Japan in Winter: A Crane & Sea Eagle Spectacle
This was a birding tour to see the birds which winter in Japan, a full bird list is at the end.
Our tour started on 21 January and firstly we birded around Choshi Port looking for seabirds and other waterbirds. Japan is noted for a wide range of gull species including Black Headed Gull, Black Tailed Gull, Slaty Backed Gull and Glaucous Gull. There was a (very strong) breeze and we found the weather rather fresh, particularly for the one person who had recently exited a country in the middle of a heat wave.
Following a rather good lunch at a renowned local seafood restaurant we went to Go-no-ike Reservoir where we saw further waterbirds including the rather glamorous looking Falcated Duck. The pattern of the male’s feathers resembles an art deco design. Many of the wetlands and waterways in Japan have been extensively modified and you do wonder what the landscape would have been like before all this infrastructure. However, it has resulted in plenty of opportunities for wildlife to congregate and feed.
In the evening we went to Ukishima Marsh where we saw large numbers of Eastern Marsh Harriers who were flying in to roost in some of the trees there. There were also flocks of Reed Buntings which roosted in the reeds. We were then treated to a moonrise across the marsh.
The next day we went to Kasai Seaside Park ostensibly to see the Azure Winged Magpie of which we caught a very brief glimpse (sorry no photo). The park had a number of wetland areas where we saw more waterbirds (ducks, grebes, et cetera).
We then travelled to Karuizawa which is in the foothills of the Japanese Alps. We stopped at Mount Myogi where we saw (in the distance) the Mountain Hawk Eagle. We then had a pleasant walk along the river looking for forest and river birds where we saw a Brown Dipper.
It was very snowy at our hotel and there was a little bird feeder allowing us to get up close to a number of small birds. We saw Varied Tits, Japanese Tits and Long Tailed Tits.
The next morning (23 January) we went looking for forest birds, the hotel was a traditional Onsen and was surrounded by snow covered woodland. It was similar to a State Forest in Australia in that people could walk the dogs there, and we saw a number of people enjoying some morning exercise.
It was what meteorologists referred to as clear and bright. We saw (very briefly in the distance) a Japanese Woodpecker and a Great Spotted Woodpecker.
We then travelled back to Tokyo and on the way we stopped at a reservoir where we saw the visiting Baikal Teal which winters in northern Japan. It is now classified as vulnerable, so this was a fortunate sighting.
Back in Tokyo we stayed at the airport hotel which was very convenient for our morning flight to Kyushu in the morning. You just walked out of the hotel to the check-in counters.
After arriving in the southern island of Kyushu and on our way to our evening date with the cranes we stopped at the Sendai Nuclear PowerPoint Reservoir where we saw Mandarin Duck in the distance. Moreover, we got a good look at a peregrine falcon which flew overhead and then perched on the power lines. These were two particularly “glamour” birds and it certainly put us in a good mood.
Winter is the fallow season for Japanese rice growing, this creates a lot of opportunities for small farmland birds. We stopped at Takae which was paddy field stubble where we saw Eurasian Skylarks. We then went to a coastal service area where we saw the Eastern Blue Rock Thrush among the rocks.
Our final stop for the evening was the Arasaki Crane Reserve which is noted for thousands of cranes in the winter. There are over 15,000 cranes of different species including the Sandhill Crane, White Naped Crane, Common Crane and Hooded Crane. The reserve has been in place since 1921 and in the first few years there were less than 500 cranes visiting in winter.
The numbers have increased since then, this does not necessarily mean that crane numbers are increasing, it could mean that other wintering areas have been destroyed.
The next morning before breakfast we birded along the Taira River where we saw Grey Wagtails foraging among the rocks and Pale Thrushes. A local came out and asked where we were from and what we were doing and then gave us a package of snacks in the local delicacy, which was a sort of sweet potato cake. His wife then came later and gave us a bag of delicious fresh cut up apples, in order to stop them going brown she had soak them in briny water. It sounds odd, but it was delicious.
