Japan 2023

Mark Finn
February 3rd-18th

This was our first visit back to Japan since 2020 which was mainly down to the worldwide pandemic. Despite this gap of almost three years little had changed habitat wise but there had been a noticeable downward trend in the numbers of small passerines being observed. The group had many highlights during to the tour which included a pair of Blakiston’s Fish Owls at their daytime roost on Hokkaido. In the two weeks five species of cranes were seen including an increase in the Red-crowned Cranes numbers in Eastern Hokkaido. Due to milder weather in China and Russia the numbers of wintering geese and wildfowl tended not to move south into Japan. In the rice paddies of Kamioke a single Lesser White-fronted Goose was found a major bonus as this species is in serious decline. Nearby wetlands hosted over 1100 Baikal Teal among the commoner duck species. The numbers of waders at Ariake-se was impressive which included unusual species in Long-billed Dowitcher. At the same site Black-faced Spoonbills continue to increase as well as the rare Saunders Gull. The ferry journey from Nagoya to Tomakomai was again productive for three species of albatross and a large flock of Pacific Divers near Sendai which numbered over 450 birds. Cape Nosappu on Hokkaido was good on the first visit for auklets whilst at the other end of the country a boat trip allowed us close views of Japanese Murrelets. On Hokkaido numbers of White-tailed and Steller’s Eagles continue to be stable and a hunting daytime Long-eared Owl was a welcome sight. In the rice fields of Kyushu Oriental Rook and Daurian Jackdaws were present in numbers this year.
The following trip report should bring back many happy memories of an extremely enjoyable tour to Japan. The next visit is February 2024 and later in late May 2024 an extensive spring trip of the country.

February 3rd: Tokyo, Karuizawa including Forest Park and Prince Hotel
Daily 22 New 22 Running 22
Weather: Rather cloudy with late snow showers on an E wind 0c-3c

Breakfast was taken early in the hotel and followed by the manic journey to Tokyo station and the bullet train northwards to the Japanese Alps town of Karuizawa. The journey took just over an hour and the group were on their way the woodland reserve around 7km from the town centre. In the city suburbs we had brief views of Japanese Crow, White Wagtail and White-cheeked Starlings. Picked up supplies and headed towards the bird park where the parking lot held Brown-eared Bulbuls and Willow Tits. A slow walk in the forest added sightings of Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese and Long-tailed Tits, Long-tailed Rosefinch and Grey-headed Greenfinches. It was then onto Prince Hotel via another hotel which has in the past had feeders but now is abandoned and void of birds. The lake at Prince Hotel held Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, Eurasian Teal, Eurasian Wigeon and a pair of Common Coots. A scan of the river added the endemic Japanese Wagtail, White Wagtail, Japanese Tit and a striking Rustic Bunting. The weather started to cool with light snow flurries so I headed back to base.

February 4th: Karuizawa including Forest Park and Noname Lake, Yukawa Dam, Saku Chosei-ike
Daily 44 New 24 Running 46
Weather: Overnight snow giving way to a bright and sunny day with a NE wind 5c

The first stop today was on the forest trails at Karuizawa which wind their way through old trees and the occasional understory of bamboo. On arrival the first Brown Dipper of the trip was located flying upstream one of four birds seen this morning. Our walk produced similar birds to yesterday afternoon with the addition of Varied Tit and a showy Eurasian Wren near the nature centre. I decided to stop an at old pond which has been productive for birds on past visits and on this occasion superb views of Falcated and Eastern Spot-billed Ducks and Eurasian Teal. The group stopped for supplies and headed to the sprawling town of Saku via an unintentional stop at Yukawa Dam en route. The entrance road had a feeding party of Eurasian Nuthatch, Japanese and Willow Tits, Meadow and Rustic Buntings. By the dam buildings a female Daurian Redstart and a Pale Thrush feeding on berry trees. In the skies overhead the first Black-eared Kites of the tour. After lunch arrived at the reservoir close to Saku and parked up to walk around this productive place for birdlife. The bridge allows a vantage point over the fast-flowing river which is bordered by stony sections, reeds and bushes plus still patches of water. This was excellent for birds as scarce species were observed including Solitary Snipe, Green Sandpiper, Long-billed Plover, a female Mandarin Duck and small groups of Common Merganser, Mallard, Grey-headed Greenfinch and the first Oriental Crows of the tour. On the reservoir which was mainly frozen a group of Smew, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Wigeon and Eurasian Coot in patches of open water. On the river Tufted Duck and Common Pochard were seen along with Japanese, White and Grey Wagtails and oddly three Buff-bellied Pipits. Back to the reservoir where over 50 Grey Herons were on the ice looking rather miserable and out of place. The far side footpath had a pair of Great Egrets and close views of Rustic Buntings which was an ideal end to the day.

