Thursday, 18 September 2014

Little Stints with 30 Red-necked

Continuing from my previous post on my most recent Mie trip, these are the two Little Stints I found in a flock of about 30 Red-necked.

I slipped out of gear as soon as the excellent looking field came into view and free-wheeled up blocking the single track road. At first I only noticed three or four Red-necked Stints towards the far end of the field about 100 metres away but these and many others that seemed to appear from nowhere came running directly towards my parked van! I presume it provided some cover in an otherwise very open situation, they flew up nervously several times while I was there but always made a beeline back to the van after re-settling.

As the birds first approached I found what looked suspiciously like a Little. This would be a Japan tick for me so I was more than a little excited and as I watched it another bird, even more distinctive looking, walked into my field of view. Close views of these two along with all the Red-necked provided an excellent opportunity for comparison.

The following three shots show how well the Little can stand out at about 50 metres, this was after one of their short nervous flights. However care needs to be taken as some red-necked have largely solid black mantle, scapulars and coverts and so be just as eye-catchingly dark at distance, though presumably would never show such a bold white mantle V as in the third shot. The other plumage feature that stands out here is the brown breast side, some Red-necked do have browner markings and more warmly marked (more buffish) ground but most are greyish and tend to have neater smaller streaks.
Structurally the views I had of these birds were quite instructive. There's seems to be some contradictory information in the literature regarding proportions, relative leg, tail and primary lengths, but I think this is simply due to differing ways of interpreting the features. Though of course even slight individual variation may lead to confusion with such similar species. In general the Red-necked in these shots certainly look long and attenuated while the dumpier Little looks rather truncated but in fact the Little had both a longer primary projection and extension, but the latter may be an effect of shorter t1. With their more upright stance on longer legs Little look deeper-bellied (and so less attenuated) and these two often seemed to teeter along tipping forward steeply to peck at the mud whereas the shorter-legged Red-necked with flatter undercarriage line gave the appearance of being longer and seemed to glide or hover smoothly just above the surface.

There's unquestionablyly significant individual variation within both Red-necked and Little Stints and images of just two Little aren't going to do anywhere near justice to the full range of possibilities. Nevertheless below are more shots of both Little Stints plus a few Red-necked for comparison.

Long primary projection clearly beyond tail. The tip of p7 is visible beyond the tertials and the p7-8 spacing is large. Note the central tail feather is only slightly longer than the others. The legs are long compared to Red-necked and the exposed tibia between the knee and feathering is much greater and easily seen however much the legs may be bent or immersed in water. Mantle black with fine bright rufous spots and a bold white V. Scapulars black with some grey in the base of central lower row, the innermost visible scapulars are rufous fringed but others have white fringes. Lesser and marginal coverts black. Median coverts, greater coverts and tertials black or very dark grey variably with slightly warmer fringes. Juvenile Red-necked can have largely black-centred scapulars (and coverts) too but these invariably seem to have very prominent white tips with far less conspicuous grey edges and often some rufous in the base. Adult Red-necked scapulars can look very similar to those of these Little Stints but they contrast with grey coverts. 

This adult Red-necked Stint has almost identical scapulars but the coverts and tertials are greyer. It also has quite distinct brown breast side streaking. The bill is deeper-based, shorter and blunt-tipped compared to Little. The primary projection is short with p7 coming nowhere near the longest tertial and the spacings between p7-8 and p8-9 are a closer match. The central tail feather is much longer than the others (unlike Little) and the primary  projection falls just short of it. The legs are short with relatively little exposed tibia between knee and feathering. 

This is the other Little Stint (the first I found) behind a Red-necked. Compared to the Red-necked the bill is longer and finer-tipped. The lesser and marginal coverts are black rather than grey. The legs are long with extensive exposed tibia, best seen on the respective far legs as the Red-necked has a metal ring on the right leg. P7 seems to fall just short of the longest tertial on this bird but it still shows a long spacing to p8.

Further images of the more distinctive of the two Little Stints.

