Sunday, 25 January 2015

Southern Lake Biwa

More often than not for me, birding at Lake Biwa means heading up to the north end and working my way south. I'll bird southwards as far as daylight allows, this normally means Lake Sainoko and harriers coming in to roost. One important reason for starting at the top end is to kick off proceedings in woodland to the north of the lake and increase the variety of birds I can see in a day.

Last Sunday was different, a throw back really to the way I used to bird there years ago, starting from the south. Or to be more precise focusing on the lake from Lake Sainoko southwards, the area I never usually get to cover nowadays. I've often felt that sacrificing the south could be costing me finding rare ducks. Apart from Baikal Teal (which only winters in numbers in the north) and Red-crested Pochard, I've never seen any rare ducks up there. Whereas I have seen Ring-necked, Lesser Scaup and Baer's Pochard, as well as Red-crested Pochard, in southern waters.

A key reason for covering the south this weekend rather than any other was the lack of recent snow and the prospect of reaching the hills close to Ashyu Forest. Since exceptional snowfall at New Year, the most in Kyoto city for 61 years, there seems to have been less than average throughout northern Kansai. The Meteorological Office website shows zero snow on the ground over large swathes of the region, though I sometimes think they assess the situation by looking out their office window.

Just a few kilometres north of Kyoto city Route 367 hairpins its way up to a short tunnel. From Kyoto to this point there wasn't even a suggestion there had been snow this winter then exiting the tunnel onto the Japan Sea watershed it was ploughed high on each side of the road, the villages were white in the headlights and the temperature dropped from an unseasonably mild midnight 6 to -2 degrees. Nevertheless the roads that wind up into the hills were largely snow-free and by only 2am I'd reached my intended dawn starting point.

It was wonderfully quite at dawn, perfectly still, and the reflecting snow hastened birding quality light except under the occasional clump of dense conifer here and there. Against a backdrop of drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers on opposing hillsides I could hear roving bands of tits above and below, mainly Coal and Willow with a smaller number of Varied and the odd Great. Of more interest to me were birds I can't see in Kyoto city, Nuthatches which I've only seen twice here, and Treecreeper which I've never seen in the city.

I needed coffee and mid-morning I made my way to civilisation, the transformation from deep snow to zero from one end of the 100 metre tunnel to the other was even more striking in daylight. Down to the Biwako Ohashi (the large bridge that spans the neck of the lake), coffee, then up the east shore of the lake to Omihachiman where the first bird I saw was a White's Thrush in the garden of a lakeside cafe.

It isn't unusual to see White's Thrush in woodland edge or even parks on the lake shore.

Another lakeside bird was Elegant Bunting, easy to find around the northern half of the lake but an irregular species in Kyoto city.

But ducks are the lake's big attraction and while some are evenly distributed others are not. The sawbills are a great example. In the north I might see a handful of Smew, almost always redheads, but in the south there are rafts of hundreds with an apparent majority of drakes, but they are invariably far out on the lake and because females are less conspicuous this many skew the seeming gender imbalance. Goosander (Common Merganser) on the other hand is a northern speciality, they are common at the north end but I never seen them down south. Red-breasted Merganser is less fresh water orientated than the other two and though I sometimes see odd ones at the north end the most reliable area is mid-lake. Strange.

Bean Geese and Tundra Swans are also northern specialities but there always used to be a small flock of Tundra at one location at the south end where people go to feed the ducks. These no longer seem to come to this area, though I'm not really in a possition to know for sure as I don't usually pass this area in daylight, but when I dropped in today there were two birds present. Day tick.

There was a Vega Gull in this area, an unusual bird on the lake, but the ducks take centre stage. There was a smallish feeding frenzy of aythya ducks in an inlet so even my small lens could get some semi-reasonable shots.

The only classic adult male Tufty in the group.

With another male that isn't qiute there yet.

A first winter male with a moulting adult.

Female Tufty.

Common Pochard.

Female Common Pochard.

A slightly more obvious blue band behind the nail on this female.

Exceptionally extensive male-type blue on this bill.

