Steller’s Sea-Eagles are perhaps the iconic winter image for birders visiting Japan. Photo: Steve Rooke
A visit to Japan in the winter is something birders everywhere should consider. The long chain of islands that make up Japan straddle the Pacific coast of Asia, providing an ideal wintering ground for a some of the world’s most sought-after birds, and although the species list is modest, it contains some real gems.
Our tour ranges from the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, Kyushu, to the northernmost, Hokkaido. We’ll focus on the great spectacles, the crane concentrations (up to five species) in the south and the sea-eagle and seabird gatherings in the north, and on Japan’s endemic residents, including Blakiston’s Fish-Owl, the world’s largest owl. We’ll also spend a few days in the interior of Honshu, the largest of the Japanese islands, birding some of the country’s best temperate woodland and visiting the famous “snow monkeys” near Nagano.
Japan is much more than just a birding destination - it’s a complete cultural event and one that is bound to captivate even a well-travelled birdwatcher. In some places we’ll stay in Japanese inns where we can gain insight into the traditional lifestyle, and everywhere we go the Japanese passion for order and neatness will be evident. And of course there is also all that fascinating food to sample.
Day 1: We’ll begin this evening at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Night at Narita.
Day 2: We’ll start our birding this morning with a side trip to some nearby birding destinations, depending on what has been recently reported in the area. We may try for the gorgeous Mandarin Ducks which is sometimes to be found along the edges of the small lakes. Other birds we might see include Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Varied, Japanese, and Long-tailed Tits, Brown-eared Bulbul, Oriental Turtle Dove, and White Wagtail. After lunch, we’ll continue our journey to Karuizawa, Japan’s playground of the rich and famous. It’s about a two-hour drive but we should arrive before dark, so we should be able to fit in some birding before we head to our accommodation. Night in Karuizawa.
Day 3: Karuizawa has long been famous for its beautiful, temperate woodlands, and the area supports a rich selection of species in a relatively small space. As we explore the tracks and trails along the fast-flowing streams, we may encounter such species as Japanese Green Woodpecker, Brambling, the gorgeous but scarce Japanese Waxwings, Azure-winged Jay, Japanese Grosbeak, and, if we are lucky, Pallas’s Rosefinch or the scarce endemic Copper Pheasant. Later in the day, we’ll visit a small reservoir that often hosts a nice range of wildfowl, including the snappy Smew. Night in Karuizawa.
Day 4: We’ll depart early for the Japan Alps to see the fabled snow monkeys at Jigokudani — ‘Hell’s Valley’ in English. Here we’ll see a troop of Japanese Macaques that have learned to use the natural hot springs during the harsh winter. After a walk of about an hour through snowy woods, we’ll be able to see the monkeys at very close range bathing in the springs or playing nearby, and the photographic opportunities will be superb. We’ll see a few birds, perhaps a Brown Dipper or a Goldcrest. Later we’ll continue to Kanazawa, on the coast of the Sea of Japan, where we’ll spend the next two nights. Night in Kanazawa.
Day 5: The Katano Kamo-ike (Katano Duck Lake) Reserve is an important wintering ground for a host of wildfowl, of special note being a chance for the increasingly rare Baikal Teal, as well as Falcated Teal and Taiga Bean Goose. The whole area offers first-rate birding with a variety of woodland, wetland and coastal species. Scaly-sided Merganser is sometimes recorded near Kanazawa, so if we hear rumours of recent reports we’ll try our luck with this very rare bird, too. Night in Kanazawa.
This morning we’ll fly to Kyushu, the southernmost of the main Japanese islands and drive south from Fukuoka, in the north, to Izumi. Along the way we’ll stop at Yatsushiro mud flats (dependent on tide times), an area famous for its wintering Black-headed and Saunder’s Gull. Waders, gulls, ducks, spoonbills, and herons abound here so we’ll spend some time searching for the likes of Ruddy-breasted Crake, Common Shelduck, and Great Crested Grebe.
By the afternoon we’ll be marveling at the spectacle of literally tens of thousands of cranes of up to five species. The most common species here are the White-naped and Hooded, but small numbers of Common and Sandhills can usually be found amongst them, and there is even a slim possibility of rarities such as Siberian or a Demoiselle! Searching nearby fields, estuaries and reed beds we may also find Black-faced Spoonbill, Long-billed Plover, Crested Kingfisher or Chinese Penduline Tit. Night in Izumi.
Day 7: We’ll leave at dawn to watch the sun rise over the Arasaki Crane Center and the spectacle of thousands of cranes flying overhead and feeding in the fields. Around the Crane Center birds such as Northern Lapwing, Bull-headed Shrike, Daurian Redstart, Dusky Thrush and Oriental Greenfinch are often present, and there are usually large flocks of Rook, Carrion, and Large-billed Crows and Eurasian Tree Sparrows, the latter often containing a few Russet Sparrows. The area around Arasaki abounds with bird life: the farmlands and reedbeds can attract Oriental and Eurasian Skylarks, Chinese Penduline Tit, and Common Reed Bunting; the estuaries may contain flocks of Eurasian Teal and Common Pochard; the coastal scrub is favored by Pale Thrush, Japanese Bush Warbler, and Black-faced and Siberian Meadow Buntings; and every residential area is likely to harbor Common Buzzard and Japanese White-eye. Night in Izumi.
