Wednesday, 24 January 2018

A few geese at Lake Biwa

I already mentioned that the Cackling Goose was the big attraction at the north end of Lake Biwa when I posted about the swans at the weekend. It's only the second I've seen in Japan, and though numbers of wintering birds are increasing nationally it's still a rarity this far south. It's been present all winter but I'd actually forgotten about it till a second person emailed to say they'd seen it so I decided to get up there pronto remembering I blew the only the only opportunity I've ever had to see Greylag in Japan because I put off going to see a 'certainty' till too late.

The timing turned out to be very good, according to the Met Office there had been 75cm of snow just north of the lake a week earlier but this had entirely disappeared because of the unusual mild spell and persistent rain. Now, a week later, reports give a more normal snow depth of 66cm... there's even a rare covering in Kyoto city this morning!

As well as the Cackler there was also the usual contingent of middendorffii Taiga Bean and a few Greater White-fronts. The latter occurs in very small numbers considering the large flocks just over the prefectural border in Fukui, usually fewer than 20 here. Unfortunately I couldn't find any of the rarer Tundra Bean which may be annual but only in very small numbers.

More often than not views of the Bean are restricted to rather distant sleeping birds on the islands off the Wild Bird Center at Kohokucho but this was one of the few and far between occasions I see them in the fields at the opposite side of the lake. When they're on the water at the opposite side (as they were on Sunday) they are even more distant than at the usual spot.

The Cackling Goose dwarfed by the Tundra Swans.

Fortunately it kept coming closer until it was almost at the leading edge of the flock right under our noses.

You just can't ask for closer views than this!

There were nine rather distant Greater White-fronted Geese on Friday and 12 birds gradually coming closer in a different area on Sunday. I didn't hang around as they slowly marched across the field... it was just getting too cold and I'd come dressed for the much milder Friday weather.

The Taiga Bean were in a different area, at the north west corner of the lake. They were far more skittish and difficult to approach even inside the car.

A good example of the swan-like middendorffii bill. The only time I ever saw a Swan Goose in this flock it was smaller than many of these 'Middendorff's' Taiga Bean, they really are huge.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Bewick's, Whistling and Whooper Swans at Lake Biwa

I visited Lake Biwa for the first time this year at the weekend, twice in fact. Friday was sunny and Sunday was not, which is why the nominate columbianus images are so much duller.

A lot of people were on the fields (not just the Steller's Sea Eagle spot) because of the two local rares; both Whooper Swan and Cackling Goose were new Kansai birds for me. The Cackling Goose was the bigger draw and this made finding it relatively easy. Flocks of swans were dotted over a huge area but the Cackling Goose flock always had a line of roadside birders flagging the spot across the flat expanse between the Lake and the mountains.

I'd normally try to creep the car towards the flock hoping not to disturb the birds but it seems I've always erred on the side of caution because the swans simply don't give a hoot. The birds were even closer on Friday and actually walked towards the line of photographers with the closest coming to only 10 metres.

The main draw for me was the Cackling Goose and in fact I hadn't known about the Whooper Swans. It was only when the Cackler moved slightly back into the flock that I checked the birds in the next field down the road and discovered two of the white shapes were Whoopers. Whooper Swans are never common this far south in Japan, I've seen one further west in Shimane Prefecture and another at Arasaki in southern Kyushu(!) but this pair were a real surprise. I walked along and could get reasonably good shots, probably the best I've ever had of Whooper, despite all the geese and swans in this field being less close to the road.

After looking at large numbers of close range Tundra I was surprised how strikingly pale-eyed this bird was. According to Brazil (who ought to know) paler blue-grey eyes are not uncommon in Whooper Swans so this was a nice example.

This, dare I say rather smug-looking, Tundra's eye is also blue-grey though much duller.

So if I'm already anthropomorphising then it's safe to say I'd rather buy a used car from this bird. Oh, and this has the more usual dark eye. 

Sunday was much duller and colder with an increasing wind; the beginning of the end of a few days mild weather. I didn't hang around long enough to see if this Whistling Swan would come any closer so these are the best shots I could manage.

The above bird in the foreground and there's another possible columbianus behind it. I suppose this extent of yellow on the bill falls within the range of the nominate subspecies and I sometimes see birds like this paired with classic-looking columbianus, never with bewickii, which tends to support they are also Whistling Swans but eliminating the possibility of hybrid ancestry is impossible.

