Breaks to Japan was probably the most successful tour to date recording
several rarities and scarce Japanese endemic species. Notable sightings
included Short-tailed, Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses off the
Nagano to Tomakomai ferry, Lesser White-fronted and Middendorf's Bean
Geese at Komatsu, drake Surf Scoter off Hokkaido and a wintering Forest
Wagtail in Kyushu. In addition to this we again had incredible views
of Blakiston Eagle (Fish) Owls, Red-crowned Cranes and White-tailed
and Steller's Sea Eagles on Hokkaido. Around Karuizawa, above average
numbers of Japanese Accentors and Japanese Grosbeaks. In the Komatsu
area excellent views of Baikal Teal and Falcated Ducks and the scarce
and elusive Green Pheasant. Further west in Kyushu four species of
cranes, Black-faced Spoonbills and good winter numbers of Red-flanked
Bluetails and Daurian Redstarts.
February 2nd/3rd: London, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Karuizawa.
We left Edinburgh and London Heathrow Airports for Frankfurt in Germany and onward connections to Japan. Poor weather within Germany resulted in delays and a late arrival in Japan. From Narita we travelled to Tokyo Station and onto Karuizawa in the Japanese Alps by bullet train. On arrival at Karuizawa we encountered unusually heavy snowfalls which appeared to have followed us all the way from Europe.
February 4th: Karuizawa.
Weather: Sunny and cold with light north winds -1c/4c.
Due to time changes we were keen for first light and our first sightings of Japanese birds. Outside the hotel loose groups of Hawfinches giving their distinctive 'tick'calls from high vantage points in bare trees. I decided to explore a minor road running through gardens and woodland. In no time at all Japanese, Varied and Willow Tits, Eurasian Nuthatch, Japanese Green and Pygmy Woodpeckers and Dusky Thrushes were added to the list. After breakfast we headed towards the nature centre and walked along the road traversing woodland and forest streams. The latter held Japanese Wagtail and Brown Dipper. Next on the agenda was a series of small pools where Mallard, Chinese Spot-billed Duck and Eurasian Wigeon were seen. A hotel with active feeders was to be one of the highlights today. Japanese Grosbeak, Hawfinch, the three common tits and Japanese Accentor were seen well, along with the Japanese race of Great Spotted Woodpecker. An unusual bird here was Japanese White-eye. Back towards Karuizawa for our picnic lunch. Afterwards another pond was checked where we found Grey Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Falcated Duck and Common Teal. On the stony river a wintering Red-flanked Bluetail and Bull-headed Shrike. We wandered through the grounds observing more Hawfinches, White-backed Woodpecker and a pair of Goldcrest. A return visit to the nature centre was quiet for birds. Headed back to base after a great first days birding in Japan.
February 5th: Karuizawa, Tokyo, Oi, Komatsu, Kamo-ike.
Weather: Sunny and clear in Karuizawa and Tokyo, light drizzle and sleet at Komatsu. Light north winds 0c/8c.
Before breakfast we checked gardens behind the hotel recording similar birds to yesterday morning. Great Spotted Woodpecker, Hawfinch and an increase in Siberian Meadow Buntings. After dropping off the rental van we caught the 0854 Shinkansen train back to Tokyo Station. As we had a few hours 'in hand' a decision was made to visit Oi Nature Reserve set in the middle of Tokyo docks. From the elevated monorail Great Cormorant, Vega Gull, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck and Eurasian Wigeon. On arrival at Haneda we checked our baggage onto the afternoon flight and stored our carry-on bags into lockers. Back three stations and the walk to Oi Nature Park. En route Chestnut-eared Bulbuls, Dusky Thrush, Black-backed Wagtails and a drake Greater Scaup. At Oi a walk around the reserve added Little Egret, Common Sandpiper, Eurasian Coot and Reed Bunting. In bushes and scrub Daurian Redstarts, Japanese White-eyes, Scaly, Brown-headed and Pale Thrushes and an Azure-winged Magpie. Returned to the airport and boarded a plane for Komatsu situated next the Sea of Japan. Picked up the van and headed down the expressway to Kamo-ike a reserve run by The Wild Bird Society of Japan. Although small in size it attracted a wide range of birds. On arrival we noted large groups of Bean Geese (middendorffi race), coming into roost. From the viewing area a wide range of wildfowl with c1000 Baikal Teal, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Mallard, Smew, Eurasian Coot and up to four Great Egrets. As dusk started to fall Greater White-fronted Geese and Bewick's Swans came into roost. Transferred to the Arrowle Hotel our base for two nights, adjacent to a large wetland.
February 6th: Komatsu, Amigozan Point, Lake Kitakake, Kamo-ike.
Weather: Sunny with sleet showers northeast wind 3 C/16 C.
