Wednesday 20 September 2023

Nordmann's Greenshanks --- A personal 'then and now'

 I saw my first ever Nordmann's Greenshank on Ko Libong in Thailand... and of course Crab Plover! Ko Libong was the place to go at the time if you wanted to see Nordmann's, the only known wintering site, as well as the only east Asian location for Crab Plover.

There had been zero development on the island at that time, no tourists, no accommodation. The late Russell Slack and I took the long-boat from the mainland with locals and livestock. On arrival we met the island's chemist who welcomed us to sleep on the floor of his shop for the duration of our stay; we were also welcome to eat meals with the family but were asked for a small contribution to the cost. Apart from the chemist no one spoke a word of English, except for "Nordmann's Greenshank" which seemed to be the universal greeting to any visitor. Presumably the only visitors to this island were birders and the locals had probably never met a foreigner who wasn't carrying binoculars. We also visited the island's 'cinema', one evening a large white sheet was tied between trees, the generator cranked-up a video played to the assembled islanders sitting on the ground to watch; from the visitors perspective this seemed communal event and whichever video had been brought over from the mainland probably didn't matter. This was a world away from the Thailand most tourists would have seen.

If the Crab Plovers were were easy to spot and identify, the Nordmann's were not. Basically, we didn't really know much about separating them from Common Greenshank, I'd never seen a photograph of one, and we were playing it by ear. What a difference the internet makes!!! 

King et al. (Birds of South East Asia), was the standard reference for travelling birders, and was pretty much on the money:-

"Very much like Common Greenshank and must be separated with care by somewhat stouter bill, with yellowish basal half; ...paler upperparts in winter; paler dark barring on tail; unmarked white axilliaries and wing lining; shorter and often yellower legs, giving a different appearance when feeding..." 

Nevertheless, we weren't carrying scopes on what was, for me, a four-month-trip, so with bins only it wasn't easy. Not only was there no internet in those days, digital photography didn't exist either, so there was no checking images later, everything was sketches and notes. I don't think birding is any more or less exciting nowadays but it's certainly much easier. Plus, fine details of moult, features only apparent in flight and so on, make photography an amazing learning tool, sketches could only show details actually seen in the field.

Of the 'big three' in Japan, Asian Dowitcher, Nordmann's Greenshank and Spoon-billed Sandpiper, I had to wait by far the longest for Nordmann's. In fact, I had to make the trip to Saga, Kyushu, to finally see this species, but as it turns up in Kyushu at the same time as Chinese Sparrowhawk, it makes for an enjoyable birding trip. Tidal sites are tricky and if you hit Daijugarami at the wrong time it can be a very frustrating place. Even at high tide you aren't guaranteed good views.

Spot the Nordmann's; this one isn't nearly as distant as they can be.
My first close-to-home bird was in Mie; a juvenile moulting to first winter 9 September 2018, and again further up the coast six days later. I stopped at a small beach between breakwaters and there it was amongst a mixed flock of waders! I don't normally check that beach which made it all the more delightful of a surprise. And, you can't beat sitting on the sand letting the waders to come to you.

...unless they are also just sitting on the beach.

Surprisingly little plastic along the tideline, far more pleasing to the eye than is too often the case.

Quite a few juvenile mantle and scapular feathers already replaced.

Bottom left with Great Knot.

Two weeks ago I found another in Mie, this time in full juvenile plumage and therefore a first for me. Assuming I found it when it first arrived, it was present for 12 days but it could have been there longer for all I know.

At high tide the bird was too close, standing on the concrete ledge at the foot of the seawall. However, as the water receded the angle of view improved with the bird dashing around at high speed, its head often completely submerged, catching small crabs. As the water dropped further the bird moved out with it across the flats, soon too far for detailed photographs.  

Friday 16 June 2023

Middendorff's(?) Grasshopper Warbler on Hegurajima

Spring migrants should all have completed their journeys by now, any that haven't are potential megas waiting to be found. It's therefore time to reflect on the good birds I did see (Thick-billed Warbler), those I didn’t (Redwing and Chinese Blackbird) and what I might have... and to that end, I do have a ‘funny’ locustella warbler that has been bothering me ever since I came across it on a day trip to Hegurajima on 9 May.

