New year's cranes (no. 5 in Birding in Asia series)

by Jeff Durbin

TRAVEL BY FERRY has some special elements in Japan. If you go second class, you share a cabin with 20 or 30 people. The cabin is not unlike a room in a Japanese home, except for being larger. You open the door, take off your shoes in the entrance space, and step up onto the tatami or carpet which you share with your fellow passengers. At night you grab your blankets and pillow (sorry, no futons), and sleep on the floor, neatly lined up with the others.

Then there's the bath, again just like the bath in any home or public bathhouse. First you choose one of the taps—in the old days a simple spigot which you used with a bucket, now a sophisticated shower nozzle—sit on your plastic stool, and get clean. Then you immerse yourself in the tub, which has an observation window so that you can lie in the water and look out over the sea.

Ferries are a bargain, too, and theoretically you arrive the next day well-rested. Last New Year's Eve I threaded Japan's Inland Sea on my way from Osaka to Kyushu, the southern island, in order to see cranes. Every winter, one particular spot in Kyushu hosts several species of cranes, with almost 10,000 individuals.

At 8:00 in the evening a ship's officer had broken open a keg of New Year's sake, and over a ceremonial cup I met a self-described Japanese hippie. He was 40, had lived all over Japan, was familiar with the works of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Dylan, and Hendrix, and had just published a China travelogue, which wasn't selling. Later in the bath, I happened to mention that I'd seen the Grateful Dead once, and that sealed it: he invited me to his mother's house for the traditional New Year's meal.

The next day, after much feasting, I started hitchhiking to the southwestern coast of Kyushu. The Kyushu cranes are quite well-known, and my journey to see them gave me instant credibility with everyone I met. Hitching in Japan is both rare and amazingly easy. It's regarded as a cool thing that only foreigners do. With my fifth ride of the day I rolled into Izumi around sunset. Seichi, a civil engineer, invited me to his parents' farmhouse, a solid and classic old structure (the walls consisted mainly of sliding doors).

I wasn't sure what 10,000 cranes would look like. To begin with, I discovered they are loud, and also occasionally competitive with each other over food. Five species of cranes wintered in Izumi this year: about 8,200 hooded cranes (from the Lake Baikal region of Siberia), 1,500 white-naped cranes (from northern China), four common cranes (from central Siberia), three “Canada” cranes (sandhill cranes to us; from Siberia or Alaska), and one Siberian white crane (breeding grounds near the Arctic Sea). The strays from the last three species are semi-regular visitors to Izumi—perhaps on some kind of cultural exchange program.

Actually, Izumi is one of the best all-around winter birding sites in Japan. I saw a number of (for me) first-time species: a huge flock of rooks, 500-700 birds, which had migrated from Siberia, among which I saw about 10 Daurian jackdaws (white-and-black phase); common shelducks and Eurasian wigeons in the river; Japanese white-eyes in thickets; a silver-headed Daurian redstart in someone's vegetable garden; lapwings in the rice-stubble fields; and a green pheasant, the national bird (and endemic to Japan) prowling a riverbank—all wonderful birds.

Black kites are common in Japan, and are generally seen circling over shorelines and farmfields looking for dead fish or other carrion. But I saw them in huge numbers at Izumi, including a congregation of 28 sitting in a rice-stubble field. Minutes later, most of these took off to besiege a gray heron who had just caught a fish.

Birds familiar to North American birders were also at Izumi. I saw an osprey plunge into a bay and come out with a fish. There were green-winged teal, mallards, greater scaup, common gallinules, snowy plovers, a northern harrier, and, sad to say, a small flock of European starlings (in fact, European starlings made their first appearance in Japan at this very place, in 1969; nationwide, they are still extremely rare). A few cattle egrets hung around the pig farm.

This pig farm was probably the hottest of the hot spots for the bigtime birders. I met several there, under less than ideal circumstances, having just clumsily flushed the extremely rare Chinese pond heron that everyone had come to see.

Two of these birders, Suzuki and Paul (British, and a long-time Japan resident) had met the year before on Tsushima Island, a rest stop on a major East Asian migratory route. When I say “birders,” I mean serious birders: Paul had forgotten Suzuki's face, but recalled in detail that Suzuki had been looking for the buff-breasted sandpiper on Tsushima. The third birder at the pig farm was Oyama, a pleasantly eccentric 45-year-old woman who owned a very small car into which we fitted ourselves for a short drive to look for shelducks. Paul, in the front seat, was so large that he rendered his seatbelt superfluous.

