Independent birding around Karuizawa, Japan

I’ve been birding Japan over the christmas break, mainly opportunistically during more normal holiday activities, but with a dedicated three days around Karuizawa. Karuizawa is THE place that all the winter tour groups go to get wintering Japanese highlights – especially Japanese waxwing, grosbeak and woodpecker, and copper pheasant. Despite birding solo, with no guide or playback, I still managed to see everything – and a bonus ural owl! Below is a quick summary for other independent birders keen to visit the area.

Naka-Karuizawa knows how to welcome birders!

Naka-Karuizawa knows how to welcome birders!

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Great Gobi A – the science of counting camels

A Bactrian camel survey trip, but I did see some cool birds. There were endless larks (mostly unidentified), steppe eagles and upland buzzards on the way, plus a single Lammergeier and a few saker falcons. In the Gobi birds were extremely thin on the ground, but around the soak there were Pere David’s (small) snowfinch, siberian accentor, a few phylloscopus and a single desert warbler. The highlight was definitely the flocks of pallas’s sandgrouse that were seen irregularly throughout the trip. Another target species down!

Felt boots and stilettos

Ecology can seem deceptively simple.  Usually we’re trying to answer simple questions, and because the questions are simple, many feel that the process to answer them (and the answers themselves) should be equally simple. But as we know, it’s not that simple. Take this seemingly innocuous question:

How many Bactrian camels Camelus bactrianus are there in the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area? It’s a simple question, and I guess there is a simple way to work it out – ‘You count them’. It’s when you look at how to count them, that it all gets complex.

The Gobi - it's a big place The Gobi – it’s a big place. With some camels.

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Weekend birding – UB style

After two weeks of busy-ness, I finally managed to make it out of the city last weekend. Saturday to Bogdkhan Uul with a couple of other Australians, and then solo along the Tuul Gol (Tuul River) on Sunday morning. Turns out both places are super easy to get to on public transport (if anyone’s interested you catch the 7, 33 or 43 bus from in front of the Bayangol Hotel) and worth going for even a few hours to escape the city.

Looking back at Ulaanbaatar from halfway up Bogdkhan Uul

Looking back at Ulaanbaatar from halfway up Bogdkhan Uul

Autumn is upon us, and the deciduous trees are in the process of losing their leaves. This makes for a pretty magical landscape, with the Larch and Pine trees contrasting with the brown grass. We did a fairly easy loop in Bogdkhan Uul – west from the valley to a prominent ridge, then along the ridge to what looked like the summit and back down through the trees to the valley. Four hours walking in total, but it could have easily been more – there are tracks going everywhere on the summit plateau.

Birds were fairly thin on the ground (lots of the summer residents have left), but there were still some good birds around, and I managed four lifers. Carrion Crow, Eurasian Magpie and Northern Raven were present most of the day – the Raven calls were particularly atmospheric.  This species is the Raven of the North from Game of Thrones. On the way up, a couple of Brown Accentors and Godlewski’s Buntings were foraging in the scree along with Meadow Bunting and some Red-billed Choughs.

Mixed forest on Bogdkhan Uul

Mixed forest on Bogdkhan Uul

Once we got into the trees there was less about, but small flocks kept moving through – Eurasian Nuthatch, Red-flanked Bluetail, Willow Warbler and lots of unidentified thrushes. In a patch of dead trees near the summit was the only woodpecker of the day, Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, and a couple of Spotted Nutcrackers. Interestingly there were no raptors of any kind about – I would have at least expected something to fly passed on the thermals.

The view from the top(?) of Bogdkhan Uul

The view from the top(?) of Bogdkhan Uul

Encouraged by this post on Birding Mongolia, Sunday saw me decide to fit a few hours along the Tuul Gol (it essentially flows through the southern edge of Ulaanbaatar). This river is about 20-50m wide and has some good vegetation on both banks (think willow and poplar stands). I walked downstream for a couple of kilometres until I met a pack of feral dogs that convinced me to turn around. Feral dogs can carry rabies around UB, and I wasn’t keen to mess with them.

The highlight was definitely Azure Tit, one of my top bird targets for the year. Great and Willow Tit were common, and there seemed to be Eurasian Magpies and their nests every couple of hundred metres. Pallas’s Leaf Warblers were regularly spaced out along the willows, as was a Long-tailed Rosefinch and a single Little Bunting was foraging amongst the leaf litter. A flock of thrushes contained both Red-throated and Black-throated, while there were also a couple of groups of Long-tailed Tits about.

