Tuesday 31 July 2012

Houston Arboretum, July 2012

The Houston Arboretum is a prolific site for snakes with 3 out of 4 trips producing a herpetological highlight. The Coral Snake and Copperhead still evade me, but a Ribbon Snake was seen early on before the condensation on my lens had cleared.
A small feeding party of birds crossed the path ahead with Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and a Red-bellied Woodpecker passing through quickly. Only a Downy Woodpecker took his time and showed for the camera.

With birds being quite scarce, I was glad to make up the rest of the morning with dragonflies and reptiles. The Ribbon Snake was seen in the pond by the visitor centre. I was hanging around to wait for the centre to open in the hope that I could get some bug spray. The bitey insects were quite nippy this morning and my threshold is low as far as they are concerned. If you want to avoid being bitten early in the morning, bring your own repellent. If you can cope with a few bites before 08.30, the visitor centre keeps a few bottles of spray and offers a free squirt to anyone who needs it.

Just as the condensation cleared from the lens, a Green Heron flew in and posed nicely on a log jutting from the pond. Dragonflies were up early on this warm day in late July, with Blue Dashers being especially abundant.

American Beauty Berry Bushes were showing off their fruit as it reached ripeness along the branch. The Inner Loop was open with a new layer of chippings and lots of cut timber along the path. The Outer Loop Trail is currently undergoing maintenance and is closed. Many of the distinctive Loblolly Pines have died off and are being cut down to avoid too much standing dead wood in this popular walking area.

At the Swamp Boardwalk, a pair of Common Green Darners were flying in tandem, stopping occasionally for the female to deposit her eggs while the male stayed jealously attached.

At the Meadow Lake, Eastern Meadowhawks were very common. While I was there, a Red-tailed Hawk took to the sky, easily found a column of warm air and rose quickly out of sight.

I found use for the red pen today in the form of a Slaty Skimmer, Libellula incesta. It is not possible for me to tell whether this is a male or female as both sexes take on the state grey colouration as they mature.

Birds seen; 16

Green Heron 1, Black-crowned Night Heron 1, Red-tailed Hawk 1, White-winged Dove 25, Red-bellied Woodpecker 1, Downy Woodpecker 1, Blue Jay 15, American Crow 6, Carolina Chickadee 8, Tufted Titmouse 6, Carolina Wren 3, American Robin 4, Northern Mockingbird 4, European Starling 40, Northern Cardinal 4, Great-tailed Grackle 60.

For more posts from Houston Arboretum, follow the links below;
Visit the dedicated USA and Canada Page for more from Texas including White Rock Lake, Dallas.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Damselflies on White Rock Creek, July 2012

From Google Earth ref; 32°57'13.79"N  96°48'36.86"W a track leads down to the White Rock Creek. It was a slow start since I turned 50 this week and had a little party to mark the occasion last night. The short cycle ride had started my blood moving again, picking up the sludge which had settled in my sump and sending it straight back to my head, which reacted by thumping.

Thankfully there were very few birds to stop me as I cycled along beside the stream in the pleasant shade. The few that did catch my attention did not merit photographs. Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Downy Woodpeckers showed themselves briefly and a Green Heron flushed from the river bank.

I only stayed for a short while and most of my time was spent in a patch of grass looking at damselflies. The one above I shall take to be a Comanche Dancer, Argia barretti.

The Powdered Dancer, Argia moesta  were very common, but I am taking this identification with a pinch of salt. It is not a perfect fit for the field guide specimen, but I can’t see a better alternative. The juvenile/female, below,  corresponds quite well.

The Blue-ringed Dancer, Argia sedula was another common ode that did not quite match its description in the book.

Especially when the colour matches between individuals varied so.

Also seen along the creek and in a nearby pond were Swift Setwing, Dythemis velox, Eastern Pondhawk, Eurothemis simplicicollis, Black Saddlebags,Tramea lacerata ,and Eastern Amberwing, Perithemis tenera.

