Circumnavigation of Hokkaido: Japan's Wild Island May 19—Jun 03, 2018

Posted by David Wolf


David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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Volcanos, earthquakes, typhoons, blizzards!  All of these harsh forces of nature have combined to shape the natural history and culture of the Japanese archipelago, and nowhere is this more evident than the northern island of Hokkaido.  This is the wildest and least-settled part of Japan, and this cruise gave us the rare opportunity to bird and explore Hokkaido from a variety of port cities around the island, while comfortably based on the beautiful Caledonian Sky.  This was indeed a most productive, informative, and fun trip.

Spectacled Guillemots

Spectacled Guillemots— Photo: David Wolf


After our “meet and greet” and a quiet night in the Narita area, we traveled into the immense metropolis of Tokyo for a few hours of sight-seeing before taking a “bullet train” to the port of Niigata on the west coast of Honshu.  By sunset we had sailed out of the harbor, into the calm waters of the Sea of Japan.  The next day was spent at sea, where a lucky few birders saw Streaked Shearwaters in the early morning but little else.  Lectures through the day gave us a great introduction to Japanese culture and the natural forces which have shaped the country, so that by our third morning, as we came into Otaru, Hokkaido, we were eager to start exploring.  From the ship we could see beautiful forest on the hills, cloaked in soft spring greens, and soon we were ashore and in a nearby park, looking at our first Japanese songbirds, such as the Blue-and-white Flycatcher singing from the tip-top of a conifer, a mixed-flock of three species of tits, and elusive Black-faced Buntings at the forest edge.  From Otaru we rode higher into the mountains, to the Kiroro Ski Resort, and after consuming our first bento box lunch (diverse and beautifully presented!), we hiked upslope.  A Gray Wagtail singing from the lodge roof was nice, as was the Oriental Cuckoo calling from a dead snag, but it was amidst the low budding trees and patches of lingering snow that we found the undisputed highlight of the day, a brilliant male Narcissus Flycatcher.  For 15 minutes this colorful sprite with the big voice foraged around us, from the treetops to the ground!  These were our first, and best, looks at this iconic Japanese gem.

Dawn comes early in Japan in the summer, and the next morning found us up very early, anchored off Teuri Island.  Renowned as the largest Rhinoceros Auklet colony in the world, it is estimated that 400,000 pairs breed here.  A bit to our disappointment, we soon learned that the great numbers come and go in the dark, and that we had largely missed them, but an exciting Zodiac cruise (the only one of the trip) yielded great looks at them on the waters just offshore.  Then, in the clear pools below towering cliffs, we found Spectacled Guillemots, a very distinctive regional endemic that is declining in number. Small flocks drifted in the clear water right in front of us, while eventually a pair hopped up onto a low rock and posed in perfect light as they courted and preened.  That afternoon, on nearby Rashiri Island, we switched back to landbirds, trying hard to see the incredibly skulking Japanese Robins, but having much better success with Siberian Rubythroat and Chestnut-eared Bunting, both in full song from atop the coastal thickets.

Read David’s full report in his Field Report.