Tobishima, Japan, May 2003

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Tobishima, Japan

by Charles Harper

Tobishima, 'Black Kite Island', off the Japan Sea coast of northern Honshu, is one of a loose line of offshore islands from Kyushu to Hokkaido which are of particular interest to Japanese birders. They are vagrant traps: in the spring and fall, when mainland migrants stray from the coasts of Korea, China or Russia, these islands are their first landfall. They vary in size from Sado (860 sq. km.) to Hegurajima (1 sq. km.),and are all reachable by ferry in from one to three hours, incidentally offering an opportunity for some pelagic birding, though this is not as exciting as off the open Pacific coast.

Sakata, the departure port for Tobishima, is an hour's flight and 15,000 yen from Tokyo; it is a small city, and the ferry dock is just half an hour from the airport. The ferry trip lasts 90 minutes and costs 2000 yen, 900 yen more if you want to sit on the second deck, which you do: you cannot get to the bow, but with a fellow birder and no other wealthy passengers (the local birders huddle below amidships with the smokers, and peer over the gunwales), you can work both sides of the boat very nicely. In early May you may still get many of the loons, shearwaters and alcids of this part of the world, and the endemic target, Japanese Murrelet is usually seen.

Tobishima, a little over 8 sq. km. in area, consists of a small fishing village of perhaps 100 residents, with a diesel power plant and a couple of small inns (but no shop of any kind) lining the harbour; the central island ridge above the village, along which a 3-km. paved road extends, bordered by truck gardens; and the relatively-undisturbed rest of the island, with foot trails among mature black pine and deciduous forest featuring some outstandingly beautiful pines, maples and oaks. Two rock islets are breeding grounds for Black-tailed Gulls.

Nagoshi Inn, a few steps from the ferry landing, is very modest by Japanese standards, but it is clean and pleasant, has a nice hot bath and, thank God, western-style toilets. It costs 8000 yen a night with breakfast and dinner, both delicious for those who love seafood. They will make little rice-ball lunches to carry with you in the morning.

The task of the birder is simply to spend the day - in late April to early May from about 4:30 in the morning to 5:30 in the evening - wandering casually back and forth along the trunk road and trails looking for the one or two individuals of any of the 200 species that have been recorded on this tiny island and that may be there at the moment.

There is a tiny dam, collecting rainwater in a tiny ravine, just above Nagoshi Inn, and this is a good starting point at dawn, where a Japanese Night Heron may have spent the night, or a Mugimaki Flycatcher has come down to bathe. Then, following the steps on up to the ridge, you meet the sun and one or two fishermen's wives, who have come up to tend their gardens. There seem to be no young people on the island - they have all gone off to seek fame and fortune in Tokyo - only gnarled old men, who have already set off in their boats in the dark before dawn, and their bent, bonneted wives, who either nod a slight greeting or ignore you. In May the new shoots are up and the gardens netted over and festooned with scarecrows. One patch sports a dead, gibbeted Whiskered Auklet, hung as a warning to other Whiskered Auklets who might be tempted to raid the young potato plants. This area you scour carefully for bunting and pipits: some 30 species have been found here.

Passing out of this cultivated area, the mixed woodland can be searched for cuckoos (4 sp.), thrushes (17 sp.), warblers, (12 sp.) and flycatchers (10 sp.). Endemics and near-endemics like Japanese Woodpigeon, Japanese Waxwing, Japanese Accentor, Latham's Snipe, Japanese Yellow Bunting, Red-cheeked Starling, Japanese Robin, Grey Bunting all appear here commonly in migration, but Japanese birders are looking for Hoopoe, Wryneck, Blythe's Pipit, Swinhoe's Robin, Siberian Rubythroat, Black-throated Thrush, Radde's Warbler.

Returning to the village in the late afternoon, you can look for a Short-toed Lark or a Japanese Wagtail in the waste lots dockside, study Temminck's Cormorants along the breakwater, watch the locals spreading seaweed or filleted fish out to dry on bamboo mats, or spend 30 seconds exploring a Yayoi period burial crevice, the island's lone cultural attraction. If you're just plain tired, go soak in the bath, order two bottles of Kirin with dinner, and go to bed early. There's nothing to do after dark except listen to the Brown Hawk Owls quietly hoo-hooing from the trees.

