22 Sept 2018

An East China Sea "pelagic", 14 - 17th Sept 2018

Typhoons can be shared experiences in a place the size of Hong Kong. With concern about danger outdoors, and worries of damage to property at home, people tend to stay indoors and sit them out.

So with Super Typhoon “Mangkut” approaching we were reluctant to leave town, but a short sea birding trip had been booked and paid for weeks earlier.

The trip was researched and organised by Carrie Ma, and there were four of us HK birders in the party. The fourth participant was T P Luk.

Extinct, according to  "A field Guide to the Birds of Japan" (1982 edition) 

Xiamen (formerly Amoy) in Fujian Province, is only four hours away from Shenzhen North Station on China’s new high-speed railway system.  Xiamen is the place where Robert Swinhoe shot the type specimen of Hydrobates monorhis (Swinhoe's Storm-Petrel) in November 1866.

"Superstar Gemini" at Gulang Dock, Xiamen

We boarded the Superstar Gemini at Xiamen’s plush new ferry terminal with three days of pelagic birding in mind.  The other five hundred or so passengers thought they were on some sort of casual cruise, with buffet dinners, cabarets and a chance of poolside frolics. The route, as plotted by Carrie from Google Earth, is here...

Xiamen in the west and the Japanese Ryukyu islands to the east

RED: Ship's track.  YELLOW: parts covered in daylight hours
The ship departed in late evening on the 14th and dawn on the 15th found us off northwest Taiwan sailing into large swells. The ship was very big and stable, but there was a high wind from the front (northeast). 

This was indirectly due to the influence of Typhoon “Mangkut” (according to the "Nullschool.net" website ). We were distant from the Typhoon and moving away from most of the rough weather, but perhaps the winds from the east pulled more birds toward the sheltered side of Taiwan.

Chinese Trawler

For safety reasons the sheltered 8/f rear deck was the only available outdoor space on the first day at sea.  But one of our highlights came early with the sight of a string of storm-petrels passing southwards, near some wave-swept trawlers.

Swinhoe's Storm-Petrels - Hydrobates monorhis
Swinhoe's Storm-Petrels - Hydrobates monorhis

Swinhoe's Storm-Petrel - Hydrobates monorhis
Later we saw our only Masked Booby of the trip. These breed on the Daiyutai/Senkaku Islands, which we later passed close to after dark.  

Masked Booby - Sula dactylatra

The more widespread Brown Booby was also noted.
Brown Booby - Sula leucogaster

We were overflown by a migrating flock of fifteen (ten here) Little Curlew. 

Little Curlew - Numenius minutus

Later in the day the wind subsided somewhat and the sun came out. We saw what at first appeared to be a large tern, sitting on the sea surface. Actually, it was a White-tailed Tropicbird. 

White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus

White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus

White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus

We passed some rock stacks before darkness fell.

We arrived at Miyako Island in the Japanese Ryukyu chain at daybreak on 16th September and after Immigration checks commenced our coach tour of the island shortly after 07:00hrs local time. 

At the “Japanese-German Friendship Village” we saw migrant Grey-streaked Flycatchers and resident Japanese White-Eyes. 

Grey-streaked Flycatcher - Muscicapa griseiticta

Japanese White-Eye - Zosterops japonicus

The race of JWE on the Ryukyus is the exotic-sounding loochooensis.

Blue Rock Thrush - Monticola solitarius

The longest coach tour stop was at some kind of shopping warehouse where a variety of "Made-in-Japan" supplements and lotions could be purchased at purportedly bargain prices.   

Outside, beyond the car park, it was good to see Blue Rock Thrushes in good numbers. Brown-eared Bulbuls also lent character to the island landscape. 

Brown-eared Bulbul - Microscelis amaurotis

We saw two each of Pacific Golden Plover and Grey Plover in fields, and about a dozen Common Greenshank on a beach. All seemingly migrating birds.

