Saturday, 23 November 2013

Crossbills at Biwako

A Saturday off is like gold dust, a nugget in fact. So a national holiday was more than welcome and Friday night saw me drive up to the north end of Lake Biwa on a quest to see Common Crossbill. There are plenty of Crossbills around at the moment but I've been stubbornly trying to find my own rather than visit a site they're already know to be.

I waited in a convenience store car park till the black outline of the hills became visible against the pre-dawn sky then drove up the radio mast maintenance road at Woody Pal. I don't know who came up with the name but it always sounds to me like something Weissmuller might have said "Me Tarzan, you Jane... Woody pall". Woody and I have had an on-off friendship, I find it hard to forgive that I've never seen Copper Pheasant there but I have had my only Kansai Japanese Serow and Pallas's Rosefinches. The ridge was awash with Crossbills on Saturday morning; good old Woody!

This was my last do-it-alone attempt, had I failed here I'd made up my mind to go to Kutsuki Forest a little further south on the west side of Lake Biwa where there was also a Pine Grosbeak. The down side of that plan being that there'd be a lot of photographers around too, so I was delighted to have some obliging birds all to myself.

With the rest of the day free I headed towards the Takatsuki-cho area, east of northern Lake Biwa, to try to get some decent shots of the Daurian Jackdaws I'd been tipped off about. As this meant passing nearby Kohokucho Wild Bird Center I dropped in to check if the Swan Goose I saw a couple of weeks ago was still there, it was and three Greater White-fronts had joined the Taiga Beans too.

Woody Pal isn't the only interesting use of English in the area and I particularly like the sign below. Though I'm sure a more simple No Shooting would be just as effective.

It's about this time of November the Biwako Steller's Sea Eagle arrives each year but I was slightly surprised it was already in residence. The trees are still a bit too leafy from the birders perspective but the hillside looked great with the autumn colours in the bright morning sunshine. Three or four strategically placed groups of photographers were waiting for the Eagle to fly from its obscured perch so I left them to it and went in search of Daurian Jackdaw.

One of the patiently waiting groups of Eagle snappers. The numbers are impressive for a bird that spends over four months in the same spot. Every year!

There were hundreds of Rooks and 10-20 Jackdaws just the other side of the Eagle hill. It was lucky I'd made the detour to the Kohokucho otherwise I'd have been searching in the wrong area. Finding a flighty flock of several hundred crows isn't so difficult but getting the required shots of Daurians in amongst them isn't quite so straight forward. Still, though not perfect, the results are good enough for me.

While the white birds are more striking, the dark birds hold the remote possibility that there could be a Eurasian Jackdaw on the fields and are always my first target. Of course there was no sign of Eurasian but the need to sift through flocks has to be satisfied.

I'm not certain how many Daurians were present, 10 was the most I saw in a single group but there were always odd ones, or twos and threes, dotted around. And the Rook flock was always on the move, dividing and merging sub-groups across the expansive fields.

Daurians really are small compared to the Rooks, themselves no giants compared to the local Large-billed Crows, and their give-away high, sharp calls ring out easily audible above the clamour of the Rooks. It wasn't possible to creep up on the birds in open fields, the flock would roll away before me, the nearest birds flying back to become the furthest in continuous movement. The birds flying up onto the wires were no easier, black birds overhead against a bright sky. Finally a few Rooks with two Jackdaws in with them settled in a line of trees across the fields and I managed to sneak up on these.

By the time I'd finished with the Jackdaws the Eagle had obviously flown, the groups of photographers had changed position. A token flight to keep its audience interested. And there it was, now sitting prominently on a broad horizontal limb of a dead pine. Another species for the day list. But I didn't hang around to see if it moved again, I had to get going myself if I wanted to visit some other sites down the coast.

The traffic was heavy and the going slow and when I briefly dropped onto the Notogawa, seeing a Green Sandpiper and a dashing Peregrine, the light was already fading so I hurried on to Lake Sainoko to catch the Eastern Marsh Harriers coming back to their roost. There were four birds cruising over the reedbeds as I pulled up but after only a few minutes the lights of Omihachiman city were bright across the lake and the quick nightfall fell.

What a great day, Crossbills, Daurian Jackdaws, a Swan Goose and the returning Steller's. 78 species all told, not a massive list but some class birds!

Wednesday, 20 November 2013


I had a little time this morning but only enough for a quick outing. Where to try? I'd already visited the botanical gardens this week which turned out to be very disappointing, even though an Elegant Bunting was a decent find. Kyoto seems to be just outside the winter range for this species and I don't often see it in or around the city even though it's reasonably common elsewhere in Kansai. In the end I chose Takaragaiike in the north of the city.

I arrived at first light, it was chilly but not yet wintry, only a week has passed since the leaves began to turn and the first frost still feels some way off. Early dustings of snow on the surrounding hills must still be three or four weeks away but it's snow in the mountains further north that determine when woodland birding will heat up. Birds were vocal, plenty of Pygmy Woodpeckers and a Great Spotted, the local Bush Warblers were chacking from the undergrowth and parties of tits and White-eyes were flitting noisily through the trees.