Northern Pintail.

several: widespread in low numbers (should be seen) or localised (could be missed)
fairly common: seen in most or all locations in low numbers
common: easily seen in most or all locations
very common: easily seen in most or all locations, often in very large numbers

Tundra Swan   2
Gadwall   common
Falcated Duck   5-10
Eurasian Wigeon   common
Mallard   common
Eastern Spot-billed Duck   common
Northern Shoveler   8
Northern Pintail   only seen at one location, 200+
Eurasian Teal   fairly common, less obvious than species prefering open water
Common Pochard   very common
Tufted Duck   very common
Greater Scaup   common
Common Goldeneye   10-20
Smew   100s   south of Biwako Ohashi
Red-breasted Merganser   2
Little Grebe   fairly common
Great Crested Grebe   fairly common generally, very common south of Biwako Ohashi
Black-necked Grebe   Fairly common
Grey Heron   widespread in low numbers
Great White Egret   several
Little Egret   several around fish pens at one location
Great Cormorant   common
Eurasian Kestrel   1
Black Kite   common
Eastern Marsh Harrier   1
Eastern Buzzard   1
Moorhen   2
Common Coot   very common
Grey-headed Lapwing   2
Northern Lapwing   16+
Dunlin   c40
Common Gull   several
Vega Gull   1
Black-headed Gull   fairly common
Feral Rock Dove
Oriental Turtle Dove   widespread
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker   several
Great Spotted Woodpecker   2 drumming
dendrocopos sp   1 calling
Bull-headed Shrike   7
Jay   6-8
Rook   250+
Carrion Crow   very common
Large-billed Crow   very common though less so than Carrion
Great Tit   several
Coal Tit   fairly common in the mountains
Varied Tit   ffairly common
Willow Tit   fairly common in the mountains
Long-tailed Tit   1 party
Japanese Skylark   fairly common
Zitting Cisticola   1
Brown-eared Bulbul   very common
Japanese Bush Warbler   3-4 heard
Japanese White-eye   fairly common
Nuthatch   2
Treecreeper   1
White-cheeked Starling   fairly common
White's Thrush   1
Pale Thrush   several
Dusky Thrush   fairly common
Red-flanked Bluetail   1 heard
Daurian Redstart   common
Brown Dipper   1
Eurasian Tree Sparrow   common
Grey Wagtail   1
White Wagtail   fairly common
Japanese Wagtail   fairly common
Buff-bellied Pipit   1 heard
Brambling   heard at the lake
Oriental Greenfinch   common
Eurasian Siskin   heard in the mountains
Long-tailed Rosefinch   1
Bullfinch   often heard in the mountains
Meadow Bunting   common
Rustic Bunting   5-6
Elegant Bunting   2
Black-faced Bunting   common
Reed Bunting   1 plus several heard

Monday, 19 January 2015

Solitary Snipe... long overdue

My first Japan tick of 2015, Solitary Snipe. It could have been the first Japan tick of 2014 if it had been a bit more cooperative, I went for this bird five times last winter without connecting. But that's been par for the Solitary course. I've spent time looking for them on Hokkaido winter trips, wading through deep snow to reach favoured streams or pools, particularly on my first trip up there in 1987 when it would still have been a lifer. I've tried for them so many times in Kansai, where they are a scarce wintering species, but even the most nailed-on individuals temporarily vanish whenever I visit the stretch of river/stream that "they never leave".

I had planned to look for it on Saturday afternoon after work then spend Sunday in the mountains for winter woodland birds. However, when I finished work at noon it was pouring and because of my dreadful track record with the species I just went straight home. No sooner had I got there than my phoned tinged with a text that it was there... and not only had the rain stopped but the sky was a mocking blue. There was no longer time to get there in daylight and my lucky twitching T-shirt came off and hovered briefly over the bin.

My Sunday plan didn't hover, it was ripped up and unceremoniously dumped. The new plan entailed seeing the Snipe as early as possible (really!) followed by a three-hour drive to reach some good woodland birding further followed by a list of back-up places of decreasing distance and interest in case the bird slept late. Or whatever it is they usually do when I'm on my way. I was on site at first light, the bird wasn't. No surprise there. Time passed, hours and hours of it in fact, it was almost funny... almost. There were a few birds of interest around, an Eastern Buzzard flew by now and then and good views of the usual parkland and riverside birds were to be had to. Long-tailed Rosefinch was probably the pick of the bunch but the Grey Wagtail below was the most photogenic.

After seven and a half hours someone located it on a different stretch of river and I confess I ran as fast as tripod, scope, camera and bins would allow. Another birder thoughtfully gave me and a couple of others a lift to the spot and... there it was. I didn't get the usual feeling of excitement a new bird brings, it was more a sense of relief than anything else. It was about 90 metres away rather than the 15-20 metres it normally performs at, I didn't care. In five minutes the sun dipped behind a hill filling the valley with shade transforming my poor digiscoped shots into appalling ones. No matter.

