Birdwatching Breaks operate one of the best winter itineraries to Japan and our tour this year was no exception as we recorded a host of species including most of the endemic birds and a few stragglers from North America. In a species total of 170, we had many highlights including three Blakiston’s Fish Owls at a private site in Eastern Hokkaido, Japanese Murrelets off the Kyushu coast and hundreds of wintering Steller’s and White-tailed Sea Eagles. In Kyushu the mild weather attracted wintering Intermediate Egret and Brown Shrike whilst several Black-faced Spoonbills were also noted. In Kamatsu several wintering Pacific Divers were good to study along with small groups of Taiga Bean Geese and the regular flock of Baikal Teal. The ferry north from Nagoya to Tomakomai had rather mixed results this year with the exception of Tristram’s Storm Petrel and a wintering group of Horned Puffins. Hokkaido was again a delight although weather conditions on one day proved to be a stumbling block. Despite this thousands of wintering ducks including vagrant Bufflehead and Canvasback were observed. Other interesting species of note were Rough-legged Buzzards, Asian Rosy Finches and the Japanese race of Ural Owl. Our final destination at Karuizawa added a female Copper Pheasant an easily missed species plus high numbers of Red-flanked Bluetails and Japanese Grosbeaks.
My thanks go out to Masa for his excellent work as a translator which helped the tour run smoothly and efficiently and Akira who made this complex trip possible by his professional arrangements with travel and hotel arrangements.
Our next tour to Japan is scheduled for February 2011.
February 5th/6th: London Heathrow, Tokyo, Kyushu, Miyazaki.
Weather: Overcast and dull 13 C.
Our long flights from Europe landed on time or shortly afterwards at Narita Airport. On arrival we passed through customs and immigration to be met by Akira my ground agent and Masa the interpreter for the tour. We bought tickets to board the bus to Haneda Airport the main departure for domestic departures. Along the way we observed Great Cormorant, Vega Gull and a Brown-eared Bulbul. Outside the main terminal building Black-backed Wagtail and Eurasian Tree Sparrow were noted. The flight down to Kyushu went smoothly where we transferred north to the fishing town of Hyuga.
February 7th: Hyuga, Mi-ike, Route 447, Izumi.
Weather: Sunny am followed by overcast conditions and a northwest wind 5 C/12 C.
Breakfast was taken at 7am followed by the short journey to Hyuga Harbour where we embarked on a short boat trip offshore. In the inner harbour sector sightings of Black-eared Kite, Pacific Reef Egret, Vega Gull, Brown-eared Bulbul and Black-backed Wagtails. At 0800 hours the boat started to head out of the harbour passing fishing stands attracting Japanese and Great Cormorants, Black-tailed Gull, the two cormorant species being attracted to fish feeding stations. On leaving the harbour we located up to three Japanese Murrelets and the commoner gulls. The weather started to worsen so we headed back to mainland and stopped under a large cliff. On the cliff resting Great and Japanese Cormorants, Eurasian Kestrel and a soaring Peregrine Falcon the latter being a scarce subspecies within Japan. After thanking the fisherman who kindly took us out we passed-by Hyuga and took the road towards Miyazaki. En route a culvert across a stony river was attracting dozens of Barn Swallow so we turned off and parked up near a few houses. The river was excellent as it attracted Black-backed, Grey and Japanese Wagtails, Meadow Bunting, White-cheeked Starlings and ever-present Brown-eared Bulbuls. Our journey took us to Mi-ike an impressive crater lake surrounded by extensive deciduous and coniferous forest. In and around the camp we located White-backed Woodpeckers, Olive-backed Pipit, Daurian Redstart, Japanese White-eye and a few Pale Thrushes. Out on the lake several species of ducks including Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Wigeon and a pair of Baikal Teal although the latter proved hard to get good views of. Numbers of ducks appeared to be much lower here this year suggesting milder weather in mainland Asia. Picnic lunch taken by the lake when a pair of Ryuku Minivets were seen foraging in leaves of an oak. It was time to embark on a walk around the lake edge. A lot of damage caused by falling trees made the path tricky in parts. Despite this we eventually had good views of Black-faced Buntings and fleeting views of Grey Bunting a regular but shy winter visitor to Mi-ike. Near the path end a Yellow-throated Bunting showed well in a bare shrub for a few of us. Masa was waiting for us at the end in the car park. Overhead a few Asian Martins hawked for insects and a Japanese Woodpecker was found by Gill. Time was ticking again as the expressway was joined to Ebino where we turned onto regional road 447. This winding road takes us through extensive forest and eventually to a small lake. On the latter up to forty Mandarin Ducks a rather scarce and local bird in Japan. Other species present included a female Northern Shoveler and best of all a Crested Kingfisher which gave great views in trees and flying over the forest. Izumi was reached our base for the next two nights.
