Ryuku Islands, 27th April - 2nd May 2001

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT surfbirds.com)


Graham Talbot and Chris Campion


With the Ryukyu Islands only being 3 hours from Hong Kong and hosting some really great looking endemics it had always been high on Chris’s target list as a place to visit. With a long holiday weekend at the end of April being an idea time to go he convinced me that we should give the islands a try. I was apprehensive because despite a concerted effort including requests for information on the various Web sites, we could not get any recent information with regards the birding sites and hence we would have to rely on the information in Mark Brazil’s A Birdwatchers Guide to Japan which was over 14 years old. However the opportunity was too good to miss and things couldn’t change that much in 14 years could they?


We only definitely decided to go about two weeks prior to our departure and getting flights was a bit difficult however at the last moment our travel agent managed to get the international flights we wanted however she was unable to book the internal flight between Okinawa and Amami. We decided to take the risk and book this flight when we got there.

Car hire on Okinawa was pre-arranged through Hertz prior to our departure and they were at the airport to meet us. In Amami we arranged the car hire on arrival through the airport information desk. Car hire appears to be very poplar on the islands and there are many car rental firms at the airports offering a wide selection of cars.

The flight between Okinawa and Amima was operated by a local carrier RAC and consisted of a small 20-seater plane. As soon as we arrived at Okinawa we went to the domestic terminal next door to the international terminal and booked our outward flight to Amami and left the return open hence giving us the maximum flexibility.

Driving in the Ryukyu Islands was slow the maximum speed limit on all the roads being 50kph and everybody stuck to it. On Okinawa there is a express way that runs about half the length of the Island which cuts the travelling time from the airport in the south to the north where all the birds are by half to about two hours.

Because a majority of the nights were spent birding we only stayed in accommodation one night and that was in Okinawa. It was typical Japanese style sleeping on mats on the floor and expensive

Japanese food was readily available and there were a number of 24-hour stores selling a wide range of junk food.

During our visit the weather was warm overcast and humid and we lost one whole mornings birding due to rain. Mosquitoes were a bit of a problem especially on Amami.


Okinawa Rail (Rallus okinawae)

The Fungawa Dam area appeared to be the best area to locate the rail as there are a number of roads making access to the forest easier We heard at least three calling birds in the area. In hindsight, we wasted a lot of time in searching for the rail which should be relatively easy to see if the following strategy is adopted. Try to locate a bird calling from an accessible area of forest. In places the forest was steep and inaccessible, but with luck, you will locate a bird calling from an area that can be easily crashed into. The birds tend to call rather infrequently, in our experience around once an hour throughout the night, though called more frequently in warm, calm conditions. Stick with this bird and avoid the temptation to go after other birds that may call in the distance. In fact, once one bird calls, this often gets a response from others.

Try to get a fix on the bird each time it calls and close in on it each time, spotlighting the general area, and eventually you should connect. The rail can roost well off the ground, we found ours around 3m up perched on a horizontal branch. We were initially concerned that our spotlighting and the noise from crashing through the forest at night would spook it which is why we gave up on our earlier attempts. This did not seem to be a problem, however, as when we finally got to grips with the rail, it seemed relatively unconcerned by our presence, allowing us a very close approach. Using this strategy with good weather, it should be possible to bag the rail on the first night on Okinawa. We do not recommend driving around the tracks spotlighting the forest edge from the car.

Pryer’s Woodpecker (Sapheopipo noguchii)

We thought that this was going to be difficult to see however we saw a pair on two occasions in the Fungawa Dam area. We had also talked to other birders who had seen them in this location

Ryukyu Robin (Erithacus Komadori)

The Robins seem to be fairly common especially on Amami where we heard up to 6 singing along a section of 2km track however getting good views of them proved very difficult They respond to playback but only come in very briefly so although we had a number of very brief glimpses it was not until the third day that we managed to get excellent views.

Ryukyu Minivet (Pericrocotus tegimae)

We saw small groups on both Okinawa and Amami. Should present no problem at all

Ryukyu Scops Owl (Otus elegans)

Common especially on Amami where many were heard along the Supa-rindo track.

