Richard & Erica Klim, Somerset, UK firstname.lastname@example.org
Although we have birded widely in the Western Palearctic and Nearctic regions, our experience of the Eastern Palearctic had been limited to a single spring trip to Hebei, China. When trying to decide on our next Eastern Palearctic destination, we realised that Japan was not the simplest option, and would not provide an especially large number of species new to us. Nevertheless, the idea of a February trip was attractive, providing the opportunity for birding amongst some dramatic winter land- and seascapes, whilst avoiding any conflict with the ‘peak’ spring/autumn Holarctic birding seasons. The prospect of seeing large numbers of three species of crane, and the magnificent Steller’s Sea Eagles was hard to resist. We also relished the opportunity to experience and begin to understand this enigmatic nation – despite having made an enormous global impact through its technology and exports, Japan remains relatively little-visited by foreigners.
Most birders would have to sell their house to afford the cost of an organised birding tour to Japan. But trip reports by Björn Anderson and Dave Sargeant have demonstrated that independent birding trips to Japan are not difficult. We fully endorse that view: with adequate preparation it is extremely easy to travel in Japan. The key sites are well known, rendering an experienced guide unnecessary. There is no escaping the fact that long-haul flights to Japan are not cheap, and the geography of the nation makes domestic travel more complicated than the average birding trip. But the public transport system is comprehensive and easy to use, and the costs can be minimised by using the special fares only available to foreign visitors. Driving is also safe and easy, and although there are few true budget accommodation options in the main birding areas, lodging costs are no more than those in the west. The price of food and drink can be very reasonable.
When deciding our itinerary, we settled for a typical combination of southern Kyushu, central Honshu, and eastern Hokkaido, including a Pacific ferry route. We had contemplated including the Nansei-shoto and/or Hachijo-jima, but quickly decided that, as there were no winter-specific target birds on these islands, we would leave them for a spring/summer visit (when a few additional species would be present). Our first iteration at a detailed schedule included a visit to Ishikawa-ken, primarily for Baikal Teal, but it was proving complicated to integrate into our overall plan. Eventually we decided that if we wanted the ‘full-on’ Baikal Teal experience, we should instead include a short extension to South Korea (with the help of Nial Moores), which we were anyway eager to visit at some time. We were fortunate in having few time constraints, and therefore designed a quite leisurely schedule. It is clearly possible to follow a similar itinerary in a shorter time period, and still see as many (or more!) species, as Anderson for example has proved.
We are guilty of not usually publishing our trip reports, which we use primarily as a means of capturing our personal experiences and memories. Please therefore forgive the rambling waffle which makes up the bulk of this report. However the pre-trip planning required was quite lengthy, and we felt that some of the practical information could be of use to future travellers, even if only to reduce the amount of web browsing required.
Björn Anderson, Paul Bamford, Hideyo Bando, Mark Brazil, Chris Cook, Fergus Crystal, Michael Duckham, Istvan Katona, Ed Keeble, Takeyoshi Matsuo, Sean Minns, Nial & Charlie Moores, Nigel Moorhouse, Dave Sargeant, Ingo Waschkies.
Japan Road Map 1:1 500 000 – Freytag & Berndt (£8.95) For overall planning only. Available from Stanfords (www.stanfords.co.uk).
South Korea 1:550 000 – International Travel Maps (£9.95) Rather crude, unsuitable for navigation (e.g. no road numbers are shown) but possibly the only English-language map available at such a scale? Available from Stanfords.
Japan Road Atlas – Shobunsha (¥2857/$49.95) All of Japan at 1:250 000, except for Hokkaido (only 1:600 000). Roads, railways, relief etc. All railway stations clearly shown. English annotation, with city and town names also in kanji. Larger scale maps for major cities and selected tourist areas, e.g. Karuizawa at 1:100 000. Available from Shobunsha’s overseas agents, including Omni Resources (www.omnimap.com).
Nissan Rentacar also provided free road atlas booklets when we picked-up our rental cars. Although annotated in Japanese-only, they can be used to supplement the Shobunsha atlas. The Nissan Kyushu Road Map is of no value for birding in southern Kyushu as the overall mapping is only at 1:600 000 which is much less detailed than the Shobunsha atlas. Detailed maps are provided for major cities and towns but none were relevant to our itinerary. However the Nissan Hokkaido Road Map is much more useful. The overall mapping is to a scale of 1:500 000 – although this may not seem much better than the Shobunsha atlas, it includes significantly more detail (including additional minor roads). The many larger-scale detailed maps include Tomakomai, Kushiro, Kushiro-shitsugen, and Nemuro.
Japan - Lonely Planet (£16.99) Korea - Lonely Planet (£14.99)
Some useful material is available free of charge from the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) and can be requested via its UK website (www.seejapan.co.uk): Tourist Map of Japan (1:2 000 000, plus city maps) Tourist Map of Tokyo (1:26 000, plus subway and airport access maps) Japan’s Nationwide Travel Information Network (a small booklet containing useful transportation maps) Japan with Tips for Budget Travel (another useful booklet with much practical information) Narita Airport Guidebook
JNTO also produces a wide range of regional Practical Travel Guides. These small leaflets are available on-line (www.jnto.go.jp/eng/RTG/PTG) and include maps of cities and tourist areas, accommodation listings with prices, and access details (rail/bus journey times, frequencies, fares etc.). We found the following were of some use for our trip: Practical Travel Guide PG-103 (Kushiro, Abashiri and Akan National Park) Practical Travel Guide PG-304 (Narita) Practical Travel Guide PG-407 (Karuizawa Heights)
The Birds of Japan – Brazil (£45.00) Highly recommended for pre-trip study. Available from Books for Birders (+44(0)1263-741139, fax +44(0)1263-741173, email@example.com, www.birdingworld.co.uk).
A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Japan – Brazil A Birder’s Guide to Japan – Robinson Remarkably, both were published in the same year (1987), and are now long out of print. Mark Brazil’s guide is easily the better. It is well designed and structured, including detailed maps and directions for each site, with lists of species likely to be encountered in each season. Given the book’s age it is inevitable that some sites will have changed, and details of accommodation and public transport must obviously be treated with caution. But I strongly recommend any birder visiting Japan to try very hard to acquire a copy. With a bit of web browsing, I was lucky to find a Japanese bookshop in Australia which still had some copies on the shelf at the original price, but I understand that all have now been sold. Unfortunately the book seems to have become something of a collector’s item, with used examples for sale at the time of writing via Abebooks (www.abebooks.co.uk) at prices from £70 to over £100! Jane Washburn’s guide is by comparison rather unstructured, with cruder maps and sometimes confusing directions. Nevertheless the more narrative style gives a good feel for what to expect in each area, and includes some additional sites not covered by Brazil. As used copies are readily available via Abebooks at extremely low prices, it makes sense for any visiting birder to get hold of a copy.
The following are particularly useful: Björn Anderson: Japan, Feb/Mar 2002 (at www.surfbirds.com)
Dave Sargeant: Japan, Jan 2003 & May/Jun 2004 (at www.worldtwitch.com)
Other trip reports can be found at www.birdtours.co.uk, www.surfbirds.com,
A Field Guide to the Birds of Korea – Lee et al (£22.95) Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America – Sibley (£14.99) (No English-language field guide to Japan is currently in print.) The American guide provides coverage of Pacific seabirds. Together, the two guides give almost complete coverage for Japan in winter, with the omissions limited to a few easily identified species. Both available from Books for Birders.
Wild Birds of Japan – Kanouchi et al (¥3150/£29.99) 550 Birds of Japan (2 volumes) – Kirihara et al (¥6400/£55.00) These Japanese books are high-quality photographic guides, packed with beautiful images. Heavily used for pre-trip dreaming and post-trip memories! Not really suitable for field use, but we did take ‘Wild Birds of Japan’ on the trip for end-of-day reference. Both available from Books for Birders.
283 Wild Bird Songs of Japan (3 CDs) – Ueda (£76.95) Includes an English-language booklet giving full details of each recording, including circumstances, location and date. Available from WildSounds (www.wildsounds.co.uk).
Birds of South Korea – Moores (£19.95) An excellent 170-minute video filmed in winter, spring and autumn, featuring 175 species and the sites where they can be found, with background on the country and its culture. Available from Books for Birders.
Kantori is an English-language group dedicated to birds and birding in Japan. Members include Japanese birders and western birders resident in Japan. We gleaned much useful gen from the message archive, and members were very helpful in responding to our RFI. Join at groups.yahoo.com. The group has recently established the Kantori Lode website (ca.geocities.com/kantorilode) as a respository for information on identification, distribution, sites etc. Birds Korea (www.birdskorea.org) is a mine of information on all aspects of birds, birding and conservation in South Korea.
Xenophobe’s Guide to the Japanese – Kaji et al (£3.99) The Xenophobe’s Guides provide an amusing and irreverant but usually perceptive insight into the psyche of a nation.
FLIGHTS - International
On checking the web (www.travelocity.co.uk) for fares from the UK to Japan, it was quickly apparent that the lowest fares were for indirect flights with various continental European airlines. Direct flights from London with British Airways, Japan Airlines or All Nippon Airways were considerably more expensive. In the end we flew with KLM (e-tickets purchased on-line at www.klm.com) as we could conveniently fly from our local airport (Bristol/Lulsgate (BRS)) to Tokyo/Narita (NRT) via Amsterdam/Schiphol (AMS), with an ‘open jaw’ return from Seoul/Incheon (ICN), again via Schiphol. The 09:20 arrival at Narita allowed easy same-day onward travel to Kyushu. The overall fare was £600.80. Although KLM offered an outward flight from Bristol with a quite short connection period at Schiphol, we elected to take the preceding flight. This gave a five-hour layover at Schiphol, minimising any possibility of missing the long-haul flight due to unforeseen delays.
Completing the link from Tokyo to Seoul proved to be a headache. KLM offered this connection with their Skyteam partner, Northwest Airlines, but only at a sky-high business-class fare. Checking other options with Travelocity and Expedia gave cheapest economy-class one-way fares of almost £300 for this relatively short sector, although with the bizarre logic of the travel industry, return fares were cheaper! A browse of the web found a Tokyo-based travel agency offering significantly cheaper return fares, but on trying to book by telephone it became apparent that payment and ticket delivery/collection would be difficult. Anyway, when I mentioned that we would only be using the outward flight, the agent refused to sell us the tickets, claiming that his company could be penalised when the airline found that cut-price return tickets had been used for one-way travel. I admitted defeat and settled for £233.10 return tickets from Narita to Incheon with Korean Airlines (purchased on-line at www.expedia.co.uk).
FLIGHTS - Domestic
Even though our only domestic flights were from Tokyo to Kyushu (Kagoshima) and return, we found that the cheapest option was to use the All Nippon Airways (www.anaskyweb.com) Visit Japan Fare. This offers from two to five flights on ANA’s extensive domestic network at ¥12600=£63.50 per flight. [Japan Airlines has a similar offer, but a JAL Group airline must be used for travel to/from Japan.] Tickets can be purchased by telephone from ANA’s European Customer Service Centre (+44-(0)870-837-8866), up to 60 days in advance. The fare is only available to visitors to Japan – when booking it is necessary to fax copies of passports and international flight tickets to the Customer Service Centre. The itinerary must be fixed, but the dates and times of all but the first flight can be left open. The first flight cannot be changed to a later time or date, but an earlier flight can be taken instead on a standby basis. For our flight from Tokyo/Haneda (TYO) to Kagoshima (KOJ) we therefore booked a flight at a time which would allow a good margin for any possible delays to the flight from Schiphol, intending to transfer to an earlier flight from Haneda if possible. This worked exactly as planned, with the ticket change performed easily upon arrival at Haneda. ANA seems to have considerable over-capacity on this route - the large 777s employed were lightly loaded in both directions.
