Wednesday, 30 October 2013


Tundra Swan Columbianus bewickii bewickii is the common swan of the region but is restricted to the Japan Sea side of the country therefore Lake Biwa (Biwako) is the closest to Kyoto it occurs. Some make it down towards the southern end of the lake but most remain at the northern end. It can be found at many other wetlands in the north of Kansai.

                                                                      Two adults.

                                                        Dark-billed immature, 18 January.

                                                 Immatures still lighter-billed, 2 December.

Tundra Swan C.c.columbianus also occurs in the region in small numbers and can be found at Lake Biwa or elsewhere but I don't find birds every year even though it might be expected that birds would return to the same location in successive winters, particularly where family groups are concerned.

Classic columbianus, a large individual with a tiny yellow tear drop in front of the eye.

Not all birds are as obviously columbianus, the following shots are of a family party at Kokoku, Biwako. The first bird would be a good contender in its own right but the second has quite extensive yellow on the bill. The immature has very limited pale areas on the bill and again looks good. Collectively they are quite convincing.

The adult with limited yellow on the bill.

The adult with more extensive yellow.

The young bird, Lake Biwa February 2008.

I've never encountered Whooper Swan at Lake Biwa and their appearance in the region seems unpredictable but it's possible to bump into singles mixed in with flocks of Tundra Swan.

Whooper Swan in southern Hokkaido.

Trumpeter Swan is a rarity in Japan and those that do occur would be expected in the north, so a bird at Lake Shinji (Shinjiko), Shimane prefecture came as a huge surprise and was really popular with birders, particularly as other birds at this location during the winter included Ruddy Shelduck, Pied Avocet, Common and Arctic redpolls and Snow Bunting.

                                              Trumpeter Swan with Tundra Swans.

Lake Biwa

The lake is the largest in Japan, as wide as the English Channel and over 60km in length. Only a fraction of it and the surrounding habitats can be covered in a day but for the visiting birder there are a number of key locations to visit allowing a good variety of species to be found. This is a must do area in winter for anyone in the region but a car is essential to do more than scratch the surface of the lake's potential.

The only important location that can be reached by public is Kohoku Wild Bird Center. From Kyoto take JR Tokaido line to Maibara and change to the Hokuriku line getting off at Kawake station. There is a mini bus that runs to the wild bird center on the lake or the 6km walk across the fields can be productive, there can be Dusky Thrushes, lapwings, and Daurian Jackdaws on the fields and there are frequently Long-billed Plover on the river at Kawake near the station.

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My personal preference is to start with woodland birds north of the lake at dawn, snow depth affects access, then work down the east side. There are plenty of good locations in the north west too but fewer good birding opportunities heading south on that side of the lake.

Woodland species aren't much different to those found around Kyoto except White-backed Woodpecker is fairly common and Nuthatch and Treecreeper are possible. Japanese Woodpecker is more common up here and Elegant Bunting, very uncommon around Kyoto, is also to be expected. However woodland birding might be better thought of as an optional extra.

There are ducks everywhere on the lake though some are easier to see in certain areas, for example Goosander and redhead Smew are more common at the northern end while drake Smew gather further south. Baikal Teal are mainly at Kohoku-cho. Other rare ducks there have been include Green-winged Teal, Red Crested Pochard (annual), Baer's Pochard, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Ferruginous Duck, and birds like these could turn up anywhere.

This isn't actually the regular Steller's, others occasionally turn up and winter around the lake.

Many visiting birders I take there are keen to see Steller's Sea Eagle and the regular bird is easy to find at Kohoku-cho in the north east, though who knows how old that bird is or how much longer it will continue to winter there. This is also the best place to see Baikal Teal, Eastern Water Rail, a variety of ducks, birds of prey and birds of open country such as Daurian Jackdaw with any Rook flocks you come across.

