On visiting new places the keen bird watcher or photographer is always keen to see the most beautiful and interesting birds that particular country or place has to offer. Birds of prey always garner interest and colourful songbirds are often also near the top of the wishlist of those eager to get out and start exploring places they have spent months researching.
However some places offer something more intriguing for those really hardcore twitchers. The thought of locking eyes or even better getting a photograph of an endemic bird, only found in that particular corner of the planet, really raises the stakes for the travelling birder.
This is where Okinawa, a tiny Japanese island flanked by the pacific ocean on the east and the East china sea on the west can provide a compelling case as an interesting location to spend a few days on the lookout for endemic and as is often the case endangered birds. Okinawa has several species of endemic birds but it is Okinawan’s ‘big three’ which really excites those who have travelled searching for avian adventure. No there aren’t any lions or confusions of wildebeest marauding through the landscape however there are three entirely distinct and unique birds, all of which are only found in the very north of this already small island.
Now of course Okinawa has many wonderful and varied species of bird, some resident but the majority seasonal. These include birds which are also endemic to Okinawa and maybe a few other locations in close proximity, but it is these three mysterious birds that attract the most interest. As a long term bird guide here on Okinawa, every email I receive asking me to plan out an itinerary almost always asks about the prospect of encountering one, two or all three of these stunning birds.
So if you have somehow managed to stumble upon this post and even better made it this far and are still awake, I will reveal the names of these birds and tell you a little about each.
First up is without question the most famous, definitely within Okinawa and almost certainly outside of Okinawa too, is the Okinawa Rail. It’s Japanese name is Yanbaru Kuina and it’s catchy scientific name is Hypotaenidia okinawae.
Yanbaru is the geographical name of the area at the north of the island past Nago, Okinawa‘s second major city. A full description of the area and it’s history can be saved for another day but in brief it is a sparsely populated agricultural area which consists of sub-tropical rainforest or jungle. This area contains many endemic species of flora and fauna. It’s in this area with its rich bio diversity that all three birds can be found.
The Rail is a charming bird which is often heard but not so often seen. However anyone driving along the small and winding roads that traverse Yanbaru will constantly be reminded of its existence due to the copious amount of signs warning drivers to slow down in the event of hitting one trying to cross the road. These signs can be a frustrating reminder of one’s inadequacies or terrible luck as hours and hours are spent going back and forth and here and there on these roads with nothing to show for all this effort. If one is lucky enough to encounter a Rail, nine out of ten times it is a very brief glimpse of it’s rear disappearing into the brush on the side of the road after an Usain Bolt like dash across the road.
The number of signs seems to outweigh the number of birds and for most Okinawans especially those not into bird watching the bird has an almost mythical image and is very rarely seen outside of captivity. Not one member of my Okinawan family has ever seen one and don’t really have the inclination to try as they are under the impression the effort and time far outweigh the rewards. This however can be put into perspective when I explain that when my parents visited from England 10 or so years ago it took roughly 30 minutes of looking before we passed one of the few houses up in Yanbaru and noticed one casually strolling through the garden. This of course was extremely lucky but also highlights with a bit of knowhow and care in regards to time of year, day and location, rewarding views of this bird can be achieved.
Occasionally Rails can be found preening themselves out in the open and in such circumstances can be relatively tolerant of nearby vehicles but it’s when crossing the road that they are usually stumbled upon. Wikipedia describes the Rail as almost flightless which I find an interesting description because surely you either fly or you don’t. I have seen them running at very fast speeds while engaging their wings for some purpose but they definitely don’t take flight.
One talent they do have is climbing as at night they can be found under the cover of darkness roosting at the top of some very high branches alongside the road. Often these branches or tree stumps have no obvious smaller branches to aid a bird trying to get to its highest point so one is left to imagine how a particular bird ended up 30 feet in the air and how they are going to get down the following morning.
