Crows in Japan

The main motivations for our recent Japanese holiday were cultural and historical but naturally I kept a look out for birds and beasts, as I do here. We spent time in Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Takayama and Koyasan, listed from largest to smallest, and from each of them except Osaka we ventured into the edges of the surrounding forested hills.

We didn’t see many birds, however, either in variety or in absolute numbers. Crows outnumbered all the rest, even in urban areas. Beyond them, I can only recall sparrows, a couple of hawks soaring over the rivers in Kyoto, and a couple of waterbirds on a pond at the historic village on the outskirts of Takayama. The weather must bear some of the blame, since we had more wet days than dry and sensible birds stayed out of the rain as much as they could (although we tourists just carried on regardless, as we did in the Italian heatwave last year).

Crow beside the path to the forest shrine in Nara

The (wet) crow above is perching on the pedestal of one of the hundreds of stone lanterns lining the path to a major Shinto shrine on the outskirts of Nara, a beautifully mysterious/haunted/sacred walk through misty forest.

stone lanterns
The path to the shrine

Crows and their close relatives are difficult to tell apart, all of them being much the same size and colour. Japan has four, according to wikipedia: the Jungle Crow, Corvus macrorhynchos; Carrion Crow, Corvus corone; Rook, Corvus frugilegus; and Common Raven, Corvus corax. I think mine is a Jungle Crow, and there’s a blog post about the species here which I just have to mention for the extraordinary ‘tool use’ of urban crows it documents. It’s worth reading for more general info, too; the photos are good but exaggerate the blueness on the crows’ feathers.

Australia has five species, three of which live in North Queensland: the Torresian Crow and Australian Raven, both of which have large ranges including the coast, and the Little Crow, which doesn’t live on the coastal strip but occupies all the drier part of the continent.

Counting birds

screenshot-birdcount-sThe Aussie Backyard Bird Count is underway as I write and still has a few days to run, so there’s still time to get involved. It’s an annual event but this is the first time I have been organised enough to take part.

The procedure is simple enough, so long as you have a smartphone:

  • Download the (free) app from the homepage or your usual Android or Apple app store.
  • Sign in.
  • Mark your location on its map. You can do it manually if the app can’t find your location. (This happened to me a couple of times and was only resolved when I went to ‘Settings’ and enabled high-accuracy location services.)
  • Hit ‘Next’ and your 20-minute counting session begins. When you see a bird, type in the species; if you see another, just hit + on the list you’re building up.
  • When the timer has counted down to zero, you will be asked to submit your count.
  • If you’re like me, you will then wonder whether you should have counted the bird you heard but didn’t see, or the one you weren’t quite sure about, and will consult the FAQs hiding behind the ? at the top of the home screen.
  • Then do as many more counts as you like, in any locations you like.

The Bird Count is a project of Birdlife Australia and Birds in Backyards. Visit its own homepage to get started or find answers to any other questions about it. It’s a great citizen-science project and the bird identification section of the app will be useful for year to come – unless you’re one of those super-keen birders who already has such a thing on your phone.

If you are one of those people, you may well be interested in the National Twitchathon at the end of this month:

Every year, hundreds of passionate birdwatchers race around the great Australian bush competing in a unique sporting event called a Twitchathon. The aim? To see or hear as many bird species as possible, and in the process help protect our birdlife for years to come.

In 2016, the BirdLife Australia National Twitchathon is back, bigger and better than ever. Whether it’s your first time spotting or you’re a fully-fledged twitcher, the Twitchathon is now a nationwide competition that caters for all birders. …

This year there are three different event options to choose from. Choose an event, form a team, and start planning a route and fundraising strategy!

As always, the 24-hour race will be a marathon of maximum habitat coverage, yielding massive species totals – winning teams regularly see over a quarter of all Australia’s birds, driving hundreds of kilometres and stopping only to twitch. This year, a system for calculating the national winning team has been created using statistical analysis of BirdLife Atlas data found in our new Birdata web portal.

For those with less time, the 12-hour ‘Champagne’ race gives teams half a day to spot as many birds as they can. This more relaxed event avoids the need for teams to drive overnight, and even includes an optional lunch break.

The ‘Birdathon’ targets everyone, young and old, experienced and novice. Each team has three 1-hour blocks to birdwatch over the course of the day, which they can choose to use at any time, and in any place. …

Good luck – and have fun! – at whatever level suits you.

While the gardener’s away …

Plovers on our nature strip

Coming back from holidays, we see our own homes and gardens with fresh eyes. Coming back from Japan, where gardens are groomed with an exquisite care verging on the obsessional (more on that in another post) made our own bush garden seem even more, um, informal than ever, especially since the poplar gum is still losing a few leaves.

The local birds have noticed that the house has been almost empty, and the plovers (above) which usually lurk on the far side of our street have taken to visiting us constantly. I don’t mind at all, but I suspect they will drift away again once they see we’re back.

Also, one seasonal change was confirmed when we returned on Sunday: the Pied Imperial Pigeons (aka Nutmeg Pigeons or Torres Strait Pigeons) are definitely back. I’ve heard them every day and spotted them a few times. (I thought I had heard them just before we went away, a month ago, and my Friendly Local Expert said that yes, it was possible, but it would have been unusually early in the year for them to have returned to us. Now there’s no doubt.)

Birdwing butterflies again

I posted a photo of a male Cairns Birdwing a couple of weeks ago with the comment that they are so common that “I rarely bother pointing a camera at them.” As usually happens in such cases, I proved myself wrong soon afterwards.

The occasion was my sighting of a female which I thought might be of the Northern species, the New Guinea Birdwing (Ornithoptera priamus), which shouldn’t be seen in Townsville according to the books. I then wanted to check that the local males weren’t (also?) New Guinea Birdwings but that meant getting a good look at the upper surface of the wings, which is not at all easy.

Birdwings and Ulysses on any rack of tourist-trap postcards lie around with their wings gaudily spread but in real life they do nothing of the sort. The wings slam shut as soon as they perch, presenting their much more discreet undersides to the gaze of predatory birds. Almost the only way of getting a photo of the upper sides from a wild swallowtail is to take a burst of shots of a hovering butterfly and throw away most of them. That’s how I got this one.

Cairns Birdwing
Male Birdwing butterfly

There are a few points of interest:

  • Getting a really sharp, clear photo by this technique is a fluky business. You need lots of light so the shutter speed can stay high enough to freeze the movement (I didn’t have that luxury), and enough shots that at least one of them is well composed.
  • It is definitely a Cairns Birdwing, not the northerner, because the large central black area has no green streak through it. That’s a little disappointing but not surprising.
  • The wings are catching the light at very different angles and show the same kind of apparent colour-change as the Eggfly. In this case, the bright yellow-green of the wing becomes bluish-purple when seen at an acute angle; it can look even more purple in flight, depending on the angle of the sun.
  • And this is an old, battered individual. The trailing edge of the left fore-wing is ragged, and the coloured areas have scratches where scales have been scraped off. This sort of damage is why I noted that the Lurcher (click here and scroll down) was rather elderly.