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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
1. A WALK IN KYOTO (3 APRIL 2001)
My first ever vist to Japan started out with 5 days in Shimonoseki, the southernmost city on the main island of Honshu. There I was the official guest of the city, and the days passed in a whirl of meetings, receptions and other social occasions, a scientific symposium, and some hurried sight-seeing in pouring rain, ending up in the opening of the spectacularly beautiful aquarium and nature museum Kaikyokan om April 1st. I was invited because Tromsø Museum has lent a 115 years old Blue Whale skeleton to Kaikyokan, which now, beautifully mounted, is one of the center pieces of the museum. In Shimonoseki there was therefore little or no time for birding. Our hotel was on the waterfront, however, with a brilliant view over the lively Kanmo Straits (between Honshu and Kyushu) with its large shipping traffic, and also close to the fish market. So there were always gulls around, especially in the mornings, and one day I even saw a Grey Heron on the pier. Most of the gulls were Herring gulls of the vegae-type, but Slaty-backed Gulls and Black-headed Gulls were also regular, and I saw at least one unmistakable yellow-footed Black-tailed Gull. (I had expected more of those, as the field guide calls them abundant along the entire coast; but I saw only 2 during my stay). No cormorants here, but there were Temminck's Cormorants on the Japan Sea side of the peninsula, and there I also watched a summer-plumaged Great Crested Grebe at sea.
But it is first today, on 3 April, while resting a few days in Kyoto, that I had the chance to go birding on my own, the way I like best to approach a new country: slowly coming to grips with its common birds. Here in Kyoto it is now cherry-blossom time, one of the highlights of the year for most Japanese, and many families picnic and party under the blossoming cherry trees (mostly white-flowered here, by the way. It must be the American taste that made Washington DC go in for the pink cherries), whereever these grow in some numbers---and the city is full of them. Otherwise it is early spring still, and few wild flowers are out as yet: a large-flowered ?Ornithogalum on the grassy slopes of the river banks (truly wild?), and small pink violets and a small unknown ? Scrophulariacean here and there on the lawns of the parks. But the many and beautiful gardens are full of flowering bushes and trees. The weather is quite variable and thus also early spring. Three days ago we had a formidable hail-storm in Shimonoseki, turning everything white within minutes, yesterday was a warm spring day, and today is chilly and overcast, with frequent showers. I walked from my hotel in the centre of town to the Komo River, and once there saw that there is some sort of towpath along the river, and cherry blossoms everywhere along the banks. So I changed my plans and followed the river upstream for a few miles, until arriving at the Kyoto Botanical Gardens. The Komo river flows through a series of shallow basins, with small weirs in between; it is not very deep, with gravelly banks and grassy islets here and there. It is also slightly untidy; although the path and the banks are clearly cleaned up almost every day, nobody seems to have the responsibility for the river bed itself, and it shows.
But this is a very nice birding walk!! I saw no other birders all day, although lots of people use the towpath, many with dogs (all on a leash), and there were also fishermen along the banks here and there. But I found a sign showing the most common birds here, and apparently some information on migration routes etc---of course, all signs being in Japanese, I can only guess at what was written there. I saw also a few egrets with shiny new metal bands (rings). The most prominent bird on the walk, as so many places in Kyoto, is probably the Feral Pigeon. They are heavily fed by passers-by (I saw also feeders on nearby houses, and Oriental Turtle Doves using these together with the pigeons). The pigeons are followed closely by the innumerable Tree Sparrows chilping in the bushes on the banks. In the river itself flocks of Black-headed Gulls wheel around, loaf and feed. Most are still in winter plumage, but many are changing and I saw a few with fully-developed brown hoods. Conspicuous are also the herons: Great and Little Egrets and Grey Herons (The sign also showed Night herons, but they must have been out to roost). These herons are clearly accustomed to the many passer-by as innocuous, so they are surprisingly unafraid, allowing one the chance to study their fishing techniques in close-up: as always, the two larger species depend largely on stealth, while the little Egret often 'stirs the waters' with one foot--with the shallow water and the flash-yellow feet this process was especially easy to follow here. At one place two fishermen were seated maybe 3m from each other. One was flanked by a Grey Heron, the other by a Great Egret, while a Little Egret had found a fishing place between the two men!!
