Thursday, 31 December 2015

Hokkaido - Cape Nosappu and Kirtappu then back to Kushiro

We've now left all the ice behind unfortunately, having just spent a couple of great nights at Lodge Furen with Take and his wife. Wonderful food and loads of birding info too. On our way there, we stopped at a couple of harbours - Shibetsu which was good for some nice Harlequins and then the frozen over Odaito harbour, where enticed with bread and popcorn among the Slaty-backed and Glaucous-winged Gulls, we found an adult Kumlien's Gull (pretty decent for Hokkaido apparently) and an adult Vega Gull.
Harlequin Ducks Shibetsu, Hokkaido 29th December 2015

adult Kumlien's Gull Odaito, Hokkaido 29th December 2015
adult Glaucous Gull (presumably barrovianus) Odaito, Hokkaido 29th December 2015
We had a full day around the peninsular too; it wasn't really enough time to do the place justice but we poked our noses in to enough places to realise just how many seaduck, cormorants and alcids enjoy spending their time here in winter. Cape Nosappu was decent with a handful of Red-faced Cormorants roosting among the numerous Pelagic Cormorants while from the lighthouse a dozen or so Ancient Murrelets, lots of Spectacled Guillemots and a couple of Pigeon Guillemots were noted. Plenty of Harlequins, Black Scoters, Pacific Divers and Red-necked Grebes offshore too.
Red-faced Cormorant Cape Nosappu, Hokkaido 30th December 2015
We stopped off nearby to look for Rock Sandpipers, but the rocks they tend to favour were vacant so we had to console ourselves (predictably) with a load of gulls, Black Scoters, Harlequins and a showy Long-tailed Duck nearby.
juvenile Glaucous Gull Onnemoto, Hokkaido 30th December 2015
drake Long-tailed Duck Onnemoto, Hokkaido 30th December 2015
drake Long-tailed Duck Onnemoto, Hokkaido 30th December 2015
We were starting to sweat our rings over Asian Rosy Finch, having again not located them on Cape Nosappu. Therefore, there was only one thing for it, to spend time specifically targeting the species - and Cape Kirtappu is and always has been the guaranteed site. There's some feeders in a pension a couple of km from the lighthouse that seem to deliver the species year in, year out. And thankfully it was here that our quest ended successfully with a flock of about forty birds.

This morning we said goodbye to Lodge Furen and headed south, taking in a Bullfinch nearby on the way (as well as a couple of Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers), stopping off for our last look at the Hokkaido gulls in Akkeshi and then back in Kushiro.
1st-winter Vega Gull Akkeshi, Hokkaido 31st December 2015
1st-winter Slaty-backed Gull Kushiro, Hokkaido 31st December 2015
We're now back on Honshu, with just a couple of days left before we return to grey and stormy Britain. Happy New Year everyone and thanks for reading this during 2015.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Hokkaido - Abashiri, Notoro and Notsuke

We'll be leaving Hokkaido tomorrow afternoon, after a really memorable time here. Despite the winter being extremely mild, lower snow than normal and a distinct lack of sea ice we've managed to come away with some really decent stuff. And it was still pretty cold too to be honest! Large numbers of quality birds all along the coast... copious numbers of Harlequins mainly with a load of Black Scoters thrown in.