Bill long, over double loral length, dark centre of crown and bold white braces contrasting with largely black mantle and Scapulars. Heavy brown markings on breast sides.

Here compared to Red-necked...

 Compared to this adult Red-necked the Little is much longer-legged, the bill is longer and finer at the tip. The primary projection is obviously longer and there are four tips beyond the tertials. This Red-necked has more typically marked lower scapulars plus much greyer coverts.

The brighter juvenile Red-necked in the background is very typical of birds passing through at the moment and though out of focus it accurately portrays the overall colouration of rather warm sandy mantle and upper scapulars and cold pale grey coverts. The differences in primaries and legs is again readily apparent.

Here with a very bright juvenile Red-necked. It's interesting that rufous tertial and greater covert fringes are more often associated with Little rather than red-necked. Though the rufous edges with white tips to the lower scapulars are more expected even if, yet again, the these feathers are far more solidly black than most references suggest. The split supercillium is only more obvious because of the darker crown and more contrasting whiter edgings, the shape is the same to all intents and purposes. 

More shots of the other Little Stint...

It actually looked more distinctive at slightly longer range.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A two-day wader trip to Mie

With at least two Spoon-billed Sandpipers in Japan at the weekend plus another a week earlier at my usual wader spot in Mie, as well as Western Sand and Nordmann's Greenshank in Kyushu and Baird's Sand in Osaka, looking for waders might have seemed a safe bet.

I drove across on Saturday night to be ready for dawn and an early high tide and came back on Monday afternoon. The start wasn't all I'd hoped for, though high tide wasn't until 9am I could see the flats shrink rapidly in the moon light and sure enough by dawn there was nothing left. It was obvious from the outset that numbers of some species were well down since my previous visit a couple of weeks ago. Grey-tailed Tattler down from 1000+ to about 100 and Terek to 100 from several. Grey Plover had disappeared entirely and just a single Ruddy Turnstone was odd. On the other hand the number of Sanderling, an over-wintering species, was up but where had two Oystercatchers gone? There have been 10 Oystercatchers on each visit since mid-August but today only eight.

The most notable feature of the morning was the number of newly arrived ducks with about 400 Eurasian Teal leading the charge. There were four garganey and a party of eclipse Falcated Duck were nice to see.

This odd looking Garganey was glued to the party of Falacated Duck when I first came across it. The Falcated were maybe fresh in as they were far more nervous than anything else and I spent an age trying to get a half decent digiscoped shot of them, and the Garganey.

Three typical Garganey lurking in the reeds, with so many eclipse Eurasian Teal around it's getting more difficult, or at least time consuming, to find them.

Eclipse Falcated are a first for me in the area.

The afternoon was disappointing and I was thinking of heading home when just as the light started to go I discovered a small block of good fields tucked away behind some houses, it would be great to have an aerial view to see exactly where the best fields are. This area held a lot of Common Snipe, several Little Ringed Plover and Wood Sandpipers, all field specialists I'd seen very little of today. There was even a flock of stints that flew up only to drop back out of sight into the next field. This was enough to convince me to stay over night and try again with good light.

From the seawall I had a great view of Jupiter and four of its moons before trying to sleep and later Saturn and its rings in the opposite direction... while still not sleeping. Even something as natural as the night sky is a treat for a city dweller.

After a quick check of the shoreline first thing, I went back to see what I could find on the fields and got the following shots of the common waders there.

Wood Sandpipers.

Adult Little Ringed Plover.

Juvenile Little Ringed Plover.

Red-necked Stint.

Just as I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of staying over night, there wasn't anything more than I'd seen last night, a Grey-faced Buzzard came low over the field flushing a Ruff and three Pacific Golden Plover. Where had they been? The area of fields was small and the vegetation not high but they dropped back into it never to be seen again.

