Monday, May 13, 2019

Whiskered Pitta and Bicol Ground Warbler

October 2018: Another Quick Trip to the Philippines and More Endemics on Luzon

Friday, October 19 - Jariel's Peak

I'd managed to escape from a business trip in Hong Kong on Thursday night, hopped a quick flight, and once again found myself staying near Manila airport, exhausted but ready for more Philippines birding adventures.  This was going to be another super quick trip as I had to be back in Hong Kong on Sunday afternoon to catch a flight to New York, but hopefully I was going to get a chance to see a few more of Luzon's endemic birds before then.  This time I was with famous Robert Hutchinson, one of the owners of Birdtour Asia and a long time Philippines resident.  We set off very early on Friday morning missing most of Manila's legendary traffic and arriving at our destination well before first light.  Jariel's Peak is a apparently local beauty spot and we planned to spend a day and a half birding there but as we'd arrived in the pitch darkness the views were going to have to wait.  Besides, I was more interested in owls.

We had a specific target in mind so started stopping and listening for owls, hoping for a Luzon Scops-Owl.  We heard Philippine Scops-Owl and several Philippine Nightjars but for a time our target eluded us until Rob heard one calling and was able to use his fancy night-scope to see where the bird was.  Even though we knew which tree it was in, and it's location stood out in the green glow if the night scope, the bird was hidden from me and it took a while before I caught some movement, fired off a volley of shots into the darkness and got a photo .... it may be out of focus, but it was a life bird nevertheless!

Luzon Scops-Owl
With the owl in the bag, we could relax and as the sun came up we settled in for a very pleasant morning of birding.  The targets here were many and there were some very special birds that I very much wanted to see.  While the day was young we focussed on tracking down two colorful fruit-doves, the gaudy Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove and the subtly beautiful Cream-breasted Fruit-Dove, both Philippine endemics and both of course life birds for me.  We also started to rack up a decent species count and more of more of the local birds slowly revealed themselves and I hit a milestone of sorts when a Blue-headed Fantail became my 4,500th species.

Cream-breasted Fruit-Dove
With the more common birds joining the list, we broke away from the roadside birding to work on some of the harder to see endemics.  The WHISKERED PITTA is a jewel of a bird and like all pittas can be very difficult to see as they hop around on the forest floor, seemingly always finding a way to stay out of sight.  We heard a bird calling and scrambled into the forest along the course of a small stream working our way up through the rocky ravine to a place closer to the bird and away from the road.  Once there we found a place to sit quietly and watch while Rob played the tape hoping to make the pitta a little curious and entice it to come in closer.  After thirty minutes of waiting silently in the forest, the pitta simply popped up on a rock very close to us and stayed in view, seemingly indifferent to our presence, for the next ten minutes while it searched among the boulders along the stream for the intruder it had heard.  A very special audience with a very special bird.

It's hard to imagine that birds this colorful can be hard to see but they are
very good at hiding.  Whiskered Pitta.

The other 'hard to see' target bird was the local, endemic, BICOL GROUND-WARBLER and this bird did require some serious effort to see.  This species is a mouse of a bird, tiny, dark brown, and very fond of getting down amongst tangled weedy vegetation so dense that you might be feet from one and still never see it.  We heard a number of the ground-warblers calling in the morning but seeing one required a little more staging.  In order to get a glimpse of the bird, some gardening was involved, with Rob cutting a small break in the roadside weeds so that, if we were able to entice the bird close, we might get at least a glimpse of it as it crossed our artificial micro-clearing.  Even with the preparation it still required the bird to cooperate and we had several non-cooperative birds before one made a fatal mistake and allowed itself to be briefly seen.  There are no good photographs of this bird and I was hoping to get a few but, even though I managed to get the bird in the view finder briefly, there were always some pieces of vegetation in the way that ruined the focus.  Still, a very good bird to add to the life list.