We started our coastal birding in the north around the town of Abashiri and Cape Notoro. This was the first in a long line of sites we'd check for Asian Rosy Finch, but pride of place here was a Siberian Grey Shrike on roadside wires a km or so before the lighthouse. A pretty scarce bird in Japan, and one we've got Josh J and Google translate to thank for the gen.
Siberian Grey Shrike Cape Notoro, Hokkaido 27th December 2015
Back in Abashiri with a nice dumping of snow, the local Slaty-backed Gulls and a few Glaucous Gulls were out in force. A handful of Falcated Ducks were on the river, and a few Oriental Greenfinches seemed a bit out of their depth.
adult Slaty-backed Gull Abashiri, Hokkaido 27th December 2015
juvenile Glaucous Gull Abashiri, Hokkaido 27th December 2015
We headed east along the coast towards Shari, stopping off at a swan park where there'd been a hutchinsii Canada Goose a couple of days previously. We couldn't find this yank stray but a few Harlequins on the river, a drake Smew, a couple of distant Steller's Sea Eagles and Red-crowned Cranes at least gave us something to look at.
adult Slaty-backed Gull Shari, Hokkaido 27th December 2015 (with Mick S looking elsewhere)
Despite our best efforts to get the gulls in with the usual bread and popcorn at Shari, as soon as one of these beasts flew over they all scarpered, even the Glaucs.
White-tailed Eagle Shari, Hokkaido 27th December 2015
The next day (after our first night with Blakiston's Fish Owls - see previous post), we headed east and onto the coast again after a check of Yoroushi-onsen for Solitary Snipe. This was unsuccessful but the many brandtii Jays played ball.
Jay Yoroushi-onsen, Hokkaido 28th December 2015
Once on the coast, checking of harbour revealed good numbers of Harlequins and Black Scoters once again, with a scattering of Pacific Divers and Red-necked Grebes. We headed into Rausu, knowing full well all the boat trips to see the eagles on the ice wouldn't be happening (due to the lack of ice), so we cut our losses and retraced our steps south and then onto the Notsuke Peninsula. And the Steller's Sea Eagles duly obliged, in large numbers.

Steller's Sea Eagles Notsuke, Hokkaido 28th December 2015
There were also a number of White-tailed Eagles on the peninsular too, as well as twenty or so Snow Buntings; however our quest for Asian Rosy Finch would have to be finishe another day.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Blakiston's Fish Owl nights x2

We've had a cracking time the last three days, seeing lots of good birds including Steller's Sea Eagles, Northern (Siberian) Grey Shrike, countless seaduck including Stejneger's and Black Scoter and more Harlequins than you know what to do with; we're still going good with the gulls too. However, there is a certain bird that deserves its own post... the world's largest owl. This is our first night off them, having visited a couple of sites, Yuyado Daiichi at Yoroushi-onsen and then last night at Washi no Yado just outside the town of Rausu. Both were absolutely gripping, in their own ways. We saw two birds at each site.

Blakiston's Fish Owl Yoroushi-onsen, Hokkaido 27th December 2015

Blakiston's Fish Owl Washi no Yado, Hokkaido 27th December 2015
Yoroushi-onsen gave us by far the closer views, with birds perched just metres away as they fished. You're looking through glass here though, and as the place is a spa retreat it's possible you'll have to put up with members of the public blocking your view. Make sure too that if you visit this site you have something less than a 400mm lens as the birds are obviously massive and way too close (unless you just want head shots).

Washi no Yado is the old school site, set up for birders and photographers with a more rustic feel. It was probably more atmospheric too, perhaps because we visited in heavy snow. What you have here is a special viewing room, where you can open the windows without any glare. Compared to Yoroushi-onsen, the birds are a little bit more distant (but that's not necessarily a bad thing!).

One thing's for sure, with either of these sites you really can't go wrong - an experience you'll remember for all your life.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

more cranes and gulls (plus a White's Thrush) on Hokkaido today

Our first Hokkaido dawn was cold, minus fifteen to be precise. There's this place on the river just outside of Tsurui where you get the Red-crowned Cranes roosting up and then in the morning, hopefully with a load of mist, you pap them to get atmospheric shots. And so the dudes that we are, there was only one thing to do... join the many Japanese and do our thing.
Red-crowned Cranes Tsurui, Hokkaido 26th December 2015
And after we got our fill of the cranes (and a good bit of sashimi for breakfast), it was back to normal territory for us in Kushiro harbour. After yesterday's larid feast there, and with crisp light (albeit with a biting wind), it was rude not to get among the Slaty-backed Gulls and their friends. Just a few here, and worth noting the vastly differing mantle tones.

