Tag Archives: birds

Not Just Another Walk in the Park

7 Apr

Hi blog.

April is upon us, which means the beginning of the financial year and academic year, cherry blossom parties, and the end of the end of the extremely short spring holidays.  (I don’t get why the last day of third term and the first day of first term are separated by less than two weeks while first and second terms are six weeks apart)

April 1st was a bit of a joke weather-wise.  The heater didn’t get turned off all day, and rain was persistent.

April 5, however, gave us sun and basically the most glorious day so far this year.  I was to do something with my son, and decided an outing was in order – partially for blog reasons.  My initial suggestion of a walk around Hachikokuyama was rejected immediately, but when I offered Inokashira Park as an option, interest sparked.  A quick internet search of the small zoo within the park sealed the deal.

*Note: The English page for the zoo currently mentions Asiatic elephants.  This is no longer true as Hanako, the oldest elephant in Japan, died in May 2016.  Her enclosure was small and concrete floored, and Hanako had not seen another elephant in decades.

Leaving that sour note behind us, lets take a mostly visual wander around the zoo.  I’ll focus on the native wildlife here, mostly from my son’s attempts at photography…

Before entering the zoo we encountered the “source”…

The spring that feeds the lake and ultimately the river system. There is no longer enough pressure to bring water to the surface and so it is pumped.

The zoo is divided into the main zoo park and the aquatic life park.  My son wanted to visit the latter first.  As we entered the sun was out in all its glory and bush warblers could be heard calling out.  We actually spotted one up a tall tree, but we could make out its movement better than its shape.  Still, I managed to get a recording of its voice.  Turn your sound up for this video.

The outdoor section of the aquatic park houses waterfowl, and the park makes note of is breeding program for Mandarin ducks.

A pair of Mandarin ducks. The bright and gaudy one is the male.

A Japanese crane.

A little egret. I can never get them to hold still for a shot in the wild.

We also spotted people checking fish traps in the lake – I assume they were either surveying the fish population and/or removing alien species.

Checking fish traps. I think this would be a great activity to join.

Most of the shots of the birds are not worth showing, so let’s take a look at the aquarium section.

One of the highlights of the aquarium – a giant salamander. The Japanese giant salamander is the world’s second-largest amphibian.

The head of the giant salamander.

A water spider in a bubble of its own making.

One enclosure was particularly interesting – it contained a pair of little grebes which actively hunted for fish, a large soft-shelled turtle, a Japanese pond turtle and a crested kingfisher.  Only the last one is not normally found within the confines of the larger park area.

A Japanese pond turtle wandering around on dry land.

A soft-shelled turtle. These animals rarely leave the water, making this a rather unusual shot.

High up in a hard-to-see point in the enclosure, a crested kingfisher.

But being able to see those little grebes hunt was something special.

I finally got some pictures of Japanese keelbacks.

A pair of Japanese keelbacks.

A Tokyo salamander. Although they rarely enter the water outside of breeding season, this one was in the water.

Charr and seema. The “kiss marks” on the rocks is where the fish have been feeding on the red algae.

After we had finished in the aquatic park we crossed over to the main zoo.  While this zoo houses a variety of animals from around the world, it boasts a collection of native Japanese mammals and birds.

A Japanese serow. I might get around to writing about these someday…

A Ural owl.

A Tsushima leopard cat.

A pair of Japanese badgers at play.

A copper pheasant. These birds tend to live in the deep mountains.

There is a squirrel enclosure which visitors can enter and experience squirrels running around them.  My memories of Hokkaido include seeing wild squirrels in the large park, but they are a different species.  People around Tokyo rarely, if ever, see wild squirrels.

A Japanese squirrel foraging in the enclosure.

While my son was keen for the civets to wake up, they didn’t.  However, one the Japanese martens became active later in the afternoon.

At just ¥400 for adults and free admission for kids under 12, Inokashira Park Zoo is possibly one of the cheapest and best value days out in Tokyo.  And that doesn’t include the rest of the park!

A Walk in the Park

21 Mar

Hi blog.

I’ll spare you the excuses, mostly because I have none.

We are into late March, meaning the end of the academic and financial years, unstable weather – one day’s minimum might be higher than the next day’s maximum, rain one day and dust storms the next – and cherry blossoms and the hype surrounding them.

Feeling somewhat low over the spring equinox long weekend – right after my 45th birthday, no less – I decided to take the plunge and go out in search of something to blog about.

