Tiny Swallows Frantically Try To Keep up with Ship on 30 Minute Lake Kasumigaura Cruise- Why?
By Avi Landau
Many of my most memorable wildlife encounters in Japan have taken place while I was aboard a boat of some sort. There were the 18 sperm whales, mothers and pups, I saw drifting- and more impressively HEARD BREATHING- so deeply and resonantly in unison from a ship in the Ogasawara Islands. There was the eagle I saw swoop down and snatch a fish out of the water just beside the raft I was on at the Geibikei Gorge in Iwate Prefecture. The pods of dolphins I could jump into the sea and play with around Mikura Jima Island (maybe my favorite place in all of Japan!)- and some more dolphins I saw trailing the ferry I was taking from Shimabara in Nagasaki to Kumamoto City on the Island of Kyushu- as I watch the sun set behind the the Mt. Unzen volcano- branding the scene forever in my mind.!
In fact, when I look back on all of my ON-BOAT experiences in Japan, and I have had many in this archipelago of myriad islands, I realize that more than the scenery, it is the fauna that stands out in my mind- most distinctively the avifauna- the birdlife. This is because on almost any sight-seeing cruise I have taken in this country, like many of the other passengers, I have spent most of the time on board tossing food to the flocks of seagulls which had tagged along. The sleek white birds acrobatically snapping up the little thrown tidbits in mid-air, was far more entertaining than most of the scenery which could ever be seen on these trips.
These cruise-following seagulls have left more than just a visual impression on me- one of my fingers still (and always will) bears the scar given to me by an especially bold gull who snatched some food out of my hand before I had a chance to toss it!
Well, the other day was perfect, weather-wise, for going to the beach. I had some appointments though, in the evening, which meant I couldn`t make the 90 minute trip and get back on time – so I opted for the next best thing – a cruise on Lake Kasumigaura, Japan`s second largest lake ( only a 20 minute drive from Tsukuba Center) !
What made it a fitting replacement for a trip to the sea, is the fact that before the land-reclaimation projects of the Edo Period (1600-1868), Lake Kasumigaura was actually connected openly with the Pacific Ocean ( the Lake was completely sealed off from the sea by a construction project completed in 1963).
At the Lacus Marina, a 15 minute walk from Tsuchiura Station and the remnant of a major port which was once the center of this regions important water-transport system*, I went to the main office toget my ticket for the White Iris, an old pleasure-ship which takes people out on the lake, usually for 30 minute cruises.
I looked down at my finger when I saw the sign saying: SEAGULL FOOD 100 Yen ! My scar tingled.
There were few passengers on board- only four besides my family and I, so we could really relax as the ship away from the pier and head out into the center of the Lake. It was an overcast day, and even Mt. Tsukuba was obscured in the gray. We passed the Weapons School of the Japan Self-Defence force which before the Second World War had been a major aviation School (YOKAREN), one of the sights at which the Kamikaze pilots trained.
Just passed it, a chill went down my spine, though, when I recognized the mysterious. silhouette of the giant Ushiku Daibutsu Buddha Statue.
But despite the fact that we had Bags of food in hand and at the ready, there were no seagulls – not a single one. this was especially disappointing since on this cruise we had been looking forward to the seagulls much more than the scenery, which even on a fine day is not very much to write home about.
With bags in hand, we walked around the deck. On the right side toward the back ( I forget the correct nautical terms) we were surprised to see two birds flying close to the ship. Not seagull- swallows ! There tiny darting birds come back to Japan each spring to build their nests under the eaves of houses, usualy returning to the same home every year**. In past ages these birds were welcomed by homeowners as a sign of good luck. More recently, however, with modern housing and an obssession with hygiene, cleanliness and convenience, many Japanese now drive these birds away.
It was a pair of these birds following the ship, as if they were trying to stick close to one spot just bellow the deck on which we were standing.
I knew that these birds ate insects and goggled up plenty of harmful bugs around rice-fields, and I wondered what they were doing following our ship. Was the boat stirring up some food from the sea. I realized even before we started tossing that these birds would not be interested in our SEAGULL-FOOD.
The cruise lasted thirty minutes. I watched the swallows for 15, the entire way back to the marina. It was the closet and longest look I had ever gotten of there familiar birds which I usually see as a blur darting off quickly in the distance. I sould watch them almost eye to eye as they tried to keep up witht he ship. I t almost seemed as if they wanted to keep righ up with me – though the food I had was of no use to them.
I wondered why.
When the boat pulled up to the pier and it was time to disembark- I found out ! Just below the deck upon which I had been standing, this unfortunate swallow couple had built their nest!
Now every time the ship pulled out for a cruise (lucky for them not very frequently!) they would have to tag along for the duration ! Dedicated parents!
Once again it was a wildlife experience which proved to be the highlight of a boat-ride in Japan!