Sunday, 30 October 2016

Stejneger's Stonechat (and Bearded Tit!)

Strong north westerly airflow out of Russia with high pressure and clear skies, a huge band of rain cloud coming to meet it western Japan. Surely Hegura had to be worth a pop. I finished work at 8pm last Wednesday, got ready, and left home at about midnight.

The drive up had me worried; once on the coastal road in Ishikawa the car was being buffeted by strong wind. So strong that I felt there was little chance the New Hegura would sail and so decided to give up any hopes of reaching the island and instead go directly to a mainland site further up the coast. However as it was obvious I'd never make it up to the headland for dawn and I had to pass through Wajima anyway, I dropped into the ferry office on the off chance and was both surprised and delighted to find the ferry was ready to depart. It turned out to be one of the roughest crossings I've had on the route, quite difficult to sleep. As things turned out, the front bringing wet weather promised by the forecast hadn't reached this area yet. Skies were beautifully clear. Would there be the birds on the island to make the trip worthwhile?

Daurian Redstarts and Elegant Buntings were immediately apparent after landing. I tried the grassy harbourside for buntings, pipits and larks first.

Red-throated Pipit: perhaps the only 'island speciallity' which is also possible around Kyoto city in winter.

Unexpected but no great surprise either, a Common Starling perched briefly on the harbour wires.

There were a handful of Stejneger's Stonechat dotted around the coast.
The broader tips on the primary coverts suggest this is a first autumn but it's difficult to be sure. A couple of rump streaks are clearly visible here but not in the perched image below.
A male Stejneger's Stonechat, this one looked like an adult going by the primary coverts.

Separating the recently split Siberian and Stejneger's Stonechat is a bit of a nightmare and though the former isn't on the Japanese list it must surely be overlooked and just a matter of time before someone finds it (maybe in a mist net) somewhere. Looking generally washed-out, pale and lacking colour is supposed to be suggestive of Siberian and I would have liked to get a better view of the following stonechat but other birds intervened...

They don't come much paler than this. It looks small-billed too but you'd need in-the-hand measurements. There's an obvious white 'spot' at the tip of the primary coverts so this one has to be a first autumn.

First was an odd wagtail on the coastal path, it soon flew down towards the beach, conveniently in the same direction as the pale Stonechat. Off I went tripping and stumbling attempting to pick my way over the many large stones hidden under the dense tangled vegetation, while at the same time trying to step over the unrelenting bindweed vines. Progress was slow and noisy, keeping an eye out for birds and keeping your feet at the same time is never easy at that spot. Bearded Tit!! Where did that come from?!

I heard a once familiar pinging call and looking up in disbelief saw a 'miniature sandy budgie' flying away. It came down about 100 metres away at the other end of the small bay. I tried to hurry but there are just as many hidden rocks under long grass on the flat area between the belt of reed-like vegetation at the foot of the slope forming the bay which was to my right and and the sea to my left. With every stubbed toe and almost turned ankle more and more doubts crept in. Could it really have been a Bearded Tit? The view was terrible and wasn't the call deeper than I remember it? By the time I'd picked my way along the bay with my eyes more down than up, the bird had moved. It rose suddenly from long grass right in front of me about 40 metres closer than the point it had come down. At that distance those doubts were instantly dispelled; it wasn't just a small 'sandy budgie', it was a Bearded Tit! The pinging was spot on. It flew into the 'reeds' about thirty metres away and I waited... and waited. Nothing. It was too windy to expect it to climb the stems so I made my way round to the leeward side of the belt of reedy stuff and sure enough there it was. Again the view was very brief, it flew up onto the taller stems and quickly worked its way inside the belt.

It's a major rarity in Japan, according to the most recent edition of the OSJ list (2012) there have been six previous records. I knew there was little chance I'd get a photograph, there was only a little time before I'd have to get the ferry and the wind was going to keep the bird down, so I went in search of other birders. After five minutes walk I found Yuki Oaki and took him back the the spot. We tried the shore side of the belt first without success then returned to the spot I'd last seen it. It flew up  from the same spot and this time posed briefly on the facing reeds, not quite long enough for me to swap bins for camera. We got a perfect view at about 25 metres before it flew back into the thick of the reeds again.

By this time it was necessary to leave for the ferry and, would you believe it, I didn't see a single other birder en route to the harbour. As Yuki was taking the ferry too, we didn't get the news out in time for people to look for it the same day.

Whether the Bearded Tit arrived as a result of the strong air flow from Russia doesn't really matter, I'm just glad the weather chart prompted me to go.

