Japan 2014

...with Mark Finn

February 1st - 14th

Birdwatching Breaks annual birding tour of Japan was once again a fascinating affair with some superb birds and unusual weather conditions that included an unseasonal 25 Celsius in Kyushu and -8 Celsius on Hokkaido and Honshu. In Kyushu we were treated to close views of Japanese Murrelets on the first morning followed by a wintering Great Spotted Eagle, Long-billed Dowitchers and Black-faced Spoonbills a little further south. Komatsu continues to attract interesting wildfowl; Taiga Bean Geese, Baikal Teal, Falcated Duck and the only regular winter flock of Bewick’s Swans in Japan. The ferry from Nagoya to Tomakomai provided us with sightings of Laysan and Short-tailed Albatrosses, Tristram’s Storm Petrels, Streaked and Short-tailed Shearwaters and a range of wintering auks. Hokkaido was once again a winter wonderland with close views of Steller’s and White-tailed Eagles, a pair of dueting Blakiston’s Eagle Owls, hundreds of seaducks and above average numbers of Spectacled Guillemots. The final stop this year was at Karuizawa where we located Japanese Waxwings and the endemic Japanese Woodpecker.

Our next tour to Japan is scheduled for February 2015.

February 1st/2nd : London, Tokyo Narita, Myazaki, Hyuga, Hyuga Port, Hitotsugawa, Mi-ike, Izumi.

Weather: Warm and sunny for February with light northeast winds 25 C.

On February 1st we set off from London for the flight over to Tokyo. The flight was delayed for three hours due to technical problems, but we had built in extra time in case of a delay and this worked perfectly for us. On arrival in Tokyo we transferred to Haneda for an internal flight down to Myazaki on Kyushu Island. A few birds were seen on the bus transfer notably Great Cormorant, Black-eared Kite, Brown-eared Bulbul and Eurasian Wigeon in Tokyo Harbour. A long travel day ended with an enjoyable meal at the Hotel Velfort in Hyuga.

On the 2nd we arranged an early breakfast and a boat trip out into Hyuga Bay at 0830 hours. At the docks we found wintering Barn Swallows, Common Sandpiper and a variety of gulls including Vega, Black-tailed and Slaty-backed. We set off and quickly found Osprey and Black-eared Kites. On the offshore fish-pens we watched; Pacific Reef Egret, Grey Heron and Great Egret. It took us a little while to find the rare and localised Japanese Murrelet which showed very well down to 10 metres by the seawall. Back to port and then down Route 10 to the coastal reserve of Hitotsugawa a relatively new reserve of estuary, reeds and ponds adjacent to the sea. A thorough scan of the estuary revealed Great Cormorant, Eastern Spot-billed and Falcated Ducks, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Mallard, and on the exposed mud wader species including; Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Sanderling, Eurasian Curlew of the race orientalis, Grey Plover and a single Saunders’ Gull. Next to the estuary is an area of reedbeds and lagoons which were productive for birds. Careful scanning revealed Little and Black-necked Grebes, Common Shelduck, Northern Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, nine Black-faced Spoonbills, Eastern Cattle Egret and a surprise find in the form of two Long-billed Dowitchers. We ended the day at Mi-ike which was disturbed by people visiting on a Sunday. In the campground we found Japanese, Varied and Long-tailed Tits, Goldcrest, Japanese White-eye, Bull-headed Shrike, Daurian Redstart and Grey Wagtails. On the lake itself the commoner ducks were present. The light was starting to go as we went towards Ebino and then along the quiet 447 road with lots of Pale Thrushes being flushed from the roadside. A small lake which has been dry for two years added the delightful Mandarin Duck.

February 3rd : Izumi, Arasaki, Satsuma.

Weather: Overcast with occasional rain showers on a northeast wind 16 C.

