Japan in Winter Jan 10—22, 2015

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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The Japan in Winter tour is described as a “crane and sea eagle spectacle,” a billing it more than lives up to. The tour has been designed by Japanese birding tour leader, Kaz Shinoda, 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. From south to north that’s a span of over 1,600 miles, from the mild weather and green tea plantations of Kyushu to the snowy rim of the Sea of Okhotsk on Hokkaido, the main island of Honshu in between.

On our 2015 tour we enjoyed great views of five species of cranes. At Arasaki on the island of Kyushu, we took in one of the grandest crane spectacles in the world: more than 13,000 White-naped and Hooded cranes congregating in fields and paddies. Tall, silvery White-naped Cranes with bold red faces standing head and shoulders above petite, elegant Hooded Cranes with charcoal bodies, white necks, and red forecrowns. Tucked among their thousands were a handful of Eurasian/Common Cranes and Sandhill Cranes. At sunset, the entire aggregation flew by, a few hundred at a time with the setting sun behind them, to a nighttime roost nearby. A magnificent sight.

Red-crowned Cranes

Red-crowned Cranes— Photo: Kaz Shinoda

We had to wait until the final three days of the tour for our fifth species of crane, the Red-crowned Crane, sometimes called Japanese Crane and the crane that is a cultural icon in Japan. Our first views of Red-crowned Cranes were at sunrise, as a flock of hundreds stood in the icy shallows of a river, the rose-colored sunrise streaming through the bare trees along the stream. Later that day we watched hundreds of Red-crowned Cranes at close range, pairs bugling in unison and performing courtship dances, leaping from the ground with wings arched above them. Unforgettable.

The northern island of Hokkaido was also the winter home of legions of sea-eagles. As we drove the eastern coast of the island and then out the Notsuke Peninsula, massive Steller’s Sea-Eagles with enormous orange bills and white shoulders decorated the landscape: atop utility poles, on the rocky buttress of the shoreline, standing on snow- and ice-covered ponds. Nearby too were White-tailed Sea-Eagles, large eagles the size of Bald Eagles, but still a head shorter than Steller’s.

Hokkaido is also home to another enormous raptor, the world’s largest owl—Blakiston’s Fish-Owl. We had barely arrived at our inn in Yoroushi when one of the staff announced, “The owl is here!” Rushing off the bus, we headed toward a wall of windows that overlook a rushing stream behind the inn. We arrived just in time to find out the owl had just left. But our disappointment didn’t last long. As we came back into the lobby with our bags a few minutes later, the owl—this time two owls!—had returned to hunt fish at the edge of the stream. Huge, tawny owls with floppy crests, a female (the larger of the sexes) can stand 28” tall and with their massive girth weigh nearly 10 pounds, two-and-a-half times the mass of a female Great Horned Owl. For at least 20 minutes we watched and photographed the owls before adjourning to our lovely rooms, warming Japanese onsen (hot bath), and a superb traditional Japanese dinner.

At Hokkaido’s Lake Kussharo we walked a snowy path to the edge of the huge lake, where dozens of Whooper Swans swam in the shallows, enveloped in mist created by geothermal heating of the lake water. Suddenly our attention was called to birds in the trees nearby. First a large woodpecker, the size of a flicker, foraging at the base of a nearby tree. It was a White-backed Woodpecker, the first of the tour and a bird we had been hoping for. This was a male with red washed belly and all red crown. As the woodpecker flew to another tree, attention turned to a couple of Eurasian Treecreepers, also the first of the trip, much like a pale version of North America’s Brown Creeper. The treecreepers were part of a loosely organized mixed flock, including Coal Tit, Great Tit, Varied Tit, and Eurasian Nuthatch—all lit up by the sun’s reflection off the snow-covered ground. And now it was time to enter the Ainu-themed restaurant just beyond the trees, where we had a superb lunch in a large space decorated with colorful Ainu (Japan’s original native people) art motifs.

While the cranes, sea-eagles, and Blakiston’s Fish-Owl are the tour headliners, there is a great deal more to see on our Japan in Winter tour: 155 bird species more or less, grand scenery from the Japanese Alps to the rugged seacoast to the green interior, wonderful food, traveling in the comfort of small buses, and a variety of Western style and a couple of traditional Japanese inns.  In 2015 we enjoyed 26 species of waterfowl, from Whooper Swans and both Taiga and Tundra bean-geese to superb views of some of the world’s fanciest ducks: Mandarin Duck, Baikal Teal, Smew, and Falcated Duck. We watched endemic Japanese Wagtails forage along shallow, gravel-lined streams, alongside Long-billed Plovers, often with White and Gray wagtails nearby. In a forested park on Kyushu, we lucked into a rare Forest Wagtail—for the second straight year on the tour, and a bird Kaz originally discovered there in fall 2013. My personal favorites for the tour included such northern finches as Japanese Grosbeak, Eurasian Bullfinch, Hawfinch, and Long-tailed Rosefinch. We watched three Brown Dippers chase up and down a stream just before a pair of massive, zebra-striped Crested Kingfishers buzzed over our heads.

Beautiful Azure-winged Magpies and Eurasian Jays competed for the title of loveliest corvid of the trip, although Large-billed Crows had the most comical voices. A two-hour boat trip from the eastern tip of Hokkaido took us to nice views of Spectacled Guillemots (a regional specialty), Ancient Murrelets, and Least Auklets. On the island of Kyushu, we found wintering global rarities—Black-faced Spoonbills and Saunders’s Gulls. There were dashing Red-flanked Bluetails and Daurian Redstarts along forest paths, some so confiding they landed almost at our feet. The chickadee clan was also well-represented: colorful, multihued Varied Tits, as well as Marsh, Willow, Japanese, and Coal tits. There were also Long-tailed Tits: imagine a Bushtit painted pink, white, and black. Kinglet-sized Chinese Penduline-Tits worked tall streamside reed beds. And throughout the trip a lineup of some of the northern world’s finest buntings: Elegant, Meadow, Reed, Chestnut-eared, Gray, Rustic, and Black-faced.

I’m already eager for a return to Japan to see what our 2016 Japan in Winter tour will deliver.