31 December 2007

So that was 2007

So 2007 has come to an end. Not a terribly eventful year in my life. I.........errrrr.......let me think........didn't really do much at all.

We bought a tent and had a couple of camping trips (and next summer we'll do a lot more hopefully). And oh yeah I bought a new camera. We also bought a pet Clownfish and a small saltwater tank which now seems to have lots of creepy things living under the rocks and coral.

Here are my 10 favourite photos from the year.

I started off the year digiscoping. A Nikon 4200 Coolpix attached to a 65mm Pentax Scope with a 12mm eyepiece. Too slow for most stuff but not so bad for birds that stay in the same place for a while. Like this Stellers Sea Eagle at Yakumo. I'm quite proud of this picture, hopefully next week I can get some more. This is undoubtedly the best bird of the region. I saw my first one last century. New Years Eve 1999 to be exact, from the bus on the way to Sapporo before a marathon drinking session (for those that know and are impressed by such things I had THREE nomihodais that night).

This Peregrine Falcon was at Cape Kiritappu in east Hokkaido in late May. The nicest new place I visted in 2007. This was with my new camera, the Canon EOS 400D with a crappy Sigma 70-300 DG lens. I'd had the camera a couple of monmths and had taken a few ok shots and by May I realised I couldn't really use it above 250mm or with an aperture bigger than F8. Good light helps too. This trip to East Hokkaido was cut short when my wife tripped up over the tent and broke her ankle..........she can laugh about it now at least.

My digiscoping gear staged a comeback in June with the Ruddy Kingfishers at Onuma. They were very co-operative and sat still for 5 or so minutes within 20 metres, ideal for my set-up. In August we went back to photograph the young leaving the nest but the murky light in the overgrown forest was too much for my ancient compact digicam. I upgraded to a Finepix F31FD, which I haven't really used for digiscoping yet. Hopefully they'll be back next summmer.

There was an influx of Red Necked Stint at the end of August, they were everywhere with a flock of 30 or so at Kamiso. This was my fave shot. My wife took a better one I'm sorry to say which I'm too proud to post. This was with the Sigma cheapie but luckily the Stints were fairly tame and I could get within 5 or 6 metres.

Black Crowned Night Herons and Nuthatches were the most photographed species of the year. Lots of Night Herons on the local river in autumn. Annoyingly there was always a branch or reed in the way when they were just sitting meekly minding their own business but I was pleased with this flight shot. Even with the slow AF of the Sigma.............though the high shutter speed helped of course. This (late October) was the time I stared shooting exclusively in RAW.

It took me ages to get a decent Harlequin Duck picture. This male near Menagawa in early November was my first 'keeper' of this species. I had to clamber over slippery rocks but the one winged moulting bird just stayed on its' tetrapod ignoring me.

In late November the first snow came (and it was much much colder than now for some reason). I also ditched my Sigma and got a Canon 70-300 IS lens. Much better than the Sigma, the IS is a godsend and the optics are much sharper right up to 300mm. This Hawfinch was also very photogenic.

Life is either feast or famine. A few days after getting the new lens I met Franck, a French expat living 3 hours drive from Hakodate. Astonishingly he lent me the Canon 100-400 IS lens until next March (he uses the serious stuff, a 500mm F4 monster of a lens). This Varied Tit and Nuthatch were at the usual place in Onuma in late November. Perfect light helped with these shots................it's a great lens.

This Kingfisher was on the river near my flat in early December. Very co-operative, this was probably the best shot. I usually use the 70-300 lens as my walkabout lens but on this day I had the 100-400. The Kingfisher stayed for about 10 days and then bu**ered off somewhere else.

So what else happened in 2007? A shi**y year for sport. England flopped badly again in the footie and cricket. I'm not really a Rugby fan and can't take solace in that (and anyway they lost the final). Liverpool? Still a great cup side but after watching Arsenal demolish Everton the other night (and the Man City draw last night) we aren't going to catch them or Man U this season in the league that's for sure. Regular readers to this blog (all 10 or 11 of you) may recall my deep depression after the England v Croatia game. The pain decreases but the pessimism about the immediate future of English football remains (both club and international). It has sold its' soul. Still, only a game eh?

