Farina …

After leaving Burra our route took us through Peterborough and Hawker and then north along the corridor between the Flinders Ranges and Lake Torrens.

Edward Eyre came this way on his first South Australian expedition in 1839 and then explored the region more thoroughly in 1840. Lake Torrens is an enormous salt lake stretching 250 km north south with an average width of 30 km. Eyre tried to cross it with horses but found it impossible. From the height of the Flinders Ranges he saw more of the same shiny white mud to the east and indistinctly to the north. Forced to retreat by lack of water he took with him the erroneous belief that Lake Torrens was horse-shoe shaped blocking passage to the north.

John McDouall Stuart from 1858 onward led six expeditions that culminated in the first return crossing of the continent. Stuart’s track runs west of Lake Torrens, we were taking a short cut and would intersect it in due course.

At Lyndhurst we made a brief side trip up the Strzelecki Track to search for the Chestnut-breasted Whiteface. One of our party had not seen this elusive little bird despite several past attempts so we took him to a spot where Gayle and I had had success on previous occasions. We searched on foot until the afternoon wore on. And he didn’t see it once again.

We arrived at Farina as the sun neared the horizon.

A number of things had conspired to draw people north from Adelaide. As dry as it is, cattle and sheep can be grazed in the hinterland, a railway is a good means to transport them to market. The route chosen for the new fangled telegraph that would connect South east Australia to the outside world was Mr Stuart’s route from Adelaide to the north coast. And of course, the science was settled, plough the earth, plant your crops and the rain would come, a theory promoted by scientists of the day such as the noted American climatologist Cyrus Thomas. The settlement here was founded in 1878 as Government Gums. Its name was changed to Farina to reflect the intention to grow wheat. It grew to reach a peak population of approximately 600 in the late 1800s. It was the rail head for a time. In its heyday, the town had two hotels (the Transcontinental and the Exchange) and an underground bakery, a bank, two breweries, a general store, an Anglican church, five blacksmiths, a school and a brothel. No wheat was grown. All that remains today are the ruins and the cemetery.

We pulled into the camp site. The first thing to catch my attention was a magnificent Black-breasted Buzzard. Life can impose some cruel choices upon us. With just minutes of the photographer’s golden hour remaining … the ruins or the bird?

BBBu

As it happened there would be a gibbous moon …

Farina

Farina

and another golden hour in the morning

Farina by day

but I actually prefer the night shots.

I thoroughly recommend the Farina camp ground, showers, clean toilets, scenic and just $5 per person per night.

 

Owl …

Owls have acquired symbolic meaning at different places and at different times. In the west we tend to think of the wise old owl and that was true for the ancient Greeks as well. The owl was the companion of Athena, goddess of wisdom and also associated with wealth. But they don’t always give folk the same impression, back in the dark ages they were associated with witches, black magic and evil doings.

The Japanese for owl is fukuro 梟. Other kanji can be combined to render the same syllables. One way is 福来郎 which means luck will come. Another way is 不苦労 which means no suffering. So, by a play on words, the owl offers good fortune and protection. It is a popular lucky charm in Japan.

About a dozen species of owl have been found in Japan. In a short visit you obviously aren’t going to find too many. The easiest seems to be this one …

Ural Owl

Ural Owl

They tend to roost at the entrance of a sizable tree hollow. Suitable hollows are fairly uncommon. Some roosts are well-known and reliable, the bus stops seemingly in the middle of nowhere and a well trodden path leads off through the snow to a roped off viewing spot.

The Ural Owl is found throughout Japan and through a large area of the adjacent Asian mainland.

The ultimate owl, though, is Blakiston’s Fish Owl. On the one hand this is rare and endangered on the other hand it is large and spectacular, a heady mix, enough to make any twitcher twitch. They are only found north of Blakiston’s line (what a tragedy it would have been if Blakiston’s owl didn’t care two hoots about Blakiston’s line). Their stronghold is in east Hokkaido where they are found in steep-sided , forested valleys adjacent to the coast.

As rare as they are my chances of seeing one were excellent because my guide was none other than Mark Brazil. He is on intimate terms with some pairs having carried large and heavy nest boxes up suitably steep and forested valleys to make up for a shortage of natural hollows. He has earned his knowledge the hard way and handsomely repaid the birds in the process.

So it was off to the coast at twilight.

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We staked out a spot where the stream ran from a valley under a road bridge and into the sea and waited for dark.

