Okinawa rail - one of several sought-after species we’ll encounter on the southern islands. Photo: David Fisher
Modern Japan, now one of the world’s largest economies, appears to many to be an overdeveloped, urbanized, and industrialized land clothed from north to south in factories, housing, and concrete. However, Japan is a very mountainous country with many inaccessible regions. The Japanese have a strong traditional affinity with nature that has figured prominently in their system of beliefs and culture. It’s true that in the last few decades the Japanese have promoted economic growth over preservation of the environment, but in the mountains and more remote areas of the archipelago many pristine forests, wetlands, and grasslands remain undisturbed. A growing enthusiasm among the Japanese for nature, and for bird watching in particular, has seen more and more efforts to conserve these valuable assets. Scratch the surface and the real Japan can still be found. Traditional values and practices survive in rural Japan, where the way of life remains one of tranquillity and serenity. It is into this world that we’ll venture on this tour.
The isolation of the islands of Japan has enabled several endemic and near endemic species to evolve, and we’ll endeavour to see most of them. We’ll begin in central Japan and travel south through the subtropical islands of the Nansei Shoto. Along the way we’ll meet some very special birds, including Japanese Yellow Bunting, Green Pheasant, Okinawa Rail, Izu Islands Thrush, and Ijima’s Leaf-Warbler. A spring journey in Japan is a fascinating and memorable experience.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening at Tokyo’s Narita airport. Night near Narita airport.
Day 2: We make an early morning visit to the marshes and reed beds of Ukishima, which is quite close to our hotel in Narita. Ukishima Reserve is located in the corner of a huge lake and is home to a wide variety of wetland birds. We have a good chance of finding Yellow and the scarce Schrenck’s Bitterns as they flap lazily over the tops of the reeds before dropping down out of sight. In addition, we should see Oriental and Black-browed Reed-warblers, while the localized Japanese Reed Bunting commonly breeds in the reed beds. If we’re lucky we’ll see Japanese Swamp-Warbler performing its distinctive display flight above the reeds; this is one of just a handful of locations for this rare and localized endemic.
After lunch we’ll drive inland and west to the foothills of the Japanese Alps. Long famous for its beautiful, temperate woodlands, the area supports a rich selection of species in a relatively small area. Night at Karuizawa.
Day 3: The woods at Karuizawa will be full of resident birds and returning summer visitors, many in full song. As we explore the tracks and trails through the deciduous and mixed woodland and along the fast-flowing streams, we may encounter Hodgson’s Hawk-Cuckoo, Japanese Green and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, Brown Dipper, Japanese, Brown, and Siberian Thrushes, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Blue Robin, Siberian Stonechat, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Eastern Crowned and Arctic Warblers, Dark-sided Flycatcher, Eurasian Bullfinch, Japanese Grosbeak, and if we are lucky, the scarce and localised Japanese Yellow Bunting.
In the evening we can bathe in the mineral waters of the hot springs, a very popular activity among the Japanese. The waters are heated by natural volcanic activity, and are a great way to relieve the stiffness resulting from a day in the field. We’ll also go out at dusk in search of Ural Owl, which breeds nearby. Night at Karuizawa.
Day 4: After a final morning’s birding at Karuizawa we’ll drive to the iconic Mount Fuji just south of Tokyo. If we have time, we’ll explore the forests in the vicinity of our hotel. With luck, we might find Japanese Accentor, Japanese Green-Pigeon, Ashy Minivet, Japanese Robin, or Asian Stubtail, among others. Night at Yamanaka-ko.
Day 5: After a morning birding the upper slopes of Mount Fuji, we’ll drive back to Tokyo (a chance to experience this amazing city) and to the domestic airport at Haneda for our late afternoon flight to Hachijojima. Night at Hachijojima.
Day 6: Birders wishing to see the Izu Islands specialties have typically concentrated their efforts on Miyakejima (jima = island). However, the massive volcanic eruption that occurred there in 2001 has effectively placed the island off-limits for the foreseeable future (it is now possible to visit, but one must wear a gas mask!). Instead, we’ll travel a little farther out into the Philippine Sea to Hachijojima. Extensive areas of lush subtropical forest cloak the slopes of the island’s volcano and provide a home for the endemic Izu Islands Thrush and Ijima’s Leaf-Warbler, in addition to Grey-faced Buzzard, the introduced Chinese Bamboo-Partridge, Brown Hawk-Owl, Japanese Wood-Pigeon, Lesser Cuckoo, and Japanese Robin among others. We’ll look as well for a species that favours small islands - the elusive Styan’s Grasshopper Warbler. Night at Hachijojima.