I decided to head home and as a last roll of the dice took a single track road across a block of nearby fields and I struck gold. A small field of mud with shallow pools and only a hint of vegetation, it was quite invisible from any of the roads surrounding the block and on it were about 30 stints. No sooner had I started sifting through them then I came across a possible Little Stint and as I was watching it another, a far more obvious bird, walked into my field of view. Bingo! After feeling the trip had been something of a let down I found my rare after all and not having seen any of the big rarities in Japan was much less painful than it had been just a few minutes earlier.

I got a lot of interesting shots of the stints, Red-necked ans Little and I'll save them for another post.

Below is a list of all species:-
Gadwall   1
Falcated Duck   5
Eurasian Wigeon   1
Mallard   2
Eastern Spot-billed Duck   commmon
Northern Shoveler   5
Garganey   4
Eurasian Teal   c400
Common Pochard   3 Little Grebe   common
Black-necked Grebe   1
Night Heron   1 heard over head at night plus many at a regular roost site
Cattle Egret   c10 Grey Heron   common
Great White Egret   well over 100 on each of the two main ponds plus common in fields and along rivers
Intermediate Egret   c50 numbers are way down compared to two weeks ago (as with Cattle)
Little Egret   quite common
Great Cormorant   very common (1000s)
Osprey   2
Black Kite   <10
Grey-faced Buzzard   1
Moorhen   2 plus one heard
Eurasian Coot   2
(Eastern) Oystercatcher   8
Black-winged Stilt   c25
Grey-headed Lapwing   10+
Pacific Golden Plover   3
Little Ringed Plover   several at a small area of suitable fields otherwise only 1
Kentish Plover   common
Lesser Sand Plover   15-20
Common Snipe   common in the same fields as the LRPs but otherwise only 9
Eastern Black-tailed Godwit   2
Bar-tailed Godwit   11
Whimbrel   1
Eurasian Curlew   3-5
Far Eastern Curlew   3
Marsh Sandpiper   7
Common Greenshank   13+
Wood Sandpiper   several in the LRP fields
Grey Tailed Tattler   <100 numbers way down compared to August visits
Terek Sandpiper   c100
Common Sandpiper   5-10
Ruddy Turnstone   1
Great Knot   11
Sanderling   c140
Red-necked Stint   40-50
Little Stint   2-3
Dunlin   9
Broad-billed Sandpiper   1
Ruff   1
Black-tailed Gull   very common
Slaty-backed Gull   3
Feral Rock Dove
Oriental Turtle Dove   widespread
Common Kingfisher   1 heard
Bull-headed Shrike   2 heard
Jay   1 over the road on the drive home
Carrion Crow   common
Large-billed Crow   common
Sand Martin   fairly common
Barn Swallow   common
Japanese Skylark   several
Zitting Cisticola   several but as only one was heard singing numbers recorded were much lower
Brown-eared Bulbul   a small number seemed to be on the move, it's still a bit early
White-cheeked Starling   several, the huge flocks of juveniles have disappeared
Blue Rock Thrush   5
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Grey Wagtail   2
White Wagtail   fairly common
Meadow Bunting   1 heard

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Which tattler is it?

Wandering Tattler seems to be a scarce and perhaps localised spring migrant in Japan, I know they there's a regular spot in Tokyo Bay and they also occur in the Izu Islands during May. I've never heard of one in Kansai but nor have I felt like heading up to Tokyo on the off-chance of getting the timing right so it's a species I have never seen here. Or anywhere else for that matter. I imagine a spring bird in breeding plumage, or even a full non-breeding bird which is less likely to be seen in Japan, would be easier to identify than a transitional autumn bird which might require a greater reliance on structure.

Quite honestly, and for no logical reason, I've always felt more likely to find a peep than a Wandering Tattler on my wader jaunts. Nevertheless last Sunday (August 31) a bird caught my attention that has suddenly put it on the radar. Image searches on the internet throw up some birds that scream Wandering, a nasal groove reaching way down the bill, a long primary projection well beyond the tail tip and a p6 falling well past the longest tertial. While others don't stand out nearly so much with the p6 tip falling around that of the longest tertial, the primary projection no greater than the longest-winged Grey-tailed and the nasal groove slightly shorter or difficult to judge in the field. According to published measurements they come very close to overlap, a degree that might only be relevant in the hand.

