10 April 2016

Cranes, Trains and Construction Mobiles…JAPAN (9 Feb. 2016)

After a day focusing on monkeys, our attention turned, once more, back to its usual place: Birds. We had heard overnight we were in for a day of dreadful weather, but this did not deter us, or dampen our spirits, as this ended up being, for many, the best day of the tour

The evening before we had driven into the west Honshu town of Komatsu, in Ishikawa prefecture. This is within one of Japanindustrial, heartlands. After all, this is the birthplace of the heavy machinery bearing the same name, Komatsu. This would appear to be a poor location for nature enthusiasts, but actually, there are excellent birds to be seen in this area, and we had a packed day ahead of us. The evening before, Charley Hesse, the official Tropical Birding guide for the tour (was merely a driver and spectator on this one), had been perusing the latest bird news on the Internet. His first-rate command of Japanese helping him to get to several important snippets of news: the Komatsu area was currently hosting 3 amazing rarities. Two of which would be lifebirds for Charley, even now on his fourth or fifth visit to Japan. The first of these was a real mega, and one that I had wished, quietly, may be on the cards for the tour, the critically endangered Siberian Crane. This stately, egret-white crane, is said to number just 4,000 birds, and outside of just one site on China, has no reliable locations. Many old school world birders, whod been traveling for years, remember a small group that used to frequent Bharatpur in India, but sadly, once my visits to that famous Indian wetland began, the birds had long gone, never to return. So this bird held a special fascination for me. Ironically, one of the tour group-Mark-had nervously asked at the tour start whether there were any known in Japan this winter, as this was his number one bird target. He asked with apprehension, as he knew well, that although odd birds have been known to turn up in Japan in winter, this does not happen every year. 

As we headed out to where we believed this large, ermine-colored crane had been seen, Charley stumbled on to the other rarity that had peeked his attention the evening before: a Swan Goose, which (being largely dark brown) stood out like a belisha beacon within the company it was keeping, a group of ghostly white Bewicks Swans

The first of the three megas down, within moments of our arrival was an amazing start. But the site had not stopped giving just yet. Charley then met a local bird researcher, who pointed us across the road for another of our desired rarities. It did not take long to find that one, even as we drove towards the spot, as a conspicuous tall white figure could be seen foraging in the fields, even as we drove towards it, during a heavy downpour. Moving closer there was no doubting its identity, a superb, red-faced Siberian Crane, that, like the Swan Goose, was also holding some bizarre company, with which it seemed conspicuously out of place. This bird was hanging around with a group of 3 Hooded Cranes

The Hooded Cranes being dark-colored and much smaller, it made the Siberian Crane look like the proverbial Black Sheep of the Family! The heavy rains predicted made it tough work, we viewed it from the car initially, then took a good soaking to take in every last detail through the scope as the rain refused to give us a reprieve.

After admiring what is arguably the hardest of the worlds 15 crane species, we had another engagement to make, but this time with something a little more expected; the Baikal Teals of Katano Kamo-ike. This wonderful wetland reserve (check out the Baikal Teal-themed toilet signs!) served us well during the continuing dreadful weather; a large center, with a huge window on to the ducks and geese allowed to us to both warm and dry ourselves, and refresh our spirits. The Baikal Teals were numbering fewer than would normally be expected in this season, just 30 or so were present, but they were appreciated all the same. Among the other thousands of ducks and geese present at the site were Falcated Duck, Smew, Common PochardTufted DuckEurasian Wigeon, lots of MallardEastern Spot-billed DuckNorthern ShovelerGreen-winged (Eurasian) Teal, and Northern Pintail. A large flock of Taiga Bean Geese unfortunately did not hold any of their cousins, Tundra Bean Geese that are often at this site too. Nearby, we also checked in on a local flock of Greater White-fronted Geese.

