Sunday, 3 January 2021

Baer's and Ferruginous, plus hybrids on Lake Biwa

 Apart from the Kanto tick-fest in December, my last five birding trips have all been to Biwako - four of them, unusually, to the south end. Mie has certainly taken a back seat this winter; so far.

In the dim and distant past I made regular visits to the south end of Lake Biwa, often working my way north, layby by layby, checking the ducks for as long as daylight would allow. Over time my MO changed, instead I'd head to the north end overnight and bird my way south. The reason for the strategic shift being that a wider range of habitat at the top end would equate to better birding. That there is a wider range of habitat up there still holds true. But is the birding always better? One unintended consequence of the shift was that I largely ignore the ducks, there isn't enough time if I want to cover all that additional habitat, woodland alone knocks three hours off the day. Missing out on ducks is strange indeed since if there's one thing Lake Biwa is associated with, it's seeing vast, vast numbers of wintering ducks.

This snapped into sharp focus with the recent December visits, the first of them to help a mate see a couple of duck targets still outstanding for his 2020 year list. Our first objective was a Ferruginous Duck we knew to be present in a particular area. 

We pulled into the first parking area, kitted-up and started to scan the visible flock. One of the first birds in the scope was a Baer's Pochard! Well that was unexpected. After a 400-metre walk along the shore, the target Fudge Duck was in the bag. That's 30 minutes sifting and two rare ducks seen, one of them a global mega no less. "Ducks - one,  'wide range of habitat' - nil". As it happened there was also a Red-crested Pochard less than 1km further up the lakeside, not a bad stretch of water. We could have packed up and gone for second breakfast. 

So, I've been spending time looking at ducks recently. I've never thought of myself as much of a duck person to be honest, but the style of birding is right up my street; immobility. None of this crashing through trackless forests or stomping over mountain ranges. For me, you can't beat sitting on a cliff top sea-watching, letting the birds put in the effort, or on ferries, I'm equally happy with that, and of course relaxing on the beach sifting through gull flocks. Sitting and sifting; my kind of birding. 

A word (or two) of advice to any would-be sit-an-sifter. The cliff-tops aren't always quite as balmy as you might picture in your mind's eye, be prepared to leave the parasol and sunscreen at home. If, on the ferry, sea-spray freezes instantly on contact with your clothing, don't take your gloves off to help locate that ridiculously tiny shutter-release button on your camera because your camera will already have packed-up. Oh and don't touch the rail to steady yourself, even with gloves on. The ideal conditions for sitting on the beach are when there are no joggers, dog walkers or sundry others to disturb the gulls, you don't want to have to keep relocating to follow the flock, obviously. Unfortunately at such times 90 percent of the beach tends to be airborne somewhere between ground level and knee-height, the remaining 10 between knee and waist, so best not sit. 

Back to ducks; the success with sifting hasn't stopped with Baer's and Fudge. My first foray of 2021 netted 12 Baikal Teal on a small satellite pond, the Red-crested Pochard (which still won't even come within record shot range) and the big prize of a Baer's hybrid, as well as my second Fudge hybrid in as many weeks. The Fudge could be the same bird relocated to a different area, I can't be sure as the first sighting was against the sun so hardly ideal to see the fine details. 

It's an unfortunate situation that such a rare species as Baer's Pochard manifests such a high rate of hybrid offspring sightings, I've probably seen more Baer's x Common Pochard hybrids over the years than any other duck combination (except Eurasian x American Wigeon which wins by a country mile, they just can't keep their feathers off each other). But from the sifters' perspective it's an indisputably good find. 

As the hybrids are arguably of more interest than the real deals (we know what they look like), I'll start with the them; Baer's first.  

Nice it has a full green head, no doubting what one half of the progenitor pair was. I've noticed in the past that, though Baer's will be green-headed at this time of year, they can still show distinctly reddish hues into December, indicating head moult hasn't been completed at that time. So red on the head in early December isn't reason to doubt the authenticity of a bird. The Fudge hybrid, below, is no less distinctive as far as head colouration goes. Both have eyes that must be influenced by their Common Pochard side.

The Fudge tended to stay reasonably close to shore and sooner or later would have been close enough to get good shots of. The Baer's on the other hand, not unlike the Red-crested Pochard, seemed to prefer staying well out on the water. So a couple of Fudge shots and a record shot of the Baer's...


