peregrine falcon

Autumn Migration

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.

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.

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.

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.

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Today I received my new Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens together with Canon 2x TC MkIII and Canon 52mm C-PL Drop-in Filter. At the beginning of the year, I was interested in the new Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, but trips to Australia in June, July and August convinced me that I needed f/2.8 for low light shooting. And seeing as the new Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM weighs only a bit more than the 500, I felt it was better to save and buy that lens at a later date and get the new 300 instead of the 500. Another big consideration was the feedback from wildlife photographers who had used the new 300 with the new 2x TC MkIII – they all said the IQ was excellent especially when stopped down a little to f/6.3 or f/7.1. So having a relatively light, compact, effective 480/2.8; 672/4 (I already own the 1.4x TC MkIII) and 960/5.6 focal length choice was very appealing. Additionally, when I get my FF body (probably the 1Dx), I will have a choice of 6 different focal lengths (300, 420 & 600 with the 1Dx; 480, 672 & 960 with the 7D) – all with excellent image quality! I am also secretly hoping that Canon puts out a EF 800mm f/5.6L IS II USM, although with the latest pro FF bodies not AF-ing at f/8, the new 600 would still a better choice for maximum reach and versatility. Anyway, the 300/2.8 plus 600/4 combination is what I decided on for my wildlife photography going forward.

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM

So late this morning I picked up my new lens and headed for the Isahaya Reclaimed Land Areas for some shooting! As I was excited to see what the 300 could do with the 2x TC attached, that was the combination I used today. I will experiment with the other two focal length options later. Looking over the lens, it was pretty much the same as the version 1 IS that I was very familiar with. But even though the new version is only slightly lighter, the difference is noticeable. I like the way the switches are positioned in this new version, and immediately I set the IS Mode to 3 and the focus limiter to 6m – infinity. The new Mode 3 is one reason I wanted this lens, but it felt really weird initially! No IS at all in the viewfinder even when the shutter is half-pressed and an effective 960mm focal length handheld means a bit of hand shake, and when you fully depress the shutter it seems like nothing has happened! But, checking the shot in the rear display showed that the IS did indeed activate and work – amazing! I think if the majority of shots are of stationary subjects, then Mode 1 is probably better for handheld shooting, but if there is a possibility of having to quickly shoot a moving subject, then Mode 3 is definitely the way to go. Of course, you should also probably use a tripod if using the 7D/300/2xTC combination!

 

I was worried about the AF speed with the 2xTC attached. Having been using the 70-300/4-5.6L IS for several months now, I was in a good position to compare the AF speed of different lenses at f/5.6. I have to say that generally the 600/5.6 focused faster and more accurately than the 300/5.6, but only a little bit better. The Ai Servo mode was much faster to pick up and track subjects with the 600/5.6, especially against the sky. I can’t wait to see how good the AF is with the lens at its native focal length!

 

So all I needed now was the co-operation of a few feathered friends. Being the start of passerine migration, I was expecting to find a few interesting subjects and pretty quickly I spotted a couple of Sand Martin in among Barn Swallows at Chuo Reclaimed Land Area. A fairly easy first up test of the lens – I just pointed out of the window of the car at one of the martins resting on a power line and took a couple of shots. Next I went into to Moriyama Reclaimed Land Area and spotted something hiding in a tree – a cuckoo! This was a real test of AF ability, as the target was behind lots of branches. However more than half the shots were focused properly on the subject, so I was satisfied. Soon afterwards I observed a pair of redshanks in a flooded but unused rice paddy. This was very easy for the lens, as the redshanks contrasted nicely against the water.

 

And then the resident Northern Goshawk showed up! A great chance to test the AF on a fast moving subject, although as usual the raptor was fairly shy. I followed it around the Moriyama area, and got some good shots of it perched, but each time it flew, it flew away from my position even when it was flushed by farmers on the opposite side of the bird than I was! I was also experimenting with different AF point settings, so at times the AF wouldn’t focus on the bird in flight initially if it was against a cluttered, fairly close background. But once the subject was picked up by the AF, it tracked it well. Anyway, I will continue to use various AF point settings to get a feel of which one works better than another in a given situation (previously I always used the spot AF point setting for everything, but I have been reading that some of the other setting have a better hit ratio).

 

Soon afterwards it began to get cloudy and although I could have tested the lens at native focal length or with the 1.4x TC I decided to call it a day. I will have many opportunities over the next week to try out the lens in a variety of shooting environments and conditions!

Shimabara Peninsula Coast & Karako Lotus Ponds

This afternoon I went on a bit of a tour around the Shimabara Peninsula and then to the Karako Lotus Ponds. Basically this was just a scouting trip to see what stage the autumn migration was at with respect to shorebirds, ducks, etc. I ended up finding quite a good spot to watch for seabirds in the Ariake Sea – the lighthouse at Futsu Port.  Here I watched Streaked Shearwater and also spotted a 4W Mongolian Gull among a flock of Black-tailed Gull – a nice treat! Going around the peninsula there were plenty of gulls but other than the Streaked Shearwater and a few Brown Booby there was nothing much happening. I did observe some smaller, darker birds skimming the sea surface and thought they might be a storm petrel of some sort (probably Swinhoe’s given the location and time of year), but they were too far out to positively identify.

