Japan – chasing cherry blossom and birds

Japan is made up of a long chain of islands, with its south sub-tropical and its north temperate.    This is why you can catch the cherry blossom at its finest over a period of weeks as the spring moves northwards.   Cherry- blossom-viewing – hanami –  is a major cultural must-do for the Japanese, and therefore for visitors too. [1]

v-pshopped

At the same time, you can also catch the seasonal  birds of the country – summer visitors and winter visitors – on the move.

We visited Japan at the end of April and into May, starting in the middle of the country and then travelling North.

We began north-west of Tokyo in the suburbs of Shibukawa, on the eastern slopes of the Haruna Mountains in Gunma Prefecture.   Our friends there live in a modern, self-built,  wooden house.  They have a small garden,  neighbouring houses along the street also with gardens, an orchard farm a little distance behind, and a wood beyond that.   In summary, a semi-rural suburb  – with plenty of opportunities for finding birds.

There were (resident) Tree sparrows  all around the houses, and the (summer visitor) Swallows had already arrived.  There were (also resident) Large-billed crows, with which I was familiar from India in the guise of Jungle crows,  and otherwise as Corvus macrorhynchos.  The Japanese version is, however, Corvus macrorhynchos macrorhynchos.  Presumably its bill is even more macro. [2]

There were also Meadow buntings (Emberiza cioides).   In my UK experience, buntings are birds of fields, hedgerows and reed-beds, not of semi-suburban gardens.  But these were everywhere among the houses, singing from tree tops, electricity wires and from the T.V. aerial of the house opposite.  Not that its much of a singer : “1 2  3 – twiddle-di” , constantly repeated, sums it up.   However, like many other buntings they are very attractive to the eye,  with black and white striped head and face and orange flanks and chest.

There was the incessant song of the so-called Japanese Nightingale .  It is not in fact a nightingale and nor does it sing like one.   It doesn’t sing at night either and it is officially called the Japanese bush-warbler  (Horornis diphone).  Still, you cannot miss it.  It begins with a very quiet, short whistle ‘oo’, or sometimes ‘ oo-woo-woo’, followed by a loud, rapid  and startling ‘twi-ti-tyu !’

And then it does it again.

And then again.

And so on.

Nonetheless, the Japanese Nightingale’s song  is a major cultural icon.   It is traditionally transcribed in Japanese as “Hō-hoke-kyo”, which just happens also to be an abbreviated Japanese title of the most sacred Buddhist text in Japan, the Lotus Sutra .   It is traditionally believed to be highly auspicious just to chant the name of the Lotus Sutra – and this is exactly what the Nightingale does – continuously and everywhere.

No wonder everything is Japan is beautiful  and everyone smiles.

The bird is also traditionally associated with the arrival of spring  – alongside the arrival of swallows  and the appearance of cherry blossom.   Unlike the swallows, though, the Japanese Nightingale is in fact resident  throughout most of Japan – but keeps quiet all winter and sings only when its time to breed.

It also keeps largely invisible.  It skulks in the middle of thick bushes  and refuses to be seen even when its  obviously only a few yards away.   Just like a Nightingale proper.   It is also,  like its namesake, a ventriloquist.   I sat in the woods at what I judged to be about twelve yards from a singing bird.  Its quiet and low notes seemed to come from  the left; its high and explosive notes clearly from the right.   The effect lessened as I eventually moved away, but still remained for some distance.

Meanwhile I had spent at least fifteen minutes listening and had not had even one glimpse of the bird itself.  Nor did I see one in all the days we were in Japan.   Fortunately others have see them, and even filmed them singing, as you can easily find on Youtube.

The wood I sat in was just up the hill, on the edge of a public park, where no one much went.  Except me.   The wood was not only full of resident Nightingales but also winter-visitor Hawfinches (Coccothraustes coccothraustes).  Solid birds that they are, with broad white wing patches in flight,  they were curiously invisible on the ground.   As I walked through the wood they kept  appearing  from nowhere some distance ahead.   When I sat to watch I discovered they were mixed with Japanese Grosbeaks  (Eophona personata) ,  as heavy-billed as the Hawfinches but a tad longer owing to the fact that they have properly proportionate tails, whereas the Hawfinch  has little more than a stub.  The flock was very flighty – especially the Hawfinches.  At the slightest disturbance, or at none at all, they would repair to the canopy and disappear.  After a short while they would straggle down again in ones and twos  to feed  among the leaf litter.  Half a minute later they would be off again, having hardly had time to feed  – and every time, mysteriously, many more birds took off than I had ever seen land.

