Birding Tour Japan: Spectacular Winter Birds
Japan: Spectacular Winter Birds
Japan is an archipelago of 6,852 islands covering a huge area of 145,937 square miles (377,975 square kilometers) along the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’, offering world class birding. We will visit three of the five main islands (Honshu, Kyushu, and Hokkaido) on this exciting winter birding tour. This Japanese bird tour will start and end in Tokyo, Japan’s high-tech capital and largest city (though which also offers great birding along the edge of Toyko Bay). Although one of the most populous countries in the world, around 75% of Japan is mountainous, with the majority of that area uninhabitable, so the population is crammed into multiple mega-cities. Japan has a fascinating cultural history and is unlike anywhere else in the world, and we will get a great sample of this as we travel around on the tour.
Steller’s Sea Eagle is one of the many spectacular highlights of this Japanese winter birding tour (photo Richard Campey – One Stop Nature Shop).
The first leg of this birding trip will be on the island of Honshu, home to Tokyo, where we will commence our birding. We will meander through the forests, hills, and lakes of central Honshu to seek out specials such as Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese Green Woodpecker, Varied Tit, and perhaps, if we are lucky, the endemic Copper Pheasant. We include visits to lakes to look for Baikal Teal and Mandarin Duck and to a valley where endemic Japanese Macaque and Japanese Serow (a goat-antelope) make their winter home.
Truly wild Mandarin Duck may be seen on this tour, and they are a sight to behold!
The second leg of the trip will be around the island of Kyushu, this will be the furthest southwest we venture, and here we will search for the localized Japanese Murrelet and the wintering hordes of Hooded Cranes and White-naped Cranes, with an accompanying cast of other winter visitors, which may include top world birds like Black-faced Spoonbill and Saunders’s Gull.
The third and final leg of this bird tour will be to the winter wonderland of Hokkaido, this will be the furthest northeast we go. Here, in a landscape dominated by dramatic volcanoes, calderas, coastal plains, and rugged peninsulas, species numbers are low, but quality is very high! We visit the feeding and roosting grounds of Red-crowned Crane, seeing them at close range where they are easily photographed, perhaps with a White-tailed Eagle overhead. We see flocks of wintering Whooper Swans and other waterfowl, look for Crested Kingfisher, seek out winter roosts of Ural Owl, and visit a feeding site of the rare and Endangered (BirdLife International) Blakiston’s Fish Owl. During our time on the Shiretoko and Nemuro Peninsulas we spend time watching arguably the world’s largest and most spectacular raptor – Steller’s Sea Eagle. Coastal sea-watching and boat trips offshore will allow us to search for an array of exciting wintering seabirds, including seaducks, loons (divers), grebes, and an assortment of alcids.
We are also offering our short, three-day Japan: Pelagic Trip and Miyake-Jima Endemic Birding Extension immediately after this tour, for exciting seabirds like Black-footed Albatross, Laysan Albatross, and Short-tailed Albatross and Izu endemics like Izu Thrush.
White-naped Crane will be enjoyed on our Japan birding tour (photo Richard Campey).
Itinerary (15 days/14 nights)
Day 1. Arrival in Tokyo
After your arrival in Tokyo, you will be met at the airport and transferred to a city hotel with the rest of the day at your leisure.
Day 2. Tokyo to Karuizawa
After breakfast at our hotel in Tokyo we will start our circuit of Honshu by heading northwest out of the city towards the town of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture, our base for the next couple of nights. Along the way we will check out some waterbodies where we might spot our first Baikal Teal among other waterfowl like Mandarin Duck, Falcated Duck, and Eastern Spot-billed Duck, or we may encounter terrestrial species like Russet Sparrow, the local subspecies of Eurasian Bullfinch, Eastern (Japanese) Buzzard, Olive-backed Pipit, Japanese Bush Warbler, Azure-winged Magpie, and White-cheeked Starling.
Around town we might spot our first Japanese Green Woodpecker, Dusky Thrush, Bull-headed Shrike, Brown-eared Bulbul, Hawfinch, Japanese Grosbeak, Grey-capped Greenfinch, Meadow Bunting, or Rustic Bunting of the tour. If time permits, we will bird Karuizawa Wild Bird Sanctuary and get started on the birds listed for Day 3. In the evening we will enjoy a traditional Japanese dinner.