2008...........Capello will be interesting and should drag England back to their rightful place as mediocre underacheivers who can't take penalties under pressure in knockout games (as opposed to outright failures who don't even reach knock-outs at the moment). Rafa should get rid of Kewell and Kuyt and buy another striker and central defender and hope Man U/Arsenal both somehow implode in the New Year. Flintoff will hopefully be back next summer and have a couple of series to rebuild his form before heroically reclaiming the Ashes in 2009.

Birding? I didn't keep a year list this year. I did see a few new birds though. Daurian Jackdaw, Little Cuckoo, Broad Billed Sandpiper, Mugamaki Flycatcher, Crested (or is it Pied?) Kingfisher were my only lifers but I did add quite a few to my Japanese/Hokkaido/Hakodate lists., for example Long Tailed Duck and several common waders made it to my Japanese list, Japanese Accentor and Russet Sparrow to my local list.

I actually found that I'm as interested in taking pictures of common birds as I am in seeing new ones these days. I don't have the concebntration and fanatical attention to detail to make me a really decent birder (female or immature Buntings, phylloscopus warblers when they're not singing and just flitting around in the bushes, briefly glimpsed raptors, distant offshore Shearwaters.....all beyond me ID-wise). I'd never have made a twitcher either. Plus I don't drive and am completely out of the loop on rarity news anyway. I missed a nearby Siberian Crane, I heard about it a week later in the local paper.

Targets for next year? A few common birds are still missing from the list of birds I'd expect to see around here. Siberian Thrush is one. Several Species of Owl. Jungle Nightjar. Various seabirds and still a few common waders have eluded me in Japan. Photo-wise I'd like to get the local Waxwings. 4 out of the last 5 winters there have been loads of them in Hakodate, arriving in the 3rd week of January. Some decent Eagle shots would be nice too before I have to give Franck his lens back......that'll be a bit of a wrench!

I'm visiting England in late March and am really looking forward to it. I haven't been back since Xmas 2004. It's been too long. I hope to show my wife the city where I went to uni, Newcastle. I haven't been back since the year after I graduated (1991). We're also planning a big round Hokkaido trip in mid June (when England won't be playing in Euro 2008). If you're reading this and thinking about burgling the house, don't bother. i have nothing worth nicking. The only valuable things (my camera gear and my wife's laptop) won't even be there. And we've trained our Clownfish ('Hank') to viciously attack intruders and to show absolutely no mercy. You've been warned. I'll also have accumulated enough airmiles for me and the wife to actually fly somewhere decent.................Delta you'd better not go bust next year.

I'll be 40 next autumn. 40, with no savings to speak of, no real career, no investments, no house. Mid-life crisis here we come! Or maybe I'll reinvent myself next year. I'll, er, think about that next week.

I actually met 3 people through this blog. The aforementioned Franck, a group of British and American birders on a north Pacific cruise in May and a former resident of Hakodate with her English partner in September. All nice people, the internet isn't so bad after all. Mind you I did get some abusive weirdo spitting bile after I made some tongue in cheek comments about people on remote Scottish islands...........oddball.

If you look on some of the blog links on the right you can see several Japanese blogs (Brabirds, Kochan, Totori Ring, Greenfinch) that generally have outstanding professional level photos. Carmo Police, an entertaining read, written by an Irish expat in Osaka (who regularly leaves comments here-thanks!) has similarly excellent photos. I have something to aim for next year. Mo San and Sato San are 2 Hakodate based birders who I often see out and about and their blogs are also well worth checking. Sato San's has excellent photos from around Hokkaido (I think he's some kind of professional naturalist type) and Mo San's is apparently very funny, if you read Japanese that is. The Hiroshima blog is written by a very knowledgable expat English birder though it hasn't been updated for ages. Other blogs in Sri Lanka, Iceland and Thailand are all very interesting to read too...........