February 8th: Izumi, Arasaki, Takae, Satsuma.
Weather: Sunny with westerly winds 19 C.
I arranged breakfast for 7am in order for us to be at the Arasaki Crane Reserve before 9am. On arrival at the reserve we were greeted by thousands of Hooded Cranes and the less numerous White-naped Cranes. The fields at Arasaki were alive with the resounding calls of these magnificent birds. Careful scanning revealed a single Common Crane and an Intermediate Egret, a rare visitor to Kyushu during the winter months. Next stop was an area of old rice paddies adjacent to the sea. The fields here had Oriental Rook, Oriental Crow, Japanese Skylark, Dusky Thrush, Daurian Redstart and Reed Bunting (Eastern races). In the estuary Eurasian Wigeon, Chinese Spot-billed Ducks and Eurasian Teal. Our next birding stop was the Western Fields another large expanse of rice paddies and drainage ditches. Careful scanning here produced Common Snipe, Daurian Jackdaws, Buff-bellied Pipits, and a surprise find in a wintering Red-throated Pipit. Near the wardens hut we located three Sandhill Cranes an annual but rare bird from breeding grounds in NE Siberia. In the distance a group of Dunlin and wintering Common Shelducks. Our attention was switched to a group of sleeping spoonbills sheltering under the seawall. Further scrutiny revealed two Eurasian Spoonbills and three Black-faced Spoonbills the latter being an internationally endangered species with a world population of just over 2000 individuals. The next area was an inter-tidal one which produced scarce waders for Japan in winter including Common and Green Sandpipers, Kentish and Grey Plovers, Common Greenshank and to our surprise a first-winter Saunders Gull. On the canal sides Common Kingfisher. Parked up by the old shrine to walk around a garden area which had the commoner birds Oriental Turtle Doves and a Pygmy Woodpecker. I decided to take lunch at the harbour area which overlooks an open area of water and a Grey Heron colony. On the water a winter plumaged Great Crested Grebe, Northern Pintail and Vega Gulls. The wooded areas of the heronry yielded a few species notably Japanese White-eye and a wintering Brown Shrike another species which usually occurs on passage and in summer. After lunch we headed south to Takae an area of old rice paddies dotted with small copses. We embarked on a walk which produced Buzzard and a selection of buntings including Chestnut-eared, Black-faced, Meadow and Reed. Luck was with us as a local Japanese birding kindly pointed out a wintering Greater Spotted Eagle sitting motionless in a large tree. Our final birding place was at the town of Satsuma. The rocky river here attracted Long-billed Plover and literally hundreds of Black-backed Wagtails. In the deeper waters Tufted Duck and Common Coots whilst the shallows had numerous Eurasian Teal. The light started to fade as we headed back to Izumi and our final night in southern Kyushu.
February 9th: Izumi, Arasaki, Road 447, Saga.
Weather: Overcast with occasional sunny periods 19 C.
