Saturday, 31 May 2014

I must be seeing things - a pink Dolphin

On my final morning in HK I went to the very west of Lantau Island to look for a Blue Magpie. They looked pretty cool, all blue 'n all, and with a red bill. I didn't see one. But I did see a pink Dolphin. Yes, you heard that right. A *pink* Dolphin. I rarely see grey Dolphins, although I did once find the remains of one in my garden, so to see a pink one was somewhat mind-blowing. There I was, minding my own business along a ridge at Tai O, with views out towards Macau and Pacific and House Swifts zooming past my nose, when a bloody pink Dolphin jumped out of the water. Gobsmacked I was. I imagined people might question my sanity, ask about drug intake levels and so on, so I took a photo.

Boom! This has not been photo-shopped or otherwise messed with (though as per usual I did remove a few twigs....). It is genuinely pink, and is of course one of the few remaining Pearl River Dolphins, otherwise known as the (very poorly-named) Chinese White Dolphin. It has another name as well, but I can't remember what it is, but it doesn't matter as it's basically a pink Dolphin, and any sane scientist should have named it that instead of anything else. There are a few populations along the South China Coast, but this is the most well known, and probably the most threatened, as HK expansion continues apace. The new airport at Cheng Lap Kok was in their favoured habitat, and of course now they're building a massive bridge right across the bay to Macau, which is unlikely to help. I don't know what the latest number is, but the general trend is likely one of decline, through pollution as much as habitat destruction. I saw around five or six animals, all bar one of which were most definitely pink (the other was a disappointing spotty grey, a real let down). This is probably a relatively meaningful part of the HK population. I was miles away on the land, so the photo is an uber-crop, but apparently you can take boat trips to see them. If you're into cetacean listing, I recommend you go sooner rather than later, as the Pearl River delta will probably be a Shenzen car park by 2020.

Also stonkingly rare is the Black-faced Spoonbill, though I think I read that they are on the up, unlike the Dolphins. I saw around 30 at Mai Po on my one day of birding, which is also a healthy chunk of the global population. Let's be clear, people are campaigning for the Hen Harrier, but actually there are a lot of those. The issue is that there are none across large swathes of the UK that by rights should have lots of them. The total global population of this Spoonbill is between 2-3000 birds. Tiny in other words. The number of Dolphins is perhaps similar, though the number remaining in HK waters is less than a hundred (Wikipedia is my friend...), and that's a very small number indeed in terms of what you might call self-sustaining. Conservation efforts are underway, but against the might of far-eastern industrialism and from what I've read I'm sceptical about the long term. Like I said, if you want to see them, go sooner rather than later would be my advice.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

The commonest birds in HK

I ended up seeing around a hundred species. Not really that sensational for the tropics, but Hong Kong is so built up and crowded that places where birds get are relatively small in number, and unless you visit wilder areas like the northern New Territories or parts of Lantau island, the diversity is also quite low. Despite this, HK has a list of around 500 species, the majority of them migrants passing through, or vagrants. With migration more or less over, I still saw a few of the former, mostly waders, and perhaps Hodgson's Hawk Cuckoo counts as a semi-accidental. The most frequently encountered bird is Tree Sparrow - we worry about them in this country, and indeed I couldn't tell you the last time I saw one in London, but in Hong Kong they are rampant. Really they should be called Air-conditioning Sparrow, or Electricity Junction Box Sparrow, as that is where they all live. After the Tree Sparrows come the Crested Mynas - almost everywhere - taking the place of our Starlings I reckon, though never in as large a group.

Then it's the Bulbuls - there are two ubiquitous species, and Red-whiskered Bulbul is probably the commonest - and also the coolest. What a great bird, the fact that they are everywhere is a joy to behold. Great noises as well, and fairly approachable to boot. Imagine having these as a common garden bird.

After this it's the other one, Light-vented Bulbul, also known as Chinese Bulbul. Definitely not as common, and lacking the monumental Woody Woodpeckeresque head, but still not without appeal. Pretty easy to pish in as well, which this photo from my sister's balcony shows.