After lunch, our afternoon was dedicated to finding our third Japanese rarity of the day. We were all equally fired up for this bird, as it offered a lifebird for everyone in the group, even for the most well traveled guides and participants in the group. For this though, we had the challenge of navigating the narrow streets, and concrete jungle of the city of Kanazawa. We knew where to look, more or less, although knew too that finding parking to view the river that runs through the heart of the city was going to be difficult. Charley was especially keen on this bird – a Scaly-sided Merganser had been returning to this stretch of river for the past few winters, but he was still yet to clap his eyes on it. Our initially scans of the river, from the limited viewing areas we could scan from turned up plentiful Common Mergansers (Goosander) to set the pulses racing, but one showed the scaled flanks required of a male Scaly-sided Merganser. Eventually, due to the constraints of navigating the traffic and narrow streets of the city the two vehicles became separated, and we agreed to walk in different directions, with the afternoon slowly sapping away, in order to cover more ground. My group wandered further upstream, while Charleys team walked back towards the areas we had covered already. We came up blank, so eventually relocated Charleys abandoned vehicle, and parked up alongside it, thinking they much be nearby. Then, a call came through from Charley; they had the bird and were soaking it up as we speak! Tension rose through my group, and we were soon hurrying through the sinuous streets to meet them on the river bank. Twenty minutes later, it became clear that Charleys group had covered considerably more ground than we thought; there was still no sign of them, we were sweating buckets trying to reach them; and every time one of the regular small flocks of mergansers flew by our hearts were in our mouths for the distressing phone call from Charley to inform us the bird had flown. However, finally, we could make out the shapes of the other members of our group on the riverbank, and they seemed calm and focused on a small flock of ducks resting on the water beside them. In among them was a superb male Scaly-sided Merganser, who completely unruffled by our explosive and desperate arrival on the scene!

It had been an extraordinary day, with 3 top-notch birds after some Japanese Twitching (i.e. chasing rare birds). The following morning, before we flew onto the snow-clad island of Hokkaido, we took another final looks at the Siberian Crane, and its adopted family, and this time with much finer weather, when these photos were taken

For many, this was the very best day of the trip by some distance, but not for me; that would come later on our next Japanese island

07 April 2016

Monkeys from Hell....JAPAN (8 Feb. 2016)

To describe Japan as unique is a cliché; it is so different from anywhere else culturally that it is futile to compare it to anything else. Japan is Japan, its as simple as that. The culture though is not the only thing that is exceptional. Three of the countrys islands are also home to a primate found nowhere else, the Japanese Macaque Macaca fuscata. It is the only monkey found in Japan, which is not surprising when you consider the harsh climate of a Japanese winter, when subzero temperatures are a common occurrence. And, this is what makes this primate so absorbing. If you examine a map of the distribution of primate species around the world, one thing that will strike you is that the vast majority of the species occur in a belt across the middle of the world, in the tropics. Much of Japan can in no sense of the imagination be considered tropical, particularly during the depths of winter. Therefore, this monkey is also the most northerly living species in the world, completely at home living amongst snow and ice, and not flinching at near daily temperatures plummeting below zero. Its very nature has led to it being known in Internet circles as the Snow Monkey

What makes this monkey additionally odd, is that it is know to regularly bathe in natural hot springs. We headed to the prefecture of Nagano, and the valley of Jigokudani to see this firsthand. We may have been in the midst of a bird tour, but this day was all about monkeys, lots and lots of monkeys. The existence of such a phenomenon as photogenic bathing monkeys, in a country like Japan, where everyone seems to wield a camera, is therefore far from secret, and thousands make this primate pilgrimage each year. The park, after all, has been in existence since the 1960s. on arrival there was no doubting the well-advertised nature of the Monkey Park, as a series of tourist buses waited in one of the several car parks serving the site. Thankfully, the Japanese did not consider making a road right up to the monkeys, but instead a 2km walk is required to get there. This involves a gently rising, snow laden trail, which passes through tall, snow-dusted pine trees. At the time of our visit, with winter at its height, there seemed to be little life in the forest, save for the phalanx of humans walking down the trail. We made our way through this tranquil wintry scene, and eventually emerged to an opening, where steam rose impressively from the valley bottom, betraying the volcanic nature of the area. Such dramatic volcanic activity has given rise to its name; Jigokudani means Hells Valley

Soon we also saw macaques, dozens and dozens of macaques, seemingly oozing from every rocky surface. Moving further up still we found the famous pool, where the monkeys come to bathe, and there, in the center of the pool, were two red-faced monkeys. Their faces are naturally flushed in the manor of being at the very centre of a joke at their own expense, but sitting in the steaming pool, it gives the false impression that their facial surfaces are reacting to the volcanic heat around them.  We had just an hour on site, which many felt may be enough; after an hour there I quickly understood why photographers spend a whole morning, or even days there. Primates are absorbing creatures, with hypnotic behavior; there is simply so much to see and observe over time, particularly with the notoriously cantankerous macaques, which seem to spend an inordinately long amount of time fighting with each other, sometimes within inches of the assembled tourists. 

