Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Great (?) Frigatebird and Red-footed Booby - the tropics come to Mie

It was really good to get back to birding in Mie when I took Stig Madsen there four days ago. That trip had a heavy bias towards ducks and waders, plus it's impossible to cover all the good areas in a day, so I was keen to get back and see whether Taimyr Gulls are moving through. I'd like to get some decent images of crisp juvenile plumage.

I arrived pre-dawn as usual but abandoned my normal set of early morning tide-dependant routes and headed more or less straight down to the Kushida estuary. This is usually as far south as I get and today I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to cover some of the northern sites that Stig and I had missed last time. I planned a straight south to north drive without double-checking any sites.

There are thousands of bamboo poles supporting nets in the shallow waters of Ise Bay, forests of them in places, and they're always worth checking.

Some early cloud cover meant the light wasn't too bad scanning from the north side of the estuary and as I was checking the hundreds of bamboo poles planted in the shallow waters for Crested Terns I noticed a melee of gulls to the south, presumably over a shoal of fish. No sooner had I refocused the scope on the flock than a frigatebird came swooping through them... that's not supposed to happen in Japan! Whenever I find a rare bird doing a quick mental run through the common species I could be tripping up over is automatic; I suppose everyone is the same. But, common species a frigatebird could be confused with... ? If a non-birder gave a potted description of something as obvious as a mollymawk in a European setting (or even eastern North America) Greater Black-backed Gull would probably be the first thing that springs to the birders mind. But a frigatebird? It can't really be confused with anything other than another frigatebird. Of course that's when the fun starts.

The bird was on view for 20 minutes but was never closer than a kilometre. It wasn't far off-shore, quite close at times in fact, but it was to the south of my position. After chasing through the gulls a couple of times it began patrolling the coast gaining and losing height effortlessly, it must have simply been hanging in the air for much of the time as it could have covered an enormous distance. Looking south down the coast from my position it was mainly tail- or head-on depending on which direction it was moving giving side views as it swung round. I guessed it would take 20 minutes to drive inland, over the bridges and find my way back to the coast through a maze of unfamiliar roads. It made far more sense to view the bird while I had the chance especially as it might head north to where I was was standing. After 20 minutes I was kicking myself for not having left immediately but who would have guessed it would hang around so long. It seemed to be gradually drifting further south and at that point I drove off after it. It did indeed take 20 minutes to reach the location but had I known the way I could easily have done it in 10; the bird would have been close enough to get acceptable record shots at the very least. Spilt milk.

I believe it was an immature Great rather than the more often recorded Lesser because of the underparts pattern. When turning, and originally when chasing gulls, the white belly patch looked centre-heavy. That is it bulged evenly fore and aft up the mid-flanks and was visible at times as the bird was flying away as almost a white rear flanks patch. It was never obvious from a frontal view. The leading edge of the belly patch was convex but I couldn't say whether rounded or more pointed. The rear edge was quite broad and well rounded on the lower belly. The white mid-flank bulge didn't reach the axilliaries nor was there any spur. At that range the head never struck me as paler in any way no matter what angle so if buff it must have been dull.

This is my second frigatebird in Japan, the first flying high on Minami Io-to (South Iwojima) was left unidentified and the fate of this bird may be the same which is rather annoying; 20 minutes land-based viewing should be ample to clinch an identification.

Heading north again I stopped to tell a crowd of photographers at the Kumozu River estuary. Someone suggested it could have been a tern; I confess that hadn't cropped up when I did my mental run through of potential confusion species.

After that courtesy call I pressed on to the north of Tsu city, to the long sweeping beach popular with loafing gulls. Just before getting there I bought a bite to eat and large coffee at a nearby convenience store,  planning a five-minute break before checking the gulls. As the coffee was still a tad hot when I parked and I didn't know how many gulls there might be this early in the season I decided to poke my head over the seawall before my well earned break. The Red-footed Booby was standing on the sand right in front of me! Unbelievable - two tropical seabirds just a few kilometres apart.

I was a bit nervous about how close I could approach, it was in with a crowd of Black-headed Gulls. They're always skittish, fly up and immediately re-settle at the drop of a hat. The large gulls always ignore them and stay put but what would the Booby do? It turned out to be no more bothered by the Black-headed antics than the large gulls and it took someone taking a tideline constitutional to flush it off. Some people will always try to avoid flushing birds if they see you're looking at them, others couldn't give a hoot. This gentleman was clearly one of the latter.

My luck really was in. It was so warm inside my car the coffee was still drinkable when I got back - bliss! After that, a final trip onto the beach to get a few adult Taimyr shots and there was the Booby, still just off-shore putting on a plunge diving performance. I couldn't have asked for better.

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