Hong Kong, March 2019


My third annual work trip to Hong Kong in as many years. Similar birds to previous visits with a few exciting additions, access to a few sites that I haven’t visited before, (many thanks to HK resident John Holmes for driving me round) and a few days later than my previous  2  visits.   Ive said it before but Hong Kong birding is excellent,  Mai Po and the surrounding fishponds are stacked with birds and the slightly later date of this years trip accounted for a little more migration than I’d witnessed before. Things like more Pacific and House Swifts, Oriental Pratincoles, White Winged Terns small flocks of Greyfaced Buzzards and smarter plumaged waders featured more this year and were welcome of course.


I wanted to give a more accurate account of the birding out there but to be honest I cant help myself watching and photographing Dusky Warblers and Red-throated pipits instead of Forktailed Sunbirds, Whiteshouldered starlings and Haircrested Drongos, rest assured you can see all of that stuff with relative ease during these dates at least but for now I cant pull myself away from things like the below Yellowbrowed Warbler, which are almost everywhere in HK.


Dusky Warblers are also very common. You hear the call outside the city in all suitable habitat but they’re a bugger to photograph. Some pishing worked for these individuals .



More common wintering birds are things like Richards, Redthroated and Olivebacked Pipits




Stejnergers Stone chats, also common. I had intended to photograph lots of first winters, trying to get a feel for the range in tones although most stayed distant, nice to watch though. the adults were approaching summer plumage, black wing coverts against gleaming white primary and secondary bases underwing is a satisfying feature to glimpse.





More chats: Red spotted Bluethroat above and Siberian Ruby throat, the latter only the second Ive ever seen, a brief but intense encounter.


Eastern Yellow Wagtails featured heavily in the audio track around the fishponds, m.t.taivana (below) mostly and m.t.macroynx in smaller numbers.


A migrant 2cy East Siberian Wagtailm.a.ocularis below.


Oriental turtle doves were more obvious this trip, seen in 2s and 3s in flight and here with spotted doves feeding on the bread piles intended for the fish. They appeared to be Orientalis: dark beneath with greyish tips to the tail feathers. 




Long-tailed shrikes look more saturated here in comparison to the birds I was seeing in Shanghai, below is the melanistic form ‘Dusky Shrike’ pretty cool.


A Wryneck! bit of a surprise but Eurasian Wrynecks winter in hong Kong in small numbers.


The next birds were a highlight for me. John and I were birding around the car park at Mai Po when I picked up a Needletail zipping into view between the ‘canopy’, then two! they were hawking insects above some tall trees in a figure of 8 pattern and were coming quite low at times. Silver-Backed Needletails are a “Scarce spring migrant” to Hong Kong and I guess are eruptive, with some years not being recorded and others a flock of 120 fly through. Bizarrely I picked up another the following day which zipped straight through some fishponds to the east of Mai Po.




heavy crops but that mantle is incredible and deserves some focus!


Above and below, shots a couple of House Swifts. 3 Pacific Swifts were seen but went un-photographed and as for bird of a similar ilk : The fish pond habitats held many Barn Swallows and a handful of streaky looking Red-rumped swallows. I also saw Asian House martin .



Other than the ubiqitous Blackeared Kites, I had 2 Greater-spotted eagles at Mai Po (above), as well as a new bird for me in the form of the Crested serpent eagle, (below)


The beneath Japanese sparrow hawk was one of 4/5 I saw during a visit to Peng Chau island.


Heres 3 of a flock of 7 Rednecked phalaropes present at Long Valley and a nice and close Pacific Golden plover.



The waders at Mai Po are intense. If you catch a rising tide at the right time of day then you can get some incredible views. At times I felt like my bins were completely glued to my face and my brain was frothing up with all the info to take in. This was probably my best trip in terms of wading birds close to the hides and good light but still missed a few species Ive not managed to catch up with, namely Asian Dowitcher, but all the other bangers were in place.

Suprisingly (to me) there are 3! wintering Long billed Dowitchers at Mai Po this winter, I picked this one up from one of the boardwalk hides and we saw another on the scrape during high tide.



