Clipper Odyssey docked at Tomakomai in Hokkaido on Tuesday morning (25 May) and I helped to lead a birding walk at Lake Utonai nearby. We were greeted on our arrival by a very confiding Whooper Swan, which had not yet migrated north, and soon picked out some birds of prey over the reeds and trees at the back of the lake.
Most of them were Black-eared Kites, a common bird in Japan, but one lighter-coloured bird with more angled wings proved to be an Eastern Marsh Harrier, closely related to, but distinctly different from, Marsh Harriers in Britain. All of these were suddenly dwarfed by a huge adult White-tailed Eagle, soon followed by a younger bird with a dark tail.
There were few waders, but a couple of Latham’s Snipe were seen by most and one of the best birds of the day was a Black-winged Stilt, feeding at the far end of the lake – a rarity on Hokkaido. In the trees around the lake were Oriental Greenfinch and Russet Sparrow, both familiar looking but excitingly different birds from their British equivalents.
A small bird feeding high in a tree revealed itself to be one of the few Oriental species which make it into the north of Japan – a Japanese White-eye with its bright olive-green body.
At the next stop the first sound we heard was the Hoopoe-like call of an Oriental Cuckoo which eventually showed itself. This bird is virtually indistinguishable from its common relative if silent. In the tall trees next to this lake Eastern Crowned Warblers could be heard, and one or two were seen high in the canopy.
A Brown-headed Thrush was glimpsed and one lucky passenger described a beautiful male Narcissus Flycatcher he had seen – the rest of us had to make do with the less colourful Asian Brown Flycatcher. But the highlight was a fantastic Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, picked out by resident bird expert Mark Brazil and an unexpected lifer for me!
Returning to the ship we headed north towards Kushiro during the afternoon, and having had such a good morning were now treated to an equally astonishing abundance of seabirds, passing through feeding frenzies of thousands of Red-necked and Grey Phalaropes, wheeling flocks of Short-tailed Shearwaters, a flotilla of Pacific Divers and ever-fluttering Rhinoceros Auklets with their smaller cousins, Ancient Murrelets.
The rarest bird of the day was surprising. It was a Magpie, rare in Japan and a very recent colonist to Hokkaido and difficult to find. Although superficially the same as ours, it is genetically distinct and may one day prove to be a satisfying armchair tick.
Posted by Birdwatch
Well...after an awful first three weeks of May all the local's moaning and groaning finally paid off and we cried in a lovely breeding plumaged Wilson's Phalarope into Seaforth last Saturday, 22nd.
Still present on Sunday a Black Tern was also found, while on Monday a Spoonbill flew over while a group of us were chatting outside about the Phal.
The Wirral tried its best to strike back with a female Bluethroat on Tuesday 25th at Leasowe; a difficult bird to see at times, but a few record shots taken.
But all was eclipsed on 27th: As I delayed my usual journey to the hide to photograph a few butterflies a pass holder walked past, followed ten minutes later by two of the the regulars Tony and Pete..."I'll follow you down" I said, and after a phone call 5 minutes later I certainly followed them down..."White-tailed Plover on causeway, GET DOWN NOW!"
The next five minutes were like something from a Carry On film as I realised I only had a macro lens in my hand; in total panic I scampered back to the car, grabbed the 500mm then turned and ran back to the hide, racing past the warden on my way. It turned to farce when Pete ran out of the hide pointing to the sky, the plover had flown. I turned and started to run the other way looking up with bins at the same time, but then saw Pete waving and running back to the hide -obviously the bird was back.
Usain Bolt would have been proud of the time I made the trip to the hide in, but not the shape I was in when I arrived. Gasping and panting I asked were it was; "On the scrape" came the hushed and disbelieving reply, White-tailed Plover on the scrape, only 30 yards away....gosh, golly, what a marvellous bird, we all said to each other...
The moments of pleasure birds give can be quite unbelievable...
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On Sunday afternoon we joined the ship Clipper Odyssey at Niigata on the west coast of Japan and headed north to Hokkaido. Leaving the harbour, both Black-tailed (pictured) and Slaty-backed Gulls were seen for a while, but then disappeared. After an hour or so we began to see Streaked Shearwaters, which are large with brown backs and white underparts.
