Our annual birding tour to Japan once again proved to be very good with a few surprises around Komatsu and Kyushu. The lack of sea-ice around the Hokkaido coast affected the number of wintering eagles and wildfowl although this was offset by tremendous views of a pair of Blakiston's Eagle Owls with one juvenile at a private site. In the Komatsu area a wintering Tundra Swan and Snow Goose from North America were unexpected as was two Solitary Snipe. Kyushu turned out to be exceptional this year with rarities including a male Baer's Pochard, Oriental Stork, Black-faced Spoonbills, Japanese Murrelet and several adult Daurian Jackdaws. Earlier in the tour the Karuizawa sector produced a few Long-tailed Rosefinches and Japanese Accentor. The ferry journey from Nagoya to Tomakomai was again great for Laysan and Short-tailed Albatrosses, hundreds of Pacific Divers and a single White-billed close to the boat. Our next tour to Japan is in December 2018.
February 4th: Tokyo, Karuizawa.
Weather: Sunny with light northwest winds 5C.
The group assembled at Haneda Airport in Tokyo and made the journey by monorail to Tokyo Station for the bullet train up to the ski resort of Karuizawa. After picking up our 10-seater bus we headed to the forest area close to the town. On arrival two Long-tailed Rosefinches were feeding on the verge side. On a nearby lake great views of Falcated Duck, Eurasian Wigeon and Eastern Spot-billed Ducks. Next was a walk along the main forest track where the group located Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese, Willow and Long-tailed Tits, Eurasian Nuthatch and overhead Black-eared Kites and Large-billed Crows. At the end of the day a walk around the extensive grounds of the Prince Resort added Little Grebe, Dusky Thrush, Brambling and an adult female Northern Goshawk. Checked in at our hotel for two nights a tired and contented group.
February 5th: Karuizawa, Saku Chosei-ike.
Weather: Cloudy with snow showers on a west wind -3C to 4C.
Back to the forest with a walk along the main track and within the forest itself. Along the entrance track good views of Pygmy Woodpecker were followed by Grey-bellied Bullfinches and a male Red-flanked Bluetail. A rock in the river attracted a Eurasian Wren. A walk along the snowy tracks proved to be rather unproductive apart from a Japanese Serow spotted by Mike sitting under a large Japanese Oak tree. Back on the main track a Japanese Woodpecker showed well plus fleeting views of a Brown Dipper flying upstream. Next stop was a set of feeders at a nearby spa which was most productive. On the muddy bank of the hotel pool we found Dusky and Pale Thrushes, Brambling and Meadow Bunting. The feeders attracted Great Spotted and Japanese Woodpeckers, Long-tailed Tits and a Japanese Accentor the latter species being easily missed on a tour in winter to Japan. It was time to head north towards the wetland complex near Saku. Still areas of the river attracted Great Egret, Grey Heron and Goosander. On the main pond many species of wildfowl which included Northern Pintail and Falcated Duck, plus a few Smew including a fine drake. The rice fields attracted Oriental Greenfinches, Black-eared Kites and Large-billed Crows. On the river I located the scarce Long-billed Plover and a few Common Pochards. Near the van mature trees were good for Hawfinch, Bull-headed Shrike and a male Blue Rock Thrush. Back to Karuizawa with another small pond having a male Gadwall.
Mammals: Japanese Serow (1) Japanese Squirrel (2).
February 6th: Karuizawa, Katano Kamo-ike.
Weather: Overcast with strong northerly winds -2C to 7C.
Our last morning at Karuizawa with another visit to the forest area. By the bridge we were rewarded with excellent views of a pair of Brown Dippers perched on mossy rocks. The walk along the forest track was largely uneventful apart from a smart male Long-tailed Rosefinch feeding on seed heads above the snow line. I dropped the bus off at the rental company with the group boarding the shinkansen to the coastal city of Kanazawa. Our route was in a westerly direction along the freeway towards the important bird reserve of Katano Kamo-ike. Before reaching this area Oriental and Large-billed Crows, Great Egret and White-cheeked Starlings were noted in flooded paddy fields. Katano Kamo-ike is situated at the top of a steep hill and surrounded by woodland, the reserve itself has seasonal flooding. Wildfowl are particularly numerous in the winter months with the group recording Taiga Bean Goose, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Baikal and Eurasian Teal, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Gadwall and Smew. A female Eastern Marsh Harrier flew overhead which spooked many ducks whilst the mature lakeside trees attracted a Japanese Buzzard. As dusk started to fall we headed towards Komatsu base for the next two nights.
