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During our wonderful winter Japan birding adventure we experience the diversity of three of the main islands: Kyushu, Honshu, and Hokkaido. We begin with the coasts and wetlands of the southwestern Kyushu desert in search of the endemic Japanese Murrelet and the wintering hordes of Hooded Cranes and White-naped Cranes, with an accompanying cast of other winter visitors, which may include Black-faced Spoonbill and Saunders’s Gull. We then travel northward through the forests, hills, and lakes of central Honshu to seek out endemics such as Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese Green Woodpecker, Varied Tit, and perhaps, if we are very lucky, Copper Pheasant. We include visits to lakes to look for Baikal Teal and Mandarin Duck and to a valley where endemic Japanese Macaque and endemic Japanese Serow (a goat-antelope) make their winter home. Leaving central Honshu we continue to the most scenically beautiful part of Japan – the northernmost island of Hokkaido. Here, in a landscape dominated by dramatic volcanoes, calderas, coastal plains, and rugged peninsulas, species numbers are low, but quality is 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 Red Fox in the background and 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 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 possible wintering or migrating seabirds, including loons, grebes, auks, auklets, murrelets, and murres.
Itinerary (18 days/17 nights)
Day 1. Arrival at Tokyo International Airport (Haneda)
After your arrival in Tokyo, on the island of Honshu, you will check in at the Haneda Airport Hotel. This will save you expensive meet-and-greet services, since the hotel is within the domestic airport and guests can arrive and check in independently. You will have dinner at the hotel.
Overnight: Haneda Airport Hotel, Tokyo
Day 2. Flight to Miyazaki
We will take a domestic flight to Miyazaki on the island of Kyushu (or to Kagoshima with transfer to Miyazaki, if there is no flight to Miyazaki) in the morning. In the afternoon we will be birding the Miyazaki coast in search of Japanese Murrelet. In the process we might also encounter, among others, Black-eared Kite (recognized by most authorities as a subspecies of Black Kite), Japanese Cormorant, Pacific Reef Heron, and Black-tailed, Vega, and Slaty-backed Gulls.
Day 3. Miyazaki to Izumi via Mi-ike
In the morning we will again enjoy the varied birdlife at the Miyazaki coast. In the afternoon we will drive to Mi-ike, where we can stop to do some productive lake and forest birding, with possible sightings of Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and Mandarin Duck. Other species we might encounter are Olive-backed Pipit, Yellow-throated Bunting, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, and perhaps also White-backed Woodpecker. We then continue to Izumi.
Days 4 – 5. Arasaki Crane Reserve
For two full days we will be birding the renowned Arasaki Crane Reserve near Izumi for White-naped and Hooded Cranes, also looking for the occasional Common Crane, Siberian Crane, and even perhaps a single Demoiselle or Sandhill Crane, and many other species wintering in the area, like Rook, Eurasian Skylark, Grey-capped Greenfinch, Meadow Bunting, and White Wagtail. We will also explore estuaries north and south for Black-faced Spoonbill and Saunders’s Gull.
Day 6. Flight to Tokyo, transfer to Tateshina
Today we’ll drive to Kagoshima, Kyushu, for a morning domestic flight to Tokyo’s Haneda airport to begin our Kyushu island leg. Here we will collect a rental vehicle and proceed to Tateshina. In the afternoon we will be birding in the forest close to Tateshina.
Day 7. Tateshina
We will be birding all day in the Tateshina area, looking for the likes of Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Red-flanked Bluetail, Japanese Grosbeak, Hawfinch, Grey-capped Greenfinch, and, with some luck, even Copper Pheasant.
Day 8. Tateshina to Katano Kamo-ike Bird Sanctuary
Before breakfast we will be birding the forests in Tateshina. After breakfast we will drive via Lake Suwa to Komatsu in the Ishikawa Prefecture to visit the Katano Kamo-ike Bird Sanctuary to bird in the afternoon for waterfowl. We will especially be looking for Baikal Teal, but may also find Taiga and Tundra Bean Geese, Greater White-fronted Goose, Smew, Mallard, Northern Pintail, and Falcated Duck, to name just a few.
Day 9. Kaga to Kambayashi Onsen
In the morning we will again be birding at Katano Kamo-ike and other sites in the vicinity. In the afternoon we will drive to Kambayashi Onsen in the Nagano Prefecture.
