Saturday, February 12, 2011

Friday Field Notes--Stalking the Kawasemi

The weeping plum begins to bloom....

I noticed the scent before I noticed the flowers, riding by on my bicycle.  I was stopped by the scent--faintly cinnamon, a sweet, elegant fragrance...  We'll go up to Mogusaen soon to visit Mr. Harris who comments here.  "Mogusaen" means "Park of the Hundred Blossoms"--I can hardly wait to be surrounded by hundreds of plum trees...  As long as the weather is good, next week's field notes will be entirely given over to plum blossoms, if nobody minds;-))

I felt like walking the other day-- walking and not stopping.  Walking and following whatever I saw.  Walking beside the kids on the way to school in the morning, I'd already discovered Tsugumi....

Turdus naumanii... Nauman's Thrush
...down in the river having a bath.  He flew up to the rail, preening and shaking himself like a dog...

This morning, though, it was Kawasemi I was determined to find if I could...

 Can you see him, in amongst the leaves?  I took that photo back in September--he only sat still long enough for me to take one clear photo, and in spite of his brilliant colors, it's a little hard to make him out...

The first time I ever saw Kawasemi was on a day trip down to Kamakura with my husband and mother-in-law.  We'd gone down from Tokyo to see the June Hydrangeas at Meigetsu-in.  As we were walking by a small pond, I caught my breath, touched my mother-in-law's hand, and said "Kawasemi!"...Kingfisher!

a flash of azure...
There is simply no mistaking him--even if you've only ever seen him in pictures before.  That long beak, that tiny, streamlined body, squared tail, and those jeweled feathers a Pharaoh would envy.

ooh!  I see a fish riiiight...there!
 It wasn't until we moved to Yokohama that I began to see Kawasemi from time to time in our river.  It surprised me, in fact, to see him in our river, since there is so much bus and truck traffic up and down the road right next to it and kids walking along it every day on the way to school.
Alcedo atthis bengalensi

He was so exotic to me--so different from the Belted Kingfisher I grew up with in Indiana.  I couldn't fathom why he was called the  "Common Kingfisher".  A reference, no doubt, to the breadth of his range from England, across Europe and Asia and into Japan, but....really, how does a bird who looks as though he's made of lapis lazuli, carnelian, and turquoise merit an epithet like "common"?

Be that as it may, Kingfishers have a worldwide distribution, occupying a wide variety of habitats, although the greatest diversity of species is to be found in the tropics.  Europe and North America have one common kingfisher each and a couple of uncommon or local species--but The Gambia in Africa boasts eight resident species in its tiny 120 by 20mile area.  That falls in nicely under Rapoport's Rule (named for Argentine ecologist Eduardo Rapoport, who suggested it in 1975), which I've just been reading about in E.O. Wilson's lovely book The Diversity of Life.  Here's the bit that explains to me the distribution of kingfishers:

"Because animal and plant species of cold climates are therefore adapted to a greater breadth of local environments, they also occupy larger geographical ranges.  In particular, they are distributed across a wider range of latitudes. ...(Rapoport's rule)...means that as you travel southward down North America or northward up temperate South America, the ranges of individual species shrink steadily the closer you come to the equator.....Higher energy, greater biomass production, the narrowing of geographical ranges within a less varying environment--all these properties elevate the level of biodiversity in the tropics over long stretches of evolutionary time....Stable climates with muted seasons allow more kinds of organisms to specialize on narrower pieces of the environment...Species are packed more tightly."
                                             (Wilson, Diversity of Life, pp 200-1)
Fishing in Maioka River, 25 Nov 2010

For the longest time, it seemed I only ever saw my beloved Kawasemi whenever I was without a camera.  His name in Japanese means "River Cicada", because he flies that fast, in a flash of azure zipping downriver...  there's just no photographing him when he's moving unless you have professional equipment.  I, clearly, do not--as the video below will amply demonstrate.  All the photos above of Kawasemi sitting on the concrete river embankment were taken one afternoon when I *did* have a charged-up camera with me.  No tripod, of course--I was on my bicycle, which I was forced to hold between my legs to keep it from falling over (which it nearly did--hence all the bobbling of the video--that's me trying not to fall down...).  I was so excited to see him when he couldn't see *me*, you see (I was partially hidden by the guard rail over the bridge), that I just grabbed the camera without getting off my bike.  I was afraid that if I moved too much, he'd notice me and zip away.  That afternoon was the first time I'd ever gotten to watch him actually fishing...

