Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Wryneck aside a less than exciting week

Earlier in the week my wife's job took her to the botanical gardens where she ran into a frenzy of photographers. Her phoned description of the bird's call suggested Japanese Woodpecker to me, which let's face it isn't the first name that springs to mind in connection with a frenzy but even though they aren't rare in the hills surrounding the city birds don't normally turn up in the parks.

So a couple of days later when I had some free time mid-morning I went to the botanical gardens. Not opening 9am it's often a better bet for a late start than the Imperial Palace Park which would usually be my early morning choice in the city if looking for migrants.

The weather was beautiful so the place was really busy, finding birds was slow and there would always be a someone wandering along to flush whatever might be on view. Passage migrants of interest were single Narcissus Flycatcher and Kamchatka Leaf Warbler and early winter birds included three Daurian Redstarts and the odd Pale Thrush but the first Bramblings of the season were pick of the bunch.

One of a party of about 15 Brambling.

After a couple of hours I heard a slightly distant single woodpecker call, over before I realised and not enough to determine which species it had been. Almost simultaneously a shout went up and photographers were running. The call was from the direction I'd been headed so I was witness to an amazing scene that must have prompted my wife to phone me a couple of days earlier. A crowd of photographers tail-like followed the green comet or like bees behind their queen they'd cluster under the tree in a rush and off the bird would go again. Back and forth from tree to tree, over the pond and across it again. I doubt the bird had entertainment in mind but if I'd been in charge of auditions for a latter day Keystone Cops movie those photographers would have been signed up on the spot.

Bird photographers get a bad press everywhere but I think in Japan most came to birds late without the benefit of a lifetime's experience and lacking basic fieldcraft don't realise that they're doing anything wrong and the culture being what it is no one see going to take them to task over it. I must just add that on my recent trips to Hegurajima everyone I encountered was wonderfully well mannered and behaved.

With the Japanese Woodpecker confirmed as the cause of the frenzy, I could go to work content I hadn't missed anything spectacular.

A couple of days later on Saturday morning I was working in Hirakata and took the opportunity to check the Yodo riverside in the afternoon. The large close-cut grass area is usually good for wagtails and Japanese Skylark and that day was no exception.

Japanese Skylark 

White Wagtail, the local lugens, this a presumed adult female 

Japanese Wagtail

I walked two or three kilometres up stream through a more wooded area but there there was nothing but Brown-eared Bullbuls, a few Bull-headed Shrikes and the other usual suspects in the trees while the river was equally disappointing with a handful of Eurasian Wigeon and the odd Grey Heron.

I made my way back towards the station and at the last clump of scrub before reaching the manicured grass again a Wryneck flew up from my feet and perched in the closest bush. It was too close to focus on so grabbed my camera but through the twigs I needed to switch to manual focus and by the time I fumbled with that the Wryneck had slipped into the reed beyond. I say reeds but it's an impentratable wall, the tallest are four-metre giants with a tangled mass of bindweed running through them.

A metaled track encloses this small rectangle, at one end these dense reeds which give way to thickening into scrub and finally a few stunted trees poke through at the other end. It's all over in 100 metres. And not for the first time it was the last place tried that held all the birds. Apart from the Wryneck and the typical birds of the area of course, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Japanese White-eye and a year's supply of Bulbuls, there were a couple of Daurian Redstarts, a male Narcissus Flycatcher, a Kamchatka Leaf Warbler and one or two Pale Thrushes. The dense nature of the vegetation meant the idea of getting photographs was a joke but because birds came and went, some not to be seen again, there was a great sense of expectation that something of more interest could have been lurking in there.

A selection of peek-a-boo shots, Kamchatka Leaf at the top (really), a couple of the Narcissus, Pygmy Woodpecker (usually much easier) and a couple of White-eyes. Even the normally brazen Daurian Redstarts were skulkers.

If there was something good lurking, I never did find it.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Intermediate and Great White Egrets

The local rice harvest was moving along at a cracking pace last Saturday, a fleet of rather noisy mini harvesters make short work of the rows and pour the grain into hoppers on top-heavy looking mini flat-bed trucks that really don't look up to taking the weight. Even though the hoppers themselves are rather mini too.

What really puzzles me is why the harvest timing is so different to that in Mie. When I was looking for waders in mid-September the rice harvest was more or less finished and a lot of the stubble already burnt or ploughed in. The Ogura fields are at the same latitude and elevation, just a couple of hours drive to the west (I'd estimate 30km further north and about 50m higher, hardly earth-shattering), but I notice this every year. There's about a five-week difference between the sites and it's the same in spring. Mie fields are flooded for planting at a time they can attract migrant waders while the fields here remain stubbornly dry till passage is over.

Anyway, to the egrets. I haven't seen any Cattle Egrets anywhere for a couple of weeks now and though we're past the Intermediate peak too there are still birds around. During harvest it's possible to get remarkably close views of them. By sitting at the field edge I had unconcerned birds come as close as 5-6m, attracted by the new abundance of food exposed by the harvesters. And this when I wasn't making any attempt to sit quietly or reduce movement as the egrets weren't my main focus of attention at the time.

