The Birds of Spring

Gray Heron, taken along the Kamogawa near Shichijo-dori. Do herons do hanami too?

Gray Heron, taken along the Kamogawa near Shichijo-dori. Do herons do hanami too?

Konnichiwa! We’re back from our spring trip, and an extension in Manila for some shoots in the nearby provinces. We’ve been so busy with shooting, followed by Holy Week and catching up with family that we’ve quite a backlog of posts from our autumn trip. I’m so pumped up after our sakura season trip though that I’ll sneak in this post.

Common Kingfisher. Taken at the Nakaragi Pond, Kyoto Botanical Gardens.

Common Kingfisher. Taken at the Nakaragi Pond, Kyoto Botanical Gardens.

Sometime ago I mentioned that Kyoto Botanical Garden’s Nakaragi pond was known for its resident kingfishers. This time, one finally came close enough for me to get its picture. This is known as the Common Kingfisher, and I have shots of one at our tilapia pond from long ago, but I feel the name does little justice to its jewel-like colors. I got wind of its presence when I saw several photographers with long lenses waiting beside the pond, staring fixedly at something across the water. I asked one of them what bird they were shooting, and they said “kawasemi.” Aha! Kawasemi is the Japanese word for kingfisher, and surely enough, there it was — and then it flew closer!

Kingfisher being followed by a Japanese birder.

The kingfisher again from another angle. I glimpsed it from the path on the other side of the pond as Cat and I explored the Nakaragi-no-Mori, and I couldn’t resist the juxtaposition of bird and birder.

A pair of Eastern Great Tits courting at the Kyoto Botanical Garden's Nakaragi-no-Mori.

A pair of Eastern Great Tits courting at the Kyoto Botanical Garden’s Nakaragi-no-Mori.

A Japanese White-Eye (mejiro), feeding on cherry blossom nectar. Taken at the Kyoto Botanical Gardens.

A Japanese White-Eye (mejiro), feeding on cherry blossom nectar. Taken at the Kyoto Botanical Gardens.

A Pygmy Woodpecker in Kyoto Botanical Gardens' Nakaragi-no-Mori forest. First time ever to see this bird.

A Pygmy Woodpecker in Kyoto Botanical Gardens’ Nakaragi-no-Mori forest. First time ever to see this bird 🙂

Kyoto’s forested parks and sacred sites can easily turn anyone into a birder. Specially in spring, when increasing warmth and food start the birds breeding. Everywhere Cathy and I went we could see or hear courting birds. Quite a few of them were attracted to the cherry trees to feed on the blossoms or nectar. There was even one very familiar suspect gleefully and noisily lopping off blossoms.

A Eurasian Tree Sparrow (suzume), at Osaka Castle's Nishinomaru Gardens.

A Eurasian Tree Sparrow (suzume), at Osaka Castle’s Nishinomaru Gardens.

Yup, that’s what we Filipinos call a “maya,” a Eurasian Tree Sparrow. What’s it doing in Japan? Actually, we should be asking what’s it doing in our Philippine islands — this bird is native to continental Eurasia and nearby islands, but wasn’t found in the Philippines until the Spaniards introduced it.

Daurian Redstart, seen in Kyoto Gyoen Park outside the Imperial Palace.

Daurian Redstart, seen in Kyoto Gyoen Park outside the Imperial Palace.

Oriental Turtle-Dove, seen at the Osaka Castle Park.

Oriental Turtle-Dove, seen at the Osaka Castle Park.

Brown-eared Bulbul feeding on cherry blossom nectar. Seen at Koriyama Castle, Nara.

Brown-eared Bulbul feeding on cherry blossom nectar. Seen at Koriyama Castle, Nara.

Also found among the cherry trees were brown-eared bulbuls — there were a lot of these wherever we went, daurian redstarts, Japanese tits, a pygmy woodpecker, Oriental turtledoves and Japanese white-eyes.

Little Egret (kosagi) along the Kamogawa. You can recognize them instantly by their yellow feet.

