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JAPAN 2003 , February 6th - 18th

...with Mark Finn

Cranes at Arasaki
Photo: Cranes at Arasaki

This was our fourth winter visit to Japan. Highlights included five species of crane at Arasaki in Kyushu including annual vagrants in Sandhill, Common and Demoiselle Cranes. Further north at Saga above average numbers of wintering Saunder's Gulls and Falcated Ducks. Inland at Mi-ike we encountered Baikal Teals for a third successive winter. Further north in Japan we visited the winter wonderland of Hokkaido. White-tailed and Steller's Sea Eagles in almost every harbour. The latter species at Notsuke Hando observed on floating sea ice at 30 metres. A wonderful experience as they passed another four eagles on a 'static' ice flow. Close views of seaducks will linger in the mind particularly Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks, Black Scoter, Common Goldeneye, Goosander and Red-breasted Mergansers. However the dancing Red-crowned Cranes delighted everyone as they danced in the snow. A large and beautiful crane with a restricted range. Near Furen-ko we visited a closed area for the rare and unknown Blakiston's Fish Owl. We waited in freezing conditions before a huge rectangular shape glided over the forest on a moonlit night. Perched on top of a TV aerial. This delighted all of us. Just before leaving another owl came in and fed on a fish left on a feeding table. Fantastic views by flashlight, we left a happy and contented group.
In total we travelled 945 kilometres in Kyushu and 800 in Hokkaido. I hope the following tour report brings back happy memories of an enjoyable tour in the land of the rising sun.

February 6th/7th: London/Newcastle - Frankfurt - Tokyo (Narita and Haneda Airports) - Oi Nature Reserve

Weather: Sunny and clear, 8c

We met at Heathrow Airport Terminal 2 for our flight with Lufthansa to Tokyo via Frankfurt. Our journey took us over Siberia and down to Vladivostock before heading over the Sea of Japan and the Japanese Alps to Tokyo's Narita airport. Akira, my ground agent was there to meet us and help with luggage and general enquiries. The bus journey passed by central Tokyo to Haneda Airport where we had lunch. Afterwards we made the short journey to our hotel opposite Tokyo fruit and vegetable wholesalers. Checked in and made our way through the vegetable warehouse to Oi Nature Reserve. Grassy areas held Dusky Thrush, White-cheeked Starling and Brown-eared Bulbuls. The first area of pools lured Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Spot-billed Duck and Eurasian Teal. Overhead parties of Black Kites. The next group of pools had muddy edges providing feeding areas for Common Greenshank and Common Sandpipers. Walked towards the entrance gate and into a quiet area of Oi. From the hide Brown Thrush and Azure-winged Magpie. Retracing our steps to the entrance added Bull-headed Shrike and Oriental Greenfinches. Tomorrow we head south to Kyushu in western Japan and its avian delights.

February 8th: Tokyo - Kagoshima - Road 50, 53 and 248 - Izumi - Arasaki Crane Reserve East and West sections

Weather: Steady rainfall, heavy at times, and 11c

Left the hotel on the 0550 bus for the short journey to Haneda Airport and our flight down to Kagoshima. Haneda was extremely busy with passengers flying to all parts of Japan. Arrived in Kagoshima where heavy and persistent rain greeted us (to stay with us all day). Picked up the minibus and travelled to Izumi via Roads 504, 50, 53 and 248. The junction of the last two provided us with the opportunity of birding riverine habitats next to an old dam complex. Parked near a bridge where Black-faced Buntings were particularly common. On the river good numbers of Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon and Eurasian Teal. Rocky areas had at least two Long-billed Plovers. Faster flowing areas with protruding rock held Japanese, Black-backed and Grey Wagtails, Brown Dipper, Common Kingfisher, Common and Green Sandpipers. Rain started to fall heavily as we headed towards Izumi. Turned off onto road 48 without much success. Checked in at our base in Izumi and on towards Arasaki Crane Reserve. Higher than usual numbers of Hooded and White-naped Cranes greeted us with their distinctive calls. Mixed up with them were Little and Great Egrets, Northern Pintail, Grey Heron and Black Kite. Stubble fields had Japanese Skylark, American Pipit, Common Snipe and flocks of Eurasian Wigeon. Checked the eastern end with more cranes plus Bewick's Swan (rare), Herring Gull, Common Shelduck and flocks of Oriental Greenfinches. Back to base as the weather closed in. An enjoyable and profitable ended with a pleasant meal in a local restaurant. Lets hope the weather improves tomorrow with a planned visit to the woodlands along road 48.

