Saturday, 17 May 2014

Olive-backed Pipits and my Tree Pipit mis-ID on Hegura

Last week I erroneously posted that I found two Tree Pipits on Hegura. I made a snap ID before having to dash for my ferry but I've no excuse for not picking up the mistake before posting! The pipits in question are clearly Olive-backed, however they are still of interest.

For years I used to look for yunnanensis without luck around Kyoto. About 25 years ago I'd been told it was a winter visitor to the region and therefore I had assumed it would also be a relatively common migrant. Despite checking primary projections on all birds I saw well enough, this was the only feature I'd been told could be used to separate the local hodgsoni and yunnanensis, I never did find any and concluded either they don't occur as often as I'd been led to believe, or they weren't sufficiently distinctive to ID in the field or that I just wasn't looking hard enough. I'd long since given up even thinking about them by the time the Birds of East Asia (Brazil 2009) came along and confirmed the Japanese population of hodgsoni has a longer primary projection than their continental counterparts. It suddenly  struck me I'd been barking up the wrong tree all that time. When I was told about continental birds I jumped to the conclusion that the birds referred to were yunnanensis, it seems not.

The two shots of the above crisp-looking February bird has a minimal primary projection and is interesting to compare with the following 30 April individual which has an easily visible primary projection. Whether this difference is sufficient to draw any conclusions regarding Japanese or continental populations I don't know. Trying to find a difference between populations of the same subspecies might in any case be a pointless exercise. Still, it has rekindled my interest in these birds and now that I have a camera it might make judging them easier.

The two birds I misidentified on May 6th were on the 'the green' in the harbour, I walked right past them once then deciding I'd better get on the ferry turned and almost trod on them. How I'd missed them on the short grass is beyond me. They flew up onto a fence, I looked at one of them through the bins and... ahha, Tree Pipits. I rattled off a few shots and ran for the ferry. Well, that's my excuse anyway.

One of the two landed on top of the fence and I paid it more attention as the other was partly hidden. I've never seen such a worn and brown Olive-backed and it's worth stressing the shots were taken six days after the fresh bird above. I think these two Hegura birds are actually yunnanensis on the basis of the very fine Tree Pipit-like flank streaks on both, as well as the lack of pre-breeding moult on one, which might suggest they belong to a far more northerly breeding population (or just that it is delayed for some other reason), and the very plain mantle on the other. As yunnanensis is the race breeding in Hokkaido this doesn't seem such a big deal but they are the only migrants I've seen that do appear to be this subspecies. Or at least the only two that look like this. Perhaps ultimately that I haven't been trying hard enough is the reason I haven't found such birds before.

Below are shots of the two Hegura Olive-backed in question.

Superficially unlike the Olive-backed I'm used to because of overall brown colouration. Lateral crown streaks not outstandingly darker than crown streaks, supercillium relatively dull compared to wing bars, very fine sparse flank dashes and rather black wing coverts with prominent white tips creating quite bold bars.

Incredibly worn tertials and little sign of any new pre-breeding feathers anywhere.

The exceptionally worn state of the plumage led me to suspect 2CY but the uniformity of the coverts suggests otherwise.

Self-shading reveals a creamy throat and breast with sharp demarcation to the white belly.

The second pipit is in much fresher plumage. The very fine dashes on the flanks and plain upperparts look quite different to the OBPs I'm used to seeing and I guess this must be yuannensis. I'm still puzzled why I've never seen birds like these before.

Just to prove Tree Pipits do occur on Hegurajima, I found this first autumn bird one September a few years ago.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Ashyu Forest (central Kyoto prefecture)

The first time I visited Ashyu Forest was an overnight camping trip with the local branch of WBSJ over 20 years ago. Nowadays I use the term "Ashyu Forest" very loosely to cover a much wider area in the hills north of Kyoto city. In practise a car is an absolute necessity to access any of the excellent locations and it would be impossible to do the area justice in a day. Having said that most species can be found throughout the area and focusing on one area is probably the best strategy. From Kyoto city drive north on Route 367 then turn right onto what is marked briefly as the R781 on the Google map before reverting to R367. At night this road can be good for mammals and I've seen Ural Owls and Japanese Night Heron at Dawn. There are many Asian House martin colonies under bridges along the road and Brown Dippers on the river. I also hear Ruddy Kingfishers and Japanese Scops Owls along here. Take the first left, after several kilometres, just past Omiya Shrine and you'll see a large sign saying Beechan Forest. Drive to the end, where there's a small car park, a toilet block and a chain across the road, sometimes the later stretches can be blocked, or partly blocked, by by landslips in the rainy season. Walk up the (drivable) track to a gate at the top where there's a sign board with a map showing the various walking routes. The big advantage with this area is the number of walkable trails, elsewhere the birds seem equally good but hillsides are frequently too steep to allow access.

