This was my thirteenth winter Japan trip, and this year was again blessed with reasonable to good weather (other than one wet day on Kyushu), whilst Hokkaido was gorgeous, with little snow, but quite a bit of sea ice, and very cold temperatures. It seemed to be another odd year though, with quite a few species being scarce or absent; there were few grebes around, and duck numbers were reduced on the whole. Jun Matsui was once again my co-leader and our driver, and we benefited greatly from his patience, local knowledge, and interpretive skills.
We began, as usual, at Narita, where a Brown-headed Thrush was at a creek not far from the hotel; as in past years, it was the only one we saw. A Goshawk there was unusual, and the striking Japanese Wagtail made its first appearance. En route to Karuizawa we made a detour to twitch a fine subadult Demoiselle Crane, a nice addition to the tour, and also saw the only Azure-winged Magpies of the trip nearby.
Karuizawa was quite snowy. Japanese Accentor showed well there, as did Brown Dipper, while Brambling near our hotel were fortunate, as they proved scarce elsewhere this year. That afternoon's trip to Saku gave us our first Smew and Falcated Duck, 12 White-fronted Geese were a surprise drop-in, and we saw our only Rustic Buntings of the tour.
The Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani were a big hit as always, and with large amounts of very atmospheric and scenic snow this year. The next day, we had great views of Taiga Bean Goose at Kamoike, plus about 70 Baikal Teal, and more Smew; a Mountain Hawk Eagle was a big bonus here, perched up nicely, my first for some years, AND it may well have been Marcy's 4000th species. Bewick's Swans showed nicely, and a bonus Naumann's Thrush was a good find, as was Gray-headed Lapwing. We dipped on Scaly-sided Merganser on the Sai River, one possible sighting was not confirmed as the bird vanished! Sadly our hotel in Kanazawa is set for redevelopment so we will lose both it and the longtime chef who always did such fantastic meals for us.
Kyushu gave us wonderful Hooded and White-naped cranes -- some 14,000 in the area this year -- plus 6 Sandhill and at least 7 Common Cranes. Saunders's Gull was great this year, with lovely views of about 15 at Yatsushiro. Black-faced Spoonbills showed well, with 5 Eurasian Spoonbills for comparison. A drake American Wigeon at Minamata was presumably the same bird I found here in 2015 and 2016. We saw just a few Mandarin Ducks at Kogawa Dam and again at Sendae later, though seeing what was my first Badger from Japan amazingly well in daylight was a huge highlight from Kogawa.
Japanese Woodpecker showed very well and was calling and drumming at Sendae, where we also found some distant Chinese Penduline Tits and Chestnut-eared Bunting for most. Crested Kingfisher and Long-billed Plover showed nicely on the Sendae River as we drove to Miike. Lake Miike was fog-shrouded and with dull showery conditions, but still gave us views of Yellow-throated Buntings and Ryukyu Minivet, whilst Japanese Woodpecker also showed very well and White-backed Woodpecker all too briefly, despite drumming loudly but out of sight for ages.
Then it was up to snowbound Hokkaido, where we were lucky to get in due to poor visibility, and rather fortuitously immediately twitched an elusive Ural Owl that was in the same site near the airport as last year. We also had time to make a foray out to Tsurui, where we had a fabulous show from some 120 Red-crowned Cranes as they bugled and danced in the snow before departing -- just fantastic.
The next day, we witnessed the famous and beautiful frosted misty river spectacle of these cranes at Otowa Bridge. We then went to Teshikaga, where Whooper Swans showed well; a fascinating old Japanese art and craft shop was worth a visit, and some adventurous souls enjoyed deer burgers for lunch. Our first Steller's Sea-Eagles were also memorable, sitting in trees along the road near Rausu. Rausu Harbor in late afternoon gave us Harlequin Ducks, and both Glaucous and Glaucous-winged gulls amongst the numerous Slaty-backs, then it was time to head for the small minshuku (the Japanese word for a small, family-owned bed-and-breakfast) at Washi-no-Yado. They have upgraded their facility recently, so there are now more bedrooms and a separate dining room, but this year the male Blakiston's Fish-Owl made us wait and only eventually appeared at 0245, joined by its mate shortly after.
Though the sea ice was still well north of Rausu, we did our scheduled boat trip anyway, and it was fantastic, with amazing close views of both Steller's and White-tailed eagles as they came in to scavenge the fish that the boat crew threw out for them. Finding both Red-throated and Arctic Loon in the harbor after the trip was a good bonus too.
Next came the great sand spit of Notsuke -- always a bleak, barren, icy place. Sea ducks were sparse but Black Scoter showed well, as did Long-tailed Duck, and Spectacled Guillemot showed very nicely on the calm sea. We got down to the lighthouse area, which is typically snowbound at the time of our tour, but passerines were absent, although we did see hundreds of Sika deer and some beautiful red foxes along the spit.
