Birding Journal – February 17, 2019

The distinctive bill of the male Northern Shoveler

I am seeing more Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata) as the winter moves towards March. They started arriving to northern Osaka a couple of weeks ago. They really stand out for their spatulate bills. Both the male and female have it. They breed in the north (hence the name) and winter in the south from North America to Europe to East Asia. The green head and bright chestnut belly are characteristics of the breeding male plumage.

Female Northern Shoveler

Japan is a refuge for Mandarin Ducks (Aix galericulata) because their habitat in Russia and China is being lost. Outside of Japan, scientists estimate they are down to 1,000 breeding pairs, but in Japan, there are an estimated 5,000. This is true of several animals including the beloved Sika Deer. Japan does a nice job of limiting habitat loss and hunting, which is much different than most other countries in Asia. They are a resident duck in Japan, but I only see them in the winter here in Osaka. I notice that they are a bit skittish early in the winter, but later, they become accustomed to the irrigation ponds and come close to the banks where I can photograph them closely.

Male Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata)

The male has such an incredible array of colors that the duck looks fake. The female as in all bird species has a much more understated plumage. There is always a group of photographers in the Senri Chuo Park.

Female Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata)

Finally, another winter visitor to Osaka is the Daurian Redstart, an Old World Flycatcher. It breeds in Manchuria, Russia, Mongolia and central China and northern Korea. I’ve noticed them around bodies of water, although they are not a waterfowl. The guidebook says they are quite tame, but I find them difficult to photograph. I finally got a decent photo of this male, near the pond in Kita Senri Park.

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Pintails, Shovelers and Smews: Winter Waterfowl of Osaka

Northern Pintail

The northern pintail (Anus acuta) is one of my favorite birds. The male pictured above is such a striking, elegant duck. They winter in freshwater ponds here in Osaka, leaving their breeding grounds in Russia during the long, cold winter. They also breed in Canada and the northern United States and winter in the southern US and Mexico.

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Northern Shovelers on Yanaga Pond

Yanaga Pond is on one of my regular biking routes and I noticed this weekend the arrival of Northern Shovelers (Anus clypeata) and Smews (Mergellus albellus).

The northern shoveler has a similar range to northern pintails. They are known for the large, spatulate bill. They are quite social and I watched them swim together in circles to stir up food for their amazing bills.

Northern Shoveler Male

I’ve been trying to get a close-up photo of the spectacular male smew. They are a bit skittish and usually keep some distance between themselves and humans. The smew breeds in Russia and Scandinavia and winters in central and southern Europe, coastal China and Japan. The male smew is unmistakable with its “panda” and “cracked ice” black and white look. I’ll have to sneak up on them one of these mornings.

Three male smews protect a female on Yanaga Pond.

Nagano Nature: Mountain Goats, Snow Monkeys & Birches

It was thrilling to photograph my first Japanese Serow (Capricornis crispus). You are probably wondering, what is a serow? Serows are bovids (cattle, goats, antelopes, sheep, etc.) that are mountain goat-antelopes and are similar to the European chamois. They are endemic to Japan and can tolerate cold and snow more so than the other 5 serow species. The serow is found in grasslands and forests around 1000 meters (3,30 feet).

Norikura Mountains – Nagano, Japan – December 31, 2018

We were snowshoeing with a guide from North Star Adventures and another group told him they saw a serow nearby. I quickly walked up the hill in the direction where they indicated and saw the serow sitting under a tree. As more of our group joined me, it got up and went to the far side of the hill out of site.

I love birch trees because they are a boreal and northern temperate family of trees and remind me of my childhood in Michigan. We saw two species of birch trees on our hike. The Japanese White or Siberian Silver Birch (Betula platyphylla) is more common and we saw many all the way up through our drive up to North Star in the Norikura mountains, a range that straddles the border of the Nagano and Gifu prefectures. Erman’s or the Kamatchka Birch is found further north and higher altitudes in Japan. The bark is a bit thicker and browner.


We also visited the famous “snow monkeys” of Jigokudani Park. The Japanese Macaques (Macaca fuscata) are the northern most primates, beside humans of course. It is always exhilarating to see them in the snow and enjoying the thermal baths. They go about their business despite the crowds of people.

