Japan 2011

...with Mark Finn

February 11th-26th

The annual Birdwatching Breaks tour to Japan was a challenge this year especially in the Kyushu area which was affected by natural events including a dormant volcano which decided to erupt and an outbreak of bird flu at Arasaki Crane Reserve. This meant the visit to Mi-ike had to abandoned, and the crane reserve had restricted access. Despite this the tour went well and we recorded 163 species, with five species of cranes being seen, vagrant Tundra and Mute Swans, American Wigeon, wintering Black-faced Spoonbills at Fukuoka, wintering Marsh Sandpiper at Ariake-se and several Japanese Murrelets off Hyuga. Passerines were harder to find due to recent bad weather but did included the uncommon Chinese Grosbeak, Japanese Waxwing and Long-tailed Rosefinch. Hokkaido was again a delight with its eagles and cranes. A new boat trip allowed us access to Cape Nosappu and further towards the Kurile Islands. The boat allowed us close access to Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots and several species of sea-ducks.

Our next tour to Japan is scheduled for February 2012.

February 11th/12th: London Heathrow, Narita, Tokyo, Karuizawa.

Weather: Cloudy in Tokyo, snow showers in Karuizawa -3C/2C.

We met up at Heathrow T5 for the flight east to Tokyo with British Airways. A slight delay was made up as we landed at Narita which is located around 60 kilometres from Tokyo. Immigration and passport control was passed through quickly although we had to wait a little while for our bags. The new rail link to Ueno passed over several canals holding small numbers of Great Cormorant and Eurasian Wigeon. At 1230 the train to the ski resort of Karuizawa was boarded and we arrived on time just over an hour later. Karuizawa was suffering from persistent snow falls as we arrived at our base for the next two nights. The hotel has several feeders which provided views of Japanese Grosbeak, Oriental Greenfinch, Hawfinch, Brambling, Eastern Great, Varied and Coal Tits, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and a single Oriental Turtle Dove. At 1530 hours we set off on a walk towards the nature centre. Further snowfalls did not help matters looking for birds within the forest habitats, but eventually a party of the often difficult to find Japanese Waxwing were found feeding on mistletoe berries.

February 13th: Karuizawa.

Weather: Cold with clear blue skies -1 C/1 C.

At 0700 hours we met up in the lobby to watch the activity around the feeders before breakfast. A good range of species included Oriental Turtle Dove, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Oriental Greenfinch and the three common tit species. A bonus came in the form of a wintering Chinese Grosbeak which was feeding with the larger Japanese Grosbeaks. After breakfast we met up to walk the trail system through the extensive forest habitats of the nature reserve. A stop near the bridge added three Brown Dippers and brief views of Brown-eared Bulbul. Walking on the snow-covered trails was by no means easy and bird density is understandably quite low during the winter months. By the streams we encountered a few Dusky Thrushes in a variety of plumages and Eurasian Jays giving their distinctive calls. A feeding flock was located with the dramatic Asama Volcano in the background. The flock included Coal, Eastern Grey and Long-tailed Tits and our first views of Pygmy Woodpecker. We returned to the visitor centre to catch up with any news from the wardens and then taxis to the Prince Hotel in central Karuizawa. The hotel grounds are good for birds with the main lake holding Mallard, Eurasian Teal, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Eurasian Wigeon and a single drake American Wigeon the latter being a scarce but annual visitor to Japan. A walk by the river added Meadow and Rustic Buntings, Dusky and Pale Thrushes, Hawfinch and a Bull-headed Shrike. Near the shopping centre Eurasian Siskins and a party of Asian Rosy Finches the latter an uncommon bird in the Karuizawa area. Return taxi journey back towards our hotel and a short visit to another wooded area bordered by a river. Not too much here apart from a male Daurian Redstart.

February 14th: Karuizawa, Tokyo, Miyazaki, Hyuga.

Weather: Clear and sunny in Karuizawa, windy and overcast at Miyazaki 0 C/6 C.

