Birds in Hong Kong

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Hong Kong is never a place that I really thought of as a ‘birdy’ place. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to spend a week there, and I was blown away by just how many birds I saw without ever leaving the island.

Black KiteThe very first morning I woke up and stepped out onto our tiny balcony near Times Square, I was astounded to see no less than five Black Kites kettling around the massive Lee Gardens building, riding the winds that blew against the skyscraper as an elevator into the sky. I watched for what seemed like hours as they rose up, flew off, and new ones came to replace them.

Every now and then one of them would take a lazy swing at their reflection in the plate glass windows, but it seemed more playful than anything else. Once they reached the top of the building, they swung off into the foggy Hong Kong skyline, or disappeared behind other buildings. This was not what I had expected.

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That was Hong Kong all over for me, though; Unexpected. Just a short ride down Hennessy Road on the “ding-ding” tram was Hong Kong Park, home to the Edward Youde Aviary, a free mini bird-zoo where you could see many different birds up close. Although they were in an enclosed area, much of it was open and Mynah birds and fancy pigeons had plenty of trees to fly around, as visitors walked on elevated walkways beneath. One especially relaxed Victorias Crowned Pigeon even sat incubating eggs on a nest nearby.

Cockatoos

Red-whiskered Bulbul

Blue whistling thrushMasked Laughing Thrush

But even outside the aviary the trees were bursting with birdlife, including a colony of Sulfur Crested Cockatoos, who I watched gleefully excavating nesting cavities in dead trees. Near a small waterfall, Red-whiskered Bulbuls bathed on a stone, joined by the occasional Masked Laughingthrush or Blue Whistling-Thrush, while Japanese White-eyes and Red-billed Blue-Magpies gave brief glances from the higher branches and Black-collared Starlings searched for insects in the grass.

Indochinese YuhinaFork-tailed Sunbird

A short cable-car ride up the Peak Tram from Hong Kong Park was Victoria Peak, overlooking Victoria Harbor and the Kowloon Peninsula. The Peak itself was a bit of a tourist trap, but a short walk on the trail around the peak led to Lung Fu Shan Country Park, and a whole host of new birds for me, like the petite Indochinese Yuhina and the glittering Fork-tailed Sunbird.

Greater Necklaced LaughingthrushSpotted DoveDurian Redstart

On the short trail down to an abandoned military bunker, we flushed a Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, and it gave us a withering stare before flitting off into the bushes. Among the bunkers Spotted Doves pecked in the dirt, and a tiny Durian Redstart peeped at us through the trees. Black-throated Laughingthrushes were hiding all along the bamboo thicket lining the trail, and although we could hear their melodious calls, they gave only fleeting glances until we recorded their call, and played it back to them. Then they ventured quite close, cocking their heads inquisitively at the recording and singing in reply.

Black-throated Laughingthrush

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Port Canaveral Birding – Avocet Lagoon and Lori Wilson Park

Last week I happened to be in Cape Canaveral, watching behemoth cruise ships lumber in and out of port. I find birds to be more fun than boats, though, so I was soon watching the much smaller residents of the East Coast at Lori Wilson Park instead.
IMG_0615-1 IMG_0628-1 IMG_0740-1 Not all birds are as obliging as these small Sanderlings, though – some are much more secretive.
IMG_0430 Do you ever feel like you’re being watched? Despite being a non-native species, the Ring-necked Dove blends perfectly with this palm.IMG_0494 IMG_0569 IMG_0565 IMG_0397-1 IMG_0514-1 IMG_0568-1 Best of the day was a pass that this Black Skimmer made down the beach, running from a flock of Laughing Gulls with his catch snugly tucked in his underbite.IMG_0729-1

Nesting Osprey in Sanford, Florida

Sometimes I hate living in Florida. Like when it’s May and 92 degrees outside, with 100% humidity. Other times, it doesn’t seem so bad.

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This time of year, it seems like every light pole, pillar, or 30′ tree has an Osprey nest in it. Not that I’m complaining. I love their gangly little chicks.

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I used to wonder how their nestlings ever survived to adulthood – nesting in the direct sun on a utility pole in an asphalt parking lot in Florida seems like a good way to grill chicken, not raise young.

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What seems to keep them alive is that chicks spend most of their time in the shade of one of the parents – under their wings, their body, their tail. In most places parent birds have to use their bodies to keep their nestlings warm. In Florida, they use their bodies to keep them from baking.

