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THE FOCUS ON NATURE TOUR IN JAPAN
"Where both birds and those who watched & photographed them came from afar"
Also noting some new bird taxonomy & nomenclature
Not a bird of course,
but a mammal called the Japanese Serow
was seen during the FONT Japan tour in May 2010.
& Other Wildlife during our Japan Spring Tour - May 2010
A List & Photo Gallery of Japan Birds, in 2 parts:
Part #1: Pheasants to Pittas Part #2: Minivets to Buntings
Birds during FONT tours on Hegura Island (with some photos)
Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in Japan
The following narrative of the FONT May '10 Japan Tour was written by Armas Hill, leader of the tour:
In May 2010, we did our 34th FONT birding & nature tour in Japan, since 1994.
And it was our 7th time, since 2001, to little Hegura Island. Located in the Sea of Japan, about 30 miles offshore from west coast of the main Japanese island of Honshu, that little island can be, in the spring, a place for a BIG migration of birds.
Hegura is a small island, with a
length of under a mile and a width of under half a mile. Around its periphery,
there is a walkway by the sea, along which there are some shrines. On the
island, there are no automobiles, only bicycles or larger tricycles. The women
use them to carry the seaweed that they retrieve in the morning in their black
In the harbor, there are some small boats on which men catch seafood of various sorts.
Only a few dozen people live on the island. There is no store. The school was recently closed. A doctor is stationed for the island for 6 months at a time.
It is possible to stay there, on Hegura, overnight, in a Japanese inn, or "minshuku", where meals are served, mostly seafood.
And, as noted, Hegura Island can
be a tremendous place, during the spring migration, for birds. It can be as good
as it gets for migrants, not only in Japan, but almost anywhere in the world.
No small real estate that I know of anywhere on Earth can have as many of such a variety of birds as Hegura. Oh, I'm sure that some other small islands, with, let's say, colonies of auks or gannets, can have more birds squeezed in, but for a variety of migrating birds, mostly landbirds, Hegura is tops.
I saw an article recently, in a birding magazine, that stated, in relation to the bird migration, that Hegura Island is the "Fair Isle of Japan". Maybe so, but I do think that phrasing to be rather "Scilly". Both Fair Isle and Scilly are places offshore from Britain that are renowned for bird migration. But really, it could just as well, or even better be said, that they are the "Heguras of the UK".
Cumulatively, during our 7 FONT tours on Hegura, from mid-April to mid-May, as of 2010, as many as 179 species of birds have been seen. In May 2010, 8 species "new for us on the island" were added to our cumulative list.
The complete list of 179 species of birds during FONT tours on Hegura Island is elsewhere in this web-site. The list notes how often and when the species have been found.
Our cumulative list of birds in Japan during our 34 tours in that country increased by 2 during our May 2010 tour, to 392 species. The two additions were both on Hegura Island: the Amur Falcon and the Siberian Chiffchaff.
It is a norm that migrants in the spring (and also in the late-summer and fall) on Hegura are not only "Japanese birds", but also many that occur commonly on mainland Asia.
The room where we ate in the
"minshuku" on Hegura was filled with "birders", actually a
mix of bird-watchers and bird-photographers. That's how it is on Hegura.
Equipment at hand are cameras, big and small, of various kinds, along with
telescopes and binoculars.
Anyway, those of us in that room at the "minshuku" included a group from Taiwan and, of course, some Japanese birders, in addition to our FONT group composed of people from Australia and the United States.
Just as many of us were travelers of some considerable distance before arriving to and then after departing from Hegura, many of the birds that we saw there were likewise, the same.
From the walkway along the
coastline of Hegura, one morning, we watched a female Amur Falcon fly by
us and then head out over the sea. The Amur Falcon has also been called
the Eastern Red-footed Falcon. The
bird we that saw (as noted, 1 of our 2 "new" birds during
our tour) flew away from us to the northwest, the direction of
part of Siberia in far-eastern Russia.
The species winters as far away as southern Africa. And so it was that our sighting was of a bird during just a tiny fraction of a very long journey.
Our other "new" bird
was also to head toward Siberia. And it, the Siberian Chiffchaff, was one
of the birds during our May 2010 Japan tour with the adjective "Siberian".
Others were the Siberian Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin, Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Stonechat, and the Siberian Flycatcher. The last of these is now more-often called the Dark-sided Flycatcher.
And many other birds that we
encountered during our stay on Hegura were also to be on their way to Siberia,
and elsewhere in eastern mainland Asia. Without "Siberian" in their
names, such birds that were there included:
Eurasian Cuckoo, Oriental Cuckoo, Pacific Swift, Hoopoe, Eurasian Skylark, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Eye-browed (or Gray-headed) Thrush, Pale Thrush, Dusky Thrush, Red-flanked Bluetail, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Olive-backed Pipit, Rustic Bunting, Tristram's Bunting, Little Bunting, and Brambling.