Note that ANA does not seem to offer meals or even snacks on domestic flights – only tea, coffee etc. was provided despite a flight time of almost 2 hours. However a wide range of reasonably priced lunch boxes is available before boarding at Haneda.
Haneda Airport is used for most domestic flights from Tokyo. Transfer from Narita Airport is easy: ‘Friendly Airport Limousine’ buses depart from Terminal 1 (bus stop no.3) and Terminal 2 (bus stops nos. 5 & 15) about 4 times per hour. A journey time of 75 minutes is scheduled, but in practice our transfer took less than an hour. Tickets (¥3000=£16.17) must be purchased from the sales counters in the arrivals lobbies before boarding the bus.
In Japan we rented cars for a week in both Kyushu (from Kagoshima Airport) and Hokkaido (from Kushiro Station). We found that Club Tocoo (www2.tocoo.jp), a Japanese internet-based car rental and hotel booking agency, offered the best deals. Club Tocoo offers car rental with Mazda and Nissan, both of which have rental outlets at airports and railway stations throughout Japan. Prices are based on calendar days rather than 24-hour periods, but are still extremely competitive – the smallest car was priced at ¥28000=£146.41 for 7 days. At both locations we booked a Nissan Class P4 vehicle (Sunny 1.5 or equivalent, 4-door automatic with air-con) at ¥35280=£184.49 for 7 days with unlimited km. All cars include a GPS system, and in Hokkaido all cars are fitted with snow tyres. The on-line reservation procedure asks whether the hirers include a Japanese-speaker; if not,efforts are made to ensure that an English-speaker is present at the rental outlet at the scheduled pick-up time wherever possible. Payment for the rental is required on pick-up (major credit cards accepted). There is no charge for additional drivers.
For Korea we made an internet reservation with Avis (www.avis.co.uk) for a rental from Seoul/Incheon International Airport (ICN). Given that there would be three occupants plus luggage, we chose a larger car. A Group D vehicle (Hyundai Sonata EF 1.8 automatic with air-con) cost $212=W213272=£114.13 for 4 days (i.e. 4x 24 hours, not 4 calendar days) with unlimited km. Again, major credit cards are accepted and there is no charge for additional drivers.
In both Japan and Korea, foreign drivers require an International Driving Permit (1949), in addition to a national driving licence, when hiring a rental car. In the UK, an IDP (valid for one year, start date can be postdated) can be obtained from specified Post Office branches (listed at www.theaa.com) for a charge of £5.50, on production of a valid UK driving licence and a passport-type photograph.
DRIVING - Japan
In Japan, traffic drives on the left, as in the UK. Driving is safe and easy (outside major cities at least), but generally slow. The maximum speed limit on all but expressways is only 60km/h. Aggressive behaviour is rare by western standards. Expressway tolls are quite expensive but of little relevance in southern Kyushu or eastern Hokkaido. Road signs (in Japanese and English) are generally clear and accurate.
The snow in Hokkaido was not a significant problem. Major roads were usually completely clear but occasionally acquired a coating of soft snow for a short period after a fresh snowfall. Even where minor roads or tracks were covered with packed snow and ice, the snow tyres allowed them to be negotiated with care. The greatest potential risk was to accidentally drive into deep, soft snow when parking by the roadside (e.g. for a birding stop), but this would be more embarassing than dangerous. Very unexpected snowfall in Kyushu meant that some road surfaces were quite slippery (without snow tyres) on the day of our arrival.
In southern Kyushu, 50km/h restrictions and heavy traffic are the norm even on major roads, especially in coastal areas, and overtaking is generally uncommon/impossible. In urban areas (i.e. large parts of the coast), there is a 40km/h limit, but speed humps are thankfully rare. By-passes around towns are uncommon. Even little-used junctions are controlled by traffic signals, which seem to operate on a fixed (slow) time sequence rather than responding to vehicle-detection systems.
In sparsely-populated eastern Hokkaido the roads are much quieter, and it is common to find traffic moving at 80-90kph. But it is easy to become too complacent – although fixed speed cameras are rare, I rounded a curve at 80km/h on one occasion to be greeted by the flashing red lights of a police patrol car. Fortunately I was let off with a friendly warning and reminder of the speed limit. Otherwise, we rarely saw traffic police on the roads.
Road works are frequently encountered, and are usually controlled by courteous flag- or baton-waving traffic directors – it is hard to imagine European road construction workers politely bowing to each passing driver!
Due to the low speed limits, heavy trucks are rarely a hindrance (in fact the trucks often seem to be the fastest moving vehicles!). There are few bicycles on the highways, and in towns they tend to keep to the pavements. Pedestrians are generally very law-abiding, obediently waiting at pedestrian crossings even on quiet roads until the signal to cross is given.
One minor hazard to be aware of is that roadside kerbs are often high, with rather narrow ramps providing access to roadside premises. On one occasion when leaving a hotel in darkness, I carelessly drove down such a kerb with the result that the car grounded heavily, fortunately with no visible damage.
Petrol costs ~¥110=£0.59/litre. Filling stations are common, and except for in some urban areas, the standard of service is high: the attendant typically running out to guide the driver to the pumps, leaning the windows while the tank is filling, sprinting to and from the till (cash is usually required), presenting a small gift (e.g. tissues), and waving the customer off with spirited cries and a deep bow! Beware of filling stations with self-service pumps which accept bank-notes. The one example we used did not give change when the tank became full before the value inserted was reached– luckily we only overpaid by ¥52=£0.28.
The GPS systems provided with the rental cars in Japan proved to be extremely useful. Although we were sceptical at first, and were unable to utilise the Japanese-only interface to the route-finding functions, we quickly became converts. The moving-map display (centred on the vehicle’s current position) made it absolutely impossible to get lost. It provided constant reassurance that we were on the correct route during routine driving. And although the level of mapping of very minor roads was variable, we rapidly became accustomed to using the display as a supplementary aid to navigation. e.g. ‘the next road on the left goes down to the shore of a lake/river – worth a quick look’, or ‘the next right will give us a short-cut back to the main highway’. In our Kyushu car, the display operated in north-up mode and was very easy to interpret. In the Hokkaido car, the display was unfortunately configured in course-up mode which meant that the map was constantly re-aligning to the direction of travel, confusing one’s sense of direction and making correlation with an atlas a little more difficult; presumably, a north-up mode was available but we could not work out how to select it.
DRIVING - Korea
In South Korea traffic drives on the right. Speed limits are higher than in Japan (110km/h on expressways, 90km/h elsewhere, with lower limits in built-up areas and on minor roads, and occasional speed humps). Speed cameras are common, but are mounted on prominent overhead gantries visible from a great distance, and there are usually warning signs a few hundred metres ahead. As with Japan, we rarely encountered traffic police. Driving is less disciplined than in Japan, but we never felt intimidated (except perhaps when driving in heavy traffic after dark in the Seoul/Incheon area). Traffic is permitted to turn right at red lights if there is no conflicting traffic. Red traffic signals are anyway largely ignored at rural junctions, and also in towns at quiet times – it can sometimes be hazardous to stop at a red light as following traffic will probably not anticipate such unusual behaviour! Consequently a green light should not be taken as a guaranteed safe right of passage.
New road construction is apparent everywhere – it is sometimes unclear whether a new section or junction is fully open, and road signs are not always consistent with the current status. There may locally be a number of alternative routes to the same destination, causing some confusion.
Expressway tolls are cheap – we paid a total of W47300=£25.66 over 4 days including considerable long-distance expressway driving. Toll gates around major cities tend to be of the fixed-price type; elsewhere it is normal to take a ticket and later pay a distance-related charge.
Petrol costs ~W1315=£0.71/litre. Filling stations are generally rather basic establishments with few facilities, but at least credit cards are widely accepted.
We would not recommend driving in Korea without a local guide. Our English-language map of South Korea was woefully inadequate, with only a crude depiction of major roads, no road numbers, and many incorrect or obsolete place names. Our guide in Korea, Nial Moores, had a detailed national road atlas, but all annotation was in hangeul, making it difficult for foreigners to use. And even though it had been published only recently, it had already been overtaken by the pace of road construction in many areas.
We used rail in Honshu, and also in Hokkaido for travel from Tomakomai to Kushiro and back. Pre-trip journey planning is easy – the Japan Rail website (www.japanrail.com) has an excellent timetable facility known as HYPERDIA. Having entered a start point, destination and intended travel time, the system responds with the five quickest journey options commencing after the specified time. It does not limit the search to JR trains – domestic flights, independent rail lines and subway systems, and JR bus services are also suggested where appropriate. However when entering a request, it is possible to limit the search to rail-only or local-train-only etc. For each journey option, it gives the train name/number and departure/arrival times for every sector of the journey (even giving the departure platform number in the case of major stations), the waiting time (and walking time where applicable) for each connection point, and a detailed breakdown of the fare according to the types of service used. Full timetables for individual services can also be displayed and printed for later use. One small tip: when entering location names, hyphens are not always expected – e.g. ‘naka-karuizawa’ must be entered as ‘nakakaruizawa’.
We used a 14-day Japan Rail Pass. The price of ¥45100 was actually a little higher than the calculated total fare for the JR services that we intended to use within the period of validity. This may seem crazy, but we felt that a small premium would be worth paying for the added convenience of the pass. With the pass, we could avoid the obstacles and potential delays of using ticket machines or purchasing tickets from non-English-speaking station staff, we could make last-minute decisions on which trains to take (particularly useful when using the complex system of lines in the Greater Tokyo area), and we could reserve seats on longer journeys at no extra cost. 7-day and 21-day passes are also available at ¥28300 and ¥57700 respectively, and there is a range of lower-priced regional passes.
JR Passes are not valid for travel on non-JR services, e.g. the Keisei Line from Narita Airport, the Shinano Railway from Karuizawa, the Kashimarinkai Line from Mito (for Oarai), the Tokyo Monorail from Narita Airport, and the Tokyo Subway Lines (but note that the JR network in and around Tokyo is quite extensive).
JR Passes are only available to visitors to Japan, and must be purchased before travelling to Japan. The JR website gives a full list of worldwide agents. In practice, one purchases a JR Pass Exchange Order, which must later be exchanged (within 3 months) for the actual JR Pass at one of a number of specific stations and airports within Japan (also listed on the JR website). The actual start date of the pass can be up to 1 month after the date of issue.
As one of the UK agents is ANA, I tried to purchase our passes when booking our ANA domestic flights. However, somewhat strangely, ANA insisted that in order to purchase a JR Pass I would have to visit their London office in person, as they could not send the Exchange Orders by post! I instead ordered our passes from Tokyu Travel (Europe) Ltd (020-493-0468, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.tokyutraveluk.com) for a price of £234 each, including delivery by registered post. [DO NOT purchase a JR Pass from Trailfinders. Their price for this supposedly fixed-price ticket was an outrageous £284. When I queried this, their salesperson explained that the company would not make any profit on the sale if it did not add such a margin! With complete dishonesty, the company’s publicity assures: ‘As a Trailfinders client you will get no hidden extras.’]
