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SITES WORTH SEEING

Worlds of nature are just a click away

by Mark Brazil

Although I’ve only just packed away my skiing gear (the remnant snowfields have crept too close to the peaks to make the physical cost of carrying heavy boots and skis so far uphill worth the downhill benefits), and though mountain cherry blossoms have only recently begun to shed their petals here in Hokkaido, the heat, the humidity and the downpours of the annual rainy season have already begun to affect Japan’s southern islands.

Hence, although I have been delighted to hear from various readers who enjoy my columns with their children — and some who use them with schoolchildren for teaching purposes — how are such folk to keep those children (and themselves) amused, but interested in the natural world, when rainy season conditions prevent explorations into nature?

Let’s face it, even the most dedicated naturalist reaches a point when the downpours become sufficient to deter them from outdoor exploration. Though such heavily clouded days are relatively rare, their silver lining is that they do provide an opportunity to catch up on note-writing, organizing and labeling pictures, or taking a spin through the virtual world of natural history.

But out there in cyberspace just what are the options?

The Internet still has a long way to go before it becomes a virtual library capable of replacing a visit to a true institution harboring journals, magazines and books. Much that appears on the Web is of questionable value, with many searches reaching either a dead end or a questionable Web site. With that said, however, some sites do stand out as being of great interest. Like an immense library with open stacks there is much to be found just by casually wandering the shelves, poking about in odd corners, checking out unfamiliar floors and back rooms. But if time is limited, then it is helpful to have some good starting points.

So, here are some of my current favorite sites.

As an ornithologist my all-time most impressive site to date is Yann Kolbeinsson’s The Icelandic Birding Pages at www.hi.is/~yannk/index-eng.html Yes, I know Iceland is far away, but in terms of quality information this site is superb, well-presented, well-illustrated with fabulous photographs and full of fascinating, impressively presented information on bird status. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have this sort of information available for Japan and other East Asian countries?

Much closer to home, and a site I have visited often this spring, is the excellent, but very different, Birds Korea at www.birdskorea.org/ My own sojourn on Sojeong-do (see my column last month) was prompted by information on this site, and lots of information about logistics was gleaned from Birds Korea.

The site provides an interesting combination of information for birders (the almost daily updates of spring migration are mouth-watering), and though less scientifically oriented than Yann Kolbeinsson’s site, Nial Moores’ Birds Korea site has a different focus and also contains important conservation news relating not just to Korea, but also to the wider East Asian region. And if my writing on birding in Korea last month has tempted you to spread your birding wings toward the Asian continent, then you may wish to join conservationist and bird guide Nial Moores on one of his very reasonably priced trips to some of the hottest spots for Asian shorebird and passerine migrants in Korea.

But for the ultimate in educative effort, and to learn more than you probably thought there was to know about birds, check out Cornell University’s excellent Laboratory of Ornithology site — not least for the latest news on the stunning rediscovery of the long-presumed-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker — via their site at www.birds.cornell.edu/

And last but not least on the bird front, if you need books, atmosphere recordings, wildlife sounds, recording equipment or other accouterments, you can’t do better than visit the Wild Sounds site at www.wildsounds.co.uk/

And isn’t that just why the Internet is so fabulous? On a rainy day you can literally wander the world in an instant, from Iceland to Korea and thence to America and England all from your desktop.

Finally here’s a trio of closely related sites that you may find invaluable.

Have you ever wanted to know exactly the identity of that frog you found, snake you glimpsed or salamander you saw? Well, here are some great pages with photographs of every species known from Japan, a wonderful addition to an electronic reference list. Visit the Encyclopedia of Japanese Reptiles at homepage3.nifty.com/japrep/englishtop.htm for illustrations, English, Japanese and scientific names, and distribution details of all species. If you are fascinated by frogs and tantalized by toads, then you will undoubtedly be pleased to find illustrations of all of Japan’s species here at the Frogs and Toads of Japan site www.rieo.net/amph/index1.htm — while if it’s Japanese salamanders and newts you are interested in, click to the related www.rieo.net/amph/index3.htm page where you will find some excellent illustrations of eggs, larvae and adults. These are excellent field-guide type pages, but alas they do not lead on to more serious literature.

And that, of course, is always the weakness of the Internet. Sites come and go, and information is stored in only one locality. A sad example for me is Heywood’s once-excellent site on extinction, which gave enlightening maps of the biogeography of extinction at www.uwsp.edu/geo/faculty/heywood/geog358/extinctm/extinctm.htm#mammals Now, only the mammal page is accessible, and the site hasn’t been updated since 2001.

It’s so frustrating to find that excellent sites have moved, gone, or are just no longer accessible; and it’s no good hoping you’ll find a copy at your nearest library. The Internet is like having only one reference copy in the world of a valuable book of data. Once it’s gone, it’s gone (though, these days, you might find an archived cache on Google). A plea to all Web site-builders — if your information is important enough for you to spend all that time saving it to a Web page, then it’s well worth ensuring that it is properly published elsewhere so that researchers can access it in perpetuity.

If it’s the world beneath your feet that fascinates you, then you can hardly do better than visit the amazing Web site of the Japanese Ant Database Group. They have put together one of the most impressive visual catalogues you can imagine. Every species is here; you can search by your home region or prefecture; you can see them lifesize or enlarged; you can learn about their taxonomy — and you can find links to the larger world of ants (and it’s huge) at ant.edb.miyakyo-u.ac.jp/E/

If imaginary journeys are your thing, then maps are essential, so visit www.mapion.co.jp/ for a helpful, clickable and zoomable site allowing you to navigate your way around Japan at various scales. For a more distant journey around our own bit of the cosmos, don’t miss Bill Arnett’s excellent site The Nine Planets — A Multimedia Tour of the Solar System, which is at seds.lpl.arizona.edu/nineplanets/nineplanets/

And if that site doesn’t take you far enough, then you can daydream over the evening sky map each month for free from Skymaps at skymaps.com/ and pursue your dreams beyond our Solar System by visiting NASA’s expectedly good site at www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/starsgalaxies/index.html

Finally, if you just want to blow away the rainy day blues and enjoy the vicarious thrill of some stunning underwater sightings, visit the amazing pages of images by underwater photographer Masa Ushioda at www.coolwaterphoto.com/

If you come across other excellent sites that you would like to share with others, do let me know at mabrazil@rakuno.ac.jp and I will be pleased to mention them in future columns.