Map of walking trails.

The main habitats are primary forest (particularly at Ashyu), mature secondary growth, conifer plantations and rice paddies where narrow, flat valley bottoms allow strings of small villages to worm their way into the hills.

First light over the forest while walking up to the above map.

A favourite high-valley bottom for Crested Kingfisher and the more widespread Ruddy Kingfisher.

Coming from the south turn left after Omiya Shrine, and drive till the end of the road then continue uphill on foot to reach the early morning shot site then drop down into the following valley to the river in the second shot.

Breeding birds here include Japanese, Japanese Scops, Oriental Scops, Ural and Brown Hawk Owl; Ruddy and Crested Kingfisher; Great Spotted, White-backed and Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker; Oriental, Lesser and Northern Hawk Cuckoo (plus Common in spring); Japanese Thrush; Blue and White, Narcissus and Asian Brown Flyctcher (oddly, I've never seen Paradise here); Ashy Minivet; Grey Nightjar. One one ocassion I heard Fairy Pitta here. I've never seen Copper Pheasant or Japanese Night Heron here though I'm sure both will occur. Near Omiya Shrine is the closest spot I've seen Copper Pheasant and a little further down the road I've had early morning roadside Japanese Night Heron.
Mammals I've seen here are Japanese Squirrel, Japanese Macaque, Large Japanese Mole (only once, swimming across a stream!), Black Bear, Japanese Marten, Masked Palm Civet, Racoon Dog, Japanese Lesser Flying Squirrel, Japanese Hare, Red Fox Sika Deer, Wild Boar, various bats and a few mice. I've had Japanese Serow not far from here but I'm still waiting for Japanese Badger.

I've explored most roads further south than this where birds and mammals are much the same though Copper Pheasant and Japanese Night Heron have been more regular in my experience but that's probably no more than coincidence.

I've seen five species of snake in the area:-

Japanese Rat Snake.

Four-striped Rat Snake.

Tiger Keelback.

Japanese Mamushi.

My only Japanese Keelback was wary and really fast so I couldn't get a shot, actually the Tiger Keelbacks I've seen were all difficult to approach too.

The area is also great for amphibians, salamanders, frogs and toad.

Japanese Toad.

Some kind of tree frog on a post in the forest at night.

Tree frog "nests" are common and will suddenly appear over a short-lived puddle on a rutted track.

Fire-bellied Salamanders can be so common you have to watch where you step.

I presume these are Japanese Brown Frog.

I'm not sure which species this is, in short grass adjoining paddyfields. 

Daruma Pond Frog in a valley bottom.


Saturday, 10 May 2014

Migrants on the Noto Peninsular

The drive from Wajima to the end of the peninsular at Rokkozaki reminded me of birding on Tsushima, there are so many attractive patches of habitat along the route it's hard to know where to stop, but daylight was a factor I drove directly to Rokkozaki to check-out how suitable the area looked in reality rather than just on satellite imagery.

The small harbour village of Noroshi was remarkably quite, one or two locals and the odd motorcycle tourist, despite the large car parks tour buses hadn't made it past the Senmaida terraced paddies as far as I could see. I made my way directly to the lighthouse on top of the hill above the village. It's a very short walk through a mix of woodland, vegetable plots and ornamental shrubbery. In the hour before dusk I could confirm the area along with the fields in the flat valley bottom and nearby forest on the next ridge combined to make an attractive patchwork of habitats which could be very productive in the right conditions. Migrants were conspicuous enough to make the prospect of dawn birding quite exciting.

