Japan must be one of the world's best birding destinations during the northern hemisphere winter months. Over the years I have continually improved and modified the itinerary that no other UK birding company can offer. In 2020 it proved to be an exceptional tour with the group recording 180 species in total which included many unexpected species and probably one of the most astonishing ferry journeys for seabirds I have ever undertaken in over 20 tours to the country.
Our tour started with a relaxing day in Tokyo taking in the Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park which offered a gentle introduction to Japan's varied birdlife. Karuizawa was remarkably almost snow free which affected the birds present but we managed prolonged views of the scarce Japanese Waxwing. Kyushu as always springs a few surprises and this year was no exception with close views of Japanese Murrelets. Further west Arasaki held five species of cranes, Long-billed Plovers, high numbers of Black-faced Spoonbills, Baikal Teal and in the Ariake-se a fine selection of East Asian shorebirds which included Lesser Sandplover. In the area of Northern Honshu and Komatsu several goose species which included Lesser Whitefront and a pair of colonising Oriental Storks. We then spent two days in the North Pacific Ocean watching an array of seabirds which included high numbers of Laysan and Short-tailed Albatrosses, four species of shearwaters and loose flocks of Pacific Divers. Near Tomakomai a pair of Fork-tailed Storm Petrels was totally unexpected. Hokkaido was our finale with its eagles White-tailed and Steller's although numbers of both species has declined in recent years. Cape Nosappu gave us more seabirds including the almost mythical Snow's Guillemot and the uncommon Long-billed Murrelet. On the last night a Blakiston's Fish Owl away from the masses in Rausu performed well at a private site. Before leaving Hokkaido a visit to the Red-crowned Cranes dancing ground was literally the icing on the cake.
Finally my thanks go out to Kiwa who did a fantastic job for me and the group. She made the trip go smoothly and helped immensely in transport and accommodation. Kiwa is also becoming a fairly keen birder which is great news for me and Japan. The next visit to Japan is in February 2021.
February 6th-7th: Heathrow, Tokyo, Yoyogi Park, Meiji Shrine
Daily 27 New 27 Running 27
Weather: Sunny and clear in Tokyo with SE winds -2C to 7C
The group met up at Heathrow for the flight eastwards towards Japan. Arrival was later than expected due to a technical fault. On arrival passing through customs and immigration checks proved to be quick and efficient. The bus was boarded for Tokyo where we transferred to our hotel close to Haneda Airport. An early check-in was arranged and later in the day we met up with Kiwa my local guide. An enjoyable meal in the evening and arrangements made for the 7th. The first birding stop was at Yoyogi Park which is reached by the busy Tokyo rail system. On arrival Japanese Crows were common on the grass and in trees. A slow walk produced the commoner birds of central Tokyo including Dusky Thrush, Brown-eared Bulbul, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, White-cheeked Starling and confiding Oriental Turtle Doves. A small pond attracted the first Hawfinch of the tour plus a showy Common Kingfisher. High in the skies above us an Eastern Buzzard was being mobbed by crows. Continuing on our walk several Varied Tits came down to feed out of my hand. In the older trees good views of Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers searching for food. Back towards the entrance and pond area which attracted Bull-headed Shrike and a skulky Pale Thrush. Lunch was taken followed by a walk towards the Meiji Shrine which was attracting many tourists. After visiting the shrine a visit to the quiet woodland area proved to be productive. The first section added Masked Bunting, Warbling White-eyes high in the trees and species seen earlier in the day. At the pond and Eastern Spot-billed Duck lurked in the shadows and a Grey Wagtail showed nearby. Luck was with us as two Japanese Bush Warblers showed in pond-side vegetation and an endemic Japanese Green Woodpecker performed in a bare tree. Later we added a displaying Northern Goshawk and a pair of Long-tailed Tits. Back at the entrance gate another Pale Thrush was seen leaf tossing for food. It was time to join the railway network again back to base, an interesting experience in the Tokyo rush hour.
