Our annual winter tour to Japan over the Christmas and New Year period proved to be a very interesting one for birds. This was in no doubt due to the warm autumn which had stretched well into the winter period thus attracting unusual species to winter; Red-rumped Swallow and Taiga Flycatcher. The crane reserve at Arasaki had its highest number of cranes for some years including a juvenile Siberian Crane and up to 14 Sandhill Cranes. On the east coast of Kyushu a new nature reserve proved to be a revelation for birds as we located high numbers of wintering Osprey, Long-billed Dowitchers, Black-faced Spoonbills and Saunders’s Gulls. In central Honshu the Karuizawa area hosted up to five Pallas’s Rosefinches in the woodlands. In the Komatsu area records numbers of Bewick’s Swans were noted along with 60 Middendorff’s Bean Geese, 1300 Baikal Teal and Falcated Ducks. The ferry journey north towards Hokkaido was one of the best ever for seabirds with over 100 Laysan Albatross, Black-footed Albatross, Tristram’s Storm Petrel and amazing numbers of Pomarine Skuas. Hokkaido was remarkably almost snow and ice free until the last day. This in effect produced lower numbers of eagles but on the plus side close views of Red-necked Grebes, Ancient Murrelets, Least Auklets, the scarce Spectacled Guillemot and the highest numbers of Pacific Divers we have ever seen around the island. The finale as ever was the flock of Red-crowned Cranes near Kushiro a fitting memory of Japan and its incredible wildlife.
Our next tour to Japan is scheduled for February 2014.
December 20th/21st: London Heathrow, Tokyo Haneda, Karuizawa.
Weather: Sunny and clear in Tokyo, cloudy in Karuizawa.
We met up at Heathrow airport for the flight eastwards across Russia and down to Japan. On arrival at Haneda a short train journey to Tokyo station and the Shinkansen to Karuizawa in the Japanese Alps. Picked up a rental vehicle and headed to our hotel situated within a forest area. The bird feeders here are a major attraction with sightings of Eastern Great, Coal, Varied and Willow Tits, Eurasian Nuthatch, Japanese Grosbeak, Hawfinch, Oriental Greenfinch and Eurasian Wren. A change of clothes was required as the temperature was hovering around zero Celsius. I decided to visit a small lake and wood where we located Mallard, Eurasian Wigeon, Eastern Spot-billed Duck and Eurasian Teal. The larger trees attracted an Eastern Buzzard, Eurasian Jay and in nearby scrub a Long-tailed Rosefinch. Picked up lunch and travelled to an extensive area of hotel grounds close to Karuizawa. This is always a good spot for birds and we quickly located Pygmy and White-backed Woodpeckers, Brown-eared Bulbul and Dusky Thrush. The large lake held a female Common Kingfisher and the adjacent river and trees: Great Egret, Black-backed Wagtail and Bull-headed Shrike. A few Black-eared Kites were seen being mobbed by Large-billed Crows. The best birds were to come with a pair of Japanese Woodpeckers climbing up tree trunks and feeding an inconspicuous species which may be easily missed.
December 22nd: Karuizawa.
Weather: Overnight snow followed by cloud and mist 0 C/3 C.
To our surprise we woke up to find the surrounding countryside covered in a deep layer of snow. At 0700 hours breakfast was taken and then into the forest. In the car park a Rustic Bunting was found with Meadow Buntings. A large tree attracted Pygmy and Japanese Woodpeckers. By the bridge a mixed flock of birds contained Eastern Great, Coal, Willow, Varied and Long-tailed Tits. Further up the river a Eurasian Wren was seen feeding around boulders. We started the circular walk with the river adjacent to us. Bird life was very quiet until we flushed a Grey Heron and located a pair of Brown Dippers perched on a fallen log. On our return to the main road we added Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Great Egret. Returned to the hotel where birds were similar to yesterday morning. Another visit to Karuizawa added a Pale Thrush and Oriental Turtle Doves. I decided on a return visit to the forest with similar results to the morning session. The best area was near the pond where we located up to three Pallas’ Rosefinches a rare winter visitor from the mountains of Russia. Mist and fog started to close in and visibility became poor so we called it a day at Karuizawa with a final visit next morning.
December 23rd: Karuizawa, Tokyo, Miyazaki, Hyuga.
Weather: Sunny with variable temperatures -4 C/12 C.