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And it’s not like they’re still not hot. See how the chicks mouth is hanging open in every picture? It’s panting like crazy because it’s bloody hot out here! But the shade from its parent must to keep it alive to adulthood, because there are Ospreys everywhere. (Drive the 417 bridge over Lake Jesup sometime – you’ll find an Osprey perched on a giant fish on every other light pole.)

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And when just standing there isn’t enough, the parent will start dancing around, flapping their huge wings, cooling both themselves and the nestling with the breeze.

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Other times, when it’s just too hot, they ditch their chick and take to the air to feel the cool rushing breeze on their skin.

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But despite the heat, they always come back.

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Birding Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge – Black Point Wildlife Drive

It was storming when I turned onto the packed dirt road of Merritt Island’s Black Point Wildlife Drive. The weather almost sent me home, but I was in the area already, and hoped that the rain wouldn’t bother the wading birds who spend most of their time in water anyway.

As I pushed my $5 into the honor box (I learned later that I could have gotten in with my  Duck Stamp!), the rain suddenly stopped, in the way that it sometimes does in Florida, and although thick bands of grey clouds continued to move overhead, I had the whole place to myself. Almost.

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The birds certainly had no problems with the weather, and I had plenty of time to watch as Sandpipers, Herons, Egrets, and Stilts foraged, fought, and flew over the shallow pools. One look at eBirds Hotspot data page for Black Point should tell you just how many birds make this refuge their home.

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There were plenty of peeps and plovers, poking about the muck, undisturbed by a slow moving car.

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In a single morning, one could easily see almost every wading bird in Florida – from Snowy Egrets with their dainty yellow socks, to Glossy Ibis, Tricolored Herons, both Little and Great Blues, Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets, and Great Egrets in breeding plumage, all as White Ibis fly in flocks across the sky.

IMG_1745IMG_1762IMG_1772IMG_1705 The earlier rain did seem to drive the songbirds into hiding, but a few Red-winged Blackbirds came out to sing their rattly trill in the lull between storms.

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My favorite find of the day were a pair of perfectly balanced American Avocets, long curled beaks nestled in their back feathers, snoozing. As a flock of Ibis flew overhead, they briefly opened their eyes, looked right at me, then went back to sleep.

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Bald Eagle Check-in: Success!

Today I went to check on the eaglet that we had re-nested on Monday. I wanted to make sure that he was doing well, the parents were taking care of him, and that he hadn’t fallen back out of the nest again.

This was what I saw when I arrived at the nest tree.

IMG_8207Hmm, what is that?

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It was our eaglet! And by the looks of it, he was hunched over, chowing down on something tasty.

IMG_8231At this point, I was satisfied, because he looked healthy, alert, and content, sitting in his nest. And if he was eating, the parents must be bringing food. I could have left, but I wanted to stick around and see if I could spot any adults.

After a bit of waiting and looking around, I realized that I was being stared down from a nearby tree!

IMG_8228The parent must have been there the whole time, keeping a watchful eye on the nest, and making sure that I didn’t get too close.

After a bit more peering around, I spotted another eagle perched in a tree right next to the nest.

IMG_8230-1What a handsome bird!

Reassured that the eaglet was under the watchful eye of his parents, and clearly well cared for, I said goodbye and let them be. It was good to see the eaglet contentedly sitting in his nest, where he belonged. Hopefully the rest of his childhood is less eventful than the last week.

Re-nesting a Bald Eagle Chick

Last week this young Bald Eagle came to ARC for rehab, after falling out of its nest.

IMG_7996-1He might look a little big for a chick, but raptors grow very fast – from egg to full grown in about three months. This guy is probably just over two months old. His feathers weren’t done growing, and he still had some downy fuzz.

Since the nest was still active, and the parents still in the area, we wanted to try to get him back with his family. The nest was on private land, but thankfully, the landowner was willing to let us access the tree.

One problem with renesting Bald Eagles is that their nests are very high up off the ground. This nest was 30′ in a tree, deep in the woods – there was no hope of using a cherry picker.

Thankfully, Jim, the master tree climber, was willing to help. This afternoon he met us at the tree site with his climbing gear, and we prepared to return the eagle to its nest.
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This was something new for me – a giant slingshot! Jim used it to throw a beanbag with a rope attached over a branch of the nest tree. It took a few tries, but eventually he got a good branch, and was able to secure a rope for climbing.

