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Is there anything more quintessentially Japanese than a picture of cranes in the snow? Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
This was my twelfth winter Japan trip, and this year was blessed with reasonable to good weather (other than one wet day on Kyushu), whilst Hokkaido was gorgeous, with little snow, very little ice, and relatively mild temperatures. It seemed to be an odd year though, with quite a few species being scarce or absent; there were no Gray-headed Lapwings around, and we didn't see Daurian Jackdaw either. Jun Matsui was once more 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 Hawfinch there was unusual, and the striking Japanese Wagtail made its first appearance.
Karuizawa was quite snowy. Japanese Accentor showed well there, as did Brown Dipper, while Japanese Grosbeak and 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 a large flock of Rustic Buntings.
The Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani were a big hit, as always, and in nice weather too! We had a bonus find of two Japanese Serows on a snowy ridge. The next day, we had great views of Taiga Bean Goose at Kamoike, plus a mere 8 Baikal Teal, and more Smew; three Northern Goshawks were unexpected. The big bonus, however, was an adult Siberian Crane with a family of Hooded Cranes, and a lone Swan Goose with one of the scattered groups of Bewick's Swans -- a great pick up, thanks to an old acquaintance of mine at the Kamoike centre, who had just seen the bird -- thanks, Gerry!
Kyushu gave us wonderful Hooded and White-naped cranes -- some 17,000 in the area this year -- plus four Sandhill and at least four Common Cranes. Saunders's Gull was sparse this year, with only 7 at Yatsushiro. A Black-faced Spoonbill with two Eurasian Spoonbills was nice, and a Temminck's Stint at Sendaegawa Bridge was a bonus. We saw only two Mandarin Ducks at Kogowa Dam; they don't seem to have come south this winter. A drake American Wigeon at Minamata was probably the same bird I found here last year. Crested Kingfisher and Long-billed Plover showed nicely on the Sendae River as we drove to Miike.
Lake Miike once more gave us a bonus Forest Wagtail -- it must be the same bird returning, I'm sure -- and a friend of Jun's came especially to set up a feeding station for buntings, where we got great views of Yellow-throated Buntings and the scarce Gray Bunting, a really nice bonus. A male Japanese Green Woodpecker also showed very well, much better than our brief glimpses at Karuizawa.
Then it was up to snowbound Hokkaido, where we got in after lunch and had time to make a foray out to Tsurui, where we had a fabulous show from some 200 Red-crowned Cranes as they bugled and danced in the snow -- just fantastic. The next day, we witnessed the beautiful frosted river spectacle of these cranes at Otowa Bridge, then went to see a staked-out Ural Owl, which was in the same tree hole as it was in 2014 and 2015. We 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 it wasn't until after 9 p.m. that we had a wonderful view of a male Blakiston's Fish-Owl; it came in to the river pond, which is stocked with fish. We witnessed its only visit that night, so we were lucky; one group recently missed it!
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.
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. We actually got down to the new blind (hide) and lighthouse area, which is typically snowbound at the time of our tour; there, a couple of us had bad views of some flighty Snow Buntings. However we did get outstanding views (and photos) of 5 Asian Rosy-Finches, which have been very scarce this winter.
Yoroushi Onsen was 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, and the distinctive brandtii race of Eurasian Jay. Our meal 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 Raccoon Dog also appeared, as did two Sable. The next morning, as we came to breakfast, we saw a Blakiston's Fish-Owl sitting in the trees outside in broad daylight; it stayed until 8:30 a.m., giving the most incredible views! Japanese Squirrels on the feeder were very cute -- and photogenic too!
Our boat trip off the coast of Ochiishi was good (at least in parts -- it was unfortunately cold and choppy, with some spray, on the way back), with an excellent English-speaking guide. We had lovely looks at Common Murre, Ancient Murrelet, Least Auklet, and the much-prized Spectacled Guillemot, as well as two taxa of Pigeon Guillemot, one of which was the little known dark race snowi from the Kuriles. We then went to the Nosappu Cape tip, and had great looks at a perched Red-faced Cormorant, with Pelagic Cormorants on a rock stack offshore.
Kiritappu, on the final afternoon, gave us a fine pale morph Rough-legged Buzzard, a Red-necked Grebe, a White-tailed Eagle (right overhead), and a memorable frisson of excitement with what proved to be plastic models of Tufted Puffins, set amidst the tussock grass to lure nesting birds -- a lifer for me for about 30 seconds until the awful truth dawned.
