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One of the highlights of this highlight-filled tour was seeing the wonderful Red Crowned Cranes at Tsurui. This small village on Hokkaido hosts many of these magnificent birds, and we were able to enjoy them on two days of the tour. Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
This was my sixteenth winter Japan trip, and 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 here, as did Meadow and Black-faced Buntings.
Karuizawa was not very snowy, so there were no ice hazards this time. Our initial afternoon trip to Saku gave us our first Smew, though duck numbers were low and the riverine habitat had been damaged by a cyclone earlier last year. A forested road up in the hills near the town next morning produced a fabulous pair of Copper Pheasant, after a resplendent male Green Pheasant near the town earlier. We also got great looks at Varied Tit and Japanese Woodpecker there.
Our visit to Shiotsubo onsen for coffee gave wonderful looks at unusual numbers of Varied Tit, plus lovely looks at Long-tailed, Japanese, Willow and Coal Tit, but there were no Japanese Accentor or Grosbeak this year.
The Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani hot springs were a big hit as always, with very atmospheric and scenic snow. Later we had great views of Taiga Bean Goose and the usual distant Baikal Teal at Kamoike, a flyover of Hen Harrier, a formidable female Goshawk that grabbed a Coot and devoured it right in front of us, plus more Smew and great Falcated Ducks nearby. Hashidate Harbor gave Japanese Cormorant and both Vega and Slaty-backed Gull.
Kyushu was nice for the first 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 6 Sandhill and at least 2 Common Cranes with sundry hybrids, and a gorgeous bonus Demoiselle Crane.
Saunders's Gull was back again this year and showed well; Black-faced Spoonbills also showed nicely, with Eurasian Spoonbill for comparison. A Wryneck in scrub woodland at the Eastern Fields was a J-tick for me, and very unexpected. We saw a Mandarin Duck at Kogawa Dam as well as some unseasonal Japanese Pipistrelle bats hawking over the river late afternoon. Heading down to Sendae next day we saw Japanese Cormorant and great Mandarins but it was again a very poor year for buntings, with hardly any around.
A fine Crested Kingfisher showed nicely on the Sendae River as we drove to Miike, but it began to rain hard though we did see both White-backed and Japanese woodpeckers, and picked up Japanese Grosbeak for good views at last.
Hokkaido by contrast was gorgeous, with little snow, not much sea ice, and very cold temperatures. This year the male Blakiston's Fish-Owl came in very late after a Red Fox disturbed the area, Still, we had great looks and the views from the rooms were terrific, and the overnight sharing arrangements seemed amicable enough. Two folks were lucky were enough to see a White-tailed Eagle stoop on the owl just after dawn, and actually strike it, with the owl shaking itself and recovering, before heading off down the valley after the eagle!
Though the sea ice was still well north of Rausu, we did our scheduled boat trip anyway, and it was fantastic in 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, an unexpected male Stejneger's Scoter just outside the sea wall, 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 both Japanese Pygmy and Great Spotted Woodpecker, the strikingly pale asiatica race of Eurasian Nuthatch, plus Marsh, Willow and Japanese Tit. Blakiston's Fish-Owl arrived at the fishing area outside, with great looks from the comfort of the lounge around 1800 for a couple of us! No sign of Solitary Snipe and only a few saw Sable this year, though.
The wonderful Red-crowned Cranes at Tsurui were a big highlight on two days; this is just such an exquisite species. Another highlight was visiting a pair of Ural Owl at their day roost in morning sunlight, at a site where we saw them in previous years,
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 both Stejneger's and 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, but there was sadly no sign of the vagrant adult Bald Eagle seen the day before.
Nosappu in the late afternoon was bitterly cold and very windy, with a ferocious sea making seeing alcids impossible, but we did see a huge sea otter, and a fantastic surprise in Red-legged Kittiwake flying by below the cape, a vagrant here and a birthday lifer for Phil. A return next morning was still very windy but Black-legged Kittiwake was a nice trip addition.
Our last day saw us visit the great bleak cape of Kiritappu in worst ever conditions, with driving horizontal snow and strong windy conditions. We were lucky to get Asian Rosy Finch near the infamous grumpy guy’s place, eventually seeing the birds very well on the power lines without peeking into his yard too much! 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 2021?
