Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Azerbaijan trip report, May 2015

Some of you may remember that a long time ago, I visited Azerbaijan. It was my intention to keep up the tradition of producing detailed reports for each West Pal trip I went on with this excursion intended to be no exception. Unfortunately it has taken me the best part of nine months to pull my finger out and get this completed, but here it is. As always, you can email me for a PDF copy of the report or for further information on birding in this wonderful country.


Sunday, 7 February 2016

Saturday at the dump

A very decent morning with Steve and Rich in blustery (but thankfully dry) conditions in Essex on Saturday. A reasonable number of gulls were present around the tip but the wind was making them quite restless - not least because large bits of rubbish were almost constantly blowing across the site and disrupting roosting birds. In total we recorded four Caspian Gulls throughout the morning - two adults, a near-adult and a first-winter.

The first to appear was this impressive adult - a big, rangy bird that towered above most of the Herring Gulls present. It showed a couple of times during the morning; the final shot below was taken on its second showing.




The second adult is a returning bird that has been seen regularly at this site since 2009. It's quite a small, pale-eyed bird with a distinct red eye ring and yellowish legs.



Unfortunately the near-adult flew almost instantly after Steve picked it up, but here's a flight shot for the record.


This distinctive and snouty first-winter also appeared on the edge of the melee for a short while before flying off.



A few other bits of interest were seen including numerous Norwegian-ringed Great Black-backed Gulls - part of a good influx of this species to the dump. Among these was J5493 or 'Big White', the leucistic Great Black-backed Gull which is back for its third consecutive winter at this site.


A bird that I'd really been hoping to see was a white-winged gull that reappeared at the tip last Saturday after having been seen here on several occasions last winter. It troubled various observers in early 2015 but looks a more typical dark-end Iceland Gull this year - although it is quite a large and robust bird and its moult seems a bit retarded for a bird of this age. Unfortunately it appeared for just a couple of minutes and was largely obscured in the flock - hoping to see it again before the winter is out.



An adult white-winged gull was also picked up in flight and watched drifting around for a couple of minutes, but unfortunately it wasn't the hoped-for Glaucous/Iceland and in fact either a white-winged Herring or Glaucous x Herring - in flight it looked like the outer webs of p9 & 10 had some mid-grey markings on them.

Thanks to Steve and Rich for having me along - a very enjoyable morning despite the gale blowing bits of rubbish in to the Land Rover. It's always hugely entertaining watching the gulls go about their daily lives in this unique environment, and I'll leave you with a couple of photos of a Great Black-backed tackling a large flatbread.


Friday, 5 February 2016

Japan 2015 days 14-15: Nakano, Karuizawa, Narita and London

2 January 2016

The scenery around Nakano was very pleasant indeed and Jigodukani was just a short drive from our hotel. Arriving some time before the 09:00 opening time, we took the half-hour walk up the snowy valley at a relaxed pace, searching for birds along the way. Unfortunately there wasn't much about save the common woodland species, with Varied Tit about as good as it got.

Thankfully the Japanese Macaques proved quite entertaining. Noisy, social and characterful animals, we watched upwards of 100 'snow monkeys' engaging in activities such as feeding, fighting, grooming and fornicating for about an hour, taking plenty of shots in the process. Rich also picked up an Alpine Accentor by the main spring, which was a nice trip tick.











After that it was back to Karuizawa for the rest of the day for another shot at the specialities we'd missed. Unfortunately we couldn't find even the most likely targets, Green Pheasant and Japanese Accentor, but did enjoy further good views of the Long-tailed Rosefinch flock in the bird forest clearing. I had at least four Hwamei behind the 7-11 store and Rich had a couple more towards Kose Onsen, while he also had a pair of Japanese Wagtails and 20+ Spot-billed Ducks at a nearby pond.

Long-tailed Rosefinch 


Male and female Siberian Meadow Buntings

In the evening we journeyed back to Tokyo on a very busy Shinkansen service - evidently lots of people were heading back to the city after their holidays. From Tokyo we headed out to Narita, where we were stayed in a hotel near the airport.



3 January 2016

We'd been informed that any rough ground around Narita airport was as good a place for Brown-headed Thrush as any we were likely to visit, so we spent the first hour and a half of the day searching for the species. We actually found at least three thrushes pretty easily here, so this must be the best chance to see them if you are flying in/out of Narita. Other sightings included Red-flanked Bluetail, a couple of Japanese Bush Warblers, Black-faced Buntings, Oriental Turtle Doves and overflying flocks of White-cheeked Starlings.