They remain wonderfully charismatic birds and have a sense of mystery attached to them especially as they were only first officially recognised in 1981. This is probably more to do with the lack of experts studying the area rather than the skulking nature of the bird, nonetheless they are wonderful birds and it’s a thrill whether you have just seen your first or your hundredth.
The second of the trio is the most common and numerous of the three and that is the beautiful little Ryukyu robin.( Japanese name Akahige / Larvivora komadori) . Robins from around the world have the ability to delight and thrill those that see them due to their vibrant colours and outgoing nature. The Ryukyu robin is no different and perhaps due to the remote surroundings where which they live, a chance encounter is indeed a real treat. Unmistakably they are beautiful birds with a curious and bold nature.
As with other robins they have a melodic and relatively loud song. They have the largest range of the 3 and can be found in small numbers not far north of Nago. They can be found in parks and campsites and can be relatively approachable. The female has a slightly faded red colour with a dull light breast and is without doubt outdone by the more striking male. With a black face and neck, white breast but a much richer orangey red plumage it really is a stand out and makes an extremely photogenic subject. Like their European cousins they also raise their tail while marking out their territory and they share the same inquisitive personality.
They are very vocal and have a range of different calls and songs and while driving with the window down can be quite often heard singing from somewhere in the undergrowth at the side of the road. Their near threatened status is more to do with their restricted range rather than actual numbers. On a good day a number of individuals can be seen and heard and without doubt the future of the Robin seems more secure than that of the other two.
On to the final bird and in some ways my favourite of the three. They can be the most difficult to find and even once one has been spotted getting a good look can be very challenging due to the dense nature of the landscape. The Okinawan woodpecker, (Japanese -Noguchi gera / Dendrocopos noguchii) is a medium sized dark brown woodpecker which unfortunately is critically endangered due to it’s very restricted range and the loss of habitat within that range.
This woodpecker probably has the most uncertain future of the three due to the loss of trees affecting it more than the other two and having less suitable habitat within what is already a small area. Deforestation and the unpopular building of American military bases play a role in the uncertain future of this bird but again I will not be covering the ins and outs in this piece. As with the Robin the male possesses more red than the female, in the woodpeckers’ case it is found on it’s crown and is again much more attractive to look at than the more dull and drab female.
They can be heard drumming from quite some distance and have a very distinct short sharp call which can often be heard before they take flight. Despite their beauty and distinct character, they seem to be the least interesting in comparison to the Rail and the Robin, certainly to the local Okinawan population. This is probably due to a reduced chance of an accidental sighting and the Rail seems more distinguishable from other birds. In terms of souvenirs, pictures and general exposure, the woodpecker definitely comes a distant second to it’s ground dwelling buddy. In fact I can’t think of a time a client has requested to see the woodpecker before the Rail, which is sad as I have a particular soft spot for a bird I believe is even more beautiful and mysterious than it’s more famous compadre.
Sighting one is purely down to chance and luck coupled with a little local knowledge. They definitely frequent certain places and do return to the same trees depending on the season. They are particularly fond of the flowers of the Deigo tree (Erythrina Orientalis) which bloom every spring here in Okinawa. Despite this there is never a guarantee that they will return to a spot particularly at the same time that one might be waiting with binoculars in hand. However take my word for it when I say that when one does fly in front of you and land on a tree not far from the side of the road and you have clear unobstructed views, it really is a birding experience right up there with more famous birds and in more fancy locations from around the world. Everytime I personally encounter this wonderful species of bird, it isn’t lost on me that there is no guarantee that they will still be around in fifty years. The same also goes for the Rail.
Okinawa is a very small island similar to the size of Berkshire in the United Kingdom. ( roughly 460 square miles) Due to it’s small size and fairly remote location ( only a few international destinations fly direct to Okinawa ) it is usually only visited briefly, often as an 2/3 day excursion away from a main trip to the Japanese mainland. As a result, time is usually a premium and therefore all concerted efforts are put into trying to track down one, two or fingers crossed, each one of the wonderful Okinawan big three.