I have software to check which country vistors to this blog come from. Over 80% of hits are in Japan, most of the rest are in the UK/US and lots of random visits from around the world and I appear to have one loyal reader in Belgium. So whoever you are in Belgium thanks for visiting..............

So Happy New Year to you all. I'll be getting drunk at the in-laws tonight, it's snowing outside...........I can't be arsed going out today.

30 December 2007

Rosy Finches in the gloom

We drove out to Shikabe this afternoon. Yesterday had seen heavy rain all day. Rain. Unusual in Hokkaido in winter, all the snow in town and quite a lot in the surrounding countryside has vanished. En route I saw a huge flock of finches, god knows what they were as the flew off into the clouds. They could have been Asian Rosy Finch perhaps. 7 were at Shikabe Harbour and very flighty they were too. Difficult to approach, these were the best shots I could muster. This is a fairly scarce winter visitor to Japan, before today the only sightings I'd had were 2 singles in Hakodate.

Also in the harbour were a couple of Black Necked Grebe and a couple of female Harlequin Duck. In the previous 2 winters I'd been frustrated at trying to get a decent digiscoped picture of this species as they swam around very close to the edge of the harbour. This time, being armed with a decent camera and lens, the damn things stayed out in the middle.

We went back to Onuma. Not terribly good light so not many photo opps. Pretty much the same birds as last time. The Geese, Smew, Eagles and Woodpeckers were all still present but no decent pics today. A close up of some of the Whooper Swans and sunset over the last bit of unfrozen lake.

I downloaded and watched the Extras Xmas Special last night, pretty funny I thought. I miss TV shows (especially comedy) from back home so thank the lord for P2P downloading.

26 December 2007

Christmas in Hokkaido

Another Christmas Day been and gone in Hokkaido (my 7th in the last 8 years).

Despite my griping about the locals' cheesy, tacky and (if I was a practising christian) disrespectful take on Christmas I don't mind it here at all. Most years we go to Onuma and the area around the lake is very quiet and certainly looks seasonal with the snow, ice, pine trees and berries. We had lunch in an overpriced but pleasant log house style restaurant. I had a pizza. Unseasonal but tasty.

Most interesting species of the day was Rook. This is quite a scarce winter visitor to Japan and there was a flock of over 100 feeding in the fields on the outskirts of Hakodate. They were here briefly last winter too (last winter's flock also contained Daurian Jackdaw which weren't there this time).

Over at Onuma there were 6 Geese in amongst the Whooper Swans and Mallards. 2 Bean Goose and 4 White Fronted Goose. A bit shy, these were the best shots I could get. Grey Geese tend to be scarce around these parts (though they are common enough in certain areas of Japan). I managed to get close up shots of a female Goldeneye and lone Coot.

Also around at Onuma were 2 White Tailed Eagle, flocks of Redpoll, Siskin and Brambling, 4 Smew and the usual common woodland species.

Today we headed east to Esan.

Mt Esan, a broody steaming volcano if you want to sound romantic. Or a mountain with bits of smoke coming out and a smell of rotten eggs if you don't. A few interesting birds on the coast. Groups of Brent Goose every few miles, large rafts of Red Breasted Merganser, Slavonian and Red Necked Grebes, Glaucous and Glaucous Winged Gulls.

Not a vintage day for photos today so here's a couple of crappy shots to give you a flavour of the area. The Harlequin Ducks were bobbing around well offshore (I'd been hoping they'd be perched on rocks just off the road like they weer a few weeks ago) and there's also a pic of the 2 types of Cormorant we get round here. The big one is a Temimncks and the smaller ones are Pelagic Cormorants.

We finished off on a small river just on the eastern edge of Hakodate. Little Grebe, Great White Egret and Whooper Swan were present as was this small unassuming wader. A Long Billed Plover.

So the year is just about to end, maybe 1 full day's birding to be had depending on the weather. I'll probably post my favourite pictures of 2007 before the 31st, if I remember.

