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.
Seachtain na Gaeilge & Éire Fhiáin – An Cósta Thiar
Seachtain na Gaeilge
Seachtain na Gaeilge kicks off this Wednesday, March 1st, and runs until St Patrick’s Day with an array of events and activities taking place right across the country. The celebrations highlight and celebrate our culture through music, dance, arts and will of course showcase the richness of our native language, encouraging people to use Irish in their everyday life. There will even be Lá na Meán Síosialta or Social Media Day on March 16th, when we are all being encouraged to use social media through Irish using the hashtag #LNMS17! So who better to give us a flavour of what’s happening than our very own Eanna ni Lamhna...
As Tree Week is also on during that time (March 5th - 12th; www.treecouncil.ie/tree-week-2017), Eanna herself will lead a tree walk in Irish for a Gaelscoil in Co Kildare. To find out more about the many events taking place all around the country for Seachtain na Gaeilge, visit www.snag.ie.
Éire Fhiáin – An Cósta Thiar
The long winged seabird, the Shearwater, is just one of the creatures to feature in a gem of a two-part special starting on TG4 this week, exploring Ireland’s striking wildlife environment along the 1600 kilometres of rock and ocean that make up our island’s Atlantic Edge.
Éire Fhiáin – An Cósta Thiar [Wild Ireland - The West Coast] is one of the programmes featuring in Seachtain na Gaeilge. The presenter of this special is Eoin Warner, who joins us from RTÉ's studios in Galway to tell us more about it!
The first programme of Éire Fhiáin – An Cósta Thiar, presented by Eoin Warner and produced by Crossing The Line Productions, will be broadcast on TG4 this Wednesday, March 1st 2017 at 21:30. And the second programme will be shown the following Wednesday, March 8th, also at 21:30.
For more information, visit www.tg4.ie/en/programmes/eire-fhiain.
The Dawn Chorus
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.
Second Chance Archive
Have another chance to hear some of our Mooney Goes Wild programmes uncovered from the RTÉ Radio 1 archive. Click the links below for more information.
The Dance of the Cuckoos - Mooney Goes Wild Special
The Blue Whale - Mooney Goes Wild Special
Feathers - Mooney Goes Wild Special
Bergen Whale - Mooney Goes Wild Special
Sparrows - Mooney Goes Wild Special
Wildlife Film Makers - Mooney Goes Wild Special
The Common Swift - Mooney Goes Wild Special
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Ireland and Climate Change: Are we up for it? Professor John Sweeney - Maynooth University
When the countries of the world assembled for the now famous Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to adopt the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, they undertook to take the necessary steps to prevent ‘dangerous’ climate change. Defining what was dangerous proved a difficult task, however, and largely as a result of the European Union’s prodding, a value of 2oC warming above pre-industrial times was generally adopted as the criterion. Gradually the rest of the world fell into line with this, except the Small Island Developing States of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. For them this was something that would have condemned their island homes to submergence beneath the rising sea. So when the Paris Agreement emerged in 2015, it had a nuanced objective: "to hold increases in global temperatures to well below 2 °C and pursue efforts to limit increase to 1.5 °C." To flesh out what the 1.5oC target would actually mean, the Conference asked the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to produce a Special Report, which they did in October of last year.
The report confirmed that significantly greater climate problems would be experienced at a warming of 1.5oc compared to the present day, even though we have already warmed by 1oC over pre-industrial levels. These would include increases in extremes of heat and heavy rainfall events in several regions, accompanied by more frequent and more intense droughts. But most worrying was the realisation that the remaining carbon budget to avoid this warming would only last for a decade or two at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions. After this budget was exhausted the carbon would be in the atmosphere for a century or more. Globally, emissions needed to fall by 45% on 2010 levels by 2030. It was this realisation that galvanised many groups and energised many individuals around the world, culminating in the mass protests we see around us. This was true, even in an Ireland whose compliance with its international obligations are failing miserably and its laggard status approaching the level of a national shaming. As a developed country with historical responsibility, we should be bearing more of the burden of tackling this problem than most other countries. Instead our per capita emissions are 50% higher than the EU average and place us as the second worst contributor to climate change on a per capita basis within the EU. The recently released 2018 figures confirm we are now 5M tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over the limit we agreed solemnly with our EU partners over a decade ago.