By the following morning we were approaching the strait between the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. Smaller, dark shearwaters appeared, mainly Short-tailed, but one or two appeared to be Sooty, while a few dark forms fluttering across the water were identified as Rhinoceros Auklets.
We docked at Hakodate, on Hokkaido, and the passengers were taken to a nearby lake for a walk for our first chance for woodland birds. Oriental Turtle Doves occasionally flashed by and a Grey-headed Woodpecker was heard calling. A quick imitation of its call encouraged it to fly in and land close by; it then proceeded to jump down the trunk of the tree until it reached the ground, where it began to search for food just as Green Woodpeckers do – amazing to watch.
It was overcast and not much was singing. One attractive song was soon identified, however, as the singer was a fine male Blue-and-white Flycatcher, a truly lovely looking bird.
One fascinating aspect of birding in Japan is the mix of familiar and unfamiliar. At the far edge of the Eastern Palearctic there are birds you can immediately recognise. Some calls announced the arrival of what proved to be a small mixed flock of tits. Marsh and Great Tits could be heard. But wait a minute – the Great Tit had white underparts revealing it to be the newly split Eastern Great Tit, and the Nuthatches were also almost white underneath as they belonged to an eastern race.
Tantalising calls could be heard from Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers and a Japanese Bush Warbler sang invisibly from the undergrowth promising some more good birds in the days to come.
Posted by Birdwatch
It was an early start on Thursday morning to head for Heathrow for an exciting trip to Japan and Russia. I was surprised to see a Little Egret flying over the garden – a new bird! Surely an omen for the success of the trip.
After an overnight flight to Tokyo, arriving at hotel mid-morning, I visited a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine in the afternoon. The latter, the Meiji Shrine, was in Yoyogi Park, a great place for birds, but unfortunately full of people on this very hot afternoon.
I still managed a trio of goodies in the form of Japanese White-eye, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker and the newly split Eastern Great Tit. Brown-cheeked Bulbul, Large-billed Crow and Oriental Greenfinch were also numerous. No House Sparrows or Starlings here, as they have not been introduced, instead there are plentiful Tree Sparrows and also the White-cheeked Starling which is similar to ours in outline.
On Saturday I paid another visit to Yoyogi Park, this time earlier in the morning, and managed to see Varied Tit, but nothing else new. Closer to the hotel I heard a familiar chissick call and saw a lugens White Wagtail, which is sometimes split as Black-backed, and finished off with guess what ... a Little Egret. That's the fun of birding Japan, so many familiar species and then something totally unusual. Let's hope it's a Narcissus Flycatcher tomorrow!
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The London Wildlife Trust all-stars, a team composed of LWT's Mark Pearson, myself and London legend John Archer have won this year's Oystercatcher Bird Race, which took place on 15 May.
The idea of the race is to promote the use of public transport in London, by using it to go birding. The competition element comes from teams numbering two to four members attempting to see as many bird species as possible between 6 am and 5 pm within the Greater London area. Competitors are issued with a fully charged Oystercard, though typically I forgot to swipe mine at some point and had to endure 'seek assistance' beeps while trying to get optics and bags through a ticket barrier built for Kate Moss when she was thin ...
But anyway, we began at Kensington Gardens, where teams from the RSPB, BTO, WWT and Natural England and London Wildlife Trusts, as well as two teams from the BBC's Springwatch programme, assembled. The spring morning was lush and dewy, randy songbirds sang, parakeets rankled my mild hangover, and free coffee was provided, more to the point. The husky-voiced gen of Des McKenzie (http://hpkg.blogspot.com/), enabled us to clean up on all available species at this site, as we notched up Mandarin, Egyptian Goose, Red-crested Pochard (you're allowed BOU approved 'plastics'), Treecreeper, Nuthatch, Common Tern and a few other potentially 'tricky' birds, before we hit Lancaster Gate tube station just before 8 am.
