Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Garganey and 26 wader species!

Trying to find anything interesting around Kansai in August effectively means looking for waders and though the 17 species I saw in the Matsusaka/Tsu area of Mie last week was disappointing there weren't many alternatives to giving it another shot at the weekend. I drove across on Saturday night and spent about nine hours from dawn patrolling the seafront, estuaries and fields clocking up a really impressive 26 species, possibly my highest ever day-total. It may well be that such a wide range isn't unusual but having the luck to be in the right place at the right time to connect with what might be the lone this or that species in the area is the trick. Plus, there'll invariably be one or two usually common species which are mystifyingly absent whenever a very good total seems on the cards. To put it into perspective I very much doubt it would be possible to hit 30 in a day here, even if finding a major national rarity.

Though I didn't get the hoped for major national rare I did manage three species that are scarce or irregular visitors, Greater Sand Plover (1), Latham's Snipe (5) and Broad-billed Sandpiper (2). But the bird that got the day going was a female Garganey. I always get a buzz from finding Garganey, they are a spring and autumn passage migrant in very low numbers, I don't see them every year and rarely if ever in the same place twice so it's a species that can't be actively looked for. A great start to the day. Ridiculous optimism dictates any female (or eclipse male) has to be checked for Blue-winged Teal but there's no deflation when it turns out not to be one; Garganey really is that good. If it had been a passerine, I'd have said it was a new arrival it was feeding with such intent, almost frantically. It seemed just to lift its head from the water long enough for a gulp of air before submerging again. Getting a good view of the head was dependent on some disturbance putting all the birds on edge. When I passed by this pond again later in the day it was nowhere to be seen, either it must have moved on or was taking a siesta in a reedy bay.

I'd thought about settling on the beach before dawn to wait for waders being pushed in by the tide but the very high tide due today was already up to the normal high water mark before then and in any case there were too many people fishing from shore. The fishing website I check for tides predicted today as very good and not only were there a large number of people casting into the sea but the inshore fishing fleet was out in force, many boats had nets down right in the mouths of the broader rivers. Later in the day corresponding extremely low tide meant it was a bumper day for shellfish digging too, it was an altogether bad day to be something edible in the water.

Livelihood or hobby fishermen I can take, but a guy overflying the mudflats with his paramotor was another matter. If his aim was to flush all the waders he did an excellent job, around the edges, up and down the centre, a harrier couldn't have quartered the area more thoroughly. I really can't imagine any purpose to this other than flushing the waders and once they were gone he cranked up the power and gained height over the sea.

And, the Prat-of-the-Day award goes to...

It isn't only wader numbers that fluctuate dramatically, last week there was a single Intermediate Egret, no Cattle and just a few Little but today there were 200+ Intermediate, 20+ Cattle, Little were common and Great White, which had been common last week were in even greater numbers today. Additionally there were flocks of distant unidentified egrets across the fields where ever rice was being harvested.

This adult Cattle Egret showed little sign of breeding plumage, unlike many which were still extensively orange. 

The black-tipped yellow bill of Intermediate is usually visible even at quite long range. 

The very thin neck is also distinctive. 

None of the three least common waders were close enough to get decent photos of, it's always a matter of luck which species might be closer or to distant. Every trip seems different so trying to get reasonable shots of the waders adds another entertaining variable to Matsusaka visits. Below are a few of the closer birds from this trip.

Far Eastern Curlew. 

Eurasian Curlew. 

Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlews.

Terek Sandpiper, the second most common species of the day. 

Grey Plover, a few were still in full breeding plumage but this was the only bird to come reasonably close. 

Grey-tailed Tattler, by far the most numerous wader today.

List of species seen

Green Pheasant   1 plus 1 heard
Mallard   3
Eastern Spot-billed Duck   common
Garganey   1
Common Pochard   3
Greater Scaup   2
Little Grebe   common
Black-crowned Night Heron   1 heard
Cattle Egret   20+
Grey Heron   widespread
Great White Egret   150+
Intermediate Egret   200+
Little Egret   50+
Great Cormorant   very common
Osprey   2
Black Kite   15-20
Moorhen   2
(Eastern) Oystercatcher   10
Black-winged Stilt   33
Grey-headed Lapwing   2
Grey Plover   17
Little Ringed Plover   2
Kentish Plover   fairly common
Lesser Sand Plover   1  This was the most numerous waders only a week ago.
Greater Sand Plover   1
Latham's Snipe   5
Common Snipe   2-3
Whimbrel   2
Eurasian Curlew   1
Far Eastern Curlew   2
Marsh Sandpiper   12-14
Common Greenshank   20-30
Green Sandpiper   1
Wood Sandpiper   1
Grey-tailed Tattler   1000+
Terek Sandpiper   150+
Common Sandpiper   10-15
Ruddy Turnstone   8-12
Great Knot   3
Sanderling   fairly common
Red-necked Stint   3
Dunlin   2
Broad-billed Sandpiper   2
Black-tailed Gull   very common
Feral Rock Dove
Oriental Turtle Dove   very common
Common Kingfisher   2 plus 1 heard
Bull-headed Shrike   1 plus 1 heard
Carrion Crow
Large-billed Crow
Sand Martin   c10
Barn Swallow   common
Japanese Skylark   fairly common
Zitting Cisticola   still many birds singing
Brown-eared Bullbul   fairly common
Oriental Reed Warbler   2
White-cheeked Starling   very common
Blue Rock Thrush   2
Eurasian Tree Sparrow   common
White Wagtail   15-20
Japanese Wagtail   1
Oriental Greenfinch   1
Meadow Bunting   several