The rail system in Japan is impressive. It is amazing to watch the operation of a busy station, with a complex pattern of trains to various destinations arriving, interconnecting and departing at multiple platforms with clockwork precision. Markings on the platforms indicate the exact locations of the train doors, and signs show the expected positions of each type of coach (Reserved/Unreserved/Green(=1st class), smoking/non-smoking etc.) for all but local trains. The coaches themselves generally have external displays indicating the coach number and type of accommodation. Displays within each coach give details of destination, next station etc. in both Japanese and English, and regular bilingual audio announcements give the same information. There are usually luggage storage areas in the vestibules of non-local trains. Even the older rolling stock is spotlessly clean.
The system is heavily used, and trains can be crowded. However standing is permitted, so it is usually possible to board any train, even though the journey may then be rather uncomfortable. At the major Tokyo stations there are areas marked on the platforms for passengers to form separate queues for each door on Shinkansen (Super Express/’bullet’) and Limited Express trains. As already mentioned, with a JR Pass seats can be reserved free of charge, even just before boarding.
Although longer-distance services generally have a trolley service selling delicious lunch boxes and other refreshments (as well as vending machines), it is advisable to purchase such provisions before boarding – in Hokkaido we found that many menu items had sold out by the time the trolley reached our coach. A range of low-cost lunch boxes is usually available at station kiosks.
Major stations have left-luggage lockers. We found that we could just about get all of our main luggage into one of the larger-sized lockers (¥500=£2.69).
We travelled from Honshu to Hokkaido, and return, by ferry to maximise the opportunities for sea-watching (although with disappointing results). The services from Tokyo to Tomakomai (Iburi) and Kushiro mentioned by Brazil (site 30) regrettably ceased many years ago, and like most visiting birders we used the service between Oarai (Ibaraki-ken) and Tomakomai. This route has two sailings per day (except Sundays) in each direction, and takes about 19 hours. There is also a longer-distance service from Nagoya (Aichi-ken) to Tomakomai via Sendai (Miyagi-ken), with a sailing every other day in each direction, taking about 39 hours.
For details of current ferry services, we wrote to the Japan Long-Course Ferry Service Assocation (Iino Building, 2-1-1, Uchisaiwai-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0011, www.fune.co.jp/LCFerry). They sent us an English-language brochure entitled ‘Dramatic Ferry’, giving timetables and fares for more than 20 ferry services linking the four main islands, including addresses and telephone numbers for the service operators. They also included a copy of the Shosen Mitsui Ferry brochure for the Oarai-Tomakomai route – although in Japanese, they had kindly pencilled-in English translations of the key points.
The northbound sailings leave Oarai at 18:30 and 23:59, arriving at Tomakomai at 13:15 and 19:45 the next day respectively. The southbound sailings leave Tomakomai at 18:45 and 23:45, arriving at Oarai at 13:30 and 19:00 respectively. Our original plan was to take the early-evening sailing northbound, thus arriving in Hokkaido waters during daylight to maximise the chances of seeing auks in that area, and the night-time sailing southbound to maximise the total sea-watching time on the return journey.
Previous trip reports have indicated that these ferries are lightly used during February and that booking in advance was therefore unnecessary. However about 4 weeks before leaving for Japan, I decided that, for peace of mind, I would attempt to make reservations. I called the Shosen Mitsui Ferry booking offices (+81-(0)267-4133 and +81-(0)144-34-3121) and eventually succeeded in contacting an operator able to speak a little English. When I tried to make a reservation for the 18:30 sailing from Oarai on Thursday 10th February, I was rather taken aback to be informed that there was no 2nd class accommodation left, either in the communal tatami sleeping area or in cabins. Perhaps this was due to the fact that Friday 11th was a public holiday (Kenkoku Kinem-bi – National Foundation Day) and many people were taking advantage of a long weekend, maybe visiting the Sapporo Snow Festival? Or possibly it was just a misunderstanding? Anyway we made a reservation for the 23:59 sailing instead, but even on that service there was no tatami accommodation available and we settled for berths in a 4-berth cabin (¥9500=£49.46). For the 23:45 return crossing we booked places in the tatami area (¥6300=£32.35).
Oarai can be reached from the Tokyo area by taking a JR Limited Express ‘Super Hitachi’ or ‘Fresh Hitachi’ from Ueno to Mito (¥3510=£18.91, every half-hour, journey time 65-78 minutes), and then the Kashimarinkai Line to Oarai (¥310=£1.67, 2-3 trains/hour, journey time 14-16 minutes). We took a taxi (¥660=£3.56) from Oarai station to the ferry terminal. There is a limited bus service (¥600=£3.23) from Mito JR station to the ferry terminal but we were unsure of the timetable, bus stop location etc. Passengers are requested to check-in at the ferry terminal at least 90 minutes before sailing – major credit cards are accepted for payment. The ferry terminals have plenty of seating in the departure lounges, with TV, vending machines and a shop selling food, toiletries etc., so even a lengthy wait would be quite tolerable.
On boarding the ferry, there seemed to be few other passengers, compounding the mystery of whether the earlier sailing was really fully booked. We had our 4-berth cabin to ourselves, allowing a good night’s sleep and avoiding any disturbance to other passengers when we arose at dawn for sea-watching. Meals are served only at specified times and the quality is rather poor, but there are also vending machines for drinks and snacks. Meals are purchased by selecting from the menu (i.e. a series of plastic replicas) and paying for the appropriate ticket at an adjacent ticket machine. Following arrival at Tomakomai a bus leaves the ferry terminal at 20:29 for the JR station, arriving at 20:46, but we took a taxi (¥1280=£6.90) rather than waiting for the bus.
On the return journey, we again took a taxi (¥1200=£6.47 this time) from the JR station to the ferry terminal. We showed the Shosen Mitsui Ferry brochure to the taxi driver to make it clear that we wanted the terminal for the Oarai service (Shin Nihonkai Ferry operates a 23:50 service to Niigata from Tomakomai East, some 15km away). When checking-in we decided to upgrade from communal tatami accommodation to berths in a 2nd class cabin (¥8550=£43.90) – slightly cheaper than on the northbound sailing as this vessel had 8-berth cabins. When we located our cabin after boarding, we found that we were sharing with another couple. However most of the other cabins were unoccupied, so they politely suggested that they would move to another cabin and we again had a cabin to ourselves. On arrival at Oarai, buses leave the ferry terminal for Mito JR station at 18:55 and 19:25 (¥600=£3.23, journey time 27 minutes).
We included a short visit to South Korea in order to seek out a relatively small number of species either impossible or more difficult to see in Japan. Given the limited time available, we arranged for Nial Moores (of Birds Korea fame) to guide us for three days (travelling from his home in Busan to meet us at Seoul/Incheon Airport). Nial is an authority on the region’s birds (having lived in South Korea since 1998 and in Kyushu for eight years before that) and is an ardent conservationist. He knows the sites in Korea well, has exceptional field skills, and worked long and hard to find our target birds. He was good company throughout our stay, and having a Korean wife, was able to provide much fascinating insight into the Korean people and their culture. In addition to the birding, Nial took care of all navigation, checking-in to motels, ordering meals etc., resulting in an especially easy conclusion to the trip for us. Details of Nial’s guiding services and fees can be found on the Birds Korea website (www.birdskorea.org).
ACCOMMODATION - Japan
Feb 1,2,3: Minshuku Tsurumi-tei, Arasaki, +81-(0)9968-3-3944 ¥6800=£36.64/person, including dinner & breakfast This is the well-known minshuku recommended by Brazil, adjacent to the crane observation centre at Arasaki. It is quite basic, with the shared washing facilities limited to a trough with three cold taps (although the Matano family kindly invited us to use their bathroom on one evening when we were the only guests); towels are not supplied. The tatami rooms are rather cold at night, but mountains of bedding are provided. It nevertheless has to be THE place to stay – it is magical to hear the bugling during the night and then wake at dawn to see cranes just outside the bedroom window! The food is good and plentiful. A reservation is strongly recommended, but as the owners do not speak any English it is probably necessary to get assistance from a Japanese speaker.
Feb 4: Hotel Minamotoya, Hyuga, +81-(0)982-52-2131, fax +81-(0)982-52-5202 ¥10000=£53.89/double We had planned to stay at the onsen in Kadogawa mentioned in Anderson’s trip report, but we could not find it (perhaps closed down?). Instead we drove into Hyuga (about 10km to the south), guessing that there would be a hotel near the JR station. Sure enough, we immediately found the Minamotoya, a standard western-style hotel.
Feb 5,6: Hotel Omotenashi/Auberge, Kirishima-jingu, +81-(0)995-57-3777 ¥8400=£45.26/person, including dinner & breakfast This is the first hotel encountered when driving west on Route 223 from Mi-ike towards Kirishima. It is situated on the right-hand side of the road when approaching Kirishima-jingu. It is a small, modern, Japanese-style hotel with beautiful, large tatami rooms with comprehensive facilities. When visiting Mi-ike, it would seem to be a better option than the larger and more expensive establishments further away in Kirishima itself, where most birders seem to stay. The manager is friendly and speaks good English. Although we were the only guests, we were served a magnificent dinner in the dining room on both nights.
Feb 7,8,9: Lodge Ariake, Naka-Karuizawa, +81-(0)267-46-0145, www.karuizawa.jp/ariake ¥5250=£28.29/person, including breakfast Another minshuku used by many visiting birders, as recommended by Brazil. Conveniently situated between Naka-Karuizawa station (on the Shinano Railway) and the nature centre at Hoshino Onsen. If taking a taxi from the station (¥640=£3.49) it is useful to have the minshuku’s photograph and location map from the website – our driver was unsure of its location. Quite basic, with shared toilets (squat-style), washing facilities and bathroom (although we were the only guests), and towels are not supplied. But our tatami room was warm, having an effective oil-burning heater. The owner speaks some English so it should be possible to make a reservation by telephone. Breakfast is served on trays in one’s room, and our hosts thoughtfully included some western-style content (omelettes, toast etc.).
Feb 11: New Station Hotel, Tomakomai, +81-(0)144-33-0333, fax +81-(0)144-33-0222 ¥10500=£56.58/double When we disembarked from the ferry at Tomakomai, we took a taxi and asked the driver to take us to a hotel near to the JR station. We were deposited at this very acceptable western-style hotel, conveniently located close to the station entrance.
Feb 12,13,14: Lodge Fuhren, Tobai, Furen-ko, +81-(0)153-25-3919, email@example.com ¥6200=£33.41/person, including dinner & breakfast The famous minshuku owned by Takeyoshi Matsuo and his wife, as mentioned by Brazil. Located on a small lakeside road alongside Route 44 at the northeastern extremity of Furen-ko. This is a great place to stay, with a homely feel. Matsuo-san speaks good English and is a wonderful character, with great knowledge of the local wildlife. The dining/sitting room has an extensive library of birding literature, detailed wall-maps of the local area, and bird feeders immediately outside the window. The food was excellent, with a different home-made liqueur served as an aperitif before dinner every night, and six different types of delicious home-made jam served with breakfast every morning. On each of our three nights, the guests were a mixed bunch of European birders and photographers, resulting in a great atmosphere as stories were exchanged. The tatami rooms have oil-burning heaters, and towels are provided for use in the shared bathroom. Reservations are essential (e.g. we understand that the Birdquest group had to stay in Nemuro City this winter as Lodge Fuhren was fully booked), but are easily made by e-mail.