Day 8: We’ll drive over the coastal mountains, or via the coast (depending on weather conditions), to the Kirishima-Yaku National Park, a fascinating region of active volcanoes and hot springs.
We’ll spend some time around Lake Mi-ike, a circular lake about half a mile in diameter surrounded by lush broadleaf forest, fast-flowing streams, and mountains. Many of Japan’s more common woodland birds occur here plus scarcer specialties such as Copper Pheasant (very rare), White-bellied Green-Pigeon, and White-backed Woodpecker although these are all long shots. The lake may have a number of waterbirds, possibly including large numbers of Eurasian Wigeon. We’ll visit a small shrine on a hilltop overlooking the lake where we’ll explore the grounds in search of various woodland species and experience the beauty of the traditional Shinto architecture. In the late afternoon, we’ll drive east to the coastal town of Kadogawa, stopping en route at a small, seemingly insignificant lake that provides a backup location for Baikal Teal and Falcated Duck, and usually the astonishingly beautiful Mandarin Duck. With luck we may also find the stunning Yellow-throated Bunting or Olive-backed Pipit in the surrounding forest. As we approach the coast we may have time for a first look for the endemic Japanese Murrelet from the harbor wall at Kadogawa. Night in Hyuga (near Kadogawa).
Day 9: This morning we’ll take a boat out of the harbor to look for Japanese Murrelets. They will have just regained their breeding plumage and with luck we may see several twittering pairs. We’ll also look for other birds onshore such as Japanese Cormorant, Eastern Reef and Little Egrets, and Black-tailed and Slaty-backed Gulls. Later we’ll visit local woodlands and meadows in search of Japanese Wood Pigeon, Blue Rock Thrush and possibly scarce wintering species such as Brown Shrike. In the late afternoon we’ll drive south to the city of Miyazaki for our flight to Haneda in the evening. Night in Haneda.
Day 10: We’ll catch an early morning flight to Kushiro in Hokkaido. Once there we’ll drive two hours to Nemuro on the east coast of Hokkaido, stopping at Kiritappu for some birding en route. Night in Nemuro.
Day 11: We’ll plan on a boat trip off the Nemuro Peninsula looking for alcids such as Spectacled Guillemot and Ancient Murrelet. We’ll see our first White-tailed and Steller’s Sea-Eagles and there will be a few Pelagic Cormorants and hundreds of Black Scoters and Harlequin Ducks in the waters. Gulls will be numerous and now include Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Common (Kamchatka) among the many Slaty-backed and Black-tails. If the weather is bad we can achieve almost the same results from the lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula where an enclosed viewing station gives protected views of the surrounding waters.
Later we’ll visit a small sanctuary in town where several feeders might attract Great Spotted Woodpecker, Marsh Tit and perhaps Hawfinch. Night in Nemuro.
Day 12: After a final morning in the Nemuro area we’ll drive north to the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido’s northeast. En route we’ll take a detour out onto the remarkable Notsuke Peninsula, a 17 mile-long narrow sandbar that has been designated a wildlife preserve and is a haven for seabirds. At nearby Odaito we’ll stop to see the congregations of Whooper Swans and other wildfowl. Many of the birds will be the same as yesterday but we may find something new, such as White-winged (Stejneger’s) Scoter. Night in Rausu.
Day 13: Steller’s Sea-Eagles are numerous on the Shiretoko Peninsula, and our time with these splendid birds will be one of the highlights of the tour. If the pack ice has descended as far south as Hokkaido, we’ll take a boat trip out of the Rausu harbor along the length of the southern edge of the peninsula to see large concentrations of eagles close up.
Hokkaido is also renowned as the breeding area for one of Japan’s most impressive residents, Blakiston’s Fish-Owl. However, finding one is no easy proposition—there may be as few as 20 breeding pairs on the entire island—but this afternoon we’ll drive to a small village where we’ll have a chance of seeing one. We’ll stay at a traditional Japanese Inn where a pair is known to visit the stream behind the lodging. After what has in the past been the most wonderful Japanese meal of the tour we’ll retire to await the owls. There is a possibility of some other great birds here, too – notably the usually elusive Solitary Snipe that, with luck, may be seen foraging in the stream.
Our inn also has delightful natural hot springs with both indoor and outdoor pools, including our favorite, a little rocky pool by a stream where immersed in 104 degree water and surrounded by snow one can watch for Eurasian (Brandt’s) Jay, Marsh Tit, Northern Long-tailed Tit and Brown Dipper. Night at Yoroushi.
Day 14: We’ll drive this morning to Tancho-no-sato, or “Red-crowned Crane Village,” and in the afternoon have our first looks at the impressive and rare Red-crowned Cranes, which at more than five feet tall are the most magnificent of the world’s cranes. The same area hosts a number of other special birds—we might see Whooper Swan, Eurasian Nuthatch and just possibly Long-tailed Rosefinch. We’ll return to the inn tonight for another look at Blakiston’s Fish Owl. Night in Yoroushi.
Day 15: This morning we’ll return to Kushiro for our flight back to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport where the tour concludes late this afternoon.
Updated: 23 November 2020