February 7th: Shibayama Lake complex, Kasa Point, Fukui.
Weather: Rather mixed with frequent snow, sleet and hail showers on a strong north wind -1C to 4C.
A full days birding in and around the Komatsu area started with a visit to the vast Shibayama lake complex. On arrival we could see large numbers of Bewick's Swans with many pairs having cygnets which is an encouraging sign for a species in rapid decline. Further scanning revealed a large Peregrine Falcon sitting quietly on a raised bund looking for prospective prey. I met up again with the local Japanese birder who led us to some exciting birds during the course of the morning. First of all was a wintering Snow Goose which was mixed in with a group of swans. A bonus came in the form of an adult Tundra Swan from North America and a hunting Rough-legged Buzzard patrolling the paddy edge. The isolated trees attracted hundreds of wintering Brambling and Oriental Greenfinch. and a few Northern Lapwings on the flooded sections. Next was the extraordinary sight of watching the rarely seen Solitary Snipe in a roadside marsh which was followed by another in a section of forest. Next was a visit to Kasa Point which is a new reserve next to the Sea of Japan. En route a stop at the harbour produced an immature male Asiatic Scoter, Greater Scaup, Great Crested Grebe and the first Black-tailed Gulls of the tour. At Kasa Point a short walk was taken through the woodland with calling Pale Thrushes. In the older trees Pygmy and Great Spotted Woodpeckers. In the afternoon I headed south towards the city of Fukui looking for the wintering goose flock without success on this occasion. On the way a large water body produced the commoner ducks plus a winter plumaged Black-necked Grebe. The rice paddies around Fukui added little apart from a female Merlin and a Slavonian Grebe in a canal. Headed back to Komatsu stopping at another wetland area which is used by birds on a regular basis. Common Snipe was seen at close range whilst raptors included Eastern Marsh Harrier, Japanese Buzzard and Black-eared Kites. The weather started to close in so I headed back to base.
February 8th: Komatsu, Kanazawa, Nagoya.
Overcast with light northwest winds 7C.
This morning we headed north to the city of Kanazawa and the river which runs through the area. It is always an interesting place for birds in what is essentially an urban environment. On the river itself good numbers of wildfowl including Goosander, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Eurasian Teal and Little Grebes. Rocky areas attracted the endemic Japanese Wagtail. Time was running out as we travelled back to Kaga Onsen and the rail journey to the coastal city of Nagoya. On arrival a transfer to the docks where we boarded the ferry bound for Hokkaido.
February 9th: North Pacific Ocean.
Weather: Generally cloudy with sleet showers on a northwest wind 4C.
The group were on deck at 0700 hours to begin a day long seawatch in the bird-rich North Pacific Ocean. Throughout the day we experienced some great birding mixed with periods of no birdlife at all. Off Chiba we started to encounter wintering Pomarine Skuas plus Black-legged Kittiwake, Black-tailed, Vega and Slaty-backed Gulls, all of which were fairly numerous. Breakfast was taken at 0800 hours followed by another session of seawatching until midday. Interestingly a Dusky Thrush was on board and was seen on several occasions before leaving the boat at Sendai. North of Chiba we encountered Laysan and Short-tailed Albatrosses, Kamchatka Gull and the first Pacific Divers which occurred in high numbers and often in loose flocks. Before lunch a White-billed Diver was noted in flight close to the boat. Rhinoceros Auklets started to appear in small groups and a few Ancient Murrelets and Red-breasted Mergansers were also noted. During the morning several parties of Northern Fur Seals were often seen with a flipper pointing skywards. After lunch Pacific Divers, Crested Auklets and Red-necked Grebes dominated the birdlife of the ocean. As the approach to Sendai was made Asiatic Scoter outside the harbour wall whilst in the harbour itself we encountered Great Crested and Slavonian Grebes, Great Cormorant, numerous gulls and an Oriental Crow. The Dusky Thrush also left the ferry at this point. Tomorrow our journey heads north towards Tomakomai on Hokkaido via the world famous Blakiston's Strait.