Their boisterous nature seemed never to be tempered by the gathered tourists; often a fight would break out right in the pathway of the surrounding people, some of them jumping aside in alarm, when a macaque came raging towards them. The object of its temper was always another monkey, and not the human tourists, but they seemed completely unabashed, and happy to charge at the offending monkey, even if this meant blasting through a horde of humans! 

Some of the monkey's dense winter coats were waterlogged following a recent dip, while others who were up on a rocky outcrop, well away from the pool, showed a dusting of snow on their thickly-furred chins.

After an hour we reluctantly left these pink-faced primates behind, as we pointed our cars southwest towards Komatsu, where our focus would again return to birds, and rare birds at that

05 April 2016

Japanese Feeding Frenzy….7 Feb. 2016

We spent the day in and around Karuizawa, a Japanese holiday town, where people from Tokyo often visit in the summer months. However, this was the depth of winter, and it was eerily quiet. It felt a little like a deserted Christmas scene, with large pine trees, snow draped across the ground, but barely a person in sight. The town has the distinction of being the only location that has hosted both the summer (1964) and winter olympics (1998). 

We stayed in a hotel with a hot spring (a common combo in Japan, where they seemed obsessed with hot springs), where a small bird table was the scene of a feeding frenzy of birds in the morning. While we sheltered from the subzero temperatures inside the hotel, the birds were hurriedly grabbing all the grain they can off of the bird table. Tits were the most regular visitors, with Willow, Japanese and Varied Tits in attendance. The latter was a lifer for me, and a stunning bird at that. 

Below the table a Japanese Accentor snuck in every so often, although sneaking was not the best word for it, as a dusky brown bird cannot hide well, when perched on a blanket of snow!

A walk along a near road produced flight views of a Copper Pheasant, and a visit to a near river gave us Long-billed Plovers, but none of the hoped for Mandarin Ducks. However, another flighty pheasant was seen, this time a Japanese Green Pheasant-Japans national bird – and I hoped the pheasants would give us something more in the future.

We also ate traditional Japanese food, at a traditional low table, and dressed in traditional Japanese dress for the affair. Meal times in Japan are interesting affairs-the birds are far easier to identify in Japan than trying to name what is on your plate. There was plentiful fish, most of which was good, some of which was disgusting, and all of which was utterly fascinating. I thought we were going to be in for some unique meals, and it didnt take long for me to be proved right. The sheer presentation of the dinner, and the bewildering variety of dishes for each person was absorbing, and cameras went into overdrive

Next up were not birds at all, but monkeys, and the famous Snow Monkeys at that

03 April 2016

Japanese Orientation (4th Feb. 2016)

This February I the wonderful opportunity to see a country that I had often been drawn to from afarJAPAN. In my decades of birding I have spent considerable time in Asia, including Malaysia, Borneo, Sichuan (China), Vietnam, and Thailand. However, Japan has been a glaring omission on this list.

For many years, I had longed after some of Japan
s most famous avian attractions, namely the Blakistons Fish-Owl, one of the largest of all the owls; Stellers Sea-Eagles, which vies with the gargantuan Harpy and Philippine Eagles for title of Worlds largest eagle; and lastly, the spectacles of majestic cranes dancing in the snow that litter the Internet. This year, I had my chance, when I joined a Tropical Birding tour, as a co-driver, that was led by Charley Hesse.

Arriving in Tokyo was an eye-opener as expected. Japans culture is famously unalike anywhere else. As I changed money, I glanced down to see a basket of free Origami items to help myself too. This was another thing I had come for, to feel way out of my usual comfort zone. I have traveled widely, but have never seen origami offered at an exchange desk before! I was instantly hooked; I thought to myself, I am going to like this place. It instantly felt as unique as I had been led to believe.

Charley Hesse had passed on details of some local Tokyo birds I could try for with my afternoon spare before his arrival. In spite of considerable time spent traveling in various, diverse, countries, I found the thought of this in Japan, a little intimidating. Could I really try and travel across the metropolis of Tokyo alone, using their puzzling transit system? I thought about it, decided not too, then thought about the prospect of a Baikal Teal – one of the star birds on offer – grabbed my binoculars, and headed for the tube station! One look at the jumbled, spaghetti-like, rail lines on the train map, and I was starting to think this might not have been my brightest idea yet. The chance of being Lost in Translation in Japan was looking increasingly likely. However, armed with some significant details from Charley, such as station names, and finding the odd person with the odd word of English I successfully made my way to Shinjuku Gyoen, being very thankful for a large map of the surrounding area on arrival at the train station. On the train journey I was impressed by the amount of signs in English, making the journey trouble free. I was also impressed at the absolute obedience of the Japanese to exceedingly polite signs asking them to refrain from talking on their cellphones. As expected, everyone was on their mobile phones, but none of them were talking on their phones! I long for this to be global, so I do not have to hear the trivial day-to-day goings on from neighboring train passengers elsewhere.