Lidth’s Jay (Garrulus lidthi)

Apparently they are common on Amami however we struggled a bit. We saw brief flight views on the first day and it was only on the last day that we obtain good views This may have had something to do with the weather as it was only on the last day that the sun came out

Amami Woodcock (Scolopax mira) and Amami Thrush (Zoothera amami)

Although we tried very hard for both these endemics we saw neither. We have heard that the populations of Amami Woodcock and Amami Thrush have recently been decimated by the introduction of Mongooses to the Islands to control the Habu, a highly venomous indigenous snake. We saw one snake on one road one night, it is recommended to stay well clear of these which are also known as the 30 second snake for obvious reasons. These endemics are now very difficult to see and must be considered to be critically endangered.


Friday 27th April

Caught the 09.30 flight from Hong Kong to Taipei where we transferred to a connecting flight to Okinawa arriving at 14.00. Picked up the hire car from just outside the airport and called in at the domestic terminal to book a flight to Amami for the Sunday. Set off from the airport to the Yambaru area in the north of the island. The drive was rather frustrating as the speed limit was only 50kph and every body stuck to it. Eventually arrived at the hilly northern area of Yambaru at 17.30 and immediately connected with our first endemic Ryukyu Minivet sitting on telegraph wires beside the road. We decided to spend the remaining light birding the area around Fungawa dam as described in Brazil’s book. Walked across the dam and as we started to walk down the road we saw a Woodpecker fly up into a tree. Closer views revealed it to be a male Pryer’s Woodpecker. It gave excellent views and was soon joined by a female.

Two endemics within half an hours birding things were looking good. Spent the rest of the remaining light in the same area.

As soon as it got dark we started to drive slowly along the three tracks off route 2 as described in Brazils book The roads were paved if they were 14 years ago I am not sure however they passed through some good woodland but muddy roadside verges were not common. After 4 hours of seeing nothing although we heard a number of Ryukyu Scops Owls we gave up and returned to the car park at Fungawa dam to get some sleep. At about 03.00 we were awoken by a Ryukyu Scops Owl calling just outside the car and within a few minutes we obtained excellent views of it perched in a tree calling. Just as we were returning to the car we heard an Okinawa Rail calling in the distance.

Saturday 28th April

Awoke before first light and made our way to where we had heard the rail the previous night. At 05.30 just as it was getting light, the rail called from a dense section of woodland near where we were standing. We attempted to lure it out using playback but we could get no response. Now began a frustrating four hours of trying to see the bird during which we heard the rail call a few times but despite our best efforts we could not see it. We tried playback, walking through the woods slowly and even sitting stationary in one place for a period of time. The problem was the rail called very infrequently and trying to pinpoint its exact location was impossible. The nearest we got to seeing a Rail was after a short but heavy down pour we were walking along the road when GT saw the rear end of a rail run along the side of the road very briefly.

Almost as frustrating was trying to see Ryukyu Robin Again we heard at least three but they were all quite distant and did not respond to playback. By about 10.00 things had got quite quiet and we decided to explore some of the side roads during daylight. Again despite a lot of effort not much was seen and so after a short sleep we drove the 20km to Hentona to look for some accommodation and a meal. After a bit of trouble we managed to find a small Japanese style hotel where we showered and prepared for another attempt to look for the rail.

Returned to Fungawa Dam an hour before dusk and made our way to the small area of wood where we last heard the rail call. Just as it was getting dark a rail called in the distance and immediately the rail we were staking out called about 20m away. We waited for an hour for it to call again but no luck and so we decided to make our way into the forest with flashlights and try and find the bird roosting. After about an hour we eventually gave up. Spent the next couple of hours driving up and down the tracks off route 2 but again we saw little. Eventually we returned to Hentona where we had a beer in the Fat Boys Bar and discussed our strategy for trying to see the Rail the following day.

Sunday 29th April

Left Hentona at 04.00 and made our way to Fungawa Dam to the area where we had heard the Rail on the previous day. At about 05.30 the Rail called from the same area of trees as the previous evening. Again we tried all sorts of strategies to see it but again we had no luck. We eventually left the area at 09.00 feeling rather dejected, returned to our accommodation picked up our bags and drove to the airport for our flight to Amami.

Arrived at Amami at about 14.30 and contacted a car rental agency through the information desk. Left the airport and headed towards the Supa-rindo track near the capital Naze. On route a small flock of Rufous-cheeked Starlings gave great views siting in a roadside tree.