Even before it was pitch black we could hear the low double note call of the male. Initially it was given every few minutes and went unanswered. Then it was answered. The response was a single note, even deeper than the male’s, you could feel it as much as hear it. From then on it was as though it was a single bird calling. The technical term is antiphonal duetting. It sent a tingle down the spine (technical term frisson).

After a while I became aware that, well away from the lights, a bird had landed silently on the bow of a small boat. The binoculars gathered just enough light to turn the tingle into a twitch but could do nothing to satisfy the camera. Continued study through the gloom revealed another bird, how long it had been there was anybody’s guess. Then two more sitting on nearby boats. The whole family had come down to the sea to fish for their supper. The male, the female and two large youngsters.

One did fly closer and into the outer reaches of the lighting on the dock … but I won’t bore you with the photo because two nights later one flew and landed under the outside lighting of a streamside building. What are the chances?

Blakiston's Fish Owl

Blakiston’s Fish Owl

Rausu …

Time to head to the coast and the fishing port of Rausu.

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We were going to sea to get some stunning views of some eagles. We donned our life jackets, packed several trays of frozen fish, which meant that they were pretty much at ambient temperature and headed out onto the briny. The gulls were quick to take an interest, this is a regular event for them …

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But once we started throwing out the fish they were obliged to make way for the White-tailed Sea Eagles,

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and when the big guys show up, look out. Steller’s Sea Eagle was the bird I had come to Japan to see. On a previous trip I had been on a ship outside Petropavlosk. The Russian port authorities, perhaps because there were mainly Americans on board, had kept us waiting for hours. By the time we docked it was time to head straight to the airport. The only significant result of that was to deny some dollars to the local economy. I was not too upset, I spent the whole time looking for the world’s largest and most spectacular eagle. I would have stayed an extra day … in fact I would have needed to. None showed up. Going hungry improves the appetite, dipping on a bird sweetens the eventual sighting …

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Feeding Time …

The Red-crowned Crane is on the way back from the brink of extinction in Japan. Protection and active assistance have helped. In return the cranes have added to the local economy by becoming quite a tourist magnet. There are several crane reserves where supplemental feeding mean that good numbers can be seen and photographed in the winter. In the summer breeding season they are widely dispersed, harder to find and hard to approach.

At one of the reserves spring feeding includes fish, added protein to assist in breeding readiness.

Red-crowned Crane

Red-crowned Crane

A free feed is obviously going to attract other eager participants. There are two common crows in Japan, this is a Carrion Crow, the other is the Large-billed Crow which is easily distinguished by its steep forehead.

Carrion Crow

Carrion Crow

Also common and always happy to share food that it doesn’t have to catch for itself is the Black-eared Kite. In some taxonomies this is included in Milvus migrans, the widespread (including Australia) Black Kite.

Black-eared Kite

Black-eared Kite

But sharing top billing with the cranes, a large and very impressive eagle …

White-tailed Sea Eagle

White-tailed Sea Eagle

When All Your Ducks Line Up …

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Obviously a very auspicious day to fly from Tokyo to Kushiro in eastern Hokkaido. First we have to drive from the mountains of central Honshu to Tokyo. This takes us via Suwa, home of the Seiko watch, and Lake Suwa which provides some nice views of waterfowl. The sleepy heads above are Common Pochard and below we have …

Eurasian Wigeon

Eurasian Wigeon

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

and there were plenty of Tufted Ducks, some Mergansers and a Smew or two. And a very sleepy swan …

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

We were blessed with good views of Mount Fuji as we passed by …

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and the Tokyo traffic was, on this occasion, very cooperative.

One Thousand Cranes …

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In Japanese folk tradition, the crane is a symbol of fidelity, honesty, health and longevity. A crane will live a thousand years and if you fold a thousand paper cranes one will carry a wish to heaven for you. That wish may well be for a long and happy marriage.

At Arasaki in Kagoshima prefecture you have every chance of finding just the right crane to entrust your wish to. It is the wintering place for perhaps as many as 17,000 of them. The majority are Hooded Cranes, almost all the rest are White-naped Cranes. Both these species fly north via the Korean peninsula to nest in swamps in continental Asia.

Hooded Crane

Hooded Crane

Hooded Crane

Hooded Crane

White-naped Crane

White-naped Crane

White-naped Crane

White-naped Crane

At Arasaki there is a visitor centre with an outdoor observation deck. Grain and fish are put out for the cranes. They are quite a tourist attraction but the birds are assured of a little peace by fences that keep out the people. Some fields are kept flooded, the cranes always spend the night standing in water.

