Friday, 25 March 2016

Copper Pheasant purple patch

After flushing three female Copper Pheasants and hearing a drumming male three days earlier I was really keen to get back to the same area in the hope of managing a photograph of them. I ought to say it was a very optimistic hope, this is a species I've never been able to get a shot of. I used to see them regularly in fact, often very well at that, behind a house I lived on Mt Inari in Kyoto city. That was a good few years ago now, in pre-camera times, and those Pheasants have long since been extirpated from that location. They can still be found on other hills close to the city but I prefer going further north where there are additional species such as White-backed Woodpecker that I'm not likely to see close to home.

In the end I was successful, well partly successful, and managed to get a couple of blurred shots of a male as it ran up a hillside. Nevertheless I'm delighted to have even these blurred images to show for my first ever attempt to target this species.

Copper Pheasant: not great shots but it's a start.

I arrived well before dawn, stopping in exactly the same spot as the previous visit. Still no Ural Owl but where there'd been just a single Japanese (Collared) Scops Owl "singing" now there were six. A week prior to this there hadn't been any; spring has clearly arrived as far as the local Scops Owls are concerned.

Heading into the woodland I ignored the throb of Copper Pheasant display coming from the same direction as on the last two visits. It simply isn't possible to make a stealthy approach through deep leaf litter on these vertiginous slopes, but instead of immediately repeating the ridge top trail walk that's proved quiet productive recently I detoured down a steep side path. I soon heard, almost felt, the resonant throb of another male Copper Pheasant displaying. The sound of its beating wings continued intermittently from the same general area as far as I could judge but after a while it fell silent so I sat and waited in case it came creeping along the slope below. 

The patient approach didn't pay dividends so I retraced my steps up the hill then along the ridge trail. It was rather quiet, no sign of the recent Common Crossbill, no roving parties of tits, not even flocks of Siskins which have been such a constant of late. I did hear a Japanese (Eurasian) Skylark passing overhead which must have been migrating and likewise a party of White Wagtails that crossed the ridge. Disappointing; even the usual persistent Pheasant had stopped displaying as I made my way back to the van.

As I approached the small car park at the end of the service road up the mountain a Japanese macaque slipped easily off the pavement onto the steep downward slope. It was part of a small troop moving through the forest, well spaced and calling as they went, contact calls I imagine. I've never seen macaques here before and these were wilder than any macaques I've seen in Japan. At best the macaques I usually encounter are so habituated to people they can suggest a visit to the zoo, at worst they can be an absolute menace because they associate humans with food. These were different, aware of my presence they bolted across any open spaces to and from cover calling loudly each time. Though I only saw eight animals in total, they took almost as many minutes to pass. The subdued vocalisations as they moved steadily along the hillside added to their purposeful, even predatory air. This seemed an authentic encounter, how very different to sometimes needing to step around animals on the path in the Kyoto area.

I'd driven about half a kilometre and reached my early morning owl spot when something else seemed to catch my eye, I wasn't even certain if it was real or imagined, just a hint of something pouring itself over the lip of the road. I suspected a smaller, stealthier animal, perhaps a Japanese marten, but I couldn't see anything when I got there. Martens are usually bolder than this. As happens so often in this sort of situation just as I began to relax thinking "it's gone" or "it was nothing" a female Copper Pheasant burst out of the only scrap of vegetation just below me. It blazed across the narrow valley, rounded a crag and vanished. A spectacular but unphotographable experience. It was only then I noticed the male Pheasant, the one that allowed me to snatch a couple of blurry shots, standing at the foot of the crag. A half-hearted, silent wing flap was his undoing, if he'd remained motionless I'd probably never have noticed him. But as soon as he was aware I had, he scurried up the bare slope beside the rocky outcrop, found cover, then he was gone. All the way to the top as a burst of full-blooded wing throbbing display attested - it seemed like unwarranted defiance to me. 

The next male I came across was lower down the mountain. I was intent on a pair of displaying Japanese Woodpeckers putting on a great show when it flew from the track ahead of me. A full 100 metres and round a curve ahead of me! I'd never have seen it if not for the explosive burst of wing beats as it launched off the hillside. As it was I just glimpsed it through the crowns of the cedars, so steeply does the hillside fall away that after only 20 metres of direct flight it was already in the canopy of lower trees.