Mammals (all on the overnight drive)

Sika Deer   1
Racoon Dog   1
Japanese Marten   1

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Mt.Misen and Matsusaka wader spots

The 13th of August is maybe a bit late to be heading into the forest with high expectation of finding many birds by song. Nevertheless, as I hadn't had a chance to get into the hills of central Wakayama this year, I was keen to try for a few birds I can't see closer to home. Plus having two free days I could combine it with a first wader check of the season.

I drove down the night before taking a different route to the narrow twisty road I've used in the past, less direct but much faster. It would have been much quicker too if I hadn't missed a turning and driven an hour before realising. This meant I didn't get any sleep as the eastern sky was already pale when I arrived but on the upside I did get very nice views of a roadside Ural Owl, first sitting on the roadside barrier then on an over-arching branch.

I hadn't expected a great dawn chorus but Japanese Thrush was one species still in full voice, Blue and White Flycatcher put in a decent shift too. However some quite common yet hard to see species were totally silent, Ruddy Kingfisher and Siberian Blue Robin in particular spring to mind, so it was quite a surprised to actually see a female Siberian Blue Robin move across a small patch of uneven bare ground on the steep slope below the road. Even more of a surprise was hearing a single Japanese Robin sing sporadically, their numbers are far lower in the area than Blue Robin.

Which species were seen and which missed was a bit of a lottery but the silent cuckoos and Grey Nightjar were firmly in the miss column while Japanese Woodpeckers were very active and conspicuous as were the usually gregarious birds, Red-billed Leiothrix, the tits with Willow the best of the bunch and here and there was the wonderful discordant woodwind sound of White-bellied Green Pigeon that I find so evocative of the better quality mountain forests.

As the morning pressed on I began thinking of the two or three hours drive to Matsusaka. There were going to be exceptionally high and low tides today and tomorrow and I didn't want to mistime my arrival. It really had nothing to do with needing coffee, but I was horrified to find the nearest convenience store was over an hour away...  this is Kansai not the back of beyond!

I made it to Matsusaka by early afternoon, in time to catch the rising tide. The few hours before dusk were enough to convince me to stay overnight to catch the next rising tide but in the event the extremely high tide meant the mudflats had been drowned before dawn and the onset of heavy, persistent rain from about 06:30 reduced visability so much as to make waiting for the falling tide a waste of time.

As things turned out it was just as well I left early as the main route across the Kii Peninsular was closed requiring a lengthy detour along a maze of unmarked single track roads. It just hasn't been my week, only a few days earlier I was driving back from Niigata during a typhoon where two roads had been closed. But back to the birds...

There was a rather unremarkable total of 17 wader species, and nothing out of the ordinary. Well, that's by Mie standards anyway, by Kyoto standards it was pretty darn good. But why go there so often if a disappointing day in Mie weren't far better than any in Kyoto. Obvious absentees were Wood Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover, others are less predictable but I'd normally hope to see Great Knot, Grey Plover and Whimbrel. To see 20 species isn't anything to get excited about but it's not just about numbers and at this time there are still a few birds in cracking breeding plumage. There were about eight Turnstones and absolutely stunning they were too...

A count of 27 Black-winged Stilts was very good and as usual they were on their favourite pond which puts them just a little too far to get good shots with my gear.

When a Peregrine tried to take a Little Grebe most waders flew off in a panic, the Stilts by contrast gathered in two tight groups close to the reeds. 

It wasn't all just waders of course, and it was probably the one that got away that would've been the highlight of the day (aren't they always?). As I was driving along a levee top I just caught the very small size and flappy flight of a small bittern or Striated Heron. By the time I pulled up it had dropped into the reeds or the river edge but when I doubled back and crossed the river there was nothing on the far side of the reeds, so it must have dropped into the reeds making a small bittern species all the more likely. Another highlight was this Osprey, it's rare to get such good views but this rather bedraggled bird was very approachable.

These two Common Redshank were probably the least common wader species of the day and though even breeding plumage birds aren't spectacular, they are still subtly attractive. The other interesting species of the day was Lesser Sandplover, not because it's rare but they present a more interesting identification challenge.

Lesser Sandplover showing the straight distal edge of the inner primary wing-bar, unlike the bulging bar of Greater Sandplover.

