Thursday, 29 December 2016

Saunder's Gulls and Common Starlings

I arrived in Kyushu this morning for what seems to be becoming an annual winter visit, this is three in a row. I set off from Kyoto at about 01:40 and got to Daijugarami at around 11:30 after a nap along the way.

Looking over the vast mudflats I couldn't help thinking it's a bit like one of the areas I visit in Mie, only much more so, more of everything. More Eurasian Curlews, more Common Greenshanks, definitely more Redshanks and way, way more Common Shelduck. And then there are Saunder's Gulls. It isn't difficult to get good views of them in Mie if you are patient but here you have to push through the constant loop of birds patrolling the edge of the mud to find a Black-headed Gull somewhere out there. There were even two or three flying back and forth over Saga airport airfield.

To me this is a really attractive gull and though I'm anyway keen on gulls surely all but the most hardened lariphobe couldn't help but like this species.

Another aspect of the mudflats that differs to Mie is the scale, this unfortunately means that many birds are too distant to identify let alone get a good look at. Oh and if there are any sea ducks here there you can forget any hope of seeing them as mud stretches as far as the eye can see (into the sun) at low tide. Today was low tide from my arrival until nightfall... quite a feat.

If the mudflats had a familiar, if epic, feel the fields behind them had a different flavour. Rooks, hundreds of them, replaced Carrion Crows and quite a few Daurian Jackdaws added spice. I've seen two Common Starlings in both Mie and Shiga recently as well as a singleton on Hegurajima but today I ran into my largest ever flock in Japan, a good 150 birds. 2016 has become the year of the Common Starling for me.

Jackdaws were easy to find here but views were never close as the Rook flocks were nervous and would carry the Jackdaws off with them whenever a vehicle approached.

How many Common Starlings here?

White-cheeked were less common than Common! But there were a few...

And so ended my first day in Kyushu; a view across the bay.

Species seen:-
Common Shelduck   100s
Mallard   c200
Northern Shovler   1
Northern Pintail   c50
Eurasian Teal   c100
Black-faced Spoonbill   12
Grey Heron   5
Little Egret   4
Great Cormorant   14
Eurasian Kestrel   1
Osprey   1
Black Kite   4
Hen Harrier   1
Eurasian Sparrowhawk   1
Ruddy-breasted Crake   1 possible glimpsed in flight
Common Moorhen   2
Common Coot   4
Northern Lapwing   c45
Grey Plover   c150
Kentish Plover   7
Common Snipe   1
Eurasian Curlew   c8 with maybe 20 other curlews too distant to identify
Common Redshank   3-6
Common Greenshank   13
Common Sandpiper   1
Dunlin   200+
Vega Gull   8
Black-headed Gull   c25
Saunder's Gull   60+
Oriental Turtle Dove   c7-8
Bull-headed Shrike   5-10
Common Magpie   2
Daurian Jackdaw   12 was the largest party within the Rook flocks but total number was difficult to estimate
Rook   300-400
Carrion Crow   c20
Large-billed Crow   1
Asian House Martin   2 near Saga city
Japanese Skylark   c100 was the only flock, singles or twos and threes elsewhere
Brown-eared Bulbul   several
Japanese Bush Warbler   1 heard
White-cheeked Starling   c40
Common Starling   150+
Pale Thrush   1
Dusky Thrush   common on fields near cover
Daurian Redstart   4
Eurasian Tree Sparrow   several flocks but no huge numbers
White Wagtail   common here and there across the fields
Buff-bellied Pipit   c10
Meadow Bunting   c10
Common Reed Bunting   4

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Spot-billed Duck x Mallard hybrids

The Spot-billed x Mallard hybrid combination isn't one I would once have expected to be surprised to see. However, prior to this trip to Kanazawa where I found two males on a 300-metre stretch of river, I'd only ever seen three. Of course you could argue that Spot-bill x Mallard hybrid males aren't as eye-catching as the males of many other pairings and therefore more likely to escape attention but they are distinctive enough not to be mistaken for anything else.

Even if I have overlooked a few it seems a fairly safe bet these two birds on the same stretch of river are siblings. Below are three images of the first bird I came across.

And this is the second...

