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).

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

Dapeng Bay
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.

Large Cuckooshrike, Maolin, July 23rd

At this time of year, when birding is in the doldrums, birders often develop interests in other forms of wildlife to bridge the long gap until autumn migration begins. Unfortunately, while at a certain level I can appreciate butterflies, dragonflies, and even plants, I don’t find myself getting excited about them in the slightest. July is therefore a month to be endured, not enjoyed – doubly so in southern Taiwan where the temperature is swelteringly hot 24 hours a day.

My choices this Saturday morning were to stay at home, stay cool, and get bored, or head out and get very sweaty, sunburned, and probably also bored, but at least stand a small chance of seeing a bird or two. I opted to go to Maolin, with two year list targets in mind: Taiwan Blue Magpie and Taiwan Bamboo Partridge. The site is not only quite reliable for these species but is also only an hour or so by scooter from my house in north Kaohsiung.

I didn’t leave the house until 7.45am, so it was already hot (31C/88F and 70% humidity), and judging by the clear blue sky and bright sunshine, things would only get worse as the day wore on. Unfortunately, Maolin doesn’t really offer any respite from the heat, as it is very much in the foothills rather than the mountains. Still, being surrounded by trees rather than concrete does take the edge off the temperatures a little.

After a very hot scooter ride, I parked near the small waterfall just below the De-En Gorge guesthouse (to get there, take the minor road on the right, opposite the fire station, 3.5km from the start of the Maolin valley). In the hills above the De-En Gorge, a network of old concrete communications roads offer easy access to patches of woodland, scrub, and more open areas. In winter, the area is teeming with thrushes, and roving flocks of Taiwan mid-montane resident and endemic birds. However, perhaps unsurprisingly for a hot mid-morning in July, I saw virtually nothing at all along the first 2 kilometers of my walk. But being out and about sure beats sitting at home in my apartment, and it was good to see the area more or less unchanged since my last visit 18 months ago.

Bird activity improved a little along the second half of the trail, and I finally came across a small feeding flock containing half a dozen Grey-cheeked Fulvettas, two White-bellied Erpornis, two Black-naped Monarchs, a male Grey-chinned Minivet, and a pair of Bronzed Drongos. While standing there enjoying the remnants of the flock, a harsh call made me look up just in time to see a Large Cuckooshrike fly in and land in a tree directly over my head. This was unexpected to say the least – this bird is a very scarce resident in Taiwan (although common in other parts of its range), and one that’s been a prominent “gap” on my Taiwan list for quite some time. The bird lingered in the tree for quite some time, giving me fairly good views, while a second individual could be heard responding to its calls but didn’t come into view.

I confess to not feeling especially excited about the Large Cuckooshrike, as I find myself not exactly bubbling with enthusiasm for my Taiwan life list at the moment – I am far more focused on my World Year List (and I’ve seen plenty of Large Cuckooshrikes elsewhere this year). However in July, you take whatever birds you can get, and I left the area feeling somewhat satisfied even though I had missed both of my year list “targets”, and in fact really didn’t see very much else at all.

2016 World Year List: 780
Taiwan Life List: 288

Taiwan Endemics at Tengjhih, June 26th

IMG_6157 (2)
View from the roadside at Tengjhih National Forest, altitude around 1500 meters.

Returning to Taiwan felt like a homecoming. We never “clicked” with Vietnam, and for various reasons found ourselves drawn back to the eternally under-appreciated Beautiful Isle. We’ll be here until just before Christmas, meaning there should be plenty of time to get lots of birding done throughout the autumn migration period.

For now, however, it’s summer. In south Taiwan, that means constant very hot and humid weather, punctuated by the occasional craziness of a typhoon. The mountains can at least provide some respite from the heat, as well as a chance to get reacquainted with some of Taiwan’s endemic birds. Just a few days after we arrived, I took the first available opportunity to get up early and head out to my favorite highland location – Tengjhih National Forest.

Quite a high level of dedication is required to make the most of a trip like this in summer. First of all, getting there from Kaohsiung by scooter takes almost two hours, and seeing as it gets light shortly after 5.00am, a very early start is required. As it turned out, I didn’t leave the house until nearly 5, and after an obligatory coffee/breakfast stop at a 7-11, it was almost 7.30am by the time I arrived at the end of the mountain road at Tengjhih. A further ordeal awaits once the birding is over, as leaving Tengjhih at lunchtime means riding home through the lowlands in an inferno of 34C heat, blazing sunshine, and high humidity.