Another winter visitor in the woods was the Dusky thrush  (Turdus euonomus) –  a medium -sized thrush much like the redwings which visit us at home each winter, with its white supercillium stripe above the eye,  its white chin and throat, and its spotted, almost scaly, breast.   It breeds in Russia and winters throughout Japan and down to Korea.   However, it sensibly doesn’t return to Russia until the Spring is well underway, which is why I could still see it here in central Japan as late as the end of April.  I saw one again a few days later in Aomori, at the North end of Honshu, Japan’s main island, and another again in Sapporo in Hokkaido,  Japan’s  Northern island.

I only ever saw one at a time though.  Perhaps it was the same bird each time, following me – or me it.

This was not the only thrush about.  I disturbed a number of Pale thrushes  (Turdus pallidus) from the path ahead of me, and a lone Brown-headed thrush (Turdus chrysolaus).   The former – grey head and russet back – are migrants in this part of Japan, heading North from Southern Japan and Korea to the Russian Far East.  The latter – olive-brown above and orange-brown below, plus  chin-stripes – is probably  a summer visitor, come to breed from Southern Japan,  although central Honshu is at the border of their residency,  so the one I saw could have been a local.

The most interesting of the family, however, was the Japanese thrush (Turdus cardis).  At first appearance – as it flew away – I thought it might be a Blackbird (Turdus merula), as found  in the UK and elsewhere.  Once settled, it revealed its difference.  Its lower breast and belly were bright white, speckled with black.  It also soon demonstrated that it was different in its voice too.  Unlike a Blackbird,  but very much like a Song thrush (Turdus philomelos), it repeated its phrases  – rich fluting whistles and delightful warbles.  It sang from high up in the canopy and filled the woods with its song.

When I stepped outside each morning I could hear a cock pheasant calling up in the orchard behind the house.  I walked round the corner and up the hill and saw it at once, pacing the long grass under the apple trees.   It spotted me too, lifting its head to look, then half crouching to slink away in the grass.   However, it remained in sight and continued to pace and call while I watched.  This was a Japanese green pheasant, (Phasianus versicolor), found only in Japan, and  Japan’s national bird.  It is known as the Kokucho,  which is more or less what it says when it calls of course.  It was clearly the cousin of the Common pheasant (Phasianus colchicu) both in voice and in appearance , except that while the latter is golden brown and speckled below, this was a dark, glossy bottle-green from its neck to its fundament, with a blue face and neck.  In the shade beneath the trees it appeared almost black.  Its large red wattles were bright against the blue.

pheasant-ps2
Photo:  Yutaka Mori

 

I was surprised to find a White-eye,  in the garden – although I shouldn’t have been.  Being familiar from India with the Oriental white-eye (Zesterops palpebrosus),  I thought of it as a tropical species.  But this was a Japanese White -eye (Zesterops japonica) which is in fact resident to a little further north than Gunma.   It is a common subject  in Japanese art and, in the past, they were often kept as cage birds.  They are delightful  to watch,  with their yellow chin and upper breast, olive green back and of course the bright white ring around the dark eye.   They flit among the leaves and twigs of trees and bushes like a small warbler – which they very much resemble.

 

white-eye
Photo:  Yutaka Mori

 

*

japan_0001

From Gunma we headed North at 200 miles an hour by Shinkansen – the so-called bullet train – to catch up with the cherry blossom.  It was already over in Gunma, but I had planned our itinerary precisely to catch it in Hirosaki.  That is, having necessarily had to plan our travel some months ahead,  I had  based our itinerary on the past annual averages of the progress of the cherry blossom northwards.  Locals can plan more precisely still, as the actual progress of the blossom  is reported and forecast daily.  Luckily, my plan worked.  Hirosaki Park is one of Japan’s major pilgrimage places for viewing the transient beauty of the cherry-blossom,  and we arrived in the week of its peak perfection.

japan_0002

castle-tower

The park, and Hirosaki Castle at its centre, were originally constructed in the early 17th Century.  Unfortunately the central castle tower – the tenshu, tensyukaku, or donjon – was soon destroyed – not by attack from an enemy army,  but by a bolt of lightning.  The tenshu was burnt to the ground.  The present three story pagoda-style tower was built in 1810. In 1871 the Imperial Japanese Army occupied the castle, and soon pulled various structures around the place down – for good military reasons no doubt.  Fortunately  the tenshu,  three of the castle gates  and watchtowers remained,  along with at least some of the  general structure of defensive walls and the surrounding  moats.  Unfortunately, two of the watchtowers then burnt down, without the help of a lightning bolt.  By then the Castle and Park were designated a public space, and later still,  an official historic site.