I suspect it's more likely to be Whistling than Bewick's. As I said I've seen such birds paired with clear-cut columbianus, with young, but never with bewickii.

Thanks to there being numerous small flocks dotted around a large area there was relatively frequent coming and going and plenty of opportunity for getting the prefect flight shots. I was far more interested in the two rarities but couldn't resist trying my hand at flying swans. The shot below was my best effort.

The other swans of interest were two birds with solar powered geolocators; I saw one on Friday, two on Sunday. Add those sightings to only seeing the Whoopers on Friday and Whistling Swans on Monday and it shows how difficult it is to see everything on a single visit. There must still be additional fields I've yet to find that are attracting flocks.

The 'Friday swan' getting a power boost.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

barrovianus Glaucous Gull?! In Mie!!!

I think myself lucky to see Glaucous Gull down here. If I go gulling in the Matsusaka/Tsu-shi (Mie) area, I'd hope to see one per winter but if I stuck to Osaka it might be one every three or four years.

This winter I've already had two! An adult flyby in Matsusaka on 12 Nov which seems a very early date for down here. Then yesterday I found this bird way out in the bay. It was with a group of Vega all foot-paddling along a fracture line along the surface of the water, smooth and glassy on one side but choppy on the other, like a flock of giant Wilson's Storm Petrels. They were little more than specks even in the scope but there was something about the way it easily moved along the line, effortlessly looping back from time to time, put the Vegas to shame. A Glaucous would be great... but an Iceland would be unbelievable; even 'just' a Thayer's.

It was worth waiting. There was a pretty good chance they'd come in to the beach eventually. Maybe not this beach but it was worth waiting. After a while they settled on the sea with the current slowly drifting them south. After about another 20 minutes uncomfortably staring through the scope to keep track of their position they took flight and, "Yes!", they were heading in to this beach.

It turned out the wait was really worthwhile because this was a really interesting gull. The comment in Olsen "Jizz-wise, certain small females combine Herring Gull head on Iceland Gull body." seems to sum up this bird very well. Now, I've never seen a barovianus... it's is a subspecies tick for me and, large gulls being large gulls, there's always room for doubt. However I'm pretty sure this ticks all the right boxes. For once I'm not even worried about the risk of a hybrid.

Head on, as the gull was flying directly towards shore with a few Vega, it looked long-winged. That may not be difficult when compared with Vega but Glaucous invariably manages to fail. Once on the beach it was much easier to assess size; it's smallish Vega, ie not the smallest gull in the flock but it could be dwarfed by a large Vega. At rest the gull is surprisingly attenuated with a long primary projection and little in the way of a tertial step. A Long projection, but not Iceland long. At times the head looked more angular with a sloping forehead, which made the short bill look longer, but more often the head was rather domed resulting in a ridiculously short (for Glauc) bill, short but too deep and heavy for Iceland. Whatever the head shape there was never any getting away from that piggy eye that looks so at odds with the often doe-eyed expression of Iceland. Coming back to the short bill, it has an extensive black tip, black runs along the cutting edge of the lower mandible and the upper is dusky towards the base! This gull is confused, either as an individual or a taxon if this is barovianus
as I suspect. But I hope the images will be worth a thousand words...

Ah... the danger of the single image. I think I might have been able to get away with claiming an Iceland Gull if this was the only image I had. The primaries look really long and the rear end quite attenuated, the later aided by tucking up the belly to produce a flat keel... even if it does show a little too much tibia for my liking. At this angle the telltale eye isn't giving the game away and just look at the colour of that bill. Outrageous!

By contrast this is the most Glaucous-like image I have. The forehead is very long here which imparts a longer-billed appearance than the gull usually gave. The primaries are crossed which lessens the apparent length of the projection. During the time I was there the light changed from bright sunshine to black rain clouds, back to sunshine before a premature dusk. A bit tricky settings-wise with a white bird and I spent almost as much time fumbling with the camera as watching the gull.

Pretty much looks the Glauc part here but throw in a larger eye and the gestalt would alter appreciably.

The undertail and coverts to follow the uppertail in the previous image.

A quick bathe before coming ashore. It's next to a substantial but hardly monster-Vega.

It doesn't look much bigger here behind that male-type.

Joining the 'hen-party' it fits in much better size-wise.

This just doesn't look like an obvious Glaucous Gull.

So. Do I get a subspecies tick? Is this a barrovianus Glaucous Gull?