Sunday, 22 December 2019

Ring-necked Duck in Osaka

If I couldn't be bothered to go for a couple of Baer's Pochards in Osaka last week, why did I make the effort for a Ring-necked Duck this week you may well ask. I certainly asked myself. I suppose it comes down to how many of each I've seen, and even though Baer's is a far greater rarity in global terms, this Ring-necked was only the third I've seen in Japan. One of those birds, though seen on two occasions a year apart, was viewed through blizzard conditions on each of those occasions. The other was a totally unexpected find as I was scanning a duck flock trying to re-locate two Baer's x Common Pochard hybrids I'd found on my previous visit to that stretch of the Yodogawa in Osaka. It didn't stick and I never heard of it being relocated anywhere else, a one day wonder Ring-necked Duck is a rarity in its own right.

So a Ring-necked Duck on a park lake had to be a piece of cake, right? A golden opportunity to get good views at last... and as things turned out it was one of those occasions when reality shamed expectation. I still haven't seen a male though; that's for another day.

I arrived at 8am and after a quick scan revealed no photographers, I thought the duck may have moved to a different pond. Shock: I'd have to look for the duck myself. Working my way along the lake shore I picked up a hybrid Eurasian x American Wigeon, a good start but no great surprise, then suddenly as I rounded a woody curve... success! There at the lake side were two photographers. What's more they were intent on something. I literally overlooked the Ring-necked when I fetched-up at the spot, it wasn't till my scan had drawn a blank that I noticed the camera lenses were angled downwards towards the closest duck on the lake. Unbelievable.

Of course the duck hadn't moved to a different pond! It was simply that the vast majority of photographers (being sensible folk) were enjoying an unhurried morning and leisurely breakfast before strolling along when the overcast morning had already brightened, as the forecast predicted.

No sooner had I unpacked my camera than the Ring-necked woke and, as if the light wasn't bad enough, swam off purposefully to and even duller, shadier part of the lake where it, and a few Common Pochards, dived for berries dropping from the overhanging trees.

The forcasters weren't wrong, morning did brighten and of course the photographers did arrive. I was delighted with my unsurpassable views of the Ring-necked Duck. I'd qualify that by saying I never saw it in direct sunlight, but sunlight was never going to reach the spot the bird was diving for berries and if it moved elsewhere it probably wouldn't have been nearly so close. So... unsurpassable views. I made my way towards the park exit as there was an obvious American Wigeon close to the shore in that direction. All done and dusted by shortly after 10am.

The close views...

The more helpful ID views (sometimes up close doesn't do it)...

And some nice reflections on the water (well why not?)...

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Lesser Whitethroat

I don't remember exactly when it was, must surely have been well over 10 years ago? I saw my first and, until now, only Lesser Whitethroat in Japan. I'm only bringing the previous bird into the narrative because this species is so rare in Japan and to see two birds at unremarkable inland sites only about 25km apart is quite a coincidence.

A friend told me about the bird a couple of days ago and we went across to Aichi yesterday. The park gates open at eight and there was already a good number of cars when we rolled in at about half past. It was one of those easy twitches; too easy in fact.

The whir of shutters as we approached the group left no doubt the bird was showing... the sky was cloudless, the sun already pleasantly warm and there wasn't a breathe of air. In fact the air was unusually clear all day and snow capped mountains to the north look deceptively close. We stayed until about midday because although the bird was never missing for long, it was difficult to photograph. It spent most of its time fairly high in the trees of a small circular copse and was extremely active. It was typically obscured by foreground foliage creating very strong shadow contrasts across the well lit bird.  

Despite four hours on site I came away with precious few images worth keeping. But it was nevertheless a photo tick as the previous bird was in my sketching, note-taking, camera-free existence.

The face pattern could change from being distinctly masked to only slightly darker. In this case judiciously positioned shadows produce a boldly masked appearance. 


After that we headed across to Lake Biwa to welcome the newly arrived Steller's Sea Eagle, which had fetched up about seven days ahead of its average annual return date. The line of cars parked in front of the Steller's hill was ridiculous! No doubt the mild, sunny weather encouraged people to linger longer in the hope of flight views. Actually the bird was surprisingly difficult to spot on the hillside, it's much easier once the leaves have fallen. The same may yet prove true for the Lesser Whitethroat too. The afternoon is a dreadful time to check the lake from Kohokucho as the lowering sun is directly opposite, it's more a time for the sunset-and-swans photo specialists.

There were very few Tundra Swans or geese on the lake and we focused our efforts on finding birds across the fields. Our only real success was a flock of 25 Common Starlings with about three White-cheeked mixed in. Common Starling was once a rarity in this part of Japan but I see them every winter nowadays, frequently in more than one location, and the number of individuals is also on the rise. A flock of 25 here is something quite new in my experience.

Common Starling, an increasingly frequent winter sight nowadays.

A reversed spot-the-rarity competition; a single White-cheeked with these Common Starlings.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Chasing geese in Miyagi

Back in the 80's I walked across the tarmac to transit in Samarkand Airport building on several occasions. Does this mean I've been to Uzbekistan? Well, politically no but geographically yes I suppose it does. Similarly I've stood on the deck of a ferry while docked in Sendai numerous times, almost touching distance to Miyagi but until last week it had remained one of two Japanese prefectures I'd never set foot in.