Jan 19 Tokko River outflow (Narita Creek)/ Saku Reservoir /Komoro
Jan 20 Karuizawa area / Shiotsubo
Jan 21 Jigokudani Monkey Park/Kahokugata/ Komatsu
Jan 22 Awara city fields/Hashidate Harbor/ Katano Kamoike/ Kahokugata
Jan 23 ANA to Haneda/ ANA to Kagoshima/ Kogawa Dam/ Izumi
Jan 24 Arasaki and eastern fields/ Akune/ Sendae river area
Jan 25 Minamata and Yatsushiro area/ Arasaki and eastern fields
Jan 26 Sendei Gawa/Lake Miike/Kagoshima
Jan 27 ANA to Haneda/ ANA to Kushiro and then Tsurui cranes
Jan 28 Otowa Bridge, WBSJ Crane sanctuary, Ural Owl site, Teshikaga lake, Rausu harbor and Washi-no-Yado
Jan 29 Washi-no-Yado. Evergreen eagle viewing boat trip, Notsuke Sandspit, Yoroushi onsen
Jan 30 Yoroushi onsen then heavy snow and sleet and string winds. Nosappu misaki in dire conditions, overnight Nemuro
Jan 31 Onnemoto bird hide, Nosappu misaki, then Kiritappu in horizontal snow and strong wind/ Kushiro overnight
Feb 1 ANA 772 Kushiro to Haneda/ Express bus to Narita and flights home
Phil Gregory, Topaz Queensland, Feb 2020
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
Steller's Sea-Eagles were another major highlight. We took a boat trip out of Rausu, where we saw about 40 of these huge raptors. Participant Rick Thompson got this great image of three of them circling overhead.
Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)
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)
BAIKAL TEAL (Sibirionetta formosa)
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)
GADWALL (Mareca strepera)
This beautiful pair of Ural Owls was seen at a roost site where we have seen them for the past several years. Photo by participant Ron Majors.
FALCATED DUCK (Mareca falcata)
EURASIAN WIGEON (Mareca penelope)
AMERICAN WIGEON (Mareca americana)
EASTERN SPOT-BILLED DUCK (Anas zonorhyncha)
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)
NORTHERN PINTAIL (Anas acuta)
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (EURASIAN) (Anas crecca crecca)
COMMON POCHARD (Aythya ferina)
We saw Tundra Swans in flight at Katano Kamoike. These are the Bewick's race, distinguished by the large yellow areas on the face, which are just visible in this photo by participant Ron Majors.
TUFTED DUCK (Aythya fuligula)
GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila)
HARLEQUIN DUCK (Histrionicus histrionicus)
STEJNEGER'S SCOTER (Melanitta stejnegeri)
BLACK SCOTER (Melanitta americana)
LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis)
COMMON GOLDENEYE (Bucephala clangula)
SMEW (Mergellus albellus)
A number of first-winter plumaged Saunders's Gulls were seen at Yatsushiro. Photo by participant Rick Thompson.
COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER (Mergus serrator)
Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)
CHINESE BAMBOO-PARTRIDGE (Bambusicola thoracicus) [I*]
COPPER PHEASANT (Syrmaticus soemmerringii scintillans)
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)
Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves)
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]
Another highpoint of the tour came at Katano Kamoiki, when we saw this big female Northern Goshawk grab one of the coots there. While the Goshawk was trying to pluck its victim, a couple of Japanese Crows tried to get in on the feast, without success. Participant Rick Thompson got this action shot.
ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE (Streptopelia orientalis orientalis)
Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules, and Coots)
EURASIAN MOORHEN (Gallinula chloropus)
EURASIAN COOT (Fulica atra)
DEMOISELLE CRANE (Anthropoides virgo)
SANDHILL CRANE (CANADENSIS) (Antigone canadensis canadensis)
WHITE-NAPED CRANE (Antigone vipio)
COMMON CRANE (Grus grus)
HOODED CRANE (Grus monacha)
RED-CROWNED CRANE (Grus japonensis)
We had a number of good views of the pretty Varied Tit. This one appears to be checking out the photographer! Photo by participant Ron Majors.
Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)
BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER (Pluvialis squatarola)
NORTHERN LAPWING (Vanellus vanellus)
KENTISH PLOVER (Charadrius alexandrinus)
LONG-BILLED PLOVER (Charadrius placidus)
Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)
DUNLIN (Calidris alpina)
COMMON SNIPE (Gallinago gallinago)
COMMON SANDPIPER (Actitis hypoleucos)
GREEN SANDPIPER (Tringa ochropus)
At Karuizawa, we found a pair of Copper Pheasants feeding along a forest road. Photo by participant Rick Thompson.