Other birds we saw were to go further west into mainland Asia. These included: the Greater Short-toed Lark, Naumann's Thrush, and Yellow-browed Bunting.
A couple other species on their way to summer in Siberia also merit a comment as they are not named "Siberian", but are in fact rather misnamed:
The Japanese Waxwing, one
of our favorite birds during the tour, breeds only in Siberia. Some spend the
winter in Japan; others in mainland Asia. There was a flock of about 7 of them
on Hegura when we were.
Of the 3 species of waxwings in the world, the Japanese Waxwing is by far the least common, and with the most restricted range.
Its Japanese name notwithstanding, the Mugimaki Flycatcher is not a "Japanese bird", even though it can be commonly seen on Hegura Island in the spring. It breeds in Siberia, while it winters as far south as places mostly in Southeast Asia such as: southern China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Many of the bird species that have been mentioned thus far in this narrative spend the winter months in Southeast Asia, in those countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. And so, for many of the birds with which we crossed paths on Hegura, the island was but a stepping-point with considerable travel before and after.
A species we saw on Hegura that comes from the south to breed in Japan is one whose scientific name refers to where it winters, Sturnus philippensis, the Chestnut-cheeked Starling. It winters in the Philippines and Southeast Asia.
The traveling birds on Hegura
Island come and go. Of course, that's what migrants do. Some do so quietly,
either arriving and departing in the darkness of night, or doing so during the
Conversely, some such as the cuckoos, are not as quiet. The calls of 3 species in the trees, the Common Cuckoo, the Oriental Cuckoo, and the Lesser Cuckoo, made their presence known.
Mid-day, on Hegura, some raptors
were seen in the sky, seemingly deciding where to go next. By the lighthouse, a
half-dozen Oriental Honey Buzzards circled about overhead, before making
Other birds of prey for us on Hegura, in addition to the already-mentioned Amur Falcon, included the Eastern Buzzard (a recent "split" from the Common Buzzard), Eurasian Kestrel, and the Peregrine Falcon, a true peregrinator or wanderer.
Not many waterbirds or shorebirds were seen during our May 2010 Hegura visit. But a notable bird seen on the sea was an Ancient Murrelet. In a sense, an "ancient mariner" of sorts, but even so, the one that we saw on the water, from the walkway along the shore, seemed not to be adhering to the schedule that the species has had for years. Mid-May seemed late for it to be there.
Actually, 2 species of alcids
were seen during our May 2010 Japan tour. From the ferry leaving Hegura, a Rhinoceros
Auklet was seen sitting on the water.
Also seen during that ferry-trip were a couple swarms of Red-necked Phalaropes, and large numbers of Black-tailed Gulls and Streaked Shearwaters.
Later, during the tour, a large
number of shearwaters were also seen in eastern Japan. At a harbor, in the area
of a rivermouth that's part of a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean,
there were, during one rainy and foggy afternoon, hundreds of shearwaters. We
could literally drive right up to them on concrete piers to have good looks at
the Short-tailed and Sooty Shearwaters.
Most, about 80 per cent, seemed to be Short-tailed Shearwaters, while about 20 per cent seemed to be Sooty Shearwaters. The two species travel together during the spring in Japanese offshore waters, with both species often in large numbers.
Their journey, prior to that Japanese rivermouth harbor, was a long one. They came from Australia and New Zealand, and after our encounter, they would continue much further.
The Short-tailed Shearwaters would go north to Alaskan waters, particularly in the area of the Aleutians, before going back south.
The Sooty Shearwaters would arc around nearly the entire Pacific, past Alaska, California, and Chile, before returning to New Zealand and Australia.
During the portion of our May
2010 tour on the main Japanese island of Honshu, some birds were nicely seen
that were not in the category of long-distance travelers.
The endemic Japanese Green Pheasant was seen well, both the male and the female.
The sedentary Grey-headed Lapwings were seen well, both the adults and their young.
The rare and local Marsh Grassbird was seen, at a reedbed, doing its flight display. That species, in the past, was called the Japanese Marsh Warbler. Now, it's said to be in a genus of its own.
Along a river filled with stones, in central Honshu, the expected Long-billed Plover (another sedentary bird) was found. But unexpected on a rock in that river was a pair of Mandarin Ducks. Mostly, that species in May is further north.
Earlier, it was mentioned that
the Eastern Buzzard has recently been "split" from the
In the new book, "Birds of East Asia" (2009), by Mark Brazil, this and other "splits" have been noted, as well as some recent name changes, particularly relating to scientific nomenclature.