All in all, a laid-back birding experience. We found 86 species in two and a half days, May 10th-12th, 2003.

Species seen:

Temminck's (Japanese) Cormorant, 12, 35, 12
Pelagic Cormorant, 1
Great Cormorant, 1
Mallard, 2
Spot-billed (Grey) Duck, 1, 1
Common Teal, 1
Eurasian Wigeon, 5
Japanese Murrelet, 4
Rhinoceros Auklet, 3, 22, 4
Streaked Shearwater, 10, 12
Pomerine Jaeger, 1
Herring (Vega) Gull, 10, 3, 2
Slaty-backed Gull, 10, 2
Black-tailed Gull, numerous
Glaucous-winged Gull, 1, 1
Glaucous Gull, 1
Common Tern, 1
Black-crowned Night Heron, 1
Intermediate Egret, 1
Grey Heron, 5, 1
Great Egret, 2
Common Sandpiper, 1
Latham's (Japanese) Snipe, 1
N. (Red-necked) Phalarope, 12, 3, 23
Black Kite, numerous
N. (European) Sparrowhawk, 1
Peregrine Falcon, 2, 2
Brown Hawk Owl, 1, 1
Japanese Wood Pigeon, 1, 4, 2
Rufous (Oriental) Turtle Dove, 6, 3
Rock Dove, 6, 6
Oriental Cuckoo, 2, 2, 3
N. Wh-rumped (Fork-t) Swift, 3, 1
Greater Short-toed Lark, 1, 2
Barn Swallow, 20, 14, 10
Red-rumped Swallow, 1
Grey Wagtail, 1
Black-backed Wagtail, 5, 4, 4
Japanese Wagtail, 1, 1
Red-throated Pipit, 1, 1
Indian Tree (Olive-backed) Pipit, 1, 1, 2
Ashy Minivet, 2
Brown-eared Bulbul, numerous
Bull-headed Shrike, 3, 1
Japanese Waxwing, 6
Bohemian Waxwing, 1
Siberian Blue Robin, 1, 2
Red-flanked Bluetail, 2
Daurian Redstart, 2, 1
Common Stonechat, 1
Blue Rock Thrush, 3, 3, 1
Siberian Thrush, 1, 1
White's Ground Thrush, 2
Brown Thrush, 2, 10, 10
Grey-headed (Eye-browed) Thrush, 3, 5, 5
Grey-backed Thrush, 1, 1
Pale Thrush, 2, 2
Dusky Thrush, numerous
Japanese Bush Warbler, 5, 20, 17
Arctic Warbler, 10
Eastern Crowned (Willow) Warber, 2
Narcissus Flycatcher, 4, 2
Mugimaki Flycatcher, 2, 1
Tricolor (Korean) Flycatcher, 1, 1
Blue-and-White Flycatcher, 8, 8, 1
Asian Brown Flycatcher, 3, 10, 1
Grey-spotted Flycatcher
Coal Tit, 5
Great Tit, 8, 15, 10
Japanese White-eye, 10, 20, 20
Siberian Meadow Bunting, 5, 20, 10
Rustic Bunting, 2, 12, 2
Black-faced Bunting, 20, 20, 20
Japanese Yellow Bunting, 1
Grey Bunting, 1, 2
Oriental Greenfinch, numerous
Siskin, 30, 20, 40
Brambling, 10, 15, 10
Japanese Grosbeak, 7
Hawfinch, 2
Cinnamon (Russet) Sparrow, 3, 2, 2
Eurasian Tree Sparrow, 10, 10, 10
Red-cheeked Starling, 1, 3, 3
Grey (White-cheeked) Starling, 1, 3, 3
Rook, 2
Carrion Crow, 30, 30, 20
Jungle Crow, 10, 30, 15

Charles Harper