This will be a mostly visual post.  I cycled to Tokorozawa Aviation Memorial Park (it feels so strange to call it that – everyone I know uses “Kokukoen”) in the hope of seeing something worth photographing.  And something I could photograph with my not-so-great smartphone camera.

A Trachycarpus palm, one of the evergreens found in this area.  I should get around to writing about them some day.


Small bracket fungus growing on a tree stump.


Mississippi red-eared sliders vie for the best basking spot on what was the warmest day so far this year.


A yulan magnolia in full bloom. Avid followers might recognise this.


They smell better than those cherry blossoms too.


A mighty Japanese zelkova stands still bare of leaves. This is one of the most ubiquitous trees in suburban Japan.


A pair of brown-eared bulbuls and a pair of white-cheeked starlings acting a little wary of the bloke with the camera.


A brown-eared bulbul plays by the water.


A gorgeous pink camellia. The brown-eared bulbuls sometimes feed on the nectar.


On the way to the park, along the banks of the Azuma river. White, pink and red camellias under a cherry tree and palm.


Rape blossom, cherry and camellias under a street lantern. Comma placement is VERY important!


Sometimes a walk in the park is just what one needs.

Some good news for Storks

11 Jan

Hi blog.

Some good news for an endangered species, the oriental white stork (Ciconia boyciana).  Known in Japan as konotori (鸛 or 鵠の鳥) and formerly as kui, it became extinct in the wild here before I was born!

Some quick research shows that Toyooka has a shrine dedicated to these birds, the Kukuhi Shrine, which probably explains why the stork breeding program is based there.

From The Japan Times


Japan’s push to reintroduce endangered white storks into the wild pays dividends


 JAN 8, 2017

White storks, a government-designated special natural treasure in Japan, are being released into the wild here in increasing numbers.

Feral white storks are believed to have gone extinct in Japan in 1971. But attempts to breed storks and release them into the wild began in Hyogo Prefecture in 2005.

Similar efforts began in two other areas of Japan in 2015 and the number of wild white storks in the nation is believed to have topped 100 this year.

White storks once inhabited paddies and marshy areas of the country, feeding mainly on loaches and frogs, but the population fell due to postwar overhunting.

The white stork is now designated as an endangered species, with only some 2,000 of them living in the entire Far East.

Hyogo Prefecture’s Park for the Oriental White Stork in Toyooka, a former breeding location, has launched a project to rebuild the population of wild white storks.

The park started a breeding program mainly with pairs of wild white storks provided by Russia. It has released 41 of the birds since 2005.

For outdoor nesting, the park has been installing towers with net plates of iron on top, in and outside of Hyogo Prefecture.

“White storks can now give birth and raise chicks in the wild in Toyooka,” said Yasuo Ezaki, research head of the park. But they “eat about 1 kg of food a day. We need to increase populations of freshwater fish and other living things as feed.”

According to the park, around 90 white storks, including those released from the park and those hatched outside, are living in the wild.

“White storks have been confirmed in 45 prefectures in the country so far,” a park official said.

In 2015, the Fukui Prefectural Government and the city of Noda, Chiba Prefecture, launched similar projects, aiming to use white storks as a symbol of restoring the nature to its former glory.

“We want to leave a rich natural environment for the future,” a Noda official said.

Fukui has released four white storks and Noda five, and a total of eight now live in the wild. Both governments say they plan to continue the projects.

Meanwhile, the Tokushima Prefectural Government aims to attract white storks flying to the prefecture to settle there.

Some 20 white storks have flown to Tokushima in the past few years, with one observed laying eggs in the city of Naruto. Tokushima plans to establish feeding sites by preparing a more eco-friendly environment.

Article ends.

I disagree with the use of the word “feral” in the second paragraph, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it:

…in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication

Apparently, Korea and China have similar breeding programs, but ultimately it will take a concerted effort on environmental protection and restoration to bring these birds and other species back.

Gosh… goshawk

24 Sep

Hi blog.

Coming off a five-day long weekend (only four for me, thanks to school Sports Day), I stumbled upon a news item on the front page of a newspaper in the staff room and, lo and behold, the same article appeared in the English version of the Yomiuri Shimbun.


Goshawk to be removed from rare species list

Courtesy of Japan Accipiter Working Group

A goshawk, currently designated a rare domestic species

8:44 pm, September 22, 2015

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Environment Ministry will likely remove the goshawk from the rare domestic species list as early as next spring because conservation efforts have successfully restored their population, according to sources.

