Friday, February 4, 2011

Friday Field Notes--Along the River

Parus major...Shijuukara...The Great Tit

I walk the kids to school nearly every morning, a route that follows the river for most of the way.  Somebody has to walk the groups of kids up to school--a duty most of the moms find a burden.  I don't, though, because it means I get to walk along the river --and this time of year, I never know what I'll get to see...

chattering Tits--so close to the chickadees I grew up watching that they make me feel a little homesick.

On this particular morning, I looked up to see....Fishin' Birds!  Cormorants...two of them.  My daughter calls them Fishin' Birds because she knows them from the Story About Ping, though our river is far too shallow to have any wise-eyed boats on it.  I tried to get those sly birds on video...

...well, I had to keep walking.  Where on earth did they go?  I watched them dive under...and never saw them come up (although Little Egret did fly obligingly by, rendering the video *slightly* less boring).

Up the river...keep walking...they must be somewhere farther up the river...

Anas crecca...Kogamo...Common Teal
Ducks flew overhead and splashed into the river up ahead--Karugamo, probably, I thought.  The Spot-Billed Duck who hangs out in our river year-round (Anas poecilorhyncha).

No!  Smaller, and a fancy head--cinnamon and green, and a pin-dotted body outlined in sharp black and white.  Surely then, the same as the ducks I'd seen a while back in the main branch of the river near the train station?

Anas penelope...Hidorigamo...The Eurasian Widgeon
This little guy, whom I caught scratching his head.  But looking closer--no, not the same at all!

A glance in the bird book soon straightened that out.  This morning's duck was Kogamo--the Common Teal, which I'd figured out from the coloration of his head (there were five of them, actually--two males and three females).  He's simply called "Little Duck" in Japanese...because he's small.  Not for the Japanese the naming of birds based on non-obvious morphological traits...  But the duck at the station, which my faulty memory took to be the same, turned out not to be.  The Eurasian Widgeon!  A new one for me--check!  Those readers who are not particularly birdwatchers may not understand this feverish need to find *all* the birds in the bird book, but perhaps you'll understand if I compare it to the compulsive drive to keep putting pieces in a jigsaw puzzle and the grand sense of satisfaction gained by being the one to put the last piece in place.

If you've a cup of coffee by, relax for a minute--here are Mr. and Mrs. Common Teal paddling around soothingly in the river:

 I stood and watched for a while.  Since I stopped walking and stood quite still, the teals stopped, too--pulled over for a rest stop, so to speak, tucking their bills beneath their wings.  The teals and widgeons are both migratory, coming through in the winter when Siberia is just--well, *really*, it's awful, you know, trying to commute in all that snow, and you just can't keep up with shoveling the sidewalk.

I craned my neck (why do we crane our necks, instead of storking them?), hanging over the railing a bit, looking up and down the river for those dratted cormorants I'd thought I was following.  I'd gotten some splendid photos, you see, at New Year's.  We decided, since we missed the bus and the weather was fine, to walk all the way up to the station, turning at the big bridge to walk the rest of the way along the Kashio River.  My husband was walking ahead when I heard him call out "what's that?!"

Phalacrocorax carbo...Kawa-U...The Great Cormorant
Jogging up so I could see, too, I saw a black, web-footed bird standing on a rock with his wings spread full out--typical cormorant behavior.

male in breeding plumage
...but that head!  I'd never seen a cormorant with a white head, and I knew that both the cormorants listed in the bird book (Kawa-U, the river cormorant or Great Cormorant, and the Umi-U, the sea cormorant or Japanese Cormorant) were black.  All black.  Yet there were two birds below me with amazing, showy white heads.

Yo, girlfriend!
And here was another (hanging with Little Egret)--all black, with just the smudge of yellow and white about the bill.  That particular, cormorant-shaped bill with the little hook on the end...

The dialogue in that video goes like this:
 Papa:  "There are three of them!"
Teddy:  "There are!"
Papa: "I wonder what those birds are?"
Teddy: "Mama!  Mama!  Did you bring the bird book?"
Me: (whispering) "No, I didn't" (I was kicking myself at that point)
Teddy: "Well, take lots of pictures so when we get home tomorrow we can just look it up!"