Willow Tit: a bird I infrequently see around Kyoto city in winter is quite common here.

Coal Tit: along with Eurasian Siskin this is one of the most obvious species on the mountain.

The morning had been excellent but towards noon it was time to head down to Lake Biwa.

Neither the Smew nor Eurasian Spoonbill I'd seen three days earlier were present on the pond near Lake Biwa so I made my way south to Saino-ko, another lake close to Biwa. This has a winter harrier roost, good numbers of Eastern Marsh and Hen. When I arrived my expectations were deflated by extensive reed cutting underway. The reeds on my local marsh in Kyoto are cut in December, then burnt off to promote new growth in spring. I suppose this later cutting at Saino-ko allows the harrier roost to go undisturbed throughout winter but that it is cut at all is a pity. Not really encouraging for breeding bitterns prospects.

Eastern Marsh Harrier.

I was far too early for harriers coming in to roost but while I was there two Eastern Marsh Harriers and one Hen did fly by. Another fly-by was my first Kansai Barn Swallow of spring, on schedule I'd say. I heard both Eastern Water Rail and Ruddy-breasted Crake, the later singing, and a striking male Long-tailed Rosefinch at a feeding station was good. A Siberian weasel was having noisy fun under the van but views through the windscreen were brief when it finally came out because another car happened along and stopped just at the wrong moment. Yet another point of interest was watching a Little Grebe struggling with a fresh water shrimp of some kind. It was thrashing its prey around for a couple of minutes then I got distracted when a male Merlin dashed by and perched briefly so I never got to see whether it actually ate this shrimp or not.



Little Grebe with shrimp. Breeding plumage accentuates the stunning white eye of poggei.

List of species recorded:-
Copper Pheasant   2 males plus 2 others heard, 1 female
Gadwall   15+
Falcated Duck   6
Eurasian Wigeon   common, though numbers greatly reduced
Mallard   30+
Eastern Spot-billed Duck   fairly common
Northern Shoveler   25-30
Eurasian Teal   c15
Common Pochard   1
Tufted Duck   c100
Little Grebe   several
Great Crested Grebe   10+
Grey Heron   several
Great White Egret   5
Little Egret   1
Great Cormorant   common
Merlin   1 male
Osprey   1
Black Kite   common
Eastern Marsh Harrier   4
Hen Harrier   1
Eastern Buzzard   1
Eastern Water Rail   1 heard
Ruddy-breasted Crake   1-2 heard
Common Coot   very common
Grey-headed Lapwing   1 heard
Long-billed Plover   1 heard
Common Gull   c10
Black-headed Gull   1
Rock Dove   c40
Oriental Turtle Dove   several
Japanese (Collared) Scops Owl   6
Common Kingfisher   1 heard
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker   common
Great Spotted Woodpecker   1
dendrocopos sp   several heard
Japanese Woodpecker   2 plus 1 heard
Bull-headed Shrike   3
Jay   c6 heard
Carrion Crow   common on arable
Large-billed Crow   common, especially in forest
Great Tit   common, the only tit common along the lake side as well as in the mountains
Coal Tit   common
Varied Tit   fairly common
Willow Tit   common
Barn Swallow   1
Long-tailed Tit   common
Japanese (Eurasian) Skylark   several
Brown-eared Bulbul   several
Japanese Bush Warbler   many singing
Wren   2-3 plus many heard
White-cheeked Starling   common
Pale Thrush   c10 including 1 singing
Dusky Thrush   common on arable land
Daurian Redstart   1
Blue Rock Thrush   1
Eurasian Tree Sparrow   common
White Wagtail   fairly common
Japanese Wagtail   1heard
Buff-bellied Pipit   several
Brambling   2-3 heard
Oriental Greenfinch   common
Eurasian Siskin   common
Long-tailed Rosefinch   1
Eurasian Bullfinch   3 parties heard
Japanese Grosbeak   3 heard
Meadow Bunting   common
Rustic Bunting   4
Black-faced Bunting   fairly common
Reed Bunting   common

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Woodland north of Lake Biwa

I took a visiting Irish birder out at the weekend, who despite just arriving in the country was up for a 3am start from his hotel. He was interested in bird photography and was keen to get good views of some local birds. Finding woodland birds is always a risk outside the spring song period but with luck it's possible to connect with some good birds and the chance of getting good shots is often better than coastal or lakeside locations.