The bird that got me thinking at the weekend was coming along the rocky shore towards where I was sitting and it looked slightly darker than the hundreds of Grey-tailed there. I was aware the different viewing angle to all the birds on the mud flats could affect the shade of grey and that being on the rocks rather than on the mud wasn't so significant but perhaps these were still the factors that triggered the interest. I'd be hard pushed to say what it was. With the approaching bird in the scope it wasn't difficult to see the narrow supercillia didn't meet above the bill and all but disappeared behind the eye, this really peaked my interest.

Unfortunately most features were rather ambiguous. It had a long nasal groove but was it long enough? The wings reached well beyond the tail tip but were far from the length of an obvious Wandering and p6 merely reached the tip of the (worn) tertials. That could mean longish for a Grey-tailed but surely on the short side for Wandering? As far as plumage was concerned, despite the very densely marked centre breast and grey saturated sides giving it a dark appearance head-on and the supercillia there was nothing to support a Wandering identification. I couldn't see if there were any retained barred central undertail coverts from my position on the seawall and the sides of the vent were less well marked than some Grey-tailed which can have prominent chevrons the length of the undertail coverts. I dismissed it and went back to looking at other waders on the mudflats.

Two or three days later, when I had time, I had a close look at the images trying in the hope of seeing the rear tarsus detail which simply wasn't possible in the field. As the bird spent most of the time coming towards me there were few images offering even the possibility and none of the others seemed sharp enough to make anything out when sufficiently cropped. Finally, to my surprise, one of the very first and most distant images showed reasonably sharp hind legs. The rear tarsus is reticulated! So this is the tattler question: is reticulated versus scutellated really the gold standard of tattler identification? If so, this is a Wandering! And it indicates how very similar the species can look.

In retrospect though I dismissed its presence on the rocks as insignificant at the time, I'm used to seeing large numbers of roosting birds on the rocks and seawalls, Grey-tailed are always standing around inacively above the high water mark and as the tide drops they immediately head out onto the mudflats so perhaps a bird feeding on the rocks while hundreds of others were on the mud could be of more significance than I gave credit for. Another feature which came to light looking at an image of the spread wing was the white tips to the greater coverts on the upperwing are restricted to the outermost feathers (possibly due to wear?) and blackish lesser coverts on the underwing.

Below are images of the bird in question with a few Grey-tailed shots for comparison.

Coming towards me along the rocks, the supercillia don't meet above the bill and the underparts are very dark.

Very dark, heavily marked breast and short supercillium but clean vent.

A Grey-tailed (2 Sept 2012) also with a heavily marked breast but whiter ground. P6 didn't come anywhere near the tertial tip on this bird. Importantly the supercillia don't meet over the bill which rules that out as a Wandering feature. 

It's difficult to judge the length of the primaries in this shot, they're clearly longer than the tail tip but not long enough to suggest Wandering. The nasal groove is hard to assess in digital images let alone in the field but it certainly covers slightly more than the bill length.  

A typical Grey-tailed (17 August 2011) shows how long the primary projection can be but p6 is nowhere close to the tertial tips. The scutellated rear tarsus is visible here.

Grey-tailed Tattler (8 September 2009) clearly showing the ladder-like scutellated rear tarsus with "rungs" running the full width of the hind leg.

The reticulated hind tarsus of this bird looking warty or covered in yellow bubble wrap and contrasting with the scutellated front of the leg.

The underwing coverts aren't as black as I'd expected but are certainly blackish. The white tips on the greater coverts of the upperwing are only relatively prominent on the outer two feathers.  

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

27 wader species, Mie

I still failed to find a rare wader but with 27 species on view around Matsusaka last Sunday it would be churlish to complain. The additional four species I saw last week plus another (Ruff) I heard about mid-week show what a first rate site this is for waders. In fact my three recent visits (August 13, 24 and 31) produced a very impressive 32 species.