After breakfast we revisited the nature centre area and walked along the road. The commoner birds were around the hotel grounds and the nature centre with the addition of a pair of Eurasian Nuthatches. By the forest track we had excellent views of a Long-tailed Rosefinch taking seeds from exposed grasses above the snow. Further up the track brief views of Japanese Woodpecker and Grey-bellied Bullfinch. We returned to the hotel and checked out. From Karuizawa the bullet train took us back to Tokyo and onto Haneda Airport for the fight down to Miyazaki in Kyushu. From the monorail which runs through parts of the Tokyo Docks complex we added several species of ducks and gulls. The flight to Miyazaki went smoothly although there was a possibility of being diverted to Kagoshima because of recent volcanic activity. The journey towards Hyuga seems to take a long time due to poor roads and traffic. We arrived at 2100 hours and then had an enjoyable meal before retiring to bed.

February 15th: Hyuga, Mi-ike (closed due to volcanic activity), Road 447, Izumi.

Weather: Sunny with a cool northwest wind 3 C/12 C.

Checked out of Hyuga and travelled a short distance north to meet up with the captain of our chartered boat. At 0845 hours we set off to explore the area behind the harbour and adjacent wooded cliff slopes. In the inner harbour area Black-eared Kites, Vega Gulls and Grey Heron were perched on the fish quay rooftops. A superb male Blue Rock Thrush was seen feeding under a parked vehicle. Beyond the seawall the various fish pens attracted Black-tailed and Black-headed Gulls and Pacific Reef Egret (both dark and white morph birds). In the sheltered areas near a section of large cliffs we caught up with the vulnerable and scarce Japanese Murrelet, and on the cliffs Japanese Cormorants. Returned to the harbour and travelled back to Myazaki and the expressway to Mi-ike Lake in Kamoshiga Prefecture. On arrival we were informed the area was closed due to volcanic ash and recent activity which had resulted in the cancellation of flights and other travel disruptions. Lunch taken and onto Ebino where we checked the river systems and adjacent fields for bird life. The river held Black-crowned Night and Grey Herons, Osprey, Common and Green Sandpipers and Common Snipe. Road 447 is a quiet country road running through mature forest and small patches of farm land. The birds were quiet with just a few Black-faced Buntings and a male Daurian Redstart. Beyond the forest a stop at a normally reliable spot for water birds was disappointing as the lake had been drained. The reeds attracted Japanese White-eye, Long-tailed Tits and a Pygmy Woodpecker. The lower rice fields held flocks of Russet Sparrows and sightings of Oriental Crow and Japanese Skylark. Izumi was reached our base for the next two nights.

February 16th: Arasaki, Takae, Satsuma, Road 48.

Weather: Overcast with a cool northwest wind 4 C/13 C

The day started with a proposed visit to the world famous crane reserve at Arasaki. To our dismay access was limited due to a reported outbreak of bird flu and foot and mouth disease. However access to the outer fields and roads was possible as we started to record the numerous Hooded and White-naped Cranes. Near the seawall the first Great Egret of the tour feeding in a drainage dyke. A walk down a road bisecting rice fields was particularly good for Oriental Greenfinch, Brambling, Japanese Skylark, Buff-bellied Pipits, Common Starling, Dusky and Pale Thrushes, Oriental Rook, Oriental Crow and higher than usual numbers of Daurian Jackdaws. A route through the fields by a marshy area fringed with reeds produced Common Moorhen and Reed Bunting. Next was an inlet of the sea dotted with islands of stones and adjacent reed beds. This was excellent for a wide range of ducks including a first winter drake Northern Shoveler, Greater Scaup, Dunlin, Common Sandpiper and Common Kingfisher. A visit to the western crane fields added three Sandhill Cranes and a similar number of Common Cranes, Northern Lapwing and a large roosting flock of Northern Pintail. On the fields a group of Japanese Grosbeaks, Russet and Eurasian Tree Sparrows. At 1145 hours we left the Arasaki area and headed south to Takae an area of rice fields bordered by forest and river. On arrival we encountered a huge flock of Brambling and Oriental Greenfinch numbering in excess of 1500 birds. Further down the track the returning Greater Spotted Eagle was seen well in flight with Black-eared Kites. A short walk around the area added a pair of Eurasian Kestrels, Daurian Redstarts, Zitting Cisticola, Black-faced, Reed, Meadow, Rustic and Chestnut-eared Buntings, Japanese Skylark, Buff-bellied Pipits. The highlight had to be a male Hen Harrier hunting low over the ground before landing and perching by some burnt reeds. From Takae we travelled inland to the town of Satsuma which is dominated by the Sendai River and several road bridges. Careful scanning of the river produced two Long-billed Plovers, Japanese, Black-backed and Grey Wagtails, Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Common and Green Sandpipers and wintering Barn Swallows. The weather started to close in as we joined Road 48 passing through extensive forest and farm lands. The only bird of note was a Yellow-throated Bunting. Back to Izumi with plans to visit Road 48 again tomorrow morning before heading north to Saga and Ariake-se.