Ducks there were also many, although scattered in small groups along the entire stretch of river. Furthest downstream there were mostly Mallards and Spot-billed Ducks, with a few Mallard drakes showing clear signs of the odd Spotbill in their ancestry. These Spotbills I have seen elsewhere earlier, and it strikes me every time, how little the field-guides have succeeded in getting across the very special character of this beautiful large duck. Further upstream European Wigeons gradually became dominant, and European Teal more and more common, while I also found a few Gadwall-pairs (all the dabbling ducks were in pairs), a lone male Tufted Duck, and also a single Dabchick (Little Grebe). Cormorants (here Ph. carbo) flew along the river now and then, but I never saw one actually on the water.
As soon as I saw the river with its gravel banks, I thought 'here must be wagtails', and that turned out to be very true, with no less than three species present. A new acquaintance is the dapper Japanese Wagtail, a study in black and white (darker than the other wagtails), with a conspicuous white eye-stripe and flickering white wings in flight. (Of course, so have the White Wagtails, but in this species it seems somehow more conspicuous, probably because of the dark body). They are always in action, sang a harsh, hurried typical wagtail song, and regularly chased the also quite common White Wagtails persistently (and never the other way round, although the two species are roughly the same size). Of the Grey Wagtail I saw only a few, maybe too early? I also searched in vain for some others typical river specials, like the Common Kingfisher (although I could almost swear I heard one), the Common Sandpiper, or even the Brown Dipper. But I did finally spot a Little Ringed Plover (not the hoped for Long-billed Ringed Plover, though.)
The total picture of this riverscape is woefully incomplete without filling in the many swallows that ceaselessly patrol the river, in this chilly weather (I longed for mittens!) often flying very low over the surface. Mainly these were Barn Swallows (common everywhere in Japan), but a few times suddenly large flocks of House Martins appeared from nowhere, wheeled around for a few minutes, only completely to disappear into thin air again.
And then, again as always in Japan, there are the crows. In Shimonoseki Jungle Crows were quite common along the waterfront, but here they all seem to be Carrion Crows (Although sounding very different from the allegedly conspecifc Hodded crows of Tromsø or Carrion Crows of Holland); their penetrating cawing is rarely out of earshot in Kyoto. A group of these crows were regularly fishing for something at a certain spot in the river, where the water rushes over a bottom of large stones. These crows walked around in water' up to their trousers', peer attentively down into the water, and now and then plunge their heads and beaks between the stones, where they one time out of 3-4 catch something smallish (?shrimp, ?fish, ?insects). Each time the head goes down, the birds close their nycticating membranes, so white shutters fall before the eyes, no doubt for protection, showing that they must feel their way towards their prey. Does anybody have more information about this fishing method? It happened only at one bridge, but here all the time 15-20 crows were involved simultaneously, although not cooperatively.
So who have I forgotten now? The Grey Starlings, archetypical beaky starlings, with the rolling gait of sailors just ashore, and uttering exactly the same burry call-note on alighting as our European starlings do. These starlings are usually in pairs (they nest on the house-roofs and under the bridges), and most of them are in what my field guide calls immature plumage, which seems a bit improbable to me. Can it also be winter plumage?. In the cherry trees Brown-eared Bulbuls rumour, and here and there a Dusky Thrush hunts on the bank or the grassy islets; but these we shall meet again later on. Overhead Black Kites prospect regularly, little bothered by the fierce crow attacks---clearly the kites know they are the better flyers. The reed on the river islands is still yellow and dead, and there are neither crakes nor reed passerines to see (as yet?).
After a few hours of this I arrived at the Botanical garden, as always very much worth visiting (and even free of charge for those over 60!) and now also full of blossoming cherry trees and their admirers. From these stands of cherry trees the most amazing sounds pour forth, as if there were a United Nation of birds gathered there. But after a week in Japan I am not fooled any longer; I know that all these various calls come from a small flock of Brown-eared Bulbuls (Hiyodori), a bird that must be hard to miss for any visitor (Many still succeed of course, as many do not seem to notice birds at all). They are as fond of blossoming cherry trees as any Japanese, and they largely keep in the trees where they restlessly flit around and seem to eat the flowers, so it still takes some time to see them really well. 'Slender long-tailed birds, quite large' is the first impression; otherwise they are charcoal grey, heavily streaked and mottled, with the eponymic brown ear patch clear, but not all that conspicuous; they can hang upside down like titmouse on steroids. But what a variety of calls!! They drown all other bird sounds, so one is tempted to ask them to hush up after a few minutes. These bulbuls are common wherever I went in Japan, and they seem especially attracted to cherry blossoms.