But when were the cherry trees planted ?   One source has it that they date back to 1715, when records show that the then owners obtained twenty-five Kasumizakura cherry trees from Kyoto – then Japan’s capital city – and planted them in the grounds of the Castle.  Another states that the Park’s 2,600 trees were planted in 1903.  Both may be true of course.   Meanwhile, the oldest cherry in the park now would seem to be a substantial individual  planted in 1882.

oldest-cherry

Whatever the history, the trees are now claimed to provide the largest display of cherry blossom in the whole of Japan.

I am happy to believe it.   There was blossom on the trees, blossom falling like snowflakes with every passing breeze,  and blossom carpets floating on the surface of the moats.

 blossom-and-bridge

And beyond the blossom , framed by the loaded twigs and boughs, there was Mt Iwaki, a close cousin of Mt Fuji, conical and snow-clad.  A volcano in fact, which last blew in 1863.  It seems to have been active quite frequently in the three centuries or so before that, but it continued to keep quiet for our visit and concentrated on looking beautiful instead.

mt-ikawa

As for the birds in the park, I saw nothing but common residents, but among them was a pair of Spot-billed duck, a bird familiar to me from India.  They swam among the floating cherry blossom, each with the bright yellow tip to its bill from which it gets its name.  Being in Japan, however, these were the Eastern sub-species Anas poecilorhyncha zonorhyncha, with dark, brownish  rather than grey bodies,  blue rather than green wing  patches, and no red spot at the base of the bill.  They are much the same in size as a mallard – but a good deal less troublesome with each other in my observation.

*

We visited Hirosaki on a day trip from the city of Aomori.  This was forced upon us because, while Hirosaki is a substantial city and I had tried to book accommodation some months ahead, there was nothing to be had.  We arrived in ‘Golden Week’, a major public holiday, and others had booked before us for the happy conjunction of  the holiday and the Hirosaki cherry blossom.  I had, however, found us a space to stay in Aomori.

Aomori is a modern, port city on the Northern shore of Honshu.  It has a number of harbours and harbour walls extending out into a wide bay.   The harbour wall I chose provided a fine view back to the city waterfront.

dsc04008_stitch

On the way out to the harbour wall there was an wide area of sparsely vegetated, rough and rocky ground  which was obviously in need of investigation.  The first thing I discovered was a skylark singing in the air above.   I heard its song and soon detected it against the grey sky – quivering wings, rising and pausing, then descending similarly.   But there was something not quite right with its song.  It was definitely a skylark, and yet it was not quite the song of a skylark back at home.

Frankly, it wasn’t as good.

It seemed a tad more frenetic, more repetitive and less melodious.

Or was I imagining it ?  Was some unconscious, occidental prejudice clouding my aural judgement ?

Apparently not.

It turns out that the Japanese Skylark (Alauda japonica) not only differs from the Northern (or Eurasian) Skylark  (Alauda arvensis) in various hardly detectable details of its plumage, but also in its voice :

“The song is less varied and less melodic than [the] Northern, which often adds a purer, descending note into the main song, and the call is drier.”[3]

Exactly what a drier call might be I cannot say – or a wetter one come to that – but at least I am not alone in perceiving that the song is not as fine as that of a good British skylark, wot ?

But this leads to further important questions.  For example, would Shelly have written his ode had he been  Japanese ?  Is the Japanese Skylark’s song quite as ‘unpremeditated’ as that of the Northern ?   Is the Japanese bird in fact a bird, as opposed to a bird-thou-never-wert?

We will never know.

