Japanese Macaque


Scraping through the snow to find food

It was so thrilling to see the internationally famous “snow monkeys” of Japan. The Japanese Macaque (Macaca fuscata) is the northernmost non-human primate in the world. It is such an odd thing to see monkeys on all fours, crawling through snow. We saw one at our hotel in the Shiga Kogen ski resort area, jump down from a birch tree and walk along a top of a high snow bank.

The macaques of National Geographic fame are winter residents of the Jigokudani Onsen in the Nagano prefecture. Winter is a tough time for them and they are fed at the onsen. They gather in large numbers in the narrow ravine. Jigokudani means “valley of hell” in English and it refers to the sulfurous hot springs and steep rocky cliffs of the Yokoyu river.


There are 23 different species of macaques ranging from Morocco to Japan. We encountered them in Singapore and now here in Japan. The Japanese macaques are found all through Japan except for the northern island of Hokkaido. They are found in the forests around our Osaka suburb of Minoh but we have not spotted them yet.


The Japanese Macaque is characterized by having a short tail and pink faces and backsides. Besides swimming in the warm geothermal waters, I also noticed that they huddle together often to stay warm. They were pretty good swimmers and we not afraid to go underwater. A fascinating morning and if you are in the Nagano prefecture, I highly recommend a visit to the pools. You can watch the full National Geographic documentary here.


Winter Walk in the Minoh hills


A setting sun hits the sugi trees

I went for a walk yesterday in the hills of the Minoh national park. I scrambled up through a ravine to a trail and ended up at an overlook above the suburb of Ikeda, the municipality adjacent to our suburb of Minoh

Northern Shovelers Feeding

This pair of Northern Shoveler ducks look to be in a feeding frenzy. They are “dabbling” ducks and one meaning of the word is to “immerse one’s hands or feet in water and move them around gently”. Dabbling ducks put dunk their bills in the water instead of diving and going deeper for food. This male/female pair are moving in a circle which differs from Cornell University’s video of the feeding behavior. There must have been a school of invertebrates in the vicinity. There is a pond in my neighborhood literally right next to a busy 4-lane road where there are always lots of water fowl. The northern shovelers were not bothered by the cars or me filming them.


Two windmill palms in a ravine

The Chusan or Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is commonly found all throughout the city’s gardens and parks. It snows in Osaka and I was surprised to see palm trees here, but the windmill palm is one of the hardiest species of palms. It does not grow well in hot climates. They are native to central China and Kyushu island here in Japan. Chusan is the incorrectly Romanized spelling of Zhoushan island located off the coast of central China. The species name comes from the British botanist Robert Fortune. He is famous for sneaking into China and stealing tea plants to introduce them to India. He also smuggled some windmill palms out and took them to Kew Botanical Garden.

I would love to plant one in our garden.

Wildlife Observations


Last weekend I spotted this Japanese Weasel (Mustela itatsi) along one of the rivers in our neighborhood. It was going back and forth from under a pile of bamboo logs (above) to a hole along one of the many canals (bel0w). It moved quite quickly, but I was able to get a few photos. There is a nice article on this endemic species to Japan in the Japan Times. They do not change color in the winter like other weasels. They are being pushed out in Western Japan by the Siberian Weasel, which the Japanese version is a close relative.


While biking through a wooded trail near the Ibaraki Country Club, this White’s Ground Thrush (Zoothera dauma) flushed from the leaf litter and flew into the trees (below). It paused long enough for me to take a picture. It winters in Japan and breeds in Siberia and northern China. I saw another one yesterday in Kita Senri park, a flash of olive from the ground into the trees as I biked by it. In Japanese they are known as a “tiger thrush” due to the scaly spots, reminiscent of a tiger.


There are two kinds of wagtails in Osaka. The genus gets their name because of the habit of pumping their tails back and forth. The Japanese Wagtail (Motacilla grandis) can be identified by its black head and white eyebrow (below). It is more often found along the rivers while the white wagtail, is grey and found more inland.


Finally, I end my post with my favorite winter waterfowl, the Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata). The exotic colors of the male are so unreal. The only place I’ve seen them is at the pond in Senri Chuo central park. Below is a photo of a male and female.


