Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Is the old patch the new patch?

Years ago my local patch, or one of them, was Ogura; an expanse of arable land and rivers just south of town. This area has been steadily degraded by development over the years but is still an important birding location close to the city. I've found some excellent birds here such as Little Whimbrel, Whiskered Tern, Hoopoe, Black Redstart, Middendorff's Warbler and so on.

I've only visited the area infrequently in the past 10 years or more because it's been a hassle to get there by public transport. However I decided to drive down from my new house and was delighted to find not only did it only take 10 minutes but I'm able to get there far earlier in the morning than than trains permit. So it looks like Ogura is back on the menu.

I didn't see anything spectacular, I didn't expect to, but having easy access to a good area is a big encouragement to get into the field before work. Hopefully it won't be too long before it starts paying dividends.

If anything were a surprise it would have been three Common Greenshank and a Dunlin on one of the rivers. The resident but low density Chestnut-eared Bunting was nice, a couple of late-ish Stejneger's Stonechats showed migrants are still possible and Eurasian Kestrel, Northern Goshawk hinted at the raptors to come in winter. The first local Dusky Thrush and Daurian Redstart were already in but as yet no Rooks or Daurian Jackdaws.

A few of today's birds...

Common Greenshank


Common Snipe

Northern Goshawk

Two Stejneger's Stonechats

First autumn lugens White Wagtail

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Phylloscopus sp?

After originally posting this bird I saw on Hegurajima October 14th as an strangely colourful yakutensis Willow Warbler I received comments that it was more likely an Alpine Leaf Warbler or Buff-throated Warbler.

This is particularly galling as I had considered Alpine Leaf at the time but didn't give any thought to Buff-throated as I was totally unaware they looked so similar; the OBC images show a far more similar bird than Brazil's Birds of East Asia suggests. Why did I discount Alpine Leaf in the field? Well, partly because as far as I knew there aren't any autumn records from Japan; the OSJ list includes only one record of Tickell's Warbler (spring 1995), and this not identified to subspecies before Tickell's and Alpine Leaf were split. More importantly I discounted the possibility because I remembered the Willow Warblers I'd seen on Hegura as being brighter than the commonly held western birders' perception of the taxon and in that light this bird didn't appear too yellow by comparison. In fact there have been a number subsequent sightings of "Tickell's" in Japan but they've all been in spring as far as I know. Both Alpine Leaf and Buff-throated certainly seem more likely to occur as spring overshoots in Japan given their respective ranges whereas Willow Warbler is fairly regular in low numbers autumn on Hegura. I had an amazing four in a single day in October 2006.

I considered Alpine Leaf in the field because this warbler struck me as strikingly bright yellow below and distinctly green above. Very different to the perceived appearance of yakutensis held by birders in Europe, or at least what I infer from online info and discussion. That said, Willow Warblers I've seen here in the past have consistently been 'more colourful' than European / Middle eastern descriptions and images I've seen online. And even more so in my fallible memory I now have to admit!

Suggestions from people who saw the images I originally posted prompted my to dig out old notebooks still packed away after moving house this month. I was surprised not only how unlike the sketches and descriptions in my notebook these images look but also how my sketches still differed from online descriptions of yakutensis.

I'm left in something of a quandary. If this bird is a Willow Warbler it's so colourful as to be too great a disconnect with western perception of yakutensis. Though I'd unquestionably call it extreme even compared to my previous experience it doesn't alter the fact that Willow Warblers here don't look like the bird I'm led to believe I should be seeing if they are yakutensis. Western focus on very grey and white birds perhaps wouldn't flag these 'Japanese' Willow Warblers as suspicious. If they are part of a south east Asian wintering population, which has been suggested in the past and which regularity in Japan as well as records from Taiwan and the Philippines might support, could they even be something other than yakutensis? Also if it isn't a 'Japanese' Willow Warber then what is it?

It's a great pity I couldn't get better shots of this bird. It was very active and fast moving in a belt of low, dense pine and broadleaf wind-break trees and was difficult to follow with the bins let alone the camera. There were a couple of Yellow-brows, several Goldcrests, Japanese White-eyes and Coal Tits in the same trees and tracking a single bird amongst all the toing and froing amongst the tangle of foliage was difficult. Switching from bins to camera I was often uncertain whether I'd even picked up the right bird and twice photographed a Yellow-browed Warbler by mistake.

The following series of images are the best of a bad bunch.

