Sunday, 1 May 2016

Tit watching...

This post is not as provocative as what the title may imply. It has got absolutely nothing to do with a revered part of the female human’s anatomy but a family of small and colourful birds which despite being confiding are often difficult to photograph because of their active nature. The ryokan accommodation that we stayed at Kyoto was located near a wooded park that even had a pond – the type of place that I can sneak off to at dawn for a couple of hours of birding.  So, I decided to swing by Maruyama Park with my wife in tow after our sight seeing itinerary to satisfy my curiosity for the place. It does have all the potential of a good local patch. Lush green landscaping with a small stream running into a pond.

The pond had a few Grey Herons resting on the ornamental rocks and they seemed to be oblivious of all human presence and activities all around them. Grey Herons are common back home but never have I ever seen them at such close proximity. They were so tame that initially I thought they were captive birds with clipped wings.

This is one of the few rare occasions where I could have my photo taken together with my beloved birds. One more thing, semi-military attire is not a requirement when birding in green areas within the cities of Japan as most of the birds are confiding. You will probably get the same results wearing a fluorescent pink shirt (not that I own one).

From the pond, I followed a trail upstream. I made a mental note not to lose track of time even if the birding was good. There is a limit how long the Cherry Blossoms and blissful atmosphere near the pond can keep my better half occupied. After only a few strides into the trail, I came across a small birdwave. This is my first trip to Japan. The few hours of birding experience in Japan that I have gained prior to this moment could not have prepared me for this. It was a birdwave for God’s sake and overwhelmed is the word. I am sure I missed out on a few species. Most were small and hyperactive birds. But the one that got my undivided attention were the Varied Tits. Here comes the part where I watched tits with my mouth slightly ajar. As soon as I saw the striking black and white head, I was transfixed with the bird. Nothing else could take my eyes off it. Not even the other birds in the birdwave. But the Varied Tits were a difficult bunch of birds to follow. They hardly stood still and the fading light was not much help either.

I may be new to birding in this part of the world but I seen enough photos and documentaries on the Long-tailed Tit to know how it looks like. And that cute-looking bird right in front of me that has just caught a caterpillar was definitely a Long-tailed Tit. Again I could only managed only one reasonable shot as it was extremely active. It was about then that the land of the rising sun had to endure a stream of profanity from a frustrated Malaysian birder.

One thing I noticed during my site recce of Maruyama Park was the number of Jungle Crows present near the pond area. Here, they appeared to be even bolder than the ones I encountered in the capital. I guess crows worldwide have a bad reputation but if one can look beyond that, you will see an intelligent and sleek member of the avian family.

I set my alarm for 4:30am the next day as it is already bright by then. Other than a lone Great Cormorant that flew off as soon as I reached the site, the pond was void of any life. No sight of even the Grey Herons that looked so comfortable here last evening. I did not have to walk far into the trail to get my first lifer of the day. Finches can be confusing and I must admit I did not do my homework well enough to be able to identify this Black-faced Bunting immediately. I knew it was a finch and hoped that the three shots that I fired (from the same angle) will be good enough for me or my friends to identify later. And they were – thanks, Dave.

Before the Black-faced Bunting, the only finch-like bird I encountered were the ever-abundant Eurasian Tree-Sparrows. But here at Maruyama Park there are quite a lot of finch-like birds and not all of them were sparrows – that much I was sure. I do not seem to have much luck with these birds and like the Black-faced Bunting, I could only muster one shot of this Oriental Greenfinch (thanks, Masahiko San for the identity of this lifer) before it vanished from sight.

I have seen enough Pale Thrushes to recognise this species by jizz alone. This time, it was foraging on a grassy patch.

Later in the morning, I think I came across a second individual as it looked slightly different. I followed its movements until we came to dry riverbed. It was gloomy but the thrush was rather receptive of my presence and went about its business and that made the encounter a moment to be treasured.

Then came the tits – much to my delight as I have a chance to improve on my images. Unlike that evening, there was no birdwave. For that I am truly grateful as I can focus on one species at a time. Maybe I did not stress how stunning the Varied Tit truly is. Kyoto is full of fair maidens clayed in kimonos and looking absolutely lovely but I, will rather have a cooperative Varied Tit any day.

Although I managed more photos this time, I had to work hard to obtain them. These images with the tit foraging on a flowering tree are among the multitude of little treasures that I managed to bring back home digitally to be enjoy for many years to come.

The Long-tailed Tit also made me sing for my supper. I was constantly on the move as I tried to keep up with the bird’s rapid movements. I stumbled over steps, ignored the stares of curious morning walkers, trying to focus my camera on tiny bird that never ever stops moving and all that time, be aware of the direction of the light. People say you tend to appreciate something more if it took a whole lot of effort to obtain it and they are right. The Long-tailed Tit together with the Varied Tit are some of the main highlights of my trip to Japan.

As I was recovering from all the excitement from the tit watching endeavours, a small woodpecker alighted briefly in front of me. Lucky for me, my reflex action was quick enough to ensure that I did not come out empty-handed from this short but sweet encounter. It was a Pygmy Japanese Woodpecker and describing it as adorable would be an understatement.

When the birding pace dropped a gear, I decided to head back to the pond and I found myself in the company of four Mallards. The thing was each of them sported a different plumage. Since there was only one female, she will be given the honour to start off the encounter...

This rather dull looking individual is an eclipsed male...

