Gulling

Gulls… They say that, as a birder, you either love them or hate them. Well, I am definitely in the ‘love’ category, even though I find the large white-headed gull complex an identification challenge.

Living in Beijing, a very dry and land-locked metropolis, sightings of any gulls near to home are few and far between. So the opportunity to visit Choshi, just east of Tokyo, was too good to miss.

This port, situated on the edge of the vast Pacific Ocean, is home to hundreds of fishing boats and I saw huge catches of yellow-fin tuna, mackerel, sardines and some larger species, including what looked like swordfish. The sheer quantity of fish, and its associated waste and by-catch, means that there is plenty of food for gulls and, during winter, they are attracted here in their thousands. The most common gull by far is the Black-tailed Gull, an east Asian endemic, closely followed by Vega (a Herring Gull lookalike) and Black-headed Gulls (ssp sibiricus). Among these are reasonable numbers of Slaty-backed Gulls with a few Glaucous-winged, Glaucous, Common (ssp kamtschatschensis) and the odd Mongolian Gull (Larus cachinnans mongolicus) mixed in. During my visit I also saw a Ring-billed Gull (the first Japanese record of this American species was as recent as 2002).

Access is easy and free – I had no problem at all walking around with binoculars and a camera and the great thing for photography is that you are generally looking north from the harbour towards the water, meaning that the winter sun is mostly with you.

If you are interested in gulls, this is as close to heaven as it gets. However, Choshi is not just about gulls – many more sought after species can be seen well here. The local Black Kites (ssp lineatus or ‘Black-eared Kite’) also enjoy the bounty provided by the fishing boats and there are good numbers of Temminck’s and Pelagic Cormorants plus Black-necked and Slavonian Grebes just offshore. A single Harlequin Duck near the lighthouse at Cape Inubo was a nice addition to my visit and Dusky Thrushes were common in suitable habitat. Around Cape Inubo there were also Blue Rock Thrushes, Japanese White-eyes, Bull-headed Shrikes and a single Brown Thrush.

I will follow this general post with some detailed posts about specific species but, in the meantime, I am posting a selection of images to give you a feel for the place.

Getting there: Choshi is within easy reach from Tokyo and Narita airport and a day-trip from either is very doable. Catch any train from Narita Airport to Narita and change for the hourly local service to Choshi, which takes around 90 minutes (cost cGBP10). The staff at the airport are incredibly helpful and will point you in the right direction and give you advice on purchasing a ticket. Once at Choshi, it is a 5-10 mins walk to the north to reach the river Tome, from where you can walk east along the whole length of the harbour for 3-4 km (the whole stretch is good for gulls). Further along the coast to the south-east lies a famous lighthouse at Cap Inubo. It would probably take 2-3 hours to walk to this point from the station, so a taxi is a good option if you want to explore this area (but beware, taxis in Japan are expensive – it cost me almost GBP 20 pounds for the 10-minute journey from Choshi town centre to the lighthouse). I found only one hotel in Choshi where the staff spoke any english – the Choshi Plaza (half way from the station to the river on the right hand side) – which, at GBP50 per night, is reasonable value in Japan.

Best areas: there are boats all along the harbour wall running from just east of the Tome bridge to the sea, with three fish markets interspersed. The best area for viewing gulls depends on the activity in the harbour and which boats are offloading their catch but, about half-way along, there are a couple of good areas of sea wall parallel to the road which are good places to scan – hundreds of gulls rest here and there are good numbers all day.

A sardine boat returning to Choshi port after a night on the seas

Fishermen warming themselves around a fire at Choshi port

Yellow-fin Tuna on sale, most of which will be destined for Tokyo sushi

A fresh catch of sardines, Choshi

Adult Black-tailed Gull, Choshi, Japan

Adult Vega Gull, Choshi, Japan

Slaty-backed Gull, Choshi, Japan.

Adult Glaucous-winged Gull

First winter Glaucous Gull, Choshi, Japan. Note the dark-tipped pale bill

Black-headed Gull ssp sibiricus

Common Gull ssp kamtschatschensis

Black-eared Kites are common scavengers around the port

Dusky Thrushes are common at Choshi in suitable habitat

Pelagic Cormorants are fairly common at Choshi

Hundreds of Temminck's and Great Cormorants can be seen along the sea wall at Choshi. This one is a Great.