Feb 15: Minshuku Washi-no-yado, Rausu, +81-(0)01538-7-2877, Fax +81-(0)1538-7-3093 ¥5775=£31.12/person, including dinner & breakfast This is the Blakiston’s Fish Owl minshuku, located on the north bank of the Chitorai-gawa close to the coast road north-east of Rausu. Our room was small and (rather unusually) carpeted rather than tatami, but was warm, having the usual oil-burning heater. We never actually discovered whether there was a bathroom available for guests, and just used the sink in the shared toilet for washing. The seafood dinner was outstanding. The owner’s wife was friendly, and kindly reduced our bill by ¥500=£2.69 each when we declined breakfast (as we wanted an early start). Booking is essential – no English is spoken, but Matsuo-san is happy to make reservations on behalf of birders also staying at Lodge Fuhren.
Feb 16: East Harbour Hotel, Nemuro, +81-(0)1532-4-1515, fax +81-(0)153-24-0835 ¥10500=£56.58/twin, ¥100/£0.54 parking A large, modern, western-style hotel on the south side of Route 44 in the centre of Nemuro City. We stayed here on return to the Nemuro area from Rausu only because Lodge Fuhren was fully booked that night.
Feb 17: Hotel Adachi, Kushiro, +81-(0)154-22-3111 ¥8000=£43.11/double A western-style hotel close to Kushiro JR station. Quite adequate but a little shabby.
Feb 19,20: Mercure Hotel, Narita, +81-(0)476-23-7000 ¥17400=£89.33/double We had intended to stay at the slightly less expensive U-City Hotel (+81-(0)476-24-0101) but on arrival, for the only time on our trip we found that a hotel had no vacancies. The U-City is just to the west of the JR station, while the Mercure is located between the JR and Keisei stations – both are convenient for a visit to Narita-san. The Mercure was a big disappointment given that it was easily the most expensive accommodation that we used. Our 10th-floor room was small, rather tatty, and overheated (with no controls for the air conditioning). The single-glazed window suffered from heavy condensation and so the carpet beneath was wet and mouldy; and the drain overflowed onto the bathroom floor whenever the bath was emptied. Definitely not recommended. At least a complimentary shuttle bus service to Narita Airport is provided (every 90 minutes, journey time 20 minutes). With hindsight, perhaps we should have tried the Business Hotel Tsukuba (+81-(0)476-24-1234), immediately northeast of the JR station.
ACCOMMODATION – Korea
Every night in South Korea we stayed in so-called ‘love motels’, generally located in town centres. Despite some initial doubts, they proved to be a revelation. All four that we used were clean, modern establishments with large rooms, decorated and furnished to a high standard in extravagant style. In some cases each room has a unique theme and décor (with guests choosing a room from photographs displayed in the reception area). Room facilities are comprehensive, typically including traditional Korean underfloor heating, air conditioning, a spacious shower room, a wide range of toiletries, hair dryer, large flat-screen TV with video recorder or DVD player (with movies available at no charge), touchpad lighting controls, refrigerator with complimentary soft drinks, hot/chilled water dispenser, and tea/coffee. Our first room even had a sauna cabin and a PC with internet connection. All had covered parking areas accessed by driving through a suspended screen to ensure privacy, with boards provided for guests wishing to conceal their vehicle’s registration plates for absolute discretion! And all this at extremely low prices by western standards.
Feb 21: 500th Hotel, Mokpo, +82-(0)61-285-0555, fax +82-(0)61-285-0505 W35000=£18.99/double
Feb 22: XY-Tel, Gunsan, +82-(0)63-471-6969 W40000=£21.70/double
Feb 23: N Motel, Jeongok, +82-(0)31-832-9277 W30000=£16.28/double
Feb 24: Hotel Sisily, Song-do, Incheon, +82-(0)32-834-5555 W40000=£21.70/double
We were puzzled to find that in all four motels, the lifts always went straight from the 3rd to the 5th floor. Apparently the number 4 is believed to be unlucky in Korea, and as a result hotels never have a 4th floor!
FOOD & DRINK - Japan
The set meals in minshukus and hotels were generally excellent. The table would be completely covered with dishes and bowls containing a wide selection of items such as sashimi (raw fish), cooked fish/shellfish, meat (less common), tofu, seaweeds, vegetables, mushrooms, pickles, soup, egg custard, rice. Breakfasts tended to be similar, but on a smaller scale.
Eating out can be very cheap. Most low-cost restaurants display plastic replicas of the meals available, typically bowls of tempura, stews, noodles etc., usually costing no more than a few hundred Yen. Others may specialise in ramen or sushi. Note that many Japanese restaurants seem to close quite early in the evening. Most towns also have American-style diners and fast-food outlets (hamburgers, fried chicken, donuts, ice-cream), for those feeling homesick.
Pre-prepared lunch boxes are widely available for a few hundred Yen, especially at stations and airports. These are always beautifully presented, typically containing a selection of fish, vegetables, pickles, rice, sushi etc.
Convenience stores are commonplace, and sell everything needed for lunch and snacks: bread, biscuits, cakes, crisps, confectionary, ham, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream, cold beers and soft drinks, etc. They also have a limited range of hot snacks including filled dumplings, hot dogs, fried chicken and various microwaveable items such as pot noodles. It is best to go elsewhere for salad and fruit (the citrus fruit in Kyushu is good). As in most parts of the world, it is much cheaper to buy beer, sake, wine etc. from shops rather than in restaurants or bars.
Vending machines seem to be everywhere, sometimes just standing by the roadside in quite rural locations. Most sell cans of hot drinks (e.g. coffee and hot chocolate) as well as the more usual soft drinks. It was never a problem to obtain hot water for a vacuum flask before leaving our accommodation each morning, so that we could make coffee etc. in the field.
The Japanese diet is very healthy. By the end of the trip my trousers and belt were at least one size too large (but the effect was sadly short-lived)!
FOOD & DRINK - Korea
The food in Korea was rather different: typically much more spicy and with a greater emphasis on meat. Bulgogi (beef barbecued at the table) is good. And kimchi (fermented spiced cabbage) really is ubiquitous, served with every meal – I had imagined that tales told by visitors to Korea were greatly exaggerated. Restaurants are extremely cheap. Although diners generally sit on the floor at low tables, some western-style seating is often provided.
Expressway service areas offer a range of cheap snacks and meals (egg toast, kebabs, ramen etc.). As in Japan, convenience stores are commonplace, and offer a similar range of provisions.
In Japan we were quite proficient at using the lightweight disposable wooden chopsticks normally supplied. However in South Korea, heavy stainless-steel chopsticks were invariably provided – for a novice they proved difficult to balance in the hand, and the polished-metal tips made it almost impossible to grip slippery items such as noodles!
Our arrival in Kyushu coincided with highly unusual blizzard conditions, rendering higher roads unpassable. However the snow and strong winds abated during the first night. The weather then remained dry and bright but chilly, and snow persisted on higher ground only. There was heavy rain on the morning of our departure for Honshu.
There had been heavy snowfall just before our arrival in Karuizawa, making it hard work to hike some minor roads and tracks. During our stay the weather was generally cold and sunny, with occasional snow showers. At lower levels around Myogi-ko, the weather was spring-like.
It was extremely cold and windy on the northbound ferry crossing, with heavy spray. As we progressed northward it became very overcast with frequent snow showers. It was much milder on the southbound journey with only light winds, but there was persistent rain in the afternoon.
Freezing temperatures were the norm in Hokkaido although the weather was generally dry and sunny. Even light winds would make it feel bitterly cold. The depth of snow was greatest in the west; in eastern Hokkaido the roads were generally clear of snow except for around Rausu and on higher ground.
There was heavy rain on the evening of our return to the Tokyo area, but the next day was mild and dry.
It was cold but bright and dry throughout our stay in Korea.
For the coldest conditions, particularly in Hokkaido and on the ferries, we wore: long-sleeved thermal underwear top, shirt, fleece pullover, water-/wind-proof jacket with fleece inner jacket, long-legged thermal underwear bottoms, trousers, water-/wind-proof overtrousers, thin socks plus thick thermal socks, water-/snow-proof hiking boots, and warm peaked hat with earflaps, worn over a long-necked balaclava (with drawstring allowing all but eyes to be covered). We did not feel over-dressed!
Overall we were lucky with the weather – the only difficult weather that we experienced while birding was on the ferry crossings.
Despite its otherwise hi-tech image, Japan is still a cash-based nation. Many businesses either do not take credit cards at all, or only accept Japanese cards. It’s probably safest to assume that cards cannot be used except at car rental outlets and major hotels. A large amount of cash must therefore be carried, which is not too great a problem given the low incidence of street crime. We took sufficient to last us for the whole trip, taking care to split it between the two of us. Some other birders had experienced considerable difficulty trying to withdraw cash at banks, post offices or cash machines using a credit or debit card.
Pre-pay telephone cards are widely available, but beware: most public telephones will not accept them for international calls.
In South Korea, credit cards are more widely accepted – we paid for all accommodation and petrol by card. As food and drink is so cheap, large amounts of cash are anyway unnecessary.
Throughout this report, GBP equivalents are given for all prices in JPY or KRW. For credit card transactions, the GBP value actually charged has been given. For other items, the exchange rate at which the local currency was purchased has been used to calculate the GBP value. Hopefully this gives a true picture of the actual costs incurred.
Although many Japanese speak little or no English, communication was never a problem. We were always able to get by with a smile, a polite bow, a small vocabulary of greetings and civilities, and a notebook/pencil allowing clear communication of place names, dates/times, prices etc. Road signs, and information displays at airports/stations and on trains/buses are usually in both Japanese and English. There is rarely a need for complex exchanges: shops are self-service, ordering at restaurants can usually be achieved by pointing to the appropriate replica meal, use of rail-passes avoids ticket purchasing, and at hotels and filling stations one’s intentions are usually obvious anyway. If there is any confusion when trying to communicate in public places, it is common for an English-speaking passer-by to intervene and offer assistance.
With Nial escorting us for our short stay in South Korea, language was not an issue – sadly our Korean vocabulary never progressed beyond ‘thank you’.
Mon 31st Jan: Bristol – Amsterdam – …
An early rise for the flight from Bristol/Lulsgate to Amsterdam/Schiphol – a 90-minute hop in a KLM Cityhopper Fokker 70 full of tired-looking businessmen. At Schiphol we decided to have an early start to the Japanese experience with brunch at a sushi bar. Then up to the viewing terace for some fresh air. Under leaden skies, aerial activity included Cormorants, Black-headed, Common, Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Feral Pigeons, Magpies and Jackdaws, in addition to the large metal birds. Time for a beer before boarding, with an enterprising House Sparrow looking for scraps under the tables at the departure lounge bar. The majority of the passengers on the KLM Asia 747-400 were Japanese. Sitting alongside a young English teacher working in Japan for the 11*-hour flight to Tokyo/Narita allowed us to pick up a few tips on survival in Japan. Then, time to try to get some sleep…
An on-time arrival at Narita (Terminal 1) in spring-like sunshine. The airfield grass was scorched brown – a reminder that despite the cold winters, Japan is considerably further south than Britain. Narita Airport was unexpectedly calm and uncrowded. We were quickly through immigration and baggage reclaim – note that at Japanese airports, baggage receipts are inspected on exit to verify that the correct baggage has been taken. Limousine bus tickets were swiftly purchased, and then we boarded the waiting bus for Haneda Airport.