If you stop at every likely spot heading south from there, you won't reach the southern end in daylight but it's risky recommending other sites because where birds might be is unpredictable and it may be better just to trust to your instincts. However the area just north of Omihachiman is often productive, Lake Sainoko is a roost site for Hen Harrier and Eastern Marsh Harrier and these can often be seen cruising along the edge of route 526. The fields stretching north from Sainoko to Lake Biwa can be interesting, Merlin, Daurian Jackdaw, Buff-bellied Pipit are all possible, there was a wintering Hooded Crane a few winters ago. The two rivers, especially the Notogawa are good for ducks and even waders. Long-billed Plover is frequently around the second road bridge from the lake on the Notogawa. Also the coast road around the wooded hills often has large concentrations of ducks and Black-necked Grebes, the commoner woodland birds are also well represented.

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Tuesday, 29 October 2013


Lake Biwa hosts the nearest wintering geese to Kyoto, with over 200 Taiga (Middendorff's) Bean annually at Kohaku-cho at the north east end of the lake and there is also a small but increasing number of Greater White-fronted with them. Rarer geese sometimes occur, I've seen Swan, Tundra Bean but unfortunately missed the best of all, a Greylag.

Taiga on Lake Biwa, February 2014.

The geese are usually quite distant here, often swimming or asleep on the wrong side of the island, fortunately this tiny Tundra Bean wandered into the foreground.

A family of Tundra in the foreground, middendorffii behind.

Further north into Fukui there are huge flocks of Greater White-front, especially around Sakai-cho, Fukui city and on up into Ishikawa where there are more Taiga Bean at Katano Kamo Ike. Every winter there'll be a few Lesser White-fronts to reward effort sifting through the flocks. In 2006 there was also a Swan Goose and Cackling Goose with the White-fronts. The former is rare in Japan and the latter becoming more frequent further north.

This Greater White-front dropped onto Hegurajima as many singletons do in early October.

This old video-grab provides an excellent comparison of head and bill between the two species.

A poor quality video-grab of a very rare combination of geese.

Swan Goose with Taiga Beans on Lake Biwa, 8 November 2013. This goose wintered here.

Strictly speaking Lake Shinji (Shinjiko), Shimane isn't within Kansai but it's doable as a day trip with an overnight drive from Kyoto. It's worth spending longer if possible as it's a fantastic place for birding. In the winter of 2008/09 there were many rare birds wintering in the area and one of them was Snow Goose, a species which is much easier to see further north in Japan and can't be expected in Kansai but its presence to the west shows it is at least possible.

A fantastic bird to see within a day trip from Kyoto.

There are always a few Black Brant on the sea in the Tsu/Matsusaka area in Mie but they are invariably rather distant.

Black Brant looking very small off-shore with Mallards and Falcated Duck in Mie, Janurary 2014.


The region isn't particularly rich in gamebirds, nor is Japan generally for that matter, Chinese Bamboo Partridge and Copper and Green Pheasants are the only species that can be hoped for in Kansai.

The introduced Chinese Bamboo Partridge can be found in the hills around Kyoto but I only run into them very occasionally. They used to be common along the Yodo River between Mukaijima and Yawata but I haven't heard them there for several years. They seem far easier to see in some other parts of the country but I have the feeling they can be easy to see at some sites but unaccountably secretive at others. Many authorities now split sonorivox as Taiwan Bamboo Partridge and I believe this breeds to the west of Osaka but I've never tried for it.
Chinese Bamboo Partridge, Tsushima, Nagasaki.

The bird in the shot above was one of two birds calling back and forth across a narrow woodland lane on Tsushima, Nagasaki. Another species which is common, in fact unavoidable, on Tsushima is Ring-necked Pheasant, where Brazil (East Asia Field Guide 2009) states it could be an indigenous population. Elsewhere it is introduced and in my experience most conspicuously so in the Yaeyama Islands in the extreme south of the country.

Roadside Ring-necked Pheasant in the rain. Tsushima, Nagasaki-ken in May.

Copper and Green Pheasants will be the most sought after of Kyoto's gamebirds. Copper Pheasant used to be fairly easy to find on all the hills around the city and I'd often see them on Mt Inari when I lived there but unfortunately they seem to have long since disappeared from that location. It still occurs in more continuous forests to the north and west of the city but it requires luck to stumble across one. I can go visit after visit without a hint of their existence then find them in different locations in the same day. Green Pheasant is altogether far more numerous but never guaranteed on any given day. It's a bird of extensive arable land with plenty of scrub or fallow areas and also overgrown riversides. In Kyoto it's common along the Uji and Yodo rivers to the south and even along the Katsura River through the western suburbs.

