This was the inaugural Field Guides Japan in Spring tour, a nice pairing with the popular winter trip and getting to some lovely and less familiar destinations like the Ryukyu and Izu Islands. The logistics worked well, with good vehicles, the flights more or less on time and the boat trips both good, whilst the hotels ranged from fit for purpose to very nice.
The start on Shikoku was a bit disappointing as the Fairy Pitta was horribly uncooperative and ended up being heard only on the second day. Still, the weather was good and there were oddments like Ashy Minivet, Dollarbird and Red-rumped Swallow for diversion.
Then it was back and up to the beautiful Mt Fuji area, what a backdrop this spectacular peak makes. Good birds here included Gray Nightjar, Japanese Leaf Warbler, Brown-headed and Japanese thrushes, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Blue Robin, Narcissus Flycatcher, Chestnut-cheeked Starling and Japanese Yellow Bunting.
Our overnight trip out to Miyakejima on the large ferry boat was great, with very nice cabins both ways and reasonable weather, and leaving the big bags at the hotel near the quay in Tokyo. Despite a strong wind on the island we saw Izu (Japanese) Robin, Izu Thrush, Ijima's Leaf Warbler and eventually Owston's Tit, and amazingly Pleske's Grasshopper Warbler was perched up and singing, with a bonus Japanese Wood Pigeon nearby. Not bad for a morning's birding, though the sea trip back could only yield Streaked Shearwater and nothing out of the ordinary.
The Ryukyu Islands came next, and the lovely island of Amami was very rewarding, with superb views of Amami Woodcock in the road, Amami (Owston's) Woodpecker, the gorgeous Lidth's Jay, good views and marvelous flute-like vocals from Whistling Green Pigeon, good vocals and brief looks at Amami Thrush, and a highly successful spotlighting outing, with Amami Black Rabbit, Ryukyu Scops Owl and Northern Boobook. An inaugural duel with the elusive Japanese Paradise Flycatcher also featured.
Okinawa was next, and the Okinawa Rail proved easy to get this time; we saw 15 in one morning. The mongoose busters program here and on Amami really looks to be paying dividends- they employ 40 people on the latter island and have something like 10,000 traps set up! The very rare Okinawa Woodpecker was also very kind to us, with two flying right in front of the car at the rail site, then nice views of pair later, with the male drumming. A visit to the giant rail statue was interesting. It is located in a lovely coastal area with the strikingly distinctive local Okinawan tombs (a couple with their own private beach!). Various butterflies proved diverting here in the subtropics too. Our spotlighting gave us roosting Whistling Green Pigeon and a large habu snake, also the very small taxon of wild boar that occurs in the Ryukyus. Heavy rain the next night spotlighting produced a couple of nice frogs and a piglet.
From Okinawa we flew north to Hokkaido, a very exciting part of the tour and such a contrast to the deep frozen Arctic winter season here. Red-crowned Cranes were easily seen, including a pair with juvenile, and the wonderful Blakiston's Fish Owl cooperated very well with superb looks at a female fishing in the pond. Surprise birds included a fine Lesser-spotted Woodpecker, a male Pine Grosbeak and good views of Black-browed Reed Warbler. The Locustella Grasshopper-warblers are renowned skulkers in the main, but here we saw Middendorff's and Lanceolated very well indeed, with only the Sakhalin Grasshopper-Warbler being elusive; I am just pleased it had arrived, as this is a late migrant. Sakhalin Leaf Warbler came good, as did Japanese Robin, whilst a Siberian Rubythroat male at Notsuke was one of the trip highlights for most.
The boat trip off Ochiishi was good for close views of Spectacled Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet and Rhinoceros Auklet. Red-faced Cormorant was seen and identified from the photos, and Sea Otter is always a pleasure to find. Butterflies were relatively few, but the plants added a nice extra dimension; that giant butterbur is everywhere. Thanks to John for his enthusiasm and knowledge here.
All in all, a fine inaugural trip and we can fine tune it for 2020, our thanks to everyone for participating and being good company, to Melissa for sharing her scope and spotting so well, and of course to Jun for being driver-guide and interpreting the many mystifying aspects of Japanese culture. We enjoyed some lovely meals in the course of the trip, and 7/11's, Family Mart and Lawson Station proved popular for those early breakfasts and some lunches. Thanks to Karen at FG HQ for overseeing the tour, and to Sue and Rowan Gregory at Sicklebill Safaris for setting up the program, a fine job all round.
Why not sign up for an exciting trip in 2020 in a beautiful and incredibly well organized part of the world?
Note: IBC means Internet Bird Collection, a free access site related to Handbook of Birds of the WorldAlive and featuring thousands of photos, videos and recordings including many from Phils’ trips. XC is xeno-canto, the major site for sound recordings, also free access and again with many cuts from Phils’ trips.
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
Favorite bird sightings were much as expected- Blakiston's Fish Owl of course, Siberian Rubythroat, Amami Woodcock, Okinawa Rail and Izu Thrush, whilst Red-necked Grebe was one surprising choice. Rhinoceros Auklet also figured. Pleske's Grasshopper Warbler was Phil's choice, along with Pine Grosbeak, whilst Jun picked Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler, these Locustella are clearly a guide-thing.