Brown-headed Thrush, Narita

With that it was time to head to the terminal and reluctantly leave Japan - all three of us agreed that we could have stayed out another two weeks and done the entire trip all over again! What a wonderful country Japan is - beautiful scenery, great birding, iconic species, clean cities and towns, relaxed atmosphere, brilliant food ... and that's without mentioning the Japanese people, who are extremely friendly, helpful and courteous people - it really puts Britain to shame. I think all of us will be back at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Japan 2015 day 14: Karuizawa

1 January 2016

The New Year dawned cold and bright - though there was an almost total lack of snow around Karuizawa (very unusual for this time of year), we had at least been afforded a hard frost. As we walked down towards the bird forest our first birds of 2016 included a couple of decent flocks of Rustic Buntings and a new bird for the trip: Japanese Green Woodpecker. Meadow Buntings and Dusky Thrushes were common, as was the usual range of woodland species that we'd been encountering throughout our fortnight in Japan - more notable species included Hawfinch and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers.

A pair of Brown Dippers were on the river opposite 7-11 while I jammed in on a male Long-tailed Rosefinch in the scrubby area behind the store; unfortunately it had disappeared by the time Rich arrived. A male Daurian Redstart there was one of only a few encountered at Karuizawa.

We'd been given recent gen on a pair of Japanese Accentors, seen just before Christmas along one of the bird forest trails. A thorough search of the stream failed to produce the species but we bumped in to a male Naumann's Thrush, which flew up from the track and gave brief views before flying off in to the forest - another surprise bird for the trip.

While Mick went to twitch a waterfall to the north of town, Rich and I spent several hours walking the trails in the bird forest. Birds were relatively few and far between and it was by no means easy going. It seems like finding Copper Pheasant here requires luck as well as persistence and I was afforded my slice of fortune early afternoon when I flushed a female from a steep ridge - the only one seen in our day and a half here. This was quickly followed by prolonged views of Japanese Serow (resembling an oafish goat-deer hybrid), the animal seemingly just as fascinated by us as we were by it. Another new mammal here was Japanese Hare.


 Japanese Serow, Karuizawa

We found a group of at least seven Long-tailed Rosefinches in the main clearing in the bird forest, this including a couple of stunning males. Another group of 5+ was then seen back behind the 7-11 store late afternoon, but we couldn't find any Japanese Green Pheasants around the town.

Fem/imm Long-tailed Rosefinch, Karuizawa bird forest

Other notable birds seen in the forest throughout the day included at least five Japanese Grosbeaks, a couple of Red-flanked Bluetails, more Brown Dippers, Bull-headed Shrike and at least one male Bullfinch (apparently grisiventris, but it seemed to have a slight warm flush to the belly c.f. rosacea) as well as all the expected species. We didn't get a sniff of the area's winter specialities (Japanese Waxwing, Pallas's Rosefinch and the accentor) - presumably the mild winter wasn't helping and a lack of snow meant no concentrations of birds.

First-winter Bull-headed Shrike, Karuizawa bird forest

It had been a glorious and relaxing day in Karuizawa, one that I very much enjoyed despite the slow pace of birding. I think that in all honesty we could have stayed another night to give ourselves another early morning shot at the pheasants, but pre-trip planning dictated that we needed to pick up a hire car and drive the couple of hours over to Nakano for a bit of duding at the famous 'snow monkeys' the following morning. It took a while to get there due to our sat nav trying to lead us down various blind alleys but we finally arrived mid-evening. Snow-free Karuizawa had us fearing that the snow monkeys might not actually be set to a white backdrop but thankfully it was a few degrees colder in Nakano, and there was clearly at least a bit of snow on the ground.

Mt Asama looms large over the clearing in Karuizawa bird forest - Long-tailed Rosefinch here

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Japan 2015 day 13: Hokkaido - Tokyo - Karuizawa

31 December 2015


Looking north from Furen

Our final morning on Hokkaido was to be spent driving south to Kushiro from Furen, taking in a few sites en route. First port of call was a woodland track between Furen and Ochisii - Take had told us it was a decent place to look for the striking grisiventris subspecies of Bullfinch, which we had not yet seen. A slow drive through the forest with several tactical spots eventually produced a Bullfinch, but alas it was a female rather than the pink-cheeked, grey-bellied male we'd been after! The woods were otherwise pretty quiet, a typical range of common woodland species (including several Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers) and a few Steller's Sea Eagles were as good as it got.

It was pretty clear that the holiday season was in full swing on arrival in Ochisii. The harbour was totally devoid of people, let alone fishing activity, and gulls were extremely thin on the ground. A group of nine Falcated Ducks was a pleasant surprise and there were also several Black Scoters and a Scaup. With time pressing we decided to head south to Kushiro to spend the final couple of hours photographing gulls at the harbour. A quick stop in Akkeshi produced a first-winter Vega and a couple of Kamchatka Gulls among the commoner Slaty-backed and Glaucous-winged Gulls.

Many second-winter Slaty-backed Gulls tend to look quite grotesque

Given that everywhere was shut down for New Year it was no great surprise to find far fewer gulls in an eerily quiet Kushiro harbour, but the Slaty-backs kept us entertained until we'd used up our final four loaves of bread (and two bags of popcorn). There was a little more ice around the harbour which had also concentrated groups of Scaup, Goldeneye, Harlequin and Red-breasted Merganser, and so we enjoyed our final looks at these species (and our last White-tailed Eagle) before the time came to head to the airport for our 13:40 flight.