February 17th: Izumi, Road 48, Road 447, Saga, Ariake-se.

Weather: Overcast with steady rain showers 4 C/13 C.

We started today by revisiting Road 48 towards the north of Izumi. A bonus came in the form of Peregrine Falcon hunting over the hotel and adjacent buildings. On reaching Road 48 a short stop at the bridge produced a Japanese Bush Warbler skulking in the reeds and a Grey Wagtail bobbing on rocky boulders. The ascent along the road produced a few birds notably Pale Thrush in good numbers. Stopped near the tunnel to search for pheasants, and woodland birds our only success being a Northern Wren and drumming Pygmy Woodpecker. The weather started to close in as we travelled along 447 and joined the expressway north to junction 11 passing through many tunnels and adjacent forests. Headed towards Saga Airport with Eurasian Magpie along the way. I made for the seawall which gives good views into the river and Ariake-se a huge tidal bay. From the elevated position of the wall hundreds of ducks including a few Gadwall, Grey and Kentish Plovers, Dunlin and a lone Black-faced Spoonbill. A highlight at Ariake-se is the high numbers of Saunders’ Gulls which winter and feed on the abundant crabs. Another stop added a male Northern Goshawk with prey. Further along the wall we had exceptional views of a male Falcated Duck feeding on flowers and Chinese Penduline Tits calling and showing briefly from the tops of reed stems. The large expanse of mud was checked again with sightings of Eurasian Curlews a scarce winter visitor and several Kamchatka Gulls loafing around the tide-line. The weather started to worsen as we checked the harbour and mud flats which had high numbers of Common Shelduck, Eurasian Teal and a single Marsh Sandpiper. I called it a day at 1630 hours due to heavy and persistent rain and poor visibility.

February 18th: Saga, Imazu Bay, Zuibaijigawa, Shikanoshima, Komatsu.

Weather: Overcast with a cool northwest wind 3 C/11 C.

Checked out at Saga and travelled north to Fukuoka the largest city in Kyushu. The first birding stop was at Imazu Bay and Zuibaijigawa a river complex with stands of reed islands. Scanning into Imazu Bay allowed us sightings of Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Goldeneyes. The grassy fields attracted wintering Dusky Thrushes and Blue Rock Thrush. Zuibaijigawa held thousands of wintering ducks mainly Mallard with lesser numbers of Common Pochard, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Falcated Duck, Eurasian Teal and Eastern Spot-billed Ducks. Small islands had resting Great and Little Egrets, Black-faced Spoonbills, Grey Heron whilst overhead Black-eared Kites and Osprey were frequently observed. Picked up supplies for lunch and headed to the island of Shikanoshima. A short diversion to consume lunch and watch a sheltered bay produced Greater Scaup, Eurasian Wigeon, Black-faced and Meadow Buntings. The weather at Shikanoshima was pretty wild with strong winds and sand blowing over the roads. Offshore we noted Slaty-backed and Black-tailed Gulls. I decided to head towards a more sheltered spot where we located Great, Japanese and Pelagic Cormorants and a party of Harlequin Ducks. It was soon time to head to Fukuoka Airport for the flight up to Komatsu on the Sea of Japan coast our base for the next two days.

