Common mergansers, or goosanders (Mergus merganser, カワアイサ)

Goosanders [common mergansers] (カワイサ) in Yasugawa

At the beginning of March, 2015, a small flock of goosanders [common mergansers], カワイサ (kawaisa in Japanese) appeared at Yasugawa near my home, about 12km upstream from Biwako. I’ve often seen these birds at Lake Biwa, but I’d never seen them this far upstream in Yasugawa. They stayed at a distance, but on March 8 they came close enough that I was able to make a short video recording of them feeding beside a great egret.

Every time I saw the goosanders here, they were in swift water near a flock of cormorants or a lone great egret. In the distance I could see them swimming very near the larger birds. They seemed to dive shallower than cormorants. When I saw saw them with the other birds, I wondered if these different species of fish-eating birds were cooperating by fishing near each other.

Common mergansers, or goosanders (Mergus merganser, カワアイサ) with great egret in Yasugawa

Common mergansers, or goosanders (Mergus merganser, カワアイサ) with great egret in Yasugawa

Music credit: “Kamakura” by Ben Timm, “The Official Karian” on SoundCloud (

Video editing was done with FFmpeg and OpenShot on a Fedora Linux v. 21 workstation.

Female Daurian restart (ジョウビタキ)

Winter Birds at Yasugawa

Yasugawa (Yasu River) in Ritto City, Shiga Prefecture, Japan, is a short walk from my house. Since the beginning of winter I’ve been spending a lot of time along the river, trying to photograph wildlife, mostly birds.

I spent so much time taking photos and trying to learn the names of birds that I fell behind in file management and uploading. I’ve been sharing on Twitter as @glpjp, and finally I uploaded some of my photos to my Flikr photostream in a new album, Lower Yasugawa Birds.

Waiting quietly, watching carefully

I began on December 22, 2014, sitting quietly on the riverbank and waiting for a kingfisher that did not appear. Instead, a small flock of great egrets landed right in front of me.

Great Egrets (Ardea alba,ダイサギ)

I spent the following week trying to photograph a kingfisher (Japanese: カワセミ or 川蝉).


From shaky movie clips and bursts of stills I managed to make a short movie.

While I was sitting along the riverbank, I saw a few other birds, such as Eurasian wigeons (ヒドリガモ).

Eurasian widgeons (Anas penelope, ヒドリガモ)

Japanese black kites often soared nearby, and one perched for while across the river from my location.

Japanese black kite

On January 1, 2015, I made a field recording, Wind in Young Bamboo.

Overnight the scene changed as we had more snow than we’d seen in several decades. I didn’t expect to see birds, but a little egret was in the canal where I’d been recording the previous afternoon.
Little Egret

As I walked around in the snow for several days, I enjoyed the quiet, saw some active birds, and made a short movie, New Year Snow 2015.

In January a few birds were active. A brown-eared bulbul (ヒヨドリ) often appeared in a large tree.
Brown-eared bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis, ヒヨドリ)

Dusky thrushes (ツグミ) could be seen in Yasugawa Sports Park, in bushes along the riverbank, and in nearby fields.

Dusky thrush (Turdus eunomus, ツグミ)


As I noticed other birds that I did not recognize, I tried to take photos and then learn their names.

A lot of olive-backed pipits (ビンズイ) continue to feed under the pine trees in the small woods at Yasugawa Sports Park.

Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni, ビンズイ)

Several species of ducks have appeared. For example, some Eurasian teal (コガモ) have been here at the same place since early February.

Eurasian teal (Anas crecca, コガモ)

A few common mergansers (カワアイサ) were here briefly in early March. They stayed upriver with some cormorants and a great egret near swift water. Twice I saw them hunting alongside a great egret.

Common Merganser, or gosandar (Mergus merganser, カワアイサ) with a great egret

Just as winter ended and spring began I saw a pair of spot-billed ducks swimming in a pond along the river.

Eastern spot-billed ducks (Anas poecilorhyncha zonorhyncha, カルガモ )

Here and there individual small birds hid in bushes and came out now and then. For example, neighbors and I often saw a male Daurian redstart (ジョウビタキ) at the ground golf course near the river.