We walked from Bank to Fenchurch Street, and did the C2C to Rainham in 22 minutes, picking up several species from the train on the way. Within one minute from the station we had notched up European Stonechat, Common Whitethroat and Cetti's Warbler and were on our way to Coldharbour Lane to meet up with our esteemed Managing Editor, Dominic Mitchell (http://tinyurl.com/2arcdpf).
He got us onto a second-year Yellow-legged Gull, while we were able to get him onto a distant Common Buzzard. I would have liked to study the albino Herring Gull a bit more, but this is bird-racing and you take no prisoners. Bin-filling views of a Grasshopper Warbler at 'an undisclosed location' were had and then we legged it to the seawall, having just discovered with a judicious phone call that the RSPB reserve itself, actually outside Greater London, was allowable under competition rules.
The mud and seawall delivered Whimbrel, Northern Wheatear, Ringed Plover and Redshank, and then we headed along the foreshore past the dump. I would have liked to study the Black-headed Gull with the Grey-headed-type wing pattern a bit more, but this is bird-racing and you shoot the injured (scroll down here for the kind of thing I mean: http://punkbirder.webs.com/sahara2010.htm). We completed the loop by collecting Yellow Wagtail near the barges, and hot footing it to Rainham station again. I would have liked to study the European Stonechat with the white rump and big white wing patches some more, but ... oh, you get the picture.
For once the transfer at Barking to Blackhorse Road went without a hitch, and with just over one hour's birding left and a potential nine species to add, we hit my ex-patch of Walthamstow Reservoirs, where two 'kind spirits of the res', Paul Whiteman (http://tinyurl.com/36dt8mn) and Pete L, were able to let us know what we might be about to dip on.
Amazingly, and this cannot be counted upon on a normal day there, within the hour we had picked up Common Sandpiper, Kingfisher, Great Spotted Woodpecker, and eventually our 90th species, Sparrowhawk, circling over our heads at the south end of Lockwood, as if to say "I had you going there for a minute, didn't I?"
So, we hit the basement of the London Transport Museum fairly confident that we would be at least in second place, having nailed several species more than the previous year's winning team (which also included JA). Alcohol-free Tequila Sunrises (chiz, to use the Molesworth term) were provided, and guzzled as if it was the end of Ice Cold in Alex, and most of the teams seemed to be somewhat late - if we'd given it another half an hour in the field, that embarrassing Green Woodpecker-sized gap in our list might have been filled – d’oh! Eventually the Springwatch teams rolled in, did a retake or two and the presentations began.
It was my first ever bird race, a form of birding I would previously have avoided like the plague in favour of prolonged study of the anomalies mentioned above, but the syrupy overtures of Pearson and the promise that we would have an entire Natural World mini-series devoted to us on prime-time telly eventually convinced me. Of course that wasn't quite true, but we won.
For the record, this brings the sum total of stuff that I have won to six items: 1) a copy of Slates by the Fall from John Peel in 1981; 2) and 3) a t-shirt (luminous green and with the word 'winner' emblazoned across the chest, implying eternal loserdom) and a radio from the Mojo magazine quiz night, sometime in the nineties; 4) and 5) a pair of Swarovski EL bins and Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World from a national birding magazine, well before I ever worked there, honest; and now 6) an imitation brass medal with a yellow ribbon, with the word '1st' stamped on it.
Another account which largely tallies with mine is available here: http://tinyurl.com/26dcc8j. Other teams have blog posts here: http://tinyurl.com/33edhvn (Peter Alfrey) and http://tinyurl.com/34u35ha (Johnny Allan).
Posted by Birdwatch
Thursday 6 May marked my 11th anniversary with Birdwatch. Unfortunately, the occasion was overshadowed by a somewhat more important event happening in the country! Or maybe not, depending on your point of view.
Since joining the office back in 1999, just in time for publication of the Collins Bird Guide, various members of the Birdwatch team have attempted to make a birder of me. To a certain extent they have succeeded; I can now identify not just common garden birds but more unusual or rare species. There were times though when I’m sure they must have despaired of me. Such as the time at Rutland during Birdfair when I compared the Rose-coloured Starling to a pair of pink shoes I owned!