Birds seen;
Great Egret 1, Green Heron 1, Eurasian Collared Dove 2, White-winged Dove 2, Mourning Dove 2, Downy Woodpecker 1, Blue Jay 10, American Crow 4, Carolina Chickadee 4, Tufted Titmouse 6, Great-tailed Grackle 60.
Visit the dedicated USA and Canada Page for more from the area, including White Rock Lake and a selection of posts from Houston.

Monday 23 July 2012

Khalij Pheasant at Charleston Slough, San Francisco

There has been some interest in the Khalij Pheasant that I saw at Charleston Slough, San Francisco.
EBird will mark the sighting as invalid on account of its probable status as introduced or escaped, but it has caused a sudden traffic spike on that post, so I have found a couple of extra pictures.

Apologies for the quality. I came upon the bird suddenly and we were both a little surprised.

The pheasant was nervous and moved quickly into cover. Perhaps this would indicate a feral bird rather than a recent escapee. I did not follow it, but allowed it to move down the slope and melt into the treeline that runs alongside the creek flowing out from Charleston Slough.
The pictures are available in higher definition to anyone who has an interest. Write to redgannet@gmail.com and I will gladly send them.

Friday 20 July 2012

The Perpetual Flame

There are universal constants that hold true wherever in the world one might be. It is possible to predict for example that a stroll in Mote Park at 06.30 on a weekday morning is likely to be a tranquil affair with only like-minded early risers for company.

To find a crowd of thousands being serenaded by an enthusiastic drum band was a surprise. Their lurid outfits and rhythmic thumping were enough to ensure that my wildlife viewing was spoiled to the extent that there were more civil dignitaries flapping around than birds.

Then came the joggers. Along with dog-walkers, they are a common part of the early morning scene in the park and are usually seen with their heads down and earphones in, tramping the path around the lake.

I am led to believe that this was the launch of Apple’s new i-Torch. It looks a little unwieldy to me, but the crowds seemed to love it. In line with current policy, security was subtle and unobtrusive.

The Olympic Flame was carried through Maidstone on 20th July 2012 with just a week to go before the opening ceremony. It stayed overnight at Leeds Castle and was brought to Mote Park in a small brass lantern to light the torch of Chris Bury before heading off on day 63 of the procession.

Monday 16 July 2012

Ho Chung Valley (nearly), Hong Kong, July 2012

A visit to Ho Chung Valley went slightly awry this morning as I found myself in a village full of angry dogs barking themselves hoarse as I passed. The website of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society gave me the idea to visit, but I guess I didn’t follow the instructions carefully enough and ended up in Luk Mei Tsuen.
As I stepped from the bus, a small path led into the trees on the left. I followed the path and immediately began finding birds. Masked Laughingthrushes and Common Tailorbirds made plenty of noise while the Oriental Magpie Robins lent a more tuneful quality to the early morning chorus. There were plenty of birds to find, so it didn’t immediately occur to me that I might be in the wrong place.

Soon I came into the village where dogs came out from almost every house and began barking, one of them even snapped at me. I was feeling uncomfortable, so I checked with a passerby and found that I was not in Ho Chung as I had hoped. On asking how to get to Ho Chung, she pointed me towards a path, but warned that it was very dangerous with lots of snakes. This counts as flirting in my book!

Red-whiskered Bulbuls were especially common this morning and with the red pen from yesterday barely dry, another sighting of a Hair-crested Drongo was had.
No snakes were found, but I came out onto a concrete drain with a road leading left and right. As it happens, I should have turned right and followed the drain upstream to reach Ho Chung, but I decided to bail out and return to Sha Lo Tung instead for the rest of the morning.
For next time, minibus number 1 goes from exit C2 of Choi Hung MTR station, heading for Sai Kung.
It goes across a roundabout, then over a small contained river before stopping opposite the Marina Cove Supermarket at Google Earth ref; 22°21'21.03"N 114°15'5.20"E . Retrace your steps to the river and follow it upstream to Ho Chung Valley.