In shadow with strong surrounding light. There seems to be a greyish wash around the hind neck and hind crown in this image otherwise the fore-crown and upperparts are distinctly greenish. If anything this slight greyish wash emphasises how green the upperparts are. The underparts are a dull but clear yellow in this image except for the greyer sides to the breast. The bill is fine compared to Kamchatka Leaf and appears all dark in this shot but the lower mandible has a yellow base and cutting edge. The legs are consistently dark in all the images, blackish in shadow or dark brown in stronger light. The soles paler, perhaps yellowish.

Another shady shot. Even though first autumn birds will be yellower than adults there's no getting around the fact this is a very yellow warbler compared to most (all?) other phylloscopus taxa I see here. Very different to the typical yakutensis as I understand it.

This may be a useless shot as far as showing detail is concerned but I think the overall colouration is extremely difficult to reconcile with descriptions of yakutensis.

Another image with very little visible detail but at least this one is in focus and still shows a bright warbler, not even remotely similar to a tristis Chiffchaff.

With the bill open here, the lower mandible is yellowish at the base and along the cutting edge.

Another awful shot but as luck would have it the underwing coverts and breast are caught reasonably well and appear concolourous. In my understanding this shouldn't be the case with a yakutensis.

It looks much darker and duller here but to my eye it's still an essentially greenish/yellowish warbler rather than greyish/whitish.

In this view it does look greyer above than some of the previous shots but it's nevertheless extensively yellowish below except for the undertail coverts.

The angle isn't helpful and doesn't show the comparative length of the primary projection however but the visible 'wing-tip' looks way too long to be the longest tertial and therefore I'm left to speculate on whether this is actually the longest primary which would make it very short, as well as the primary projection very blunt, for Willow Warbler. The seemingly white fringe to the outer tail feather and tips to others may be an artifact caused by light shining through the feather or a feature of the bird. A couple of earlier images also suggest whitish fringes to the outer tail feather.   

I looked for this bird again when next on the island two days later but there had been a big clear-out and it had probably left along with most other birds. Unfortunately none of these images give more than a glimpse of the bird, none provide a clear unobstructed view where features can be assessed, but there's certainly enough for me to look forward to my next encounter with Willow Warbler in Japan.

As a postscript the consensus amongst experienced Japanese birders is that this is definitely a Willow Warbler which raises questions about European birders' expectation that a potential yakutensis in Europe would be a grey bird.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

October 15-16 Noto Peninsula & Hegurajima

After my successful Hegura day trip on the 14th I drove up to Rokkozaki at the tip of the peninsula in the evening. I consider the place a poor man's Hegura, it's definitely got potential but as yet I've never had anything spectacular.

So on the morning of the 15th, after all the birds on Hegura the previous day, I had high hopes. Two Yellow-browed Warblers and a couple of Daurian Redstarts at the beginning of the track up to the lighthouse on the point did nothing to diminish them. However, though there were more birds than there had been a week ago there really wasn't anything to get excited about and the best bird I saw was a juvenile Japanese Sparrowhawk.

With a broad arm and small hand as well as a short tail I find the silhouette very distinctive; don't ask me why but it always reminds me of a butterfly.

Meadow Bunting is common at Rokkozaki, common just about everywhere in fact. So it's odd that of all the buntings you might expect to see just over the water on Hegurajima, this is possibly the least likely you'll come across. To my knowledge there were nine species of bunting on Hegura on the two days I visited this week, 10 if you consider Masked distinct from Black-faced. No sign of Meadow though.

Meadow becomes a widespread and frequently encountered bunting once off Hegurajima. They were very common at Rokkozaki.

After fruitlessly working the point for most of the morning I decided to head south to Kanazawa and Kenmin Kaihin Park. It's about 150km via Wajima which was the route I took and a bit of a long-shot but the weather suggested to me that birds would be leaving in droves with nothing coming in to replace them so I hoped there might be a chance of catching something lingering after the bring-'em-in weather two days earlier.

Coming into Wajima I was amazed to see a cruise ship docked! Totally incongruous and the last thing I'd have expected in this small, out-of-the-way port. I'd have been no more surprised (though a good deal more delighted) to see a Saker coming in-off.

A cruise ship in Wajima?! Anyone familliar with the port will recognise that brown fish processing building next to the Hegura ferry docking point.

What is it about Kanazawa and Lesser Cuckoos this week? Once at the park in Kanazawa it was obvious most birds had already left, if they'd ever arrived in numbers at all. But there was yet another Lesser Cuckoo for entertainment.

