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Field Guides Tour Report
Winter Japan: Cranes & Sea Eagles 2019
Jan 25, 2019 to Feb 9, 2019
Phil Gregory & Jun Matsui

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

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) – Single birds at Katano Kamoike and then at Arasaki Crane centre.
TAIGA BEAN-GOOSE (Anser fabalis middendorffii) – Nice looks at this large-billed taxon at Katano Kamoike, where about 150 were on the pond.
TUNDRA BEAN-GOOSE (Anser serrirostris serrirostris) – Four birds (with 3 next day) in the Eastern Fields had the dark head and smaller bill with steeper forehead of Tundra Bean Goose, a controversial split. This race is the one most usually separated, as by Clements and the IOC, but oddly not HBW/BirdLife. These were my first in Japan; it winters mostly in N Honshu, separate from Taiga Bean wintering areas and not on our route.
WHOOPER SWAN (Cygnus cygnus) – Lovely views and splendid bugling from the birds on the pond at Teshikaga, then a small flock at Furen.
COMMON SHELDUCK (Tadorna tadorna) – Seen at Arasaki and Yatsushiro, this is a species that has increased greatly in recent years.
MANDARIN DUCK (Aix galericulata) – A crowd-pleaser on the very rainy arrival day when we called in at Kogawa Dam en route to Izumi and saw 11 wild Mandarin, including 5 exquisite drakes.
BAIKAL TEAL (Sibirionetta formosa) – 2 drakes and 2 females at Saku Water Reserve on the first day, giving lovely views in very good light. Then several hundred at Katano Kamoike, but more distant. Though always a terrific bird to see.
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata) – Scarce as always; a female at Saku and about 20 near Awara city was it.
GADWALL (Mareca strepera) – Also very scarce this year, we had 6 in Hachodate Harbour as the only sighting.
FALCATED DUCK (Mareca falcata) – Another fantastic Japanese duck; we had a single drake at Saku, then about 30 on a lake near Awara city which gave wonderful views of this marvelously exotic looking species. Falcated means sickle-shaped and refers to the long curving tertials characteristic of this duck.

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) – One of the commonest ducks, seen at all the coastal and wetland sites.
EASTERN SPOT-BILLED DUCK (Anas zonorhyncha) – Good views at Saku and then good numbers at Arasaki and most wetlands in Kyushu.
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos) – Common at most wetlands, with hundreds at Kahokugata.
NORTHERN PINTAIL (Anas acuta) – Big flocks at Arasaki with about 1500 flighting in behind the cranes, and a few at Saku earlier.
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (EURASIAN) (Anas crecca crecca) – About 70 at Katano, and small numbers at other wetlands. This species has a confusing Clements name, as the nominate race is actually Eurasian Teal, whilst the American carolinensis is Green-winged Teal, split by some other checklists.
COMMON POCHARD (Aythya ferina) – This bird is declining fast and is now considered Vulnerable; we saw small numbers at Saku, Awara pond, just a single at Katano and 5 at Kogawa Dam. BirdLife states: New information suggests the population has declined rapidly across the majority of the range, and it has therefore been uplisted to Vulnerable.
TUFTED DUCK (Aythya fuligula) – A few at Saku River and Katano, and one drake at Kogawa.
GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila) – A single drake in the harbor at Rausu, with 2 female-type that had Scaup head-shape but lacked any white on the face.
HARLEQUIN DUCK (Histrionicus histrionicus) – A few at Rausu and off Nosappu, always a lovely bird to see. One drake was with the Scaup at Rausu.
BLACK SCOTER (Melanitta americana) – Small numbers of Notsuke, Nosappu and Kiritappu; sea duck were very sparse this year.

