Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Rausu and Notsuke

From the Blakiston's Fish Owl atYoroushi Onsen we cut across to the coast to head up to Rausu and the next iconic Hokkaido sight, the flocks of eagles around Rause harbour.

The eagles were the main target and though it would have been good to connect with the likes of the returning Bufflehead, the local wintering Ravens or anything else of interest we moved soon moved south to the Notsuke Peninsula once we'd had good views of the eagles and checked the various (largely empty) harbours.

Imagine this on your doorstep.

The usual birds were in the harbours but from the Kansai perspective Harlequin Duck, Glaucous-winged and Glaucous Gulls were the pick.


Glaucous-winged Gulls

Juvenile Glaucous takes some beating...

The first birds we saw on Notsuke were Snow Buntings but it was really difficult to get decent shots because they were quite flighty and the grass stems meant some were always out of focus. It was only after going through the images at home that I realised Snow Bunting was a photograph tick!

In late afternoon hundreds of Sika Deer were coming out into the open along the peninsula.

I've never been to Lake Biwa when there wasn't a long line of photographers' cars and ranks of cameras at the ready to capture 'our' Steller's every move. It almost seems sinful to have a solitary Steller's all to yourself.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Blakiston's Fish Owl at Yoroushi Onsen and Washi no Yado

I've only only been to see Blakiston's twice in winter, staying at Washi no Yado five years ago and this month at Yoroushi Onsen. The two experiences are very different in terms of accommodation but as the Owls are the important thing it might not matter too much for someone who has never seen these magnificent birds. I would just say Yoroushi is far more comfortable and I wouldn't hesitate staying more than one night if I wanted to give the area more time. Whereas one successful night at Washi no Yado would be enough, I'd look for alternative accommodation if I wanted to spend longer in the area. But, and it's a big but, the food was fantastic at Washi no Yado.

An Owl arrived during dinner at Washi no Yado and after eating more quickly than I'd have otherwise chosen I sat outside in my rental car to get a better view. This steep, narrow valley is cold, really cold, and the car needed a jump start the following morning. The owner told me the same had happened to another birder the day before. The local garage was doing good business. The small pool in the middle of the river is kept stocked with fish (at least as long as people are viewing it seems) so there's plenty of time to watch the Owls coming and going or just sitting in the snow. The problem is you are virtually sitting in the snow too and I'm not as tough as the Owls so there was a limit to how long I could sit motionless in the car with the windows open in minus (a large number) degrees. Of course you could watch from the minshyuku but that would double the distance to the birds.

Similarly the Yoroushi Owl arrived while we were still at the dinner table and caught me off guard. Stupidly I'd left my camera in my room and by the time I dashed to get it the window was already lined by (mostly) non-birders and I had to hand-hold the camera at the back of the group as a result. This would have been easily avoidable if I'd been aware of the feeding regime. Unlike the protracted viewing at Washi no Yado, with fish being put out as required, there were just two feeding sessions, one between 6-7pm as I recall and the other must have been between 5-6am. There's actually a calendar pinned up next to the office giving the times of daily sightings but the penny didn't drop that these neat clusters of sightings were dependant on when fish were put out. The result is that though the views are remarkably close, they are also relatively brief before the Owl polishes off the fish and disappears into the surrounding darkness along the river. It also resulted in me getting very few shots of the bird as I thought I'd have plenty of time after the crowd lost interest.

So which site is better for the Owls? The view is much closer at Yoroushi, maybe only eight metres, and the experience is slightly surreal from the warmth of the lounge. If you want a more authentic and slightly more distant, cold, freezing cold, really freezing cold experience then Washi no Yado wins hands down. If you intended to watch from indoors at Washi no Yado then I'd definitely recommend staying at Yoroushi.

I suppose the supporting cast needs to be considered too. Washi no Yado had Brown Dipper on the river in front of the minshyuku and common woodland birds in the surrounding woodland. Yoroushi had Solitary Snipe and Crested Kingfisher on the river in front of the ryokan and common woodland birds on the feeders right outside the window. Better for me, it also had Sable, a mammal tick, coming to the feeders too.

Kicking off with the Washi no Yado birds under the powerful spotlights...

In in reply, Yoroushi...

Coming back to the supporting cast...


red fox

This Solitary Snipe was on the near bank of the river and as such wasn't visible from inside the minshyuku.

Great Spotted Woodpecker. Compared to woodpeckers in Honshu I always think that the Hokkaido birds are tripping over themselves to get in front of any camera. However this GSW was the only one to give itself up on this trip. Though admittedly we weren't really after any woodland species and didn't spend more than a daylight hour or two at this our only woodland stop on the trip.

Marsh Tits were common, a great little bird we can't see in Honshu.

The brandtii Jay of Hokkaido... I can't resist putting a comparative shot of the Honshu japonicus below. 

Probably the only thing their respective heads have in common is a bill. The pattern of white in the wing is quite different too.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Pigeon Guillemot: columba and snowi

Wonders will never cease! The Habomai boat trip I booked actually sailed! This was the first time I made it out on either this or the Ochiishi boat. Waves or ice in winter and fog in summer have always conspired to keep me firmly onshore. The only complaint I have about this trip is that two hours is way too short. But there are more days than sausages, as my Hungarian companions might have told me.

The conditions were fairly calm which made spotting alcids so much the easier and this turned out to be my first opportunity to see a couple of species up close. I've managed pretty good harbour views of Spectacled Guillemot and Ancient Murrelet but Least Auklet and Pigeon Guillemot have always been well off shore. I was particularly pleased to have comparative views of two races of Pigeon Guillemot so in the unlikely event of 'Kuril' Guillemot being split I have my insurance at the ready.

The sea may have been been in gentle mood but it was still difficult to get good shots of the alcids as they were frequently obscured by even that slight swell and balance, or lack of it, meant sharp focus on flying birds was hit or miss, mainly the latter. Nothing would make me happier than to have the chance to practise in the hope of making perfect... but realistically that isn't going to happen.

Cepphus columba columba (or kaiurka?) with obvious and extensive white in the wing coverts. Note the distinct but narrow eye ring with faint pale eye line to the rear, echoing Spectacled. This is said to be a feature of snowi but is far more distinct on this bird than the snowi I saw.

The same bird as above.

Cepphus columba snowi. The flank feathers cover most of the wing, nevertheless white coverts would have been visible on columba. Rather than echoing Spectacled's face pattern, this bird has a pale decurved 'supercillium'.

The same bird as above though lighting makes it appear substantially different.

The same (presumed) columba as in the first images. The white in the upperwing coverts is very eye-catching in the field as can be seen to better effect in the image below.

The same bird as above showing its very conspicuous white wing patch.

The same snowi taking off. There's no white to speak of in the upperwing on this view. Note it has a whitish hind 'supercillium' in a slightly different position to the comet's tail behind Spectacled's eye patch. There is no eye-ring whatsoever on this bird.

The same bird as above, again the supercillium is quite distinct.

The same bird more distantly. Faint restricted white coverts bars are actually more visible here, though no more conspicuous than the rump barring.

Another snowi, coverts tips are just visible. This bird does have a Spectacled-like eye ring and down-curved eye line.

Same bird as above. You can just make out a single upperwing coverts bar here, it's more obvious in the original image before resizing to post.

Spectacled Guillemot with typical bold eye patch.

The same bird as above with uniformly dark coverts.

A near breeding plumage Spectacled.