Friday, 27 March 2015

Japanese Waxwings and Spotted Redshanks...

I got back from a two-day trip to Mie yesterday evening and fell straight into bed to make sure I got up for an early start at work today.

I spent Wednesday and Thursday mornings wandering along the seawalls around Matsusaka, checking the fields, rivers, pools and ditches to one side or the flats on the other depending on the height of the tide. In the afternoons I moved up the coast a little to just north of Tsu city and sat on the beach looking at the gulls. Though I never think we've seen the back of winter until the cherry blossom has come and gone the total of three days I've spent in Mie this week certainly give the impression that spring is well on the way. Sitting on the beach for 2-3 hours isn't something I'd have considered even a couple of weeks ago with snow still falling but the weather has been great this week. Well, apart from the sandblasting I was on the end of during Wednesday's strong wind; I was still trailing sand behind me when I arrived home last night.

Wednesday morning got off to a great start with a small group of waxwings breakfasting on berries in a tree rising above the seawall, this before the wind got up. Five Japanese and a lone Bohemian, possibly the Bohemian was blown away as it wasn't with the Japanese on Thursday morning.

Japanese Waxwings.

The lone Bohemian.

The waxwings weren't the only birds attracted to the berry feast, two or three Dusky Thrushes came and went and there was a constant Brown-eared Bulbul presence. Where isn't there? Sea level to mountain top, trust Brown-eared Bulbul to be either the noisiest bird on the block or the one that flits tantalisingly away through the trees time and time again. Somehow they know which will be the more irritating. That said I always think they are a really attractive bird when seen well and in good light.

Brown-eared Bulbuls taking a breather between bouts of obstreperousness.

Not quite there yet but some Duskies are starting to look the business.

So onto those Spotted Redshanks. There have been a couple of Common Greenshanks here all winter, odd ones often over-winter, but not Spotshanks. These were the first sign of wader passage this spring and on Thursday they were joined by a couple of Wood Sandpipers. As usual the Long-billed Dowitchers managed to avoid being photographed, or photographed well, this time they were much closer but always with the sun behind them. A party of nine Black-winged Stilts appeared on Thursday too, the first I've seen here for a while.

Two of the five Spotshanks. They were very mobile moving around the pools behind the seawall and out onto the mudlats at low tide.

Two Long-billed and a Very-Long-billed Dowitcher?

Finally I can't resist posting these digiscoped shots of this distant but striking immature Great Cormorant. With exceptionally white underparts, mottled breast and neck and a sharply demarcated pec band, it was very eye-catching. The upperparts are as adult with a strong metalic green sheen and this combination is not something I can recall having seen before.

More typical immature Great Cormorants are browner below like the following three individuals (also distant digiscoped birds).

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Ruff at Matsusaka

I visited Matsusaka last weekend (March 22) partly in the hope of seeing breeding plumage Saunder's Gulls but in the event I only found one bird, sadly still in non-breeding plumage. Nevertheless I did see nine gull taxa including a Glaucous Gull which is very uncommon in the area.

A real monster Glaucous compared to the Vega. 

Duck numbers were much lower than on winter visits (if I can call this spring, it was certainly warm enough), only Greater Scaup seemed to be hanging on in force. There were no Goldeneye at all. In compensation the first waders were beginning to appear with a couple of Ruff as the pick of the bunch. However five each of Spotted Redshank and Common Greenshank were good and the first Little Ringed Plovers were noisy over the fields.

Another indication that spring is at least on the way, Skylark flocks have broken up and males are singing across the whole expanse of the fields behind the seawall. Most Dusky Thrushes have gone and there are only a few lingering Buff-bellied Pipits.

The first waders of the day were the five Long-billed Dowitchers that have been present all winter, but as usual they're always just beyond reasonable distance even for digiscoping.

One of the Dowitchers replaced by a Spotted Redshank in this shot. 

Unlike the Dowitchers, the Ruffs were far less camera shy.

Most Buff-bellied Pipits were looking very tatty in transition to breeding plumage but this one still being mostly non-breeding looked neater.

In the afternoon I headed up to Tsu to check gulls on the beach behind the University Hospital. There were over 20 Taimyr Gulls and a single first winter Mongolian amongst the Vegas and as usual I was able to get much better views than I ever could at my usual gulling spot in Osaka.

First winter Mongolian Gull.

