Kyoto thermal (no. 1 in Birding in Asia series)

by Jeff Durbin

WITH A BORROWED pair of opera glasses I have set out for the wilds of Kyoto. In my head the images and names of 12 or 15 birds I hope to see, studied from an uncheckoutable English translation of Birds of Japan, are mutating rapidly. I can't seem to keep plumages straight; by my best guess the mukudori (gray starling) has a white rump patch, while 10 minutes ago only its tail flares were white. Part of my struggle comes from it being humid and 38° (as a conversion factor for Celsius, above 35° your sweat drips rather than beads).

I am walking to the northern edge of the city, which is hemmed in by steep, forested hills. I pass a radio station, apartments, ceramic-tiled houses with pruned gardens, a small field of rice, a Circle K convenience store. At Midorogaike pond I enter a gate, with a sign in Japanese, the first word of which I know to be “Kyoto.” It's some kind of institution, and I figure they won't mind my strolling along the shore.

Head-high reeds and grasses look like good heron habitat. Patches of open water (spot-billed ducks? little grebes?), dense stands of waterlily, and scrubby pines (an osprey? a cuckoo?) complete the waterscape. Rimming the pond is forest, which may contain the bird I most want to see, the aobato—the Japanese green pigeon. It is the size and shape of your basic city pigeon, but the color in Birds of Japan is a beautifully shaded green with rust and black trim, as if someone wondered what a cross between a parrot and a pigeon might look like.

Within three minutes of entering the gate, having met one person and overheard another, I realize that I'm in the Kyoto Sanitarium, and retreat to the other side of the pond. (A later inspection of the sign at the gate, Japanese character dictionary in hand, confirms this. Japan dishes out many humbling language experiences, but this one is way up the list.)

From the path I spot one gray heron at the edge of the reeds, then a second and a third. They appear to be continuously gargling, so intensely are their gulars fluttering to cool themselves. Compared to our great blues they're a little smaller and grayer, but have the same concentration at fishing. Four spot-billed ducks bathe and dunk for food. Two raptors ride the thermals (on a day like this, the entire sky must be a thermal), unknown buteos I later decide are common buzzards. In the woods I hear and track down a woodpecker (later: Japanese pygmy woodpecker). Other birds sing from the canopy but I can't see them well enough for identification, my specialty being large, fairly immobile birds.

Back in the heart of the city, little egrets (Egretta garzetta) prowl the concrete bottom of the Kamogawa River, just below spill-ledges. To me they're snowy egrets (Egretta thula), but later in Asahiya bookstore I read otherwise. A couple of black-crowned night herons (no mistake this time—Old and New World species are identical) stand on rocks in the current waiting for the right moment. On a sandbar I see a carrion crow trying to be a heron, on another the stark white-black white wagtail. Rufous turtle doves find shelter on the brushy islands.

Since massive flooding in 1935, the Kamogawa River has been channelized, dammed, banked and generally managed into artificiality. At least it is clean once again. BOD (biochemical oxygen demand, a measure of water cleanliness) figures have dropped from 180 in the 1960s to less than 3. These days Kyoto birding is not bad, and exceptional for a large Japanese city.