Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

October 25, 2011

I’ve started to develop a kind of sympathy for people who claim to have seen UFOs.  No sane person believes them.  Any video or photographic images are either lights far off in the distance or grainy pictures of what appear to be ashtrays or garbage can lids.  In his book The Dilbert Future, Scott Adams provides an explanation for this:

Their stealth technology makes video images of their ships look like grainy pictures of ashtrays and garbage pail lids.

OK, I’m not convinced that spacecraft from other planets come to visit Earth.

But I AM convinced that this stealth technology is possessed by birds.


Riding westwards along the Azuma River and crossing over the small Kami Bridge to the northern bank, I spot movement in the water, something relatively big.

“Mississippi red-ear sliders?”, I ask myself.  These are feral turtles, descendants of escaped and abandoned pets.  The young are small, cute and green, popular with kids.  Unfortunately, they grow into dull coloured, not-so-cute 30cm –plus adults that need more care than the average kid is prepared to give.  So the unwanted turtles get dumped into local ponds and rivers.  Sliders live for over thirty years, and find the Japanese environment to be quite to their liking.  They compete with the Japanese pond turtle (Mauremys Japonica) – Nihon ishigame (日本石亀) and Chinese three-keeled turtle AKA Reeves’ pond turtle (Cinemys reevisii) – kusagame (臭亀), with the latter two coming off second best.

Mississippi red-ear sliders on the bank of the Azuma. That’s a lot of S’s!

“No.  Carp?”  Blink.

Carp caught in the Yanase, which joins the Azuma downstream.


Another blink.  The two forms break the surface.


The pair of great cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) – locally known as kawau (川鵜), literally “river cormorant” – approach.  I curse myself for not bringing a camera and instead fumble with my mobile phone.  Those witnesses of alien craft really have my sympathy now.

Cormorants are amazing swimmers, able to hold their breath for about a minute.  They are also pathetically comical when they have to sun themselves to dry off – they lack some of the oils that keeps duck feathers dry, a trade-off for their diving ability – looking like tramps with wet coats.

A cormorant drying off. Thank you, Wikipedia.

By co-incidence (or was it part of an avian plot?), one of the news stations had a report on cormorants on the Ara River.  Fishermen were doing their best to prevent the birds from breeding there, going to such extremes as destroying nests.

Cormorant droppings are very acidic and eventually kill the trees they nest in.  They also stink!

And the cormorant is a very efficient hunter of fish, particularly the ayu – reputably Japan’s best river fish for the table.  These fish are raised artificially at great cost and released into the river system.  The cormorants see the fish as an easy meal.  The fishermen see the cormorants as freeloaders.

 The cormorants swim under the bridge while I’m still switching on camera mode.  Despite being in a hurry to get to work, I cross over to the western side of the bridge to get a shot.  And there, less than 30 metres away, stands a grey heron (Ardea cinerea) or ao-sagi (蒼鷺), the largest of the herons and egrets in Japan.

It’s a beautiful bird, but through my mobile phone it may as well be 300 metres away.  I take whatever footage I can and continue moving on to work.

Where’s Wally? My attempt to capture the three birds with my mobile phone camera…


The answer for those of you who couldn’t find them in the earlier photo…

Grey heron, by someone who wasn’t stuck with just a mobile phone. Thanks Wikipedia.

Less than 100 metres onward I spot a tiny blue and orange patch of movement.  It’s a kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) or kawasemi (翡翠).

No bigger than a sparrow, but with an oversized bill (orange, if my memory serves me correctly), bright orange belly and blue wing and tail plumage, this is a real visual treat.  Some people who have lived here all their lives have never seen one of these.

I stop to get a photo, but I have to deal with a variation of Goat’s Second Corollary to Murphy’s Law of Outdoor Photography, which states:


After changing batteries, your second incredible encounter with a freaking owl in broad daylight will occur, like the first, while your camera is safely stashed deep in your pocket.


The bird flies away and vanishes before I can get my phone open.  Avian stealth technology?


A male kingfisher. (Obviously this person also had something other than a mobile phone.)  Thank you Wikipedia.

I’m beginning to suspect that UFO photos are real and bird photos are faked…

Barely one kilometre from work and I come within five metres of an azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyana).  This is the bird symbol of Sayama City (the city I work in, and my official employer).  Sayama chose their bird symbol well –the azure-winged magpie is a charming species.

One would hardly believe they are related to the crow.

Locally known as the onaga (尾長) – literally “long tailed” – these birds are lovers of fruit (especially berries), but will also eat insects.  They are very intelligent – it is said that they can recognize individual human faces.  This particular one is smart enough to evade all attempts to photograph it.

Azure-winged magpie by someone other than me. Thank you for copyright-free images, Wikipedia.

The only pic I was able to get of the azure-winged magpie – on a Sayama manhole cover!!

So, between home and work I spot four bird species of interest, and have no decent pics to prove it… I think I’ll try my luck with UFOs next time.

This entry was posted in Suburban wildlife and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

  1. wildinjapan says:

    Yes, a nice camera would be… er… nice. Not sure how the missus would feel about me lugging our (read “her”) camera to and from work and taking pictures of things other than the kids. (or rather… I’m pretty certain how she would feel, which is why I don’t!)
    May be able to get one for me after I pay this computer off!

    Apparently, the cormorants used for fishing are actually sea cormorants!! They are smaller and easier to handle, and require less wages… I mean food.

    I’m thinking of doing a post soon on manhole covers. There are so many kinds, each city has two or three designs, and that’s just the city water ones. Apparently Kawagoe has some amazing manhole covers, but even just the Tokorozawa-Sayama route should give me enough material to start with.

  2. GOAT 山羊 says:

    Ha, so those camera gremlins got you too, eh? Thank God for Wikipedia!

    One of my nice memories of Ehime prefecture in Shikoku was coming upon some people fishing in the old way using tethered cormorants — even if it was just for the tourists.

    And kingfishers — ’tis a lucky man indeed (or one rich enough for a good camera) who can get a good shot of one of those! I see them here sometimes in the mangroves and don’t even bother looking for the camera anymore.

    Nice manhole cover, though!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s