Tuesday 23 April 2019

Himalayan Swiftlets on Yonaguni

I made my first trip to the Yaeyama Islands six years ago and my initial impression still holds true: Yonaguni is a rarity hotspot and not really worth considering if looking for Yaeyama specialties, Ishigaki's saving grace is Banna Park which has a fantastic network of quiet footpaths allowing easy access to the forest but on the whole it's not worth spending much time there as Iriomote is a far better for both native birds and a far superior away-from-it-all experience. That said, Ishigaki now has breeding Black-shouldered Kites... but they can be seen without actually leaving the airport.

After about three months of zero birding my schedule suddenly opened-up allowing me nine days of uninterrupted birding. Heaven. With just a couple of days notice I didn't think I'd be able to make reservations for a repeat of my previous trip covering all three main islands. So it proved, but with flights and Yonaguni car rental confirmed it didn't matter too much as I was quite happy to spend the whole time on Yonaguni. I'd day dreamt about finding Himalayan Swiftlet for ages, and now I'd have the chance to give it a good go. Though car rental on the island was no problem, the only accommodation I could find was for the first two and last three nights. So I was facing three nights in the car but as luck would have it my Ryokan had a cancellation resulting in only one uncomfortable night. One uncomfortable night, good grief I must be getting soft in my old age!

The ryokan only provided breakfast, no dinner, which was a bit of a concern because on my previous stay the shops weren't that well stocked and according to the ryokan owner the few local places to eat required pre-booking. However things have changed and it's quite easy to get a wide range of food in the shops now, there was even fresh fruit daily throughout my time there.

There are only two ferry sailings per week to the island so to get around all the last minute planning problems I chose to give sea-birding a miss and fly this time. I arrived on Ishigaki in the morning and had booked on the last flight to Yonaguni to give me time to look for the Black-shouldered Kites. It took 35 minutes to locate a rather distantly perched bird from the airport car park but after a few further minutes another bird gave excellent fly-by views. I'd actually allocated the final night of the trip to on Ishigaki just in case the Kites had been harder to see than I imagined. At least this would give me the opportunity to get a photo tick and visit Banna Park for owls.

The additional time I'd budgeted between outward flights meant I arrived on Yonaguni in the late afternoon and by the time I'd sorted out the car and found my accommodation there was no light for birding. Well, just enough to make out Common Mynas coming to roost on the cell tower outside my room. Day one and already the second Japan tick of the trip, I'd only managed two in the whole of 2018!

The weather was overcast next morning, indeed that was true of almost the whole time on the island, overcast with plenty of light rain. This was great, great for bringing in birds and keeping temperatures down. I spent the morning as much refamiliarising myself with the island as doing any serious birding. The first place I stopped and took a walk was at the eastern headland. On returning to the car I found the car lock didn't work. Really! The key may as well have been for a different vehicle, and of course my phone was inside the car. I once locked myself out of a rental car in the freezing pre-dawn of the eastern Turkish mountains, I was able to take out the windscreen on that occasion but cars are far more difficult to break into for a non-professional nowadays. There was nothing for it but to walk back to town, I was now even more pleased the weather was overcast. My car rental man wasn't a professional car thief either. Despite picking up the necessary tools to do the job at another garage he finally had to resort to a trusty hammer that he'd brought along from his own garage. Hammer and glass, only one winner there.

Not the greatest start to my time on the island I'd have to say, but unbeknown to me it wasn't all the doom, gloom and exasperation it seemed at the time... a Himalayan Swiftlet was on its way.

At some point in the afternoon I was at the opposite end of the island, not far from the island's, large pond. The number of hirundines was amazing, mainly Barn Swallows but also Red-rumped (c30), as well as Asian House (1) and Sand Martins (c10). There were also House (c12) and Pacific Swifts (2) zooming around too. This was what I wanted, this was surely my chance to find a Himalayan Swiftlet! Thinking something is so and it actually being so are more often than not two entirely different things but on this occasion... BOOM! There it was! At once obvious even to the naked eye, a bit like a martin with House Swift wings. It was fairly high and would often disappear for a few minutes but always came back. After the shock had worn off I set about getting the photographic evidence. This wasn't quite as straight forward as it might sound, now because it was quite high it wasn't too difficult to follow with the camera but the downside was the resulting images would never show any detail. The following two images is the most compelling of the evidence as gathered on that first afternoon...

It would sometimes fly below the line of hills in the centre of the island allowing a better appreciation of how remarkably nondescript the plumage was. Basically greyish-brown with a slightly paler rump but I could never get an in focus shot.

At some point I must have lost the bird and picked up a head-on House Swift by mistake because when I later checked the shots on the back of the camera, there was a good shot of a black-looking swift with a bold white rump. Cue self-doubt. It didn't matter how well I'd seen the bird in life, immaterial how plain the plumage had been; I was worried. How could I possibly have photographed a House Swift if this Swiftlet had been half as as eye-catching as I'd felt?

Needless to say I was back in the same area promptly next day, the weather was showery, drizzly, wet and grey. Terrific. There weren't any hirundines sailing round higher up, everything was close to ground level and in no time I'd found my Swiftlet again. Just as obvious as it had been yesterday though the small size was even more apparent. How could I have doubted this? With the bird dashing around so low my lack of photographic skills were about to face a much tougher challenge. Thankfully I was able to get a small number of shots which proved to myself it wasn't a House Swift and is in fact basically a martin with House Swift wings just as I'd first thought.

The question I now asked myself was whether I'd seen one Swiftlet or Two. It was clear on the second day that many birds had moved on. Barn Swallows were still present in huge numbers, as they were on all but the penultimate day of the trip, but lower numbers of Red-rumped Swallows and martins fluctuating daily throughout the trip were easy to keep tabs on and suggested there was a continuous passage of birds through Yonaguni. Barn Swallows were common throughout the island, in the lee of any shelter, but there were no other massive build ups elsewhere, no other locations regularly held Red-rumped Swallows or martins and this was the only site I ever saw either of the two Swift species. The penultimate day of the trip (April 16) was the first hot sunny day and Barn Swallow numbers dropped very noticeably, as if there were few lingering birds and onward movement was continuous. The final day (April 17) was again overcast with showers and either a huge new build up of birds suggesting passage had stalled once more. Not only were Barn Swallow numbers back up but Red-rumped and both martins had their respective highest totals of the eight-day visit.

No sooner had I realised the need to check through the flocks again than another Swiftlet flew past, below eye-level over a marshy overgrown cane field! Unfortunately this one didn't even pause let alone linger. At least I didn't need to embarrass myself with the camera. So definitely two and possibly even three Himalayan Swiftlets in the space of a week. That with just one pair of eyes looking for them.

Two dense wind-break hedges provided shelter for flying insects and immense numbers of Barn Swallows flew back and forth in the lee of each, testament to their aerial maneuverability. There were usually birds resting on the roughly ploughed field between the two hedges and in wetter conditions the field was carpeted with Swallows. I was surprised to see how many of them appeared to be in moult judging by what appear to be feather gaps creating white patches on the upperparts.

One of the far fewer Red-rumped Swallows present.

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