Japan in Winter Jan 11—23, 2014

Posted by Bob Sundstrom


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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We were midway through our 2014 Japan in Winter tour. On this day we were exploring the southern main island of Kyushu, with nearly a full day to bird at Arasaki Crane Reserve. The reserve is winter home to spectacular concentrations of more than 13,000 cranes, including a large proportion of all the world’s statuesque White-naped Cranes and smaller Hooded Cranes. At sunset the previous day, we had arrived at the crane reserve in time to watch the sunset fly-in of thousands of cranes from adjacent fields to a shallow lake nearby. Long skeins of cranes called loudly in flight as they passed by our vantage point, with the sun setting behind them. An astounding sight! But today we would view the masses of cranes in the full light of day, and see what other birds Arasaki had to offer.

Kaz Shinoda, our Japanese leader, quickly located some of the rare cranes mixed in with the masses of Asian species—a few Eurasian Cranes and a few Sandhills. Last year’s tour had been extraordinarily lucky to see a single Siberian Crane in the mix. Such a rarity seemed unlikely this year. Suddenly Kaz got a serendipitous tip from a photographer that a Ruddy Shelduck, a very rare vagrant from central Asia, was in the fields just a kilometer down the road. With a new rush of excitement, we piled into our small, comfy bus and motored the short distance. There, in a grassy area not far from the river, was a stunning Ruddy Shelduck: a huge duck, about two feet long, feathered in the warmest orange-brown imaginable, except for its creamy-colored head. We had excellent scope views of the duck over several minutes, before it moved on. Our timing had been impeccable—at least impeccably lucky.

Arasaki had more surprises for us that day. A small pond held two roosting Eurasian Spoonbills and three Black-faced Spoonbills, an endangered waterbird with a miniscule range in Asia. We scanned the wet fields of the reserve more carefully now and turned up gorgeous, iridescent Northern Lapwings, numbers of Common Snipe, and a very unexpected twosome of Long-toed Stints. A Eurasian Curlew flew in, at close range. Both Tundra and Taiga bean-geese were scoped. All of this with a backdrop of thousands of majestic cranes. Not far away, we walked along riverside reed beds, where a small flock of Chinese Penduline-Tits showed nicely. Just before returning to our hotel in nearby Izumi, we stopped near a bridge over a river. A couple of Brown Dippers, Gray Wagtail and… just around a bend in the river, one of our most-wanted birds: a Crested Kingfisher. This is a massive, zebra-striped kingfisher, and a very shy and skittish bird. This evening the kingfisher flew off before everyone got to see it. But, when we returned the following morning, there was a pair of Crested Kingfishers on hand, and we all had good scope views and a very close flyover of this exciting bird.

The Japan in Winter tour truly lives up to its billing as a “crane and sea-eagle spectacle.” The tour has been designed by Japanese birding tour leader, Kaz, and traverses the three main—and distinctively different—islands of Honshu, Kyushu, and Hokkaido, with about a third of the tour devoted to each island. On our 2014 tour we saw five species of cranes, including the endangered Red-crowned Crane, which has a resident population on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. We watched hundreds of Red-crowned Cranes at close range, many pairs calling in unison and performing courtship dances. 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.
Hokkaido is also the winter home of stunning concentrations of perhaps the world’s most impressive eagle, Steller’s Sea-Eagle, which has a very small world range in northeast Asia. At one spot we saw at least 100 Steller’s Sea-Eagles, massive brown and white eagles with immense orange bills, standing on the ice of a frozen lake. The Steller’s towered over the scores of White-tailed Eagles that shared the ice with them, and White-tailed Eagles are the size of Bald Eagles. The equal of the cranes and eagles was another bird on Hokkaido—the world’s largest owl, Blakiston’s Fish-Owl, which we saw at close range early one morning at a pond just behind the lovely Japanese inn where we stayed. Blakiston’s Fish-Owl stands just a bit taller than a Great Horned Owl, but its body is more than twice as massive—a sumo wrestler among owls. We also had the good fortune of seeing and photographing at close range a Ural Owl, an owl built like a smaller version of Great Gray Owl, on its day roost in a cavity in a huge tree.

Winter in Japan also means vast quantities of waterfowl of more than 25 species, including such beauties as Smew, Falcated Duck, and Mandarin Duck, and concentrations of enormous Whooper Swans. A boat trip on Hokkaido’s east coast gave us close views of Spectacled Guillemot, a regional specialty, as well as other species of alcids and many Long-tailed Ducks and Harlequin Ducks. 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, Long-billed Plovers, and Saunders’s Gull. There were such highly prized wintering buntings as Elegant, Meadow, Rustic, Black-faced, and Gray; sought after finches like Long-tailed Rosefinch; handsome Daurian Redstarts and Bull-headed Shrikes; and lovely Azure-winged Magpies. A rare Forest Wagtail, a bird that Kaz had found earlier in winter and was still present in a woodland on Kyushu, added a fourth wagtail species to the trip and a remarkable rarity.

Great birding was complemented by the wonderful cultural experience of traveling over three islands in Japan and staying in a couple of traditional Japanese inns, as well as many wonderful traditional Japanese meals.