Japan 2016

...with Mark Finn

February 1st - 14th

Our annual winter birding tour to Japan produced many amazing birds and spectacles. The weather played a part especially on Hokkaido as there was no sea ice and very little snow cover, and so this had an effect on the number of eagles present. Highlights of the tour included a wintering Swan Goose and an adult Siberian Crane near Komatsu, and nearby a few Baikal Teal and Middendorf's Bean Geese at Kamoike. Near the city of Komatsu a Scaly-sided Merganser was located close to the railway station on a concrete lined canal. At Kyushu a record number of cranes were present, numbering around 17000 birds of four species. Further north at Ariake-se good numbers of Black-faced Spoonbills, Saunders Gulls and four Daurian Jackdaws. Nearby we stumbled upon a stunning male Copper Pheasant feeding by the road. Mi-ike again turned up Forest Wagtail and several Grey Buntings. A coastal reserve close to Miyazaki had a Long-billed Dowitcher and a surprise with Ryuku Minivets feeding in the reeds. The boat trip north from Nagano to Tomakomai produced good numbers of Pacific and White-billed Divers, three Short-tailed Albatross and a few Laysan Albatrosses. On Hokkaido a Red-faced Cormorant off Cape Nosappu was joined by Spectacled Guillemots, single Cassin's Auklet and Long-billed Murrelet. Karuizawa was quiet this year although we did record our only Japanese Woodpeckers and Japanese Accentors of the tour there.

Our next tour to Japan is in February 2017 and is a guaranteed departure.

February 5th/6th: London, Tokyo Haneda, Karuizawa including forest and Prince Hotel.

Weather: Clear in Tokyo and further north cloudy on a northeast wind 6 C.

The group assembled at Heathrow for the flight east to Japan. We landed on time and passed through customs and passport control before joining the monorail which passes through Tokyo Docks. The commoner ducks were present and we changed for the short journey to Tokyo Station. It was here we joined the bullet train to the popular ski resort of Karuizawa. Our first birding stop was in the mixed forest of Karuizawa with the centre attracting Long-tailed, Japanese and Coal Tits, Oriental Crow and Brown-eared Bulbuls. Next on the agenda was a hotel with feeders where we had great views of Japanese Accentor, Varied Tit, Japanese Grosbeak, Oriental Greenfinch and Meadow Bunting. Time and lack of sleep was catching up with us as a visit to Prince Hotel started. In the car park a Japanese Crow showed well whilst the open waters attracted Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Eurasian Wigeon and Eurasian Teal. Further along the path we watched Dusky Thrushes, Hawfinch and a trio of woodpeckers - Japanese, Great Spotted and Pygmy. With the light fading we headed back to base.

February 7th: Karuizawa, Daiichi Choseichi.

Weather: Sunny with occasional cloud -1 C/-5 C with a light north wind.

After breakfast and a few minutes getting the minibus out of the car park we headed back to the forest of Karuizawa. En route a Pale Thrush flew in front of the van and into cover. We parked up near the forest and started the walk along snowy trails through this beautiful woodland landscape. Birds were few with Pygmy and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Willow and Long-tailed Tits near the first turning. Near the end of the walk we heard a Eurasian Nuthatch. A visit to ponds nearby was hindered by a road closure but eventually a way was found to visit this area. On the river Japanese and Black-backed Wagtails whilst the pond held Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal and Mallard. After lucnh we headed off to Daiichi Choseichi a little-known reserve further north. On arrival a scan of open waters and islands added Great Cormorant, Northern Pintail, Goosander, Smew, Tufted Duck and Common Pochard. On a bund that had a few trees we located Meadow Buntings, Buff-bellied Pipit and a fly-by female Japanese Green Pheasant. A walk to the confluence of the river produced a Common Kingfisher, Green Sandpiper and two Little Grebes. A walk back to the bridge was productive with Long-billed Plovers in the stony river plus a flock of Rustic Buntings feeding in grass stands. The temperature started to drop as we headed back to base for our last night in Karuizawa.

February 8th: Karuizawa, Kanazawa, Kamoike.

Weather: Sunny with occasional cloud -2 C/-6 Con a north wind.

