Category Archives: birds

Birding in Echigo-Yuzawa

On one of the days we were in Niigata, I took the train to Echigo-Yuzawa, an onsen/ski resort town, to sightsee and try some birding. Skiing and hot springs are the big draws here, and I wasn’t partaking of either. The place I’d been intending to go- Yuzawa Kogen– is a ski resort, and in the summers you can buy a ticket up their ropeway and walk around in an alpine park.

View of Echigo-Yuzawa.

Their brochure showed a number of hiking trails- suggestive of a good chance to do some birding. From the website, they seemed to also have kiddie attractions, like go-carts and a small zipline, so I wasn’t sure what the situation would be for birds. But I went anyway, and had a pretty good time (though saw very few birds- if you are more mobile, there are better places in the Japanese Alps for it).

On the way up the ropeway…

After getting up on the ropeway and walking around a bit (and it was quite steep, even though there was a plateau up there), it transpired that the hiking trails were closed, presumably because of lingering snow. That was disappointing. But I walked over to their “alpine garden” and looked at the sights: a pond and some early flowers. There were a lot of frogs croaking and what looked like egg casings in the water.

Alpine garden and pond.

Eggs of some sort of amphibian?

The garden itself would clearly be pretty in a few more weeks – at the time, only a few things were blooming or even much above ground.

Ski runs with melting snow.

Statues on the plateau.

I toodled around for a while, having little success with birds (most were staying in the trees, where the trails were blocked off) and taking some photos.

Early lilies blooming.

Forget-me-nots?

The peak above the plateau area (where I wasn’t allowed to hike) was listed on the map as being over 2600 meters high; I’d estimate that I was at about 1800 meters on the plateau.

Buttercups?

My only glimpse of cherry blossoms on the trip- we were too late in the season for the ones at lower elevations.

I eventually went back down the ropeway. I’d noticed a trail to a waterfall- Fudootaki Falls- marked on the tourist map I’d picked up, and hoped that might be a better place for birds.

Restaurant Edelweiss- at the resort, so a bit pricey. The restaurants in town were less expensive.

I stopped for lunch first at a burger place (teriyaki burger set) before heading up to the waterfall. It was a good thing, because the path up to the waterfall had a pretty consistent uphill grade. Along the way, it passed through a residential area, where the sound of rushing water was apparent – really, it was apparent all through the town. The snowmelt was filling the storm drains, and in places the drains were overflowing somewhat, though the water didn’t look dirty. So water was definitely a theme in Echigo-Yuzawa.

Rushing stream, on the way to the waterfall.

More spring flowers in the gorge.

Anyway, fortified by burger and fries, I walked to the stream. It was tucked into a valley alongside the ridge that the ropeway goes up. There was a high dam and a park about halfway along the stream, then the pathway got a bit steeper for a while and climbed the valley wall overlooking the stream.

Dam on the way up to the waterfall.

Cablecar on the way up to Yuzawa Kogen.

Along the way up, there was an older couple who were also doing the hike. I think the woman saw me looking at the dam and assumed I didn’t realize it was the waterfall, because she beckoned me on up the path. The same thing happened when I was checking out the first cascade, which was apparently smaller than the big waterfall – she asked if I spoke Japanese, I said no, and she tried to explain that the bigger waterfall was still ahead. Rather than try to explain that I knew the big one was deeper in the valley, I went ahead and followed them up. There were actually quite a few wildflowers blooming along the path too.

Older couple along the stream. It seemed that they were collecting rocks after visiting the waterfall.

More wildflowers.

It was clear that the path had only been passable for a little while – the older man busied himself breaking some branches of trees that had fallen onto the trail, probably over the winter. The walls of the valley were steep enough that I bet landslides would be a problem. In some places, there were still deposits of dirty snow with lots of plant matter mixed in with it – even over the lower part of the stream, where there was a bit of an open-ceiling tunnel effect. But it was actually pleasantly warm.

Some of the trees were blooming too.

So at the big waterfall, which was back in the V of the head of the valley, there was a rock wall with water dripping down it and liverworts and mosses, alongside a small water basin with a cup. I did drink a bit of the water. The waterfall itself wasn’t super big, but was very pretty. It was quite misty because of the force of the snowmelt, and there were a lot of small flying bugs around, sort of glinting prettily in the light. So it was a pretty cool sight. It was clear that with the spring snowmelt you couldn’t get as close to the falls as maybe during the summer. I hung out for just a bit, then headed back down.

Basin and cup.

Fudootaki Falls.

Along the way, I saw a dipper-the avian kind– which I’d been wanting to see for some time. Dippers are cute chubby birds, not particularly graceful fliers. This one wasn’t “dipping” in the water (which is where they get their name), but stayed visible enough that it was clear what it was. So that was neat.

Another spring lily.