It was really encouraging how easy and quick it was to get into good habitat on both days. I’ll get back to both places over the coming year – it will be interesting to see how things change with the seasons.

Uncertain future for the Plains-Wanderer?

Since 2012, I’ve been helping Parks Victoria survey for the Plains-Wanderer Pedionomus torquatus at Terrick Terrick National Park in north-central Victoria. Last month I went on my final survey for while, as I’m now in Mongolia (see why).  It was a fairly standard survey for me: that is, we didn’t see any Plains-Wanderers, and this time we saw hardly any birds at all. What you see is a bit of luck, which is part of the reason I keep coming back (I’ve done five or six trips now). The design of the surveys is elegantly simple: parallel transects have been laid in a grid over the grassland paddocks in the park, and one or more paddocks are surveyed each night. On the survey, the driver and navigator follow the transects via GPS while there are two to four people in the tray spotlighting for birds (and other animals). When a bird is found we attempt to catch it using butterfly nets, and if successful, it gets identified, banded and released.

Surveying for Plains-Wanderer, Terrick Terrick NP

Surveying for Plains-Wanderer, Terrick Terrick NP

The Plains-Wanderer is the sole member of the family Pedionomidae, and is closely related to the shorebirds. It lives in native grasslands in eastern Australia – most records, and the species stronghold is the grasslands of the Riverina and Murray-Darling basin, but it also occurs up to southern Queensland, and probably sparsely thought eastern-central Australia. It is one of the most evolutionarily distinct and threatened species in the world, and Endangered by Birdlife International.

Female Plains-Wanderer. © Ian Montgomery,

Female Plains-Wanderer. © Ian Montgomery,

Until recently, the Terricks was the stronghold for Plains-Wanderers in Victoria. In fact, in 2005 I saw three in an hour of spotlighting, and these are still my only sightings.  In 2010, Plains-Wanderers were being encountered approximately every kilometer of survey transect, but there have been almost no records since March 2011 in the park and surrounding areas.   Part of this could be due to habitat suitability: in 2010 the habitat was ideal, but then the grass became too dense (Plains-Wanderers prefer very sparse vegetation) and is only now returning to ideal biomass levels.

Disturbingly, the decline at the Terricks has not been countered by an increase in reporting rates anywhere else over the species’ range. In fact, they seem to be declining from everywhere they have previously been considered resident. Given the species’ choice of habitat, the population from the Terricks may have moved to suitable habitat elsewhere, and will not move back until their current location becomes unsuitable. There is a lot of inland Australia and not many people doing nocturnal surveys, so the fact that none are being reported elsewhere doesn’t mean they’re not out there.  At least that’s the positive view.

For the moment surveys at the Terricks continue, and I hope that the Plains-Wanderers start returning soon. If anyone is interested in participating in future surveys please let me know and I’ll pass your details along.

Not looking (that) good for Gurney’s Pitta

The current issue of Bird Conservation International has a review of the conservation status of Gurney’s Pitta Pitta gurney, and the outlook is not very positive.

Gurney's Pitta. © Suppalak Klabdee, Oriental Bird Images

Gurney’s Pitta. © Suppalak Klabdee, Oriental Bird Images

Gurney’s Pitta is arguably the most spectacular of the world’s 34 pittas, and one of the most threatened. This species was thought extinct until 1986, and now occurs only in southern Thailand, where ~20 individuals hold on in Khao Nur Chu Chi, and Myanmar. It is listed as Endangered by Birdlife International as it occupies a very small range in which its habitat of flat, low-lying forest is severely fragmented, and targeted for the development of oil-palm plantations.

Following extensive surveys between 2010 and 2012, the authors concluded that the total range to be ~3,500km2. Depressingly, they found that the species’ range in Myanmar does not overlap with any protected areas, and the species’ preference for warmer, wetter areas on flat ground are ideal conditions for growing oil palm and rubber.  Unless there is immediate protection of the species habitat, coupled with sympathetic land-use planning and the strengthening of environment legislation, the future looks particularly bleak.