Green Pheasant on a dull, wet morning when they seem to linger longer in the open.

but they're much better on a brighter morning...

and great on a bright one.


The name Ogura refers to an extensive area of arable land south of the Uji River, on the southern side of the city. Once a huge flood plain between the Uji and Kiso rivers it must have been spectacular for birds. Though now tamed it's still an attractive place for birds and offers something different to the hilly, forested habitat that otherwise surrounds Kyoto. Ogura is something of a misnomer as the closest station is Mukaijima on the Kintetsu line rather than Ogura, the next station down the line.


The fields can be very interesting in winter. Northern Lapwings often become even more numerous than the resident Grey-headed and in some winters it's possible to see a good variety of birds of prey, though Eastern Buzzard, Merlin, Peregrine and Eurasian Kestrel are the staples. Large flocks of Rooks disperse across the fields at first light and in most years they have at least the odd Daurian Jackdaw with them. A good cross section of passerines is possible too; this is the most consitent place locally to see Russet Sparrow, buntings are well represented with Rustic, Black-faced, Meadow and Reed all common while resident Chestnut-eared are more difficult to find. Pallas's Reed Bunting is very rare and the formerly regular Japanese Reed Bunting is far less likely nowadays. Dusky Thrushes are common and Naumann's Thrush can sometimes be found among them but it isn't to be expected. Major rares I've seen here include Rough-legged Buzzard (a big rare for this area), Fieldfare and Meadow Pipit.

In spring and autumn flocks of egrets dot the area, both Cattle and Intermediate are common migrants. If there are wet fallow fields, the place can be fantastic for waders and I've recorded over 30 species, but saddly the right conditions hardly ever coincide with peak wader passage. The drier areas can still be productive, I've been lucky enough to see a Little Whimbrel here but Latham's and Swinhoe's Snipe are both regular and in August Oriental Pratincole can usually be found. Migrant passerines are mainly birds of open country, Siberian Stonechat, pipits, wagtails and larks but I've also found Hoopoe and Middendorff's Warbler. A streaked Shearwater was exceptional!

The adjacent riparian habitat is excellent with reedbed, scrub and small areas of trees stretching for kilometres. Often I'll walk downstream from Mukaijima station to Yawata-shi on the Keihan line. The name of the river changes from Ujigawa to Yodogawa at Yodo, half way between the two places.
The Yodo valley is clearly an important flyway which can make for excellent birding and I've seen some great birds along the river, usual species include the four commoner flycatchers, Sakhalin Warbler, several thrushes, Chestnut-cheeked Starling, Japanese Yellow Bunting. Green Pheasant is common but not always easily seen and Long-billed Plover can be expected in suitable areas. Rarer species I've found include Whiskered Tern, Chinese Penduline Tit (formerly a more regular winter visitor), Black Redstart (a major rarity in Japan) and Little Bunting. Recently along the
Yodogawa there has been Great Grey Shrike, Isabelline Wheatear and Petchora Pipit. Anything could turn up along here.

This is arguably the best single location around Kyoto. The area has great potential and the combination of different habitats within a short distance makes for interesting birding. A day can be spent along the river and across the fields, or just a section can be accessed returning via the same railway station.

Take the Kintetsu line from Kyoto station and get off at Mukaijima immediately after crossing the Uji River (local train stop only, though the express can be taken if you change at Tambabashi), or use the subway and change to the Kintetsu line at Takeda. The fields are obvious to the west from the station with the river you've just crossed to your right. Alternatively take the Keihan line from Kyoto to Yawata-shi, directly after crossing the Yodo and Kiso rivers and walk back up river. If you start early morning Mukaijima is the better option to keep the sun behind you.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Hegura October 10th-14th

10th October
This was our first morning without a typhoon hammering at the windows and though the forecast was for rain the sky looked quite promising. As birds had been making landfall yesterday we set off with high hopes and by about 07:00 the sky was clearing and the wind, initially from the north, gradually moved into the north west.

A pre-breakfast walk around the north end of the island produced our first Siberian Stonechat, Rustic Bunting numbers were clearly up and I pulled back Elegant Bunting that Gordon had seen yesterday. Two Black Terns were still flying round and still attracting a lot of pointless attention from the Peregrines.

