15 Oct 2020

The hunt for mid-October

Yes, I know that’s nonsense, but here we are.  And there’s plenty of nonsense already on the internet !

Throughout this month there have been southbound Whiskered Terns over the fishponds near HK’s boundary with Shenzhen.

And the odd White-winged Tern (left on the last photo).

At Mai Po Nature Reserve, the resident birds (and non-birds) have been showing well..

...and the winter visitors have started to arrive..

Two Taiga Bean Geese have been a highlight of the autumn/winter so far...

The “end of the Fence”

At the start of the day...

3 Oct 2020

Day and Night

There have been a lot of migrating Egrets around in the past couple of weeks, but for some real “Viz Mig” Jemi and I went to Mai Po late yesterday afternoon.

Almost seven hundred Egrets of various kinds flew up from parts of Mai Po and nearby and headed off south and southwest, towards the setting sun.

Mid-Autumn Festival was the day before (October 1st) and the moon was still full.

And two Savanna Nightjars from a week or so ago.  These are resident, but there may be some migrating through Hong Kong as well.


Still haven’t got used to the new blogger set-up... Really, picture size ?  Anyway, life’s too short !

11 Aug 2020

Ryukyu Scops Owl - a welcome stranger

In the spring of 2020 Jemi and I took part in the HKBWS Territory-wide Night Bird Survey. Our initial agreed route concluded at Fan Kam Road near Lin Tong Mei.

Ryukyu Scops Owl (Otus elegans) - July 2020

On May 16th in mid-evening we decided to continue eastwards and bird around a quiet track nearby. This area is near/at the boundary of Lam Tsuen Country Park, but the flat land is occupied by single storey dwellings and smallholdings.

At the far end the paved road peters out into a track that drops into a dip that has a fishpond and some open storage areas, but the steep hillsides around these features have some tall trees (not all native) and dense understory.

Relatively undisturbed, the area can be habitat for resident species like Collared Scops Owl and Asian Barred Owlets. In 2004 and some subsequent years Malayan Night Herons bred in the area.

Jemi and I heard a repeated two-note call “bar-bap…bar-bap…” which reminded us of Asian Barred Owlet, sounding like the first two notes of ABO’s longer call.

We recorded the bird - which was close - with an I-phone and put the call on the “Local Patchers” WhatsApp group. Although the call was unusual there was a general consensus that the two-note call was likely an aberrant call of ABO.

On June 24th we returned to the area and met two other birders we knew who were investigating a two-note call that they believed to be Brown Boobook, a regular passage migrant but not known to breed in HK.

We did not hear the “mystery call” that evening.

On July 25th we returned to our mystery owl site at the end of our Night Bird Survey.  Arriving at a high point near the end of the road, after a few moments we heard the two-note call again. It was close at first, regular, and calling at about 4-second intervals.  We recorded it again with mobile phones.

The bird did not call continuously, it would stop for a few minutes at a time. At one stage it seemed to start up after being disturbed by the movement of passing car headlights.

After twenty minutes it moved away, unseen, back the way we had come.  Driving the road we stopped at a junction lit by a street light. There Jemi located the calling bird with a small LED torch.  I got a few shaky photos, before we were interrupted by a passing vehicle. Later, examination of the photos were enough to see that the bird was NOT Asian Barred Owlet, nor a Boobook.

On 26 July we contacted John Allcock who had commented on the May 16th recording. JAA confirmed our suspicion that the mystery owl was an Otus of some kind.  He forwarded a link to a Xeno-canto recording of Elegant Scops Owl, made on Lanyu Island, which seemed similar.

Arrangements were made and that night several of us returned to the owl site where the bird was again recorded with better quality equipment.

We didn’t get a good view of the bird on 26th, but we did a couple of days later.

Ryukyu Scops Owl (Otus elegans) - July 2020

Ryukyu Scops Owl (Otus elegans) - July 2020

To make a long story short, the recordings and photos indicate strongly that this bird is of the Lanyu Island race of Ryukyu (Elegant) Scops Owl (Otus elegans).

It is a “First" for Hong Kong - indeed a “First” for mainland China/mainland Eurasia.


Ryukyu Scops Owl (Otus elegans) - July 2020

In the way that these things happen, news spread and many people have been to see the Owl in the past couple of weeks.

Everybody needs a break from Covid-19 and local politics, but I hope this distinguished visitor does not get disturbed too much.

12 Jul 2020

About the light...

Anyone who fancies themselves as a photographer, as an “artist” needs to think about light, and its’ effects.

On the subject, on the background, in front or from behind, how much or how little of it, the colour “temperature” … - whatever.

I’m so pretentious, this year marks the 50th anniversary of when I discovered what “contre-jour” means. 

Just yesterday,* with June racing towards it’s febrile conclusion,  I knew I’d have to get my pledged monthly “Night Bird Survey” done.  The moon was on the wane, but the sky was clear.

Off out then, to cover the usual circuit.  Most night birds are noted by call, but occasionally one gets a view, so it would be a shame to leave the camera behind. Light is a challenge at night, but digital has made night photography a lot easier than it used to be.

Eventually we came to a spot where the footpath was illuminated by a yellow street light.