February 9th: Road 48 - Arasaki Crane Reserve and environs

Weather: Clear and sunny, 14c

An early start along Road 48 as dawn started to break. The best area was before the tunnel a steep wooded hillside with mature trees and roadside. A pair of Pygmy Woodpeckers showed well in a bare tree. Seeding grasses attracted Yellow-throated, Black-faced and Meadow Buntings. Back to Izumi for breakfast. Checked the river where waterbirds present included Great Crested Grebe (rare in Japan), Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Gadwall and Spot-billed Ducks. On a shingle island a group of Japanese Cormorants. In the river itself Slaty-backed and Herring Gulls. Headed towards Arasaki stopping near a farm adjacent to a stand of mature trees. Latter habitat holding Dusky Thrush, Bull-headed Shrike, Oriental Greenfinch and a splendid Hawfinch. Walked along farm roads at the eastern end of Arasaki. Shallow pools here attracted Grey Heron, Common Shelduck, Hooded and White-naped Cranes, Black-faced Spoonbills, Kentish Plover and Dunlin. In the river estuary an immature Common Gull and the commoner ducks. At the hide I managed to locate Common and Sandhill Cranes annual visitors to Arasaki each winter. After lunch we drove along another estuary with a highlight being an adult Crested Kingfisher perching on harbour walls. Flooded rice fields lured at least two Intermediate Egrets. En route to the crane centre we added Common Kestrel, Rustic, Black-faced, Chestnut-eared and Meadow Buntings. Explored another area near a barrage with a habitat of bamboo and mature woodland. On the track Pale Thrushes and in nearby scrub Japanese Bush Warblers. An Osprey flew overhead looking for fish. Ended the day in front of the crane centre adding an adult Demoiselle Crane our fifth crane species of the day.

February 10th: Izumi - Road 447 - Saga - Ariake-se

Weather: Overcast and cloudy, 14c

Headed east towards the Kyushu Expressway the main highway northwards. At the end of road 447 I located a dark phase Daurian Jackdaw in amongst a flock of Rooks. It took us a long time to reach Ariake-se a vast area of mudflats and fish farms with adjoining agricultural land. The road system being totally congested and slow. On our arrival high numbers of Saunder's Gulls hunting for crabs on the flats. Waders were numerous including Grey and Kentish Plovers, Eurasian Curlew, Common Greenshank and two Bar-tailed Godwits. A nearby ditch held a winter plumaged Marsh Sandpiper. Wildfowl were again present in high numbers comprising of Northern Pintail, Mallard and reasonable numbers of Falcated Ducks. After lunch we explored fields and ditches for birds. Highlights included summer plumaged Bramblings, Meadow, Black-faced, Rustic and Reed Buntings, hundreds of Dusky Thrushes, Daurian Redstart, Bull-headed Shrike, Oriental Greenfinches and American Pipits. Explored the airport side, which was quiet apart from a flock of White-cheeked Starlings and hunting Eurasian Kestrels. Headed for home a long journey especially through Saga. Stopped along route 3 for a meal before arriving back at Izumi at 2235.

February 11th: Izumi - Okuchi - Mi-ike.

Weather: Overcast with afternoon showers, 15c.

