Thursday, 27 December 2018

Taiga and Red-breasted Flycatchers wintering in Osaka

I don't think a winter ever passes without at least one Red-breasted Flycatcher in residence in one of the Osaka parks. Big parks, small parks, it doesn't seem to matter. In some years there may be as many as three wintering in different city parks and as I hear reports of birds also wintering in Tokyo parks it begs the question how many are wintering in Japan away from city parks where they're unlikely to be discovered?

This a year a bird chose Oizumi Ryokuchi (the same park as the Grey-backed Thrush last winter), there was simply no way I was going to trek into the southern reaches of Osaka for yet another Red-breasted Fly! When it transformed into a Taiga however, that was a different matter. Both species are scarce autumn migrants in Japan, mainly restricted to the Japan Sea islands; my feeling is that Taiga is the commoner of the two at that time. Both also overwinter in Japan but Red-breasted is definitely more numerous, this Taiga is the first wintering bird I've seen.

Separation of these two scarce flycatchers can be tricky, more so on the islands where observers are less likely to hang around too long waiting for a secretive flycatcher to reappear when there many be many other interesting birds vying for attention. A bird in an Osaka park in winter, on the other hand, doesn't have much competition and good views are guaranteed with a little patience... and photographers' mealworms.

To my eyes most plumage features are open to interpretation, even the diagnostic blacker-than-black uppertail coverts of Taiga. If I see black uppertail coverts which are clearly darker than the tail then all well and good, however, if I don't see blacker coverts can I be sure they are a lighter shade than the tail or is it that I haven't yet seen them well enough, that the angle hasn't been quite right, or that the light is too bright/dim to detect a difference.
Similarly, if the supercilium is obviously brown it must be a Red-breasted, right? I suppose so, and some RBFs do have very warm brown supercilia, others throw in at least a bit of grey and some irds do give a brown-capped impression at times. Is Taiga's supercilium always pure grey throughout? It certainly tends to be that way but I wouldn't stake an ID on head pattern.
The tertial pattern isn't supposed to be diagnostic but I wonder if this might be a one way feature. I've yet to see a Red-breasted with a white edge and terminal spot, 'thorn', on the outer web, they always (the birds I've seen) have a warmer, buffy-brown colouration. Do Taiga sometimes lack a white edge? I don't know, I haven't seen one that lacks this feature but that doesn't mean much considering how few I've seen. Until I learn otherwise this white outer edge and thorn seem a strong indicator to me, and far more easily seen than the uppertail coverts.
So much for plumage.

The bill strikes me as the at-a-glance indicator to species for two reasons. RBF frequently has a paler base to the lower mandible, this is often diffusely very extensive when seen from below. Taiga normally appears completely dark and any pale area there might be will be restricted to a very limited area at the base. The shape of the bill is even more eye-catching. RBF has a comparatively delicate bill in proportion to the head, less deep at the base and with a straighter keel. Thus the curve towards the tip is more prominent on the upper mandible. Taiga has a much deeper-based bill, which isn't in the least delicate, with both mandibles curving towards the tip. It looks more like a bullet stuck on the front of the head.

A typical RBF (Feb 2012). The crown to eyeline is more or less concolourous, the uppertail coverts are most definitely not darker than the tail, the outer webs of the tertials are narrowly edged buffy-brown as is the terminal spot or 'thorn'. The bill has an extensive pale base to the lower mandible and cutting edge of the upper mandible. 

The same individual showing the finer bill.

Another RBF (Jan 2007) with warmer underparts, not all look as obvious as this one. Again, crown to eyeline is uniformly brown and the fine bill is a giveaway.

Taiga (Dec 2018). Those uppertail coverts can't get any blacker than this. The outer webs of the tertials are whitish as are the terminal thorns. Even in this view there is a contrast between the grey supercilium and brown crown. 

