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Steller's Sea-Eagle is classified as Vulnerable, although this individual, striding along like an enraged samurai, looks anything but!! This magnificent bird is always a highlight of the tour, and we were very pleased to see about 150 of them at Rausu. Photo by participant Becky Hansen.
This was my fifteenth winter Japan trip, though beset by some weather issues with heavy snow at the snow monkeys, then rain on Kyushu and high winds on Hokkaido which cost us a day there when we were unable to land. Finally, we had some worries about snow at Haneda on departure day, which thankfully did not impact us much; let's hope for more settled conditions in 2020.
We began as usual at Narita, where a Brown-headed Thrush was at Tokko creek not far from the hotel; it was the only one we saw. The striking Japanese Wagtail made its first appearance, but there was no sign of the Falcated Duck and Meadow and Black-faced Buntings I’d seen the previous day, though a flyover Goshawk was a good find.
Karuizawa was not very snowy, so there were no ice hazards this time. Our initial afternoon trip to Saku gave us our first Smew, plus fantastic close Baikal Teal and a single drake Falcated Duck as we were leaving, plus easy Long-billed Plover, though duck numbers were low due to the icy conditions there. A forested road up in the hills near the town next morning looked very promising for Copper Pheasant but did not produce, though we did get great looks at Japanese Serow and Japanese Woodpecker there.
Our visit to Shiotsubo onsen for coffee gave wonderful looks at unusual numbers of Varied Tit, and my first Chinese Hwamei for Japan, an introduced bird that seems to be spreading fast. There was no Japanese Accentor or Grosbeak but we did see the very dark local race of Eurasian Wren and Brown Dipper nearby, and lovely Willow and Long-tailed Tits and a gorgeous Red-flanked Bluetail.
The Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani were a big hit as always, and with large amounts of very atmospheric and scenic snow this year. Later we had great views of Taiga Bean Goose and the usual distant Baikal Teal at Kamoike, a flyover of Mountain Hawk Eagle, and more Smew and great Falcated Ducks nearby. Hachodate Harbor gave Japanese Cormorant and Black-tailed Gull, and a vagrant Oriental Stork was tracked down and showed well, not one of the reintroduced birds.
Kyushu was very wet on arrival, but nice for the second day, which was great for photography, but turned very cold and windy with snow showers or heavy rain for the next two days. Arasaki gave us a wonderful show of Hooded and White-naped cranes -- some 15,000 in the area this year -- plus 1 Sandhill and at least 2 Common Cranes with sundry hybrids.
Thankfully, Saunders's Gull was back this year and showed well; last year they were wintering further north. Black-faced Spoonbills also showed nicely, with Eurasian Spoonbill for comparison. 4 Tundra Bean Goose at the Eastern Fields were a J-tick for me, and an interesting exercise in identifying them. We saw a few Mandarin Ducks at Kogawa Dam, and heading down to Sendae saw Japanese Cormorant, and a female Green Pheasant crossing the road. It was again a very poor year for buntings, with hardly any around.
Long-billed Plover and a fine Crested Kingfisher showed nicely on the Sendae River as we drove to Miike, but it began to rain hard and we saw very little there, with again no buntings. We made a diversion before the rain to a site at Kagoshima State Forest where there was a very tame male Copper Pheasant, which showed amazingly well and was wandering about amongst the assembled photographers, great to see this difficult species so well and of the distinctive white-winged ijimae subspecies.
Hokkaido by contrast was again gorgeous after gale force winds previously, with little snow, not much sea ice, and very cold temperatures. Some species were scarce or absent, and gull, alcid and duck numbers seemed quite low. Coming in a day behind schedule, we went straight from Red-crowned Crane Airport at Kushiro out to Washi-no-Yado small minshuku (the Japanese word for a small, family-owned bed-and-breakfast), arriving just after dark. This year the male Blakiston's Fish-Owl came in very late after bad weather the day before, first appearing at 0255 when the group saw it but did not tell Jun and I, so we did not see it until 0500! Still, we had great looks and the views from the rooms were terrific, and the overnight sharing arrangements seemed amicable enough.
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. Rausu Harbor gave us Harlequin Ducks, and both Glaucous and Glaucous-winged gulls amongst the numerous Slaty-backs plus a few Kamchatka (Common) Gulls.
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 asiatica race of Eurasian Nuthatch, Marsh Tit, and the distinctive brandtii race of Eurasian Jay. Blakiston's Fish-Owl arrived at the fishing area outside, with great looks from the comfort of the lounge around 1830! No sign of Solitary Snipe or Sable this year though.
