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July 2009

with a Total Eclipse of the Sun 

Amami Woodcock


Birds & Other Wildlife during FONT Japan Tour - July 2009

Cumulative List of Birds during FONT Japan Tours (with some photos) 

Rare Birds during FONT Tours in Japan (with some photos) 

Butterflies of Japan (with some photos)

Upcoming FONT Japan Birding & Nature Tours

Solar Eclipses & Other Celestial Nature during FONT Tours 



The following was written by Armas Hill, leader of the tour:

The July 22, 2009 total solar eclipse was just one aspect of our Japan Tour in the Summer of '09. Yes, just one, but one that affected so many other aspects of the trip. 
As more than one Japanese person told us: "for just over 3 minutes (of totality), it took 3 days coming and another 3 days going" in order to be there, at the proper place and time, on Amami, with their travel only between that small island and elsewhere in Japan.
Simply put, that's because Amami is an island, having just so many flights and ferries to and from it, while so many Japanese people, from the main islands of their country, were going there, and then returning home, before and after the event.

We went to Amami by ferry from Okinawa, 4 days prior to the eclipse. Doing so, we had a full-day at sea, onboard a boat that went to shore at the small Japanese islands of Yoronto, Okinoerabujima, and Tokunoshima - all of these inhabited by more people that one would expect, in the chain of islands either known as the Ryukyus or Nansei Shoto.

Actually, during previous FONT tours, we traveled that ferry landing at those islands between Okinawa and Amami. During those previous trips, we always saw some seabirds and/or marine mammals, including various species of dolphins, and even, in the winter, Humpback Whale.
But, during our July  '09 trip, that was not to be. A full day of scanning produced no mammals, and not a single bird! 
None of what we've seen during those trips in the past, even as late as May, was to be seen: shearwaters of a few species, Bulwer's Petrel, or Brown Booby.  
But we did see hundreds of flying fish. And there was a Green Sea Turtle, off the coast of northern Okinawa.

Even though we didn't see any from the boat, terns do occur over such warm water of the ocean. There are some species of them that are notably tropical. And even though others, such as the Arctic Tern favor cold water, there are those that are always where seas are warm.
One such species was especially nice to see during our time in Okinawa, before our journey from there by ferry. We saw it from shore - a striking, mostly white bird contrasting with the tropical blue waters that it flew above.
With a bit of black by the eyes, and on the back of the neck, it's called the Black-naped Tern. We saw a few of them, not only in flight over the water, but also on some offshore rocks.

The Black-naped Tern is a bird of the tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans. It nests on islands such as the Seychelles and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and south of Japan, in the region of the Pacific in the Philippines and the Malay Archipelago, south to northeast Australia. The southern Japanese islands of Amami and Okinawa are at the northern limit of its range in the summer when it breeds. Nesting, according to the book, in Japan, is between April and September. We watched some of the terns fly out from the offshore rocks and catch fish, which they brought back to feed to other birds, on the rocks, that looked nearly the same. We assumed that the receivers of the fish were birds born earlier in the summer, nearly grown.    

One of our best sightings during the July 2009 FONT Japan Tour was on the island of Okinawa, not along the coast, but inland in the forested hilly region in the northern region known as Yambaru. It too was a bird that seemed to be near at least one young of its brood of the year. The species is one of the rarest of the world's birds, the Okinawa Woodpecker. In fact, if the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (of North America) and the Imperial Woodpecker (of Mexico) no longer exist (and these are good assumptions), then it can rightly be said that the Okinawa Woodpecker is the rarest of all woodpeckers. Population estimates, over the last 2 or 3 decades, have been from 70 to 200 birds. Mostly recently, the best estimates have been about 90 birds.
We were lucky to see an Okinawa Woodpecker as we were traveling along a road in the hills, when it flew in front of us and landed by the side of the road on a trunk of a tree. How's that for being handed a gift of a rare bird, figuratively speaking, on a platter!
We parked a bit ahead, and walked back along the road, and again, as good fortune had it, the adult woodpecker stayed in the immediate area. Apparently, as just noted, at least one of its fledglings was still about in the woods. The adult woodpecker frequently vocalized, communicating with another of its kind, either the young bird or the other adult of the pair. Again, not to belabor the point, but a bird of only 40 or so such pairs in the world! It was a wonderful sight, that bird about 30 centimeters long, mostly brownish-black, with some red, and a big cream-colored bill.

The Okinawa Woodpecker is also commonly called the Pryer's Woodpecker, named after a Mr. H. Pryer (none of my books ever give his first name). Anyway, he was one of the Western naturalists who were in Japan in the 1870s and 1880s, collecting specimens and cataloging birds. In 1878, he and Thomas Blakiston (after whom the rare Blakiston's Fish Owl of Hokkaido is named) published their "General Catalogue of the Japanese Birds" (one of the first such writings in English).
The Okinawa, or Pryer's, Woodpecker is not closely related to any other. It's the single member of its genus.       

The look, during our July '09 tour, of the other notable avian specialty of Yambaru, the Okinawa Rail, was but a quick glimpse as it went from a narrow country road into the adjacent tall grass. That species only became known to science in 1982, and there's a good reason as to why it so long escaped detection.

