Monday, 25 July 2016

Greater Painted Snipe with chicks

Some more shots from my Mie trip last week.

This male Greater Painted Snipe with chicks was a surprise find, at first they were too close to get a shot off, but they dashed away so quickly I still couldn't get a good in focus image before they made it into cover.

Initially they were at my feet and I was too startled to think of the camera. After a short dash they paused as if to assess which way to the best cover.

Mind made up, off they went again. They almost look like a family of ducks here.
Sticking with waders I saw six Greenshank, two parties of three, in various stages of moult from breeding to non-breeding plumage. All adults, no sign of any juveniles coming down yet.

The hind bird had the most advanced moult of any Greenshank I saw.
I saw 15 species of waders, it's early days yet, but most were too far out on the mud for photography. A pity as there was a cracking Sanderling and some smart Red-necked Stints too. The only really close birds were Grey-tailed Tattlers.

Waders aside there wasn't too much to get excited about, a few terns were passing but mostly too far out to ID (there were Little and Common for sure), plenty of shearwaters off-shore too but all the expected Streaked. This male Northern Goshawk was less camera-shy than many though and was quite happy sitting on this exposed branch while Oriental Greenfinches occasionally buzzed it.

There were torrential downpours throughout the day, they didn't matter too much as most birding in this area is from inside the shelter of my van. However by mid-afternoon I'd had enough and decided to try the mountains on the way home. On the face of it, it sounds pretty daft given I could see from the coast that clouds were down to nearly the base of the range, but often one side will be bathed in sunshine while the other is getting a right royal soaking. It didn't quite pay off and I was limited to hearing birds in the fog, but sure enough a couple of kilometres beyond my birding area it was clear skies all the way back to Kyoto.

One final shot from the coast as it's a little unusual to see racoon dog out and about in daylight. As a rule they there's nothing much about them that suggests 'dog' to my eyes (unless it were a very overweight corgi), but with only the head poking up it does indeed have a dog-ish feel to it.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Whimbrel (variegatus) waiting for the tide to drop

Heading across to Mie last Thursday night I had my usual grumbles about pointless traffic signals stopping traffic on the main road. The sort that gives way to non-existent 2am traffic from a tiny village lane hardly wider than a footpath, or an exit from a factory when the gates are locked for the night. What a waste of time, and multiplied by every vehicle on the road, every night, what a waste of fuel. But for once waiting at one of these pointless sets of lights paid dividends. My drumming fingers were stopped short by a call overhead. Was it... ? And a second call... yes! Japanese Night Heron over the road. A good start to the trip, an excellent start in fact.

It was great to be back in Mie after a couple of months and there were plenty of birds to keep me busy, but this post is going to stick with a few examples of east Asian Whimbrel N p variegatus, a few from a party of 22 sitting on the sea defences at high tide.

Waiting for an exceptionally high tide to drop. After pointless traffic lights, I can sympathise. 

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Taimyr Gulls in spring

Cue collective groan... is mid-summer really the time to be talking about gulls? Don't we get enough of it in winter? As it is the gulling season is getting more and more like the football season; longer!

For most birders, me included, it's a time of respite from gullers trying to convince us that an elastic feature of taxon A is important when compared with the equally inconsistent feature of taxon B. As an example, look no further than Olsens Gulls where the caption to figure 594 reads "Note larger white mirrors on P9-10 than in heuglini." while on the facing page figure 588 the only gull clearly showing p9-10 in a flock of Heuglin's Gulls taking flight has larger mirrors. No wonder putative vagrant gulls are a nightmare.

Olsen treats taimyrensis as a hybrid between Heuglin's and Vega, yet Klass van Dijk et al (Taimyr Gulls: evidence for Pacific winter range, with notes on Morphology and breeding, Dutch Birding 2011) refer to various Leibers papers claiming "Genetic analysis has shown they represent a distinct population, ie, with a measurable degree of genetic differentiation and without obvious introgression...". If correct, this would knock the widely held hybrid swarm theory very firmly on the head.

I haven't had time to get into the field since my Least Tern trip so I've been looking through the huge number of Taimyr Gull images taken during my March and April gulling sessions in Mie. Hence the untimely subject. If truth be told I think my time would be much better spent trying to work out which of the phalanx of trash receptacles along my kitchen wall is best suited to take this plastic-lined metal bottle cap. At least there's a possibility of coming to a satisfying conclusion - even if it isn't the right one. With gulls I wonder whether 'satisfying' or 'right' are ever likely to apply.

So coming to the birds I saw in spring. Taimyr Gulls are far out numbered by Vega in early March when I saw these first examples...

Taimyr Gull on the right hand end of a flock of Vega (8 March 2016). Note the long shadows; the weaker late afternoon light makes picking out the darker saddle that much easier.

Closer views of the same bird moving through the Vega flock.

It looks very typical for this time of year.