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker
February 8th: Tokyo, Karuizawa, Forest Park, Prince Hotel
Daily 23 New 10 Running 37
Weather: Sunny and cool away from Tokyo 0-3C
Checked out and made the journey across to Tokyo station and the bullet train to Karuizawa situated in the Japanese Alps. On arrival picked up the minibus and headed towards the woodland habitats on the edge of town. A walk along the main trail started with a pair of Great Cormorants circling above the forest – a rather odd sight. Birding was slow to start although Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker and Long-tailed Tit were located high in the tree cover. Luck was on our side as Yvonne located a party of Japanese Waxwings feeding in the mistletoe fronds which adorn many of the trees at this location. Excellent views of this highly endangered regional endemic. On the return walk Japanese Tits were joined by Willow and Coal Tits and a single Eurasian Nuthatch. I decided to visit the grounds of Prince Hotel although these were being disturbed by building work. On the lake Eastern Spot-billed Duck and a male Gadwall, whilst the river attracted Japanese Wagtails. In a dead tree another party of Japanese Waxwings which took our daily total to over 30 birds. Over the golf course Eastern Buzzard and in between the cabins a group of wintering Bramblings. A return to the lake area added a single Northern Shoveler.
February 9th: Karuizawa including Forest Park, Saku Chosei-ike
Daily 46 New 21 Running 58
Weather: Overnight snow showers followed by a sunny and cold day -3C to 1C W wind
After breakfast we headed back towards the forest area and embarked on a walk along the trail system. Overnight snow had covered the area making it a bit tricky in areas. The first stream which was ice free attracted a Brown Dipper which perched on a weir and further on a pair of Eurasian Wrens (endemic subspecies) chasing each other and drinking from the stream. Birding was slow at times until the group caught up with a pair of Japanese Green Woodpeckers. Further along the trail a mixed feeding flock was located comprising of Japanese, Willow, Varied and Long-tailed Tits, Eurasian Treecreeper, Eurasian Nuthatch and at least two Red-flanked Bluetails. No sign of pheasants or rose-finches so I headed towards the hotel with bird feeders. On arrival Grey-capped Greenfinches on the feeders and brief views of Japanese Grosbeak in the adjoining trees. The bird tables allowed us close views of the commoner birds. Picked up supplies and headed south towards Saku Chosei-ike, an important wetland reserve for birds. En route the dormant rice paddies held Japanese and Oriental Crows. Parked up and scanned the fast-flowing river with Japanese, White and Grey Wagtails plus the first Common Mergansers of the trip. The main reservoir was attracting wetland birds with sightings of Great Cormorant, Great Crested Grebe, Mallard, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal, Common Goldeneye and Smew. On the return walk luck was with us as a male Japanese Green Pheasant gave excellent and close views. Also in the area were Daurian Redstart and Great Egret. Back to the bridge where the finale for the day was a Long-billed Plover located by Neil. This is an uncommon and localised species which gave us great views, a fitting end to the days birding.
Japanese Green Pheasant
February 10th: Karuizawa, Tokyo, Myazaki, Hyuga via Hitotsugawa
Daily 39 New 14 Running 72
Weather: Cool in Karuizawa, sunny and 15C in Myazaki on a NW wind
Today we left the Japanese Alps for Tokyo and then onwards to Myazaki in Kyushu. Within the Tokyo Docks complex Tufted Duck, Greater Scaup, Mallard and Eurasian Wigeon and near Haneda Airport a group of Black-headed Gulls. On arrival in Kyushu I picked up the minibus and headed north towards the wetland and estuary complex of Hitotsugawa. The traffic was heavy which made progress slow along Route 10. On arrival I parked up and started to scan the shallow lagoon which is fringed by reeds. Plenty of waterbirds including Great Crested, Black-necked and Little Grebes, Great and Intermediate Egrets, Grey Heron, various ducks including several Greater Scaup, Baikal and Eurasian Teal, Northern Pintail and Northern Shoveler, A few waders were noted with Northern Lapwing, Common Snipe and Common Sandpiper being the most numerous. A bonus came in the form of Black-faced Spoonbills lingering in and around the reedbeds. The light was starting to fade as the group headed north towards the port of Hyuga for the night.