Friday, 18 December 2020

Yellow-bellied Tit and a few plastics

I've only ever been to Choshi in summer (thank you Least Tern), rather strange considering how much time I spend gulling you might think. Well, yes, but on the other hand it's a fair old hike from Kyoto. An almost eight-hour non-stop drive in fact. However, when I heard about the arrival of Yellow-bellied Tits a while ago I knew I'd have to get up there some time this winter.

Yellow-bellied Tits at Choshi... again? On the 'wrong side' of Japan and in exactly the same spot. How weird is that. How much of Japan did they fly over to get there? To happen once is quite a surpise, but to happen twice is bizarre. Well as I said, I knew they were likely to stay all winter and that I'd have to get up there at some point. The point came last week.

I didn't do the whole eight-hour drive in one irresponsible stretch, I actually stopped twice. Once at a Tokyo park that just happened to have some Rose-ringed Parakeets flying around making a din and another park where there were Masked Laughing Thrushes bouncing around making a din. Some plastics play hard to get but these were the kind I like best, get'm and go. They weren't the only plastic on this trip I might add. This was a veritable tick-fest with three plastics, one armchair, one heard only and of course the Yellow-bellied Tits. 

Masked Laughing Thrushes: the park even has a Starbucks next to the birds' favourite clump of bushes.

The Tits played hard to get. Not that I blame them so much, more my own expectations. When I originally heard they were in a park, even if it were the size of four football fields, I thought how hard can that be?! A park; a park in this area means manicured lawns with a few trees sticking out, I wasn't expecting a jungle. My heart sank just pulling into the car park for the first time... not to mention each subsequent occasion.

On the first attempt locals told us the best spot to look, they also told us they'd seen one briefly at 10am, too briefly to photograph, and hadn't had another sign since. Hardly encouraging. Here I was at the gulling capital of Japan and I'm stuck in a forest looking for a small passerine. I'm not sure which I felt more strongly, frustration at not gulling or fear that I might not see the Tits, and do no gulling. The next day I managed untickable views, my mate saw two birds together, one was nice and yellow the other was drab and doing a Coal Tit impersonation. I didn't see the yellow one. I glimpsed the impersonator... from behind. This was hard, frustration up a couple of notches. And to make matters worse, all the Great Tits and Varied Tits were chattering away like mad, doing a Laughing Thrush you might say, while in contrast the Yellow-bellieds were almost silent. I say almost because I heard a single call, once. So much for morning activity, try again in the (becoming rather chilly, overcast and even showery) afternoon. But, the third time really was lucky, how rare is that? I saw three different birds and I heard them calling on three or four occasions. Success! Just as well because the following day was pouring rain from beginning to end. I also learned the IOC has bestowed specieshood on the Bonin Greenfinch; armchair! A good day, and by coincidence my birthday.

Yellow-bellied Tit, one of three seen (apparently there are four).

The next day was spent gulling. Gulling from the car it has to be said, because as I mentioned the rain never stopped all day. My mate was hoping to see Thayer's today because he had a flight booked to go after the Black-winged Cuckoo-Shrikes on Ishigaki the following day but sadly the Thayer's (sorry thayeri Iceland) was a no-show.

Not-a-Thayer's Reef Egret

Not-a-Thayer's Temminck's Cormorant

After a night in Narita my next port of call was Mito city. Yes, that Mito city, home of Black Swans. I did warn there was more plastic to come. My mate Richard explained there were two car parks at the west side of 'swan lake', one that costs Y500 and one that does not. So on arrival I rolled into the first jam-packed car park I see, jump out, and head towards the lake only to be buttonholed by an attendant politely demanding Y500. What is wrong with the people of Mito? Why are they squeezing into a pay car park when there's a free one 200 metres further along. I can only imagine they were all, like me, out of towners who'd made a special trip to see the Black Swans.

Black Swan

This was another high quality plastic, stroll up, record shot, back in the van and off to Choshi again. 

The following day was a full day of gulling... more to follow.    

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Eleven species of bunting on Hegura in October

Hegurajima is always good for buntings in October and this year was no exception with 11 species seen even though the expected Tristram's was missed for possibly the first time ever. Birds seen were Pine (2), Chesnut-eared, Little, Rustic, Elegant, Black-faced (personata and spodocephala), Grey, Pallas's Reed (4+), Japanese Reed (1-2), Common Reed (1) and Lapland (1). 

There were two highlights for me, Lapland which I've only seen here once and Japanese Reed Bunting which was an island tick. Additionally Pine is an October specialty (usually in slightly bigger numbers) and Pallas's, which isn't guaranteed, put up a much better showing than the norm.