MIYAKOJIMA (October 2017)
This week, I visited Miyakojima to see the Grey-Faced Buzzard migration and make another attempt to photograph the Emerald Dove and Japanese Wood Pigeon.
The buzzard migration is an amazing sight to see. Up to 10,000 birds use Miyakojima/Irabujima as a way station on their migration each October. I was told the peak was around October 15th, which matched my calendar perfectly for a four-night, five-day trip.
Be wary of the weather forecast—I arrived as a typhoon was passing to the south toward China, so my view from the airplane window as we landed was all of three inches. For two days, I encountered heavy intermittent squalls, creating challenging conditions, even for driving. Nonetheless, I was able to confirm the presence of a number of buzzards from the Irabujima lookout the late afternoon of the day I arrived.
The weather improved with each day, allowing me in the end to get many good views of the birds and of them flying off toward Taiwan in the early morning. I was, however, unable to get any superior photographs of these beautiful birds. They were either too far or the light was too poor.
As I struggled with finding the best locations and strategies to view the buzzards, I ran into a couple who had been there for a week viewing the migration and had counted 6,000 birds (they were taking meticulous notes) over their first five or six days. Here are the tips that they passed along:
1. The best morning location is at the lookout on Kurimajima. From the lookout, you face Miyakojima (almost directly toward the Tokyu Resort), looking northeast, I think, with Irabujima and its new and very, very impressive bridge and famous eagle-headed lookout visible in the distance. The entire side of the island below the lookout, which is located on the top of a cliff, is forest, where many buzzards can be found. From this lookout, you can see the them take off from below and also watch the birds migrating from Irabujima. Here is the Google map location:
2. The best morning time: EARLY! I arrived at the Kurimajima lookout at 6:30 am, with sunrise at 6:38, and missed all the birds taking off from Kurimajima itself. I was able to see dozens upon dozens of birds that had taken off at first light from Irabujima as they passed between Kurimajima and Miyakojima. It was amazing—you look up, wondering where the birds are, and then suddenly out of nowhere dozens appear. For the September Chinese Sparrowhawk migration, in comparison, the local birdwatchers did not assemble at the Iriebashi until 7:30 am.
3. The best afternoon location, I was told, is on Irabujima near the aptly named golf course, Sashiba Links. They recommended a parking lot from which you can easily scan the sky in every direction. They said to be there at 3:00 pm, and at 3:15 the sky was full of birds. I am not sure if these were birds arriving from Okinawa or birds already on the island seeking a new roost for the night, but there was a lot of activity from 3:00 to 4:30 pm. I tried Kurimajima one afternoon to see if the birds also took to the air from 3:00 pm, but it was EXTREMELY windy, and all the birds below simply moved between trees at treetop level. If I go back next year, I will experiment more with different locations. Here is the GPS for the parking lot: https://firstname.lastname@example.org,125.1595536,21z
4. In the afternoon after 3:00 pm, you can also drive around wooded areas on both Irabujima and Miyakojima and find the birds moving among the trees and perched on telephone poles. There seemed to a number of birds behind the Tokyu Resort.
5. The buzzard-shaped outlook on Irabujima offers a similar view but on a grander scale than the one on Kurimajima. There are also paths through the woods adjacent to the lookout where one can find other species, including many feral peafowl. I visited this outlook in the late afternoon after my arrival, and several buzzards were in the air, but the light was extremely poor, making for terrible photographs. The big downside of the outlook is the onslaught of busloads of tourists who walk up, make noise, take pictures and selfies, and leave.
I am sure that the local birders know really good locations to view roosting areas and will try to learn more about these areas before my next attempt to view the buzzard migration.
My second goal on visiting Miyakojima was another attempt to photograph the Emerald Dove.
Emerald Doves, being extremely wary, are difficult. There are plenty in the Onoyama Forest, but finding one is tough, and finding one without its flying away is even tougher. You can pat yourself on the back for finding a bird, but it has probably been watching you the whole time already. The birds inside the forest are much more cautious than the ones that feed on the paths around the Youth Center or at the Shigira Resort.
My first full day on the island, the bird I found had, of course, found me first. I was near the famous bird watering pond on one of the broader paths behind the Youth Center. Fortunately, it flew in a large circle to a relatively exposed branch, which allowed me to get my first shot of this species. I had seen them previously flying by at full speed on Iriomotejima and at the main field at the Youth Center, but this was the first time I could get a look at one perched. We had a standoff for a few minutes—I watched it and it watched me—until it got bored and took off for deeper in the forest.
The second day, I tried the famous Ryunotake pond. I was not hopeful, because there had been so much rain, creating watering spots for the birds throughout the forest. And I had no luck there. A Slaty-legged Crake did stop by for a bath, but it the light was poor.
On my last day, I forwent further viewing of the buzzard migration for another attempt at the Emerald Dove. I packed my bags and went early to the Onoyama Forest Youth Center. The paths between the large parking lot and the main building and around the large yard/athletic field is a target area for the bird. On my third day, I startled a couple of them along the path and knew I was getting close.
I did not park in the main parking lot. Instead I approached from the small parking lot accessed via the Botanical Garden, walked around the field, and staked out a position on the path to wait for some action. If nothing appeared, I planned to head to the Ryunoike pond. With this in mind, I had switched from my 100-400-mm handheld lens to a tripod and 600-mm lens.
Talk about pay dirt! I had not walked more than 25 meters from my car before seeing a telltale white stripe above an eye—an Emerald Dove just behind the base of a tree. And it was close. Fortunately, I had worn full camouflage that day, despite feeling somewhat embarrassed when I do so. Right decision! The bird saw something. I froze, waiting. As it moved behind the base and out of my line of sight, I slipped to the right to set up my equipment and then slowly moved back onto the path to wait. Success! I was able to get a number of good shots before the bird flew away.
With that success under my belt, I camped out on the path near the sign marking an ako tree for an hour, but to no avail. Knowing that at least one bird was on the paths, I decided to make another circuit around the main field, and succeeded once more. Unfortunately, I flushed the bird as I was looking down a right branch of the path while the bird was ahead on the same path on the left. But it flew just a dozen yards to a well-protected branch close by the path (and only ten yards from my car) and started to preen. Although the bird obviously saw me, it felt safe there, so I was able to photograph it for 40 minutes before it moved on. Incidentally, before it moved, I noticed a Slaty-legged Crake feeding beneath the dove. If I had had a wide-angle lens, I could have taken a shot of both birds together. That would have been wild! After the bird moved for a second time, luck was with me, as I was able to get a view between the branches of the new position as well and could relocate for different angles. And luck was still with me when it landed near the base of that tree to forage, allowing for several more good angles before it wandered out of sight. A very successful day!