A small group of people were walking along the pavement which ran along the edge of the rough ground.  There was a ringed plover not far from them, crouching low.  I watched the plover more closely.  It was clearly feigning injury, not by drooping a wing as a Lapwing might, but with a half raised wing and by limping, with its body leaning first to one side and then to the other as it ran a few steps and then paused again.    Hiding from the passers-by, I thought to myself.

Fortunately I looked down at that moment and discovered I was just about to step on its nest.

Four mottled eggs together among the stones.  Hardly a nest at all really.  Four prospective lives exposed to every passing crow ( Carrion and Long-billed in evidence) and gull (of which more in a moment) – and to the odd boot of course.   I took a photograph and then hurried on.

l-r-plover-nest-2-reduced

This was in fact a Little-ringed plover (Charadrius dubius –  ! [4] ),  a summer visitor in most of Japan,  but, like so many shore and sea birds,  with an enormous range.  It can be found  from Western Europe and North Africa to New Guinea  – which only goes to show that its minimalist approach to nesting works fine.

I mentioned the Dusky Thrush earlier – the one which was following me.  It was here on this waste ground, resting and re-fuelling presumably, on its way North.

On returning to the seafront I met a seagull on the railings.  It was a typical member of the Laridae  family – as in Herring gulls, Ring-billed gulls, California gulls, etc.  However, it had gone to town on its bill.  It had a black band all round  just before the tip – like a Ring-billed or California gull – and a red spot behind the band on its lower bill only – like many of the family, and famous for its role in the feeding  of chicks.  However, it then had a bright red tip to its beak, a feature which a trawl through all my bird books suggests may well be unique to this species.  Anyway, it was a great show.

blk-t-gull-2-compressed

It was a Black-tailed gull (Larus crassirostris), resident and common throughout most of Japan – and particularly so in the city of Hachinohe, to the South-east of Aomori.  There is a shrine there first built 700 years ago by local fishermen to honour the black-tailed gull, which is considered a messenger of the Goddess of the fishery.  It is called the umineko in Japanese, the sea-cat, after its cat-like call.  Huge numbers of these gulls gather at the shrine – presumably delivering messages.

Aomori is probably most famous for its annual Nebuta Festival.   The festival’s main feature is its procession of illuminated floats carrying enormous  warrior figures  made from coloured paper on cane and wire frames.  The origins and reference of these figures are uncertain.  Nebuta simply refers to the floats of warrior figures, not to any particular mythological or religious tales.   The Festival takes place each year in August, so we had to make do with a visit to the Nebuta Museum.  Floats and figures from last year’s festival were on display, illuminated from within and kept in the semi-dark to preserve their colours –  and to show to best advantage their visual drama.  Being warriors, they were all very fierce, as well as large.  There was a frighteningly large wasp too.

 

nebuta-1-compressed

*

Our next move was to get well ahead of the cherry blossom – and perhaps catch some more winter visitors not yet flown.   We took the ferry from Aomori  to the port of Hakodate on the southern shore of the Northern island of Hokkaido.  We could have taken the bullet train by undersea tunnel and got there rather faster.  However, I had deliberately planned  for the four hour ferry ride for the opportunity of a spot of marine ornithology.

We boarded the ferry and looked for a seat.   They were all taken – what few there were.  Every other ferry I have had the pleasure of boarding – in other parts of the world – has provided seating for all.  Here, we soon understood, there were carpeted cabins instead, large enough to take about twenty passengers in each.  Everyone went in, lay down and went to sleep.  Very sensible.  My wife slept for most of the journey.  But I had bird-watching to do.

As we entered the open sea a pair of Spot-bills flew low over the water, half a mile out from shore and not obviously heading for land.   Officially they are freshwater ducks, although presumably, like Mallards, they may hang about in salt-water harbours and the like.  But I was surprised to see them so far out at sea.

Mostly there were Shearwaters.

Shearwaters are a large family of birds, closely related to albatrosses , thin wings held stiff and straight;  given to gliding rather than flapping.   They are named after their habit of dipping low and practically touching  – that is, shearing – the tops of the waves with their wing-tips, first one as they roll to one side, and then the other  as they contra-roll.  Presumably they gain  lift from the air displaced by the traveling wave.  They are found throughout the world’s oceans, a number of them on great trans-oceanic migrations.

The question was, which Shearwaters ?