The highly camouflaged Dusky Thrush foraging on the ground.
Day 3. Karuizawa Wild Bird Sanctuary
The Karuizawa Wild Bird Sanctuary (Karuizawa Yacho no Mori) was established in 1974 and is an area of mixed woodland including beautiful Japanese chestnut and larch trees. The sanctuary is covered by a network of paths that provide great access to this excellent and “birdy” forest. We will enjoy a range of exciting birds here during our morning and afternoon birding sessions, and some of the highlights could include Copper Pheasant, Green Pheasant, Oriental Turtle Dove, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker, Japanese Green Woodpecker, Japanese Tit, Varied Tit, Willow Tit, Coal Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Treecreeper, Eurasian Wren, Brown Dipper, Brown-eared Bulbul, Eurasian Jay, Carrion Crow, Large-billed Crow, Dusky Thrush, Pale Thrush, Daurian Redstart, Japanese Waxwing, Bohemian Waxwing, Chinese Hwamei, Goldcrest, Japanese Accentor, Japanese Wagtail, Japanese Grosbeak, Rustic Bunting, Meadow Bunting, Yellow-throated Bunting, Brambling, Pallas’s Rosefinch, and Long-tailed Rosefinch. This will be a great opportunity to get to grips with lots of common woodland and woodland-edge birds, several of which we will enjoy seeing multiple times during the tour.
We will seek out Brown Dipper in suitable areas of water at Karuizawa and at other such suitable areas during this tour (photo Richard Campey).
Day 4. Karuizawa to Kaga and Katano Kamo-ike Bird Sanctuary
After our buffet breakfast we will leave Karizawa to Kaga. We will first journey north, arriving at the north coast town of Joetsu. We will then travel southwest along the coast to the city of Kaga within the Ishikawa Prefecture.
In the afternoon we will visit the Katano Kamo-ike Bird Sanctuary to look for waterfowl. We will especially be looking for Baikal Teal, but may also find Taiga Bean Goose, Tundra Bean Geese, Greater White-fronted Goose, Tundra (Bewick’s) Swan, Smew, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Northern Pintail, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, and Falcated Duck, to name just a few.
Day 5. Kaga to Nagano
We will have a morning birding session in the Katano Kamo-ike Bird Sanctuary area where we will look for the species mentioned for Day 4, and will possibly add the following to our growing bird list: Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Black-necked (Eared) Grebe, Eurasian Coot, Grey-headed Lapwing, Common Snipe, Western Osprey, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Black Kite, Eastern Buzzard, Common Kestrel, Merlin, Bull-headed Shrike, Varied Tit, Japanese Tit, Eurasian Skylark, Japanese Bush Warbler, White-cheeked Starling, Grey Wagtail, Japanese Wagtail, White Wagtail, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow. After lunch we will commence our journey to our accommodation in Nagano for the night.
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker will be searched for in woodland areas.
Day 6. Nagano to Tamanouchi to Tokyo
In the morning we will visit the famous snow monkeys at Jigokudani Yaen Koen (Monkey Park), here we can watch the endemic Japanese Macaques frolic in the snow and soak in the hot springs. We will also be looking here for Japanese Serow (a goat-antelope). While the focus at the site will be on the amazing spectacle of the monkeys, we should also keep our eyes peeled for a range of birds that might be moving through the area, such as Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Golden Eagle, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Eurasian Jay, Varied Tit, Willow Tit, Japanese Tit, Brown-eared Bulbul, Brown Dipper, Alpine Accentor, Japanese Accentor, and Eurasian Siskin. In the afternoon we will transfer to Tokyo, where we will arrive in time for dinner.
Day 7. Fly from Tokyo to Kagoshima then travel to Izumi (Arasaki)
We will depart from Tokyo Haneda Airport to Kagoshima on the southern island of Kyushu. On arrival, we will meet our new driver and local guide and travel north for approximately two hours to the city of Izumi, located in Kagoshima Prefecture. The coastal roads and harbors along the route offer opportunities for observing seabirds like Japanese Murrelet, Japanese Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, Black-tailed Gull, Vega Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Pacific Reef Heron, Brown Booby, and Streaked Shearwater. Izumi is home to the famed Izumi Crane Observation Centre, and this is one of the main reasons for our visit to the area. Time permitting, we will visit the Izumi City Crane Museum. We are bound to see some cranes during the day today, but we will save the spectacle of the observation tower until the following day.