Our last morning in Karuizawa was spent walking along the trail towards the pond. After parking up a Hawfinch was calling from the tall trees. At the first bridge we had extended views of a Brown Dipper preening on a mossy rock in brilliant sunshine. The walk towards the pond had similar birds to the previous day's visit with close views of Pygmy and Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Returned to the car park and then back towards Karuizawa station for the journey north to Kanazawa situated on the Sea of Japan. Picked up the minibus and headed in a westerly direction to Kamoike an important reserve for wetland birds. On arrival a visit to the elevated observatory overlooking the lake proved to be very productive. Careful scanning produced sightings of Bewick's Swan, Taiga Bean Goose, Baikal and Eurasian Teal, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Falcated Duck, Common Pochard, Smew and hundreds of Mallards. In the shallow patches Great Egret and Great Cormorant whilst an Osprey overhead scattered many birds.

February 9th: Shibayama Lake complex, Kasa Point, Kanazawa.

Weather: Rain and sleet on a strong northwest wind 1 C/6 C.

Today was dominated by poor weather sweeping down from the Korean peninsula and battering the coast of Honshu. Despite these conditions we had considerable success during the day recording several rare winter birds visiting Japan. Our first stop was the rice paddies, canals and pockets of trees at Shibayama. The paddies held above average numbers of Bewick's Swans, Dusky Thrushes and flocks of White-cheeked Starlings. We met up with a long-time Japanese birder for a couple of hours with tremendous sightings of an adult Siberian Crane and three Hooded Cranes feeding on the paddies. Shortly afterwards sightings of an Eastern Marsh Harrier, Bull-headed Shrike and a large
flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows. It took a lot of time and searching but eventually we located a Swan Goose with a small group of Bewick's Swans - excellent views. Next on the agenda was a visit to Lake Shibayama itself where we visited a sheltered location out of the biting wind. Scanning across the lake revealed the commoner ducks plus a group of at least thirty Falcated Duck, female Smew and two Vega Gulls. In the reeds brief views of Black-faced Buntings. Picked up supplies and headed towards Kasa Point with a stop at the harbour. Daurian Redstart seen on the buildings along with another Bull-headed Shrike. On the harbour wall a nice assortment of gulls included Slaty-backed, Black-tailed, Vega and a single Black-legged Kittiwake. In the sheltered waters of the harbour a few Great Crested Grebes. The new reserve at Kasa Point was next on the agenda where the winds made birding difficult. Despite this handicap the group had views of Hawfinch, Brown-eared Bulbul, Japanese Buzzard, Great Spotted and Pygmy Woodpeckers and Oriental Greenfinches. After lunch we headed up the expressway to visit the river area running through the city of Kanazawa. This was extremely productive as we located several Eastern Reef Egrets, Osprey, Northern Shoveler, our first Black-headed Gulls of the tour and a hunting Osprey. Best of all however was a female Scaly-sided Merganser which was found fishing in the river close to the city centre a tremendous end to the days birding.

February 10th: Komatsu, Fukui, Nagoya.

Weather: Cloudy with sunny spells 6 C

Checked out of the hotel and headed south towards Fukui, a prefecture dotted with many rice paddies and smallholdings. On the expressway a group of Greater White-fronted Geese flew overhead. The area around Fukui held a few of the commoner birds but we failed to locate the goose flocks which can be mobile on occasions. A short stop on the way back at a lake complex provided us with close views of an Osprey and several Black-eared Kites. On the lake good numbers of ducks, Greater Scaup and Great Crested Grebes. The train journey to Nagoya went smoothly and quickly passing through beautiful countryside and mountains covered in recent snow falls. Japanese Green Pheasant was observed in a rice paddy whilst Great Egrets were numerous along the river systems. On arrival in Nagoya we transferred to the docks and our ferry north towards Tomakomai in Hokkaido via the port of Sendai.

February 11th: North Pacific Ocean, Sendai.

Weather: Sunny with a light northwest wind 7 C.