At the time, I identified them as Sooty Shearwaters (Ardenna griseus), but on further investigation it  seems  that Sooty Shearwaters should not be in Japanese seas in late April, early May.  They are famous (well, among ornithologists) for their long-distance, circular migrations around both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.  They breed way down South – on islands around New Zealand for example – between November  and February,  and then travel North from March to May to sub-arctic waters, before returning South again during September and October.

Approximately.

The problem for my identification is that they head North in April/May on the Western side of the Pacific, not on the Eastern, Japanese, side.

Perhaps then, they were Wedge-tailed shearwaters (Ardenna pacifica), which breed on islands around Japan.  But then they are not to be found quite so far North as the seas between Honshu and Hokkaido.

Perhaps they were Streaked Shearwaters (Calonectris leucomeias), which also nest around Japan. But they are pale beneath and these were dark above and below.

Short-tailed Shearwaters (Puffinus tenuirostris) ?  They head North from Australia up to Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands at this time of year – and therefore pass Japan.  Dark above and below.

That’s got to be it !

short-tailed-shearwaters [5]

Probably.

Anyway, they were great to watch, skimming  the tops of the waves on narrow wings held stiff, rising and dropping down again, dark and very numerous.

When we reached Hakodate port  the harbour walls were lined with cormorants.   They were all small and uniformly dark – almost certainly wintering Pelagic Cormorants (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) – also known as Pelagic shags, or Baird’s cormorant, or Sea cormorant, or – in Japanese – hime-u, Princess cormorant.

This is why we have scientific names of course.

There had been none of these cormorants on display at Aomori, although they winter all round the coast of Japan.  Perhaps we caught them on their way North to their breeding grounds on the Kuril Islands, Kamchatka and on to the Aleutians.

*

The Shinkansen/Bullet train reaches Hokkaido by tunnel  but then stops.  The line through the tunnel only opened a month or so before our visit and it will take some years yet to be extended to the city of Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido.  We therefore travelled from Hakodate to Sapporo by regular train following the long and indented eastern coastline before finally turning inland for Sapporo. It took some time.  The planned Shinkansen line to Sapporo will take a shorter route, across – and through – the mountainous interior, and arrive considerably faster.  Still, the slow coastal route gave us the opportunity to enjoy fine seascapes, promontories, beaches and wide bays before it became too dark to see through the reflections on the window of the lit interior.

Always very annoying that.

My wife had a conference to attend in Sapporo, so I was obliged to go sightseeing.  I looked for the nearest large park where I might have the chance of birds as well as sights.   Maruyama Park is located within the city.  It is part park and part forest  – huge trees on the steep slopes of a hill.  The park part is the place to go for Hanami in Sapporo, with some 1500 sakura trees on annual duty.

It was gently snowing.

There was no blossom.

The trees were not yet even in leaf.

We had got ahead of the cherry blossom.

There were, however, despite the  snow and the absence of blossom, lots of people lighting bar-b-q’s and feasting on the Japanese equivalent of hot dogs and burgers.   It was a Saturday, and it was Golden Week – Gōruden Wīku, or simply GW  –  Japan’s main public holiday, which runs from the 29th April to the 5th of May.   A little snow was not about to put folk off,  and no doubt they’d come back later for the hanami.

I picked my way between the bar-b-q-ers  – disturbing closely attendant Large-billed crows as I went –  and made my way to the Shinto Shrine around which the park was originally established.   The shrine is a complex of buildings around a courtyard with the shrine itself sporting a fine, traditional Japanese roof with crossed beams like swords to the front and horizontal barrels along the ridge.

It all looked rather new.

This is because, having first been built in 1871, it then burnt down in 1974, and had to be rebuilt.

I’m sure I’ve told a similar story above . . .

There was a wedding taking place in the Shrine.   I kept my respectful distance of course.  However, while I hardly attended to the groom – he was dressed in black and grey – the bride was stunning.   She was dressed in white.  Fine.  But on her head she wore an enormous wimple-like ovoid – also white.  This created clash and confusion in my occidental brain, faced as I was with both a bride and a kind of hyper-nun.

I have now informed myself properly. The headgear is called a tsunokakushi and is usually made of white silk.  It is designed to hide the bride’s horns of jealousy, ego and selfishness, and to symbolize her resolve to become a gentle and obedient wife.

No pressure then.

Meanwhile, the urban Maruyama Park supplied an unexpectedly fine day’s bird-watching.