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) – Just 3 drakes off Notsuke this year, unusually scarce but not helped by poor visibility on two days.
COMMON GOLDENEYE (Bucephala clangula) – Just a few in Hokkaido; very small numbers this year.
SMEW (Mergellus albellus) – This showy bird is always a highlight, and we had 5 drakes with 8 redheads at Saku River, and a few birds at Katano, Awara and Kahokugata, a typical showing.
COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser) – Nice looks at Saku, then a few on Hokkaido.
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER (Mergus serrator) – Small numbers from Rausu and Notsuke this year.
Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)
COPPER PHEASANT (Syrmaticus soemmerringii) – An extraordinary performance from a male that was aggressively defending his territory at Kagoshima Forest Park, running at a Japanese lady and walking amongst us all. Usually shy and very hard to find, so this was quite bizarre. This was the southern Kyushu race ijimae that has extensive white on the rump and wing coverts, rather different to the Karuizawa birds. By far my best ever view of this tricky species. [E]
RING-NECKED PHEASANT (GREEN) (Phasianus colchicus versicolor) – A female bird sporting a leg ring walked across the road at Sendai fields, and it was heard near Awara. [E]
Podicipedidae (Grebes)
LITTLE GREBE (LITTLE) (Tachybaptus ruficollis poggei) – Seen at Saku River at Katano, then at various wetlands in the south; this race has a yellow eye.
GREAT CRESTED GREBE (Podiceps cristatus cristatus) – Singles near Awara, then at Kahokugata and Yatsushiro.
EARED GREBE (Podiceps nigricollis nigricollis) – 5 at a river near Awara and one at Yatsushiro.

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.

Ciconiidae (Storks)
ORIENTAL STORK (Ciconia boyciana) – An unringed vagrant from presumably the Chinese population was wintering at a marshy area near Awara. We saw it fly over initially, then later found it perched quite near the road for great views. A rare bird and a Japan tick for Phil. There is a reintroduction project going on in central Honshu as well, but this bird is thought not to be from there.
Sulidae (Boobies and Gannets)
BROWN BOOBY (Sula leucogaster) – One flying off Akune rocks was unexpected.
Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants and Shags)
PELAGIC CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) – Two at Hachodate harbor, then small numbers on Hokkaido.
GREAT CORMORANT (EURASIAN) (Phalacrocorax carbo hanedae) – The maxima were at Arasaki with about 300 around the Eastern Fields.
JAPANESE CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax capillatus) – Five at Hachodate Harbor. The pointed gular area and more extensive white face were obvious on the adult. Then a nice view on the rocks off Akune in Kyushu. [E]
Ardeidae (Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns)
GRAY HERON (Ardea cinerea) – Small numbers at most wetlands.
GREAT EGRET (EURASIAN) (Ardea alba alba) – A few of the nominate race at Arasaki and near Awara, with one bird thought to be of the Australasian modesta taxon there, with pale yellowy upper tibia.
LITTLE EGRET (WESTERN) (Egretta garzetta garzetta) – 4 birds at Arasaki were the only sighting.
Threskiornithidae (Ibises and Spoonbills)
EURASIAN SPOONBILL (Platalea leucorodia) – 7 at Arasaki, the eye clearly visible as distinct from the black, with a single next day.
BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL (Platalea minor) – One at the Eastern Fields with a flock of Eurasian Spoonbills, the small size quite obvious, then 3 next day that gave intermittent short views of the bills, as they slept most of the time!

Participant Becky Hansen got this lovely image of an Oriental Greenfinch.

Pandionidae (Osprey)
OSPREY (HALIAETUS) (Pandion haliaetus haliaetus) – Seen at Yatsushiro.
Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)
MOUNTAIN HAWK-EAGLE (Nisaetus nipalensis orientalis) – One flew over at Katano Kamoike and caused panic amongst the waterfowl, a good find of an elusive bird that we seldom see on the tour. Split by HBW/BirdLife as Japanese Hawk-Eagle.
GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos japonica) – Petra saw one soar over in the snow at Jigokudani snow monkey pools.
EASTERN MARSH-HARRIER (Circus spilonotus) – A single female-plumaged bird at Kahokugata was a good pick-up.
EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK (Accipiter nisus) – One bird briefly for some of us at Arasaki reedbed.
NORTHERN GOSHAWK (Accipiter gentilis) – One flew overhead at Narita Creek, pursued by a crow.
BLACK KITE (BLACK-EARED) (Milvus migrans lineatus) – Widespread and fairly common, they sure look different from Black Kite, and some lists (not IOC) do split them.
WHITE-TAILED EAGLE (Haliaeetus albicilla) – Lovely view from Rausu with around 70 birds, alongside the magnificent Steller's Sea-Eagles, and then a couple near Nosappu and Kiritappu. One was sat hunched on a railing there and looked like a person initially!
STELLER'S SEA-EAGLE (Haliaeetus pelagicus) – Classified as Vulnerable, with just 3600-3800 individuals, mostly wintering in Japan and breeding in Russia and Korea. We had around 150 at Rausu with fabulous looks at point blank range on the boat trip. Also odd birds from Furen and Kiritappu, sitting nicely posed on a snowy cliff there. One of the great charismatic species for sure, and a truly magnificent bird.
EASTERN BUZZARD (Buteo japonicus japonicus) – A few sightings from Honshu and Kyushu, and one from Hokkaido, split from Common Buzzard but still taxonomically vexed.

