Niall Hatch's Wild Japan
'Sakura' as the cherry blossoms are known in Japan, are a sight to behold. Right now, the country is blanketed in soft pink flowers - the iconic image of springtime Japan. This is a wonderful time of year to visit this magnificent country, an archipelago consisting of over 6,800 islands, which lies in the Pacific Ocean. The weather is usually sunny and dry and sightseeing spots aren’t too overcrowded, and it’s not only a wonderful cultural experience, with its temples, shrines and gardens, it’s also a spectacular wildlife paradise! Niall Hatch, who is the Development Officer with BirdWatch Ireland (www.birdwatchireland.ie), was lucky enough to travel there on his holiday recently, and he joins Derek, Richard and Eanna in studio to tell us all about it!
Niall's Notes: Japan
At the end of January/start of February this year I spent a couple of weeks travelling around Japan. It was my first time visiting the country, and found the wildlife to be absolutely spectacular. My main motivation was to see some of the spectacular wintering birds on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, but I also did some bird- and wildlife-watching on the main island of Honshu (around Tokyo), in southern Kyushu and on the subtropical island of Okinawa.
Map of Japan (image: Google Maps)
Hokkaido in winter is an astonishing place. The island is almost the exact same size as Ireland, and is Japan's second largest. Although it is located further south than we are, it is much, much colder in the winter, with sea ice around the coasts and heavy snowfall and even ice storms. We certainly have a lot to thank the Gulf Stream for in this country!
Clockwise from top left: i) Steller's Sea Eagles (left and right) and White-tailed Eagle (centre) (Hokkaido - Niall Hatch); ii) Steller's Sea Eagle (Hokkaido - Natalia Borodina); iii) Steller's Sea Eagles (Hokkaido - Niall Hatch); iv) Steller's Sea Eagle (taken with iPhone) (Hokkaido - Niall Hatch)
Despite the harsh conditions, it is a paradise for wildlife. One of the main reasons for my journey was to see the famous wintering population of Steller's Sea Eagles, the largest eagle species in the world. Mainly black, with prominent white patches on the wings and legs and an almost absurdly large yellow bill, it gathers in large numbers on the eastern coast of the island. It occurs alongside large numbers of White-tailed Eagles, the species which has been reintroduced back into Co. Kerry in recent years, and the two compete with each other for fish and carrion. White-tailed Eagles usually look enormous, but they are dwarfed when seen alongside the Steller's Sea Eagles: the latter are perhaps the most impressive birds I've ever seen. They breed only in the Russian Far East, but Hokkaido sees the largest concentrations in the winter: I was hoping to see at least one, but ended up seeing hundreds: they even gather together in groups of several dozen in town centres!
Another key bird for me in Hokkaido was the gorgeous Red-crowned Crane, which is one of the natural symbols of Japan. Famed both for their loyalty to their mates and for their magnificent synchronised dancing, this bird was historically considered sacred in Japan and is strictly protected. They are huge birds, standing well over five feet tall and with a wingspan of eight feet, yet they are extremely elegant and graceful, almost like avian ballet dancers.
There is a special reserve on Hokkaido where grain is provided by local farmers to feed them, so they are easy enough to find. They are a very rare bird in global terms, with only around 1,000 individuals, but a few decades ago the population fell to as low as 20. Because of the protection they have been given and the fact that they are used to being fed, they are quite tame around humans, and it is possible to observe them from just a few metres away.
Clockwise from top left: i) Blakiston's Fish Owl (Hokkaido - Niall Hatch); ii) Red-crowned Cranes (Hokkaido - Niall Hatch); iii) Crane flock (Kyushu - Niall Hatch); iv) Red-crowned Crane (Hokkaido - Niall Hatch)
Another key target for me on Hokkaido was Blakiston's Fish Owl, which is the largest owl species in the world, standing around three feet tall and boasting a wingspan of over six feet. As their name suggests, they specialise in catching fish which, as is typical for owls, they do at night. Now, you might think that an island as cold as Hokkaido would have little by way of unfrozen rivers and lakes in which fish could be obtained, but nothing could be further from the truth: Hokkaido has a long history of volcanic activity and is home to a wealth of natural hot springs, which act like magnets for the owls, as well as for Japanese bathers. We visited a special hot spring hotel in the mountains where, every night, a pair of these magnificent owls comes down to catch fish in a pool right outside the restaurant window. When I first spotted one, I literally gasped in shock: it was enormous. It was the experience of a lifetime to be able to watch them at such close quarters, literally two or three metres away from me outside the window.