The same bird as above. The capped effect produced by the contrast between supercilium and crown is more easily seen here. The white edged tertials are outstanding and the bill enormous.

As above. The bill is far heavier in proportion to the head compared to RBF and those uppertail coverts really are black.

As above. Facing directly into the afternoon sun here and however cold the underparts of Taiga are meant to be there is nevertheless a distinct hint of warmth on the centre breast. There's also a very limited paler area in the base of the lower mandible.

Taiga, Hegurajima (Oct 2015). I'd been watching this bird for a while but as soon as I picked up my camera it was off. Awful as this shot may be I think it's interesting that even partially facing away the bird gives a big-billed impression and also the tertials are white and therefore stand out. Thus I'd say there are features that suggest Taiga when a bird is first glimpsed whereas I'd be more inclined not to have any opinion were it an Red-breasted seen very briefly. 

The holy grail of local photographers is an adult male Red-breasted. It isn't really relevant here as it isn't difficult to identify but it's worth adding a couple of shots because these particular images show to better advantage the difference between uppertail coverts and tail as well as how extensively pale the lower mandible can be.

Adult male RBF (Jan 2016). Setting aside the paler fringes, even the bases of the uppertail coverts are less black than the tail.

As above. With the head tilted slightly away the extent of the pale base of the lower mandible becomes easier to see. In this case you're struggling to find a dark tip rather than a pale base but the point is how extensive the pale area can be without actually appearing obviously so in the field. The following image is of the same bird in profile and the lower mandible looks no paler-based than the previous first winter RBFs above.

As above. The typical finer RBF bill but in profile it's far more difficult to see just how extensive the pale base to the lower mandible is. As I said earlier, wintering birds in parks always give adequate views (because photographers feed them) so identification is never going to be a major issue. Elsewhere, briefly seen birds may have to remain unidentified.

Fortunately there's always the call to put an end to any arguments and all these wintering birds have been quite vocal.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Odd moult timing for Eastern Marsh Harrier?

After birding in Mie the day before, I drove up to northern Lake Biwa and up one of the dead end roads into the forested hill to grab some sleep before dawn. Glum might be a fitting way to describe the morning; the hills were weighed down by low, immobile clouds that early light made very little effort to penetrate. Even the effervescent Bulbuls couldn't muster more than the occasional half hearted, dank-muffled shriek. I persevered in the growning silence, for a while. My mental image of the lake bathed in sunshine, however improbable I knew this to be, proved irresistable.

Once down on the lake the sky overhead was actually blue! I may not have seen the sun but sunlight did reach through the clouds. That was as far as the good news stretched. The backdrop was purples and blacks, sometimes the hills sometimes the sky, there seemed a fluid exchange of hues between the two. This wasn't at all what the forecasters had predicted (Well there's a surprise!) when I was in Mie.

I took advantage of this belated and probably false dawn to welcome back our wintering Steller's Sea Eagle, sitting in its customary spot overlooking the customary line of parked cars and tripods, then check the Taiga Beans on the lake for anything less usual. There wasn't even the usual (that's Gt White-fronts) let alone less usual - I live in hope that the third time a Greylag turns up I will see it. Never mind, the Beans are always spectacular enough without any distractions.

The first drops of rain sent me back to the car before I'd finished scanning for the Red-crested Pochard apparently in residence this winter. If it had been there at the time, it should have stood out like a sore thumb, or giant duck. As it didn't I can console myself that I still wouldn't have seen it had I decided to (be less of a wuss) wait out a potential downpour without protection for my camera and lens.

Two or three minutes further south under a compromise grey pall, no more siren blue interludes, no longer threatening purple and black, I spotted something which really was unexpected; the Harrier of the title. A kerfuffle of Black Kites seemed unsure about what, or even whether, they were mobbing but nevertheless vaguely occupied the same airspace as a juvenile Eastern Marsh Harrier which had no such doubts about chasing off said interloper. This other bird had a distinctly narrow wing tip and was much smaller than the juvenile, this without being sufficiently small to cause serious excitement it must be added. It quickly gained height above the confusion and made off. The juvenile dropped back into the reedbed and the Kites went back to aimlessly wafting around waiting for food to surrender.