Small frogs were suddenly easy pickings in the wake of the rice harvesters.

I have to add that another puzzle is the name Intermediate. Intermediate between what? Certainly not between Little and Great White. Unless you interpret "intermediate" as meaning somewhere vaguely between two points. Intermediate Egret is much closer to Little in size and in a Japanese context you have to remember that our modestus Great White are smaller than albus, this becomes quite apparent on the rare opportunities for direct comparison.

An old shot of modestus (left) and albus Great Whites showing obvious size difference.

An old digiscoped spring shot of Intermediate (left) and Little Egret.

An appropriately positioned Intermediate with two Great Whites last weekend. 

Intermediate and Great White, it's not just size that makes the difference obvious.

Apart form size, which is only useful when they are together, there are a number of features that readily separate the two. Starting at the bottom and working upwards, Intermediate can look quite elegant but when you watch them for a while sooner or later they reveal their true shortish-legged, heavy-bottomed nature. As hinted at in the above shot more of the legs can appear to be cloaked when viewed from behind, the legs are shorter and the tertials often seem to fall further below the knee on Intermediate when standing upright making them look a little stunted compared to Great White. They can look dumpy and pear-shaped from the front too. The following image is an extreme example of course but could you imagine ever seeing a Great White looking quite so bottom heavy? It reminds me of some weighted rocking toy or ornament in this shot.

It appears to have a very low centre of gravity in this shot.

In flight there's less leg extension beyond the tail and this has the effect of making the clump of toes look huge in relation to the visible leg, far more prominent than those of Great White, perhaps similar to the comparison between the eye-catching toes of Purple Heron compared to Grey.

The middle toe is longer than the bill and compared to the total visible leg length are proportionately longer than Great White toes.

When most Intermediate pass through this area in spring and autumn they have a distinctly black-tipped yellow bill (like the bird above) and can be picked out at enormous distance because of this though most birds have lost this distinctive feature by now the bill/head shape and proportions are still very different. I could sum it up as Great White has a sleek tailor made bill that contours snuggly around the head whereas Intermediate has an ill-chosen off-the-peg bill at least two sizes too small.

Great White's head and bill look a well designed single unit. The bill is a long and evenly balanced dagger, gradually tapering towards the tip and along the lower edge there's an almost seemless transition from the throat area creating a very long profile to the lower half of the head which is almost matched by the upper half. The forehead angles acutely from the base of the bill to a peak well behind the eye. Adding to the single unit appearance the the bare facial skin encompassing a well proportioned and positioned eye seems to blend the two together, all secured by the long gape line. 

The Intermediate bill is shorter and blunter, less tapering throught the whole length and more sharply at the tip, particularly the lower mandible. More a minature broadsword than a dagger. Depending on stance it can look sleek and well proportioned about the head but doesn't match the stylish elegance of Great White. Often the forehead is steeper and the crown rounded and the lower side can be jowly, thus the head appears larger and the bill looks stuck on the face as an after thought rather than being one streamlined unit. The eye is slightly more centrally placed between bill tip and nape and even looks proportionately larger to me, whereas that of Great White is set further back because of the longer bill. Overall Intermediate looks larger-headed and shorter-billed while Great White is the reverse, longer-billed and smaller-headed.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

A few early winter birds at Ogura

I didn't get down to Mukaijima station until 10am, a really lazy start, but my main target today was to check out the autumn White Wagtails. More of that later. Just outside the station, coffee in hand I found the first winter bird, a male Daurian Redstart.

Daurians are usually one of the first winter visitors to arrive and I expect to get my first between the 16th and 20th so this one's par. No soon had I left it than I noticed a distant Eurasian Kestrel across the fields cutting through a swarm of Red-rumped Swallows but much closer an accipiter was gliding between the high school and station. No doubt a Eurasian Sparrowhawk... but no, when I got the bins on it there was my first Northern Goshawk of the winter. It landed briefly on a pylon but three Large-billed Crows soon put it to flight again. Though against the sun, I managed a few poor shots as the Crows swooped at it and as I followed it there was suddenly a Northern Sparrowhawk along side. No sooner had it claimed my attention than an Eastern Buzzard drifted into the frame. I was thinking I may as well go home, it was hardly likely to get better than this! Raptor migration here is mainly in September when large numbers of Grey-faced Buzzards and Oriental Honey Buzzards pass through but October sees the arrival of species that can be anticipated throughout winter. Even if these individuals may be headed further south.

Textbook stuff, no doubt about this ID...

... and the perfect comparison.

My first local Eastern Buzzard of the season.

While none of these birds was much of a surprise a Rook most ceratinly was. I often get my first Rook on Hegurajima at about this time but it's normally much later before any filter down to Kyoto.

Carrion Crow, a year round bird out on the fields here. 

An adult Rook, by far the biggest surprise of the day.

Coming back to birds of prey, I was able to get much better views of the/a Kestrel later. Now that they breed in the area it's no surprise to see them at Ogura at this time of year, not that it was necessarily a local bird. While Black Kites are a fixture.