In early afternoon we sailed away westwards from the Ryukyus in calm seas and this time had access to all the decks. Levels 7 and 8 near the bow of the ship seemed good viewing areas. We had about four hours birding before it got dark.  

There were distant groups of Streaked Shearwaters and other unidentified seabirds. 

Streaked Shearwater - Calonectris leucomelas

Later on, one or two Bulwer’s Petrels came close to the ship, 

Bulwer's Petrel - Bulweria bulwerii

Bulwer's Petrel - Bulweria bulwerii

......as did another hoped-for species, Wedge-tailed Shearwater.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater - Puffinus pacificus

A few flying fish were seen... 

Finally, we had the whole of the 17th September daylight sailing from near the northern tip of Taiwan back to Xiamen.

Early in the morning it was misty and grey, but two pods with a total about thirty Bottlenose Dolphins livened things up.

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus)

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus)

Landbirds that had landed on the ship included Grey Wagtail and Brown Shrike.

Brown Shrike - Lanius cristatus

A lone Whimbrel passed us in flight. 

Whimbrel - Numenius phaeopus

There was a distant tussle between a Bulwer's Petrel and what we thought was a first-year Long-tailed Skua (or possibly Arctic Skua, see comments below)

Familiar (to HK birders) were Bridled Terns, often standing on flotsam. 

Bridled Terns - Onychoprion anaethtus

A loose aggregation of Red-necked Phalarope added up to over 120 in total.

Red-necked Phalarope - Phalaropus lobatus

Back at the Xiamen dockside, at around 18:00hrs there was a cheerful scrum to get off the ship, and we were done.

So, Superstar Gemini was often frustratingly distant from the birds, but it was about the stablest platform we could have hoped for. You could seabird with a ‘scope in most conditions.

Thanks again to Carrie for organising the whole thing.

It seems like we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of discovery, so we’ll have to go again !


  1. I am wondering whether you see much evidence of plastic pollution, John. I just read a very depressing report about the number of invasive species, from plants to molluscs, now making their transoceanic journeys on plastic flotsam. I think the whole battle against invasive species is just about lost.

    1. Hi David, Yes, sorry to report that there is quite a lot of plastic bottles and polystyrene pieces in the water...as well as more "natural" flotsam.

  2. Got to say the flock of Little Curlew must be the highlight............

    1. A surprise to me, too. We get about one every five years in HK, so fifteen seemed a lot. They have a lot of ocean to cross, if they're wintering in PNG and Australia.

  3. Incredible photos and really exciting trip!

    For the skua-petrol tussle, my take is parasitic skua and dark morphed wedge tailed shearwater. Long tailed skua does not have the white base to primaries on the upperwing. Bulwer petrel would not show the broadish, wedge-shaped tail.

    1. Thanks for highlighting this. I agree that the white at the base of the primaries (especially on upperwing) could mean that this is a first-winter Arctic, rather than Long-tailed Skua.

      But I still suggest that the smaller bird is Bulwers Petrel, rather than a Wedgie. From “Seabirds” by Peter Harrison, Plate 27 “During flight manoeuvres tail is briefly fanned to show distinctive wedge shape”.

      The tail of Bulwer’s is also mentioned in Birds of East Asia (Brazil) “tail pointed when closed, wedge-shaped when open…”

      I think Wedge-tailed Shearwater would be much closer in size to Arctic Skua than the smaller bird here, which has, perhaps 2/3 the wingspan of the larger one. That would fit about 70cm for Bulwers - around 110cm for Arctic Skua.

    2. Agreed with Arctic Skua and Bulwer's Petrel ! Size difference is the clincher for the Bulwer's, other than that Seabirds can show so many different postures on a single picture, one always has to be careful with relying on these for ID. Your other Bulwer's picture with the wings fully extended is also quite remarkable, not an often seen position. And jealous of the Swinhoe's Stormies, i still need to see those. Yann