Actually, it's such a beautiful and intricately marked bird that it does deserve better views and maybe I'll go back later this winter in the hope of getting some decent shots of it but for now I'm done with Solitary Snipe. Who knows, it might be one of those crazy cases where once seen, birds keep popping up unexpectedly left and right.

The following images are little more than record shots but for now I'm really happy with them!

Monday, 12 January 2015

Siberian Chiffchaff; another visit in brighter light

The previous post about the Red-breasted Flycatcher in Hyogo was slightly out of place chronologically. At first light I was on the banks of the Mukogawa (Muko River), also in Hyogo but part of the greater Osaka conurbation, to get another look at the Siberian Chiffchaff I'd first seen mid-afternoon last Friday in very different light conditions. Friday's visit had been under heavily overcast skies, whereas this morning the strong morning sun was slanting in across the broad river into your right eye.

The bird appeared soon after I did, it was very active dashing round looking as excited as a kid on Christmas morning. Though it would disappear, often flying onto an island in the river, it was never gone for long. What really struck me was how it could be browner/buffer this morning, more tristis-like in fact. I'd expected the brighter conditions to further accentuate the greens in the plumage but not so, if anything it had looked greener in the duller conditions three days earlier. Even in these shots it shows itself as something of a chameleon.

These are a few of the newer shots...

Red-breasted Flycatcher in Hyogo

Normally, or at least in my experience, over-wintering Red-breasted Flycatchers are first winters. So a male will always be popular with local birders.

After re-visiting the Siberian Chiffchaff early this morning (I'll post more shots, this time in bright light, later) I headed out into deepest Hyogo to take a look at my first red-breasted Red-breasted in Japan.

Getting there wasn't so difficult, my one-man-train chugged its way steadily into the hills and before I knew it I was there. Though I suspect falling asleep on the way eased that passage. So much so in fact that I didn't even notice that it was a dreaded single track line. I'd even considered making my way to south Osaka to see if last year's Baer's Pochard had returned if I were able to see the Flycatcher quickly. Ha!

Getting back wasn't so smooth. I marched to the station thinking I had ample time to drop in on the Baer's pool once back in Osaka but on arrival at the station I finally noticed the single track and I sagged inwardly. I used to live on a line like that, for three whole months. On checking the schedule I discovered there wouldn't be a train for another 50 minutes, goodbye any chance of looking for Baer's. At least the snow and hail, they took turns on the walk back, had stopped.

The Flycatcher was well worth the trip though...

Red-flanked Bluetail was another bird that benefited from the meal worms photographers put out to keep the Flycatcher happy.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Siberian Chiffchaff in Osaka

This bird was discovered around Christmas time as I was heading off to Kyushu. There has been some debate locally whether it is tristis or a different taxon. When I went to see it yesterday (9th Jan) the sky was overcast and I judged the light good to reveal true colour tints. Images I'd seen online showed a very green bird, this green I'd thought an artifact of images taken in strong sunlight.

I arrived at 1:30pm after working in the morning but was told it hadn't been seen since about 10am and that it was usually only seen in the morning. That was a blow! There were 30-40 people waiting for it but only 2-3 wandering around checking other areas. I walked about some way up and down stream from its favoured spot on the river bank then had a look through gardens further away from the river. No sign it. On my second southward patrol I saw the then distant knot of birders were fully focused on something, someone ran for his tripod, it had to be back! I legged it back as quick as dignity would allow, fortunately having previously found two birds on Hegurajima I didn't need to run.

And there it was in the crown of one of the trees with a party of Long-tailed Tits. If it had stayed there shots against even the dull light would have been less good than I'd have liked but it eventually did drop into the riverside vegetation before moving quickly off down stream still associated with the party of Tits. 

Even in this light the bird was strikingly greenish. Much greener than either of the other two tristis I've seen and I even wondered about Eastern Bonelli's for a moment, as ridiculous as that might seem. After getting the images onto the pc last night I'm confident it is tristis afterall. The shots below are all cropped to some extent and a couple are slightly sharpened but the colours are as the camera recorded them.

The blurring will play a part here but I was shocked to see how bright the underwing coverts are in this shot, the greenish rump was fairly easy to detect in the field but I'd never seen the underwing coverts. Below are a couple of heavily cropped shots.