Today we concentrated on the main birding areas of Western Kyushu and started by visiting the famous crane reserve and adjacent areas at Arasaki. On the way I stopped to fill up with fuel and to my surprise a Japanese Green Pheasant was ambling about in a nearby field – an excellent sighting of an easily missed Japanese endemic. Arrived at the crane reserve where we found many birds. From the observation tower we located Hooded, White-naped, Sandhill and Common Cranes, Eurasian and Black-faced Spoonbills, Grey Heron, Great and Little Egrets, Black-eared Kites, Green and Common Sandpipers, Black-backed Wagtail, Japanese Skylark and Buff-bellied Pipits. A short drive away towards the coast and seawall added a fishing Osprey, Blue Rock Thrush, flocks of Oriental Greenfinches, Eastern Reed, Chestnut-eared and Meadow Buntings. In a section of reeds we could hear the distinctive song of Japanese Bush Warbler. It was time to visit the eastern crane fields where an unexpected find was a female Northern Goshawk of the race fujiaemae a scarce Japanese endemic sub species quietly sitting on an old tarmac road and in open view. A visit to an area of degraded reedbeds and farmland proved to be good for a party of Chinese Penduline Tits, Russet and Eurasian Tree Sparrows and Daurian Redstarts. In the canal plenty of the commoner wintering ducks, Little Egret, Grey Wagtail and flocks of Oriental Rooks. The afternoons birding was near the town of Satsuma some thirty kilometres inland. This proved to be excellent as the shallow flowing river system littered with rocks provided us with Japanese Wagtails, the uncommon Long-billed Plover and at least four Crested Kingfishers contesting territories. The weather started to close in as we travelled back to Izumi. The rocky habitats of the river near road 48 held several Brown Dippers and further downriver near the sea an adult Black-crowned Night Heron.

February 4th: Izumi, Road 447, Mi-ike, Ariake-se.

Weather: Cloudy with a cold northwest wind 5 C.

The weather this morning was in stark contrast to the last few days. After breakfast we packed up and headed to the
lake along Road 447. It was good to see Mandarin Ducks in good light and paired up for the season. Other birds in the area included a Green Sandpiper. We then headed towards the crater lake of Mi-ike via the Ebino Plateau which is a long way round through breathtaking volcanic and woodland vistas. On arrival at Miike we had views of similar birds of two days ago. The main action started just after lunch when a Forest Wagtail casually walked into view. A feeding flock drew our attention which included Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese Whiteeye, Varied, Coal, Japanese and Long-tailed Tits and at least two Ryuku Minivets. We left Mi-ike and headed north through Kyushu on the excellent expressway which passes through some outstanding vistas and countryside. Once on the Saga road we located Eurasian Magpies a localised and a male Merlin perched on a mud bund which allowed good views. A check of the estuary added nothing of note so we headed to Saga our base for the night.

February 5th: Saga, Wajiro, Shikanoshima Island, Kashii-Hama, Komatsu.

Weather: Overcast with a cool northwest wind. Snow flurries at Komatsu -1 C/5 C.

We left Saga and travelled north to the port city of Fukuoka which is located on the Sea of Japan. Our first birding stop was at Wajiro a suburb of the city with a long peninsula jutting into the sea. The more sheltered areas held many ducks including Asiatic White-winged Scoters, Common Pochards and the first Red-breasted Mergansers of the tour. On the rocky outlets Japanese, Great and Pelagic Cormorants which gave us a good comparison of the three species. The calmer waters of the bay from Otari Jetty gave us views of Great Crested, Black-necked and Little Grebes, Black-tailed and Vega Gulls and on the harbour walls and adjacent buildings Blue Rock Thrushes. Shikanoshima Island always produces a few interesting birds and today was no exception as an adult Brown Booby was located sitting on the dock wall. We joined the road running around the perimeter of the island where we could stop and scan the sea for birds. We quickly located Pacific and Black-throated Divers which allowed us to studdy the subtle differences between these two similar and tricky to identify species. Also in the area were several Slavonian Grebes and a dark phase Pacific Reef Egret. Another stop at an area of bamboo and shrine had a mixed feeding flock mainly of Japanese White-eyes, Japanese Tits and Pygmy Woodpeckers plus the addition of at least two Japanese Bush Warblers a normally skulking and shy species. The last birding stop was at Kashii-Hama a shallow bay which is literally next to a shopping mall in Fukuoka. Osprey was fishing here along with an assortment of ducks including a female Smew, Common Goldeneye, Greater Scaup, Gadwall and Falcated Duck. Flew to Komatsu where the ground was covered in a low covering of snow – a contrast to weather in Kyushu.

