Category Archives: Birding

Short getaway to Hokkaido

The northernmost islands of Japan are on similar latitudes with Rome, Marseilles, and New Hampshire.  But they are COLD and frozen!  Hokkaido is Japan’s second largest but has only 4% of the population.  It does have snow, forests, salmon, brown bears and other amazing wildlife.  I got the chance to visit the eastern part to see the legendary Red-crowned crane (Grus japonicus) – Tancho tsuru in Japanese.  In the early 20th Century they were thought to be extinct in Japan until a group of 20 individuals were discovered in a wetland in eastern Hokkaido.  Now the global population is up to 2000 and have strong protection in Japan where their habitat is increasingly protected and local farmers have taken to feeding them in their snowy wintering grounds.  The two day trip was short but full of birds – besides the cranes there were Stellar’s sea eagles (Haliaeetus pelagicus), White-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), Eurasian jays, Chinese nuthatches, woodpeckers, lots of tits, and a couple of Hen harriers (Circus spilonitus)  – plus a fox and lots of Sika deer (Cervus nippon)!  And snow and cold!

I also had a fun companion and partner on the trip – and personal chauffeur.  She did a great job driving on the snowy roads!

With some short videos!

Dancing cranes!

Landing cranes!


Some of the landscapes were stunning!


Frozen Lake Akkeshi

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And my amazing chauffeur got to have some fun too.  🙂

A break from transcription

My PhD has started a new phase.  I am now preparing my data for analysis.  The first step is to transcribe the 39-plus hours of interviews.  I am using a software called Transcriva.  The process is slow and tedious but its nice to make tangible progress.  Several websites mention that it can take 4 to 7 hours to transcribe each hour of interview data.  Mine are taking about 3 hours per hour of interview.  My great field-assistant, Chai Ming, is helping with the Chinese and Malay interviews.

So, I took a break on Sunday and went for my yoga class (taught by my neighbor, Yoko) and then a hike up Kyoto’s second-highest peak, Mt Atago.  Yoko’s boyfriend, Dan, wanted to visit an abandoned cable car station at the top of Mt Atago, near the much-more-famous shrine, also at the top.

Yoga was from 10:30 to 11:30, then I had a nice lunch with Yoko and Dan before we rushed to catch the bus to get to the trail head.  It was a bit of a late start so we packed some extra warm clothes, snacks, and flashlights and head lamps, just in case.  The bus got us to the trail-head just after 2 pm and we started right up the hill at a blistering pace.  It is about a 4 km walk with an approximate 600 m vertical climb.  Both of us have climbed to the shrine before, but not to the cable car station.  We had to be quick and we weren’t sure where the old cable car was so we wanted time to be able to find it.


This is the yoga space. Its a loft above a cafe. We can enjoy the smells of the cafe cooking while trying to focus on the activity!

But…… I had my binoculars and there were birds.  So it went a bit slow at times.  At the very start of the trail there was a bird wave and we saw some pretty common birds but one stood out and I managed to identify it later as a Siberian ruby throat – (update 13 March.  It wasn’t Siberian rubythroat.  It was Red-breasted flycatcher.  Not quite as rare but still very cool)  a lifer for the start of the hike.  Yeah!  We also saw a woodpecker that I may have seen before, but am not sure.

There were lots of climbers coming down and we got overtaken by one guy who was running up (he passed us coming down later on).  As we neared the top it was getting close to 5 pm.  Our return bus was at 6:38, so figured that we needed to turn around near 5.

When we were nearly at the top a group of three young men were coming down and Dan (who speaks better Japanese than me but still not a lot) stopped to ask them if they knew where to find the cable car.  Their English was not great but they indicated that they were looking for the same thing but they didn’t seem to be able to tell us.  We gave up and went up to the top of the shrine and made ourselves a quick cup of tea and headed back down…. at 5:15 pm.  We needed to hurry.