The last morning in Karuizawa started with a visit to the outdoor skating rink and its adjacent woodland. It was extremely cold as we started searching for birds in the trees and river habitats. Similar birds to the last two days. At 0830 hours we set off to the station at Karuizawa where a pair of Eurasian Tree Sparrows was sitting on a wire. The journey to Tokyo and Haneda airport went smoothly and the group were soon en route to Miyazaki on Kyushu. On arrival we picked up the rental van and headed north to Hyuga our base for the night.
December 24th: Hyuga, Hitotsugawa, Mi-ike, Azumi.
Weather: Sunny and clear 8 C.
Due to the absence of Japanese Murrelet I decided to head south down road 10 to Hitotsugwa. Along the route we found large numbers of Barn Swallows and a single Asian House Martin. The entrance road to Hitotsugawa attracted Oriental Turtle Dove, Oriental Crow, Northern Lapwing and on cable wires White-cheeked Starlings. At the first canal we could study Great and Little Egrets, and in the fields Oriental Rook. A quick scan of the sea added a winter plumaged Great Crested Grebe and overhead a Eurasian Kestrel being hassled by corvids. The shallow lagoons at Hitotsugawa provided us with scarce birds including Black-necked and Little Grebes, two Long-billed Dowitchers, Black-necked Stilt and wintering Black-crowned Night Herons. The lagoons were also home to the commoner ducks plus Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Northern Shoveler and Northern Pintail. An Osprey flew over causing most things to rise into the air. In the rice fields we located flocks of Oriental Crows, Black-faced Bunting and Oriental Greenfinches. A couple of local Japanese birders then took us to the estuary of Hitotsugawa which has several small reedy islands, beach and tidal habitats. On the island were thirteen Black-faced Spoonbills an endangered species which breeds on rocky islets off North Korea. Also present were large numbers of Great Cormorants, Eastern Spot-billed Ducks and wintering birds: Saunders’s and Vega Gulls, Grey Plover and Curlew Sandpiper. At 1230 we headed west towards the volcanic crater lake of Mi-ike and the surrounding forest of this beautiful area. Mi-ike did not disappoint as we located; Grey and Black-backed Wagtails, Pygmy Woodpecker, Hawfinch, Eurasian Siskin and Goldcrest. After lunch another walk added a wintering Taiga Flycatcher, Red-flanked Bluetail and Olive-backed Pipit. By the car park good views of Elegant Buntings and on the lakeside path Japanese White-eyes, Japanese Woodpecker and the commoner tit species. Time was getting on as we continued onto Izumi in western Kyushu.
December 25th: Arasaki, Takae, Satsuma.
Weather: Cloudy with a cool north wind 6 C
Breakfast was taken at 0700 hours and an hour later we arrived at the crane reserve of Arasaki. This amazing area holds almost 12000 cranes during the winter months and is one of the world’s incredible natural sites to visit. On arrival we started to scan the large flocks which had recently been fed with grain. Hooded and White-naped Cranes were the most numerous and visible. Careful scanning revealed a single first year Siberian Crane and one Common Crane. Other birds using the crane field included Tundra Swan (juvenile), Mallard, Northern Pintail, Great and Little Egrets, Grey Heron, Oriental Crow, Daurian Jackdaw, Oriental Rook, Bull-headed Shrike and several Buff-bellied Pipits. I decided to visit an area of the reserve which adjoins the sea and rice fields. Stands of reeds attracted hundreds of Oriental Greenfinches, Meadow and Eastern Reed Buntings and brief views of a Zitting Cisticola. Brian found an Eastern Water Rail which quickly dropped into cover. From the sea wall the seaweed farm poles attracted more than twenty Ospreys and the open waters rafts of Eurasian Wigeon and Eastern Spot-billed Ducks. The ‘eastern’ crane fields were next on the agenda where we quickly found five Sandhill Cranes the highest number for several years. In the same area a Peregrine Falcon was hunting passerines without success. I then decided to visit the canal area which holds good numbers of birds. A careful scan of the estuary revealed a pair of Black-faced Spoonbills, hundreds of Eurasian Wigeon which included a male American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Eurasian Teal and the commoner herons and egrets. It was time to travel south to Takae an area of rice fields, reedbeds and forest habitats. We stopped along the way for Japanese Cormorant and Blue Rock Thrush which prefer rocky islets just offshore. At Takae we located literally hundreds of Bramblings and Oriental Greenfinches on the wires and in reeds. Stopped to consume lunch and flushed several Common Snipe using flooded areas of the paddies. In the same area Eastern Reed, Meadow and a single Chestnut-eared Bunting, Japanese Skylark, Russet Sparrow and an Eastern Buzzard perched on a telegraph pole. It was time to visit the town of Satsuma with its river habitats including shallow rocky areas. On arrival a search of the river revealed the uncommon Long-billed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Black-backed, Grey and Japanese Wagtails. The calmer waters attracted several species of ducks. Insect life along the river attracted Barn Swallow, Asian House Martin and surprisingly several Red-rumped Swallows which are normally a passage migrant and summer visitor in small numbers. Returned to our hotel in Izumi for the night.