February 6th: Kamoike, Shibayama Lake, Armagazon Point.

Weather: Overcast and cold with snow showers -6 C/1 C

The day dawned with grey clouds and a distinctly cool feel in the air. Our first birding stop was the reserve at Kamoike a lake situated on top of a hill and surrounded by woodland. We arrived at 0830 hours and were allowed an early entry into the observation area. Scanning over the lake produced sightings of Taiga Bean Goose of the race middendorfi which is probably a full species in its own right. Also present were good numbers of Bewick’s Swans, Baikal Teal and the common wintering ducks of Honshu. A Common Kingfisher was briefly seen along with a party of Eurasian Siskins feeding in the alder trees. It was time to visit Shibayama Lake which is a great spot with rice paddies and open water habitats. En route we stopped for a flock of Grey-headed Lapwings on a snowy field and two Common Snipe feeding in an ice free watercourse. Shibayama Lake had a hunting Peregrine Falcon of the race japonensis, flocks of Japanese Skylarks, Eastern Reed Bunting and hunting Hen and Eastern Marsh Harriers. A short stop was made for coffee and cakes at a nearby restaurant and then onto Armagazon Point a bitterly cold place on the Sea of Japan. On the sea gulls included - Slaty-backed, Black-tailed, Vega and Kamchatka. Further west near an old cemetery several Black-faced Buntings, Hawfinch, Brown-headed, Pale and Dusky Thrushes were noted. Before going back to Kamoike a diversion into the farmland and lakes near Fukui added little of note apart from a flock of Long-tailed Tits feeding in a reedbed. The group stayed at Kamoike until the light faded with sightings of European White-fronted Geese and Bewick’s Swans coming into roost. In the muddy pools we observed a few Common Snipe and an Eastern Water Rail.

February 7th: Komatsu, Lake Kitaga, Rice fields near Fukai, Nagoya, Ishikari Ferry.

Weather: Sunny with a cool northeast wind -2 C/3 C.

This was to be our last day in northern Honshu with our journey starting with a visit to the lakes and rice fields near Fukai. The first stop at a series of lakes (Kitaga) produced the commoner ducks and in a muddy area over wintering Little Ringed Plovers and up to six Grey-headed Lapwings. Further south we located a flock of White-fronted Geese. A pair of Common Kingfishers were using the ice-free environs of a drainage ditch. The morning passed quickly as we headed back towards the rental company office and station where we caught the train to Nagoya. The train journey took us through the Japanese Alps with higher peaks covered in snow. On arrival in Nagoya we were met and transferred to the docks to join the Ishikari ferry and the sea journey north to Hokkaido.

February 8th: North Pacific Ocean, Sendai.

Weather: Cloudy and then persistent snow showers on a northeast wind -2 C/0 C.

We met on deck at 0700 hours for the first of several sea-watches throughout the day. The boat was just north of Tokyo when we started with sightings of Black-tailed, Slaty-backed and Vega Gulls. A few Streaked Shearwaters were seen, an uncommon species in winter, along with small groups of Rhinoceros Auklets. After breakfast we started the best session of the day with large numbers of Pacific Divers and single White-billed and Black-throated Divers. Off Chiba the first of many Black-legged Kittiwakes, Pomarine Skuas, Common Guillemots and at least four Tristram’s Storm Petrels at the limit of their wintering range here. Luck was also with us as Laysan and a single sub-adult Short-tailed Albatross were added to our list of seabirds. The weather started to worsen which affected the birds and our ability to see no more than 100 metres. The only birds of note were flocks of Ancient Murrelets and Red-breasted Mergansers near the entrance to Sendai harbour. The harbour area of Sendai is still recovering from the tsunami of March 2011 with many quays and harbour buildings still being rebuilt. The outer walls held a range of gulls and Fnumerous Great Cormorants. We sail at 1900 hours for Tomakomai in Hokkaido and hoped for better weather as we sailed northwards through the Blakiston Straits.

