Tuesday 1 November 2016

Taiga Flycatcher and Yellow-breasted Bunting

If the Hegura littoral had good birds (they don't get much better than Bearded Tit), so too did the interior woodland. In one area I heard the unmistakable sound of a Taiga Flycatcher. As I moved towards the sound it perched up in front of me. They really aren't normally so easy, and then they tend to disappear in a twinkling; this was how it should be. The bird called again, but still from the original place, it seemed there were two. Or could this one be Red-breasted? Helpfully, this second bird responded, though only once, so there were no concerns about identification; there were indeed two Taiga Flycatchers.

Strange as it may seem, I've yet to see Red-breasted Flycatcher on Hegura though no doubt it must occur. All the birds I've been able to identify so far have been Taiga, though there have been several occasions when views were too brief to make an identification. That ability to disappear in a twinking. Whereas all the wintering birds I've seen in Honshu have been Red-breasted. A clear case of passage migrant and scarce winter visitor, at least in my experience.

Not the best shot I got but it is possible to see a moult contrast here; the innermost four or five greater coverts are longer unfringed adult type whereas the rest are narrowly fringed juvenile feathers. Red-breasted retains juvenile greater coverts through the winter but Taiga, it would seem, moult at least some in autumn. That alone must clinch identification.

Although I identified it by call first, the plumage features are all shown to good advantage in these images I think. The following shot isn't great but it provides an excellent comparison with an over-wintering Red-breasted in Osaka a few years ago.

The Taiga: note the cold grey upperparts contrasting with the warmer brown cap, the tertials and greater coverts are narrowly and evenly fringed a cold greyish-white with no conspicuous 'thorn' at the tips.

A Red-breasted at a similar angle shows prominent 'thorns' at the tertial tips and greater coverts, the latter creating a distinct wingbar. Red-breasted looks less capped as the supercilium is concolourous with the crown, unlike Taiga which has a grey supercilium. The upperparts are also warmer though lighting can affect warmth or lack thereof. The bill has an extensive pale base to the lower mandible.

The grey is apparent above the eye here, contrasting with the browner crown. The bill is completely black. The throat is white framed by a greyish breast with limited buffish on the belly before white undertail coverts. The very small pale tips to the greater coverts don't create a prominent wingbar.

Again the capped effect is striking against the colder upperparts, the insignificant wingbar and moult contrast can be seen, as can the evenly fringed colder tertials lacking a terminal 'thorns'.

An often mentioned feature of Taiga is uppertail coverts, blacker than the tail, but wear often makes this less obvious and other features seem more useful, especially the wingbar of first autumn birds.

I spent the night in Wajima, undecided whether to go back to Hegura in the morning to try again for the Bearded Tit and hopefully get a photograph of it. The weather didn't hold out much hope though, heavy rain was forecast from about the time the ferry would arrive.

I birded the hill behind Wajima harbour from dawn. There were a few Daurian Redstarts around, a Dusky Thrush flew over and there were a handful of Elegant Buntings. Nothing to get too excited about. So I finally made up my mind to give Hegura another shot, or at least check if the ferry was operating. I'd only driven a snail's pace 30 metres down the car park road below the lighthouse when an eye-catching bunting flew up from the road onto the bushes steeply sloping up to my left. It was a large bunting and perched facing me the slight yellow below ruled out the resident Meadow Buntings as well as the newly arrived Elegant. Because of the angle through the windscreen the was nothing for it but to carefully open the door a crack and slither out. The bird flew a little and was now facing away, I managed a few shots before it disappeared. Yellow-breasted! This is quite a rarity nowadays, I don't even see it every year, so this was a real treat.

Unfortunately, after slithering out of the car the I ended up on the wrong bird and the following images I originally claimed to be of the Yellow-breasted aren't. This bird was sitting roughly in the spot the Yellow-breasted flew to and  I quickly got the camera on it managed these images before it disappeared. I remember thinking as I looked through the lens that it looked surprisingly like a Meadow Bunting from this angle but dismissed the thought, I was sure after all that this was the bird with yellow underparts. I owe thanks to Nial Moores for getting in touch to diplomatically ask whether I'd posted the correct images.

While waiting for its (non-)reappearance a couple more buntings flew into the same bushes and I was able to see the distinctive head pattern of a male Tristram's through the upper stems before they too dropped down and disappeared into the inaccessible undergrowth. Not bad few minutes after three hours of seeing very little, but by this time the chance to getting back out to Hegura had disappeared too and I could only listen to the sound of the ferry's engines as it pulled out of the harbour.

A final couple of shots. Hawfinches always seem much easier to approach on Hegura than back home, these ones were next to the photographers' platform the previous day.

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