Then I reckon it's either Spotted Dove or Black-collared Starling. The dove basically replaces the Pigeon as far as I can tell - very few of these that I saw, although I did eat minced Pigeon with Bamboo so perhaps this explains their scarcity. Black-collared Starling has very little in common with our Starling - it's enormous, probably Jackdaw size if not a little larger. Common foragers on any bit of grass you come across, and expert raiders of bins, they're pretty awesome-looking birds by any standards.

Oriental Magpie Robin, whilst common, is a little bit shyer, and stays more in the margins rather than out in the open, or perhaps sings from rooftops. Possibly my favourite easy-to-see bird, they cock their tails frequently and have a lovely whistling song. Surprisingly difficult to take a decent photo of. As are most things in HK seemingly, or maybe it's just me, and the heat, the humidity and near-constant rain showers just meant I wasn't really in the mood.

And not forgetting this of course, though there were none in Central HK or built-up areas. I think I saw this one at Hy The, a series of canals near the coast that seem absurdly popular with Herons.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Market Town

Whilst the birding has been a little slow, I didn't really come over here for that alone. I've been far more interested in walking around this incredible city. Whilst I am sure there are loads of cultural activities, I've been more into the markets and the street life - the sights and the smells. Mainly it's the food and ingredients that I've been most aware of (only so many fake T-shirts I can handle), and there are so many things that I assume are edible but that I just don't recognise as food. Fruit and veg I can score some points on, but even these disappear off my known range. But the other stuff, the dried seafood, the mushrooms, the various pots and bottles of stuff, I've just got no idea. If I lived here I could probably get right into it, or a lot of it, but some things would remain forever off my menu. Chickens feet for starters. Anything that has more than four legs. Sea slug. Possibly these are all delicious, but I will never know. Dim Sum I can handle, though over on Cheung Chau I did have to lift the lids off quite a few bamboo pots before I found something I was confident in, and the seller couldn't help me decipher what was what. Though I did correctly ID (and pass on) fried chicken feet. Some people wouldn't eat off the street, worrying about catching something, but I think it's the way forward. Prawn dumplings especially. Mmmmmmm.

Tomorrow I plan on visiting more markets. Still on my HK "bucket list" is the buying of socks, and I am about to run out of shirts. I imagine I can probably find some.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Anyone for a Rubythroat?

One of the things I did yesterday whilst walking myself into the ground was visit the bird market on Kowloon. It gets a mention in the guidebook, and I do like birds. On reflection it was probably a mistake to have gone. I was expecting Parakeets, Lovebirds, Budgies, that sort of thing. However by far the majority of the birds in cages were actually local species. How they ended up in the bird market, who can say, but it was desperately sad to see so many Magpie Robins - rows upon rows of little cages - when I'd seen the same species hopping around on the grass on my walk to the ferry that morning. Japansese White-eye and Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush were also amongst the selection - this latter I've yet to find, and I'm not ticking it in a fancy teak cage!

Imagine my surprise when I found a Sibe Rubythroat though. Whoa!! This bird is a regular winter visitor to Hong Kong, but has already left (as have most things - note to any would-be HK birders, come for winter or migration). It could be mine for 80 HK$, about sixty quid. Tempting.... Amazingly small, much smaller than I had imagined. There must have been about 10 for sale - I could have had a flock.

Birds are said to bring luck - apparently people even take them to the racetrack (going tomorrow so I'll let you know if I see any), and the keeping of birds is clearly big business over here. You can buy a bird in England of course, but typically not Robins, Blue Tits and Blackbirds, which effectively was what was on offer here. Here, anything goes, and who am I to judge what is a very important and historic cultural interest - I just wish it had been exotic birds, strangely, rather than the local stuff. Maybe I'm just bitter as getting photos of birds over here has thus far been a complete non-starter. So, seeing as wild birds seem impossible here, I decided to attempt the caged variety today, but of a different sort. Rather than a tiny structure you can hang from a wire, I went to the Edward Youde Aviary in Hong Kong Park - it's a huge open air aviary filled with exotica right in the middle of the city. I recognised none of it, though there were loads of these zooming about.

