Back from the Brink is a one-hour programme that plans to celebrate the hard work, dedication, and commitment of conservationists who are striving to save endangered species from extinction. Here, Derek Mooney discusses this unique, pan-European natural history event.
I've been working in natural history broadcasting for over 30 years now. In that time, I’ve seen some truly wonderful sights, but I’ve also seen first-hand the problems that wildlife is facing, both in Ireland and around the globe. There has been a growing awareness amongst the general public, particularly in the last few years, of the threats to our environment and biodiversity.
In many ways, this has been long overdue, but I’m also aware that for a lot of people the current state of our planet can seem overwhelming, even depressing. We are increasingly bombarded by tales of doom and gloom. Issues like climate change and animal extinction are too often made to seem insurmountable, as though tragedy is a foregone conclusion, but that’s simply not true. It’s not too late to help nature.
We need to find a way to bring some much-needed optimism back into the conservation. That’s definitely what attracted me most to Back from the Brink. Through my work over the years on Mooney Goes Wild, in particular, I have met thousands of dedicated scientists and conservationists out there, fighting hard to save endangered species and working miracles. By telling some of their stories, I thought we could inspire people and show that there is every reason for hope.
Nature is resilient, and if given a chance it can recover from all sorts of abuse. It was once thought that the Red Kite, a stunning bird of prey, was lost forever from Irish skies, shot and poisoned to extinction. To see dozens of them now flying over the Co. Wicklow countryside again, all thanks to the dedication of people who simply weren’t prepared to give up, was a humbling and inspirational experience.
The same goes for the enormous efforts that I witnessed to safeguard the growing populations of Wolves in Italy, Brown Bears in Spain and Eurasian Beavers in The Netherlands, to give a few key examples from the programme. Perhaps the most sobering part for me personally was seeing the dramatic effects that climate change has wrought on the Swiss Alps, where glaciers are rapidly melting and high mountain habitats are disappearing, along with the unique animals that live there. Even then, against all the odds, people are fighting back.
Back from the Brink is not just a story about animals. At its core, it’s really a story about people. We, humans, have caused our planet’s problems, but people are also the key to fixing them. Literally every conservationist I interviewed for the programme spoke with such passion about their work, coupled with an unshakeable belief that what they were doing was utterly worthwhile, and I think that shines through on the screen. It must do because even the production crews, and there were many across Europe, not least our own team here in Ireland, headed by Colm Crowley from RTÉ Cork and scientific advisor Niall Hatch, were totally dedicated to this project.
We want to empower as many of those viewers as possible, and to reinforce the truth that every single one of us can play a role in saving endangered species and the wider environment. It’s not just about doing your bit – it takes much more than a bit, it takes a lot! – but about understanding that we need to accept fundamental changes to the way in which we live our lives. Having seen what can be achieved when the will is there, it will be well worth it, believe me.
Watch Back from the Brink at 6:30pm on Monday, 30th of December on RTÉ One.
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!
Jigokudani Monkey Park
If you watch pretty much any television documentary about the wildlife of Japan, at some point you are bound to see the country's famous "snow monkeys", or Japanese Macaques, to give them their formal English name. When you do, doubtless they will be shown luxuriating in a mountain hot spring, surrounded by snow and ice, always in the same location, where the geothermally-heated water gives welcome respite from the harsh winter conditions of the Japanese Alps. That location is Jigokudani Monkey Park, and I just had to visit it during my trip to Japan.
Now, being July, there is no snow or ice to be seen in the area, but the monkeys can be found year-round in this amazing park, high in the montane forest close to the spa town of Yamanouchi in central Honshu. That's because the park staff provide food for them, which means that each morning up to 100 wild monkeys make their way down to the park for breakfast.
Given the hot, humid summer weather (Japan in summer is incredibly humid, I must say), the monkeys have no need to enter the warm water, so at this time of year they instead clamber on the rocks and run along the pathways that have been provided for the human visitors.
These macaques have become so accustomed to humans that it is easy to forget that they are true wild animals, free to come and go as they please. They are extraordinarily tame and approachable, and generally act as though they don't even see you: this almost haughty indifference towards people is actually quite refreshing to see. If you stay calm and still, they will walk right past you, literally within inches, groom each other by your feet and even mate right in front of you: it was a bit of a shock to witness that quite so up close and personal, I have to say!
The most interesting part of my visit to the park was watching the baby macaques getting to grips with the world. Their mothers seem exceptionally caring and devoted, and would both encourage the youngsters to explore their surroundings, keeping a close eye on them, and gently discipline them if they tried something dangerous or broke some rule of behaviour.
It was also fascinating to watch the adolescent monkeys play-fighting with each other, shouting and squabbling, until an adult eventually tires of their behaviour and roars at them to quieten down. It certainly brought back memories!
Between the four main islands of Japan and the island of Taiwan lies a long chain of many smaller Japanese islands called the Ryukyu Archipelago, also known as the Nansei Shoto. I visited the largest and best known of these, Okinawa, back in January, and now I am on the second-largest of the group, the beautiful, densely-forested island of Amami-Oshima. This volcanic island is home to several unique plants and animals, found nowhere else on Earth: thanks to the island's long isolation, new species have evolved and thrived here and differ greatly from their relatives on continental Asia.
Unlike many volcanic islands, many of those in the Ryukyu chain, including Amami, have at various periods in the past been physically linked to the Asian mainland. This means that they support several native land mammals, which now, thanks to rising sea-levels in prehistoric times, find themselves isolated here. One which I was thrilled to see was the local subspecies of Wild Boar, which has evolved here to become a much smaller form than those found across mainland Eurasia: this type of island dwarfism is a common phenomenon around the globe.
