This was my fourteenth winter Japan trip, and we began as usual at Narita, where a Brown-headed Thrush was at Tokko creek not far from the hotel, though unlike past years we saw it again at the Monkey Park. The striking Japanese Wagtail made its first appearance, as did a lovely male Falcated Duck and Meadow and Black-faced Buntings. A quick foray after Japanese Marsh Warbler at the Tone River struck out despite good conditions.
Karuizawa was not very snowy, so no ice hazards this time, and our outing to Komoro Park was nice with fantastic views of Pygmy Woodpecker and Japanese Woodpecker, with Brambling also. The next day got off to a fine start too, with the first Japanese Waxwings I'd seen for many years at the local shrine, feeding on mistletoe and showing beautifully. Japanese Accentor showed well, as did the very dark local race of Eurasian Wren and Brown Dipper nearby, and our lovely walk in the Bird Forest gave us Japanese and Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese Grosbeak, more Long-tailed Tits, Eurasian Nuthatch and a gorgeous male Red-flanked Bluetail. That afternoon's trip to Saku gave us our first Smew and an elusive Long-billed Plover though duck numbers were low due to the icy conditions there.
The Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani were a big hit as always, and with nice amounts of very atmospheric and scenic snow and very little ice this year. Golden Eagle made a surprise appearance for most of us, a new Japanese bird for Phil. Heading west we met heavy snow and next day spent much of the time at Katano Kamoike as we could not access other local sites. We had great views of Taiga Bean Goose and Bewick's Swan at Kamoike, plus about 150 Baikal Teal, and more Smew. Hashidate Harbor gave Japanese Cormorant and Black-tailed Gull before the snow started, and we found 3 Gray-headed Lapwing en route to Kamoike.
Kyushu was very nice for the first day, which was great for photography but very cold, windy and with snow showers for the next two days. Arasaki gave us wonderful Hooded and White-naped cranes -- some 15,000 in the area this year -- plus 4 Sandhill and at least 2 Common Cranes with sundry hybrids. Saunders's Gull was sadly missing in action this year, they seem to be wintering further north than usual. Black-faced Spoonbills showed well, with a Eurasian Spoonbill for comparison. We saw a few Mandarin Ducks at Kogawa Dam, and heading down to Sendae saw Japanese Cormorant, Ryukyu Minivet at the nuclear power plant, and two fabulous male Green Pheasants in the fields, one crouching low and hoping he was invisible just a few feet away. It was a very poor year for buntings, with hardly any around, so finding a female Pine Bunting at Arasaki was a bonus, and it showed well, whilst Russet Sparrow was very showy and has become much easier to find in recent years.
Long-billed Plover showed nicely on the Sendae River as we drove to Miike, which was lovely with dull quite sunny conditions, but again there were no buntings. Two great looks at White-bellied Green Pigeon were the highlight, along with a fine drake Falcated Duck, another species that was atypically scarce this trip.
Hokkaido by contrast was again was gorgeous, with little snow, not much sea ice, and very cold temperatures. Some species were scarce or absent; there were few grebes around, and both gull and duck numbers seemed quite low. We went straight from Red-crowned Crane Airport at Kushiro out to Tsurui, for a fabulous show from some 120 Red-crowned Cranes as they bugled and danced in the snow before departing -- just fantastic. Getting a couple of Steller's Sea Eagles quite near Kushiro was also nice, so two of the 3 Hokkaido mega ticks were seen on the first afternoon.
The next day, we visited the famous and beautiful frosted misty river spectacle of Red-crowned cranes at Otowa Bridge, before a trip to Tsurui-ito to see them up close and personal in the fields there- I saw over 300 birds today, a big proportion of the world population. We also saw the day roost Ural Owl in beautiful light at a site where we saw one in 2015 and 2016. Whooper Swans showed well at Teshikaga; a fascinating old Japanese art and craft shop was again worth a visit, and most enjoyed deer burgers for lunch.
Rausu Harbor in late afternoon gave us Harlequin Ducks, both Glaucous and Glaucous-winged gulls amongst the numerous Slaty-backs and an unexpected Ancient Murrelet in the harbour. 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. It has been upgraded recently, so there are now more bedrooms and a separate dining room and viewing area for non-stayers. This year the male Blakiston's Fish-Owl came in nice and early at 1715, then again an hour later, so we had great looks and the views from the rooms were terrific- I saw the pair out by the impoundment in the creek at 0230 whilst laying on my futon!
Though the sea ice was still well north of Rausu, we did our scheduled boat trip anyway, and it was fantastic in very cold but calm and clear weather, 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.