I made my way to the lake. I knew the Mandarins were in and seven could be made out through a screen of overhanging branches. Sitting hunched in deep shade on a ledge at the foot of a wall, as if their colours were an embarrassment to them. No such show of humility from the Mallards and Eastern Spot-bills out on open water but unsurprisingly there weren't any other ducks present. The shallow lake doesn't attract diving ducks but nor does it seem suitable for other dabbling ducks, always so common on neighbouring waters. The lack of depth never deters Great Cormorants or Little Grebes but neither of these could muster more than a single representative today.

Apart from the usual tits and white-eyes the woodland was on the quiet side, no Brambling, Siskin or Goldcrests, and there were very few Pale Thrushes, only two or three Jays whistling softly to each other and a party of 11 Japanese Grosbeaks.

Sika aren't as shy here as in much of the prefecture, where hunting keeps them on their toes, but  nevertheless they're more often heard than seen. Today three females with spotted summer flanks crossed through a patch of sunlight on the ride ahead, only the last noticing me and pausing to stare. Then further along the ridge, a rather splendid adult male in its winter coat blocked the track till a jogger sent it leaping downhill.        

Moving on I came across a small party of Grey Buntings in the scrub around a rocky outcrop, though the hills aren't high Grey is usually further up the slopes while Black-faced are found along the vegetated streams at the foot and they never seem to meet.

Only two Daurian redstarts and a single Red-flanked Bluetail were heard, confirmation if any were needed that winter hasn't yet arrived. But just as I was leaving I heard a distant Dusky Thrush, a sure sign it's on its way.

Sunday, 17 November 2013


Eurasian Kestrel was strictly a winter visitor to the Kyoto area when I first came to Japan but since then it has become a scarce urban breeder. It is a fairly common bird of open country in winter where it normally adopts a more Merlin-like pursuit hunting style rather than the typical hovering I'm used to in the UK.

A spring migrant at Uchiyama, Tsushima. The very worn tail suggests it had a tight roost spot during winter.

Lake Biwa, 2 January 2014.

Amur Falcon appears to be at best a very scarce autumn visitor which could turn up almost anywhere along the Japan Sea, though presumably the odds of running into one will decrease further north in Honshu. The bird in the digiscoped image below is one I found on Hegurajima which might be expected insomuch as it appears Japanese birders are on the look out for it there. Despite that, this is the only bird that's been seen there during time I've spent on the island in October, now totalling several weeks over the years, which maybe says something as to its status in central Japan.

This bird spent 3-4 hours on the island allowing everyone present to catch up with it.

Merlin is a regular wintering species in the region, not uncommon but they cover a large area and can be difficult to find, especially over the vast expanse of fields near Lake Biwa. They are often easier to see at Ogura which is a much smaller area.

Female type Merlin, Hegurajima.

Merlin's winter at Lake Biwa but range over a wide area and can be difficult to find.

A beautiful pale bird in Kyushu, December 2014.

Male, Ogura. This tree afforded an excellent view of the fields and was used by Merlins year after year but was felled in 2013.
Northern Hobby is a scarce migrant through the area, and one I'm yet to catch up with around Kyoto. The closest place I've seen them is Cape Irago just outside the region and they are fairly regular on Hegurajima in October.

Adult on Hegurajima in October.

Juvenile on Hegurajima in October 2014.

Gyr Falcon is very much a Hokkaido speciallity and irregular even there. I haven't heard of any in Kansai, certainly not while I've been living here, but I did see a grey morph on Hegurajima which is a pretty amazing record!

Peregrine is an altogether easier proposition, they're common in winter and a regular breeder in the region. They can be seen in open country or urban areas.

Birds come to bathe on the Yamato River in Osaka.

Over the Yamato River, Osaka.

A juvenile calling to an adult (no relation as far as I'm aware) with prey on Hegurajima.
Juvenile Peregrine, Hegura.
There's a lot of variation in Peregrines here and apparently Peale's has occurred in Osaka. The images of the two following birds are examples of puzzling extreme individuals.

The two shots above are of a tiny (presumed 2CY) on Ishigaki, Yaeyama Islands in April 2013. The wires the provide a sense of scale, it looks more like a Merlin than a Peregrine. Contrast this with the heavily marked monster of a bird on Tsushima, Nagasaki in May 2012. There's no way this one's going to balance on the wires.

This bird flew in and mustn't have noticed me standing there, great view!

osprey, kite & harriers

I'll often see Ospreys flying along rivers in the Kyoto area but they never hang around anywhere. They are surprisingly uncommon visitors to Lake Biwa, which anywhere other than in Japan would seem a great place for Ospreys with all the small wooded islands and headlands in the north. Osprey is really a coastal specialist here and in suitable areas it's not uncommon to see flocks outside the breeding season, sitting on posts in the water like gigantic terns or even dotted in loose groups on the ground more like Black Kites.