The article can be found here, and the full citation is:

Paul Donald, Htin Hla, Lay Win, Thiri Dawei Aung, Saw Moses, Sao Myo Zaw, Tin Tun Ag, Kyaw Naing Oo and Jonathan Eames (2014). The distribution and conservation of Gurney’s Pitta Pitta gurneyi in Myanmar. Bird Conservation International 24: 354-363 doi:10.1017/S0959270913000518

Birding Mongolia – 12 months of adventure

As of this Sunday, 21 September 2014, I’m heading to Mongolia to live for the next 12 months. I’ll be working for a local NGO, who help improve the livelihoods of the local nomadic herders, to increase their ecological skills and capacity.

Mongolia is a fairly under-birded country, but which holds a host of spectacular and little-known species. About a third of the country is desert (the Gobi being part of this), while most of the rest is grasslands/steppes.  There are also areas of taiga forest in the north, and some large lakes (both salt and freshwater) and rivers.  This minimal diversity of habitats contributes to the country’s low bird list of approximately 480-ish, but it’s all about quality not quantity!

With departure imminent, I thought it would appropriate to list my (birding) goals and ambitions for the upcoming adventure. Of the recorded species, I’ve seen lots elsewhere in the world, so there are approximately 250 potential lifers in the country. Of these, my goal is to see half, while targeting eight key species:

Henderson’s Ground-jay Podoces hendersoni
I’ve always had a particular liking for Corvidae, and one that lives on the ground is even more interesting. This is one of four ground-jays Podoces in Central Asia, and can be found in southern Mongolia and northern China. It inhabits saxaul scrub and can be in fairly low densities, so could be a challenge to find.

Henderson's Ground-jay.  © T. Langenberg, via Birding Mongolia

Henderson’s Ground-jay. © T. Langenberg, via Birding Mongolia

Koslov’s Accentor Prunella koslowi
Accentors are another group that I have an unexplained affinity for – I think because they usually inhabit such inhospitable environments. Koslov’s Accentor is the closest to a Mongolian endemic, as it only just creeps over the border into China. A fairly drab bird, that could be easily overlooked. One to search for in the high mountains of the south and west.

Koslov's Accentor. © Jon Hornbuckle, Oriental Bird Images.

Koslov’s Accentor. © Jon Hornbuckle, Oriental Bird Images.

Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus
Pallas’s Sandgrouse would be a new family tick, and another group I’ve had an unexplained affinity. Once again, I think it’s that they mainly live in desert environments which are very harsh. This species has a wide distribution and could be seen anywhere in the desert or steppes of Mongolia. A tricky one to target, but we should come across it somewhere if we spend long enough in the field.

Pallas's Sandgrouse. © Martin Hale, Oriental Bird Images

Pallas’s Sandgrouse. © Martin Hale, Oriental Bird Images

Altai Snowcock Tetraogallus altaicus
I missed both possible Snowcock when I was in Nepal, so this species has been at the top of the list for a while now. How could you not want to see a large game-bird that lives in the high mountains? I’m not expecting close views, but they are apparently fairly reliable in the south.

Altai Snowcock. © A. Buchheim, Birding Mongolia.

Altai Snowcock. © A. Buchheim, Birding Mongolia.

Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus
A spectacular bird, which should be easy to see around Ulaan Baatar. What’s not to like about a small white and azure blue bird foraging in the snow-laden branches of a fir tree? This species and the next are also extremely rare in Europe, which I think adds to their appeal.

Azure Tit. © Shefer Vladimir, Birds of Kazakhstan.

Azure Tit. © Shefer Vladimir, Birds of Kazakhstan.

Siberian Jay Perisoreus infaustus
A drab brown bird, but a Corvid non-the-less. Also inhabits the tundra regions, so hard to see anywhere that is very accessible. At some times of the year this species can be seen in the forests to the north of Ulaan Baatar – so hopefully a day trip could get both this species and Azure Tit!

Siberian Jay. Copyright Zsombor Károlyi

Siberian Jay. Copyright Zsombor Károlyi

White-naped Crane Grus vipio
Really, I could have picked any of the four crane species that occur in Mongolia (the others being Demoiselle, Hooded and Siberian), but White-naped Crane is relatively common yet listed as vulnerable by Birdlife International. This species breeds on the steppes of eastern Mongolia and adjacent Russia and China, and winters in South Korea and Japan. There are an estimated 4000 adults left.

White-naped Crane. Copyright S. Sogame, Japan Birdwatching.

White-naped Crane. Copyright S. Sogame, Japan Birdwatching.

Saxual Sparrow Passer ammodendri
While distributed widely in Central Asia, this species is characteristic of the saxaul shrub habitat in the south of Mongolia. It is supposedly quite common in suitable habitat, but requires a bit of effort to get there.