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 big one, Siberian Crane and Swan Goose were terrific additions, the Blakiston's Fish-Owls were outstanding this year, and we had an amazing experience with both Steller's Sea-Eagle and White-tailed Eagle. Our boat trip delivered very nicely on alcids. Ural Owl was very nice, with the bonus of another two at a roost near the airport, thanks to a Brit birder we met several times. The tour's heavy non-passerine bias can be partly countered with Daurian Redstart, the buntings at Miike, and Forest Wagtail, too. The Snow Monkeys were also a major hit; it was well worth the trek through deep snow to see this extraordinary sight -- though why they don't freeze to death once they get out of the water is a puzzle to me!
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 good company and good fun (with some good spotters along); to Jun for driving so well and acting as our intermediary in all matters Japanese; 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!
-- Phil in Narita / Seoul / Siem Reap; 2016
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
Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)
SWAN GOOSE (Anser cygnoides)
Yes, it's a bit fuzzy -- but it's a picture of a Swan Goose, which is mighty rare in Japan! Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
TAIGA BEAN-GOOSE (Anser fabalis middendorffii)
TUNDRA SWAN (BEWICK'S) (Cygnus columbianus bewickii)
WHOOPER SWAN (Cygnus cygnus)
COMMON SHELDUCK (Tadorna tadorna)
MANDARIN DUCK (Aix galericulata)
GADWALL (Anas strepera)
FALCATED DUCK (Anas falcata)
EURASIAN WIGEON (Anas penelope)
AMERICAN WIGEON (Anas americana)
The extensive yellow on their bills helps to quickly identify Whooper Swans. Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)
EASTERN SPOT-BILLED DUCK (Anas zonorhyncha)
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Anas clypeata)
NORTHERN PINTAIL (Anas acuta)
BAIKAL TEAL (Anas formosa)
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (EURASIAN) (Anas crecca crecca)
COMMON POCHARD (Aythya ferina)
TUFTED DUCK (Aythya fuligula)
We had many fine studies of groups of exquisitely handsome Harlequin Ducks. Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila)
HARLEQUIN DUCK (Histrionicus histrionicus)
WHITE-WINGED SCOTER (SIBERIAN) (Melanitta fusca stejnegeri)
BLACK SCOTER (Melanitta americana)
LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis)
COMMON GOLDENEYE (Bucephala clangula)
SMEW (Mergellus albellus)
COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER (Mergus serrator)
SCALY-SIDED MERGANSER (Mergus squamatus)
Mount Fuji is Japan's tallest mountain at 12,389 feet. Considered one of Japan's three sacred mountains, it has been a pilgrimage site for centuries. Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)
CHINESE BAMBOO-PARTRIDGE (Bambusicola thoracicus) [I]
RING-NECKED PHEASANT (GREEN) (Phasianus colchicus versicolor) [E]
RED-THROATED LOON (Gavia stellata)
PACIFIC LOON (Gavia pacifica)
LITTLE GREBE (LITTLE) (Tachybaptus ruficollis poggei)
HORNED GREBE (Podiceps auritus auritus)
The Green Pheasant (an endangered, endemic subspecies of the Ring-necked Pheasant) is Japan's national bird. Photo by participant George Sims.
RED-NECKED GREBE (Podiceps grisegena holbollii)
GREAT CRESTED GREBE (Podiceps cristatus cristatus)
EARED GREBE (Podiceps nigricollis nigricollis)
Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants and Shags)
GREAT CORMORANT (EURASIAN) (Phalacrocorax carbo hanedae)
JAPANESE CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax capillatus) [E]
RED-FACED CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax urile)
PELAGIC CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax pelagicus)
Ardeidae (Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns)
GRAY HERON (Ardea cinerea)
Where they occur together, Steller's Sea-Eagle donimates the White-tailed Eagle -- and it's easy to see why! Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
GREAT EGRET (EURASIAN) (Ardea alba alba)
LITTLE EGRET (LITTLE) (Egretta garzetta garzetta)
Threskiornithidae (Ibises and Spoonbills)
EURASIAN SPOONBILL (Platalea leucorodia)
BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL (Platalea minor)
OSPREY (HALIAETUS) (Pandion haliaetus haliaetus)
Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)
EASTERN MARSH-HARRIER (Circus spilonotus)
NORTHERN GOSHAWK (Accipiter gentilis)
BLACK KITE (BLACK-EARED) (Milvus migrans lineatus)
WHITE-TAILED EAGLE (Haliaeetus albicilla)
Steller's Sea-Eagle is arguably the most magnificent of all the eagles -- and quite vocal too. Photo by participant George Sims.
