Friday, 27 May 2016

Pleske's Warblers and Short-tailed Shearwaters

My Final day out with Jack Krohn took us south down the Kii Peninsula, aiming to see Pleske's Warbler. The Warbler was easy enough but the big surprise was hundreds of Short-tailed Shearwaters streaming by. How often do you see hundreds of Short-tailed Shearwater and Pleske's Warbler without leaving dry land?

I've often suspected seawatching off the Kii Peninsula could be great in the right conditions but it's quite a trek to go on spec. Particularly as even, with the aid of google maps, it's difficult to know where the best watch point would be under different conditions. On top of that if there weren't seabirds moving there wouldn't be much chance of anything else in compensation.

On this occasion the forecast had predicted the same fine weather we'd experienced all week, so we were a bit concerned that the sky wasn't beginning to pale as we neared our destination. The hills are normally clearly shilouetted long before the sun rises. So it was disappointing but hardly surprising that when daylight did break the sky was heavily overcast. The strong onshore wind was a different matter.

We got great views of several Pleske's, there was even a hidden Oriental Reed Warbler singing from somewhere within the dense, dark copse and before heading for the hills I wanted a quick look at the sea. With that wind I was expecting shearwaters to be passing but I was taken aback, and delighted, to find that they were Short-tailed rather than the usual Streaked. Hundreds of them streaming by, the closest were just over the rocks but numbers increased with distance and far more were no more than specks arcing above the grey horizon.

And of course there were the Pleske's...

Other coastal birds we picked up were Jack's only Temminck's Cormorant of the trip and better views of Black Kite than we'd had so far.

Delayed by Shearwaters and breakfast we were a little late getting up into the hills, early morning activity was over and woodland species harder to find. The target was Siberian Blue Robin and though we eventually heard a couple we weren't any singing close to the road. The same could be said of Ruddy Kingfisher... but the same could always be said of Ruddy Kingfisher.

The commoner woodland birds were easier to find and Jack finally caught up with Eastern Crowned Warbler here. Coal and Varied Tits were everywhere and Red-billed Leiothrix even put in an appearance though these two birds seemed a subdued breeding pair rather than the typically encountered babbling flock.

The total list of species recorded with Jack:-
Copper Pheasant
Green Pheasant
Falcated Duck
Eurasian Wigeon
Eastern Spot-billed Duck
Northern Pintail
Common Pochard
Tufted Duck
Greater Scaup
Streaked Shearwater
Short-tailed Shearwater
Little Grebe
Oriental White Stork
Cattle Egret
Grey Heron
Great White Egret
Intermediate Egret
Little Egret
Pacific Reef Heron
Great Cormorant
Temminck's Cormorant
Black Kite
Grey-faced Buzzard
Common Moorhen
Common Coot
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Grey-headed Lapwing
Grey Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Kentish Plover
Lesser Sand Plover
Common Snipe
Bar-tailed Godwit
Far Eastern Curlew
Spotted Redshank
Common Greenshank
Wood Sandpiper
Grey-tailed Tattler
Terek Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
Great Knot (Jack only)
Red-necked Stint
Black-tailed Gull
Little Tern
Rock Dove
Oriental Turtle Dove
White-bellied Green Pigeon
Northern Hawk Cuckoo
Eurasian Cuckoo
Oriental Cuckoo
Lesser Cuckoo
Japanese Scops Owl
Oriental Scops Owl (me only)
Brown Hawk Owl
Grey Nightjar
Ruddy Kingfisher
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker
White-backed Woodpecker
Japanese Woodpecker
Ashy Minivet
Bull-headed Shrike
Eurasian Jay
Carrion Crow
Large-billed Crow
Japanese Tit
Coal Tit
Varied Tit
Willow Tit
Barn Swallow
Asian House Martin
Red-rumped Swallow
Long-tailed Tit
Japanese Skylark
Zitting Cisticola
Brown-eared Bulbul
Japanese Bush Warbler
Pleske's Warbler
Oriental Reed Warbler
Eastern Crowned Warbler
Japanese White-eye
Eurasian (Winter) Wren
Eurasian Nuthatch
White-cheeked Starling
Japanese Thrush
Siberian Blue Robin
Blue Rock Thrush
Narcissus Flycatcher
Blue and White Flycatcher
Brown Dipper
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Grey Wagtail
White Wagtail
Japanese Wagtail
Oriental Greenfinch
Japanese Grosbeak
Meadow Bunting