February 11th: Hyuga, Hitotsugawa, Mi-ike, Izumi
Daily 56 New 11 Running 83
Weather: Overcast with light NE winds 14C
After breakfast the group made the short transfer to Hyuga fishing port for a boat trip. In the inner harbour Vega and Black-tailed Gulls and a single Great Crested Grebe. On boarding, the first jetty held an Eastern Blue Rock Thrush located by Yvonne which appeared to be feeding on a fishermen's bait box. Beyond the harbour various fishing pontoons lured Great Egret, Pacific Reef Egret and good numbers of Japanese Cormorants. The best was to come when I noticed a pair of Japanese Murrelets feeding close to an island. Close views of this highly endangered East Asia endemic whose numbers have fallen drastically in recent years. In addition to the murrelets several Osprey were observed. On returning to the port our journey took us southwards with sightings of Eurasian Kestrel, Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Barn Swallows en route to Hitotsugawa. On arrival similar birds from yesterday were present although a distinct fall in the numbers of ducks present. In the reedbeds a few Reed Buntings were located of the 'Eastern' races which are paler in appearance. I picked up supplies in Myazaki and headed along the expressway to Mi-ike with lunch en route. It was rather misty on arrival with poor light conditions. In the campground a party of Olive-backed Pipits, Warbling White-eye, Japanese, Willow and Varied Tits and Eurasian Nuthatch. The typhoon from last October has had an effect on the birds present at Mi-ike. I decided to head towards Izumi along Road 447 which has been good on past visits. Before joining the road a party of Oriental Rooks were located in a dormant rice field. Nothing much to report along 447 apart from Pale Thrushes.
February 12th: Izumi, Arasaki, Takae, Satsuma
Daily 64 New 20 Running 103
Weather: Heavy rain showers and cloud. SW wind 14C
A demanding day lay in wait for us as the weather was to prove challenging to say the least. Heavy rain showers were to play a part in today's birding as we set off for Arasaki. The entrance road had our first Hooded and White-naped Cranes feeding in the rice paddies. Also present were Northern Lapwing, Common Snipe, Dusky Thrush and high numbers of Oriental Turtle Doves. The visitor centre gives an elevated view over the main crane feeding area. Careful scanning produced a single Demoiselle Crane and Common Crane among the hordes of the two 'commoner' crane species. Other species of note included Great and Little Egrets, Grey Heron, Common Shelduck, Black-eared Kite and above average numbers of Oriental Rooks. On leaving the centre Bill located a Peregrine Falcon and small groups of Buff-bellied Pipits were feeding in the rice stubble. I decided to visit an area of paddies and stunted trees adjacent to the coast. A reedy dyke was productive for Meadow, Common Reed and Masked Buntings, Common Starling (a rare winter visitor), Warbling White-eye, Oriental Greenfinch, Daurian Redstart and a pair of Common Kestrels. On exiting the area Yvonne and Hilary located a Brown-cheeked Rail running around a muddy ditch. John located a Zitting Cisticola in the same area a scarce bird during the winter months. Next on the agenda were the east crane fields where I quickly located a party of Sandhill Cranes close to the road – fantastic views. Our final stop at Arasaki was the river area with thousands of ducks in attendance. Nothing of note apart from hundreds of Eurasian Wigeon and Northern Pintail. It was time to head south towards Takae an area of rice fields. En route the weather was poor with heavy rain, a diversion to a riverside park yielded high numbers of Dusky Thrush and over ten Pale Thrushes. Takae was excellent despite the weather with sightings of Russet Sparrow, Common Reed and Meadow Buntings. The weather was bad as I went towards the town of Satsuma. On arrival the rocky river habitat produced Long-billed Plover, Common and Green Sandpipers, Japanese, White and Grey Wagtails, the commoner ducks, Hawfinch, Barn Swallow and the uncommon Asian House Martin. Eventually Jane located a Crested Kingfisher, a rather localised species, sitting on a rock. The bird gave us the run around until eventually it was located perched on a wire. A very good birding day in Kyushu despite the weather.
