This February I the wonderful opportunity to see a country that I had often been drawn to from afar…JAPAN. In my decades of birding I have spent considerable time in Asia, including Malaysia, Borneo, Sichuan (China), Vietnam, and Thailand. However, Japan has been a glaring omission on this list.
For many years, I had longed after some of Japan’s most famous avian attractions, namely the Blakiston’s Fish-Owl, one of the largest of all the owls; Steller’s Sea-Eagles, which vies with the gargantuan Harpy and Philippine Eagles for title of World’s largest eagle; and lastly, the spectacles of majestic cranes dancing in the snow that litter the Internet. This year, I had my chance, when I joined a Tropical Birding tour, as a co-driver, that was led by Charley Hesse.
Arriving in Tokyo was an eye-opener as expected. Japan’s culture is famously unalike anywhere else. As I changed money, I glanced down to see a basket of free Origami items to help myself too. This was another thing I had come for, to feel way out of my usual comfort zone. I have traveled widely, but have never seen origami offered at an exchange desk before! I was instantly hooked; I thought to myself, I am going to like this place. It instantly felt as unique as I had been led to believe.
Charley Hesse had passed on details of some local Tokyo birds I could try for with my afternoon spare before his arrival. In spite of considerable time spent traveling in various, diverse, countries, I found the thought of this in Japan, a little intimidating. Could I really try and travel across the metropolis of Tokyo alone, using their puzzling transit system? I thought about it, decided not too, then thought about the prospect of a Baikal Teal – one of the star birds on offer – grabbed my binoculars, and headed for the tube station! One look at the jumbled, spaghetti-like, rail lines on the train map, and I was starting to think this might not have been my brightest idea yet. The chance of being Lost in Translation in Japan was looking increasingly likely. However, armed with some significant details from Charley, such as station names, and finding the odd person with the odd word of English I successfully made my way to Shinjuku Gyoen, being very thankful for a large map of the surrounding area on arrival at the train station. On the train journey I was impressed by the amount of signs in English, making the journey trouble free. I was also impressed at the absolute obedience of the Japanese to exceedingly polite signs asking them to “refrain” from talking on their cellphones. As expected, everyone was on their mobile phones, but none of them were talking on their phones! I long for this to be global, so I do not have to hear the trivial day-to-day goings on from neighboring train passengers elsewhere.
Arriving at the park, I had been informed that the male Baikal Teal, a bird I had never seen, was hanging around, rather unglamorously, with a flock of local Mallards. Not the most exciting company to keep, but it did give me a lead. I headed straight to the map of the park, noted the large bodies of water, and hurried straight towards them. My other initial impressions of Japan, and the Japanese of Tokyo, was that everyone had a camera, and a serious camera at that. The hundreds of Japanese milling around this impeccably manicured park, all seemed to be donning cameras, mostly SLR cameras, with their main focus seeming to be to take shots of the new shoots and buds on the trees, emerging even in this, the supposed height of winter. Much as I enjoyed people watching, being a birder, I was also keen to be alone, or at least away from too much human disturbance, for that is usually where birds reside. I entered a dark shady area of woodland, away from the eerily quiet crowds of Japanese, and instantly walked into a male Red-flanked Bluetail, some boisterous Japanese Tits, and a Pale Thrush. Knowing there had also been White’s Thrush spotted in this park of late, I was very tempted to continue my exploration of this dark corner of the park. However, I resisted, and headed towards that large blue patch on the map instead, with eyes on the teal prize.
On reaching the first lake, I noticed a distinct lack of ducks of any type, so scanned around with my binoculars, which soon came to rest on a distant huddle of people, with very large camera lenses attached to their skulls: Japanese Bird Photographers. Surely, this was the “x-marks-the-spot” moment, on my avian treasure hunt. I hurried over towards them, quickly seeing a small group of mallards swimming near them. I stopped dead, and hastily sifted through these familiar ducks, before my binoculars soon rested on a smashing male Baikal Teal, the object of both their and my desires. I spent some time with the teal, and the ever-present, ever-revolving, knot of Japanese photographers, always focused on that one better shot, as the Baikal Teal played hide and seek with them, around an island in the lake.
After getting my fill of the teal, I focused on trying to find the White’s Thrush, which was said to have recently been seen near this celebrity waterbird. Clearly, the photographers were unaware of this, with their lenses only trained on the waterbody, no one seeming to pay any attention to the surrounding woodland at all. I set off alone towards a likely looking set of trees, with a nice shady understory, the most likely spot for a shy forest thrush, so I thought. As I walked there, a rustle of leaves under a very near shrub stopped me dead in my tracks, not a thrush this time, but a very confiding Black-faced Bunting.
I continued on, after snapping this bird, and my bins quickly fell on a thrush hopping brazenly though the open leaf litter. NOT a White’s, but an actual lifebird, Dusky Thrush. I was excited at this understated thrush, for it was a bird I used to daydream of as a rarity in the UK during my twitching days (and had never occurred during my time of rarity-chasing there).
Heading back to the Teal Cluster, I decided to try the unlikely looking area of well trimmed, and carefully shaped shrubs immediately behind the group of teal admirers. As I headed up the slope, thinking that any self-respecting White’s Thrush would be far away from this well-manicured area, and be hiding in some shady woods instead, a person walking through the bushes inadvertently flushed a pair of thrushes from his feet; my optics quickly followed them to land, 1 White’s Thrush and 1 Brown-headed Thrush. My excitement rocketed; I had not seen a White’s Thrush in years, and was overjoyed to be in the lone company of one once again. I rapidly began firing off photos of this confiding bird. It was then that I learned of a less savoury feature of some Japanese Bird Photographers. On seeing me locked on to a bird, I quickly found I was not alone, and soon after several photographers charged ahead of me, straight at the thrush, which unsurprisingly, took flight, then buried itself in the thickest bush in the area! I watched this play out over the next 30 minutes and was rather disgusted my some of their behavior and so left them to it, having seen the bird well, with little need for such harried pursuit.
However, this did not mar my day, and my very first birding in Japan. I had been in Tokyo for less than 4 hours, and had racked up a White’s Thrush, a male Red-flanked Bluetail, seen my first flurry of Dusky Thrushes (which are one of Tokyo’s most familiar birds), and observed both Pale and Brown-headed Thrushes too. I had also experienced my first few Japanese Culture Shock Moments, and looked forward to many more of these from one of the most distinctive cultures, and countries, on Earth….
More from Japan soon....