Concrete overload (no. 2 in Birding in Asia series)

by Jeff Durbin

THERE ARE TWO ways to look at urban birding in Japan. One is to abstain from it altogether, and go to the country or lightly developed areas. Far better to take a train some short distance away and wander along forest paths or rivershores. At the least, get to the edge of the city and into the hills. Avoid broader issues, such as, is this city a massive experiment in how people function without nature?

The other way is to stay inside the city limits and make the best of it. Try Osaka, for example. Osaka is formidable, a city of the 21st century according to its promoters. It is productive and technologically advanced, has a train and subway network second to none, and contains four million people. It is a fine place if you're a big glass-and-concrete fan. If you just want to see if any wild creatures are left, what you have are a couple of decent-sized parks (Hattori-Ryokuchi, Expo Memorial), the Yodogawa River, and the bird sanctuary in Osaka Harbor.

The parks are quite nice. Between the two of them you can visit the National Museum of Ethnology, ride a rollercoaster, play baseball or soccer, attend the Osaka Philharmonic, and if you're lucky, see shrikes, buntings, ducks, bulbuls, and herons.

The bird sanctuary in Osaka Harbor—human-made, with three small ponds next to the sea—is probably the best and worst place to see birds in the city. When I was there in August, black-tailed gulls competed for perch space on wooden pilings, and barn swallows professionally cruised the ponds in pursuit of insects. Gray herons and little and great egrets poked in the water, spot-billed ducks mildly harassed a lone common gallinule, and two kinds of plover, little ringed and snowy, scurried over the mud past a dunlin and a few common sandpipers. On the other side of the concrete seawall, little terns flocked and dove for fish. In winter flotillas of ducks come here, and twice a year large numbers of shorebirds migrating between Siberia and southeast Asia stop over.

On the other hand, the sanctuary has been neglected: it needs landscaping, and the seawall should be fenced off to prevent trespassers from (probably unknowingly) disturbing birds. There is also an impressive amount of litter.

And with wide views of the harbor and city beyond, one has countless opportunities to ponder a small patch of animal-friendly green enveloped by city; throughout a 40-mile curve of harbor, no natural coastline remains.

For a final insult, between the last trainstop and the sanctuary a super-modern international trade (i.e., shopping) complex has sprung up. As it is, the shopping and entertainment scenes in Osaka make most cities look like Palookaville. Who needs this, too? But enough 20th-century whining. Next outing will be outside the city, and will avoid important issues entirely.