Star of the show, however, is the Amami Black Rabbit, a unique nocturnal species found only on Amami and one other nearby island. It is apparently the last survivor of an ancient lineage of primitive Asian rabbit species which have long since become extinct on the continental landmass due to competition from other species. Here on Amami, in the absence of such survival pressure, the Black Rabbit still thrives.
I have been fortunate enough to see several of these enigmatic rabbits thus far: driving at night through the isolated forest roads is the best strategy, and after dark quite a few hop out onto the tarmac and reveal themselves in the beam of my rental car's headlights. It is a strange-looking animal that actually doesn't look too much like a rabbit that we would recognise in Ireland. The ears are much shorter, for starters, and the dumpy body looks more like that of a Wombat or a very small furry pig. They also have patches of bright pink bare skin around their eyes, contrasting strongly with their dense, dark fur, and their eyes glow a demonic red colour in the headlight beam.
Although I may have seen several of these special rabbits, unfortunately I have been unable actually to photograph any to show you: it's just too dark, and the views are too fleeting. You will have to settle instead for a photo of another of those things that the Japanese do so well: a very cute road hazard warning sign!
Left: small Woodpecker on diagonal branch: Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker; right: Large woodpecker on vertical tree trunk: Owston's Woodpecker
The birdlife on Amami is superb. Gorgeous island endemic species such as Lidth's Jay and Ryukyu Robin abound, and unique local races of common Japanese species such as Varied Tit and Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker are easily seen. One of the species I had most wanted to connect with when planning my visit was Owston's Woodpecker, a large dark woodpecker that is found nowhere in the world besides this island. It turns out that they are actually fairly common, and I have been lucky enough to hear several so far: their "drumming" on tree trunks is loud and far-carrying and, unlike that of the Great Spotted Woodpeckers now found in Ireland, it speeds up and trails off at the end, very like the sound of a ping pong ball bouncing to a rest on a table. I also enjoyed superb views of a red-capped male that landed on a tree trunk right in front of me, which was a real treat.
Long-beaked bird on the ground with red eyeshine: Amami Woodcock
Two other much sought-after birds on the island have a reputation for being much harder to track down. Both Amami Woodcock and Amami Thrush are crepuscular species, meaning that they are really only active at dusk and dawn. Happily, I discover that the woodcock in particular is fairly common, and has the convenient habit of landing on forest roads at night and becoming transfixed in the headlight beam of cars. This means that it is actually not too hard to photograph: note the slightly drooping tip to the beak and the bare patch of pale pink skin around the eye, both of which features distinguish it from the Eurasian Woodcocks found in Ireland, as well as across Europe and Asia.
Speckled brown bird: Amami Thrush
The Amami Thrush is a different prospect. Much more reluctant to reveal its presence, it is a bird that many birdwatchers who visit the island fail to see. I had a frustratingly brief and distant glimpse of one individual that flew up from a forest track at dawn, and I thought that was all I was going to get and counted myself lucky even to see that much of this notoriously elusive species. However, much to my surprise, one lunchtime I happened upon a couple of juvenile birds with one of their parents, hopping along a forest track in broad daylight in the protected area known as the Amami Natural Forest. I even managed to fire off a couple of photos, which was a totally unexpected bonus.
Brown snake: Habu (very dangerous)
And now, a word of caution. When out watching wildlife in the forests of Amami, it is vital to watch one's step very, very carefully. The island is home to a very attractive but very dangerous snake, a type of pit viper known locally as the Habu. Local people are terrified of them, and there are signs all over the island warning people to be vigilant when out walking in the woods. This snake has no interest in harming people - it eats frogs and other small vertebrates - but if it feels threatened it will readily defend itself. Its bite contains a powerful neurotoxin, and if treatment is not administered quickly, a person unfortunate enough to be bitten by one can easily die. Due to the ready availability of antivenins, deaths are now thankfully very rare, but, even if rapid treatment is administered, permanent disability is a real prospect.
The dangerous Habu snake
The Habu also looks very like a pile of dead leaves and likes to lie in wait for frogs along the sides of mountain roads ... exactly the places where piles of dead leaves tend to congregate and where birdwatchers most want to walk. Before my visit, I had read many online accounts from fellow birders who said that there is no need to worry, that the threat is much exaggerated and that they never encountered any sign of the snake.
Another snake Niall saw was the Ryukyu Green Snake (not dangerous)
Well, so far I have seen three, one of which lunged at me from a distance of just two metres as I walked along a mountain road at dawn. I simply didn't see it, and I inadvertently surprised it as it was warming itself on the tarmac. I have a real soft spot for snakes, and after I overcame my initial surprise (to be honest, I was shaking, and may possibly have shrieked a little) I managed to retreat to a safer distance and enjoy watching this magnificent animal go about its business. I was very aware that I had chosen to enter its habitat and that I was the interloper in this situation, and once my shock had worn off I felt extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to observe such an astonishing and beautiful creature at such close range: it is something I will never forget.
Orange butterfly: Indian Fritillary
In addition to being a paradise for snake-enthusiasts (I have seen five snake species so far, all of them endemic to this island chain - never have I been somewhere that snakes are so frequently encountered), Amami-Oshima is also wonderful for butterfly-lovers. I have seen over 25 different kinds so far here, including some very beautiful and restricted species. I am not as well up on my butterflies as I am on my birds, but I'm learning, thanks to an excellent butterfly field guide I picked up in Tokyo. That is what is perhaps the most attractive thing to me about watching nature: once you have been bitten by the bug, you never, ever stop learning. It makes life extremely interesting!