Sep 022013
 

Recently I was invited to write a guest post for the Yadorigi blog about summer wildlife in Japan. Yadorigi is a small village in Kanagawa prefecture about which a short documentary film was created. This documentary was internationally acclaimed and there are plans by its producer/director, Eiji Iwakawa, to make a full-length documentary. I encourage you to visit the blog and watch the short documentary (and read my guest post, of course!):

Summer Wildlife in Japan

 

Jul 012013
 

Last weekend I decided to go up to central Honshu island and search out some personal “firsts” seeing as I had a total of four days. I was planning to visit both Mt Ibuki (Shiga prefecture) and Mt Norikura (Gifu prefecture), the first location for Golden Eagle and the second for alpine birds such as Rock Ptarmigan and Japanese Accentor. However the wind forecast was bad for Mt Ibuki (no wind = no Golden Eagles flying around), therefore I only visited Mt Norikura.

Norikura is an attractive location for wildlife photographers in several respects, not the least of which is the altitude of the bus terminus. At 2700 meters, this is one of the highest road access points in Japan, so you are already well in the alpine zone before having to start lugging gear around. There are two lodges here, although only one was open for my stay. So you can leave most of your gear at your lodgings and just travel light for hikes around the summit area. Additionally, there are several interesting target species. Apart from birds, the area is home to Asiatic Black Bear, Japanese Serow, some smaller mammals and also several rare species of butterfly. So spending a week on the mountain could be very rewarding. Alas, I only had one afternoon and one morning for my tight schedule!

The first afternoon was cloudy and misty, but no rain and not much wind to speak of. I thought the conditions would be perfect for my main target, Rock Ptarmigan. These birds are more active in times of poor visibility, when they are protected by the fog from the sharp eyes of Golden Eagle and Mountain Hawk Eagle. But I couldn’t hear any calling, and also failed to locate any of the birds. The Norikura area holds around 50 pairs, but they are usually a bit shy, perhaps because they were hunted a lot when the area was used as a military research station during WWII.

Although the Rock Ptarmigan was a no-show, I did have very close encounters with both Japanese Accentor and Alpine Accentor. Many Asian House Martin were buzzing past my ears, while a few Pacific Swift flew around at a more reasonable altitude.

The next morning I was out for the dawn, which was magnificent! There was a sea of clouds nicely lit by the first rays of sunlight, while to the northeast the famous peaks of Japan’s Northern Alps were clearly visible. Yarigatake and Oku-Hodaka were instantly recognisable. Also instantly recognisable was the outline of a male Rock Ptarmigan silhouetted against a ridge line! I moved to the left as far as I could and took a few shots, but it heard the camera in the silence of the early morning and promptly dropped out of view. I then heard the distinctive call of a Spotted Nutcracker and located it among some rocks. I could get a few shots but it was heavily backlit and kept on the sunward side of me. But I had successfully photographed all four of Norikura’s target species!

I returned to the lodge for breakfast and then decided that I might as well climb the highest peak (Kengamine; 3026 metres). However, on the way I heard two male Rock Ptarmigans calling so I sought them out and found them quite close to the main trail. The clouds and mist were closing in, but I was able to get some good shots of them arguing over their territories and was even able to take an image of one in flight. There was not much wind at all, so no chance of seeing either Golden Eagle or Mountain Hawk Eagle, both of which need reasonably strong winds in order to soar around the high mountain peaks.

Rock Ptarmigan (male)

Rock Ptarmigan (male)

Rock Ptarmigan (male)

Rock Ptarmigan (male)

Two male Rock Ptarmigan facing off

Two male Rock Ptarmigan facing off

Two male Rock Ptarmigan facing off

Two male Rock Ptarmigan facing off

Rock Ptarmigan (male) silhouetted in the dawn light

Rock Ptarmigan (male) silhouetted in the dawn light

Alpine Accentor (adult)

Alpine Accentor (adult)

Alpine Accentor (adult)

Alpine Accentor (adult)

Alpine Accentor (adult)

Alpine Accentor (adult)