It starts to get light at about 5am at this time of year and I began the day walking the fields until there was sufficient light to bird under the trees. Apart from Asian House Martins overhead and a hidden Green Pheasant displaying in some reeds there was dishearteningly little about but once on the hill there were plenty of thrushes, Siberian, Eye-browed, Japanese, Brown-headed and Dusky. A flock of Japanese Waxwings was a nice surprise as was a male Tristram's Bunting. There was a spodocephala Black-faced Bunting too, it looks like I was right about the place being a good migrant trap. There were singing Asian Stubtails and Blue and White Flycatchers and though it became quieter as the morning wore on I added Pacific Swifts, Ashy Minivets, a Siberian Rubythroat, Chestnut-cheeked Starlings and Narcissus Flycatchers. There was even a mid-morning Red Fox.

Brown-headed, one of many thrushes in the trees on the headland. 

After often hearing Ashy Minivet overhead it was nice to get one below the canopy.

I had planned to spend a full day but by early afternoon I decided to move on to my final destination, Kemmin Kaihin Park further down the peninsular in Kanazawa. This excellent coastal park is always a great spot for migrants (and winter visitors) so I though it might be good to give it an evening followed by an early morning as I had for Rokkozaki.

Immature Temminck's Cormorant exercise routine.

One thing I hadn't given much thought to was the number of photographers there would be at the park in Kanazawa, I'd been the only person, let alone only birder, wandering round the hills and fields at Rokkozaki but there were knots of photographers gathered at all strategic locations in the park. This isn't a great problem in itself but it detracts from the thrilling sense of expectation that any rarity is mine for the finding.

One of the first migrants I found was a Lesser Cuckoo and the resident Azure-winged Magpies are always great to see as it's a species I can't see around Kyoto. There were warblers, Oriental Reed, Yellow-browed, Sakhalin, Eastern Crowned and Stubtail as well as thrushes, Siberian, Brown-headed, Eyebrowed, Japanese and Dusky. All these in the last couple of hours before sunset, once again I was full of high hopes for the following morning.

I settled down in the car for an early night but was suddenly roused by a couple of fighting Racoon Dogs in the car park. Later two more animals were searching for roadkill on a nearby bridge, moving aside to allow cars to pass. Hopes of hearing owls during the night came to nothing.

By 05:45 some of the same photographers who had been there the previous evening were already hurrying to their favourite spots, and who could blame them - the birding was excellent. I found two more Tristram's Buntings to add to the three I'd seen the previous evening, there were two male Siberian Thrushes, a Common/Oriental Cuckoo, a couple of Rubythroats and Siberian Blue Robin. I heard Common Greenshank overhead and Green Pheasants were displaying in the scrub behind the dunes.

One of many Eyebrowed Thrushes. 

Asian Brown Flycatcher.

There were four male and one female Tristram's Buntings in the park.

Everything had been going really well up to this point. Too well? At 07:00 I jumped up onto a sawn-off length of felled tree trunk to look for a singing Rubythroat, lost my balance and had to jump back down. Unfortunately another section of the same tree was laying there and prevented me taking the step back my momentum required and over it I went. Like any good birder would I grabbed my bins with one hand and camera with the other as I back flopped over the trunk. I might have dropped into some springy bushes but no such luck, there was a 6-7cm high wooden spike, a cut-off piece of branch sticking up, and I planted my right kidney area right on top.

I lay a moment to take stock and plan how to stand up, no easy feat, that took a couple of minutes. I was feeling incredibly weak and groggy and my only thought was get back to the car in case there was worse to come. Each shuffled step seemed to take an age but suffice to say I did make it back to the car and started a slow and painful drive home. Making my way through the park I was vaguely aware of lots of birds to my right and left but one bird in particular, a male Tristram's, wouldn't move out of my way... I could have bent down and picked it up. My only thought at the time was one day I'll be amazed by that bird.

Friday, 9 May 2014

It wasn't only Isabelline... there's a Tree Pipit mis-ID

I covered most of the island in my allotted 4.5 hours but finding anything is even more a matter of luck than usual. Mugimaki Flycatchers were hard to miss, possibly the most numerous flycatcher on the island, I've only been once when there were more present. But not a single male!

This Mugimaki looks like it's just done 10 rounds with a local moggie.

Of more interest was a male Common Crossbill, an island tick for me, but its presence wasn't so surprising given this winter was an invasion year. The number of spodocephala Black-faced Bunting was also good to see, it's nice to get so many clear-cut males.