The third is a male moulting into breeding plumage...

I saved the best for last – a male in full breeding plumage and he is a stunning specimen. I know that this species is common here and some other parts of the world but it does not occur naturally in my homeland. I am a sucker for waterbirds and the Mallard is one beautiful and confiding waterbird. That makes it irresistible to me.

As I was making my way out, I finally spent some time observing the Jungle Crows. Just like last evening, they were loitering around the entrance to the park.

In Japan, there are two species of crows. One is the Jungle Crow which I have come to know quite well as it occurs everywhere in the capital city and the other is the Carrion Crow which supposedly only occurs in more rural areas. Effort is required to distinguish the two just like the Large-billed and Slender-billed Crows back home. It also boils down to habitat, shape of the bill and head and the overall size for the crows here in Japan as well. Except for the first factor, it can be a bit of a challenge to pick out a Carrion Crow and that is the reason why I try to scrutinize every crow I see outside the city. The last crow I photographed before calling it a day here certainly fits the bill – literally. Thanks to Dave and Masahiko, I could tick Carrion Crow in my life list without any sense of guilt.

This city park has provided me with a rewarding and memorable birding experience that honestly, was not expected. I am grateful I stumbled upon this little piece of birding paradise and I should have known it was one. People do not erect tall statues of a bird next to a park for no reason. Thank you for the memories, Kyoto City.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

A visit to the thousand-year capital

From the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, we travelled to Kyoto for a bit of leisure time and to wander around one of the most beautiful and oldest cities in Japan. One thing you will definitely notice is the unique architecture. The traditional designs and craftsmanship are all part of the rustic charm of Kyoto. It is like a city frozen in time. Kimono-clayed women is a common sight filling the city with a sense of nostalgia of days of old. Rich in history and culture, I think we enjoyed our 3-day stay here more than our stay in Tokyo.

It was a shopping paradise as well – much to the delight of my better half. Some of the shopping streets appeared to have no end and so was the variety of items on sale.

And there was the food. Gastronomic offerings that send you on a remarkable journey of taste and aroma.

We stayed at a traditional ryokan establishment in order to make our visit to Japan complete and it was certainly a new experience. The setting and accommodation gives you an insight on what it is like to live in Japan during that era of time.

The owners of the establishment are dog lovers and have no less than 5 Golden Retrievers running around the compound! One particular dog was allowed to enter the lobby and he was truly docile and friendly. Needless to say, he received a lot of affection from us.

The Nijo Castle is a world renowned site located right in the city centre. Although the architecture is not as breath-taking as some of the other tourist locations but the historical elements and it being the home to samurais and ninjas make this a unique attraction among Japan’s long list of impeccable tourist spots.

Now, for the birds. My encounter with the Mute Swan at the Imperial Palace has taught me to be more vigilant when it comes to moats and true enough, I was greeted by another lifer – a male Mallard. I have seen this species before back home but they were domesticated birds and cannot be compared to seeing a wild one. The latter will always evoke more excitement – naturally.

What is it with Great Cormorants and moats? And am I ever going to have a chance to photograph one a little closer than across the width of moats?

Flocks of White-cheeked Starlings were present at some places of the castle grounds and here, they exhibit little fear for man unlike the ones I usually encounter at my local patch in Shibuya. Daylight is early during this time of the year and the light starts to fade early as well. Shooting these active starlings in shaded areas in the late afternoon was a challenge. Only a few of my images turned out sharp despite the close proximity.

For the second time in my Japan trip I came across the Dusky Thrush. Foraging on a lawn, it was nice to see the beautiful markings out in the open and in reasonably good light. There was a low barrier that I could have stepped over to get closer to the bird but I decided against it. If it happened to be a lifer and something truly incredible like a pitta, then it would have been a true test.

Moments later, I also found my second Pale Thrush. It seemed like this two species have a tendency to share habitats. With no barrier in my way this time, I managed to stalk my way quite close to the bird. The lighting condition was a hindrance and my shots did not turn out as sharp as I had hoped. However, both the thrushes enriched my visit to this castle tremendously.

There are quite a few unique sites in Kyoto that are in a class of their own. The awe-inspiring Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is one of them. The view and feel of the place was amazing and I am sure I speak for the hundreds of other visitors that were present there as well. Japan seems to be the country to visit this year. Even two of my colleagues have visited Japan already. On the whole, most of the tourist locations were packed – even on weekdays. I can only imagine how it bad it would be during the dreaded Golden Week in Japan.

As appealing as the bamboo forest may be, there were hardly any birds and the one shot that I did take was of a Japanese White-eye. Even then it was at the edge the forest and not among the bamboo.

There is a lake just outside the bamboo forest and here, I encountered a pair of Mallards. It was a sizable lake but despite a careful sweep, the Mallards were the only sign of life. Japan is one of those places where the waterbirds come to you and not vice versa. And I for one have no complaints about that.

As soon as the pair realized that they will not be getting any handouts from me, they drifted back to the middle of the lake. Even at a distance, they still had me spellbound.

The Fushimi Inari Taisha is located just a little south of Kyoto and I do not have any bird encounters to share from that location. But the hundreds of vermillion tori gates that cuts through the hill slope like a fire snake is truly a sight to behold. It is one of those places that will be etched into your memory for a long time. I also found myself a local patch in Kyoto that goes by the name of Maruyama Park and that will be covered in my next post.