Friday, 27 November 2015

Long-billed Dowitchers

I recently posted an image of what I considered a short-billed juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher and though I had absolutely no doubt about its identity I was keen to have another look. The bird really stood out the first time I saw it, not so much because of the bill length but because of the bright juvenile markings, I only ever seem to see plain, grey winter birds here. So on my latest trip to Mie I made getting better views of the Dowitchers a priority and as it turned out I was lucky with the weather. Dawn is usually clear meaning looking east onto the pool usually favoured by Dowitchers is a non-starter but on this occasion the sun rose behind a bank of clouds. Predictably the Dowitcher trio I'd seen a few days earlier was on that same pool.

The first question I had to ask myself was does the juvenile really have a short bill? In fact the bird is a particularly small, slight individual compared to the two adults and this alone would account for the shorter bill in direct comparison. However the bill is about 1.3 times the head length, despite the head itself looking somewhat small, so I'm sure it must be on the short side for Long-billed. However I don't know how short a juvenile's bill can be, particularly if a male, but an online search quickly reveals equally short-billed birds. So short but not exceptional might be the answer to my question. I gather only the very shortest Short-billed Dowitcher bills are identifiable by bill length and I'm curious to know what they'd look like but I've yet to find an online image purporting to show a Short-billed identifiable on bill length alone. Though the deeper base looks obvious on some individuals.

While I have no doubt about this bird being Long-billed (even if I'd hoped otherwise when I first saw it), the only very slightly marked tertials and inner greater coverts immediately place it firmly in that camp. Nevertheless it remains an odd-looking bird to me. The proportions don't quite accord with the usual fairly consistent Dowitchers I see. But of course though Dowitchers can look straight-billed one minute then droop-tipped the next, this bird takes variability to a new level and it could move higher or lower on the scale of oddness as if outrageously attempting to morph from Dowitcher to tringa at times.

Some of the following images were taken early in the morning before the sun broke through, others later in the day with bright side lighting. The selection I'm posting here attempt to show the bird from all angles and give a sense of what to me, with my very limited Dowitcher experience, is a peculiar bird. Perhaps people used to seeing them will wonder why I find it unusual.

Long-billed Dowitchers; winter adult left, juvenile right. It looks more like a tringa to me in this shot, with the shortish bill, head shape and eye position with the bold cap and striking, straight eye stripe and supercillium it could almost pass from a Wood Sandpiper!

In profile the bill is short compared to the head but notice the tibia too. Whether relaxed or alert the visible leg between belly and knee often looked short whereas the other two didn't vary much. The fore-crown feathers were frequently raised imparting a quite different head shape.

When alert its slim build became even more obvious.

Though it never showed more than two primary tips beyond the tertials it did so often, a small projection can be seen even on a 'distant' view like this. Those of the adults were more often cloaked. The following shot shows how prominent the projection could be.

The primary projection, though short, was often surprisingly obvious, perhaps due to growing tertials?

The shorter-billed of the two adults with the primary tips only just visible.

The warm wash across the breast and down the flanks with prominent spots (almost streaks) make the underparts as strikingly different as the upperparts compared to the adults. 

The tertials and inner greater coverts have only a single rufous internal mark each (the former with even fringes), comfortably within the bounds of Long-billed appearance.

Trawling through Long-billed / Short-billed identification was something of an education but I was left puzzled by a couple of points this threw up. One was the loral angle and supercillium shape and the other the white lesser underwing coverts of Long-billed.

I found the former puzzling because the angle and shape varied so much depending on stance. The first two or three shots in this post show an almost arrow straight line, straighter even than I'd expect from the average Long-billed, while the following shots show a distinctly arched Supercillium. Then there are the underwing coverts. Both the juvenile and one adult have fully barred lesser coverts so presumably this is a one way feature; if there's a white bar it's Long-billed, if not it could be either?

Another feature my inexperienced eye was drawn to was the significant difference in rump barring. The juvenile has very fine barring but the adult has very bold, broad bars. Is the fine barring a feature of juvenile? I can't find any mention of this in the literature I have. Nor did I find any mention of the rufous tips to the tail and longest uppertail coverts outside of breeding adults. This strikes me as surprising because so much detailed information has been written about this difficult to separate pair. Perhaps because these features have no relevance to the separation of Long- and Short-billed? It never ceases to amaze (and frustrate) me that after a lifetime birding there are so many things I don't know.  