STELLER'S SEA-EAGLE (Haliaeetus pelagicus)
ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK (Buteo lagopus)
EASTERN BUZZARD (Buteo japonicus japonicus)
Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules, and Coots)
EURASIAN MOORHEN (Gallinula chloropus)
EURASIAN COOT (Fulica atra)
SIBERIAN CRANE (Grus leucogeranus)
SANDHILL CRANE (Grus canadensis)
A blizzard of Hooded and White-naped cranes. Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
WHITE-NAPED CRANE (Grus vipio)
COMMON CRANE (Grus grus)
HOODED CRANE (Grus monacha)
RED-CROWNED CRANE (Grus japonensis)
Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)
BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER (Pluvialis squatarola)
NORTHERN LAPWING (Vanellus vanellus)
KENTISH PLOVER (Charadrius alexandrinus)
We found a Siberian Crane (right) amongst a field full of Hooded Cranes. The former is a rare, but annual, vagrant to Japan, while the latter winters in good numbers around Arasaki -- with more than 13,000 seen this year. Photo by participant George Sims.
LONG-BILLED PLOVER (Charadrius placidus)
Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)
COMMON SANDPIPER (Actitis hypoleucos)
GREEN SANDPIPER (Tringa ochropus)
COMMON GREENSHANK (Tringa nebularia)
EURASIAN CURLEW (Numenius arquata)
TEMMINCK'S STINT (Calidris temminckii)
DUNLIN (Calidris alpina)
COMMON SNIPE (Gallinago gallinago)
The handsome White-naped Crane was one of six species of crane we found this year. Photo by participant George Sims.
Alcidae (Auks, Murres, and Puffins)
COMMON MURRE (Uria aalge)
PIGEON GUILLEMOT (Cepphus columba)
PIGEON GUILLEMOT (SNOWI) (Cepphus columba snowi)
SPECTACLED GUILLEMOT (Cepphus carbo)
ANCIENT MURRELET (Synthliboramphus antiquus)
JAPANESE MURRELET (Synthliboramphus wumizusume)
LEAST AUKLET (Aethia pusilla)
Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)
SAUNDERS'S GULL (Saundersilarus saundersi)
A nighttime spotting of a male Blakiston's Fish-Owl was a real treat -- which made finding another bird hunting in broad daylight one morning just outrageously lucky! Photo by participant George Sims.
BLACK-HEADED GULL (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
BLACK-TAILED GULL (Larus crassirostris)
MEW GULL (KAMCHATKA) (Larus canus kamtschatschensis)
HERRING GULL (VEGA) (Larus argentatus vegae)
SLATY-BACKED GULL (Larus schistisagus)
GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL (Larus glaucescens)
GLAUCOUS GULL (Larus hyperboreus)
Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves)
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]
A passing British birder showed us a pair of Ural Owls roosting near the Kushiro airport -- which we were able to visit before going through security! Photo by participant George Sims.
ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE (Streptopelia orientalis orientalis)
BLAKISTON'S FISH-OWL (Ketupa blakistoni)
URAL OWL (Strix uralensis)
COMMON KINGFISHER (Alcedo atthis)
CRESTED KINGFISHER (Megaceryle lugubris)
PYGMY WOODPECKER (Dendrocopos kizuki)
WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER (Dendrocopos leucotos subcirris)
GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER (GREAT SPOTTED) (Dendrocopos major japonicus)
JAPANESE WOODPECKER (Picus awokera) [E]
Falconidae (Falcons and Caracaras)
EURASIAN KESTREL (Falco tinnunculus)
PEREGRINE FALCON (Falco peregrinus)
BULL-HEADED SHRIKE (Lanius bucephalus)
Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)
EURASIAN JAY (BRANDT'S) (Garrulus glandarius brandtii)
EURASIAN JAY (JAPANESE) (Garrulus glandarius japonicus)
ROOK (Corvus frugilegus pastinator)
We saw the dark-eyed subspecies "brandtii," which may be split from Eurasian Jay as "Brandt's Jay." Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
CARRION CROW (Corvus corone orientalis)
LARGE-BILLED CROW (LARGE-BILLED) (Corvus macrorhynchos japonensis)
SKY LARK (ASIAN) (Alauda arvensis japonica)
ASIAN HOUSE-MARTIN (Delichon dasypus)
Paridae (Tits, Chickadees, and Titmice)
COAL TIT (CONTINENTAL) (Periparus ater insularis)
VARIED TIT (VARIED) (Sittiparus varius varius)
MARSH TIT (Poecile palustris hensoni)
WILLOW TIT (WILLOW) (Poecile montanus restrictus)
We saw a trio of Eurasian Nuthatch subspecies during our tour. This was the Hokkaido "asiatica" subspecies, which showed a chestnut wash just at the side of the white underparts. Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
JAPANESE TIT (Parus minor)
Aegithalidae (Long-tailed Tits)
LONG-TAILED TIT (CAUDATUS) (Aegithalos caudatus caudatus)
LONG-TAILED TIT (EUROPAEUS) (Aegithalos caudatus trivirgatus)
EURASIAN NUTHATCH (EURASIAN) (Sitta europaea asiatica)
EURASIAN NUTHATCH (EURASIAN) (Sitta europaea amurensis)
EURASIAN NUTHATCH (EURASIAN) (Sitta europaea roseillia)
EURASIAN WREN (EURASIAN) (Troglodytes troglodytes fumigatus)
BROWN DIPPER (Cinclus pallasii)
The introducted Red-billed Leiothrix appears to be spreading in Japan; we saw four around Miike. Photo by participant George Sims.