Cropped view of the interesting pointy-winged harrier. This is how it actually looked, black against dark grey with a strikingly narrow wing tip. The views were very brief before it was driven off. So, a photographic identification and grit removed from my oyster. 

Heavy cropping (and lightening) reveals p9 is about half grown and p10 is just showing. I don't recall ever seeing an Eastern Marsh, of any age, not having a full set of primaries, hence they must moult remiges at a time of year I don't normally see them (ie summer/autumn).

Due to its small size compared to the juvenile I'm guessing it must be a male. Having discovered p9-10 are still growing it's even easier to to eliminate the miniscule, narrower-winged Montagu's, which has amazingly occurred in Japan in winter. Pallid has also occurred in winter but is just as easy to rule out. Though it might be a better structural match for Hen once fully winged, the underwing pattern visible in the lightened images puts and end to any such notion. Though I don't have experience of older immature female Pied, in gradual transition from juvenile to adult, the lower belly through to the undertail coverts looks too dark I think. It may sound strange to say considering total records but Pied is perhaps the least likely rare harrier to occur in Honshu in winter. And though Northern hasn't even qualified for this paragraph so far, it has to be a better winter bet too.

I confess I'm not one hundred percent sure I've never seen a Marsh Harrier with this moult but I certainly don't remember having seen one. I'd guess this stage of moult would be more likely in an older immature (clearly it isn't juvenile, which wouldn't have started moulting flight feathers yet) because I suspect an adult would have finished replacing its primaries much earlier than December?

In both these images bird's right wing gives us the clearest view of the leading edge of the primaries and it's possible to see alula, very short p10 and half grown p9 creating a stepped effect. Plumage-wise, there's nothing that suggests it isn't an Eastern Marsh Harrier but I wouldn't attempt to sex it if I hadn't seen it in direct comparison with a much bigger (presumed female) juvenile. 

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Still no gulls in Mie

I'd hoped to get across to Tsu city more often from early November to check out the Taimyr Gull passage but there were always other things getting in the way. I had already seen a few incidental Taimyr on October 20th but my two gulling focused trips (Nov 11th and 30th) were disappointing, the latter date might already be late for large numbers of Taimyr and Vega don't arrive in significant numbers until around now (the second week of December) but November 11th should have been more productive.

Coming back to the 30th, the primary early morning aim was to get decent shots of the returning Canvasback. This was a great success with the bird closer than I've ever seen, just over the embankment from the car park in the early half light. As the sun came up behind me the conditions were excellent and brought out the best in this and the accompanying Common Pochards, I was really quite pleased with some of the images I managed to get... some eye-catching shots of a small white feather drifting above the ducks' heads and the Canvasbacks surprise and reaction. Unfortunately I accidentally deleted the whole file; no doubt with time the quality of the images will get even better in my memory. So, while on the one hand I think another early morning visit is in order if I want to improve on last winter's images of the duck, the fact is I don't really have any great enthusiasm for it. The chances of getting equally good views are probably slim to zero even assuming the bird is actually on the river rather than with the huge rafts of ducks out at sea. I just don't have the photographers' patience I'm afraid.

Content with my photographic haul I checked whether there were any gulls about, there weren't, though I hadn't expected there to be any to be honest. The early hour along with the high tide pretty much guaranteed they'd all be off somewhere else feeding. Therefore I headed south with the intention of returning in the afternoon.

It was just as well I did head south because by far the most unexpected bird of the day was an immature Temminck's Cormorant in Matsusaka. I've seen no more than a handful each of Temminck's and Pelagic Cormorant's along this coast and they've always been on tetrapods facing the open sea. This bird was right at a river mouth issuing into a shallow bay. It's the closest I've come to an 'inland' Temminck's.

