Saturday, 10 February 2018

Hachijo-Jima

I have been most fortunate this winter vacation in being able to slope off for a foreign holiday as well as a domestic one. Initially, my plan had been to visit Choshi for a few days to take a look at one or two big gulls there. However, once I learnt that the ferry to Hachijo-Jima sailed in winter and that February was perhaps the best month to see albatrosses from it, this quickly got extended by a further couple of days to accommodate a pelagic. I was able to find some information about this trip online but not as much as I would have liked, so I'll add some more details here. Basically, the information here is accurate and, as they note, the ferry does get cancelled. However, it really does take quite some weather to cancel it, and I sailed (twice in the end) in very rough seas with gale warnings in effect for the seas off Kanto. (I did try to make a video (below) of the conditions with my phone in a somewhat calmer patch of water, but was immediately interrupted by a passing Short-tailed Albatross Phoebastria albatrus!) I'd kept an eye on the status of the ferry in the weeks approaching my visit and it seemed that they only got cancelled when a low pressure system moved through the relevant patch of ocean; gale force winds seemed to have little bearing on whether the ferry sailed or not. The relevant marine warnings and forecasts can be found here, and ticketing, pricing, and booking information on Tokai-Kisen's website here (a page which works best using the translation widget at the top of the Japanese-language homepage rather than using the English-language website). My ultimate conclusions were that this ferry is far more likely to sail than not during February, and that booking a ticket in advance was also not necessary.


I arrived early evening at Narita Airport and, as the ferry did not sail until 22:30, I went for my pelagic first. The (straightforward) journey from the airport to the ferry terminal took just over an hour, taking first the Skyliner to Nippori and then a local train to Hamamatsucho. Being tight-fisted at heart, I booked to travel basic second class on the ferry, which (quite literally) meant sleeping on the floor. I didn't mind this on an empty ferry, but would have been less happy about it had the ferry been full (not enough space). I booked all the way through to Hachijo-Jima, which meant that I could start birding at about 06:30, an hour or so past the best area for seabirds around Miyake-Jima. Originally, I had planned to spend a night on the island, but didn't much like the look of it when I got there and revised my ticket to return the same day to Tokyo. This was in part because the seabirds seemed just so much more mouthwatering than the potential island birds (and I had seen far too few of them in the hour or so I had had of decent light), in part because I was fearful of getting stranded (the sea really was extremely rough and I was amazed that the boat had sailed at all), and in part because I had seen two Pterodroma petrels at first light that I was very much hoping to run into again on the return leg! Revising my ticket was easy, and I failed to see much in the twenty minutes turn around time I had on the island of Hachijo-Jima, but the decision paid off as one the first birds seen about an hour out of Hachijo-Jima was a Providence Petrel Pterodroma solandri, presumably one of the birds I had passed a couple of hours or so earlier on the way in!


The sea was then generally quiet all the way up to Miayake-Jima, during which time I recorded low (single figure) numbers only of Short-tailed Albatross, Laysan Albatross Phoebastria immutabilis, and Black-footed Albatross Phoebastria nigripes. However, both around and after Miyake-Jima albatrosses became far more plentiful, with each of the three species climbing into double figures and with birds seen frequently all the way back to Tokyo Bay on both days. Short-tailed Albatrosses in particular were surprisingly numerous around Miyake-Jima, with around a dozen seen on the first and ten or so on the second day. Although some would come close, most were a bit distant to photograph well and the conditions were pretty challenging to boot!


There were a few other bonus birds to be had off the boat (though generally anything you saw was an albatross), the best of these being the odd Japanese Murrelet Synthliboramphus wumizusume, three Pomarine Skuas Stercorarius pomarinus, and a single Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis (which look nothing like Atlantic birds). None of these came flapping past the boat in the manner I would have hoped for, but as they were not really priorities I was quite content with record shots.


I returned from my first day at sea just before 20:00 and, after a small amount of deliberation, decided to book myself back on the next boat out for a second crack at all these seabirds. It looked as though this journey might indeed be one that got cancelled, as Tokai-Kisen had waited until 20:00 to make a decision on whether or not to sail (usually 17:00). Ultimately, they did sail, and it was well that I did, too, as the most comically pleasing event of my trip to Japan was one that managed also to secure me an unexpected lifer (or one that I had at least given up on). I had bought what I understood to be a return ticket which ultimately turned out to be just a single (it was curiously only the price of a single). Due to a miscommunication, I thought that you just did not disembark when the boat docked at Hachijo-Jima, and that the same ticket was valid for the return leg. Not surprisingly, I was ordered to leave the boat at Hachijo-Jima when I was spotted loitering above decks and told to buy an additional ticket for the return to Tokyo. As valuable minutes had already passed, I ended up with literally ten minutes to bird the area around the ferry terminal and have one final crack at Izu Thrush Turdus celaenops. Remarkably, I flushed a male from a low bush right next to the door as I exited the terminal building. It flew into a clump of bushes where I could hear it calling but was unable to see it. I found a male Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus singing in the same bush, so contented myself with a couple of minutes of photographing that before I had to board the ferry again. Almost immediately after finding this, a cracking male Izu Thrush popped up in the same bush for no more than ten seconds, during which time I was able to rattle off five or six shots of it. Almost as suddenly as it had appeared, it flew back into cover and that was that! Time to board the ferry and return to Tokyo, only with a very big grin on my face!


In the end, a few conclusions can be drawn from these two days that might be useful for others wishing to do the same kind of trip. Firstly, it is possible to get Izu Thrush on Hachijo-Jima within the twenty-minute turn around time between disembarking and boarding from birding gardens around the ferry terminal. I had probably missed it on the first day as I was carrying luggage and it was overcast and raining slightly. Secondly, as I only saw Pterodroma (and then no more than three) between Mikura-Jima and Hachijo-Jima, these may not occur in more inshore waters between Miyake-Jima and Tokyo (despite a real abundance of seabirds on this stretch). Thirdly, as I saw so few seabirds between Miyake-Jima and Hachijo-Jima, depending on your priorities, this stretch might not be worth doing at all. One trip would also be perfectly sufficient at this time of year to connect with all three albatross species. Above photos taken on Hachijo-Jima and at sea between Tokyo and Hachijo-Jima, Izu-Shoto 4-5/2/18.

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