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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Japan in Spring

Southern Japan and Island Endemics

2019 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. Our efforts were foiled by strong winds, unfortunately but it was fun nonetheless. We then 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. This year she was magnificent during our stay as she burst through some early morning cloud only to disappear again around midday. Next stop on this energetic tour was our ferry trip to Miyakejima in the Izu Islands, 400 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 south 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 found 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, with a total of 17 rails seen! Our next island hop was further south to the delightful island of Ishigaki. Here we met up with a local naturalist and enjoyed a really super day of birding with a superb Ryukyu Serpent Eagle undoubtedly the highlight. It was then on 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.


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 Yellow Bunting. 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 Green Pheasant, Chestnut-eared Buntings, Bull-headed Shrikes, and Eurasian Skylarks.

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, as well as the Skyline reaching up to the south. The Japanese Accentor wasn’t very cooperative on the Subaru side this year but a trip to the other side of the mountain proved to be the answer and we had brilliant views of a responsive pair foraging on the ground. We also had great views of many gorgeous Red-flanked Bluetail in stunning breeding plumage.


The Izu Island archipelago is a volcanic chain that extends a thousand kilometers directly south from Tokyo to its southernmost island Ogasawara. Miyakejima is the third largest of the islands and lies almost 200 km south of Tokyo, which also administers all the Izu islands.

Our explorations of the island were ably assisted by my friend Hitomi san 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! The highlight of our stay here was, however, the highly restricted Styan’s Grasshopper Warbler, which showed amazingly well. Hitomi san was delightful as always and we had a fabulous day exploring this fascinating oceanic volcano. 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 directly to the northern Yanbaru area. The Japanese government announced that Yanbaru in Okinawa’s north was to be elevated to national park status in late 2016. 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 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. We finished off with a quick visit to the Manko Wetland Reserve in the heart of the city and soon found a pair of the very rare Black-faced Spoonbills before heading to the airport.


Our inaugural visit to Ishigaki couldn’t have been better. We spent the day with local naturalist Kobayashi san; he knew all the spots and we drove right up to Ryukyu Scops Owl and Northern Hawk Owl, Malaysian Night Heron and Ryukyu Serpent Eagle, which all posed perfectly for us. Ruddy Kingfishers seemed to be everywhere, which was fine by us!

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.

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 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. Our outing with a local naturalist was a great success with not only lots of frogs but numerous and very cute Amami Black Rabbits and best of all, a huge Habu! The Amami Woodcock was amazing this year. We saw seven of them, including a family group of five. During the day we found a couple of gorgeous Ryukyu Flycatchers (split from Narcissus, and rightly so), Ryukyu Minivets, and Red-capped Green Pigeons.

- Susan Myers



Created: 27 June 2019