Japan in Winter Jan 23—Feb 04, 2016

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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We were three days into VENT’s 2016 Japan in Winter tour. Our route that day took us from Edogawa Seaside Park on Tokyo Bay into the interior of Honshu, and on into the Japanese Alps. Mid-afternoon found us at Ura-Myogi, in the snowy foothills of the Alps, at a likely spot for an hour of birding along the mountain road we were ascending. We walked along the narrow road, which ran through wooded country and alongside a sparkling stream.

At first the woods were quiet, little bird activity at hand. But careful scanning up and down the stream—aided by a couple of distinctive call notes—brought a view of the first Brown Dipper of the tour, as it splashed into the stream. This Asian dipper species is dark chocolate-brown, and seems to blend into the environment cryptically just as well as gray ones. As the Brown Dipper bobbed on its legs atop a stone in the stream, a second dipper appeared—and the chase was on, up the stream out of sight.

So we ambled downhill along the road. Before long, Wolfgang, one of our group, called for us to check out a raptor soaring above. All binoculars were soon fixed on a Mountain Hawk-Eagle, lazily drifting on high—a scarce and massive bird of prey that we were truly lucky to see. Amazing!

A bit farther down the road, a flock of birds rustled in the dense trees. One bird flew out of the trees to perch in a bare sapling right above the group: our first Brambling of the tour, a lovely Old World finch that winters in parts of Japan. Then someone noticed a bird ahead, pecking at the ground near the edge of the road. We quickly had our scopes and binoculars trained on the new sighting: it was an Asian Rosy-Finch, an Alpine specialty like other rosy-finches, which had likely been pushed down to this elevation by the recent snows. And a really tough bird to find here, even in winter. So our good fortune was continuing.

A male Daurian Redstart showed next, boldly painted in orange, black, and gray. A very confiding bird it was, perching low and staying close by the group as the cameras took it in. We had only an hour to walk the road, and already we had seen some wonderful birds. Finally the bus caught up with us and we boarded. But not a hundred meters down the road, another bird was spotted from the bus, and we came to a quick halt and disembarked. Kaz had spotted a male Elegant or Yellow-throated Bunting, a gorgeous bunting with peaked crest, yellow throat and breast, and bold face pattern. The bunting was good enough to stay right by the roadside, where we enjoyed it for a few minutes before it flitted out of view.

The Japan in Winter tour is billed as a “crane and sea-eagle spectacle,” and it more than lives up to its title. But there are many other birds and other wildlife to enjoy on the tour, as this hour along a mountain road makes clear. 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. That’s more than 1,000 miles of latitude, with distinctly different birds on each island. On the 2016 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.

On the southerly island of Kyushu, we had nearly a full day at Arasaki Crane Reserve. The reserve is winter home to spectacular concentrations of cranes, more than 17,000 in 2016, including a large proportion of all the world’s statuesque White-naped Cranes and smaller Hooded Cranes. We viewed cranes during the day, picking out a few vagrant Common (Eurasian) Cranes and Sandhill Cranes among the masses. We also watched in awe during 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. An astounding sight!

Japan in winter also boasts one of the world’s finest selections of gorgeous waterfowl: such beauties as Smew, Baikal Teal, Falcated Duck, and Mandarin Duck among more than 20 species of ducks, plus concentrations of enormous Whooper Swans, some basking in the warmth of steaming thermal pools, and Taiga Bean-Geese. On Kyushu we had great studies of two global rarities: Black-faced Spoonbill and Saunder’s Gull. A two-hour boat trip along Hokkaido’s east coast gave us close views of Spectacled Guillemot, a regional specialty, as well as other alcids like Least Auklet, and many Long-tailed Ducks and Harlequin Ducks. Over the course of the tour we saw such Japanese endemics as Japanese Wagtail and Japanese Woodpecker, and other species tied to only slightly broader ranges: tiny Japanese Pygmy-Woodpeckers, huge Japanese Grosbeaks, and Long-billed Plovers. There were other highly prized wintering buntings like Meadow, Rustic, and Black-faced; handsome Bull-headed Shrikes; pale blue Azure-winged Magpies; and a nice assortment of shorebirds including Temminck’s Stint and Marsh Sandpiper. A rare, for Japan, Forest Wagtail in a woodland on Kyushu added a fourth wagtail species to the trip and a remarkable rarity. And we had great views of two different Ural Owls on day roosts.

The last three full days of the tour take place on the northern island of Hokkaido, which is 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 at our lovely Japanese inn at Yoroushi. From the same vantage point where we watched fish-owls at night, in the morning—with the help of bird feeders—we watched a steady stream of Eurasian Jays, Great Spotted Woodpecker, and Marsh Tits. A rare, for Japan, Black Woodpecker worked on excavating a cavity on a tree nearby, as an equally rare and hard to see Solitary Snipe bobbed in the shallow, frigid stream just outside the windows.

Great birding was complemented by the wonderful cultural experience of traveling in three distinctly different islands of Japan, nights in superb Japanese inns, many wonderful traditional Japanese meals, and a great group ready for the next round of new experiences in Japan.