Saddly for Gordon the sea was sufficiently calmed for the ferry to be opperating again so his time was cut shorter than he'd wished. He had no excuse not to be on the quay in Wajima to meet his waiting family in the afternoon. So the pressure was on him to find something good before the ferry departed at 3pm. There certainly were new birds arriving but it really wasn't until close to his departure time that things picked up. He had a Great Spotted Woodpecker and I had a Pigmy, there were 4-5 Daurian Redstarts where there had been none, more Siberian Stonechats put in an appearance, there was a Rubythroat and half a dozen Blue and White Flycatchers. No big rares, but an unexpected Korean Bush Warbler was an island first for me and as I write a Black-crowned Night Heron is calling over the minshyuku bringing today's total to 44 species and the trip to 63.

                                                                     The first of many.

11th October
The wind started from the north west this morning, it was darkly overcast and there had already been heavy rain. In front of the minshyuku I found three Middendorff's Warblers, and one Black-browed, a Rubythroat and a Little Bunting. Siskin and Rustic Bunting numbers had swollen dramatically and I witnessed a Northern Sparrowhawk and five Grey Herons come off the sea before breakfast. Things were looking good. But before long torrential rain set in, stair-rods with 10cm high splash back misting above the concrete path, thunder banded and rumbled and the relative calm of a brisk northerly transformed into a howler from the south. The ferry was going nowhere yet again so Gordon made the right call in leaving yesterday.

I plodded round for a while but there comes a point, be it on the landlocked local patch or a high profile migration hot spot, where you have to acknowledge that if your aim is to fine birds and the weather is making that impossible, then you may as well be doing something else. I came back to the minshyuku at about 11am to sit it out and here I am still sitting writing this. This is more like a typhoon than the typhoon!

Things did improve, the rain became bins birdable by 2:30. No tripod, scope or camera: old school. New birds for the trip were Osprey, Dark-sided Flycatcher, which I always think of as a surprisingly scarce migrant, and a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler. Also of interest was another Korean Bush Warbler which, despite being in a different area from yesterday's bird from a birders perspective, was only about 200m away as the bush warbler clambers. Nevertheless it looked a bit smaller and less bright so perhaps it could have been a female.

With five new trip birds today the total edged up to 68. As I write a Japanese Oak Silk Moth has just banged into the minshyuku door and tatty as it may be, it doesn't look too bad considering the weather it's had to fly through.


12th October
It's 05:15 and I'm waiting for birding light over an instant coffee. The marine forecast is predicting a 45Kt westerly for the day, less severe than yesterday but enough to ensure there'll be no ferry again today. Looking on the bright side it's another day of not tripping over photographers or dipping on other people's birds. But more importantly, though I get to Hegura almost every October, I can't remember a time I've had a strong and sustained westerly originating in Asia.  There has to be something good today!

The day started overcast, but despite my high hopes a Common Kingfisher on the Dragon Pond was the only evidence of new arrivals in the morning.

                                               Most cuckoos pass through brfore October.

There were sudden showers between long sunny spells in the afternoon and movement was more apparent on the windward side. A Kestrel passed straight through, there was a cuckoo on the coastal path, a conspicuous White-cheeked Starling on the lighthouse wires and a Greater White-fronted Goose flew south before doubling back to settle on the harbour 'waste ground'. The real surprise was to flush a scops owl from the trackside near the south end at 4pm. So, things were happening but nothing to really set the pulse racing. There must be more I haven't connected with yet.

Other birds Gordon had seen that I managed to catch up with today were Great Spotted Woodpecker, White's and Eye-browed thrushes hauling the total up to 78.

13th October
The day began with the wind still in the west, no longer so strong but the direction and duration were encouraging. With conditions as they'd been I thought the central path might be the best bet to find a skulker in the open first thing. A sparrowhawk with a Pale Thrush on the path proved I had the right idea, I was just a little slow getting there. I can't complain, it was satisfied with a Pale Thrush, I'd have wanted something better.

                                                                    The early bird.