Japanese Accentor (adult)

Japanese Accentor (adult)

Japanese Accentor (adult)

Japanese Accentor (adult)

Spotted Nutcracker (adult)

Spotted Nutcracker (adult)

Japanese Alps dawn

Japanese Alps dawn

Oku-hodaka at Dawn

Oku-hodaka at Dawn

Yarigatake at Dawn

Yarigatake at Dawn

Apr 162013
 

Late this afternoon I stopped in at what is reputedly the smallest and newest lake in Japan, Lake Shirachi in Shimabara. Actually more of a large pond than a lake, it is surrounded by streets but usually has herons and egrets as well as a few resident “soup” ducks. However it is also a good place to attempt to photograph Barn Swallows in flight as they feed and drink in and around the small lake. This afternoon there weren’t too many other birds around, just a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron, although earlier I had paused at the forest and photographed a female Brambling as well as a nice flowering Chinese Fringetree branch! The Barn Swallows cooperated nicely…an interesting shot has two birds trying to snatch a feather in mid-air, while another shot has a bird that plucked something from the water’s surface – probably a bug of some sort.

barn-swallow-1147barn-swallow-1490barn-swallow-0853black-crowned-night-heron-juvenile-0844black-crowned-night-heron-juvenile-0848brambling-female-0765flowering-chinese-fringetree-chionanthus-retusus-0748

 

May 232012
 

From May 20 to 23 I was busy taking a birder from the United Kingdom to spots around Nagasaki and Saga Prefectures. The birding was a little quiet, but we managed to observe 88 species. Highlights included Copper Pheasant, Japanese Green Pheasant, Narcissus Flycatcher, Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Blue-and-White Flycatcher, Ijima’s Leaf Warbler, Japanese Bush Warbler, Japanese Thrush, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Black-faced Spoonbill, Eurasian Spoonbill, Saunder’s Gull, Mongolian Plover and Japanese Sparrowhawk.

Black-faced & Eurasian Spoonbill

Black-faced & Eurasian Spoonbill

Curlew Sandpiper

Curlew Sandpiper

Saunder's Gull

Saunder's Gull

Terek Sandpiper

Terek Sandpiper

Blue Rock Thrush (female)

Blue Rock Thrush (female)

Grey Heron

Grey Heron

Japanese Bush Warbler

Japanese Bush Warbler

Ijima's Leaf Warbler

Ijima's Leaf Warbler

Black-browed Reed Warbler

Black-browed Reed Warbler

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher (female)

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher (female)

Asian House Martin

Asian House Martin

Asian House Martin

Asian House Martin

Pacific Swift

Pacific Swift

Pacific Swift

Pacific Swift

Pacific Swift

Pacific Swift

Nagasaki Prefectural Forest

Nagasaki Prefectural Forest

Nagasaki Prefectural Forest

Nagasaki Prefectural Forest

 

Apr 222012
 

I usually stay away from popular birding spots on weekends, but this morning was fine although cloudy after pretty nasty weather the day before, so I thought it would be interesting to see if any vagrants or rarities had been blown across to the Japanese mainland. Unfortunately, no rarities….. but there was a lot of interesting action going on nonetheless. Perhaps the most astonishing was the sight of a large female Peregrine Falcon flying along with what appears to be a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron. I am fairly sure the night heron weighed almost as much as the falcon, and in fact she dropped it at one point before catching it again in mid-air and continuing along her way. The male falcon was shadowing his mate, and their cries could be heard all over Kabashima. Other highlights were a male Siberian Rubythroat, male Siberian Stonechat and Osprey with a very nice catch!