Despite some unresolved questions about its appearance at the time, I concluded it had to be a Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler before heading for the ferry. Once back home I looked through my iffy images which only amplified my confusion.

I first saw it in bright sunlight clinging to the outside of a clump of pampas grass in one of the harbour-front ‘gardens’ as I was drifting towards the waiting ferry. My instinctive reaction was Oriental Reed Warbler, not only did it seem large and long-tailed but it had the uniform light-brown upperparts you might expect from first glance of a brightly sunlit Oriental Reed. Before I got the bins on it, it flew into deep shade and tangled vegetation at the foot of the steep slope next to a house. That might have been the end of it as I wasn’t going to spend much time trying to get a better view of an Oriental Reed when my four and a bit hours on the island was all but up. However, I caught a glimpse of it creeping around on the ground and waited a little longer. I managed to see bits of it as it crept under or clambered through lower stems; enough bits to realize it wasn’t an Oriental Reed.

It was 30 metres away in deep shade and frequently obscured by vegetation, I couldn’t make out much detail but quickly checking through shots on the back of the camera I could see white tips to the longest tail feathers and concluded it must be a Middendorff’s, although I was a bit puzzled by my initial impression of it being large and long-tailed.

The bird’s appearance has niggled ever since. My thoughts then turned to the size and structure seeming better suited to Styan’s, which I've never seen on Hegura, while the plumage leans to Middendorff’s without it being quite what I’d expect. However, lightly streaked locustella with white tips to the tail has to be either a Styan’s or Middendorff’s, that much is straight forward, but which, and from which population?

I see plenty of Middendorff’s on Hegura in autumn (even the odd ones in Kyoto city), particularly autumn juveniles, which aren’t really relevant in terms of plumage but it’s been many years since I’ve had good views of spring Middendorff’s, which effectively means I have zero experience. This might be partly responsible for me thinking the plumage looks a bit ‘off’. Nevertheless, plumage aside, Middendorff’s always strike me as well proportioned, somewhat lightly-built, with a relatively fine bill and a shortish tail, unlike this bird. I can see my ‘local’ population of Styan’s throughout summer, from fresh arrivals in May to worn and faded birds in August. They’re a stronger-looking warbler with a deep bill and a longer, broader tail, matching the Hegura bird to an extent, but in terms of plumage they’re peas from the same pod (apart from the extent and saturation of greyish-brown wash on the underparts) and nothing like the Hegura bird.   

It’s tempting to leave it as Middendorff’s/Styan’s. However, the intriguing possibility of identifying a subcerthiola Middendorff’s or a ‘continental’ Styan’s prevents me from quite letting this go. Kennerley (Reed and Bush Warblers) describes subcerthiola as larger than ochotensis and northernmost birds as a match for Styan’s in size. Could this account for my feeling this was a large bird?  I have no idea whether subspecies are identifiable in the field so it seems a bit of a stretch.

 Things which to me don’t seem to sit well with the Middendorff’s indentification:–

Structurally, this was a large, heavily-built warbler with a very deep bill and a long, broad tail which never suggested it could possibly be neatly rounded if spread; the tail was like a plank!

At no time did I see the usually fairly obvious whitish edge of P2, nor can I detect it in any of the images I have.

Things that don’t seem to sit well with anything:–

The tail structure looked odd. T1–2 were broad and surprisingly squared-off, further, instead of having evenly spaced T3–6 with T6 about level with the tips of the undertail coverts, this bird T5–6 bunched closely together and well past the undertail coverts. Additionally, it lacked both cross barring and white tips to the underside of the tail feathers. As it was possible to detect subtle whitish undertail covert tips on a pale ground, any tail markings should have been fairly easy to make out even in these views, I would have thought. Only T1–2 had white tips, narrowly on the former and more prominently on the latter.

The sides of the throat and the upper breast were heavily streaked, the sides of the breast were grey and met in the centre as a mottled grey breast band producing a clear divide between the white throat and yellowish underparts. Prominent breast streaks and yellowish tints might be expected in juveniles but not in spring birds I wouldn't have though, certainly not to this extent. Even then, the yellowish hues of juveniles are more centred on the throat rather than the underparts.