December 26th: Kawaga Dam, Ariake-se, Saga.
Weather: Overcast with occasional sunny spells 7 C.
After breakfast we checked out of the Wing Hotel in Izumi. Our first birding spot was Kawaga Dam set in a forested habitat east of the city. On road 447 we had sightings of White-bellied Pigeons a rather unobtrusive forest bird. At Kawaga Dam several hundred Mandarin Ducks were seen in flight plus Elegant Buntings in roadside scrub. Our journey continued along road 447 with views of a Japanese Sparrowhawk near Ebino. I joined the expressway north to Fukuoka which passed through spectacular scenery and vistas of western Kyushu. At Yame we turned off towards Saga Airport to visit the river estuary. This area still has stands of trees and fields with reeds adjoining food-rich mudflats. Lunch was consumed and a walk along the tree edge proved to be productive for Hawfinch, Oriental Greenfinch and Daurian Redstarts. In the recently ploughed fields Northern Lapwing, Saunders’s Gulls, Black-backed Wagtails and Dusky Thrushes were all common. At the seawall a vantage point allowed us to study ducks at close range which included several Baikal Teal a globally endangered species originating from East Asia. On the mudflats we had sightings of Grey and Kentish Plovers and the first Dunlin of the tour. Back to the van and a visit to another area of Ariake-se. A surprise find was a party of Greater White-fronted Geese feeding in an old rice paddy. In the shallower pools and drainage ditches Green and Common Sandpipers. A stand of trees and reeds attracted Black-faced, Chestnut-eared, Meadow and Eastern Reed Buntings. Saga was a short distance away our base for the day.
December 27th: Saga, Kashii-Hama, Wajiro, Shikanoshima Island, Komatsu.
Weather: Sunny with a northwest wind 10 C.
Today we travelled northwards to Fukuoka the main city of Kyushu. Kashii-Hama was the first birding area where we located Common Goldeneye among the duck flocks. Wajiro was next on the agenda one of the most important birding sites within Japan. Wajiro is a complex habitat of sandy beaches, island and shallow offshore waters. The wader roost at high tide attracted Eurasian Oystercatcher, Grey Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin and Common Sandpiper. Careful scanning through the rafts of ducks revealed Red-breasted Merganser, Falcated Duck, Common Goldeneye and up to three thousand Greater Scaup. Next was the causeway which connects Kyushu with Shikanoshima Island. A notable feature was flocks of migrant Brown-eared Bulbuls being chased by a pair of Peregrine Falcons. From the causeway we located a winter plumaged Black-throated Diver, Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes. The rocky stacks visible from the coast road attracted Japanese and Pelagic Cormorants, Black-tailed Gull and Blue Rock Thrush. A return visit to Wajiro added the localised Eastern Reef Egret and Kamchatka Gull. Onto Fukuoka airport for the short flight to Komatsu our base for the next two days.
December 28th: Komatsu, Shibayama, Kamaike.
Weather: Rather cloudy with heavy rains from midday.
We started the day by visiting the extensive agricultural fields and lakes which are known locally as Shibayama. En route a Northern Goshawk flew over at speed before disappearing out of view into a wood. I then started to drive along the many tracks of the area searching for birds. A large flock of Bewick’s Swans were located and we managed to get very close views of this declining species. I then found my old Japanese birding friend who guided us through this complex area for the rest of the morning. Driving along various tracks added Eastern Buzzard, Eurasian Kestrel, Oriental Greenfinch, Bull-headed Shrike and several species of buntings in the reedbeds; Rustic, Black-faced, Meadow, Eastern Reed and Chestnut-eared. Near the swan house we stopped again and watched an Eastern Marsh Harrier drift over a scarce bird during the winter months. Shortly afterwards a family party of Whooper Swans were seen an uncommon visitor to the region. At midday we set off south towards Fukae Prefecture but heavy rain combined with slow traffic and congestion made birding difficult. I decided to head towards the Wild Bird Society of Japan bird reserve at Kamaike. This delightful place offered us a warm and dry refuge from the weather. Luck was with us just before the reserve as a flock of Grey-headed Lapwings were seen close to the road with Dusky Thrushes. Kamiake was reached an enclosed lake surrounded by woodland and a few stands of reeds. The lake was full of birds including Taiga Bean Geese (middendorfi subspecies), Smew, Baikal Teal (1300), Falcated Duck and the commoner ducks. At dusk we were treated to hundreds of Greater White-fronted Geese coming into roost with Bewick’s Swans. The drive back to Komatsu was slow to the poor weather conditions.