I was tortured for two days, 'til we got home and I was able to pull out the bird book help.  No help at all.  Three cormorants listed, and not one them with punk white feathers all over his head.  Even my beloved Avibase was of no help--no description of those odd white feathers.  Fine, then...Google Image search, to the rescue!  After much frustrated clicking, I found the description of those feathers--breeding plumage! Aha!  Two males, then, and one female presumably being courted...

Motacilla cinerea--The Grey Wagtail (female)

Still no sign of those mysterious cormorants, who seemed to be able to hold their breath for an inordinately long time.  Yellow flashed overhead, and I turned to look.  My favorite Kisekire (the Grey Wagtail), reason enough to walk this far up the river.  Kisekire isn't nearly as common as the White Wagtail, and although I'm content to stand and watch either, it seems a treat to see the Grey Wagtail.  I noticed this morning that I only ever see one Grey Wagtail at a time, but nearly always a pair of White Wagtails (a look around usually reveals the male if I only see the female, and vice versa).  I wonder whether M. cinerea  is more solitary, or whether their foraging territories are larger and therefore one doesn't necessarily see both at once? 

Dare ka naaa?
I was nearly in front of the school by this time, and no cormorants--but something was moving in the dry, brown grasses along the edge of the river.  Longish legs.  I squinted, knowing something unusual was just a bit farther on...
Can you tell who it is?

Tashigi--The Common Snipe!  I've only ever seen him once before in Maioka Park. Though the river winds out of the park and down this way, they seem to be shy and rarely come this far.  The nice thing about watching Snipes is that they don't flit.  They seem to sit quite still while being photographed or video'd--this one obligingly turned his head as I was filming him, as though to say "The beak, dahling, the beak.  It's fabulous, isn't it..."  For a bird in tones of brown and white, I think they are strikingly beautiful (and like the Common Kingfisher, hardly deserve an epithet like "common").  They have a painted look that makes me wonder whether they aren't the subject of a folktale or a Just-So Story describing how they came to look like that...

Gallinago gallinago...Tashigi...The Common Snipe

A fine morning's walk like this makes me wonder at all those Romantic poets writing about the dreariness of winter, and skeletal trees, and on and on--as though there wasn't anything the least bit enjoyable about winter.  Winter migrations and all those leafless trees making birds easy to find--they can't have been birdwatchers, or they'd never have written about winter with such gloomy voices...

And those damnable cormorants?  I never did find them!  They just disappeared into thin water...

Mata asobou, ne!


  1. Your posts keep reminding me of the Swallows And Amazons books. That's where I first heard of (well, read of) cormorants and charcoal-burners, both beloved of Titty, who liked to make up stories about exotic foreign places where people used birds to fish, and imagined the charcoal being used by great artists to produce masterpieces. Then there's Dick who also had a Book Of Birds to be ticked off as seen.

    Blimey, I've gorn all nostalgic! I may have to borrow the books off my sis, who ended up owning all of them, via a complicated swapping system that we evolved. For the life of me, I can't remember what I ended up with in return...

  2. I've never read *any* of those--and they sound so fun! Just the sort of thing I liked to read when I was a kid...(ok, still like to read...surreptitiously). I have notes all through my book--but my mom's book is something else. It is The Bird Book--the one we kept in the Blue Desk in the kitchen, to be consulted as needed. It's nearly as old as I am, I think;-))

    It's winter and not much in the way of flowers or bugs, so it's birds! (Although we are going to try to go to a big park in Tokyo that has loads of plum trees, and I'll post on that afterwards).

  3. Awesome post; best field notes yet! It just goes to show you now much natural history resides in just a small area--even an urban area.

  4. I'm always surprised at how many birds there are in this area--I should take a photo of the road so everyone can see how urban it is! There are, however, rice fields and hills and Maioka Park (a quite large, largely untouched park of fields and low hills and forest). I think there are a lot of birds (and other animals and insects--including fireflies) inside Maioka Park who sometimes find their way up the river to the school,and up by us. That snipe up there was between the school and the bus depot!