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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Japan in Winter

2024 Narrative

In Brief: Our winter tour in Japan this year featured the usual array of fantastic birds – the incredible numbers of cranes, wildfowl and eagles never fail to impress. And then there are some special rarities such as Japanese Murrelet and Blakiston’s Fish Owl, that can only realistically be seen in this country that counts so many of their birds as National Treasures, an official title. We were also lucky this year to have encounters with a number of species that we hope for but can’t count on, of note the Japanese Waxwings, Baikal Teal, Stejneger’s Scoter, Green Pheasant, and Siberian Crane.

In Detail: We started our winter birding in Japan with a visit to two wetland sites. At Kasumigaura we were hoping for a somewhat out of season sighting of the restricted range Marsh Grassbird. Sadly, it was only heard but we still had a good start to our birding with good numbers of wildfowl, grebes, and other waterbirds, as well as our first Dusky Thrushes, Oriental Greenfinches and Meadow Buntings. At the heart shaped Watarase Reservoir we were delighted to find good numbers of smart Smew, and best of all, our hoped for Long-tailed Rosefinches feeding in seeding trees in the car park, the males looking lovely in their snappy pink plumage.  

Our explorations of various sites in the Karuizawa area kicked off at a small, but always rewarding, neighbourhood shrine. Two highlights here were our hoped for Japanese Green Woodpecker, and a little group of Japanese Waxwings feeding in the fruiting mistletoes overhead. Saku Reservoir was also great, albeit a little cold! Falcated Teal, Smew and Japanese Wagtail were welcome additions to our list of sightings, but the Long-billed Plovers were an even better surprise. Explorations of the Wild Bird Forest yielded Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Coat and Varied Tits, and of course the ubiquitous Brown-eared Bulbuls. In the Hotchi Fields south of the town we added some more great birds, including Bull-headed Shrike, big numbers of Oriental Greenfinches, some very nice Rustic Buntings, and best of all – a fabulously showy male Green Pheasant! The Green Pheasant is the national bird of Japan, the kokucho. The Green Pheasant was mentioned in Japan’s oldest history books, in both the Nihonshoki and the Kojiki, which were published in the 8th century. It is said that it was the messenger of Amaterasu, the ancient sun goddess, the highest deity in Japanese mythology.

Due to the earthquake that occurred just prior to our arrival in Japan, we were forced to change our plans somewhat. So, after our visit with the so-called Snow Monkeys (really Japanese Macaques), we proceeded southwards to the city of Matsumoto, famous for its beautiful castle. Considered to be one of three great Japanese castles (along with Kumamoto and Himeji), Matsumoto-jo dates from the 1500s when it was built in the Sengoku Period, otherwise known as the “warring states period” a time of great conflict and social upheaval. It was fascinating to explore the various levels and the keep, and as a bonus we found more Japanese Waxwings in the gardens.

From Matsumoto we flew out of Honshu, Japan’s main island, to the more sedate but economically important island of Kyushu. After touching down in Fukuoka, the largest city on the island, we beat a hasty retreat and headed south to the quieter city of Yatsushiro. Explorations of the Kuma River Estuary turned up some great birds, notably tern-like Saunder’s Gull, an impressive Eurasian Goshawk, a smart little Chestnut-eared Bunting, and best of all, a little active group of Chinese Penduline-tits feeding in the reed heads.  

Leaving Yatsushiro, we again headed south to one of the most anticipated destinations of our tour – the home of Japan’s cranes, Izumi. Here we marvelled at the sight of thousands and thousands of Hooded and White-naped Cranes, with a few Common, Sandhill and Siberian Cranes thrown in for good measure. On top of this the incredible numbers of Rooks, waterfowl, shorebirds and others make this mostly rural area a truly remarkable birding heaven. A side visit to a superb forest reserve, the Kogawa Dam, was fun and fruitful. The highlight here was, of course, the incredible Mandarin Duck, found in good numbers here. What a bird! A surprise, and very welcome, find was a small group of shy Baikal Teal, not to mention a pair of rare Grey Buntings. Leaving Izumi, we made a quick stop at the small town of Satsuma where a little riverside park is always great for the scarce Long-billed Plover.  