Kushiro Harbour just a short while before leaving Hokkaido

The rest of the day was spent travelling. We arrived back in Tokyo mid-afternoon, enjoyed a typically efficient breeze through Haneda Airport and were soon at Tokyo station. Before boarding the Shinkansen up to Karuizawa we enjoyed a bit of train-spotting, which I'm not ashamed to admit to in Japan. It's hard not to stand and admire the artistic beauty of the bullet trains arriving and departing with enduring precision at Tokyo station - they are some of the most extraordinarily designed machines you will ever see and I'm certainly not embarrassed to have been the excitable tourist standing at the end of the Platform 23 that afternoon.

Shinkansen at Tokyo station

We were picked up at Karuizawa station by our hosts at Pension Edohara and were enjoying yet another delicious meal soon after. New Year's Eve actually turned out to be a bit of a tame affair, as it apparently is for most people in Japan, Traditionally families spend it together, eating a nice meal and watching their favourite TV programs. So that's what we did, and New Year was welcomed in with a cold Kirin watching some sort of hybrid sport that appeared a mix of sumo, cage fighting and boxing ...

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Japan 2015 day 12: Capes Nosappu and Kiritappu

30 December 2015

A group of three Red-crowned Cranes out on the ice from Furen Lodge was a nice way to start the day while enjoying breakfast, shortly followed by the first Steller's Sea Eagle of the day. After discussing our tactics one final time with Take, we were out the door and on our way to Cape Nosappu. With the New Year period a national holiday in Japan, no boat trips were running and so our best chance of alcids was going to be off the lighthouse at the Cape.

On arrival we quickly located five Red-faced Cormorants roosting among the hundred or so Pelagic Cormorants on their favoured stack just off the amusement arcade. Scanning out to sea and Spectacled Guillemots were immediately apparent, many flying north-west with others resting on the sea. The odd Pigeon Guillemot was picked out among them while the sea was littered with seaduck - mainly Black Scoters and Harlequins, but also some Long-tailed Ducks and a couple of Stejneger's Scoters too. We soon picked up the first of at least a dozen Ancient Murrelets, all quite close to shore and giving great views in between dives. Several Kittiwakes and Common Guillemots were also offshore.

This stack, just off the amusement arcade, holds a large roost of Pelagic Cormorants and is a great spot for Red-faced 


Adult (top) and two immature Red-faced Cormorants among the many Pelagic Cormorants

Just a few of the many Black Scoters off Cape Nosappu

A drive around the headland again failed to produce the hoped-for Asian Rosy Finch. Indeed passerines were very sparse on the ground out towards the windswept Cape with just a few small groups of Tree Sparrows around the villages looking cold and a little tired of life. Onnemato harbour held both Steller's and White-tailed Eagles as well as the usual gulls and ducks - including a showy drake Long-tailed Duck and a few juvenile Glaucous Gulls attending a putrid seal corpse that had washed up on the slipway. Bread seems to be extremely effective at drawing in gulls around Hokkaido's harbours and it was no different here, with the usual mix of Kamchatka, Slaty-backed and Glaucous-winged Gulls the subjects.

Glaucous-winged and Glaucous Gulls queue up for our popcorn

One thing we'd noticed was that the harbours on Hokkaido weren't perhaps as productive as we'd hoped/expected. Gulls, wildfowl and alcids were all present in disappointing numbers - presumably the mild winter (and resultant lack of ice) had something to do with it while in the case of the former, the lack of fishing/harbour activity (as a result of the New Year holiday) probably wasn't helping. Habomai held very little aside a few Black Scoters, Harlequins and a drake Common Pochard plus a couple of Red-crowned Cranes flying over; Hanasaki revealed a BrĂ¼nnich's Guillemot but little else.

Take had told us that Asian Rosy Finches had also been seen along the coastal stretch of Route 142, south of Hattaushi, and so we decided to head down there. Another long and fruitless walk through promising rosy finch habitat once again drew a blank - it was now Cape Kiritappu or bust. Arriving at the Cape mid-afternoon, we soon found our target - a flock of around 40 Asian Rosy Finches - attending feeders in the garden of the small hotel by the main road. Before the trip had commenced I'd cited this as one of the target species that I most wanted to see, so enjoying the finches in the warm light was a relief to say the least! Views were a little distant from the road - certainly no good for photos, but good enough through the 'scope - but they'd regularly get up and fly around, occasionally landing on the roadside wires and consequently affording a much closer look.





Excellent birds and a fine way to round off another bright but bracing day in stunning scenery, which was made all the better by another excellent meal back in the warmth at Lodge Furen!

Cape Kiritappu

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!