OTHER WILDLIFE AND FLORA: A couple of very nice snakes seen in the road on a night foray - including the dreaded Habu or hundred pace snake (Protobothrops flavoviridis), which seems to terrify the locals (and some of our group). This was by the road near Fungawa Dam on our first night spotlighting on Okinawa, but did not linger, it was quite a good size one at over 3 ft long. These snakes are also known as tree vipers or pit vipers. There are three species of Habus found on Okinawa, 2 being introduced and one native to the island. They are all venomous snakes that feed mainly on rodents and other small mammals. It is the custom in Okinawa to catch these snakes and use their bodies pickled in a potent drink known as Habu sake, purported to have great medicinal properties! Yuk.
Akamata Dinodon semicarinatum was the non-poisonous snake we found dead on Amami.
The small snake with the dark vertical bands on Okinawa on the wet night was perhaps the himei habu Trimeresurus okinavensis the smaller of the highly venomous species of habu on the island (these are the ones they introduced the mongoose to kill----doh!).
Holst's frog (Rana holstii) was the large spotted frog we saw on the road to Benoki on that wet night.
The small frogs that were all over the road in one area the same night, with the snake nearby, were Buergersia buergersii
A red-bellied black newt called the sword-tailed newt (Cynops ensicauda) was seen in ponds on Amami at the Nature Forest, where it is an Endangered endemic. The sword-tailed newt has no predators, so deforestation, introduced fish predators and land development are the main reasons for their being threatened.
Butterflies & moths
A lovely greenish-yellow lunar moth (Actias artemis) at Fujiomora as we came out of Coco's Restaurant. Photo on the Smugmug site.
The warmer climes of the Ryukyus had a good variety of butterflies. I have erred on the side of caution and mainly identified from photographs where feasible, though it was hard with the swallowtails which never seem to alight. These are some firm identifications:
Atrophaneura alcinous chinese windmill- the long-tailed large red-bodied black with yellow sub-apical dots swallowtail of Okinawa.
Parantica sita chestnut tiger- the large black, orange and white checkered species from Amami
Papilio helenus red Helen- Common on Okinawa, another widespread species
Graphium sarpedon blue triangle- common on Honshu, Shikoku and the Ryukyus, a very widespread species
Colias erate Eastern pale clouded yellow- the yellow from Okuma
Neptis hylas common sailer - the black and white butterfly at Benoki Dam
Vanessa cardui the painted lady at Kushiro Forest.
Argyreus hyperbius Indian fritillary - the striking orange, black and white butterfly at Benoki was a female of this widespread species
Hebomoaia glaucippe great orange-tip -the large orange-tip on Amami
Chilades pandava plains cupid or cycad blue- the pale blue from Cape Hedo
Choaspes benjamini common awlking- the distinctive greenish skipper with the orange wing dot from Amami
The endemic cycad that was common on N. Okinawa is Cycas revoluta, and the common yellowy flowered camellia in the forest there is Camellia sinensis.
Thanks to John Keith for help with the botanical side of things, it was fun trying to assign things to family or genus and lots of link with E North America were evident.
VEGETATION OF JAPAN--A BRIEF SUMMARY:
Although Japan is a small country, it has an exceptional variety of plants because of its large range of latitude, altitude, and diversity of environments. Because we visited many types of habitats on our trip, we saw a great deal of that variety. Japan is densely populated, with 127 million people in an area the size of California, and the landscape has been drastically altered over thousands of years. However, there are still large preserves of native forests and other habitats where one can see some of what the original vegetation was like. Many of the plants of Japan are analogs of those found in eastern North America, so in central Japan we saw trees such as oaks, willows, maples, mulberries, elms, and others were familiar to us. In Honshu and Shikoku, most wildflowers had already bloomed. However, in Shikoku, there were large Jack-in-the-pulpits, Arisema spp., still in bloom. On Mt. Fuji, the high altitude forest was composed primarily of larches, Larix kaempferi, and Veitch’s Fir, Abies veitchii. Understory plants included Rhododendron brachycarpum; birch, Betula ermanii; and Lingonberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea. There were large stands of Sugi, or Japanese Cedar, Cryptomeria japonica, on lower slopes; these tall, straight trees are the source of the massive beams in temples and other traditional wooden structures. The lower forests also had in the understory extensive stands of the poisonous False Hellebore, Veratrum album. In the southern islands, we encountered sub-tropical forests that had a large variety of evergreen, deciduous trees and shrubs. These included hollies; laurels, such as Aucuba spp. and Camphor Laurel, Cinnamomum camphora; Stone Oaks, Lithocarpus spp.; magnolias; several species of bamboo; native genera of palms: and interesting shrubs, such as Melostoma malabathricum. There were also several genera of ferns, including spectacular Tree Ferns, Alsophila spp. On Okinawa, the southern two-thirds of the island is more or less cleared of native vegetation, but the northern one-third retains much of its original forests.
Hokkaido, with its history of extensive Pleistocene glaciation and current cold, snowy winters was the only part of our trip that had numerous wildflowers still in bloom, plus a luxuriant understory of ferns in the moist valley forests. Flowers included fritillary, Fritillaria japonica; columbines; Aquilegia spp.; Golden Banner, Thermopsis spp.; primroses; irises; Trillum spp.; and a lot of Skunk Cabbage. The higher parts of the Shiretoko Peninsula were especially interesting botanically, as the high altitude vegetation is a pygmy forest of Dwarf Siberian Pine, Pinus pumila, spruce, Dwarf Bamboo, and birch. These trees and other plants have been highly distorted or compressed by very deep winter snow cover and extreme winds. We did not have an opportunity to explore alpine meadows there, but the ones we could see at a distance appeared to have extensive wildflower blooms.
Totals for the tour: 152 bird taxa and 5 mammal taxa