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) – Small numbers at Saku, Katano Kamoike and the Arasaki area.
Gruidae (Cranes)
SANDHILL CRANE (Antigone canadensis) – Just a single at the Eastern Fields on both visits, where it is rare but annual here.
WHITE-NAPED CRANE (Antigone vipio) – One of the most beautiful and exotic of the family, with a loud bugling call. There were about 700 at Arasaki, giving wonderful views, but many had already gone. They depart quite early, starting this month. The species is classified as Vulnerable with around 3750-4500 individuals only.
COMMON CRANE (Grus grus) – A couple of adults at the Eastern Fields, and also some pale grey hybrids with Hooded Crane at the Crane Centre, which have the dark chin and throat of Common Crane.
HOODED CRANE (Grus monacha) – Around 12,000 were reported this year at Arasaki, and we had tremendous views of the noisy flocks. Small family groups were dotted about the area, often with White-naped Cranes intermixed, and the very vocal flocks flighting-in at the Crane Centre is an unforgettable spectacle. It is classified as Vulnerable, with about 15,000 birds wintering at just 10 sites.
RED-CROWNED CRANE (Grus japonensis) – Losing a day due to being unable to land meant we did not do the misty river spectacle and had to wait till the last day before we had our Red-crowned Crane spectacle. Some of us saw 2 briefly en route to Rausu, then we had 40 in a snowy field as we came from Kiritappu, then the customary flocks at the Tsurui sites. Interestingly some birds were curled up on the snow like giant snowballs this year, a very strange sight. One of the most beautiful of all the cranes and in wonderful snowy settings here.
Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)
BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER (Pluvialis squatarola) – About 40 on the mudflats at Yatsushiro.
NORTHERN LAPWING (Vanellus vanellus) – About 15 around Arasaki.
KENTISH PLOVER (Charadrius alexandrinus) – About 60 at Yatsushiro, feeding on the mudflats.
LONG-BILLED PLOVER (Charadrius placidus) – Two fine birds on the river gravels at Saku, with fine views in the scope, then 4 at the Satsumasendai River.

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) – 6 at Yatsushiro, a scarce bird in Japan.
DUNLIN (Calidris alpina) – About 70 at Arasaki and a couple of hundred at Yatsushiro.
COMMON SNIPE (Gallinago gallinago) – Great views at Arasaki with about 4 birds.
COMMON SANDPIPER (Actitis hypoleucos) – A few singles from Kyushu.
GREEN SANDPIPER (Tringa ochropus) – One at Narita Creek showed very well.
COMMON GREENSHANK (Tringa nebularia) – Just 2 at Yatsushiro.
Alcidae (Auks, Murres, and Puffins)
SPECTACLED GUILLEMOT (Cepphus carbo) – Seen in the fog off Notsuke, then again briefly off Nosappu; very scarce this year with almost no alcids around.
Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)
SAUNDERS'S GULL (Saundersilarus saundersi) – Thankfully back at Yatsushiro this year after wintering further north in 2018, we had great view of about 6 birds, most in first winter plumage, and heard the distinctive squeaky dry flight call.
BLACK-HEADED GULL (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) – Just a couple at Yatsushiro this trip.
BLACK-TAILED GULL (Larus crassirostris) – A nice look at 5 at Hachodate, then 5 at Yatsushiro were it for this trip.

