Saturday, January 22, 2011

Friday Field Notes--Wagtail Wars

水仙... Narcissus


hatsuyuki ya
suisen no ha no
tawamu made

First snow
Just enough to bend
the leaves of the Narcissus
Of course, there's no snow.  But the narcissus were up around the gingko tree, and the neighbor's paperwhites are in bloom--just when I was starting to feel lonely for flowers.  That Haiku by Basho was the first one I memorized in Japanese, and it's still my favorite.  It always comes to mind when I see narcissus, be they snow-covered or not.   

As I was walking home from school...

Tsugumi  Turdus naumanii (Nauman's Thrush)
...look!  See who's come back?  Tsugumi!  I've waited and waited to see him again.  Nauman's Thrush--he migrates down from breeding grounds in Siberia to winter in Southeast Asia, China, and here.  Two years ago, a couple of them came to visit the persimmon tree next door. That winter vacation was particularly good weather, and the tree still had a number of persimmons on it.  It attracted quite a number of birds, and I had loads of fun hanging over the balcony with the binoculars while putting the futons out every day.  I didn't fall off, but did drop my pillow.  And a blanket--had to clunk down four flights of stairs and run around back to go get them...

I'm assuming, actually, that this is Nauman's Thrush, and not the Dusky Thrush, since Nauman's was the only one listed in my field guide....but it could be wrong. The Dusky Thrush appears to have been split off, or is a subspecies (Turdus eunomus), but they are sometimes still considered conspecific.  Ahhh--ornithological battles...split? species? subspecies? hetero or conspecific?  Reading down the list of bird books at Avibase, the older editions list Dusky as Turdus naumanii....then as Turdus naumanii eunomus, indicating subspecies status, and finally Turdus eunomus.  Species status, as the cannon smoke gradually clears.

And thus, with some trepidation, do I approach the Battleground of the Wagtails.

Hakusekire (Motacilla alba)
I never saw Wagtails growing up--for whatever reason they never graced our Hickory tree (though in observing them here, I notice that I never see them in trees, always fields, parking lots, or along the river).  They were the first bird to catch my eye in Japan--darling tails wagging, showy flashes of white feathers in flight, beautiful monochrome black, grey, and white.  Common, but striking, and a joy to watch.

Wounded Wanda (Walter?  But I think Wanda)
 At first, I didn't have any idea what they were called, nor did I possess a bird book (an annoying situation--but I couldn't yet read Japanese, so the Japanese guides were of little use to me).  So... I pestered people.  "What's that bird's name?!"--and received confusing, and sometimes outright contradictory, answers.

The situation, I've discovered, is *not* helped by the fact that the common Japanese names don't match up with the English common names, and further confused by the fact that Japanese "Hakusekire" (White Wagtail) covers birds whose taxonomic names reveal them to be subspecies, or full species split off from M. alba.

What about the "black-backed race that exists in Asia" (as my mother's Birds of North America has it)?  Let me first just say that I know for a fact that I've never seen Segurosekire--the Japanese Wagtail, Motacilla grandis, a situation I hope to remedy with a few more trips to Maioka Park, where I know he hangs out.
Hakusekire...Motacilla lugens... Black-backed Wagtail (d'oh!)
Does that seem straightforward? How about this--"Segurosekire" translates into "Black-backed Wagtail"...which is what you'd *think* Motacilla grandis would be called in English.  It's not, though--as I said above, M. grandis is the Japanese Wagtail.  But wait!  There *is* a species (split off?) called the Black-backed Wagtail.  That's who I think is in the photo above--Motacilla lugens.  In Japanese, however, that bird is called "Hakusekire"--White Wagtail.  (*coughing* ... *choking*... fighting my way through thick smoke of cannon fire...)  In any case, Motacilla lugens clearly differs from M. grandis, whose head, throat, and back are entirely black, with white supercilium (eyebrow).

M. alba-male Hakusekire, White Wagtail
Now this, surely, is the White Wagtail--Motacilla alba.  Hakusekire.  The bird in the video above and photo to the right is the male.  I've been calling all the birds around here Hakusekire, because they're clearly not M. grandis (compare the faces). 

For quite a while I referred, in my bird-bookless state of confusion, to the bird in the photo as Segurosekire (wrong!)

M. alba-- female Hakusekire, White Wagtail
...and to this bird (left) as "Hakusekire" because of the coloration, and because I'd only seen them singly.   No.  I discovered, after I finally got a field guide I could read, that the birds I was seeing were not M. grandis, but M. alba.  Both of them--male and female.  I worked that out, actually, on my own by watching them in the parking lot while banging the futons.  I noticed that they tend to hang out in pairs--surely a Mommy and Daddy Wagtail.  My guidebook seemed to confirm *that* guess, at least.

Take a few deep, calming breaths and watch the female M. alba scurrying along the river (these photos and videos were taken at the same time along the Kashio River).  Isn't she sweet?  Wag, wag, wag... I never get tired of watching wagtails...

Motacilla cinerea-- Kisekire, The Grey Wagtail
 One day, quite some time ago, I saw this lovely wagtail in our river--yellow on breast and rump!  Clearly a different species, but not yet owning a field guide, I christened him myself-- Kisekire.