Checked out at Izumi to make the drive north to Ariake-se a large, almost enclosed area of sea in Western Kyushu. Just before Road 447 we stopped to observe a pair of Long-billed Plovers resting on a river bank. The weather along 447 was particularly misty making birding tough at times. At the highest point we embarked on a walk adjacent to the lush forest habitat recording Pale Thrushes, Pygmy Woodpecker, Ryuku Minivet and Long-tailed Tits. Beyond Ebino we joined the Kyushu Expressway a spectacular road passing through twenty-three tunnels and numerous inclines. At Yame we turned off towards Saga Airport and the adjacent area which regularly attracts interesting birds during the winter months. Lunch taken on the seawall with views of Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal, Mallard, Grey Heron and three Black-faced Spoonbills feeding along the water edge. We walked up the road and down a track next to a copse one of the few areas with mature trees. In the open areas Osprey, Bull-headed Shrike and Dusky Thrushes the latter present in good numbers. On the track itself Oriental Turtle Doves and Oriental Greenfinches. A short walk away to the seawall offered close views of Common Greenshank, Kentish and Grey Plovers and Little Egrets. Returned to the fields recording Hen Harrier and a female Merlin perched on a low rock. Walking adjacent to the reeds and trees produced Meadow and Reed Buntings, Daurian Redstart and two Buff-bellied Pipits. Our last birding stop at another area of Ariake-se added several species of ducks including Falcated Duck, Gadwall and Northern Shoveler. Saga our base for the night was a short drive away, for the last night in Kyushu.
February 10th: Saga, Fukuoka, Shikanoshima Island, Kamatsu.
Weather: Overcast with late afternoon showers, west wind 14 C
This morning we headed in a northerly direction to Fukuoka the eighth largest city in Japan. Our main destination was the small offshore island of Shikanoshima which is reached by driving over a causeway. The first stop was at an enclosed bay adjacent to the main harbour of Fukuoka. Ducks were abundant here with high numbers of Greater Scaup, Common Pochard and Red-breasted Mergansers. Also present on the sea were Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes, the latter being an uncommon winter visitor to Japan. Next stop was the causeway and sandy beaches before Shikaoshima Island. Offshore birds included Red-throated, Black-throated and Pacific Divers and the commoner gull species, whilst the beach had a group of Sanderlings. I decided to explore a part of the island with the higher parts attracting Dusky and Pale Thrushes and Brown-eared Bulbuls. Along the coast road Blue Rock Thrushes resting on the seawall. On rocks and offshore stacks good numbers of Pelagic and Japanese Cormorants. At lunchtime I managed to lure in a Japanese Bush Warbler an uncommon and rare species within Japan in winter time. Time was starting to fade away as we headed back to Fukuoka via a private resort area. In the resort hundreds of ducks, and at least two, female Smew. Back to base for our final night in Kyushu.
February 11th: Komatsu, Kamo-ike, Kitigate Lake.
Weather: Rain and sleet showers with a north wind 5 C/8 C.
Today I headed north past Komatsu to explore an area of rice paddies and river systems set in a rather rundown industrial area. Birding was tough here due to weather conditions although we managed to locate our first Bewick’s Swans of the tour. Little else to report so we headed back down the expressway to Kamo-ike a reserve run by The Wild Bird Society of Japan. Kamo-ike is a small enclosed lake bordered by forest habitats. From the observation area we observed Taiga Bean Geese (middendorfi), several species of ducks including scarcer species in Smew, Baikal Teal and Falcated Duck. Lunch taken in the comfort of the building followed by a slow drive into the adjacent area of rice paddies and lakes. The weather had started to turn for the worse with snow and sleet flurries. A stop near a suspension bridge added Eastern Great Tit and Reed Bunting, and in the distance a flock of Bewick’s Swans. We headed towards the swans when a male Japanese Green Pheasant was flushed from the roadside giving prolonged views. Returned to Kamo-ike via Amigozan Point an excellent area for birds – poor weather meant a postponement until tomorrow. At Kamo-ike a Eurasian Bittern was located by Mary and a single Mandarin Duck in the dense flocks of wildfowl. Janet then located two Rustic Buntings perched in a bare tree. As dusk started to fall thousands of Greater White-fronted Geese came into roost for the night a fitting end to a miserable day weather wise.
February 12th: Amigozan Point, Fukui, Komatsu, Nagoya.
Weather: Rather mixed with sleet and snow showers on a northwest wind 5 C.