The Call of the Sika

While descending a steep slope in the Hira Mountains yesterday, we heard a sharp whistle that sounded almost human-like. After a little investigation, we discovered three sika deer (Cervus nippon). I never heard deer before making any sounds and the species is known for this. These particular deer were missing the distinctive spots of the sika.

Sika are famous in Japan because they regarded as sacred in some temples and the thousands that gather in Nara are a huge tourist attraction. Sika used to have a larger range but have become extinct in the Koreas and a close to extinction in China and other Asian countries due to habitat loss and hunting. In contrast, here the huge population are a nuisance to farmers and gardeners. The Japanese wolf, a sub-species of the grey wolf, was exterminated from Japan at the turn of the 20th century. I think it should be reintroduced here. It would help control the populations of deer and wild boar.

I made a short video of my photos and videos of the deer so you can hear the whistles they made. I apologize for the shakiness of the footage, I was using the zoom feature on my camera. It started snowing while filming and it adds to the beauty and drama. The Hira mountain range is one of my favorite places in Japan. There were many large sugi trees down, probably from the typhoon that came through this fall. The newly opened habitat is probably ideal for them.

Biking & Birding the Ai River

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Coypus, or Nutria are commonly found in the rivers and canals of Osaka

Yesterday I cycled along the banks of the Ai River, a tributary of the larger Kanzaki River, located in Takatsuki, a nearby suburb of Osaka. It is one of my favorite things to do is combine cycling with nature observations. Once again, I saw nutria (Mycocastor coypus) a South American aquatic rodent, that is an invasive species in Japan and in many other parts of the world. Nutria farming was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s for their fur. In Japan, the escape and deliberate release just after World War II, caused them to spread throughout Japan. They live in burrows alongside waterways and eat plant roots and seedlings which destroy habitat for other species. They are really big and look like muskrats but with thicker, cylindric tails.

Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

The most common bird on the river by far was the Eurasian Wigeon (Mareca penelope).There were hundreds of them in large flocks along the  banks and feeding quite comically, upside down “dabbling” in the water. I finally captured another common dabbling duck, the Eurasian Teal.

The classic pose of the Japanese Cormorant (Phalacrocorax capillatus)

My favorite photo of the day is below. It shows three different species together on a fallen tree in the river. Red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta) are another invasive species in Japan. They are common pets and people release them when they are no longer wanted. The result being they are found everywhere and displace indigenous turtles. The two common egret species (Eastern Great Egret) and (Little Egret)are also resting on the tree.

A crowded branch in the Ai River.

A Winter Birding Bonanza!

I was tired this afternoon after a long day of work and decided to go out for a bike ride. Winter in Osaka is a great time for birds because many species of ducks spend winter in the city. They migrate from Russia and northern China to the numerous irrigation ponds in the city.

I visited three parks, Senri Chuo, Senri Minami and Hattori Ryokuchi. All three have ponds that attract ducks and photographers. I saw 14 different species today and you can check out the gallery above.

Getting out into nature always relaxes me and seeing so much beauty inspired me to paint some of the birds above. It is amazing the different colors and feather patterns that can be found in wild ducks. The Mandarin is almost unbelievable. I was particularly fond of the Northern Pintail, a new bird for me. The blue and black pattern on the bill and the combination of grey, black and white feathers; absolutely stunning!

Birding the Shimonami Kaido

A Black-tailed Gull  rests on a rock near the shore.

While cycling across many islands in the Seto Inland Sea, I photographed several birds from the bike trail. The only new bird I could add to my bird list of Japan was the black-tailed gull (Larus crassirostris). It is the “seagull” of East Asia and is common on shorelines of Japan, China, and Korea. Gulls are difficult to identify often because their plumage changes as they mature and become sexually active. There were not many gulls along the almost 90 kilometers of trail that I rode. In Japan, they are known as “sea-cats” because of their meow-like call. 

A male Blue Rock Thrush poses on top of a garage. 

I spotted this blue rock thrush (Monticola solitarius) above alongside the road coming into the town of Miyabaru. It is found from Japan to Spain and is the national bird of Malta. It used to be classified as a thrush, but it is actually a “chat”, a group of Old World flycatchers. 

I also photographed several other species as you can see in the gallery above. There was a large flock of Common Pochards on a freshwater pond, and in a large mixed flock of birds near one of the bridges, I photographed a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese Tit and a Daurian Redstart.