There was a smaller shrine elsewhere in the park where I found Siskins (Carduelis spinus) feeding on the more or less bare ground.  Perhaps they were  finding last year’s tree seeds in the dirt ?   They are winter visitors to Japan as they are to the UK.  They are one of the smaller finches and they come to my winter bird feeders at home occasionally to feed on the niger seeds I put out for our resident Goldfinches.  A little research reveals that these Japanese siskins would soon have been on their way north, to Eastern Russia mostly, to breed in the taiga forests of alder, birch and larch.

A stream ran at the foot of the forested hill and the boughs of the great trees hung out over the adjacent path.   I disturbed  a flock of Bramblings (Fringilla montifringilla) foraging the woodland floor.  More winter visitors, as at home.  Medium-size finches, they have a white rump, an orange breast and a white belly.  The male develops these colours – and a black head – more fully in the summer, but these birds were still in winter dress, with the males and females indistinguishable (to me anyway).  These birds would apparently also be heading north soon, and to much the same forests.

Meanwhile, back in the park proper, beside a pond, I found two male Blue and white – or Japanese -flycatchers (Cyanoptila cyanomelana).  They were quite unmissable – metallic blue above, bright white bellied, with sooty-black face, breast and bill.  They repeatedly dropped down to the water’s edge for a moment and then returned to a convenient perch.  They are summer visitors to these parts, having wintered in South-east Asia.  They showed no sign of noticing that they might have arrived a little early – given the snow – but perhaps the males like to establish their territories before their prospective mates arrive.  The females are plain brown and undistinguished.  So unfair.  But so sensible if you’re going to spend time sitting quietly on eggs.  The male Japanese flycatcher does not assist in this task.

There were residents too.  First, a woodpecker which I would be happy to swear was a Japanese green woodpecker (Picus awokera), but my field guide tells me they do not range as far North as Hokkaido, so it must have been a Grey-headed woodpecker (Picus canus).  Anyway, it was a member of the yaffle family – green backed, yellow rumped and red crowned (yaffle being a traditional English name for the local Green woodpecker (Picus viridis) on account of its raucous, laughter-like call).  There was a nuthatch which I could not make out at all.  It matched nothing in my quickly consulted guide.  Further research suggests that this is because the particular version of the Eurasian nuthatch which inhabits Hokkaido was not in fact illustrated.  It can only have been a Sitta europaea asiatica, which is a much paler blue-grey above than others of its tribe.

I mention these observations not only in order to provide a full account of my fine day’s bird-watching, but also to illustrate what real bird-watching can be about.  Identifications are often neither instantaneous nor correct, especially in foreign parts.  You see with your particular package of experience and knowledge, and then consult your field guide.  However, you can’t spend forever consulting because there’s more to see which you must not miss.

The pressure can be quite exhausting.

I was on firmer ground with the Varied tit, the Coal tit and the Eastern great tit.

For a start,  I’d seen all three already before we got to Hokkaido.  The first – Poecile varius varius –  is difficult to confuse with another tit owing to its breast and belly being a rich chestnut rather than the more usual white, yellow – or vague.  The Coal tit (Periparus ater) is vague – off-white, greyish, maybe a hint of brown.  They feed on my peanut-feeder at home and can be found from North-western Europe east to Japan and Kamchatka.  However, in Europe, and all the way to Kamchatka, it is ater ater,  whereas, by the time it gets to Japan, it has become ater insularis (i.e. of, or pertaining to, an island).

I’m afraid I failed to notice the difference.

My ground was not quite as firm as I had thought.

This, of course, is because the distinction has now been drawn, mostly, on the basis of recent DNA analysis.

There’s just no way the bird-spotter can compete.

The Eastern great tit, for example, is clearly intermediate in appearance between the Great tit of home (the UK) and the Grey tit which I know well from South India.  The Eastern, meanwhile,  is a washed-out version of the Great – pale rather than bright yellow – and  the Grey is the black-and-white version of both.

And once upon a time they were all Parus major – that is, variations on the Great tit.

But no longer.

