Sunday, 27 May 2018

Hegurajima bookends for May

Unbelievable, already the 27th... where did May go?

Well, wherever it went, Northern Hawk Cuckoo singing over my house a few nights ago spurred me to visit Ashyu Forest (central Kyoto prefecture) for the first time this spring as soon as I had time. Time turned out to be the weekend, when I also managed to get out to Hegurajima for only the second time of the season.

I didn't have any offshore plans for Golden Week this year but instead I had hoped to make day trips to Hegurajima. This isn't ideal for several reasons. First, the huge number of birders/photographers present during Golden Week means you're never alone on a trail, the best you can hope for is that you aren't part of a shuffling line spaced about 30 metres apart - that actually happened when I was there on May 1st, I almost felt I had to indicate and wait for a gap in the birder traffic when I exited woodland onto the main north/south trail. Second, the ferry only gives you the least optimal midday period on the island to find the birds. Finally, and worst of all, will the ferry even sail? Ferry cancellations aren't unexpected in autumn when the Japan Sea is less friendly, whereas spring is usually less risky. Of course 'usually less risky' doesn't mean sailings can be relied on as spring of last year proved and this year hasn't been any better, last week was the first time there were more sailings than cancellations.

My visit to Ashyu was really enjoyable, it was great to be in the field and not see another soul in 18 hours! Of course I heard many more birds than I saw but Grey Nightjars were good with two birds sitting on the road in the early hours and a third high overhead in display flight after first light. The heard only highlights were a Japanese Night Heron and a Japanese Scops Owl.

Ruddy Kingfishers were singing early in the morning but as it was sunny, apart from a few calls, it was as if they hadn't existed shortly after the sun crested the hills. Cuckoos, Northern Hawk, Oriental and Lesser vanished in the same way. One bird that never even appeared was Asian Brown Flycatcher, where were they? But a much bigger question was raised. I heard a Kamchatka Leaf Warbler singing in the forest and for an instant when it started singing I was delighted thinking it was Japanese Leaf. The only previous occasion I've heard 'Japanese Leaf' here was before the Arctic complex was split and now I wonder whether that too was a passage Kamchatka. It seems this area is just outside the Japanese Leaf range.

One of several Grey Wagtails around the car park in the forest. 'Car park' means a broad muddy turning area where the road finally ends.

On the not-a-bird front this monster earthworm was a stand-out.

At about 40cm long this would give any early bird pause for thought. Note the 10 Yen coin next to it for scale. 

Shortly after I saw this hummingbird hawk moth daylight was gone and a bigger surprise was an otherwise invisible bush across steep dark ravine lit up by glow worms like a ghostly Christmas tree.

After nightfall on the second day I drove north to Wajima as it seemed very likely the ferry would be operating the following morning.

There was a time, a long time in fact, I'd be out on the ferry deck from port to port but after multiple sailings each year, year after year, with very little to show for it I tend to catch up on sleep nowadays. Admittedly I visit the island more often in autumn than the more productive spring. When I went out on May 1st I did try for seabirds and the trip produced about 30 Ancient Murrelets in small parties, at least two Japanese Murrelets, ever present Streaked Shearwaters and the Pelagic Cormorants which are still around at that time of year. I had also hoped for good numbers of phalaropes, Red-necked can be common and usually there are a few Grey (Red) thrown in. In the event there were only a handful of Red-necked. This time, two days ago, I did sleep on the crossing but still managed a single Red-necked Phalarope through the window.

One of several small fly-by parties of Ancient Murrelets.

A few were slightly closer.

Red-necked Phalaropes with an Ancient Murrelet.

On the island at the beginning of the month this Sakhalin Leaf Warbler was the only bird of interest I managed good shots of. That was my first ever trip to Hegura when I was glad to be taking the ferry back to the mainland, I've never seen the place so birdless.

Strictly speaking I ought to call this a Sakhalin/Pale-legged Leaf as I didn't hear it but Sakhalin is the overwhelming favourite here.

I wasn't terribly optimistic about this trip, even though there have been some really good birds between my visits, because the weather hadn't looked too productive all week. However the hill behind Wajima harbour was thick with Kamchatka Leaf Warblers which put me in a much better frame of mind before the ferry left. Kamchatka were absolutely everywhere on the island, Asian Brown Flycatchers were pretty common too. No wonder there were none at Ashyu, they're all still on vacation!

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler

A clean looking Asian Brown Flycatcher, even paler in the sun. 

Asian Brown looking dark.

No amount of sun is going to make a Dark-sided Flycatcher look pale.

The best/rarest birds on the island were Black-naped Oriole, a flock of Common Crossbills and a Dollarbird; hmmm so okay, nothing major. But there were so many birds around, and such a variety of scarce stuff, there surely had to be something important waiting to be found. If there was, neither I nor anyone else found it during my four hours on the island.