February 9th: Blakiston Straits, Tomakomai, Kushiro, Nemuro.

Weather: Snow showers on a northwest wind -3 C/0 C.

On deck at 0700 hours for a seawatch as the ferry crossed the Blakiston Straits a notoriously choppy stretch of water. In near blizzard conditions we located a single Laysan Albatross, Short-tailed Shearwaters, Brunnich’s Guillemots and the first Glaucous Gulls of the tour. As we entered the calmer waters of Tomakomai harbour there were a few Slavonian Grebes, Greater Scaup and rafts of Black Scoters. Our journey continued to Kushiro in the eastern part of Hokkaido. In the city we picked up the rental bus for the road journey to Nemuro.

February 10th: Nemuro, Cape Nosappu, Furen-ko, Cape Kiritappu.

Weather: Early snow showers giving way to a cloudy afternoon -6 C/1 C.

Snowy conditions prevailed this morning as we headed east towards Cape Nosappu the most north-easterly point of Japan. The first stop was at an ice-free harbour where we watched Black Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Pelagic Cormorant and an assortment of wintering gulls. On arrival at Cape Nosappu we could not see the occupied islands across the Nemuro Straits. Birds which we could see close to the rocky shore included Harlequin Duck, Spectacled Guillemot, Glaucous-winged, Vega, Kamchatka, Slaty-backed and Glaucous Gulls. The return to Nemuro added the first White-tailed and Steller’s Sea Eagles of the trip. Next on the agenda was the reserve at Furen-ko which is mainly woodland and marsh. On the entrance road we found Pygmy Woodpecker and Willow Tit. Inside the information centre the various feeders attracted Great-spotted and White-backed Woodpeckers, Marsh and Japanese Tits, Eurasian Nuthatch, Brown-eared Bulbul and the brandtii race of Eurasian Jay. From Furen-ko we travelled along the wooded coastal route towards Kiritappu and the cape of the same name. This was fairly uneventful until Common Redpolls were found feeding on seed-heads above the snow line. Luck was with us as a Rough-legged Buzzard allowed close views whilst perched in a tree only to be bombed by a Short-eared Owl. Lunch was taken by the harbour with its wintering Whooper Swans and commoner ducks. It was time to visit Cape Kiritappu one of the coldest places in Japan during the winter months. The regular flock of Asian Rosy Finches was quickly located. Near, the lighthouse a nice assortment of wintering seaducks. We ended the day at a private farm location to watch a pair of Blakiston Eagle Owls a fitting end to the day.

February 11th: Cape Nosappu, Road 243/244, Odaito, Notsukehanto, Furen-ko.

Weather: Sunny and clear with light winds -7 C/2 C.

In stark contrast to recent weather, the day started bright and clear. At 0600 we set off to Cape Nosappu which gave us views towards the southernmost of the Kurile Islands. Better viewing conditions meant we could pick out Common, Pigeon and Spectacled Guillemots, seaducks, cormorants and other seabirds. Further along the coast a sheltered bay held the first Common Mergansers of the tour. Breakfast was taken at the hotel and then onto roads 243 and 244 which basically head northwards to northern Hokkaido. A stop at an ice-free harbour produced many Glaucous Gulls along with Glaucous-winged, Vega, Slaty-backed and Kamchatka Gulls, Greater Scaup, Smew and scattered flocks of Black Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks. At Odaito a marsh with free-flowing water had a party of Red-crowned Cranes, Whooper Swans and Mallards. We then turned down the road towards Notsukehanto with views towards the occupied Japanese islands across the Nemuro Straits. The commoner seaducks were very much in evidence along with good numbers of the declining Spectacled Guillemot. Various seawalls and telegraph poles attracted White-tailed and Steller’s Eagles whilst a Red Fox was seen walking across the frozen lakes in search of food. Lunch was taken and then a slow drive back south searching for birds. A diversion towards a fishing village allowed us a close approach to hundreds of Sika Deer feeding and grazing near the sea. We finished the day watching a pair of Blakiston’s Eagle Owls flying around and perching on telegraph poles a fitting end to our stay in eastern Hokkaido.

