en route – Ring-necked Pheasant and Peregrine – and a handful of interesting species encountered during a scenic hike including two of the more tricky Taiwan endemics, Taiwan Partridge and Yellow Tit.

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Breathtaking scenery along the Lushui-Wenshan trail in Taroko Gorge, October 28th 2016.

October ended with a change in the weather in the south – the arrival of cooler, sunny weather, north-easterly winds, and the unwelcome return of winter’s noxious air pollution. A trip out to Qigu on the final day of the month revealed little in the way of migration, but a noticeable arrival of the expected winter visitors including five duck species, Caspian Tern, and a huge increase in Black-faced Spoonbills and Pied Avocets. Barring any late typhoons, it seems as if migration is essentially finished in south Taiwan, so I will be turning my focus to mountain birding for the next couple of weeks.

2016 World Year List: 851

Taiwan Life List: 313

Purple Patch at Qigu

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Orange-headed Thrush, Qigu, September 30th.

Taiwan has endured several “direct hit” typhoons in recent weeks, which have proven to be a mixed blessing for birders at Qigu, south-west Taiwan’s premier birding location. On the one hand, storm surges and 100mph winds have wreaked considerable havoc and destruction to the site’s fragile coastal woodlots. Formerly an extensive coastal pine forest, “Area A” is now little more than a narrow, sand-blasted belt of broken trees, choked with flotsam and jetsam and more or less completely devoid of vegetation, while another woodlot to the north has fared little better. On the other hand, heavy rains associated with the typhoon systems have brought in a splendid range of scarce migrant birds.

Qigu’s recent purple patch began a day after the passing of Typhoon Megi, when Richard Foster found a splendid Orange-headed Thrush late in the afternoon in Area A. With a clear night forecast, the chances were low that the bird would remain until the following day – especially in such unsuitable habitat with little in the way of shelter – but remain it did, and the small crowd of birders and photographers at the site on Friday morning were treated to a fine show as the bird hopped around on the sand gobbling up mealworms.

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Enjoying the Orange-headed Thrush amid the tattered remnants of Area A, Qigu, September 30th.

The event was also remarkable in that all four resident British birders in Taiwan were present at the “twitch”, making this visit more of a social occasion than the usual solitary odyssey that birding in Taiwan tends to be.

Phylloscopus warblers have been a feature of this period, with small numbers of Arctic Warblers usually present in the woodlots, in a bewildering array of plumages and with very variable calls. A Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (distinguishable from Sakhalin by the frequency of its call) has been present in  one of the woodlots for at least ten days, while Taiwan’s first Greenish Warbler was found, photographed, and sound recorded by Steve M on October 9th and was still present on 10th at least. This bird has been vocal at times (a distinctive, slightly slurred, markedly disyllabic “tsoo-ee”), but also very active and mobile around its chosen woodlot, making good views and photos hard to obtain.

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Arctic Warbler, Qigu, October 10th. This is a fairly common migrant through the coastal woodlots. Steve M has been sound-recording them, in the hope of finding a Japanese or Kamchatka Leaf Warbler, but so far all the birds recorded this fall have turned out to be nominate phylloscopus borealis.

Another very notable record was a small arrival of Narcissus Flycatchers on October 8th/9th, including a splendid male, and a female-type bird that bore several of the hallmarks of the recently-split Green-backed Flycatcher (ficedula elisae), most notably a yellow wash to the underparts contrasting with very white undertail-coverts. This is another potential first for Taiwan. I was perhaps the sole observer of a female Blue-and-White Flycatcher on October 4th, while a moderate fall of Grey-streaked Flycatchers occurred on 9th with at least 6 and perhaps as many as 10 birds in the general area. I finally got my fly-over Pechora Pipit on 10th (they have been very numerous on passage at several sites in northern Taiwan), and several flocks of Chestnut-cheeked Starlings lingering in the area on the same day were an impressive sight (and a useful year tick).