Breakfast this morning was a rather disjointed affair with a party of Japanese tourists taking over the restaurant area. Despite this we were on the road to Amigozan Point by 0815 hours. On arrival at the point a bitterly cold wind was blowing off the sea from Russia. By the parking place a male Japanese Green Pheasant offered prolonged views as it slowly walked by a stand of young bamboo. I decided to walk down the road which offered some protection from the wind. Species observed included Buzzard, Blue Rock Thrush, Black-faced Bunting and Hawfinch. Mike located a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a calling Pygmy Woodpecker in mature trees. A short look at the sea produced a wintering Heuglin’s Gull an uncommon winter visitor from Northern Russia. We headed south to Fukui a known area for feeding geese but despite a lot of searching we could not locate the feeding flock. A bonus en route was a juvenile White-tailed Eagle being mobbed by Black-eared Kites. It was time to head back towards the Komatsu area and the large lakes and rice paddy complex. After a lot of searching Gill located a Grey-headed Lapwing a rather scarce bird in Japan. Good views obtained of this rather attractive bird. Lunch taken by the large lakes with the usual ducks present. On the fields a large group of Bewick’s Swans with a solitary Greater White-fronted Goose. A Japanese birder who I met two years ago appeared and informed me of an interesting bird nearby. We set off to observe a wintering Rough-legged Buzzard a rare bird outside the Hokkaido region in winter. After seeing the bird we set off towards the station for our journey to Nagoya the third city of Japan. The railway journey took us through a sector of the Japanese Alps which was lacking snow in places. On arrival in Nagoya we transferred to the ferry terminal for the journey north to Hokkaido via Sendai in Northern Honshu.
February 13th: North Pacific Ocean, Sendai.
Weather: Overcast with snow flurries and light northwest winds 5 C.
We started the day at 0700 hours by seawatching just north of Tokyo. This area is noted for its seabirds throughout the year. Black-tailed, Vega and Slaty-backed Gulls were numerous along with several wintering Pomarine Skuas. By 0800 hours Black-legged Kittiwakes started to appear in their thousands (all adult birds). Also recorded were our first Rhinoceros Auklets and a mixed party of divers including Pacific and two White-billed. After breakfast we resumed our sea-watch with similar birds plus the addition of Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, Tristram’s Storm Petrel, Common Guillemot and a single Short-tailed Shearwater the latter being uncommon during the winter months. Lunch at 1230 followed by another session of birding on the approach to the sea port of Sendai. The wind had dropped to literally nothing resulting in a flat calm sea. These conditions were extremely productive as we recorded another two White-billed Divers, Red-necked Grebes, Japanese, Great and Pelagic Cormorants, Ancient Murrelet, Crested Auklet, Horned Puffins, Common and Brunnich’s Guillemots, Red-breasted Merganser and Black Scoters. On the approach to Sendai harbour Tufted and Chinese Spot-billed Ducks and ever-present Large-billed Crows. Docked at 1640 and embarked on a short walk to a local park. To my dismay this had been closed and the adjacent scrub area was now under concrete, disappointing but not entirely surprising. Back to the boat for dinner and an evening sailing to Tomakomai in Hokkaido.
February 14th: Blakiston’s Strait, Tomakomai, Chitose, Kushiro, Nemuro.
Weather: Early snow flurries giving way to sunny period’s northwest wind -6 C/1 C.
On deck just after 0700 hours as we started to cross Blakiston’s Strait which separates Honshu and Hokkaido. A few birds were observed including Short-tailed Shearwaters, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Brunnich’s Guillemots and the first Northern Fulmar and Glaucous and Kamchatka Gulls of the tour. On the approach to Tomakomai Harbour we noted Harlequin Ducks, Black Scoter, Greater Scaup and Red-breasted Mergansers. On leaving the ferry we were transferred to the airport at Chitose for the internal flight over to Kushiro in Eastern Hokkaido. The flight went smoothly and we were soon on our way to Nemuro a small town in easternmost Hokkaido. En route a stop at the coastal town of Akkeshi added our first Steller’s Eagles sitting on the extensive rafts of ice and White-tailed Eagles loafing around the area. On the water which was ice free this year several hundred Whooper Swans, Common Goldeneye and Common Mergansers. As the light started to fade we headed east to Nemuro base for the next three nights.