Nordmanns greenshank above and a Spotted Redshank flanked by 2 Common Greenshank and 3 Marsh sandpipers



Below, one of perhaps 150 Curlew Sandpipers present one morning, 3 Broadbilled Sandpipers were with them initially but I couldn’t re-locate whilst I had the camera out.



Above and below, Rednecked stints.



Terek Sandpiper above and Kentish Plover below



Greater sand plover (above) and HK scarcity Oriental Plover (below), Most records of this long distance migrant are from mid winter so this bird approaching its summer finery this was a real highlight of the trip and showed well briefly despite distant photos.



I’ll leave it there for waders, although theres alot Ive missed out, but thats a summary of what i saw well/enjoyed the most. Below is the only shot of a ‘large’ Gull I’ve ever posted from HK as theyre always distant, one of 2 first winter Black tailed Gull, distant but gorgeous, Taymerensis Hueglins, Mongolian and Blackheaded aswell as Caspian Terns in shot too.


So thats another year. I’ll probably end up writing shorter posts in future but thats the edited version this year!

Spring fix from both patches

Monday was spent at Beachy Head with LP and the first decent ‘fall of birds for the site this year. 81 Willow Warbler, 13 Chiffchaff, 1 Whitethroat, 16 Blackcap, 4 Common Redstart, 3 Wheatear, 4 Black Redstart, 4 Fieldfare, 2 Redwing, 3 Ring Ouzel,  at least 5 obvious migrant Song Thrush which departed high north with one of the Ouzel, 20 Robin, 1 Brambling, 1 White Wagtail, 2 Yellow Wagtail, 1 Firecrest, 4 Goldcrest, 1 Merlin,and a Greenshank over calling from the murk. 10 Swallow in.







Whilst I was blissfully out of signal on Beachy head, yomping around for kilommetes at a time, A migrant tornado was being stirred up at Walthamstow, see the details here  but in brief a load of Little Gulls,yellow Wagtails, some waders and an Osprey had all made appearances. I was slightly late to the party but mopped up the following morning with Avocet, 8 Little Gulls (both long awaited patch ticks for me!) and my first Yellow Wagtails of the year for the patch. I will be out every week day morning in April so expect some updates with similarly poor/grey photography 🙂





Redstart, Pied fly and a few others make for a warm welcome back

After flying from Hong kong over the entire Palearctic yesterday I woke up early this morning and wanted to catch up with spring birding here in the UK. 3 weeks ago I left for China before even seeing a Blackcap so finding a male Common Redstart this morning on Walthamstow Marsh was more than I would have settled for.


It stayed distant and I didn’t put too much effort into getting close as watching it flycatching from the fence was good enough. The Redstart flitted into view moments after I heard my first Willow Warbler of the year and a few minutes before seeing  my first Wheatear followed by all three Hirundines, so I’m nicely up to date now I think!


After that excitement I met with DB and LB for a walk over the reservoirs, whilst boasting to Lol about my new(ish) and excellent bins I had brief views of a Short-eared Owl high over the central path, we all saw the bird a few minutes later in the same view as a Red kite that was similarly picked up high over the site and one or two Common Buzzards were the same story. I also realised I’d never taken a single photo of our returning Greater Scaup, who takes up residence on number 4 reservoir each winter and will surely be off soon, so heres a pic.


A Male Pied Flycatcher had been found the day before by Sean Huggins at Mudchute Park in tower hamlets, its not often I twitch things but ive never seen a spring male in London and I also wont get time to do my usual trip back up North this year as ill be in Canada so thought why not? Im so glad i did as It was delightful, nice to bump into Martin Hallam, and later John Archer and Nick Tanner. After they left I had it to myself which is really what I was waiting for.  It appears to be a first summer male, showing brown first generation wing feathers and some brown greater coverts. The ultimate spring bird for me.




Shanghai March ’19

The first leg of a three week work trip to Shanghai and Hong kong. 10 days staying in the very centre of ‘the worlds biggest city’. I’d done some research and quickly it became clear that I was going to see some excellent birds in the parks, As usual my focus would be on birds of relevance to vagrancy in the UK, perhaps my next trip  will branch out a little. But from what I could gather I was likely to see wintering thrushes,  Warblers and buntings. My hotel was 20 minutes from the largest urban green space: Century Park. 