During the day here we will visit Kogawa Reservoir (Kogawa Dam) just outside of the city. The reservoir is great for waterbirds and the nearby river holds an interesting range of species too. Woodland surrounding the reservoir is mixed and features evergreen broadleaf trees and bamboo. An interesting range of birds are possible on the reservoir here including Mandarin Duck, Baikal Teal, Falcated Duck, Eurasian Wigeon, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Eurasian Teal, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, and Greater Scaup. Other possibilities in the area could include Oriental Turtle Dove, White-bellied Green Pigeon, Long-billed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Great Cormorant, Grey Heron, Little Egret, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Northern Goshawk, Common Kingfisher, Crested Kingfisher, Japanese Green Woodpecker, Brown Dipper, Ryukyu Minivet, Warbling White-eye, Red-flanked Bluetail, Daurian Redstart, Blue Rock Thrush, (Japanese) Buff-bellied Pipit, Japanese Wagtail, Yellow-throated Bunting, Black-faced Bunting, and Grey Bunting.
The mighty Crested Kingfisher is one impressive bird that we shall seek in Japan.
Day 8. Birding Izumi/Arasaki area
We will have the full day birding around the Arasaki area, including at the Izumi Crane Observation Centre, where we will spend some time birding from the observation tower. This part of Japan is famous worldwide for its winter flock of over 15,000 cranes! The majority of the flock is made up of Hooded Cranes, with White-naped Cranes being the next most abundant. Annually the flock also occasionally holds low numbers of Common Crane, Demoiselle Crane, Sandhill Crane, or even the Critically Endangered (BirdLife International) Siberian Crane, so we will carefully scan through the vast flocks to see what may be lurking among the masses! We are sure to enjoy watching these fabulous and elegant birds.
The gorgeous Hooded Crane will be enjoyed in huge numbers (photo Matt Slaymaker).
There is plenty besides the cranes to look out for in the area, wildfowl might include Greater White-fronted Goose, Taiga Bean Goose, Tundra Bean Goose, Tundra (Bewick’s) Swan, Whooper Swan, Ruddy Shelduck, Common Shelduck, Northern Shoveler, Falcated Duck, Eurasian Wigeon, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Northern Pintail, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Greater Scaup, Common Merganser (Goosander), and Red-breasted Merganser.
Shorebirds here could include Northern Lapwing, Kentish Plover, Common Ringed Plover, Long-billed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Common Snipe, Common Greenshank, and an assortment of stints and sandpipers. Gulls could include those already mentioned for Day 7 and might also include the Vulnerable (BirdLife International) Saunders’s Gull. Large wading birds might include Eurasian Spoonbill and if we are lucky, the Endangered (BirdLife International) Black-faced Spoonbill. Raptors in the area could include Western Osprey, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Black Kite, Eastern Buzzard, Northern Goshawk, Common Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon.
We often see interesting passerines in the area such as Bull-headed Shrike, Brown Shrike, Rook, Daurian Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Varied Tit, Chinese Penduline Tit, Eurasian Skylark, Zitting Cisticola, Asian House Martin, White-cheeked Starling, Red-billed Starling, Russet Sparrow, Red-flanked Bluetail, Brown-headed Thrush, Pale Thrush, Olive-backed Pipit, Red-throated Pipit, (Japanese) Buff-bellied Pipit, and almost a dozen bunting species, including Rustic Bunting, Common Reed Bunting, Yellow-throated Bunting, and Japanese Reed Bunting.
Sightings of the beautiful Red-flanked Bluetail are always a highlight.
Day 9. Izumi/Arasaki area to Miyazaki via Lake Miike
Reluctantly saying farewell to the wonderful Izumi/Arasaki area, we will travel eastwards towards the beautiful Kirishima Kinkowan National Park. We will stop at Lake Miike, a beautiful crater lake, situated on the slopes of the impressive Mount Takachihomine (5,160 feet/1,573 meters), which is largely cloaked in mature natural woodland, where we will spend the majority of the day birding. We will again spend some time focusing on the woodland areas – these hold specials like Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese Green Woodpecker, Copper Pheasant, Ryukyu Minivet, and Mountain Hawk-Eagle. We will also, of course, check the lake for waterbirds and here we might find Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Eurasian Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, and several other interesting species. After our birding at Lake Miike we will continue on to our accommodation in the coastal city of Miyazaki in the east of Kyushu Island, the city is also the capital of Miyazaki Prefecture.