Next came the great sand spit of Notsuke, very cold as 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 saw dozens of Sika deer and some beautiful red foxes along the spit.
Nosappu late afternoon was bitterly cold and with very little on the sea except Spectacled Guillemot off the cape. It was a very poor winter for alcids for some reason.
Our last day saw us visit the great bleak cape of Kiritappu in beautiful calm sunny conditions, with Asian Rosy Finch near the lighthouse, then again later near the infamous grumpy guy’s place. We eventually also saw the birds very well on the power lines without peeking into his yard too much! Sea Otter was again this year a huge bonus here, with one individual showing very nicely in the calm seas. Steller's and White-tailed Eagle showed well in very scenic settings.
Our finale came with wonderful Red-crowned Cranes at Tsurui, some this year rolled up like giant snowballs, very strange, and then seen again at the old ladies fields. We also visited a pair of Ural Owl at their day roost in exquisite late afternoon sunlight light, at a site where we saw one in previous years, a wonderful end to the birding.
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 coming and enjoying the many varied aspects of the tour as well as the birds. Particular thanks to Jun for driving so well, arranging the bags like a Tetris 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. Why not join us for an unforgettable birding and cultural experience in this wonderful country in 2020?
Jan 27 Tokko River outflow (Narita Creek)/ Saku Reservoir /Komoro
Jan 28 Karuizawa area / Shiotsubo
Jan 29 Jigokudani Monkey Park/Komatsu
Jan 30 Awara city fields/Hachodate Harbor/ Katano Kamoike/ Kahokugata
Jan 31 JAL to Haneda/ Kagoshima/ Kogawa Dam/ Izumi
Feb 1 Arasaki and eastern fields/ Akune/ Sendai river area
Feb 2 Minamata and Yatsushiro area/ Arasaki and eastern fields
Feb 3 Sendai Gawa/ Kagoshima State Forest/ Lake Miike/Kagoshima
Feb 4 JAL to Haneda/ Kushiro and return to Tokyo due to bad weather
Feb 5 JAL to Kushiro and drive to Washi-no-Yado
Feb 6 "Evergreen" boat cruise Rausu harbor /Teshikaga/ Yoroushi
Feb 7 Yoroushi/ Notsuke/Nosappu
Feb 8 Tobai and Furen woodlands/Kiritappu/Kushiro
Feb 9 Return to Tokyo on JAL, Express bus to Narita
PG Kuranda Feb 2019
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
We did not see Red-crowned Cranes until our last day, but we were not disappointed. At Tsurui, we found a number of cranes tucked up into large "snowballs" as they rested on the ground, but this small group entertained us with a lovely dance. Photo by participant Becky Hansen.
Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)
GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE (Anser albifrons)
TAIGA BEAN-GOOSE (Anser fabalis middendorffii)
TUNDRA BEAN-GOOSE (Anser serrirostris serrirostris)
WHOOPER SWAN (Cygnus cygnus)
COMMON SHELDUCK (Tadorna tadorna)
MANDARIN DUCK (Aix galericulata)
BAIKAL TEAL (Sibirionetta formosa)
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)
GADWALL (Mareca strepera)
FALCATED DUCK (Mareca falcata)
We lucked into a male Copper Pheasant defending his territory at Kagoshima Forest Park. This species is normally quite shy, so watching this one was definitely one of the tour highlights! Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
EURASIAN WIGEON (Mareca penelope)
EASTERN SPOT-BILLED DUCK (Anas zonorhyncha)
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)
NORTHERN PINTAIL (Anas acuta)
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (EURASIAN) (Anas crecca crecca)
COMMON POCHARD (Aythya ferina)
TUFTED DUCK (Aythya fuligula)
GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila)
HARLEQUIN DUCK (Histrionicus histrionicus)
BLACK SCOTER (Melanitta americana)
Rausu was the site for some great views of White-tailed Eagle, but we also saw some at Kiritappu. Photo by participant Becky Hansen.
LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis)
COMMON GOLDENEYE (Bucephala clangula)
SMEW (Mergellus albellus)
COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER (Mergus serrator)
Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)
COPPER PHEASANT (Syrmaticus soemmerringii) [E]
RING-NECKED PHEASANT (GREEN) (Phasianus colchicus versicolor) [E]
LITTLE GREBE (LITTLE) (Tachybaptus ruficollis poggei)
GREAT CRESTED GREBE (Podiceps cristatus cristatus)
EARED GREBE (Podiceps nigricollis nigricollis)
This Eurasian Jay is of the Brandt's race, a northern taxon which has dark colored eyes. We saw these at several sites, including Yoroushi and Furen. Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
ORIENTAL STORK (Ciconia boyciana)
Sulidae (Boobies and Gannets)
BROWN BOOBY (Sula leucogaster)
Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants and Shags)
PELAGIC CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax pelagicus)
GREAT CORMORANT (EURASIAN) (Phalacrocorax carbo hanedae)
JAPANESE CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax capillatus) [E]
Ardeidae (Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns)
GRAY HERON (Ardea cinerea)
GREAT EGRET (EURASIAN) (Ardea alba alba)
LITTLE EGRET (WESTERN) (Egretta garzetta garzetta)
Threskiornithidae (Ibises and Spoonbills)
EURASIAN SPOONBILL (Platalea leucorodia)
BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL (Platalea minor)
Participant Becky Hansen got this lovely image of an Oriental Greenfinch.
OSPREY (HALIAETUS) (Pandion haliaetus haliaetus)
Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)
MOUNTAIN HAWK-EAGLE (Nisaetus nipalensis orientalis)
GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos japonica)
EASTERN MARSH-HARRIER (Circus spilonotus)
EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK (Accipiter nisus)
NORTHERN GOSHAWK (Accipiter gentilis)
BLACK KITE (BLACK-EARED) (Milvus migrans lineatus)
WHITE-TAILED EAGLE (Haliaeetus albicilla)
STELLER'S SEA-EAGLE (Haliaeetus pelagicus)
EASTERN BUZZARD (Buteo japonicus japonicus)
This Oriental Stork was an unexpected surprise. It was seen near Arawa, where is was likely a wintering vagrant from China. Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules, and Coots)
EURASIAN COOT (Fulica atra)
SANDHILL CRANE (Antigone canadensis)
WHITE-NAPED CRANE (Antigone 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)
LONG-BILLED PLOVER (Charadrius placidus)
The Japanese population of Large-billed Crow may eventually be split from the mainland group, in which case they would be called Japanese Crow. We had some wonderful views of these interesting corvids as they stole fish from the eagles at Rausu. Photo by participant Becky Hansen.
Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)
EURASIAN CURLEW (Numenius arquata)
DUNLIN (Calidris alpina)
COMMON SNIPE (Gallinago gallinago)
COMMON SANDPIPER (Actitis hypoleucos)
GREEN SANDPIPER (Tringa ochropus)
COMMON GREENSHANK (Tringa nebularia)
Alcidae (Auks, Murres, and Puffins)
SPECTACLED GUILLEMOT (Cepphus carbo)
Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)
SAUNDERS'S GULL (Saundersilarus saundersi)
BLACK-HEADED GULL (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
BLACK-TAILED GULL (Larus crassirostris)
Guide Phil Gregory got a video of the interactions between the Steller's Sea-Eagles and Large-billed Crows at Rausu. The vocalizations of these Japanese crows are different from those of the mainland populations.
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]
ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE (Streptopelia orientalis orientalis)
BLAKISTON'S FISH-OWL (Ketupa blakistoni)
URAL OWL (Strix uralensis)
COMMON KINGFISHER (Alcedo atthis)
Participant Becky Hansen got a nice image of one of the colorful Varied Tits that we saw at Shiotsubo.
