Japanese glimpses 1

Subject: Japanese glimpses 1
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Wed, 11 Apr 2001 10:59:52 +0200

                        JAPANESE GLIMPSES 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 Gray 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, 
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 
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 Gray 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 Gray Heron, the other by a
Great Egret, while a Little Egret had found a fishing place between the two

        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 
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 Gray Wagtail I saw only
a few, maybe too early?
         I also searched in vain for some others typical river specials, like 
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', 
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 Gray 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 
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).

                                                Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                                9037 Tromsø, Norway

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