Species seen; 17

Black Kite 2, Spotted Dove 12, House Swift 4, Hair-crested Drongo 2, Blue Magpie 3, Eurasian Magpie 2, Large-billed Crow 4, Barn Swallow 6, Red-whiskered Bulbul 30, Light-vented 3, Common Tailorbird 4, Masked Laughingthrush 3, Oriental Magpie Robin 6, Black-collared Starling 3, Crested Myna 8, Fork-tailed Sunbird 2, Eurasian Tree Sparrow 10.

Saturday 14 July 2012

It's just not Cricket

The English fascination with weather and summer sports is a mis-match of Olympic proportions. If London 2012 were restricted simply to the indoor sports and swimming, then perhaps we could make a show of it. As it is, part of the opening ceremony will feature artificial rain! Why? Are we not getting enough?

The ground has been saturated by the wettest drought in recent memory. The Cricket Club at Hythe, Kent, is built on sand, yet still the pitch was covered with standing water.

The umpire, Mr M. a. yarrellii gave the order to remove the covers so that a wicket inspection might be made, but he didn't look confident that play cold go ahead today.

Captain L. a. argenteus of the home team tried to convince him that a few overs may be possible between the showers.

Eventually he had to agree that play should be abandoned, but rather than see his players go untested today, he instigated some catching practice in the outfield.

Friday 13 July 2012

Sha Lo Tung, Hong Kong, July 2012

It was a good day to try something new. Summer in Hong Kong is hot and wet with little to entice a chap up the steep slopes of Tai Mo Shan or out onto the mudflats of Deep Bay, so I cast around for an easy option. The website of the Hong KongBird Watching Society came up with a few suggestions and it was the SSSI at Sha Lo Tung (Google Earth ref; 22°28'0.91"N 114°10'46.74"E) that caught my eye. It looked easy enough to find, with flat terrain and the details suggested that it was productive even through the summer.

All looked promising at 07.00 as I walked up the approach road to the sound of Red-whiskered Bulbuls and Oriental Magpie Robins. Barn Swallows swooped over the rank area to the left of the road as I stopped to allow the glass on my binoculars and camera to acclimatise to the heat and humidity. Masked Laughingthrushes mocked me by sitting out in the clear morning light until my lenses eventually cleared, then they flew off. A Common Kingfisher flashed by on the small stream that passes beneath the road.

There were signs pointing me into the valley and towards Fung Yuen Butterfly Reserve, which (I am led to believe) earned the area its Site of Special Scientific Interest accolade. The forest and reserve is just across a footbridge and past the visitor centre. Strictly speaking I think that a permit should be obtained before entering, but there were no barriers and the visitor centre was closed, so I went straight in.

Inside the forest, Yellow-bellied Prinias, Japanese White-eye and Common Tailorbird alerted the world to my presence before I arrived at a ‘garden’ amongst the trees. Flowers and host plants attracted butterflies to this managed area and a couple of photographers were already at work in the shaded glade.

Great Mormon Papilio memnon

I had a go myself, but they don’t sit still for long and the sun had yet to rise above the trees to shine into the garden. I must confess that I got rather carried away, only looking up occasionally to register a Fork-tailed Sunbird and a small flock of Hair-crested Drongo.

Paris Peacock Papilio paris
A path lined with banana plants and Ginger Lilies led to Phase 2 which also contained a small puddle which roused the odonata spotter in me. A bench in the shade provided the perfect opportunity to stop and just watch.

Black-banded Gossamerwing Euphaea decorate

Some White-backed Munias were perched on the fence across from me and when they came down to the base of a stick poking out of the puddle, I assumed that they would take a drink. Instead, they reached into the water and plucked strands of pondweed from the water and shlurped them up like spaghetti.

By mid-morning, the sun had reached into the gardens and was attracting the butterfly watchers. They came by the score on this Saturday morning and a well placed subject caused quite a scrum. The advent of digital photography has brought a lot of new people out into the fields and forests, but unfortunately, respect and etiquette has not kept pace with the technological revolution. It seemed also that getting the photograph was more important than the subject and the surroundings. Plants (and even other visitors) were routinely trodden to get macro shots and only a few photographers even knew the names of the butterflies that they were shooting. Many of them wore cotton gloves. Is that a lepidopterist thing I wonder?