The weather was ideal for watching seabirds as we headed north towards the port of Sendai in Northern Honshu. Before breakfast a short seawatch produced Black-tailed and Vega Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes in large flocks and a surprise find in a young Short-tailed Albatross. Just before 8am, Black-throated and White-billed Divers were noted plus Common Guillemot and several small parties of Rhinoceros Auklets. After breakfast the boat started to travel through the food-rich and deep waters off Chiba Prefecture. This had an effect on the birds we observed, with high numbers of Pacific Divers, Laysan Albatross, an adult Short-tailed Albatross (plus a sub-adult around a fishing boat), Pomarine Skuas (both dark and light phase plumaged birds), and a single Red-throated Diver. Lunch was taken followed by a seawatch along the coast south of Sendai. The birds observed started to change with those of a more northerly distribution. Slaty-backed and Glaucous Gulls, Pelagic Cormorant, Ancient Murrelet (abundant), Least Auklet, Common Guillemot and Red-breasted Mergansers. On nearing Sendai a few Red-necked Grebes and Asiatic Scoters were seen. The harbour at Sendai offers protection from the elements with a large group of Great Crested Grebes, Great Cormorant, Kamchatka Gull, Black-eared Kite and both crows being present. At the end of the day Great Egret and Black-backed Wagtail were also noted.

February 12th: North Pacific Ocean, Tomakomai, Kushiro, Nemuro.

Weather: Rather overcast with light south winds 1 C.

At first light we were crossing the Blakiston's Line which separates Honshu from Hokkaido. On this occasion the weather was rather still with little or no wind at all. The commoner gulls were present plus three Brunnich's Guillemots. On entering the harbour at Tomakomai the outer harbour wall attracted Great and Pelagic Cormorants, White-tailed Eagle and Black Scoters. We transferred to the railway station for the journey to Kushiro and onwards to Nemuro at the eastern end of Hokkaido.

February 13th: Nemuro, Cape Nosappu, Furen-ko, Cape Kiritappu.

Weather: Cloudy with a southwest wind 7 C.

After breakfast we headed in an Easterly direction to Cape Nosappu which is the most north-easterly point in Japan. Several fishing harbours along the route allow good birding opportunities. The first of these was a sheltered bay which attracted Black Scoter, Common Goldeneye, Slaty-backed, Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Vega Gulls. The highlight here was fantastic views of two Steller's Sea Eagles slowly drifting over the village. Further along the coast a fishing harbour added Slavonian Grebe, Red-breasted Merganser, Long-tailed Duck and on the harbour wall several White-tailed Eagles. Cape Nosappu was reached where a new hide has been constructed by the lighthouse with good viewing options into the Nemuro Straits. Careful scanning of the water (calm this morning and ice free) produced sightings of Ancient and Long-billed Murrelets, Cassin's Auklet, Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants and a Black-necked Grebe. A return route to Nemuro via a fishing port which had large concentrations of Greater Scaup and two very approachable White-tailed Eagles. Picked up supplies in Nemuro and proceeded to the nature centre which has feeders. On the feeders we watched Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Jay, Eurasian Nuthatch, Japanese, Marsh and Willow Tits and a Brown-eared Bulbul. In the bay exposed sand bars held the commoner gulls and the first Whooper Swans of the tour. A slow drive through the woodlands and coast towards Kiritappu. On arrival in the town a visit to the harbour where exposed mud attracted a group of Dunlin and in the river Common Merganser, Common Pochard and Greater Scaup. Cape Kiritappu is a very exposed area and usually very cold in the winter months with today being no exception. A house with feeders attracted Asian Rosy Finches and Eurasian Tree Sparrows (plus a very grumpy and hostile owner). A walk at the lighthouse allowed close views of Japanese and Rough-legged Buzzards, Japanese and Great Cormorants and lots of Harlequin Ducks. At the end of the day we had a visit to an area (closed to the public) for Blakiston's Eagle Owl. Windy conditions made viewing almost impossible although the distinctive calls were close for us to hear.

February 14th: Nemuro, Odaito, Nakashbetsu.

Weather: Persistent rain showers on a strong easterly wind 1 C.

