Monday, 8 October 2018

Hegurajima: October 3rd-5th

I was delightedly surprised to be able to get reservations at the minshyuku Tsukasa at short notice. Four nights for the following week and two nights a week later, most early Octobers I can't get a room at such short notice. I was far less delighted... or surprised for that matter... to have one day cut off the beginning and end of my visit by ferry cancellations. A 50% cut, it could have been worse and I'm worried about the chance of a 100% cut later this week!

There had been a clear out the night before my arrival and though birding was good and the sense of expectation as high as ever when arriving on Hegurajima, it was a little slow. There were plenty of the commoner muscicapa flycatchers, a few Stejneger's Stonechats and Kamchatka Leaf Warblers, enough to keep you hopeful and on your toes.

Chestnut-flanked White-eye was the first good bird of the day in the early afternoon though I'd already seen a bird I thought was this species but hadn't been able to confirm it. Over the three days on the island I realised Chestnut-flanked was the default species present; at first I thought perhaps a highly mobile party was responsible for multiple sightings in different parts of the island but it soon became apparent that possibly all the white-eyes present were Chestnut-flanked, and there were many of them, all over the island. Ultimately I only saw two definite Japanese White-eyes during my stay!

The other species I was pleased to see was Brown Shrike. I seem to remember often seeing juvenile/first autumn Brown Shrikes on Hegura years ago but they had dried up until this trip when there were three birds (two juveniles) on the first day. Only one of them lingered beyond that first day.

The first bird, nice crisp markings throughout.

The second bird has already moulted come scapular and mantle feathers. This was the only bird that stayed throughout my stay and frequently perched on the overhead wires.

The third bird looks like an adult female. I'd have liked better views of this pale bird but I only saw it once, very briefly, at quite long range. 

As the afternoon wore on I picked up Middendorff's Warbler, the only one of the trip, then 'Gray's Warbler' which was a personal first for the island. As you might expect views weren't great or prolonged but I was happy enough to have been in the right place at the right time. I heard later that there have been several birds seen recently.

Even a poor record shot is a minor miracle, whether it could be the continental fasciolata Gray's Warbler or Japan breeding amnicola Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler, I'll never know.

As light was beginning to fail I make my way towards the scrubby area in the harbour for a last scout around before dark. Suddenly a drongo dashed into view above the tree tops to my left, caught whatever it was after, then swung back out of sight! I rushed in the opposite direction to the edge of the quay to try to get a view of the area behind the first row of taller trees. As luck would have it the drongo was perched in one of the few spots that could be seen and I could make out it was... Ashy. I confess I was disappointed, it's a great looking bird, spectacular even, and of course a real rarity in Japan. But it's also my third Ashy on Hegura, Hair-crested would have been nice, really nice. I watched it making sorties from the same perch long enough to get record shots and went to get any birders who were already at the minshyuku. I was back with a couple of birders in less than five minutes and I pointed out the perch with the bird sitting in the same spot. Just as I lifted my binoculars the bird, actually birds, flew. A Brown-eared Bulbul had taken over the Drongos spot on the tree top and it flew conspicuously away while simultaneously the Drongo, which had moved lower in the tree, dropped straight down. This was a corner-of-the-eye view. The other guys' attention was drawn to the Bulbul and they didn't notice the diving Drongo. It was deep twilight by this time and hope was the Drongo would be easily seen in the morning, however it must have left overnight as it was never seen again. It's amazing to think I was the only person on the island who saw this striking and conspicuous species; we all know a large number of rares will go undiscovered but usually imagine they'll mostly be the skulkers. Yet drongos are, if anything, the antithesis of the skulker and still this one almost got away.

Ashy Drongo in the failing light. A good way to end the first day and build anticipation for the second.

It was clear from the get-go that there fewer birds on the island next day. I picked up a few things I'd missed or only heard yesterday, a Siberian Rubythroat, a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers, Black Woodpigeon and nine Little Buntings. The only birds that were new were two Dusky Thrushes that I heard overhead and two Buff-bellied Pipits were probably also just arrived.

Yellow-brows can be quite common but I only had three on this trip. They're more often heard than seen and can be difficult subjects to photograph, this was the best I managed. 

