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

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