Overnight: Kambayashi Onsen
Day 10. Kambayashi Onsen to Karuizawa
In the morning we will visit the famous snow monkeys at Jigokudani Yaen Koen (Monkey Park) to 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). In the afternoon we will transfer to Karuizawa.
Day 11. Karuizawa Bird Sanctuary
We will spend all day birding in the Karuizawa Bird Sanctuary. In this area we might encounter Willow, Great, Long-tailed, Varied, and Coal Tits, Eurasian Nuthatch, Chinese Hwamei, Japanese Accentor, Brown-eared Bulbul, Long-tailed Rosefinch, Japanese Green, Japanese Pygmy, and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Eurasian Jay, Hawfinch, Japanese Grosbeak, Daurian Redstart, Brown Dipper, and perhaps even Copper Pheasant.
Day 12. Karuizawa to Tokyo via Ura-Myogi, flight to Kushiro
Before breakfast we will have a last spot of birding the Karuizawa Bird Sanctuary. After breakfast we will visit the Ura-Myogi area, where we might have a second chance for Baikal Teal among other waterfowl like Mandarin and Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, or we may encounter terrestrial species like Russet Sparrow, the local subspecies of Eurasian Bullfinch (Grey-bellied Bullfinch), Eastern Buzzard, Olive-backed Pipit, Japanese Bush Warbler, Azure-winged Magpie, and White-cheeked Starling. Then we will drive to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and take an afternoon domestic flight to Kushiro on east Hokkaido island. After collecting our rental vehicle we will drive to Tsurui.
Day 13. Tsurui Crane Sanctuaries, transfer to Kawayu
Tsurui is home to Japan’s very best crane sanctuaries. We will visit Red-crowned Crane roosting and foraging areas, and we’ll probably also encounter local or migrant birds like Meadow Bunting and Pallas’s Rosefinch. In this area we will also look for Ural Owl roosting sites and search rivers for Crested Kingfisher and other wintering riparian species. A short one-hour drive will take us to Kawayu in the afternoon.
Day 14. Kawayu to Rausu
Today we will be birding locally in the morning around Lake Kawayu, looking for Black and White-backed Woodpeckers and Common Redpoll, and also on our way to the Sea of Okhotsk coast for winter waterfowl, ending the day on the wild Shiretoko Peninsula for Steller’s Sea Eagle. An evening watch will see us trying to find Blakiston’s Fish Owl.
Day 15. Rausu
We have a full day birding the fascinating Shiretoko Peninsula. Our main target here is, of course, Steller’s Sea Eagle. But we will also keep our eyes open for White-tailed Eagle, Brown Dipper, Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, the local subspecies of White-winged Scoter (Stejneger’s Scoter), Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, Pelagic Cormorant, Whooper Swan, and Glaucous and Glaucous-winged Gulls, as well as an occasional rare visitor like Surf Scoter. In the evening we will again try for Blakiston’s Fish Owl.
Days 16 – 17. Nemuro
In the morning of day 16 we will drive to Nemuro on the Nemuro Peninsula, yet another stunningly scenic peninsula jutting out into the Okhotsk Sea, where we will stay for two nights. On the drive and in the Namuro area we should watch for Black Scoter, Red-faced Cormorant, Slaty-backed and Black-tailed Gulls, White-tailed Eagle, and Asian Rosy Finch. We will take two boat trips from Ochiishi for seabirds; on these trips many alcids, sea ducks, and cormorants can be seen. In particular we will keep an eye out for Ancient Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots, Common Murre, Black-throated Loon, and Red-necked Grebe. We will also do some birding around Lake Furen.
Day 18. Nemuro to Kushiro, flight to Tokyo, departure
Today we will return to Kushiro for a domestic flight to Tokyo (Haneda) for our connections home.
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 availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors.
I joined a custom trip, followed by an African Bird Club conservation tour, with Chris Lotz of Birding Ecotours, in November 2012. I sent Chris a wish-list and he was very quick to reply with a detailed itinerary based on the list I sent him. I got 42 lifers on this trip, which actually exceeded my expectations: with a world list of over 7000 species, it is tough for me to see new birds anywhere.
Both the custom trip and the conservation trip were extremely well-organised, and the Birding Ecotours guides were superb. The African Bird Club will be doing more trips with Birding Ecotours.
Keith Betton — Chairman of the African Bird Club, UK