February 10th: North Pacific Ocean, Tomakomai, Sapporo, Kushiro, Nemuro.
Weather: Cloudy with occasional showers -4C to 2C.
At 0700 hours some of us were on deck seawatching as we left northern Honshu and crossed the Blakiston's Strait towards Hokkaido. Birds were rather scarce for some reason this morning with Black-legged Kittiwakes and Kamchatka Gulls being the most numerous. As the ferry approached Tomakomai a party of Crested Auklets were observed with Ancient Murrelets. On docking I met up with Kiwako my local guide and headed towards Chitose Airport for the short flight across to Kushiro. On arrival in Kushiro I picked up the rental bus and headed eastwards towards Nemuro in far eastern Hokkaido. A short stop in Akkeshi produced the first Steller's Sea Eagle plus Common Goldeneye, Goosander, Whooper Swan and the commoner diving ducks. Arrived in Nemuro our base for the next three nights.
Mammals: Red Fox (1) Sika Deer (common).
February 11th: Nemuro, Cape Nosappu, Furen-ko, Cape Kiritappu.
Weather: Overcast with sleet showers on a northwest wind -3C to 4C.
Our first birding stops of the day were the numerous coastal harbours en route to Cape Nosappu the most north easterly point of Japan. On the first stop a sheltered bay with two long islands attracted sea ducks including Black Scoter, Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks and several groups of Red-breasted Mergansers. Next on the agenda was a fishing harbour where a male Harlequin Duck allowed a very close approach as he preened on the harbour wall. In the harbour observations of Common Goldeneye, Greater Scaup, Pelagic Cormorant and many gulls including Vega, Kamchatka, Glaucous and Slaty-backed. Our journey took us to Cape Nosappu which always produces good birds as you look toward the Kurile Islands which have been occupied by Russia since 1945. Careful scanning of offshore waters added Common, Brunnich's and Spectacled Guillemots, Ancient Murrelet, various gulls including Glaucous-winged and ever-present White-tailed and Steller's Sea Eagles. It was time to head back towards Nemuro and onto Furen-ko with the latter having literally no birds due to the nature centre shutting down its feeders due to bird flu!! Further on a side road produced Great Spotted and Pygmy Woodpeckers, Japanese, Willow and Marsh Tits, Eurasian Siskin, Common Redpoll and Dusky Thrush. A slow drive to Kiritappu through old woodland was quite productive as the trees held a Eurasian Treecreeper, flocks of Eurasian Siskin (an invasion year for this species) and the commoner woodland birds. Lunch was taken near Kiritappu Harbour with Whooper Swans, Goosander, Common Goldeneye and Harlequin Ducks for company. A short visit to the cape area added Asian Rosy Finches feeding in the snow. A return journey to Nemuro via an isolated farm where I met up with my old friend to try and see the local owls. At first the signs were not encouraging with a visit to a fish rearing area and then to his home. The distinctive call of the owls gave us some hope which was rewarded with a pair of Blakiston's Eagle Owls perched on a TV Ariel and a young bird perched up on a telegraph pole some 100m away. This was a fantastic end to a day's birding in Eastern Hokkaido.
Mammals: Northern Fur Seal (15), Sika Deer (300), Red Fox (3), Sea Otter (1).
February 12th: Nemuro, Furen-ko, Odaito, Notsukehando.
Weather: Early snow showers giving way to a bright and sunny day -1C to 3C.
The day dawned with light snow showers which thankfully ceded in mid-morning. Our main purpose today was to travel north along roads 243 and 244 towards Rausu. On the way we stopped for birds feeding on the roadside which included Japanese, Marsh and Coal Tits and Eurasian Siskins. A diversion towards the large frozen lake of Furen-ko produced close views of both eagles and Black-eared Kites. A check of the harbours of Odaito and Shibetsu produced the commoner wintering birds including a few Whooper Swans which appear to be in lower numbers in recent years. Weturned down the road towards Notsukehando with views across to the Kurile Islands. The sea here is usually affected by sea ice but in recent years it has been ice free which has affected many species of birds. On the sea Black Scoter, Harlequin Duck and Long-tailed Duck were present in reasonable numbers. Lunch at the nature centre with a tame Red Fox coming into food snacks. Before the centre brief views of Snow Buntings in flight. On the return to Nemuro various stops added many Glaucous Gulls in various plumages plus Glaucous-winged, Vega and Slaty-backed Gulls. The open water was attractive to Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser and a female Smew. A tough day due to the lack of sea ice and the birds associated with it.
