Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Ogura & Takaragaiike

The dusting of snow on the hills around the city has all but disappeared but with a fresh half a metre around northern Lake Biwa, I though a local day was in order. Weather-wise a good choice but as I didn't see many birds it might be better to brave the frozen north as the first birding of the new year.

From Mukaijima station I decided to do the fields first, apart from a Green Sandpiper calling somewhere it started slowly, a few White Wagtails fewer Skylarks and a Buff-bellied Pipit were all I saw as I made my way to the huge by-pass that bisects the area. I could hear rooks calling from the other side so drawn by the hope of Daurian Jackdaws with them I made my way to the closest underpass via a tree that's been a favourite perch for successive Merlins for years and years. Sadly the farmer has obviously come up with a new plan for the land which doesn't require a tree. I'll have to find a new favourite perch.

There were about 150 Rooks and 8 Grey-headed Lapwings in the fields on the other side. With more fallow overgrown fields on this side of the road the species count began to go up, there were a few Rustic and Reed buntings and a lone Chestnut-eared. There's almost always a lone Chestnut-eared, they've got to be the most unsociable of buntings. There always used to be a nice clump of bushes that seemed a magnet for Russet Sparrows in winter but they've gone the way of the Merlin tree. If that was depressing, worse was to come.

The last remaining natural small river running across the fields has had its banks scraped smooth and  looks destined to join the ranks of the region's canalised waterways. There was just a single Eurasian Teal along its entire length to the flood gates where it meets the Uji River. The catchment area behind these gates is often quite good and there are invariably large numbers of loafing egrets and Great Cormorants. It's also popular with Long-billed Plover and there were a couple there today.

Once on top of the Uji River levee I could see the work to fell all the riverside trees had been completed. When I first came to Kyoto there weren't any trees and the area has gradually reverted to woodland. Hopefully this felling isn't the prelude to more concrete and if the land is allowed to go through the same stages of natural development it isn't necessarily a bad thing. The area was great for migrant snipe when I first arrived and hopefully next April it will be again. But at the moment it's just bare earth and tree stumps. There were still plenty of Meadow Buntings and a Zitting Cisticola on the embankment and a few Black-faced Buntings in the narrow belt of reeds at its foot.

Further along, back towards my Mukaijima starting point, there's a large reedbed most of which is harvested every December then burnt-off to re-grow in spring thus preventing it reverting to woodland. Because it's under-developed in spring it doesn't have many typical reedbed breeders but it nevertheless attracts quite a few birds in winter and today there was an Eastern Buzzard perched in one of the isolated small trees.

Leaving the river and cutting back across the fields towards the station there was a huge flock of Rooks, 500-600 birds. I never tire of this sight and the promise of Daurian Jackdaw. Distant as they were at first I could hear the distinctive ringing jack call and the question changed from will there be any Daurians to how many will there be. The Rooks were on the move and as they streamed by I counted eight Daurian, though there could have been more but unfortunately they didn't settle.

I took the train directly from Mukaijima to the end of the line at Takaragaiike to the north. By the time I arrived it wasn't the best time of day for winter woodland birding and in fact it was very quite, however there were the usual commoner species, Pale Thrush, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, White-eyes and tits. There were a few Mandarin Ducks on the lake and a Mallard x Eastern Spot-billed Duck hybrid. These hybrids can be very drab but this one was quite attractive.

Along with the Daurian Jackdaws this duck was the best find of the day. Below is a full list of species seen (sightings marked O for Ogura, T for Takaragaiike and B for both):-

Mandarin Duck   5 (T)
Mallard   50+ (T)
Eastern Spot-billed Duck   20 (O), 100+ (T)
Eurasian Teal   1 (O)
Common Pochard   3 (T)
Tufted Duck   1 (T)
Little Grebe   11 (T)
Grey Heron   several (B)
Great White Egret   several (B)
Little Egret   several (B)
Great Cormorant   several (B)
Eurasian Kestrel   1 (O)
Black Kite   several (B)
Eastern Buzzard   1 (O)
Grey-headed Lapwing   8 (O)
Long-billed Plover   2 (O)
Green Sandpiper   1 heard (O)
Common Sandpiper   2 (O)
Oriental Turtle Dove   several (B)
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker   4 (T)
Bull-headed Shrike   fairly common (O)
Daurian Jackdaw   8 (O)
Rook   500-600 (O)
Carrion Crow   fairly common(B)
Large-billed Crow   common (B)
Eastern Great Tit   2-3 (T)
Coal Tit   heard (T)
Varied Tit   several (T)
Long-tailed Tit   fairly common (T)
Skylark   30-40 (O)
Zitting Cisticola   1 (O)
Brown-eared Bulbul   common (B)
Japanese White-eye   fairly common (T)
Goldcrest   heard (T)
White-cheeked Starling   several (O)
Pale Thrush   2 (T)
Dusky Thrush   6 (O), 2 heard (T)
Daurian Redstart   1 heard (O)
Eurasian Tree Sparrow   common (B)
White Wagtail   100+ (O)
Japanese Wagtail   4 (T)
Buff-bellied Pipit   5-6 (O)
Oriental Greenfinch   several (B)
Meadow Bunting   fairly common (O)
Chestnut-eared Bunting   1 (O)
Rustic Bunting   several (O)
Black-faced Bunting   several (B)
Reed Bunting   fairly common (O)

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Kamchatka Warbler?

