Monkey see, monkey take (no. 3 in Birding in Asia series)

by Jeff Durbin

IN JAPAN, GOING birding by monorail is perfectly appropriate. Actually, to get to Osaka's Expo Park I rode the subway, train, and then the monorail. Once in the park a kind of electric golf cart took me from one birding location to the next, and a dashboard monitor displayed likely birds.

No, the last part is not true. But the park is a little too artificial to provide a great home for birds. In the early '70s the city of Osaka planted trees and excavated ponds and streams on the site of the 1970 World Expo, and 20 years later it looks OK, just not quite the real thing. I went away happy, though, having seen one of the most beautiful birds in Japan, plus a mystery bird.

In the ponds swam Japan's summertime duck, the spot-billed (sexes identical), some domestic mute swans, and little grebes, which are handsome with their rust-red ear patches, and tiny at about 10 inches long. I'm also getting used to seeing white wagtails, on insect alert, standing on stones in fast-moving streams.

In a willow tree that swayed to a strong breeze, a little egret perched for half an hour—an elegant image.

The honors for beauty, however, go to the common kingfisher that flashed across a pool. I saw it for only a second or two, or rather I saw a glint of iridescent green-blue of proper kingfisher shape and size. This is the predominant kingfisher of Eurasia; at seven inches it is barely more than half as big as our belted kingfisher in North America.

Finally, the mystery bird, flushed by a pedestrian soon after I saw it. After a 200-yard chase I lost it for good. It was completely white, and behaved like a wagtail—could it be an albino? But I can't rule out that it was an escaped pet exotic, so the mystery goes unsolved.

At Expo Park I saw no Japanese green pigeon, the bird for which I will risk, if not life and limb, at least a minor ankle sprain. Undaunted, I went to Minoo, a forest on the outskirts of Osaka. A path winds up a steep gorge through a maple forest (shops in the area sell tempura maple leaves). Troops of Japanese monkeys (Nihon-zaru, macaques, to be exact) hang out here, and I got so caught up watching them that I abandoned the green pigeon quest.

The macaques are semi-wild, and some have learned that being aggressive toward humans can pay off. Twice I saw macaques take soft-drink cans out of someone's hand. They also understand how garbage containers work, and the human authorities have not been bright enough to come up with countermeasures. But generally they keep to themselves, and cool off in the stream or chase one another up and down the slopes of the gorge. As a point of natural history, they are the largest and northernmost species of macaque.

But let's return to the Japanese green pigeon. As fall approaches, the summer breeders from Hokkaido (the northern island) will make their way south and join the small permanent population in my part of Japan. Unfortunately The Birds of Japan (by Mark Brazil) says the green pigeon is “shy and retiring and can be difficult to approach,” so I may have to reconsider my vow to stay in Japan until I see it.