Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Japan in November (No.3): Ochi-ishi boat trip

I have to admit to having a soft spot for seabirds and I was in my element today, a wonderful morning spent boating around two offshore islands (Yururi and Moyururi) with Koji Niija. This is a special area for breeding seabirds, several of which are at the southernmost part of their distribution and this is the only place in Japan you are likely to see them. Most of them can also be seen in November, when passage and wintering birds add further interest.
Koji has run seabird cruises for a few years now and operates in partnership with local fishermen who host the tours in addition to their normal fishing.  This is unusual, but has the benefit of connecting the fishermen with their local wildlife much more than would otherwise be the case.  It was great to see their enthusiasm for the birds and hopefully this will help ensure their long term conservation. The project has won awards, and deservedly so.  The slight downside is that the boats are not designed for tourists and you have to adapt and find a suitable perch!  Fortunately there was only three of us, plus the two boatmen, so we had plenty of space.
Leaving our mooring early in the morning, a single drake long-tailed duck was pretty much the only bird inside the harbour and soon we were heading out into surprisingly choppy waters.  Getting any photos of the birds looked like being a real challenge! 
Mid November is the peak period for diver passage along this coast and we witnessed a constant stream of divers, mostly Pacific divers, and disturbed dozens from the water.  A couple of red-necked grebes showed briefly too.
I was soon watching my first ancient murrelets, they were quite common, small rafts of birds bobbing around on the waves but very hard to focus on.
Ancient murrelet
Birds were now more numerous and it was evident there were fish shoals attracting feeding gatherings.  The first of these was a group of short-tailed shearwaters, which we approached quite close to.
short-tailed shearwater
raft of short-tailed shearwaters
Then a larger auk took flight and my surprisingly quick reaction with the camera caught a decent image of a puffin - not one on our "expect to see" list.
fast reactions were required to capture the "larger auk" in flight! - horned puffin
It was clearly a horned puffin, the only other species in the Pacific is the all-black tufted puffin.  In winter plumage the horned puffin looks quite like Atlantic puffin - it is more distinctive in the breeding season.

horned puffin No.1
A larger feeding frenzy of seabirds contained more of the same species, pelagic cormorants and another horned puffin, this bird has more of the breeding colour remaining on the bill.
horned puffin No. 2

sea stacks

immature white-tailed sea eagle and ancient murrelets - little and large
Soon afterwards the first rhinoceros auklets came into view, a bird I last seen many years ago on the other side of the Pacific in California.  There were good numbers but most views were of birds swimming away from the boat!
rhinoceros auklet
By now the sun was shining and sea conditions slightly less choppy. We continued on around the far end of the smaller island, looking for two more auks.
These obligingly appeared, first up were a couple of pigeon guillemots, then a very elegant spectacled guillemot, both allowing a reasonably close approach by the boat.

pigeon guillemot
spectacled guillemot
Next was a small flock of harlequin ducks, which eventually took flight.  Then another real highlight, this one mammalian - a sea otter suddenly appeared and instead of swimming away, it moved towards us and came right up to the boat, quite wonderful and too close to focus with my long lens.  They are actually very rare in Japan and this is the only place you can see them, maybe as few as four adults survive.
sea otter
Continuing onwards, Koji showed us a small group of red-faced cormorants perched on a sea stack - another seabird that, in Japan, only breeds here. By now we were on the homeward leg, but there were still plenty of birds and a continual passage of divers.  As we neared the harbour, a Brunnich's guillemot was using the sheltered waters, another new bird for me and another surprise.  
Brunnich's guillemot
Within the harbour itself, a drake harlequin and a single ancient murrelet allowed very close views, for once in calm conditions.
ancient murrelet
giant octopus being unloaded back at the harbour
Many thanks to Koji and the fishermen for a brillant trip.

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