Kabashima Coast

Kabashima Coast

Nagasaki Coast

Nagasaki Coast

Siberian Rubythroat (male breeding)

Siberian Rubythroat (male breeding)

Siberian Stonechat (male breeding)

Siberian Stonechat (male breeding)

Temminck's Cormorant & Pelagic Cormorant

Temminck's Cormorant & Pelagic Cormorant

Osprey

Osprey

Peregrine Falcon (female) diving to recapture juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

Peregrine Falcon (female) diving to recapture juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

Peregrine Falcon (female) flying off with juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

Peregrine Falcon (female) flying off with juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

Mar 272012
 

Umagase is a famous sunrise-watching place in Hyuga city, Miyazaki prefecture. I actually hadn’t heard of it, but when I visited Hyuga on Sunday night, some patrons of a bar recommended it to me upon learning I was a photographer. So in total darkness at 05:00 on Monday morning, I duly went in search of this spot. I wasn’t sure whether I was in exactly the right location they were talking about, but it was the best I could do at short notice – I had a boat to catch at Kadogawa at 08:00!

Umagase (pre-dawn)

Umagase (pre-dawn)

Umagase Sunrise

Umagase Sunrise

 

Umagase

Umagase

Umagase

Umagase

Mar 272012
 

At sunset last Sunday I took the ferry from Shimabara to Kumamoto in order to drive around to Hyuga, Miyazaki Prefecture. There are two ferries to Kumamoto from Shimabara; the fast one (Ocean Arrow, 30 mins) and the slow one (1 hour). I usually take the slow ferry as it has a nice deck out the back from which it is easier to observe and photograph from. So I got on the slow ferry which left at 17:50, the last ferry for the day. As usual, dozens of Black-headed Gull followed the ferry as it left port, eager for handouts. People often feed them with prawn-flavoured snacks (which I am quite fond of too, actually!), and so the gulls follow every ferry in eager anticipation. I like to use these times as photography practice – lots of fast moving, close in action to test the reflexes, camera settings and photography technique. And the lack of light, as well as mostly back-lit subjects, made getting decent shots of the gulls much more difficult on this particular trip. After practicing on the gulls for a while, I took the time to capture a magnificent sunset over Mount Unzen.

Passengers feeding Black-headed Gulls on the Ocean Arrow

Passengers feeding Black-headed Gulls on the Ocean Arrow

 

Black-headed Gull

Black-headed Gull

Black-headed Gull

Black-headed Gull

 

Mount Unzen Sunset

Mount Unzen Sunset

Feb 272012
 

This morning I went to Chijiwa town in Unzen city for a change of scenery. I was hoping to see some seabirds and perhaps get lucky. However there was not so much activity, and most of the interesting birds were very far from the shore. There were several Black-necked Grebe and perhaps even an Ancient Murrelet. Closer in were the usual Black-tailed Gull, Northern Pintail and Eurasian Wigeon, while along the small river were Black-crowned Night Heron and Little Egret. I then stopped at Tachibana Shrine before heading back over the flanks of Mount Unzen to Shimabara. Tachibana Shrine had Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Pale Thrush, Meadow Bunting, Eastern Great Tit, Brown-eared Bulbul and Oriental Greenfinch.

Black-tailed Gull

Black-tailed Gull

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Little Egret

Little Egret

Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker

Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker

Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker

Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker

Northern Pintail (pair)

Northern Pintail (pair)

Northern Pintail (male)

Northern Pintail (male)

Tachibana Shrine

Tachibana Shrine

Plum Blossoms

Plum Blossoms

Plum Blossoms

Plum Blossoms

Mount Unzen

Mount Unzen

Mount Unzen

Mount Unzen

Mount Unzen

Mount Unzen

Mount Unzen

Mount Unzen

Feb 272011
 

After Shidaka Lake, I just had time to pop in at Usa Shrine on the way home. I arrived right on dusk, so not much light to work with. The big surprise here was finding lots of Red-billed Leiothrix. They are obviously much more used to human presence than the birds I usually encounter, and were therefore more confiding and even feeding out in the open. A nice male Pale Thrush was also very confiding. Some plum blossoms were also in full bloom!

Red-billed Leiothrix

Red-billed Leiothrix

Red-billed Leiothrix

Red-billed Leiothrix

Pale Thrush (male)

Pale Thrush (male)

Pale Thrush (male)

Pale Thrush (male)

Plum Blossoms

Plum Blossoms