February 13th: Nemuro, Tsurui, Kushiro, Tokyo, Myazaki, Hyuga.
Weather: Sunny on Hokkaido, warmer in Kyushu -2C to 8C.
Today was essentially a travel one as we swapped the cold and snowy landscapes of Hokkaido to the palm fringed and warmer parts of Kyushu in extreme Western Japan. We left Nemuro just before 0800 hours recording our last eagles on the sea ice. A visit to the village of Tsurui added Red-crowned Cranes in the snow fields with some dancing and calling. Also present were Whooper Swans and a few passerines notably Willow and Japanese Tits and Brown-eared Bulbuls. The remainder of the day was spent in transit to Myazaki where I picked up the van and headed north towards the coastal port of Hyuga.
February 14th: Hyuga, Hitotsugawa, Road 447, Izumi.
Weather: Sunny and pleasant 16C.
We began the day with a boat trip out of Hyuga to visit the small offshore islands. In the harbour the group recorded Black-eared Kites, Osprey, Pacific Reef Egret, Black-tailed and Vega Gulls and good numbers of Great Cormorants. Offshore the fishing cages attracted Grey Heron, Great and Little Egrets and a pair of Eastern Spot-billed Ducks. After a lot of searching we eventually located a pair of the highly endangered Japanese Murrelets not far from the harbour, great views were obtained of this charismatic bird. Back on dry land we headed south towards the coastal wetland of Hitotsugawa which again proved to be an exceptional place for birds. On arrival a check of the estuary revealed a flock of Kentish Plover, Common Sandpiper, Eurasian Wigeon and a hunting Eurasian Kestrel. A check of the enclosed lagoon proved to be an amazing experience on the leeside as Black-faced Spoonbill, Oriental Stork, Black-necked Stilt and Common Shelduck were all present. At the far end a scan of the ducks added Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail and Common Pochard to the day list. Passerines were few but included Japanese White-eye, Dusky and Pale Thrushes, Bull-headed Shrike and several Daurian Redstarts. The biggest surprise was to come when we located a male Baer's Pochard swimming away in the centre of the pond. This rare duck is barely annual to Japan and is struggling within its tiny breeding range of Russia, China and North Korea. Another bonus was a Pied Avocet feeding in the shallows. It was time to head west along the expressway towards Kagoshima and eventually Road 447. The latter produced a few Red-flanked Bluetails and a pair of Long-billed Plovers on a drained pond.
Mammals: Sika Deer (2).
February 15th: Izumi, Arasaki, Takae, Satsuma.
Weather: Clear and sunny with light northerly winds 15C.
After breakfast we headed towards the world famous crane reserve at Arasaki which is literally dormant rice fields dotted with isolated trees and small pools. The fields before the reserve held substantial numbers of Eastern Rooks. At the reserve itself we were greeted by thousands of Hooded Cranes along with very low numbers of White-naped Cranes (down by 3000 birds since last year. At 0900 hours the centre opened and we went up to the viewing platform which gives an elevated view over the area. Careful scanning produced a single Sandhill Crane and two Common Cranes plus at least four Eurasian Spoonbills. The air was full of Black-eared Kites whilst Great and Little Egrets were common in the pools with Northern Pintail and Mallard. Our tour continued with a visit to the pumping station and adjacent canal which had mud exposed on this occasion. In the rice fields Japanese Skylark and Buff-bellied Pipits were quite common and a bonus bird came in the form of a Chestnut-eared Bunting an uncommon regional endemic. A pair of Russet Sparrows showed on the track. On arriving at the pumping station the group located good numbers of Dunlin and at least two Curlew Sandpipers the latter often feeding up to their knees in water. The commoner ducks were also here with Northern Shoveler present. On the way out a female Hen Harrier crossed in front of us as we headed towards a stand of trees and gardens. A walk added a wintering Eurasian Wryneck perched on a wire and hordes of Brown-eared Bulbuls perched in trees. It was time to head south to Takae an area of rice paddies and adjacent forest. We had a few problems here with the length of the van but eventually found a parking spot after a lot of reversing!! A walk here produced Common Kingfishers, Eastern Reed and Meadow Buntings and a hunting Eurasian Sparrowhawk. The final birding spot was in the town of Satsuma with its fast flowing rivers dotted with rocky outcrops. On arrival Long-billed and Little Ringed Plovers were noted plus new birds in Crested Kingfisher and Common Moorhen. The drive back to Izumi followed with a diversion to the dam at Kadowa which was thwarted due to road works.
