Thursday 14 November 2013


Kansai may miss out a lot of Japanese birds but we do well enough for egrets. Apart from Eastern Reef, which is coastal of course, all can be seen easily in or around Kyoto city.

Cattle Egrets are numerous passing through Ogura in spring and autumn, in April mixed flocks of  Cattle and Intermediate can be seen flying upstream at Yawata where the rivers Yodo, Kiso and Katsura meet. In autumn they're less hurried and spend time in flocks dotted about the fields at Ogura (and elsewhere). They can still be found in the region throughout summer, birds breeding at Biwako may be the closest to Kyoto city. I've only seen one bird in winter, an oddly pink-footed bird following a plough at Ogura. Some are meant to winter in southern Japan but this was definitely an unusual occurrence in Kansai.

Living up to the name on Yonaguni.

In early May the colourful bare parts as much as the plumage make this a really attractive bird.
In June black on the culmen and only a hint of colour on the fore-crown suggest this is 2CY.

Part of a post-breeding flock at Ogura in August. The adults are losing their colour and some juveniles, like the bird on the left, still have black bills.

That the legs and even feet are pink seems very odd, I don't know how often Cattle have pink legs in winter. These images are video-grabs.

Ogura, late December 2004.

Great White Egret can be seen year round and is quite common even in Kyoto city centre where they can be quite tame. I once watched an woman walking her dog along the Kamogawa near the botanical gardens with a loose flock of Great Whites and Grey Herons walking along with her as she threw food to them. I watched them till they were out of sight around a bend. A most peculiar sight for all the world as if she was taking her pet herons for a walk.

This modestus is only just starting to come into breeding condition in March. No doubt why they are sometimes losing out to Great Cormorants in competition for nest sites.

Two full breeding birds in early May (Tsushima, Nagasaki). The rosy-pink tibia, blue-green lores and black bill are a striking combination.
      Below, a full breeding bird with entirely pale pink legs in early May, Mishima, Yamaguchi.


I'm uncertain about the status of albus in Japan, according to Brazil (The Birds of Japan, 1991) modestus occurs throughout the year and breeds from southern Japan to northern Honshu and increasingly into Hokkaido but he cites only a few records for albus. However in the Birds of East Asia (2009) albus is said to be the subspecies with the wide distribution with modestus being a summer visitor to southern Japan.

For a long time I was unable to detect any discernible differences between birds I was seeing in Japan and assumed the races must be indistinguishable in the field if both were occurring here. This until I was taking a visiting Australian birder round Lake Biwa one day and he asked about two egrets on a nearby pond. Getting the scope on them, they were both clearly Great White but for the first time I was seeing a very obvious difference between individuals. For the first time I was looking at something which really appeared to be an albus.

Great White Egrets, albus (right) and modestus (left), Lake Sainoko, Shiga January 2012. The albus is obviously larger and heavier with longer tibia and deeper-based bill. This is the first yellow-legged Great White I'd seen here, the legs were yellow to below the knee with tapering extensions down the sides of the tarsi.

Lake Sainoko, January 2012.

Amazingly I found another bird a month later in Sanda, Hyogo (the three shots below). Though alone, it nevertheless gave the impression of being very large and had the same distinctive pattern of yellow on the legs.

A second albus, February 2012.

                                     Below, two shots showing the extent of yellow on the legs.

I noticed this albus when going to see three Siberian White Cranes in Sikoku (March 2014), a local birder told me it had been a good winter for them and that there'd been more than just this one in the area.

Intermediate Egret is common in summer and very common around Kyoto in spring and autumn, there can be huge numbers (100s) in paddyfields on passage. Some of the biggest concentrations I see are in Mie but they are common throughout the whole of Kansai.

The obvious short gape line and large eye of Intermediate.

Intermediate coming into breeding condition in early April on Yonaguni.

The rather small size, close to Little, domed head and black-tipped yellow bill in spring and autumn can make them easy to identify even at long range across the fields.

Intermediate 14 September, the dark bill tip is beginning to fade.

Intermediate 18 October, a few migrants are still passing through.

Intermediate and Great White modestus side by side for comparison.

Little Egrets are also out on the paddies but are more a bird of riversides or ponds and they're common on the Kamogawa in the centre of Kyoto throughout the year. There is still a city centre breeding colony in a temple garden but others have disappeared. This is a species that can be found in all lowland areas in Kansai.

A great looking breeding bird in early March foot paddling on the Kamogawa in the centre of Kyoto city.

There are invariably birds fishing at the base of the small weirs along the river in the city.

Little seems far more aggressive than the other egrets here but maybe river sites increase competition compared to open paddyfields.

The Kansai egret you won't find anywhere close to the city is Eastern Reef. They're normally on rocky coasts and the best areas are in Wakayama and southern Mie, though they can easily be overlooked unless you're actively looking for them. The shots below are of a bird passing through Hegurajima in October.

The two video-grabs below are of a couple of Chinese Egrets on the Yodo River at Ebie, Osaka city at the beginning of July 2005. Definitely a species that can't be expected on a visit to Kansai!

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