Japan is a country of beautiful Pacific islands, and a land of contrasts – from ancient culture to cutting-edge modern technology, from its temples, shrines and gardens to the many delicacies that make it a foodie’s paradise. It’s an archipelago of almost seven THOUSAND islands that stretch across three thousand kilometres, and is home to a staggeringly large variety of wildlife. It’s a country that bewitches and beguiles all those who visit, with many dreaming of a return. In February of this year, Niall Hatch from BirdWatch Ireland enthralled us with stories from his trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, and he was so enchanted with what he saw that he’s going back again, this week – and he’s going to document what he sees and hears exclusively for Mooney Goes Wild!
To find out more about Niall's previous trip to Japan, and learn about all the wonderful wildlife he saw, click here.
Niall's Japanese Itinerary - July 2017
Wednesday, July 12th 2017
After a couple of days in Tokyo (where there will not be much to report, nature-wise) I'll be travelling by ferry to the remote volcanic island of Miyake-jima, which is part of the Izu Archipelago which lies to the south of Tokyo.
The Izu Islands are home to several endemic (i.e., unique) birds, including Izu Thrush, Izu Robin and Ijima's Warbler. The isolation of the group has led to the evolution of unique island forms which are found nowhere else on earth. The island itself is home to only around 2,500 people, all of whom are required by law to carry gas masks with them at all times, in case the island's central volcano spews out poisonous gasses. In addition to the birds, the island is also famous for its rich coral reefs and the population of dolphins in its waters.
After that, I will be returning to the main island of Honshu and gradually making my way eastwards towards Nagano, where the Winter Olympics were held in 1998. There won't be any winter sports at this time of year, of course, but during summer the mountain slopes are covered in birds and other wildlife, including both Copper Pheasants and Green Pheasants, as well as Japanese Thrushes, Japanese Accentors and other unique birds. I am also hoping to track down some Japanese Macaques, the monkeys which are often shown on TV relaxing in the natural thermal baths. I also plan to visit iconic Mount Fuji and to see some of the birds that make their homes on its slopes.
After that, I will be flying southwards to the subtropical island of Amami Oshima, where I will spend several days searching for the unique birds that are found only there: Lidth's Jay, Amami Thrush, Amami Woodpecker and Amami Woodcock. The island is also home to the Amami Black Rabbit, the last surviving member of an ancient lineage of rabbit species that once occurred throughout eastern Asia. It is strictly nocturnal and, somewhat oddly for a rabbit, is notable for its very short ears. The island forms part of the Ryukyu Archipelago (which also includes Okinawa, which I visited back in January of this year), which collectively are home to many more unique bird species, and I will also be trying to track these down on Amami Oshima: birds such as Ryukyu Robin, Ryukyu Green Pigeon and Ryukyu Minivet.
Shibuya Crossing - Tokyo
Hello from Tokyo, which is surely one of the busiest and most impressive cities on the planet. It is an enormous place, with lots to see and do (and eat!), and it is also home to a surprising variety of birds. Pacific Swifts and Barn Swallows swoop overhead, and even a short stroll in any park will reveal Eurasian Tree Sparrows, Brown-headed Bulbuls, Oriental Turtle Doves and Japanese White-eyes in abundance.
I haven't managed to do much wildlife-watching yet, but Tokyo is a wonderful place in which to observe human nature. I thought I would share with you a video I took at one of the city's most famous locations, known as Shibuya Crossing, which is apparently the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Every couple of minutes, when the lights change, thousands of people suddenly stream across the road in unison. It put me in mind of the great Wildebeest migration in Africa I have seen in so many times on television nature documentaries.
There is actually something quite hypnotic about watching all of these people, each individually simply going about his or her day, becoming part of a larger spectacle and seeming to move as one, almost like fish in a shoal or Starlings in a murmuration. It really is rather captivating.
