Sunday, 31 January 2016

Japan 2015 day 11: heading south to Furen

29 December 2015

Early morning saw us driving south to Shibetsu, where the light was better than the previous evening but the Harlequins weren't quite as showy as they had been.

With nothing more than the usual selection of ducks and gulls on offer we continued round to the Notsuke Peninsula for another shot at Asian Rosy Finch. Alas a long walk, covering the final two or three kilometres from the lighthouse to the very tip of the peninsula, failed to produce any rosy finches though did offer a similar selection of species to the previous day, including the roving flock of Snow Buntings. Rich also added Slavonian Grebe and Black Brant to our trip list from the point. Unfortunately eagle numbers were well down on the previous afternoon and photo opportunities were few and far between - a scan of the frozen bay revealed that many were sat very distantly out on the ice.

Steller's tucking in to an unsatisfying looking meal

A herd of Sika Deer showed extremely well near the visitor centre - easily the best views we had of the species, the group including this impressive stag:

After a quick 7-11 stop in Shibetsu we were on our way south again. At a bridge just a few kilometres south of the town a small flock of birds flew over the car, which we excitedly and unanimously agreed looked like waxwings. It transpired that they were in fact Pine Grosbeaks - not the prize we were perhaps after, but the first adult males I've seen of this species nonetheless.

A little further south lay the port of Odaito. The harbour waters here were partially frozen over and throwing bread out soon confirmed our suspicions that this was a golden opportunity to photograph gulls at rest on an uncluttered background. For the next half an hour we managed plenty of pleasing images of the gathered Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Slaty-backed Gulls, some of the former certainly appearing to be the dainty barrovianus. A couple of Vega Gulls were also noted - our first on Hokkaido.

Presumed adult Vega Gull

A short while passed and an adult white-winged gull came flying in towards us. Assuming it would be another barrovianus Glaucous I fired off a few shots in flight before the bird landed directly in front of Mick and I. Something didn't seem quite right and a quick scan through the bins suggested a dainty bird with mid-grey primaries... "Hybrid!" I called before quickly correcting myself: "Kumlien's Gull!"

The Kumlien's showed well for a few minutes before disappearing from whence it came - but not before all of us had managed some pleasing shots. Another quality Japanese bird that seems to occur in only very small numbers annually.

Adult Kumlien's Gull, Odaito

After this we continued south around the largely frozen Lake Furen. The occasional eagle was noted but birds otherwise seemed scarce, the strong breeze presumably not helping in the case of passerines. The last hour of the day was spent in the woods at Furen, looking for a reported Ural Owl - no sign, but a good selection of common species including nice views of Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker and Steller's Sea Eagle.

With the light having almost gone, we made for Lodge Furen and checked in. We were warmly welcomed by Take and his wife, a fine evening meal following at 18:30. Take proved extremely useful for the latest gen in the Furen area and was also pleased to hear of some of our own sightings, particularly the Kumlien's. A stay at Lodge Furen is a must for any birder visiting Hokkaido - a great location and fantastic hospitality, and Take also boasts an enviable library of bird books to boot!

Friday, 29 January 2016

Japan 2015 day 10: Rausu and Notsuke

28 December 2015

Mick was still struggling with his sleeping plans a little and had woken up at 05:00, recording a Blakiston's Fish Owl again at the pond shortly afterwards. By the time Rich and I were up it was getting light and the owl show was over, so we indulged in a rather hearty breakfast. A short walk in the area afterwards produced a pair of Brown Dippers and female Teal on the stream plus an abundance of Jays as well as Willow and Marsh Tits.

Hokkaido Red Squirrel

From here we drove east to the coast, once again finding the roads generally empty and snow-free, making journey times pleasingly quick. We opted to bird the harbours north to Rausu but generally found them to be fairly quiet: Kunbetsu held six Black Scoters, Azabucho a seemingly injured Pacific Diver and Matsunoricho a Red-necked Grebe and 200 roosting Pelagic Cormorants. Each harbour held the ubiquitous Harlequins, which also littered the sheltered inshore waters right along the coast.

The day you become tired of drake Harlequins is the day you've become tired of life

Arriving at Rausu, we found the harbour relatively devoid of birds with just a handful of Glaucous and Kamchatka Gulls of any note. With that it was back south towards the Notsoke peninsula - a long peninsula shaped like a skeleton's arm, jutting several kilometres out in to the Sea of Okhotsk.

Adult Glaucous Gull, Rausu 

Adult Kamchatka Gull, Rausu

Notsuke is a spectacularly bleak place, very much reminiscent of a cross between Spurn and Dungeness. There are very few people here in winter - the fishing sheds are boarded up and boats hauled up on land, many falling appart. Countless piles of fishing equipment (nets, buoys, cages) in varying states of disrepair scatter the landscape, adding to the rustic feel, and the silence only serves to accentuate the place as a true wilderness.

