Raicho: Japan's Mountain Bird
The name raicho (雷鳥) literally translates to "thunder bird," and refers to members of the population of Japanese Rock Ptarmigan that migrated south to Japan during the last ice age and settled permanently in the high alpine areas across the country's mountainous Chubu (central) region. It is said that their name comes from the fact that they tend to be most active during early morning and evening hours, as well as during times of inclement/stormy weather in order to avoid being targeted from aerial predators such as the Golden Eagle.
Though encounters with raicho above the tree line on central Japan's numerous hiking trails are not entirely uncommon, a sighting is generally cause for great excitement amongst local hikers, as the number of birds has been steadily declining due to the effects of climate change, human interference, and an increasing number of predators - including from both the introduction of non-native species and territorial encroachment from native animals who have expanded their habitat and diets in response to warming global temperatures. Studies seem to suggest that their numbers have dropped by nearly half since the 60's, and are listed as a special protected endangered species.
This week I had the rare opportunity to join members of the village mountain guide association and a well-known research scientist on their annual excursion to the numerous boulders and dense pine brush in the area around Mt. Hakuba Norikura and the Hakuba Oike alpine lake. Our task was to search for signs of the resident raicho and gather data to estimate their numbers and evaluate the health of the local population.
We met early in the morning, piled into a large van and drove together to the trailhead. The weather forecast was for rain and seemed to be spot on as we exited the vehicle and began our hike in the midst of an ominous, choking fog, but were surprisingly greeted with clearing skies shortly after setting out. The hike to the top of Hakuba Norikura begins at the Tsugaike Nature Park and rises steadily from just below 1,900m all the way up to the 2,469 meter summit. It isn't an especially long, hard or technical climb, but the path is often a muddy mess from rain and snowmelt, and the final steep ascent from the Tengupara (天狗原) wetland is blanket in a snowfield that remains until well into August in an average year.
We moved slowly in the crushing humidity and stiflingly hot rainy season temperatures, taking every opportunity to shove fistfuls of snow down our shirts and into the space between our backpacks and back whenever we had the chance. We followed the maintained path to the large stone cairn and yellow post that signify Hakuba Norikura's unimpressive summit, before breaking into groups of two to four and spreading out to conduct our investigation - swapping the wide, rocky footpath for full-on bushwhacking through neck-high thickets of creeping pine stretching in every direction. We were carefully searching for evidence of the endangered birds who live here, paying particular attention to singular tall rocks or large rocky outcroppings that raicho use as (1) lookout points to spot predators and intruders into their territory. We also searched for: patches of dried earth showing the tell-tale signs of 砂浴び, or (2) sand bathing, in which the ptarmigan ironically roll around in the dirt to clean themselves, (3) the bird's droppings, (4) nests and of course (5) the raicho themselves.
Each group was equipped with a handheld GPS device and a memo pad, and every time any of the above evidence was spotted, its exact location was logged using GPS, and a detailed description of what was found was written in the notebook. This data by itself may not sound particularly informative, but by comparing it to the previously recorded data sets from years past it can paint a surprisingly complete and nuanced picture of the local population to a trained researcher. It was hard and sometimes frustrating work to battle through the dense brush and uneven ground riddled with stones and hidden holes, but it was more rewarding and unique than it was anything else. My group came across and logged more than 20 indicators, including one male adult bird, one hatched egg, several sand bathing sites and a whole crapload of well... crap.
After more than 2 hours of off-trail research we reconvened for lunch near the summit, handed our memos and GPS devices back to our leader and followed the path back down to our car. For me personally, it was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the history, diet, behavior, territory, and much more of these beautiful and fascinating birds I have so often come across on my hikes through the Japanese Alps. I have long been hoping to get more involved in trail maintenance and conservation in order to give back to the mountains that have given me so much, and hopefully I'll be able to look back at this day as the start.
For more detailed information on the Japanese Rock Ptarmigan, check out the following multi-lingual site run by Toyama Prefecture's Tateyama Nature Conservation Center.