Wild daffodil.

It was about 2 at that point, and I was a bit tired. I walked through town a bit. The train tracks were pretty far overhead part of the town because of the steep terrain, and it was interesting to see that houses were built under them. This reminded me of many Final Fantasy games, where there’s a similar urban setup – not something I’d encountered in the US where space isn’t generally a premium.

Under the shinkansen tracks.

I caught a train back to Niigata around 3:15 or so, and managed to find a seat. I must have dozed off, because while I thought I was paying attention to the station announcements, I thought the next was for Nagaoka (which came before Niigata), before being alerted to the fact that it was actually Niigata by the slightly different announcement and the rustling of everyone who was preparing to leave. Maybe it’s lucky that my stop was at the end of the line!

Echigo-Yuzawa street scene.

Birding Fukushimagata Wetlands, Niigata, Japan

One of my day trips out of Niigata was to the Fukushimagata wetlands for birding. Fukushimagata is a park a bit northeast of Niigata City that provides habitat for birds- large numbers of waterfowl visit on migration and in the winter, but I was there at an “off” season and only saw a few species.

I headed on a local train east to the town of Toyosaka, getting there mid-morning. Toyosaka has clearly seen somewhat better days, to judge from the state of the downtown shopping arcade area. At any rate, I walked to the Fukushimagata wetlands, which are surrounded by rice fields just southeast of town. Many of the paddies had clearly been planted recently, and some of them had people in them planting. There were not too many birds in and around the paddies- Japan is not really a “birdy” place. This is probably partly due to the seasons, though.

Farmers planting rice, along the road outside of Toyosaka.

I’d originally thought that the distance from the station to the wetlands was about 1 km, but it turned out to be more like 4. So the walk was a lot longer than expected. In retrospect, it would have been helpful to look into catching a bus. The walk turned out to be fine, through a suburban area that was in better repair than downtown Toyosaka- the houses were reminiscent of the newer developments on Central Oahu or the west side of Kauai – small houses with walls, and low flat fields right outside of the town. Though this was rice, not sugarcane.

As I was walking, I heard some really loud, croaking and buzzing birds in the reeds, but was not able to get a look at them. This was a bit frustrating. When I got to the wetland protected area, there was a river running alongside it, with a spiral-shaped observation tower/nature center, and across the street a wetland complex. I visited the river first, and heard more of the buzzy birds, but was not able to see them. The visitor center had an admission fee, so I weighed going in, before deciding against it and crossing the elevated bridge over to the wetland side.

Fukushimagata river.

I stopped at an open teahouse/shelter building to drink some tea and eat a snack- some banana chocolate covered cookies that I’d grabbed in Niigata Station. I’d assumed there would be more food along the way, but there wasn’t much apparent in Toyosaka. But it was only 11, and I was still doing okay. A Japanese man sat next to me and tried to chat- he offered some of his lunch and I think I politely declined- but then gave me some gum. I felt a bit awkward about the encounter.

View of the shelter.

I did notice one person who looked like a birder walking along the edge of the wetlands – most of the people I saw were just out for a stroll and lacked birding paraphernalia, i.e., binocs, a vest, and a furtive manner. I walked in the opposite direction, but he ended up coming the same way I did when I was trying to identify a duck.

The observation tower. It probably would have had a great view, but I was eager to get to the birds…

He tried to indicate something in Japanese, but I told him I didn’t speak the language. So he asked for my book and pointed to a great crested grebe (most bird books are organized according to taxonomy, so the order of species will generally be the same and it’s easy to jump to a specific group regardless of language). Apparently they’re rare at the wetland, so he was quite excited. Since that communication was more or less successful, I asked him which reed-warbler was all around (the buzzing bird), and he pointed to the right one (Great reed-warbler). Cross-cultural geeky communication FTW! Anyway, that interaction worked out better than the man trying to feed me.

View of the lagoon from the shelter. There was a nice view of the mountains.

So, I proceeded on at the wetlands, visiting a viewing tower on the shore of the lagoon, and then headed back. By this point I was both tired and hungry, and wanted to rest my feet and get lunch. I also felt I would have done an honorable amount of walking by the time I got back to the station. Along the way, I passed food guy going the other way on his bike. Again, a bit awkward. But I successfully made my way back to the train station, Niigata, and onigiri and melon pastries.

Bird-viewing tower.

My bird list for the day:

  • Mallard, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Green-winged Teal & Greater Scaup
  • Little Grebe & Great Crested Grebe
  • Great Cormorant
  • Gray Heron, Great Egret, Little Egret & Black-crowned Night-Heron
  • Black Kite
  • Eurasian Moorhen & Eurasian Coot
  • Oriental Turtle-Dove, Carrion Crow, Sky Lark, Barn Swallow, Great Reed-Warbler, Narcissus Flycatcher, White-cheeked Starling, White Wagtail, Oriental Greenfinch & Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Urban animals of Japan

Because we were mainly in urban areas in Japan, we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife. Really, the deer in Nara were the only megafauna we saw; we were hiking in areas with wild monkeys a few times, but only saw signs warning of their apparent evil.