Cuckoos were fairly obvious, Lesser and Common at any rate.

Lesser Cuckoo.

Black Woodpigeon is ever present but it's not often they sit about in the open like this.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Spring mix

I heard a singing Lesser Cuckoo from my bedroom a couple of nights ago, a sure sign that local summer visitors are arriving. It isn't unusual to hear their nocturnal song flight as they circle over the city at this time of year and it's a great reminder that we're never far from birds, even the ones we don't see so often.

Another recent arrival in full voice is Oriental Reed Warbler. I photographed this one at the weekend because I wanted to catch it with some of its crown feathers raised which created the effect of distinct lateral crown stripes, something Oriental Reed doesn't share with some of the other acros in the region... not that it's ever likely to be confused with them.

A resident bird in the area that I almost never try to photograph is Oriental (Grey-capped) Greenfinch. It's so common that it can be a minor irritation at times. How often do we catch a flash of something flying through the trees when walking in woodland... all the time right? I always thing that if something perches visibly it's 99% certain to be a Brown-eared Bulbul but fortunately as it's so distinctive that there's no need to focus on it to check. Oriental Greenfinch on the other hand is rather different, it also frequently catches the eye, in a wide range of habitats, but unlike the very distinctive Bulbul which doesn't demand further attention, the Greenfinch does. Just in case. In fact it can be more than a little irritating at migration hot-spots. So finally I am posting a picture of Oriental Greenfinch, but only because it's a particularly striking male.

Next a passage bird, Grey-tailed Tattler. There are huge numbers passing through at the moment and on the Pacific coast of Japan May is the time to look for Wandering Tattler. I know there are spots in Tokyo Bay that get them every year and Aichi seems to get quite a few records too. Who knows how many turn up at unremarkable and unwatched spots elsewhere along the coast. So far I haven't found one in Ise bay, though not for lack of trying.

So that's Resident, summer visitor and passage migrant in the spring mix. As for lingering winter visitors the only thing I could categorically say is a winter at the weekend was Black-headed Gull, there are still a handful around. There were a few ducks still present, notably five Falcated, but there are always a number of Northern Pintail, Eurasian Wigeon, Tufted Duck and Greater Scaup that don't make the journey back to the breeding grounds. This was the first time I've been birding this spring when I didn't record a single Dusky Thrush which is normally the greatest winter lingerer in this area as far as passerines are concerned.

A few other birds from the weekend included the following...

Nice breeding condition bare parts on this Great White Egret. This a local modesta, the wintering alba appear to have cleared out. 

Two Grey-headed Lapwings on the beach were totally out of the blue. I never expect to see them on the beach like this, especially at this time of year.

The main reason this time of year is even more surprising than usual.

This is where I'd expect to see them.

Monday, 14 May 2018

A few breeding plumage waders

I've only managed to get out to Heurajima once this spring; an uneventful trip before better weather brought some decent birds. Since then I've either been too busy or the ferry hasn't sailed so last weekend I decided to content myself with a trip to Mie to check out the wader passage.

The forecast predicted a 90% chance of rain from about 6am onwards but as luck would have it the rain held off till 1pm and didn't come down in road flooding torrents until 2pm. One benefit of dull, heavily overcast weather is Green Pheasants are suddenly everywhere, I stopped counting at 10 roadside birds. They can be next to impossible to find on clear days and trying to find them for visitors can prove a real time waster.

The downside of being easy to find to wet weather is they lack the vivid iridescence that makes them so striking.

But this post is supposed to be about breeding plumage waders, isn't it? There were about 300 red Red-necked Stints on the mudflats but you can't be everywhere at the right time and none of the Stints were close when I was at any of the three estuaries holding large numbers. Ponds and beaches were better for reasonable views of birds and for me a couple of Spotted Redshanks were the most attractive waders of the day.

Ruddy Turnstones were looking pretty good too, 66 birds was the largest group I came across. Again the light wasn't very helpful and it was difficult to get good shots of them.

There weren't many Lesser Sand Plovers around and most were on distant sand bars, this bird with the Turnstones was the only close bird of the day. I don't see many in full breeding plumage and rarely see birds with such extensive red on the flanks and lower breast.

Not the 'best' of the Common Greenshanks but the only one that came close.

Whimbrel were very common along the shoreline and in the fields. In my pre-camera days I'd have IDed them and moved on but one of the great things about taking pictures of common birds is I notice things I would otherwise have seen. In this case I was surprised by the difference in primary projection, which presumably has nothing to do with age; the first bird has three visible tips well beyond relatively fresh looking tertials whereas the second has only two just showing beyond more worn tertials.