The Great tit (Parus major) remains itself,  and is the most colourful on account of its  yellow breast and belly and olive back.  It is also the most widely distributed, from north-west Africa up to Scandanavia, down to the middle east and from eastern Europe across wooded north Asia almost to the Pacific coast.  However, the Grey tit is now the Cinereous Tit (Parus cinereus).  It lives mostly in Southern Asia, including India, but also down as far as Indonesia.  The Eastern great tit is now, curiously, the Japanese tit (Parus minor), although it ranges through Kamchatka and most of China too.

This is for now you understand.  By next week and further analysis things may be different again.

(What about the Green-backed tit (Parus monticolus)? I hear you say. This also looks much like a great tit – just a bit more greenish-yellow.  In fact, it has long been considered a separate species and modern studies do not seem to have disturbed that classification).

Actually, these DNA studies are very interesting.  They reveal where there are discontinuities between apparently similar birds, that interbreeding does not, or rarely, occurs between them and that there are  boundaries to their populations.  The behavioural or other reasons for this – courtship display, song, plumage, (pheremones?), for example, may not be obvious – except to the birds themselves presumably – but the genetic analysis reveals that they may have a long and separate history – major, for example, is calculated to have diverged from cinereous and minor some 1.5 million years ago.

This shows that birdwatching has become more complicated with the passage of the millenia.  Is it possible, one wonders, that the efforts of the prehistoric birdwatcher to distinguish one species from another have been a factor in the development and evolution of the hominid brain ?

Just a thought.

Before leaving the delights – and challenges – of Marayuma Park I can also report that I saw a pair of toucans, some flamingos and a Japanese Black Bear.  But these were in the Maruyama  Zoo.

*

Sapporo was as far North as we went. From there we flew South, beyond Tokyo to Hiroshima – and in to early summer.

 

dome

 

We went to visit the original ground zero – the site of the first use of an atomic bomb – now the Peace Memorial Park.  We viewed the iconic remains of the A-bomb dome. We  visited the Peace Memorial Museum together with so many other visitors that we all had to shuffle through patiently.  We therefore had plenty of time to view the photos and the physical evidence of the destruction – steel doors buckled by the blast, the shredded remains of a school-girl’s dress, someone’s shadow burnt as a negative into blocks of stone by the flash of the explosion.

Opposite the Dome an elderly gentleman was feeding the local tree sparrows.

 

feeding-sparrows

We walked then to Hiroshima Castle.  Originally built in the Sixteenth Century, it was destroyed by the atomic bomb blast.  However, its tower and other buildings were reconstructed after the war and it is now a public park and a museum.   I saw no cherry trees.  In any case they would have long since blossomed this far South.  There was, however, a eucalyptus tree.  It had survived the bomb, re-growing from its roots with multiple contorted and sagging limbs.

eucalyptus

A flock of startlingly pied starling-like birds appeared, marching round a lawn and chattering to each other busily.   Immediately familiar – I’ve seen them in India.  But pied starlings or pied mynas?  And if either, why were they here in temperate Japan ?

They were in fact both Asian pied starlings and/or Pied mynas (Gracupica contra), as you prefer, and they were here because they have been introduced at some time to this part of Japan and have clearly found it amenable.   Presumably not too amenable, however, as they have not spread to become a nuisance.

Unlike the native White-cheeked starling (Spodiopsar cineraceus).  In recent years they have taken to roosting  in large numbers in urban and suburban areas, rather than in rural bamboo groves.  They have set up home in trees and on buildings and other man-made structures and have become a major nuisance.  Municipal authorities have tried various ways to get rid of them – including pruning and netting trees, and even playing recordings of their distress call.  The result has been mostly to move them on to the next street or building, and multiply the number of roosts.[6]

I am reminded of the Common or European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) we have at home.  I might not want them roosting all over my house, but I would be happy if their numbers were more.  They have declined dramatically in recent years.  We hang on to a few pairs nesting every year, but it’s a long time since I’ve seen them going over in the winter numbers they always used to.

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mt-fuji-2

 

Japan is a stunningly beautiful country.  Our first glimpse was of the snow-clad Mount Fuji above a sea of white cloud as we descended towards Tokyo’s Haneda airport.    Our last was  as we took the bus from Hiroshima City to Hiroshima Airport.   We looked across valleys of mist and dark forested hillsides rising above.

On the island of Miyajima we viewed pagoda shrines and temples in the mist and rain.

 

tahoto-pagoda

 

Miyajim is an island in the Inland Sea, a short train and ferry ride from Hiroshima.  Miyajima means Island of Shrines.