Over the years, the writings of
Mark Brazil have had, for me, a major affect. He's written so much about
Japanese birds. For years, in a column in the newspaper, the Japan Times, as
well as in 3 well-done books:
"A Birdwatcher's Guide to Japan", published in 1987,
"The Birds of Japan", published in 1991,
"Birds of East Asia (China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Russia)", published in 2009, in the Collins/Princeton Field Guide Series.
He is not Japanese, but Mark Brazil has lived in Japan for many years. His writings are in English (unusual in itself for Japanese bird literature, and certainly why, for me, they've had such a major impact).
My only criticism of the very good new book, "Birds of East Asia", is that the print is a bit small. (I think print should get bigger as the years go by!)
In the "Birds of East Asia", some notable taxonomic "splits" of bird species include:
Eastern Spot-billed Duck,
from Spot-billed Duck, Anas poecilorhyncha
Eastern Cattle Egret,
from Western Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis
Eastern Water Rail,
from Water Rail, Rallus aquaticus
from Common Buzzard, Buteo buteo
Eastern Black-tailed Godwit, Limosa melanuroides
from Black-tailed Godwit, Limosa limosa
Eastern Grass Owl, Tyto longimembris
from Grass Owl, Tyto capensis
Eastern Great Tit,
from the now Northern Great Tit, Parus major
Eastern Yellow Wagtail,
from the Western Yellow Wagtail, Motacilla flava
from Black Kite, Milvus migrans
Circus hudsonius (of North America)
from Hen Harrier, Circus cyaneus
from Eurasian Stonechat, Saxicola torquatus.
For those of us
in North America, it's notable that some of the birds just noted have occurred
there, especially in Alaska: the Eastern
the Eastern Black-tailed
the more-regular Eastern
and the Siberian
As to others having occurred in Alaska, I do not know, but maybe the Eastern Cattle Egret has. Maybe someone else knows as to that.
Regarding the Eastern Cattle Egret, it is larger than the Western Cattle Egret, with a longer bill, neck and legs. The breeding plumage of the Western Cattle Egret is never as orange as that of the Eastern Cattle Egret. The legs of the Western Cattle Egret are yellowish or grayish-olive, and never black as those of the Eastern Cattle Egret can be.
Just as the terns
have recently been
placed into more genera, so have, in Brazil's book, the gulls:
Into Chroicocephas from Larus: Black-headed Gull, Bonaparte's Gull.
Into Leucophaeus from Larus: Laughing Gull, Franklin's Gull.
Into Hydrocoloeus from Larus: Little Gull
Into Hydrocoloeus from Rhodostethia: Ross's Gull.
species that has occurred on occasion in North America, mostly in Alaska, the
genus has been changed:
The Red-flanked Bluetail is now in Luscinia rather than Tarsiger. The Luscinia genus is also that of the Bluethroat and the Siberian Rubythroat.
The 2 species of Jackdaws (the Western and the Daurian) are now in the genus Coloeus, instead of Corvus.
The Snow & McKay's Buntings are now in the genus Calcarius (with the Longspurs), instead of Plectrophenax.
The genus for at least some of the Winter Wren may soon be Nannus, from Troglodytes. Some changes are to be expected for that widespread species.
All of these
changes, and some others, are now noted in the relevant bird-lists elsewhere in
this web-site, for Asia, Europe, and North America.
Two regions on Honshu that we visited during our May 2010 Japan Tour are worth noting as they were particularly picturesque:
The Japan Alps
on a clear day
are especially beautiful. Those mountains, up to about 8,000 feet above sea
level, have snow at their higher elevations much of the year. One can take a bus
in the morning up into the highlands and walk about for much of the day, in a
land where Rock Ptarmigan and Alpine Accentor are on the ground
and Golden Eagle and other raptors can be in the sky.
Among the 24 subspecies of Rock Ptarmigan around the Northern Hemisphere, certainly the race Lagopus muta japonica in the Japan Alps is one of the most isolated, and removed from the others.
Peninsula, in western
Honshu by the Sea of Japan and the closest land to Hegura Island, is certainly a
Whereas much of Japan, especially on Honshu, is highly populated with busy roads and highways along which one neon sign can follow another, the Noto Peninsula is so very different than that. It is a hilly area of forests and rice fields with only small villages, where there are no neon signs. The area is traditional, with old-time farming and rice growing. The architecture is as if from a day gone by (and that it is).
One evening in the small city of Wajima, the major city in the region, we went to a performance with ceremonial drum-beating and traditional costumes.
Our day of birding on the Noto
Peninsula was enjoyable. During a tour there a few years ago, we found rarity, a
Swinhoe's, or Chinese, Egret.