Monday, 23 May 2016

blue-breasted Blue and White Flycatcher

There was recently some online conversation about images of a Blue and White Flycatcher, which had been posted on a blogspot in Japan and can be seen here The bird had a black mask standing out against the otherwise bluish throat and breast which should be equally black in cyanomelana. There was therefore far less contrast between the upperparts and underparts along the side of the neck than is expected in the Japanese race. The conversation revolved around whether it could be intermedia or if cyanomelana can ever show such a blue throat. To me the upperparts looked too similar too cyanomelana to be anything else but that also begs the question just how blue can cyanomelana get? Zappey's Flycatcher, as far as I understand it, should look relatively distinctive given a reasonable view.

According to Leader & Carey (Forktail; August 2012) intermedia, occurring in north-east China, south-west Russia and the Korean peninsula, is morphologically distinct from the Japanese cyanomelana. The latter having pure glossy black throat, breast as well as ear coverts and lores whereas intermedia "...are matt-blackish on the throat, breast and ear coverts (only very rarely pure black), and usually show a bluish wash or distinct blue tones to the throat and breast."

I always check Blue and White in migration hotspots, aware of the possibility of finding an intermedia or better still a Zappey's, but only rarely during the breeding season within normal range. Not least because the birds sing from tree tops and views don't often allow close scrutiny. However I had excellent, if brief, views of a bird in central Kyoto prefecture last week that is also surprisingly blue breasted. At first the bird was seen low in the trees giving an opportunity to observe it more closely than is often the case but it was nevertheless against diffuse understorey light and didn't raise any red flags. When it came down to ground level into some tree roots on the steep hillside next to the track and then into low bushes it was far easier to judge the true colour of the bird. It was then that it began to look somewhat atypical. Unfortunately it soon flew further back into the trees and I wasn't able to spend longer looking for it.

The first thing worth considering is that the greater coverts clearly indicate this is a 2CY bird and I wonder if this may be the reason for its much bluer than normal appearance. Do 2CY males look different to adults? Another interesting feature I didn't notice in the field but is apparent in the images is that the back has a slightly more turquoise tint than normal Blue and Whites I see in Japan, this is more of an intermedia feature, and it's quite obvious where there is a very clear-cut division between the lower back and deeper blue of the lower rump and uppertail coverts. This could be more apparent because the neutral light allows a clearer assessment but I don't think that's the case. Could it then be another potential feature of young males?

I confess that for years I've been guilty of ignoring Blue and White's on the breeding grounds other than to enjoy the stunning appearance of birds that happened to be, like this one, closer than usual. However there now seems reason to give these easy-to-ID inland Blue and Whites a second look rather than simply appreciating their beauty.

Questions that spring to my mind are do 2CY males look different to adults, closer in appearance to intermedia, if so then do 2CY intermedia also look any different to adults? How might this affect identification of spring migrants on off-shore islands where intermedia might be more likely to occur? Might some intermedia pass through mainland Japan on a broad front just as Grey-streaked Flycatcher does? Unnoticed because of their similarity to the local taxon which ostensibly doesn't present any identification challenge.

This is how we initially saw the bird, it didn't strike me as odd in any way and I was keen for my companion to get good shots of it rather than looking closely myself. With the hindsight images bring I can now see there is a distinct border between the lighter lower back and the rump, this would probably be explained away as shadow in the field even if it were noticed at all.

When the bird dropped lower and the sloped forest floor became the backdrop the subtle colouration became more apparent.

There's now a distinct blue wash to the throat. Leader and Carey state with regard to cyanomelana "...a small number of specimens have narrow bluish tips to the breast and throat feathers". They don't give dates for these birds, it's possible this might only be present in fresh birds with the tips wearing off to reveal the glossy black throat.

