Saturday, 28 September 2013

My Region

What’s in a name; Kinki or Kansai? And does it matter anyway? Well, it seems asking the locals how many prefectures there are in one region or the other can elicit a different number. Mie either gets the nod or it doesn’t depending on which question is posed, some even throw in Fukui. This confusion aside the six prefectures of Kyoto, Shiga, Hyogo, Osaka, Wakayama, and Nara aren’t in dispute. I’ve never tried to tot up my Kansai list so to answer my own question, it really doesn’t matter at all. I’ve no need of list boosting gerrymandering because the only relevant consideration is which good birding areas can be easily reached form my home in Kyoto city. So my personal Kansai is an alternative vision which stretches through Fukui into southern Ishikawa to take in goose grounds and wintering seabirds but ignores large most of Hyogo which doesn’t have any birds I can see elsewhere. Mie definitely gets the nod, it’s easily doable in a day and is great for passage waders, wintering wildfowl and some northern gulls that don’t usually make it to the western side of the Kii Peninsular where I do my gulling.
Birding is best in winter, there’s a far larger range of species and greater variety of places worth visiting. The region is very different to Hokkaido and it rarely gets cold enough to be an inconvenience, there’s no need to go through the time consuming ritual of putting on and taking off layers of clothing at every stop. However there’s a big difference in snowfall between the Pacific and Japan Sea sides of the country. Northern Shiga tends to get the most snow, more than coastal areas of neighbouring Fukui, and if renting a car it’s important to remember that the expressway there is frequently closed to vehicles not equipped with either winter tyres or chains. Confirm with your rental company that you’ve got winter tyres if you’re picking up a car on the snow-free Pacific side.
Spring weather can be beautiful but there are often chilly, even wintery, days into April but this is a great time to be out looking for migrants. Temperatures build quickly towards the arrival of the rainy season in June. There are plenty of dry days during the rainy season and the temperature is often very pleasant but humidity is increasing and by the end of the rains, about six weeks later, the combination of very high temperatures, dreadful humidity and relatively few breeding species means birding can be disappointing and sticking to the mountains of Nara and northern Kyoto are the best bet for a good variety of birds. Basically, avoid coming in summer if at all possible.
By September I’m champing at the bit to get out more, apart from the odd typhoon conditions are rapidly improving, waders are moving through, birds of prey are passing over and the city parks are attracting migrant passerines again. October continues to be an exciting time to be in the field with late migrants and early winter visitors.

This is a personal view of the region and such is its size and the range of birding options there are still many potentially good areas I’ve never even visited. From a visiting birder’s stand point this isn’t a must do part of the country and those on dedicated birding trips aren’t likely to come here, however I still get to take a lot of visitors out birding, conference attendees, those on business trips and people who want to incorporate a bit of birding while sightseeing in Kyoto and Nara. I plan to post information on as many local sites as possible which I hope will be of use to anyone who may have a day or two to spare in the area.

About me

I could say my birding CV begins around age 10, wandering around the neighbourhood on Tyneside as far as my feet would take me and co-opting a willing uncle to drive me to places they wouldn't. But my pitman grandfather could've staked a claim to setting me on my birding path even earlier, taking me for long walks across the fells revealing industrial as well as natural history; a working pithead, the worlds oldest single arch railway bridge (ca.1726), Lapwings' nests and leverets. But as I'd already experienced the thrill of finding my first rarity, a party of Snow Buntings in the garden, I suspect my fate had already been sealed. I'll knock any chance of the nature versus nurture question on the head before it arises. Apparently my mother used to lay me as a baby in a window overlooking the garden to watch the birds coming to be fed. So after years with a foot on the slippery birding slope, joining a Young Ornithologist's Club outings group gave me the final push into what sometimes feels like a lifetime of dips with just enough "Snow Buntings" to keep me going. By age 14 I was hitch-hiking around the UK to see birds and from there it was mere hop, skip and a jump to see me fetch up in Japan.

After an initial dash around the country in the late '80s I spent more time focusing on birding in Asia but since about 2000 I've turned my attention back to Japan. Apart from plugging away in Kansai I try to get to the Japan Sea islands for a week every spring and autumn, often Mishima in spring but also Hegurajima, Tsushima and Yonaguni in recent seasons. Hegura remains the big draw in autumn. Summer and winter usually see my heading north or south to see birds that don't occur closer to home.

I started digiscoping, mainly gulls, in 2000 but didn't invest in an SLR much later. Finding a Eurasian Crag Martin (probably a first for Japan) in a huge passage of hirundines and swifts on Mishima made me realize it might be prudent to be prepared for any more sole observer vagrants. Coming along so late it's not surprising photography is very much secondary to birding, I'm still satisfied with my Canon D40 and Sigma lens, but it is growing on me!