Monday, 9 June 2014

Black-browed Reed Warbler - a Kansai breeder?

The umbrella season is upon us once more and for the moment at least it's a little cooler and not yet unbearably humid. That's about as positive a statement I can muster as my second least favourite time of year kicks in. The temperature yesterday reached 29 on Lake Biwa but was a pleasant 23 in the mountains.

I've never been to Lake Sainoko to the east of Lake Biwa in summer, nor even been closer to birding anywhere in the Lake Biwa area than just driving by en route to the mountains. But this weekend, after a month being unable to drive anywhere (my birding van gets pressed into tea harvest duty during May), I wanted to check the reedbeds at Sainoko for bitterns. I don't have any bittern species on my Kansai list and this must be the nearest good bet to home. Great Bitterns used to breed not far from the spot, certainly until the mid 80's, and Yellow Bittern must be a real possibility here.

In the event I didn't see any bitterns flying over the reed-tops from either of two good vantage points overlooking large stretches of reedbed but at one of them I did see a Black-browed Reed Warbler. Luckily, out of countless singing Oriental Reeds and a few Zitting Cisticolas this bird was closest. Distinctive as the song is, I wonder whether I might have missed it if it hadn't been so close.

Whether Black-browed is a regular breeder here, I don't know. If so it must be close to the western limit of their breeding range in Japan, though there are isolated pockets further west. Despite being a common, if secretive, migrant on the Japan Sea side of the country I'd still have to class it as a major rarity round Kyoto. One May I had 5-6 singing birds on a small marsh near Ogura but then nothing for maybe 20 years. That I don't visit Lake Biwa in general, and Sainoko in particular, in summer may give me a false impression of their rarity in Kansai but this is my first local sighting since those Ogura birds so many years ago. Then again, as I still manage to see huge numbers of Oriental Reed Warblers throughout the region I don't think not seeing Black-browed is solely down to my site bias. One thing is certain, Black-browed Warbler was bird of the day.

Oriental Reed Warbler at Lake Sainoko, a very common and conspicuous bird around the lake.

Once up into the hills for late afternoon and evening it was very much a case of heard but not seen. I climbed a trail following a small river into the hills but it was very quiet. Even when the rain stopped it did nothing to lift the gloom and there was no sudden burst of activity. Gaps in the canopy are as infrequent as bird sightings were, so it's never very bright at the best of times, the valley sides are steep, at times shear rock walls and slick with running water where not moss-covered. Blue and White Flycatchers were the only birds not put off by the weather and rain or no rain many were singing from the topmost reach of cedars. Otherwise the only evidence birds even existed was a pair of breeding Brown Dippers on the river, a single brief snatch of song from a European Wren and a querulous male Great Spotted Woodpecker that kept pace with me, stopping whenever I did, until I presume it had escorted me to the border of its territory. On the mammal front I saw one Sika Deer which after bounding off gave its abrupt yelp drawing a response from two or three others in the area. Almost back to the road, somewhere on the valley slope above a Northern Hawk Cuckoo started its manic accelerating song, the beginning of the dusk chorus.

In lieu of anything moving, a flowering ficus species in the only stretch of the track with a break in the canopy. 

Again in the open area, this very low flowering tree was briefly common. It looks very identifiable but I haven't checked yet.

Once back to the road I drove up the steep and twisting, single-track road stopping where possible to listen across the valleys. Wisps at first, then clinging clumps of low cloud were following me up the slope and no more than listening was possible really. A Lesser Cuckoo started singing higher on a neighbouring hill and the same Hawk Cuckoo, now below me, was still in a frenzy. And one of my favourites, a White-vented Green Pigeon, joined in making this a real concert of eccentrics.

As always I stopped on the ridge. The jostling hills which had squeezed valleys into tight steep-sided networks to the west gives way to huge open space. On this eastern face the hill can sweep down unhindered to a level valley floor way below and on this seemingly unhurried side of the ridge each neighbouring hill in turn has more room to plant its feet. The valleys are broader-bottomed here, no longer zigzaging recklessly towards a sumit. There's enough room to meander a little if the rivers had a mind to and villages follow these ribbons of cultivatable land into the mountains. The ridge is a great place to stop and wait for something to happen.

Close by another Lesser Cuckoo and also a second Hawk Cuckoo started singing. As the light began to fade a couple of Japanese Thrushes suddenly burst into song too. There was an Oriental Cuckoo silhouetted against the last light in the tree to my left - I saw something at last - and six or seven more, near or far, could be heard across openness. Getting darker the Grey Nightjars began their rapid chucking, one passed just overhead, and a Ural Owl threw in a few irregular base phrases to go with the nightjar beat.

No Copper Pheasant, no Japanese Night Heron nor even any Japanese Scops Owls but it was really good to get out of the city.

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