On the bus transfer, it was immediately apparent that there are a lot of crows in Japan. We experienced the usual eagerness to see our first new bird: Brown-eared Bulbuls duely obliged by flying over the road as we passed Yotsukaido on the Higashi-Kanto Expressway. Skirting Tokyo Bay, gulls became more apparent, Continental Cormorants dashed overhead at frequent intervals and an Eastern Buzzard circled nearby. We were surprised at the light traffic on the expressway – we arrived at Haneda Terminal 2 within an hour, somewhat sooner than expected.
At the ANA ticket office we were easily able to transfer to an earlier Kagoshima flight (6 flights/day, flight time 110 minutes), as we had hoped to. We were immediately impressed with Japanese efficiency - the whole transaction from handing over our tickets to receiving boarding cards for the earlier flight taking less than a minute! Wandering around the departure hall, the favourable impressions continued: the attractive shops selling beautifully presented lunch boxes, cakes, confectionary etc., the wide range of drinks etc. available from the vending machines, the cleanliness everywhere…
On our travels Erica has developed a perverse interest in the toilets of the world. Japan easily takes first prize. On visiting the ladies’ at Narita, she emerged beaming, and enthusiastically described the function which activates a flowing-water soundtrack to mask other sound effects and preserve a lady’s modesty. We were to find that such hi-tech wonders were commonplace – many toilets have a bewildering array of controls for such features as heated seats, strategically-aimed jets and sprays, and even auto-changing hygienic seat covers!
For those brave enough to read-on after that digression: the wait in the departure lounge was spent watching Black-eared Kites lazily cruising around, with the shipping plying the bright blue waters of Tokyo Bay as a backcloth. Given the beautiful weather outside, we were rather alarmed to find the departure gate display reporting freezing temperatures and snow at Kagoshima. It’s not supposed to be like that in Kyushu!
On the lightly-loaded 777-200, we enjoyed our first green tea, and were kindly offered an English language magazine and newspaper to read. We landed at Kagoshima in blizzard conditions. Our map showing the location of the Nissan Rentacar outlet indicated that it was on the main road beyond the parking areas outside the terminal. However, given the hostile conditions outside, we sought reassurance from the woman at the airport information desk. She immediately telephoned the Nissan office, and within minutes we were collected by a cheerful young girl in a minivan.
On arrival at the Nissan office, our girl proudly assured us that our Tiida Latio was brand new (not what we really wanted to hear – when birding it’s nice to have a car which already has a few dents and scratches to disguise the ones that we are likely to add!). Then, having completed the paperwork, we were asked where we intended to drive that day. When we replied that we planned to take Route 504 to Arasaki, there were worried glances between the Nissan staff. They insisted that the routes over the mountains north from Miyanojo would be impassable, and suggested that we should stay in Kagoshima until conditions improved. Concerned that our plans were beginning to unravel already, I consulted our road atlas and suggested that we could instead follow the Sendai-gawa west from Miyanojo and then take the coast road north to Arasaki, thus avoiding the high ground. Their response was unenthusiastic, but they gave us a set of snow chains (normally an extra-cost option) and wished us good luck – we drove off with the impression that they did not expect to see their car again!
The drive to Miyanojo was slow, with the few vehicles on the road moving cautiously in the slippery conditions. In Miyanojo, Erica caught a glimpse of a white-rumped hirundine or swift disappearing under the bridge as we crossed the Sendai-gawa, but we did not stop to investigate as we were keen to press-on. In fact, as we continued along the valley, the conditions improved (now there was just heavy sleet and strong winds!) and the rest of the drive was slow but uneventful.
On arrival at the Arasaki crane reserve (Brazil site 51) after dark, we found that we had just missed dinner at the Minshuku Tsurumi-tei (served at 18:00). However we were invited to sit down, and soon every space on the table in front of us had been filled with dishes and bowls with unfamiliar contents, and we enjoyed our first true Japanese meal. The walls around us were covered with photographs of the cranes that we could hear but not see in the darkness outside, and enhanced the level of anticipation for the next morning. We then chatted with four other British guests who confirmed that we were in for a treat. However as we lay in bed that night listening to the occasional bugling calls, it felt as if the roof would be torn off, and we wondered how the cranes were coping with the cold wind and sleet outside.
Wed 2nd Feb: Arasaki; Izumi
Up at dawn to find that although it was cold, mercifully the rain had ceased and the winds had abated. A glance from our window revealed our first views of the cranes, and we hurried out to take in the scene. The reserve wardens began their daily routine, scattering feed from a small pick-up truck as they drove slowly along two raised embankments which traverse the feeding area. Soon the skies began to fill as wave after wave of Hooded and White-naped Cranes flew in to join those already present, to partake in an orgy of feeding and bugling. Huge flocks of ducks, mainly Eurasian Wigeon and Northern Pintail, arrived from the nearby Noda-gawa, occasionally erupting in a loud explosion of wingbeats when disturbed. The frenzy was joined by gangs of Large-billed Crows and Feral Pigeons, and a few Mallards, Little Egrets and Grey Herons could also be seen amongst the crowd. Black-eared Kites loafed around or cruised overhead. Passerines were active too, with Japanese Skylarks, Siberian Buff-bellied Pipits, Black-backed Wagtails, Dusky Thrushes and the ubiquitous Eurasian Tree Sparrows busily feeding on the periphery of the reserve. Adjacent rice fields contained large numbers of feeding Rooks (but no jackdaws) and volatile flocks of Grey-Capped Greenfinches, while other birds around the minshuku itself included Brown-eared Bulbuls, Daurian Redstarts and Eastern Carrion Crows.
Breakfast was served at 07:00, with the cranes feeding just outside as company. As well as the traditional Japanese fare, we were served fried egg and bacon, presumably a gesture to make us feel at home. Then it was quickly back outside, where the show went on. As they fed, the hordes of cranes moved closer and closer to the viewing area, while more waves of birds continued to arrive. As one wave dropped in, one of the British birders pointed out a white individual amongst them – an out-of-place juvenile Red-crowned Crane. We checked the wetter areas and ditches for Painted Snipe but found only a Common Snipe. The US Field Guides tour group arrived, and leader Phil Gregory helpfully gave us directions to some Black-faced Spoonbills that they had seen.
We then explored the area more widely by car, starting with the small harbour on the west side of the Euchi-gawa, northwest of the reserve. Here we had close views of our first Temminck’s Cormorants, together with a few Black-tailed and Vega Gulls, and Black-faced Buntings called from the weedy roadside banks.
Then we drove eastwards through the west reclaimed land (Nishi-Kantaku). Additional birds in this area included Eastern Great Egrets, Rufous Turtle Doves, White-cheeked Starlings and Rustic Buntings. Crossing the Noda-gawa (on a road bridge constructed since publication of Brazil’s guide), we scanned the ducks and then spent some time watching the cranes in the second feeding area, located on the east reclaimed land (Higashi-Kantaku). A few Northern Lapwings were also feeding in rice fields nearby.
To the east of the Higashi-Kantaku, we soon found the inlet at the mouth of two streams where the spoonbills had been seen. We parked by a cattle shed and went for a walk around the area. We immediately located a Black-faced Spoonbill sleeping amongst an assortment of herons on a vegetated spit. Fortunately it looked up occasionally, giving good but brief views of its face and bill. On the inlet itself were a Mute Swan of unknown origin, and an assortment of ducks and gulls. A couple of Ospreys sat on posts in the bay, and the nets strung across outside the inlet could be seen to hold the corpses of several unfortunate birds. A pond beside the inlet held a variety of waterfowl, including Little Grebes, Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, Northern Shovelers and Common Moorhens. Other birds around the pond included Black-crowned Night Herons, Pale Thrushes and Northern Reed Buntings. We then noticed two more Black-faced Spoonbills, standing in shallow water a short way up one of the streams. As we watched these, the original bird flew in from the spit and landed in the pond just a few metres in front of us, giving fantastic views. A check of the second stream revealed both Green and Common Sandpipers, and a Common Kingfisher which repeatedly hovered over the water. Back at the car, we found that a small flock of Daurian Jackdaws, including a striking pied individual, had settled on the roadside wires. We enjoyed watching these while we had a warming a cup of coffee.
Next we decided to explore the Komenotsu-gawa in Izumi, hoping to find House Swifts or Asian House Martins. The martins were evident within seconds of our first stop, with many birds feeding over the river or circling nearby, but there was no sign of any swifts. Other birds along the river included our first smart Japanese Wagtails, as well as Common Teals, Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, Long-billed Plovers,and Daurian Redstarts, whilst the riverside vegetation held noisy flocks of hyperactive Chinese Penduline Tits and Japanese White-eyes.
After a quick stop at a convenience store to buy some lunch, we drove back to Arasaki village to observe the huge congregation of ducks on the Noda-gawa, hoping to find some Falcated Ducks. We soon found a pair amongst the thousands of commoner birds. A Dunlin flock was roosting on the shoreline nearby.
Then it was back to the Euchi-gawa, this time to the east side of the river to look for White-bellied Green Pigeon and Grey Bunting on the wooded hill at Izumisaki. A stop at the end of the road by the river mouth quickly produced a couple of Japanese Bush Warblers in vegetation at the base of the hill. Backtracking to look for a way up onto the hill, we found some steps leading up to a small temple or shrine, from which a footpath headed east along the hillside. After a couple of hundred metres we climbed to a higher track where we immediately found two calling Grey Buntings and soon managed to have excellent views. We followed the higher track back westwards as far as it ran, finding two more Grey Buntings (and numerous Black-faced) and a Bull-headed Shrike, but no green pigeons.
As we walked back down to the car, many Black-eared Kites were gathering to roost, and herons were also on the move as dusk neared. Arriving back at the observatory, we had another unsuccessful search for Painted Snipe as the light faded.
We were in time for dinner this evening, and it seemed that we were the only guests that night. As this was the case, we were invited to use the family bathroom, an opportunity that we readily accepted, and we enjoyed a revitalising hot soak.
Out at dawn again for a repeat of yesterday’s crane feeding spectacle. This time we found a Common Crane amongst the closer birds, and the Red-crowned Crane was also present again. (We never searched for the Sandhill and Demoiselle Cranes also present this winter, and it was a pity that winter 2004/5 did not produce a Siberian White Crane).
After breakfast we decided to head south on the coast road (Route 3) towards Sendai, checking for Pacific Reef Egret along the way. First stop was at Ushinohama (south of Akune), where we parked in the station car park and walked down the steps to the beach. We had our first close views of Slaty-backed Gulls together with more Black-tailed and Vega Gulls. The cliffside scrub held Black-faced Buntings and White-cheeked Starlings, while Kentish Plovers and Common Sandpipers hurried about on the rocky shoreline below. Three Black-necked Grebes were on the sea, and Temminck’s Cormorants stood on the rocky islets. Right on cue our target bird entered the scene, a single dark-morph Pacific Reef Egret flying low along the coastline from the south, and landing on a small rock a short distance offshore. We subsequently made several more short stops along the clifftops as we continued southwards, hoping to find some murrelets, but saw no new birds.