February 13th: Izumi, Road 447, Ariake-se, Saga
Daily 72 New 18 Running 121
Weather: Warm and sunny with light SE winds 20C
An early breakfast today as we were heading north towards Saga which is situated close to Ariake-se a recently designated Ramsar site. It was a relief to see the bad weather of yesterday had cleared to give way to a rather warm and unseasonal day. Road 447 was our first birding stop with a slow drive through pristine forest. Pale Thrush was the common bird as it flew up from the roadside. A couple of stops produced Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese, Willow and Long-tailed Tits, Red-flanked Bluetail, Japanese Bush Warbler and Ryuku Minivets which called and did not come into view. It was time to head north to Saga passing through spectacular scenery and road tunnels. Saga Airport is surrounded by a habitat of fields and scattered trees which produced good numbers of Bull-headed Shrikes, Dusky Thrush, Common Starling, Oriental Magpie and Meadow Bunting. In the river a wide assortment of the commoner ducks. After lunch a walk around the fields was rewarded with a male Merlin, Green and Common Sandpipers, Daurian Redstarts and Warbling White-eyes. It was time to visit the extensive mudflats beyond the airport with the tide starting to drop. On arrival we were greeted by several Saunders's Gulls hunting for crabs, this is an internationally important area for this rare bird. Careful scanning of the mud revealed Black-faced and Eurasian Spoonbills, hundreds of Common Shelduck, waders including Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, Grey Plover, Lesser Sandplover, Common Redshank and Eurasian Oystercatcher the last two species being rare winter visitors. The day ended by the group checking areas for buntings and other passerines. A bonus came when a large group of Oriental Rooks contained a few juvenile Daurian Jackdaws. Headed to base in Saga for the night our last in Kyushu.
February 14th: Saga, Shikanoshima Island, Komatsu, Kamoike
Daily 51 New 3 Running 124
Weather: Unseasonal sunny conditions on a NW wind 13-17C
From Saga I travelled north to Fukuoka and onto the island of Shikanoshima. On arrival a stop at the causeway allowed us to scan the calm sea conditions for birds. On the seaward side we quickly located Black-throated and Pacific Divers, Red-breasted Mergansers, Vega, Black-tailed and Common Gulls and two Pelagic Cormorants. A sandy beach attracted Eurasian Oystercatcher and Pacific Reef Egret. On the leeside high numbers of Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes and Common Pochards. Passerines were few although a party of Warbling White-eyes and a female Eastern Blue Rock Thrush were seen. Earlier on our way to the island House Swift and Barn Swallow were located near the centre of Fukuoka. The last birding stop on Kyushu was an area of the harbour which held large flocks of Greater Scaup, Mallard, Eurasian Wigeon and a pair of Common Shelducks. It was time to travel back to Fukuoka Airport for an internal flight to Komatsu in Honshu. On arrival we had enough time to visit the bird sanctuary at Kamoike. From the elevated hide the group watched Taiga Bean Goose, Bewick's Swan, a wide range of ducks including Baikal Teal and Smew and Bull-headed Shrikes in the surrounding reedbeds. At 1700 hours back to Komatsu base for the next two nights.
February 15th: Komatsu, Shibayama Lake, Fukui
Daily 53 New 8 Running 132
Weather: Overcast with late sunny spells on a NE wind 14C
After breakfast I made the short journey to Shibayama Lakes which is a mix of lakes and rice paddies with isolated stands of trees and bushes. The first stop on a track and bridge produced a female Long-tailed Rosefinch, Japanese Bush Warbler, Dusky Thrush and a distant Hawfinch. In the flooded paddies a herd of Bewick's Swans, Great Egret, Grey Heron, Osprey and Eastern Buzzards. I met my old friend from a few years ago who gave us up to date information on birds within the area. In no time at all we were whisked away to observe three Grey-headed Lapwings a scarce species in Northern Honshu. The group said goodbye and headed towards the main lake. Jane located Falcated Duck a sought after species with around 70 birds being seen. A wide selection of grebes and ducks were on the lake. It was time to head south towards the city of Fukui which is at the centre of a vast rice growing area. A stop at a small village added Meadow, Reed and Rustic Buntings, Eurasian Siskin and a Grey Wagtail. We then heard about a pair of Oriental Storks which have recently taken up residence in a nearby village. After a little searching the pair were located feeding on frogs in a pond, excellent views of this extremely rare bird. The afternoon was spent searching for goose flocks which were eventually located close to Fukui. Up to 1200 White-fronted Geese were present and with careful scrutiny two Lesser White-fronted Geese in the flock. Headed back to base with a stop at another wetland which only added the commoner wildfowl.