More interesting for the birder in many ways was the 'forest corner', with i.a. various Celtis trees. Here, in steadily worsening rain, I came across a veritable 'mixed hunting party', consisting of various Great Tits (looking much faded compared to their European counterparts, with all the yellow and much of the green 'leached out'), Long-tailed Tits (always a joy to behold), a Varied Tit Parus varius (A new acquaintance, and a most dapper and colourful bird, almost reminding me of a nuthatch in some of its movements now and then), a few Japanese White-eyes (very yellow underneath, and always in motion), and the cozy little Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker. On the ground here Pale Thrushes hunt, not a very happy name in my opinion: these thrushes are quite non-descript and feature-less, but not particularly pale at all, mostly olive-brown all over. There was here, and elsewhere in the garden, I think also a small Phylloscopus in the tree-crowns, but in the rain I never saw it well enough; a fast chittering unknown song may have come from the same bird. Lucky chance-encounters in the garden were with a single Black-faced Bunting, and later a tail-quivering female Daurian Redstart, both winter vistors to the area. In general early April seems to be a season, where many winter vistors have already left, and most summer birds have not yet arrived in this area, so an earlier or later visit may well have yielded more birds.
On the way back, in steadily worsening rain, I walked again through the Imperial park, i.e. the parklands around the old Imperial Palace. This is a park with many old trees, but not too much undergrowth, and therefore attractive to only a limited suite of birds. There are also once more far too many pigeons and crows. On the lawns everywhere you look there are colourful thrushes here--every one looks different , but apparently they are all Dusky Thrushes Turdus naumannii (No more dusky than the pale thrush is pale!). All have conspicuous large creamy white eyebrow stripes and a lot of rusty red on the wings, but the pattern of mottling underneath and the configuration of a breast band seem to vary fiercely and almost randomly. Strange that one thrush species among so many suddenly should be so utterly individually variable! Among the thrushes pairs (?) of Grey Starlings swagger, I had almost written 'with their hands in their pockets', large plump Oriental Turtle Doves have become very tame, and on looking more closely there is still another unobtrusive bird, that creeps busily across the lawns: these are Indian Tree Pipits (Olive-backed Pipits, if you prefer), and they are much less flighty than most pipits. They prefer the shortest lawns, in the shade of the trees, and fly up in the trees on disturbance. At exactly the same place where I found them the day before, a large mixed party of mainly Tree Sparrows and Oriental Greenfinches is foraging also today. These greenfinches sound and act exactly like their European counterperts, but look more colourful. The last new birds for the day were a couple of winter-plumaged Rustic Buntings on a gravel path, and a lone Common Kestrel wheeling overhead.
This ca five hour walk through central Kyoto only yielded common everyday Japanese birds, and not too many of those even. But maybe there still can be some interest in hearing first impressions from such an exotic venue. I thoroughly enjoyed this day myself, anyway, in spite of the chilly and rainy weather, which almost reminded me of home. (Not quite, though, I came home to Tromsø yesterday to a blizzard, 3-4 ft of snow on the ground and freezing weather).
2. MORNING WALKS IN MATSUYAMA
At Matsuyama, on Shikoku island, the smallest of the four main islands of Japan, I was the guest of Prof. Ichiro Takeuchi of Ehime University, and disposed of a comfortable guest room on the agricultural campus. This is situated outside the town proper, but still in a densely populated area, and my morning walks, during the two hours before I had to start on the amphipod business that brought me here, were therefore of necessity confined to the local roads, the small paths connecting them, and the open playground area along the local river. We were blessed with wonderful warm and sunny spring weather during my entire 4 days stay in Matsuyama.
