Okinawa, Japan, 27th June - 4th July 2004

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT


Cathy McFadden, Claremont, CA

In June 2004 I spent a week in Okinawa attending the 10th International Coral Reef Symposium held at the Okinawa Convention Center in Naha. Following the conference, I rented a car for a weekend and drove to northern Okinawa in search of the Okinawa and Ryukyu endemics that occur there. I had difficulty getting much advance information about birding in Okinawa, and was unable to find anyone there to serve as a guide or local contact. I found one trip report on the web by Graham Talbot, detailing a trip taken in May 2001 (/Trip%20Reports/ryukyuislandsmay01.html). He reported that the directions given in Mark Brazil's A Birdwatcher's Guide to Japan (1987) were still reasonably accurate, so I also procured a copy of that book. The only English-language field guide to Japan (A Field Guide to the Birds of Japan, Kodansha, 1982) is out of print. Not wanting to spend more $150 to buy a used copy from, I borrowed one from a library and color-photocopied the relevant plates.

During the week in Naha I saw only those species that were present in the grounds of the Convention Center and in a small park near my hotel in the city center. Light-vented (Chinese) Bulbuls were common and conspicuous, along with Brown-eared Bulbul, Japanese White-eye, Oriental Turtle-Dove, Pacific Swallow and Blue Rock-Thrush.

The Saturday morning following the conference I picked up a rental car at the Naha airport and drove straight to Yambaru, a trip of about 2 hours if one takes the Okinawa expressway (toll road) from Naha to Nago, about halfway up the island. My first stop was Fungawa Dam, the site at which Talbot had reported having the greatest success, including hearing and finally seeing Okinawa Rail. Unfortunately, both the stairway and the vehicle access road leading down to the dam itself (and to the birding sites he described) were blocked by locked gates and signs that, despite my lack of knowledge of Japanese, clearly indicated "Keep Out". I do not know if this is a permanent change in access, perhaps as a result of post-9/11 security measures, or if I just happened to be unlucky to find the dam closed on a weekend. The pipeline road mentioned by Brazil was also closed by a cable barrier. I spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring two of the tracks along Rte. 2 that are described in Brazil's book (Okuni-rindo and Terakubi-rindo), as well as the perimeter road around Benoki Dam, where there was full public access. All three of these areas have good mature forest habitat.

While exploring Okuni-rindo in mid-afternoon, I encountered three Okinawa Woodpeckers (an adult male with a juvenile and another lone adult male), all of them viewed at very close range along the roadside. I found Ryukyu Minivets at Benoki Dam, perched very high in dead snags along the shore. I did not see any of the endemic species along Terakubi-rindo, but did find Whistling Green-Pigeon and Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher. Brown-eared Bulbuls, Japanese White-eyes, Large-billed Crows and Oriental Turtle-Doves were common at all sites.

I spent the night at Hotel Kunigami in the village of Hentona, about a 15 minute drive from these birding sites. This is a very basic hotel (and the air conditioner in my room didn’t work), but the owner is very friendly, speaks some English, and is interested in the local wildlife. A very filling dinner and breakfast were included in the ¥6000 price. I checked in late in the afternoon and stayed for dinner, returning to Rte. 2 at dusk. Unfortunately, a typhoon heading for Taiwan was generating high winds on Okinawa, and I spent several hours driving the tracks and listening for rails and owls in vain. I was lucky, however, to find a Ryukyu Scops-Owl perched in the open on a telephone wire along Okuni-rundo. I returned to this site before dawn, and again heard nothing calling over the wind until the dawn chorus started. I did not hear any Ryukyu Robins. However, as I crouched on the roadside embankment, peering down a heavily forested slope to try to identify another bird that was calling (it turned out to be a Ruddy Kingfisher), a male Ryukyu Robin jumped up onto a branch directly in front of me and began scolding me vigorously. He was so close (at one point coming to within about 10 feet) that I never even moved to raise my binoculars. As with the owl, this encounter was sheer luck!

After returning to the hotel for breakfast, I spent the remainder of the morning at Benoki Dam, where I saw more Okinawa Woodpeckers (another adult male with a juvenile) and Ryukyu Minivets, Ruddy Kingfishers, and glimpsed another Ryukyu Robin as it darted across the road. With the exception of the minivets, however, I had better looks at all of these species on Okuni-rindo. The habitat around Benoki Dam looked promising for rails, however, and given another night I would have tried for them in this area. Increasingly frequent and heavy rain showers brought by the typhoon ended my birding in the early afternoon, and I returned to Naha in a torrential downpour.

I consider myself very lucky to have seen 4 of the 6 possible endemics in a 24 hour period, particularly given the strong winds. Apart from simply driving the tracks at night, I did not make any concerted effort to find Amami Woodcock. Although I was disappointed not to find Okinawa Rail, the conditions for either hearing or spotlighting this species were very difficult. In addition, the rail population apparently has declined drastically over the past few years as a result of mongoose predation and roadkill, and it may be getting increasingly difficult to find them at all. For those who appreciate folk art, however, it is well worth a trip to Cape Hedo to view the 3-story tall Okinawa Rail that doubles as an observation tower!

Trip list:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea): 1, Fungawa Dam (summer record may be unusual)
Pacific Reef-Heron (Egretta sacra): 1, along coast near Hentona
Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus): 2, near Hijii Falls
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia): common thoughout Naha
Oriental Turtle-Dove (Streptopelia orientalis): common everywhere
Whistling Green-Pigeon (Treron formosae): 1, Terakubi-rindo
Ryukyu Scops-Owl (Otus elegans): 1, Okuni-rindo, on telephone wire
Ruddy Kingfisher (Halcyon coromanda): 3-4, Okuni-rindo and Benoki Dam
Okinawa Woodpecker (Sapheopipo noguchii): 5, Okuni-rindo and Benoki Dam
Pacific Swallow (Hirundo tahitica): common everywhere in small numbers
Ryukyu Minivet (Pericrocotus tegimae): 3, Benoki Dam
Light-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus sinensis): common in Naha
Brown-eared Bulbul (Ixos amaurotis): common everywhere
Blue Rock-Thrush (Monticola solitarius): common in Naha and along coast
Japanese Bush-Warbler (Cettia diphone): flocks of 3-4, Okuni-rindo and Fungawa Dam
Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis): 1, Cape Hedo
Ryukyu Robin (Erithacus komadori): 1, Okuni-rindo (1 glimpsed at Benoki Dam)
Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher (Terpsiphone atrocaudata): 1 female, Terakubi-rindo
Varied Tit (Sittiparus varius): 2, Benoki Dam
Japanese White-eye (Zosterops japonicus): common everywhere
Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos): common in northern Okinawa
Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus): common in urban areas