Yoroushi Onsen was as ever a big highlight, with lovely rooms, a magnificent hot spring (complete with outdoor facilities with lovely views of the forested ridge), superb 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 amurensis race of Eurasian Nuthatch, Marsh Tit, and the distinctive brandtii race of Eurasian Jay. A Solitary Snipe also showed in the stream not long after we arrived, a much wanted bird. Some folks saw Blakiston's Fish-Owl at the fishing area outside, with great looks from the comfort of the lounge around 1800!
Going over to Furen and Nosappu we stopped at Kyoudei viewpoint for scenic views of the landscape, and some unexpected tobogganing on cardboard for some of us, though I was only one to end-up headfirst in a snowdrift! A Bohemian Waxwing flew by and perched up briefly, a surprise addition and making it a 2 species of waxwing trip.
Next came the great sand spit of Notsuke -- always a bleak, barren, icy place but very spectacular. Sea ducks were sparse but Black Scoter showed well, as did Long-tailed Duck and Spectacled Guillemot 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 dozens of Sika deer and some beautiful red foxes along the spit. 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 around Nemuro set up by the Japanese as they optimistically claim the islands back.
Nosappu late afternoon gave us Red-faced Cormorant flying by as soon as we got there, with one later perched up with Pelagics on the rock stack. Spectacled Guillemot also showed well off the cape.
Our last day saw us walk the snowy woods at Tobai without seeing much, and Onnemoto Rock Sandpiper blind drew a blank, though Harbour seals showed well, but Kiritappu in beautiful calm sunny conditions was terrific. The grumpy guy with the Asian Rosy Finches called the cops when he saw us nearby, but there was no major issue and we eventually saw the birds very well on the power lines without peeking into his yard too much! Sea Otter was a huge bonus here, with two individuals showing very nicely in the calm seas. Steller's and White-tailed Eagle showed well in very scenic settings, and one of the plastic models of Tufted Puffins still remains, set amidst the tussock grass to lure nesting birds.
Some of us lingered near the point and as we were about to leave I saw a small black and white alcid on the sea which looked unfamiliar. I got local guide Chris Cook onto it, and it turned out to be both his and my lifer Long-billed Murrelet! Other alcids popped up nearby, with Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot and Spectacled Guillemot in the same area, plus the only Mew (Kamchatka) Gull of the trip. It was just a a shame some of the group had gone back before these unexpected finds.
It is always hard to pick highlights from the tour as there were so many, though certainly the Japanese Waxwings were one right at the start. Red-crowned Cranes in the snow were a major one, and the crane spectacle at Arasaki is amazing. The Blakiston's Fish-Owls were again terrific this year, and we had a marvellous experience with both Steller's Sea-Eagle and White-tailed Eagle. The Snow Monkeys were also a major hit and in very nice conditions this time.
Add to this the Japanese culture, the intriguing hotels, onsens, and minshuku we visited, and the many fine Japanese meals we sampled -I am tempted to add a divine small salad from Yoroushi to the highlights as well, just so nicely done. Given the multi-course meals, washing-up must be a major industry in this country!
Jun Matsui was once again my co-leader and our driver, and we benefited greatly from his patience, local knowledge, and interpretive skills. My thanks to the group for being 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. 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 Mandy 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 our new Japan in Spring tour in 2019!
Phil in Narita and Kuranda Feb 2018
Jan 28 Tokko River outflow (Narita Creek)/ Tone Fiver/Komoro Park
Jan 29 Karuizawa/ Shiotsubo/Saku
Jan 30 Jigokudani Monkey Park/Komatsu
Jan 31 Hachodate Harbor/ Katano Kamoike
Feb 1 JAL to Haneda/ Kagoshima/ Kogawa Dam/Izumi
Feb 2 Arasaki and eastern fields/ Minamata/ Yatsushiro
Feb 3 Akune/Sendae area/Arasaki and eastern fields
Feb 4 Sendae Gawa/ Lake Miike/Kagoshima
Feb 5 JAL to Haneda/ Kushiro/Tsurui
Feb 6 Otowa Bride/Tsurui-ito Crane Reserve/Teshikaga/ Rausu harbor/Washi no Yado
Feb 7 "Evergreen" boat cruise Rausu harbor /Yoroushi
Feb 8 Yoroushi/ Kyoudei viewpoint/ Notsuke/Nosappu
Feb 9 Tobai woodlands/Onnemoto/Nosappu/Kiritappu/Kushiro
Feb 10 Return to Tokyo on JAL, Express bus to Narita
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
Birds of the trip were many and varied as ever, but the cranes, Steller's and White-tailed eagles and Blakiston's Fish Owl inevitably loom large as we had such terrific sightings. Other highlights were the male Green Pheasant, the Japanese Waxwings and some fine woodpeckers, this is a tour for quality and not quantity
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 7.3 has just been published. Go to worldbirdnames.org, or Google "IOC" and ignore the Olympics stuff!
Totals for the tour: 143 bird taxa and 8 mammal taxa