A female flying down the Katsura River (Kyoto city), October 2011.

Sitting in the rain, Mie, August 2014.

Black Kite is a really common and widespread bird in the region, there can be gatherings of as many as 50-100 birds over the Kamogawa (Kyoto city) outside the breeding season. Even bigger numbers ring Lake Biwa and any fishing port will be full of them.


In early May Black Kites can look very worn and unkite-like.

Two birds on a quayside so intent in their tussle they were oblivious to people passing by.

Seven species of harrier have been recorded in Japan which sounds great but only two, Hen and Eastern Marsh can be considered in anyway common or likely to be seen by visitors. Of the others Pied is rare, a male on Hegurajima is the only one I've seen, and the others extremely so.

Eastern Marsh Harrier is a winter visitor to Kansai and is reasonably common over reedbeds, or open arable country within reach of a reedbed for roosting. They can be seen quartering the riverside reeds along the Yodogawa from the centre of Osaka right up to Kyoto. Birds are fairly common in the Lake Biwa area, along the lake side or neighbouring fields. Lake Sainoko, near Omihachiman, half way down the east side of Lake Biwa, is an important roost site. The road along the north side of this lake is a good place to get close fly-by views in late afternoon.

Eastern Marsh Harriers at Lake Sainoko, Shiga. 

Hen Harriers are less common than Eastern Marsh but can be found in most of the same places, though they aren't likely to be found in Osaka and numbers further up the Yodo River seem to have dropped in recent years. Lake Sainoko is probably the most reliable place to find them. Males are far less common here.

Hen Harrier at Lake Sainoko, Shiga.

Saturday, 16 November 2013


I've never heard of Chinese Sparrowhawk in the region but as they are recorded migrating south over Cape Irago they are obviously passing into Mie and hence necessarily through the region, albeit in small numbers. So it's something people need to be aware of but not to expect.

Japanese Sparrowhawk breeds in the forested hills of the region. It's probably reasonable common but sightings are unpredictable. They are far more conspicuous on migration than in continuous mountain breeding habitat and it's even possible to see them in city parks or along major river systems.

Flight shots of an October migrant on Hegurajima.

Seeing one dash by in woodland is one thing, but finding them perched requires even more luck.
Eurasian Sparrowhawk can be equally difficult to find in summer but in winter they also move into open country and are far more easily seen. I'll often come across one at Ogura or around Lake Biwa, hunting along hedges, riverside trees or even across open fields.

A spring migrant on Mishima, Yamaguchi.

A typical winter bird sitting in riverside trees at Ogura.

Another island migrant, this time on Hegurajima in Ocober.

Goshawk is also a common winter hawk, often seen in open country, much as Eurasian Sparrowhawk, and they are frequent in the Ogura area. While Eurasian Sparrowhawk is something I often see on islands during migration, Goshawk seems less common out there.

Adult and juvenile Goshawks on a misty winter's morning along the Uji River at Ogura.


Continuing to group birds by name for convenience sake, rather than by accepted taxonomic order, we come to Oriental Honey Buzzard. This might be expected as a breeding species in the region but I've never seen any myself, however it is a common autumn migrant. There are good migration watch-points in and around the region (see in Japanese) but the buzzards are a broad front migrant and I often see them passing over the city during September. The top of Mt.Inari used to be a good location to see a variety of raptors, and other diurnal migrants, passing through. A number of birds would also roost there and they could be seen leaving but tree cover is more closed now and viewing is difficult.

Male on Mishima, May 2010.

Female on Mishima, May 2010.

Grey-faced Buzzard migrates through the area much as OHB and the above comments apply but it can also be found during the breeding season in hilly, forested parts of the region.

A migrant Grey-faced Buzzard leaving its roost at Takaragaiike, Kyoto city in early September.

While a common winter visitor in the Ryukyu Islands, a bird in Kyoto in mid-January is an exceptional record.

This Grey-faced on Yonaguni in early April could be a migrant or a wintering bird.

Eastern Buzzard is a common late autumn migrant and winter visitor. It can be found at Ogura and along the Uji/Yodo River. Several usually roost on the isolated hill at Yawata on the Keihan line just south of the city. It's common in all open country, especially in the north of the region, throughout winter.

Eastern Buzzard, Lake Biwa.

Two shots of toyoshimai, the Ogasawara race of Eastern Buzzard. 

Rough-legged Buzzard is fairly rare in Kansai though odd ones do occur irregularly on the Japan Sea coast. In 2008 an unprecedented invasion occurred and it was relatively common in the north of the region. Far more surprising three birds were at Ogura and two or three visited Yodo River in the centre of Osaka!

Rough-legged Buzzard, Ogura. January 2008.

Rough-leg, Ogura.

Upland Buzzard is rare but not unheard of in the region. The most reliable site in Japan is Yonaguni in the extreme south.

Three shots of Upland Buzzard on Yonaguni April 2013. That's a Grey-faced Buzzard alongside it in the final shot.