Autumn Migration

peregrine falcon

Raptor and passerine migration is now well and truly underway in my region of Japan. The Chinese Goshawks have finished and now it is the turn of the Oriental Honey Buzzards, Grey-faced Buzzards, Eurasian Sparrowhawks and smaller numbers of Northern Hobby and Japanese Sparrowhawk. The Eurasian Kestrels have just arrived at Isahaya, along with the first of the wintering Eastern Marsh Harriers. Wintering ducks have also started arriving, with lots of Eurasian Wigeon in eclipse and a few Mandarin Duck. Flycatchers, warblers and starlings are all passing through now, although the warblers are difficult to identify as they stay quiet on autumn migration. Many other passerines that are normally quite vocal during spring migration pass by with barely a noise in the fall, such as Fairy Pitta. Lots of egrets are also moving, with many Cattle Egret and Intermediate Egret among them. Soon the buntings and thrushes will replace the flycatchers and warblers, and then the wintering species will arrive in greater numbers. One of my favourite birds will also arrive soon – the Amur Falcon. Every year small numbers migrate through Isahaya, with a few staying for as long as ten days or so. Normally these birds are juveniles or immatures, but sometimes an adult female will appear. For some reason, males tend to use the smaller islands for their route, such as Tsushima and Goto. Recently I checked on the migration status at Kabashima and Isahaya.

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM Review

After several outings with the 300/2.8, I’ve come to realise what an improvement this new version of the lens is over the Mk I. I’ve also identified the strengths and weaknesses of using both the 1.4x TC Mk III and 2x TC Mk III. Firstly, the lens used at its native focal length has no weaknesses – it performs superbly in all departments. AF speed and accuracy is phenomenal, as is sharpness. But the most impressive thing is its ability to resolve the tiniest details – the resolution is just fantastic. Bokeh is also amazing at f/2.8!

canon ef 300-f2-8l

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM – fantastic lens!

Attach the 1.4x and you basically don’t lose anything accept the one stop of light – you can shoot wide open with confidence. However, with the 7D at least, AF in Ai Servo mode is sometimes slow to pick up a small, fast moving subject. Once it locks on the subject, however, the AF keeps lock very well. As I shoot a lot of birds in flight, this problem can be annoying but can generally be fixed by using spot AF point selection and pumping the AF button.

 

canon-tc-1-4x-mkiii-500x333

Canon 1.4x TC MkIII

With the 2x TC, the lens can still perform well but you need to be careful of some limitations. Firstly, the AF problem described above gets worse and sometimes frustratingly so when you are lined up with a subject closing in but the lens won’t lock focus on it. Also, with the 7D you are effectively trying to find a small bird in fight with a 960/5.6, meaning that sometimes by the time you’ve got the bird in the viewfinder, the moment is lost. Additionally, IQ degrades noticeably at f/5.6, but by f/8 it is quite acceptable – very, very much improved on the old 300/2.8 version 1 plus 2x TC MkII combination that I personally found unusable. So this is my preferred combination for taking close-ups of relatively stationary wildlife or when wide, unobstructed views of larger birds in flight can be had. I also find that with the 7D, it is best to use this combination on a tripod or other support rather than handheld.

Canon 2x TC MkIII

Canon 2x TC MkIII

It is important to note that many users of this new 300/2.8 have reported similar AF “problems” but users that have the new bodies (5D MkIII and 1Dx) have reported improved AF in these situations. So perhaps the problem lies with the firmware/processors in older bodies rather than with the lens and TCs themselves. When I get my new FF body next year, I will compare AF performance between bodies and see if there is a difference.

I always use Mode 3 IS, as it allows me to quickly switch from photographing stationary subjects to something moving quickly. I am very impressed by this new image stabilisation mode and already it has resulted in great images that may not have been possible using Mode 1 or Mode 2. Now that I have gotten back used to handholding a supertelephoto lens, I find that I have no difficulty keeping the lens stable enough for properly composing images and I think using this Mode improves your lens holding technique.

Other general improvements include the redesigned lens hood, which seems to a lot easier to place on and take off than before. Although the lens cap is an improvement on the old one, it still cannot be placed on the lens one-handed and actually leaves a bit of a gap around the lens hood knob. So I am sticking to my LensCoat Hoodie. The new TCs also seem a lot tighter with no play anymore – a result of the extra weatherproofing that they got, I assume. The front lens element is a lot easier to keep clean, although you’ve lost the protection of extra element that the old version had.