Black-necked Grebes are common winter visitors to Choshi

Advertisements

Owl eats Owl

On Saturday I accompanied visiting Swedish birder, Anders Magnusson, to Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang/Yeyahu Nature Reserve) for a day’s birding. Thankfully the forecast strong winds were absent as we were dropped off at Ma Chang at 0730 in -12 degrees C. My ‘michelin man’ outfit including ‘man tights’ (and they are very manly, honest), thermal underwear, 4 layers of t-shirts and fleece plus a long, down-filled coat, two pairs of gloves, woolly hat and thermal snow boots meant I was snug as a bug with only my nose really feeling the cold.

A few Common Cranes were a good start, including one that seemed to completely retract its legs when flying (either that or it had no legs at all – unlikely given that it had obviously been able to take off). Soon we were enjoying a ringtail Hen Harrier and over 200 Bean Geese. A scan of the reservoir revealed a small patch of open water near the far bank, on which swam 20-30 more Bean Geese and around 10 Goosander. Asian Short-toed Larks and Lapland Buntings occasionally flew overhead and, as we began the walk towards Yeyahu a Peregrine engaged in a (unsuccessful) hunt for a feral pigeon. Shortly afterwards, an immature White-tailed Eagle appeared from the west and spooked a flock of around 250 Ruddy Shelducks that were standing on the far side of the ice. Nice.

We worked our way across the open area, enjoying 2 Upland Buzzards (one of which flew alongside a Hen Harrier and looked absolutely huge in comparison) and Pallas’s Reed Buntings seemed to be in every shrub. We flushed a few Common Skylarks as they fed on the ground and, as we approached Yeyahu, 2 male Hen Harriers (one adult and one sub-adult) quartered the reeds. Here we also heard and saw briefly the first of two Chinese Hill Warblers. After a welcome coffee stop (which tasted soooo good) we pushed on towards the lake and, in an area of only a few square metres, we flushed 16 Japanese Quail which scattered in different directions (clearly a deliberate strategy to confuse predators). The reedbed held good numbers of Pallas’s Reed Buntings and, after a bit of work, we managed to identify a single ‘tik’-ing Rustic Bunting in amongst them and then, after a bit of persistence, were treated to good but brief views of the second Chinese Hill Warbler after we heard it calling several times. A fly-by Saker was a bonus.

By now it was 11am and, as is usual at this site, suddenly the wind got up, making the temperature feel another 5-10 degrees colder (wind chill was probably around -20 to -25). At the lake, the brief search for Chinese Penduline Tit proved fruitless, probably due to the fresh wind, but we did see one of the eastern races of Common Reed Bunting (with distinctly pale mantle stripes compared with the nominate race).  After scrutinising it for a while (ruling out Japanese Reed Bunting) we headed north to the lookout tower, choosing the more sheltered side of the trees. Here we discovered a fresh eagle owl kill – of another owl (probably a Short-eared Owl but comments welcome on the feathers below). There were owl feathers covering an area of a couple of square metres with a huge pellet alongside. The site was within 100 metres of where we saw an Eagle Owl in December, so this is probably evidence of the same bird wintering here.

A bit further along Anders spotted a Siberian Accentor (a new bird for him) and, on close examination, there proved to be 2 birds foraging in the lee of the bank. Nice. Before we entered the open area towards the tower we flushed a Grey-headed Woodpecker which flew a long way and out of sight and stumbled across a small flock of Meadow Buntings which showed very well for a few minutes before disappearing over the bank. The walk to the tower produced another 4 Japanese Quails. A scan of the open area from the tower did not produce the hoped for Great Bustard (one was reported two weeks ago) and, given the cold wind, we did not stay up there very long – just long enough to take a couple of images of the ice fishermen. Clearly they are now more confident about the ice thickness given they are driving their vehicles onto the lake…

The walk back to the entrance to the reserve was uneventful and we were met by our driver who took us to the bus station for the journey back to Beijing. A thoroughly enjoyable day out!

Hen Harrier at Yeyahu, 22 January 2011
The scene of the Eagle Owl kill
Eagle Owl pellet
One of the victim's (primary?) feathers - Short-eared Owl?
Ice fishing at Yeyahu
Ice fishing - a cold and lonely pursuit!

Ritan Park

A walk in my local green space – Ritan Park – at lunchtime was surprisingly productive with at least 14 Chinese Grosbeaks, 40+ White-cheeked Starlings, 6 Spotted Doves, 6 Naumann’s Thrushes, a single Black-throated Thrush and one very washed-out Yellow-bellied Tit. Temperatures still well below freezing (-10 today) but beautifully sunny. Brian Jones visited Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake) following a reported Great Bustard earlier in the week but no sign today (and his water bottle froze!).

