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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Japan in Spring

Endemics and Culture

2023 Narrative

Despite some less-than-ideal weather caused by a very unusually early typhoon to the south of us, we had an excellent trip in Japan this year with some wonderful birds, excellent mammals, unforgettable scenery, memorable cultural experiences and last but not least, some amazing culinary outings!

After an enjoyable stay at the very comfortable Nikko Narita Hotel, including some delicious meals, we headed out on our birding journey of Japan, with our first stop at Kasumigaura Ukishima Marsh, a small reserve known mainly as a stronghold of the shy Marsh Grassbird. Classified as Near Threatened by Birdlife International, it is a very localised species with disjunct breeding populations only in China and Japan. Although it is known to be exceptionally skulking, with perseverance we managed to get great views of this lovely little bird as it sang loudly but briefly from the tops of the tall reeds. We were delighted to find several other excellent birds, including our first view of a Green Pheasant, as well as the often hard to find Ochre-rumped Bunting. Ever alert Mary spotted a small group of Eurasian Black-winged Stilts in a rice paddy so we back tracked to have a look at these elegant birds before swinging westwards on our journey into the mountains of Nikko.

Heading northwards, we next stopped at the amazing Nikko Temple Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site consisting of over 100 shrines and temples the oldest of which were constructed in the 8th Century. Despite the inclement weather, we spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring this wonderful and very special area. In particular, we marvelled at the stunning architecture of the Toshogu Shrine, a lavishly decorated complex consisting of more than a dozen buildings set in a beautiful forest. Countless wood carvings and large amounts of gold leaf were used to decorate the buildings in a way not seen elsewhere in Japan.

We continued our birding explorations in the Senjogahara Highlands where we had a brilliant morning’s birding in a simply beautiful area. Senjogahara, meaning “battlefield,” was named after a mythical tale that the gods of Mount Nantai and Mount Akagi fought over control of Lake Chuzenji in this area. This 400-hectare marsh is 1,400 meters above sea level and is a registered site of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance with a diverse range of plants and animals inhabiting the rich natural environment consisting of forests, lakes, swamps, rivers, and marshes. Our birding explorations revealed many excellent species including very cute Long-tailed Tits, endemic Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, singing Eurasian Wrens, our first of very many Amur Stonechats, and Masked and Meadow Buntings. Best of all was an unexpected flock of Bohemian Waxwings, which even better, included a few Japanese Waxwings amongst them, all feeding in fruiting trees lining the well-constructed trails.

Next, we hit the Karuizawa and Tateshina areas in Nagano Prefecture where we explored the forests, shrines and fields of the area. Highlights included wonderful views of the Brown Dipper as it gathered aquatic insects to feed its youngsters, as well as the striking Japanese Green Woodpecker.

We were very lucky to have superb weather for our visit to the iconic Mount Fuji. Despite missing one of our targets, we did have point blank views of the charismatic Spotted Nutcracker, not to mention incredible views of this perfect mountain. 

On our way back to Tokyo, we stopped at Kamakura. This quiet coastal town is less than an hour from the huge metropolis of Tokyo and feels like a different world. In the late 12th Century Kamakura became Japan’s political centre for over a century and as a result numerous beautiful temples and shrines dot the area. A single afternoon can never really do justice to this fascinating city but our visit to the Hokokuji Temple was simply delightful. Dating from the early 1300s, the highlight of our visit was the stunning bamboo garden where a pathway leads to a small traditional tea house where we sat and enjoyed a cup of matcha tea as we quietly contemplated the peaceful murmurings of the wind rustling through the bamboo stems.

After overnighting in Haneda, we took an early morning flight to the southern island of Okinawa where we picked up our vehicle and then made a short stop at the Manko Estuary in the centre of Naha, the island’s capital. We soon located a number of excellent birds, most notably the globally threatened Black-faced Spoonbill. We then headed northwards to the Yanbaru National Park, where we spent the next two nights. The Yanbaru region makes up the northern part of the island and compared to the urbanized, southern part of the island, Yanbaru is significantly less developed and more rural. The region contains an abundance of subtropical forested hills and endemic wildlife. In 2016, the Yanbaru National Park was established here as the 33rd national park in Japan. Our short stay in this wonderful area was hugely successful with all the special and endemic birds recorded. After some nervous moments, we eventually had superb views on a number of occasions of the unforgettable Okinawa Rail. This iconic bird is classified as Endangered by Birdlife International and is most threatened by the introduced Javan Mongoose and by roadkill. A hugely increased local awareness and pride in the bird is certainly helping with conservation of this special bird as is the concerted effort to extirpate the mongoose. Over and above the rail, we also had fantastic views of the adorable Okinawa Robin, close up and personal looks at the smart Okinawa Woodpecker, and arguably most exciting, the simply gorgeous Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher.

Our next destination was my personal favourite place in Japan, Amami Oshima. Amami Oshima is the largest island in the Satsunan archipelago that runs between Kyushu and Okinawa and belongs to Kagoshima Prefecture. Most importantly to us, Amami Oshima is home to a rich fauna and flora with many endemic species. We were excited to have brilliant views of the colourful Lidth’s Jay, as well as Amami Woodcocks – including super cute chicks, Ryukyu Scops Owl, smart Owston’s Woodpeckers, and one of the hardest endemics to find, the Ryukyu Flycatcher.

An undoubted highlight of our stay on Amami was our visit to the Tanaka Isson Art Museum. This little known and highly underrated artist (1908-1977) lived for many years on the island where he produced some of his most beautiful work. His depictions of birds and the flora of the island are particularly evocative.

Leaving the south, we headed northwards to Hokkaido for the third leg of our trip. Arriving in Kushiro, we picked up our vehicles then headed out towards to the Nemuro Peninsula. Going from the subtropical south to the northern climes feels like entering a different world and the cold weather was a bit of a shock! But our first stop at the Kiritappu Peninsula (appropriately meaning “full of fog”) was very cold but also very rewarding with our first sightings of Harlequin Ducks, Black Scoters, Red-necked Grebes, Pelagic Cormorants, and Slaty-backed Gulls. But it’s possible the Sea Otters stole the show today! Many more wildfowl awaited – Northern Shovelers, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Green-winged Teal, Greater Scaup, Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Smew and many more. Hokkaido is a duck bonanza!

Moving inland we were thrilled to have encounters with the stately Red-crowned Crane, as well as Eurasian Oystercatchers, Whooper Swans and handsome White-tailed Eagles. We finished off our travels in Japan spending the day with my friends Ando san and Yamada san, who guided us to excellent sightings of a super Ural Owl, as well as Grey-headed Woodpecker, and Long-tailed Rosefinches, amongst others.

Thanks everyone for an excellent trip and sorry about the bad weather! 

- Susan Myers 




Created: 11 April 2024