Day 10. Birding Hyuga and coastal Kyushu then fly from Miyazaki to Tokyo
We will head north out of Miyazaki towards Huga City. We will stop along the way at the Hitotsue River Estuary and Sadowara Farm Ponds where we stand a chance of finding the three top targets of the area: Black-faced Spoonbill, Saunders’s Gull, and Japanese Murrelet. We can find plenty of other interesting birds here such as a wide range of wildfowl, shorebirds, and gulls.
On arrival in the Hyuga area we have a range of sites to check, depending on what we are still trying to locate after the previous few days, such as Cape Hyuga, Hyuga Port, Kadogawa Harbor, and Tomi Peninsula. One of the main target species in this area is Japanese Murrelet. They breed nearby on Birojima Islet during the summer, an Important Bird Area (IBA) (BirdLife International) and can often be observed from the areas we will visit during our time here. Their numbers increase in the late winter and early spring as they return to the area to prepare for the onset of the breeding season.
Other species we will look for in the area include Chinese Bamboo Partridge, Japanese Wood Pigeon, Japanese Cormorant, Japanese Green Woodpecker, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese Bush Warbler, Ryukyu Minivet, Warbling White-eye, Red-billed Leiothrix, Daurian Redstart, White-cheeked Starling, Brown-eared Bulbul, and Black-faced Bunting.
After our birding session we will drive back south to Miyazaki where we will connect with a flight back to Tokyo where we will spend the night before continuing our exciting Japanese birding adventure in incredible Hokkaido.
Daurian Redstart adds a splash of color to the Japanese woodlands.
Day 11. Fly from Tokyo to Kushiro then travel to Tsurui and Rausu
In the morning we will depart from Tokyo Haneda Airport to Kushiro on the northern island of Hokkaido. On arrival, we will meet our new driver and local guide and travel north a short distance to Tsurui. The first stop will be at Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary, the world famous Red-crowned Crane site, and what a spectacular sight they are! Though the cranes will be the main targets here, there are a few other interesting birds to look out for in the local area, such as Whooper Swan, Common Crane, Hazel Grouse, Ural Owl, White-tailed Eagle, Crested Kingfisher, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Northern Raven, Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Bohemian Waxwing, Grey-capped Greenfinch, Common Redpoll, Pallas’s Rosefinch, and Asian Rosy Finch. Today we could also see the magnificent Steller’s Sea Eagle for the first time on the tour, certain to be a tour highlight.
One of the most elegant birds to be enjoyed while we are birding in Hokkaido is Red-crowned Crane, surely one of the most graceful birds in the world too (photo Matt Slaymaker)?
As we travel north from Tsurui towards the Shiretoko Peninsula (our base for the next couple of nights), we will pass by Lake Kussharo and Lake Mashū and we will look out for the ginormous duo of both Steller’s Sea Eagle and White-tailed Eagle (along with anything else that grabs our attention) along the way.
We will try to find another one of our big tour targets in the evening, the huge and Endangered (BirdLife International) Blakiston’s Fish Owl. They inhabit mature boreal forest close to rivers and streams within which they forage, mainly on fish. We will endeavor to find them while we are in the region.
Day 12. Rausu and the Shiretoko Peninsula
We have a full day birding the fascinating Shiretoko Peninsula and nearby area, and it promises to be an exciting experience. We will take a boat cruise for a couple of hours along the picturesque Rausu Coast and within the Nemuro Strait (it is really magnificent scenery). During the winter, drift ice is present, this ice brings with it plankton which in turn attracts fish, which in turn attracts a range of amazing birds (and whales later in the year). During this season, the area becomes the best place in the world for observing the magnificent Steller’s Sea Eagle, one of the main targets of the day.
This trip could well be one of the tour highlights (and that is saying something, given what we will have experienced until now!). Along with the sea eagles, we could find other exciting species like White-tailed Eagle, Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, Stejneger’s Scoter, Black Scoter, Common Goldeneye, Common Murre (Guillemot), Thick-billed Murre (Brünnich’s Guillemot), Spectacled Guillemot, Long-billed Murrelet, Ancient Murrelet, Least Auklet, Crested Auklet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Black-tailed Gull, Vega Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Glaucous Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Red-throated Loon (Diver), Black-throated Loon (Diver), Pacific Loon (Diver), Pelagic Cormorant, and Japanese Cormorant.