In more ways than one, I was only along for the ride. Suzuki had seen over 400 species in Japan, an impressive record (not that he bragged about it; the others pried it out of him). Paul had grown up in the great tradition of British amateur naturalists. As for Oyama, her skills were obvious, and were merely confirmed when she stopped at the house of a well-known ornithologist to use his bathroom.

The weather was windy and chilly, and this was commented on, though not in the sense of “maybe we should go someplace to warm up,” as these were people who would sit on a wet log for a couple of hours if there was an interesting bird nearby. We scouted around the fields and coastline in search of Japanese and Chinese grosbeaks, red turtle doves, unusual shorebirds, and sea ducks. The three were slightly obsessed with adding to their birdlists—come to think of it, I had a list, too—but they knew and enjoyed birds thoroughly, so injecting some sport into their birding seemed fine to me.

The next day I walked around by myself in an intermittent rain. Unfortunately, the birding was marred by always having to look at litter. There was so much that you couldn't block it out of your mind, everything from plastic wrappers to major appliances. Litter, in fact, is omnipresent in public places in Japan. (Japan's image overseas is such that I've sometimes found that people will simply not believe this. Environmental awareness in Japan is still quite low. And as language sometimes reveals sociology, I will point out that “uchi” means “home,” “inside,” and sometimes “I”—hence immaculate houses and gardens—whereas public places are “soto,” that is, “outside.” Shorthand translation: inside one's sphere, everything matters; outside, nothing.)

During the daytime most of the cranes scattered over local fields, staying in their family (parents plus juvenile) groups, but otherwise not minding which species they shared space with. Cranes are big and rangy; the white-naped stand over four feet tall. In flight you can't decide at first if they're graceful or awkward—“large but graceful,” you finally conclude. Especially in Japan, crane mating dances are renowned (though that renown is attached to the Japanese crane of the far north). In winter they don't do the big show, but in their territorial displays they give a hint of it—with outspread wings, and neck flung back, they announce their claim to a spot of ground.

In the evening all the cranes returned to a fenced-off field, where they received daily rations of feed from wardens. This was also the location of the crane museum and observation building, where a guide delivered non-stop crane lectures throughout the day. Adjacent were shops with crane knick-knacks, food carts (baked sweet potatoes, octopus dumplings), and inns to spend the night in close proximity to the birds.

At first glance the Izumi cranes seem like one of the great migratory marvels of nature, like wildebeests or snow geese. Then you look into things a bit, and realize it's not a good idea for there to be 10,000 cranes at Izumi. Ten years ago 7,200 birds wintered here; 20 years ago, 2,700; 30 years ago, 1,300; and 40 years ago, in 1954-55, fewer than 300 cranes migrated here. The problem is that their other wintering areas in Korea and Japan have been lost to development, and Izumi is their final option.

Now that so many birds are concentrated here, they are vulnerable to an epidemic, or to a disaster such as long-term chemical poisoning. Individually, they are hardy, but having virtually every member of two species in one location, while it may be spectacular, is bad news.

My way back to Osaka was a lesson in Japanese geography. Through Kyushu I traveled in steep-sided valleys, the lower mountainsides planted with tangerines, and the valley floors taken up by rice paddies and farmhouses. No room to spare. Then we crossed the bridge to Honshu, the main island, and for the next 600 kilometers we wound through the mountains on the main national expressway. The longest flat straightaway couldn't have been more than 500 meters. Finally, nearing Osaka, we came out onto a coastal plain of some size, large enough for 15 million people to wedge into (this includes Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, and many lesser cities). Japan is not a tiny country: it's one-and-a-half times the size of Great Britain, for example. But mountains are everywhere, and they are far too steep for habitation or agriculture (though most slopes have been ingeniously logged).

It doesn't take an ace ecologist to figure out that space is at a premium, and the people have dibs. In Japan the mountains are a stronghold for semi-wilderness, but nearly everything else, such as wetlands and accessible coastlines, is developed. Rivers, too: even in hard-to-get-to places they are dammed for power and for flood and sediment control for the cities below. In other words, many migratory bird routes are at risk. Meanwhile the mew gulls and cranes, pintails and shelducks, hawfinches and dusky thrushes, lapwings and redstarts, rooks and jackdaws, will keep funneling down east Asia as best they can.