After picking him up we drove to the north of Lake Biwa and our first stop was a vain attempt to see Ural Owl but, perhaps more unexpected, we did hear a Japanese (Collard) Scops Owl singing. My first of the year. 

The morning turned out to be heavily overcast with a constant threat of rain, not so good for photographic prospects, and Birdable light was slow to penetrate the forest. Disappointingly there was far less bird activity compared to the crystal clear morning a week earlier. However a male Copper Pheasant was drumming in the same spot as last week, as then just out of sight down a steep slope. Further along the track, again in the same place as a week ago, a Common Crossbill called overhead as it flew between knots of pines clustered around two high points along the ridge. Surely the same bird as last week as they are so scarce in this part of the country.

The best sighting of the morning was a party of three female Copper Pheasants flushed from the steep hillside below the road as I fortuitously stopped the van in just the right spot. It's a pity they hadn't been slightly further away, then they may not have burst into flight the instant we pulled up.

Eurasian Siskin: one of the most numerous birds on the mountain.

We dropped down to Lake Biwa mid-morning and had reasonable views of Long-tailed Rosefinches at a favourite spot of theirs. Black-necked Grebes were dotted all along the shore still very common but now much better looking.

Black-necked Grebes, most are in breeding plumage now and these lake birds are invariably closer and consequently easier to photograph than many of the coastal birds I see in Mie.

Lake Biwa is rather disappointing now as far as wildfowl goes. Most ducks have left, numbers are drastically reduced and some species have disappeared completely. Baikal Teal, never easy to see here, always lead the exodus but even north-end specialities like Goosander have gone (I did see one this week), as have the ubiquitously abundant Northern Pintail. Bean Geese had already departed before my previous visit and this week the Tundra Swans have followed suit.

I didn't see any Smew last week but this time there were two pairs displaying on a pond at the north end. Drakes always gather in large rafts way out on the water at the southern end of the lake, while redheads stick to the northern end and are frequently found on satellite ponds or in tiny fishing harbours. So to see males and females together is in itself a sure sign that they're on the move.

Displaying Smew.

Along with the Smew, there was a Eurasian Spoonbill on the pond. I've seen wintering birds here many times in the past but not for three or four years. As this was only my third visit here this winter it is possible I have overlooked this bird until now but I strongly suspect it has wintered somewhere else and is now drifting towards where ever it needs to be.

Eurasian Spoonbill.

List of species recorded:-
Copper Pheasant   male drumming just below the ridge, group of three females flushed from steep slope below the road lower down the mountain.
Most ducks have now departed, the following small numbers remained at the northern end on Lake Biwa.
Gadwall   2
Falcated Duck   c10
Eurasian Wigeon   100s
Mallard   c200
Eastern Spot-billed Duck   common
Northern Shoveler   c40
Eurasian Teal   c40
Common Pochard   5
Tufted Duck   c30
Common Goldeneye   3
Smew   2 displaying pairs on a small pond.
Goosander   1
Little Grebe   4
Great Crested Grebe   6
Black-necked Grebe   50-60
Eurasian Spoonbill   1 my first at this site for three or four years
Grey Heron   30-40
Great White Egret   5-10
Great Cormorant   c30
Black Kite   common
Common Moorhen   3
Common Coot   common
Grey-headed Lapwing   2
Vega Gull   1
Black-headed Gull   several
Rock Dove   6
Oriental Turtle Dove   3 (a record low?)
Japanese (Collared) Scops Owl   1 heard
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker   common
Great Spotted Woodpecker   1
dendrocopos sp   2-3 calling
Japanese Woodpecker   1 heard
Bull-headed Shrike   2 plus 1 heard in lakeside scrub
Rook   60-70
Carrion Crow   common on fields
Large-billed Crow   more common in the hills, fewer on the fields
Great Tit   common
Coal Tit   common
Varied Tit   several
Willow Tit   several
Long-tailed Tit   common
Eurasian (Japanese) Skylark   frequently heard singing on arable land
Brown-eared Bulbul   surprisingly few, under 10
Japanese Bush Warbler   c8 seen or heard, birds now becoming vocal even in dull weather
Japanese White-eye   very surprisingly only a single bird seen and no others heard
Wren   2 heard on the mountain
White-cheeked Starling   some small flocks plus odd ones here and there, probably about 30-40
Pale Thrush   2 small groups totaling about 20 birds
Dusky Thrush   common on fields
Red-flanked Bluetail   1 female on the mountain
Daurian Redstart   1 heard at Lake Biwa
Blue Rock Thrush   2 in built up areas further south
Eurasian Tree Sparrow   common along lakeside and on arable land
White Wagtail   common on the fields
Japanese Wagtail   3
Buff-bellied Pipit   c15 in a single party
Brambling   5 flushed form the mountain roadside and a few others heard flying over, but no big numbers still in the area
Oriental Greenfinch   a few on lower slopes and common around the lake
Eurasian Siskin   unlike Brambling, still in big numbers on the mountain
Long-tailed Rosefinch   4 at a favourite lakeside spot
Common Crossbill   1 presumably the same individual as a week ago
Bullfinch   3 plus several heard in two places
Meadow Bunting   fairly common
Black-faced Bunting   heard at only one location
Reed Bunting   still common in reed beds