We then revisited the cranes in daylight and you really appreciate their sheer numbers. We also saw rooks flocking like starlings to in the UK. I have never seen corvids in such large numbers before. We then went to Kogawa Dam where we found Reed Buntings and Black Faced Buntings.
The next morning we went looking for coastal birds at the Kumar River, unfortunately while our guide had access to tide timetables there was a very strong wind which had increased the water level to over the mudflats consequently there was nothing to see.
This then necessitated a Plan B which involved driving around (in our bus) a variety of back roads which were very narrow and between fallow paddy fields and market gardens. We were also blocked from some areas as there were roadworks and the bus was not permitted to drive along certain areas. This involved an awful lot of driving around and in the process we became very well-informed about Japanese market gardening. “They are cabbages, no broccoli”, “under the plastic, they are lettuces”, “there are tomatoes in the greenhouse”. We ended up at the Hr River where we finally managed to get to see two global rarities, Saunders’s Gull and Black Faced Spoonbills. The wind that had increased the water level was very fresh and although they are worth seeking out we didn’t feel compelled to linger.
Our final stop was the Kirishima-Jingu Shrine ostensibly to try and seek out the Ryukyu Minivet which we heard but did not see (we saw later in the tour). The shrine had some seriously impressive trees.
Our accommodation that evening was in a very traditional Onsen which had a delightful bath area fed by local hot springs. The water had a rather brown appearance due to the minerals, they also cooked the rice which we had for dinner in the water which gave it a very interesting taste.
The next morning we flew from Kyushu to Hokkaido via Tokyo (there wasn’t a straight through flight). After a night in a cozy little inn we went to the Otowa Bridge see the cranes fly off from their overnight roost, unfortunately they didn’t oblige and we mostly got views of them huddled in the morning mist.
We then went to see the signature activity for the tour which is the Red Crowned Cranes displaying in the snow. Cranes have wintered in Hokkaido for quite some time, the main reason they now congregate in the current locations is because they are fed there.
This creates a photo opportunity so we lined up with a couple of hundred other punters to take advantage of the show. We also managed to see a pair of roosting Ural Owls in a very photogenic tree.
We then drove to Lake Kussharo and on the way managed to see the distance Steller’s Sea Eagles. Our lunch was at a traditional Anu restaurant where we had a local delicacy of venison and then a walk around the lake where we saw Whooper Swans and a Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Our final accommodation in Hokkaido was marketed to us as a traditional Onsen, it was a very upmarket interpretation of the term. The communal baths were lovely and they included a number of different pools including an outside one. It was delightful to sit up to your neck and piping hot water while snow flurries swirled around your face.
The next morning we were due to go for a boat cruise however it was snowing horizontally so that called for a Plan B. We drove to Rausu where we saw White Tailed Eagles and Steller’s Sea Eagles.
Most of our birding was done from the bus and consisted of brief glimpses of ducks and gulls bobbing in the waves and gulls flying backwards in the not too gentle breeze. Birding is not for wimps but our enthusiasm was diminishing in the near gale conditions.
We returned slightly earlier to our hotel and enjoyed the amenities for settling in after dinner for a vigil for Blakiston's Fish Owl who obligingly put in a performance before midnight.
The next morning a group of Eurasian Jays put in a particular photogenic performance at the bird feeder they are particularly pretty birds and they do put in a bit of a character performance somewhat like our parrots.
We then went to Akan Crane Centre or some more Red Crowned Cranes before making our way to the airport for our flight back to Tokyo.
The tour company was Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) based in North America The Japanese speaking tour guide was Kaz Shinoda and was very knowledgeable.
The English-speaking tour guide was very unprofessional. The tour was dominated by North Americans with one person from another country. He singled them out for bullying with repeated performances of exaggerated accents and offensive caricatures at which he guffawed loudly regardless of whether anybody else found his behaviour amusing.
I was that unfortunate individual which made for a very miserable holiday.