Saxaul Sparrow. © Nelson Khor, Oriental Bird Images

Saxaul Sparrow. © Nelson Khor, Oriental Bird Images

I’ll let you all know how I’m progressing as the year goes.

European Red-necked Phalarope tracked to the Pacific!

An incredible new piece of the migration puzzle has come to light recently. Scientists working on Red-necked Phalaropes Phalaropus lobatus in England have tracked a male from its breeding grounds at the Fetlar RSPB Nature
Reserve to its wintering grounds in the Pacific Ocean off Chile.

Red-necked Phalarope in breeding plumage.  © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquaters / WikiCommons.

Red-necked Phalarope in breeding plumage. © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquaters / WikiCommons.

Scientists attached geolocators to four breeding red-necked phalaropes, one of which was able to be caught and the data downloaded when it returned the following season to its breeding grounds.  Data showed this this bird flew from Scotland west to the east coast of the USA, then down the coast to Florida. It then crossed the Gulf of Mexico and flew down the west coast of South America to winter east of the Galapagos. Its return journey followed a similar path.

There are a couple of remarkable aspects to this journey:

Most European Red-necked Phalaropes were previously considered to winter in the Arabian Sea. That distance is approximately 7500 kilometres, where-as this male was estimated to have flown 11,000 kilometres. So it’s adding an extra 3000-or-so kilometres to each trip.

How did this migration path evolve? Not only did this bird not go where most other European Red-necked Phalaropes go, but it also crosses the Atlantic American Flyway before getting to the Pacific Ocean.  Furthermore, on its wintering grounds it would mix with all the North American breeding populations of Red-necked Phalarope. There’s definitely something going on that’s worth some more investigation!

The full study is published in the journal Ibis (Smith, M., Bolton, M., Okill, D., Summers, R., Ellis, P., Leicht, F. and J. Wilson 2014. Geolocator tagging reveals Pacific migration of Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus breeding in Scotland. Ibis online early), and the full paper can be found here.

Lewins Rail – #2500

Well, it’s been a big couple of weeks on the birding front.  I’ve had an armchair tick with the updated IOC list, seen two long-sought after lifers, the last of which has seen me hit 2500 species on my life list.  That’s about a quarter of the world’s species of birds (10,534 at last count).  So, in chronological order:

#2498 – Silve-backed Butcherbird Cracticus argenteus
IOC version 4.3 issued on July 31 2014 elevated this taxon to species level, from a subspecies of the Grey Butcherbird C. torquatus.  This was a split that had originally been proposed by Schodde and Mason in 1999 (A Directory of Australian Birds).
I saw this subspecies at Litchfield National Park in September 2006, while doing surveys of Great Bowerbirds across northern Australia.

#2499 – Australasian Bittern Botaurus poiciloptilus
I first had the chance to look for this species in 2000, at Bool Lagoon in South Australia – but didn’t realise I was camping at one of Australia’s best spots for the species at the time.  Since then I’ve missed this species at Braeside Park, Melbourne at least three times after having it reported only days earlier (and, frustratingly, later too) and in Canberra by a couple of weeks.  Most recently I missed it by approximately 10 seconds at the Miranda Shorebird Centre, New Zealand.  On the field trip during the Australasian Ornithological Conference, a couple of us were bemoaning the fact that we’d missed the species, after hearing that they’d nested at the Centre the year before.  We then get on the bus and drive to the hide, and when we hop off the warden (who’d followed behind the bus in their car) said ‘Did you see the Bittern as we drove passed the lagoons?’.  Needless to say that despite four of us returning post-haste to the wetland, the bittern was not to be found.

A fortnight ago the bittern was once again reported from Braeside Park, which luckily co-incided with fieldwork I had in the area. I walked the usual Wetland Loop, and in the flooded pasture to the west flushed a majestic Australasian Bittern which flew lazily into the reed, never to be seen again.

Braseide Park - ideal bittern habitat

Braseide Park – ideal bittern habitat

#2500 – Lewins Rail Lewinia pectoralis

Aparrently common in Tasmania, I had missed this species in the four years I lived in Hobart.  Since then, I’ve spent more time than normal at it’s regular haunts around Melbourne, including the Mt St Joseph’s ponds and the track to the bird hide at the Western Treatment Plant. All with no luck, of course.