Black-eared Kite

February 5th: Karuizawa, Tokyo, Myazaki, Hitotsugawa
Daily 42 New 17 Running 63
Weather: Sunny with a cool SE wind 13c

This morning the group travelled back to Tokyo on the Shinkansen train where on arrival a connection by monorail to Haneda Airport. In the canals and backwaters of Tokyo Docks a few water-birds were seen including a drake Smew, Tufted Duck, Common Pochard and near the airport a hunting Peregrine Falcon. The flight to Myazaki in Kyushu went smoothly where I picked up the rental van. Our main birding spot today was the estuarine habitats of Hitotsugawa and the nearby wetland which is under threat from development. On arrival I quickly located the flock of wintering Black-faced Spoonbills which numbered 24 birds in total. The large expanse of mud which is to be dredged in the coming months held Green Sandpipers, White and Grey Wagtails. Further scanning of the area produced Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes, Great Egret, Great and Japanese Cormorants, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Common Shelduck, Common Pochard, Gadwall and Eurasian Wigeon. Other species present included a single Black-winged Stilt (rare in winter) and a Western Osprey perched on top of a telegraph pole. The light was fading as I headed towards the beach area with sightings of Black-headed Gull and a single Saunders Gull the latter being a rare East Asian endemic. On the fence line a wintering Bull-headed Shrike.

February 6th: Hyuga, Hitotsugawa, Mi-ike, Izumi
Daily 62 New 16 Running 79
Weather: Cloudy with heavy afternoon rain on a NE wind 7c/12c

Today we headed towards Hyuga Port for a short boat trip offshore. Near the docks an area of grass held a reasonable sized flock of Eurasian Wigeon, Common Sandpiper, Oriental Turtle Dove, White-cheeked Starling and ever presents Black-eared Kites. On walls and piers at the harbour we recorded the first Vega and Black-tailed Gulls of the tour. It is also worth checking any buoys in this area which promptly revealed Grey Heron, Great, Little and Pacific Reef Egrets and Western Osprey. It did not take long to find the first Japanese Murrelets a rare East Asian endemic which is declining quickly in numbers. They gave us the run around a bit but we observed at least three birds with the last one staying in view for long periods of time. Back to port and down the expressway to Hitotsugawa with the entrance fields attracting Bull-headed Shrike, Masked Bunting, Dusky and Pale Thrushes, and flocks of Eurasian Tree Sparrows. I parked up the check the estuary where the tide was ebbing allowing us to look for waders which held Pacific Golden, Grey and Kentish Plovers, Eurasian Curlew, Dunlin and Sanderling. In the ponds similar birds to yesterday with the addition of a male Northern Goshawk perched in a tree. The weather started to worsen as I headed west to the volcanic lake of Mi-ike. On arrival heavy rain restricted birding although we managed to find Daurian Redstart, Olive-backed Pipit and Elegant Bunting. A return visit in two days is planned when hopefully the weather may be better.

Japanese Murrelet

February 7th: Izumi, Arasaki, Takae, Satsuma
Daily 62 New 16 Running 95
Weather: Heavy rain until mid-afternoon followed by sunny spells on a NE wind 12c

The rainy weather was to continue this morning which made birding tricky at the best of times. I made the journey towards the crane centre where a party of Hooded Cranes showed close to the road. After this I headed towards Arasaki in dreadful weather conditions with hundreds of Hooded and White-naped Cranes present in the dormant rice fields. By the centre we watched a flock of Oriental Rooks and Daurian Jackdaws. The best viewing conditions were at lower levels of the building with sightings of Great and Little Egrets, Grey Heron, Black-faced Spoonbill, Northern Pintail, Gadwall and Eastern Spot-billed Duck. A visit towards the east fields proved to be productive as the group located at least two Sandhill Cranes, Merlin, Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Skylark, Buff-bellied Pipit and Common Shelducks on a seasonal pool. Back to the centre to consume lunch with Intermediate Egrets en route and a Common Crane in front of the restaurant. After lunch I travelled south towards the rice fields of Takae which is always a good place for birding. The weather started to improve on our arrival with a Common Kingfisher flying across the paddies. I parked up and started a walk alongside a habitat of reedbeds, rice paddies, water channels and telegraph poles. The first section of reeds held the uncommon Chestnut-eared Bunting and on the wires hundreds of Grey-headed Greenfinches. A scan of the poles added Western Osprey and Eastern Buzzard. In another patch of reeds we located Masked, Meadow and Common Reed Buntings and overhead a Japanese Sparrowhawk. It was time to head inland towards the town of Satsuma and its fast flowing river habitat. On the river we found a wide selection of the commoner ducks, Common Kingfisher, White, Grey and Japanese Wagtails, Great Cormorant and Little Grebe. In the mature trees Warbling White-eyes searching for insects. The light started to fade as I made the journey back to Izumi.

