Wednesday, 8 March 2023

Brown-headed Gull in Choshi

 Less than five weeks after heading up to Choshi to see Little Gull, I was back again for Brown-headed Gull. Japan's third record?

In retrospect, I think I was quite lucky with the Little Gull. It only took three hours on-site to see it, admittedly it felt much longer at the time, while some people have had to make several trips to connect.

It was raining when I arrived at the outer harbour on Monday, my only free day this week and the only one forecast to have rain. Three or four birders under their umbrellas were scanning the harbour, beyond the line of off-loading fishing boats and the bustling of attendant trucks impatient to whisk the catch away for processing. Standing on the opposite side of the road to keep out of work's way, and peering between bow to stern docked vessels doesn't give the best view of the harbour but it was pretty obvious no one was watching it. So I sat in the van having breakfast with one eye on the harbour (hundreds of Black-headed Gulls) and the other on the birders, wishing them every success. Breakfast can only delay the inevitable for so long and leaving scope and camera I headed out to join the harbour patrol. In recent weeks I've come to the firm conclusion that leaving scope, camera or both does not increase the likelihood of something interesting being found, despite what people might suggest.

I never got the hang of umbrella birding, I don't have enough hands as it is. No doubt never even touching one till I was in my 30s has played a part.

Being out in the weather didn't get me any closer to my goal and by about 11 o'clock I was ready to try the inner harbour. Glaucous Gull, Glaucous-winged Gulls and a Thayer's; not bad considering I wasn't even looking at large gulls. 

A much needed coffee then back to the outer harbour again. Still nothing. At least there was no more rain. The phone pinged. Brown-headed had been seen flying by and the Little was on show, inner end of the inner harbour! 

Nope, Little had gone and the fly-by Brown-headed didn't fly back. I walked downstream to the main body of the inner harbour and scanned its length without any hope. The Brown-headed had flown in this direction. It must have been sitting on the water because after a couple of minutes there it was! Flying directly away half way along the harbour. Yesss!!! Fantastic. Too far for a record shot...? I tried... And that was it, couldn't find it in the camera so I didn't know whether it kept going, dropped onto the water, turn left onto the breakwater or right into the ship-side melee. I drove a few hundred metres to the 'bend' in the harbour and scanned from there. Nothing, well another Thayer's, 2nd winter this time. 

After about an hour the undermining internal debate began. You didn't see the mirrors... not surprising given the angle. It could have been a funny first winter Black-headed... no, it was a more powerful, broad-winged gull with huge, round-ended white primary patches! You can't tick it... that was it, for heaven's sake! Nah, UTV... that was never untickable views! You didn't see the mirrors...

From euphoric, successful twitch to dismal failure. There was no point arguing with myself, the damage was done.

Back to the outer harbour. Zero. The afternoon was rapidly slipping away. 

Try the far end of the inner harbour again. No, again. 

I got back in the van watching the Black-headeds passing back and forth, the knot of about 10-15 people scanning the Black-headeds sitting on the wall looked about as hopeful as I felt. After four o'clock, the light's going to go soon. Still got 600 km to do before work tomorrow. And I did see it! That was it! Sorry, UTV.

That guy is running, running with his scope over his shoulder, running to his car. They're all running! It was like Le Mans in the old days, plus tripods. My first thought was to jump out and ask where it was. Stupid thought, there I was already sitting behind the wheel and the first runners were reversing out of their spots to head for the exit, that put me near the front of the convoy heading to, as I might have guess, the outer harbour.

The boats, bar one still swilling out the hold, had all put back out to sea and the truck drivers finished for the day so parking quayside was now possible. We spilled out to join the group already present, all told there were probably no more than 50 people. Not a vast crowd for such a major rarity.

But where was it?! It was no longer flying just off the quay and had apparently settled on the breakwater.

There it is!!! Whaaaat? My untickable views this afternoon were better than this! It's the big-looking 'Black-headed' on the top ledge, directly below the 'V' in the tetrapods.

All was not lost, with the last light it came back across the harbour and performed as close as 25 metres for about two minutes before disappearing completely again. Two whole minutes to savour, from 39 hours marked at different times by discomfort, tiredness, stress, anguish, disappointment, not even to mention the expense of it all. What a great twitch.

If the light had been better it would have been possible to get some good shots. If the light had been better and the bird stayed a bit longer. Anyway, these may not win prizes but they're a whole world better than the record shot I failed to get in the afternoon could ever have been.

On a final note, the moult of the inner secondaries isn't surprising but why is S1 so short? P7 looks oddly short and P6 perhaps slightly so, not sure what that's about.


Tuesday, 21 February 2023

White-winged Scoter: how rare (or common) is it in Japan?

I had three main targets for a 10-day trip to Hokkaido, all of which were rather optimistic in one way or another: White-winged Scoter, Rock Sandpiper and Bald Eagle. 

There may be one or even two Bald Eagles lurking somewhere in eastern Hokkaido, not necessarily along the coasts, one of them would be a striking adult now. Any hope of connecting with one was beyond optimistic to be honest and needless to say, I didn't. 