Little Egret (kosagi) along the Kamogawa. You can recognize them instantly by their yellow feet.

Spot-Billed Duck pair along the Kamogawa.

Spot-Billed Duck pair along the Kamogawa.

A Japanese Cormorant hunting in Lake Biwa. Taken at the Hamaotsu Nagisa Park, Otsu.

A Japanese Cormorant hunting in Lake Biwa. Taken at the Hamaotsu Nagisa Park, Otsu.

Gray herons, egrets and several kinds of duck were ubiquitous on the Kamogawa and the canals. Cathy and I had a good laugh over one heron in Kiyamachi — where most herons spend their time looking down as they hunt fish, this one spent all its time looking up at a restaurant’s window. Sure enough, after a while one of the cooks opened a window and threw some fish entrails down to be caught by the bird. Crafty beggar!

Gray Heron begging along the Kiyamachi canal, Kyoto.

Gray Heron begging along the Kiyamachi canal, Kyoto.

I’ve had a fascination for wildlife ever since childhood, so I guess it was no surprise after all that I ended up taking a lot more bird photos than I’d expected. Same with Cat, who used our long lens a lot. Actually she brought it for that very purpose, as she’d been frustrated last year when the longest lens we had was a 200mm. Ah, need a longer lens ….

JAPANESE BIRD NAMES

These are the Japanese names of the birds mentioned in the post.

  • Kingfisher – kawasemi
  • Sparrow – suzume
  • Gray heron – aosagi
  • Little egret – kosagi
  • Cattle egret – amasagi
  • Kite – tobi, tonbi
  • Crow – karasu
  • Japanese white-eye – mejiro
  • Brown-eared bulbul – hiyodori
  • Pygmy woodpecker – kogera kitori
  • Mallard duck – magamo
  • Spot-billed duck – karugamo
  • Mandarin duck – oshidori
  • Japanese cormorant – umiu
  • Oriental turtledove – kijibato
  • Japanese (Eastern Great) Tit – shijuukara
  • Daurian Redstart – joubitaki

TRAVELER TIPS

If you love wildlife, try taking an early morning stroll by the Kamo River. You’ll see herons, egrets, mallard, spot-billed and sometimes Mandarin ducks, and flocks of cormorants fly in from I think the Arashiyama area.

You can feed the ducks — in fact a lot of Kyoto residents do — but please only give them plain bread* or duck feed. Don’t give them junk food, if it’s bad for us it’s doubly worse for them.

If you want to eat by the riverside, guard your food. The crows and kites of the Kamogawa are notorious food thieves!

Please respect the environment and don’t leave trash lying around.

PHOTOGRAPHER TIPS

I usually look for front or side lighting when shooting birds, as this lets me get more detail. Sometimes you don’t have that choice, but when the environment is rich in birds I just look for a tree that’s lit the way I want and wait. Cherry trees in bloom are very attractive to birds, as there’s a bonanza of nectar for them with all those flowers.

Single-shot focus will do for taking photos of the big wading birds, which stand still or move slowly. For the songbirds, which move around a lot, Continuous focus works a lot better (for Canon, this is the AI Servo mode).

There is a gray heron rookery by the big pond in Shosei-en Garden. Shosei-en is an easy walk from Kyoto Station, just east of the Higashi Honganji temple. (The garden is in fact owned by the temple.) There are begging herons at the Gion Shirakawa and Kiyamachi canals.

Kyoto Botanical Garden is of course a great spot for birds at any time, thanks to the profusion of plants there. The best spots are the Nakaragi Pond area and the surrounding Nakaragi-no-Mori, a forested area planted in native Japanese trees.

The Imperial Palace Park (Kyoto Gyoen) also has a lot of birds specially in the early morning. I spotted a black-eared kite nesting near the sakura grove by the Konoe Residence.

*Ideally it should be grain, but it seems these ducks have come to prefer bread! I tried feeding them rice before but they weren’t interested.

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