The weather dominated today's itinerary with strong winds, and at times heavy rain showers. On leaving Nemuro White-tailed and Steller's Sea Eagles and Black-eared Kites were attending the feeding station. A diversion off the main road towards Rausu proved to be productive for herds of Japanese Sika Deer. At the end of the road a village held the commoner sea-ducks. Our journey took in Odaito before heading down the peninsula of Nakashbetsu which overlooks the southerly Kurile Islands. Today it was not visible due to the weather. A short scan of the sea produced Black Scoter, Long-tailed Duck and Common Goldeneye whilst the seawall attracted Slaty-backed and Glaucous Gulls. On the return to Odaito the harbour walls offered us the chance to watch Harlequin Ducks at close range. Further south the observatory tower at Odaito allowed us views into the grassland where the exposed seeds attracted a party of Snow Buntings, an uncommon visitor to Japan. On the way south a flock of birds flew in front of the bus and landed in roadside trees, we were fortunate to watch a party of Grey-bellied Bullfinches feeding on seeds. At the end of the day we tried for the owl again without success this was down to the weather conditions at the time.

February 15th: Nemuro, Kushiro, Tokyo, Myazaki, Hyuga.

Weather: Cloudy with occasional sleet showers -4 C/4 C.

Today was basically a travel one going from Nemuro in extreme north-east Japan to Hyuga in Kyushu in the extreme west. We set off and passed the eagles feeding on the ice on the outskirts of Nemuro. Our journey to Kushiro went smoothly as we headed to a small village to watch Red-crowned Cranes at close quarters. Good views were obtained of around twenty birds. Also present were Great Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Nuthatch, Japanese and Coat Tits. The flights down to Tokyo and onto Myazaki went well although congestion at Haneda and a strong head wind made a later arrival in Myazaki inevitable.

February 16th: Hyuga, Hitotsugawa, Mi-ike, Road 447, Izumi.

Weather: Generally sunny with late afternoon snow showers. Northwest wind 2 C/11 C.

We checked out of Hyuga and travelled north to a harbour where we embarked on a short boat trip offshore. From the harbour we could observe Osprey, Vega and Black-tailed Gulls and Great Crested Grebes. Away from the harbour various fish cages attracted Grey Heron and Pacific Reef Egrets. After checking the open waters we eventually located two pairs of Japanese Murrelets in near breeding plumage. This is a scarce species breeding on the rocky islets of the area off Hyuga. Returned to the port and travelled down Route 10 to the reserve of Hitotsugawa a habitat of estuary, freshwater pools, farmland and reedbeds. On entering the area we quickly located territorial Japanese Skylarks and some Dusky Thrushes. In the estuary an island attracted the commoner gulls, Great Cormorant and three Eurasian Curlews. The main area of interest was the still freshwater pools surrounded by reeds and bamboo. On the open waters Little Grebe and Common Shelducks among the commoner duck species. A group of the globally threatened Black-faced Spoonbills were seen resting on the reed edge. Another surprise was a winter plumaged Long-billed Dowitcher roosting on a piece of plastic. In the reeds we located a party of Ryuku Minivets, Japanese White-eye, Daurian Redstart and Meadow Bunting. Another bonus came when a female Northern Goshawk was found perched on top of a telegraph pole. Lunch was followed by the journey to Lake Mi-ike which is situated in a picturesque area of Kyushu. On arrival a walk around the campground produced Olive-backed Pipits, Pale Thrushes, Japanese, Varied and Coal Tits and nearby Elegant Bunting and Red-flanked Bluetail. Out on the lake large numbers of Eurasian Wigeon, and up to forty Little Grebes. I decided to go back via Road 447 which paid dividends as a beautiful male Copper Pheasant allowed us a close approach as he fed by the road - a tremendous climax to a fantastic days birding in Japan.

February 17th: Izumi, Arasaki, Takae, Satsuma.

Weather: Sunny with some overcast periods on a southwest wind 10 C.