Daurian redstart adult male (Phoenicurus auroreus, Japanese: ジョウビタキ)

An elusive female hid in bushes at the riverbank. I spent hours trying to get a clear photo of her.

Female Daurian restart (Phoenicurus auroreus, ジョウビタキ)

A bull-headed shrike (モズ) lives downriver near the track in Yasugawa Sports Park. I saw the bird often, but it rarely perched for longer than a few seconds.

Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus, モズ) near dirt steps along Yasugawa Sports Park

Oriental greenfinches (カワラヒワ) came to the woods in March. I saw many of them in trees, but it took a while to get photographs.

Oriental greenfinch (カワラヒワ)

Recently I saw a pygmy woodpecker and a willow tit near each other in the same tree. I hope to get photos, but so far I’ve seen them only one time.

Until I spent time outdoors with a camera this winter, I hadn’t known many species of birds. In fact, I hadn’t even known such a diverse winter bird population existed here so close to home. I mistook a few until I got clearer photos, read descriptions of them, and studied photos taken by birders. It took a while to learn their names. Now I really appreciate the knowledge that birders share after their years of close observation and careful study.

Now foliage is coming back, and soon leaves and flowers will make bird photography more difficult. I plan to spend more time doing other activities, but I’ll keep going to the river and watching these beautiful creatures.

Photo sharing

Until last week my winter bird photo sharing was limited to Twitter: Photos and videos by Greg Peterson (@glpjp)

Finally, after organizing older photos, I uploaded some of my photos to my Flikr photostream in a new album, Lower Yasugawa Birds.

In light my experiences this winter, I think my best sequence for sharing is to first upload to my Flikr photostream, then share on Twitter as @glpjp, and finally to post here on Shiga Rivers when I can offer something more substantial than a tweet.

Technical notes

For most bird photos I used my biggest lens, an old Olympus OM-System ZUIKO MC AUTO-T 300mm/f4.5 manual lens, with an Olympus OM-D E-M5 and then an E-M5 Mark II camera and an OM ADAPTER MF-2. For stability I tried a monopod, but soon switched to a lightweight tripod, a Velbon UT-43Q. This tripod is very easy to carry, but I found that the ball head did not work well when I was following birds. Finally I switched to my older Velbon Sherpa 545 II with a Velbon FHD-65D fluid head. This is a bit heavy, but I can use it as a monopod or fairly steady tripod. I seem to take my best photos with this tripod and head.

Photo management became an issue as I took 50-100 photos a day. After some culling in the camera, I uploaded my photos to Dropbox from an old MacBook. The Camera Uploads software changes file names to date/time, which is convenient; however, it puts a blank space between date and time. I dislike spaces in file names, so I wrote a little Bash Shell script to replace each space with ‘T’. Also, RAW and JPEG versions of some photos had different names, with the JEPG name one second after the RAW name. For example, a RAW image timestamp of 14:22:10 might have 14:22:11 for the JPEG timestamp. I those cases I manually renamed the JPEG filenames to match their RAW filenames.

I do all photo post-processing with
Digikam on a Lenovo ThinkStation S20 running Fedora Linux. Digikam works well for my purposes. It handles metadata well, and the editor, Showfoto, is powerful enough for my needs: cropping, resizing, sharpening, and adjusting brightness, contrast, and color saturation. Digikam often fails to start at first, but after restarting it works very well and satisfies my needs. Fedora Linux is proving to be an excellent operating system for multimedia production.

Nutria at Yasugawa in Deba, Ritto City, Shiga Prefecture, Japan

Nutria at Yasugawa

On February 10, 2015, I was getting ready to leave Yasugawa in mid-afternoon when a nutria came very close and stopped to eat.

In the summer of 2013 I saw a nutria in the wild for the first time along the north bank of Yasugawa, the river that flows near my neighbor on its way to Lake Biwa.

Recently I’ve seen a nutria several times in the same place along the southwest bank. It lives under a clump of bushes that overhang the river near the golf putting course in Deba, Ritto City, Shiga Prefecture (滋賀県栗東市出庭11).

