At the hotel in Naha, on Okinawa, I had just opened my suitcase when I heard a knock on the door. It was Armas who asked how many beds I had in my room. Strange question, I thought. Two I said, to which he replied, 'they seem to have put me in with you'. At this I baulked and said 'this is a big hotel and they have lots of rooms. I paid single supplement and, nothing personal, but you are not coming in'. Then he went off and found his own room.
Eurasian Curlew – orientalis
Soon we were to head to a local mudflat, apparently the only mudflat on Okinawa. This is the place where Armas has never failed to see Saunders's Gull. We took two taxis there, the first containing Peter, Hemme and Graham, the second Armas and me. We had a bit if difficulty getting a second taxi, it was about 5pm and so commuter time, so we were quite a way behind the first one, but eventually we got there. We spent a couple of hours checking the area. In that time we didn't see a single gull. There were a few curlews about. We were hoping for Far-eastern Curlew and were carefully checking all the long-billed orientalis Eurasian Curlews. Armas wandered off and came back about fifteen minutes later declaring he had had good views of a Far-eastern Curlew. Our checking of the curlews yielded only long-billed and very-long-billed orientalis Eurasian Curlews. Also here were two Bar-tailed Godwits, 100+ Pacific Golden-plovers, about 40 Kentish Plovers, Common Greenshanks, Grey Plovers, Common Redshanks, Whimbrel, Common Sandpiper and a Green Sandpiper. A bonus wader in the form of a Grey-tailed Tatler was pleasing because it was a lifer for me. Also here we had a single Black-faced Spoonbill and both Intermediate and Little Egrets. We decided to drive past here tomorrow to check for gulls if the tide was low. That evening we ate in a very nice Japanese restaurant Armas had found near to the hotel.
The 15th February arrived and it was time to head north in search of two key target species. The eight-seater van had magically turned into a much smaller car, two in front, three squeezed in the back. We asked what had happened to the promised van and were told it was too expensive and that he (Armas) had had to go to another hire company.
We first drove past the gull site but the tide was in and we couldn't see any birds so we didn't stop. Once we had got past the extensive urban area of Naha we were surprised to see how much woodland remained on the north of Okinawa. We had been led to expect a lot less and it was nice to see a lot still remained. Our hotel was excellently placed away from habitation and in prime rail habitat. After checking in we did some safari birding hoping to run into a rail, although not literally because there are many road signs warning that rails are in the area. We did stop for a few minutes, twice, but were soon off again. We didn't find any rails.
Okinawa Road Sign
Next morning at dawn we were out again. The night manager at the hotel had said we had a 90% chance of seeing the rail in the morning and failing that a 90% chance at a site he knew. We didn't see the first 90%-chance rail. So we went to the second site. We didn't see it there either.
Next it was time for woodpecker hunting. We went to a woodland site where Armas had seen the birds before and searched the area. We heard one woodpecker drum and saw Japanese White-eye, and Great and Varied Tits. We spent quite a while here but had no luck.
Later we were back at the rail site when the night manager walked past. He asked whether we'd seen the rail and we said no. He looked horrified. He looked intently at the open muddy area and asked whether there had been another car here when we were. We told him yes and that it had parked on the mud rather than on the road. He threw his hands up in horror and muttered something in Japanese. Try later today he said, about 5pm. We said we would.
We then went to another possible woodpecker site and although there were signs of woodpecker activity none of it looked recent and the place was very quiet. We did pick up a couple of Japanese Yellow Buntings, which was an unexpected bonus as this species is usually difficult to see in winter.
Since the traditional woodpecker site seemed deserted, possibly due to its being well known and so rather disturbed, we went to the University of the Ruyukus to seek out the man who studies these very rare birds and ask whether he had a possible site. He drew us a map and we headed off seeing a Striated Heron by the river on the way. We walked back and forth along a 50 metre stretch of road edged by thick woodland. We had Varied Tit and Ruyuku Minivet and finally brief flight views of a Pryor's Woodpecker. Big sigh of relief. At least that was one of the key species seen, although again the views could have been better.
We told Armas we needed to get back to the small area of mud recommended by the hotel chap and he told us just say what we wanted him to do and he'd do it. Park there and wait we told him. We duly did so and within seconds Graham quietly announced that there was an Okinawa Rail behind a fallen log. A quiet panic ensued as we all tried to get on the bird. There was no need to panic, just to stay quiet and wait. In just a few minutes the bird came out into the open and most of the next 90 minutes calmly feeding near the car, sometimes only 1 metre away from us. Armas said he gets the rail in maybe 1 in 3 trips and views are usually just flashes as the car whizzes by or as a rail runs across the road. The rail even called for us as it disappeared into the vegetation. As a finale we noticed about 30 Grey Wagtails on telegraph wires. None of us had ever seen that many Grey Wagtails together. As we watched we realised more were coming in and we eventually had at least 100, probably around 150. Back at the hotel we thanked the night manager!
February 17th 2005 was our last full day in Japan. We started at 5.15 up at the new woodpecker site and spent a few hours hours without Armas, who was said he was going to sort out our flights, just walking back and forth and checking everything that moved. We located a mixed flock that came through a couple of times. First time we noted Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Varied and Great Tits, Japanese White-eye and Japanese Bush Warbler and Ruyuku Minivet. We heard Ruyuku Robin, which sounded close but could not be located. No sign of the woodpecker today. The second time to flock came through it stayed around a little longer and amongst the usual species Peter found the Ruyuku race of Narcissus Flycatcher, thought by some to be a separate species. We also found two Japanese Black Wood Pigeons and a further Japanese Yellow Bunting.
We then had to leave northern Okinawa for the airport in the south. Armas took us on a short detour to some rice paddies. This was a good idea because as well as Eurasian Tree Sparrows, Great, Little and Cattle Egrets, eight Little Ringed Plovers and 20+ Oriental Turtle-doves we added Chinese Bulbul to the list, seeing about thirty birds. Also here we had about 10 Common Snipe and one, possibly two, Swinhoe's Snipe. Then it was to the airport where Armas announced that our late arrival meant that we would have to take a later – and more expensive – flight than he had planned and he feared his credit card would be unable to cover the cost. We flatly refused to pay yet again for flights that were included in the price and Armas eventually managed to produce the required number of tickets. We thus took the plane to Haneda, caught the bus to Narita and the courtesy bus to the hotel and could finally relax knowing we'd survived. Armas had one final surprise in store when he told me that breakfast on the final morning was not included in the tour price. When the group – minus Armas – met the following morning I was the only person to have been told this but the others accepted the news with good grace. The only remaining problem for Ian, Peter and me would be to persuade Armas to repay the money he had borrowed from us during the tour.