Birds there are plenty here, but of no very great diversity. Tree Sparrows and Grey Starlings nest under the eaves of the houses and also Barn Swallows are common everywhere, while the sights and various weird sounds of the local crows are always around. Where there is but a little open ground, a Dusky Thrush is sure to hop around, while an overgrown garden also yielded a few Pale Thrushes in the denser shrubbery.Oriental Turtle Doves are everywhere, foraging mostly on the ground, but asking their hoarse: Who COOKS for you? (with many variations) from the trees, wires or roofs. A large flock of c 200 smallish birds in the air turned out to be Brown-eared Bulbuls, and these I later found again in a grove of blossoming cherry trees along the river, apparently eating the blossoms or their nectar. In the shallow river there were many European Teal, but no other ducks, my first Moorhens in Japan, and a Grey Heron fished from the bank.
The second morning I returned to the cherry trees at 7 15 am, just in time to see the flocks with bulbuls arrive and at once take over the entire area. Otherwise the scene is virtually unchanged, with all the teals the only ducks around, and the same heron fishing from the same place---but now he had got a companion in the form of a Little Egret. Also the three Moorhens turn out to have a constant companion: a lone Little Grebe hides in the reeds when they do (the first five minutes after my arrival), and comes forth when they do---during all these mornings it never went further than 10 m away from the moorhens! A Japanese Wagtail tripps along the untidy gravelly banks, and a Common Kingfisher flashes back and forth over the river surface, where also Barn Swallows hunt constantly. In the river itself, here quiet and sluggish, large lazy fishes swim, no doubt Japanese Carps. The only new year bird today before I have to turn around and start doing some real work, is a dapper and colourful Bull-headed Shrike, who time and again pounces in the grass from his vantage point in a low sapling, as far as I can see without much success.
On my return that afternoon half an hour before sunset all the bulbuls have left already (they must have a communal roost somewhere), while a large flock of some 200 Grey Starlings now has collected in the top of some trees and indulges in the most Japanese activity of communal bathing: every now and then 20-50 birds descend to the river banks and splash around merrily and in a tight flock for some minutes, before again joining the group up in the trees. When I left the scene around sunset, they were still at it!
Further upstream, where the river crosses a main road, I suddenly met a compact chittering flock of some 50 House Swifts, that later scattered and hunted high in the skies. They were the only swifts I saw during my entire visit.
On the last morning I just sat for an hour or so on the river bank near the cherry grove (A playground for small kids), with the early morning sun behind me, trying to fix the picture of the scene in my mind (My camera malfunctioned from day 1 on this trip). I have been here four mornings in a row now, and already recognize and greet some of the regulars who air their dogs here every morning, and the dumpy old woman, who always walks laps on the other bank of the river and who passes regular as clockwork every ten minutes. She must have been told that she needs more motion!
The teals, all in pairs, have mainly food on their minds, although I see some mild head-pumping by some males---it does not get them anywhere. On the other side of the small weir, where the carps swim, the now two Moorhens and the lone Dabchick still keep close together, once they venture out of the reeds. In front of me, a Little Egret fishes, alternately trembling each leg for every step forward he (?she) takes, and peering attentively down in the water to see if something gets stirred up; he regularly succeeds too. And all the time I sit here Barn Swallows flit around, Brown-eared Bulbuls rumour in the cherry trees (now rapidly losing their blossoms), Tree Sparrows and Grey Starlings flit back and forth across the river, and Dusky Thrushes hunt on the grass. A Japanese Wagtail pays a short visit, and during the entire hour I enjoy the company from my last new Japanese bird, a Common Sandpiper, that teeters and forages for insects all over the weir and the stones near the river bank.
On the way home I hear for the first time here the unmistakable song of the Bush Warbler, but alas, the sound comes from a house and the bird is no doubt in a cage.
This bit of river lies squeezed among a sea of houses, and there is a little corner of nature left here only because the river banks have been set aside as a playground for small children, and because the Jpanese do not molest birds. For the newcomer to Japan there is still a lot to see and enjoy also here, though. Beggars can't be choosers: where I am when is usually not decided by the birding opportunities , but by other considerations. So I take my birding pleasures wherever I happen to be, and am duly grateful for all the extra enjoyment that this hobby gives for free no matter where one might be.
Now, while I write this in my room in the guest house 8 April, a Great Tit is 'sawing' right outside the window, and behind the house I hear the unmistakable cozy chattering, irritated rasping and 'remote shorebird calls', that all spell greenfinch to me (Oriental Greenfinches here, but they really sound just the same). Makes me feel right at home!