I'm getting a bit tired of sorting through photos, deleting the crappy ones (lots of those), choosing the 'best' ones, converting those from RAW files to jpeg, adjusting levels, cropping and sharpening in photoshop where necessary and then uploading. I seem to spend more time processing photos than taking them. Especially when I get home and have 250 similar quality (ie average) photos...........one of my many NEW Year resolutions will be to find a more efficient way of doing this. As well as losing weight, saving money and finally starting that great script/novel I know I'm going to write one day sometime eventually.

If you had a disappointing Christmas just thank the lord you weren't that fellow in San Francisco who get mauled to death by a Siberian Tiger. Maybe it was a Japanese Tiger and the man was carrying a bucket of KFC.

23 December 2007

Yet more average pics of common birds

One of the local Large Billed Crows playing around in the snow a few days ago. They are pretty smart birds these corvids. They know that Tuesday/Friday is burnable garbage day (or they can recognise the red coloured bags). Woe betide anyone who doesn't close the lid on the garbage basket.......the local garbage Nazis would be straight round wagging accusing fingers as the crows spread the rotting vegetables all around the neighbourhood.

The juvenile Night Heron was still around today. I walked down the river to the beach under very grey skies. 3 Redpoll were the main birds of interest although I couldn't get any decent photos. I wasn't carrying the big lens anyway. My plan was to go to a place at the mouth of the river where I saw a male Blue Rock Thrush several times last winter and I have also seen Black Necked/Slavonian Grebes close inshore. There were a couple of Black Necked Grebes bobbing around 100 metres offshore (and a few Brent Geese too) and the Thrush was there but all too briefly and not especially close...........here's a crappy record shot.

Around December 23 down the years:

1983 (Dec 23) Marshside. 2 lifers, Stonechat (!) and Twite. Also lots of waders of 12 species, 3 species of Swan, and 3 Hen Harrier.

1991 (Dec 24) a Great Grey Shrike at Rufford, the only one I've ever seen.

1996 (Dec 24) back in Penwortham for xmas (I was living in Germany at the time). Not much except a flock of 40 Brambling on the Ribble.

2000 (Dec 24) A hunting Peregrine from my balcony in Hakodate.

2001 (Dec 25) Onuma. I proposed to my wife. I had the mother of all hangovers at the time, we fed the Whooper Swans, had lunch and went home. She said yes anyway.

2004 (Dec 21) the last time I was back in the UK and a trip up the river in Penwortham. Thousands of Woodpigeon, flocks of redwing and Fieldfare, skeins of Pinkfeet in the distance, a few common waders.......

2005 (Dec 26) a Great White Egret flapped over my flat.

2006 (Dec 25) Kamiso......we saw a Peregrine catch its' christmas lunch, a female Teal. 3 species of Grebe, 3 White Fronted Goose and 2 Great White Egret were also present. A bit low on decent photos today so here's one of a Ural Owl I took on December 20 last year at Onuma.

We saw this bird several times last winter but it hasn't appeared this winter (or at least it's moved hole).

So Happy Christmas to the tiny number of regular readers to this blog.

19 December 2007

Some more common birds.........

A wintry view of Onuma this afternoon.

A couple of close-ups of some of the flock of Whooper Swan at Onuma. Every year a small tame flock of about 70 overwinters in a small unfrozen corner of the lake. They are fed by the local council as a matter of fact. Just about the whole lake is frozen now so they are beginning to congregate. My close-ups weren't entirely successful (I think a normal point and shoot camera would have done the job just as well as the 100-400mm) but I have all winter to get it right. There were also lots of Mallards, a few Tufted Ducks, 3 Coot (relatively uncommon in Japan compared to the UK), sveral teal and a lone Goldeneye.

Lots of common birds in the forest. Jay, Siskin and Hawfinch and the usual common Tits and Woodpeckers. I got my first Treecreeper picture.........which wasn't so great actually. The other usual photogenic species compensated.

