Off the Rail

Hi blog.

After what seemed to be endless rain with just a couple of sunny patches in between, the rainy season has officially ended in the Kanto region and the heat is on. With high humidity, even 30℃ can seem ridiculously hot.

I have been very tired recently, partly due to my eyesight essentially collapsing and needing reading glasses – which also cause trouble since they don’t allow me to focus on things more than 60 cm away; partly due to the humidity which doesn’t make for a good night’s sleep; and partly because of unreasonable expectations from work. At least the summer holidays start this week.

This article showed up on my newsfeed and I thought it would be worth sharing. I first read about this bird in an English test about 15 or 16 years ago. I was surprised just how recently it was known to science since I can’t imagine it going unnoticed for centuries in Okinawa.

From The Japan Times

How the Okinawa rail was discovered 40 years ago | The Japan Times

How the Okinawa rail was discovered 40 years ago

  • THE OKINAWA TIMES
  • Jul 12, 2021

When a flightless bird was caught on June 28, 1981, researchers who had set the trap were delighted to find it held just what they had been looking for.

Named the Okinawa rail, the bird was described as a new species in a paper published later that year.

Four decades later, researchers involved have looked back on the excitement of the time, still vividly recalling the emotions they felt when the bird was captured.

“When I saw the bird in the trap, I felt a sense of relief and accomplishment,” said Kiyoaki Ozaki, deputy director of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology in Chiba Prefecture, who conducted the research back in 1981. “I was surprised it was living so close to human settlements but had never been identified.

“Even after 40 years, there are still many unknown aspects of its habits, and further research is needed.”

Before it was named the Okinawa rail, the flightless bird was known as yamadui (mountain bird) and agachi (flustered fellow) among local residents in the local dialect. Those who caught the bird now highlight the need to protect its natural environment in the northern part of Okinawa’s main island.

The discovery of a new species of bird, the Okinawa rail, took place 40 years ago in June. It remains an endangered species. | THE OKINAWA TIMES
The discovery of a new species of bird, the Okinawa rail, took place 40 years ago in June. It remains an endangered species. | THE OKINAWA TIMES

“I often saw the birds in the mountains; I didn’t realize that it was a new species,” Morio Oshiro, 84, a forestry worker in Kunigami village, said with a laugh.

In the early 1970s, Tetsuo Tomori, 88, who conducted wildlife research as a biology teacher at Nago High School at the time, received a report that there was a Japanese pheasant in the mountains of Kunigami.

As Tomori continued his research, he learned of the existence of the yamadui, and visualized what it looked like. A few years later, he saw the bird in the village with his own eyes, running in front of him.

In 1975, researchers at the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, which was conducting annual surveys of migratory birds in Okinawa, also heard rumors of the bird. Ozaki recalled that he was skeptical at first, wondering if it really existed in a place like Okinawa, which was not uncharted land.

However, during a survey conducted over a few days in 1980, he confirmed the existence of an unknown species of rail at Mount Yonaha in Kunigami. Ozaki immediately drew sketches of the bird and, in 1981, embarked on a long-term survey to capture it.

The base camp for the survey team was a shed on the farm of Koji Onishi, 70, in Kunigami. The team set traps and checked them every few hours. Ten days later on the morning of June 28, a young bird the team had been chasing was finally caught in a trap he had set halfway up a mountain.

Shortly before that, Tomori had obtained the carcass of another Okinawa rail from an acquaintance.

“I still remember the excitement I felt when I opened the package wrapped in newspaper,” he recalled. “I was convinced that it was definitely a new species.”

Tomori stuffed the carcass and offered it to the institute so that it could be used in an announcement of the new species.

One week after they captured the young Okinawa rail, researchers also succeeded in capturing an adult bird. Ozaki and the other team members brought the adult bird to the Okuma Elementary School gymnasium to see if it could fly. The bird ran quickly for about 10 minutes, but never once tried to get airborne.

After that, the research team went to Onishi’s shed to come up with a name for the bird. Over glasses of awamori liquor, some suggested, “How about ‘Okinawa fumiru‘ because it looks like a fumiru (the local name for waterhen)?”

But Onishi suggested that they add “yambaru,” which refers to the northern area of Okinawa thick with mountains and forests, to the name. Yambaru kuina is the Japanese word for the Okinawa rail.

“I couldn’t really sense the importance of the moment when I captured it. But now it’s a bird of the world,” he said with a smile.

“The number of Okinawa rails has decreased significantly due to mongooses and cats,” Ozaki stressed. “Conservation measures have been taken and their numbers are now recovering, but they are still in danger of extinction. Protecting the earthworms and snails that feed them, as well as the entire forest ecosystem, will help protect the Okinawa rail, a symbol of biodiversity.”

This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published June 28.

Article ends.

The Okinawa rail is still on the critical list in Okinawa; threats include being killed by cars, predetation by dogs and cats and the introduced mongoose, and loss of habitat.

If I ever get the chance to go to Okinawa, I should like to see these birds in their native habitat.

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