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 birdwatching 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 tranquility 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 Marsh Grassbird, 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 the Tone River, which is quite close to our hotel in Narita. This area is home to a wide variety of wetland birds and 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 our main target here, the restricted range Marsh Grassbird performing its distinctive display flight above the reeds; this is one of just a handful of locations for this rare and localized near 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, Common (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 localized 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 bathing is 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) in the late afternoon for our overnight ferry to Miyakejima. Night on the ferry.
Day 6: We’ll arrive on this amazing volcanic island early in the morning, then transfer to our hotel for breakfast. After which we’ll start exploring the island. The extensive areas of lush subtropical forest cloaking the slopes of the island’s volcano provide a home for the endemic Izu Islands Thrush and Ijima’s Leaf-Warbler, in addition to Gray-faced Buzzard, the introduced Chinese Bamboo-partridge, Brown Hawk-Owl, Japanses Wood-Pigeon, Lesser Cuckoo, and Japanese Robin among others. We’ll look as well for the elusive Styan’s Grasshopper Warbler, a small island specialist. Night on Miyakejima.
Day 7: After another morning’s birding, we’ll return to Tokyo by ferry in the afternoon, 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 centre 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 Kunigami.
Day 9: Okinawa holds a wide range of endemic and localised 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 have become increasingly common over the last few years, perhaps due to an excellent programme of mongoose control that has been implemented in recent years, so we’ll spend much of our birding time on the island in search of this charismatic species. Night at Kunigami.
Day 10: After a final morning’s birding we’ll drive back to Naha and take the short flight south to the little-known island of Ishigaki where our main target will be the endemic Ryukyu Serpent Eagle. Night on Ishigaki.
Day 11: We’ll spend the day exploring this fascinating island. After seeing the Serpent Eagle, we’ll look for the very distinctive subspecies of Japanese Tit, often known as Ishigaki Tit and a surefire future split, and then the Ryukyu Green Pigeon, another potential split - from Red-capped Green Pigeon. It’s worth keeping an eye out for Large-billed Crow, too, as this distinctive small subspecies is also a possible split. There are plenty of other birds that will keep us busy, too. They include Cinnamon Bittern, Eastern Reef Egret, and possibly even Chinese Egret. This island is a good place for the often elusive Watercock, Slaty-legged Crake and even Malaysian Night Heron. Not surprisingly it’s a great place for shorebirds, too, and we’ll search for Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Red-necked Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Terek Sandpiper as well as Greater Crested and Little Terns.
Day 12: This morning we’ll fly to Amami Oshima via Naha. Amami Oshima is home to a handful of endemics including the beautiful and endemic Lidth’s Jay, a fairly common bird here; the secretive Amami Woodcock, and the much scarcer Amami Thrush. Night at Amami Oshima.
Day 13: 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 localised species. Birds we may encounter include the the surprisingly confiding Ryukyu Scops-Owl, the distinctive Ryukyu race of Brown Hawk-Owl, the delightful but skulking Ryukyu Robin, and the very distinctive and highly splittable race of White-backed (Owsten’s) Woodpecker, in addition to 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 should be able to find the localised Whistling Green-Pigeon in addition to a marvelous range of shorebirds, such as Gray-tailed Tattler, Red Knot, Oriental Pratincole, and Sanderling. At this time of year many may already be in breeding plumage. Night at Amami Oshima.
Day 14: After some final birding on Amami we’ll drive to the airport and board our flight back to Tokyo’s Haneda airport. We’ll arrive early enough for transfers from Haneda airport to Narita airport in time for early evening flights home.
This tour is arranged by our American partner WINGS
Updated: 20 December 2017