I'd never bother with breakfast on other islands, a waste of precious birding time, but on Hegura the minshyuku is in one of the birdiest locations on the island and always worth giving another look. This morning was no different with a European Starling on the wires right outside the door and stepping back outside a Japanese Sparrowhawk dashed by. There were four vociferous Yellow-brows and a couple of Little Buntings around too.

                                                    Yellow-brows were fairly common.

                      Geese that don't pass straight through usually end up by the harbour.

The area was suddenly awash with Daurian Redstarts. Ever the optimist, there really had to be something good... !

Well, there wasn't and today was disappointingly quite.

The ferry ran today and a boat-load of birders piled onto the island. The island had gained a few new birds, most noticably the Daurians which are in anycase expected in good numbers now being early-arriving winter visitors, but a lot of stuff had obviously left the previous night. The flycatchers were gone, warbler and thrush numbers were way down and by three o'clock the thought that I should've taken the ferry back even crossed my mind.

Lighter wind and resultant lack of spindrift (airbourne ocean more like) allowed access to a good stretch of shoreline habitat which held two more Middendorff's and the trip's first Reed Bunting.

              Working the little coves is hard work with so much wet salt getting everywhere.

Though rather disappointing the feeling is tempered by the thought migration would be barely perceptible were I birding back in Kyoto. The trip list has crawled up to 82.

                                         Middendorff's aren't always as skulking as other locustella.

14th October
I made it back to Kyoto at around midnight for a 05:30 work alarm this morning. Though waking 30 minutes later than I would've done on Hegura we all know getting up for work is quite a different matter.

But, back on the island the pre-departure lethargy had set in at about noon yesterday. It's not actually lethargy, more an irritable sense of futility, there's not enough time to get stuck into anything. The last chance to find a mega maybe but supposing you glimpse a skulker with potential while hurrying back to the harbour? For me it's more a time to sit and wait, to hope someone else finds something while there's still time to dash off for it. So I wandered back to the minshyuku to pack, dumped my bag at the dock and mooched. Believe it or not the mooching paid off thanks to a couple of Pine Buntings in the patch of confined scrub next to what I think of as the town square down by the ferry dock. Anyone who's been there will know the square of mown grass with a couple of shelters and a few benches for the tourists. Quite why half the area is fenced off rank vegetation with two or three bushes I don't know, perhaps in acknowledgement that tourist pretty much equates to birder out there.

I'd already seen Pine Bunting that morning, one of two new species for the trip, and there had obviously been an influx of Elegant Buntings. It seemed the late arrival of buntings was finally underway. And the other new species...   Moorhen. Ah, well.

Earlier in the morning I'd been lurking in the scrub and trees behind the minshyuku hoping for something to pop up when a screeching Peregrine behind me drew my attention to a rather remarkable sight. Up on a horizontal branch, the island's adult Black Kite was clutching a live Pale Thrush! It even seemed to be milking the situation by affecting the air of nonchalant arrogance that might come naturally to cat. The notion that a Kite is capable of catching a thrush seems a bit far fetched but no more so than it might have robbed a Peregrine. Even if the latter had shown themselves in a less than flattering light over the preceeding week.

                                                         Is this Kite a top predator?

                                                            Was this Pregrine mugged?

The only other sightings of note were Black Woodpigeon in the tree at the side of the minshyuku, it had been there at some point everyday but through the window in the pouring rain isn't as good as in outside in the sunshine, and that the Radde's that had been present all week along the harbour front road finally sat up long enough to be photographed.

                                            One of two very yellow first autumn birds.

The morning had dawned clear and calm and expectation was at a low ebb. I hadn't gone there for the scenic sunrise.

                                                      Nice, but uninsiring birdwise.

It would seem churlish to complain there weren't many birds, churlish and patently nonsense as wave after wave of departing birds were replaced by new arrivals. However the poor showing of herons, the lowest number and smallest range of waders I've ever experienced here, few migrant raptors, low numbers of buntings with no expected Tristram's or not infrequent Black-headed and Lapland and most of all the absence of a major rarity all contributed to a slight feeling of anticlimax. Nevertheless I headed home content that the first long drive home without a new bird for my Japan list had been defered to a (hopefully distant) future date thanks to the surprise Black Terns. Finding my first Hegura Korean Bush Warbler was another highlight. The opportunity to examine so many Arctic complex warblers was also something I welcomed.

