31 Mar 2011

The "One that Got Away" - edited

Ten years ago this month, in March 2001, Mike Turnbull and I were in the HKBWS Boardwalk hide on a hazy Saturday afternoon.   The tide had receded and a Lesser Frigatebird was harassing all the other birds in Deep Bay.  It was the focus of our attention - as you might expect.

Out in the middle of the bay, 300 to 400 metres away, the Frigatebird disturbed another bird from the surface of the water.  Not another Shoveller, not even a duck, it flapped languidly in our general direction on long dark wings. Mike exclaimed    " It's a Gadfly Petrel  !! " with possibly an expletive or two.  I knew I'd seen some members of this family in New Zealand, but was also acutely aware that I knew practically nothing about Pterodroma petrels.

I had about six frames of slide film left in the camera and, with a 1.4 converter on the old 600mm Pentax I was focussing manually.  I was desperate to get a record shot, but knew the bird might come closer, too.  Grab a shot now, or wait till later ? Suppose it just flies away ?  In the end, I took only three shots, and this is the sorry "best" of them.

Mystery Pterodroma 

The "Pterror" came to with 100 metres and crossed the line of mangrove to  our left and was not seen again.

Mike T. circulated  the photos and a description to solicit opinions on identification  overseas, especially to Australia and NZ experts on pelagic birds. However no consensus could be reached and the record languished, the bird not identified to species, although there seemed to be agreement that it was a Pterodroma petrel of some sort, and eventually the HKBWS Records Committee accepted it as such.

For a birder the key point is that ANY member of this family is a "First" for both Hong Kong and mainland China.

In one of my Japanese photo books  I saw a photo of Providence Petrel (Pterodroma solandri), and thought "That's it !"  (Not very scientific, I know.)   And after ten years no-one else seems to be convinced. 

In 2007 I got a copy of "Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World" by Derek Onley and Paul Schofield.  Looking at Plate 16 - Dark Pterodroma Petrels of the Pacific - I have become an "instant expert".  A lack of white shafts on the upperside of the primaries should eliminate Kermadec petrel and Kermadec and Providence seen most likely on range.  BUT  other Pterodroma petrels may be possible, too, such as Murphy's and Herald.

In the Dec 2010 edition of the ABA magazine Birding there is a mention of this interesting vagrant petrel in British Columbia:-  http://oregonseabirds.blogspot.com/2009/10/solanders-petrel-in-british-columbia.html

But are mystery petrels really vagrant, or are we just not spending enough time looking in the right places ?

We can't alway identify everything we see and it is a pity that we couldn't really nail this one down. But Identification criteria are certainly improving all the time, especially with the widespread availability of digital photographs. 

Who knows, perhaps one day we'll be able to work this one out.  For now,  - like a fishing story - it is   "The Big One That Got Away "  !

(Added 1st April 2001)  -  but I'm not fooling !

David James has kindly taken the trouble to comment on the photo above on the Oriental Bird Club internet news group as follows : -

"John Holmes has posted a photo of a Pterodroma on his blog that was photgraphed in Deep Bay 10 years ago. http://johnjemi.blogspot.com/
This bird is clearly a Herald Petrel, P heraldica. Only 5 petrels show a dark crescent in the white underwing flash (formed by the dark tips to the primary coverts). Solander's Petrel and Henderson Petrel never show a white belly or throat. Trinidade Petrel has dark lores. Kermadec is the most likely alternative, but its best feature, white primary quills, is not visible in ventral views. Other important details on the inner underwing are not clear.
However, the shape fits only Herald Petrel (and Trinnidade): a long and slim tail, and a skinny looking head. This is quite wrong for Solander's and Kermadec.

It is an intermediate morph bird, although there is little difference between pale and intermediate.
 If you have Harrison's 1987 photo guide, look at p 56. If you have Onley & Schofield look at Plate 20, image 2c.  

David James

For the record, then here are scans of all three photos I took in March 2001.

Mystery Pterodroma - Upperside

Mystery Pterodroma - Underside

Mystery Pterodroma - rear view
(the white visible is on the underside of the right wing)

26 Mar 2011

On the Move

Along the casuarinas at Mai Po last Wednesday (23rd March) there were a few Black-faced (formerly "Masked") Buntings Emberiza spodocephala.

Most Masked Buntings winter in Hong Kong, but these came and went so quickly, they must be early passage migrants.

Blacked-faced Bunting (Emberiza spodocephala)

Elsewhere, there seemed to be a few more White-shouldered (formerly "Chinese") Starlings around than there have been in previous weeks.  They must be coming up from SE Asia. A few will breed here, but most will breed further north in China.

White-shouldered Starling (Sturnus sinensis)

And a few Oriental Pratincoles, behaving like newly-arrived and very tired on some fishpond banks near Mai Po Nature Reserve.

"Strange human !  Why are you lying in the road ?"

"Just trying to get a better angle...."

Some of my clothes were due for a wash, anyway.

19 Mar 2011

Grey day at the Boardwalk, Mai Po

Wet and a bit hazy out at the boardwalk this morning, but you know

"A bad day birding beats a good day in the office..." etc.