February 15th: Nemuro, Cape Nosappu, Furen-ko, Cape Kiritappu.
Weather: Overcast and cloudy with light northwest winds -4 C/-6 C.
A later departure today at 0745 followed by breakfast in Nemuro. The birding started with visits to several harbours en route to Cape Nosappu the most north-easterly point in Japan. The first bay held good numbers of Black Scoters, Common Goldeneyes and White-tailed Eagles perched on low cliffs. Gill then located a female Bufflehead a rare but annual visitor to Hokkaido. Also present were several Long-tailed Ducks in winter plumage. In the next harbour very close views of White-tailed and Steller’s Sea Eagles perched on harbour walls. We eventually reached Cape Nosappu with a visit to the lighthouse area which offers great views across to the southern-most Kurile Islands. From this elevated point we observed Red-necked Grebes, Spectacled Guillemot, Long-billed Murrelets and a wide range of gulls including Slaty-backed, Glaucous and Glaucous-winged. It was getting towards midday as I headed west towards the nature centre at Furen-ko. The feeders and adjacent woodland here attracted Great Spotted and Pygmy Woodpeckers, Eastern Great, Willow and Marsh Tits, Eurasian Nuthatch and Eurasian Jay the latter being a distinctive sub-species. From Furen-ko we took a short cut towards the coast road and on towards the small coastal village of Kiritappu. Lunch taken by a harbour which was ice-free attracting Common Goldeneye, Black Scoter and Mallard the latter being scarce on Hokkaido during the winter months. A short stop at Kiritappu Harbour offered us views of Greater Scaup, Eurasian Wigeon and Whooper Swans. On the cape itself several hundred Asian Rosy Finches and at least two-hunting Rough-legged Buzzards. Offshore several hundred scoters including a few White-winged Scoters. On the return to Nemuro we stopped for a pair of Red-crowned Cranes on their nesting marsh. The highlight was to come later in the day at a remote farm. As dusk fell and darkness prevailed we were privileged to observe two adults and a juvenile Blakiston’s Fish Owls perched in the open allowing close views a fitting end to an excellent days birding in Hokkaido.
February 16th: Nemuro, Cape Nosappu, Honbetsukai, Odaito, Shibetsu, Notsukehanto, Hanasaki.
Weather: Rather mixed with snow showers and sunshine, northerly wind -7 C.
We started today with a visit to an area near Cape Nosappu. Our main objective was to locate Rock Sandpipers a rare but annual visitor to Hokkaido. Careful scanning of offshore rocks produced nothing of note although the seas and cliffs held the common winter birds. Retraced our journey back to Nemuro and headed north to the village of Honbetsukai. In the village itself the quay had numerous White-tailed Eagles and lesser numbers of Steller’s Sea Eagles. The trees were adorned with many hundreds of Black-eared Kites. Odaito was poor this year as the ban on feeding wild birds had a profound effect on Whooper Swans and Northern Pintails looking for food without success. Birding was tough today due to the weather conditions and lack of sea ice. As we turned into Notsukehanto it appeared to be bird-less apart from a flock of Asian Rosy Finches by the visitor centre. Returned to the main road when we had our first piece of luck as Peter located a Ural Owl perched by the road in an old silver birch tree. Very good views obtained of this distinctive subspecies endemic to Japan. Shibetsu Harbour was excellent for the commoner sea-ducks and above average numbers of Goosanders and Glaucous Gulls. Our final birding stop at Hanasaki added Long-tailed Ducks and a male Canvasback a rare but regular visitor from North-eastern Siberia. Tomorrow we head back to Kushiro and the delights of Karuizawa in the foothills of the Japanese Alps.
February 17th: Nemuro, Akkeshi, Kushiro Marsh, Tokyo, Karuizawa.
Weather: Sunny on Hokkaido -2 C/-12 C.
