Kyoto. Once capital to one of the world’s most refined civilizations, it’s a pleasant surprise to find that this city still retains a strong wild side. Wild boar are still known to visit the quieter suburbs near Ginkakuji, while sika deer are sometimes found in Takaragaike Park. Tanuki, raccoon-dogs, have been spotted on the banks of the Kamo River by night. But the most visible of Kyoto’s urban wildlife are its birds.

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Perhaps it’s not so surprising after all, when you consider that Kyoto nestles between forested mountains on three sides — North, East, and West — and how much of its land area remains devoted to trees. Many of the over 1,600 temples and shrines here have large gardens and groves, some with very old trees, and they’re a magnet for birds.

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On my spring visit I found myself among several Japanese birdwatchers at Jonangu Shrine, where they were stalking a variety of songbirds, all singing joyfully among the plum blossoms with the coming of spring. In Arashiyama, herons, egrets, cormorants, and both mallard and mandarin ducks were all over and made great subjects for our cameras at the Hozu River and the Osawa Pond in Daikakuji.

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Swimming with their bodies submerged, the cormorants looked like sinister midget submarines periscoping about for something to attack – which of course they were. Black-eared kites always wheel over the Kamogawa in great droves. I also saw a small raptor hovering over a rice field near Daikakuji; likely a kestrel. I spotted a gray heron building a nest among the pines at Umenomiya Shrine.

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Another gray heron posed for a portrait by the banks of the famed Ujigawa, the site of a bloody battle in medieval times. Many of the birds have little fear of man, and let you get quite close. When you’re close enough to photograph a bird in flight with an 85mm lens, you know you’re close!

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The birds were not just fearless; some were downright audacious. Shameless even. As Cathy and I were eating a late lunch along the Kamogawa-Takanogawa confluence, I noticed the black-eared kites circling right overhead. “You know, I think those hawks are circling *us*,” I told her. Ordinarily we’d both have stopped right then to observe and take some pictures, but we were so hungry after a long walk that we kept munching our meat pastries.

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A hungry kite must’ve heard me as a few seconds later, there was a rush of wind between us, a clap of wings that sounded like a muffled gunshot, and Cathy was yelping in dismay as the brazen bird made off with her lunch. It had been so precise in its attack run (maybe Obi Wan also told it to use The Force?) that its wings never touched us though our heads were only about two feet apart, nor did its claws even graze Cathy’s hands.

There’s no honor among thieves, though. One of the kite’s accomplices immediately dive-bombed the first, causing it to lose the pastry to the ducks and crows. There was only one thing a man can do in that situation — I shot the perps. 🙂 That’s them dogfighting overhead, continuing their argument even after losing the loot.

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Other forms of wildlife can still be seen in the greener parts of Kyoto, but they can be elusive. I kept an eye on the shallows of the Kamogawa, hoping to spot a Japanese giant salamander, but no luck. I saw a nutria coming out of its burrow and called Cathy to take a pic of it as she had the long lens with her, but it had disappeared by the time she caught up with me. We also saw and heard a large variety of songbirds, plus kingfishers at the Osawa Pond, but these were too small for our 300mm lens to reach.

If you’re interested in seeing more of Kyoto’s wild side, the easiest and one of the most pleasant ways is to simply spend an early morning or late afternoon walking along the Kamogawa and Takanogawa banks from Demachiyanagi Station. The station is right by the confluence of the two rivers, and the forested triangle of land between them is specially lovely in autumn. Here you’ll find the ducks the river is named for (kamo – duck, gawa – river), kites, egrets, gray herons, and flocks of cormorants fly in in the mornings.

More birdwatching opportunities can be found in the thickly forested temples and shrines like Fushimi Inari Taisha, Jonangu, Umenomiya, and Shimogamo Jinja. Monkeys abound at Iwatayama Park (also known as the Monkey Park), but deer and boar usually visit the suburbs only at night, spending the days in the more densely forested hills. We plan to spend more time hiking in the hills above Kyoto on our next visit, as having glimpsed Kyoto’s wild side, we want to see more of it.

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