As well as the gulls there were good numbers of Sanderling and Dunlin on the beach too.

Just the first hint of a black belly patch coming through on one or two of the Dunlins.

A large flock of Sanderling drilling their way along the beach in unison created a band of rough overturned sand. 

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Baer's Pochard hybrids (old images from Osaka)

There has been a lot of discussion about hybrid Baer's recently and this is only likely to intensify as the Baer's population dwindles leading, potentially at least, to an increase in hybridisation as individuals are less able to find same taxon partners and a greater scrutiny of birds in the field as Baer's climbs birders' wish-lists.

There's no doubt that hybrids are turning up in Japan, with both Common Pochard and Ferruginous Duck. Recent debate on the Kantori mailing list has highlighted how important it is to discover how much minor variation may exist within pure Baer's (turning up in Japan and elsewhere) or to what extent a diluted gene pool is responsible for the appearance of some individuals. Obviously this question is relevant to assessing the true status of the species. The discussion has focused on birds with relatively minor plumage anomalies, which makes me wonder why I see so few images of obvious hybrids compared to slightly anomalous individuals. Particularly when the risk of mixed pairing may be on the increase. Well, one reason might be that many bird photographers here won't get as excited about obvious hybrids which won't get the same level coverage as birds which are, or are very like, Baer's. Nial Moores has written this note on the Birds Korea blog with an excellent series of images mainly provided by Pete Morris.

I've seen four different Baer's and two apparently first generation hybrids in Japan. Three of the former looked good but the fourth seemingly good bird was only seen briefly at about 100m in very windy conditions which made observation difficult, certainly too difficult to assess the minutiae. At the time I didn't give this much thought as it basically looked like a Baer's and there was no opportunity to look for any subtle signs of introgression. If we need to scrutinise each out of range individual carefully to make sure it is of classic appearance or to assess how much variation is permissible then it would seem even more important that birds within the core area are given the same level of attention. It might also be instructive pay closer attention to Ferruginous Ducks in areas of potential sympatry too.

I've only seen two obvious hybrids (presumably F1), both on the Yodogawa in Osaka, Japan. Interestingly these two birds were in close association when I first found them on 29 December 2001 then again on 11 January 2002. Even more interesting, one suggested a Ferruginous hybrid while the other was clearly a Common Pochard hybrid. Perhaps their common Baer's heritage drew them together and though both were males the implication is that hybrids from different progenitor pairings could be drawn together producing even more mysterious appearances than back-crossing. Unlikely as it may seem that hybrids would find each other on the breeding grounds these two males show there is an affinity and the possibility exists.

The birds were distant and in those days I used to hand-hold an old camcorder against the telescope to get a closer look at distant gulls and ducks. The resulting video grabs are very low quality showing neither the fine detail nor with the faithful colour rendition which would be needed to assess the birds had they not been such obvious hybrids. However these images are adequate to give a general idea of their overall appearance. So apologies for the dreadful quality but they may nevertheless be of interest.

As it isn't possible to determine the colours from these grabs I'll just add that the larger of the two had pale grey flanks and darker brownish-grey, vermiculated upper parts becoming darker and more uniform aft. The head could look Baer's green or reddish-brown depending on the angle and light and the breast dark brown. The vent was black with white restricted to the undertail coverts. The smaller bird was brown above with paler brownish flanks. The head and breast were rich brown and the vent was conspicuously white bordered with blackish-brown. Both had pale fore flanks behind the breast recalling Baer's. Both also had very pale eyes.

The first image shows both birds together with Common Pochards followed by two images of the Ferruginous-type bird and finally several of the Common Pochard hybrid which did come closer on the second occasion I saw them.

Both birds together with Common Pochards.   

Two grabs of the smaller, more Ferruginous-like of the two.


The bird looked very green-headed in the part of the video this final grab was taken from.

As a matter of interest the most recent Baer's I saw was a bird in Osaka in December 2013 which returned to the same site, at least briefly, in December 2014. When I first saw it on 1 Dec it showed a distinct brownish tinge to the cheeks but seeing it again on 21 Dec the head was wholly green.

1 Dec 2013, a distinct brownish cast on the cheeks looks anomalous and might well arouse suspicion. 

21 Dec 2013, the bird looks far more convincing with no hint of brown remaining, the head was glossy green.

21 Dec 2013.