The ministry concluded that the population of goshawks successfully recovered thanks to protection measures in its habitats and will remove the species from the list under the Law for Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Goshawks are regarded as “symbols of nature conservation” for stopping unrestrained land development. The ministry expects opposition toward its planned move, so sources say it plans to carry out protection measures like population surveys.

The goshawk is a bird of prey that grows as large as about 50 centimeters in length, found in forests from Hokkaido to Kyushu. They feed on pigeons and small mammals from their perch at the top of the ecosystem of satoyama woodlands near populated areas.

Goshawk numbers declined as Japan’s economic growth shot up, at a time when there was rapid housing land development. A 1984 survey by the Wild Bird Society of Japan estimated that the nation’s goshawk population stood at only 300 to 480.

Goshawks were subsequently designated a rare species when the Law for Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora was enforced in 1993.

The planned sites for the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998 and the 2005 World Exposition in Aichi Prefecture were revised when goshawk nesting areas were confirmed in those areas.

Thanks to these conservation efforts, an Environment Ministry survey in 2008 estimated there were up to 8,950 goshawks.

The ministry began considering the removal of goshawks from the rare species list in 2013 and has consulted with the public. The ministry also sent questionnaires to researchers and experts last summer about the status of goshawks, and, according to sources, decided there was “subsequently no drastic decline” in population numbers and deemed the removal was appropriate.

The Law for Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora obliges owners and possessors of land to “give consideration to the conservation” of designated species at risk of extinction, and in principle bans them from being captured or traded.

There are 130 domestic species on the list, including the Japanese crested ibis, and 688 species are designated as internationally endangered species.

Article ends.

I’m interpreting this as largely good news – “up to 8,950 goshawks” still sounds a small-ish number.  I’d be much happier to hear about, say, 8,950 confirmed breeding pairs.  I’m also a tad cynical about various lists in Japan which appear to be little more than exactly that – lists.  (I suppose we should be thankful that hawks aren’t considered part of food culture since “in principle” rarely translates into “in practice”)

In the meantime, go goshawks!

No Albatross around my neck…

6 Apr

And a good south wind sprung up behind;

The Albatross did follow,

And every day, for food or play,

Came to the mariners’ hollo!

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Hi blog.

Japanese TV news is notoriously poor.  One is lucky to catch a genuine news item in between the sports, weather, reports about food and fashion, and celebrity gossip.

Fortunately, I happened to be paying attention when an item about the short tailed albatross breeding program came up.  A quick internet search came up with a couple of relevant recent articles – bless the Japan Times – so sit back and enjoy.



Conservationists aim to nurture population of endangered albatross on Torishima Island

Feb 18, 2015

On uninhabited Torishima Island, in the Pacific Ocean about 600 km south of Tokyo, every day is hard physical work for the Environment Ministry officials trying to conserve an endangered albatross population.

Ranger Koji Nitta, 54, joins researchers in traveling to the island in the Izu Island chain every summer after albatrosses have bred and departed on their annual journey to the North Pacific.

His job is to cut down the shrubs that could obstruct the birds when taking off, and place sandbags around their breeding ground to keep mud out.

“What we do is to support their breeding, and that’s the only thing humans can do,” Nitta said.

“It’s a series of simple tasks,” he said. “Our conservation work is substantially physical work.”

Some call albatrosses “queens of the sea” because of their white feathers and ability to fly for hours without flapping their wings.

Hundreds of thousands are believed to have lived on islands in the Northwest Pacific, but over-hunting for their feathers pushed them to the verge of extinction. Conservation efforts, however, have helped the population to recover to an estimated 3,500.

In Japanese, albatrosses are known as “aho dori” (stupid bird), a moniker that belies their true nature.

“Albatrosses are very cautious,” Nitta said, noting that they are clever enough to be wary of humans. “They are absolutely not ‘aho.’ “

In an effort to further boost the wild population, Nitta is also creating a new breeding site on Muko Island on the Ogasawara Islands, further south. The team tries to attract the birds by deploying static albatross decoys and playing a recording of their cries.

Last spring, a suspected albatross chick was recorded on a neighboring island in the first sign of their successful nesting in the Ogasawara chain.

Nitta grew up in Azumino, a mountainous area in Nagano Prefecture.