There were other photogenic birds around but nothing to really get the pulse racing.


Northern Lapwing

Common Sandpiper

Meadow Bunting

Back up to the gull beach in the afternoon. There were around 50 large gulls in two loafing clumps compared to the hundreds there will be later in winter; Taimyr c10, Vega c40, Slaty-backed 2. Disappointing if not entirely unexpected, however, definitely unexpected was a passing finless porpoise! They are fairly common in these waters but I rarely see them because most of the good birding areas are next to shallow water and by the time reach places with a steeper fall-off the all too frequent stronger afternoon wind puts too much chop on the water.

Not so easy to spot even on calm days.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Hegurajima: November 1st

There have been an amazing four national firsts this autumn, two of them on Hegurajima; Claudia's Leaf Warbler and Amur Paradise Flycatcher. Though no doubt the latter has been overlooked in the pre-split past. The last week of October saw continuous strong north westerlies flowing from the continent, what might they have brought? No boats out to the island of course in those conditions and no birders out there either. Even the more reliable Tobishima service wasn't operating meaning no possibility of anyone chasing the Ruby-crowned Kinglet there, the most recent of the four new birds for Japan.

The winds eased on Thursday 31st allowing sailing the following day... and more time for birds to leave. The problem with a day trip to the island from November onwards is that you only get 3.5 hours of birding because of the ferry's earlier winter return timetable. In effect only a little over three hours birding which makes the 404km each way drive seem much further than when I'm staying on the island.

I used to think there must be a good reason why the ferry schedule changes in winter. Now I'm not so sure. Why does it need to leave the island an hour earlier and be back in Wajima at 15:30 back in Wajima 1.5 hours before sunset at this time of year? It's not as if they have a lot to do once back in port and they surely don't require daylight to do it... Wajima is on the grid. Perhaps they don't realise the port has lighting because they've never been there after dark. Strange as it may seem now, when I first went to Hegurajima we drove all round Wajima looking for a convenience store... there were none! For many subsequent visits I had to be prepared and provisioned before getting out into the sticks then there was one, and the following year they were all over the town. A bit like Daurian Redstarts in mid-October. And another thing while I'm at it... did you ever wonder why the ferry leaves Hegura five minutes before the 15:00 (now 14:00) scheduled departure time? It seems departure time is as the ferry leaves the harbour not the quay. Thank goodness other forms of public transport don't follow the same logic, even other ferry services I use for that matter.

What about the birds then? I'm coming to that.

There were enough birds on the island to encourage the thought that a mega was just around the corner. Perhaps there was. Unfortunately you can't turn all the corners in three hours and I obviously didn't choose the right one(s).

Highlights were Eurasian Skylarks, ie not japonica, and a couple of Pine Buntings. Neither are unexpected here but equally they aren't birds I'm going to see staying at home in Kyoto. Red-throated Pipit I might see once in a blue moon in Kyoto while Stejneger's Stonechat, White's Thrush and Eyebrowed Thrush are birds I could see but usually don't. I'd sum it up as a low number of species with a high degree of scarcity from the Kyoto birders perspective.

It's actually worth going for the Pine Buntings alone! I didn't see them until five minutes before boarding the ferry, they were just hopping around on the road in the harbour.

Great birds, great family.

I definitely could have seen Rustic Bunting staying in Kyoto. But not on a rugged rocky headland with red berries!

There were at least 10 Eurasian Skylarks that I flushed from long grass along the west side of the island. This bird at the southern end of the island was the only one that perched briefly in the open allowing an all too distant shot before it dropped back into cover. In flight they looked slightly larger than Japanese even without direct comparison, they were cleaner white below and the flight calls were also sufficiently different to attract attention. 