Winter Birds of Osaka


Common Kingfisher

I spotted this common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) perched above a rice irrigation pond just inside the Minoh Quasi National Park this weekend. They are smaller than most species of kingfisher, but I always see one near wooded ponds. Japan Times nature writer Rowan Hooper did a nice piece on the kawasemi (river cicada in Japanese). 


“Muzo” – A bull-headed shrike

A pair of bull-headed shrikes (Lanius bucephalusnear an irrigation pond next to a park right before entering the national park. This is the first time I’ve spotted this “mini-raptor” here and perhaps they are winter migrants from further north in Japan, although everything I read is they are quite common all throughout suburban Japan. I also photographed a pair of Siberian Meadow Buntings (Emberiza cioides) which was another new bird for me.



The spectacular Mandarin Duck

I finish this birding report with the always spectacular Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata). They are winter visitors to the large ponds of Senri Chuo Central Park. They are utterly distinctive with the varied colors and varied feather shapes and sizes. Below, a male is showing off for the grey colored female.



Winter Bird Season is Back!


A female black-faced bunting (Emberiza spodocephala) stopped for a photo. 

Saturday was an utterly beautiful day and I had my new Olympus lens, so I went for a short bike ride to a couple of parks in the area to see what birds I could find. The black-faced bunting above came out of thick forest for only a moment.


A male common pochard on the Kita Senri pond.

In the winter many ducks from northern China and Siberia winter in Kansai. The common pochard (Aythya ferina) has a huge range from the UK and Sweden to Mongolia and Siberia. You can see the stark contrast between males and females.


A female common pochard

Several photographers with bigger lenses than mine were throwing bread to the birds to get them to come closer to shore. The bright sunshine allowed us to take some brilliant photos. The tufted duck (Aythya fuligula) is a close relative of the pochard and has even a larger range.


A male tufted duck.

It was fun to watch the female follow the male northern shoveler (Spatula clypeata) all around the lake. They are found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Their specialized bills allow them to comb the water for invertebrates other ducks cannot get.


A female northern shoveler behind the male. 

I also saw a pair of great cormorants in another nearby pond. I have to go see the traditional fishermen that use the birds to catch fish for them here in Japan. They both had more of a summer plumage of white heads, which is strange to see in January.


Final Nature Observations in Singapore


On my final day in Singapore we spent the afternoon on Palawan Beach on Sentosa Island. I photographed a pair of blue-tailed bee-eaters (Merops phillippinus) on a small island near the beach that purported to be the “most southern extent of continental Asia”. The blue-tailed bee-eaters like the other 26 species, they migrate long distances and catch insects in flight. It breeds in northern India and southern China and spends the winter in south east Asia. Bee-eaters have a special place in my heart as I fondly remember watching a nesting colony in Belgrade (link).


On the way back to the train station, I photographed this changeable lizard (Calotes versicolor) that was trying to scale the walls of the steps. After several unsuccessful leaps, it eventually made it, just before Oliver could grab it, it quickly scooted for the protective cover of a bush. The changeable lizard was introduced to Singapore in the 1980s and drove out the native, and in my opinion, more beautiful green-crested lizard. Introduced species are a common theme here.

I will be recruiting in Bangkok and London for the next couple of weeks. I will not have my sister-in-law’s camera, but hope to make some nature observations.

Birding in Singapore


Every morning I am awakened by the beautiful call of the Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus). It is a member of the cuckoo family native to India, Sri Lanka, southern China and the Greater Sunda Islands. It does well in human habitation so its range is expanding. It arrived in Singapore in the 1980s and is now one of the most common sounds of the island. This male, the female is brown with white spots, was calling in the late afternoon.


This black-naped oriole (Oriolus chinensis) is common throughout Asia, arriving to Singapore in the 1920s and today is quite common. The specimen above perched on a neighbors television antenna the past two days right before sunset.


I spotted this Yellow-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus golavier) perching on top of the abandoned school across the street. It was the second one I saw in the neighborhood as its crest is distinctive. You can see only a bit of the yellow on its belly in this photo from behind. The bulbuls are a 134-species family I am learning about with my move to Asia. The brown-eared bulbul is one of the most common birds in Japan and I photographed a red-whiskered bulbul in Macao.