Rock Sandpiper on the other hand should instill optimism you'd think, but truth is it's been a long-standing bogey bird for me. This going back to when, though scarce, they were more widespread around the rocky coasts of south east Hokkaido. Years past, numbers dwindled, eventually there came a time when none were reported from what had long been the most reliable site for them. Over the past two or three winters there has been one 'reliable' individual, I use the term advisedly as reliability has never been a quality I'd personally link with Rock Sand. This had the feel of a now or never opportunity and consequently I spent a lot of hours searching for it, managing brief views on just one occasion. True, if I'd stayed put day after day, I would have benefitted from much closer views but the species has already claimed enough of my Hokkaido time over the years, so once I'd seen it I never again spent more than an hour or two a day checking the spots it was likely to be. Likely not to be as it turned out! I'm not complaining though, it's fantastic to finally catch up with it.

Rock Sand, it may be distant but it's recognizable, and that'll do thank you very much.

That brings me to the last of my targets, White-winged Scoter, a species I've considered a major rarity in Japan since it was first recorded a few years ago, and thus another long-shot. 

Surprisingly, there was a sighting in Ochiishi Harbour about the time of my arrival in Hokkaido and this was our first port of call on the first full day's birding. The harbour was empty but a bird in the area gave rise to genuine optimism.

A few days later we were stopping, checking the sea, at various points along the Notsuke Peninsula, one stop thanks to a small party of Asian Rosy Finches. They must have moved on before we could get down to the beach and turning my scope to the ducks off-shore, I found what looked a dead ringer for White-winged Scoter, at about 300 metres when I first picked it up. Unbelievable! A male and female were constantly dipping behind the waves, gentle as they were, from our low position. They were probably no more than 100 metres off the beach but they were well along the shore and moving away quite quickly. Deep snow made any thought of trying to keep up with them out of the question. Luckily, we'd already encountered a flock of Stejneger's along this stretch of the peninsula which was an enormous help in judging the head shape at this distance. I may have been able to get reasonable shots when they were at their closest if I hadn't left my camera in the car, particularly to check the female (which remains unidentified), but I didn't need photographic evidence to convince myself White-winged was in the bag! 

Two days later we were at Wheel Rock off Hanasaki harbour and I was astonished to see another male and female, perhaps only 250 metres out, much better views from a higher elevation this time. Both were definitely White-winged. While we were watching, a couple of local bird-guides turned up (actually slid five metres down the near vertical snowy slope to where we were) and asked if we'd seen the "American" Scoters adding there were another six, with a single "Asian", just round the corner, off the other side of the point. Soon these birds hove into view teaming up with the birds already in front of us. The three male White-winged and single male Stejneger's were very obvious at this range with the light over our shoulder, but the female-types weren't so straight forward. A few days later, on another visit to the same spot, there were four male White-winged and five female-types present. 

So a minimum of nine birds and possibly 11 in total. Has White-winged simply been overlooked in the past? It's likely White-winged in Japan isn't the great rarity it was formerly thought to be.

A few shots of the 'Wheel Rock' birds...

Part of the flock.

No doubt about the males.

Classic White-winged profile and brown flanks.

Three shots of a juvenile-looking first winter.

A presumed first winter male (long in the face) with an adult.

A presumed female with less prominent bill.

A couple of shots of an immature male.

What about this one? I'm thinking adult female with some yellowish on the bill. It clearly has adult-type greater coverts and lacks the paler belly of first winters. The bill looks shorter and therefore deeper than the males.  

Sunday, 19 February 2023

Little Gull in Choshi

2022 was my first year in Japan without a new bird, a total blank in terms of ticks. I suppose it had to happen eventually, but worryingly I have to go back over a year and a half to a quick Ishigaki dash for Silver Gull for my last new Japan bird. And that feels forever-ago. So, welcome 2023 and another gull tick; this time a Little Gull in Choshi.

I drove up from Kyoto overnight, taking nine hours including a mid-way nap, arriving in time for a conbini coffee before sunrise. Then it was down to the river to start what would hopefully be a hitch-free, bird-filled day. The first hour was something of an anticlimax, no gull… and no birders? On finally finding some birders I discovered I’d mixed up locations or some such thing and had been looking for a Little Gull at the Canvasback site. So much for hitch-free. These birders had seen the Canvasback but it had been distant and had in any case just disappeared behind the harbour wall.

I didn’t waste time waiting for it and drove across the river into Choshi where the crowd of birders was hard to miss, unlike the Gull which hadn’t yet deigned to appear. Everyone was crammed into a small space at the end of the quay, no one with a great view of the harbour. Time past the way it always does on these occasions; slowly. Thoughts revolved around how long I could survive without food and drink (lunch anyway) and where I’d spend the night. The pain of the drive home not having seen the bird wasn’t so much a thought as darkness at the end of the tunnel. I tried to stay focused on the brighter aspects of the situation, dehydration and sleep deprivation.

Reality wasn’t nearly as bad as imagination would have had it. The bird materialized on the breakwater at about 11:20, it was just suddenly there! And it was a fantastic all-action gull, it jostled with the Black-headed Gulls and flew back and forth for about 30 minutes – none of this preening and sleeping at the back of the flock nonsense. Then it was gone, the performance over and it seems this bird doesn’t do encores. Perfect (lunch) timing, I couldn’t have planned it better myself.

The consensus among the Japanese birders who were seeing this species for the first time was that it was small, really small. They just couldn’t get over how small! I totally get it. A birder in Japan, may never get the chance to see Little Gull, and if they eventually do it will come as a shock to see a gull about the size of a White’s Thrush!