It seems the angle and lighting play a part. Here the throat looks a dull matt-black faintly washed blue, perhaps still closer to intermedia than to cyanomelana. Note the distinct division between the back and lower rump / uppertail coverts.

It has a strikingly blue face in this image with black restricted to the lore and chin. The border between nape and ear coverts has all but disappeared - this looks extreme. Below is a more heavily cropped version.

The lore and chin are black but the throat, upper breast (at least) and ear coverts are strikingly blue tinted. The back clearly leans towards turquoise and contrasts sharply with the uppertail coverts, the contrast is even more marked than that between the face and nape.
A typical Blue and White at the same location. Of course the lighting is very different but there's no hint of contrast on the upperparts.
A typical spring cyanomelana with a glossy black throat and distinct black and blue border down the neck.
Another example in late April this year. Again the glossy black throat and blue / black contrast are obvious.
An October 1CY male. If the adult-type back feathers are acquired much earlier than rest of the upperparts might later grown feathers be a different shade and account for the colour contrast between back and rump?  

It seems there are still reasons to keep looking closely at Blue and White Flycatchers.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Brown Dipper

After our success with Copper Pheasant a couple of days earlier I took visiting Aussie birder Jack Krohn owling in Tottori. This was ultimately disappointing with zero birds seen. We'd been assured there was a roosting Japanese Scops Owl in a particular nest box and that it occasionally poked it's head up to look around. We waited till light was failing and other Japanese Scops were already starting to call before we were forced to admit must've spent hours staring at an empty box! Ah well.

The forest was good and I was surprised not to hear any Eastern Crowned Warblers but there were plenty of other forest species. Invisible Ruddy Kingfishers moved back and forth up the steep valley, Ashy Minivets passed unseen above the canopy and Oriental Cuckoo was ever distant. But not everything was only heard, a few things showed themselves. A couple of White-bellied Green Pigeons briefly commuting between hill tops, Japanese and White-backed Woodpeckers cooperated at times and Blue and White as well as Narcissus Flycatchers put in appearances. Wrens were perhaps the commonest bird around with Great Tits a close second.

A female White-backed Woodpecker.
Wrens were very common.
I got up at 3am the following morning and there was a lot of activity around the cabins, three or four Japanese Scops, a single Oriental Scops and three Brown Hawk Owls were all calling nearby but none showed themselves. The same was true of three Northern Hawk Cuckoos and the only Lesser Cuckoo of the trip repeatedly overflying.

On the drive back to Kyoto we stopped off at the Oriental White Stork re-introduction programme centre and saw a couple of adults bill clapping while hanging in the air high overhead and another pair with a well grown chick on a post-top nest on the fields in front of the centre. One of the adults kept leaping into the air with exaggerated wing flaps, rather comically I thought, as if tethered to the nest as a tourist attraction. Jack on the other hand thought it was merely attempting to behave like a young bird in order to give the chick a lesson on how to strengthening its wings.

The following day we headed into Kyoto forest and had flight views of Grey Nightjar at dawn so nocturnals weren't a total wash-out. Later along one of the rivers a Brown Dipper was so intent on killing and eating a crab that it wasn't concerned by our presence.

Later in the morning we crossed Lake Biwa and made our way to Ibukiyama where we had our only Common Cuckoo of the trip. There were about 20 photographers lined up waiting for Golden Eagle to put in an appearance but unfortunately none did in the time we had available. It was really pleasant sitting in the sun at the mountain top even though it was too hazy to see any snowy peaks further north. On the way back down from the peak in Shiga to the base in Gifu we ran into a Grey-faced Buzzard circling over the trees before drifting off behind a ridge. Then it was back to Kyoto for a nap before an early start for the next target; Pleske's Warbler.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Copper Pheasant - cracking views!

This week I'm taking a visiting Aussie birder out for a few days, yesterday plus four more days from tomorrow. We started off on the Mie coast trying to catch up with breeding plumage waders, rather different to the range of greys and browns usually on offer down under. After that we made our way into the hills it see if we could find anything of interest. Most of our trips this week will be woodland trying to catch up with a few Japan specialities.