BROWN-EARED BULBUL (Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis)
Cettiidae (Bush-Warblers and Allies)
JAPANESE BUSH-WARBLER (Horornis diphone cantans)
Zosteropidae (White-eyes, Yuhinas, and Allies)
JAPANESE WHITE-EYE (Zosterops japonicus)
Leiothrichidae (Laughingthrushes and Allies)
RED-BILLED LEIOTHRIX (Leiothrix lutea) [I]
Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers)
DAURIAN REDSTART (Phoenicurus auroreus)
BLUE ROCK-THRUSH (SOLITARIUS GROUP) (Monticola solitarius pandoo)
Turdidae (Thrushes and Allies)
PALE THRUSH (Turdus pallidus)
BROWN-HEADED THRUSH (Turdus chrysolaus)
Considering the number of dishes we used in our multi-course dinners, dish-washing must be a major industry in Japan! This dinner was interrupted by the arrival of our first Blakiston's Fish-Owl. Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
DUSKY THRUSH (Turdus eunomus)
EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris)
WHITE-CHEEKED STARLING (Spodiopsar cineraceus)
JAPANESE ACCENTOR (Prunella rubida) [E]
Motacillidae (Wagtails and Pipits)
FOREST WAGTAIL (Dendronanthus indicus)
GRAY WAGTAIL (Motacilla cinerea)
WHITE WAGTAIL (OCULARIS) (Motacilla alba ocularis)
WHITE WAGTAIL (BLACK-BACKED) (Motacilla alba lugens)
Forest Wagtail is a vagrant to Japan; this bird has been seen at the same location for the past three years. Photo by participant George Sims.
JAPANESE WAGTAIL (Motacilla grandis)
OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT (Anthus hodgsoni)
AMERICAN PIPIT (JAPONICUS) (Anthus rubescens japonicus)
Calcariidae (Longspurs and Snow Buntings)
SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis)
Emberizidae (Buntings and New World Sparrows)
MEADOW BUNTING (Emberiza cioides)
CHESTNUT-EARED BUNTING (Emberiza fucata)
RUSTIC BUNTING (Emberiza rustica)
YELLOW-THROATED BUNTING (Emberiza elegans)
A feeding station set up by some friends of Jun's gave us great views of the normally skulking Gray Bunting. Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
BLACK-FACED BUNTING (Emberiza spodocephala personata)
GRAY BUNTING (Emberiza variabilis)
REED BUNTING (Emberiza schoeniclus)
Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)
BRAMBLING (Fringilla montifringilla)
ASIAN ROSY-FINCH (Leucosticte arctoa brunneonucha)
EURASIAN BULLFINCH (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)
ORIENTAL GREENFINCH (Chloris sinica)
HAWFINCH (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)
The striking Yellow-throated Bunting also put in a nice appearance at the photographer's feeding station. Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
JAPANESE GROSBEAK (Eophona personata)
Passeridae (Old World Sparrows)
RUSSET SPARROW (Passer rutilans)
EURASIAN TREE SPARROW (Passer montanus)
JAPANESE MACAQUE (Macaca fuscata)
JAPANESE SQUIRREL (Sciurus lis)
RED FOX (Vulpes vulpes)
RACCOON DOG (Nyctereutes procyonoides)
SABLE (SIBERIAN MARTEN) (Martes zibellina)
A handful of Asian Rosy-Finches near the Notsuke lighthouse were the only ones we found this year. Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
SEA OTTER (Enhydra lutris)
MASKED PALM CIVET (Paguma larvata) [I]
HARBOR SEAL (Phoca vitulina)
SIKA DEER (Cervus nippon)
SEROW SP. (Capricornis crispus)
Many 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 6.1 has just been published. Go to worldbirdnames.org, or Google "IOC" and ignore the Olympics stuff!
Totals for the tour: 155 bird taxa and 10 mammal taxa