Planning a visit to Wild Duck Lake next weekend and also a 3-4 day trip to Dalian in Feb to look at the gulls.. watch this space.

Chinese Grosbeak, Ritan Park, 16 January 2011

Ice fishing

A few images from my most recent visit to Ma Chang/Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake) just before Christmas.  The reservoir is well and truly frozen over now and the locals are taking advantage to engage in a spot of ice-fishing.

Ice fishing at Ma Chang/Yayahu with the spectacular mountain backdrop
Ice fishing

Brian Jones recalled an incident last year when he saw a White-tailed Eagle catch a Ruddy Shelduck on the same reservoir, only to see one of the locals race onto the ice and steal the prey before the eagle could take off with its quarry. Not sure what Ruddy Shelducks taste like but that eagle must have been seriously peeved!

Here are a couple more images of the juvenile Upland Buzzard that proved so confiding. I am hoping to get out there again in the next couple of weeks – will be interesting to see if it is still around.

Juvenile Upland Buzzard, Yeyahu, 18 December 2010
Juvenile Upland Buzzard, Yeyahu, 18 December 2010
Upland Buzzard, Yeyahu, 18 December 2010. Note the white flashes on the upperwing.

and one of the Japanese Quails.. trying to capture on film one of these birds as it darts away low and fast is a skill I have yet to master..!

Typical view of a Japanese Quail...

Thailand

Just back from Christmas and New Year in Thailand. In between the sightseeing, hitting the markets and the Thai cooking course (yes, really), I managed a bit of birding. Highlight has to be the Hornbills at Khao Yai.

We enjoyed two full days in Khao Yai and, with an expert guide, Komuel (who, incidentally was mauled by a tiger about 15 years ago and sports nasty scars on his arm to prove it), I was keen to explore the less-visited parts of the forest park to look for birds, in particular Hornbills. There are four species of Hornbill in Khao Yai – Great, Wreathed, Oriental Pied and Brown – and we started early to try to catch their early morning feeding frenzy. Hornbills tend to favour large, mature, fruiting trees and the trail we followed took in several of these hulks that looked several hundred years old judging by their girth. It wasn’t long before we were enjoying good views of Oriental Pied Hornbill and then, shortly afterwards, a pair of Wreathed. All were in the treetops feeding with unexpected dexterity, seemingly despite their enormous bills. As the track wound deeper into the forest we flushed one, then a second, Siamese Fireback and a pitta sp shot across the path and disappeared before we had a chance to identify it. A little further on we heard an astonishing “whooosh—-whoosh” as two Great Hornbills flew over our heads through the canopy and landed in a tree a short distance away. The sound of these birds’ wings was simply awesome – and as they passed overhead casting shadows over us, there was a distinct prehistoric feeling in the air. It was almost as if we had been transported back in time to the age of the pterodactyls. We reached a small clearing from where we could see the birds feeding and, after a few seconds, I couldn’t believe my luck when one flew straight over our heads. I grabbed the camera and reeled off about 10 shots as it laboured to the other side of the clearing. Wow! This bird was then followed by a second, then a third, then a fourth bird, and we watched in awe as these magnificent birds meandered from tree to tree. As they disappeared deeper into the forest, we continued our walk and we enjoyed views of 2 Red Junglefowl, Red-headed Trogon, Greater Flameback, Scaly-breasted Partridge, Hill Myna, White-bellied Yuhina, Asian House Martin and White-crested Laughingthrush. We also encountered fresh elephant tracks, bear scratches on the bark of a tree, Pig-tailed Macaques, Gibbons and Giant Black Squirrels.

However, it is the Great Hornbills that will remain strongest in the memory – smashing birds.

Great Hornbill, Khao Yai National Park, Thailand, 30 December 2010
Great Hornbill, Khao Yai, Thailand, 30 December 2010
Great Hornbill, Khao Yai, Thailand, 30 December 2010
Great Hornbill across a clearing in the canopy, Khao Yai, Thailand, 30 December 2010
Pig-tailed Macaque, mother and baby, Khao Yai, Thailand, 29 December 2010
Baby Pig-tailed Macaque
Adult Pig-tailed Macaque, Khao Yai, Thailand, 29 December 2010

Yeyahu again

On Saturday I teamed up with Brian Jones and Spike Millington for a day at Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake).