An early start to visit Mi-ike an area of woodland surrounding a volcanic lake. En route we stopped at Okuchi where we located a Daurian Jackdaw amongst the Rook flock. Arrived at Mi-ike and headed towards the campsite a quiet and peaceful area in the winter months. We quickly located a pair of White-backed Woodpeckers plus Pygmy Woodpecker, Eurasian Nuthatch, Willow, Great, Varied and Long-tailed Tits. Grassy areas lured Dusky and Pale Thrushes, Black-faced and Yellow-throated Buntings. On the lake itself several hundred ducks were present. Careful scanning brought us three Baikal Teal a rare but regular visitor to Mi-ike. Other species present included Little Grebe, Spot-billed and Tufted Ducks, Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Gadwall and Northern Shoveler. In the campground carpark a group of Goldcrests fed in the trees with Japanese White-eyes. Lunch taken near a shrine. Steady rain started to set in as Andrew, Doug and myself set off around Mi-ike lake in search of birds. A pair of Eurasian Jays flew over the forest. The path along the lake produced Red-flanked Bluetail, Pale Thrush, and close views of Varied Tit, Bull-headed Shrike, Japanese Bush Warbler and excellent sightings of Baikal Teal. Brief flight views of Japanese Grosbeak. Afterwards we visited 'The Boys and Girls Club' a district of farmland. Large flocks of Rustic and Meadow Buntings and a pair of Common Buzzards (race japonicus). Headed for Izumi after a brief look at another location for retired workers.

February 12th: Izumi - Mi-ike - Kagoshima - Tokyo - Mito - Oarai Port

Weather: Pleasant in Kyushu, cool in Tokyo. 7c/14c

Revisited Mi-ike with the same results as yesterday. A little disappointing as we missed the endemic woodpecker. At Kagoshima we made the flight to Tokyo where Akira met us. Taxi to Ueno Station and an express train to Mito around 150 kilometres Northeast of Tokyo. Our ferry left fifteen minutes late for Tomakomai. Hokkaido awaits us tomorrow plus seawatching in the North Pacific Ocean.

February 13th: North Pacific Ocean - Tomakomai

Weather: Clear and sunny but with chill northerly winds, 1c

On deck at 0615 as the ship approached Sendai. Birds were few and far between but included Slaty-backed, Black-tailed, Herring, Common and Glaucous Gulls. Along the coast of Iwate we recorded Pacific Diver, Red-necked Grebe, Common and Brunnich's Guillemots, Rhinoceros Auklets and a surprise with a group of Brent Geese flying out to sea. Stopped at 1215 for lunch. Blizzards and strong winds affected the afternoon. Significant numbers of Black-legged Kittiwakes present along the Honshu coast. The best birding being Tsugaru Strait with a few fishing trawlers present. Apart from thousands of gulls we found Ancient Murrelet, Least Auklet, Red-breasted Mergansers and the commoner gulls. Docked at Tomakomai on time and transferred to our hotel at Chitose.

February 14th: Chitose - Kushiro - Akkeshi - Kiritappu Harbour and Cape - Road 142 - Nemuro.

Weather: Sunny with occasional cloud and snow showers, -7c/-2c.

Red-crowned Cranes
Checked in with JAS for the short internal flight to Kushiro in eastern Hokkaido. Picked up our 4x4 minibus and made the short journey up road 53. At Tsurui up to 70 Red-crowned Cranes entertained us dancing in the snow and feeding on grain put out by local farmers.

After this magical experience we headed east along route 44 to Akkeshi. On the road to Kiritappu we stopped to observe birds present in Akkeshi Harbour. Large numbers of wildfowl present including Whooper Swan, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Goosander and Greater Scaup. On the ice resting White-tailed and Steller's Sea Eagles. Kiritappu Harbour was our next stop where we had close views of Black Scoter, Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks and a flock of wintering Dunlin. The quay offered us close views of Slaty-backed, Black-tailed and Glaucous Gulls. Beyond Kiritappu the cape of the same name is located. Stopped at a feeding station to observe Asian Rosy Finches and Eurasian Tree Sparrows. At the cape itself loose flocks of Black Scoters on the sea with Pelagic Cormorants. We took the coast road towards Nemuro passing through woodland and iced up harbours. Visited the nature centre at Furen-ko to obtain information about birds present in the Nemuro and eastern Hokkaido areas. Prospects look good for the next two days both for birds and weather. As we made the journey to Hotel Cairn a blizzard blew in from the Sea of Okhotsk, lets hope it blows itself out.