Five times I watched him plunge straight down that steep embankment into that shallow river...without smacking his head on the bottom of the pool.  These birds are *serious* divers.  When they dive, they are moving fast, and they must surely hit that water hard.  I wondered whether they had some adaption for that, the way woodpeckers have special shock-absorbers so their brains don't get pulverized while they hammer and special covers so their eyeballs don't pop out.  Kingfishers sport a similar adaption (from Wiki)--

"They also have nictitating membranes that cover the eyes when they hit the water in order to protect them; in the Pied Kingfisher has a bony plate which slides across the eye when the bird hits the water.[2]"

Here's the video where I almost fall down while trying to zoom:

a bright, cool morning in Maioka Park

 As thrilled as I was to get some closeup photos and video of Kawasemi for my mom, I *had* hoped to capture him in a somewhat more natural setting than the concrete river embankment behind the bus depot.  So one chilly morning last week, I started walking--following the river into Maioka Park where I was sure he'd come from.

I followed the river 'til the water was so clear that the Koi appeared to be swimming in the trees...

...Brown-eared Bulbul squealed from a branch, "hiiiii-yo! hiiiii-yo!" ...I could hear him, but had to search to find him since his muted colors blend nicely with winter trees and dried grasses.

Scolopax rusticola... Yamashigi... The Eurasian Woodcock

I stopped to squint at Yamashigi--the Eurasian Woodcock, who was being ogled by other birdwatchers with enormous cameras with telescope lenses mounted on tripods.  You can see him there, in the middle of the fallen leaves, right? ;-) 

I was ready to give up and go home, convinced that my little Kawasemi was probably fishing at the other end of the river.  I walked a little further up the path, past a small pond surrounded by dried reeds and trees with low-hanging branches... and the glint of lapis and carnelian caught my eye...

...he fished from a twig, wee feet wrapped tightly around its narrow diameter...

...wee feet...
 azure flash...


...amongst the reeds...

Alcedo atthis... the scintillating River Cicada


  1. What a beautiful little bird! I wonder if their feet would allow them to stand on the ground as opposed to perching.

    Curiously, the belted kingfisher shows reverse sexual dimorphism: the female is more brightly colored than the male. I'm pretty sure we don't know the reason for this.

  2. I have never observed them on the ground (in the way that, say, wagtails scurry along)--only ever perching on something (a branch, the edge of a pipe or something like it). The common kingfisher shows very little sexual dimorphism (I've only once seen what I took to be a breeding pair together--they looked the same to me). I wonder why the belted kingfisher is reverse dimorphic...? Do we know why eagle females are bigger than males? I wonder if it has anything to do with their being mostly solitary hunters? I'm thinking of something they said at EagleCam--about the number of eggs the female can lay being dependent of her level of nutrition (how much food she's able to get in her territory and how rich that territory is)... could that have an effect on dimorphism? (Sorry! You make a comment, and I ask fifty questions...)

  3. wow cute!
    kawasemi is japanese sparrow?????

  4. Hi vvv! Kawasemi is the Common Kingfisher:-)) I think he's totally cute, too!

  5. As an amateur urban bird watcher, I appreciate your situation. I always marvel at how birds find places in a city that mimic their "natural" environment.

  6. Daveau--Yokoso! Thanks for stopping by:-)) I am constantly amazed by just how many birds there are to be seen in this very urban environment (though off the main roads, there are some rice fields and low hills, and such that the birds like). I think one reason there are such a number of birds around here is simply that Japan is a very convenient stopping off point for migratory birds--I look *forward* to winter!