Mammals: Japanese Weasel (1).
February 16th: Izumi, Mi-ike, Ariake-se, Saga.
Weather: Sunny with a cool northeast wind 16C.
An earlier start today as we headed back to Mi-ike Lake which is located just off the expressway to Miyazaki. Road 447 was again visited without any luck at all with the pheasants only Pale Thrushes. On arrival at Mi-ike we found the entrance gate to the campground chained off so I parked up and we walked down towards the volcanic crater lake. In the campground a pair of Olive-backed Pipits were noted but a more surprising bird was the number of wintering Grey Buntings which are usually shy and retiring. In the background a White-backed Woodpecker was drumming on a dead tree but we were unable to locate its position. The mature trees attracted a Japanese Woodpecker, Varied and Japanese Tits, Red-flanked Bluetail and Daurian Redstarts. A walk along the lake shore offered nothing new so we returned to the van with a mixed feeding flock of Pygmy Woodpecker, Long-tailed Tit and Brown-eared Bulbuls. It was time to head northwards along the expressway towards Saga with our route passing through numerous road tunnels and fantastic scenery. We turned off towards Saga Airport and an area which is good for birds nearby. Our walk towards the seawall produced nothing new until we went over the wall and scanned the mudflats. Hordes of Grey Heron, Great and Little Egret and surprisingly high numbers of Common Greenshank and Dunlin were gorging themselves on the food-rich mud. The commoner ducks were present plus a few Kentish Plovers. I could hear the distinctive calls of Chinese Penduline Tits which Gill managed to see briefly in flight. A return to the sheltered side of a line of trees proved to be a bonus as the group located Eastern Reed, Rustic, Black-faced and Elegant Buntings the latter looking out of place in this habitat. A female Merlin whizzed by at high speed and a few Eurasian Magpies were noted in the fields around Saga. Another enjoyable birding day in Japan.
Mammals: Racoon Dog (1).
February 17th: Saga, Ariake-se, Shikanoshima Island.
Final species total: 165.
Weather: Early rain showers giving way to a sunny day with light west winds 15C.
The day dawned with heavy rain which normally arrives later in the year. Thankfully it started to clear up as we headed towards the western part of Ariake-se. Luck was with us as a green field attracted flocks of Eastern Rooks and several Daurian Jackdaws including a few adult birds in their showy black and white colours. It is rare to see adults in Japan during winter time. We pressed on towards the extensive mudflats which have finally been given protected status as a part of the East Asia fly-way for migratory birds. By the fence Saunders Gulls were hunting for crabs and small eels whilst out on the mud thousands of Common Shelducks were joined by Grey Plover, Common Greenshank, Eurasian Curlew and the eastern race of Bar-tailed Godwit. Back on the seawall side the reed-fringed drainage ditch added a showy Chinese Penduline Tit, Meadow and Eastern Reed Buntings, Japanese Skylarks and a bonus in the form of a family group of Greater White-fronted Geese. It was time to headed towards the city of Fukuoka and onto the island of Shikanoshima. On arrival the more sheltered waters attracted Great Crested, Red-necked and Black-necked Grebes, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Common Goldeneye and Red-breasted Mergansers. Along the sandy beach a wintering Common Sandpiper and Daurian Redstart. On the causeway linking the island to the mainland another stop was made for Black-throated Divers just offshore. I took the circular road around this wooded island and stopped at various places for Red-throated and Pacific Divers, flocks of rock-loving Japanese Cormorants, Pelagic Cormorant and Vega and Black-tailed Gulls. It was time to head back to Fukuoka airport for the flight back to Tokyo where the tour concluded.