We crossed the bridge near the mouth of the Sendai-gawa and birded the Takae area (on the south shore of the river towards Sendai), hoping to find Russet Sparrow. We spent some time driving slowly along the narrow access roads criss-crossing the fields. Passerines were numerous, including many Meadow Buntings, but all the sparrows that we saw were Eurasian Tree Sparrows. We followed a narrow winding road which climbed the forested hillside to the south of the cultivated area. After a couple of kilometres we made a stop – as we climbed out of the car, we disturbed two White-bellied Green Pigeons which noisily crashed out of the canopy and flew far into the distance over the wooded valley below.
Having descended to the fields once more, we decided to back-track to the river mouth and check the series of small roadside lakes to the south of the nuclear power station. These held a variety of wildfowl, including a group of Falcated Ducks, but we did not see any of the hoped-for Mandarin Ducks.
On return to Takae, we found the Field Guides tour bus parked on the roadside. The friendly Japanese driver greeted us, and we traded a couple of our cookies for a few of his sweets as we took a coffee break. We then set out for a hike around the fields in a last attempt to find some Russet Sparrows. We soon met the Field Guides group returning to their bus, to learn that although they too had failed to find the sparrow, they had just seen the famous regularly wintering Greater Spotted Eagle. As we spoke, the eagle flew towards us, and it then seemed to follow us as we continued our walk, circling and calling overhead. Other raptors in the area included Eastern Buzzard and a Eurasian Hobby.
Giving up on the Russet Sparrow, we decided to make an inland loop by driving up-river and then returning to Arasaki over the mountains. This would give us an opportunity to check-out the white-rumped bird that Erica had glimpsed when passing through Miyanojo on the afternoon of our arrival. Sure enough, when we reached the town and parked by the river, we immediately found good numbers of both House Swifts and Asian House Martins – it was lucky that Erica had been so observant. On leaving Miyanojo, we soon came across a small party of White-bellied Green Pigeons feeding at the roadside. As we continued northwards on Route 504 through pretty scenery, it became obvious why the Nissan folks had said that the road would have been impassable when we arrived: the higher stretches in the vicinity of Shibi-san are steep and winding (in many places only one car’s width), and much snow was still present.
Descending towards Takaono, we stopped at the dam recommended in Robinson’s guide for Brown Dipper. We climbed down to the sluice at the base of the dam on steep and slippery steps whose handrails were so corroded that they were breaking away in places. However when we reached the bottom, we found that the banks of the river had become so thickly vegetated that further progress was impossible. We also made a brief stop at the bridge over the Takaono-gawa to the north of Takaono, recommended by Robinson for Crested Kingfisher. But this stretch of the river seems to have been made into a recreation area with much-degraded habitat (others have also suggested that Crested Kingfisher is no longer regular in the area).
Returning to the Arasaki area, we enjoyed the late afternoon sunshine during a more detailed exploration of the sites to the east of the Noda-gawa. First another look at the Higashi-Kantaku, then a check around the confluence of the Noda-gawa and Takaono-gawa, and finally the areas near the former pig farm, including the pond and vegetated canal. Many birds were seen, including Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Osprey, Peregrine, Common Greenshank, Green Sandpiper and Japanese Bush Warbler, but not the hoped-for Green Pheasant, Painted Snipe or Russet Sparrow.
At dinner, we found that we were now sharing the minshuku with a coach party of elderly Japanese. One lady was repeatedly trying to tell us something. Eventually a gentleman who could speak English explained that she was trying to ensure that we knew that there were cranes outside! They were a friendly crowd, and insisted on sharing with us some delicious local oranges that they had bought.
Before breakfast, we took a final unsuccessful trudge through some of the wet rice fields near the observatory in search of Painted Snipe (we later heard that several were indeed seen in the area during the month). Amongst the cranes we located a hybrid Hooded/Common example.
Remarkably, it was only as we left Arasaki for the last time that we saw the first Common Kestrel of the trip. We left Kagoshima-ken as we headed northeast along Route 3 into Kumamoto-ken, as the first stage of our drive to the east coast. As progress was rather slow and tedious, we decided to take a short break at Yatsushiro to see the gulls at the Minami river mouth (part of the Kuma-gawa system – see Anderson’s map). In addition to the now familiar species, there were Saunders’s and Black-headed Gulls, the former quite tern-like as they patrolled the mud flats, regularly plunging onto their prey. The roost of larger gulls at the water’s edge included a single Great Black-headed Gull, the transition to breeding plumage almost complete. Waders on the mudflats included Kentish and Grey Plovers, Dunlin and Common Greenshank, and Common Shelducks were on the river. Further up-river were Great Crested Grebes, and three Ospreys circled overhead.
North of Yatsushiro we began to head inland on Route 443. Beyond Toyo-Mura the road closely follows the Hikawa-gawa. Mandarin Ducks and Brown Dippers proved to be common, present at almost every stop. Other birds on the river included Grey and Japanese Wagtails, and a single Striated Heron. Japanese Tits and Black-faced Buntings were common, and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk was also seen.
Later, as we headed east on Route 218, beyond the tunnel to the east of Yabe- Kawano, we found a Crested Kingfisher perched in a tree overhanging the Oya-gawa. Mandarin Ducks and Brown Dippers were also common on this stretch, where there was still much evidence of the recent snowfall. Nearer to the east coast in Miyazaki-ken, we encountered Asian House Martins over the Gokase-gawa.
On reaching the Pacific coast, we experienced heavy traffic heading south from Nobeoka, but in the late afternoon we reached the harbour at Kadogawa (see Anderson’s map), in bright sunshine. The sea was as calm as a mill pond. We immediately started our search for Japanese Murrelets, but none were evident. Kadogawa-wan held a few Great Crested Grebes and many ducks (including Falcated Duck), Temminck’s Cormorants and gulls. To the east of the harbour were numerous fish pens, which attracted egrets and herons (rather reminiscent of Elat on the Red Sea), including a few Pacific Reef Egrets, while an Osprey fished nearby. Black-eared Kites patrolled the harbour or sat around on lamp-posts.
Hoping for better luck the next day, we drove to the large building on the hill near the harbour, assuming it to be the onsen where Anderson had stayed quite cheaply in 2002. But it seemed to be a smart, new health or fitness centre with no accommodation, and the receptionist was unaware of accommodation nearby. Perhaps Anderson’s onsen has been replaced by a newer business or maybe we just tried the wrong place? Anyway, we drove a few km south to Hyuga and easily found a hotel there instead. Dinner that night was western-style burgers and chips in a junk-food restaurant!
Sat 5th Feb: Kadogawa; Hyuga; Mi-ike
Back at Kadogawa harbour at dawn – a careful search of the harbour and bay still failed to find any Japanese Murrelets. A Red-bellied Rock Thrush seemed to resent our presence on the harbour wall. The sea was still mirror-flat and we wondered whether the sheltered bay held no special attraction for the murrelets in the exceptionally calm conditions. We decided to take the road around the Tomiyama peninsula to check the waters outside the bay. The road was extremely narrow in places and offered few viewpoints. At one point we were able to descend to a small cove. At another point we could ’scope Biro-jima, where the murrelets breed. We could see that anglers were fishing from the rocks at several points on the island, suggesting that it must be possible to find a boat to take us out there. Returning to Kadogawa, we went to the harbour office and with the aid of our field guide explained that we were looking for a boatman who would be willing to take us around Biro-jima to look for murrelets. We were encouraged when the harbour officer seemed to understand what we wanted and telephoned a boatman who had undertaken such trips. However he then explained that the boatman had said that the murrelets were only found in the area in March and April. Although we knew that this was not the case we decided not to press further. After a final thorough check of the harbour and bay, we returned to Hyuga and checked the harbours and headlands in that area. At one point, overlooking Tobi-shima, I saw four small auks flying low over the sea heading north, but they were too far away to identify.
We finally admitted defeat and rather resignedly moved on. Driving south on Route 10 along the coast towards Miyazaki, we encountered parties of wintering Eurasian Swallows. As with the west coast, the main coastal road was busy and progress was slow. It was a relief when we were able to head back inland.
We arrived at Mi-ike (Brazil site 52) around mid-afternoon, and drove straight down to the lakeside campsite. A scan of the lake revealed large numbers of ducks (Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Common Teal, Mallard, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Northern Pintail and Tufted Duck, but no Baikal Teal), and a few Little Grebes. Black-faced and Yellow-throated Buntings were common around the campsite, and Varied and Japanese Tits were in the trees. We soon had to retreat to the car park above the campsite, as the track down to the campsite is closed (to vehicles) from late afternoon. At the car park, we had excellent views of a Japanese Green Woodpecker before we departed to find some accommodation.
We headed west on Route 223 intending to find a hotel in the spa resort of Kirishima, where most visiting birds seem to stay. However we were aware that hotels there tend to be rather expensive, and so when we passed a small hotel on the approach to Kirishima-jingu (well before Kirishima, close to the Miyazaki-ken/Kagoshima-ken prefectural boundary), we decided to give it a try. As described in the accommodation section, this proved to be a pleasant place to stay and had the advantage of being closer to Mi-ike. After being served perhaps the most impressive dinner of our trip that evening, we decided to stay for two nights.
Sun: 6th Feb: Mi-ike; Ebino-kogen
This was planned as a fairly relaxed day of local birding after two days with much time on the road. After a leisurely 07:00 breakfast, we drove back to Mi-ike and again parked at the car park above the lakeside campsite. We then birded the forest trail towards Ko-ike, occasionally encountering mixed flocks of tits (Varied, Coal and Japanese), Eurasian Nuthatches and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers. Japanese Green and White-backed Woodpeckers, and Japanese Jays were also seen, and after some searching we managed to locate two Ryukyu Minivets in the canopy above. When we reached the gravel track which crosses the trail before reaching Ko-ike, we followed the track west for a few km to the area where Sargeant had found a Copper Pheasant in May 2004. This area still had some snow. We found no sign of any pheasants, but had close encounters with Sika Deer. We then back-tracked and took the trail down to the lakeside at Ko-ike. This impressive crater lake held a few Mandarin and Tufted Ducks, and a party of Japanese Grosbeaks fed on the ground near the lakeside. We found a couple of Northern Red-flanked Bluetails on the walk back to the car park, from where we drove down to the campsite to check the ducks on Mi-ike again.
With a bit of time left in the afternoon, we decided to drive up onto the Ebino-kogen, passing the rather institutional-looking and sulphurous spa resort of Kirishima on the way. We birded the trail which climbs to the crater lake Onami-ike, where Sargeant had reported the introduced Red-billed Leiothrix to be common in May 2004. However this area was still blanketed in deep snow, and although picturesque, progress was slow and exhausting. Bird activity was limited to a few Coal Tits, and we guessed that many birds had probably descended to lower altitudes to escape the harsh conditions. We returned to the hotel at Kirishima-jingu for another excellent dinner.