The final total was 88 species for the week.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Hegura Oct '13: first two days

I headed out to the island on October 8th and though I couldn't post while out there I kept the following daily record of the trip.

My incredible luck held, for the third time my pre-planned departure date was the day before a typhoon shut the ferry service down. Previously I'd been the only outbound passenger while departing birders left on the return sailing leaving me to enjoy having the place to myself. On this occasion Gordon Hay, an English birder and former resident visiting family in Japan, joined me for his first trip to the island since 2002.

                         View of the island from the approaching ferry (taken last year).

                           ">A less typical view of the island from the north (taken last year).

After dumping our gear at the minshyuku we went our separate ways to see how our luck would pan out. Despite each of us seeing a few different birds we both ended up with a total of 33 species for the day. So no records broken then! A few decent birds though; 2-3 Black Woodpigeons (one was found dead today), single Yellow-browed and Dusky warblers, 3 Sakhalin Leaf Warblers and a couple of Red-throated Pipits.

  This Sakhalin Leaf was calling frequently making identification easy, the whitish legs help too.

Good enough to enjoy a beer or two after dinner, then one or two more because according to the TV news Hegura was slap bang in the middle of the approaching typhoon's path. Those records could rest easy for at least another day.

October 9th

I didn't stir till six this morning, a little too much typhoon preparation last night perhaps. We'd cleaned out the supply of Kirin and made a start on the Super Dry.
Unsurprisingly it was wet and windy out, so much so I didn't even think it worth putting on rain gear and took an invigorating stroll along to the harbour in a T-shirt. Correctly judging the midges and mosquitos wouldn't be too much of a problem. Having made the effort and been suitably braced I made a swift return for a deserved coffee and the prospect of breakfast. Gordon, not having the luxury of as much time on the island, pressed on a bit further - but only a bit.

Astonishingly, the rain stopped at about 9 o'clock and we were treated to a dry typhoon, I've never heard of such a thing. The wind no more than went through the motions all morning, then just before noon it almost knocked me off the wall I was sitting on, soon after which a spectacular blue eye crept up from the south, passed overhead and continued north as if auditioning for National Geographic. A tired wind spent the afternoon in a half-hearted  attempt to imitate a real typhoon. But never a drop more rain fell.

After a slow start we actually got in a full day's birding and against expectation birds kept on appearing. Barn Swallows and Sand Martins passed through. A Rook I watched coming off the sea in the morning had far more trouble contending with the attentions of a Peregrine than battling through the wind. No mean aerialist itself, it ducked and dived, twisted and turned, twiced tried landing on off-shore rocks to shake off pursuit only to be swept off by crashing waves, then it must have spotted me. A quick dash and it was across the seawall and plonked itself down beside me. I doubt it actually snubbed its nose at the Peregrine but a good shake of bedraggled feathers before a good preening session suggested it had never been so glad to see a human. By evening there were eight Rooks.

I'm not certain the Peregrines mean business half the time, there're probably lots of easy pickings at this time of year. I watched an Oriental Turtle Dove coming in low, hardly in a fit state to out fly a nicely rested Peregrine, you'd think. The arch pigeon-killer went out to meet it, stooped... and missed. It gave chase over the crests and troughs, across the beach and just gave up. Well, how embarrassing is that? Not a story he's going to be regaling his mates with down at Ye Olde Plucking Post of an evening I suspect. It wasn't a total wash for the falcons though. A two bird tag team managed to nail a bat! Yes, yes, I know, it probably didn't see them coming. The burning question is what species of bat was it? How many bats migrate to Japan? It could've been a first record for all I know. But the star arrival for me was a party of four Black Terns. Needless to say, the Peregrines had numerous attempts to add them to their eaten list without success.

                                              This was the darkest-headed of the group.

Another of the group and there was even a little late afternoon sun to match my mood.