On our way to Ky?sh?’s east coast, we stopped in at a spectacular crater lake where we were rewarded with Ry?ky? Minivets, Long-tailed Tits, Eurasian Nuthatches, Daurian Redstarts, and a Pale Thrush.

In the relatively balmy climes of Miyazaki Prefecture, we enjoyed a picturesque and adventure filled couple of hours on the water in search of the tiny and cute Japanese Murrelet, the world’s rarest alcid. And just as we were about to give up hope, up they popped! We were able to spend a bit of time with them, from a respectful distance, as they repeatedly dived and resurfaced. Another of many trip highlights!

Next, we braced ourselves as we headed northwards to Hokkaido, the Siberia you go to when you’re not going to Siberia. And yes, it certainly was cold, but to our surprise (or mine at least) not nearly as cold and deep in snow as usual. We hit the ground running, heading straight to Cape Kiritappu and Hamanaka Port. This proved to be a brilliant start to our Hokkaido sojourn with our first sightings of White-tailed Eagles, Harlequin Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Slaty-backed Gulls, and Pelagic Cormorants. At the cape, we almost got beaten back by the cold and wind, but Red-necked Grebes, Spectacled Guillemots, and Asian Rosy-Finches proved irresistible.

Thanks to a serendipitous chance meeting with an acquaintance, I was able to arrange a visit to his new feeding station hidden away in a remote part of the Nemuro Peninsula. This proved to be an absolute bonanza! Three hours was well spent here with visits to the feeders from all sorts of neat birds – Japanese Pygmy and Great Spotted Woodpeckers; Coal, Marsh, Willow, Varied and Japanese Tits; super cute Long-tailed Tits; and Eurasian Nuthatches.

A morning at the Swan44 Roadside Station in hopes of sighting of the incredible Steller’s Sea Eagle started slowly but thanks to the fisherman, who dump their bycatch on the ice, we thrilled to the sight of these magnificent birds squabbling with the crows and the White-tailed Eagles over the scraps. The only way to describe Steller’s Sea Eagle is incredible!

Our last adventure on the Nemuro Peninsula was our nature cruise out of Habomai Port. As we tracked along the southern coast of the point, we encountered good numbers of Common Murre and Spectacled Guillemots, and one Pigeon Guillemot. As expected, Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks were in good numbers, and a small group of Stejneger’s Scoters was a very sight.

Sadly, our nature cruise out of Rausu was cancelled but this wasn’t a huge disaster – we still enjoyed some memorable birding as we explored the fishing ports that dot the coast and kindly allow unlimited public access. A side trip out on the unusual Notsuke Peninsula turned up more great wildlife sightings in the form of huge numbers of Sika Deer, the endearing Hokkaido Red Fox, many, many wildfowl and gulls, and best of all a simply huge flock of flighty Common Redpoll, not at all common in Japan.

We finished off our tour of Japan and its birds with a big finale in the form of the world’s largest owl and the world’s most (arguably) beautiful and heaviest crane. The added bonus was the superb accommodation at Yuyado Daiichi, a Japanese inn which features a stunning lobby area dominated by an outdoor feeder, incredible cuisine and stunning artwork throughout the building. After an afternoon watching the Hokkaido Jays, Eurasian Nuthatches, woodpeckers and tits working the feeder, we settled in a dusk to await the hoped for arrival of the resident Blakiston’s Fish Owl. She proved to be a little reticent this time, but some lucky and persistent folk were able to see this magnificent bird in all its glory from the warmth of the inn’s lobby.

Next, we headed to Tsurui, the characters of this name literally mean “the crane place”, and an appropriate name it is. We spent time with the hundred or more stately Red-crowned Cranes as they danced, squabbled and fed in the snow covered fields. What a sight! A breathtakingly beautiful end to a very memorable tour. Many thanks to a great group for a most enjoyable birding, cultural and gourmet tour of this amazing country, my second home!

- Susan Myers


Created: 14 March 2024