February 19th: Komatsu, Amagozan Point, Kamo-ike, Fukui.

Weather: Sunny with light northeast winds 5 C/15 C.

Today turned out to be gloriously sunny and clear making birding much easier. We started off by visiting a lake complex and rice paddies close to Komatsu. The open waters of the lake had the usual grebes and ducks plus a few roosting Great Cormorants. I decided to visit another area which is famous for Bewick’s Swans which duly obliged in good numbers although numbers of cygnets were low this year. Also in the area were Eastern Marsh Harriers, Buzzards and Northern Lapwings. A local Japanese birder who I have known from previous visits turned up and gave us some useful information. We followed him for a short distance and stopped to observe a Tundra Swan from North America a vagrant to Japan, also present were Grey-headed Lapwings which continue to decline each year. Amagozan Point was next on the agenda a picturesque area of the coast dominated by a lighthouse and lightly wooded areas. Offshore up to two Red-throated Divers, Pelagic and Japanese Cormorants and a lone Slaty-backed Gull. Passerines were few so I headed towards the Wild Bird Society of Japan’s bird reserve at Kamo-ike. Lots of wildfowl including Taiga Bean Goose and Baikal Teal and an adult White-tailed Eagle which regularly upset the birds. Armed with recent information we headed south to Fukui a large area of farmland dominated by rice paddies and canals. After searching hundreds of acres and fields no feeding goose flocks were located. Interesting birds included a male Japanese Green Pheasant and a female Merlin which posed on a telegraph pole. Returned to Kamo-ike where a male Smew and Mandarin Ducks were located. As dusk started to fall we witnessed the spectacle of Greater White-fronted Geese coming into roost a truly moving experience.

February 20th: Komatsu, Kamo-ike (woods), Kitigate Lake, Nagoya.

Weather: Sunny with a cool northeast wind 3 C/13 C.

We checked out of Komatsu and headed west towards Kamo-ike where we walked around the trail surrounding a small lake. The lake itself held Mandarin Duck and Smew whilst the woodlands were quiet apart from Pygmy Woodpeckers and Varied Tits. Due to our train times to Nagoya we had only a short visit to Kitigate Lake which had the commoner water birds and several fishing Ospreys. At 1215 we joined the train to Nagoya the fourth largest city in Japan passing through the mountainous interior a very snowy scene. At Nagoya we met up with the driver of a jumbo taxi to take us to Nagoya Port the departure point for the Ishikari ferry to Tomakomai via Sendai.

February 21st: North Pacific Ocean, Sendai.

Weather: Overcast in the morning followed by sunny periods and a cool northeast wind 1 C/6 C.

Today was spent sea-watching in the North Pacific Ocean with a stop at Sendai in late afternoon. Before breakfast the skies were overcast and accompanied by a cool and fresh northeast wind. Birds were few due to the weather conditions but included Black-tailed, Vega, Kamchatka and Slaty-backed Gulls and thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes. At 0900 hours we were back out on deck again as the ferry passed Chiba Prefecture with sightings of Laysan Albatross, Pomarine Skua, Common Guillemot and rafts of Ancient Murrelets. As with most sea watches the birds came in patches with the aforementioned being seen again on several occasions. As we approached the port of Sendai we started to see Red-necked Grebes, Northern Fulmar (blue form), Red-breasted Merganser and Pelagic Cormorant. On the approach to Sendai Harbour the first Black Scoters of the tour. Within the harbour boundaries Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes, Great Cormorant (hundreds), Black-eared Kite and near the docking area a Blue Rock Thrush. One of the few trees in the docks attracted Oriental Greenfinches.

February 22nd: North Pacific Ocean, Tomakomai, Kushiro, Nemuro.

Weather: Clear and sunny with a cool northeast wind -3 C/3 C.