February 15th: Nemuro - Cape Nosappu (Nemuro eastwards) - Furen-ko - Roads towards Ochisii and Route 44

Weather: Sunny and cold, -4c/-9c

We started the day by heading to Nemuro the most north easterly town in Japan and onto Cape Nosappu. En route to Cape Nosappu we stopped at various locations along the rocky coastline. The first producing Slaty-backed, Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Herring Gulls. Offshore White-winged and Black Scoters, Harlequin Duck, Goosander and Red-breasted Mergansers. Our next stop was reached by turning right past a village towards the sea. Parked by a farmhouse adjacent to steep cliffs and a rocky beach. The sea here held the usual ducks plus Marbled Murrelet, Crested Auklet and Spectacled Guillemot. The harbour before Cape Nosappu held Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants. At the cape itself we birdwatched from the lighthouse overlooking the disputed Kurile Islands (held by Russia). The sea here had vast areas of floating pack ice. Good numbers of auks, cormorants and seaducks. After lunch we visited the Furen-ko Nature Reserve Centre. Feeders here luring Great Spotted and Pygmy Woodpeckers, Marsh, Willow, Great and Long-tailed Tits, Hawfinch, Eurasian Nuthatch and Brown-eared Bulbuls. For the rest of the afternoon we cruised around backroads looking for birds. A house with feeders produced Brambling. Ended the day looking for owls without success.

February 16th: Nemuro - Odaito - Notsuke Hando - Rausu - Furen-ko

Weather: Clear and sunny with snow in Rausu, -1c/1c

Left base at 0730 to pick up supplies and fuel in Nemuro. Headed west and then north along the Shiretoko Peninsula towards the remote town of Rausu. A detour along a side road back towards Furen-ko was good for hundreds of Muck Deer, Asian Rosy Finch and on the pack ice dozens of Steller's Sea Eagles. Next village north has a harbour attracting birds. Interesting sightings included a male Smew, Goosander, Common Goldeneye and a range of gulls. Odaito was again good for close views of Whooper Swan and Northern Pintails. Notsuke Hando was quiet to start with but the lower end produced several birding experiences. The best being Steller's and White-tailed Sea Eagles resting on ice flows.

Photo: Steller's Sea Eagle

A 'magic moment' was a juvenile and adult Steller's Sea Eagle resting on a moving ice flow passing below four eagles perched on another 'static' flow. On the sea itself White-winged and Black Scoters, Spectacled Guillemot, Goosander and Common Goldeneye. Lunch taken en route to Rausu with a pale Peregrine Falcon hunting over woodland. Rausu itself produced Brown Dipper, Glaucous Gull and Harlequin Duck. Back to Furen-ko where we met the Japanese ranger from yesterday evening. We followed him to a closed area of Furen-ko. Our finale was a juvenile Blakiston's Fish Owl perched on top of a television aerial. Later an adult came down to a fish laid out on a table. Fantastic views of a rare and relatively unknown owl. Tomorrow we head back to Kushiro and a flight back to Tokyo.

February 17th: Nemuro - Cape Nosappu - Kushiro - Tokyo.
Final total 138
Weather: Sunny and clear. Afternoon blizzards at Kushiro, -3/5c.

Checked out of Hotel Cairn and headed east towards Cape Nosappu. Overnight snowfalls had made the roads icy and slippery in places. At the cape we were surprised to find extensive areas of sea ice in comparison to clear waters of two days ago. Usual birds present with a noticeable increase in Harlequin Duck and Black Scoter numbers. Left the area at 0900 for Kushiro Airport. A slow journey due to traffic and weather conditions. After dropping our rental vehicle off we checked in with JAS for the flight down to Tokyo. Much to our surprise heavy blizzards set in causing severe delays and in some case cancellations of flights. Fortunately we left at 1640 two hours behind schedule (little did we know that we were the last flight out of Kushiro). The airport was later closed due to further heavy snowfalls. At Haneda airport Akira met us before boarding a bus to Narita airport. Our journey took us through the new Tokyo Bay tunnel and causeway avoiding the congestion of metropolitan Tokyo. Checked in at the Washington Hotel for our final night in Japan.

February 18th: Tokyo - Frankfurt - Heathrow

A long travelling day started at 0745 with a bus to terminal 2. Check-in with Lufthansa was quick and efficient. Departed twenty minutes late for Frankfurt and finally London. The end to an enjoyable birding tour of Japan.

For details of the full species list or to request further information about the next time we will be offering this trip. Contact us at enquiries@birdwatchingbreaks.com.

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