February 8th: Izumi, Road 447, Mi-ike, Saga Airport
Daily 63 New 8 Running 103
Weather: Sunny with a NE wind 16c

Breakfast was taken earlier today to make up for lost birding time caused by poor weather. Road 447 was taken with the first stop in a village flanked by forest and a fast-flowing river at lower elevations. The highlight was unexpected with White-bellied Green Pigeons flying over the valley and perching in dead trees. Mi-ike was reached at 10am with totally different weather from two days ago. A walk in the main campground area added the endemic Japanese Green Woodpecker, Eurasian Jay, Long-tailed, Japanese and Varied Tits and Olive-backed Pipits. The best birding was to come in an area of open forest and a layer which was opened up by recent typhoons. In the next two hours the group observed Ryuku Minivet, Siberian Chiffchaff, Japanese Bush Warbler, Red-billed Leothrix, Eurasian Nuthatch, Elegant Bunting and overhead calling Eastern Buzzards. In the afternoon I joined the Kyushu Expressway northwards and turned towards the city of Saga an excellent place to be based for birding. The airport area has a wide range of habitats and a Black-crowned Night Heron was in the main car park. A slow walk followed with the estuary holding Western Osprey, various duck species including over 1000 Common Pochard, Greater Scaup, Saunders and Vega Gulls. In the rice fields we found Meadow Bunting, Buff-bellied Pipit and Eurasian Skylarks.

February 9th: Ariake-se, Shikanoshima Island, Komatsu
Daily 61 New 12 Running 115
Weather: Sunny with a cool NE wind

Due to the weather conditions of a few days earlier in the week I had to re-jiggle the itinerary. Outside the hotel in Saga a family of Whistling White-eyes were feeding in a budding tree. Ariake-se was our main destination today a huge area of mudflats bordered by fields, canals and stands of trees. The timing of high tide is crucial here and our timing was perfect for the visit. From a viewpoint we quickly noted huge numbers of wildfowl which were easily identified and this included a few rarities from further north including Ruddy Shelduck among the hundreds of Common Shelduck, Mallard, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Teal, Tufted Duck and Common Pochard. On the edges of the deeper channels a few more sightings of Black-faced Spoonbills which appear to be slowly increasing in numbers each year. As the tide started to rise it made ID of shorebirds much easier and the group located several scarce or rare species including Long-billed Dowitcher, Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank, Grey and Kentish Plovers and above average numbers of the eastern race of Eurasian Curlew. A surprise find was at least two Mongolian Gulls lingering with the widespread Vega Gulls which allowed good comparisons. Further scanning revealed a substantial numbers of crab-eating Saunders Gull probably over 250 individuals a sizeable percentage of the world population. Time was running out as I went through Fukuoka to the island of Shikanoshima which is accessed by a causeway from the mainland. The circular road allows good vantage points to rock outcrops where Japanese and Pelagic Cormorants were easy to study plus Black-throated and Pacific Loons offshore. A major bonus here was an adult Brown Booby flying close to shore. A short visit to the sheltered dockside of the island had Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes, Tufted Duck, Greater Scaup and Common Pochard, Common Goldeneye and the more widespread gulls and ducks. Off to the airport for the flight east towards Komatsu a famous place where heavy machinery is manufactured. The flight was delayed which made a later arrival than planned.

February 10th: Komatsu, Kibagata Park, Shibagata Lake, Kamioke, Amagozen
Daily 51 New 10 Running 125
Weather: Heavy rain on an N wind 2c-5c

A cool and wet day lay ahead for us with visits to birding sites in and around Komatsu. A walk around Kibagata Park produced nothing new until a visit to the south end. In the iris garden a pair of Common Moorhens was joined by Eurasian Teal to feed on the grasses. Shibagata Lake is close by although many of the farm roads have been blocked off making access difficult. The swan flocks were quickly located with hundreds of Bewick’s Swans, three Tundra Swans from North America and a single Mute Swan and Hooded Crane. On the many telegraph poles Black-eared Kite, Western Osprey and Eastern Buzzards. The weather worsened as we arrived at Kamioke an important wintering area for wildfowl. From the viewing station Taiga Bean Geese of the race middendorffi which is a potential split. Other species of note included over 1000 Baikal Teal, Smew, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Falcated Duck and Eurasian Wigeon. A major bonus came when a White’s Thrush appeared in a muddy open area and started to bob up and down, extended views of this rather scarce and secretive species. Lunch was taken and then towards the coast via areas of flooded rice fields. The first field held reasonable numbers of Greater White-fronted Geese close to the road. By the sea flocks of White-cheeked Starling and in Amagozen harbour a female Eastern Blue Rock Thrush. The rain was even heavier as we called it a day and returned to base.