The opportunistic scavenging of several Red Foxes was quite fitting in such surroundings, and one or two of these were almost as tame as - yet altogether more pleasing on the eye than - London's urban foxes.

Red Fox

Notsuke is a brilliant place for birding - though at first it seemed quiet, it soon became apparent that the ice-free north side of the peninsula supported many thousands of seaduck - mainly Black Scoters but some sizeable rafts of Scaup and Red-breasted Merganser too. Among these were smaller numbers of Long-tailed Duck, Stejneger's Scoter (c.50) and tens of Red-throated Divers.

It took a while before we saw our first eagles, but we quickly notched up 30+ Steller's after the first appeared on roadside posts. Some allowed a reasonably close approach and consequently a few half-decent shots were taken.

Smaller numbers of White-tailed were also present and small groups of Glaucous Gulls patrolled the coastline - in total upwards of 50 were seen. Though we found a nice flock of 24 Snow Buntings, a walk along the peninsula in the lighthouse area didn't produce the hoped-for Asian Rosy Finch.

Glaucous Gulls, Notsuke 

A scan of the frozen bay to the south produced evocative views of several Steller's sitting out on the ice.

With the sun dropping fast we decided to return north to Rausu, where we were staying. A quick stop in Shibetsu harbour late afternoon left us kicking ourselves that we hadn't visited slightly earlier. With the tide in the sea was almost at eye-level from the quay, giving a fantastic angle on the assembled ducks. Having lost the sun to the horizon, it was galling to have drake Harlequins to within 10 metres - an opportunity missed without doubt!

Back at Rausu we tucked in to yet another fantastic meal and I took a dip in the onsen before heading round to Washi no Yado on the north side of town. It didn't take long before a Blakiston's Fish Owl appeared to begin fishing on the stream, and over the course of the next few hours we had at least three sightings - including one memorable moment when two birds were seen together in the stream, hissing and interacting with each other. Just brilliant!

Blakiston's Fish Owl - an image-filled blog post on these idols of Hokkaido will appear at a later date

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Japan 2015 day nine: Hokkaido's north coast

27 December 2015

We awoke to find that there had been another dusting of snow overnight and a selection of common species were feeding avidly at the guesthouse feeders during breakfast. A White-tailed Eagle flew over as we left - the first of many eagles we were to see throughout the day.

After enjoying excellent views of Lake Kussharo from the north, the road to Abashiri soon produced the first Steller's Sea Eagles (and a White-tailed) along the route. The scenery along this road is absolutely stunning, as it is around much of northern Hokkaido, and the mulitude of spectacular wintry vistas is a highlight in itself.

Great vista from the road north of Lake Kussharo

There had clearly been a fair bit more snow on Hokkaido's north coast and it was a few degrees colder here to boot. We were pleased to find six Falcated Ducks, including four drakes, on the river in Abashiri - easily our best views of the trip of this stunning duck. There were also numerous Goldeneye and Greater Scaup here.

I'd done some genning in the days leading up to our Hokkaido visit and established that two desirable species had been seen recently at nearby Cape Notoro. The approach road to the lighthouse immediately produced one of these - a cracking Northern Shrike hunting from roadside wires and seemingly unbothered by the north-westerly gale battering the Cape. Though annual on Hokkaido it is rather rare and isn't something visitors should expect to see, so was a pleasing bonus.

sibiricus Northern Shrike at Cape Notoro

I think it was fair to say the Cape was the coldest place that I've ever set foot in my life. Temperatures were sub-zero but the wind made birding (and even standing) extremely hard work, despite several layers of clothing and barely any exposed skin. Needless to say we couldn't find our other target species, Asian Rosy Finch, but both Steller's and White-tailed Eagles drifted by, seemingly nonplussed by the conditions. A distant hovering buzzard was unfortunately an Eastern rather than Rough-legged. Harlequins were abundant offshore (well in to three figures) while two Stejneger's Scoters were the first I'd seen since the Irish bird and a few Glaucous Gulls drifted by. A single alcid picked out transpired to be a Br√ľnnich's Guillemot.

Cape Notoro

Returning to Abashiri port, we found that the fishing fleet was in for the winter and gull numbers were low, though a 1cy Glaucous x Glaucous-winged often showed well alongside a pure Glaucous and several Harlequins also came quite close.