Compared to earlier images the supercillium in this shot is very arched, broad before the eye... and long. 

Here the supercillium is between the extremes.

The longest uppertail coverts and tips of the central tail feathers are quite rufous.

The juvenile. 

The juvenile's inner secondaries are barred white throughout their length, the adult has a single bar but I don't know if this is a feature of juvenile or just individual variation. Likewise with the much finer rump and uppertail coverts barring, very different to the adult below. 

Adult; central tail feathers dark and relatively uniform, rump and uppertail coverts boldly barred. 

Juvenile with barred lesser coverts.

Adult with barred lesser coverts and dark tail.

If it looks like a rock, stands like a rock and sounds like a rock... it's probably a Pintail.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Hooded Cranes in Mie

There have been a few Hooded Cranes in Mie the past couple of weeks, they do turn up occasionally in Kansai at this time of year. One even over-wintered at Lake Biwa a few years ago. I'd hoped to run into them on this visit (November 20) but I hadn't the previous time so wasn't optimistic. There was no sign of them on the fields I normally cover, there are plenty I don't, so I'd all but written off any chance of connecting when I came across this bird way out in the middle of a river mouth. I presume it had gone there to bathe but it was a really odd sight, a crane belly deep in a wide estuary.

After a while it took flight and came down on a scrap of arable land tucked away in a group of houses.

Things are getting slow on the wader front, Greenshank do winter here so seeing them wasn't a surprise. There were no Grey-tailed Tattlers and just a single Terek Sandpiper even though both had been very common a short time ago. Red-necked Stints have disappeared too but winter waders such as Dunlin, Sanderling and Oystercatcher are building in numbers.

Common Greenshank.

Terek Sandpiper.

Little Grebe is common but rarely close enough to photograph.

There were big numbers of gulls on distant sandbars off-shore but unfortunately only a few more accessible birds loafing on the beach north of Tsu. Vega numbers are building rapidly now but there were only three Taimyr still present.

A very typical Vega at this time; p8 is in and only a handful have retained outer primaries. The bird below is the exception that proves the rule I suppose. This was a real surprise a Vega outer primaries but only new p6 in place. 

Juvenile Vega.

Juvenile Slaty-backed.

The following bird is another juvenile Slaty-backed though I thought it was going to be a Taimyr when I first saw it and it's a great example of how variable they can be. The smaller size, initially less Slaty-backed head shape and much blacker looking primaries had me fooled at first. Looking more closely the Slaty-backed head shape became more apparent, the primaries may have been blacker than expected but the blade was very broad and the underside distinctly pale. Slaty-backed it is then...

The very black primary projection is odd for Slaty-backed but it's very deep and the pale underside of the far wing are the first give-aways that this is a Slaty-backed. 

The head shape is getting more like a Slaty-backed here. That's a more typical Slaty-backed behind it. 

Suddenly it couldn't possibly be anything else!

Other birds of interest were the first Goldeneye and Red-breasted Mergansers of winter but Common Shelduck doesn't seem to have arrived yet. The first Black Brant has also turned up though I didn't see it. There were several Dusky Thrush even though there were only a couple further north in the mountains earlier in the week and the following day there were even quite a few at work just south of Kyoto city.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

3 Tundra Bean Geese with the middendorffii flock

I needed a change of scene this week and travelled up to the north end of Lake Biwa rather than go to Mie which has been my destination of choice recently. It turned out to be a good decision.

The day started on the hills to the north of the lake and almost the first bird I saw was a female Copper Pheasant on the track. It was still well before sunrise and even if I'd had my camera unpacked it's unlikely I'd have been able to get a decent shot even though it only slowly moved off frequently stopping to look back at me. A very good start.

I was at the top of the hill for sunrise and bird activity had me thinking it was great to be back in a woodland environment after so much time at the coast of late. There were five species of both tit and bunting many White-bellied Green Pigeons flying around and their amazing song still echoed around the hillsides. Finches were very much in evidence too, big numbers of Siskins, Japanese Grosbeaks were frequently calling overhead or singing from tree tops, Oriental Greenfinches were here and there but strangely no Brambling.

By far the biggest surprise was a phylloscops warbler! An Arctic complex bird but I've no idea which even though it did call once before I saw the bird. Normally my brain reflex is to think Arctic Warbler whenever I hear a bird before remembering the split. It's a bit odd this call didn't register at all, perhaps because it's so unseasonal. It was only when I got onto the bird I realised what I'd heard but I couldn't recall the exact sound. It was very white below without any trace of yellowish as far as I could see but that doesn't really mean much.