Green-backed Tailorbird, a lifer but not a Ground-Warbler.
As the day wore on and we moved further up the road, the bird activity quietened down a little which gave us a chance to have some lunch and to watch for raptors.    We then birded our way back down the road, adding more species, getting better views of others and generally enjoying a great day of birding.

Rufous-bellied Eagle and Philippine Serpent-Eagle 

Finally, as the light started to fade, we had one more target which was a bird I had dreamed about and not expected to see.  After a long dusk vigil that stretched well past darkness though I had to accept that the Bukidnon Woodcock was going to have to stay in my dreams and not join my list (my luck with Asian Woodcock is not great and I added this miss to my missing Javan Woodcock the year before).

Saturday, October 20 - Jariel's Peak

Up well before dawn again and more time with the nightjars and scops-owls before it got light.  We had the morning to bird the same road again for birds that we hadn't seen the day before.  There weren't that many birds we hadn't seen though so we were able to relax and just enjoy the birds that came to us.

Rufous Hornbill
The highlight for me was Philippine Trogon, a bird I had hoped we'd see and were able to track one down and see it well in the understory.  We also tracked down the Philippine form of White-browed Shortwing, a species due to be split in the near future and one where I have been lucky enough now to see several of the island forms giving me several "banked" lifers when the split happens.

Philippine Trogon
All too soon it was time to leave and start making our way back to Manila.  There were two more birding stops to make though, and hopefully a few special birds to add.

Stop number one was the famous Angono Petroglyphs Museum which protected some truly ancient art but also protected some large trees and was a nesting site for the peculiar Philippine Eagle-Owl.  This is a big owl, but somehow looks odd for an eagle-owl, it also apparently eats mostly frogs, so perhaps is more closely related to the fish-owls?  Either way it's an impressive bird and for a huge owl was surprisingly hard to find even though we knew roughly which group of trees the bird was likely to be roosting in.  In the end it was a friendly local security guard who moved us to exactly the right angle to get a view of the bird, I doubt I would have found it otherwise, so very happy for friendly locals.

The huge, and well hidden Philippine Eagle-Owl.
Then finally, one last stop at La Mesa Eco Park in Quezon City, the stakeout for the endemic Ashy Thrush.  We got to the park late in the day and it was of course crowded with people leaving me wondering how a rare, endemic bird gets along in such crowded quarters.  We didn't need to worry about the people though as soon enough the heavens opened unleashing torrential tropical rain on us and leaving us trying to find shelter under trees but getting soaked through nevertheless.  The rain did chase away the crowds though and with the people gone the birding looked up we soon found an Ashy Thrush hopping around near the trails.

So a great trip, something like 35 life birds for me, and a nice addition to my weekend in Subic Bay earlier this year.  The Philippines is truly daunting with so many islands and so many endemics but at least I've started chipping away at it.  So special thanks for Rob for the expert bird guiding and good company.  I can't wait to get back to the Philippines again.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Finding Vagrants in Hong Kong

October 2018: An Epic Day if Birding at Mai Po and other Hong Kong Wetlands

Sunday, October 14

October 2018 got a little confused - I had had an October trip planned to Asia for months and was looking forward to trying for Mountain Peacock-Pheasants in Malaysia and for Whiskered Pitta in the Philippines.  Then, just weeks before I was due to leave, the trip got cancelled and I had to try to un-book the travel arrangements.  No sooner had I said my apologies though, and cancelled all the ground arrangements for the trip, than I got word that schedules had changed again and that I was indeed free to go to Asia if I wanted!  It was too late to save the Malaysia part of the itinerary, but I was able to resurrect the Philippines trip (more later) and had a single spare day in Hong Kong so reached out to birding friend and local bird guru John Allcock to make plans for a day of birding, including a visit to the fabled Mai Po reserve.

So super early, up and out of the hotel and off to the New Territories to meet John.  First stop was a woodland trail at Shek Kong which, given the date, we hoped would be crawling with interesting migrants.  It wasn't.  In fact it was pretty dead bird-wise, but oh well, never mind, and on to the next spot.

