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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Japan in Winter

2010 Tour Narrative

This year’s Japan in Winter tour kicked off in comfort after a long flight to Tokyo and a bus trip to the southern edges of the snowy Japanese Alps. At Berg Cot Pension, we were able to get over our jet lag while enjoying breakfast in front of a breathtaking display of woodland birds including Arctic Rosy Finch, Japanese Grosbeak, and Varied Tit at the feeders; mammals that night included Raccoon Dog and Japanese Marten. The pension’s owner gave us all a warm welcome, delicious mountain food, and origami lessons. Walks along the snowy slopes of Tateshina provided views of Copper Pheasant, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, and Red-flanked Bluetail.

On our daily drives we selected sites of interest for both birds and Japanese culture: we saw Japanese Wagtails and Japanese Woodpecker at a nearby Buddhist temple, Long-tailed Rosefinch and Green Pheasant near a brilliantly preserved Edo-era wooden village, a flock of Bewick’s Swans in the Kamikawa River surrounded by other waterfowl including Smew and Falcated Duck, and a group of 20 Asian Azure-winged Magpie (now split from the Spanish birds) roosting in the reeds. We also made a memorable excursion to Jigokudani Onsen near Nagoya to see up to 60 Japanese Macaques squabbling, delousing, frowning, and bathing in the thermal springs. We had excellent views of some gravity-defying Japanese Serow grazing the steep slope above the sulphurous pools, and very close views of three confiding Alpine Accentors.

Our next stop was Kagoshima prefecture in southern Kyushu, where we experienced sunny weather with temperatures in the 70s. The Arasaki rice fields were filled with 5,000 Hooded Cranes and 500 White-naped Cranes. Among the throng were a single Common Crane, a couple of Hooded x Common Crane hybrids, and up to six Sandhill Cranes. In the reeds we found plenty of Chestnut-eared, Black-faced, and Common Reed Buntings, and Chinese Penduline Tits were present, though they didn’t put on such a good show for all of us. A female Japanese Quail, a difficult bird to see in Japan, obliged, as did a Ruddy-Breasted Crake. On the shingle of the Takaono River we got great views of a Long-billed Plover, living up to its specific name placidus. An Eastern Water Rail posed well for us at dusk by a reedy pond, enabling great views of this newly separated species.

With views of Peregrine Falcon and Merlin here and up to 15 Ospreys, our raptor list was growing; a tour highlight for many of us was a female Northern Goshawk on a recently killed male Mallard in a flooded rice pool. The bird dragged its heavy prey across the water to the bank where it tucked in, surrounded by 300 protesting Large-billed Crows. This incredible observation lasted for 40 minutes, providing all of us all with our longest ever view of a Goshawk.

A trip to Yatsushiro combined visits to a small tatami weaving factory, an ancient Banyan tree, and a clifftop shrine with some mudflat birding. We got great views of an adult Pallas’s Gull, complete with its breeding black head and white mascara, and close views of 76 Saunders’s Gull flitting back and forth giving their tern-like calls. Two Black-faced Spoonbills were also there, and we waited for them to wake up so that we could see both their black faces and their spoon bills. We stopped at Minamata, where we marveled at 350 Asian House Martins on wires and bridge railings.

We arrived at Kogawa Dam as the mist was rising off the hills and had brilliant views of a Crested Kingfisher thrashing a freshly caught trout against a rock and a pair of fly-by Brown Dippers. At the dam we counted 31 Mandarin Ducks and heard their strange, hoarse “geck!” calls echoing across the water. According to Shinto Legend, Japan was born at the Kirishima volcanoes; we visited the impressive Kirishima Jingo shrine with its massive gate, serene building, and ancient cedars. We also viewed Takachiho volcano from the volcanic Lake Miike and walked through the gallery forest.

The next morning we searched another area of the plateau and were rewarded with excellent views of a pair of Mountain Hawk Eagles, both perched and in flight.

Hokkaido couldn’t have been more different. After a slight blip in the schedule, thanks to a flight delay, we arrived in thick fog with snow on the ground, a complete white-out. But as we drove around, we got great views of up to five Red Foxes and 60 Sika Deer close to the bus, and one of our first pairs of Red-crowned Crane approached to within 20 yards of our safari bus. We had a packed lunch at the Crane Center at Tsurui village, where we saw about 100 Red-crowned Cranes feeding along with 5 White-tailed Eagles, watched over by up to 60 bugling Whooper Swans, creamy white against the starch-white snow. The cranes put on a fantastic display, with some dancing right in front of us, their breath visible in the winter air as they trumpeted. Our driver then showed us a magnificent roosting Ural Owl of the gray and white race japonicus, which posed well in its tree hole on two of our days.

At Yoroushi Onsen, we were filled to the brim (and then some) with exquisitely prepared Japanese food. Here we enjoyed views of up to 30 Eurasian Jays of the subspecies brandti and up to 4 Sables in their yellowish winter coats at feeders outside the restaurant.  Farther north in Rausu, we stayed in a comfortable pension; it was from there that we set out on an early morning boat trip out to the sea ice, where at dawn we watched up to 50 Steller’s Sea Eagles and 15 White-tailed Eagles feeding and perching right next to the boat, surrounded by hundreds of Slaty-backed, Glaucous, and Glaucous-winged Gulls. We were lucky that the sea ice was quite close in this year, and we got very good views of all these birds.

We spent the rest of the day relaxing.  At night, near Rausu we visited a nearby port and had brief views of a Blakiston’s Fish Owl perched on a telegraph pole.

A trip down the coast to the Nosappu Peninsula and nearby ports afforded us views of Spectacled Guillemot, Black and White-winged Scoters, and very close Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks. The undoubted highlights here were close views of three frolicking Sea Otters just offshore and an adult breeding-plumage Red-faced Cormorant on a cliff 50 yards away from us with some Pelagic Cormorants. We made an excursion inland to a lake where we watched five Steller’s Sea Eagles and, incredibly, another Mountain Hawk Eagle. In nearby spruce forests we had rare views of Pine Grosbeak and Black Woodpecker. We had lunch watching a hundred Whooper Swans at the thawing edge of the lake.

On our last day we experienced some fairly blustery conditions on an exposed Notsuke Peninsula, where we braved a walk to the lighthouse for some sea-watching. We were rewarded with a great last bird of the trip: a Pine Bunting in a flock of Arctic Rosy Finches.  Then we started our return home.

– Fergus Crystal

Updated: July 2010