And another individual the next day...

Though it appears paler-saddled in this image it didn't amongst the Vegas on the beach, but here it's standing on a roof top so perhaps the angle and lighting make a difference. The irids of this individual are heavily speckled and likely to give a dark-eyed impression at longer distance.
The same bird as above. Though generally outer primaries vary in the extent of black shown, both towards the bases and sub-terminally, as well as in the size of mirrors and apical spots, there's far less variation compared to Vega and this bird is a fairly average example though many would show black to the base of the inner web of p9.

A month later things were getting more interesting with fewer Vegas and more Taimyr present. I photographed a large number of Taimyr on both the 8th and 9th of April but it's impossible to do them justice in a single post. So I'll post more typical individuals here and some interesting shots of very late moult and also displaying birds in another post.

A fairly standard bird on the left (with Vega) but perhaps with the most saturated hind-neck markings I came across this spring.
A large p10 mirror almost reaching the tip. I only found a single individual where the mirror broke through to the tip.
A very similar looking bird, again with a very large mirror.
Irids range from heavily speckled to clear.

I'd class this as a young adult showing limited black on both mandibles.

It also has dark markings on the outer greater and lesser primary coverts.

This is the same gull the following day, different light conditions giving a much darker-saddled appearance.

Jumping forward in time; my last very brief gulling trip was on 20 April when gull numbers were much reduced. I counted about 40 Vega and 6-7 Taimyr, only Black-headed were lingering in numbers, with around 400 still present.

April 20, not many gulls left. A Taimyr (left) with Vega and four Black-headed.

The same gull as above.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Least Tern - a lifer!

I first heard of this Least Tern via the Kantori mailing list on Wednesday night, the following day someone else told me this is Japan's second record. He went on to say there was a Lesser Frigatebird performing well at a small harbour near Kobe. What to do? The Least Tern was a long, long way, and more importantly beyond my self-imposed twitching boundary; the end of Honshu to the west and Tokyo city limits to the east, a boundary I've never exceeded. On the other hand, it would be a lifer... a big hand, that. Good views of Lesser Frigatebird would be spectacular but I've seen hundreds overseas and even found two frigatebirds in Japan, neither of which I could put a name to because of distance.

The title of the post makes it pretty obvious I didn't choose the frigatebird, but I will say I've seen great overhead images taken by two people who did go for it. I left Kyoto at midnight Thursday and with a 40 minute nap 'n' coffee break en route I rolled into Choshi just after 8:30am. It felt weird as an avid guller to be making my first visit to Choshi in mid-summer.

There were about five people present when I arrived so I jumped out with just my bins to ask if it was there. They told me it was but not in view at that moment so I went to get my camera from the van, 20 metres away, and by the time I returned it had flown in.

I was expecting the call to be critical but, though distinct at times, it wasn't as ear-catching as I'd imagined. I probably wouldn't have noticed a 'strange' call if I hadn't been listening for it. On the plus side, or the useful side I should say, the rump and tail were far more obvious than I'd realised and this bird would stand out even as a casual fly-by.

Though apparently there is overlap in size between Little and Least this bird is very small and I'm sure it will be outside the range of Little. The legs always looked shorter than those of the Little Terns present and though this is unreliable as an identification feature, it's quite handy for picking this bird out when terns are perched on a level surface. In short it was easy to pick out even at long range in flight because of the dark rump and tail and after a while it was easy to pick out at rest too because of its slight build and small size even though there weren't any reliable ID features to work with.

I don't have any shots of it in direct comparison with Little. The following image is the closest I got but it's even more interesting from the behaviour aspect. This was one of two occasions I saw it present a fish to a Little Tern. I don't know whether it was to the same Little Tern but let's hope the Littles have the sense to do no more than accept the offerings. As a postscript: I've heard the ringed Little Tern the Least associates with is known to be male, and judging by behaviour so is the Least. Presumably there aren't any unpaired females in the small colony.

The Least flew in and has just handed over its hard earned fish, it isn't easy to see but the fish is now in the bill of a surprised Little Tern.
I already mentioned the Least legs (of this bird) look short but they're also rather thin, those of the Little in the above image seem quite stout by comparison.

Little Tern: proportionately thicker legs look a better match for the bill. This bird has a long white extension from the forehead reaching behind the eye, this should be variable in both species and of no value as an identification feature, however this Least has a particularly short extension.
Whether face-on or side-on this Least has spindly legs.

Easy as it was to pick out because of the grey rump and tail but flight shots showing this weren't so easy to get.

It had strikingly dark outer primaries as well as the grey rump.

The white outer tail feathers are clear in this shot. 

Getting shots of the underparts was much easier but they don't help from an identification perspective.

I always felt Emperor Goose and Spectacled Eider were the only two birds that could get me to breach my twitching boundary. But Least Tern! Maybe it's time to reassess the what and the how far.