Mark Brazil developed his fascination with the natural world, especially birds and mammals, during his boyhood in the landlocked English county of Worcestershire. He pursued academic interests in biology during studies in England and Scotland, while exploring the coasts and mountains of Britain in search of birds. Mark earned his PhD from Stirling University, Scotland, for his work on avian behavioral-ecology in Iceland and Scotland.
Stretching in a chain between Kyushu and Taiwan, lie the islands of the Nansei Shoto, literally the southwestern archipelago, of Japan. At times these islands have been linked; at other times, they have been disconnected both from each other and from the main islands to the north (Kyushu) and south (Taiwan). Over prolonged periods of isolation, unique endemic species have evolved here among many groups of organisms—from flowering plants to mammals—and the islands are now quite rightly regarded as ‘biodiversity hotspots.’
The Amami Islands represent a unique subset of the Nansei Shoto. Here, the natural vegetation consists of the subtropical forest that was previously typical of the region. Leaving the sugar cane fields and Ryukyu Pines of the lowlands and lower slopes behind, this area is home to dense, broad-leafed, evergreen, hill forests. Light is scarce; the dense leafy canopy of the trees block so much light that relatively few flowering plants thrive below. These forests run along the spine of the island, draping down the flanks of its mountains, and provide homes to some of the strangest creatures in the region. Many of these endemic creatures—salamanders, frogs, snakes, and mammals—are both secretive and nocturnal, but most of the bird species are active during the daytime.
On Zegrahm’s upcoming Asia’s Subtropical Isles: Philippines, Taiwan & Japan expedition, we will search for white-backed woodpeckers, Lidth’s jays, and Ryukyu robins. The island of Amami Oshima supports two species of woodpeckers—the wide-ranging Japanese pygmy woodpecker that we will likely see elsewhere during our trip, and the larger black, white, and maroon white-backed’s. The jays nearest relative lives far to the west in the Himalayas, but here on Amami Oshima, Lidth’s jays forage quietly on the forest flora. Our challenge will be to spot them before they spot us, as we wander along forest trails. The robin, meanwhile, is a small but beautiful songster, related more closely to the robin of Europe than that of North America. This feisty little black-chested bird has a beautiful singing voice, and our goal will be to listen out for its memorable song.
Here and there, where light has broken in through the canopy, we will find stands of graceful tree ferns towering as tall as the forest canopy. Beneath the canopy, the trunks and branches of the forest trees are damp with moss and sprout clumps of epiphytic ferns. Walking through this kind of forest provides what the Japanese refer to as a “green shower,” a peaceful therapy of dappled light, natural forest, and natural sounds.
Amami Oshima is lush in every respect; its hills are carpeted with evergreen broadleaf forest, its river mouths sport mangrove forests, and just offshore it has fringing coral reefs. It is a fascinating, and surprising tropical corner in a country that typically conjures up very different images of dense urban and industrial development.