This paid off big time with a cracking Copper Pheasant, a displaying male we watched for about 20 minutes all told.

We were parked at a pretty good spot and were walking up and down a short stretch of road with Narcissus and Blue and White Flycatchers and three species of woodpecker as well as other bits and pieces when a Northern Hawk Cuckoo started singing not far below us. It sounded as though it could have been singing in flight but our view was obscured by trees so we decided to roll the van a little way down the hill to see if we could find a better vantage point. As we swung round the first bend I couldn't believe my eyes... there, just where we'd walked a few minutes earlier was a male Copper Pheasant displaying on the steep road verge. Right out in the open! We pulled up in about two metres and Jack had a fabulous photo opportunity with the bird just a few metres ahead. Unfortunately I had to make do with shots through the grubby windscreen.

It was slowly walking off the short-cropped stage here, wasn't able to get any shots of it displaying in the open.

It didn't walk far, just under the closest trees, then continued its display. I couldn't bear the through windscreen shots much longer and after Jack had rattled away a bit longer I got out. It wasn't until later I realised I hadn't altered my ISO settings since we were down on the sunny coast and my efforts were a waste of time. The Pheasant slowly made its way up the hill, regular bursts of  low-frequency wing beats marked its route.

Once under the trees it stopped and continued to display though my attempts to photograph this came to nought.

We were still congratulating each other on our good fortune when rustling above alerted us to the Pheasants reappearance. It was standing at the top of the embankment, and after a brief pause to stand to attention and beat its wings began to pick its way down the slope towards the road. Simply unbelievable.

Then it was just a leap across the gutter and onto the road...

Once over the road it stopped and began to display again by which time I was beginning to relax a little. Well, it was only a Copper Pheasant afterall! It was now I realised my camera settings weren't anywhere near suitable for the light conditions and I'd just missed out on an amazing opportunity. Without my glasses to see well enough to alter the settings I fumbled about as best I could and before the bird wandered off too far downhill I managed to get one last semi-reasonable shot of it before switching back to binoculars.

After it disappeared it wasn't long before the regular wing beating was clearly heading back uphill. Sure enough, before much longer Jack spotted it at the top of the slope about a metre in from the road. Eventually it wandered round the bend a little and we let it go, we couldn't possibly get better views of it than we'd already had. What a fantastic bird, I don't think I've seen one quite like that for about 20 years.

You know, I think the Aussies are a lucky bunch. Last time I took one out we had Copper Pheasant, Japanese Night Heron and Asiatic black bear before midday.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Two Swinhoe's Snipe

Continuing with catch-up posts for good spring birds, here are a few shots of two Swinhoe's Snipe.

April is the month to try for the tricky migrant snipe species. Swinhoe's, Latham's and occasionally Pintail pass through Kansai at this time but finding suitable habitat is crucial if hoping to find them. Generally speaking if you can find suitable habitat, such as that in the images below, you'll have an excellent chance of finding migrant snipe providing you can visit regularly through the peak period. Of course it's possible to find them in wetter locations favoured by Common Snipe too but in the Kyoto area my local rice fields haven't been flooded when snipe are on the move. This means Common Snipe, which are almost always found in association with water, are more often on river edges, ponds or in concrete-sided drainage ditches while the April passage species are quite happy in drier locations. A major problem is habitat availability; small habitats can change markedly from year to year depending on when levee sides were last trimmed or on how overgrown any fallow fields have become. Few spots in my area are good in consecutive years.

Even though the Tsu / Matsusaka area is only a three-hour drive from Kyoto the rice paddies are already filling with water when when the Kyoto fields are bone dry, before they've even been prepared for flooding. Once the fields are flooded Common Snipe and the migrant species can then all be found in the same habitat. However the tricky trio still tend to opt for slightly different, drier
habitat if it's available. The field favoured by the two Swinhoe's featured here was the only one of its type I came across and as expected I only found Common Snipe on the wet fields or mud-fringed ponds along with other waders. I didn't search levee sides as it tends to be very time consuming and my time is limited when I visit Mie.