I always think that habitually hovering birds are continental migrants as the local birds almost always chase down birds Merlin-style. Note the single adult male feather in the tail as well as a little grey in the rump.

Black Kite is a bird that will always be cruising the fields at Ogura.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Hegura - October 10th

The night sky was fully overcast when I left the the tip of the Noto Peninsular in the very early morning. It's only about 35km to Wajima but once awake why wait... they have coffee down there.

The wind was strengthening as I drove down and the rain began to fall; great! By the time I was waiting in the harbour there were half a dozen Slaty-backed Gulls, I'd only seen two 2CY birds all week. Thinks were already looking good.

A couple of 2CY SBGs that had been a fixture along the coast all week.

Older immatures in Wajima harbour, I love the bird that looks as if it's brought its towel to the beach.

Heavy rain was still falling when I arrived in Wajima but after the front passed, about half way out to the island, the sky cleared completely and the westerly shifted to a stiff northerly.

As I disembarked someone I'd met a couple of days earlier said "It's still here", referring to the Ashy Drongo and gesturing towards the school. Most people on the boat rushed off in that direction and I later realised they were only here for the day specifically to see the Drongo.

Instead of joining the dignified stampede I made my way along the harbour edge and apart from a fly-over Black Woodpigeon the first thing I found was a Little Bunting that posed on the road with an equally confiding Rustic Bunting.

A nice comparison of Rustic and Little. 

Rustic Bunting. 

The Little appears to have lost its left eye!

A more pleasant shot of another Little later in the same area.

Bunting numbers were up compared to my previous visit a couple of days ago. In addition to the newly arrived Little Buntings, Rustic and Elegant were suddenly fairly common.

A new wave of Kamchatka Warblers had come in and I saw one Yellow-browed Warbler. Yellow-browed is to be excpected at this time on Hegura though numbers can vary significantly from year to year. Also on the warbler front there was one Black-browed Reed numbers of which are also very variable but as these skulkers are often fairly vocal I suspect seeing just one was an accurate reflection of low numbers present. There wasn't a hint of Middendorff's which can be quite numerous too, though we're possibly passed the peak time for them. While I missed out on Middendorff's I did score with one of the arch-skulkers, a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler. I've probably seen fewer than 10 PGTips in total on Hegura and always along the same stretch of coast. The other, Lanceolated Warbler, is either even less common or an even better skulker and I've only come across about three in all my visits to the island. On one occasion that I did miraculous flush one it predictably flew just a few feet, then disappeared from the centre of what was effectively a small lawn!

After just one Brambling two days ago there were flocks everywhere and indicative of new arrivals there were many Eye-browed Thrushes in the rank area just above the beach, even a Red-flanked Bluetail was perching on beach stems like a Siberian Stonechat, as was a Japanese Waxwing when I first saw it but it quickly flew off across the island. Daurian Redstarts had arrived and were fairly common.

Possibly the most interesting bird of the day was Feral Rock Dove, no doubt that seems an odd choice but this was an island tick for me. I've seen several "Rock Doves" in the past but they all turned out to be racing pigeons dropping in en route home and each had a full complement of rings. When two birds flew by in the harbour area today I naturally assumed they too would be racers taking a breather. However when I checked them one was completely ring-free. The size difference between these two is remarkable even assuming thet are male and female and the bill size and shape is no less striking. Presumably being bred and well-fed for racing produces a bigger bird. How they've teamed up remains a mystery.

Racer and Feral Rock?

I passed the school a couple of times during my stay and was surprised to find the would-be Drongo twitchers still encamped on the school playing field. I can only imagine it must have departed after the cold front passed through as it was such a conspicuous bird, I'd be surprised if it was staying out of sight four our full four hours on the island.

Just as I was boarding the ferry I heard and then saw two Brown-eared Bulbuls, the only ones of the day. How very different to the mainland.

List of birds seen:-
Mallard   1
Streaked Shearwater   common from the ferry
Grey Heron   1
Eurasian Kestrel   1
accipiter sp   1
Black-tailed Gull   common
Feral Rock Dove   1
Black Woodpigeon   1-2
Oriental Turtle Dove   2-3
Great Spotted Woodpecker   1 plus 1 heard
Large-billed Crow   1+
Japanese Waxwing   1
Barn Swallow   3-4
Japanese Skylark   3
Brown-eared Bulbul   2
Japanese Bush Warbler   common
Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler   1
Black-browed Reed Warbler   1
Dusky Warbler   probably 2 heard but not well enough to be sure about
Yellow-browed Warbler   1
Kamchatka Leaf Warbler   common
Eye-browed Thrush   fairly common
Pale Thrush   fairly common
Dusky Thrush   fairly common
Red-flanked Bluetail   5-6
Daurian Redstart   fairly common
Siberian Stonechat   1
Blue Rock Thrush   several
Grey Wagtail   1
White Wagtail   several
Japanese Wagtail   1
Olive-backed Pipit   1
Branbling   fairly common
Oriental Greenfinch   several
Pine Bunting   1 1stw
Little Bunting   3
Rustic Bunting   fairly common
Elegant Bunting   fairly common
Black-faced Bunting   fairly common
Mallard   1