At 0645 we set off to explore the Komatsu region and the adjoining habitats along the Sea of Japan coast. Outside the hotel a steady pass-by of Oriental Crows, White-cheeked Starlings and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk. We then headed down towards a large inland lake bordered by rice paddies and fallow fields. The latter held large numbers of Bewick's Swans, Grey-headed Lapwings, Japanese Buzzard, Japanese Skylark, Bull-headed Shrike, Reed and Rustic Buntings. We met up with a local Japanese birder who guided us for the rest of the morning period. Firstly we scanned the large lake recording Great Crested, Black-necked and Little Grebes, Smew, Falcated and Tufted Ducks, Eurasian Teal, Gadwall and Kamchatka Gulls. A highlight here was large numbers of fishing Ospreys and up to three Hen Harriers. Breakfast at the bread and coffee shop followed by a visit to Amigozan Point. Offshore we noted Red-throated and Pacific Divers, Red-necked Grebe, Japanese and Pelagic Cormorants and a single Slaty-backed Gull. By the lighthouse a migrant Hawfinch, Japanese White-eye, and probably best of all a Peregrine Falcon of the race japonicus. The weather had started to worsen from the north as we headed to Lake Kitakake. The bitterly cold wind here pushed ducks into sheltered corners. Usual ducks present plus a drake Common Goldeneye. White-tailed Eagle flying over woodland further down the road. Returned to Kamo-ike with similar birds to yesterday plus Goosander Common Moorhen and Green Sandpiper.
February 7th: Komatsu, Fukui, Komatsu, Nagoya.
Weather: Frequent sleet showers north winds 2 C/7 C
Checked out of the hotel at 0645 and visited the rice fields of yesterday morning. It was rather odd to see an Osprey sitting on the ground. We travelled around various roads and tracks searching for Japanese Green Pheasants. We eventually located a male near an old people’s home feeding on rice seeds. An earlier stop produced a mixed flock of Oriental Crows, Dusky Thrushes, White-cheeked Starlings and Tree Sparrows. After admiring the pheasant we visited the coast again at Amigozan Point. Offshore rocks attracted Pelagic and Japanese Cormorants, Slaty-backed Gull and Blue Rock Thrushes. A bonus came when Ray located a White-bellied (Japanese Green) Pigeon perched in a dead tree. In another dead tree an Osprey fed on a rather large fish recently caught in the sea. We returned to the coffee and bread shop for breakfast and met up with our Japanese birder from yesterday morning. Afterwards we joined the expressway into Fukui Prefecture a known feeding ground for wintering geese. Picked up supplies for lunch and headed towards an area with abandoned rice plants. We quickly located the main goose flocks near a small village. Careful searching of the main White-fronted Goose flock produced a wide-range of adults and juveniles in various plumage forms. Other species present included a juvenile Merlin, Peregrine Falcon and Oriental Rook (rare this far east in Japan). We checked another goose flock when Ray (having a field day for finding birds) located an adult Lesser White-fronted Goose, excellent views obtained. Time was pressing as we headed back to the expressway to Komatsu. Lunch by the river, filled up with fuel and returned the van to Nippon Rent-a-Car. At 1445 we joined the train to Nagoya on the North Pacific coast. The journey was dramatic as we passed through the lower part of the Japanese Alps. On arrival at Nagoya we were met by taxi and transferred to the docks.
February 8th: North Pacific Ocean, Sendai.
Weather: Sunny with occasional snow showers and light north winds 0 C/4 C.
At 0630 we started the day seawatching from a sheltered position at the aft of the boat. The first birds observed were Black-tailed, Slaty-backed and Vega Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes. Just before breakfast at 0800 we recorded the first of several Pomarine Skuas. Seawatching resumed at 0900 hours, but we had to wait until 1030 when the first Laysan Albatross came into view. Shortly afterwards Jo found an adult Short-tailed Albatross a rare Japanese endemic breeder from further south. Up to 13 more Laysan Albatrosses were noted until we came across an active trawler with hundreds of gulls in attendance and two Black-footed Albatrosses another North Pacific endemic. Little else of note until 1400 hours when we started the long approach to Sendai Harbour in Northern Honshu. Pacific Divers were present in good numbers along with several groups of Ancient Murrelets. Red-necked Grebes were also seen in above average numbers plus a few Japanese and Pelagic Cormorants. On the approach to Sendai two White-billed Divers were seen plus Black and Stejneger's Scoters and Red-breasted Mergansers. Sendai Harbour held Great Crested Grebe, Eurasian Wigeon, Black-headed Gull and Large-billed Crows. After docking in Sendai we had enough light to visit a nearby park. A few birds were noted - Dusky and Pale Thrushes, Black-eared Kite and Oriental Crows. Returned to the boat for the final leg up to Tomakomai in Hokkaido.
February 9th: Sendai, Tomakomai, Kushiro, Nemuro.