There are two main high-altitude areas one can visit at Tengjhih. The forest park itself has been closed since Typhoon Morakot devastated the area in 2009, meaning that the best areas here are still inaccessible. However, I’ve seen plenty of good birds in the past along the entrance trail, which starts shortly after the end of the paved road at Km 18 and runs for about a kilometer through excellent primary forest. This area was my first stop today, but being midsummer it was predictably quiet apart from the welcome appearance of a couple of local specialities – Yellow Tit, which is reliable at Tengjhih, and Rusty Laughingthrush.

A few kilometers back down the road, a network of mid-elevation walking trails can be accessed from the village. The habitat is somewhat fragmented here, but plenty of good birds are lurking including most of the expected mid-altitude species – although a visiting birder would be extremely fortunate to see them all on a single visit. Today I enjoyed the likes of Vivid Niltava and White-bellied Green Pigeon, and a lucky close-up view of a Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler through a gap in the dense scrub. The latter species is a fairly common Taiwan endemic but is a notorious skulker, so I was pleased to get it safely onto the year list on my first visit to the mountains.

With just 24 species recorded during my four-and-a-half hour visit, there wasn’t the variety one would expect here in winter, but there was enough bird activity to keep things interesting. Two Taiwanese mountain endemics that one can hardly miss here are Steere’s Liocichla and Taiwan Sibia, which are both attractive and abundant, while Rufous-faced Warbler, Rufous-capped Babbler and White-tailed Robin are all very common species which seem a lot easier to find on Taiwan than elsewhere.

A few notable birds joined the “heard-only” list for the day. Collared Owlet must surely hold the record for being the East Asian bird with the lowest seen-to-heard ratio, with Large Hawk-Cuckoo probably not far behind in the rankings. True to form, both of these species were vocal today but didn’t show themselves, despite (or perhaps because of?) a large crowd of photographers trying for the owlet along the road at Km 6. Further up, both Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler and Striated Prinia were singing at one of the landslide areas beyond Km 18, unfortunately a little too distantly down the slope for a realistic chance of seeing them.

2016 World Year Ticks: Rusty Laughingthrush, Steere’s Liocichla, Yellow Tit, Taiwan Sibia, Taiwan Yuhina, Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler, Morrison’s Fulvetta, White-bellied Green Pigeon, Vivid Niltava (total 775).

Approximate location of the Km 15 trailheads

Summary of Records from Red River Island, March 5th to May 16th 2016

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A rare clear day in Hanoi, looking north from the edge of the North Wood towards the Red River and airport bridge (photo taken on May 16th).

Site: Red River Island, Hanoi, Vietnam (Google Maps location)
Visits/days: 43 visits covering 42 days, between March 5th and May 16th
Months (days) visited: March (15), April (18), May (10).
Species recorded: 176
General notes: At least 90% of my time was spent in the North Wood and surrounding farmland/grassland at the northern tip of the island, with infrequent visits to other areas. Almost all of my visits were between the hours of 7.00am and 12.00pm, with a typical duration of between 2 and 3 hours. I was usually alone, but sometimes joined by other birders – most often Hung Le and Joy Ghosh.

In the table below, the second column indicates the number of visits on which the bird was recorded (out of 43). The third column is the high count for that species. The fourth column contains notes about a species’ status in the area, or other general comments. Thanks to Dave Sargeant (North Thailand Birding) for inspiration about how to present this information!