December 29th: Komatsu, Armagazon Point, Shibayama Lake, Nagoya.
Weather: Sunny periods with a westerly wind 11 C.
Checked out of the aptly named Comfort Inn and travelled to Armagazon Point an interesting area of woodland, cliffs and shore. A short stop at the harbour produced Black-eared Kites, Grey Heron, Black-backed Wagtail and Large-billed Crows. Offshore an unidentified diver passed by along with Great and Pelagic Cormorants. Parked at the top of the hill and embarked on a walk through the forest and orchard habitats. Clumps of rhododendrons attracted Black-faced and Meadow Buntings. The older trees had Great Spotted, Pygmy and Japanese Woodpeckers, Japanese White-eye, Pale Thrush, Brown-eared Bulbul and Hawfinch. Luck was with us as a Japanese Green Pheasant was flushed from deep cover and Brian had brief views of a male walking slowly through the undergrowth. I decided to revisit Shibayama Lake. En route at least two Blue Rock Thrushes and an Eastern Buzzard. Before reaching the lake a superb male Japanese Green Pheasant was seen feeding in a rice field before flying into dense cover. In the reedbeds we had sightings of Rustic Bunting and a Bull-necked Shrike. On the lake we recorded Great Crested Grebes, Eurasian Wigeon, Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, Falcated Duck and Smew. At midday the group boarded the train to Nagoya a major port on the North Pacific Ocean. On arrival in Nagoya a transfer to the Ishikari Ferry bound for Tomakomai in Hokkaido. The harbour at Nagoya hosted Greater Scaup, Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Vega, Kamchatka and Black-tailed Gulls.
December 30th: North Pacific Ocean, Sendai.
Weather: Overcast with frequent rain showers 6 C.
At 0700 hours we were on deck looking for seabirds of the North Pacific which occur off the Japanese coast in winter. In the first hour we had recorded Laysan Albatross, Streaked Shearwaters, Black-legged Kittiwake and Kamchatka Gull. After breakfast large numbers of seabirds were seen including around 70 Laysan Albatrosses, 7 Black-footed Albatross, 30 Pomarine Skua, Short-tailed Shearwaters and a single Tristram’s Storm Petrel. Like most sea-watching experiences the group encountered long periods of little activity or the same species being seen. At 1400 hours on the approach to Sendai a large port in northern Honshu we started to record birds of a more northerly distribution. Several Pacific Divers were noted along with Pelagic Cormorants, Brunnich’s Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet, Ancient Murrelet and outside Sendai Harbour three drake Asiatic Scoters. On entering the harbour Black-eared Kite and Osprey perched on the harbour wall. The boat docked at 1630 and left for Hokkaido at 1900 hours. A very rewarding day’s birding in the North Pacific Ocean.
December 31st: North Pacific Ocean, Tomakomai, Kushiro, Nemuro.
Weather: Snow showers followed by sunny periods -4 C / 1 C.
We were on deck at 0700 hours for our final morning of sea-watching. The remarkable passage of Laysan Albatross continued as we crossed the Blakiston Straits towards the island of Hokkaido. Other seabirds included good numbers of Northern Fulmars, Common Guillemot and the tiny Least Auklet. As it was New Years Eve the ferry arrived early at Tomakomai. This was a blessing in disguise as we had to travel to the JR station in Tomakomai and onto Chitose. The remainder of the day was spent travelling eastwards through the spectacular winter landscapes of interior Hokkaido. At Kushiro I picked up the rental van and continued to Nemuro a small town in eastern Hokkaido.
January 1st: Nemuro, Cape Nosappu, Furen-ko, Cape Kiritappu.
Weather: Sunny and clear with a brisk west wind -4 C / -7 C.