Friday, 18 March 2016

A Peregrine shakes up the gull flocks

A schedule change at work meant I had some time to visit the Yamatogawa in Osaka to check out the gulls yesterday. I used to spend all my free time gulling on the Yamatogawa but this was my first trip this winter and I was delighted to see how many gulls were present. I didn't have my scope with me, just bins and camera, so I was a little disadvantaged checking out the flocks on the river and I wonder how many things might have got away while I was struggling to slowly sift through the bathing and loafing groups.

A case in point is (Pacific) Black-legged Kittiwake; I heard a kittiwake call and looked up to see two birds overhead that gradually gained height and disappeared. I've only ever recorded a couple of Kittwakes here so this doubled my tally for the site! However later as I was going through the many shots of gulls I took, there was a Kittiwake dropping in behind the gull I was photographing.

Peregrines aren't uncommon dropping onto the river, they come down to bathe rather than deliberately terrify the gulls but they certainly shake things up nevertheless.

Once the Peregrine had put up all the gulls, evaded those that weren't too happy about the intrusion and bathed it flew straight out without giving the gulls a backward glance.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Green Pheasant on the seawall!

After enjoying a successful morning north of Lake Biwa followed by a disappointing afternoon along the lake yesterday, today seemed to follow the same pattern. The morning got off to a cracking start with a singing Siberian Rubythroat but the afternoon fizzled out. A Rubythroat in mid-March in Kansai? It was so out of context that I couldn't put a name to it at first. I suspect it must have spent the winter undiscovered in that area of scrub, it's surely too early for a migrant. They do winter further south in Japan of course and perhaps because this winter has been so mild this bird stopped off here but never felt the urge move further south. In fact I had similar thoughts about the Richard's Pipit I had flying over Kyoto a week ago.

Next up was a stunning Green Pheasant standing on the seawall. It's not unusual to see them out in the open, particularly on duller early mornings but this spot was extreme, standing on the seawall looking out to sea. I couldn't help projecting anthropomorphic feelings of a wistful longing to migrate along with the other departing species.

Reed Buntings are still very common and some males are beginning to assume breeding appearance. These are two shots of a strikingly pale-mantled bird, unfortunately I didn't get any clearer shots before it dived into cover. The third image is of another Reed Bunting I saw last week showing the typical browner, less frosty upperparts and covert fringes.

A typical Reed Bunting with an overall brown mantle. Above are two images of a strikingly pale-mantled bird.

Eurasian (Japanese) Skylarks are really common on the fields and their song is a constant backdrop to birding here.

Most other birds I was able to photograph were waders...

Eurasian Oystercatcher.

Spotted Redshank.

Black-winged Stilts and Long-billed Dowitchers.

Kentish Plover.

Sitting on the beach watching gulls always results in excellent views of Sanderlings.

... and Dunlins.

Finally an awful shot of a Slavonian Grebe. Why bother? Well, I rarely see them in Kansai but also because it's the first I've ever seen coming into breeding plumage.

Slavonian Grebe.