The Park itself was a similar size to Regents park perhaps, with ‘wilder’ areas which held the better concentration of birds.  The thrushes were a real highlight, starting with my favourite of the trip, White’s Thrush A new bird for me and my first views were like a dream, an odd sized bird flushed through the forest floor, bold striped underwing in and out of dappled light and posed, half hidden. Incredible




I saw about 3 or 4 during my trip and each one was a joy.  An area of mature  trees and wet ground held other species of thrush, a flock of 20+ Dusky thrushes were mostly seen in flight and hard to pin down at first, according to ebird a Nauman’s thrush was present too but I didnt see it. 



the following were new birds for me: 2 Eyebrow thrushes, many Pale and also GreyBacked,(in that order below) the first year males of this species were excellently plumaged, better than the adults i thought.




RedFlanked Bluetails were stationed at regular intervals.



most were 1st winter types but I did happen upon 2 different adult males one morning.



Occasionally A Daurian Redstart would have a go at one, they looked brilliant stood in on the ground, resting mid tussle next to one another.




I had one Yellow Browed Warbler but by far the most common phyllosc were Pallas‘, these called and sang at intervals too, some very bright birds and some mid body moult.




Id heard OliveBacked pipits on my first visit to the park and hadn’t managed to get views of them till the last day where I figured out they were walking about in the long grass flushing to the trees when people approached to take photos of the flowers(a seeminlgy popular past time in China)  



Next up Emberiza Buntings of which I saw two Species, Black-Faced (Below)…



and the bird of the trip for me – Yellowthroated Bunting, what a bird. WHAT a bird.


Long Tailed shrikes were very common and present even in the smallest green spaces in the city, a contrast to Hong Kong were I only saw them outside the city in previous years.



Below a Leucopsis Alba Wagtail,


Next up the Gulls, Nothing to get too excited about really, Mongolian Gulls were the most common, the adults with that huge tertial cresent and fleshy pink legs, 


First years quite Caspian like in some ways- tail and inner primary window pattern, and sometimes expression in flight but not in others.



.. and Taimyr gulls (below).  I think mid winter should be better for gulls. I will be visiting Shanghai again with more regularity in future so expect a fairly regular post from there!




Early March vibes

At this point in March I usually make a trip down to the East Sussex coast in the hope of an early migrant or two with LP. The usual urgency to grab a glimpse of the year’s earliest migratory birds wasn’t quite as potent as it often is this time of year as id seen 4 Swallows down near Dunge off the back of the warm southerly weather a couple of weeks ago, back on the 23rd Feb!


Currently we are a week into constant blustery weather from the west and todays winds reached 50+ mph at the south coast. Not great for watching anything so luckily the previous day had yielded a few things to look at.



LP and I checked Belle tout woods on Beachy head first thing Sat and had 2 maybe 3 Firecrests, whilst the Cuckmere held a couple of littoralis Rock Pipits, some amorous Med gulls and this Glossy Ibis thats been knocking around.


Next up we checked west rise marsh for a Sand Martin or perhaps a Garganey, neither were present although a small group of smart Pintail, one or two Water pipits and the below White Wagtail were signifiers of the comings and goings of this time of year.


As we made our way back to the car we came across 10 or so Gulls and I could make out the familiar facial expression of a Caspian Gull standing face on within the ensemble.  After getting a little closer I could see the also familiar cadmium yellow darvic ring alerting me that this 2nd winter bird would likely be born and ringed in east Germany. A nice, big snouty thing.



Ringed at the usual spot by the very efficient Ronald Klein who replied to my email less that 24 hours later with the birds info.


The following morning, despite a weather warning and 50 mph winds, we hit Dungeness, Short version of the story is that there were lots of gulls but nothing of interest other than a 2cy Yellow-Legged Gull amoung them and a wind that got up my nose.


Thats probably my last post for a while, I travel to China next week with work: Ten days in Shanghai followed by ten days in Hong Kong, so expect some of that stuff for the foreseeable.