Parked the car at the start of a track that ran through some good looking forest searching for the Jay but things were very quite with the exception of Ryukyu Robins which could be heard everywhere but were very elusive to see and in fact only very brief views were obtained. Waited in the area until dusk and then proceeded to drive very slowly up and down all the tracks in the area in search of the Woodcock. After many hours of looking and seeing nothing except Ryukyu Scops Owl, we eventually gave up and slept in the car for a few hours.

Monday 30th April

Up before first light and spent the three hours walking along the tracks through the best looking forest. Again not a lot was seen Ryukyu Robins were very vocal but very difficult to see and again we obtain only fleeting glimpses. At about 08.00 it started to rain and continued raining for the next 6 hours. The rain was so heavy birding was impossible so we headed down the mountain ridge found something to eat and caught up with some sleep in the car.

When the rain eventually stopped we headed up to the ridge again and basically covered the same area that we had covered in the morning and again saw very little.

Eventually gave up and drove to the airport to book our return flight.

At dusk we again started driving along all the tracks that were drivable in search of the woodcock but like the previous night there was no sign of anything.

We gave up after a number of hours and had a few hours sleep in the car.

Tuesday 1st May

Woke at first light and again birded the best looking area of forest. The weather had improved slightly today and there were a few sunny spells. This made all the difference and the birds were much more active. After about an hour we had distance views of a Lidth's Jay and this was quickly followed by good views of a Ryukyu Robin. As we were walking back to the car, two Jays started calling in the trees above and eventually gave excellent views after playback.

Found what appeared to be a nature trail that descended steeply to a river we eventually obtained great views of Ryukyu Robin.

Returned to the airport dropped off the hire car and caught the flight back to Okinawa.

Arrived in Okinawa at 16.00 and drove to Yambura for a final attempt for the Rail. Arrived about an hour before dusk and staked out the small area of woodland where we had heard one call on a number of previous occasions
At about 07.30 just as it was getting dark a bird called in a small area of wood adjacent to the road. We waited for a while until it was dark and entered the wood in the hope of spotlighting a roosting bird. We looked for about an hour without success and the Rail did not call again. We heard an another bird calling in the distance and decided to try and locate it but again we failed as it did not call again. We were getting desperate by now and decided to drive along the tracks mentioned in Brazils book and try and spotlight one from the car. After a couple hours without success we gave up and returned to the original spot in the hope that it might call again. After an hour we were lucky and heard it call again from the same area. We again tried to find the bird but with no success so we stayed in the location where we thought the bird was After about another hour a bird called in the distance and the bird we had staked out responded with a soft keek call. It sounded like it was only 5m away. As we had a better fix on its location we again systematically searched all the trees for the bird and after about ten minutes it was eventually found about 3 meters away and gave great views. After watching it for about 15mins we left and returned to the car. We decided to make one final attempt for the Woodcock driving along the tracks mention in Brazil’s book. Eventually gave up and headed towards the airport for our early morning flight to Hong Kong

Wednesday 2nd May

Return to Hong Kong on a direct flight arriving at 11.00. All in all not a bad trip

Birding Sites

We restricted our birding to two main areas. The Yambaru area on Okinawa and the Supa-rindo track on Amami. The only information we had on these two areas was that in Brazils A Birdwatchers Guide to Japan. We found the maps and directions to be very accurate and had no problem finding the sites.

At Yambaru we found the best area to be around Fungawa dam. We parked in the car park next to the dam control centre and walked down some steps and across the dam and birded from the road that connected the dam to the main road. We heard at least three Rails calling in this area the easiest one access wise was one that called just below the car park. The tracks from route two passed through some good forest but they were all paved so there was limited areas for feeding Woodcocks.

On Amami we birded along the Supa-rindo track. The best area appeared to be the area called Kinsaku-baru Shizen Kansatsu Rin as indicated in Brazil’s book. One night we tried to drive as far along the Supa-rindo track as possible but after about 10Km the track became to rough for our standard car I thought the area had potential and it may be worth hiring a four wheel drive to explore it further.


A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Japan - Mark Brazil
All sites visited were based on this book and even though it is 14 years old the information on the sites we visited was accurate.

