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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Japan in Winter

2017 Narrative

Birding in winter in Japan is a bit like a party! Great scenery, great food and great birds!  One doesn’t do it for the numbers – it’s all about the spectacles. We ran two departures in 2017. 

First Departure In Brief: We started our travels from Narita with an exploration of a nearby park in hopes of finding Mandarin Ducks amongst others. Our mission was successful with congregations of up to 30 of these incredible beauties. Turning inland towards the Japan Alps we explored the forests of Karuizawa, famous for its Wild Bird Forest, before heading up to Kanazawa on the Japan Sea where our main target was the once endangered Baikal Teal, now downgraded to Least Concern thanks in large part to efforts by Japanese conservationists. The lake we visited is one of its most important protected areas. Our next appointment was with the incredible gathering of the cranes in Kyushu. It is such a memorable experience to see so many of these elegant birds gathered to feed and interact. This year we saw four species: the Hooded and White-naped Cranes in the thousands with a tiny scattering of Sandhill and Common Cranes. Watching thousands of cranes flying across a rising sun at dawn? It doesn’t get much better. Driving across the island in balmy weather we had close looks at tiny twittering Japanese Murrelets from our comfortable boat against a backdrop of palm trees in Hyuga. Heading up to Hokkaido our next spectacle was the winter gathering of Steller’s Sea Eagles. These birds are truly breathtaking! Huge, majestic and beautiful against the snowy white winter Hokkaido backdrop. Last up and arguably, most highly anticipated were those most beautiful of the cranes, the Red-crowned Crane. We watched as they danced and strutted and bugled in warm winter weather – a perfect end to a very memorable tour. Of course, during winter everywhere we go the wildfowl are quite astounding. Best of all were gorgeous Smew, improbable Mandarin Ducks and enigmatic Baikal Teals. Not to be outdone were stunning Falcated Teals from the exotically named Satsuma Bridge, the ever-popular Harlequin Ducks on the ice bound Shiretoko Peninsula and the charismatic Long-tailed Ducks at Nosappu.

Honshu: From our jumping off point in Narita, we started this year by travelling first to a small park not far out of Tokyo, which has a small population of wild Mandarin Ducks. These incredible birds have to be seen in their natural habitat to really appreciate how absurdly gorgeous they are. The birds are present year round in Japan but outside of winter, they are secretive and difficult to observe. Karuizawa in Japan’s central alps region is where we kicked off our birding in earnest with some neat specialities like Varied Tit, Japanese Green Woodpecker, Falcated Teal and Japanese Accentor, a bit of a surprise bonus. A short drive to a nearby reservoir was rewarded with a little group of Smew amongst a nice collection of other wildfowl and waterbirds. Sadly, a snowstorm came in overnight and despite an epic battle to try to get there, we were thwarted at the last minute in our attempt to view the snow monkeys. Disappointing but other adventures awaited us. Driving through the snow and ice was not fun but eventually we made it over to Kanazawa on the Japan Sea where we had some great birding. Our main target here was the increasingly rare Baikal Teal, which migrates to Japan every winter in good numbers. We found many of them at the famed Kamo-ike (Duck Pond) and our patience was rewarded with great views as they came closer to us as the day warmed up. A spectacular Mountain Hawk-Eagle making a meal of a goose was an added bonus. Later we went to look for a recently reported Scaly-sided Merganser in the centre of the busy city of Kanazawa. We didn’t hold out much hope but with persistence and a bit of luck, there it was! Great end to an excellent day.

Kyushu: We started our explorations of the southern island of Kyushu driving south to a place called Yatsushiro on the west coast. The area is famous for its tidal flats at the mouth of the Kuma River and here we can often find large congregations of waders and seabirds. We were lucky that our visit coincided with the low tide and our target bird, the declining Saunders Gull, classified as Vulnerable by Birdlife International, showed up right on cue and we were able to observe its dainty, tern-like behaviour. Our birding continued on a very high note with the cranes in Arasaki, a small farming town on the west coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan. The days are short at this time of year so by the time we got to our hotel it was already dark. We savored another of many memorable meals before turning in, excited about the promise of the following day. Arriving just after dawn, we spent a full morning enjoying the amazing sight of thousands and thousands of White-naped and Hooded Cranes feeding and prancing and just going about their business. It was fun to search out the handful of Sandhill and Common Cranes amongst them. The remainder of the day was spent exploring other areas in this very birdy and picturesque locale. Unfortunately, the weather turned on us again and the very strong winds made the birding both difficult and unpleasant. But the following morning we decided to give the reedbeds another go in hopes of Chinese Penduline Tit and sure enough we found them in all their cuteness! Departing Arasaki we headed east towards Mi-ike where the forests were unusually quiet in the relatively warm weather, although a group of Ryukyu Minivets was very welcome. Along the way we stopped at a riverside birding spot where we found the always rather uncommon Japanese Wagtails, a single Long-billed Plover, and a wonderful pair of Crested Kingfishers and many other delightful birds that were to become more familiar to us as the trip progressed. Moving to the coast we found a number of interesting shorebirds, waders and gulls as well as our hoped for murrelets – known as umisuzume or “sea sparrow” in Japanese. The already small population of this near endemic is declining due to disturbance at their breeding sites as well as getting caught in drift nets, but they have been designated a Japanese National Treasure so conservation efforts are underway. Later we found a wonderful group of Black-faced Spoonbills in a very rich estuary near our departure point of Miyazaki.   

