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

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.

Things to take Hawkwatching

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After spending a week camping in the sun, hail, and rain, I thought it’d be fun to get a list together of what I brought to the Goshute Mountains for Hawkwatch (and a little of what I wish I’d brought)

My Hawkwatching Essentials:

  • Binoculars – I have a pair of Eagle Optics Ranger 8x42s, which were perfect for spotting birds, and clear even far over the ridge. I briefly used a pair of higher magnification 10x42s that were at the site, but my hands must wiggle too much, because they seemed to pick up every little shake and jitter.
  • Water bottle
  • Birding Field Guide App – iBird, Peterson, Sibley, etc. I like iBird as a birding guide, rather than a traditional field guide that would have added extra weight to my pack. With its help, I was able to identify some of the more elusive birds in camp just by their calls.
  • Hat with sun protection – Less important if you’re going to be spending your day in the blind. Essential (for me) when spotting birds in the open.
  • Solar battery and charge cord – this saved my trip, since solar power was the only way to get electricity on the mountain. The Hawkwatch crew had some already, but I tried to use my own, so I didn’t steal their power too much. A cheap solar battery cost me $20 on eBay, and was able to mostly charge my phone after a day in the sun. Unfortunately, it was less than helpful on rainy days.
  • Sturdy closed-toed shoes
  • Snacks/candy/coffee to share I really should have brought ground coffee for the camp – it’s light, easy to pack up, and used by everyone. It never hurts to bring snacks.
  • Non-cotton clothes – to wick away sweat
  • Rainproof clothes – in case of rain/hail/sleet/snow
  • Camera gear – if that’s your thing. I didn’t want to hike up a DSLR + lenses, so I made do with my iphone and some rad natural light. It would have been nice to have though.
  • Backpack – One with a hip belt makes life a lot easier if you’re packing in gear for more than a day.

And if you happen to be staying in the field longer:

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  • Tent with rain guard – you might not need the rain fly, but if you do, you’ll be glad you have it. I lucked out and there was an extra tent for me at the site. Score!
  • 20 degree sleeping bag – more if it’s colder
  • Ground mat – To keep the ground from sucking away all your body heat at night, and smoothing out the rocks and gnarly roots.
  • Warm hat + Cold weather clothes
  • Extra socks
  • Bowl & spoon
  • Two headlamps and extra batteries – Overkill? Maybe. But being out at night without a headlamp sucks, and mine always seem to get switched on by accident in the pack, leaving me with dead batteries and no light.
  • Asprin/cough drops/meds
  • Face wipes – Good for faces and hands
  • Deodorant – so you don’t stink up the blind

Migration isn’t over yet, so there’s still time to get out there and see some raptors. There’s probably even a site near you, so you don’t have to go as far as I did. Or you can just go outside and look up!

Happy Hawkwatching!

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Scuba in Ft. Lauderdale

Last weekend, after a few month hiatus, I decided it was time for a Scuba trip. We’d gone diving just a few months before, but not for the entire year of 2013, and I didn’t want to go that long between dives again. So we called up a friend from college who’s always up for a dive, and went south to Ft Lauderdale. As a bonus, we saw a Magnificent Frigate bird on the way to the beach!

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Birding Silver Springs from a Kayak

Birding in Florida in the late summer is hard; It’s oppressively hot, migration is over, and most birds are finished raising young, so you end up looking at raggity molting residents. Just look at almost any eBird hotspot in Florida – Most show a significant drop-off in birding activity around July-August.

That being said, there are a few ways to keep things interesting – My favorite is kayaking. Even on the hottest day there will be Egrets and Herons feeding on the bank, and almost always Osprey and Eagles circling over head. And there’s something about slipping into that zen-like state of paddling that always clears my head.

Kayaking is also a great way to get pictures of some of even the shyer birds – if you feel like risking your DSLR in an open boat. I keep mine tucked in a dry bag with a towel and a prayer, and haven’t had any problems yet (knock on wood).

Here’s a couple from a recent trip upstream (and down again) on the Silver River. Where there are Monkeys. Because Florida.

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Notes from Barrow, Alaska

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June 14: Learning to ride a bumblebee ATV, cruising lonely by an icy arctic sea. I can’t feel my fingers.

June 15th, 2009: West of Footprint Lake, two Stellers Eiders on a small pond between rolling mounds of tundra. White Fronted Goose to the north, flushed, three eggs. Male snowy owl to the east, one last time. Stared indifferently until flushed at 30m.

Plover point and seven polar bears. Whale caracas concentration. Riding bitch by a waving bear, never further north. Seal bones and ATV steeds on a sunbaked black sand ridge.

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