Sunday, 28 February 2016

Japan in November (No.9): Red-crowned Cranes in the marshes of Kushiro

A century ago, the wetlands inland from Kushiro were the last place in Japan to provide a safe haven for the Red-crowned Crane.
Formerly quite widespread in Japan, the crane suffered a major decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  For a while they were thought to be extinct, then a small population was re-discovered in Eastern Hokkaido, breeding in the extensive Kushiro Marshes and spending the winter near the village of Tsurui.  Conservationists and local farmers came to the rescue, protecting the wetlands and feeding the cranes over the winter.  The population gradually recovered and now number over a thousand.
Red-crowned Crane portrait
Firmly established as a very special bird in Japan, and designated a "national monument", the cranes are the cornerstone of local ecotourism and an incredibly popular subject for photographers. We stayed one night in the village of Tsurui to watch them at sunrise at the famous viewing point at Otawa Bridge.  Large groups sometimes roost in the river, mostly during the coldest weather.  When we arrived there were just a family of three cranes, but others were flying around the area and as we stood and watched a group of four flighted in.
this adult was adept at finding food in the river
flock of four flighting in

The party of cranes were also gathered at a roadside sanctuary, and started to display and "dance".  Wonderful sight.
dancing cranes
Later in the day we explored the wetlands and had some more great views of the cranes, as well as herds of whooper swans and bean geese.
Whooper Swan family
Bean Geese (Taiga)
adult and juvenile
family of cranes in wet grassland habitat
A couple of large freshwater lakes provided good fishing for large flocks of Goosanders and Smews. Overhead, a couple more Steller's Sea Eagles, our last of the trip, and quite a few White-tailed Sea Eagles.

There are a couple of great viewpoints that give you a vista across the landscape.  It is only then that you really appreciate how big and relatively wild this place is.  It is thankfully now a protected area for the cranes and much other wildlife.  It is not pristine - there has been drainage and reclamation around the edges, but it is still a much bigger (22,000ha) and more natural wetland ecosystem than we are used to in most of Europe and there is certainly nothing like it in the UK.  Think "Insh Marshes on a grand scale" (Insh Marshes are a wonderfully wild wetland nature reserve in Speyside, Scotland).

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Japan in November (No.8): kingfishers from the hot spring baths

crested kingfisher - large, stunning bird but quite shy
solitary snipe - a winter visitor: one of the birds of the trip and almost the only wader!  A nice find beside the river close to the hotel
Moving inland for a couple of nights, we stayed at a rather wonderful and somewhat luxurious spa hotel, close to the Akan National Park, an area famous for its volcanic landscape, lakes and forests.  Situated next to a small river, the hotel was very nature-friendly with lots of bird feeders kept well stocked during the day, attracting large numbers of jays and marsh tits, plus a good selection of other birds.   In the evening a Blakiston's fish owl also showed up to great excitement from the massed guestes. Superb cuisine too: basically a real treat.
marsh tit - very common visitor to the feeders, but there were also a few willow tits (the call just like our race)

The surrounding area offered some good birding and photo opportunities though generally the birds were quite shy.  One of the best places to birdwatch was from the hot spring baths (onsen) that overlooked the river, especially to watch the crested kingfishers, but not the place to take binoculars!
caldera lake: Lake Mashu
wren - one of my favourite photos from the trip
brown-eared bulbul - pretty common
black woodpecker (record shot!) - not easy to see in Hokkaido
mountain views - very little old growth forest in this area, mostly plantations
pine grosbeak (female) - saw these twice including a couple of males but shy and wary

Three more posts about Japan to come in the next few days - I need to get a move on as Spring is almost here......

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Japan in November (No.7): mid week gull fest

I'm not the biggest gull fan in the world, but I have to confess I have gradually got more interested in them over the years.  In Hokkaido you get great opportunities to see several species that are either scarce, very rare or yet to be recorded in the UK. Here is a quick round up:

Black-tailed and Common (Kamchatka) gulls
Vega Gull - much has been written in the birding press recently about this Pacific version of our Herring Gull - as one of these turned up in Ireland in January!  I only saw about three.  Note the pale eye is normal in winter.
Slaty-backed Gull - like Vega Gull their legs are very pink (described by others as bubblegum pink)
Glaucous-winged Gull (front)
Slaty-backed, Black-tailed and Common (Kamchatka) gulls
Glaucous and Glaucous-winged gulls
Glaucous and Slaty-backed gulls
Black-tailed Gull
Black-tailed Gull
Slaty-backed gulls

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Flocks and more flocks: starlings, lapwings, golden plovers....

I have been fending off  a cold this weekend but managed some local birding from the car.  The floods in the Upper Cherwell Valley have receded leaving some nicely soggy grassland which has attracted feeding lapwings, numbers building up to over two hundred by Sunday afternoon.   About twenty years ago lapwings nested in these fields, but now they are just occasional visitors, this is the largest flock I've seen actually feeding on the wet grassland.
lapwings with gulls and corvids

At Chacombe the golden plover flock is still present in a favoured field,  They are very well camouflaged against straw coloured stubble.  Just over seventy today.
It was all about flocks today, easily the largest was a very densely packed flock of starlings feeding in the pasture fields that surround Upper Wardington.  I estimated two thousand but took some photos for checking later.  Close inspection of the set of pics upped the count to 2700.  A few more smaller flocks were dotted around the local area, so easily three thousand birds, a definite increase on recent weeks.
part of the very densely packed flock of starlings
more starlings

There are still good numbers of fieldfares and redwings, a flock of about a hundred linnets, a few yellowhammers and a reed bunting.
Last week I took a few pics of the flood defences upriver of Banbury at work, just after the peak flows.  Not not quite enough for a spectacular flood but quite a sight nonetheless.
Banbury Flood Defences

A few pics also from a brief stop at Bicester Wetland Reserve in the week: fantastic views of water rails here at the moment.  A kingfisher perched very close to the hide but I couldn't quite get an unobstructed photo without twigs in the way, there is always next time....
water rail
roe deer (grey herons in background)

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Upper Cherwell Valley: gulls on the floods

Heavy rain throughout Saturday had created some shallow flooding in the Upper Cherwell Valley by Sunday morning.  These floods rarely last long as the fields are mostly well drained and as soon as the river level drops, the floods receded quickly.  But for a day or two the landscape is transformed and becomes more attractive to birds.  So on Sunday morning I took a quick trip down to see what was about.
A good number of gulls were loafing around the main area of flooding, with six mute swans and about thirty five so Canada geese.  Scanning through the gulls, most were black--headed and common, a couple of herring and lesser black-backs and in the middle, towering over the others, an adult great black-backed gull.  Our largest gull is actually quite a rare sighting in the Banbury area and this was a first for me on the local patch.  The gulls were not really settled, and after about ten minutes the great black-backed flew off.
Upper Cherwell flood with gulls - adult great black-back gull near centre
Driving back to Upper Wardington it was pleasing to see the large flock of fieldfares still present in their favoured pasture fields and finding plenty of earthworms.  I was able to enjoy some lovely views through the telescope, really smart birds these.  About five hundred still in this group.

If you are interested in the flooding regime it is well worth checking out the Environment Agency's river level monitoring website, there's a monitoring point at Cropredy Bridge which is the one most relevant for the Upper Cherwell.