The Occasional Likeness. heinei, or the lack of in the UK

For whatever reason I’ve been thinking about Russian Common Gulls alot recently…The BBRC has this to say about them: 

“we believe that heinei is not safely diagnosable, owing primarily to the difficulty of excluding intergrades with nominate canus. Based on its distribution and movements, it seems likely to be of regular occurrence in Britain and dark-mantled Common Gulls in eastern Britain in winter may well be of this form”

I would basically agree with the above, however if it was likely a regular occurrence, Im pretty sure I would have seen a spot on bird by now. The fact is I have never seen a Russian Common gull in the UK, not even photos of decent 1st winter.

Generally speaking, 1st winter Common gulls in the UK do not look like Heinei, I ve never seen a first winter common gull with faint or no streaking in the head and little or none around the eye combined with a pink base to the bill, its a look that you don’t see here. The majority of 1st winters in Istanbul did look this way. Below are 45 individuals out of a flock of c600 common gulls taken in London in early Febuary. Theres some differring stages of moult on show and and Im sure some are from a good way to the North and North east (Norwegian and Estonian rings are picked up at wanstead on the regular)  this is a pretty decent slice of what they usually look like. 


None really look like this (heinei taken in istanbul ’19 and Cyprus ’16)

BUT! I thought i would post  are closest birds I’ve seen to heinei in the uk, call them ‘lookalikes’ if you will . They may be almost within variation but theyre not perfect so no good i say. I might see one a year might look along these lines and show the following features :

  • Caspian Gull-like neck Shawl
  • Pink Bill base
  • Clean white rump and upper tail, a neatish thin Black band with little or no white in outer web of t6
  • Mostly White underwing, contrasting with dark secondaries
  • A long winged appearance  

Whats really missing, or what makes them not heinei, or not perfect is the lack of :

  • A Clean white or mostly un-streaked head (on all)
  • 2nd generation Scapulars are darker than canus, (in most)

*canus can show all of the above features but in a combination of all of them should indicate heinei. 

Bird 1 wanstead 2016, a little too much head streaking/ smudging around the eye



Bird 2 Greenwich 2017, Again too much head streaking, dull bill base, (nice dark mantle though..)



Bird 3, Wanstead 2019– A little too much head streaking, although nice buff/pinkish shawl. Grey in mantle perhaps too plain and too pale. lacks dark secondaries in underwing (not shown)



Bird 4 Wanstead 2019, better looking about the head, but plain pale scaps not great and this bird showed a small mirror on p10 so I lost interest.


That sums up the best ive seen here and its where I am at the moment with them, maybe in ten years they’ll all be easily identifiable but I am currently yet to see anything that Im convinced is a heinei . Below is a confusingly plumaged 2nd winter bird fro Wanstead last week. Showing much black in the tail and secondaries, also no mirror on p9 and all black outer web of p6, but im sure its a still a retarded canus. Maybe i should be looking at adults!


1st winter Russian (heinei) Common Gulls, Istanbul

Here are some of the Common Gulls I came across in Istanbul. according to the Peter Adriaens & Chris Gibbins paper from Dutch birding a couple of years ago Istanbul was a research location for heinei Common gulls, most of what I was seeing were likely from decent ‘Russian’ stock, they did have that look and showed:

  • A Clean white, mostly un-streaked head (I feel this must be a highly important feature as I am yet to see canus show this!) with Casp-like neck Shawl
  • Pink Bill base
  • Clean white rump and upper tail, a neatish thin Black band with little or no white in outer web of t6
  • Mostly White underwing, contrasting with dark secondaries
  • A long winged appearance
  • 2nd generation Scapulars are darker than canus, many with brown chevrons and markings contrasting with the darker choclately remaining wing coverts, (unless bleached as some were)









The next few birds shows some head streaking but give a similar feel to me in terms of the tones in the wing and mantle, could well be from an intergrade zone or just variation … dunno





The Below photo was taken in Cyprus December 2016, a similar thing going on, long winged, bug eyed thing.


Ive seen a few Candidates in the UK, with one in particular showing almost every feature but the usual let down over here is the lack of an un-streaked almost pure white head which I suppose gives that impression of a small round head with a large eye and the expression seen on the clean headed birds above. According to the BBRC heinei common gulls are something along the lines of ‘probably only scarce’ due to a number of birds ringed in a catch of common gulls being assigned to heinei on biometrics (mainly wing length i think) i’ve never seen one that looks exactly like theyre supposed to in the paper although id hope it was a possibility. Keep looking.