There is some slight irony that a reliable Lewin’s rail was reported from south of Hobart recently, and I just happened to be in the area at the time with the family. A morning visit provided only a frustrating sillouhette of a rail dashing between the clumps of Gahnia. Retunring the next morning I spend an anxious hour wandering around the couple of viewing areas before a spectular Lewin’s Rail emerged from the reeds and calmly foraged along the channel for a couple of minutes and headed back into the undergrowth.  So four years after leaving Tasmania I finally saw the species only 15kms from where I used to live.

Lewins Rail at Oyster Cove, Tas. Image copyright Els Wakefield and Karen Tie, Eremaea Birdlines

Lewins Rail at Oyster Cove, Tas. Image copyright Els Wakefield and Karen Tie, Eremaea Birdlines


Swift Parrot survey weekend

Last weekend was the winter Swift Parrot and Regent Honeyeater survey weekend run by Birdlife Australia.  Both species are listed as Endangered under Commonwealth legislation, and are the focus of a co-ordinated recovery plan. Two – three times per year there is a co-ordinated effort to survey as much suitable habitat for the two species, to get an estimate of population numbers and track where the highest concentrations of each species.

Swift Parrot

Swift Parrot (c) J Harrison, Wikipedia

I headed out to the Muckleford State Forest on Sunday, but didn’t find any.  In fact, it was a very quite day for both parrots and honeyeaters in general.  There was only a bit of Yellow Gum Eucalyptus leucoxylon flowering, and even that was hard to find.  A good range of other birds were around though – Crested Bellbird, White-browed Babbler and Brown Treecreeper were the highlights of an hour wandering around the Mia Mia and South German Track areas.

A summary of the results from Birdlife Australia’s autumn surveys can be found here.

Robust owl and macaw survey methods

A couple of new papers that, while studying different species, use the same analytical methods and produce clear survey recommendations for monitoring and management.

The first on macaws in Bolivia, (Blue-throated Ara glaucogularis, Blue-and-yellow A. ararauna and Red-and-green Macaw A. chloropterus) and the second on owls in the southern forests of Chile. (Rufous-legged Owl Strix rufipes and Austral Pygmy-owl Glaucidium nana).

Rufous-legged Owl.  From, © Nick Athanas

Rufous-legged Owl. From, © Nick Athanas

Both use the site occupancy modelling approach to determine the likelihood of site occupancy (that is, whether the species is present or absent at a site) and detectability (that is, if a species is there, what is the likelihood that it is detected during a survey).  This approach has a number of benefits over just going out and undertaking a set number of surveys:

1. Sites where the species is present, but was missed during surveys, are accounted for;

2. Factors that affect occupancy can be modelled on the true occupancy rates, not the observed rates, while factors that affect detection can also be modelled; and,

3. The detectability of the species during the surveys can be quantified.  This step tells you how long you need to survey to be confident (to any predefined level) that the species is truly absent from a site (as opposed to present, but not detected). It also allows comparison between different surveys.

Robust estimates of occupancy and detection are pretty vital for monitoring programs, and thankfully being increasingly incorporated into survey design considerations.  As a consultant trying to plan assessments to determine whether or not a threatened species is present in a potential development area, knowing the number of times we need to survey to proved that a species is absent is essential.

Neither paper reported any startling new, or unexpected information.  For the owls, detectability of both species increased within increasing with moonlight, and when the other species of owl was also detected at the same sampling unit during the same survey! Importantly, based on their data, the authors recommend that to obtain reliable estimates of occupancy (i.e.,SE ~0.05) and allow modeling detection probabilities of owls in temperate forests, 3–4 surveys per season at a minimum of 86 sampling units are required.

For the macaws, occupancy of sites for the threatened blue-throated macaw was most likely when other macaw species were present in the area. This likely reflects the broadly similar habitat requirements of the three species.  Interestingly, the modelled occupancy rates were not signicantly different from the observed occupancy rates, as would be expected for a large and vocal species in an open environment.

Most importantly it’s great to see these kinds of studies being done, and even better, that they’re getting published so that managers and consultants can use them to better design monitoring and management programs!

Full citations:

Berkunsky et al 2014. Occupancy and abundance of large macaws in the Beni savannahs, Bolivia. Oryx Online early

Ibarra et al 2014. Factors associated with the detectability of owls in South American temperate forests: implications for nocturnal raptor monitoring. Journal of Wildlife Management Online early.