On deck at 0700 hours to watch for any seabirds occurring in the Blakiston’s Strait. We were rewarded with close views of Laysan Albatross a rare bird off Hokkaido in February. Also present Short-tailed Shearwater, Brunnich’s and Common Guillemots, Glaucous, Kamchatka and Slaty-backed Gulls. On the approach to Tomakomai Harbour good numbers of Least Auklets in loose flocks. After docking we transferred to New Chitose Airport for the flight east to Kushiro the second city of Hokkaido. This went smoothly although we had a slight delay on approach to the airport. Picked up a rental van and upgraded it to a larger model. Headed east to Nemuro our base for the next three nights.

February 23rd: Nemuro, Cape Nosappu and Bay, Cape Kiritappu, Furen-ko.

Weather: Sunny with afternoon cloud and increasing northeast winds -3 C/2 C.

After breakfast we headed east to a fishing port close to Cape Nosappu for a boat trip into the adjacent seas. On arrival we had to wait for a final decision from the captain due to floating sea ice. At 0945 we had the go ahead to embark and search for birds. In the harbour White-tailed and Steller’s Eagles, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Black Scoter and Pelagic Cormorants. Once in the open waters we found good numbers of Spectacled Guillemot and at least two Pigeon Guillemots the latter being a scarce winter visitor to Hokkaido. Near the pack ice a few Rhinoceros Auklets and the commoner sea-ducks. Back on land a short stop at Cape Nosappu where we watched several Harlequin Ducks and views over to the southernmost Kurile Island. Brief views of an adult Glaucous-winged Gull flying past the lighthouse. On the way back to Nemuro another harbour held Common Goosanders and Greater Scaup. Stopped at the Nature Centre at Furen-ko only to find it shut on a Wednesday so I headed east and south towards Kiritappu. Before reaching the cape waters around the bridge added Grey Heron, Mallard and a juvenile Whooper Swan. A stop at a private house on the cape allowed us close views of Asian Rosy Finches coming into feeders. At the end of the road we scanned the sea recording Red-necked and Slavonian Grebes, Black and White-winged Scoters and two female Smews. Returned to Nemuro stopping at a farm for Blakiston’s Eagle Owl although on this occasion they did not show.

February 24th: Nemuro, Furen-ko, Odaito, Shibetsu, Notsukehanto.

Weather: Sunny with northeast winds -1 C/6 C.

A later start this morning in order to visit Nemuro Hospital to obtain some antibiotics. Soon however we set off in a westerly direction and then north along Route 243. After a few kilometres a right turn took us down to another sector of Lake Furen. The small fishing village had hundreds of Black-eared Kites and on the ice good numbers of White-tailed and Steller’s Eagles. Picked up supplies in Shibetsu and turned into the road which goes along Notsukehanto an excellent place for bird life. Stopped for lunch at one of the first available spots off the road to find a Short-eared Owl sitting on a post. In the adjacent sea Long-tailed Duck, Black and White-winged Scoters and Goosander. Further down the road a pair of Oriental Greenfinch sitting and feeding on plant heads. At the information centre we checked on any unusual birds around. Just after we noticed a pair of Red-crowned Cranes early arrivals to stake out a territory in this important area. Back to the main highway with a birding stop at Shibetsu. This was particularly good for Dark-bellied Brent Goose and Marsh Harrier and Whooper Swans.

February 25th: Nemuro, Kushiro, Tokyo.

Weather: Cloudy with light northeast winds 6 C.

The last full day in Japan with a later breakfast and departure time. The first birding stop was just beyond the road bridge before Furen-ko. Due to recently climbing temperatures the sea ice was starting to break up in places. Atthe bed and breakfast establishment by the bridge we watched a congregation of White-tailed and Steller’s Sea Eagles, Black-eared Kites and Slaty-backed Gulls. This was a fitting finale to Eastern Hokkaido as we started the long journey to Kushiro. On entering Kushiro the traffic was slower than usual and it seemed to take ages to reach the crane grounds to the north of the city. On reaching the feeding grounds we were greeted by over a hundred Red-crowned Cranes some with last year’s young feeding and dancing over the snowy fields. At 1300 hours we checked in at Kushiro Airport for the flight to Tokyo and onto Narita Airport where the tour concluded.

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 enquiries@birdwatchingbreaks.com.

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