CRESTED KINGFISHER (Megaceryle lugubris)
PYGMY WOODPECKER (Dendrocopos kizuki)
GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER (GREAT SPOTTED) (Dendrocopos major japonicus)
JAPANESE WOODPECKER (Picus awokera) [E]
Falconidae (Falcons and Caracaras)
EURASIAN KESTREL (Falco tinnunculus)
PEREGRINE FALCON (EURASIAN) (Falco peregrinus japonensis)
BULL-HEADED SHRIKE (Lanius bucephalus)
Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)
EURASIAN JAY (BRANDT'S) (Garrulus glandarius brandtii)
EURASIAN JAY (JAPANESE) (Garrulus glandarius japonicus)
DAURIAN JACKDAW (Corvus dauuricus)
ROOK (Corvus frugilegus pastinator)
CARRION CROW (Corvus corone orientalis)
LARGE-BILLED CROW (LARGE-BILLED) (Corvus macrorhynchos japonensis)
EURASIAN SKYLARK (ASIAN) (Alauda arvensis japonica)
BARN SWALLOW (Hirundo rustica)
ASIAN HOUSE-MARTIN (Delichon dasypus)
White-naped Cranes were mostly gone when we visited Arasaki, but we had a very nice view of this family. This is another Vulnerable species. Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
Paridae (Tits, Chickadees, and Titmice)
COAL TIT (CONTINENTAL) (Periparus ater insularis)
VARIED TIT (Sittiparus varius varius)
MARSH TIT (Poecile palustris hensoni)
WILLOW TIT (WILLOW) (Poecile montanus restrictus)
JAPANESE TIT (Parus minor)
Aegithalidae (Long-tailed Tits)
LONG-TAILED TIT (EUROPAEUS) (Aegithalos caudatus trivirgatus)
EURASIAN NUTHATCH (EURASIAN) (Sitta europaea asiatica)
EURASIAN NUTHATCH (EURASIAN) (Sitta europaea amurensis)
EURASIAN TREECREEPER (Certhia familiaris)
EURASIAN WREN (EURASIAN) (Troglodytes troglodytes fumigatus)
This wonderfully gnarled tree has been the roost-site for a Ural Owl in recent years, however, this year we were treated to two of these lovely creatures. Photo by participant Becky Hansen.
BROWN DIPPER (Cinclus pallasii)
BROWN-EARED BULBUL (Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis)
Scotocercidae (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)
CHINESE HWAMEI (Garrulax canorus) [I]
Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers)
RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL (Tarsiger cyanurus)
DAURIAN REDSTART (Phoenicurus auroreus)
BLUE ROCK-THRUSH (PHILIPPENSIS) (Monticola solitarius philippensis)
Turdidae (Thrushes and Allies)
PALE THRUSH (Turdus pallidus)
BROWN-HEADED THRUSH (Turdus chrysolaus)
White Wagtails were a common sight on the tour. Guide Phil Gregory took this photo of one posing artfully in a stream.
DUSKY THRUSH (Turdus eunomus)
WHITE-CHEEKED STARLING (Spodiopsar cineraceus)
Motacillidae (Wagtails and Pipits)
GRAY WAGTAIL (Motacilla cinerea)
WHITE WAGTAIL (BLACK-BACKED) (Motacilla alba lugens)
JAPANESE WAGTAIL (Motacilla grandis)
OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT (Anthus hodgsoni)
RED-THROATED PIPIT (Anthus cervinus)
AMERICAN PIPIT (JAPONICUS) (Anthus rubescens japonicus)
Emberizidae (Old World Buntings)
MEADOW BUNTING (Emberiza cioides)
CHESTNUT-EARED BUNTING (Emberiza fucata)
The standard image of cranes shows them dancing together or walking through a snowy field, but this year, we found a number of Red-crowned Cranes tucked into their feathers, roosting on the ground like giant fluffy snowballs. Video by guide Phil Gregory.
RUSTIC BUNTING (Emberiza rustica)
BLACK-FACED BUNTING (PERSONATA) (Emberiza spodocephala personata)
REED BUNTING (Emberiza schoeniclus)
Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)
BRAMBLING (Fringilla montifringilla)
HAWFINCH (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)
JAPANESE GROSBEAK (Eophona personata)
ASIAN ROSY-FINCH (Leucosticte arctoa brunneonucha)
ORIENTAL GREENFINCH (Chloris sinica)
Passeridae (Old World Sparrows)
RUSSET SPARROW (Passer rutilans)
EURASIAN TREE SPARROW (Passer montanus)
A pensive Japanese Macaque posed in the snow for participant Becky Hansen.
JAPANESE MACAQUE (Macaca fuscata)
RED FOX (Vulpes vulpes)
SEA OTTER (Enhydra lutris)
HARBOR SEAL (Phoca vitulina)
SIKA DEER (Cervus nippon)
SEROW SP. (Capricornis crispus)
Birds of the trip were many and varied as ever, but the cranes, Steller's and White-tailed eagles and both Ural and Blakiston's Fish Owl inevitably loom large as we had such terrific sightings. Other highlights were the terrific male Copper Pheasant and some fine woodpeckers plus Hawfinch; this is a tour for quality above 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 Smugmug 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.
I also recommend the IOC World Checklist of Birds, a free-access downloadable Excel file that gets updated every four months; version 8.3 has just been published. Go to worldbirdnames.org, or Google "IOC" and ignore the Olympics stuff!
Totals for the tour: 136 bird taxa and 6 mammal taxa