The three-way split of Arctic Warbler to create two new species, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler and Japanese Leaf Warbler, must have had more than a few people digging through old note books to see how their lists' might be affected. It certainly did me. But perhaps chipping would be more  appropriate than splitting given the restricted breeding range of the new taxa compared to the territory borealis occupies. And fantastic for me that they're on the doorstep rather than in the depths of China for a change!

The affect on my Japan list was two steps forward one step back. Not unlike trying to get to grips with these birds on migration. I've sought out migrants locally over the last three autumns and am coming to the conclusion that there is probably only one taxon passing through the Kyoto city area. But which? Japanese Leaf is the closest breeder but generally Japanese summer visitors leave early, September sees a mass exit of other warblers, the cuckoos, Asian Brown Fly peaks then, and so on. In October non-native Grey-streaked Flycatcher and "Arctic Warbler" are the commonest migrants in Kyoto. So are these later migrants Kamchatka Leaf? I suspect they are, certainly the calls match.

At the moment vocalisations seem the only safe way identifying these warblers but because Japanese Leaf Warbler doesn't breed around Kyoto I'm not as familiar with their calls as might be expected for a long-term Japan resident, it's only in October when birds are passing through that I get to hear calls regularly, and as I said I believe these are Kamchatka not Japanese. Morphologically I don't see anything different about these birds either.

I get out to Hegurajima most Octobers and, though I'm not as focused on the complex there, I check all the birds that cross my path. The vast majority look and sound the same as those in Kyoto but it is  only on the island that I do see and hear variation. This gives me more confidence that I'm not overlooking anything in Kyoto and that there really is just a single common autumn taxon passing through.

The following images are of four presumed Kamchatka Leaf October migrants in the Kyoto city area.

In neutral light, even if viewed from below, it's usually possible to see the sides of the breast are extensively grey. This runs along the flanks and narrows across the centre of the breast. The yellowish throat, belly, vent and undertail coverts are most obvious head on or from below. Viewed from the side the underparts look predominantly grey.

Obviously yellow centrally below when viewed head on, but much greyer from the side. The bill is quite long and strong with a slightly decurved tip to the upper mandible.

The supercillium is yellowish before the eye but whiter behind.

Upperparts green but dulled by a slight greyish shawl.

While most Hegura birds looked basically the same as the previous birds there have been some that differed. I've heard three birds which must have been Japanese Leaf but of the two of them I saw I couldn't get meaningful views. Below are images of two birds I've seen on the island which look rather different to the the usual birds I see.

This bird has a slighter feel to it, it looks paler and brighter lacking the dirty underparts. The sunny conditions may play some part comparing images.

The bill is shortish and spiky without the curved tip. The supercillium is straighter and narrower, it lacks the bulge above the lore and doesn't flare at the rear. Eyestripe is narrow. Rear flanks hint at greenish-grey rather than dirty-grey. Vent and undertail coverts white.

14 October 2013

Another large, strong warbler. Very green above, it doesn't seem to have the greyish cast. Ear coverts also rather green. 10 October 2013.

Underparts strikingly white with throat and vent washed a delicate yellowish-green.

Faintest hint of colour down down centre breast but otherwise very clean.

Not so clear in these low resolution images but the p2 tip appears to be level with that of p6. This is the only shot I have showing the relative position of this primary tip but on all the presumed Kamchatka I've seen the p2 tip consistently falls close the tip of p5, there is a strong indication of this in the shot below. Both these shots were in overcast conditions so the apparent difference in upperparts colouration should be a reasonably honest reflection in these two sharpened but otherwise unaltered images.


Eastern Crowned Warbler is the only widespread breeding phyllosc in Kansai. It can be found throughtout the forested hills in the region including those surrounding Kyoto city. Japanese Leaf Warbler also breeds in the region but at higher elevations, the centre of the Kii Peninsular is the only area they are likely to be found on a casual visit.

During migration Eastern Crowned can be found in city parks from late August. Arctic complex warblers are more common passing through the area from September through October mostly after Eastern Crowned have moved through but there is some overlap in September. Since the recent three-way split I've been looking out for autumn passage birds in city's parks and believe not only is there a single taxon involved but that they are Kamchatka Leaf rather than Japanese Leaf.

In spring I occasionally find a Sakhalin Leaf singing in trees along the Uji River in the Ogura area. This river attracts a wide range of migrants so perhaps it isn't surprising I've found them there but not elsewhere. There have been one or two Yellow-browed in Kyoto while I've been here but they're rare. They are quite common on Hegurajima however and I've seen many in Ishikawa on the Japan Sea coast.