Our last day on Hokkaido proved to be the sunniest and coldest of the tour with a low of -12c. I decided to head west back towards Kushiro via the harbour at Akkeshi. En route we noted White-tailed and Steller’s Sea Eagles, Black-eared Kites and a Pygmy Woodpecker flying across the road near Akkeshi. On entering Akkeshi we visited another part of the harbour observing hundreds of Whooper Swans, Common Goldeneye, Greater Scaup and a few dabbling ducks. Arthur had a Eurasian Sparrowhawk fly in front of us to promptly disappear into a garden. On a hillside we were fortunate to observe a female Northern Goshawk flying between two patches of woodland. On entering Kushiro we headed on Road 53 to the Red-crowned Crane fields. On arrival we witnessed around forty cranes displaying and calling on the snow-covered field. Back towards Kushiro a visit to the extensive Kushiro Marsh which is primarily a summer site although it does offer a few birds in the depths of winter. The feeders near the centre attracted Great Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Treecreeper, Marsh, Willow and Eastern Great Tits. We then ventured out into the marsh along a new boardwalk recording very little apart from a Bull-headed Shrike an uncommon bird in the winter months on Hokkaido. Travelled to Kushiro Airport for a flight to Tokyo which arrived on time at Haneda Airport. Due to our arrival time we had to encounter the Tokyo rush-hour. At Tokyo Station we boarded the bullet train for Karuizawa our base for two nights.
February 18th: Karuizawa.
Weather: Sunny with occasional snow showers -2 C/3 C.
We arranged to meet up at 0700 hours to watch the birds attending the feeders. This was extremely productive with close views of Japanese Grosbeak, Hawfinch, Eastern Great, Willow, Coal and Varied Tits, Japanese Accentor, Northern Wren, Oriental Greenfinch, Tree Sparrow and an unexpected bonus in the form of a wintering Brown-headed Thrush. After breakfast we headed up the hill towards the main road and the nature centre. A small patch of open ground attracted an immature male Red-flanked Bluetail feeding with a Dusky Thrush and Hawfinch. On reaching the nature centre we quickly located three Brown Dippers on the fast-flowing river. Walked up the snowy road and turned up the second trail passing through mature woodland. Luck was on our side as a female Copper Pheasant was flushed from cover. At the top of the trail we had great views of Mount Asama and the surrounding slopes and forest. Further on a mixed flock was encountered of Pygmy Woodpeckers, Japanese White-eye and a range of tits. Returned to the centre where a Japanese Woodpecker showed well in a large tree. At 1300 hours I called for a jumbo taxi to take us to a location in the centre of town. On a lake Chinese Spot-billed Ducks, Eurasian Teal and Eurasian Wigeon. In trees and bushes surrounding the lake we located Meadow and Rustic Buntings, Long-tailed Tits and the commoner woodland birds. On a partly frozen pond we found a single Great Egret and Japanese Wagtail. On the return walk a short detour was productive as two Long-tailed Rosefinches were located near the shopping mall. Finally on the bridge Mike located a White’s Thrush a difficult and sometimes skulking and shy species. Back to base a contented group adding ten new species to our tour list.
February 19th: Karuizawa, Tokyo, Narita.
Weather: Sunny and cold 3 C.
Our last day in Japan started with a short watch on the feeders at the hotel. Similar birds to yesterday with the addition of several Bramblings some of which were entering summer plumage. After a late breakfast we headed back to the nature centre and walked slowly up the major road in search of birds in particular the elusive Copper Pheasant. A lot of searching along the river bank and exposed ground free of snow yielded nothing of note. Later in the morning a visit to another area across the road added Chinese Spot-billed Duck and Eurasian Wigeon. I decided to return to the hotel and spend the next few hours watching the feeders and adjacent grounds. At the entrance two Rustic Buntings were noted by Gill. At the feeders excellent views of a male Red-flanked Bluetail, and up to three Japanese Accentors. At 1630 the hotel bus took us to the main railway station at Karuizawa for the bullet train back to Tokyo. On time as usual and arrived a minute ahead of schedule. Akira was there to meet us all as Peter and Ranjid headed to central Tokyo for a three day extension to their holiday. The remainder of us went on the train to Narita Airport and transferred to a hotel nearby for the night where the tour ended.
For details of the full species list or to request further information about the next time we will be offering this trip. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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