COMMON GREENSHANK (Tringa nebularia)
Alcidae (Auks, Murres, and Puffins)
COMMON MURRE (Uria aalge)
SPECTACLED GUILLEMOT (Cepphus carbo)
Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)
BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (POLLICARIS) (Rissa tridactyla pollicaris)
RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa brevirostris)
SAUNDERS'S GULL (Saundersilarus saundersi)
BLACK-HEADED GULL (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
BLACK-TAILED GULL (Larus crassirostris)
Waterfowl are a main component of the avian biodiversity on this tour, and we saw some stunning ducks, including this lovely drake Falcated Duck (on the right) snoozing next to a handsome male Gadwall. Photo by participant Ron Majors.
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)
Sulidae (Boobies and Gannets)
BROWN BOOBY (Sula leucogaster)
Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants and Shags)
PELAGIC CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax pelagicus)
GREAT CORMORANT (EURASIAN) (Phalacrocorax carbo hanedae)
One of the truly spectacular birds featured on this tour is the Blakiston's Fish-Owl. We stay at two lodges where owls are regular visitors, and this year we were lucky to get some great views. Participant Rick Thompson got this image of one of the owls just after it captured a fish.
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)
OSPREY (HALIAETUS) (Pandion haliaetus haliaetus)
Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)
EASTERN MARSH-HARRIER (Circus spilonotus)
This amazing encounter between a White-tailed Eagle and a Blakiston's Fish-Owl was captured by participant Rick Thompson. The eagle flew in and attacked the owl, which recovered quickly enough to chase the eagle away.
HEN HARRIER (Circus cyaneus)
NORTHERN GOSHAWK (EURASIAN) (Accipiter gentilis fujiyamae)
BLACK KITE (BLACK-EARED) (Milvus migrans lineatus)
WHITE-TAILED EAGLE (Haliaeetus albicilla)
STELLER'S SEA-EAGLE (Haliaeetus pelagicus)
ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK (Buteo lagopus)
EASTERN BUZZARD (Buteo japonicus japonicus)
BLAKISTON'S FISH-OWL (Ketupa blakistoni)
We visit a bridge in Otowa, hoping to see the roosting Red-crowned Cranes early in the morning. Participant Ron Majors captured this wonderfully atmospheric image of the cranes in the early mist, with sunlight gilding the frosty trees.
URAL OWL (Strix uralensis)
COMMON KINGFISHER (Alcedo atthis)
CRESTED KINGFISHER (Megaceryle lugubris)
EURASIAN WRYNECK (Jynx torquilla)
PYGMY WOODPECKER (Yungipicus kizuki)
WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER (WHITE-BACKED) (Dendrocopos leucotos subcirris)
GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER (GREAT SPOTTED) (Dendrocopos major japonicus)
What was the Japanese White-eye has been split, and this tiny bird is now called the Warbling White-eye. We saw them feeding in flowers at Arasaki and Yoroushi. Photo by participant Rick Thompson.
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 (JAPANESE) (Garrulus glandarius japonicus)
AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE (JAPANESE) (Cyanopica cyanus japonica)
DAURIAN JACKDAW (Corvus dauuricus)
ROOK (Corvus frugilegus pastinator)
CARRION CROW (Corvus corone orientalis)
This charming creature is one of the Long-tailed Tits we saw at Tsurui; these were of the "white-headed" race that we usually don't see on the tour. Photo by participant Rick Thompson.
LARGE-BILLED CROW (LARGE-BILLED) (Corvus macrorhynchos japonensis)
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)
EURASIAN SKYLARK (FAR EASTERN) (Alauda arvensis japonica)
BARN SWALLOW (Hirundo rustica)
The Blue Rock-Thrushes we saw are sometimes split as a different taxon, the Eastern Blue Rock-Thrush. This one was photographed by participant Ron Majors.
ASIAN HOUSE-MARTIN (Delichon dasypus)
BROWN-EARED BULBUL (Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis)
Scotocercidae (Bush Warblers and Allies)
JAPANESE BUSH WARBLER (Horornis diphone cantans)
Aegithalidae (Long-tailed Tits)
LONG-TAILED TIT (CAUDATUS) (Aegithalos caudatus caudatus)
LONG-TAILED TIT (EUROPAEUS GROUP) (Aegithalos caudatus trivirgatus)
Zosteropidae (White-eyes, Yuhinas, and Allies)
WARBLING WHITE-EYE (Zosterops japonicus)
EURASIAN NUTHATCH (WHITE-BELLIED) (Sitta europaea asiatica)
EURASIAN NUTHATCH (BUFF-BELLIED) (Sitta europaea amurensis)
In all, we saw six species of crane on the tour. Hooded Cranes were probably the most numerous of these, with many seen at Arasaki. Participant Rick Thompson got this great image of a single Hooded Crane in flight.