Miyagi is a bit out of the way if you're based in Kyoto, whenever I head north I drive the quicker Japan Sea route rather than along the Pacific side of the country. However I finally made the pilgrimage to see the goose flocks of Miyagi and ticked the prefecture off my list.

It's still rather early in the season to see the spectacle of the geese flying up from Lake Izunuma, there will be five times the current number of geese pretty soon. So why go now? One reason is that it's still shirt sleeve weather up there. Another being Japan's first record of Red-breasted Goose! This was a fairly open secret as I drove up but during the three days I was there it became increasingly obvious the news was already spreading rapidly even in the Kansai area. So I don't think it can be considered a secret any longer.

Even if the goose numbers haven't peaked, the sight is still very impressive. If Kyushu has the dawn flight of cranes at Arasaki and Hokkaido has the astonishing sight of flocks of sea eagles sitting like gigantic sparrows in the trees of Rausu town, then this must be Honshu's contribution to outstanding birding sights of Japan.

The geese start to lift from the lake pre-dawn and just keep on coming, wave after wave, throughout the sunrise.

The vast majority of the geese are Greater White-fronts, Taiga Beans are numerous enough to be found fairly easily but other species can take time depending on your luck. I was finding flocks of geese as far as 30km form the lakes and presumably they spread out in all directions, so that's a lot of ground to cover.

I arrived at midday Thursday after a 12-hour drive and I spent the afternoon around Lake Izunuma, where I'd been informed the Red-breasted is sometimes seen. No luck with that but an immature Snow Goose was the first of the possible species which, with luck/effort, can be seen here. Snow and Cackling are still extreme rarities in western Japan (I've only seen one of each down here), though records may increase as the wintering population of these two species is increasing in northern Honshu. Lesser White-front is rare but more frequent in western Japan and it also has a larger Izunuma population compared to the other two species.

The first of two Greater Snow Geese; this bird could be seen without much effort as it was always in the general Lake Izunuma area and of course because it stood out like a sore thumb.

I had been curious whether I'd see any difference between the Miyagi and Shiga Taiga Bean Geese but the appearance of Miyagi birds was both very consistent and a good match for majority of the Shiga population.

On Friday morning I was positioned pre-dawn at the western end of Lake Izunuma with a crowd of photographers waiting for the geese to leave the roost.

I know I said shirt-sleeve weather... but this was early. Still, I think they it's a bit over the top, I thought a sweater quite enough. I can imagine it'll be pretty brutal in a couple of months though.

Most geese headed off north west and I followed hoping to find the Red-breasted. I didn't find it but I know now I was on the right track. Later in the day, and a good few kilometres away I came across this rather attractive Greater White-front. With my very limited knowledge of colour aberrations I think this is an example 'pastel' dilution.

A rather attractive ghostly Greater White-front.

On the same fields as light was failing I finally connected with my only Cackling Geese of the trip, unfortunately I couldn't get closer than this and they weren't in these fields the following day.

A record shot of my only Cackling Geese of the trip, found in the nick of time after the sun had set. 

I decided not to watch the post-roost dispersal on Saturday morning. There were other places I wanted to try, particularly the fields where the Cackling had been the previous day then further west beyond Lake Naganuma where I'd already found large concentrations of geese.

At the first port of call there were about 250 Whooper swans, the largest gathering I saw, and a Snow Goose close to the track (I think this was the same bird as yesterday), then more geese stretching away across the fields. This was so so enjoyable I spent about 2.5 hours watching these birds, far longer than I had intended, before making my way to Naganuma.

We get large numbers of Tundra Swans in western Japan but Whoopers aren't common. It's a pity really, I find the first winters very attractive, more so than either the adults or similarly aged Tundras.

After checking through the flocks near Naganuma I pushed further west and came across the only Lesser White-fronts of the trip. I counted 35 birds on the first sweep but I soon noticed more distant birds plus others flying over and it's probably no exaggeration to say there must have been 50 birds in small parties mixed in with the Greater White-fronts in that area. There was also another immature Snow Goose, this definitely was a different bird.

Six Lesser White-fronts with two Greaters (right).

Most Lessers were in fields with longer vegetation, coincidence or preference I don't know.

Their high-pitched flight calls made them easily recognisable at any distance.

At this point I had planned to head back to the Friday morning area and right on cue I received a message to say that's where the Red-breasted was! Sad to say, I never made it. Someone didn't stop at a crossroads (it was completely flat and completely open!), hit my van just behind the rear wheel and I went rolling down the road. Not long after I'd climbed up and out through the skyward passenger side door and dropped down to the road the ambulance arrived. That was fast! It seemed I had no option but to go to hospital, they were very insistent, which meant I left all my belonging, including phone and wallet inside the van.

After wasting time at the hospital... I was fine apart from my nose, the police kindly chauffeured me to the correct wrecker's yard, at the second attempt, where I could collect my money, phone and optical gear from the dead van, then sadly back to Tome to catch a bus to Sendai (that with the port I'm very familiar with, as mentioned earlier) and then shinkansen back to Tokyo/Kyoto. The policeman had suggested a taxi to Sendai... taxi to Sendai! good grief how much do they get paid.

So the upshot is my wife's new van is dead, my wife's angry... no no no... my wife's apoplectic, and I suffered a very painful dip.

And now, just one last Japanese prefecture to visit; I wonder what it has in store.