Slaty-backed Gulls Kushiro harbour, Hokkaido 26th December 2015 (top three adults, fourth down second-winter and above first-winter)
juvenile presumed hybrid Glaucous-winged x Glaucous Gull Kushiro harbour, Hokkaido 26th December 2015
After a couple of hours we headed back north and on to Lake Kussharo. The Whooper Swans were about, but the ice that you get later in the winter hadn't formed and it was all a bit of an anticlimax, having to watch little Japanese kids running around feeding them popcorn. Retiring to our accommodation earlier than planned, the day thankfully didn't quite end as planned when this Siberian beauty popped out next to us...
White's Thrush Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido 26th December 2015

Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas with cranes, eagles and gulls

We landed in a winter wonderland today, Japan's northerly outpost of Hokkaido. After landing in Kushiro, there was only one thing for it - hit the busy harbour. In snowy conditions, it was a real contrast to the balmy weather yesterday down in Kyushu and there was also another big change in that the composition of gulls was completely different. Slaty-backed Gulls dominated, and alongside them there were a load of Glaucous-winged Gulls and Kamchatka Gulls as well as a couple of Glaucous Gulls (an adult and a juvenile). A few seaduck were about too, namely Goldeneyes and Scaup but with the odd Black Scoter thrown in. A very nice introduction...
adult Glaucous-winged Gull Kushiro, Hokkaido 25th December 2015

adult Slaty-backed Gulls (above two) Kushiro, Hokkaido 25th December 2015

Kamchatka Gulls (1st-winters and adult, above) Kushiro, Hokkaido 25th December 2015
After blasting away in the blizzard, it was time to head off to Akan where the Red-crowned Cranes were putting on their usual show in the sunshine. Seventy of them, pretty majestic and doing a bit of dancing between their more regular munching. Just one shot here, but hundreds taken and a few birds inevitably ringed too.
Red-crowned Cranes Akan, Hokkaido 25th December 2015
A couple of times a day, fish get thrown out and White-tailed Eagles take full advantage of this. With the crisp light and close views, half a dozen of these massive beasts almost eclipsed the performance of the cranes.

adult White-tailed Eagles Akan, Hokkaido 25th December 2015
So to sum it up, it was a pretty memorable way to spend Christmas day. Cold admittedly, and ended up having a great Japanese meal too to round proceedings off.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Cranes galore at Arasaki

White-naped and Hooded Cranes Arasaki, Japan 24th December 2015
The last couple of days have been spent on Kyushu, around the famous Crane Centre at Arasaki. This place is world known for the thousands of Hooded and White-naped Cranes that winter there each year along with loads of other waterfowl and passerines. Plenty to keep you busy for at least a couple of decent days... so here are just a few shots for now.

White-naped Cranes Arasaki, Japan 24th December 2015
Hooded Crane Arasaki, Japan 24th December 2015
And as always, if you have huge flocks of birds, there is certainly going to be the odd vagrant or two. We were unlucky this winter as there are no Siberian White Cranes (the odd juvenile appears every other year or so) but there were at least eight Sandhill Cranes as well as a Common Crane and an eclectic mixed party of Common Cranes and Hooded x Common offspring (presumably of a couple of generations).
Sandhill Crane Arasaki, Japan 23rd December 2015
 adult Common Crane (right) with two presumed hybrid Hooded x Common young (centre) and further hybrid (left) Japan 23rd December 2015
There were also a heck of a lot of other birds to be seen. The most perplexing of these being a Savannah Sparrow, a species we didn't actually realise occurred in Japan! Fodder species included japonicus Buff-bellied Pipits, lugens White Wagtails, Dusky Thrushes and Oriental Turtle Doves - all quality in themselves but pretty common here at Arasaki. We also saw the odd Chestnut-eared Bunting among the commoner Meadow and Black-faced Buntings, while Chinese Penduline Tit and Daurian Jackdaw were both successfully targeted. Careful searching through the wildfowl gave up a quality drake Baikal Teal as well as perhaps a dozen Falcated Ducks and a couple of suspect Wigeon with a bit of yank lineage.
drake Baikal Teal Arasaki, Japan 23rd December 2015
Savannah Sparrow Arasaki,  Japan 24th December 2015
We also took time out from the cranes and visited the River Sendai at Satsuma where there didn't appear to be any Scaly-sided Mergansers this winter so far, despite searching on both days. Crested Kingfisher and Cat A Mandarins were seen at Kagowa Dam while we couldn't help but visit a nearby fish port for an hour or so and pap a load of its offering, namely Black-tailed, Vega and Slaty-backed Gulls (as well as a showy Dusky Thrush).
Dusky Thrush Akune, Japan 24th December 2015
1st-winter Black-tailed Gull Akune, Japan 24th December 2015
Now back in Tokyo and onwards and upwards to Hokkaido in the morning. Happy Christmas to all!