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) – Seen well at Rausu, this seems such an obvious split as all plumages differ from both Common and Mew Gull. There were 3 on the boat trip and about 10 in the stream mouth nearby.
HERRING GULL (VEGA) (Larus argentatus vegae) – The common pale mantled pink-legged Herring type gull with pink legs, with one adult at Hachodate and half a dozen seen at Yatsushiro. Large gull taxonomy remains vexatious and HBW/BirdLife class this with American Herring Gull.
SLATY-BACKED GULL (Larus schistisagus) – One adult at Akune was well south, then fairly common around Rausu and coastal Hokkaido.
GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL (Larus glaucescens) – About 6 birds around Rausu, it was seen well.
GLAUCOUS GULL (Larus hyperboreus) – Small numbers from Rausu, and then a couple at Furen.
Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves)
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) – Feral Pigeon was widespread throughout and in many color forms. Lois was an expert in finding them. [I]
ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE (Streptopelia orientalis orientalis) – 7 day records with up to 15 each day from Kyushu, and none on Hokkaido as usual..
Strigidae (Owls)
BLAKISTON'S FISH-OWL (Ketupa blakistoni) – Came in very late this year at Washi-no-Yado, about 5 minutes before Jun and I emerged at 0300 and discovered it had already gone.... happily it came back around 0500 and was calling nicely too. Then a great bird once again at Yoroushi, seen brilliantly from the dining room around 1830. A fabulous creature, arguably the world's largest owl. Classified as Endangered with population estimates of just 1000­-2500 birds, it is a hard species to survey in its remote forest habitat in Russia and Japan. The Hokkaido population is estimated to be just 150 birds.
URAL OWL (Strix uralensis) – The roost site near Tsurui came good again, only this year there was a pair in perfect late afternoon winter sunlight, just fantastic and a wonderful finale to the trip in such a fine setting.
Alcedinidae (Kingfishers)
COMMON KINGFISHER (Alcedo atthis) – One shot past at Narita Creek, the only one for the trip.

Participant Becky Hansen got a nice image of one of the colorful Varied Tits that we saw at Shiotsubo.

CRESTED KINGFISHER (Megaceryle lugubris) – A fine bird from Sendai River, flying right down the middle and then seen perched up in trees. Easily missed.
Picidae (Woodpeckers)
PYGMY WOODPECKER (Dendrocopos kizuki) – A great look at 2 birds from Furen Nature Centre.
GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER (GREAT SPOTTED) (Dendrocopos major japonicus) – Seen near Karuizawa, then great views at the suet feeder at Yoroushi onsen, hopping backwards down the trunk. This race is a potential split too.
JAPANESE WOODPECKER (Picus awokera) – Seen well along the wooded road near Karuizawa, great spotting by Petra, then one in the rain at Mi-ike. [E]
Falconidae (Falcons and Caracaras)
EURASIAN KESTREL (Falco tinnunculus) – Just a couple of sightings from the Arasaki area.
PEREGRINE FALCON (EURASIAN) (Falco peregrinus japonensis) – Up to 4 birds around Arasaki, with a fine immature flying about by the crane centre.
Laniidae (Shrikes)
BULL-HEADED SHRIKE (Lanius bucephalus) – Singles from Narita for some, then Saku, Yatsushiro and Arasaki.
Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)
EURASIAN JAY (BRANDT'S) (Garrulus glandarius brandtii) – This dark-eyed northern taxon, another potential split, showed very well at Yoroushi, where a loose flock of about 20 came through early in the morning. Also seen at Furen and near Kiritappu.
EURASIAN JAY (JAPANESE) (Garrulus glandarius japonicus) – This yellow-eyed race was seen briefly at Karuizawa, another potential split when someone gets to look at the Eurasian Jay complex.
DAURIAN JACKDAW (Corvus dauuricus) – A fine immature bird with grey streak on the ear coverts was at Arasaki Crane Centre, calling loudly amongst the Rook flock, see my recording on the IBC site. There were 3 immatures on the wires earlier.
ROOK (Corvus frugilegus pastinator) – Lots around Arasaki, with over 250 by the crane centre one morning, this is another possible split.
CARRION CROW (Corvus corone orientalis) – Good numbers this year, with 150 near Katano and a good count near Saku, another potential split too.
LARGE-BILLED CROW (LARGE-BILLED) (Corvus macrorhynchos japonensis) – This large heavy billed species with the domed forehead was also widespread, and another likely split as Japanese Crow; they are vocally unlike mainland birds in the complex. Many were stealing fish from the eagles on the sea wall at Rausu.
Alaudidae (Larks)
EURASIAN SKYLARK (ASIAN) (Alauda arvensis japonica) – A few were seen around Arasaki; to me, they do not call or sing like Eurasian Skylarks, and I think they should be split as they once were.
Hirundinidae (Swallows)
BARN SWALLOW (Hirundo rustica) – A small flock at Sendai River and another stream near Kagoshima later.
ASIAN HOUSE-MARTIN (Delichon dasypus) – A group of about 10 birds in the centre of Minamata, the blackish underwing coverts showing well.