Black-tailed Gull (L.crassirostris)

"Caspian" Gull (L.c.mongolicus)

This ID of "Caspian" - formerly "Yellow-legged" or "Mongolian" Gull - is based mainly on colour of mantle and legs.  BUT all the neck-streaking should be indicative of VEGA Gull, so I could hedge my bets and say it is a hybrid of some sort.  Need I add that I'm vaguer about Vega s.

"Heuglin's" Gull (L.f.heuglini)

Saunders's Gull (C. saundersi)

Dunlin (C.alpina)

L - Nordmann's,  R - Common Greenshank

Nordmann's Greenshank  (T.guttifer)

Grey Plover (P.squatarola)

Black-tailed Godwits (L.l.melanuroides)

Broad-billed Sandpiper (L.falcinellus sibirica)

Redshank (T.totanus)

Curlew Sandpiper (C.ferruginea)

So, a selection of late winter/early spring Mai Po birds.

Most of the leg-flagged waders were flagged in Hong Kong, the engraved flags came into use last August (2010).   

The bottom bird  - the Curlew Sandpiper, - will have been flagged in Kyushu, Japan.  I don't think I've seen this particular flag combination in Hong Kong before.

(Edited on Sunday 20th March)

I stand corrected.  Thanks to YU Yat-tung and John Allcock - and Heather Minton of the Australian Wader Studies Group.

The exotically-flagged Curlew Sandpiper above was flagged in Bohai Bay (up near the Yellow Sea in NE China).

"Thank you for recording the details of the flagged wader that was
recently sighted. We appreciate your action in reporting this
information, which will contribute to our understanding of the migration
of birds in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.

Please check the information given below and advise me if any details
appear incorrect.

A Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea was sighted by John Holmes at:
Mai Po, Hong Kong (China) 22deg 29min 0sec N, 119deg 14min 0sec E  on
19/03/2011 with flag(s) as follows:

     LEFT leg: nothing/unknown on tibia (upper leg) above
nothing/unknown on tarsus
     RIGHT leg: blue flag on tibia (upper leg) above yellow flag on

This bird was flagged in Cangzhou, China, approximate co-ordinates 38deg
9min N, 117deg 30min E, which uses the flag combination
Blue/Yellow(cut), since 2009.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 1750 km, with a bearing
of 174 degrees, from the marking location."

I have promised Tung and John I'll try harder to interpret the leg flags properly myself next time.

Meanwhile I have slapped myself on the wrist.

17 Mar 2011

Hawfinch "Twitch", Tai Om, Lam Tsuen Valley

A few Hawfinches have been seen in Hong Kong this winter, a species that would normally get little further south than Shanghai.  It has been a cold winter at times, and hopes have been entertained by some that a few of HK's Hawfinches might be genuine winter visitors.

I thought I'd go and look for a Hawfinch sighted by Mike Kilburn. It had been seen with a flock of Chinese Grosbeaks that also included a couple of (quite rare here) Japanese Grosbeaks.

As the trees at the bottom were bare, I wandered up through an overgrown valley to the abandoned village of Tai Om.  The trees have grown up so quickly in the past 20 - 30 years that I imagined myself as a 21st-century Hiram Bingham, rediscovering Macchu Picchu.

Tai Om Village

Japanese White-eye

Sooty-headed Bulbul

In front of a stand of ruined houses I heard the distinctive "crack" of grosbeaks pecking buds of new leaves off an old Celtis sinensis (Chinese Hackberry) tree.

Japanese Grosbeak

It was impossible to see all the flock of 18 - 20 birds clearly, so I "dipped" on the Hawfinch.  However two Japanese Grosbeaks were some compensation.

As of last week the Hongkong Birdwatching Society Records Committee has reviewed all Hawfinch records.  Unfortunately, some of this winters' Hawfinches have been exposing themselves to photographers at close range in places like Yuen Long Town Park, and exhibiting small but suspicious signs of external (cage) damage.

So Hawfinch still isn't "tickable" here.  Which is a pity, because some of the birds - like the Tai Om individual - have been much shyer and have given every appearance of being a genuine vagrant.

11 Mar 2011

Birds and history - Gaoligongshan, West Yunnan

I have done a piece for Terry Townshend's "Birding Beijing" blog, here it is:


I have tried to get across the atmosphere of Gaoligongshan with references to both birds and some snippets of human history in the area.

3 Mar 2011

NOT a “Wilderness Experience”

I remember staying somewhere on my travels where a stroll uphill and through some woods was recommended as a “Wilderness Experience” – as if this was a good thing.

In reality, though, the “Wilderness Experience” was but a short interlude between my comfortable bed and  a sumptious breakfast buffet.

I think what they meant was that the air was fresh and the views fine.  And that was true enough.

Birding in Hong Kong takes one to some picturesque places, but often one has to ignore the hand of man when appreciating good birds.

The presence of Grey-headed Lapwings along the Kam Tin River is a case in point.

Three large flyovers don't seem to bother them.....  but, as their traditional Buffalo Field habitat near Shui Tau Tsuen has been trashed, perhaps they have no choice.

 Grey-headed Lapwing habitat in 2011

Grey-headed Lapwings (Vanellus cinereus)

A "Globally Near-threatened" species (Birdlife International), a flock of about a dozen returns to Hong Kong every winter.

But for how much longer ?