My personal favorite was a bird that flushed from under my feet in the grass under some pines, and promptly disappeared into some tangled vegetation under a tree. Glimpses of a mouselike bird scuttling around in the shadows raised hopes that it was a locustella warbleralthough at first I was reluctant to consider Lanceolated Warbler as the bird had appeared too warm above on the split-second flight views I initially obtained. However, Lanceolated it did indeed turn out to be, and at one point I enjoyed point-blank views down to just one meter, but the bird was always too quick or obscured for me to get a photo (although Steve managed a record shot).

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Black-naped Monarch, Qigu, October 4th.

Away from the woodlots, large numbers of shorebirds in the general area include up to three long-staying Temminck’s Stints in the Tucheng area, with one Little Stint also remaining there. One productive post-typhoon day brought a number of terns to the estuary mudflats at low tide, including 30 Gull-billed Terns – a good count. Meanwhile, the area’s main winter draw for many  visiting birders – Black-faced Spoonbill – has started to arrive. This is a very common winter visitor to wetlands along the coast throughout south-west Taiwan.

Highlights from the Qigu area (including Tucheng and Anping), September 30th-October 10th:

Eastern Marsh Harrier
Chinese Egret
Black-faced Spoonbill
Malayan Night Heron
Broad-billed Sandpiper
Terek Sandpiper
Grey-tailed Tattler
Bar-tailed Godwit
Black-tailed Godwit
Pied Avocet
Temminck’s Stint
Little Stint
Brown Noddy
White-winged Tern
Gull-billed Tern
Black-capped Kingfisher
Black-naped Oriole
Azure-winged Magpie
Black-naped Monarch
Dusky Warbler
Yellow-browed Warbler
Arctic Warbler
Greenish Warbler
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler
Lanceolated Warbler
Black-browed Reed Warbler
Grey-streaked Flycatcher
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Blue-and-White Flycatcher
Narcissus Flycatcher
Orange-headed Thrush
White-shouldered Starling
Chestnut-cheeked Starling
Pechora Pipit
Richard’s Pipit

2016 World Year List total: 839
Taiwan Life List: 306

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Mystery juvenile cuckoo at Qigu, October 10th. Based on size and likelihood of occurrence it is probably an Oriental Cuckoo, but Lesser Cuckoo is also a possibility.

Bali, September 10th-21st

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Gunung Batur volcano, viewed just after sunrise from Bedugul, September 16th.

Where to go on a “visa run” from Taiwan? The simplest solution is to take a short flight to Hong Kong and return the next day. A more enjoyable option is to go a little further afield and enjoy a vacation at the same time. With our three-month entry visa for Taiwan expiring in mid September, and with Jenna’s Ashtanga yoga guru coincidentally hosting a workshop in Bali in the same week, it was an easy choice. Bali is just a five-hour direct flight from Taiwan, and conveniently lies within the same time zone as it is almost directly south.

The island is an easy birding destination, and several key sites lie within a 90-minute drive of our base in Ubud. As one would expect of a major holiday area, car rental is straightforward to arrange and very cheap (I used Bali Car Finder for the third time, and as always found them reliable and efficient to deal with). The actual driving part is not so easy. Bali’s roads are narrow, lined with trees, and clogged with heavy traffic, keeping average speeds down to 40km/h or even less. That crazy roundabout just outside the airport has probably daunted many a first-time visitor to the island.

I don’t need many birds from Bali, having visited here just last year on honeymoon, so this trip was about enjoying some relaxing birding, not a relentless tick-hunt to all corners of the island. I saw 97 species during my time here, including 34 year ticks and 3 lifers – a satisfactory haul from two trips to Bedugul, single visits to Serangan Island and Nusa Dua, and a couple of short walks in the countryside around Ubud. The Bali Barat national park is  much further afield, and I decided to forego making a trip out there this time. Ditto Uluwatu, where the only possible day for me to drive there coincided with a big religious festival and national holiday – definitely not the time to be anywhere near a major temple. So White-tailed Tropicbird will have to wait until my next visit.

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Extremely poor record shot of a Javan Whistling Thrush at Bedugul, September 16th. I really must get around to buying a proper camera ….