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) – One briefly at the Bird Forest and then high in the cypress at Jigokudani in the snow; this race has a small crest.
VARIED TIT (Sittiparus varius varius) – Seen well at Shiotsubo where there were good numbers this year with up to 10 birds, a striking and colourful species.
MARSH TIT (Poecile palustris hensoni) – This is the one from Hokkaido, where we saw it very well at Yoroushi. It is a neater bird than Willow Tit with a glossier cap and no pale panel on the secondaries.
WILLOW TIT (WILLOW) (Poecile montanus restrictus) – Great views from Shiotsubo, the pale wing panel and large head quite apparent.
JAPANESE TIT (Parus minor) – Seen well at Shiotsubo, then Sendae, the former Great Tit is quite nicely coloured when seen well. I do lament the loss of Parus major minor though.....
Aegithalidae (Long-tailed Tits)
LONG-TAILED TIT (EUROPAEUS) (Aegithalos caudatus trivirgatus) – Nice looks from Shiotsubo, but none of the white-headed taxon on Hokkaido this year.
Sittidae (Nuthatches)
EURASIAN NUTHATCH (EURASIAN) (Sitta europaea asiatica) – Great looks from Yoroushi, this taxon has really white underparts.
EURASIAN NUTHATCH (EURASIAN) (Sitta europaea amurensis) – Seen at Shiotsubo, quite pinkish below.
Certhiidae (Treecreepers)
EURASIAN TREECREEPER (Certhia familiaris) – One from Furen Reserve was a good find as we seldom see this species on the tour.
Troglodytidae (Wrens)
EURASIAN WREN (EURASIAN) (Troglodytes troglodytes fumigatus) – Seen at Shiotsubo and again at Yoroushi, this is a very dark race.

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.

Cinclidae (Dippers)
BROWN DIPPER (Cinclus pallasii) – Good views from Kogawa stream and then at Washi-no-Yado.
Pycnonotidae (Bulbuls)
BROWN-EARED BULBUL (Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis) – Widespread and noisy, the shrill squealing call is a feature of most woodlands and urban sites.
Scotocercidae (Bush Warblers and Allies)
JAPANESE BUSH WARBLER (Horornis diphone cantans) – A fine view of one at a temple at Izumi, feeding up in tree there. Also seen briefly earlier by some of us at a reedbed near Arasaki.
Zosteropidae (White-eyes, Yuhinas, and Allies)
JAPANESE WHITE-EYE (Zosterops japonicus) – One at Katano, then very small numbers on Kyushu.
Leiothrichidae (Laughingthrushes and Allies)
CHINESE HWAMEI (Garrulax canorus) – One appeared at Shiotsubo, a real surprise as it was a J-tick for Phil. It is introduced and seems to be spreading. [I]
Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers)
RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL (Tarsiger cyanurus) – A lovely bird in the snowy woods by Shiotsubo onsen.
DAURIAN REDSTART (Phoenicurus auroreus) – Seen at Tokko River and Saku, also at Katano, then a few from the Arasaki and Sendae area.
BLUE ROCK-THRUSH (PHILIPPENSIS) (Monticola solitarius philippensis) – A female at Hachodate harbor, taxon uncertain in this plumage but most likely this one.
Turdidae (Thrushes and Allies)
PALE THRUSH (Turdus pallidus) – Small numbers from Katano and the Arasaki/Sendai areas.
BROWN-HEADED THRUSH (Turdus chrysolaus) – One at the Tokko River near Narita as in previous years, a traditional site for us and often the only place we find it!