Weather: Sunny and cold -5 C/3 C.
At first light we crossed the Blakiston Straits recording Short-tailed Shearwaters, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Slaty-backed and Kamchatka Gulls. As we entered the approach to Tomakomai we started to see Glaucous Gulls, Least Auklet and Rhinoceros Auklets. In the harbour itself Harlequin Duck, Common Goldeneye and Common Guillemot. At 1045 we disembarked and made the journey to Chitose Airport for a connection to Kushiro in Eastern Hokkaido. En route Common Magpie and Ring-necked Pheasants both localised species in Western Hokkaido. The plane to Kushiro departed and arrived on time. After picking up the rental van a visit to the Red-crowned Crane reserve produced c190 birds. Down the hill towards Kushiro a brief visit to a sector of woodland added Willow, Marsh and Japanese Tits, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Chestnut-eared Bulbuls. Transferred to Nemuro in Eastern Hokkaido for three nights.
February 10th: Nemuro, Cape Nosappu, Furen-ko, Cape Kiritappu.
Weather: Sunny and cold with light north winds -5 C/-2 C.
Breakfast at 0700 hours in the hotel restaurant overlooking the main highway into Nemuro. Berry laden trees looked good for wintering birds. A short walk along the street revealed Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Dusky Thrushes, Common Redpolls and Bohemian Waxwings the latter two species being rather scarce in recent winters on Hokkaido. Our journey took us eastwards towards Cape Nosappu the most easterly point in Japan. En route we stopped at sheltered bays and harbours recording Red-necked Grebe, Black and Stejneger's Scoters, Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks, Common Goldeneyes, Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, Greater Scaup, Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Slaty-backed Gulls. Common Guillemot and the unusual sight of two White-fronted Geese wintering in fishing harbour. At Cape Nosappu we looked across the water towards the Kurile Islands. Similar birds to our previous stops with the addition of White-tailed and Steller's Sea Eagles and at least two Spectacled Guillemots. We headed back to Nemuro and picked up supplies and onto the excellent nature centre at Furen-ko. The feeders here attracted Great Spotted and Pygmy Woodpeckers, Eurasian Nuthatch, Japanese, Marsh, Willow and a 'white-headed' form of Long-tailed Tit, Eurasian Jay and Chestnut-eared Bulbul. We headed in a westerly direction stopping at another feeding station with similar birds to Furen-ko. A surprise came when we stumbled across a wintering Long-tailed Rosefinch which promptly disappeared. Cape Kiritappu was next a bitterly cold and windswept peninsula jutting into the North Pacific Ocean. Before reaching this rather inhospitable place we visited a feeding station for the rare and localised Asian Rosy Finch. At the cape Japanese Buzzard, Peregrine Falcon and Eurasian Kestrel and the commoner ducks offshore. Back towards Nemuro and our final stop where we witnessed a pair of Blakiston's Eagle (Fish) Owls a fitting finale to an excellent day in Eastern Hokkaido.
February 11th: Nemuro, Furen-ko, Odaito, Notsukehando.
Weather: Sunny although cloudy in the afternoon southwest winds -10 C/-3 C.
Before breakfast we checked the berry trees opposite the hotel. Similar birds to yesterday morning with a substantial drop in the number of berries available. After breakfast we headed west again to Furen-ko where we made a short visit to the nature centre. Nothing new to report here so we headed west and north towards the remote Shiretoko Peninsula. A visit to another section of Furen-ko produced hundreds of White-tailed and Steller's Sea Eagles, Black-eared Kites and Large-billed Crows. Returned to the main highway and stopped at another harbour with an ice-free river outlet. Spectacular numbers of Common Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Smew and Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Slaty-backed Gulls. Next on the agenda was the sanctuary at Odaito. Here we witnessed Whooper Swans, Northern Pintails and gulls. The birds at Odaito are remarkably tame as they are fed by local people in periods of hard weather. Picked up supplies and headed to Notsukehando a long narrow peninsula of land bordered by marshes and the cold Sea of Okhotsk. Offshore Black and Stejneger's Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Common Goldeneye and scattered pairs of Spectacled Guillemots. A bonus came when Ray located a male Surf Scoter a rare straggler to northern-most Japan. Stunted bushes attracted roving flocks of Asian Rosy Finches and mealy forms of Common Redpoll. Lunch taken at the excellent nature centre. The afternoon was a leisurely affair taking in the concentrations of eagles and ducks. Back to base for our final night in Hokkaido.
February 12th: Nemuro, Kushiro, Tokyo, Fukuoka, Saga.
Weather: Sunny with a cool southwest wind 7 C.