February 12th: Nemuro, Kushiro, Tokyo, Karuizawa.

Weather: Foggy on Hokkaido with late morning sunshine, dull in Tokyo -7 C/4 C.

Our last day on Hokkaido started with a blanket of freezing fog which made birding almost impossible. After checking out of the hotel we travelled in a westerly direction towards Kushiro. En route we had a few Steller’s and White-tailed Eagles, Large-billed and Oriental Crows. On arrival in Kushiro an ice-free river attracted the commoner gull species. It was time to visit the dancing grounds of the beautiful Red-crowned Crane which is around 30km north o the city. On arrival we were not disappointed as almost a hundred birds were on show including a few first year birds from last year’s breeding season. Also present were Japanese and Coal Tits, Brown-eared Bulbuls and an adult Steller’s Eagle sitting quietly in a large tree (scarce in the Kushiro area). At 1200 we set off for Kushiro airport and the flight down to Tokyo. On arrival the group caught the bus to Tokyo station where we boarded the Shinkansen bound for the ski resort of Karuizawa. Arrived on time and walked to the hotel close to the station for our two nights in the foothills of the Japanese Alps.

February 13th: Karuizawa, Daiichi Choseichi.

Weather: Clear and sunny although bitterly cold -7 C/1 C.

Today I walked down the road to the car rental office to pick up our 10-seater van. Shortly afterwards we were travelling towards the larch, oak and beech forests on the outskirts of Karuizawa. In the car park a White-bellied Pigeon flew over giving brief views. Mixed feeding flocks around the parking area comprised of Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese, Coal and Long-tailed Tits and Brown-eared Bulbuls. The fast-flowing river had several Brown Dippers flying up and down and perching on exposed rocks. We then embarked on a walk along the snow-covered trails in search of birds. The older trees attracted the endemic Japanese Woodpecker and several Great Spotted Woodpeckers. The trails had low bird density but we had sightings of Dusky Thrush and Eurasian Wren plus parties of tits working the trees. Next on the agenda was a hotel with feeders and views of Goldcrest, Varied Tit, Oriental Greenfinch and Pale Thrush and Hawfinch on the entry road. Lunch was taken nearby where the group were entertained by Japanese Weasel hunting in the snow. Across the road an ice-free lake attracted several ducks including Falcated Duck, Eurasian Teal and Eurasian Wigeon. A short visit to the grounds of the Prince Hotel complex added a few birds; Japanese and Black-backed Wagtails, Rustic and Meadow Buntings and a single Oriental Turtle Dove. Our final destination was new for all of us at a reservoir Daiichii Choseichi which is around twenty kilometres from Karuizawa. Although small in size and set among a landscape of farms and buildings it is a magnet for waterbirds. Great views of; Falcated Duck, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Greater Scaup, Smew (including many drakes), Common Merganser of the rare orientalis, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal, Mallard, Common Coot and Great Egret. The light started to fail as we travelled back to base.

February 14th: Karuizawa, Tokyo.

Weather: Snow showers which were heavy at times on a northeast wind -7 C/-1 C.

Our last day in Japan was affected by snow showers in and around Karuizawa and later in Tokyo itself. After breakfast we headed back to the forests of Karuizawa searching for birds. The snow had forced a few species into gardens including Azure-winged Magpie and Japanese Grosbeaks. A walk along the main forest road was largely uneventful except for parties of feeding tits, Pygmy and Japanese Woodpeckers and best of all six Japanese Waxwings feeding on mistletoe berries (these were the first sightings of waxwings this winter according to the nature centre). Mid-afternoon and we were on our way to Tokyo in worsening weather conditions. Thankfully the bullet train was not affected and we arrived in central Tokyo and transferred to a hotel near Haneda airport.

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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