The only other event of note today was rescuing a Black-tailed Gull caught on a fish hook. A prong of the hook passed twice through the web, creating a neat fold, then clean through the middle toe pinning it all together. Two three-pronged hooks anchored the offending fishing lure to a pile of rope on the dock while this single prong of a third hook held the bird's foot fast. Gordon took the bird leaving me the easy job, or so I though, of sliding the prong back out the way it had come. It didn't quite go as planned and that prong was very reluctant to let go of the toe, finally in freeing the foot I succeeded in getting the only two previously unemployed prongs nicely into a finger and thumb, so I'm left unsure which of us was more traumatised in the end.
Actually that reminds me of a time a fisherman brought a Red-necked Phalarope in a bottle into the minshyuku. How it got into a glass bottle is beyond me but a ship-in-a-bottle ain't got nothin' on that Phalarope.

By day's end I've seen 42 species and the trip total now stands at an unremarkable 49.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Fushimi Inari Shrine

I used to have to walk through this shrine to get to my house so not surprisingly I've spent a lot of time birding the shrine precinct and the hill behind it, seeing some really good birds.

Perhaps, because of that I'm unreasonably biased but I don't think seeing so many good birds is solely down to the time I put in, and for me this has to be one of the two the best sites around the city during migration. Mount Inari, which at 265m might call into question quite what qualifies as a mountain in Japan, is the last of a narrowing line of hills separating Kyoto from Yamashina and I can imagine this line could funnel migrants to this terminal point.

Unexpected migrants I've found here include Mugimaki Flycatcher, a pair of Yellow-rumped Flycatchers one spring, my only Broad-billed Roller in the city and Japanese Scops Owl. After coming across three Japanese Night Herons in the same spot in different years (Sept/Oct) it's almost an expected migrant but others that definitely qualify are Oriental Honey Buzzard, Grey-faced Buzzard, Ashy Minivet, Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Siberian Thrush, Japanese Robin, Siberian Blue Robin none of which I've seen in city parks.

It's rather quite in summer but the old growth trees in the shrine precinct have had breeding Japanese Woodpecker and Brown Hawk Owl breed there too. This is the only place I've seen Giant Flying Squirrel in Kyoto. Higher up the mountain are breeding Ural Owls and Copper Pheasant used to be fairly easy to see but unfortunately they seem to have disappeared entirely.

Winter birding is okay but there's nothing that can't be seen elsewhere around Kyoto and often the hills further north have a bigger variety of birds. I sometimes see Grey Bunting under the trees near the shrine where there's little understorey and birds can be seen well but they aren't so regular here in my experience. There is an excellent location for them elsewhere on the mountain but the undergrowth is so thick it can be a long wait, Takaragaiike may be a better bet.

To get there both JR and Keihan have a station at Fushimi Inari, from either it's a short walk towards the shrine, just head towards the hill. You'll walk up a pedestrian approach road into the shrine, through the complex and into the woodland beyond. As you walk up the short approach road the resaurants on the left sell grilled sparrow. I've never met anyone who's tried them and most people I've asked find the idea rather off putting, but they must sell. In fact not all are Eurasian Tree Sparrows as advertised, while I've seen an old guy arrive with a large basket of Sparrows and seen feathers post plucking in the back street, I've also seen boxes marked produce of South America. Produce of Equador... Argentina... or anywhere else is one thing but "South America" is vague? Who knows what they're grilling or where from.

After looking round the old-growth area, there have been breeding Japanese Woodpecker here and I've seen Giant Flying Squirrel at night, keep heading uphill through the torri gates. You'll soon come to a pond by a small shrine, follow the main path left then right at the top of a flight of steps. After that just keep going up till you come to a "crossroads" at a view point and turn right continuing uphill. Eventually you'll come to the shrine complex marked as Inariyama on the map below. There are several such places along the route but you'll know this one as it's the first you'll leave heading downhill. Soon see an unpaved track heading off to the right. Take that track, which is where (hopefully) the best birding starts. If it doesn't at least you'll have lost the crowds and no longer have to peer between gaps in the torri gates! Follow this track soon turning sharply left rather than going down some steep, rough steps until you come to another junction. On the map below you'll be in the north/south dark green strip beyond which the green is distinctly lighter because of an absence of conifurs. Turn left or go straight on, the former only goes about 150m before offering another choice of direction, the latter will bring you to the same point but takes longer. You could do a loop there and return the same route. Alternatively turn left downhill in the direction of the city which will eventually bring you back into a built up area and past Tofukuji temple to a busier street at the bottom. Turn left and in about 300m Keihan Tobakaido station will be to your right. There are numerous other tracks you could take but it would be a good idea to have a map of the area. The loop route I mentioned is where all the Japanese Night Herons have turned up in autumn.

