Sunday 3 January 2021

Baer's and Ferruginous, plus hybrids on Lake Biwa

 Apart from the Kanto tick-fest in December, my last five birding trips have all been to Biwako - four of them, unusually, to the south end. Mie has certainly taken a back seat this winter; so far.

In the dim and distant past I made regular visits to the south end of Lake Biwa, often working my way north, layby by layby, checking the ducks for as long as daylight would allow. Over time my MO changed, instead I'd head to the north end overnight and bird my way south. The reason for the strategic shift being that a wider range of habitat at the top end would equate to better birding. That there is a wider range of habitat up there still holds true. But is the birding always better? One unintended consequence of the shift was that I largely ignore the ducks, there isn't enough time if I want to cover all that additional habitat, woodland alone knocks three hours off the day. Missing out on ducks is strange indeed since if there's one thing Lake Biwa is associated with, it's seeing vast, vast numbers of wintering ducks.

This snapped into sharp focus with the recent December visits, the first of them to help a mate see a couple of duck targets still outstanding for his 2020 year list. Our first objective was a Ferruginous Duck we knew to be present in a particular area. 

We pulled into the first parking area, kitted-up and started to scan the visible flock. One of the first birds in the scope was a Baer's Pochard! Well that was unexpected. After a 400-metre walk along the shore, the target Fudge Duck was in the bag. That's 30 minutes sifting and two rare ducks seen, one of them a global mega no less. "Ducks - one,  'wide range of habitat' - nil". As it happened there was also a Red-crested Pochard less than 1km further up the lakeside, not a bad stretch of water. We could have packed up and gone for second breakfast. 

So, I've been spending time looking at ducks recently. I've never thought of myself as much of a duck person to be honest, but the style of birding is right up my street; immobility. None of this crashing through trackless forests or stomping over mountain ranges. For me, you can't beat sitting on a cliff top sea-watching, letting the birds put in the effort, or on ferries, I'm equally happy with that, and of course relaxing on the beach sifting through gull flocks. Sitting and sifting; my kind of birding. 

A word (or two) of advice to any would-be sit-an-sifter. The cliff-tops aren't always quite as balmy as you might picture in your mind's eye, be prepared to leave the parasol and sunscreen at home. If, on the ferry, sea-spray freezes instantly on contact with your clothing, don't take your gloves off to help locate that ridiculously tiny shutter-release button on your camera because your camera will already have packed-up. Oh and don't touch the rail to steady yourself, even with gloves on. The ideal conditions for sitting on the beach are when there are no joggers, dog walkers or sundry others to disturb the gulls, you don't want to have to keep relocating to follow the flock, obviously. Unfortunately at such times 90 percent of the beach tends to be airborne somewhere between ground level and knee-height, the remaining 10 between knee and waist, so best not sit. 

Back to ducks; the success with sifting hasn't stopped with Baer's and Fudge. My first foray of 2021 netted 12 Baikal Teal on a small satellite pond, the Red-crested Pochard (which still won't even come within record shot range) and the big prize of a Baer's hybrid, as well as my second Fudge hybrid in as many weeks. The Fudge could be the same bird relocated to a different area, I can't be sure as the first sighting was against the sun so hardly ideal to see the fine details. 

It's an unfortunate situation that such a rare species as Baer's Pochard manifests such a high rate of hybrid offspring sightings, I've probably seen more Baer's x Common Pochard hybrids over the years than any other duck combination (except Eurasian x American Wigeon which wins by a country mile, they just can't keep their feathers off each other). But from the sifters' perspective it's an indisputably good find. 

As the hybrids are arguably of more interest than the real deals (we know what they look like), I'll start with the them; Baer's first.  

Nice it has a full green head, no doubting what one half of the progenitor pair was. I've noticed in the past that, though Baer's will be green-headed at this time of year, they can still show distinctly reddish hues into December, indicating head moult hasn't been completed at that time. So red on the head in early December isn't reason to doubt the authenticity of a bird. The Fudge hybrid, below, is no less distinctive as far as head colouration goes. Both have eyes that must be influenced by their Common Pochard side.

The Fudge tended to stay reasonably close to shore and sooner or later would have been close enough to get good shots of. The Baer's on the other hand, not unlike the Red-crested Pochard, seemed to prefer staying well out on the water. So a couple of Fudge shots and a record shot of the Baer's...


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