Oriental Honey Buzzard | Pernis orientalis

Oriental Honey Buzzard

This morning I had a chance to go to Mount Hiyamizu near Sasebo city, Nagasaki prefecture. This time of year is good for migrating Oriental Honey Buzzard at Hiyamizu, and although there were gale-force winds and generally cloudy conditions, the birds co-operated and I could see 68 of the raptors fly past the mountain observatory due to the northerly gusts. Always at this time of year in Japan, it is interesting to note the numbers of juveniles and I am happy to say that a large number of the birds I saw and photographed were young hawks off on their first migration! I exclusively used the 300/2.8 with the 2x TC for this trip, and the wide 360 degree unobstructed view from the observation tower offered the perfect set up for use of this combination. Perhaps I am also getting more used to this combination, as I found I was able to both locate birds in the viewfinder quicker than before and get a good AF lock more quickly. I stayed at the observatory from sunrise (06:20) until 10:30 (when a squall came in). On the way home, I also saw Grey-faced Buzzard and Japanese Sparrowhawk.

Bird Tour Report Oct 17

Pied Harrier (juvenile male)

Last weekend a US couple residing in Shanghai came over for a few days of birding in my region of Japan. They arrived late Friday afternoon, and we had just enough time to briefly check out Isahaya. We missed the juvenile male Pied Harrier that has been patrolling the area, but it was a nice introduction to the area for them. The next morning we visited Mount Unzen before heading out to Kabashima. Both locations were a bit quiet, but the weather was great and the scenery superb. Then on Sunday morning we had a very early start to be at Daijyugarami in time for daybreak and the high tide (08:30). Living up to its reputation, Daijyugarami had hundreds of shorebirds even though it was “out of season”. Finally we toured the Isahaya Reclaimed Land Areas and spent the last hour or so at our original Friday afternoon spot where we could finally get great views of the Pied Harrier catching and devouring a host of different kinds of prey! Overall, 78 species were confirmed in the field. Highlights included Narcissus Flycatcher, Pied Harrier, Black-faced Spoonbill, Varied Tit, Grey-streaked Flycatcher, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese Bush Warbler, Streaked Shearwater, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Brown Shrike and Lesser Sand Plover. Below is the complete list:

Carrion Crow
Large-billed Crow
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Bull-headed Shrike
Great Cormorant
Osprey
Great Egret
Grey Heron
Little Egret
Common Snipe
Common Sandpiper
Eastern Spot-billed Duck
Common Moorhen
Rock Dove
Blue Rock Thrush
Black-eared Kite
White-cheeked Starling
Oriental Turtle Dove
Black-tailed Gull
Mongolian Gull
Streaked Shearwater
Brown Booby
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker
Brown-eared Bulbul
Meadow Bunting
Red-billed Leiothrix
Varied Tit
Eastern Great Tit
Long-tailed Tit
Japanese Bush Warbler
Narcissus Flycatcher
Grey-streaked Flycatcher
Grey Wagtail
White Wagtail
Eurasian Teal
Little Grebe
Pacific Reef Egret
Japanese White-eye
Brown Shrike
Daurian Redstart
Eurasian Sparrowhawk
Eastern Buzzard
Oriental Greenfinch
Broad-billed Sandpiper
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Red-necked Stint
Greater Sand Plover
Lesser Sand Plover
Grey Plover
Dunlin
Common Greenshank
Great Knot
Terek Sandpiper
Whimbrel
Far Eastern Curlew
Eurasian Curlew
Kentish Plover
Bar-tailed Godwit
Black-tailed Godwit
Black-faced Spoonbill
Peregrine Falcon
Common Magpie
Eurasian Skylark
Eurasian Wigeon
Gadwall
Northern Shoveler
Common Pochard
Vega Gull
Black-headed Gull
Whiskered Tern
Common Coot
Eurasian Kestrel
Common Ringed Plover
Pied Harrier
Indian Cuckoo
Zitting Cisticola
Chinese Pond Heron
Eastern Marsh Harrier

Pied Harrier | Circus melanoleucos

Pied Harrier

Pied Harriers are very rare birds to Japan, so it was to no surprise that when a juvenile male showed up at Isahaya, it created quite a stir among Japanese bird watchers and photographers. The young raptor was a regular around a certain section of reeds, where it snatched and consumed a wide variety of prey including mantis, rodent and small bird. Initially it was thought this bird would move on quickly, but even this morning it was still haunting the reed beds – two weeks after it was first observed! I hope it will stay in Isahaya the whole winter, but that is unlikely.