Mon 7th Feb: Kagoshima – Haneda – Karuizawa
On the 45-minute drive to Kagoshima Airport in torrential rain, we reflected on how fortunate we had been with the weather in Kyushu: despite blizzards on arrival and now heavy rain on departure, all five birding days had been pleasant. We returned the car to Nissan with an extra 914km on the clock – they seemed relieved to have their car back in one piece, and drove us to the terminal building. Although we were booked on a 10:00 flight to Tokyo/Haneda, we were able to transfer to the preceding flight (08:30) which was just about to depart, and were relieved to find fine weather on landing at Tokyo/Haneda.
On appearing momentarily confused by the ticket machines at Haneda Airport, a friendly businessman immediately offered to help us buy through train tickets to Tokyo JR station. (In fact the ticket machines on the Tokyo transportation network are quite easy to understand, with a button to select an alternative English-language interface.) We took the Tokyo Monorail to Hamamatsu-cho (¥470=£2.53, every 3-7 minutes, journey time 18-22 minutes), and then the JR Yamanote Line to Tokyo (¥150=£0.81, every 3-4 minutes, journey time 6 minutes).
At Tokyo JR station, we quickly located a Travel Service Center and swapped our Exchange Orders for our JR Passes. We then boarded a JR Nagano Shinkansen ‘Asama’ for the journey to Karuizawa, Nagano-ken (¥5240=£28.24 without JR pass, 1-2 trains/hour, journey time 60-82 minutes). Our bullet train hurtled north across the flat and heavily populated Kanto-heiya on the Joetsu Shinkansen before branching west onto the Nagano Shinkansen. We then plunged through a series of long tunnels before emerging suddenly into the snow-clad mountainous landscape at Karuizawa (Brazil site 17), with skiers visible on the slopes to the south. We transferred to the Shinano Railway for the 5-minute journey to Naka-Karuizawa (¥200=£1.08, 1-2 trains/hour) and then took a short taxi ride (¥640=£3.45) to Lodge Ariake. We found the owner busy clearing snow – there had been heavy snowfall in the preceding days.
Quickly depositing our luggage, we headed straight up the road alongside the Yukawa to the Wildlife Research Center at Hoshino Onsen. Birds seen at the feeders or immediately around the centre included Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese Wagtail, Brown-eared Bulbul, Brown Dipper, Northern Red-flanked Bluetail, Daurian Redstart, Dusky Thrush, European Long-tailed Tit and Meadow Bunting. A large nest box for Giant Flying Squirrels was mounted on a tree-trunk nearby. Although the centre is closed on weekdays, one of the nature guides came across from the onsen to ask if we needed any advice. We were disappointed to be informed that neither waxwings nor Pallas’s Rosefinches had been seen in the area this winter, and that even the commoner winter visitors had been scarce. She said that we would need some luck to see a Copper Pheasant, but reported that Japanese Accentors occasionally visited the area around the centre.
From the centre, we continued northest along the snow-covered road alongside the Yukawa towards Kose Onsen, then turning east onto the trail which follows the stream on the northern edge of the Yacho no Mori. The snow cover was quite deep but fortunately enough visitors had used the trails to create a narrow trench of compacted snow along the main routes through the forest, making walking quite easy. Having climbed southwards to the arbor at the top of the ridge we continued to the feeding area on the eastern side of the reserve, where Willow, Varied and Japanese Tits, Grey-capped Greenfinches and Long-tailed Rosefinches were feeding on the ground. Other birds in this area included Great Spotted and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, Dusky Thrush, Coal Tit and Eurasian Nuthatch. We returned to Hoshino Onsen on the trail which descends southwest past a pond, reportedly a good area for Copper Pheasant. However it was clear that with deep snow cover almost everywhere, there were few spots where a pheasant could feed, and we saw only one set of pheasant tracks on our circuit of the reserve.
In the evening we walked down to Naka-Karuizawa station and caught a train to Karuizawa, where we had supper in one the many restaurants near the Prince Shopping Plaza immediately south of the station.
Tue 8th Feb: Karuizawa
Breakfast was served in our room at 07:00, as we watched the Asian Azure-winged Magpies in the trees outside our window. We then returned to the Yacho no Mori, this time approaching via the minor road which skirts the southern boundary. Walking on the little-used road was quite difficult on the ice and deep snow, and we encountered a family trying to dig out their car which had become stuck. We entered the reserve at the southeast corner, near the feeding area, which attracted similar birds to the previous day (plus a Japanese Squirrel). On the ridge, we met the Birdquest tour group, and found that they had yet to find a Copper Pheasant. We descended once more by the trail past the pond and then decided to follow the road northeast along the Yukawa to Kose Onsen (about 3km), checking the exposed leaf litter in any sheltered hollows. On the river we were surprised to find an Eyebrowed Thrush visiting the water’s edge, in addition to the usual Brown Dippers. The walk did not reveal anything else of note until finally, just a couple of hundred metres short of Kose Onsen, a rustling sound and movement on a nearby uncovered area of bank proved to be a magnificent cock Copper Pheasant, which proceeded to walk slowly and calmly up the bank until it disappeared over a ridge. This was all the more surprising given that a bulldozer was noisily clearing snow not far away. Feeling rather satisfied, we completed the short distance to Kose Onsen where our luck continued – one of the few buses per day was due to arrive within several minutes (at 11:02), allowing us to rest our feet and travel to Karuizawa station the lazy way (¥450=£2.42).
In the early afternoon we decided to look for Green Pheasant, which we had foolishly neglected to look for seriously in Kyushu. We caught a Shinano Railway train from Karuizawa to Shinano-Oiwake, the first station west of Naka-Karuizawa (¥210=£1.13, journey time 9 minutes). We then walked back to Naka-Karuizawa through the patchwork of fields and wooded areas. It was a pleasant walk in light snow showers, with numerous birds (including Long-tailed Rosefinches, a Hawfinch and Rustic Buntings) around the village gardens, but with deep snow cover everywhere we soon accepted that we would not find a Green Pheasant.
Back in Naka-Karuizawa, we bought some provisions, and ended the day with another visit to the nature center at Hoshino Onsen. The only additional bird of note there was a Japanese Green Woodpecker.
Wed 9th Feb: Ura-Myogi
Today we decided on a change of scene with a visit to Ura-Myogi in Gunma-ken (Brazil site 18). We skipped breakfast in order to catch the 06:19 train from Naka-Karuizawa to Karuizawa. From Karuizawa station (bus stop 5) we caught the 06:50 JR bus eastwards over the Iriyama Pass to Yokokawa station (¥500=£2.69 without JR Pass, journey time 34 minutes, additional weekday departures at 06:20, 09:10, 10:00, 11:00, 14:00, 16:00 and 18:15 – check at the tourist information office in Karuizawa station for up-to-date information). This bus service bridges the gap created when the old mainline between Yokokawa and Karuizawa was closed following the construction of the Nagano Shinkansen. This site provided a complete contrast to the wintry conditions only 10km to the west at Karuizawa. Its lower altitude was below the snowline, and we enjoyed the mild temperatures.
The quiet road south to Myogi-ko descends to cross the Usui-gawa, and meanders through the village of Nakagi. It then runs along the forested slopes of the Nakagi-gawa valley, and climbs to the dam at the south end of the lake (3km from Yokokawa). The road continues for a further 2km, along the western shore of the lake and up the river to the Kokumin Shukusha (people’s lodge) Ura-Myogi. From there, a track (the Nakagi-gawa forest road) continues further up the valley. The area around Nakagi is pretty, with attractive houses and gardens, interspersed with mixed orchards, rice paddies, vegetable plots, bamboo thickets and scrub, backed by wooded hills.
Roadside birds were varied and plentiful, and included two new birds for us: a party of Russet Sparrows feeding on the ground with Eurasian Tree Sparrows in an orchard (very welcome after failing to find the species in Kyushu); and a calling Grey-bellied Bullfinch in lakeside trees. Other birds included Grey Heron, Black-eared Kite, Eastern Buzzard, Rufous Turtle Dove, Great Spotted and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, Olive-backed Pipit, Black-backed and Japanese Wagtails, Brown-eared Bulbul, Brown Dipper, Daurian Redstart, Pale and Dusky Thrushes, Japanese Bush Warbler, European Long-tailed, Varied, Coal and Japanese Tits, Bull-headed Shrike, Japanese Jay, Asian Azure-winged Magpie, Eastern Carrion and Large-billed Crows, White-cheeked Starling, Grey-capped Greenfinch, Long-tailed Rosefinch, and Grey, Black-faced, Meadow, Yellow-throated and Rustic Buntings. On the lake itself were Mandarin Duck, Mallard, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Northern Pintail and Little Grebe, but no Baikal Teal (in a strange way we were relieved, as to see a few in Japan would probably spoil the effect of the keenly-anticipated Baikal Teal experience in Korea!). Beyond the lodge, we continued up the Nakagi-gawa forest road for about a kilometre in an unsuccessful search for Japanese Accentor – this road was above the snow line and
the icy surface made walking difficult in places.
On return to Yokokawa, we were served a late kama-meshi lunch and beers by a kimono-clad waitress at the old Oginoya restaurant opposite the station entrance (as recommended by Brazil). We had time for a look at the railway museum situated on the now-severed railhead before boarding a bus back to Karuizawa (weekday departures at 08:40, 10:00, 12:00, 14:50, 17:25, 18:25 and 19:05) and then a train onwards to Naka-Karuizawa. Too weary to stray far in the evening, supper consisted of a bottle of wine and some convenience store food in our room.
Thu 10th Feb: Karuizawa – Yoyogi-koen – Oarai
We decided to spend our last morning in Karuizawa looking for Japanese Accentor. We started by walking to the pond a couple of kilometres northwest of Hoshino Onsen, recommended by Robinson. The pond held a few Eastern Spot-billed Ducks and Eurasian Wigeons, but the deep snow made exploration of the surrounding area impossible. Instead we returned to Hoshino Onsen for a final visit to the Yacho no Mori, ascending via the trail past the pond. We saw only the usual birds (including Japanese Green Woodpecker). At the feeding area we met three young Japanese birders. We decided to return by a road that we had not yet tried, to look for Green Pheasant in the gardens around the holiday houses, but again without success in the deep snow. Satisified that we had done our best, we retired to the Cowboy House restaurant near Hoshino Onsen for an early lunch of steak and beer.
After lunch, we were about to walk back to the lodge to check-out, when we decided to have a last look at the nature center. As we stood on the decking near the feeders, Erica pointed out a small brown bird. I was thrilled to see a Japanese Accentor sitting quietly on a branch only a few metres away. We watched the bird at close range for the next 10 minutes as it moved about in the vicinity of the nature center. The young birders had arrived, and began to check their photographic field guide – although I showed them the entry for the accentor they were absolutely insistent that they were watching a Wren! Although mistaken, it was perhaps good that they were trying to make their own minds up about the identification. We returned to the lodge very satisfied.
On checking-out, the owner offered to drive us to Naka-Karuizawa station – in the end he insisted on taking us all the way to Karuizawa. We boarded a Shinkansen ‘Asama’ to Ueno (¥5050=£27.21 without JR Pass, 1-2 trains/hour, journey time 61-76 minutes), as the first stage of our journey to Hokkaido. On arrival, we decided that we had sufficient time for a little birding in Tokyo, and so we squeezed our main luggage into a large left-luggage locker (¥500=£2.69), and set off unburdened.