Grey Wagtail (M. cinerea) Kisekire, male
"Kisekire" translates to "Yellow Wagtail".  Sensible--no?  Imagine my delight when I finally got a Japanese field guide and discovered that I had hit upon the correct Japanese name all by myselfBut wait!  In English he's called... The Grey Wagtail.  And, if that weren't enough, there is in fact a Yellow Wagtail (M. flava)--but he's called the Long-Nail Wagtail in Japanese.  The taxonomic names do, however, match up here.  I won't even go into the Citrine Wagtail... Here--watch another video of my favorite Kisekire In The River.  I was o-cha toban at baseball practice that day, and just happened to have the charged up video camera with me:

Dusting off, I won't go into M. alba versus M. yarelli--the Pied Wagtail, apparently split off (given the taxonomic names), but between which there appears to be some hybridization (so oughtn't the Pied have subspecies status?  Is there not some flaunting of the biological species concept going on here?).

Never mind--here is Wounded Wanda.  Or possibly juvenile Walter (family in-joke).  I saw her while riding my bike.  I stopped (and didn't fall off), turned around, and watched her for quite a while.  Look closely at her foot--deformed?  Injured?  She didn't fly away, but approached me quite close.  I was enchanted--isn't she a pretty thing?  But I've never seen her again.  I've worried so that a cat got her...

(smoke clearing)..Mata asobou, ne!


  1. Oh, I so do recognise the taxonomical confusion, despite not having moved farther than from Scandinavia to England. But all of a sudden the birds I knew the names of by heart had new names! Very confusing, especially considering that no-one knows their names -- as if it wasn't necessary for a person to know them! (It's the same with flowers and trees, and for someone with taxonomical inclinations it's a nightmare.) Last year I went looking for windflowers/forest anemones but no-one knew them! Gah! But never the less, I digress; I should be inspired by your example and invest in a field guide so I can learn the English names of the creatures (and plants!) once and for all. :)

  2. A kindred spirit!! *Do* get a field guide--for your own peace of mind. It's sad commentary on our times, how few people can answer when you say "what's the name of that bird/flower/tree/bug" (I always want to know everything).

    Yokoso (welcome), lostinsophistication! I post these field notes every Friday--please stop by again!

  3. It's Tim Harris here. Sorry to comment as Anon, but I can't remember what I did in order to comment here last time. Anyway, I was nice and refrained from taking on your quiz the other day... There are lots of mixed-up wagtails around here, too. But have you come across the gabi-cho or Chinese laughing thrush? A pair or two appeared in our area about ten years ago, and I couldn't find out what they were; and year by year they increased. I like them - partly because one of the things I missed in Japan on coming here was birdsong: Japanese birds tend to produce cries rather than song. And gabi-cho are very gabby - and good mimics: they stick all sorts of things into their songs.They are also very handsome birds. They seem to have spread broadly now: originally, it seems they derive from birds that escaped, or were released from, captivity, but I wonder also if the general warming of Japan has something to do with it (winters tend to be much warmer than they used to be, and last summer...). By the way, Mark Brazil wrote a quite good little English field-guide to Japanese birds: published by Kodansha.

  4. Hey Amy. No offense but your very first line nearly put me into conniptions. "Of course, there's no snow." Arg! I look out my front window and see just under a meter in my yard. The mailman is threatening to stop delivery to my house if we don't shovel the sidewalks better, but @#$%$#, I shovel nearly every day, but then it snows every damned day. And apparently that old postal saying about rain, sleet and snow is a load of rubbish. If the sidewalk isn't completely visible, he's not happy. It seems he wants me out there with a flamethrower melting away the last vestiges of winter.

    The little arctic tyrant has already cut of mail delivery to several neighbors. I believe they're planning a lynching. And as for birds, sigh, the only birds I get to see are the ones who froze to the back fence last week when it dropped to 31 below.

    Sigh. Sorry to vent.

    It is nice to see a part of the world covered in green. And your descriptions always put me in a better mood. I think I'm going to lie on the sofa and attempt to conjure visions of green leaves and chirping birds. Maybe I should act like the cats and go chew on the houseplants. Keep it up.

  5. Mr. Harris--I've never seen Gabi-cho around here, and he's not in my bird book! I wonder why? BTW--sent an email just a bit ago!

    KK--Bwahahaha! Chewing on houseplants...LOL! Oh, KK--you make me laugh so much! No problem--vent freely, you are among friends:-)) My kids would be *totally* jealous of 3 feet of snow, since we never get any....

  6. Well, heck Amy, ship 'em over Amy. Fedex should have a box big enough. A couple of air holes and a bottle of water. Hmmm. I would definitely splurge on the next day air. I know it's expensive but worth it. Time would be of the essence.

    Your kids would love it here. They could tunnel under our entire back yard. In fact, they could build a city back there. That is if I could get the door open. I'd likely just have to bring them up to the roof and toss them over the side. I'm really not sure how they'd get back out. Maybe they could dig out the back gate enough to actually open it. Both of our gates open into the backyard and once a couple of metric tons of snow piles behind them they are rather reluctant to move.

    I'm anxiously awaiting their arrival. If we're not here when Fedex Delivers, he'll just leave it by the door and we'll open it when we get home.

    Have a nice day.

  7. bwahahaha!! After this morning (sibling fights)--I am *totally* shipping them over!! You really sure you want a total of four kids in your house? Three of them boys? Sure about that?
    I'll send the instruction manual with them...around here someplace... ;-))

    But...wait! *I* wanna tunnel under the back yard! Sounds like fun to me:-)) (Of course, I say that....knowing that I only ever last about 25 minutes outside in the cold before my mittens are wet and freezing and I have to come inside for tea...)