Arriving at the park, I had been informed that the male Baikal Teal, a bird I had never seen, was hanging around, rather unglamorously, with a flock of local Mallards. Not the most exciting company to keep, but it did give me a lead. I headed straight to the map of the park, noted the large bodies of water, and hurried straight towards them. My other initial impressions of Japan, and the Japanese of Tokyo, was that everyone had a camera, and a serious camera at that. The hundreds of Japanese milling around this impeccably manicured park, all seemed to be donning cameras, mostly SLR cameras, with their main focus seeming to be to take shots of the new shoots and buds on the trees, emerging even in this, the supposed height of winter. Much as I enjoyed people watching, being a birder, I was also keen to be alone, or at least away from too much human disturbance, for that is usually where birds reside. I entered a dark shady area of woodland, away from the eerily quiet crowds of Japanese, and instantly walked into a male Red-flanked Bluetail, some boisterous Japanese Tits, and a Pale Thrush. Knowing there had also been Whites Thrush spotted in this park of late, I was very tempted to continue my exploration of this dark corner of the park. However, I resisted, and headed towards that large blue patch on the map instead, with eyes on the teal prize. 

On reaching the first lake, I noticed a distinct lack of ducks of any type, so scanned around with my binoculars, which soon came to rest on a distant huddle of people, with very large camera lenses attached to their skulls: Japanese Bird Photographers. Surely, this was the x-marks-the-spot moment, on my avian treasure hunt. I hurried over towards them, quickly seeing a small group of mallards swimming near them. I stopped dead, and hastily sifted through these familiar ducks, before my binoculars soon rested on a smashing male Baikal Teal, the object of both their and my desires. I spent some time with the teal, and the ever-present, ever-revolving, knot of Japanese photographers, always focused on that one better shot, as the Baikal Teal played hide and seek with them, around an island in the lake.

After getting my fill of the teal, I focused on trying to find the Whites Thrush, which was said to have recently been seen near this celebrity waterbird. Clearly, the photographers were unaware of this, with their lenses only trained on the waterbody, no one seeming to pay any attention to the surrounding woodland at all. I set off alone towards a likely looking set of trees, with a nice shady understory, the most likely spot for a shy forest thrush, so I thought. As I walked there, a rustle of leaves under a very near shrub stopped me dead in my tracks, not a thrush this time, but a very confiding Black-faced Bunting

I continued on, after snapping this bird, and my bins quickly fell on a thrush hopping brazenly though the open leaf litter. NOT a Whites, but an actual lifebird, Dusky Thrush. I was excited at this understated thrush, for it was a bird I used to daydream of as a rarity in the UK during my twitching days (and had never occurred during my time of rarity-chasing there). 

Heading back to the Teal Cluster, I decided to try the unlikely looking area of well trimmed, and carefully shaped shrubs immediately behind the group of teal admirers. As I headed up the slope, thinking that any self-respecting Whites Thrush would be far away from this well-manicured area, and be hiding in some shady woods instead, a person walking through the bushes inadvertently flushed a pair of thrushes from his feet; my optics quickly followed them to land, 1 Whites Thrush and 1 Brown-headed Thrush. My excitement rocketed; I had not seen a Whites Thrush in years, and was overjoyed to be in the lone company of one once again. I rapidly began firing off photos of this confiding bird. It was then that I learned of a less savoury feature of some Japanese Bird Photographers. On seeing me locked on to a bird, I quickly found I was not alone, and soon after several photographers charged ahead of me, straight at the thrush, which unsurprisingly, took flight, then buried itself in the thickest bush in the area! I watched this play out over the next 30 minutes and was rather disgusted my some of their behavior and so left them to it, having seen the bird well, with little need for such harried pursuit.

However, this did not mar my day, and my very first birding in Japan. I had been in Tokyo for less than 4 hours, and had racked up a Whites Thrush, a male Red-flanked Bluetail, seen my first flurry of Dusky Thrushes (which are one of Tokyos most familiar birds), and observed both Pale and Brown-headed Thrushes too. I had also experienced my first few Japanese Culture Shock Moments, and looked forward to many more of these from one of the most distinctive cultures, and countries, on Earth.

More from Japan soon....