Today we concentrated on three important areas for birdlife in western Kyushu. After picking up supplies we travelled to the crane reserve at Arasaki. On the entrance road a large Peregrine Falcon was seen sitting in the middle of a rice paddy. Nearby a flock of Northern Lapwings were feeding quietly on the wetter part of the area. On reaching Arasaki the number of cranes was the highest for several years with over 17000 birds present. Hooded and White-naped Cranes were abundant and with careful scanning we found an immature Sandhill Crane among the feeding flock. In the same environment were Mallard, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Spoonbill, Great, Little and Pacific Reef Egrets, Common Shelduck and displaying Japanese Skylarks. A visit to the eastern fields added flocks of Eastern Rooks, two more Sandhill Cranes and a single Common Crane. A Common Snipe was seen briefly before dropping into cover and an immature Peregrine Falcon flew past before dropping down into the field. Next on the agenda was a visit to some degraded reedbeds, muddy areas and mature trees. In the trees and gardens were numerous Dusky Thrushes, Japanese White-eye, Bull-headed Shrike and Russet Sparrow. A reedy sector had Japanese Bush Warblers, Black-faced Bunting and good views of a Japanese Weasel. It was time to heads south on route 3 to Takae another area of rice paddies surrounded by mature woodland. Lunch taken en route looking into the ocean a very scenic place. The highlight here for many was a colourful Blue Rock Thrush collecting food and posing on a low wall. Arrived at Takae and concentrated birding on the wilder areas of reeds and bushes. Bull-headed Shrikes were particularly common and a surprise birds came in the form of a wintering Eurasian Wryneck. On a walk around the paddies we saw good numbers of Bull-headed Shrikes, up to 60 Rustic Buntings, Meadow Buntings, Common Kingfisher and a flock of thirteen Japanese Grosbeaks. Our last place for birding was the river habitat at Satsuma. It is always good for birding with several species of ducks in the river, Common and Green Sandpipers, Long-billed Plovers (4), Common Kingfisher, Black-backed, Grey and Japanese Wagtails, Daurian Redstart, Barn Swallow and Asian Martin. Our target species was Crested Kingfisher which eventually showed up as it flew downriver and perched in a dead tree.

February 18th: Izumi, Kadowa Lake, Mi-ike, Ariake-se, Saga.

Weather: Clear and sunny with a light northwest wind 14 C.

We left Izumi and headed to Kadowa Lake, a large reservoir surrounded by mature forest. By the road Pale and Dusky Thrushes, Eurasian Jay and the two common crows. On the lake brief views of Crested Kingfisher and eventually a group of Mandarin Ducks. It was then time to revisit Mi-ike where we arrived late morning. Similar birds to our previous visit with the addition of Forest Wagtail, Grey Buntings and the colourful Red-billed Leoithrix. An early lunch was taken. We then took the expressway northwards towards Saga and Ariake-se. The road is an incredible piece of engineering with several tunnels and viaducts along the route. On arrival at Ariake-se we wandered slowly around the arable fields bordered with trees and reeds. Dusky Thrushes were particularly common. On the seawall, a concentration of Grey Herons, whilst on the other side the tide was pushing birds close to us. Interesting species included Black-faced Spoonbills, Great, Little and Pacific Reef Egrets, Common Greenshank, Grey Plover and Dunlin. Ducks were well represented with gatherings of Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Teal, Mallard and Gadwall. On the food-rich mud a few Saunders Gulls were mixed in with Black-headed Gulls. A walk back to the bus produced sightings of Japanese Bush Warbler, Black-faced Bunting and a flock of Common Starlings.

February 19th: Saga, Ariake-se, Shikanoshima Island

Final species total: 163.

Weather: Sunny with occasional cloud. Light southwest winds 14 C.

From Saga it is only a short journey to Ariake-se, a huge inland sea which is used mainly for seaweed production. During the high tides period the area swarms with birdlife. Our first stop on the seawall was productive for Black-faced Spoonbills, Saunders Gulls, thousands of wildfowl including large numbers of Common Shelducks, Bar-tailed Godwit, Common Greenshank, calling Spotted Redshanks, Dunlin and two Heuglin's Gulls, the latter being an annual but rare winter visitor to Ariake-se. The dykes with reeds attracted Eastern Reed, Black-faced and Meadow Buntings and Oriental Greenfinches. Further along the seawall another scan of the mudflats revealed a group of Kentish Plovers and in the fields a party of Greater White-fronted Geese. A distant flock of Eastern Rooks looked worthy of a closer look and luck was with us as four immature Daurian Jackdaws were feeding with them in an old rice paddy. On leaving Ariake-se we headed north towards the city of Fukuoka and onto the rarely visited Shikanoshima Island. The island is small in nature and offers good birding close to a large city. On the causeway we stopped for Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes, Pacific Divers, Japanese and Pelagic Cormorants with the latter preferring rocky outlets. Passerines were few including Japanese Tit and Japanese White-eye. A final stop at a secluded bay revealed a flock of c5000 Greater Scaup and Common Pochard. Headed to the airport for the final leg back to Tokyo where we had our last night in Japan.


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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