The question now seemed to be go home or return north and make another day trip to Hegura. I really didn't expect there to be much there but the island is capable of attracting just about anything even if the weather doesn't seem terribly conducive. So it was another overnight drive north and 9am ferry out to the island. The cruise ship had already left, someone must have informed the captain he'd docked in the wrong port.

Hegura was predictably quiet after all the birds earlier in the week. Almost all the common migrants were down in numbers, the buntings and Daurian Redstarts had all but cleared out. Only Hawfinch was up in numbers, they were everywhere. However Yellow-browed Warblers were still present, I counted 10, a Dusky could have been the same bird as two days ago but there was no sign of the Willow Warbler.

Red-throated Pipit numbers might have seemed to be up but that was possibly because I hadn't visited one of their favourite locations last time and there were seven present this trip. The same might be said of Buff-bellied, up to six from two last visit. Unlike some trips out there it wasn't a wrench to be leaving in the afternoon and judging by the number of birders heading to the harbour well before sailing time I wasn't alone in that thought.

Two of the Red-throated Pipits present.

Hegura list:-
Mandarin Duck   2
Streaked Shearwater   common from the ferry
Black Kite   2
Eurasian Sparrowhawk   1
Black-tailed Gull   c150
Vega Gull   1
Oriental Turtle Dove   4
Large-billed Crow   1
Coal Tit   several
Skylark   5
Brown-eared Bulbul   fairly common
Japanese Bush Warbler   common, though mainly heard
Dusky Warbler   1
Yellow-browed Warbler   10
Goldcrest   c10
Pale Thrush   8
Siberian Rubythroat   2
Daurian Redstart   8
Stejneger's Stonechat   1
Blue Rock Thrush   1
Mugimaki Flycatcher   1 heard
Grey Wagtail   1
White Wagtail   2
Olive-backed Pipit   1
Red-throated Pipit   7
Buff-bellied Pipit   6
Brambling   very common
Eurasian Siskin   1
Hawfinch   common
Japanese Grosbeak   c8
Pine Bunting   1
Chestnut-eared Bunting   2
Rustic Bunting   c8
Elegant Bunting   c40
Black-faced Bunting   c5, the two seen well were both spodocephala, a male and female

Thursday, 15 October 2015

hegurajima October 14

I was hoping to spend three days on Hegura this week but just as last week it was impossible to get accommodation at such short notice. If most guest were fishermen last week, the island was certainly jumping with birders this week. The weather charts for the two days preceding my visit had looked very promising to bring birds in and so it proved; there were far more present this time.

Perhaps the two most striking changes were the arrival of Daurian Redstarts, which are now flaunting the presence around the island, and a huge number of buntings; buntings at every turn. Much more like mid-October in other words.

It wasn't difficult to resist the temptation to photograph the Daurians, they are after all a very common bird in Japan and there's no need to go to Hegura to get frame-fillers. The only Daurians I'd photograph there are birds that are of special interest for some reason, he said pompously. I often grumble inwardly when people are messing around on Hegura photographing common birds rather than getting on trying to find something. So let me first of all confess my own sins...

One of many Bramblings on the island.

Do they come much more common than Brambling? Well how about this...

One of two Great Spotted Woodpeckers I saw (and yes, I even got shots of both).

Well one excuse could be the Woodpeckers could be an interesting race; or how about they're damn difficult to get even half decent shots of in Kyoto. I know, clutching at straws. But why is it that Hokkaido woodpeckers always throw themselves at the camera while elsewhere they do their best to be on the wrong side of the tree. I'm still struggling for a Brambling excuse though.

Another bird that isn't exactly rare is Hawfinch but again it's a species I never normally get close to so...

An unusually confiding Hawfinch.

For many people Elegant Bunting would be another common winter species but it's something I rarely see in Kyoto, though they do winter elsewhere in Kansai.

Elegant Bunting was suddenly one of the commonest species on the island, there had been none a week earlier.

Last week I had my first Yellow-browed Bunting for Hegura and the following bird may even be the same individual as it was only 50 metres from that sighting. A cracking bird though and these better shots were worth a little stalking to get.

Yellow-browed Bunting; a very uncommon, dare I say rare, autumn migrant.

And sticking with Yellow-browed, the next one's a warbler. I saw nine Yellow-brows in my brief visit, no doubt there could have been many more.

This shot of Yellow-brow was taken by accident while trying to photograph a Willow Warbler!