Seriously, do not mess with the monkeys! Sign from Fushimi Inari.

Of course, there were feral cats a few times, and the nutria in the Shimogamo River. But we didn’t see anything really cool like tanuki.

I did a fair amount of birding, though it was mostly opportunistic in the sense of carrying my binoculars around with me.

Birding at Kiyomizu-dera. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

The season and areas we were in weren’t really conducive to seeing a wide variety of birds, but I did see 45 different species (25 lifers).

Black-tailed Gull, Ueno Park.

The only raptor we saw was the Black Kite; there were a lot of these in Kyoto. We’d occasionally hear them calling from our hotel room window, and look out to see them riding thermals over the city.

Black Kite on right; Rock Pigeons on left.

We ended up seeing some neat invertebrates too. A wet day in Kyoto showed us a land planarian that was several inches long.

Pretty sure this is Bipalium kewense. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

I’m not very good at ID’ing insects, but we saw a lot of flying critters in riparian areas (including the giant hornet!). I have no idea what this one is (thankfully, it was not flying):

Seen near a stream in Higashiyama. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

And there were some insects in scenic places, like this caterpillar found on a jacket in the forest at Fushimi Inari:

Kind of a cute little guy. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

If we visit again, it would be nice to get into some less urbanized areas to see more wildlife. Maybe a Hokkaido trip in the future…

Florida to allow dyeing pets?

For 45 years, Florida has banned the dyeing of animals- usually rabbits and chicks- for Easter. Now, one dog groomer in South Florida has single-handedly convinced all but eight members of the legislature to overturn the ban. This would make it legal to dye animals only a few days old and sell them like Easter eggs.

The reason the practice was made illegal in the first place was apparently the high number of animals that were killed during the dying process- the dyes are usually toxic, especially to young animals. Even when they survive ingesting the chemicals, Easter pets are often neglected to death, abandoned, or dropped off at overburdened shelters. This is a bad, bad idea on many levels.

I think this quote from the Sun-Sentinel’s story captures the Legislature’s thought processes- or lack of them- nicely:

Bogdanoff did not realize the amendment would also allow bunnies and chicks to be sold when they are just days old, said Aaron Nevins, her legislative aide.

“Oops,” he said. “That’s an unintended consequence. We had no clue.”

No, you apparently did not.

Amendment 303390, allowing the artificial dyeing or coloring of animals is now on Gov. Rick Scott’s desk. If he doesn’t veto it, it goes into effect this summer. You can urge him to veto Amendment 303390 here.

Ka’ena Point

On our winter trip to Hawaii, we took a hike out to Ka’ena Point, the northwestern tip of Oahu. In contrast to last year, it was quite dry out there.

Nesting Laysan Albatross, Ka'ena Point

Nesting Laysan Albatrosses, Ka'ena Point

We saw quite a few Laysan Albatrosses here, nesting. No Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, though.

Another view of the albatross.

Other notable bird sightings were a White-tailed Tropicbird, and a very tired looking Cattle Egret winging in to land from apparently way out to sea. They’re not seabirds, though they do apparently fly along the coast from roosting sites to feeding areas. I have no idea where this one had been- it appeared to be heading straight from Kauai, which is probably not realistic- the Ka’ie’ie Waho Channel is 72 miles wide!

We also saw two Monk Seals lounging on the rocks, as well as some Humpback Whales out to sea. There were also some neat critters (and algae) in the tidepools. So not a spectacular day for wildlife, but we saw some cool stuff.

Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal (the lazy grey blob in the center of the frame)

December ducklings

I’ve been trying pretty hard to think of an appropriate seasonal pun for this, but nothing seems quite right:

  • “Deck the hall with a clutch of ducklings”
  • “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…for nesting”
  • “O ducky night”
  • “Rudolph the unseasonably-timed duckling”
  • “Silent night, quacky night”

Yeah, not working.

Anyway, it is, obviously, December, and a pair of wild mallard/mottled duck hybrids has decided to raise a batch of babies in our pond. I’ve mentioned the apparent awesomeness of our pond for duck breeding before, but this is pretty ridiculous.

The babies are clearly only a few days old, and I saw them for the first time yesterday. I’m hoping it stays warm enough at night for them to survive. It’s been a mild winter so far, so maybe they can stay warm until they get big enough to survive before we have a freeze. It’s generally January or February before that happens, so hopefully all goes well…

Orlando Wetlands Park gets a major facelift

Last weekend, we took a short break from working and drove out to Orlando Wetlands Park. We only had about an hour and a half in the park before closing, but it was still good to get out of the house (and away from grading!)