I was in two minds about the garden. It has effectively been created by cutting into the secondary forest and Fung Shui woodland (Fung Shui woodlands are popular places to site Chinese tombs to take advantage of the ‘vital qi’. Small structures housed earthen containers which in turn held the earthly remains of an esteemed ancestor). It has a managed, artificial air, but the birds and butterflies seem to love it.

Weekends are very busy. I returned the next day to find that Sundays are even more popular than Saturdays. With so many people and so few manners, I did not make it as far as the garden before turning back and going home. Try a weekday. Access can be had from early in the morning. The visitor centre is open every day to take a contribution of HK$20  for entrance.

Bird species seen; 22

Great Egret 1, Little Egret 4, Chinese Pond Heron 2, Black Kite 2, Spotted Dove 3, Common Kingfisher 1, Hair-crested Drongo 8, Large-billed Crow 2, Barn Swallow 20, Red-whiskered Bulbul 20, Light-vented Bulbul 6, Common Tailorbird 4, Yellow-bellied Prinia 2, Japanese White-eye 5, Masked Laughing Thrush 4, Oriental Magpie Robin 8, Black-collared Starling 5, Crested Myna 12, Fork-tailed Sunbird 5, Eurasian Tree Sparrow 10, White-rumped Munia 5, Nutmeg Munia 4.

Butterfly species seen; 22

Water Snow Flat Tagiades litigiosa, Chinese Dart Potanthus Confucius, Tailed Jay Graphium Agamemnon, Common Mormon Papilio polytes, Great Mormon Papilio memnon, Paris Peacock Papilio paris, Common Birdwing Troides Helena, Red-base Jezebel Delias pasithoe, Small Cabbage White Pieris rapae, Lemon Emigrant Catopsilia Pomona, 3-spot Yellow Eurema blanda, Purple Sapphire Heliophorus epicles, Common Hedge Blue Acytolepsis puspa, South China Bush Brown Mycalesis zonata, Large Faun Faunis eumeus, Angled Castor Ariadne ariadne, Blue Admiral Kaniska canace, Colour Sergeant Athyma nefte, Red Ring Skirt Hestina assimilis, Blue Tiger Tirumala limniace, Common Tiger Danaus genutia, Blue-spotted Crow Euploea midamus,

Orange-tailed Sprite Ceriagrion auranticum

Odonata species seen; 7

Black-banded Gossamerwing Euphaea decorate, Common Blue Jewel Rhynocypha perforata, Orange-tailed Sprite Ceriagrion auranticum, Common Flangetail Ictinogomphus pertinax, Common Blue Skimmer Orthetrum glaucum, Common Red Skimmer Orthetrum pruinosum, Russet Percher Neurothemis fulvia

With a field guide from the visitor centre, I was able to identify 22 species of butterfly. I am sure that a practiced eye could do far better. The site is small and easy to negotiate without long tramping marches and steep sweaty slopes. Minibus 20a runs every 20 minutes from the rail station at Tai Po Market and stops within 250m of the reserve. The minibus often fills up for the return journey and people get left behind. Bus 75k passes the bottom of Fung Yuen Road. The stop is at Google Earth ref; 22°27'32.53"N 114°10'49.69"E.

There is some development going on at the top of the road and there are concerns that life is encroaching more and more into the valley.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Suan Rot Fai, Bangkok, June 2012

Suan Rot Fai is an old golf course which has been put to use as a peoples’ park. It is very easy to reach on the Skytrain from the end of the line at Mo Chit Station. Again may I refer you to www.thaibirding.com and specifically to this link which gives an excellent description and directions. As before, I shall confine myself to a snap shot of my experience of a morning at Suan Rot Fai which can be seen on Google Earth by copying and pasting these coordinates into the search; 13 48 38N 100 33 11E . Confusion may arise as the ornamental gardens in the south of the site are labelled Suan Wachira Benchathat on Google Earth and a sign pointing away from them across a bridge to the old golf course reads, 'To Vajirabenchathas Park.'