The list of spectacular birds in Japan is long and Steller’s Sea Eagle is normally right at the top of this list (photo Richard Campey).
We will also spend time birding from land, and will visit the excellent Notsuke Peninsula, where we will call in to the Notsuke Peninsula Nature Center. Here we are likely to see several species already enjoyed during the morning or earlier in the tour, but others may include (Black) Brant Goose, Harlequin Duck, Stejneger’s Scoter, Smew, a number of alcids, gulls, loons (divers), and cormorants, Steller’s Sea Eagle, Short-eared Owl, Asian Rosy Finch, and Snow Bunting.
In the evening we will again try for Blakiston’s Fish Owl, likely at the famous “Fish-Owl Observatory” near our accommodation where we hope to get good views of this mega bird.
Blakiston’s Fish Owl is one of the special targets on this tour (photo Richard Campey).
Day 13. Rausu to Nemuro
In the morning we will drive from Rausu, south to Nemuro on the scenically spectacular Nemuro Peninsula jutting out into the Okhotsk Sea, another excellent birding area. We will take an exciting boat trip from Habomai Harbor, where we will see a range of most-wanted seaducks, grebes, loons (divers), gulls, and alcids. Possibilities in the harbor and on the boat trip include Harlequin Duck, Stejneger’s Scoter, Black Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Red-necked Grebe, Horned (Slavonian) Grebe, Pigeon Guillemot, Spectacled Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet, Least Auklet, Crested Auklet, Slaty-backed Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Pacific Loon (Diver), Red-faced Cormorant, and Pelagic Cormorant.
We will also spend time birding on land around the Nemuro Peninsula looking for a range of birds, including Rock Sandpiper, Mew (Common) Gull (possible future split as Kamchatka Gull), Red-faced Cormorant, White-tailed Eagle, Steller’s Sea Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Lapland Longspur (Bunting), Pine Bunting, and Asian Rosy Finch. Additional sites we will likely check over during the day (and potentially the following morning) include Lake Furen, Nemuro Harbor, and the Shunkunitai Wild Bird Sanctuary, it is another great birding area.
Day 14. Nemuro to Kushiro then fly to Tokyo
The final full day of the tour will see us birding our way from Nemuro to Kushiro before flying back to Tokyo. Around Nemuro we might pick up some of the birds listed above and we will likely call in at Hamanaka Port, Cape Kiritappu, and Kiritappu Wetlands Center along the way, where we could find (Black) Brant Goose, Whooper Swan, Falcated Duck, Greater Scaup, Red-necked Grebe, Black-necked (Eared) Grebe, Hazel Grouse, Red-crowned Crane, Rough-legged Buzzard, Dusky Thrush, Asian Rosy Finch, and Rustic Bunting along with plenty of alcids, gulls, and seaducks.
On arrival in Kushiro we will take a connecting flight back to Tokyo Haneda Airport for our final group traditional dinner of the tour where we will also discuss the ‘bird of the trip’ – it’s sure to be a tough task!
Gulls feature massively on this Japan bird tour with many species possible, such as the beautiful Glaucous-winged Gull (photo Richard Campey)
Day 15. Departure from Tokyo (or continuation onto our pelagic birding trip extension to Miyake-jima)
Time at leisure prior to your international departure from Tokyo.
You can extend your stay in Japan with our short, and highly recommended Japan: Pelagic Trip and Miyake-Jima Endemic Birding Extension, where we will look for Laysan Albatross, Black-footed Albatross, Short-tailed Albatross, Tristram’s Storm Petrel, Northern Fulmar, and Streaked Shearwater out on the water, as well as birds like Izu Thrush, Brown-headed Thrush, Japanese Wood Pigeon, Owston’s Tit, Japanese Robin, and Grey Bunting on land. Full details of this exciting extension are here.
Overnight: Not included (unless continuing on pelagic trip extension).
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as weather conditions, availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors (such as health and safety). In addition, we sometimes must use a different international guide from the one advertised due to tour scheduling.Download Itinerary