All over the city, the azaleas (Rhododendron sp.) are in full bloom. They are a common hedge in Osaka and during the first two weeks in May, the pink, purple and white flowers are everywhere. The 80 – 117 different species native to Japan, China and northeast Asia belong to the sub-genus, Azaleastrum. They are beautiful, but highly poisonous, with the leaves and nectar having high levels of poison. I read sending them in a black vase could be a viewed as a death threat.
My son Oliver is shown above in front of a hedgerow of azaleas. You can see the three varieties of azaleas. We have the dark pink variety in our garden as you can see below with my daughter Ocean. They are known as tsutsuji here in Japan and a couple of cities have festivals.
I was in thick forest and couldn’t get my camera to focus on this beautiful male Narcissus Flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina). Summer has arrived here in Japan as this highly migratory bird announces the arrival of warm weather. It winters all over southeast Asia, including the Philippines.
It has a beautiful call, unlike the New World Flycatchers, which despite the name, are not related to the Old World Flycatchers. It was the call that led me off the bicycle path in the forested hills below Saito-Nishi in the Minoh national park. A pair of narcissus flycatchers were singing back and forth to each other and I got off my bike and made my way through the woods until it came into my view. They eventually flew away as I was making noise breaking branches and rustling leaves. It is a common summer resident of forested areas from Kyushu to the far north of Japan, into Siberia.
I also noticed several of this unidentified tree in flower. With the sunlight and blue skies, they were striking.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 bucephalus) near 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.
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.