These guys were friendly but couldn't tell us where the ruin was.

These guys were friendly but couldn’t tell us where the ruin was.

As we went back down the trail we noticed something on the ground.  An arrow pointing to a small side trail.  And above it, written with cedar leaves was the word – RUIN!  Dan spotted the word.  I completely missed it.  The guys had left us a message.

The sign! Clever guys!

The sign! Clever guys! Can you see “ruin” just above the arrow?

Despite the lateness (and some pain I was having in my hip from yoga and the climb) we rushed down the side trail to see if we could find it.  Dan was faster and ran ahead…. and there it was!  The abandoned building!  What a find!

We spent a few minutes looking around.  Dan wondered if we should go straight down the old cable car route but we decided it was best to take the trail.  We rushed back to the trail.  Now 5:30ish.  We had an hour to get down and catch the bus.  By then my hip was hurting.  Dan was faster than me but we scurried down the trail.  At 6:15 it was dark and the head lamps came out.  We continued to scurry.  Dan phoned Yoko and found out that there was another bus at 7:00 but it would only get us to the nearest town and not all the way into Kyoto.  We would need to find another transport back in – either bus or train.

The trail down... it got much, much darker!

The trail down… it got much, much darker!

At 6:30 we hit pavement at the bottom of the valley and the road.  Dan jogged back up the little hill to the bus stop.  My hip was burning and I tried to go as fast as I could.  When I reached the bus stop, Dan was there and we had missed the bus by 5 minutes.  Boo!  So we waited for the 7 pm bus.  And reveled in the rush of having gone up and down so fast and the wonder that the guys had left us that cool message.

And then out of the darkness the 3 guys came up the hill!  They had gone down the cable car route!  We were so happy to meet them.  We showed them pictures of their trail sign and the building.  They were all law students at Osaka City University and one Spring Break.  We all caught the same bus and had a nice chat on the way.

We met up with the guys who helped us find the ruin! Thanks guys! (photo: Dan Marsh)

We met up with the guys who helped us find the ruin! Thanks guys! (photo: Dan Marsh)

Dan and I went back to get our bikes and stopped for some yakitori and a couple of beers.  I didn’t get any transcriptions done on that Sunday but it was memorable and fun.  I doubled up on the transcriptions on Monday.

Cranes of Izumi

In December 2012, I was lucky enough to get to visit Izumi, in Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu Island.  The area is one of the biggest wintering grounds for several species of cranes, particularly Hooded Cranes and White-naped Cranes.  I was there a bit early during the season before the peak of the wintering population arrived sometime in January, but I witnessed 30,000 cranes taking to the sky as a truck came to dispense food through the dawn mist.  The video below doesn’t do it justice – amazing.

I like bird watching

I like bird watching.  Somehow, its become part of my family.  My mother, my aunt and uncle, and some of my cousins can often be found in the woods, wetland or coast with binoculars.  But, I’m not very good at it.  But being in nature and enjoying the search and seeing something interesting or beautiful is a little thrill.


Most of my birding over the past 10 years has been throughout Sabah, Malaysian Borneo with Mount Kinabalu as my favorite destination.  at 4095 meters, Mt. Kinabalu is the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea and home to many of Borneo’s highland endemic birds.

My biggest success is having spotted Kinabalu’s Whitehead 3 – Whitehead’s Broadbill, Whitehead’s Trogon, and Whitehead’s Spiderhunter – and I’m happy to have accomplished it with my best birding partner, Angela Lim.  It took us several years and a few rather harrowing encounters with the Liwagu Trail, but we did it.

Whitehead’s Broadbill (Calyptomena whiteheadi)
Whitehead’s Trogon (Harpactes whiteheadi)
Whitehead’s Spiderhunter (Arachnothera jullae)

Some of my other favorite birding spots include the Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sandakan, Fraser’s Hill in Peninsular Malaysia, and the Kinabatangan River.

Fraser's Hill clock tower