After breakfast in Saga we made the short journey to Ariake-se a huge tidal area within Kyushu. Tide times are crucial here with high tide at 1247. Drainage ditches on the landward side produced Common Greenshank and a single Spotted Redshank. In the reeds wintering Daurian Redstarts, Reed and Siberian Meadow Buntings and calling Chinese Penduline Tits. Out on the mudflats hundreds of Saunders Gulls on the lookout for tiny crabs. Our interest however was a group of sleeping spoonbills. Eventually the incoming tide moved them to aid identification - 19 Black-faced and 1 Eurasian. The tide was starting to push birds towards the seawall. Common species included Dunlin, Grey Plover, Kentish Plover and the eastern race of Eurasian Curlew. More unusual birds were Pacific Reef Egret, Bar-tailed Godwit and Common and Green Sandpipers. Ospreys were particularly numerous along with Northern Pintail, Tufted Duck and Common Pochard. Lunch taken near a stand of trees next to a reedbed. Few birds here apart from Bull-headed Shrikes, Black-faced Buntings and a male Merlin. We headed towards Saga Airport and fields beyond with wintering Northern Lapwing, Pacific Golden Plover, Pale and Brown-headed Thrushes, Hen Harrier and Common Starling (the latter being regular in recent winters). Parked up and embarked on a circular walk adjacent to stands of trees and reedbeds. This proved to be a purple patch for raptors with Northern Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon and Merlin all being seen in a few minutes. Checked the river estuary where many ducks were present including Gadwall and Eurasian Teal. Walking back to the van added Oriental Turtle Dove, Common Snipe and Japanese White-eyes. At 1630 we left Saga Airport for the journey down to Izumi our base for the next two nights.
February 14th: Arasaki, Satsuma, Takae.
Weather: Sunny with cool northwest winds 5 C/11 C.
The first stop today was the crane reserve at Arasaki a truly magical place for birds. On arrival we located Hooded and White-naped Cranes and annual visitors in Common and Sandhill Cranes. Other species present on the 'crane' fields included Black-eared Kite, Grey Heron, Northern Lapwing, Northern Pintail, Mallard, Japanese Skylark, Black-backed Wagtail, Dusky Thrush and Oriental Crow. We headed towards the east fields with flocks of Dunlin and a single Curlew Sandpiper feeding in a flooded field. At the fields we encountered several flocks of cranes, Oriental Rook and Daurian Jackdaws. In one of the dykes Common Kingfisher, Common Snipe, Green and Common Sandpipers and Grey Wagtails. We met up with a local birder who showed us a wintering drake American Wigeon. Afterwards we travelled inland to the town of Satsuma with its fast-flowing rivers and woodland. I stopped at a regular place for birds along the rocky-river system. Overhead wintering House Swift and Asian House Martins. On the river Little Grebe, Chinese Spot-billed and Tufted Ducks, Eurasian Teal. Eurasian Wigeon, Green and Common Sandpipers, Long-billed Plovers, Grey, Black-backed and Japanese Wagtails and best of all a Crested Kingfisher. Our last birding stop was at Takae an area of rice paddies and adjacent forest. An excellent place for birds due to a wide range of habitats. Recently burnt areas attracted Buff-bellied Pipits, Russet Sparrow, Siberian Meadow, Chestnut-eared, Reed, Black-faced and Rustic Buntings and huge flocks of Oriental Greenfinches. With all these birds around Japanese Buzzard and Hen Harrier were present. Back to base after a fantastic birding day in Western Kyushu.
February 15th: Izumi, Mi-ike, Kagoshima, Tokyo.
Weather: Sunny with cool northwest winds 10 C.
Our final day in Japan with visits to birding spots along Road 447 and Mi-ike the latter a volcanic lake surrounded by woodland. As we headed out of Izumi we encountered another Crested Kingfisher perched on telegraph wires. At Okouchi we turned onto the rather winding Road 447 towards Ebino. We stopped at a secluded lake for Mandarin Duck and other wildfowl. On the road Pale Thrushes, Japanese White-eye and Daurian Redstarts. After leaving Ebino we joined the expressway to Mi-ike a well-known birding location in Western Kyushu. We started by visiting the campground a quiet place in winter-time for people. A surprise find here was a wintering Forest Wagtail. A slow walk around the camp provided us with excellent views of Red-flanked Bluetails, Olive-backed Pipits, Japanese and Varied Tits and Daurian Redstarts. Careful scanning of the lake provided views of Baikal Teal among the commoner ducks. Late morning we started the walk alongside the lake back towards the main car park area. In the first hundred metres Japanese Green Woodpecker, Black-faced and Yellow-throated Buntings and calling Eurasian Nuthatch and Eurasian Jays. Another mixed flock contained Grey Bunting and close views of Ryuku Minivet. Lunch taken at 1230, followed by a re-packing session in order to ready at Kagoshima Airport. The journey to Kagoshima was a somewhat subdued affair after the excitement and fun of the last two weeks in Japan. At the airport we checked in with Ray going off to Kyoto and the remainder back to Tokyo.
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