Bedugul botanical gardens in the uplands of the center of the island is a very pleasant birding location, with cool temperatures and attractive parklands as well as decent opportunities to get into some primary forest. On my two visits here, I focused my attention on the hiking trail that leads uphill from the western road. To get there, turn left shortly after the entrance gate, and follow this westernmost road around, past the temple. Just after the first of two small bridges, a narrow trail leads uphill on the left. This trail passes through good forest, with some steep sections – I walked for about 2km but the trail continued so I cannot say how far it goes. The most frustrating experience in here was failing to see a Javan Banded Pitta, which was calling not far from the trail but in dense forest and I couldn’t find a good enough vantage point to have a realistic chance of seeing it.

Other birds that eluded me here included another potential lifer, Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, which judging from the number of singing birds is common but evidently very hard to see. Lesser Shortwing also sings from everywhere but despite my best efforts to catch a glimpse of one  (I didn’t have a tape, by the way), it had to remain on my “heard-only” year list.

A reliable target at Bedugul is Javan Whistling Thrush, which can usually be found in the early morning in the western section of the park. In my experience, this is THE classic early-morning roadside bird – conspicuous at first light but it seems to completely disappear after the first hour of daylight, in common with others of its genus (Taiwan Whistling Thrush has similar habits).

Bedugul highlights: Ruddy Cuckoo-Dove, Dark-backed Imperial Pigeon, Grey-cheeked Pigeon, Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoo, Rusty-breasted Cuckoo (heard only), Javan Banded Pitta (heard only), Rusty-breasted Whistler, Flame-fronted Barbet, Yellow-throated Hanging Parrot, Mountain Leaf Warbler, Sunda Warbler, Mees’s White-eye, Crescent-chested Babbler, Chestnut-backed Scimitar-Babbler, Lesser Shortwing (heard only), Javan Whistling Thrush, Snowy-browed Flycatcher, Blood-breasted Flowerpecker, Short-tailed Starling.

Serangan Island is Bali’s prime shorebird site, and the place most likely to turn up a rarity. Australian birder Steve Jones watches it regularly, and I bumped into him on my visit, which was fortuitous as he was able to lead me to the best spot for Beach Thick-Knee. These enormous, impressive shorebirds are under threat from disturbance and habitat loss in much of their range. It is incredible they survive here – and indeed successfully bred this year – on a stony plain that appears heavily disturbed by cattle, farmers, passing fishermen, and even groups of teenagers on their motorcycles.

Another personal highlight was Oriental Plover, only my second-ever sighting of this species, while Javan Plover – an Indonesian endemic – is fairly common here.

I had a quick look at Nusa Dua sewage works later the same morning – the settling ponds and surrounding mangroves at this insalubrious spot are a reliable site for several key species including Cerulean Kingfisher, Olive-backed Tailorbird and Bar-winged Prinia, all of which made it onto my year list at this site although I failed to locate Island Collared-Dove here.

Serangan Island and Nusa Dua highlights: Sunda Teal, Beach Thick-Knee, Javan Plover, Oriental Plover, Far Eastern Curlew, Cerulean Kingfisher, White-shouldered Triller, White-breasted Woodswallow, Olive-backed Tailorbird, Bar-winged Prinia, Plain-throated Sunbird, Scarlet-headed Flowerpecker.

Finally, the Ubud area provides some enjoyable and easy birding, with birds fairly abundant in the rice paddies and wooded gullies around the village. A prime target for many visiting birders is the spectacular Javan Kingfisher, whose loud call is omnipresent in the rice paddies. Actually seeing the bird well is much trickier, and it was only on my penultimate morning here that I finally had great views of one.

I didn’t connect with Java Sparrow or White-headed Munia, but felt more than amply compensated with good views of three Black-naped Fruit Doves along the Campuhan Ridge trail just outside Ubud – a fine way to round out my Bali trip.

Ubud highlights: Grey-cheeked Pigeon, Black-naped Fruit Dove, Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoo, Brown-backed Needletail, Mossy-nest Swiftlet, Javan Kingfisher, Blue-eared Kingfisher, Javan Munia.

Bali lifers: Ruddy Cuckoo-Dove, Black-naped Fruit Dove, Mossy-nest Swiftlet (total 2,132).

2016 Year List total: 833

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).