Day 7: We’ll return to Tokyo by ferry, getting a taste of Japan’s rich coastal seabird community. Black-tailed Gulls will accompany us throughout the crossing, and we’ll see thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of Streaked Shearwaters, as the Izu Archipelago is one of their main breeding areas. We should also encounter several Short-tailed Shearwaters on their northbound migration from New Zealand to the Arctic waters of the northern Pacific. We’ll search hard for Tristram’s Petrel and Japanese Murrelet, both of which have the center of their Japanese breeding ranges in the Izu Islands. One great thing about pelagic birding from Japanese ferries is that the ships are large and very stable, and they have all the amenities one would expect from an ocean liner. We’ll arrive at the dock in Tokyo late in the evening and transfer to our hotel. Night near Haneda Airport, Tokyo.
Day 8: We’ll fly farther south to the island of Okinawa, which lies at the southern end of the Japanese archipelago. Okinawa is a large subtropical island, made infamous as the location of a major battle between American and Japanese forces in World War II. Large numbers of U.S. forces are still stationed in the southern part of the island, but the northern section, known as the Yambaru, is covered in subtropical forest. We’ll travel northward to our lodging near the small town of Ada, our base for exploring the Yambaru forest. Night at Ada.
Day 9: Okinawa holds a wide range of endemic and localized species, all of which occur in the Yambaru area. It is here that the Okinawa Rail, discovered in 1981, and Okinawa Woodpecker occur. Rather easier to see here are Whistling Green-Pigeon, Pacific Swallow, Ryukyu Robin, Ryukyu Minivet, and a distinctive endemic subspecies of Varied Tit. Okinawa Rails, although extremely difficult to find in daylight, may be found much more easily at night, when they roost in exposed bare tree branches out of danger from potential predators. Night at Ada.
Day 10: After a final morning’s birding we’ll drive back to Naha and take the short flight north to Amami Oshima, home to the beautiful and endemic Lidth’s Jay, a fairly common bird here. Night at Amami Oshima.
Day 11: Sometimes known as the Galapagos of the East, Amami Oshima supports extensive areas of lush, subtropical forest as well as a distinctive community of birds, mammals, and reptiles including a host of little-known and very localized species. Birds we may encounter include the secretive Amami Woodcock, the surprisingly confiding Ryukyu Scops-Owl, the distinctive Ryukyu race of Brown Hawk-Owl, the delightful but skulking Ryukyu Robin, Amami Thrush, and the very distinctive and highly ‘splittable’ race of White-backed (Owsten’s) Woodpecker. In addition we should see the endemic Amami Black Rabbit and Amami Spiny Rat. During the afternoon we’ll visit an area of mud flats and coastal woodland where we’ll be able to find the localized Whistling Green-Pigeon in addition to a marvelous range of shorebirds, such as Grey-tailed Tattler, Red Knot, Oriental Pratincole, and Sanderling - at this time of year many may already be in full breeding plumage. Night at Amami Oshima.
Day 12: This morning we’ll fly to Kagoshima on the island of Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main Japanese islands. Our destination is Mi-ike, a delightful location that is part of the Kirishima-Yaku National Park, a remarkable region of volcanoes and hot springs. Night at Mi-ike.
Day 13: Mi-ike is a circular lake about a kilometer in diameter surrounded by rich broadleaf forests, lakes, fast-flowing streams, and mountains. The forests are renowned as the best place in Japan to find the gorgeous Fairy Pitta. Although this species is rapidly declining in numbers we will hope that one or two of these birds have recently arrived and that they are singing on territory. Other birds of special interest here include Ruddy Kingfisher (a surprisingly common summer visitor), the stunning Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, White-backed Woodpecker, Japanese Wagtail, Ryukyu Minivet, Narcissus and Blue-and-white Flycatchers, Eurasian Jay, and Japanese Grosbeak. Night at Mi-ike.
Day 14: After some final birding around Mi-ike we’ll drive to the airport at Kagoshima and board our flight back to Tokyo’s Haneda airport arriving early enough for transfers from Haneda to Narita in time for early evening flights home.
Note: The price of this tour includes the use of Japan Air Passes for the internal flights. To qualify for these passes, the international flights need to be booked with specific airlines who are part of the STAR alliance group only. Please contact the Sunbird office for details if you intend booking your own flights.
This tour is arranged by our American partner WINGS
Updated: 31 August 2016