It was a stunning day – sunny, relatively mild (only about -3 degrees C) and with very little wind. We started at Ma Chang, a flat, almost desert-like area adjacent to the reservoir and walked around 7-8 km across the grassland, the edge of the lake and along the small stands of trees on the eastern side. It was a good raptor day with an immature White-tailed Eagle, 3-4 Upland Buzzards (including one stunningly confiding juvenile), a single adult Rough-legged Buzzard, a japonicus Common Buzzard, 2 Hen Harriers, a single Saker, a Kestrel and monstrous Eagle Owl. The supporting cast included an impressive group of Common Cranes (I counted 360, which was probably conservative, but Brian and Spike estimated over 400), including one Hooded Crane in their midst. Also seen were 12 Japanese Quails, 300-350 Pallas’s Reed Buntings, Yellow-throated Bunting, 15-20 Chinese Penduline Tits, up to 3 Chinese Grey Shrikes, at least 150 Lapland Buntings, many Asian Short-toed Larks, Skylarks and the odd Little Bunting.

Juvenile Upland Buzzard
Juvenile Upland Buzzard. Note the prominent white patches on the upperwing, diagnostic of Upland Buzzard.
Juvenile Upland Buzzard - this bird showed stunningly well for several minutes on the ground and overhead. An awesome experience.
Juvenile Upland Buzzard
Immature White-tailed Eagle, Yeyahu, 18 December 2010
We flushed this Eagle Owl from a grassy dyke at Yeyahu
Brian picked out this Hooded Crane among the 350-400 Common Cranes

Botanical Gardens

This morning, despite the freezing temperatures, I donned my thermal underwear, thick socks, snow boots and parka for a foray into the Botanical Gardens and the ridge beyond. It was a gorgeous day, despite the -8 (ish) temperature, and I had a wonderful few hours. The journey there is best forgotten – taxi drivers in Beijing are variable at best and let’s just say that today, I had the misfortune to encounter a particularly clueless individual who not only took me the wrong way (twice) but also, at one point, stopped to have a cigarette – in the car – while I helplessly waited. One of the joys of Beijing.

Nevertheless, I arrived on site around 0730, not long after dawn, and I was soon enjoying very good views of thrushes – namely Dusky, Naumann’s, Dusky/Naumann’s intergrades, Red-throated, Black-throated and a wonderful presumed Red/Black-throated hybrid which exhibited a mixed red and black throat patch (mostly red upper-throat and black lower-throat). The birds were congregating at a small break in the ice to drink. The break had clearly been man-made, presumably by a bird-friendly soul, as the ice on the lakes was at least 3 inches thick.

After enjoying some close encounters, I decided to press on and up to the ridge in the hope of some buntings, laughingthrushes and accentors. On the way up I was a little surprised to see 2 Red-flanked Bluetails, somehow managing to eke out a living on the frozen banks of a stream and a group of 9 Chinese Grosbeaks was a delight to see. A party of 34 Chinese Bulbuls and a Chinese Nuthatch was the supporting cast as I followed the stream up to the hills. During a short refreshment break, a squirrel gave me a close encounter as it tried to find water, eventually managing to find a trickle under a boulder.

The last time I had walked up the ridge was in October, when the trees and shrubs were still largely in leaf, so today, with the trees almost bare, I enjoyed some very good views of normally tricky species to see – namely Chinese Hill Warbler and Pere David’s Laughingthrush. I saw at least 18 of the latter, many of which first attracted my attention by the sound of turning over dried leaves.. After the experience of Yunnan, where it was almost impossible to see any laughingthrushes despite hearing them all the time, this was a very welcome sight!

On the ridge itself, I stumbled across several groups of Siberian Accentor feeding on the edge of the track and a few posses of Yellow-bellied Tits rampaged through the evergreen shrubs. A single japonicus Common Buzzard proved to be 50 per cent of my raptor total for the day (the only other sighting being a male Sparrowhawk that caused havoc among the thrushes on the way down). Bramblings were constant companions and the odd Oriental Greenfinch called overhead.

On the journey down, I bumped into Jesper and his wife, Aiquin, enjoying a walk half-way up the ridge. After a short natter, I was back at the entrance gate and flagged down a taxi (luckily a competent driver) for the uneventful journey home. A thoroughly enjoyable morning..

A squirrel looking for water, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
The same squirrel doing its morning leg exercises
Laughingthrushes are much more cooperative when there are no leaves on the trees!
Red-throated Thrush, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
Black-throated Thrush, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
Siberian Accentor, one of many on the ridge above the Botanical Gardens