Amur Falcon | Falco amurensis

Amur Falcon

Each year at Isahaya, several Amur Falcons visit to stock up before embarking on their incredible journey to the east coast of Africa where they spend the northern hemisphere winter. It is only in autumn that they occur in Japan, as they return to their breeding grounds in the Russian Far East via a different route that takes them through India and central China. At Isahaya it is often the juveniles that pass through – the adult birds seem to migrate closer to the continent using islands such as Tsushima and Goto. This year seems to have been a good year for breeding, as the number of juveniles has surpassed the previous few seasons and even an immature male bird has been observed – usually it is only female birds that visit Isahaya. Amur Falcons are much like Eurasian Kestrels in behaviour – they hover a lot and prey almost exclusively (at Isahaya, at least) on locusts. Despite this, they are not harassed at all by the kestrels, which spend all winter at the reclaimed land areas. It is interesting that the smaller falcons all seem to have their own prey preferences – dragonflies for Northern Hobby; small birds for Merlin; locusts for Eurasian Kestrel and Amur Falcon. I guess this ensures that there is plenty of food for all and no conflict among the different species of raptor.

Bird Tour Report

Black Stork at Isahaya

From Sunday midday until Wednesday afternoon I guided a visiting birder from Canada around places in Kumamoto, Nagasaki and Saga prefectures. Firstly we went to Yatsushiro and Hikawa Estuary, where we saw gulls and shorebirds, however the Black-faced Spoonbills that I had expected there were not to be found. The next morning we watched Streaked Shearwater and Brown Booby from Futsu Port, and then headed up Mount Unzen to Azamidani which was very quiet. In the afternoon we explored the Isahaya Reclaimed Land Areas, the highlights of which were Amur Falcon, Eastern Marsh Harrier and Black Stork. The next day we went out to Kabashima and although the weather was pretty bad we managed to see a few interesting birds such as Japanese Thrush, Blue-and-white Flycatcher and Asian Brown Flycatcher. We then headed to Daijyugarami in hopes of catching the Black-faced Spoonbills, but alas we didn’t spot them. Although there were a lot of shorebirds, the high tide was not so high and many species remained at the water’s edge – too far out for us to identify properly. However just as we were leaving we spotted a Bewick’s Swan flying over the canals – very surprising! On the final day we took the early ferry from Shimabara to Kumamoto, hoping for a closer look at Streaked Shearwater and perhaps Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel, but we only had good views of Brown Booby. As we headed over the bridge linking Kumamoto Port to the mainland, we joking quipped about the egrets on our left being Black-faced Spoonbill and then, when I glanced to my right, I spotted one right in close to the bridge! Of course, my guest didn’t quite believe me, but I turned the car around and we went back and had great views of several birds foraging on the shallow mudflat – the first time I had observed them at this location. We were thrilled with the discovery and then proceeded out to the Mount Aso area which is famous in summer for its Japanese Reed Buntings. I was expecting to find other buntings there, such as Chestnut-eared, Rustic, Common Reed, etc., but although there seemed to be many birds, only Meadow Bunting and Zitting Cisticola were positively identified. We also flushed a male Japanese Green Pheasant as we were leaving. Finally we tried Edu Lake, hoping for some new species but it was pretty quiet with only common birds, although we did get good views of a beautiful Common Kingfisher. Overall, I think the birding was poor in terms of density, however we did manage 87 species with a further 3 species glimpsed. Among those species were some quality birds such as Black-faced Spoonbill, Japanese Green Pheasant, Amur Falcon, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Japanese Thrush, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Black Stork, Bewick’s Swan, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Mongolian Plover, Far Eastern Curlew, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Japanese Cormorant and Bull-headed Shrike. Below is the complete list:

Carrion Crow
Black-eared Kite
Large-billed Crow
Grey Heron
Little Egret
Eastern Great Egret
Black-crowned Night Heron
Vega Gull
Black-tailed Gull
Black-headed Gull
Osprey
Great Cormorant
Japanese Cormorant
Far Eastern Curlew
Curlew Sandpiper
Dunlin
Terek Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Common Snipe
Common Greenshank
Bar-tailed Godwit
Mallard
Eurasian Teal
Eurasian Wigeon
Eastern Spot-billed Duck
Gadwall
Eurasian Siskin
Oriental Greenfinch
Meadow Bunting
Daurian Redstart
Oriental Turtle Dove
Rock Dove
Blue Rock Thrush
White-cheeked Starling
Bull-headed Shrike
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Japanese Wagtail
Brown Booby
Streaked Shearwater
Varied Tit
Eastern Great Tit
Brambling
Greater Scaup
Northern Pintail
Common Pochard
Northern Shoveler
Whiskered Tern
Hen Harrier
Eastern Marsh Harrier
Eurasian Kestrel
Amur Falcon
Intermediate Egret
Common Coot
Common Moorhen
Siberian Stonechat
Zitting Cisticola
Black Stork
Grey Wagtail
White Wagtail (nominate plus 3 subspecies – lumens, lugens, ocularis)
Common Starling
Little Grebe
Sand Martin
Barn Swallow
Japanese Thrush
Blue-and-white Flycatcher
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker
Brown-eared Bulbul
Arctic Warbler
Peregrine Falcon
Eastern Buzzard
Eurasian Skylark
Common Magpie
Bewick’s Swan
Japanese White-eye
Eastern Yellow Wagtail
Black-tailed Godwit
Eurasian Curlew
Greater Sand Plover
Mongolian Plover
Red-necked Stint
Grey Plover
Kentish Plover
Pacific Golden Plover
Black-faced Spoonbill
Japanese Green Pheasant
Common Kingfisher