Some of the common birds of the city parks can be found here including; Oriental Magpie Robin, Streak-eared Bulbul, Great Myna and Large-billed Crow. I entered by the ornamental gardens and missed the first opportunity to cross into the less-manicured part of the park that still resembles a golf course. The gardens in the south are very structured with concrete banks to the serpentine lotus water feature and bridges criss-crossing it. It is however very picturesque and gave me the chance to get on level terms with a female Scarlet-backed Flower-pecker. The male proved to be less of a poser.

I crossed into Vajirabenchathas Park and the atmosphere changed quickly to one of slight scruffiness. Even so it was no more unkempt than most other parks and the old fairways were obviously still mowed regularly.

There were more insects here and thus more birds. Indian Rollers liked the combination of mature trees and open grassy areas. There was a hot spot close to the southern end of the lotus lake at Google Earth ref; 13 48 48N 100 33 11E.

A Plaintive Cuckoo dropped down onto the ground to catch grubs from the grass. There were three of them in the area. I have taken liberties with the background to make the bird stand out a bit better.

At last I managed to get a good close look at a Javan Pond-heron in his breeding colours.  I had long suspected that the pond-herons around here were of the Javan species, but had not been happy to tick them in their non-breeding conformity. This individual confirmed my sightings from yesterday which warranted the red pen treatment.

Along the lakeside, Gomphid dragonflies flew close to the water and I was very pleased to catch this one in flight. Further up, at the edge of what used to be a lake-side golf-green, an Asian Openbill was searching for snails by the bank.

Today had been much more bearable than yesterday. Perhaps I had become more acclimatised. There was much more shade here than at MuangBoran Fish Ponds and it was much easier to cope with the heat. As I made my way back, I was attracted by a riot in the trees. Three Plain-throated Sunbirds and two Scarlet-backed Flower-peckers were flapping and making a terrible din as if trying to chase off a snake. Sure enough there was a very thin green snake that I suspect was probably a Oriental Whipsnake. Slightly further down the path, another mob included Streak-eared Bulbuls, Oriental Magpie Robins and three Variegated Squirrels. This time I was unable to find the source of their excitement, but the squirrel was a lifer for me.

Birds seen; 25

Asian Openbill 1, Great Egret 1, Little Egret 2, Cattle Egret 1, Javan Pond-heron 6, Striated Heron 6, White-breasted Waterhen 2, Spotted Dove 25, Zebra Dove 45, Plaintive Cuckoo 3, Asian Palm-swift 4, Indian Roller 8, Coppersmith Barbet 4, Pied Fantail 12, Large-billed Crow 15, Yellow-vented Bulbul 3, Streak-eared Bulbul 25, Oriental Magpie Robin 15, Great Myna 80, Common Myna 60, Black-collared Starling 25, Scarlet-backed Flower-pecker 4, Olive-backed Sunbird 6, Eurasian Tree Sparrow 30, Nutmeg Mannikin 6.

Friday 6 July 2012

Muang Boran Fish Ponds, Bangkok, June 2012

I was cherry-picking this morning. Rather than paying any attention to the little brown jobs that might potentially require the red pen, I was concentrating my time in looking for rails and crakes for which Muang Boran is celebrated. ‘Tis true that the grassy marsh to the southeast of Bangkok is also famous for Acrocephalus and Cettia warblers, but that kind of hard work could wait. Actually, if the truth is really brought to the fore, June may not have been the best time to look for any of them, but since I cannot dictate where or when I go, this would be my best shot.

For a description and directions, I cannot hope to emulate the one at www.thaibirding.com which can be found at this link. This post will simply be a snapshot of a morning at Muang Boran (Google Earth ref; 13 32 28N 100 38 01E) in late June and confirmation that the directions are easy to follow.

Oriental Pratincoles and Asian Openbill Storks were silhouetted against the wakening sky as I arrived at 06.15 and a Plain Prinia was the first bird to greet me as I stepped from the motorcycle taxi and entered the site. Off to my right, the area looked far too dry and open to harbour any rails or crakes, so I pressed on to the much more promising area ahead, on the left. Here, there were Bronze and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, Black-winged Stilts and Red-wattled Lapwings. All of them made a lot of noise as I scanned.