Hokkaido: Our last and arguably most anticipated destination was the “north sea route”, Hokkaido. Just across the narrow Tsugaru Strait and we find ourselves in a different biogeographic zone to the rest of Japan, which is more like that of Siberia. More snowstorms almost caused our flight to Kushiro to be cancelled but we got lucky albeit it delayed so that our drive in the dark was a lot slower than planned. However, we made it and the following day we explored the Nemuro Peninsula where we found many exciting Alcids, cormorants, gulls and sea ducks. But unarguably the best of all were the simply breathtaking Steller’s Sea Eagles in all their glory! What simply amazing birds. Our planned boat trip was cancelled, again due to the pesky weather, but I was able to organize a different trip on the following day and we had great closer looks at a variety of the exciting Alcids found here, amongst them Pigeon Guillemots, Common Murre and Ancient Murrelets. Next we headed inland to what was unanimously everyone’s favourite place of the trip, Yoroushi where our very comfortable lodging afforded us the opportunity to observe at close quarters not only a wonderful variety of feeder-loving birds but also one of the stars of the trip, the enormous Blakiston’s Fish-Owl. Feeder birds included the distinctive Hokkaido subspecies of Eurasian Jay. A potential split perhaps? Heading north to Rausu we encountered many Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks dotted all along the coast, not to mention hundreds of Black Scoters and Pelagic Cormorants. Here at Rausu we had amazingly close views of the stately White-tailed Eagles that are resident here and, dwarfing them, the winter migrant Steller’s Eagles. We finished off our adventure in Japan heading back inland from the coast to the wintering haunts of the magnificent Red-crowned Cranes. Here we found delightful wintery warm weather and finished our tour in the company of these most beautiful of all birds as they went about their business, seemingly disdainful of our rapturous attention!  

Second Departure In Brief: We started our tour this year heading inland from Narita to Karuizawa where the feeder at our accommodation provided lots of excitement! We explored the nearby Wild Bird Forest, always a little quiet in winter but still with plenty to pique our interest. A visit to a nearby reservoir was another great way to kick off our birding in Japan. The next spectacle was the Snow Monkeys and what a show! A walk through beautiful winter forests takes us to their abode amongst the steaming hot springs, and there they are: lording adult males, females with their babies, and naughty adolescents all enjoying their hot baths. From Jigokudani we crossed the Japan Alps in fine weather although by the time we got to the coast on the Japan Sea the winds had really picked up. Nevertheless we enjoyed some fabulous birding around Kanazawa and Kaga with amazing congregations of ducks, geese and swans. Our next destination was Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s major islands where we had a date with the incredible gathering of the cranes around Izumi. It is such a memorable experience to see so many of these elegant birds gathered to feed and interact. This year we saw three species: the Hooded and White-naped Cranes in the thousands with a tiny scattering of rather feisty Sandhills. Watching thousands of cranes flying across a rising sun at dawn? It doesn’t get much better. Heading westward in balmy weather we had close looks at tiny twittering Japanese Murrelets from our comfortable boat against a backdrop of palm trees and snow in Kyushu. Heading up to Hokkaido our next spectacle was the winter gathering of Steller’s Sea Eagles. These birds are truly breathtaking! Huge, majestic and beautiful against the snowy white winter Hokkaido backdrop. Last up and arguably, most highly anticipated were those most beautiful of the cranes, the Red-crowned Crane. We watched as they danced and strutted and bugled in warm winter weather – a perfect end to a very memorable tour. Of course, during winter everywhere we go the wildfowl are quite astounding. Best of all were gorgeous Smew, improbable Mandarin Ducks and enigmatic Baikal Teals. Not to be outdone were stunning Falcated Teals seemingly everywhere this year, the ever-popular Harlequin Ducks on the ice bound Shiretoko Peninsula and the charismatic Long-tailed Ducks at Nosappu.

