Less than 200km from Tokyo but a world apart lies the volcanic island of Miyakejima, a dot in the pacific ocean. To get there one has the choice of a daily flight or a daily ferry service, departing from the heart of Tokyo in the evening and bringing you on the island just for sunrise. Some decide to make it a brief day trip, taking the ferry back on the same day around 2.30 pm to enjoy dinner in Tokyo, but i opted for a more relaxed overnight stay. The island is a round-shaped volcano of approximately 8km diameter, with at the center the mighty, active and off-limit, Mt Oyama, which erupted in spectacular fashion in 2000, forcing the evacuation of the residents, who had to wait 5 long years before being allowed to return. But if the damages caused by the eruption are still very much visible, a lava flow reaching the sea in the Southwest, deforested slopes with dead trees mostly on the East coast, roads and houses have been repaired and normal life for the 2500 or so inhabitants has resumed. The ecosystem has also recovered : the mature forest on the South coast was spared by the eruption, and all resident birds have returned. In particular, the Izu thrush, a bird endemic to a few small islands off Japanese mainland, is thought to have found refuge on nearby Kozushima during the worst of the eruption, and Miyakejima inhabitants were pleased to find them in even bigger numbers when they returned.
For a birdwatcher, a trip to Miyakejima offers a double interest : first the island resident birds, some of them like the Izu Thrush having a range restricted to a few off-shore islands, but also the pelagic birds that can be observed from the ferry on the way back to Tokyo.
As for the resident birds, the list is pretty short : excluding sea birds, less than 30 bird species do breed on the island. But out of them 4 have a very restricted distribution range and are of special interest to birdwatchers : The Izu Thrush, the Japanese Wood Pigeon, and the migratory Iijima Leaf warbler and Pleske’s Warbler. In addition, 5 birds are represented with a range-restricted resident sub-species : Japanese White-eye (stejnegeri), Japanese Robin (tanensis), Varied Tit (the striking owstonii), Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (matsudaira) and Winter Wren (mosukei).
That’s quite a number of birds to look for but the good news is, they are mostly very common, and only the rare, and endangered, Japanese Wood Pigeon can be tricky to find, but as it tends to perch conspicuously on bare branches or even on telephone wires along the road, persistence will usually bear fruits.
By far the best place for birding is the area surrounding Tairo Ike, a small crater lake surrounded by a beautiful forest in the South of the island. Only the grassland specialist Pleske’s Warbler will need another location, such as the Izu cape or the Toga beach on the West coast.
A visit to Miyakejima on migration season will potentially bring more birds to the list, the most notable among the regularly recorded migrant birds being the now very rare Japanese Night Heron, which used to breed on the island but was apparently extirpated due to the foolish introduction of Japanese Weasel in the 70s by a local farmer who wanted to get rid of rodents. Weasels are now abundant, to the point that there is now an extirpation program in place, but hopefully other resident birds have managed to survive them so far.
So after a good day and half birding on the island i boarded the ferry back to Tokyo, but birding was far from being over : the 4 hours or so sailing before it gets dark offers a great opportunity of pelagic birding. In June, no sea bird is anywhere more abundant than the locally breeding Streaked Shearwater, to the point where trying to keep a count is meaningless. Not being an experienced pelagic birder, i only managed to pick-up 3 other species : Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwater, both summer visitors from down-under, and the widely distributed but here uncommon Bulwer’s Petrel.
Earlier in the season, the Miyake-Tokyo route offers good chances for any of the 3 North Pacific Albatrosses : Laysan, Black-footed and Short-tailed, but i saw none of them.