Kam Tin is not the most scenic birding area on earth.  A muddy storm drain full of discarded tires and shopping carts surrounded by concrete banks and overpasses.  It is a wetland though and so draws lots of wetland birds with a good selection of shorebirds and egrets spread up and down the muddy channel.  Our target here was the scarce and declining Gray-headed Lapwing, a lifer for me and a bird I'd looked for unsuccessfully at this site the previous year.  We got out of the car, I scanned the channel, picking up a good selection of birds but no lapwings, but thankfully John was more thorough and picked out a pair in the distance.  So, a life bird, and the day was starting to look up.

Gray-headed Lapwings in scenic surroundings.
Up next was another site I'd birded before, the farm fields and paddies of Long Valley.  Our goal here was to look for scarcer buntings amongst Yellow-breasted Buntings in the dry rice fields and see if we could turn up a rarity or two.  We ended up not finding anything very different but I did get another life bird when we flushed a Lanceolated Warbler a couple of times; a tiny, mouse-like, skulker but very welcome on the list.  And now onwards and time for the main event.

Azure-winged Magpies at the Mai Po HQ Building
Mai Po is world famous.  The marshes, fish ponds and mud flats of the reserve have been intensely birded and studied for years (a function of there being British birders in Hong Kong) and are legendary in birding circles.  I had actually been there once before but, lacking the correct permit, had not been able to access the best parts of the reserve at the right time and had seen very little.  This time I was properly permitted and birding with a local expert so my expectations were high and I'm happy to say they weren't disappointed.

Over the next six hours we saw more than 80 species at Mai Po, including 4 life birds for me.  On the way to the mud flats we worked our way through the fish ponds and found Black-browed Reed Warbler, Pied Harrier and Collared Crow, all of which were life birds for me.  We also flushed a bird that we were pretty sure was a White-browed Crake, a mega-rarity in Hong Kong, but were unable to re-find it so had to let the record go.  Then we spent several hours enjoying some of the best shore birding there is on offer anywhere in the world.

The mud flats at Mai Po are viewed from floating hides at the end of long boardwalks that lead out through the mangroves to the shores of the Pearl River.  The mud was quite literally covered in birds, and with a rising tide we took our places in the hides and started to study them as they got closer and closer.

The mud at Mai Po is literally carpeted with shore-birds and wading birds (plus a Collared Crow).

Wading birds were initially most obvious with three species of egret, several herons and the globally endangered BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL all feeding out on the mud.  Beneath them though was a carpet of shorebirds ranging in size from the larger  Eurasian Curlews, Whimbrels, and Black-tailed Godwits down to the smaller plovers and sandpipers running between their legs.  The reserve was famous for a trinity of very rare Asian shorebirds that would all have been potential life birds to me - Nordmann's Greenshank, Asiatic Dowitcher and Great Knot - and while diligent scanning didn't pull out either of the first two, we did find a couple of GREAT KNOT, a bird I was very happy to finally add to my list.

Eurasian Curlew and Whimbrel

We also managed another bird that was interested for me when we found a Long-billed Dowitcher, a bird I think of as North American but apparently they breed in small numbers in Asia too.

The greatest excitement of the day though was when John, scanned through the hundreds of Pacific Golden-Plovers handed me the scope and said, "what do you think about this one?".  He knew the answer already of course, the eye-pattern was different and a sort of breast-band effect strongly suggested EUROPEAN GOLDEN-PLOVER, only the 3rd one ever recorded in Hong Kong!

European Golden-Plover
So a great day, and with a few hours to kill we headed over to the San Tin fish ponds to see if we could add a few extra species.  We weren't expecting to top the excitement of the plover but not 10 minutes after arriving we stumbled into another rarity, Hong Kong's 4th record of BOOTED WARBLER which we flushed from some grass and managed to get a few record shots of.  Truly a great day of birding and all in one of the most densely populated places on earth.

Booted Warbler