As usual I arrived early and got an hour sleep on the seawall and a large coffee or two from a convenience store before dawn. High tide wasn't until 9am but by the time there was enough light exposed mud was all but gone, so I spent the morning checking ponds and fields before turning to tidal areas from about noon.

Black-tailed Godwit was the first new wader for the month. Seven birds, and later grew to eight, were in a tight group on one of the deeper pools loved by the Stilts. Nearby a tight group of 11 Greenshank briefly gave the appearance of two constellations on the still, featureless grey water reflecting the overcast morning sky before they began feeding and merged. The forecast was for rain. The early light wasn't good for digiscoping and the shots below were the best I was able to get.

Black-tailed Godwits waking up and starting to feed. 

A mixed group of Black-tailed Godwits and Common Greenshank with a couple of Marsh Sandpipers and the odd passing Black-winged Stilt.

Finding Pacific Golden Plover on the fields is always a matter of luck, the area is is vast. They are still easier than any potential creeping Long-toed Stint or skulking snipe. I almost drove by these ones that coincided with a brief sunny spell. Wood Sandpiers are normally the most conspicuous of the waders on flooded fields and it's surprising that I only found one in three visits.

High tide seemed to last an age but once it did begin to drop mud rapidly re-emerged and quickly pushed far out into the bay. Waders appeared as if by magic and with each sweep of the flats while trying to count the birds present, I'd pick out something different. Though the variety of species was excellent the number of individuals for most species was low. Just single Turnstone and Dunlin, a lone Long-toed Stint and only a couple of Red-necked. Four Broad-billed Sandpipers was good though, how often do they outnumber Dunlin! Low counts for Sanderling and Kentish Plover is more down to not visiting their favourite locations, the same is arguably true for Lesser Sand Plover but you can't visit the many good locations at the same advantageous time on a rising or falling tide.

Distance is often the problem, this was the closest of the four Broad-bills.

By far the most numerous birds at present were Terek Sandpipers and Grey-tailed Tattlers. How many times have I been here and not seen any? The unpredictability is unquestionably part of the allure of wader hunting in the area.

List of species seen
Eurasian Wigeon   1
Mallard   2
Eastern Spot-billed Duck   very common
Eurasian Teal   5
Common Pochard   3
Little Grebe   common
Cattle Egret   100+
Grey Heron   common
Great White Egret   common
Intermediate Egret   30+
In general egret numbers (apart from Cattle) seemed down this week but flocks move locally as the intensity of rice harvest shifts from place to place.
Great Cormorant   very common
Osprey   6-7
Black Kite   several
Peregrine   1
Moorhen   1
(Eastern) Oystercatcher   10
Black-winged Stilt   c30
Grey-headed Lapwing   4
Pacific Golden Plover   17
Grey Plover   20
Little Ringed Plover   1
Kentish Plover   fairly common
Lesser Sand Plover   several
Common Snipe   6
Black-tailed Godwit   8
Bar-tailed Godwit   1
Eurasian Curlew   1
Far Eastern Curlew   5
Marsh Sandpiper   2
Common Greenshank   21+
Green Sandpiper   2
Grey-tailed Tattler   1000+
Terek Sandpiper   100s
Common sandpiper   c15
Turnstone   1
Great Knot   10
Red Knot   2
Sanderling   2
Red-necked Stint   8-12
Long-toed Stint   1
Dunlin   1
Broad-billed Sandpiper   4
Black-tailed Gull   very common
Slaty-backed Gull   5
Feral rock Dove
Oriental Turtle Dove   common
Bull-headed Shrike   1 heard
Carrion Crow
Large-billed Crow
Sand Martin   4-5
Barn Swallow   fairly common but in far lower numbers than last week
Japanese Skylark   2
Zitting Cisticola   many still singing
Brown-eared Bulbul
White-cheeked Starling   common but noticeably fewer than the huge numbers last week
Blue Rock Thrush   1 heard
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
White Wagtail   a few
Meadow Bunting   4-5