Nutria are an invasive species in Japan. They have been spreading throughout western Japan since around the end of World War II. Apparently, they are becoming quite a nuisance as they eat farmers’ crops. The Lake Biwa Museum website has a section on invasive (“alien”) species, 外来生物 (gairaiseibutsu) in Japanese. The section include an English page about Nutria. The information there is a bit general and outdated. If you read Japanese, see ヌートリア.

Some prefectures and municipalities in Western Japan are concerned about invasive species and protecting native plants and animals in the natural environment. For example, Shiga Prefecture has a website (in Japanese), 滋賀県 – 自然環境保全課.

Nutria diving into water to the left.

Nutria at Yasugawa in Deba, Ritto City, Shiga Prefecture, Japan

The End

Blue river with snow on both shallow banks, small mountain in the background.

New Year Snow 2015

Scenes of a riverbank and nearby fields January 2-5, 2015. Soundtrack from “Relaxing Music” by Sławomir Królik, chafer on SoundCloud ( Hear the full version embedded below.

The first two nights of the New Year, 2015, we had heavy snowfall in Ritto City, Shiga Prefecture, Japan. Nearby fields and the Yasugawa riverbank were covered with nearly 30cm of snow, the most we have seen in more than 30 years. Each day it was warm and sunny and nearly silent, with few cars and trains running slowly. January 2nd and 3rd were the quietest days that I have experienced here in Ritto City.

Birds were quite active. Pigeons, wagtails, starlings, and sparrows were feeding wherever vegetation appeared through the snow. Black kites were soaring, and cormorants, egrets, herons, and a kingfisher were catching fish as usual.

There were only a few signs of other wildlife. I saw the tracks of a fox and and a weasel, but, other than small birds and a little egret in a field, the only other tracks were made by a few humans and dogs. In the deep snow on the riverbed below Yasugawa Ohashi, the Japan Route 8 bridge, the only tracks I saw were mine.

Production notes

Photos and video clips were taken with an Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera and a Tamron C001 14-150mm zoom lens.

Postproduction was done on a Lenovo ThinkStation S20 running the CentOS 7 operating system. Software included:

  • Audacity (audio editing)
  • digiKam (photo management and editing)
  • FFmpeg (video file processing, driven with shell scripts)
  • GNU Emacs (text and shell script editing)
  • OpenShot (video editing)

Relaxing Music by Sławomir Królik (chafer)

Audio-Technica BP4025 mic and Tascam DR-70D recorder at a window at night

New Year 2015 Temple Bells and Fireworks

Since there was a light rain this New Year’s Eve, I recorded from my house by placing a stereo microphone in a window facing North toward the nearest Buddhist temple. Nearby houses reflect sounds, so the sense of space may seem distorted in the recording.

The view north from my house in Ritto City

The view north from my house in Ritto City

This was my first time to use a new audio recorder, a DR-70D. This recorder is designed for DSLR video recording, so it works well on a tripod, with or without a camera, and it offers a variety of input and output options.

I bought this recorder rather than its 2-track sibling (DR-60DMkII) because it can record four tracks at the same time, and it has a dual recording mode, which creates two stereo files from one stereo source. I fed the stereo output from an Audio-Technica BP4025 microphone to tracks 1 and 2 and used tracks 3 and 4 for a second stereo file recorded simultaneously at a lower level (in this case -12dB). I expected loud fireworks at midnight, so I kept the input levels somewhat low (mic sense high, input level knobs at about 10 o’clock); however, I had no way to know how loud the fireworks would be. Fortunately, I did not need the second file because the highest level was -2.2dB. If I had set the input levels slightly higher, I would have needed the second file.

The sonic environment in Japan often covers a huge dynamic range, with relatively quiet scenes punctuated by extremely loud sounds of thunder, fireworks, drums, street vendors, noisy cars and motorcycles, etc. For example, you can search my posts for fireworks.

We cannot fully reproduce the great dynamic range or the visceral experience of hearing thunder or large taiko drums, but in this extreme sonic environment dual recording capability greatly eases the anxiety of field recording.