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Wednesday, July 5, 2000

WILD WATCH

Migrants and vagrants under Teuri's crags


An hour and a half west of the small harbor town of Haboro, which is just three hours north of Sapporo, lie two small islands: Teuri and Yagishiri. Teuri is easy to visit and has fascinating seabird colonies and good walking. There is a ferry from Haboro, which goes via Yagishiri, and although there is a faster tourist boat that cuts the travel time by 30 minutes or so, the ferry is a more interesting ride.

From the slower-moving ferry one can watch for wildlife. Sometimes dolphins appear (about a dozen Pacific white-sided dolphins porpoised past on my last visit), and there are always birds to watch. During migration hordes of dark shapes skim the waves, zooming skyward, dipping seaward.

Those dark crosses are shearwaters from the southern oceans. Heavy-bellied, dark, dumpy shapes zooming by in lines of a half a dozen to 100, just half a meter or so above the waves, are the rhinoceros auklets.

Tiny silvery birds, flashing prominent white wing bars, a white chin and a deep red throat and neck are the phalaropes. These small shorebirds are bound for their tundra breeding grounds in Siberia. All winter long they have been at sea, as far south as Indonesian waters. Often they are found in flocks around drifts of seaweed where plankton are abundant. They bob like corks, twisting and spinning at the surface, picking for food with their delicate bills.

In spring, the phalaropes set off for Siberia, and on the way they stream past Japan in tens of thousands; hundreds can be seen at a time, and during late May and early June they are a common sight from the Teuri Island ferry.

The ferry docks in the main harbor village: a huddle of houses, a couple of restaurants and souvenir shops, and, perched above the village to the south, the only hotel on the island. Minshuku and ryokan abound, though, and those about 2 km to the south in Maehama provide a wonderfully quiet retreat from the nighttime activity of the main harbor.

There is a campsite, but it is situated on waste ground sandwiched between the concrete harbor wall and the harbor itself, and feels more like a construction site than a recreation area. Its only saving grace is the price -- free to those with their own tents.

Teuri is a small island, barely 6 km long and only about 1 km wide, making it possible to walk right around the island in half a day. This pleasant walk reveals the island's topography. Along the eastern side facing Yagishiri and the mainland, the island is low, sloping to the rocky shore. As one walks south, the road rises gently toward the southern cape at Akaiwa, and from east to west the island rises, so that the road north up the west coast provides marvelous views of cliff scenery.

In early spring, when the vegetation has barely begun to recover from the winter, the island feels barren, sad even. Generations of garbage, bottles, cans, metal, old toys, furniture and even vehicles litter the spaces around the houses and the two villages on the eastern side. It appears as if no rubbish has left the island since it was first settled.

Spring generates a profusion of the giant-leafed Japanese butterbur, though, and the tall nodding stems of the itadori (a kind of polygonum) spring up along with summer grasses, thistles, lilies and the like. The dense fresh herbs hide the island's shame, block out the wreckage and remnants of recent human history, and turn it into a green and pleasant land.

Just south of the main village, a shrine, its wooden torii standing beside the road, seems to beckon migratory birds, which having arrived in the woodlands on the central slope of the island often gravitate here: one moment a blue-and-white flycatcher, the next a wryneck calling querulously or an eastern crowned warbler wheezing its nasal song, and then a gray, a dusky or an eye-browed thrush may appear.

Teuri is rather far north, no competition for Yonaguni, Tsushima or Hegura, where hordes of migrants, accidentals and vagrants may appear. Nevertheless, enough migrants do drop in or fly over to make it a pleasant place to walk, to birdwatch and to botanize. On my last visit I was torn between searching the sky, where red-rumped swallow, yellow wagtail and crossbill all flew over calling, and scanning the ground, where orchids, lilies and other early summer flowers were showing. It was a pleasant dilemma.

At the southern tip, at Akaiwa, a boardwalk runs around the lighthouse and down to a viewing platform. In the daytime the visitor may be excused for wondering why a boardwalk, but a glance below shows the ground pockmarked with holes. The soft smell of guano identifies the place immediately as a seabird colony. Thousands upon thousands of rhinoceros auklets nest here. Walking about would crush their nesting burrows.

During the day only a few gulls stand sentinel, hoping an auklet might uncharacteristically return to its burrow during daylight. Visit at night and all is revealed. After dark the area buzzes with seabird activity.

Even during the daytime, though, walking out to the end of the short boardwalk is worth while. From there, one looks down on the tall rock pinnacle of Akaiwa, or north to a magnificent view of the island's cliffs and the beautiful conical shape of Rishiri Fuji rising from the sea on the skyline.

Down below the viewpoint, squadrons of auklets are busily feeding at sea. On calm days a high-pitched thin whistling sound can be heard: the cries of the spectacled guillemot. These smart sooty black seabirds with white eye-patches and brilliantly red feet have declined around much of Hokkaido but are still common around Teuri, something of a stronghold for them.

Beneath the cliffs is a tidal flat of rock, the basking site of dozens of seals at low tide.

The high western side of the island is treeless, so walking north one has far-reaching views all the time, to the distant Teshio mountains of Hokkaido, to nearby Yagishiri and to distant Rishiri, while alongside the roads there are grassland and meadow flowers to look for.

According to the signs there are mamushi, a kind of viper, on the island. I was hoping to photograph them, but I still haven't seen one. It's worth being cautious, but like most snakes they tend to flee from humans, unless surprised while basking in the sun.

Two-thirds of the way up the west side of Teuri there is a view down a broad bowl in the cliffs. Here the ridges are crowded with large nests, sticks and guano splashes and the serpentine writhing of black, featherless necks.

This is the island's main Japanese cormorant colony. The goose-size parents ferry fish back for their growing offspring, which appear almost as antediluvian as young pelicans.

A little farther on, a side trail leads off to a corner of a cliff where one can see down another long slope of nests. These are of the black-tailed gull. There is a huge colony here, and some have built their nests and laid their eggs within a meter of the path railing.

The gulls know who is in charge here, and if you stand too close they will let you know by calling and swooping. It is an excellent place to observe bird behavior at close quarters with a stunning scenic backdrop.

Although a day trip here is possible from Haboro, staying overnight is necessary if you hope to enjoy the return of the auklets to their colony, and that really is not to be missed.

Send e-mail messages to MarkBrazil@compuserve.com or by snail-mail c/o The Japan Times.


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