After an overnight ferry trip from Tokyo, sleeping on a tatami mat on the floor, we reached Miyakejima. This remote volcanic island, part of the Izu Island group, lies to the south of Tokyo and is home to a number of unique bird species found nowhere else on earth. I am especially fond of island endemics, or uniquely-occurring species, which have evolved in isolation in their island habitat and can be seen nowhere else on earth. Time is not on our side, however; we only have 24 hours on this island, and it has been very difficult to find any information in advance about the best places on the island to visit.
I need not have worried. The ferry docked at 05:00 and we went straight onto the bus to the guesthouse where we would be staying the night. On the way, no fewer than 5 Izu Thrushes, one of the species I was most keen to see, hopped out onto the road and showed themselves in the glorious early morning light. Very similar in size, shape and behaviour to the Blackbird with which we are so familiar in Ireland, these thrushes appear to be common and widespread on the island. They breed only on the tiny volcanic islands of the Izu Archipelgo, making them one of the most restricted thrush species in the world.
The male in particular is a very handsome bird: he has a jet black head and yellow beak, just like our Blackbird, but there the similarity ends: his wings are a rich brown, and his breast and belly are a deep red clolour, bisected by a wedge of white that extends up to his throat. I am not a good photographer, by any means, but I did manage to take a photo of one to show you: I hope that the rarity of the bird in some way makes up for the poor quality of the image.
The Izu Thrush
Walking the 300 metres or so from the bus stop to the guesthouse, I am stopped in my tracks by one of the richest and most melodic bird songs I have ever heard. The singer is soon joined by another, a few metres along the track, and then another, and another. These songs belong to Japanese Bush Warblers, a common bird across all of the Japanese islands, but a very skulking species that is far more often heard than seen.
Soon, a different song joins the mix: just as loud, but faster and more abrupt, ending in a strident trill. Though I have never seen one before, I know this is the song of an Izu Robin, another species that is confined entirely to this small island group. One eventually pops into view on the road in front of me, and I quickly note how similar it looks to our Robins in Ireland: brown above with a red breast and white belly. The brown upperparts are richer, however - almost golden - and the legs are much longer. On close inspection, the belly also appears somewhat greyer.
The Izu Robin
After checking in to the guesthouse (the "Miyakejima Snapper" - highly recommended) and taking a much-needed shower, our next port of call is the island nature centre, situated in the south of this small island, beside a gorgeous volcanic lake. As soon as we arrive in the parking area, I hear a series of 4 buzzing notes in one tree, answered immediately by a similar series from the opposite side of the road: Ijima's Warblers, another extremely restricted species. A relative of our Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs, this bird is confined entirely to this small group of Japanese islands. It takes several minutes for one of these small green, grey and white birds finally to show itself, but eventually it does and I enjoy excellent views.
The Miyake Nature Center
Islands are hotbeds of natural selection, and there is a strong tendancy for creatures which find themselves isolated on them to evolve rapidly into new forms. A case in point is the bird which now flits into view on the branch just in front of me. The newly "split" (i.e., separated by scientists as a new distinct species) Owston's Tit closely resembles the Varied Tit, a widespread bird throughout both Japan and Korea, and from which it no doubt evolved. Presumably a small founder population of Varied Tits became isolated here once upon a time, and their descendants adapted over the centuries to a novel environment. They do look very like Varied Tits: the mainland birds have bright white cheeks, however, while those on Miyakejima and a couple of nearby islands have orange cheeks, concolourous with the hue of their breasts and bellies. Their songs have also become altered, to the point that their mainland cousins would no longer recognise them as kin. A new species is born!
As I watch the Owston's Tit, a familiar sound rings through the forest. It's a Wren, no question, but when finally I manage to track down the singer I am astonished by his appearance: he is much, much darker than the Wrens we get in Ireland. Although Wrens in Japan belong to exactly the same species as our Irish birds, their plumage is a rich chocolate brown, so that they look like almost completely different birds entirely.
