Japan in Winter Jan 21—Feb 02, 2017

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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The Japan in Winter tour is subtitled “A Crane and Sea-Eagle Spectacle,” a billing it truly 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. About a third of the tour is 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, with the largest, central island of Honshu in-between.

On our 2017 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 as thousands of White-naped and Hooded cranes gathered 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, most of the vast assemblage flew by as we watched, a few dozen or a few hundred at a time, with the orange sky of late sunset behind them as they winged to a nighttime roost nearby. A breathtaking spectacle!

We had to wait until the final three days of the tour for a fifth species of crane, the Red-crowned Crane. Sometimes called Japanese Crane, this crane is a cultural icon in Japan and China. Our first views of Red-crowned Cranes were at sunrise, as a flock of more than a hundred stood in the icy shallows of a river, as the growing light streamed 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. For those that arrived a day early for the tour, Kaz led an optional day-trip from Narita. Kaz took us to a spot where a rare Demoiselle Crane had recently been seen, and we were fortunate to get great scope views of this very special visitor (and sixth crane species for the trip).

The northern island of Hokkaido is also a winter home to legions of sea-eagles, including 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 watched 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.

Hokkaido is also home to another enormous raptor, the world’s largest owl—Blakiston’s Fish-Owl—which we saw at close range from our lovely Japanese inn at Yoroushi. A pair of the huge owls came in just after dark to capture fish just behind the inn, as we watched from inside the tall windows facing the stream and snow-covered landscape. From the same vantage point where we watched fish-owls at night, in the morning—with the enticement of bird feeders—we watched a steady stream of Eurasian Jays, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Marsh Tits, and Long-tailed Tits, plus a Red Fox and handsome Japanese Martens.

At Hokkaido’s Lake Kussharo, dozens of Whooper Swans swam in the shallows, enveloped in mist created by geothermal heating of the lake water. A boat trip from Ochiishi harbor took us south from Hokkaido among small islands, where we saw the regional specialty, Spectacled Guillemot, as well as Least Auklet, Ancient Murrelet, and other seabirds.

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: 150 bird species more or less, grand scenery from the Japanese Alps to the rugged seacoast to the green interior, wonderful food, the comfort of traveling in small buses, and a variety of Western style and more traditional Japanese inns. The many species of waterfowl seen include 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. On a forest walk in the Japanese Alps, we came upon a mixed flock of wonderful northern finches: Japanese Grosbeak, Eurasian Bullfinch, and Hawfinch. At the bird feeders at our inn in the alps, a couple of Japanese Macaques (“Snow Monkeys”) shared time eating seeds with several species of tits, Japanese Accentors, a few finches, and Eurasian Nuthatches. Brown Dippers turned up on streams on all three islands, and we were fortunate to see the big, zebra-striped Crested Kingfisher on Kyushu and Hokkaido.  

Beautiful Azure-winged Magpies and Eurasian Jays competed for the loveliest corvid of the trip, although Large-billed Crows had the most comical voices. We were wowed by a Mountain Hawk-Eagle soaring by in the mountains of Honshu. 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. Kinglet-sized Chinese Penduline-Tits worked tall streamside reeds. Throughout the trip we encountered a lineup of some of the northern world’s finest buntings: Elegant, Meadow, Reed, Chestnut-eared, Gray, Rustic, and Black-faced. And it was a big irruption winter for Bramblings, so we saw these handsome northern finches on each island.

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.