February 16th: Komatsu, Kasa Point, Kamoike, Nagoya
Daily 49 New 2 Running 134
Weather: Overcast with occasional rain showers on a NE wind 14C
Our last day on Honshu started with a visit to Kasa Point. Before arriving at the point a diversion to the harbour provided us with Black-tailed Gulls and a male Eastern Blue Rock Thrush on the harbour wall. The rain eased a little as we walked the trail system at the point which meanders through woodland, bamboo thickets and pockets of forest ponds. The first pond held a few Mandarin Ducks a tricky bird to locate at times within Japan. Various trails were walked with sightings of familiar birds plus a male Long-tailed Rosefinch, Rustic and Meadow Buntings and a pair of Long-tailed Tits. Back to the van and another visit to Kamoike. Similar birds to a few days ago with the addition of a juvenile Northern Goshawk and a female Eastern Marsh Harrier which dropped into the reedbed. It was time to head towards Kaga Onsen and our train journey to Nagoya. On arrival a jumbo taxi towards the port where we boarded the Kiso bound for Tomakomai in Hokkaido.
February 17th: North Pacific Ocean, Sendai
Daily 27 New 15 Running 149
Weather: Overcast with light NE winds 9C
Today was to turn out as one of the best ferry crossings for birds in Japan. After leaving Nagoya our journey took us towards Chiba prefecture near Tokyo where the ferry passes through an area of deep water and food rich habitats. Just after daybreak John located the only Tristram's Storm Petrel of the tour. As we went northwards Laysan, Black-footed and Short-tailed Albatrosses were seen regularly with the latter species having many juvenile birds which is an encouraging sign for this critically endangered species. Black-legged Kittiwake, Vega and Black-tailed Gulls were particularly numerous along with sightings of Pomarine Skuas. After breakfast the birds changed as shearwaters started to appear in above average numbers with a huge flock of c2,000 Short-tailed Shearwaters and close to the boat Sooty and a single Flesh-footed Shearwater the last two species being rather scarce in February. The ferry route then passes close to the mainland where rafts of Pacific Divers were located with many scuttling out of the shipping routes. Smaller numbers of Red-throated Divers and at least two immature Glaucous Gulls were also seen. Finally on the run in towards Sendai harbour the group encountered Great and Pelagic Cormorants, Common Gull, Black Scoter, Red-breasted Mergansers and Rhinoceros Auklets. On the entrance to Sendai Harbour the jetties gave shelter to Great Crested and Slavonian Grebes, groups of Black Scoter and the extraordinary sight of a Merlin mobbing a Peregrine Falcon. Docked around fifteen minutes ahead of the timetable listing with Black-eared Kites for company. Tomorrow we sail north towards Hokkaido and cross the Blakiston's Strait.
February 18th: North Pacific Ocean, Tomakomai, Sapporo, Akkeshi, Nemuro
Daily 39 New 10 Running 159
Weather: Sleet showers and overcast skies on a SW wind -2 to 5C
At 0630 hours most of the group were on deck as the ferry crossed the Blakiston's Strait which has a reputation of being one of the worlds roughest water areas. Today the sea was relatively calm as sightings of Laysan Albatross, Short-tailed Shearwater, Pomarine Skua and the commoner gulls were made. An unusual sighting was a Peregrine Falcon feeding on prey and literally flying sideways before an impending weather front. The journey towards Tomakomai seemed to take an age with sightings of Brunnich's Guillemot. On entering the harbour at Tomakomai we encountered Black Scoter, Harlequin Duck and a real bonus in a pair of Fork-tailed Storm Petrels. On docking the taxi took us towards Chitose Airport where berry bushes held a party of Bohemian Waxwings. An internal flight to Kushiro in Eastern Hokkaido was taken which was followed by a road journey to Nemuro the main town in the east. I decided to visit Akkeshi a small town with an inlet of the sea. This proved to be productive for our first White-tailed and Steller's Sea Eagles of the tour plus Glaucous, Glaucous-winged, Black-headed, Common and Slaty-backed Gulls, Whooper Swan, Common Goldeneye, Greater Scaup, Goosander and Eurasian Wigeon. The light started to fail as I headed east towards our base in Nemuro for the next three nights.