He undertook a significant career change after years serving with Japan National Railways. His interest in climbing led to a job as a park ranger at the ministry, Nitta said. He joined it in 2007.


Rare albatross found breeding in Ogasawara Islands

Mar 27, 2015

The endangered short-tailed albatross is breeding in the Ogasawara Islands south of Tokyo for the first time since the end of the war.

The finding on Nakodo Island, announced Thursday by the Environment Ministry, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, is considered significant for a species that once faced the threat of extinction.

The DNA of a feather from a baby bird found on the island last May has been confirmed to come from a pair of albatrosses on the island.

Previously, the seabird’s breeding areas in Japan had been thought to be confined only to Torishima Island in the Izu chain, also in the Pacific, and the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

The Ogasawaras used to be a habitat for tens of thousands of the seabirds and a major albatross breeding site, but it disappeared in the 1930s due to overhunting caused by demand for its feathers.

The institute transferred 70 young birds from Torishima Island to Muko Island in the Ogasawara chain from 2008 to 2012 to reintroduce the species. The 6-year-old female of the pair that produced the chick whose feather was tested is one of the birds that was transferred during that period, they said.


You can find more about Operation Decoy at this website.



16 Feb

The kids were playing in the park on a sunny late winter day when I noticed some movement in the sazanqua trees.  Quietly moving closer, I could see a hint of green, and then the entire bird became visible.  There was a single factor that allowed me to identify it immediately – the ring of white around its eyes.  So the next 20 minutes or so were spent playing hide-and-seek with the Japanese white-eye.

Known locally as mejiro (目白 or, less commonly, 繍眼児), the Japanese white-eye (Zosterops japonicus) is a commonly seen bird in urban parks.  Measuring just 12 cm long, it is the third-smallest wild bird in Japan – only the winter wren and the goldcrest are smaller.  It is found throughout the main islands of Japan and also in the Korean peninsula, China, Taiwan, and parts of Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines.

It is an omnivorous bird, although it tends to limit its diet to fruit and nectar outside of chick-raising season.


A Japanese white-eye feeding on camelia nectar. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

The Japanese white-eye is known as a herald of spring.  They are especially fond of the nectar from ume blossom.  Ume trees begin to blossom around early February – New Year on the lunar calendar.  Because the coldest period of the year had passed, this was considered the beginning of spring (although February has more than its share of freezing cold days and in these parts is the month with the highest number of snowy days…)


In addition, there is some confusion between the white-eye and the other bird associated with spring, the bush warbler (Horornis diphone) or uguisu (鶯 or less commonly鴬) in Japanese.  These two are similar in size – the bush warbler only 2-3 cm longer – and silhouette.  The bush warbler is known for its distinctive breeding call, but it is duller in colour than the white-eye, and is much more wary – to the extent of rarely being seen.  People would hear the male bush warbler’s cry and see the beautifully coloured white-eye fluttering among the ume trees.  As a result, there is a strong association between ume blossoms and bush warblers, when in fact the bird seen in the ume is likely to be a white-eye.  (Bush warblers tend to eat insects and seeds and are unlikely to feed in the ume trees)

A bush warbler. It is much duller than the Japanese white-eye, but is known for its beautiful breeding call. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

This confusion dates back centuries, manifesting itself in the old game of hanafuda right through to the present time – a Japanese Google Image search for bush warblers produces a lot of photos of white-eyes.

The “Bush warbler in the ume” card from the game of Hanafuda. The colour seems to be based more on the white-eye than the bush warbler, and bush warblers are unlikely to be seen in ume trees. Photo from Wikipedia.

Further confusing the issue is the Japanese name for bright olive-green – uguisu-iro (literally “bush warbler colour”), when this colour actually matches white-eyes, while bush warblers are a duller shade of brown.


A playful and colourful bird, the Japanese white-eye was once open to collection, but this was outlawed in 2012.  An illegal trade still exists, however.


I enjoyed my time watching the Japanese white-eyes flitting around and feeding, and cursed the fact that I didn’t have the good camera and lens needed to get some decent photos.

My attempt to photograph the jumpy little birds with my mobile phone. I want a proper camera!!



3 Feb

January 29, 2012

The weather is clear, humidity low, and the air temperature comparable to the temperature in my fridge.  (“Hey, close the fridge door – all the warm air will escape!”)

Crystals of ice line the edges of the banks along the Azuma river, and a lone heron braves the cold, standing motionless in the water, looking for a meal.