EURASIAN NUTHATCH (BUFF-BELLIED) (Sitta europaea roseilia)
EURASIAN TREECREEPER (Certhia familiaris)
EURASIAN WREN (EURASIAN) (Troglodytes troglodytes fumigatus)
BROWN DIPPER (Cinclus pallasii)
WHITE-CHEEKED STARLING (Spodiopsar cineraceus)
Turdidae (Thrushes and Allies)
BROWN-HEADED THRUSH (Turdus chrysolaus)
PALE THRUSH (Turdus pallidus)
DUSKY THRUSH (Turdus eunomus)
We took a few minutes to pose at Teshikaga Park for a group photo; looks cold, but everyone looks happy! Photo by guide Phil Gregory.
Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers)
RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL (Tarsiger cyanurus)
DAURIAN REDSTART (Phoenicurus auroreus)
BLUE ROCK-THRUSH (PHILIPPENSIS) (Monticola solitarius philippensis)
Passeridae (Old World Sparrows)
RUSSET SPARROW (Passer cinnamomeus)
EURASIAN TREE SPARROW (Passer montanus)
Motacillidae (Wagtails and Pipits)
GRAY WAGTAIL (Motacilla cinerea)
JAPANESE WAGTAIL (Motacilla grandis)
WHITE WAGTAIL (BLACK-BACKED) (Motacilla alba lugens)
We saw some interesting mammals in addition to the great birds. This is one of the Sika Deer that were grazing at Notsuke. Photo by participant Ron Majors.
OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT (Anthus hodgsoni)
AMERICAN PIPIT (JAPONICUS) (Anthus rubescens japonicus)
Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)
BRAMBLING (Fringilla montifringilla)
HAWFINCH (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)
JAPANESE GROSBEAK (Eophona personata)
LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCH (Carpodacus sibiricus)
EURASIAN BULLFINCH (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)
ASIAN ROSY-FINCH (Leucosticte arctoa brunneonucha)
Participant Ron Majors also got a video of a Japanese Serow, an interesting goat-like creature.
ORIENTAL GREENFINCH (Chloris sinica)
COMMON REDPOLL (Acanthis flammea)
RED CROSSBILL (Loxia curvirostra) [*]
EURASIAN SISKIN (Spinus spinus)
Emberizidae (Old World Buntings)
CHESTNUT-EARED BUNTING (Emberiza fucata)
MEADOW BUNTING (Emberiza cioides)
REED BUNTING (Emberiza schoeniclus) [*]
RUSTIC BUNTING (Emberiza rustica)
The Steller's Fish-Eagles put on a great show for us, grabbing fish out of the water and showing off their imposing feet and beaks! Photo by participant Rick Thompson.
BLACK-FACED BUNTING (PERSONATA) (Emberiza spodocephala personata)
JAPANESE MACAQUE (Macaca fuscata)
DALL'S PORPOISE (Phocoenoides dalli)
RED FOX (Vulpes vulpes)
RACCOON DOG (Nyctereutes procyonoides)
SABLE (SIBERIAN MARTEN) (Martes zibellina)
SEA OTTER (Enhydra lutris)
HARBOR SEAL (Phoca vitulina)
Finally, because we could not get our fill of the fantastic Red-crowned Cranes, here is a video from participant Ron Majors. Be sure to have the sound turned up so you can enjoy the sounds as well as the sight of these marvelous creatures!
WILD BOAR (Sus scrofa)
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 Green Pheasant, that amazing female Goshawk at Katano that killed and ate the Coot, Varied Tit, Warbling White-eye and some very fine woodpeckers. The vagrant Red-legged Kittiwake off Nosappu in dreadful conditions was also a stunner and totally unexpected.
One unexpected mammal was Japanese Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus abramus), with 4 or 5 flying about above the stream below Kogawa late in the afternoon on a fine sunny day. My first bat sighting on this tour and a lifer mammal. Another good mammal was Japanese Weasel (Mustela itatsi), an orange furred mustelid with no dark tail tip, seen running over the road on Nosappu.
Some of the trip photos are on the Macaulay Library Internet Bird Collection (IBC), a free-access site linked to eBird. 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 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.
Also recommended is the IOC World Checklist of Birds, a free-access downloadable Excel file that gets updated every four months; version 10.1 has just been published. Go to worldbirdnames.org, or Google "IOC" and ignore the Olympics stuff!
Totals for the tour: 147 bird taxa and 10 mammal taxa