Mount Kinugasa

Rising up 870m and situated just to the west of Mount Unzen, Mount Kinugasa has a magnificent 360 degree panoramic view of the Shimabara Peninsula. To the east is the hot spring town of Unzen and then the peaks of Mt Unzen itself; to the south are the Amakusa Islands; to the west is Tachibana Bay and Nagasaki, while to the north is Isahaya. Mount Kinugasa is also one of the more easily accessible peaks in the Unzen range, with a well-marked 2km trail leading from the carpark at Shirakumo Lake. The hike up takes about 25 minutes or so.

Kinugasa was itself an active volcano that erupted hundreds of thousands of years ago, and now serves as a weather station mainly for monitoring winds but also for collecting other basic data such as air temperature, humidity, pressure, rainfall, hours of sunlight, etc. The summit has a lawn area about 30 metres square; an observation balcony that overlooks Unzen hot spring town; and the main wooden panorama observation tower. There is no shade or shelter, however, unless you want to sit under the tower itself (no view from there!), so you are pretty exposed on the top. For birders, Mount Kinugasa’s attraction is that it is one of the points to watch migrating Chinese Goshawk during September. Other migrating birds also pass by, such as Oriental Honey Buzzard, Grey-faced Buzzard, Asian House Martin, Pacific Swift, White-throated Needletail, but it is for the range-restricted Chinese Goshawks that it is the most popular. However, as some other raptor migration observation spots are more reliable and famous (such as Uchiyama Pass, Tsushima; Mt Hiyamizu, Sasebo; Osezaki, Goto Islands), the top of Kinugasa is usually pretty deserted even during September – just the way I like it!

Late this morning I hiked up after work and started observations at 11:30. Things were pretty quiet and there was no real wind to speak of. What wind there was was changing direction all the time, and basically went from NW to SW to SE to NE and then back again…when I left it was coming from WNW but winds this slight would not have much impact on migration. Anyway, at 13:30 as I was watching a Eurasian Jay on the west flank of the mountain, I suddenly noticed a fast approaching shape out of the corner of my right eye. I turned and saw a blur hurtling toward me and managed to get the camera up and focused as it came on in – a juvenile Chinese Goshawk! I took a burst of shots as it flew low straight over my head and then turned in time to see it bank sharply and try to snatch a dragonfly in mid-air…unfortunately it failed to grasp the dragonfly properly, although it seemed to have dealt it a killer blow. The young raptor then soared up, gained elevation and headed on south toward the Amakusa Islands. I immediately scouted the area to the north and east, expecting other birds to be close behind but, alas, it appeared as if this goshawk was alone – quite a rare occurrence.

 

At 14:30 a pair of White-throated Needletail swept past, but very low so I managed a few decent shots of them. Then soon afterwards I spotted a group of seven Chinese Goshawks spiralling upwards to the northeast. They were quite far, so I couldn’t make out whether they were adults or juveniles. Then at 15:30 another pair of White-throated Needletail flew past.

 

After that the conditions got murkier and murkier as the sun lowered behind increasingly thickening high-altitude clouds. But at 16:00 I observed another six Chinese Goshawks on the west flank of the mountain. Again, it was impossible to determine whether the birds were juvenile or adult or a mix, as they were silhouetted by the late afternoon sun….. Soon afterwards I called it a day and hiked back down to my car. But I was satisfied – any sightings of Chinese Goshawks on the Kyushu mainland are very rewarding! However, this is probably toward the end of their migration, so I doubt if there will be many more chances to spot them this year.

Moriyama Reclaimed Land Area

Late this morning I had a quick drive through the Chuo and Moriyama reclaimed land areas of Isahaya. Pretty quiet at the moment, but things should liven up towards the end of the month and into October when the passage migrants and winter visitors arrive. The only birds of note that I observed today were Intermediate Egret and a nice adult Northern Goshawk.

 

Chinese Goshawk | Accipiter soloensis

On my first excursion since arriving back in Japan, I wanted to finally get good views of one species that has been on my wish list – the Chinese Goshawk. Also known as Chinese Sparrowhawk and Horsfield’s Sparrowhawk, these birds migrate from as far north as the Russia Far East to as far south as the Philippines in early autumn. It is only relatively recently that they were noticed migrating in large numbers in western Japan, but now most of their routes are known. Birds that arrive in Japan usually migrate through the Korean Peninsula, across to Tsushima, then arrive on the northwestern coast of Nagasaki (Mt Hiyamizu is a popular spot to watch them), then head along the Nagasaki coastline. Depending on the wind direction, they can come inland as far as Mt Gokahara in Isahaya, but normally they skim the coastline or bypass it altogether by using the Goto Islands prior to heading further south.

 

I heard from a Japanese birder friend that around 8000 birds had left Tsushima yesterday, and so I thought that the northwesterly winds would push them across to the Nagasaki coast. Therefore early this afternoon I went to Mount Kinugasa, a peak on the western section of Mount Unzen to see if a few had taken this route. It seems the Chinese Goshawks use the peak as a navigation marker for one of their main routes south, with the next stop being the Amakusa Islands. I had tried previously to observe migrating birds at Mt Hiyamizu and Mt Gokahara, but always missed them. So this time I started trying for them earlier in the season, and this afternoon seemed like a good chance.

 

I arrived at Mt Kinugasa at 12:45, and within 5 minutes I observed 32 Chinese Goshawk migrating along the east flank of the mountain south towards the Amakusa Islands. Over the next hour, a total of 54 birds were seen and then at around 13:45 the wind changed to a southwesterly and no further birds were observed. But I was ecstatic! I had gotten some great views of the birds as they flew either low right over my head or flew past almost at eye level. I managed a few photos, and as far as I could tell there were about equal numbers of adults and juveniles.