Little Buntings can also be common and tend to sit around for anyone to snap away at.

The final morning was pretty dead by island standards but by mid-morning it became obvious that birds were arriving in significant numbers. Bulbuls were becoming common, three conspicuous Blue & White Flycatchers where there had been none, my first Narcissus of the trip, an up-tick in muscicapa flycatcher numbers, the return of Stejneger's Stonechats after an absence yesterday, a Red-throated Pipit quickly became five and my first spodacephala Black-faced Bunting of the trip turned up. Unfortunately today would be the last chance to get off the island before the next typhoon arrived so I, along with everyone else, left.

A nice male spod Bunting.

One of the fresh-in Red-throated Pipits.

Male Stejneger's Stonechat.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Great Frigatebirds

I've twice bumped into frigatebirds in Japan and though neither were close enough to identify to species that never stopped me adding frigatebird sp to my Japan list. So, I'm now in the position where these Great Frigatebirds aren't numerically a japan tick but they are a lifer. Oddly enough I have a frigatebird sp on my British list too, from way back in the 70's. I don't have any other birds ticked when unidentified to species which I suppose shows how rare frigatebirds are in temperate waters while nevertheless being instantly recognisable as a family.

These particular birds have been hanging round Katagai harbour in Chiba for a couple of weeks, even longer in the general area I believe, but last Tuesday through Thursday was the first time I've had more than one consecutive day off during their stay and as it's a bit far for a one-day dash I've been hoping they hang on till I was free. I finished work at 9pm last Monday and by the time I got home and prepared for the trip I didn't get away until 11pm.

Much to my relief the weather people had informed me there would be continuous rain on Tuesday, so, nothing to worry about then. It actually poured down for about 30 minutes as I was approaching Katagai and but there wasn't another drop until I was leaving about six hours later. Still, it was very heavily overcast and anything but ideal for photography which is a pity considering how photogenic these amazing birds are. I arrived at the harbour around 8am and though I didn't know exactly where to look for them it didn't matter because they're pretty hard to miss. Even the weather people couldn't have messed that up. Probably couldn't... possibly. The (much) larger of the two birds was flying around when I arrived, getting a post downpour blow-dry perhaps, while the other sat hunched on its favourite perch looking miserably bedraggled and totally out of place in the dank, dripping, colourless morning and the rather flat and featureless (dare I say desolate) setting they'd adopted as home.

There were many a mid-winter day's I'd spend birding along the bleak north east coast of England when you knew the depressing half light was as good as it was going to get before the sun gave up and sank again. I'm not knocking the north east of England by the way, it's stunningly beautiful most of the time, but there is a certain winter light that weighs very heavily and makes summer seem like a false memory. That same light was lurking in Katagai that morning.

The freshly bathed dog look.

As I mentioned the light was abysmal all day until a brief spell of just a few minutes in the afternoon when the light quality improved and before the rain finally set in. I could get a couple of shots of the birds perched that actually showed colour. Even the antenna had colour!

Don't be fooled, it isn't sunny but this is the best it gets light-wise.

There was a huge difference in size between these birds so I'm assuming they are male, possibly small male, and female, possibly large female and that's how I'll refer to them; I have no idea how large a difference there normally is between the sexes. However, if the size relationship had been reversed I might have wondered whether these birds could have been Great and Christmas Island Frigatebirds. The fact that Christmas Island is significantly larger than Great rules out any chance of that being the case but it also illustrates, to me at least, how difficult it would be to identify a non-classic juvenile at sea, or just a lone bird for that matter.

According to the David James paper in BirdingASIA (vol#1, 2004) Christmas Is is the longest- and Lesser the shortest-billed of the Asian trio. The small bird in Katagai had a very long looking bill, easily more than double the head length compared to the larger bird whose bill was clearly less than double the head length. This is somewhat surprising because females are supposed to be longer-billed than males. According to James, another feature suggestive of Christmas Island is the extremely white ulnar bar, but it isn't too difficult to find images of Great online which also have strikingly white forewings. Finally the distribution of white on the underparts, though far from classic Christmas, it certainly isn't an obvious fit for Great either. At least not compared to the larger of the two birds here which looks a classic juvenile Great.