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Once Jim was up there, you could really see how big the nest was. It was probably 10′ wide.

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With Jim in position, it was time to get the eaglet ready for his ride to the top.

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First, Devin placed a hood on the eaglet to keep him calm. Or that was the idea – the bird quickly wiggled out of the hood.

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If you’re wondering why this eaglet has a black beak, and not a yellow beak like in all the pictures, it’s because of his age. It takes Bald Eagles about five years to get a white head and tail, and for the beak to turn yellow. When they’re young, they’re a very dark brown all over.

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He also went back to the nest sporting some new jewelry. This aluminum band will allow wildlife researchers to gather data about his age and travels if he is found again in the future. Check out those shiny new talons!

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One more step – we swaddled the eagle in a towel to keep him from moving about too much on his ride up.

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And finally, into a duffel bag, so he can be securely raised to the top of the tree.

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We attached the duffel bag to Jims climbing rope, and he pulled the bird up to the nest.

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At the top, Jim made sure to secure the bag to the tree before bringing out the eagle. We also sent up thick gloves so he didn’t get taloned!

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Finally, the eaglet is brought out of the bag, and returned to his nest.

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Jim took this picture of the eaglet in the nest before descending the tree.

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As we were leaving an adult Bald Eagle started making swoops down towards the nest tree, so hopefully that was mom or dad. We figured it would be best to leave the area so they can get back to taking care of their kid.

Although we’ve released several, I’d never been able to help return an Eagle to its nest before, so this was an exciting day all around. We couldn’t have done it without a lot of help from all the volunteers at ARC, and Jim especially. It was a great day for everyone to come together and help out this young eagle. Hopefully the family is back together tonight.

Best Places for Birdwatching in Tokyo

Common Birds on Mt. Takao

Common Birds on Mt. Takao

I recently found myself in Tokyo for a week, and unlike my previous visits to the city, I spent a lot of time looking at birds. I’m a much bigger bird nerd than I used to be. Before, I only really noticed Tokyo birds enough to note that the crows were huge (truth) and the sparrows were pretty cute (they still are) as I doled out extra rice from my lunch.

Before arriving, I googled around for birdwatching places in Tokyo, and couldn’t find very many sites in English, although there were a lot of helpful forum posts. As it turned out, almost any green space in Tokyo was host to many varieties of birds, and since there’s no shortage of public parks in the city, I saw new birds almost everywhere I went.

I didn’t bring my DSLR on the trip (je regrette) as I was trying to keep luggage light, so the pictures are a little lacking, but I still have memories! And eBird. Even though I was abroad, my OCD habits of list-keeping forced me to drag my travel-weary body home and enter a full list of birds seen into my laptop at the end of each day. So I have a good written record of my trip, if it’s somewhat lacking in visual aids.

So, after a week beating street in Tokyo and surrounds, here are a few of my favorite spots for birdwatching.

Ueno

Ueno Park – Central to Tokyo, and accessible by the Ueno subway station, this is a good option if you only have an hour or two to spare. I stopped here after arriving on the train from Narita, and quickly picked up Japanese White-eye, Japanese Tit, Oriental Turtle-dove, Large-billed Crow (the aforementioned massive corvid), and the Brown-eared Bulbul, which I would soon tire of, as they were in virtually every tree, screaming their heads off.

Around Shinobazu Lake, on the south end of the park, I found both Great and Japanese Cormorants, as well as a man feeding a huge mass of Eurasian Tree Sparrows and ducks, mostly Mallards, Northern Pintail, and Eastern Spot-billed Ducks. Hiding in the reeds were some Northern Shovelers, Common Pochards, and Eurasian Coots.

There were also a bunch of Tufted Ducks snoozing in the lake with some Black-headed Gulls, bobbing about like corks in the lake, and a Little Egret hunting on the shore. Not bad for a single afternoon.

Yoyogi

Yoyogi Park – Since most Tokyo apartments are fairly small, and there are neighbors on all sides, when people want to get noisy, they have to go somewhere else. Yoyogi Park, near the Harajuku, or Meiji-jingu Mae stations, is a great place to see people getting down on the weekend – besides the birds, on one visit, I saw a girl group practicing their dance moves, a yoga class, and a bunch of pompadour rockstars jamming out on their boom box.