It's called the Edward Youde Aviary, and if you're into free-flying displays, is done really rather well. However as mentioned it is open to the elements, and my visit was thus shortlived, as the skies became darker and darker. Looking up at the peak I decided that discretion was the better part of valour - it was ominously dark. I could have spent the rest of the afternoon in malls etc, but God knows I loathe shopping, so I made for the Pier and from there back to Lantau. In contrast to all my previous journeys, this time there was almost no visibility, and as the ferry pulled in it was absolutely bucketing down. I did the sensible thing and took shelter in a local bar. I later learned that an "Amber" rain warning had been issued - this is the lowest, exceeded by red and black, but was still pretty fearsome. Plants and furniture was blown over, and the bar partially flooded. Thunder and lightning, very very frightening. It took over an hour for it to clear sufficiently to walk back to the house, and even then forks of electricity could be seen over the sky to the south west.

Anyhow, here's a wild not-yet captured Oriental Magpie Robin. They're pretty common, and have a lovely song (which probably explains their popularity). This was the male of a pair that are near the ferry terminal to Central, and if the rain ever lets up I may attempt to do a better job.


Monday, 19 May 2014

Meanwhile on the other side of the world...

Hello! I'm not here. I'm here.....

Back home soon, but I can report Sibe Rubythroats for sale for under sixty quid if anyone is in dire need of a tick. More on that rather tragic story later, but just to say that I am walking miles and miles every day fuelled only on pork buns and cold water, and that I have seen more birds than I thought I would. The full list will follow in due course, but one of the most common is this, a Crested Bulbul, and they make all the good sounds that Bulbuls usually do.

I arrived on Saturday afternoon, and courtesy of the most awesome BA upgrade ever experienced much champagne and no jet lag. This meant I was straight out the next morning at 5am for a full day's birding, including the staggering Mai Po reserve. Again, more on this later, it really was rather special, even though now is supposed to be the quiet time of year. Today was spent walking even further than yesterday around the street markets in Kowloon, where I was offered six suits and three "foot massages". I declined them all, but nevertheless had an extremely interesting day in a teeming city, culminating in the classic HK skyline at night. Having walked over 40km in two days, my feet are on the verge of dropping off, so tomorrow is a rest day where I shall mostly be cruising round small islands in decrepit ferries.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Spoiling autumn

I have just mostly spoiled autumn by finding a Spotted Flycatcher in Long Wood. Sorry about that. The one remaining regular migrant is now Pied Flycatcher, which I'm going to try and find tomorrow. Then we needn't bother going out later in the year and can go and do something more rewarding, like banging nails into concrete with our heads. I didn't have a camera today as it looked like the heavens might open at any point, so the below is an artists impression of what the bird looked like when it popped out briefly for the assembled twitchy masses. Seen one, seen 'em all.

Friday, 9 May 2014

93 million miles and one inch

Last weekend I did not do a great deal. I find I am doing a lot more of not great deal recently, probably in response to being utterly drained at the end of each working week. I am very good at doing nothing I find, which I'm not sure I could have said a couple of years ago, when I was unable to sit still for even one minute. This must be what they call the ageing process. If it is, it isn't so bad. Anyway, last weekend the weather was pretty nice, and consequently there was little reason to go birding. Instead, I largely watched various cricket matches, and for a period of time I reclined on a chair in the garden. Of sky-watching there was not a great deal, of gentle snoring and a small amount of dribble, quite a lot. And this is where interstellar (or interplanetary, I don't pretend to know which this is) distances come into it.

Depending on the Earth's orbit, my garden is between 91.4 and 94.5 million miles away from the Sun. Where in the cycle we are I have no idea, so let's just call it 93. Whichever way you look at it, a long way. As the distant Sun worked its magic, I fell into a stupor. Happens to the best of us, and actually it isn't a bad way to spend an afternoon. Better than gardening for instance. When I awoke perhaps half an hour later (2 hours....Ed.) and stumbled inside, I happened to pass a mirror. Horrific. A bright red thing slap bang in the middle of my face. I poked it, and discovered it was what was left of my nose. Burnt to a crisp. And as I type, peeling monstrously.