There were tree sparrows, large-billed crows, Japanese nightingales and swallows, and more.  But the cultural treasures and the landscape rendered the birds a sideline.  As did the search for somewhere to eat in the evening.  It seems that the island is inundated with visitors each day but few of them stay over.  Lunch was no problem, but even our hotel had nothing to offer by way of an evening meal.  Fortunately we were guided to a single restaurant on the sea front which provided us with the necessary sustenance to keep us going until breakfast.  It closed at nine, however, as the staff needed to get back home to the mainland.

itsukushima-shrine-gate

 

The number one attraction on the island is the Itsukushima Shrine – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and its great aquatic ‘gate’ or torii.  At high tide the gate emerges from the sea.  At low tide it stands embedded in mud and sand.  The shrine itself is  built out over the water and, when the tide comes in, is considered, as is the gate, to float.  Perhaps the tide comes in higher than when we visited, but I could clearly see the posts on which the whole thing is constructed.

Perhaps I should try to imagine harder.

The present shrine was built in the mid-sixteenth century and has remained untouched by earthquake or atomic bomb.  It was, however, badly damaged by a typhoon in 2004, which is ironic because the shrine is officially dedicated to the three daughters of the Shinto god of seas and storms.

On the other hand, assuming that the damage was deliberate on the part of said daughters, it may well have been the fault of visitors like us.  Traditionally, commoners were not even allowed to set foot on the island, never mind traipse around the sacred shrine.

Nonetheless, the shrine has now been beautifully restored without and within – and the visitors just keep on coming.

 

shrine

 

 

itsukushima-shrine-interior

 

The island is full of shrines large and small, and shrines within shrines – both Shinto (Japan’s traditional indigenous religion) and Buddhist.   The Buddhist shrines are full of statuary.

There are serene buddhas:

figure-2

 

angry dwarfs :

figure-1

 

and even some waiting to be fed :

figure-3

 

These statues are all to be found in the hillside Daishoin Temple, an ancient  Buddhist temple built at the foot of the sacred Mt. Misen.  This was my favourite, with its steps and slopes and green gardens.  Its central temple is particularly fine, a traditional wooden building decorated with carved  lions and elephants.  It was also thoroughly modern.  When I looked at it, it looked back at me through a security camera :

daishoin-temple-camera

Part of Miyajima Island is also a RAMSAR site, that is, a wetland of international importance.  Spring-waters run off the mountainous middle and mix with sea water to form a tidal marsh of brackish water on the south-west side.   Unfortunately I did not have the time to visit.  Had I done so I might have spotted the  Miyajima dragonfly  (Orthetrum poecilops miyajimanense) – a sub-species of the Chinese Mangrove skipper dragonfly – found only in these marshes.

An animal we could not miss, however, was the Japanese sika deer (Cervus nippon).  They wander around the town in considerable numbers and have become completely aclimatised to humans.  The Sika deer is famous for its spots and is second only to the Indian Chital or Spotted deer (Axis axis) for its beauty – in my opinion.  However, in Japan they tend towards the spotless, and these in Miyajima were certainly no picture – more a dull brown ubiquitous presence which only added to the challenge of navigating the crowds.

Still, Miyajima was a fine end to our visit to Japan – despite the difficulty of evening dinner.

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[1] Hanami (花見?, “flower viewing”) is the Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers (“hana”).
[2] Meanwhile, Large-billed crow is a much better designation than Jungle crow as Corvus macrorhynchos can be found in urban as well as jungli places in India.  Indeed, the first ones I ever saw – on my first arrival in India – were in a sports park in the middle of the city of Madras.
[3] http://www.birdskorea.org/Birds/Identification/ID_Notes/BK-ID-Japanese-Lark.shtml 20.07.16
[4] Unfortunately this wonderfully apt name is not what it seems.  The charadrius is simply Latin for plover, not charade, from Greek  for something similar.  Still, the dubius may still refer to its feigning; or perhaps to its camouflage colouration.
[5] http://www.lhimuseum.com/species/view/260 – Edited.
[6] Yasuhiro Yamaguchi, White-cheeked starling, Bird Research News  Vol.8 No.2 , 2011.2.21
http://www.bird-research.jp/1_shiryo/seitai/mukudori.pdf

 

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