They don't come much smaller-billed than the male on the right in these two shots.

A few males were still very red on the breast but the black line down the centre of the forehead seems to disappear very quickly creating an unmarked white patch.

Of the large number of birds close to breeding plumage, this was the only bird with a strong forehead line.

This female looks much longer-legged and bigger-billed. Just individual variation, or how different might mongolicus and stegmanni look?

The beach turned up something else of interest too, while sitting waiting for waders to come closer I noticed a terrapin walking across the sand. It wasn't too far from the river mouth so it didn't strike me as too odd and not wanting to give up my position to the waders I just took a single shot. However once back home I checked the image and it looks to me like a tortoise!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

ferry routes

Is Japan's network of ferries a blessing or a curse? Would birders be organising deep-water pelagics if there weren't so many opportunities to see seabirds from the ferries? On balance I'd have to say they're a blessing, cheap(-ish) and frequent, allowing access to off-shore birding at the drop of a hat even if we can't stop to get a decent look at the birds. There are over 600 ferry routes in Japan, though only a few are important from the birding perspective.

Northern routes

When I first came to Japan there was a terrific ferry route from Tokyo to Kushiro, passing through some very productive water south of Hokkaido and with the added benefit of landing you close to the birding action in the east of the island. No long drive/train journey across the island required as when getting dumped in Tomakomai; even if that does get Magpie for your trip list. With that option long gone we old-timers get the chance to bore everyone else about the good old days.

Nowadays there are two long distance routes to Hokkaido from Honshu on the Pacific coast, from Nagoya (better for Short-tailed Albatross at the right time of year) and Oarai (convenient from Tokyo). There are also a couple of shorter distance ferries which might be of interest, the best being the Hakkodate to Oma taking 90 minutes to cross the Tsugaru Straits (three sailings per day) which might be worthwhile if you found yourself in the area with a day to spare. The Japan Sea routes are less productive and the only ferry I've used (Tsuruga-Tomakomai) had very limited viewing options.

As I'm based in Kyoto the Nagoya-Tomakomai route operated by Taiheiyo http://www.taiheiyo-ferry.co.jp/english/koro/tomanago.html is conveniently only 35 minutes away by shinkansen and I've used this in every month. The biggest drawback is that it passes through productive water off Iwate at night in both directions. So for summer breeding oceanodroma petrels the Oarai ferry would be better.

Nagoya-Tomakomai ferries pass each other just south of Sendai. 

Since the Fukushima nuclear power station incident many people come on deck to take this distant shot. 

Approaching the entrance to Ise Bay towards the end of the southward trip.

Izu & Ogasawara

For many visiting birders the shorter ferry route to Miyakejima or Hachijojima in the Izu Islands http://www.tokaikisen.co.jp/english/ is a must-do as the return trip can be done in a day, whereas the Ogasawara ferry http://www.ogasawarakaiun.co.jp/english/, which also leaves from the Takeshiba Sanbashi terminal in Tokyo, takes too long for the vast majority of visitors.

High on the list of targets for anyone travelling down to the Izu Islands would probably be Short-tailed Albatross and Tristram's Petrel both of which are winter breeders (Tristram's might be possible year round) and Bulwer's Petrel which is a summer breeder. If sailing further south to the Ogasawara Islands, Matsudaira's Petrel, Bonin Petrel and Bannerman's Shearwater are all summer breeders. As Bryan's Shearwater is a winter breeder obviously that would be the time to try for it but perhaps the Iwo Islands would be a better bet if there were any way to get there in winter. 

Once a year the Ogasawara ferry company operates a sailing around the Iwo Islands which brings within reach a range of species not normally seen in Japanese waters.

The Izu Islands ferry from Miyakejima. 

The Ogasawara ferry docked on Chichijima with the much smaller Hahajima ferry behind it. 

The Hahajima ferry leaving Chichijima.

The send-off from Chichijima for the Ogasawara ferry.

I've never used the long distance Ryukyu southern route ferries and can't say how productive they may be in different seasons. In the Yaeyama Islands the inter-island ferries are too fast to be useful for birding, though Masked and Brown Booby should at least be identifiable. The slow Ishigaki-Yonaguni ferry is good for Bridled Terns, noddies and boobies. Perhaps in winter there might be an outside chance of seeing a Senkaku Short-tailed Albatross?

Ishigaki-Iriomote high-speed ferry.

Other ferries I use regularly are to Hegurajima and Mishima in the Japan Sea, though neither are terribly exciting and I would never take them for their own sake. Having said that Japanese Murrelet is quite regular between Mishima and Hagi.

Hagi port, start point for the Mishima ferry. 

The Hegurajima ferry in the island harbour with the Noto Peninsular in the distance.

I've used other Japan Sea ferries to South Korea and Tsushima but neither of these routes produced much other than the expected Streaked Shearwaters. Nevertheless, I wonder if Aleutian Tern might be possible on those routes if the timing were right.