Breakfast was later today as it was New Years Day. At 0800 hours the group set off towards Cape Nosappu which is the most north easterly point in Japan. Our first stop was the major fishing harbour which offered some protection from the biting wind. In the harbour we had exceptionally close views of Greater Scaup, Black Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser and a female Asiatic Scoter. The harbour walls attracted Slaty-backed, Black-headed, Kamchatka and Glaucous Gulls the latter in a wide range of plumage stages. On reaching Cape Nosappu I was amazed to find no sea ice and clear views over to the southernmost Kurile Islands. This appeared to work in our favour as a scan of the seas revealed Pacific Divers, Slavonian and Red-necked Grebes (over 100 birds), Harlequin Ducks, Common Guillemots, Ancient Murrelet, Great and Pelagic Cormorants and a single Spectacled Guillemot which is in serious decline within the region. We returned towards Nemuro recording a Hawfinch sitting on a snow fence. Picked up supplies and headed to Furen-ko which was iced up and the nature centre closed so I pressed on to route 142. Along this road a stop for Steller’s and White-tailed Eagles which were scavenging on a dead Sika Deer; fantastic views of both eagles. Just before the bridge at Kiritappu a flock of Asian Rosy Finches were seen feeding on seeds (we later observed over 100 birds on feeders near the cape). A short stop at the harbour added Black-necked Grebe, Whooper Swan, Mallard and Eurasian Wigeon to the day list. Cape Kiritappu a spectacular vista was reached with an icy wind blowing from the west. Views of an adult White-tailed Eagle over the lighthouse. It was time to return towards Nemuro and a visit to a private farm. I met up with my old friend of many years at his farm. At exactly 1615 hours a Blakiston’s Eagle Owl flew across the field and landed on the antennae of the house. We had prolonged views of this rare owl of Eastern Asia which numbers fewer than thirty pairs in Japan.
January 2nd: Nemuro, Furen-ko, Hashirikotan, Road 244, Notsuke Hando.
Weather: Cloudy with snow showers -5 C / -1 C.
I started the birding day by visiting the nature centre at Furen-ko. The feeders at the back of the building attracted Pygmy and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Eurasian Nuthatch, Marsh, Willow and Eastern Great Tits. We travelled west and then north along road 244 before turning to the village of Hashirikotan. Sika Deer were a common sight along the road towards the village. At Hashirikotan the waters of Furen-ko were still ice free which is unusual in December. Careful scanning revealed high numbers of Whooper Swan, Red-breasted Merganser, Goosander and Common Goldeneye. On leaving the village a pair of White-backed Woodpeckers was found by Lorna feeding on old decaying tree stumps. Back on route 244 and a visit to a partly frozen harbour which had several Smew, White-tailed Eagles and Black-eared Kites. Our journey towards Odaito was broken by a stop in a village with a few passerines (always worth checking on Hokkaido in winter). A tree with small berries attracted Brown-eared Bulbuls, Hawfinch, Dusky Thrush and a stunning Grey-bellied Bullfinch. Our next stop was Notsuke Hando, a peninsula with views towards the Kurile Islands (Russia). A stop here produced Red-necked Grebe, Black and Asiatic Scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Spectacled Guillemot and a Least Auklet. The highlight was Steller’s Sea Eagles perched on telegraph poles and feeding on the carcases of dead seals beyond the nature centre. In addition to this natural spectacle were White-tailed Eagles sitting on the sea defences and dozens of Glaucous Gulls scavenging on the seals. White-cheeked Starling, Oriental Greenfinch and Dusky Thrush appeared oddly out of place in this snowy environment. A slow drive back to Nemuro along snowy and icy roads was made before visiting the farm again. At 1645 the Blakiston’s Eagle Owl showed up to give us a fitting finale to the day.
January 3rd: Nemuro, Kushiro, Tokyo.
Weather: Sunny and cold with a northwest wind -3 C / 2 C.
Our last day in Japan started with a visit to the coastal town of Akkeshi. The inland sea here is good for birds and we located large flocks of Whooper Swans and Greater Scaup. The large trees around the lake had significant numbers of White-tailed and Steller’s Sea Eagles. On arrival in Kushiro I followed the road past Kushiro marsh to the traditional wintering grounds of Red-crowned Cranes. We were not disappointed as up to eighty of these magnificent and endangered birds performed for us in a snowy environment. Our last birding stop was a patch of forest where we had our last looks at some of Japan’s woodland species. At 1400 hours we dropped off the rental van and booked in for our flight to Tokyo. It was busy as it was the last day of the New Year’s holiday season. On arrival in Tokyo we said goodbye to Machi our wonderful guide and transferred to a hotel close to Haneda. Our last night was spent celebrating in a traditional Japanese Inn a great way to end a very enjoyable tour.
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