Common Name Number of Visits High Count Notes
Japanese Quail 3 1 Presumably a regular migrant
Little Grebe 3 3 Single group on pond along western edge
Asian Openbill 3 42 Occasional flocks soaring high to the east
Yellow Bittern 1 1  
Cinnamon Bittern 2 1  
Grey Heron 4 9  
Purple Heron 2 1  
Cattle Egret 3 2  
Chinese Pond Heron 21 10  
Striated Heron 2 1  
Black-crowned Night Heron 1 11 Single flock
Black-shouldered Kite 26 2 Resident pair
Oriental Honey Buzzard 3 1  
Jerdon’s Baza 2 3 Seen twice in April, coinciding with heavy passage at Tam Dao
Black Baza 1 7 Single flock
Grey-faced Buzzard 8 4  
Pied Harrier 1 1 Male
Crested Goshawk 1 1  
Chinese Sparrowhawk 1 1 Male
Japanese Sparrowhawk 4 1  
Black Kite 1 1  
White-breasted Waterhen 7 3  
Ruddy-breasted Crake 3 2 One seen, the others heard only
Common Moorhen 3 2  
Grey-headed Lapwing 1 1  
Red-wattled Lapwing 1 1  
Kentish Plover 1 1  
Little Ringed Plover 21 4 Presumably attempts to breed in the area
Common Sandpiper 10 2  
Green Sandpiper 7 2 Perhaps overwinters
Common Greenshank 3 11  
Barred Buttonquail 8 2 Scarce resident
Oriental Pratincole 1 1  
Rock Dove (feral) 12 5  
Oriental Turtle Dove 14 4 Regular migrant
Red Collared Dove 16 10  
Spotted Dove 14 8  
Wedge-tailed Pigeon 4 2 Photos show that these birds are all Wedge-tailed and not the perhaps more expected White-bellied
Chestnut-winged Cuckoo 3 1  
Large Hawk Cuckoo 3 1  
Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo 2 1  
Indian Cuckoo 2 1 Heard only
Common Cuckoo 4 2 Other “cuculus sp.” unidentified
Oriental Cuckoo 4 1 Other “cuculus sp.” unidentified
Plaintive Cuckoo 40 6 Common and vocal resident
Asian Koel 2 1  
Greater Coucal 38 3 Common resident
Lesser Coucal 9 2 Unclear whether resident or migrant
Northern Boobook 1 1  
Grey Nightjar 3 1 Three singles in North Wood
Large-tailed Nightjar 1 1  
Germain’s Swiftlet 4 5  
Asian Palm Swift 3 2  
Common Kingfisher 7 2  
White-throated Kingfisher 1 1  
Black-capped Kingfisher 6 2  
Pied Kingfisher 21 5 Presumably resident
Dollarbird 2 1  
Eurasian Wryneck 2 1  
Eurasian Kestrel 3 2  
Eurasian Hobby 1 1  
Peregrine 1 1  
Red-breasted Parakeet 3 1 Presumably escapee(s)
Ashy Woodswallow 1 2  
Ashy Minivet 3 2  
Rosy Minivet 2 4 Only in March
Black-winged Cuckooshrike 6 2  
Tiger Shrike 4 1 Only in May
Brown Shrike 18 10 Most numerous in May
Burmese Shrike 21 10 Recorded throughout the period
Long-tailed Shrike 1 1  
Black-naped Oriole 14 10 Fairly common migrant, often with drongos
Black Drongo 8 12 Many drongos in banana plantations not specifically identified
Ashy Drongo 24 15 Common migrant, some individuals of leucogenis and salangensis races
Crow-billed Drongo 7 5 Late April onwards. Presumably a regular late season migrant but difficult to tell from other drongos at a distance
Hair-crested Drongo 19 65 Common migrant
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo 1 1 Recorded in March, well before the start of other drongo passage
White-throated Fantail 19 3 Resident in the Hanoi area
Black-naped Monarch 26 5  
Amur Paradise-Flycatcher 3 2 Scarce migrant in late April/early May
Blyth’s Paradise-Flycatcher 4 1 Passage at same time as Amur
Red-billed Blue Magpie 20 5 Resident in the area, numbers apparently decreased from 5 to about 2 during the period
Racket-tailed Treepie 1 1  
Grey-throated Martin 22 60 Fairly common resident
Barn Swallow 30 12 Common migrant
Red-rumped Swallow 13 15 Regular migrant
Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher 10 5 Late March/early April
Japanese Tit 15 2 Resident
Chinese Penduline Tit 1 2 Regularly winters in area but hard to locate
Red-whiskered Bulbul 18 12  
Light-vented Bulbul 21 15  
Sooty-headed Bulbul 27 10  
Black Bulbul 1 1 White-headed race, in early March
Pale-footed Bush Warbler 4 3 Only located when singing, so others perhaps overlooked
Asian Stubtail 12 3 Regular early season migrant