A fluttering shape revealed itself to be an Asian Barred Owlet, swooping from the shadows to a well-lit patch of ground beside the path.  We could see it trying to subdue a prey item among the leaves.

Owls REALLY know how to work the light conditions.

Disturbed by a passing villager it hid high in a tree before emerging again and then perching lower.

Same perch, but a white LED torch makes the dark bits stand out.  Even so, Asian Barred Owlet is not a two-toned bird - it’s just that a yellow light and a white light compete with each other. 

It was interesting to see the Owlet making full use of the artificial light provided by mankind..no need for it to go hungry until the next full moon !

All the other Nightbirds on the survey were “Heard Only” - it was nice to actually see one.

* actually, 24th June 2020

The new blogger dashboard - grrrr

5 Jun 2020

Going “Cuckoo” - over a HK second record

Every year here in HK we get Large Hawk Cuckoo (Hierococcyx sparveroides),  Indian Cuckoo (Cuculus micropterus ) and Chestnut-winged Cuckoo (Clamator  coromandus).  Each of these species seems to arrive in a particular week and the timings of their different calls where I live indicates the progress of spring.  These three species deposit their eggs in the nests of their host species here and stay until summer.

Catching up in numbers are Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo (H. nisicolor), and Lesser Cuckoo (Cuculus poliocephalus), which have gone from unknown in HK to being heard annually in just a few years.  Maturing HK woodland means that the species these cuckoos parasitise are getting more widespread.

Common Cuckoo - (Cuculus canorus)

BUT there is only one HK record of Common Cuckoo - a bird photographed (but not heard to call) by Geoff Welch on Po Toi Island on 4th April 2007.

Common Cuckoo - (Cuculus canorus) - the cuckoo that actually goes “Cuckoo” !

Terry Townshend’s Birding Beijing blog has been getting some much-deserved media attention, highlighting the progress of Common Cuckoos fitted with radio trackers in Beijing.  Some of the birds pass south China, but they don’t call much on migration.

On May 20th this year Peter and Michelle WONG were birding around the entrance to Mai Po Nature Reserve when they heard that distinctive call - “Cuckoo”. 

They managed to sight, photograph and record the bird, then get photos and sound clips out on WhatsApp.

Common Cuckoo - (Cuculus canorus)

Paul Leader - who has studied the collection of cuckoo specimens at Natural History Museum at Tring (UK) responded with a photo of some of these specimens and a suggestion that the bird might be a race of Common Cuckoo known from west China - “bakeri”.

Common Cuckoo - (Cuculus canorus)

I went along the same afternoon the bird was found, but the Cuckoo was happily hunting caterpillars in the top of a banyan tree over the old Pak Hok Chau police post, and was mostly obscured. However, it was nice to meet a few fellow-twitchers despite “Social Distancing”. (We are not “locked down” here.)

The following morning, after overnight rain, the Cuckoo briefly sunned itself on a lower tree nearby, when these photos were taken.

Common Cuckoo - (Cuculus canorus)

Common Cuckoo - (Cuculus canorus)

Common Cuckoo - (Cuculus canorus)

Graham Talbot had a copy of a June 2014 paper by Clive Mann from Birdwatch Magazine (published in the UK), which highlighted the differences between Common and Oriental Cuckoo (the most likely confusion species).  

Barring on the underwing coverts is the clincher for Common, compared to Oriental. A point worth remembering when confronted with any future silent cuckoos. 

Common Cuckoos breed from western Europe all the way across eurasia to Kamchatka in far eastern Russia.  They all winter in southern Africa, though, so the eastern ones have a very long migration route.

So thanks to persistence by the finders, co-operation by others in the group, technical know-how and the contribution of knowledgable individuals the whole experience came together.

A microcosm of what makes Hong Kong the place it is.

17 May 2020

“Marsh” Terns on northbound migration

White-winged Tern - Chlidonias leucopterus

“Chlidonias…” Marsh Terns migrate through Hong Kong in spring and autumn.  In spring they are much easier to identify at a distance, because they are in breeding plumage.

Hong Kong birding - NOT a “Wilderness Experience” !

At the end of April I saw a couple of dozen marsh terns circling over a particular partially-refilled fishpond in Tai Sang Wai.  They seemed to be feeding on prawns.

Chlidonias Terns on passage, Hong Kong

Exactly two weeks later, blustery conditions led me to go and check the same pond again in the late afternoon.

White-winged Tern - Chlidonias leucopterus

White-winged Tern - Chlidonias leucopterus

White-winged Tern - Chlidonias leucopterus

White-winged Tern - Chlidonias leucopterus

Kai Kung Shan ("Cock’s Comb Mountain") * is to the east of Tai Sang Wai. With the terns circling more or less at eye height the hill can make a good background for these black-and-white birds, especially as the sun gets lower. 

* a hill called “Nameless” by the British Army, pre-handover !

White-winged Tern - Chlidonias leucopterus

Whiskered Tern - Chlidonias hybrida

Whiskered Tern - Chlidonias hybrida

Whiskered Tern - Chlidonias hybrida

Whiskered Tern - Chlidonias hybrida

And there were Whiskered Terns in close-up, too.