In the early days of the magazine I spent much of the day sifting through photos of rare birds sent in by contributors. I must have seen hundreds of pics of the Ivory Gull at Suffolk, so I’m quite confident of identification if I ever saw one in the field. It’s taken 11 years, but the team’s passion for birds is slowly rubbing off on me.
I do have my trusty Collins Bird Guide to hand at home whenever needed and I’m now considering whether I need to upgrade to the second edition. As all the other members of the Birdwatch team have already purchased their copies I suspect I may have to follow suit. I must hurry though, as our special offer expires on 31 May. If, like me, you still haven’t got your copy get a move on because time is running out!
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About a week ago I identified a Chaffinch by its song. Now, this might not seem like that great a feat, but I was exceptionally pleased with myself.
Bird song has long been a mystery to me; beautiful to listen to, but not much use for identification purposes. I can only safely recognise a bird if I see it. Preferably clearly, closely and for a decent amount of time. So I have decided to learn bird song.
Robin was easy. Not only because they’re everywhere, but also because they seem to start singing before everything else so they were about all I heard throughout February. Wren was next; memorised because I was so surprised that something so small could be so loud. I’ve got Blackbird’s alarm call down, but the song is proving harder, and I can do Long-tailed, Blue and Great Tits.
That Chaffinch was the latest addition to my repertoire, and it was great to realise I’d got it right. But I fear things are going to get harder from here on in. There’s only so far that careful listening while pointing bins in the right direction is going to get me. Soon it’ll be sound recordings and sonograms, late-night listening to xeno-canto and Guns n Roses removed from the iPod in favour of Phylloscopus warblers.
OK, so maybe I won’t take it quite that far. But if I’m ever going to be able to identify birds by their vocalisations, I’m going to have to start practising. Xeno-canto here I come ...
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Saturday May 8th:...well, it wasn't really a long hard climb, not as bad as Pendle can be, but worth the slight walk up a slope to the top of Brown Wardle Hill in deepest Lancashire to see nine Dotterel.
Early indications hadn't been good as I was warned off by a lady who looked like an extra from a Harry Potter film. Slightly lost we stopped the car and asked if we were at the correct site she replied with; "Who are you, and what do you want" ? Slightly taken aback by this warm greeting I explained about the Dotterel on the hill; " I'm the Moor Watcher, and it's too windy for birds to be flying today" was the reply... Okay, I thought, let's go quickly before a spell is cast and a broomstick appears...
After finding the correct paths to walk up the hill the Dotterel performed well and six hours was happily spent photographing them, including one lovely female. Much better than a six hour drive to the friendly county of Cornwall; a place I've found over the years to be almost as welcoming as the Moor Watcher of Wardle Hill...
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This is May?? But it's so cold. And there is no doubt it's affecting the birds. I saw my first Common Swifts here in Cambridgeshire when they flew over my house on 29 April. Three of them chasing over the town. Quite an early date, but since then I have seen none.
And where are the Swallows? My first were a group of four round the house in late April and now none. As for House Martins – not one.
However, a visit to nearby Grafham Water last weekend, to see a couple of fantastic Ring Ouzels, revealed a carpet of Common Swifts across the surface of the reservoir, and a few hirundines as well.
The key to this is insects, and they seem to have gone to ground in this chill weather. All of these birds feed on small insects which we can't see, but a good measure of what's about is the presence of insects in the garden. I have seen one Peacock butterfly, a couple of Holly Blues and a few Orange Tips in the garden, but only on those few recent warm days in late April. Hoverflies aren't hovering and bees aren't buzzing.
What the arriving migrants have to do is find a place with food during the cold spell; in this instance a body of water. They have to feed well to get into breeding condition after the rigours of their migration. This means they will not appear over towns until they are well fed and ready to nest. When the wind blows from the south and the temperatures rise things will get back to normal ... I hope it's soon!
By Chris Harbard
Posted by Birdwatch
The Birdwatch team share their birding stories
Want to read my old blog entries? Browse through an achive of all my posts below:
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