Honshu: After a brief but productive excursion to a nearby park to look for wintering groups of Mandarin Ducks (are these the world’s most improbable duck?!), we made our way out of the bustling metropolis of Tokyo to what seems like a different world. The mountain town of Karuizawa is laid back, spacious and green. We spent much of our birding time at the feeder of our accommodation, which attracts a variety of fabulous passerines, amongst them Oriental Greenfinch, Varied Tit, Willow Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch and, most excitingly, Japanese Accentor. Forays into the nearby Wild Bird Forest (Yacho-no-mori) were a little slower both from the point of view of birding and walking – the snow is quite deep! We had our first looks at Dusky Thrush and Great Spotted Woodpecker amongst others but no sign of the Copper Pheasant sadly. An afternoon at Saku Reservoir was quite exciting with simply loads of Brambling circling around us as we chased Bull-headed Shrikes and Hawfinches. On the reservoir itself we found a single female Smew, our main target here, amongst congregations of more common wildfowl like Eurasian Wigeon, Mallards and Eastern Spot-billed Ducks. Leaving Karuizawa we struck out westwards to Jigokudani, Hell Valley, so-called for its plethora of steaming hot springs, located in the center of the Japan Alps where we readied ourselves for our morning with the Snow Monkeys. A bit of a walk through beautiful snowbound forest took us to the home of the hot spring-loving Japanese Macaques, where we were able to enjoy their company for a couple of hours before heading to Kaga on the Japan Sea. Here we explored a number of birding sites in the surrounding areas. Our main reason for visiting this area is the Baikal Teal, which overwinters here at an inconspicuous little lake known as Kamo-ike meaning Duck Pond. This is one of this previously declining bird’s most important wintering grounds and it is thanks in large part to the efforts of local conservationists that Baikal Teal is now listed as being of Least Concern by Birdlife International. Around the area we found large congregations of Tundra Swan in the rice fields and the beautiful Falcated Teal in good numbers. A visit to the Sai River in Kanazawa was unsuccessful for the hoped-for Scaly-sided Merganser but some wonderful looks at Azure-winged Magpies and Long-billed Plovers were ample compensation. 

Kyushu: Our next leg of the trip was a visit to the southern island of Kyushu where we made our way via Yatsushiro Estuary to Arasaki, a small farming town on the west coast. Flying into Fukuoka, we then drove south to our appointment with the cranes, stopping at the estuary en route. Here we found the tide was not working in our favour but we did find a couple of Saunder’s Gulls so we were happy. The days are short at this time of year so by the time we got to our hotel it was already dark. We savored another of many memorable meals before turning in, excited about the promise of the following day.

Arriving just after dawn, we spent a full morning enjoying the amazing sight of thousands and thousands of White-naped and Hooded Cranes feeding and prancing and just going about their business. It was fun to search out the handful of Sandhill Cranes amongst them. The remainder of the day was spent exploring other areas in this very birdy and picturesque locale. We found a Daurian Jackdaw amongst hundreds of Rooks as well as Black-faced Spoonbills keeping company with Eurasians, a handful of handsome Eurasian Shelducks, spritely Northern Lapwings were in good numbers while some Reed Buntings gave us the runaround. After a final morning with the cranes, we departed Arasaki and headed east towards Mi-ike where the forests were unusually quiet in the relatively warm weather, and then onwards to the coast in search of Japanese Murrelets. Along the way we stopped at a small, hidden lake where we found that sadly the introduced lotuses have taken over and there wasn’t a lot to see. Moving to the coast we found a number of interesting shorebirds, waders and gulls as well as our hoped for Japanese Murrelets – known as umisuzume or “sea sparrow” in Japanese. The already small population of this near endemic is declining due to disturbance at their breeding sites as well as getting caught in drift nets, but they have been designated a Japanese National Treasure so conservation efforts are underway. Later we found a wonderful selection of waterbirds, including Pied Avocet and Black-winged Stilt in a very rich estuary near our departure point of Miyazaki.  

Hokkaido: Our last and arguably most anticipated destination was the “north sea route”, Hokkaido. Just across the narrow Tsugaru Strait and we find ourselves in a different biogeographic zone to the rest of Japan, which is more like that of Siberia. During our stay on this wonderful island we explored the Nemuro, Notsuke and Shiretoko Peninsulas where we found many exciting Alcids, cormorants, gulls and sea ducks. Highlights amongst these included Pigeon Guillemots and Ancient Murrelets at Ochiishi, Pelagic Cormorants at Nosappu, and Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks dotted all along the coast. But unarguably the best of all were the simply breathtaking Steller’s Sea Eagles in all their glory! What simply amazing birds. From Nemuro we headed inland to the small town of Yoroushi, no more than a collection of three or four buildings including our wonderful Japanese-style inn where the feeder is almost a source of wonder! We spent a full afternoon and morning in the lobby being entertained by Great-spotted Woodpeckers, Hawfinches, Marsh Tits, Long-tailed Tits, and Hokkaido (Eurasian) Jays. Our luck ran out though and the fish-owl refused to make an appearance this time. Could it be that the weather is too warm and they don’t need to make use of the stocked pond? At least a pair of cuter than cute Sable were a good consolation prize. Next we headed north to Rausu on the Shiretoko Peninsula, one of Japan’s remotest areas. Birding en route was fun as we checked out numerous small harbours for Harlequin Ducks, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck and the like. We were able to take a boat trip just out of Rausu’s harbour to marvel at close views of Steller’s Eagles as they competed with White-tailed Eagles for the fish heads on offer. The unseasonably fine weather continued as we departed from the coast and headed inland to the wintering haunts of the magnificent Red-crowned Cranes. Here we found delightful wintery warm weather and finished our tour in the company of these most beautiful of all birds as they went about their business, seemingly disdainful of our rapturous attention! 

- Susan Myers

 

Updated: March 2017