In 2010, we found no such rarity, but we did see a nice number of birds including a flock of Japanese Grosbeaks, some lingering Glaucous-winged Gulls, and a Northern Hobby perched in a big old tree on a steep hillside by the sea. That falcon seemed to be resting before it would continue north on its flight out over the water.
Late one afternoon, near the city of Kanazawa, we went to a museum to see what was to be a most interesting exhibit about a bird, known in Japanese as the "Toki". Its English name is the Crested Ibis. Its scientific name is Nipponia nippon. "Nippon" means "Japan".
The Crested Ibis is one of the rarest of the world's birds. A few decades ago it seriously flirted with extinction.
When I began
birding in Japan in the early 1980s, my bird book, and nearly the only one
available in English, was "A Field Guide to the Birds of Japan"
published by the Wild Bird Society of Japan, with its second and last printing
in English in 1983.
On the cover of that book was a color illustration of two Tokis, or Japanese Crested Ibises, in flight. I've never forgotten that cover illustration! And, yes, I have hoped to somehow one day to see the bird!
In the text of
that "Field Guide to the Birds of Japan", regarding the Japanese
Crested Ibis (as
it was called then), it was stated:
"In 1981 all 5 wild birds (remaining in Japan) were captured on Sado Island for cage breeding. In 1982, 1 male and 3 females were still alive in cages on Sado. In 1981, 7 (wild) birds were found in (a remote part of central) China." (Those 7 birds in China were 4 adults and 3 chicks.)
At the Crested
Ibis exhibit we
visited in the Kanazawa museum, there was a map on the wall showing what had
been the distribution of the bird in Japan. It struck me as quite interesting
that historically a center of abundance had been the picturesque Noto Peninsula
where we had birded the previous day. The birds, when there, favored rice
paddies where they fed on frogs.
If, by some quirk, we had seen a Crested Ibis, an ultimate rarity, when there, it would have made our rare Chinese Egret that we had seen a few years previously in a rice field, "abundant" by comparison!
Sado Island, by the way, the last home of the Japanese Crested Ibis in Japan, is not far, really, as a bird would fly, from the north end of the Noto Peninsula where we visited a lighthouse.
Also on the wall in the Kanazwa museum, there was a series of photographs, all taken about 3 to 4 weeks before our visit. In one of the photos, there was a baby Crested Ibis that had just been born in captivity.
In a newspaper, just before we left Japan, there was the not-so-good news that Crested Ibises that had been released into the wild on Sado Island, had, once again in 2010, failed to breed. Four pairs had laid eggs there in the spring of 2010. Ultimately, all of the nests were abandoned. Disturbance by crows seemed to be a significant factor. If the Crested Ibises on Sado had bred, it would have been the first successful breeding in the wild of that species in Japan in 34 years.
Some good news,
however, is that the population of Crested
China has been steadily increasing. For the past 23 years, since when
only 7 individuals were found, China has bred and protected the species.
By June 2002, the wild population in China numbered 140 birds, and the captive population there in 2 breeding centers was about 130 birds.
The most recent population estimate in China is of about 500 individuals.
In Japan, the Crested Ibis historically, in the early 19th Century, was common and widespread. In the late 19th Century and through much of the 20th Century, it declined drastically.
As recently as the mid-20th Century, there were two wild populations of Crested Ibises on the Noto Peninsula. One group there, in 1957, consisted of 14 birds. By 1961, it was down to 3. It nested there for the last time in 1962. In 1964, a single bird remained, which was later to be moved to captivity on Sado Island in 1969.
On Sado Island, there were 27 wild Crested Ibises in 1941. The following decade, in 1957, there were only 11. The decline there continued until, as noted, the species became extinct in the wild in Japan in 1981.
Since 1985, Crested
China have been transferred to Japan for captive breeding.
Over 100 individuals are now in captivity, with some in zoos, and about 30 (that is 29) at the Japanese Crested Ibis Preservation Center on Sado Island.
In September 2008, that center released 10 of the birds as part of its Crested Ibis restoration program, which aims to have 60 ibises in the wild by 2015.
Hopefully, toward that end, the breeding success in Japan will improve, so there would be a growing Japanese population as there has been in China.
So, no, we did not see a Crested
Ibis in Japan in May 2010 (we had not planned to do so!), but we did see another
most interesting creature, a Japanese Serow.
It is an animal that lives in the mountains, particularly adapted to being in low temperatures and in an environment that can be snowy.
It is a primitive caprid, that is a mammal in the "goat antelope" group.
There are 2 species of serows, one in Japan, and one in mainland Asia. On Taiwan, there is a smaller version of the Japanese Serow (at least according to traditional taxonomy).
There's a photograph of a Japanese Serow, taken during a FONT tour, in this FONT website.
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