1cy Glaucous (top) and Glaucous x Glaucous-winged Gulls, Abashiri Port

Slaty-backed close-ups

Moving slightly east to Lake Tofotsu 'swan park', we found the lake almost entirely frozen but the ice-free outflow supported good concentrations of birds. It had started to snow again and three Steller's Sea Eagles looked impressive stood on the ice while four Red-crowned Cranes were a surprise. Among the wildfowl were several Harlequins and a few Goosanders as well as the ubiquitous Whooper Swans. A Red-necked Grebe was also present but we could not find the vagrant Cackling Goose that had been photographed here on Christmas Day. A highlight was feeding Pintail out the hand - the poor things were visibly shivering and frankly I'm at a loss as to why they attempt to brave the bitter winters up here when they could simply fly south ...

We checked a smaller frozen lake back towards Abashiri but the goose was not among the 100 Whooper Swans there. Two of the world's most handsome ducks, a drake Smew and a drake Harlequin, were found alongside each other at the outflow there was one of the memorable sights of the trip.

Perhaps the two most beautiful ducks in the world? Sadly they never glanced around at the same time.

As we continued east towards Shari the weather improved and the final couple of hours of daylight turned out bright. A good selection of gulls at the river mouth included the highest concentration of Glaucous we'd seen so far, with at least 15 among the Slaty-backs. Wildfowl included around 100 Scaup and smaller numbers of Wigeon.

Adult Glaucous with other gulls at Shari Port

We were conscious of the time, knowing we needed to be at Yoroushionsen for dusk. One thing we'd learnt was that our Sat Nav predicting much longer journey times than in real life and we made it to Yuyado-Daiichi in good time, putting our bags down and enjoying a coffee as it went dark.

We couldn't quite believe the script here. Watching the owner stock a small pond with fish less than ten metres from where we were sat, separated by nothing more than a pane of glass, it seemed scarcely believable that the world's largest owl might be enticed by this setup. Yet that's exactly what happened some time before 17:15, when a Blakiston's Fish Owl emerged from the darkness, somewhat shocking us with its sheer size as it arrived at the pond and began to fish. It performed extremely well for several minutes and not long after was replaced by a second bird, giving equally as incredible views. One of the birds (apparently the male) has a damaged left eye and has been regular here for over 10 years!

We enjoyed a few more showings (one of which interrupted our fantastic evening meal) before the Owls seemingly shut up shop for the evening; after the last sighting at 20:30 we did not get another sniff by midnight and so retired for the night.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Japan 2015 day eight: cranes at dawn, White's at dusk

26 December 2015

One of the numerous must-see wildlife spectacles of Hokkaido is the early morning roost of Red-crowned Cranes in the river viewed from Otowa bridge, south of Tsurui. We'd heard that the temperature needs to reach around -15c for steam to rise from the river and 'fortunately' Boxing Day morning proved one of those ball-clenchingly cold starts.

Though we all felt that the crane photo opportunities were a little overrated, there was no doubt that the hoar frost provided an impressive sight. Despite all my layers, I was freezing and extremely glad of the car and subsequent breakfast back at the hotel!

After breakfast we headed back to Kushiro harbour for another gulling session. Seven Harlequins showed included a showy drake while additional species to yesterday included a group of eight Black-necked Grebes and a number of Pelagic Cormorants.

Gull numbers were similar to the previous day although three hybrid Glaucous-winged x Glaucous Gulls were new, while the ubiquitous and characterful Large-billed Crows never failed to entertain.

Slaty-backed Gull 

Large-billed Crow

After having had our fill (and chilled to the bone by the biting wind) we decided to head back inland. Roadside fields along Route 240 just south of Tsurui held an impressive minimum of 195 Red-crowned a Cranes as well as half-a-dozen Whooper Swans.

Continuing north we were thoroughly disappointed to find Lake Kussharo entirely ice-free - a testament to the extremely mild winter experienced on Hokkaido up until the previous week. This unfortunately meant that the Whooper Swan opportunities were somewhere between sub-optimal and absolutely rubbish, although the birds themselves were brilliantly tame. Neighbouring woodland was quiet except for Treecreeper, Great Spotted Woodpecker and both Willow and Marsh Tits.

A little deflated, we made the short journey to our accommodation that night - the very quaint Gustaf Papilio guesthouse. On getting out the car I was thrilled to see a White's Thrush fly up in to a nearby tree, and soon we had all enjoyed views of the bird perched high up, watching us intently.

Over the next hour we were treated to simply stunning views of the thrush as it fed to within 10 metres of us. As with all thrushes a lack of movement and sound from us seemed to ensure the bird was more trusting and, despite the awful late afternoon light, we all managed some pleasing photos - definitely one of the birds of the trip!

White's Thrush - just stunning!