February 11th: Komatsu, Lake Shibagata, Casa Point, Kamioke Rice Fields, Nagoya
Daily 48 New 3 Running 128
Weather: Sunny with light N wind 13c

Thankfully the awful weather of yesterday had cleared to give a crisp and sunny day. On the way to Lake Shibagata a stop for a male Eastern Blue Rock Thrush which perched on a roadside fence. On arrival at the lake a scan of the calm waters revealed the commoner duck species plus a few Falcated Ducks. In the distance a flock of Bewick’s Swans probably the same birds from yesterdays visit. A trip to Casa Point proved to be poor for birdlife on this occasion apart from a pair of Peregrine Falcons patrolling the skies and a single Eastern Buzzard perched in a dead tree. I decided to visit the rice fields close to Kamioke where a scan of the geese flock revealed a single Lesser White-fronted Goose among the Greater White-fronts. Lunch was taken followed by the train journey to Nagoya the third city of Japan. Along the way very brief views of Grey-headed Lapwings. On arrival in Nagoya a taxi ride to the ferry terminal where we boarded the MV Kiso our home for two nights.

February 12th: North Pacific Ocean, Sendai
Daily 24 New 13 Running 141
Weather: Cloudy with light NE winds 13c

Most of the group were on deck around 0640 hours to start a day of Seawatching which culminates in the port of Sendai in Northern Honshu. The morning session started south of Tokyo and ended north of Chiba with the sea here being particularly deep and rich in food sources for seabirds. From the back of the boat Vega and Black-tailed Gulls were prominent and gave close views. As the ferry headed north the most common seabird was Laysan Albatross which appeared in good numbers, they were later joined by the very rare Short-tailed Albatross with three birds being recorded including a single adult. Towards the end of the morning session South Polar and Pomarine Skuas were seen harassing Black-legged Kittiwakes for food. Streaked Shearwater was also seen albeit briefly before disappearing among the waves. Lunch was taken and at 1350 hours the afternoon session commenced with the first hour being very quiet for birdlife. The area south of Sendai was productive for Pacific Divers which numbered over 450 birds plus Red-throated Divers and at least three White-billed Divers. An unusual sighting was three Dusky Thrushes flying south towards mainland Honshu. The hotspot on this ferry was again near Sendai where we recorded Pelagic Cormorant, Black Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, Rhinoceros Auklet and Red-necked Grebes. The harbour at Sendai is sheltered from the worst of the winter weather and attracts a wide range of species. The breakwater near the outer lighthouse attracted Slaty-backed, Black-tailed, Vega and Kamchatka Gulls with the latter having a distinctive call. Western Osprey and Black-eared Kite were also noted with several Great Crested Grebes in the inner harbour. The ferry docked at Sendai and leaves again at 1900 hours for Tomakomai in Hokkaido.

February 13th: North Pacific Ocean, Blakiston Strait, Tomakomai, Sapporo, Kushiro, Nemuro
Daily 25 New 7 Running 148
Weather: Sunny with afternoon snow showers on a NE wind -5c to -2c

The last morning was on board MS Kiso as we crossed the Blakiston Strait towards the northern island of Japan, Hokkaido. The main species of interest which the group recorded were Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, Vega, Black-tailed, Slaty-backed and Glaucous Gulls and groups of Back-legged Kittiwakes which were in turn chased by Pomarine Skuas. Tomakomai port attracted Harlequin Duck, Black Scoter, Great Crested Grebe, Japanese and Oriental Crows. On arrival a transfer to Sapporo airport for the short flight eastwards to Kushiro in eastern Hokkaido. I picked up the minibus and headed towards Nemuro with sightings en route of White-tailed and Steller’s Sea Eagles. Today was a travelling day although short on numbers the quality of birds was good.