Thrushes were well reasonably common with Brown-headed, Dusky and a single White's seen. There were a few robins too, one Siberian Blue was particularly popular with photographers and had quite a crowd gathered for its sporadic appearances atop a rock in the sasa. I didn't have time to hang around and wait for it to appear but on both occasions I walked past the shutters burst into action and there it was. I heard another in deep undergrowth and likewise two trilling Japanese Robins. I also heard two Siberian Rubythroats and managed to glimpse one as it flashed across the track. Things were easier on the phyllosc front Eastern Crowned, Yellow-browed and Sakhalin Leaf were all reasonably easy to see.

Sakhalin Leaf in woodland understorey.

As departure time drew closer I headed back down to the harbour and it seemed fitting that another good find was waiting on "the green", two Tree Pipits flew up and perched on the fence just metres from where the Isabelline Shrike had been a very short four hours earlier. My snap identification before I had to dash for my ferry was erroneous, they were Olive-backed. Nevertheless these birds are of interest and I'll post more later on these two.

The ferry trip back to Wajima, so often a let down, was quite good this time. A diver, possibly Red-throated flew by and Two Japanese Murrelets which dropped onto the sea were something I hadn't previously seen from this route. There were several flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes too, I tried to take some shots of the nearest flock without getting great results but when I checked I was completely taken aback to see a breeding plumage Grey (Red) Phalarope amongst them!

Spot the odd one out.

The ferry docked at 16:30 and rather than the usual mad dash south I took a leisurely drive along the beautiful coastline in glorious late afternoon sun to check out Rokkozaki. Its position of the tip of the Noto Peninsular looks favourable to pull in migrants and satellite imagery seems to show a good variety of interesting habitat. I thought that if it were as good as it looked the place could be a great alternative to Hegura if the ferry were cancelled. I'll post the results later but below is a full list of species seen or heard on the 6th.

Eastern Spot-billed Duck   several Wajima and elsewhere
diver sp   1 from the ferry
Streaked Shearwater   fairly common from the ferry
Grey Heron   2
Great White Egret   4
Little Egret   1 near Kanazawa
cormorant sp   1 in Wajima harbour
Pelagic Cormorant   c15
Peregrine   1
Black Kite   1
Eurasian Sparrowhawk   1
Pacific Golden Plover   1 heard near Kanazawa
Common Sandpiper   1 Wajima
Red-necked Phalarope   c90 from the ferry
Grey Phalarope   1 from the ferry
Black-tailed Gull very common
Japanese Murrelet   2 from the ferry
Oriental Turtle Dove   2-3
Feral Rock Dove   Wajima
Oriental Cuckoo   1-2 heard
Common Kingfisher   1
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker   1 Rokkozaki
Ashy Minivet   1
Isabelline Shrike   1
Jay   1 near Wajima
Rook   1
Carrion Crow   Wajima
Large-billed Crow   1-2 (plus elsewhere)
Varied Tit   heard Noto Pen
Barn Swallow   a few, common elsewhere
Asian House Martin   c25 Rokkozaki
Skylark   2
Zitting Cisticola   1heard Noto Pen
Brown-eared Bulbul
Japanese Bush Warbler   common
Asian Stubtail   1 heard Rokkozaki
Yellow-browed Warbler   several
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler   3-4
Eastern Crowned Warbler   several
Japanese White-eye 2-3 heard
Wren   several heard near Kanazawa
White-cheeked Starling   Noto Pen
White's Thrush   1
Eye-browed Thrush   several Rokkozaki
Brown-headed Thrush   c10
Dusky Thrush   several
Siberian Rubythroat   1 plus 1 heard
Japanese Robin   2 heard
Siberian Blue Robin   1 plus 1 heard
Sibeian Stonechat   2
Blue Rock Thrush   3+ Noto Pen
Asian Brown Flycatcher   2
Narcissus Flycatcher   several
Mugimaki Flycatcher   10-15
Blue and White Flycatcher   several
Eurasian Tree Sparrow   Noto Pen
White Wagtail   several, one fly-by was a non-lugens
Japanese Wagtail   1 Rokkozaki
Tree Pipit   2
Olive-backed Pipit   1
pipit sp   1
Brambling   c10
Oriental Greenfinch   common
Common Crossbill   1 male
Japanese Grosbeak   2 Rokkozaki
Meadow Bunting   1 off the top of my head this might be a Hegura first for me!
Little Bunting   2-3
Black-faced Bunting   common including several spodocephala