In the harbour area a couple of people were trying to get good views and photographs of O Hibari (large skylark). Maybe I'm totally wrong on this but I often feel the name O Hibari is used as a catch-all for the various races of Eurasian Skylark that could turn up here in autumn/winter due to the difficulty/impossibility of confirming racial identity; I am told by a friend that O Hibari refers specifically to pekinensis and that lonnbergi is Karafuto Chu Hibari but it's always the former name I seem to hear mentioned. Incidentally, I'm told Chu Hibari intermedia hasn't been recorded in Japan which, again, is presumably is down to the difficulty/impossibility of separating the races of Eurasian Skylark in the field rather than it never reaching these shores.

Female Stejneger's Stonechat, probably a first autumn with the heavy white tips to the primary coverts.

As there wasn't a great deal of interest sufficiently close to photograph on the island, good images of the skylarks would have been very welcome, I'll add some shots of a first autumn Asian Brown Flycatcher taken on Oct 12th during the previous visit. This was quite a strikingly marked bird which I first saw in heavy rain making observation and more particularly photography difficult. I was struck by flashing white about the wings as I first glimpsed it dash away between the trunks of some pines ahead. Ever the optimist, I was excited by the possibility of Pied Flycatcher and in true ficedula-style it vanished. Fortunately I did relocate it some time and though that brought spirits down on a par with the weather it was a relief to sort it out. I found it again the following day in much better weather conditions about 400m from the original site and was able to get a few closer shots. I assume the the discrepancy between this and the Asian Brown Flycatchers I expect to see at this time of year are all due to retained juvenile body feathers. According to Leader (British Birds 2010), juvenile Asian Brown Flycatcher undergoes a complete body moult before migration and only the exceptional bird will retain any juvenile feathers beyond August. Certainly I've found very few online images of Asian Brown showing any of the features of this bird and none with all of them.

The first good view of the bird in the rain on the first day, I was more or less using the camera inside a plastic bag and could hardly see the bird at all through the view finder. The uppertail coverts are contrastingly dark, the longest with bold rounded pale spots, according to Leader the ground colour of retained juvenile feathers is blackish and much darker than the next generation feathers.

The median coverts bar is quite arresting and the dark and white streaks in the crown are just visible here, there's an almost Spotted Flycatcher feel to the head in this view. The pale area in the primaries remains a mystery as it isn't visible on the closed wing but it may have contributed to my initial impression of a very white-winged flycatcher as I glimpsed it in flight. Fortunately I could get better views the following day.

One of the most obviously different to the norm features is the presence of large, round spots longest uppertail coverts, the darker appearance of the lower rump and uppertail coverts is noticeable but not nearly as pronounced as in the wetter conditions of the previous day. Less eye-catching but no less interesting are two lower rear scapulars which also have large pale spots. 

The white markings on the forehead and crown are formed by white tips to some feathers.

This Japanese Bush Warbler shot is also from mid-October when they were very common on the island. I'm uncertain whether they are far less common now or simply less vocal.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Pheasant-tailed Jacana

Back from the last Hegurajima trip, I heard there was a Pheasant-tailed Jacana at the north end of Lake Biwa. I'd previously only seen one in Japan, in an Osaka park a few yeasr ago, so I was keen to catch up with this bird.

I was on site at dawn and was surprised how many cars had already beaten me to it, perhaps because there was only one car park within easy walking distance. At least there was no problem finding the exact spot with the photographers lined-up well before light was broad enough. The bird was already visible in fact, just no one was interested in rather distant views in poor light. Well that was easy! The Osaka bird hardly ever came out into the open, this bird was never in cover.

As the light improved shutters began to applaud each time the bird opened its wings and by the time I left, at a still very early 07:40, there was quite a crowd along the lake shore.

The bird was quite mobile, often changing feeding spots, but only once came closer to the appreciative audience.

After an all to brief few minutes in front of us it was off again. Most of its time was spent it was well beyond the reach of my lens and the best I could hope for was more flight shots.