Tuesday 19 January 2016

Japan 2015 day four: Lake Miike and Yatsushiro

22 December 2015

Having stayed just a few kilometres away overnight, we arrived at Lake Miike not long after dawn. The lake itself was littered with common wildfowl including Spot-billed Duck, Mallard, Wigeon and Tufted Ducks, and a drake Spot-billed x Mallard was interesting. There were, however, no Baikal Teal, Mandarin or other more interesting species.

At first the woods seemed quiet although species around the campsite included Olive-backed Pipit, Daurian Redstart and groups of Red-billed Leiothrix as well as the more familiar woodland birds. We found the northern route around the lake to be blocked off, and perhaps just as well - aside a handful of Black-faced Buntings and the faint call of what were probably Grey Buntings emanating from the undergrowth, it seemed quiet.

As such we headed back the other way and soon picked up our first Yellow-throated Buntings - a small group of three. Alas they were quite wary and generally liked to bury themselves in cover, so photo opportunities were limited.

Walking further along this trail produced a couple of flyover White-bellied Green Pigeons while a Ryukyu Minivet disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Up to 15 Yellow-throated Buntings teased us with brief views while the lake margin held Common Kingfishers. A woodpecker quickly transpired to be a namiyei White-backed, the extensive reddish underparts easily the most striking feature. As we turned back for the campsite, Rich and I were treated to fantastic views of a Japanese Weasel as it strutted along the path.

Rich then received a text from Mick telling us to "stop looking and nothing and get back - Forest Wagtail!" Sure enough the wagtail was showing more or less on arrival and gave some great views over the next half an hour as it came to mealworms put out by a Japanese photographer. An unexpected bonus to say the least, but it turns out this is the third winter running that it's been seen here. One of the most characterful passerines I've seen, it was great to watch it moodily swaying from side to side as it crept along branches - that was until it had stuffed itself full of mealworms and just sat there looking slightly embarrassed by its gluttony. Further Ryukyu Minivets flew over and a male Red-flanked Bluetail gave some stunning views.

Forest Wagtail at Lake Miike

By now it was late morning and we decided to begin the drive north to Yatsushiro. I was constantly on the eye out for interesting roadside birds and lucked out with two Japanese Grosbeaks sat in a mistletoe-covered tree in Takaharu - the only ones we saw on Kyushu.

Arriving at Yatsushiro estuary early afternoon, we found the tide almost entirely out. Nevertheless Saunders' Gulls were instantly apparent and two partial counts of 130 and 120 led us to believe that well in excess of 250 birds were strewn across the estuary, some giving great views as they preyed on mudskippers and crabs.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon in the estuary area, waiting for the tide to come up and generally enjoying the multitude of birds, predominately wildfowl, that were present. At least 20 Falcated Ducks were very welcome and a minimum of eight Black-faced Spoonbills were seen alongside several of their Eurasian congeners. Waders included Long-billed and Kentish Plovers, Dunlin, Lapwing, Greenshank and Redshank.

Immature Black-faced Spoonbill - one of several at Yatsushiro

Wandering inland I soon found the first of many Meadow Buntings frequenting scrubby field edges. Similar habitat produced a fine flock of 50+ Russet Sparrows and a couple of Chestnut-eared Buntings - a species I'd been keen to see - as well as numerous Dusky Thrushes and Siberian Pipits plus one or two Bull-headed Shrikes. I hadn't realised how spectacularly large Japanese Wagtails were until one flew right past me along the channel, repeating its rasping single-note call on several occasions.

Male Russet Sparrow

It had been a thoroughly successful afternoon but I was lacking one thing - nice photos of Saunders' Gull. Mick had already accomplished a series of gripping shots and the birds seemed to be flying off inland. With no more than an hour of light left we set off in the general direction that the birds were heading and, after a few kilometres, found at least 100 Saunders' feeding in roadside rice fields. Here we enjoyed some fantastic views and I finally managed some satisfying shots - not award winning, but a considerable improvement on my earlier efforts.

Saunders' really are fantastic gulls and it was brilliant to watch the flock wheeling round and calling to one another in the golden light of late afternoon before they eventually dispersed, presumably to roost. With the sun sinking behind the horizon we headed south to Izumi where we were staying, although were a little put off on arrival as the entire town seemed to stink of chicken farms. Putrid!

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