Don't go at New Year as about two million people visit the shrine in the first week of the year.


An area of wooded parkland hills, mainly secondary growth, and a shallow artificial lake at the International Conference Center located in the north east of the city at the end of the Karasuma subway line. The area is easy to cover in a half day visit.

This isn't a crucial site but in winter it's the only place in the city guarenteed to hold Mandarin Ducks. Apart from a few Eastern Spot-bills it doesn't attract other ducks on a permanent basis.

The surrounding woodland has a greater range of species than the parks in winter but like woodland birding anywhere it takes a bit of luck to connect with everything. Great Spotted and Japanese Woodpecker occur here whereas only Japanese Pygmy can be expected in the parks. It's as good an area as any to look for Grey Buntings and also Eurasian Woodcock, particularly in harder winters.

Of course the usual migrants, thrushes, flycatchers and warblers all pass through but if time is limited the city parks should be more productive.

There are breeding Ural Owl and Brown Hawk Owl.

This is also the easiest place to see Stika Deer in the city, while they don't come to be fed like the Nara animals nor do they bound off at the crack of a twig.

A very typical Kyoto sight.

A Takaragaiike speciality.

Take exit 5 from the Kokusaikaikan subway station marked on the map below and walk syraight ahead to the park. After checking the lake there are numerous tracks heading up into the woodland.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Mukaijima to Yawata

There's a rapid transtion from hardly worth going out in summer to being spoilt for choice from September onwards. I tossed a mental coin last night and it came up river rather than woodland, the fact that I patch ticked a couple of Whiskered Terns there at this time last year had almost nothing to do with it.

The early morning train schedule wasn't drawn up with birding in mind and the connections aren't as slick as when normal folk are abroad. So despite setting off on the first train, it isn't possible to get to the start of the walk until almost 7am. The walk from Mukaijima to Yawata is about 12km sticking to the river, which is what I did on this occasion rather than taking in the arable land as well.

The volume of water must have been spectacular a couple of weeks ago when a typhoon passed through. At the broadest point the embankments are about 1km apart and judging by the tideline debris the 30m wide river had filled that catchment area to a depth of about 12-15m above normal, scarily close to the top of the levee. There must have been an amazing displacement of wildlife with the reedbeds entirely submerged.

Migrant Siberian Stonechats are expected at this time of year but they were particularly common today, I saw 23 on my side of the river, I imagine there must have been a huge number passing through the area as a whole.

More unexpected was a Wryneck. The scrubby edge of a reedbed was a typical enough location but I don't think I've seen one this early. Presumably this was a migrant passing through, I'm used to them as a scarce but regular winter visitor around the city.

There's a 1km stretch along the riverside where all the trees were felled this year, this appears to be an ongoing project to return the area to the habitat it was when I first arrived in Kyoto. And I'd just been getting used to the improved habitat for migrant passerines. They'd further slashed back a 10m wide swath of vegetation that had shot up this summer and thanks to the recent floods there were wet and muddy patches that held a surprising number of waders; a couple of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and a Long-toed Stint were the pick of the bunch. There were a few Common Snipe and this bird caught my eye, initially because it looked remarkably dark above.

The outer row of upper scapulars are missing thus it lacks the pale line normally bordering that feather tract and the 1CY narrow, even-edged outer webs of the lower scapulars add to the effect. Once I had my eye on it I thought it looked very short-tailed and dumpy and wondered if it could be Pin-tailed. I was so intent on it that I didn't even notice the bird crouching to its left.

When I did, its larger size seemed to support the possibility of the original bird being Pin-tailed. Fortunately however, the larger bird began feeding and revealed itself to be Swinhoe's. Even on this poor view above the long tail projection showing the orange tail patch is visible.

As it moved its large size became obvious, as did the general uniformity and lack of "colour", the coverts panel is pale but doesn't contrast with either the scaps or breast sides. This I've is perhaps just apparent in this heavily cropped shot.

All in all a pretty good morning's work. The only worry is, what did I miss on the woodland side of the coin.