Further along my commute, I encounter wintersweet trees in blossom, and the flowers of sazanqua.


The coldest days of winter should be behind us – my water pipes have frozen up twice this year, and we’ve had one major snowfall, but we still have more than a month of winter left.


Further along as I reach an area of market gardens, next to an abandoned house I hear an unfamiliar bird call.  I turn to see two birds in low flight.  The one to the rear is a dull mixture of brown and grey.  Had it been by itself, I wouldn’t be able to recognise it.  But the lead bird has a vivid blue neck, bright red on its head, and a green body. Even at more than 20 metres I immediately know what it is.

A pair of green pheasants.


The birghtly coloured male green pheasant. You can see where it gets it English name. Photo taken from Wikipedia.


The female is dully coloured, which greatly increases her chances of not being discovered by predetors and hunters.


The green pheasant is Japan’s national bird.  (Odd that the Japanese, who love the crane so much, choose a game bird closely related to the chicken…) 

Known locally as kiji (雉or雉子), it is one of two endemic pheasants – the other being the copper pheasant (Syrmaticus soemmerringii) or yamadori (山鳥).

The name “kiji” is thought to be derived from “kigisu” and “kigishi”, which in turn appear to be a combination of the sound of the bird’s call (“kigi”) and an old Korean word for bird (“su” or “shi”)

The scientific community is still divided as to whether the green pheasant is subspecies of the common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus versicolor) or a separate species of its own (Phasianus versicolor).  Those who take the latter view divide it into four subspecies.

Common pheasants have been introduced into Japan, and they can, to some extent, successfully breed with green pheasants.  Common pheasants are also found outside the green pheasant’s range, e.g. Hokkaido.


Green Pheasants are found from Honshu through to Kyushu, primarily in forests, river banks and grasslands.  They feed mainly on seeds, buds and leaves, but insects and spiders are also eaten.

They breed from spring to early summer, with males competing for territory.  Nests are simple affairs, shallow holes dug in the ground and lined with dead leaves and grass.  Typically 6-12 eggs are laid.  Care of the eggs and chicks is carried out entirely by the female, and males may have several mates.

(I have seen birds with chicks in tow rush through the undergrowth in summer and wondered if they are pheasants.  Researching for this entry leads me to believe so.)


Green pheasants are poor flyers, but have been clocked running at 32 km/hour.


I was surprised at the lack of obvious folklore surrounding the green pheasant.  Apart from being a character in the folk tale Momotaro, references in some poems and songs, and appearing on the former ¥10,000 note, the green pheasant is best known is as a food source.  The flat udon-like noodles popular around Nagoya are said to have originally been served with pheasant meat, hence the name “kishimen”, and peasants cooking pheasant (try saying that quickly 5 times!) on their spades are said to be the origin of sukiyaki.


Male (left) and female (right) green pheasants on the font face of the previous series of 10,000 yen notes.


Hokusai’s 1833 “Pheasant and Snake”


Curiously, pheasants are believed to by extra-sensitive to earthquakes, and may be able to give warning (by a few seconds) of tremors and quakes.


When summer arrives, I’ll be on the lookout for pheasant chicks.

Wild in Australia

30 Aug

I’m tempted to title this post “Things you can photograph with a proper camera”.  The best ones turned out to be videocaps, thanks largely to the more powerful zoom on the video camera.

I would like to have taken more nature shots, but my wife seems to think that taking photos without the kids in the frame is inherently wrong…

Anyway, none of these involved going off the beaten track.  For example, this photo was taken just outside Goolwa, near the barrage.

A water hen and egret

This one was taken at the barrage, where overflow from the Murray River is released into the sea.

A pair of seals – I think Australian fur seals – on the barrage. There were about 30 of these animals playing around the barrage, no doubt enjoying the fish that make it out.

We could have gotten a shot like this almost anywhere – the Gold Coast was full of them!

A rainbow lorikeet in a banksia tree. We saw many of these in South Australia, and flocks in the dozens at the Gold Coast.

Our trip to the Riverland – Lyrup, Renmark, Loxton and Berri – gave us a different view of river wildlife.

This appears to be a pied cormorant, which tend to hang around estuaries rather than rivers.

This one was a good catch…

A heron with its catch.

And the sunset on the river is wonderful.

A cormorant and dart by sunset.