Even though these birds were on an ideal field with typically shortish, patchy cover they were very difficult to see well. They spent a lot of time sleeping and could easily have been overlooked altogether but even when active they were masters of staying hidden moving deliberately through the the the low vegetation making frequent pauses to look around. Even small passerines, and there were many, flying this way and that about the field would cause the two Snipe to crouch nervously for a moment. I must easily have spent six hours watching them over the two days and was still unable to get any good shots of them.

Swinhoe's and Pintail are often said to be inseparable in the field without seeing the outer tail feathers. Nevertheless some individuals really do look the part, either one or the other, and if all the boxes are ticked, seeing those tail feathers is more a confirmation rather than a necessity. Unfortunately there are plenty of confusing birds where it seems only the tail feathers will settle the issue satisfactorily.

To my eye one of these two snipe looked a dead cert for Swinhoe's from the word go but the other had me thinking along Pintail lines for longer than I'd care to admit. I found this other bird very confusing and my opinion swung back and forth from "it certainly looks like a Pintail" to "surely it can't be a Pintail" depending on which of the mixed signals I was receiving at the time.  After eventually seeing the tail feathers while it was preening in the evening of first day it suddenly looked far more Swinhoe-ish but it's always easy to be wise after the fact.

This was to my eye a fairly obvious Swinhoe's: a bulky snipe with this typical big block of a head balanced at the other end by a longish tail projection showing a prominent orange patch. The saddle is relatively pale because of the very broad scapular fringes and paler, less rusty internal markings in the upper scapulars and quite dense creamy spotting on the mantle. The lower scapulars had rustier internal markings but the same very broad creamy fringes. This pale saddle doesn't contrast with the coverts panel despite the it being heavily spotted creamy-white and overall paler than expected from either Pintail or Latham's which typically both show a far more noticeable contrast. The coverts in turn blend seamlessly into the flank barring. Thus the overall impression is rather washed-out and uniformly pale bird by snipe standards; in other words remarkably unremarkable.

The other (more Pintail-like) bird was marginally smaller and looked significantly more contrasty because of narrower pale fringes and darker upper scapulars with fewer internal markings. The saddle was often the only visible part of either snipe moving through the low vegetation, this bird was relatively easy to locate with the naked eye whereas the other bird was very difficult to pick out in the mostly light coloured vegetation. The tail projection often looked shorter but how much of that was due to my expectation? In this shot the tail actually looks longish, good for Swinhoe's, but it stands out less against the more 'colourful' upperparts compared to paler birds - where the tail often seems to be the only splash of colour on an otherwise drab appearance. The tail length relative to the tertials changes markedly depending on stance and actions with all snipe and it's necessary to follow a bird closely to get a true idea of the proportions, just one reason why judging snipe from photographs is fraught with pitfalls.

The Pintail wannabe again.

Both birds: the pale and obvious Swinhoe's right with the darker more Pintail-like bird left.

The saddle of the 'obvious' Swinhoe's blended in with the surroundings whereas the darker, more contrasty bird was always easier to pick out when scanning the field. 
A stand-out Swinhoe's is generally pale and shows very little plumage contrast.

Once found it was easy to keep tabs on but easy to miss if randomly scanning a field. 

Back to the darker bird: the spread wing showing narrow white tips to the secondaries. As with Pintail this can be surprisingly easy to see on a rising snipe but is a far cry from the bold trailing edge of Common. 

A hint of the heavily marked underwing.

The 'obvious' Swinhoe's: I know it's mostly obscured but the lack of saddle / coverts contrast still comes through. Notice how prominent the tail and its orange patch are here. Also the mantle is finely but heavily spotted creamy-white and the scapulars have bold wrap around fringes with less bright rusty internal markings. Compare those features to the other bird below.

It's later in the day now, a high ISO was required and there is generally a warmer feel to this image but the fringes of the inner webs to the scapulars are narrower and often less complete thus creating the darker-saddled appearance. Warmer light notwithstanding the internal scapular markings are rustier, this is particularly true of the upper row. The tail looks much shorter with this compact stance compared to the stretching bird above.
The two in flight.