Japan in Winter Jan 12—24, 2013

Posted by Bob Sundstrom

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Bob Sundstrom

Bob Sundstrom has led VENT tours since 1989 to many destinations throughout North America, as well as Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, Turkey, Iceland,...

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Our Japan in Winter tour made its inaugural run in January 2013, and more than lived up to its billing as a “crane and sea-eagle spectacle.” The tour, run on an itinerary carefully crafted by Japanese birding tour leader Kaz Shinoda, traversed the three main—and distinctively different—islands of Honshu, Kyushu, and Hokkaido, with about a third of the tour devoted to each island. Kaz’s wealth of birding experience in Japan enabled us to see a superb variety of birds, from cranes and sea-eagles to many Japanese endemic birds, world rarities, more than 25 species of waterfowl, northern finch and bunting specialties, and—perhaps the premier bird of the tour—Blakiston’s Fish-Owl.

Every tour has its highlights, and Japan in Winter had a steady run of them. Let’s start with Blakiston’s Fish-Owl, even though we saw it late in the tour on the snowy, northern island of Hokkaido. We stayed at a traditional Japanese inn, known as a ryokan, in eastern Hokkaido, where we also enjoyed wonderful traditional Japanese meals. After dinner on the first of our two nights there, just as the group had wrapped up the day’s bird checklist, an inn employee rushed into the dining area to tell us that the Blakiston’s Fish-Owl had arrived at the pond behind the inn. The dining room’s tall windows faced the pond and, quickly wiping condensation from the windows, we faced toward the pond to see not only the largest species of owl in the world, but one that makes its living hunting fish. We were quickly ushered to an adjoining room that faced the pond with an even closer view of the owl.

It was the female of the resident pair, the larger of the two sexes, and she stood at the edge of the small pond facing us, peering intently into the water. A female Blakiston’s Fish-Owl can weigh 10 ½ pounds—that’s more than a typical Bald Eagle and a lot more than large owls like Snowy or Great Horned. Although not much taller than one of these other owls, this fish-owl was twice as wide—built like a sumo wrestler. The thrill of seeing one of the most remarkable birds in the world is hard to capture in words. After about 15 minutes, the massive fish-owl leapt forward, grabbed a fish from below the water’s surface, held it up in one powerful talon, and then a moment later flew off into the darkness. All of our guest rooms faced toward the pond too, and during that same night and the next, group members had repeated views of the owl and its fishing technique.

As amazing and memorable as the fish-owl was, that experience was rivaled closely by the Red-crowned Cranes on Hokkaido. Known also as Japanese Crane and considered the largest of all cranes, the people of Hokkaido have gone to great lengths to help this endangered species thrive on the island. We first saw Red-crowned Cranes at sunrise, as a flock of hundreds stood in the icy shallows of a river turned pink by the first rays of sun. Later we watched the cranes at gathering areas where they fed, and often pairs would dance together and raise their necks side by side while giving loud, musical unison calls. A magical experience.

The same day we saw the fish-owl in the evening, a local guide, Koji Niiya, who toured with us on Hokkaido, had taken us to see another owl, a Ural Owl on its day roost. Other highlights on Hokkaido included very close views of massive Steller’s Sea-Eagles (we saw more than 100), White-tailed Eagles, and a boat trip on which we saw regional specialty Spectacled Guillemot, as well as five other auk species, including Least Auklet.

Hokkaido’s cranes were a marvel, but it was on the southern island of Kyushu that we experienced cranes on an epic scale. At Arasaki, where land has been set aside for cranes to winter and prosper, we saw over 13,000 cranes. Most were statuesque White-naped Cranes and smaller, darker Hooded Cranes, both very attractive. With a bit of searching we found rarer cranes mixed in the massive assemblage: a few Common (or Eurasian) Cranes, Sandhill Cranes, and one young Siberian Crane—one of the rarest cranes in the world. That makes six species of cranes for the tour, more than one might see in any other country in the world.

As we traveled from island to island, our compilation of waterfowl species grew to 27 species! There were many truly eye-catching ducks: Mandarin and Falcated ducks, Smew and Baikal Teal, and hundreds of Long-tailed and Harlequin ducks. There were Whooper Swans and Bewick’s Swans, Tundra Bean-Geese and Common Shelducks, and many more. We saw such Japanese endemics as Japanese Wagtail and Japanese Woodpecker, and other species tied to only slightly broader ranges: Japanese Pygmy-Woodpeckers just 5 ½ inches long, huge Japanese Grosbeaks, and Long-billed Plovers. There were world rarities: Black-faced Spoonbill and Saunders’s Gull; such highly prized wintering buntings as Meadow, Rustic, Chestnut-eared, and Gray; and sought after finches like Long-tailed Rosefinch, Eurasian Bullfinch, and Hawfinch. There were stunning thrushes like the huge Scaly Thrush and Blue Rock-Thrush, and very tame little gems like Daurian Redstart and Red-flanked Bluetail. There was the almost mythical Solitary Snipe probing in an icy stream in Hokkaido and, nearby, a singing Brown Dipper.

Our guides helped us come to know more about Japanese culture, religion, history, and food. A tour of Shinto shrine with the shrine’s director was a cultural highlight.

One final wildlife highlight: As we came in from a walk in the snowy Japanese Alps (at Karuizawa), we sat back to take in birds coming to our lodge’s bird feeders. There were Marsh Tits, Great Tits, Varied Tits and, suddenly, the birds vanished from the feeders only to be replaced on the feeder platforms by a troop of “Snow Monkeys”: burly, heavily furred, red-faced Japanese Macaques, including mothers toting young ones on their arms. The monkeys made short work of the bird seed.