Eurasian Sparrowhawk | Accipiter nisus nisosimilis

Eurasian Sparrowhawk

 

The Eurasian Sparrowhawk is a common northern latitude raptor, ranging from western Europe all the way across to Japan. In winter, birds in my area are ones that have migrated south from Hokkaido and further north. Indeed, many birds pass through my region in the autumn migration period to wintering grounds in southern China. Often, like many species of raptor, it is the juveniles that tend to pass through Isahaya; staying for a few weeks or even months to prey on small wintering passerines such as Brambling, Oriental Greenfinch and Siskin. This morning I observed and photographed this young hawk as it hunted fast among the reed banks between the Central and Moriyama reclaimed land areas.

Hen Harrier

Oe Reclaimed Land Area

One of the lesser-known reclaimed land areas around Isahaya Bay is Oe. This site is actually one of my favourites for photography, as there are usually no other people around and the backgrounds can be very nice if the angle is right. It is also good both at early morning and late afternoon, as you can position yourself to take advantage of different light directionality. Oe has a number of small canals that have natural banks lined with reeds. In the middle there is also a medium-sized lake, while along one edge flows the Honmyo River. This wetland area therefore plays host to many waterfowl and passerine species in winter, and they in turn attract different kinds of raptors such as Eurasian Kestrel, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Merlin, Northern Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon, Black-eared Kite, Osprey and Eastern Marsh Harrier. But Oe is most famous for its Hen Harriers, which can be viewed and photographed up close and personal here and seem to frequent this location more than others in the area. Passerines have to watch out from below as well as above, as the reeds are also home to Japanese Weasel. This afternoon the light was soft as a thin wall of cloud masked the sun most of the time – challenging conditions for my 7D (and more suited to the 1DX I hope to have in the next month or so!). Despite the dreary conditions, there was plenty of action on hand and I did my best to document it.

Brown Quail

Picnic Hill

On one photo excursion during my stay at Killarney, I decided to try following the Killarney – Barlow’s Gate Road all the way to Barlow’s Gate, a crossing along the Queensland – New South Wales border. This road is almost all dirt, and some sections are impassible in wet conditions. This particular morning was dry, although melting frost made some hollows a little tricky for the 2WD Ford Ranger. Navigation was also a little tricky, but the rabbit fence (a fence built along the border to try, fruitlessly, to keep rabbits from crossing over!) was a pretty good marker for my relative position. Although there were a lot of kangaroos and wallabies along the track, there was not all that much birdlife. Wood Duck were perched up in the trees, Red-browed Finch and Double-barred Finch were feeding on the grass seeds, Superb Fairywren were feeding along the track itself and every now and then a pair of rosellas (Crimson, Eastern or Pale-headed), Red-rumped or Red-winged parrots would be flushed from feeding in fields next to the road. Passing one of the very few properties along this road, I stopped to photograph the grizzly sight of a dingo carcass hanging on a fence – obviously shot or poisoned and strung up as a warning to others that might be preying on livestock in the area.

 

After running along the border for a few kilometres, I climbed a hill to a magnificent summit that had almost 360 degree views across the countryside. I immediately thought that this would be great place to observe different bird species, and it seemed others had the same idea – I soon noticed a flock of Red-browed Finch and Double-barred Finch feeding on commercial bird seed spread under some trees beside some shrubs. As I was photographing the finches, a pair of Brown Quail came out of the undergrowth to start feeding as well! Not to be outdone, a flock of White-winged Chough arrived noisily and took over proceedings. A Grey Goshawk made a pass over the hilltop, causing a commotion among the smaller birds, although the White-winged Chough were not too perturbed by it all. So it was a very nice experience to sit there in the car and photograph several species at close range. After the goshawk flew past, I walked up to a sign that was posted in front of the gate to a small cabin. The location was named “Picnic Hill” – very apt for such a beautiful, albeit remote, spot. In the grounds of the cabin, there were quite a few birds feeding on the lawn, such as Superb Fairywren and White-browed Scrubwren, while flittering between the trees was a Rufous Fantail. In the trees, several species of honeyeater were busy feeding on the nectar of the few flowers that had already started blooming.