The really obvious change at the park is the big expansion in flooded pond area. OWP is a water treatment facility that slowly filters treated wastewater through a series of ponds and marshes, before discharging it into the St. Johns River. Plants, algae, and natural microbes do the job of pulling excess nutrients out of the water. After treatment, the water is actually much lower in nutrient levels than the water in the St. Johns, but the nutrients have to go somewhere, and that ends up being the rotting remains of the plants and algae.

We're not talking about a shovelful or two of dirt, here... (Photo by OWP staff.)

Apparently, the time had come to remove some of the nutrient-containing (mainly phosphorus) muck from part of the wetland. After the muck removal, managers planted more native plants, and re-flooded the area. There’s a description of the process here. It certainly gives the place a different “feel.”

Since we didn’t have much time to explore the park before closing, it was quite disorienting to see the new expanse of pond with little cypress tree “islands” where before there had been marsh. I guess my surprise a testament to how long it’s been since I’ve visited, because I think this work was done a few months ago (where does the time go…?). It’s a bit sad that the mapsI helped make for them are now out of date! (Though I think the berms and paths are pretty similar…)

Newly-planted ponds. (Photo: OWP staff.)

Anyway, the park closes for the season on Nov. 15th, so I’m going to try to get out there again before that point- maybe bike around a bit to see what’s changed.

Here’s my bird list- not too bad for a breezy hour of walking around. The highlight was probably the whistling-duck families, which have the obvious cute appeal of being, well, ducks that whistle.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Wood Stork
Double-crested Cormorant
Anhinga
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
White Ibis
Glossy Ibis
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Red-shouldered Hawk
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Downy/Hairy Woodpecker (moved too fast to tell)
Eastern Phoebe
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Common Yellowthroat
Palm Warbler
Savannah Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Boat-tailed Grackle

Wild birds with human speech

In news from Australia, it appears that wild parrots are learning human speech- from other parrots.

Baby parrots learn their vocalizations from adult parrots. When an escaped (or intentionally released) pet parrot joins up with a wild flock, that parrot then teaches young birds the words it’s learned from humans.

Apparently, this phenomenon is a bit disturbing to Sydney residents, who are being serenaded by cries of “Hello there!”, and “What’s happening?”

I’m amused by the final quote in this Courier Mail article:

“I just hope a pet bird that’s been taught dirty words doesn’t join a flock because we don’t want to hear that kind of thing going around the back gardens.”

(h/t Birdchick)

Of peacocks and percussion

Well, we’re two and a half weeks into the fall semester, and I’ve managed not to be steamrolled yet by the teaching-dissertating combination. I’m working on getting IRB approval to get user feedback on my visualization project, which is just about done. Of course, this means I’m not actually writing, but I’m making progress.

But who wants to hear about that? I will now present to you the highlights of the two days in the last two weeks that I actually got away from the house-school-Panera triangle.

Two weeks ago, we got out to College Park, had a nice lunch, bought some bike supplies, and had green tea frozen yogurt (yum). While we were eating lunch, this bird appeared, strolling down the sidewalk:

A pretty scruffy specimen, I must say.

Now, there are two peacock colonies around the Orlando area, but they’re ~5 miles away from where we were. This bird looked pretty stressed. The owner of the restaurant brought out a bowl of water and some pine nuts, and he sort of pecked a bit at the nuts. But then he proceeded on his way, unfortunately heading out of the quiet residential neighborhood and onto a busy street.

Off he went. Yes, that car stopped for him.

After the whole business with the macaw, I was afraid we’d witness a tragic accident, but he proceeded to walk down the bike lane and eventually moved back to the residential side of the street. He was probably heading for the nearby park. I hope he’s found a more comfortable situation by now.

So, my other interesting outing was less harrowing. Last Saturday, we went to see the Orlando Lions– our 3rd-tier pro soccer team- playing in the USL Pro League championship. And…they won!

The team takes a victory lap around the stadium.

It was an exciting game- no one scored until the 89th minute, then the Lions did. Then, their opponents (the Harrisburg City Islanders) tied it in the last second of injury time. In overtime, the Islanders scored again, but the Lions managed to tie again at the last minute. So, it came down to penalty kicks, which the Lions won. I’m leaving out all the drama of players being ejected, including the Lions’ keeper, dramatic falls, etc. But it was good stuff.

For fans of “A Song of Ice and Fire”- the (unofficial?) team motto is apparently “Hear us roar.” Close enough 🙂

Of course, another highlight was one of the Lions’ booster clubs, a Trinidadian percussion band who played pretty much the whole game through. If all sporting events had their own percussion sections, I’d probably be more enthusiastic about sports overall.

The band setting up.