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.

1 May 2020

Hong Kong Spring Migration 2020 - End of April

I was under compulsory quarantine for 14 days on my March 19th return from Chile/Australia, and could only go out from April 4th. Still, that makes me more fortunate than everyone else stuck indoors.

So far, HK has avoided the worst of the “Wu Flu” (Covid-19) outbreaks, due mainly to having quarantine requirements for arrivals by air, sea and land.  And HK residents - after SARS in 2003 - have been diligent when it comes to  masks and hand/face hygiene. We’ve got to hope it stays that way.

We had a gentle stroll up to the (former HK Governor) Sir Edward Youde Pagoda above Nam Chung, NE New Territories on April 9th.

A Crested Goshawk (Accipiter trivirgatus) circled below eye-level.  Two noteworthy things - it was carrying a Changeable Lizard (Calotes versicolor) prey and (I only spotted this later) it had a ring on its’ leg. A mystery.

In Deep Bay, Black-faced Spoonbills (Platalea minor) were assuming breeding plumage prior to heading back to Korea to breed.

Visits to Mai Po Nature Reserve showed up Curlew Sandpipers (Calidris ferruginea)... 

and Asian Dowitchers (Limnodromus semipalmatus) in their finest breeding plumages.  

Elsewhere, a female Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) passes a fish to her mate.  They must have young to feed locally.

A Little Curlew (Numenius minutus) at Long Valley on 19th...

and White-throated Needletails (Hirundapus caudacutus) on 24th were "bonus birds.

The last week of April seems to be peak migration period for Grey-streaked Flycatcher (Muscicapa griseiticta) so here’s one from the 28th.

I’m participating in a Nightbird Survey - it’s been a chance to reaquaint myself with some old friends like Savanna Nightjar (Caprimulgus affinis).

Finally, here are two long-distance migrant Chlidonias Terns over the fishponds of Tai Sang Wai, Whiskered Tern (C. hybrida) and White-winged Tern (C. leucopterus).

And now its May...

24 Apr 2020

White-throated Needletails (Hirundapus caudacutus)

A rainy day in April seemed like it could be good for avian migrants, and sight of a single Chinese Sparrowhawk told me that I’d basically got the right idea.

But it wasn’t until I got to Tsim Bei Tsui (overlooking Deep Bay) that the rain grew more steady.

Some circling House Swifts made me look up, and slicing past them was a single Needletail.

Later I counted forty-two birds - kettling like raptors over the helipad at Tsim Bei Tsui.

I spent an hour there.  When the rain got heavy one or two would come low enough to photograph, but when the rain eased, up they went again.

White-throated Needletail is a scarce passage migrant in Hong Kong, with most sightings being of fewer than ten individuals, although 120 were sighted (at Shek Kong) as recently as 2016.

20 Apr 2020

Little Curlew (Numenius minutus)

Little Curlew (Numenius minutus)

Sunday, 19th April 2020

News came via a WhatsApp birding group that a Little Curlew was parading around a small flooded paddy field in Long Valley.

These long-distance migrants are recorded less-than-annually in Hong Kong, due to lack of open grassland habitat here.

This confiding individual was feeding among emergent grass stems, taking caddis-fly larvae as far as I could see.

I was one of about a dozen photographers enjoying the show.

Apologies to anyone who is wondering where the three Chile seabird posts went.  They seemed to be affected by some kind of virus, with some pictures replaced by grey “No Entry” signs.  

This post is partly an experiment to see if the problem persists. 

17 Apr 2020

Robinson Crusoe Islands - a south Chile Seabirding Voyage, February/March 2020 - Part 3

Masatierra (DeFilippi’s) Petrel - Pterodroma defilippiana

We approached Robinson Crusoe Island shortly after daybreak, and anchored near the only settlement (San Juan Bautista). 

Robinson Crusoe Island

San Juan Bautista

We had a few hours ashore.  Our main interest was an endemic hummingbird - the Juan Fernandez Firecrown.  A nature trail called the “Ruta Touristica Plazoleta El Yunque” was the designated place to go and look  for them.   

Juan Fernandez Firecrown - Sephanoides fernandensis

Also, the hummers were feeding on exotic flowers in the settlement’s yards and gardens. 

We saw our first JF Firecrowns in Cabbage Trees set in a playground called “Los Angelitos” within view of the seafront. Then found more on Lord Anson road towards the Plazoleta.

“Sauvage” at anchor, Robinson Crusoe Island
Firecrown success was toasted with the local brew.

Moored overnight, we left San Juan Bautista harbour in the morning with a complement of mosquitoes that hid in nooks and crannies on the Sauvage and took several days to clear.

Isla Robinson Crusoe was known as “Mas-a-tierra” from the time of its’ discovery, and DeFilippi’s Petrel is also known as Masatierra Petrel because, obviously, they breed on the island, or rocky islets close offshore.