A Field Guide to the Birds of Japan — Wild Bird Society of Japan
The only English Field Guide for the area

Systematic List

Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata)
1 Fungawa Dam 29 April
Green Heron (Butorides striatus)
1 Fungawa Dam 28 April
1 Fungawa Dam 29 April
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
20 Amami 30 April
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)
Small numbers en route from airport to Yambaru 27 April
1 Amami 30 April
Great White Egret (Egretta alba)
1 On route to airport 29 April
1 Amami 30 April
Reef Egret (Egretta sacra)
1 On route to Airport 29 April
Okinawa Rail (Rallus okinawae)
2 heard calling at night Fungawa Dam 27 April
3 heard calling Fungawa Dam 28 April
2 heard calling Fungawa Dam 29 April
1 seen roosting in a tree 2 May
Ryukyu Scops Owl (Otus elegans)
10 heard Yambaru I seen 27 April
1 heard Fungawa Dam 28 April
Common up to 15 heard and 4 seen Supa-rindo 29 and 30 April
Brown Hawk Owl (Ninox scutulata)
2 Fungawa Dam 28 April
Japanese Wood Pigeon (Columba janthina)
2 Fungawa Dam 28 April
1 Fungawa Dam 29 april
1 heard Supa-rindo track 29 April
Rufous Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis)
4 Yambaru 27 April
4 Fungawa Dam 28 April
6 Supa-rindo track 29 April
6 Supa-rindo track 30 April
2 Supa-rindo track 1 May
Red-capped Green Pigeon (Sphenurus formosae)
5 Fungawa Dam 28 April
2 Fungawa Dam 29 April
5 Supa-rindo track 29 April
5 Supa-rindo track 30 April
10 Supa-rindo track 1 May
Ruddy Kingfisher (Halcyon coromanda)
1 heard Fungawa Dam 29 April
2 Supa-rindo 30 April
1 heard Supa-rindo track 1 May
White-backed Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos)
1 Supa-rindo track 29 April
2 Supa-rindo track 30 April
1 Supa-rindo track 1 May
Pryer’s Woodpecker (Sapheopipo noguchii)
2 Fungawa Dam 27 April
2 Fungawa Dam 28 April
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Dendrocopos kizuki)
2 Fungawa Dam 28 April
1 Fungawa Dam 29 April
1 Supa-rindo track 29, 30 April and 1 May
Pacific Swallow (Hirundo tahitica)
4 Fungawa Dam 27 April
6 Fungawa Dam 28 April
6 Fungawa Dam 29 April
4 Amami 30 April 2 1 May
Ryukyu Minivet (Pericrocotus tegimae)
4 Yambaru 27 April
4 Fungawa Dam 28 April
2 Supa-rindo track 29 April, 4 30 April, 1 1 May
Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis)
6 Fungawa Dam 27 April
8 Fungawa Dam 28 April
10 Fungawa Dam 29 April
Ryukyu Robin (Erithacus Komadori)
2 heard Fungawa Dam 27 April
3 heard Fungawa Dam 28 April
1 heard Fungawa Dam 29 April
1 seen 6 heard Supa-rindo 30 April
3 seen 6 heard Supa-rindo track 1 May
Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius)
1 Airport 29 April
5 Amami 1 May
Fan-tailed Warbler (Cisticola juncidis)
2 Fungawa Dam 29 April
Narcissus Flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina)
1 male 1 female Supa-rindo 1 May Very distinct local subspecies
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone atrocaudata)
1 Fungawa Dam 28 April
1 Super-rindo track 29 April and 1 May
Great Tit (Parus major)
Small numbers Yambaru 27 April
2 Fungawa dam 28 April
4 Fungawa Dam 29 April
Small numbers Supa-rindo track 29 April - 1 May
Varied Tit (Parus varius)
Small numbers Yambaru 27 April
2 Fungawa Dam 28 April
1 Fungawa dam 29 April
Small numbers Supa-rindo track 29 April - 1 May
Japanese White-eye (Zosterops japonica)
10 Fungawa Dam 28 April
6 Fungawa Dam 29 April
Small numbers Supa-rindo track 29 April - ! May
Red-cheeked Starling (Sturnus philippensis)
20 near Amami airport 29 April
Lidth’s Jay (Garrulus lidthi)
3 Supa-rindo track 30 April, 5 Supa-rindo track 1 May
Jungle Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos)
10 Fungawa Dam 27 April
10 Fungawa Dam 28 April
10 + Fungawa Dam 29 April
10 Supa-rindo daily 29 April — 1 May

Graham Talbot
2 Brandreth Road
E6 5QB
E-mail gtalbot@netvigator.com