22 Jul 2012

Summer birds at Mai Po - and some population trends

The ubiquitous Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) is a fine color in mid-July;-

And here is a juvenile-ish Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocerus);-

Great Egret (Casmerodius albus) - taking a fish at a Gei Wai sluice gate.

But some of the birds to be seen around Mai Po this week would have been an unexpected summer presence a decade or so ago, according to The Avifauna of Hong Kong which was published by the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society (HKBWS) in the year 2000.  

The species accounts are a distillation of historical Hong Kong bird records dating back to Robert Swinhoe in 1860, pre- and post- World War II stuff by Geoffrey Herklots and other observers as recorded in the "Hong Kong Naturalist" and  40 years of Hong Kong Birdwatching Society records from 1957 to 1998. 

The last word then, on the status of Hong Kong birds ?  Well, up to 1998 certainly, but, inevitably changes in the status of some species have been recorded since that time. 

Some snaps of HK's new HK breeders (both suspected and confirmed) in the past few days around Mai Po ….

Red-rumped Swallow (Hirundo daurica) - "uncommon passage migrant with occasional midwinter reports" (Avifauna). Now known to be a localized breeder in HK.  

White-cheeked Starling (Sturnus cineraceus) - strictly a "winter visitor" (Avifauna) but there are increasing summer records and this week mid-summer juveniles have been about.  These were part of a group of at least twenty.

Red-billed Starling (Sturnus sericeus) - another former "winter visitor" with an increasing number of summer (apparently local breeding) records.

A final Starling, - White-shouldered (Sturnus sinensis). As befits its latin name, a Chinese breeding species, and long-known HK breeding bird.  They are actually increasing in number, in part due to a liking for China Light and Power Company electrical switch boxes.

Chinese (Yellow-billed) Grosbeak (Eophona migratoria) - another new  HK breeder.  Before 2000, only known as a winter visitor.  Here is a young bird at the edge of a track, behaving a bit like a pipit.

So, these increases sound like good news.  But what is going on ?  Is this due to climate change ?   It is certainly hard to say for sure. But many other species are in decline.  Many migrant birds - especially waders - are declining due to hunting, trapping and especially habitat destruction all along their migration routes.   

Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) ….  in areas of suitable habitat, present all year round, and this - as for other species - makes their status in HK and elsewhere more difficult to assess. 

Many are migrants along the south china coast and must be subject to the same pressures as the other migrating birds.

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus) - "common in early autumn" (Avifauna).  This is still spot-on.  These Redshank -under the watchful eye of a curlew-  were among over 600 at Mai Po Nature Reserve this week.  Numbers should peak in August, when it might be clearer whether their numbers are declining or not.

"The Avifauna of Hong Kong" was a milestone in the progress of the Hongkong Birdwatching Society. But like any milestone, the road has moved on beyond it. Still, there is no doubt that is a great book and must-have reference for any Hong Kong birder.

13 Jul 2012

Oriental Stork at Mai Po

Hong Kong seems at its most tropical in July, a month of blazing heat interrupted by thundery showers.  A month when idle birders like me really need a reason to get up and out into the field bright and early.

Yesterday John Allcock texted to tell me that such a reason - in the form of an Oriental (White) Stork - had dropped into Mai Po Nature Reserve. 

So, first thing this morning I bashed out to Mai Po and joined a small crowd of admirers next to Pond 21.

"What is black and white and got pink legs ?"

" Don't ask me ! "

Hong Kong's last Oriental Stork was around for a few weeks in Jan/Feb 2004, and this individual could provide a "HK tick" - even a "Life tick" - for more than a few current Hong Kong birders.

Oriental Stork breeds in East Russia and adjacent Heilongjiang in far northeast China.   A population winters on the Yangtse and - apart from a big influx of over 100 birds in November 1990 - only odd ones have wintered here over the years.

This is HK's first summer record - a very unexpected bonus. 

It was circling very high in the sky as I left.  I hope it doesn't leave, or there will be a lot of disappointed birders at the weekend !


Updated: 17 July 2012 - the Oriental Stork stayed around over the weekend, to the delight of many. Thomas Chan's photos on the HKBWS website here:-


Plenty of other great shots of this in several earlier postings on the HKBWS website, too.

8 Jul 2012

Birding the Russian Far East Part 6 – Southern Kuril Islands

After the Auklet excitement of Yanchika parts of the southern Kurils were, well, less gripping....  but it’s all relative.

These shots were taken at the former soviet submarine base at Simushir Island (actually, on the morning of the 4th June 2012).   The base was abandoned a few years after the end of the “Cold War”.   The submarines and the navy people sailed away, leaving things behind, an odd mix of gear it wasn’t worth shipping and personal items left in the quarters.  Still a poignant sort of place, despite some previous vandalism and souvenir hunting.   

Among the birds, Rubythroat and Grey Bunting (photos below) were breeding in the regenerating scrub.  Also present were Brown-headed Thrush and Spotted Nutcracker.

By June 5th we had arrived at Urup Island.   This rock formation is called “The drinking man”

Seals frolicked just offshore.

On to one of the largest of the Kurils – Iturup, which has a largish settlement – mostly devoted to fishing – on it.  There is also a broad track running across the spine of the island to a minor tourist attraction of hot volcanic pools, and some geothermal power generators.   There was a prolonged birding walk with Chris Collins and Adam Walleyn, with Japanese Accentor and Japanese Robin the highlights.  There were also a lot of Rubythroats and a few Eurasian Nuthatches in the roadside scrub.

In the late afternoon we were in another caldera, this time at the south end of Iturup.  The steep slopes revealed a number of Brown Bears.

A White-tailed Sea Eagle

Four in this shot !  

" Picnic ashore, anyone ? "

The waters nearby had a few Rhinoceros auklets here and there – our last auklet “tick” of the trip.  In breeding plumage, most of them showed their “horn” pretty well.

The weather had turned really wet by the time we got to Kunashir, and it made us all the more thankful for the clear days we’d had earlier in the trip.  It was raining hard as we pottered along the beach to have a look at a waterfall.  We were instructed to keep together in case of bears.  I can report that the client compliance with this advice was 100 %.  

Returning to the boat, we could see this sailor - fishing off the back deck of the "Professor Khromov" with his rod bent double. It wasn’t long before we found out why.

Steaming finally towards Sakhalin Island there were thousands of Short-tailed Shearwaters to be seen, some times in small groups and sometimes in rafts of thousands.   Large areas of the water surface were covered in feathers.

Having  bred in the southwest pacific during the northern winter, (the Austral summer, of course) here they were, moulting in the Sea of Okhotsk in June.

And that was just about it. Here’s a “screenshot” with the route of the voyage, a total of 1936 kilometres.

While trying to maintain a narrative thread in these few "Russian Far East" posts we have missed out some impressions and experiences.  Heritage Expeditions have had a lot of practice at fine-tuning this kind of voyage. Naturally, all the guides and expedition crew were impressively competent and completely professional.   The other clients were an interesting and diverse group, coming as they did from a variety of backgrounds, but everyone got along well.  


Links to photos and commentary by some other people on the trip: -

Thanks for reading this far !

“Birding the Russian Far East” - End