Wren (Japanese form)
My final key target on the island is found away from the forested areas. A relative of the secretive Grasshopper Warbler found in Ireland, the Pleske's Warbler breeds only areas of rank bamboo-grass on a select few east Asian islands off Russia, Korea and Japan. A fairly drab brown bird, it might not be the most exciting species to look at, but for a birder this kind of rarity makes it an important target. Luckily, as soon as I manage to locate an area of the grass in question, at least 5 of these little birds are immediately to be seen singing from atop the grass stems. I am delighted to have seen all of my target birds in such a short period of time and, after the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, it is wonderful to have done so on such a relaxing, laid-back island, with quite a different vibe to that found throughout most of the rest of Japan. It is almost like a piece of the Caribbean in Asia, and I would recommend a visit here to anyone.
We're back on the main Japanese Island of Honshu now. Having rented a car in Tokyo, we drove northwest to Nagano Prefecture, and specifically to the town of Karuizawa. This town is famous for its hot springs and thermal baths, which attract many Japanese tourists, but amongst birdwatchers it is more famous as the home of the Hoshino Wild Bird Sanctuary.
July is actually not the best time of year for birds in the area, though I did manage to see quite a few really nice species here, including the much sought-after Japanese Yellow Bunting. The main reason for our visit to the sanctuary was not birds, however, but rather the possibility of seeing one of its most celebrated mammalian residents: this is perhaps the best place in the world to see the magnificent Japanese Giant Flying Squirrel.
A flying squirrel, I hear you ask? Yes, indeed: there are several species of flying squirrel, and this Japanese species is one of the largest. Technically they don't actually fly (bats are the only mammals that are capable of true powered flight), but they do glide for considerable distances between trees. Their front and hind legs are connected by a broad rectangular web of skin that allows them to parachute through the air surprisingly well.
These are large squirrels, measuring some 80cm from nose to tail-tip, yet they are very hard to find as, unusually for a squirrel, they are strictly nocturnal. The reason that the Hoshino Wild Bird Sanctuary is such a good place to see them is that the staff have installed a number of special wooden squirrel roosting boxes, which look exactly like oversized Blue Tit nestboxes, in the trees along their birdwatching trails.
Wooden squirrel roosting boxes
If you arrange it in advance, the wardens can take you to see a couple of these amazing squirrels as they leave their boxes for the night, which is a rare privilege. It is also, in a real rarity for wildlife watching, pretty much an absolute certainty that you will see at least one, as each of the boxes is fitted with a camera, so the staff know which are occupied at any given time. They also know that, almost like clockwork, the squirrels will awake and leave their boxes 30 minutes after sunset.
Inside squirrel box
Waiting patiently, at 19:00 a small group of us are led to a small forest clearing where two squirrel boxes are immediately visible. Our guide hooks up a portable monitor to some cables running from one of them, and we are all thrilled to see an adorable, rather dozy Japanese Giant Flying Squirrel begin to stir and lick its fur: apparently they groom fervently like this just before they emerge from their sleeping chambers.
Watchers wait to see the squirrels
Sunset was officially at 19:03. Right on cue, at 19:33, a fluffy head could be seen poking out of the hole. It ducked back inside for a moment for another couple of licks, then sort of flopped right out of the box and scuttled up the tree. Our guide followed it using a torch with a red filter: we could see the beam well, but it was invisible to the squirrel, as their eyes cannot perceive red light.
Japanese Giant Flying Squirrel
The adorable creature dashed up almost to the top of the tree, paused for a moment, then launched itself off the trunk, spreading its furry parachute and gliding off through the forest with surprising grace. About five minutes later, the resident of the other box performed exactly the same routine: what a treat to see two flying squirrels actually flying! Well, gliding, but same difference.
At this point I should probably tell you that taking photographs of the squirrels leaving their boxes is strictly forbidden - it would be impossible without using a flash, given the darkness, and that would scare these rare animals senseless - so I couldn't take any photos to show you. I did, however, take a shot of one of the photos in the visitors' centre, as well as one of perhaps the cutest road hazard sign I have ever seen.
Road hazard sign!