Clockwise from top left: i) Sea Otter (Hokkaido - Niall Hatch); ii) White-tailed Eagle (Hokkaido - Natalia Borodina); iii) Sable (Hokkaido - Niall Hatch); iv) Hokkaido Red Fox (Natalia Borodina)
Another creature which was attracted to the springs and which I was thrilled to see was the Sable. This mammal is a close relative of our own Pine Marten, a fellow member of the weasel family, and perhaps most famous for having the most highly prized fur of any animal: most people know the word "sable", even if they don't know the animal to which it refers. Two of these wonderful creatures were frequently seen feeding on the bird tables right outside the hotel window, and would even sneak in to try to steal scraps of fish from the owls. Unlike Sables on mainland Asia, which are dark brown, those on Hokkaido are a very attractive orange-blonde colour.
Hokkaido also gave me my first ever views of Sea Otters, which fish off the sea ice around the coasts. Alongside them are thousands of birds, including the stunning Harlequin Duck, Black Scoters and Pacific Divers, as well as several species of cormorant, auk and gull.
Clockwise from top left: i) White-naped Crane (left) Sandhill Crane (centre) and Hooded Cranes (Kyushu - Niall Hatch); ii) Hooded Crane (Kyushu - Niall Hatch); iii) Grey-faced Buzzard (Okinawa - Natalia Borodina); iv) Okinawa Rail and chicks on a vending machine (Okinawa - Niall Hatch)
Kyushu, which is the southernmost of the four main Japanese islands, is significantly warmer in winter, without any snow. This means that it attracts many migrant birds which come to feed on insects, and is also a great place to see woodpeckers and waterbirds. It is also home to one of the world's most impressive crane reserves: unlike the reserve we visited on Hokkaido, which is home only to Red-crowned Cranes, this reserve boasts four wintering crane species: Hooded Crane, White-naped Crane, Common Crane and Sandhill Crane. Seeing thousands of these glorious birds up close was an astonishing sight, and is not something I will soon forget.
There were plenty of other birds to see on Kyushu, but the highlight for me was probably a chance encounter with one of the world's rarest ducks, the near-mythical Scaly-sided Merganser. These birds, which like the related Red-breasted Merganser here in Ireland have long, narrow bills lined with serrated "teeth", lending the group the name "sawbills", breed in tiny numbers in southeastern Russia and, as far as anyone can tell, nearby North Korea, and are only very scarce winter visitors to Japan. Scanning through a group of ducks one morning on a mountain reservoir, it felt like winning the lottery when a female merganser swan into my telescope view.
Also present on that reservoir were at least 40 Mandarin Ducks, a species which looks more like a surrealist painting than a real-life bird, and the forests were full of miniscule little Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, about the size of a Blue Tit.
The island of Okinawa, which is the largest of the Nansei Shoto island chain which stretches south from the main Japanese islands as far as Taiwan, is best known for the massive battle which took place there between Japanese and US forces during World War Two. The Americans occupied the island for a time, and it is still home to some large US military bases. Due to its balmy subtropical climate, it is a popular holiday destination for Asian tourists. The southern two-thirds of the island are full of concrete and tarmac (one of the most built-up and densely populated places I have been), but the northern third or so of the island is home to lush rainforest and has just this year been designated as a national park.
This forest is home to several endemic bird species, found nowhere else on earth, including the Okinawa Woodpecker, the Okinawa Robin and the extremely elusive Okinawa Rail. Finding these birds was very hard work indeed, requiring much trekking through jungles and driving slowly at night along winding mountain roads, but all the effort made finally seeing them all the sweeter.
The island is also home to other rare and restricted birds, such as the Black Woodpigeon, which only lives in laurel forest on small Japanese islands, and the Ryukyu Whistling Green Pigeon. It is also home to two species of extremely venomous snakes, the Greater and Lesser Habu, of which many local people are very scared. It also has some of the most impressive butterflies I've ever seen.
Japan is rightly world-famous for its superb food, and each region has its own local specialities which are renowned across the country. Most are delicious, but thanks to the American influence the most typical food associated with Okinawa is ... spam! I even tried spam sushi on one occasion: not recommended.
All in all, I would recommend a winter wildlife-watching trip to Japan to anyone. From a cultural and culinary point of view it is also an outstanding places, and the transport and tourism facilities are excellent. I was also struck by how friendly and helpful everyone was. Very little English is spoken, but that is not really a problem at all - it is easy enough to make yourself understood, and most of the restaurants have extremely accurate plastic models of their different dishes on display which you can simply point at.
To view Niall and Natalia's photos in full resolution, visit the Mooney Goes Wild photo gallery: https://www.flickr.com/photos/131443927@N07/albums/72157677161434014.