Radde's and Dusky are both reasonably common on off-shore islands and can be found along the mainland coast but I've never found either in the Kyoto area.

Other phylloscs are rare to very rare in Japan, I've seen several Willow warblers on Hegura as well as a couple of migrant tristis Chiffchaffs there, plus a wintering Chiffchaff in Osaka. Wood Warbler also occurs on Hegura but I haven't been lucky enough to connect yet! Tickell's, or presumably Alpine Leaf, has occurred there too but it seems to be a spring specialist unlike the others. Greenish and Two-barred Greenish are also possible, as no doubt is Pale-legged but the latter is probably only identifiable when singing so it will be another spring speciality. Personally I've had two singing Pale-legged on Mishima but only un-tickable views of one of them. having said that I'm not sure what would constitute a tickable view as they're only identifiable by song, a ticking dilemma.

Not a phyllosc but convenient to include here, I found this Booted Warbler in Kyushu in December 2014. There had been three prior records in Japan, all in Sept/Oct on off-shore islands.

Four shots of a Siberian Chiffchaff wintering in Osaka, 2014/15.

Dusky Warbler are reasonably common on Hegurajima and I'd imagine also along the Japan Sea coast. This bird 7 October 2011.

Radde's Warbler on Hegurajima, 11 October 2011. Radde's seems to be considered much less common than Dusky but I think the imbalance might be overstated, in some Octobers I see as many Radde's. 

First autumn Radde's can be strikingly yellow below, this on Hegurajima, 14 October 2013. One of three I saw on the island during the week I was there.

A typical bright Yellow-brow on Hegurajima, 9 October 2009. They can be fairly common on the island and many must go undetected on the mainland.

A fairly bright bird with a very clear central crown stripe, again on Hegura, 8 October 2011.

A surprisingly grey-mantled bird for the date, 17 Ocober 2009. More surprising, the bill lacks an upper mandible!
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Hegura May 2014, the crown/mantle contrast is obvious here.
Eastern Crowned Warbler on Mishima (Yamaguchi), 1 May 2009.

Eastern Crowned Warbler on Mishima, Yamaguchi, 29 April 2009.

Eastern Crowned Warbler in less strong light, Mishima, 29 April 2009.

Scraping the bottom of the barrel image-wise just to complete the breeders, this is actually an Ijima's Warbler on Miyakejima, 17 May 2013. 

Thursday, 26 December 2013

hirundines to Long-tailed Tit

Four hirundines can be seen in Kyoto depending on the season and three of them breed in Kansai. Barn Swallow is a common and widespread breeder in urban as well as rural areas. It's not unknown for the race tytleri to occur in northern Shiga in mid-winter, I've seen a flock of about 30 in late December one year and a single in January in a subsequent winter. The flock were moulting primaries so presumably unlikely to travel far. It's strange to see Swallows flying low over a snow covered landscape as though it were a summer meadow.
Red-rumped Swallow only breeds at a couple of locations in Kyoto city and compared to Barn is also more localised as a breeder throughout the region. It's a common migrant over the city rivers, passing through later than Barn in autumn, there can be large numbers well into October.
Asian House Martin is a common breeder usually in association with rivers in forested areas and frequently nests under road bridges. The only urban colony I know of near Kyoto is under an elevated stretch of railway between here and Osaka. Sometimes parties can appear in in the city in mid-winter but they never linger long.
Sand Martin is purely a migrant and in autumn it can pass through over quite a protracted period. Again it can be seen along all the rivers and often over the fields at Ogura.

These Sand Martins were photographed on their breeding grounds in Hokkaido in August 2012.

Barn Swallow at Ogura, 18 August 2011.

These two are Pacific Swallow photographed in Okinawa, 2 August 2011.

Asian House Martins gathering nest building mud in a village near Ashyu Forest, 13 May 2012.  

This was another of the birds I photographed near Ashyu. I was puzzled by the dark patch on its breast side and when I cropped the image I was amazed to find another wing.  A heavily cropped version showing more detail is repeated below. As looks perfectly healthy and was gathering mud the supernumerary limb mustn't impare it in any way. Not having noticed this in the field, I'm left wondering whether it has a matching pair.

Red-rumped Swallow over the Katsuragawa at Arashiyama, Kyoto city 29 October. It isn't unusual to see birds as late as this, long after Barn Swallow has disappeared.

Some of a flock of about 150 migrant Red-rumped Swallows in Ishikawa in October 2014.

Long-tailed Tits are very common in and around the city as well as throughout Kansai in general. They can be found in woodland, in riverside scrub and city parks.

Long-tailed Tits along the Katsura River in Kyoto, 3 October 2010.

Adult caudatus in Hokkaido, 31 December 2012.

A juvenile caudatus in Hokkaido, 12 August 2012.