They start to arrive in mid October, start to leave in February and are gone by March. Numbers have risen over time from less than 300 in the late 1940’s to 17,005 (an unlikely degree of precision) in 2015. That is very likely good news for cranes although there are now fewer of them wintering in other locations.

The pair bond is maintained during the winter and last year’s young stay with their parents until it’s time to go north again, so as you watch what can seem like an amorphous mass of birds you soon start to pick out adult pairs that may have one or two youngsters with them.

At times they are a fairly noisy bunch and as spring approaches they start to dance and display.

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Just occasionally you can find a Sandhill Crane or two. Their breeding ground is further north and most cross the Bering Strait to winter in North America but a few come south to Kyushu. I was also lucky enough to see a Common Crane that had wandered east from its normal range. It was keeping company with a Hooded Crane, the two species do occasionally hybridise.

The donation of free food attracts a few other birds as well. Black-eared Kites, Grey Herons, Eastern Rooks, Daurian Jackdaws and Common Starlings (not at all common in Japan) all drop in for a feed.

In the marshes not far away we encountered nine distant spoonbills. Seven were Eurasian Spoonbills, two were Black-faced. This was indeed a treat, the Black-faced Spoonbill is rare and endangered (and new to my list).

… only 999 to go.

The Meiji Shrine …

The big city is not my cup of tea. The conurbation of Greater Tokyo is the biggest of them all, 37.8 million people in 13,500 km².

I have a day adrift here. The options …

  • Sit in room, suck thumb. Ultra safe.
  • Go for a walk unravelling a ball of twine behind me (or taking good notes). Adventurous.
  • Take rush hour public transport across Tokyo and hope to get back. Verging on insanity.

Really, where can a boy go bird watching in Tokyo. Mayumi, a friend, had suggested the Meiji Shrine.

Haneda Airport has an information desk. The staff speak good English and are keen to help. To get to the Meiji shrine take the train. There is a stop at the airport (Keikyu line). Why didn’t Melbourne think of that? Change to the JR Yamanote line at Shinagawa get off at Harajuku. You’re at the gate. Entry is free. Reverse the process to get home. They were kind enough to write it all down for me.

You can buy a single trip ticket at the station (why didn’t Melbourne think of that?) from a machine that can be switched to English. It didn’t, however, list stations individually, the missing part of the jigsaw was knowing which cost zone Harajuku would be in. Puzzled foreigner stares stupidly at machine. When dealing with foreign machines stare slowly and clearly.

A smartly dressed mid-career type man coming from the platform volunteers to help. He enquires at the information office and comes back with the missing piece, supervises the administration of the money and points me in the right direction. I thank him. He bows.

Tokyo Metro

The Meiji Shrine commemorates the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, central figures in the Meiji Restoration of the 1860’s. This period saw the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and an opening up of Japan to western influences.

The Emperor died in 1912 and the Empress two years later. Their tombs are in Kyoto. An area was set aside in Tokyo and trees planted in their honour. Established in 1920, it is now a mature forest that includes a couple of lakes providing excellent habitat for birds such as Oriental Turtle Dove, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Mandarin Duck, thrushes, redstarts, waxwings … and the shrine.

 

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And surprisingly, it’s the shrine that gets all the attention. It happens to be the number one (of 228 attractions) on TripAdvisor.

Below is one of the splendid torii gates that mark the various approaches to the shrine …

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Sake brewers donate barrels of sake wrapped in straw and paper to the shrine.

Sake barrels

A small payment is required to enter the beautiful inner garden (¥500). This garden existed prior to the Meiji Shrine and the Emperor hand a hand in its design. Here you can find this tea house. It is probably the most photographed garden shed in all of Japan.

Teahouse

There is also a small pond in the inner garden, crafted to raise the spirits of Empress Shoken, there where I came across a very attractive Kingfisher and various small birds were coming for a handout.

Varied Tit

Varied Tit

Black-faced Bunting

Black-faced Bunting

It was a great place to spend the day. Now to get back to the Haneda Excel Tokyu Hotel.

Stupid foreigner stares slowly and clearly at ticket machine trying to remember how much money to contribute. Slender, young, attractive Japanese woman volunteers to help. She makes a quick trip to the enquiry desk, supervises the donation and points me in the right direction. Her English is impeccable. I thank her. She bows. Helplessness has its rewards.

You can download a map of the Tokyo Metro <HERE>.