By this time it was 08:30 and the lake was calling me so I made my way down to the shore and by about 10:00 I was at Kohokucho to check-out the geese. It seems new islands have been created over the summer which is great, much easier to see the loafing geese and even a few Dunlin, usually way way out on concrete blocks, were closer at hand.

The three Tundra Beans stood out like saw thumbs on the new flat islands, they were so small compared to the middendorffii, this was never so obvious on the old sloped and vegetated island. They seemed to be a family party, one adult clearly larger than the other was presumably the gander and the 1CY bird the smallest of the trio. I suspect the young bird is small even by Tundra standards, not so much bulkier than a Mallard in fact. These birds were inseparable on the island then flew together as the flock moved onto the water where they stayed together as a tight group.

Three Tundra Bean in the foreground. Not only are they very small but the necks are short when extended, the stance is frequently more upright and the stopped forehead and short bill were always easy to see. 

The young bird in the centre and the two adults sitting on the right. Note how conspicuous the white forehead is even in a distant digiscoped view like this. 

Once on their feet and side by side the adults are not only distinctly larger than the young bird but show a clear difference between each other. Presumably the bird at the back is a male.

Almost in silhouette the head and bill shape are easy to see here.

Tundra left and Taiga right, a huge difference in girth. 

The young bird almost trampled under foot, these are the massive proportions and long bill and neck anyone would be hoping for with an out-of-range middendorffii. They don't all look that clear-cut.

Perhaps no more than coincidence but both the adult Tundra have traces of white above the bill (and one of them at the side) which I only very occasionally see with the middendorffii.

Out on the lake the birds still stuck together. 

That's an amazing size / structure comparison. 

Four swan-necked middendorffii sandwiching the Tundra family.

Species recorded:-
Copper Pheasant   1
Green Pheasant   1
Taiga Bean Goose   c100
Tundra Bean Goose   3
Tundra Swan   c45
Gadwall   common in some locations
Falcated Duck   c50
Eurasian Wigeon   1000s
Mallard   common
Eastern Spot-billed Duck   common
Northern Shoveler   c30
Northern Pintail   c20
Eurasian Teal   common
Common Pochard   100s
Tufted Duck   100s
Greater Scaup   15-20
Goosander   c200
Smew   1
Little Grebe   common
Great Crested Grebe   common
Black-necked Grebe   1
Grey Heron   c20
Great White Egret   5 including one albus
Little Egret   2
Great Cormorant   common
Black Kite   common
Eastern Marsh Harrier   1
Eurasian Sparrowhawk   1
Northern Goshawk   1
Eastern Buzzard   1
Eastern Water Rail   2-3 heard
Common Coot   1000s
Common Greenshank   1
Green Sandpiper   1
Dunlin   c100
Common Gull   c30 it has been very surprising that I haven't seen any in Mie.
Black-headed Gull   40-50
Oriental Turtle Dove   several
White-bellied Green Pigeon   15 plus others heard
Common Kingfisher   3 heard
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker   common
dendrocopus woodpecker   3 heard
Japanese Woodpecker   1
Bull-headed Shrike   4
Jay   3 heard
Carrion Crow   common
Large-billed Crow   common
Great Tit   common
Coal Tit   common
Varied Tit   common
Willow Tit   3-4
Long-tailed Tit   common
Skylark   5
Brown-eared Bulbul   several
Japanese Bush Warbler   3-4 heard
phylloscopus (Arctic complex) warbler   1
Wren   2-3 heard
White-cheeked Starling   common
Pale Thrush   several
Dusky Thrush   2-3
Red-flanked Blutail   6-7 (only one seen)
Daurian Redstart   c10
Eurasian Tree Sparrow   common
White Wagtail   c10
Japanese Wagtail   c25
Buff-bellied Pipit   5
Oriental Greenfinch   several
Eurasian Siskin   4 large flocks
Long-tailed Rosefinch   1 heard
Eurasian Bullfinch   5 parties heard
Japanese Grosbeaks   frequently overhead
Meadow Bunting   common
Rustic Bunting   c15 (one flock)
Elegant Bunting   fairly common
Black-faced Bunting   1
Grey Bunting   1
Common Reed Bunting   common