The first 10 minutes I was there saw the larger of the two trying to land on the antenna and the smaller of the two trying to deter it. Eventually it made the sensible decision to land on the antenna support but even that was was full of drama.

Pass after pass the female tried to land next to the male, who wasn't having any of it. 

Finally it managed to land on the support, teetered along flapping wildly before falling off and remaining suspended by its wings for a moment.

The importance of assessing the belly patch from below is often mentioned because the viewing angle can affect the interpretation of the shape but it seems that feathers can also move slightly which may affect the shape of the patch. One more reason to hope your flyby juvenile frigatebird is a classic.

The female has a standard egg-shaped Great belly patch.

Viewed more from the side, still with a compact belly patch.

The following two shots of the bird's right side suggest slight feather displacement can affect the overall impression of the patch shape.

The male also shows an egg-shaped belly patch but has distinct spurs. They emanate from far too far back to suggest Lesser Frigatebird but that a single row of white sub-humerals produces a narrow forward-angled spur seems at odds with the classic Great patch shape as I understand it. Compared to the previous image, the bill of this bird is extremely long.

A more side-on view of the spur.

The upperwing coverts are strikingly paler on the male but it seems all the species can show equally white coverts created by the broader fringes.

The female with an obvious but unspectacular pale ulnar bar.

The male with outstanding white in the coverts.

A closer view of the coverts shows most lessers (and outwardly the marginals) have dark shaft streaks in otherwise white feathers.

The female's coverts are brown with neat brownish-white fringes.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Spectacular Red-necked Phalarope passage

The recent long staying Nordmann's Greenshank seemed to have finally moved on the last time I was in Mie (Sept 21) and it was a less rare wader species that grabbed the headlines that day. Red-necked Phalarope is anything but rare in Japan but unless you take ferry trips at the right times of year they can be quite difficult to see, and certainly not in big numbers. I only rarely see them inland near Kyoto city, these birds following a recent severe typhoon were a predictable event and something I specifically went looking for.

This Phalarope event along the coast at Matsusaka in Mie prefecture was of a totally different magnitude.

At some point in the late morning I was going through one of the Greater Crested Tern flocks perched on bamboo poles in the shallow coastal waters when I noticed a distant flock of small waders flying by way out to sea. I didn't pay much attention at first as they were too distant to identify but their overall paleness suggested Sanderling. Over the next 20 minutes or so I was there I saw more flocks which struck me as decidedly odd. Not only because I haven't seen anything quite like that before but at high tide, as it was, I'd expect Sanderlings to be roosting above the high water mark rather than flying way out over the water. Plus there was an awful lot of them and even though Sanderling is common along this coast I don't usually see so many aggregations of this size. Unless of course I was seeing the same birds flying back and forth but that would be even more unusual   behaviour for Sanderling. Phalarope crossed my mind but as I said they were too far out to identify.

I spent some time driving slowly round the endless fields and when I next returned to the coast a few kilometres further north I immediately saw a flock of waders much closer to shore. They had dashed past only allowing tail views disappearing across the bay but I was sure these were indeed phalaropes and I was kicking myself for not reacting more quickly and getting a Red-necked/Grey identification.

I needn't have worried, after a minute or two another flock came by, then another and yet another. Numbers ranged from about 15 birds in some groups to over 100 in others. Some flocks were a little distant, others just beyond the tideline. Some flocks even gained height over the seawall and headed across the fields behind me. In fact the last flock I saw, about 70 birds, was flying over a village and across the fields as I was driving away at 17:30.

There were a huge number of birds involved and I wonder whether they'd entered Ise Bay from the Pacific and toured the bay or if they'd taken a shortcut across the country from the Japan Sea; I suspect the latter.

Some of the first closer birds I saw in the shallow water close to shore.

Some were pretty close...

Some very close...

Some were coming off the water altogether.

I wonder how many I missed crossing the fields behind me.

Finally a few of those Greater Crested Tern I'd been sifting through when I first spotted distant waders. The Terns normally sit on the tops of bamboo poles which are frequently very distant in this part of the bay with its extensive shallows. If you're lucky you can catch them with the Black-tailed Gulls on the sandbars.