Yoroushi Onsen was as ever a big highlight, with lovely rooms, a magnificent hot spring (complete with outdoor facilities, if required), super Japanese meals, an enviable and very beautiful art gallery en route to the rooms, and a bird feeder that yielded Great Spotted Woodpecker, the strikingly pale asiatica race of Eurasian Nuthatch, Marsh Tit, Hawfinch, Brambling and the distinctive brandtii race of Eurasian Jay. Our checklist that night was interrupted by the arrival of a Blakiston's Fish-Owl to the fishing area outside, with great looks from the comfort of the lounge! A later appearance saw the bird getting a snowy cap as the flakes fell, all very scenic and shown on the website.
Our boat trip off the coast of Ochiishi was challenging as it was bitterly cold and choppy, but we had lovely looks at Common Murre, Ancient Murrelet, Least Auklet, and the much-prized Spectacled Guillemot, as well as a Crested Auklet. Nosappu misaki area was very very cold with much sea ice and no sign of Red-faced Cormorant or Rock Sandpiper, but very scenic and with views of occupied Japan from close range. Here the Kurile Islands are very close by, seized by the Russians at the very end of World War 2, and there are many memorials and signs set up by the Japanese as they optimistically claim the islands back.
Kiritappu on the final afternoon gave a White-tailed Eagle flying by, and a memorable frisson of excitement with the plastic models of Tufted Puffins, set amidst the tussock grass to lure nesting birds. Asian Rosy Finch showed nicely at the house on the headland, it had been elusive this year thus far. Black Brant amongst a flock of Whooper Swans nearby were an unexpected trip bird and the final trip addition.
It is always hard to pick highlights from the tour as there were so many. Certainly the Red-crowned Cranes in the snow were a major one, Demoiselle Crane was great, and the crane spectacle at Arasaki is amazing. The Blakiston's Fish-Owls were again simply outstanding this year, and we had a terrific experience with both Steller's Sea-Eagle and White-tailed Eagle. The Snow Monkeys were also a major hit and that daytime Badger was fantastic.
Add to this the Japanese culture, the intriguing hotels, onsens, and minshuku we visited, and the many fine Japanese meals we sampled; given the multi-course meals, washing-up must be a major industry in this country!
My thanks to the group for being such good company and enjoying the various aspects of the tour as well as the birds. We became experts on 7/11's and pit-stops but it was all good fun. Marcy gave some very nice neck massages and her flute playing in honour of the cranes was a nice touch, as was the farewell tune in the restaurant. Particular thanks to Jun for driving so well, arranging the bags like an origami piece each day and acting as our intermediary in all matters Japanese; thanks also to Sue and Rowan at Sicklebill Safaris for good internal logistics; and to Karen at Field Guides for the flights and being the general tour manager. Good birding, and I hope to see you again somewhere, sometime, and watch out for a potential Japan in Summer tour in 2019!
-- Phil in Narita Feb 2017
Jan 22 Narita Creek. Ibaraki Prefecture/Komoro Park
Jan 23 Karuizawa/ Shiotsubo/Saku
Jan 24 Jigokudani Monkey Park/Kanazawa
Jan 25 Sae River/ Kaga Fields/ Kamoike/Hachodate harbor
Jan 26 to Kagoshima/ Kogawa Dam/Izumi
Jan 27 Arasaki and eastern fields/ Minamata/ Yatsushiro
Jan 28 Akune/Sendae area/Arasaki and eastern fields
Jan 29 Sendae Gawa/ Lake Miike/Kagoshima
Jan 30 to Kushiro/Tsurui
Jan 31 Otowa Bride/Tsurui Crane Reserve/Teshikaga/ Rausu harbor/Washi no Yado
Feb 1 "Evergreen" boat cruise Rausu harbor /Notsuke/Yoroushi
Feb 2 T Yoroushi/ Ochiishi boat trip/Onnemato/Nosappu
Feb 3 Onnemato/Furen Reserve/Kiritappu/Kushiro
Feb 4 Return to Tokyo
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
Some of the trip photos are on the Internet Bird Collection (IBC), a free-access site via Lynx Edicions (publishers of the classic Handbook of Birds of World). It is a superb collection of videos, photos and sound cuts, and I usually post pictures and sound cuts from the tours here, as well as on the Field Guides gallery for that particular tour.
I also recommend the xeno-canto website, which has cuts of almost all of the world's bird species; I contribute cuts from most of my tours.
Folks were also asking about the IOC World Checklist of Birds, a free-access downloadable Excel file that gets updated every four months; version 7.1 has just been published. Go to worldbirdnames.org, or Google "IOC" and ignore the Olympics stuff!
Totals for the tour: 158 bird taxa and 6 mammal taxa