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.
“No. Carp?” Blink.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.