Earlier here it was noted that the chain of Japanese islands including Okinawa and Amami is known as the Ryukyus. And that's the adjective for some of the birds we encountered there: the Ryukyu Robin, the Ryukyu Minivet, and the Ryukyu Scops Owl
The last of these now has another name, the Elegant Scops Owl. It is not restricted to the Ryukyu Islands, occurring as well on other Pacific islands known as the Celebes.
During our after-dark excursions on Amami, we heard numerous Ryukyu, or Elegant Scops Owls - as many as 30 or so each of two nights: 
the night during which we found the Amami Woodcock, and the next night when we quickly encountered the rare Amami Thrush and the nocturnal Amami Rabbit. Although it's called a "rabbit", it is, like the woodpecker on Okinawa, not like others of its kind. It's the single member of its genus.
Another owl that we encountered in Amami was the Brown, or Oriental, Hawk Owl. It was seen, and heard, just after dusk. 

Amami Rabbit

Earlier that day, before dusk, and after a deafening chorus of cicadas, we saw and heard the Japanese, or Black, Woodpigeon. It's considered by Birdlife International to be a near-threatened species, and rightly so. It's found only on a number of the smaller islands of Japan, south of and offshore from the main Japanese islands where it does not occur.
Two other such dark woodpigeons also occurred, historically, on the smaller Japanese islands. But now, they are extinct. 
The Bonin Woodpigeon (of the Bonin Islands) was last seen alive in 1889, after only having been discovered in 1828.
The Ryukyu Woodpigeon (of the southern Japanese islands, of course - the Ryukyus) was last seen in Okinawa in 1904, and last seen on the small Daito Islands in 1936. It was believed even as late as the 1960s, to still exist on small islets, but now the species is considered extinct.
We all heard the distinctive calling of the Woodpigeon that still exists on Amami. In the books, it's said to do "a long drawn out cow-like mooing", while another description of its voice says that while the bird is doing its territorial display flights it gives "a lamb-like bleating". Thus, the voice of a single bird has been described as sounding like two animals, a cow and a lamb!
We also encountered, when on Amami, the Green Pigeon. There's more than one species of Green Pigeon in eastern Asia, so the proper adjective for the one on Amami is the Whistling Green Pigeon. We heard it, not so much whistle, but rather give its long, fluty mournful call, that suddenly rises and wavers.

We left from Amami on a ferry (in order to do relatively soon after the eclipse). From that ferry, off the coast of far-southern Kyushu, a flock of Streaked Shearwaters was seen flying by the boat.

After disembarking the ferry, in that far-southern part of Kyushu, one of the nicest experiences of the tour was our 2-hour or so slow train-ride through paddies, fields, forested hills, villages, and towns. Kyushu is quite picturesque.

Elsewhere in southern Kyushu, in the summer, one of the most beautiful of all the birds that occur in Japan resides, the eight-colored Fairy Pitta. We heard it, but the beauty of the bird eluded us as the forest in which it lives was also, when we were there, the home of numerous leeches. We didn't stay there long enough to see the pitta.
Later that day, on the high Ebino Plateau in volcanic highlands, we had a picnic - unfortunately, in the fog. At least we were out of the leech zone. We did see, nicely, some Sika Deer, including mothers and fawns. The scientific name of the Sika Deer is Cervus nippon.  
"Nippon" is the name given by the Japanese to their country that we call "Japan" - the country in which we had, again, as in the past, a good and interesting tour in July 2009.

Now, in conclusion, a couple final notes:

Butterflies were plentiful during our July '09 Japan Tour. Nearly 30 different kinds were seen and identified. The most obvious were the large swallowtails, but others also were notable. English names of some of the butterflies during the tour included: 
Common Mormon, Great Mormon, Red Helen, Spangle, Blue Triangle, Great Orange Tip, Common Grass Blue, Large Tree Nymph,  Common Tiger, Indian Fritillary, Common Sailor, Diadem Butterfly
, and one that occurs many places throughout the world, the Painted Lady.

Earlier mention was made of the Black Woodpigeon being a globally "near-threatened species" as classified by Birdlife International. Actually, there were a few species of birds during our July '09 Japan Tour that are cited by that organization as endangered, threatened, or near-threatened.       
They are these:

Okinawa, or Pryer's, Woodpecker
Amami Thrush
  (only about 50 birds are estimated to exist)     

Okinawa Rail

Amami Woodcock
Fairy Pitta
(as noted, only heard)
Lidth's Jay

Japanese, or Black, Woodpigeon
Whistling Green Pigeon
, or Ryukyu, Scops Owl

It was nice to cross paths with such rare creatures of the Earth, during a tour in which we experienced a rare encounter on Earth of the Sun and the Moon in the sky.  

By the way, the next total solar eclipse in Japan will be 26 years from now, in September 2035. And another small Japanese island will be in the path of totality, near the center line. 
That small island is one that we at FONT know well - Hegura Island, west of Honshu in the Sea of Japan. We know it well because that little island has some of the best bird migration, in the spring & fall, of anywhere that we've been in the world.      
We'd much like to go there to Hegura for the event of that upcoming eclipse at a time when birds would be migrating south, but in 2035, I'd be 85 years old!  We'll see on that one.
However, we are scheduled to go to Hegura Island much sooner than that, for the spring migration of birds, in May 2010.  
At this time, there's still some availability on that tour.                 

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