Steller's Sea Eagle
February 19th: Nemuro, Cape Nosappu, Cape Kiritappu
Daily 46 New 13 Running 172
Weather: Overcast with occasional sunny spells on a SW wind -1C to 2C
This morning I headed towards Cape Nosappu the most north-easterly point of mainland Japan. En route a stop at a bay and harbour proved to be a flavour of what was to come birding wise today. The low cliffs held White-tailed and Steller's Sea Eagles and sheltered offshore waters groups of Black Scoters. A fishing harbour provided us with close views of Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks, Greater Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser and an assortment of gulls which included Glaucous-winged, Slaty-backed, Black-tailed and a single adult Mongolian Gull. At Cape Nosappu, which has views towards the disputed Kurile Islands, the group were rewarded with several East Asian seabirds. It was slow to start with but sightings involved Brent Goose (Black Brant), Red-necked Grebe, Spectacled, Snow's, Common and Brunnich's Guillemots, Least, Ancient and Long-billed Murrelets, various gulls including Common. It was time to move on and back towards Nemuro where supplies were picked up for lunch. A slow drive westwards towards Cape Kiritappu provided us with close views of an adult Steller's Sea Eagle perched in a conifer tree in stark contrast to Eurasian Siskins drinking ice water on the roadside. Our lunch stop added a hunting Rough-legged Buzzard and nearby two wintering Short-eared Owls. Cape Kiritappu was reached a harsh place in winter for wildlife. A short stop added a large flock of Asian Rosy Finches attending feeders (please do not stop or enter this property as the owner is hostile to birders). At the cape itself a hunting Rough-legged Buzzard, Eurasian Kestrel and offshore good numbers of Black and Stejneger's Scoters. The last stop was at a remote farm for owls but on this occasion we were unlucky with another try tomorrow night.
February 20th: Nemuro, Furen-ko, Notsukehando
Daily New 5 Running 177
Weather: Overcast with some sunny spells on a SW wind -3C to 1C
After breakfast I headed towards Furen-ko and the nature centre. This was again shut and the feeders had been removed which was disappointing. Nearby was another house with feeders which thankfully produced sightings of Black and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Willow, Marsh, Coal and Japanese Tits and a fly-by Eurasian Jay. I turned north on Road 244 and made a short diversion towards a fishing area which passed through woodland. This area was good for the two eagle species plus sightings of Long-tailed Tit and Eurasian Nuthatch. Further north a harbour had good numbers of Glaucous Gulls, Red-breasted and Common Mergansers and in the open seas a pair of Brent Geese. The road down towards Notsukehando had many Black Scoters offshore plus lower numbers of Stejneger's Scoter, Long-tailed Duck and Spectacled Guillemots. On the roadside a roving flock of Asian Rosy Finches and a few Dusky Thrushes which are uncommon in winter on Hokkaido. At 1600 hours I travelled back towards Nemuro and another stop at a remote farm. I met up with my old friend and waited for Blakiston's Eagle Owl which we heard at around 1735 hours. I was beginning to think our luck was out until the male perched on a telegraph pole and showed well for all of us a fitting end to the day.
February 21st: Nemuro, Tsurui, Tokyo
Daily n/r New 3 Final 180
Weather: Bright and sunny with light N winds
Our last full day in Japan started with a drive back to Kushiro and then northwards towards the village of Tsurui. The finale of the tour was watching Red-crowned Cranes flying around and dancing in the snow fields a memorable sight for everybody. The fields also attracted Whooper Swans which were chased off by the warden as they attempted to steal the cranes’ food. I dropped the van off at the airport where we said our sad farewell to Kiwa my local guide. The flight to Tokyo was on time and we arrived back at the hotel in late afternoon. A few went birding along the river and added a pair of Azure-winged Magpies. In the evening our last meal in a nearby restaurant and the flight back to the UK the following morning.