Blakiston's Fish Owl

February 14th: Nemuro, Odaito, Notsukehando, Shiretoko
Daily 30 New 6 Running 154
Weather: Sunny then afternoon snow showers on a NE wind -4c to -11c

Our first birding stop today was at a private site for Blakiston’s Fish Owl which is a rare East Asian endemic and the largest owl in the world. Thankfully the population has increased in Hokkaido and now numbers c100 pairs. A pair of these magnificent birds was observed in daylight at their roost. After this wonderful experience I travelled north towards Odaito making a short diversion to a section of Furen-ko. This produced high numbers of Steller’s Sea Eagles and a few White-tailed Eagles. In the forest a single Great Spotted Woodpecker of the race japonica and at least two Marsh Tits the latter likely to be split to Asian Marsh Tit. Further north a stop at a harbour produced sightings of Long-tailed Duck, Black Scoter, Common Goldeneye and Smew. Just south of Odaito six Whooper Swans on the open waters of a river, they appear to be low in numbers this year. A search of Odaito Harbour was productive despite the biting NE wind. On the ice we located resting Glaucous, Slaty-backed and Vega Gulls. In the open waters of the harbour the group watched large rafts of Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Harlequin Duck and Smew. Picked up supplies and headed to Notsukehando a long peninsula adjoining the Nemuro Straits and views towards the Kurile Islands. The biting wind made birding a challenge although we found Common and Spectacled Guillemots, Stejneger’s Scoter and the commoner sea-ducks and gulls. The light was fading as I headed towards the town of Shari along a challenging, winding road covered in snow and patches of ice. Our hotel for the night near the Shiretoko Peninsula was reached with views into the icy and cold Sea of Okhotsk.

White-tailed Eagle

February 15th: Shiretoko Peninsula, Furen-ko, Cape Nosappu, Nemuro
Daily 35 New 7 Running 161
Weather: Very cold and sunny with a strong NW wind -6c to -14c

Overnight snow had covered the Shiretoko area making the drive back towards Shibetsu over the mountain pass a slow affair. The first birding stop was Furen-ko on the north side and a small village of a few houses. Just before we arrived a stop in the wooded area produced a Marsh Tit and calling Grey-headed and Black Woodpeckers (both were heard and not seen). Once at the lake shore we were greeted by White-tailed and Steller’s Eagles, Black-eared Kites and both the common crow species. Close views were obtained as they perched in trees or loafed around on the ice. Lunch was taken at Meiji Park in Nemuro and followed by a visit to one of the many fishing ports along the coast. The wind was biting and cold as we watched Glaucous, Slaty-backed and Vega Gulls resting on the quay. In the open waters of the docks Pelagic Cormorant, Common Goldeneye, Greater Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Pochard and Long-tailed Ducks. The latter part of the day was spent at Cape Nosappu with views over to the Kurile Islands and the Nemuro Channel. This is an important area for birds and many come close to the lighthouse where a hide has been constructed in recent times. Careful scanning close to shore added Red-necked Grebe, Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots, Crested Auklet, Ancient Murrelet, Harlequin Duck, Black Scoter and a single Glaucous-winged Gull.

Steller's Sea Eagle

February 16th: Nemuro, Cape Nosappu, Kiritappu Cape and Reserve, Akkeshi, Kushiro
Daily 38 New 1 Running 162
Weather: Sunny with a cold NW wind -2 to -8c

Today was to be frustrating in many respects despite the wind being less and bright sunshine in all areas. I started with a return visit to Cape Nosappu but overnight conditions had produced sea ice resulting in the birds being further away. Scanning into the Nemuro Strait produced similar birds to yesterday afternoon with the addition of Rhinoceros Auklets. A brief stop at Furen-ko Nature Centre was disappointing as the feeders had been taken down resulting in no birds being seen. I took the back road towards Kiritappu and visited the nature centre where a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers showed well along with Dusky Thrushes. At the cape a flock of flighty Asian Rosy Finches were welcome additions to the list but the highlight was a hunting Long-eared Owl in a narrow valley. Off the cape itself good numbers of sea-ducks which included Black and Stejneger’s Scoters and at least eight Red-necked Grebes. The road to Akkeshi was challenging in places due to ice and on arrival a visit to the enclosed sea area. This was exceptional with sightings of over 1000 Whooper Swans, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Wigeon, Greater Scaup and the unusual sight of Black-headed Gulls (mainly absent in winter).

Red-crowned Cranes

February 17th: Kushiro, Tsuri, Tokyo
Daily 15 New 0 Final 162
Weather: Sunny and clear with no wind 0c to -12c

Our final day in Japan started with a visit to the dancing grounds of Red-crowned Cranes in the village of Tsuri. On arrival we witnessed over 200 birds including a few juveniles from 2022. This is truly a spectacular finale with birds calling and dancing in a snowy landscape. Other species in the area included Grey Heron, Black-eared Kite, Dusky Thrush, Long-tailed Tit and calling Hawfinch. En route to the airport a short visit to a woodland produced nothing of note. The flight to Tokyo went well and a transfer to a airport for the final night in Japan.

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