Not much new around in Hakodate the last couple of days. This was just outside Kamiso this morning. Not a very good picture but an interesting scene of a distant White tailed Eagle being argy-bargied by some of the local crows.

Over the festive period we should be heading up to Yakumo to hopefully get some decent pictures of Eagles (both Stellers and White tailed).

The 'festive period' in Japan is a bit of a joke. They have christmas decorations and carols in the shops but that's as far as it goes. It's not a holiday and there's none of this 'good will to all men' stuff going on here. It's just an excuse for the shops to con a bit of cash from their customers by inventing an artificial 'festival'. Actually put like that it's not so different. At least we have the pretence of it being vaguely spiritual.

They have a big New Year's thing here anyway which is exactly like christmas back home. Meaningless annual visit to the shrine, time spent eating and drinking with family, cards sent to vast legions of acquaintances who you have no other contact with except sending these cards, a week or so off work (a long time in Japan), absolute mindless drivel on TV (even more so than usual), everything closed or over priced............

Just to show the Japanese have no idea of christmas and have just half-arsededly copied it from the west..............they buy Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas day. Turkey is a bird right? KFC is western food isn't it? And they are amazed when I tell them nobody does this in the UK (is KFC even open on the 25th?) and I'm pretty sure nobody does it anywhere except in Japan. The ads are on TV already. Have a Kentucky Christmas.

Here's an interesting article from snopes talking about this kind of stuff. It's pretty funny. I talks about that urban myth (which may actually be true) about the crucified Santa.

I watched an absolute stinker of a movie yesterday. 'Reign of Fire'. A post apocalyptic story (I usually like those). Christian Bale (I think he's a great actor but he must cringe when he watches this). That Scottish actor who always plays sarcastic macho Scotsmen (I forget his name but he was in '300' and 'Timeline'-2 other preposterous movies). Dragons. Crazy American soldiers. Plot holes you could drive a military convoy through. Don't watch it. Trust me on this one.

17 December 2007

Some average pictures of some common birds

Two individuals in a groups of 20 or so Long tailed Tits last week. I was looking in Ono for the Rough Legged Buzzard (I didn't see it). The white headed one above is the very cute Hokkaido race of Long tailed Tit and the other one must be the mainland (ie Honshu) race or possibly an invader from the continent. Either way they were extremely active and even though they were very close it was difficult to get a good shot.

Not much birding last week, crappy weather again. And no obliging Kingfishers either. Just common stuff at Kamiso, the usual common 10 or 11 species of Duck including these Greater Scaup.

Nearer home not much else about.........all 3 species of Wagtail on the river yesterday (including the endemic Japanese Wagtail), the Brown Dipper still buzzing around and this Great Spotted Woodpecker. I still haven't got a good shot of this species.

2 other species I haven't really nailed in the good picture stakes are Daurian Redstart and Red Flanked Bluetail. The male Redstart is a flighty nervous thing and was harassing the poor Bluetail meaning I couldn't get a nice shot of either. The Bluetail posed close by momentarily for what would have been a perfect shot except its' forehead and beak were behind a branch. That photo stays on my hard drive. These 2 were with the smaller lens.

The football was painful last night. Actually 2007 has been a pretty grim year for the various sporting teams I follow......England and Liverpool, and the English cricket team too. The year kicked in with England meekly handing back the Ashes before another shocking World Cup. Liverpool made the Champions League final I suppose but as 2007 draws to a close they look no nearer the Premier League title yet again. And Steve McLaren and the useless overhyped England 'stars' have already spoiled my June next year.

I suppose it'll only get better in 2008..............and if it doesn't it'll at least give me something else to moan about other than Japanese construction practices.

One of my students amazed me the other day when he mentioned the Magna Carta. Wow..............I thought. He didn't know much about it (actually neither do I to be frank) so I tried to tell him that old joke about it. You know the one.

Q. Where was the Magna Carta signed?

A. At the bottom.

Crap joke but I still think it's funny.
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