A combined list of birds recorded over two days (101 species)

Copper Pheasant   1 heard displaying
Green Pheasant   c8
Tundra Swan   70-80 including one Whistling Swan
Gadwall   common
Falcated Duck   common in Mie but only a few Biwako
Eurasian Wigeon   very numerous still at both locations
Mallard   common but numbers well down
Eastern Spot-billed Duck   common
Northern Shoveler   c100 Biwako, a few Mie
Northern Pintail   very low numbers both locations
Eurasian Teal   c200 Mie, fewer north Biwako, numbers drastically reduced at both locations
Common Pochard   common but numbers well down at both locations
Tufted Duck   low hundreds
Greater Scaup   1 Biwako, 1000s Mie
Common Goldeneye   8 Biwako, 14 Mie
Red-breasted Merganser   100s Mie
Little Grebe   several both locations
Great Crested Grebe   4-5 Biwako, 6 Mie
Slavonian Grebe   1 Mie
Black-necked Grebe   c40 Mie
Black-crowned Night Heron   1 heard between the locations
Grey Heron   sev Biwako, c25 Mie
Great White Egret   3 Biwako, 6 Mie
Little Egret   2 Biwako, 34 Mie
Great Cormorant   several Biwako, 100s Mie
Peregrine   1 Mie
Osprey   1 Biwako, 2 Mie
Black Kite   common Biwako, several Mie
Eastern Marsh Harrier   1 Biwako
Eurasian Sparrowhawk   3 Biwako
Eastern Buzzard   1 Mie
Eastern Water Rail   2 Mie
Common Moorhen   8 Biwako, 1 Mie
Common Coot   common both locations
Eurasian Oystercatcher   8 Mie
Black-winged Stilt   3 Mie 
Northern Lapwing   c30 Biwako, c50 Mie
Grey Plover   c50 Mie
Little Ringed Plover   1-2 heard Mie
Kentish Plover   2 Biwako (a big surprise), 30-40 Mie
Common Snipe   c20 Mie
Long-billed Dowitcher   3 Mie
Spotted Redshank   1 Mie
Common Greenshank   6 Mie
Green Sandpiper   4 Mie
Wood Sandpiper   1 Mie
Common Sandpiper   2 Mie
Sanderling   common Mie
Dunlin   c50 Biwako, common Mie
Black-tailed Gull   1 Mie
Common Gull   1 Biwako, c40 Mie
Vega Gull   c300
Mongolian Gull   1 Mie
Slaty-backed Gull   6 Mie
Taimyr Gull   5-6 Mie
Black-headed Gull   c6 Biwako, 100s Mie
Saunder's Gull   10 Mie
Common Tern   6 Mie
Rock Dove   several Biwako, c50 Mie
Oriental Turtle Dove   several both locations
Common Kingfisher   1 Mie
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker   several Biwako
White-backed Woodpecker   1 plus 2 drumming Biwako
Great Spotted Woodpecker   1 Biwako
dendrocopos sp   several heard Biwako
Bull-headed Shrike   4-5 Biwako, 2 Mie
Jay   3 Biwako
Carrion Crow   common both locations
Large-billed Crow   common both locations
Great Tit   c20 Biwako
Coal Tit   5-10 Biwako
Varied Tit   c6 Biwako
Willow Tit   4 Biwako
Long-tailed Tit   common Biwako
Skylark   common Mie
Zitting Cisticola   3 Mie
Brown-eared Bulbul   several both locations
Japanese Bush Warbler   3 heard Biwako, 2 heard Mie
Japanese White-eye   common Biwako
Wren   3 heard Biwako
White-cheeked Starling   40-50 Mie
Pale Thrush   common Biwako
Dusky Thrush   several Biwako, common Mie
Siberian Rubythroat   1 heard Mie
Red-flanked Bluetail   1 heard Biwako
Daurian Redstart   2 Biwako, 4 Mie
Blue Rock Thrush   3 Mie
Brown Dipper   2 Biwako
Eurasian Tree Sparrow   common both locations
White Wagtail   several Biwako, 20-30 Mie
Japanese Wagtail   1 Biwako, 2 Mie
Buff-bellied Pipit   c20 Mie
Brambling   c50 Biwako
Oriental Greenfinch   common both locations
Eurasian Siskin   common Biwako
Eurasian Bullfinch   2-3 heard Biwako
Hawfinch   1 Biwako
Meadow Bunting   5-6 Biwako, several Mie
Chestnut-eared Bunting   6-7 Mie
Rustic Bunting   1 Biwako, 2 Mie
Black-faced Bunting   several both locations
Common Reed Bunting   several heard Biwako, common Mie