Here's the rub. My nose, at most, sticks out only an inch further than the rest of my face. In terms of how much closer to the Sun my nose is versus, say, my cheeks, what I am trying to say is that there is not a lot in it. My cheeks however are a normal colour, whereas my nose looks like someone has come along and painted it. I am at a loss to explain how that extra inch makes such a vast difference to the impact of an astral body that is millions upon millions of miles away. 93 millions miles, fine. 92.99999999998 million miles, nasal agony.

Tomorrow the forecast is for rain. 


Sunday, 4 May 2014

West Ham Park

Another busy morning of chauffeuring, this time to a cricket match in West Ham Park. I've never knowingly been there, and so whilst preparations for the T20 match got underway, I had a quick poke around. Step aside Lindo, I am now the urban birder. It's well known for attracting Pied Flycatcher more or less every autumn, but I have to say that I found it a little sterile. Then again, I arrived at 9am when it was already getting a little busy. Overall though it just seemed a bit over-manicured to be particularly attractive to birds, and on my circuit I saw nothing that I wouldn't see in my garden over the course of a few days. Predictably a couple of very slightly wilder areas held a Chiffchaff and a Blackcap, but overall it is lacking the scrubby habitat and margins that migrants tend to head for, and that we have so much of on my patch, and that makes it difficult to find anything. Whack a bramble patch and a couple of sycamores in the middle of West Ham Park and it could be dynamite. None of this detracted from it being a very nice and pleasant outdoor space to go for a walk, and as parks go, it really is extremely good - worth a bit of time in the future, if only for a family walk - as it looks far better than Wanstead Park for fun and games, bikes and balls. I think they must lock it up at night, as it is spic and span, with very little evidence of the sort of trashing that goes on in Wanstead on an all too regular basis. 

I racked up a decidedly unimpressive 23 species - I think the lack of water, unless I missed it, is a big gap. Highlights were a few Swallows going through, and more than a few Blackbirds busily catching worms, no doubt for nearby broods. Mistle Thrushes look to have already fledged, as I saw a big family group rattling around the place. But as I say, it was very pleasant, albeit not unlike a massive garden, and Wanstead won the cricket too, included number one son taking a catch that would have caused me to duck for cover.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Winding down for the weekend

I am attempting to get my children to tidy their bedrooms, a failing battle. There have been many campaigns, many seasons. To compare it to the siege of Leningrad would be to severely underestimate quite how entrenched we are at this point. The most basic issue is that the girls, once home from school, dress up in their entire wardrobes in the space of about an hour, and when they can no longer move for the clothes explosion, spill out onto the landing. This places them in the vicinity of the Dressing Up Drawer. Oooh look, more clothes! Once that's over with, including at the moment some bizarre semi-Victorian amusement where they address each other as Miss this and Lady that and then run up and down the stairs at full tilt screaming demure sweet nothings. No, I don't know either. Time for some food, usually a trail of tangerine peel will lead to a child, although it's entirely possible you will simply find an apple core gently leaking into a sofa cushion instead. 

Clearly we do not live in a museum. We're still just about able to keep our heads over the clutter, and a weekly visit from someone with a lot more cleaning expertise than anyone that lives here is a godsend, but of course is highly temporary. When we packed off the kids to Scotland for Easter the difference was amazin when measured in visible floor space. And bread! It's getting to the stage where they are starting to eat us out of house and home. I timed the survival of a lone loaf of bread at under three minutes the other day - it was like time lapse photography, but in real time. And of course the best place for an empty bread packet is still the bread bin, in much the same way as empty cereal boxes simply go back in the cupboard, which confuses the hell out of the shopping fairy.

But of course we would rather have them than not, and the happy sounds of a full-house, punctuated by the occasional yell, is very heart-warming. This weekend, just like last, we have no firm plans, and what we do will be largely be dictated by the weather. And of course it's another three-dayer, which has huge potential. I've not looked at the charts, but I've been so slack that I've not even seen a Swift yet, and my contribution to the patch this year has been precisely nil, so perhaps I'll give it a quick thrash for old time's sake? I believe the saying is "didn't bother the scorers". But realistically what am I going to see here? It's probably a better use of my time to chill out at home, and continue the pleading with the children to please not completely trash every single room until at least Sunday. Simple pleasures.