Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Japan in Spring

Southern Japan and Island endemics

2017 Narrative

The Japan spring tour makes a lovely contrast to the rather more high profile winter tour! Warm and lush green forests with a backing track of beautiful birdsong makes for a balmy setting. A stark contrast to the conditions we encounter in winter! (Although it has to be said, winter is equally beautiful).

This tour is all about the endemics which means a lot of island hopping! We started our journey from Narita, Japan’s major international airport, and from there we made a short visit to the banks of the Tone River (Tonegawa) to look for a near endemic, the Marsh Grassbird. After backtracking to pick up our late arrivals (thank you British Airways!), we hit the tollways and headed west to Karuizawa in the foothills of the Japan Alps. After a few days here, our next destination was that perennial Japanese icon the magnificent Mount Fuji. Sadly, she wasn’t so magnificent during our stay as she remained hidden in cloud most of the time. Next stop on this energetic tour was our flight to Hachijojima in the Izu Islands, 1000 km south of Tokyo. Here our aim was to track down the handful of birds endemic to this island chain. The ferry back usually gives us the opportunity to do some pelagic birding but this year was a disappointment, for whatever reason, with literally tens of thousands of Streaked Shearwaters but almost nothing else.

After overnighting in Tokyo, we took a flight to about as far south as you can get in Japan to Okinawa. Arriving in this tropical island is always a bit of a surprise as the capital Naha is a huge, bustling metropolis – not the image most foreigners have of this legendary place. Heading north however, we soon find a very different place in the quiet and very beautiful forests of Yanbaru, which was recently declared a national park. Here we spent a delightful few days tracking down the endemics and other special birds of the island. Our two main targets – the Okinawa Rail and Pryer’s Woodpecker cooperated very nicely, thank you very much. Our next island hop was to the lovely, laid back island of Amami Oshima, just south of Kyushu, which is Japan’s third largest island. Here we explored the convoluted backroads meandering through the forests not just for birds but for the remarkable short-eared Amami Black Rabbit and other endemics including a number of interesting reptiles and amphibians. Our last stop was on Kyushu itself in the Kirishima-Ebinok?gen National Park, an area of remarkable volcanic activity and beauty. 

Karuizawa

This mountain resort area is a very popular getaway for people from the nearby cities such as Tokyo, Yokohama and Saitama. In winter the ski slopes attract skiers and snowboarders, while spring brings the hikers, golfers, foodies and…birdwatchers! A small but very important forest reserve known as Yacho-no-mori, meaning Wild Bird’s Forest, provides important habitat for a superb selection of resident and migratory species alike. In spring the forests resonate with the songs of newly arrived migrants establishing their breeding territories. Birds such as Blue-and-white Flycatcher, the stunning Narcissus Flycatcher and resident Black-faced Buntings betray their presence in the most lyrical way.

Winter Wrens perch atop logs and stumps to announce their presence in their outsized voices while little mixed flocks of Japanese Tits, Willow Tits, Coal Tits and Long-tailed Tits do their best to entertain. Unfortunately, Copper Pheasants remained elusive this year but we had more luck with gorgeous Japanese Green Woodpeckers and Japanese Thrush. We also found our first Brown-eared Bulbuls with their piercing screeches and Brown Dippers investigating the charming, fast running stream for edible goodies. Exploring some nearby fields we found a number of species that prefer more open areas, including lovely looks at Chestnut-eared Buntings, Bull-headed Shrikes, Eurasian Skylarks, and subtle but gorgeous Azure-winged Magpies.

Mount Fuji

Our birding on Honshu, Japan’s main island, continued as we explored the slopes of Fujisan on the Subaru Line, one of the main roads up the northern flank of this incredible volcano. The Japanese Accentor wasn’t very cooperative this year with only one brief sighting but great views of Red-flanked Bluetail and Spotted Nutcracker were some compensation. Explorations of another nearby area yielded some more good sightings, in particular a remarkable Asian Stubtail, but not before we enjoyed a picnic breakfast with an incredible view of Fuji before she disappeared behind a veil of mist.