At the same time as we declared a climate emergency in Ireland this year we also declared a biodiversity emergency. This was in recognition that Ireland was also experiencing serious threats to its species and habitats, partly due to climate and also a number of other drivers, such as agricultural intensification. Another UN report in spring 2019 confirmed that human actions are now threatening more species with global extinction than ever before. The current rate of species extinction is 10-100 times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years. Around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades.
In Ireland, our peatland, coastal marsh and mountain habitats are particularly at risk. 29 different bird species and 120 species of flowering plants are in serious decline. Some bird species such as the Corn Bunting and Corncock have become extinct. Others such as the Curlew have been decimated and many species such as the pearl mussel, bumblebee, barn owl and marsh fritillary butterfly face serious threats. At the same time invasive species are moving into newly favourable ecological niches providing additional competition and stress to native species.
Ireland has warmed by 0.5oC over the past 30 years and is likely to warm by a similar amount over the next 2-3 decades. This will have impacts on our growing season, making crops like maize much more feasible to grow. However, projected changes in rainfall are likely to be the main climate change problem Ireland will face. Already we are seeing an increase in intense rainfall events. Increased winter flood problems will result and the government will need to find €1B of taxpayers’ money to protect against future events. Winter storms are also likely to become more problematical. Winter 2013/14 was the stormiest winter in Ireland for at least 143 years. Winter 2015/16 was the wettest winter on record over half of Ireland. Former hurricanes such as Ophelia and Lorenzo pose additional late autumn threats which are likely to increase as the Atlantic warms and summer droughts will bring their own difficulties for agriculture and municipal water supplies. All in all, it is changing weather extremes which will bring the message of climate change home to Irish people and instil in them the urgency of playing a constructive role in international negotiations.
Conscious that it their legacy that is under threat, young people have been in the vanguard of protest. The ‘Fridays for Future’ schools protest has taken up the baton of Greta Thunberg who has become the icon that communicates the reality of climate change more effectively than a hundred graphs and tables. Armed with the factual knowledge of the Green Schools, it is to these inspirational leaders that the rest of society must now turn. The time for tinkering around the edges with excuses about efficiency or identifying ‘low hanging fruit’ on the basis of economic cost benefit curves is now over. The problem is now an ethical one of intergenerational equity, one where scientists can no longer be labelled ‘alarmists’ but rather ‘realists’. In an emergency the unthinkable has to be considered and Ireland is now at a crossroads where the next decade will determine what legacy we leave to the next generation. It’s an awesome responsibility. Are we up for it or not?
Professor John Sweeney is Ireland’s foremost climatologists and was a lecturer at Maynooth University’s Geography Department for 40 years until his recent retirement. Over the past 30 years he has published approximately 60 scientific papers and edited and co-authored texts on various aspects of climatology and climate change in Ireland.
Statement from BirdWatch Ireland, Thurs Feb 28th 2019:
BirdWatch Ireland wishes to remind the public, local authorities and contractors that hedge-cutting is NOT permitted between 1st March and 31st August inclusive, except in the case of any of the derogations permitted under the Wildlife Act 1976, as amended. The Heritage Act 2018 gives the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the power to make certain changes to these dates, but it is important to note that, as yet, the Minister has not done so. As a result, the usual dates when hedge-cutting is prohibited currently remain unchanged.
It is an offence to 'cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy hedgerows on uncultivated land during the nesting season from 1 March to 31 August, subject to certain exceptions'. For more information, click here. To read the Heritage Bill 2016, as passed by Dáil Éireann on July 5th 2018, click here. To read the Heritage Act 2018, click here.
To contact your local wildlife ranger, click here for contact details. To read the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000, click here.
Caring For Wild Animals
Please note that many species of mammals, birds, invertebrates etc... are protected under law and that, even with the best of intentions, only someone holding a relevant licence from the National Parks & Wildlife Service should attempt the care of these animals. For full details, please click here to read the NPWS Checklist of protected & rare species in Ireland. If you are concerned about a wild animal, please contact your local wildlife ranger - click here for details.
Please DO NOT send any live, dead or skeletal remains of any creature whatsoever to Mooney Goes Wild. If you find an injured animal or bird, please contact the National Parks & Wildlife Service on 1890 20 20 21, or BirdWatch Ireland, on 01 281-9878, or visit www.irishwildlifematters.ie