An important point to stress is that assessing plumage details both in the field and in these images was/is tricky because the bird was constantly moving between strong sunlight and deep shade, it was often dappled and rarely in good viewing conditions. In strong sunlight the upperparts looked uniformly pale brown but in light shade the bird was a much darker brown with greyish nape and cheeks and with clear dark centres to crown and mantle feathers creating a subtly streaked appearance. There's a suggestion in one or two images that the rump/uppertail coverts might be slightly paler than the mantle but I didn't notice that in the field and am therefore unsure about this point.

One thing which may or may not be of relevance is that looking through the Macaulay Library images of Middendorff’s dated early May, there were two images that caught my eye but neither showed the whole bird so I don't know whether they were really similar but in each the bird shown has a very streaked throat and both these images were taken in the ROK in early May. Is this coincidental? I’d have assumed the most northerly breeding locustella would be arriving at a later date? How much fresher-looking are early May birds compared to a month later? More questions than answers. 

First some shots of my local Styan's Grasshoppers for comparison.

It always seems sunny when I go so a shot in duller conditions is good. Strong, deep-based bill and relatively long tail are apparent. This late June bird is already looking a bit tatty about the vent/undertail coverts.

They are very plain-looking birds (this early June) but have a strong bill and quite long tail extending well beyond the longest undertail coverts. 

The undertail cross-barring and evenly-spaced white tips should be equally obvious on Middendorff's I'd have thought.

And a couple of mid-October Middendorff's...

To me, this would is a fairly typical Middendorff's, dainty, spiky bill and short, rounded tail.

Despite the foreshortening at this angle, the tail gives a rounded impression, fitting well with the full undertail coverts.

And the bird in question...

That's quite a bill its got, more in the Gray's/Sakhalin class. Bold throat streaking extends diffusely onto the flanks.

It was only in good light (ie shade but not too deep) that head and mantle streaks became apparent. I don't think the pale tip to the bill means anything but it was always noticeable.

This is what I mean by 'tail like a plank', long, broad and straight. There's a hint of contrasting uppertail coverts here.

This shows the narrow white tips of T1 and broader tips of T2.

I almost feel I'm trying to identify a SE Asian bulbul rather than a locustella. The undertail is remarkably uniform and the spacing of the feathers looks very odd; this is never going to produce a short, rounded effect if spread. Yellowish tinted underparts are strange too.

Why is the almost hidden photo-bomber in focus?! The grey sides of the breast meet in the centre creating a clean divide between the white throat and yellowish underparts.

Birding would be so boring if everything was easy.

Saturday 1 April 2023

surprise alcid in Mie

On the Pacific side of my region, any alcid is a very good find. A single Ancient Murrelet is the only one I can think of having seen. And, while I may daydream about all kinds of amazing birds on my way out birding, a good wader, a rare duck, an unexpected passerine, alcids have never ever featured on the fantasy radar. So bearing that in mind, I hope I can be forgiven for being totally stumped by this duck in with a flock of Greater Scaup.

The odd duck was clearly smaller than the Scaup and white seemed to extend right back round the eye. Where's the white patch on a Harlequin Duck? That would be an excellent find this far south.

But it's not a Harlequin though, is it.

Nope, no bells ringing yet and alcid still not on the radar. Until it woke up...

It finally woke up and all was revealed.

Unlike other duck species which have dropped to much lower numbers by late March, Gt Scaup always hang on in their thousands. There are huge rafts all along the 20-30 km I might cover when birding in Mie. Many rafts are so far out they even aren't worth looking at. Closer rafts might be so large as to be too time consuming to be worth more than a scan through for anything obviously different. But any close flock of a manageable size is worth going through in the hope of a Lesser. This was one such flock, although picking up this 'odd duck' was far easier than any Lesser Scaup would have been.

Quite why it was so attached to the Scaup, I've no idea. But then, why was it so far south of where it should have been in the first place? I've only been able to find one record of a Spectacled Guillemot this far south but it's never easy to get accurate information about such birds. It is safe to say this is definitely a major rarity in this part of Japan. Any rare is a good rare, of course, but having been in Hokkaido just last month, I'd have preferred something from the opposite direction. There's just no pleasing some people.