The next image is of a bird in Kyoto city four years ago. Straight out of the same mould, it seems this is what this hybrid looks like. But are hybrids ever quite that straight forward?

Not really. The first hybrid I ever saw looks far more like a Mallard. Even more interesting is that this male was with a hybrid female and they were behaving like a pair in mid-March. I confess I don't know for certain that the female is a Mallard x Eastern Spot-billed hybrid however size and the extensive white on the outer web of the hidden longest tertial suggest this is a reasonable assumption.

An apparent pair of Mallard x Eastern Spot-billed Duck hybrids.

The male of the 'pair' looking far more like a Mallard than any of the previous hybrid males.

The female of the hybrid 'pair'.

There were plenty of 'real' Eastern Spot-billed Ducks on the river but very few Mallard, so I'll just close with a pair of Spot-bills...

Monday, 26 December 2016

Scaly-sided Merganser...? Not a chance!

Football is rife with cliches. Most seem to state the obvious even if we're meant to infer there's hidden depth; "It's a game of two halves." and the like. One that winds me up every time is "You make your own luck". What nonsense! How would you apply that logic to winning the lottery? Hard work is hard work, luck is arbitrary.

I'm feeling irritated I suppose, just back from my annual Scaly-sided Merganser dip: or at least the first of them. This was the Saigawa dip, now a four-winter streak, I've still got a couple of Kyushu rivers to dip on later this month or early in the New Year.

We all have a bogey bird or two but I never anticipated the Merganser slipping into that category. The first time I tried I saw a male and female on the Kisugawa in Gifu, as well as seeing my first ever Baikal Teal and Long-billed Plover as an added bonus (it really was a long time ago!), though I did have to walk 50km that day. Those 50km pale in comparison to the total distance I've covered since then without so much as a sniff of another Scaly-sided. Just let any football manager to tell me I have to make my own luck!

As you'd imagine I've seen an awful lot of Goosanders on all these dips. I'm not complaining, they're great birds and the river views are often better than those on Lake Biwa. And yet, it now seems I'm guilty of not looking closely enough at them. Goosander has always struck me as one of those birds you get what you pay for; not a lot of variation. Until now.

I spent the best part of the morning trudging the banks of the Saigawa before taking a break to see the Redpolls in my previous post. Then back to river duty in the late afternoon hoping that there'd be some pre-dusk movement. There were definitely more Goosanders on the city stretch of river in the afternoon. Light hadn't been up to much all day, noon was little different to dawn, and as afternoon progressed night was an all too eager replacement. Finally giving up I stopped to look at a Goosander perched on a rock, I'd already seen it on my upstream walk but, as the last bird light would permit, it was worth a second and longer glance. Can a glance be long? Well, you know what I mean. Car headlights were getting brighter by the minute as they passed along the far bank and even at 16000 ISO photography was increasingly the preserve of the over-optimistic.

I sat myself on the damp stones as a feeling was growing that there was something a bit off about this Goosander. While it didn't look like a Scaly-sided Merganser, it did have a greater suggestion of merganser about it. Since getting home and looking into it I find the features that first caught my eye are maybe not so unusual, so clearly I haven't been looking closely enough, but I've yet to find any information or images showing such a large size difference between birds.

So starting off with 'standard' Goosanders both on the dull day and the following morning in brighter light.

Not a great deal of variation there. Below is the slightly odd bird...

On my way upstream it looked a typical Goosander, though in retrospect the breast markings and lower flank 'scales' are more pronounced than any of the other birds present along the river.

Coming back down stream I first thought the breast markings were more conspicuous than I normally notice.

The bill seemed thinner, the nape feathers wispier and the lower flank markings stronger than the typical muted grey and white barring.

Once into the water it still looked slightly 'off' with its thinner bill and less full, rounded nape feathering.

It floated down river to a point where two other Goosanders were hauled out on rocks, one of which jumped into the water as this bird approached. This was when the size difference became apparent and really was quite striking in the field, definitely something I've never noticed before with Goosanders.

It never looked less thinner-billed or longer-, wispier-crested, and not only was the size difference striking but also overall paler colouration stood out in direct comparison.

I suppose I'll have to look at Goosanders more closely in future.