Asian Golden Weavers were easy to find and a Black Bittern flew across the path. I wanted to get a better look to convince myself that it wasn’t a large, dark, Striated Heron and at the third time of asking, managed to get a good look to confirm the ID. Having only ever seen this species twice before, it was odd to find it so common here. To have seen one feeding would have been wonderful, but I only saw them in flight.

The White-browed Crakes made themselves very obvious by clambering around at the top of the grasses. So much so, that they could be seen over 100 meters away. They were especially common in pond 5 which is long and thin and more conducive to photographs as you can get better positioned for the light. Beyond pond 5, the path peters out, so I spent a short while scanning back across the marsh noting Cattle Egrets and a juvenile Purple Heron. 

Even by 09.00, the day had become oppressively hot. My Western Palearctic constitution was not coping well and I went in search of some shade. The structures and houses of local families that gain their living from the marsh hogged all the shade, leaving me very uncomfortable by mid-morning. The tracks around the marsh are narrow and in some cases overgrown by weeds spilling over from the verges. I was convinced that I would come across a snake at some point during the day, but it looks as if someone got to this one before I did.

The families that live in the marsh are very tolerant of birders, but take issue with the birds that are likely to eat into their profit margin. Deterents such as nets or lines strung across the water make landing and taking off difficult, so bird such as herons and cormorants avoid these areas. More sinister are the hooks that trail from the lines. Whether or not, they are set to catch fish-eating birds, I cannot say, but casualties occur and skeletons and carcasses of birds have been seen hanging from the lines.

The Ardeola species here should have been Javan Pond Heron,  but in their non-breeding colours they are very difficult to separate from their Indian counterparts. Only when one flew by with his breeding colours firmly pinned, could I be certain. Even then it pays to be familiar with what you are looking for before having to identify it at distance.

A Zitting Cisticola was seen and plenty of Plain and Yellow-bellied Prinias called from the reeds and grasses.
I had promised myself that I would buckle down to the little brown jobs once I had had a look for some rails and crakes, but I just could not stand the heat any longer. The Black-browed Reed Warbler and the Manchurian Reed Warbler that I had planned to tick would have to wait for another day. Most of them would have been north of here anyway at this time of year although I am led to believe that a few stay for the summer. Winter would have the added bonus of a good head of Baillon’s Crake and Slaty-breasted Rail, so I am hoping for another trip towards the end of the year.

Birds seen; 35
Lesser Whistling Duck 6, Cotton Pygmy-goose 2, Little Grebe 20, Asian Openbill 200, Indian Cormorant 40, Little Cormorant 12, Yellow Bittern 1, Black Bittern 12, Purple Heron 2, Great Egret 15, Little Egret 12, Cattle Egret 25, Javan Pond-heron 15, White-breasted Waterhen 4, White-browed Crake 11, Red-wattled Lapwing 15, Black-winged Stilt 30, Pheasant-tailed Jacana 10, Bronze-winged Jacana 15, Oriental Pratincole 80, Indian Roller 2, Long-tailed Shrike 1, Pied Fantail 3, Barn Swallow 25, Streak-eared Bulbul 15, Zitting Cisticola 1, Yellow-bellied Prinia 4, Plain Prinia 8, Great Myna 15, Common Myna 25, House Sparrow 20, Baya Weaver 1, Asian Golden Weaver 20, Chestnut Munia 4.

On the next trip, assuming that I can tear myself away, it might also be possible to double up the trip with a visit to the mangroves and pier at Bang Pu Mai, just 2.5 miles further down the road. Or perhaps if I am of a cultural  frame of mind, the Ancient City is right next door.
It may pay to take the Skytrain as far as Bearing Station and get a taxi from there. City drivers are less than keen to be travelling out of town just before the morning rush starts.

For more posts from Bangkok, follow the links below;

Visit the dedicated Asia Page for more from the region.