As a postscipt; I'd completely forgotten about the wagtail and stonechat until I checked my camera on the ferry.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Green-legged Red-necked Stint and other surprises in Mie

It's a funny old time of year, isn't it? An odd mix of summer visitors, migrants and winter visitors. At dusk a couple of days ago, when I was just about to start the long drive home from Mie, I picked out a couple of large waders I hadn't noticed on the estuary. They turned out to be Northern Lapwings and the earliest I've seen in Kansai. The fact that I was watching them sitting comfortably on the riverbank in just a T-shirt attested to that, spring birds linger into warm weather but I'm always wrapped up well before the first Lapwings turn up at the back end of the year.

But if that was a surprise, the day had begun with a far bigger one. One that doesn't fit into any of those seasonal bird boxes I mentioned. Who would expect a Turkey Vulture at a river mouth in Japan! No doubt it could swap a few yarns of life on the lam with Percy the pelican if it ever made its way to Kanto.

Not a bad Red-faced Cormorant impersonation.


The biggest surprise on my previous visit (Oct 8) had been a party of four Whiskered Terns, birds that I'm sure had made it here under their own steam.

That same day while checking through a flock of White Wagtails I came across this first autumn. First autumns invariably have a yellowish cast to the face but I thought this bird was yellower than many. Not just about the face either, the grey of the crown, nape and to a lesser extent mantle were yellowish- or even greenish-tinted.

White Wagtail with a yellower face and crown than many first winters.

The nape and mantle had a yellowish or greenish cast, though the mantle colour doesn't show too well here. 

Sticking to the yellowish / greenish theme; the Red-necked Stint in the title really took me by surprise. I can't find any reference to Red-necked Stint or any other 'black-legged' stint or peep having yellowish or greenish legs. Brownish or greyish yes, and there were more than a couple that fell into that category. However two birds within a flock of about 25 I was able to view at close range had noticeable 'colour'. The first I found had just a slight greenish tint to the tarsus which unfortunately was a bit too distant to get reasonable images of, however the second was yellower and the colour extended from the tibia to the feet. The following four images suffer from heavy cropping but apart from slight sharpening they are otherwise unaltered and I think they still show the legs have a yellow rather than brown element. 

A regular Red-necked, in the same place and light, showing the expected black legs. 

Then there was the other stuff, less surprising but nevertheless great to see...


Black-winged Stilts

Grey-tailed Tattlers

Grey Plovers

Green Sandpiper

Common Greenshanks


Terek Sandpiper

Saturday, 22 October 2016

curlews... Far Eastern and Eurasian in Mie

I remember having difficulty separating the two large curlews at long range when I first came to Japan. I focused too much on the front end thinking Far Eastern was longer-billed. Probably only adult females actually stand out from Eurasian as freakishly long-billed; immatures can look surprisingly short-billed. I now know the back end is a far more reliable guide no matter how distant the bird may be.

I picked up a line of nine curlews on a distant sandbar in Mie yesterday, effectively they were tiny dots against the last narrow strip of sand the incoming tide hadn't washed over. Even through the scope no details could be made out but one of them seemed white on the lower belly. Surely a Eurasian with eight Far Eastern. Some Far Eastern are paler than others but I've yet to see a white one and after waiting till the water pushed them off the white rump confirmed what I'd expected.

Later in a different area, as the tide began to drop again, I was sifting through a flock of Red-necked Stints when heard curlew flighting in across the submerged flats. A party of 13 curlew circled several times before settling right in front of me. Presumably the previous group had picked up a couple more birds along the way, there were now 12 Far Eastern and a Eurasian.

Even head-on there's a hint of the white flanks on the Eurasian, off-setting the flank streaks.

Friday, 14 October 2016

...other than Booted Warbler on Hegurajima

The biggest problem making a day trip to the island is missing early morning and evening activity. Arriving at 10:30 and leaving at 15:00 means missing the times when some species are most vocal and easily located. I only heard one Kamchatka Leaf Warbler on the island yet they proved quite common in Wajima just across the water on the mainland the following early morning when many birds were calling and one even singing! They were also quite common further south at the base of the Noto Peninsula in Kanazawa that same afternoon, so what could have been missed on Hegura? The only other phylloscs I had there were single Dusky and Radde's Warblers (I later heard there were two Radde's in the same spot earlier in the day) as well as hearing two Yellow-browed Warblers. There was also this fresh, bright looking Sakhalin Leaf Warbler...

Buntings weren't as well represented as usual at this time of year but again with more time more could have been found. I was very surprised not to run into any Elegant Buntings, another species that was fairly common the following afternoon in Kanazawa...

Pine Bunting is usually conspicuous around the harbour in mid-October and this male was no exception. Though I only saw one or two there were several present. This male is going to look great when the pale tips wear off the feathers...

Black-faced Bunting was common, no surprise there, but Chestnut-eared is never to be taken for granted. This first autumn is another smart looking bird...