Hachijojima

The Izu Island archipelago is a volcanic chain that extends a thousand kilometers directly south from Tokyo to its southernmost island Ogasawara. Hachijojima is the second largest of the islands and lies almost 300 km south of Tokyo, which also administers all the Izu islands. As an interesting aside, the island was at one time a prison island (just like Australia!) and the Hachij? language is considered the most divergent form of the Japanese dialects and the only surviving descendant of the Eastern Old Japanese.The number of speakers is not certain; it is on the list of endangered languages,and is likely to be extinct by 2050 if counter-measures are not taken, which seems unlikely. 

Our explorations of the island were ably assisted by my friend Iwasaki san (Yumi) such that we found all our targets here – Izu Thrush, Iijima Leaf Warbler, Japanese Wood Pigeon, Japanese Robin, Winter Wren and Owsten’s Varied Tit. A number of these are very distinctive subspecies so stay tuned for taxonomic updates! Our long ferry ride back to Tokyo was less successful unfortunately, but the sheer mass of shearwaters was an impressive sight to behold in itself.

Okinawa – Yanbaru

On arrival in Okinawa’s main city, Naha, we drove to Manko Wetland Reserve in the heart of the city and soon found a pair of the very rare Black-faced Spoonbills before heading north. The Japanese government announced that the Yanbaru area in Okinawa’s north was to be elevated to national park status late last year. What fantastic news! This large area that protects so much of the island’s unique flora and fauna, and Japan’s natural heritage, is now secure for future generations – of people and wildlife alike! Narrow forest roads that we explored at length crisscross the simply stunning forests of Yanbaru.

We frequently encountered spritely Ryukyu Robins feeding on invertebrates on the road surface, only to fly to a nearby perch as we approached. The Okinawa race of Varied Tit put in an appearance, as did Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker – another endemic race that could soon be split as Ryukyu Pygmy Woodpecker. A Japanese Paradise Flycatcher was heard and our attempts to see it were somewhat successful but frustratingly brief and unfortunately missed by some. On a brighter note, the enigmatic Okinawa Rail showed incredibly well (after a great deal of effort!) and was without doubt a highlight of our Japan tour! Pryer’s (Noguchi) Woodpecker also put on a fabulous show as it drummed from a prominent snag. All in all, a lovely and successful stay in a tropical paradise!

Amami Oshima

This charming island is one of my favourite places in Japan and, as always, our stay was very pleasant. A new hotel in the north overlooking turquoise seas was a perfect base for our explorations of the forests in search of Lidth’s Jay and the other endemic and near endemic birds as well as endemic subspecies.

Lidth’s Jay was soon tracked down but, as always, stayed hidden in the canopy only allowing brief views. We found many roosting though, during our night drive. Speaking of which, our outing with a local naturalist was a great success with not only sleeping jays but numerous and very cute Amami Black Rabbits and Ryukyu Scops Owls with added bonuses of the endemic Long-haired Rat (a first for me!) and best of all, a huge Habu! The Amami Woodcock evaded us, a bit of a worry given the mongoose problem on the island. During the day we found a couple of gorgeous Ryukyu Flycatchers (split from Narcissus, and rightly so), Ryukyu Minivets, and Red-capped Green Pigeons. A quick visit to an area of mudflats was also successful and we added a number of shorebirds and seabird to our list, most notably Little Tern, Ruddy Turnstone and Grey-tailed Tattler. 

Kirishima/Miike

Our last site of the trip was to an area of high volcanic activity in the south of Kyushu. We lodged up on the Ebino Plateau surrounded by active volcanoes, which were in fact erupting during our stay! Sadly, it meant we couldn’t get into one of the areas I had hoped to visit. Down off the plateau we visited Miike, a small reserve centered around a crater lake of the same name, to explore the lush forests there. Maybe due to the weather or who knows why, the bird activity was exceptionally low and a little disappointing. Nevertheless, we did enjoy our time here with many repeat sightings of Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, Ryukyu Minivets, Eurasian Jay, Japanese White-eyes and numerous members of the Paridae.

Thank you all for your excellent company. I hope you enjoyed the birds, the forests, the food and the unique culture of Japan. There’s nowhere else like it! 

  - Susan Myers

Created: 19 July 2017