Despite all the activity, there’s no shortage of birds. The usual suspects are present all over the park – Tree Sparrows, Large-billed Crows, Brown-eared Bulbuls, and Rock Doves, and Eurasian Spot-billed Ducks in the pond.

Usual Suspects in Yoyogi-Koen

Usual Suspects in Yoyogi-Koen

But the real gem of Yoyogi-Koen is the large fenced in Bird Sanctuary on the eastern corner. While people can’t enter the sanctuary, you can look over the short fence into the trees, where a myriad of smaller birds live. In a short visit, I saw several Japanese White-eyes, Varied & Japanese Tits, a Dusky Thrush, both Grey & White Wagtails, a Pygmy Woodpecker, and several colorful Bramblings.

You probably won’t have the place to yourself though – at any one time, there were roughly 7-10 Japanese birders with their spotting scopes and massive lenses, all good-naturedly jostling for the best views of the sanctuaries avian inhabitants. They also seem to have trained a few Varied Tits to take seeds out of your hands, some of the more daring ones were darting from person to person, collecting treats. No idea what kind of seeds though – I tried to give one a sesame seed and it wasn’t interested.

Shinjuku

Shinjuku Park National Garden – I was unfortunate to visit this park in Shinjuku on a day that turned into a rainy mess, but the Japanese Tits and Eurasian Tree Sparrows were out in force – as well as a bunch of Tufted & Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, and a few Common Pochards, among the more common domestic Mallards. I also found a Common Kingfisher hunting in the rain, near the Japanese garden, and a Little Grebe hunting nearby.

Hibiya

Hibiya Park – While it’s not the best birding ever, Hibiya-koen is as central to Tokyo as you can get. A quick walk through this small park near the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station yielded Mallards, Tufted & Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, White Wagtails, a plethora of Brown-eared Bulbuls, Rock Doves, Large-billed Crows and Tree Sparrows everywhere you look.

Takao

Mt. Takao – About 45 minutes outside Tokyo, a short hike up this mountain from the Takao-san Guchi train station makes a good day trip, if you’re itching to get out of the city and into some real woods. I say hike, but it’s really a stroll up an inclined paved path, and you can take a tram half-way up, so it’s not exactly strenuous. It did snow at the top though, so dress warmly in the winter, even if it’s mild at the bottom.

My noisy friends, the Brown-eared Bulbuls were everywhere here too, apparently undaunted by the cold, as well as Japanese White-eyes, and Large-billed Crows. Best of all, I found four kinds of Tits here – Japanese, Varied, Coal and two Long-Tailed Tits. I also found four Pygmy Woodpeckers here, and I’m sure there were many more.

Also, Varied Tits are apparently fearless – I set my Onigiri (rice ball) lunch down on a wooden bench and one of the little devils was perched on top, digging rice out of it before I could blink.

KasaiRinkai

Kasai Rinkai Park – Across the bay from Tokyo Disney, this park, half grassy woods, and half wetlands, was probably the best birding I found in Tokyo, and the one spot I wish I could have spent more time in.

It’s easily accessible from central Tokyo, Kasai-rinkai Koen is just a few stops away from Tokyo Station on the JR Keiyo line. I heard some people talking about how they got there at the crack of dawn (I admire their stamina) and saw a slew of raptors, none of which I managed to spot while I was there. Although you can’t enter the wetlands area, which is left as natural habitat, you can walk out on a long spit of land nearby, and look over with binoculars or a spotting scope.

This was the best place I’d found for the Japanese Cormorant, although Great was also present. There were probably 300 Greater Scaup rafting in the bay – I thought they were debris at first, there were so many. Closer, there were Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, Common Pochards, and Eurasian Wigeons. Around the wetlands there were Little, Eared, and Great-crested Grebes, Little Egrets, and a Grey Heron. There were also peeps along the rocky shore, including Dunlin and Common Sandpipers. I also found White-cheeked Starlings here, and a mess of Black-headed Gulls. In addition to the usual suspects – Tree Sparrows and Brown-eared Bulbuls – the Japanese Wagtails seemed to be everywhere, as well as their White Wagtail buddies.

There’s no shortage of good birding in Tokyo – most of the parks are centrally located, and easily accessible by subway. Mt. Takao and Kasai-Rinkai Koen would be better done has half-day or full day trips, but wherever you end up, you should be able to find some birds to keep you busy.