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) – The default winter thrush, we saw them most days in small numbers though not as many as usual in the south, though a flock of 10 at berry bearing trees in Nemuro on Hokkaido was a surprise.
Sturnidae (Starlings)
WHITE-CHEEKED STARLING (Spodiopsar cineraceus) – Eight day records, it seemed quite widespread in small numbers this trip, starting near Tokyo, and with up to 40 near Arasaki.
Motacillidae (Wagtails and Pipits)
GRAY WAGTAIL (Motacilla cinerea) – Five day records, mostly of singles from Arasaki, Kogawa and Sendaegawa.
WHITE WAGTAIL (BLACK-BACKED) (Motacilla alba lugens) – This was seen most days of the trip, all identified birds were of the black­ backed race lugens as usual.
JAPANESE WAGTAIL (Motacilla grandis) – Some good looks at this exotic looking species at Narita and Karuizawa especially, and also seen again near Rausu this year.
OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT (Anthus hodgsoni) – Just two briefly in the Eastern Fields were it for this year.
RED-THROATED PIPIT (Anthus cervinus) – Seen briefly and heard calling at the Eastern Fields at Arasaki.
AMERICAN PIPIT (JAPONICUS) (Anthus rubescens japonicus) – Good looks at Buff­-bellied Pipit in the Eastern Fields and then at Sendai River. This is the race japonicus with heavy dark breast streaks and a prominent eye­-ring, potentially a split from American Pipit.
Emberizidae (Old World Buntings)
MEADOW BUNTING (Emberiza cioides) – Small numbers from Narita, Saku, Arasaki and Sendae.
CHESTNUT-EARED BUNTING (Emberiza fucata) – Just one in the fields at Awara city area.

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) – Seen at Narita and then at Karuizawa and Saku, it was oddly the most widespread of the buntings this trip.
BLACK-FACED BUNTING (PERSONATA) (Emberiza spodocephala personata) – Very few, with just 2 day records, the best at the Sendai River. This yellowish race is a potential split as Masked Bunting and is indeed now split by BirdLife/HBW.
REED BUNTING (Emberiza schoeniclus) – Two day records from Sendaegawa and then Arasaki reedbed.
Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)
BRAMBLING (Fringilla montifringilla) – A fine bird at Saku with Oriental Greenfinch, then about 70 near Karuizawa.
HAWFINCH (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) – Good looks at 14 along the forest road near Karuizawa and 6 at the shrine, then a single at Yoroushi, this was a popular species this trip.
JAPANESE GROSBEAK (Eophona personata) – Petra and Ellen saw one at Yoroushi, a very unusual site for it and a species we unexpectedly did not encounter further south this trip.
ASIAN ROSY-FINCH (Leucosticte arctoa brunneonucha) – About 15 near Kiritappu lighthouse, and around 70 on the wires by the infamous house.
ORIENTAL GREENFINCH (Chloris sinica) – Small numbers this trip, we had small numbers from Saku, Arasaki and Karuizawa and about 30 near Sendae.
Passeridae (Old World Sparrows)
RUSSET SPARROW (Passer rutilans) – Just 6 at Yatsushiro this trip, with none at Arasaki.
EURASIAN TREE SPARROW (Passer montanus) – Common in the towns but very few on Hokkaido.

A pensive Japanese Macaque posed in the snow for participant Becky Hansen.

JAPANESE MACAQUE (Macaca fuscata) – Wonderful views of these at the Snow Monkey Park in heavy snow this year, a great experience. Also seen near Karuizawa earlier.
RED FOX (Vulpes vulpes) – Lovely views at Notsuke, these Hokkaido animals are a beautiful orangey colour, very striking.
SEA OTTER (Enhydra lutris) – One in the calm sea off Kiritappu on the last morning, nice scope looks as it lounged in the water and curled around an ice-floe. A species we only see occasionally on this tour and a big highlight today.
HARBOR SEAL (Phoca vitulina) – A few off Nosappu.
SIKA DEER (Cervus nippon) – Great views at Notsuke, and on the way back from Kiritappu.
SEROW SP. (Capricornis crispus) – Fantastic views of an adult female and a big youngster in the snowy woods at Karuizawa, a very lucky find; I just hope the dead one we saw later by the road was not one of them!


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, or Google "IOC" and ignore the Olympics stuff!

Totals for the tour: 136 bird taxa and 6 mammal taxa