A return to Goolwa and a day trip to Victor Harbor.

A rainbow near the Bluff, an old lookout for 19th century whalers.

We went across to Granite Island in the hope of seeing penguins. We weren’t in luck – it seems that the penguin population has plummeted. Seals may be partly responsible.
But instead we saw this:

A southern right whale at play, about 1 km off Granite Island.

Two whales?

It was a good trip.

I hope to have some more wildlife from suburban Japan coming soon.

Stone the Crows

3 Mar

Japan has a rich diversity of birds, and even in the cities a good variety can be seen – assuming you know where to look.

Unfortunately, the casual observer has a hard time seeing past the “big four” – sparrows, pigeons, starlings and crows – that make up the most obvious part of the urban and suburban avian population.

Moreover, the latter three all vie for the title of “Japan’s Most Disliked Bird”.


Pigeons, both native and feral, have taken to nesting in and around train stations, on high-rise buildings, in towers and in parks, and leave their signature droppings in huge piles around nesting sites.  Many public places have notices asking people not to feed the pigeons.


One kind of pigeon, the Eurasian collared dove or shirakobato (白子鳩) is the basis for the official Saitama mascot, Kobaton.

Why did we end up with a sky rat as a mascot?

Sky rat for rent… the Kobaton costume. Courtesy of the official Saitama site.

Starlings love soft fruit, and damage fruit crops.  They mass together in street trees and make an unbelievable amount of noise, and cover the pavement below with their droppings.  Some public places even have “Beware of starlings” notices.  (No, I made up that last bit.  But there are “Watch out for starling droppings” notices, so I wasn’t really lying)


As for crows… they raid garbage disposal sites.


Japanese garbage disposal consists of residents taking specified garbage out on specified days.  As an example, in my area, Monday is plastic day, Tuesday and Friday are burnable garbage days, every second Wednesday is can and bottle day, alternating with PET bottle day, one Thursday per month is for cardboard and newspapers… yes, we do get a calendar with all the days marked. 

The garbage is placed in plastic bags at a specified roadside collection site in the morning.

Garbage disposal, Japanese style. A buffet for crows.

Crows have learned that garbage means a free meal.

They can see through clear bags.  Researchers have experimented with yellow bags, which crows apparently can not see through, but they are forgetting one very important point – crows are among the most intelligent creatures on the planet.  Even if they can’t see through the bag, crows have learned to identify items which may contain food.  The crow slits the bag open and… well, you can imagine the rest.


Two species of crows can be found in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area: carrion crows, which are really just country crows visiting the city; and jungle crows which, despite the name, are well and truly at home even in the most urban regions.

Carrion crows (Corvus corone) are known locally as hashibosogarasu (嘴細烏) – literally “thin billed crows” – in reference to their comparatively thin beaks.  They are mostly scavengers and are omnivorous.  Jungle crows (Corvus macrorhynchos) go by the name hashibutogarasu (嘴太烏), again in reference to its beak, which is thick and evil-looking, and the perfect tool for slitting open carcasses – and garbage bags.  Like carrion crows they are omnivores, but with a stronger preference for meat, and will hunt mice and small birds.

Carrion crow feeding. Note the shape of the beak.

Juvenile jungle crow. Compare its beak to carrion crow’s. Both photos taken from Wikipedia.


Crows typically operate solo or in pairs, but will flock together for protection.  They are capable driving away hawks and eagles through group coordination.


Actually, crows have not always had such a poor reputation.  They are mentioned in the Kojiki as yatagarasu (八咫烏) – literally “eight span crows”, (one span being about 18 cm) – guiding Emperor Jimmu to the land of Yamato.

Yatagarasu guiding Jimmu to Yamamo, and helping vanquish his enemies on the way. A 19th century print.

Three legged crows, known as sansokuu (三足烏) appear on shrines, and these are sometimes associated with the yatagarasu legend (although this is possibly a case of convergence – the Kojiki doesn’t specify tripodal corvids)

Count the legs. Image of the Kumamoto Shrine. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


A three legged crow on the Kumamoto Shrine in Kawagoe. Taken by me.

Of course, later crows would have incurred the wrath of farmers for raiding crops, and also become associated with scavenging battlefields and execution grounds.


Today, they incur the wrath of people like bigoted Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, for whom trying to eradicate crows and foreign nationals are pet projects.

And, for pissing him off, crows earn my affection.


Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

29 Oct

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


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 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.

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