Manchurian Bush Warbler 4 1 Presumably regular migrant
Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler 1 1 Probably overlooked due to very skulking habits
Dusky Warbler 38 15 Common migrant
Radde’s Warbler 17 3 Regularly seen, especially late in the season
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler 1 1  
Yellow-browed Warbler 34 10 Commonly seen until late April
Arctic Warbler 10 8 Not seen before end of April
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler 7 1  
Eastern Crowned Warbler 8 3  
Claudia’s Leaf Warbler 17 2 Common migrant in small numbers in March and April
Sulphur-breasted Warbler 4 1 Mainly in March
Grey-crowned Warbler 2 2 Many seicercus warblers didn’t call and therefore remained unidentified
Bianchi’s Warbler 2 1 Many seicercus warblers didn’t call and therefore remained unidentified
Thick-billed Warbler 18 12 Infrequently seen until early May when it became very common
Oriental Reed Warbler 5 1  
Black-browed Reed Warbler 25 12 Common migrant
Lanceolated Warbler 2 1 Probably overlooked due to very skulking habits
Baikal Bush Warbler 1 1  
Zitting Cisticola 40 7 Very common resident
Common Tailorbird 40 5 Very common resident
Yellow-bellied Prinia 43 20 Abundant resident
Plain Prinia 43 20 Abundant resident
Chestnut-flanked White-eye 2 2 Only in March
Japanese White-eye 38 40 Migrant/resident status unclear
Masked Laughingthrush 19 4 Resident in the area
White-crested Laughingthrush 4 2 Presumably escapees
Black-throated Laughingthrush 2 1 Presumably escapee(s)
Chinese Hwamei 3 2 Probably escapees
Blue-winged Minla 1 1 Presumably escapee
Dark-sided Flycatcher 11 3  
Asian Brown Flycatcher 19 8  
Grey-streaked Flycatcher 2 1 Individual for a few days in May
Oriental Magpie Robin 1 1 Surprisingly rare
Hainan Blue Flycatcher 12 4 Common early season migrant
Hill Blue Flycatcher 12 3 Common early season migrant
Blue-and-White Flycatcher 6 2  
Rufous-tailed Robin 1 1 Presumably regular migrant but very skulking
Japanese Robin 1 1  
Siberian Blue Robin 4 2 Very skulking here
Bluethroat 10 2 Presumably winters
Siberian Rubythroat 25 5 Common migrant and probable winterer
Blue Whistling Thrush 6 2 Both yellow-billed and dark-billed races seen
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher 13 3 Late April onwards
Green-backed Flycatcher 1 1 Male in April
Mugimaki Flycatcher 14 4  
Slaty-blue Flycatcher 1 1 One individual in March
Taiga Flycatcher 31 10 One of the few species that tolerates banana plantations
White-throated Rock Thrush 4 1 Two individuals (1m, 1f)
Siberian Stonechat 36 15 Last recorded at the beginning of May
Pied Bushchat 1 1 Male in March
Grey Bushchat 1 1  
Siberian Thrush 1 1 Adult male
Orange-headed Thrush 2 1 Two individuals
Grey-backed Thrush 6 1  
Black-breasted Thrush 1 1  
Japanese Thrush 8 6 Regular in March
Eyebrowed Thrush 4 7 Not seen outside of April
Daurian Starling 1 1 Female in March
Great Myna 1 2  
Crested Myna 3 2  
Olive-backed Sunbird 2 2  
Forest Wagtail 4 3  
Eastern Yellow Wagtail 2 2  
Citrine Wagtail 11 12  
Grey Wagtail 4 1  
White Wagtail 16 6  
Richard’s Pipit 27 6 Common migrant
Paddyfield Pipit 34 8 Common resident
Olive-backed Pipit 19 13 One of the few species that tolerates banana plantations
Red-throated Pipit 12 7  
Crested Bunting 3 1 Two different individuals seen
Tristram’s Bunting 6 2 Fairly regular in March but skulking
Little Bunting 12 10  
Yellow-breasted Bunting 6 7 Long-staying flock in dead cornfield
Chestnut Bunting 2 1  
Black-faced Bunting 13 4 Only in March
Common Rosefinch 2 3  
Oriental Greenfinch 11 35 Erratic
Eurasian Tree Sparrow 34 40  
White-rumped Munia 12 8  
Scaly-breasted Munia 37 40  

The following additional species were among those reported by other observers during the same period: Yellow-legged Buttonquail, Short-eared Owl, Blue-throated Bee-eater, Swinhoe’s Minivet, and Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher.