The Ruddy Kingfisher
In Kijoka—known as the village of bashōfu fabric—in Ogimi there is also a waterfall called Nanataki. Located on a tributary of the Ukka River, this quiet little travel spot is suited to the laidback village of Kijoka.
Every year around May, ruddy kingfishers fly up from the south and stop in the woods around Nanataki to build their nests and raise their young. A member of the Alcedininae family, these birds are about 27.5 centimeters long. They’re a migratory bird named for the red hue of their beaks and bodies, and though they look florid, they’re a shy species, always hiding in the forests. They nest throughout the main island, but only the most die-hard birders will likely ever encounter them.
Ichida Toyoko fell in love with the ruddy kingfishers who flocked to Nanataki, so she opened a café called Koharu-ya1 on the banks of the river. From early summer to fall, she sets out nearly every day to birdwatch.
“There are two pairs that nest near the shop every year. They’ve been tagged, so that’s how we know it’s same birds visiting year after year. It’s amazing isn’t it, how they can come all the way from the Philippines or elsewhere and find their own nests again every time.”
There’s a subspecies called the Ryukyu ruddy kingfisher which also visits. A layperson probably can’t make out the differences in color or size, but veterans like Ichida can apparently “tell because their bellies are a little white.” I thought because these birds were named for Ryukyu, they must only live in Okinawa, but Ichida tells me that just like normal ruddy kingfishers, Ryukyu ruddy kingfishers fly south come September.
In Okinawan, ruddy kingfishers are usually called kukarū or kokarū. Even that varies from place to place, and apparently in Kijoka it’s koharū or kopparū. In other words, Ichida’s shop is named “The Ruddy Kingfisher.”
Also in the Alcedininae family is the Miyako kingfisher, thought by ornithologists the world over to be a fable. This bird’s base color is an all-over deep blue with a chestnut colored head and belly. The Ryukyu kingfisher is a bit smaller than the ruddy kingfisher. A specimen was collected in Miyako in 1887 and sent to a specimen collection site at Todai University in Tokyo. However, for some strange reason, ornithologist Kuroda Nagamichi only pronounced the specimen a new species thirty-two years later in 1919. During those thirty-two years, the specimen was sent overseas to be appraised by American scientists, but it was returned with no verdict.
Okinawa’s forests were surveyed after the announcement was made, but there have been no verifiable sightings. This means there is only one specimen in the entire world. And of course, we cannot hear its song or eat its meat. With birdsong and behavior unknown, the remains of the Miyako kingfisher’s story survive only in a single corpse.
- Koharu-ya has since closed.