There were two interesting clusters of birds. The first was in the strip of dense, low, tangled woodland running through the centre of the southern half of the island. I found a Willow Warbler and while driving myself nuts trying to get a decent shot of it I also saw two Yellow-brow, single Mugimaki and Narcissus Flycatchers as well as several Pale Thrushes, an irritating flock of Japanese White-eyes (irritating because they made it so difficult to follow the Willow Warbler), quite a few Goldcrest (they didn't help much either) and a handful of Coal Tits. Just last week I said I don't often see Coal Tits on the island, had I known they would suddenly appear in bigger numbers I'd have made the comment about something a bit more exotic. A Eurasian Sparrowhawk put in two appearances which was very nice though as I'd already found three piles of Pale Thrush feathers on my way through the trees I doubt any of the thrushes still present felt the same way.

Coal Tit.

If you're thinking "Another common species!", this is because I was hoping for Yellow-bellied Tit and even though this doesn't look anything like a Yellow-bellied Tit it was good camera practise just in case...

Mugimaki Flycatcher.

The second good-bird cluster was in a little grassy bay near the north end. I was staggering and stumbling through the hidden rocks and grassy tussocks when in fairly quick succession a large silent pipit, a large silent bunting and a small silent bunting flew up and perched on the rocky shore. In the end the large bunting turned out to be Pine which is good but expected in October and the pipit was a Richard's which may be the first I've seen on Hegura. I normally see Richard's either as spring migrants on other islands or as wintering birds further south. The small bunting I dismissed as a Reed in the excitement but grabbed a couple of quick shots to check later as I hadn't seen Reed this trip yet. With the big things sorted and the little thing gone I looked at the two images and was puzzled; I still am. It looks as though it's going to be easy to identify but looking closer it's almost as if it's made of old left over bunting bits, it's not a Reed. The small conical bill with the pale lower mandible could fit on a Pallas's Reed okay, there are bits of washed out Little and of Rustic too but neither seem perfect. This is killing me. Surely the answer is so obvious it's staring me in the face but I'm just not getting it!

A bunting on some colourful but not pleasant to walk over rocks...

A couple of people have commented saying this looks like a Pine Bunting. Indeed it does, the answer really was staring me in the face. Pine was the only streaky bunting (within reason) I never considered, simply because there was a Pine Bunting a few rocks over and this bird looked about 30% smaller hence my mind was focused on something small.

Having a last look around the harbour before boarding the ferry two guys came up and told me there was a Schrenck's Bittern at the hospital. My first reaction was hospital! What hospital? Anyway I thought right, two minutes up to the docs, two minutes back, 15 minutes till the ferry's official departure time. This has to be the only public transport in Japan that often leaves a few minutes early. Fortunately the bird really was just sitting in the "garden", a quick series of shots and back just as they shutting up shop, raising the gangplank or whatever, and we were out of the harbour five minutes ahead of schedule.

This reminded me of the time I was going to the ferry and someone told me he'd just found a Spotted Flycatcher! Still Japan's one and only record. Why didn't I just let the ferry go and stay on the island another day?! In that light even a Schrenck's pales. Another puzzle; why do I always get cracking views of Schrenck's Bittern (okay not always, but three of them have been point-blank range) and Yellow is always (always) a distant speck flying over some enormous reedbed?

Garden gnome or Schrenck's Bittern.

Species recorded:-
Eurasian Wigeon   1
Streaked Shearwater   common from the ferry
Schrenck's Bittern   1
Grey Heron   1
Great Cormorant   1 Wajima harbour
Black Kite   2
Eurasian Sparrowhawk   1
Black-tailed Gull   c200
Slaty-backed Gull   several Wajima harbour
Oriental Turtle Dove   1
Great Spotted Woodpecker   2
Coal Tit   c10
Red-rumped Swallow   1
Brown-eared Bulbul   c15
Japanese Bush Warbler   fairly common
Willow Warbler   1
Dusky Warbler   1
Yellow-browed Warbler   9
Kamchatka Leaf Warbler   1 heard
Japanese White-eye   c10
Goldcrest   several
Pale Thrush   several
Siberian Rubythroat   2
Daurian Redstart   common
Stejneger's Stonechat   3
Narcissus Flycatcher   1
Mugimaki Flycatcher   1
White Wagtail   2
Richard's Pipit   1
Olive-backed Pipit   1
Red-throated Pipit   1
Buff-bellied Pipit   2
Brambling   common
Eurasian Siskin   c30
Oriental Greenfinch   5
Hawfinch   3
Pine Bunting   1
Little Bunting   1
Yellow-browed Bunting   1
Rustic Bunting   several
Elegant Bunting   common
Yellow-breasted Bunting   1 seen by others
Black-faced Bunting   common
Lapland Bunting   1 seen by others