Masatierra (DeFilippi’s) Petrel - Pterodroma defilippiana

Masatierra (DeFilippi’s) Petrel - Pterodroma defilippiana

At this stage we had a procession of inquisitive DeFilippi’s Petrels making an appearance.  More than the two Selkirk-breeding pterodromas (Juan Fernandez, Stejnegers) they were ready to come close to the rear of the boat, presenting a challenge to get them in the camera frame.

Masatierra (DeFilippi’s) Petrel - Pterodroma defilippiana
Most of the time during the voyage we had trailed a drip of Menhaden Fish Oil, which tended to attract storm-petrels at the very least.  Kirk and Didier spent ages during the voyage warming the oil, which was too viscous to flow freely in the cool conditions most mornings.  

White-bellied Storm-Petrel - Fregatta grallaria

The fish oil slick, put out with Robinson Crusoe Island still in view, proved useful again, attracting up to 30 White-bellied Storm-Petrels at a time. Sometimes they came  close to rear of the boat.  The race of Juan Fernandez breeding W-B S-Ps is “segethi”.

White-bellied Storm-Petrel - Fregatta grallaria

White-bellied Storm-Petrel - Fregatta grallaria

White-bellied Storm-Petrel - Fregatta grallaria

White-bellied Storm-Petrel - Fregatta grallaria

A passing Masked Booby was a trip first. 

Masked Booby - Sula dactylatra

More “warm water” (relative to the Humboldt Current, that is) species noted were Swallow-tailed Gull (which breed in the Galapagos Islands more than 3000 km to the north) and Red-billed Tropicbird.

Swallow-tailed Gull - Creagrus furcatus

In the late afternoon a series of whale “blows” was seen, but we didn’t manage to see any actual cetaceans. Here’s one I actually did see on another afternoon.  Large and pale, possibly Blue Whale, but I would like to have seen it better of course !

Closer to the mainland we were back in the cooler Humboldt current, with a steady procession of mostly northbound Sooty Shearwaters. 

Other Albatrosses seen included Black-browed, Wandering and Salvin’s, but few came close to the boat.  Also seen were several “Pacific” Albatrosses, a potential split from Buller’s. 

Black-browed Albatross - Thalassarche melanophris 

Black-browed Albatross - Thalassarche melanophris (immature)

Salvin's Albatross - Thalassarche salvini

Around this time we disturbed a Waved Albatross, sitting on the water.  

Waved Albatross - Phoebastria irrorata

At around 30 degrees south this equatorial breeder must have been close to a new “southerly” record ?

(Edited:18 Apr 20 - Waved Albatrosses have been seen on trips out of Valparaiso, about 400km south of this point !)

The trip drawing to a close, we spent the late afternoon of March 9th in the Humboldt Current photographing an obliging horde of “Wilson’s Complex”-type Storm-Petrels.  These mostly had very little white in the wings and body.

Wilson’s-type Storm-Petrel - Oceanites xxxxxx

Wilson’s-type Storm-Petrel - Oceanites xxxxxx

Wilson’s-type Storm-Petrel - Oceanites xxxxxx
Wilson’s-type Storm-Petrel - Oceanites xxxxxx

Wilson’s-type Storm-Petrel - Oceanites xxxxxx

And we still weren’t finished with White-bellied Storm-petrels, more were seen on the western side of the Humboldt Current, but still a long way from Robinson Crusoe their presumed home island.

White-bellied Storm-Petrel - Fregatta grallaria

White-bellied Storm-Petrel - Fregatta grallaria

White-bellied Storm-Petrel - Fregatta grallaria

Cruising near the coast we encountered up to 100 Peruvian Diving-Petrels in an afternoon, sometimes in groups of 12 - 15 birds including some unable or unwilling to fly, perhaps a sign that this Endangered species must be breeding not very far away.

Peruvian Diving-Petrel - Pelecanoides garnoti

Peruvian Diving-Petrel - Pelecanoides garnoti

Peruvian Diving-Petrel - Pelecanoides garnoti

A penultimate night was spent in Bahia Tongoy.  In the morning we watched the birds around the nets of the local sardine-fishing fleet, mainly pelicans, gulls and cormorants.  A succession of Diving-Petrels was again seen, mostly heading south.

Last port-of-call

Our final destination was Las Herraduras Yacht Club in Coquimbo, about 450km north of Santiago.  

"Cross of the Third Millennium" - Coquimbo

The bay had many birds including adult and juvenile Inca Terns. 

Inca Tern - Larosterna inca

Another “admin day” on March 12th included catching-up with Coronavirus news on the Internet and getting tickets for the 11:00hrs Pullman Bus back to Santiago the following day.  We enjoyed a final dinner on Sauvage, and bags packed said our “Au Revoirs” to Didier and Sophie the following morning.

While we were sailing the carefree southern seas it seemed that the world had changed. We were lucky to finish when we did. Despite national borders closing and flights being cancelled everyone just managed to get away, including the Wattrelots on board the Sauvage.


Thanks to Didier and Sophie for looking after us, and to Kirk, Colin and Mike for their entertaining and stimulating company on the voyage.