We took the JR Yamanote Line (JR’s Tokyo circle line) anti-clockwise from Ueno to Harajuku (¥190=£1.02 without JR Pass, every 3-4 minutes, journey time 29 minutes), and set off into Yoyogi-koen (Brazil site 1 – park open 06:20-16:50). We found Mandarin Ducks on the secluded Kita-ike as expected. The woodland contained many thrushes but it was difficult to get good views in the fading late-afternoon light and we didn’t manage to nail a Brown-headed. A large and noisy roost of Large-billed Crows was gathering in the tall trees. As we walked through the woods we disturbed a Black-eared Kite feeding on a recently-dead crow, whilst overhead more crows were mobbing an Eastern Buzzard. Returning to Harajuku station, we continued anti-clockwise on the Yamanote Line back to Ueno (¥190=£1.02 without JR Pass, journey time 34 minutes), so that we could claim to have completed a lap of the city! We were now into the peak travel period and the train was crowded.
Back at Ueno we retrieved our luggage, and boarded a JR Limited Express ‘Fresh Hitachi’ for Mito (¥3510=£18.91 without JR Pass, every half-hour, journey time 65-78 minutes). There were long queues on the platform and we had to stand for most of the journey on the over-full train. From Mito we took the Kashimarinkai Line to Oarai (¥310=£1.67, 2-3 trains/hour, journey time 14-16 minutes) – we did not purchase tickets, but with hindsight I realise that our JR Passes were invalid on this independent diesel service. From Oarai station we took a taxi (¥660=£3.56) for the short ride to the ferry terminal. Having purchased our pre-reserved ferry tickets for the 23:59 sailing at the Shosen Mitsui Ferry counter, we were encouraged to discover that most of the passengers in the departure lounge comprised a Japanese birding tour group, who were taking a pelagic trip to Tomakomai and back.
On boarding ‘Sunflower Tsukuba’ at 22:30, we were directed to our 4-berth 2nd class cabin, which we had to ourselves on the lightly-loaded vessel.
Fri 11th Feb: Oarai – Tomakomai
At dawn, after a comfortable night’s sleep, we put on as many layers of clothing as possible and positioned ourselves on the aft deck. The morning was bright and clear, and the Pacific Ocean was calm, but it was cold, with strong winds affecting most parts of the deck. We were surprised that most of the Japanese birding group were attempting to use ’scopes and tripods but were clearly having difficulty in the gusty conditions.
The birding was poor, despite the large number of birders constantly scanning. During the early hours of daylight, off the coast of Miyagi-ken, birds were limited to Black-tailed and Vega Gulls. Further north, passing Iwate-ken, small numbers of Common Guillemots became regular, and two Brünnich’s Guillemots were also seen. Slaty-backed became the predominant gull, but it was only as we approached the coast of Aomori-ken that good numbers of Pacific Kittiwakes appeared. By then the sky was completely overcast, and we passed through frequent snow showers. The only other birds were a presumed Pacific Diver, a couple of Kamchatka Gulls and a group of four unidentified murrelets (probably Ancient).
After the 19:45 arrival in Hokkaido, we took a taxi (¥1280=£6.90) through the icy streets from Tomakomai ferry terminal to the New Station Hotel (adjacent to the JR station), and thawed out with a hot shower.
Sat 12th Feb: Tomakomai – Kushiro; Akkeshi; Kiritappu
Although we could have easily picked-up a rental car in Tomakomai, we had decided to travel to Kushiro by train to avoid the lengthy drive to and from Eastern Hokkaido (‘Do-to’) on potentially icy roads. We caught a JR Chitose Line local train from Tomakomai to Minami-Chitose (1 train/hour, journey time 19-22 minutes) where we connected with the earliest (07:33) JR Limited Express ‘Super Oozora’ to Kushiro (¥8290=£44.67, 6 trains/day, journey time 191-220 minutes). This diesel-powered tilting train passed through beautiful mountainous country, with the land completely snow-carpeted and the trees encrusted with ice. We collected our rental car (a Bluebird Sylphy 1.8Vi automatic, with GPS and snow tyres) from the Nissan outlet near Kushiro station, and headed east on Route 44.
At Akkeshi (see Robinson), we turned onto the coast road. In beautiful sunshine, we stopped at Akkeshi-ko, amongst the fishermens’ houses just over the bridge which crosses the lake’s outlet to the ocean. We had our first experience of just how stunning even everyday birds would appear in Hokkaido, in the bright light against a background of deep-blue water and dazzling white snow. Ducks on the lake included Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneye and Red-breasted Merganser, while large numbers of Whooper Swans could be seen near the far shore. Gulls included Kamchatka, Glaucous-winged and Glaucous as well as the now familiar Vega and Slaty-backed. Pelagic Cormorants dived close inshore. Best of all were our first two Steller’s Sea Eagles, sitting on a small spit nearby, alongside a White-tailed Eagle for comparison. Before leaving Akkeshi, we called at Aikappu-misaki. Walking through the woods from the car park to the cape, we encountered a mixed feeding flock including Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Eurasian Nuthatch, Common Treecreeper and Asian Marsh Tit. At the cape itself, the sea-ducks in Akkeshi-wan included Harlequin Ducks and Black Scoters, while a few White-tailed and Steller’s Sea Eagles patrolled the area.
Continuing on the coast road, we stopped again at the outlet of Lake Hichirippu (see Robinson), where we enjoyed close-range views of more Whooper Swans and ducks (Falcated Duck, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Common Pochard, Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks, Black Scoter and Common Goldeneye), together with an assortment of gulls, plus Black-eared Kites and a White-tailed Eagle.
Our final stop of the afternoon was at Kiritappu-misaki (aka Tofutsu-misaki, Brazil site 34). A Fox ambled across the road as we drove across the headland. A scan from the lighthouse at the cape revealed large numbers of sea-ducks (including Asian White-winged Scoters) and Pelagic Cormorants, but the only auks identified on the calm ocean were Common Guillemots.
We arrived at Furen-ko after dark, and were welcomed by Matsuo-san at Lodge Fuhren. An excellent dinner was served, where we met the other guests. We were rather surprised to meet Nial Moores (from South Korea), who we had booked to guide us for a few days in Korea at the end of our trip. He was guiding for a group of four Belgian wildlife photographers, visiting Eastern Hokkaido to photograph the swans, eagles, cranes and fish-owls. A Swiss couple with a similar agenda were also staying at the lodge. We all got on well, and had an enjoyable evening, exchanging experiences and gen.
Sun 13th Feb: Nosappu-misaki; Ochiishi; Furen-ko
We enjoyed breakfast while watching Brown-eared Bulbuls, Eurasian Nuthatches, Asian Marsh and Japanese Tits, and Eurasian Tree Sparrows at the feeders outside the window. After de-icing the car, we set off, through Nemuro City and along the north coast of the Nemuro-hanto, passing iced-up harbours on the way. Near Onnemoto harbour on the approach to Nosappu-misaki, our first flock of Asian Rosy Finches bounced into view and settled on roadside wires.
At Nosappu-misaki (Brazil site 36), we stopped first on the north side of the cape, close to the flag-pole where the Japanese flag flys in defiance of the Russian occupation of the Kuril Islands visible offshore. Sea-ducks were numerous on the ice-strewn waters, mainly Harlequin Duck, Black and Asian White-winged Scoters, Long-tailed Duck, and Red-breasted Merganser. On a small outcrop of rock a few metres offshore, we were delighted to find a Red-faced Cormorant amongst a small group of Pelagics, allowing close comparison – as we watched, it was joined by a second bird. We moved round to the lighthouse at the tip of the cape, where the rusting hulk of a wreck lies evocatively on the rocks, festooned with hanging shrouds of ice. This is an ideal spot for sea-watching, just a few metres above sea level, with a wide field of view, and the lighthouse building to provide shelter from the wind. A more detailed scan of the ocean revealed that Common and Spectacled Guillemots were active further offshore, the latter looking quite comical as they splayed their bright red legs and feet when landing on the water. Soon we noticed that a large movement of Ancient Murrelets was taking place, with a seemingly never-ending stream of birds flying northwest through the Goyomai-suido (the strait which separates the cape from the Russian-administered small islands of the Habomai-shoto). Small groups would splash down and dive, resuming their journey after a short feeding session. We enjoyed watching the assorted gulls as they drifted past or settled on the water, giving excellent views of the various plumage types. Occasionally a Steller’s Sea Eagle would loiter overhead or pause on a prominent rock. Before leaving the area we spent a short while sea-watching from the headland 2km south of the lighthouse, where we watched a lone Crested Auklet bobbing on the surface – this was to be our only sighting of this species.
We then drove west along the south coast of the Nemuro-hanto, stopping briefly for provisions in Habomai, and then continued south from Nemuro City to Ochiishi-misaki (Brazil site 35). From the end of the road onto the cape, we followed the raised boardwalk to the lighthouse, seeing only Eurasian Nuthatches and Asian Marsh, Coal and Japanese Tits as we passed through the forest. Sea-watching from the cliff edge below the lighthouse revealed good numbers of the usual sea-ducks, cormorants and guillemots but the experience was less enjoyable than at Nosappu: the height of the cliffs and the lack of shelter from the increasingly strong wind made it harder to scan the surface. However shortly before leaving, we found a lone auk a few hundred metres offshore which we thought must be a Parakeet Auklet. [The auk appeared murrelet-sized, certainly considerably smaller than any guillemot. It was blackish overall with clean white underparts and a blunt yellow/ora nge bill. Onlya small amount of white was visible above the waterline on the breast and along the flanks, but was more obvious on the up-swept under-tail. Unfortunately, despite ’scoping the bird for several minutes, we were unable to discern any additional facial detail (eye colour, presence of a plume). We are still unable to think of an alternative identification, but having checked the literature and confirmed the species’s rarity off Hokkaido, we can only offer our sighting as a ‘possible’.] The walk back to the car produced a Rough-legged Buzzard being mobbed by crows.
We returned to Furen-ko via Hattaushi Bridge (south of Route 44 near km100 – see Anderson) with the intention of waiting until after dusk to try for Blakiston’s Fish Owl or Ural Owl. Although we could see owl prints in the snow beside the stream below, we wimped out when it began to snow, and retired to the warmth of Lodge Fuhren, resolving to try again another evening.
At the lodge, last night’s guests had been joined by a group of four Dutch photographers. That day, Nial and his Belgian group had risen at 02:00 in order to drive to Rausu for the dawn eagle-viewing boat (one of three such trips his group made in total), and had been lucky to see a Blakiston’s Fish Owl en-route, perched on an overhead road sign. The Swiss couple also made several trips from Rausu, while the Dutch party disclosed that they had made reservations for no less than five dawn boat trips – the sea-eagles are obviously well-accustomed to the attentions of the wildlife paparazzi!
We started the day with some local birding around Furen-ko (Brazil site 33). First we tried the forest trail at the swan viewing point (Hakucho-dai) a short distance southeast on Route 44, which was quiet – only Great Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Nuthatch, Common Treecreeper and Asian Marsh Tit were seen.
Then we drove a few kilometres further along Route 44, to where a side road goes down to the lakeshore (by a large ‘Nemuro Canoe Craft’ sign), from which point fishermen drive out onto the lake on their sledge-towing snow-scooters. We walked out about 1km onto the frozen lake. The fishermen were collecting their catches from the large numbers of flagged fishing holes dotting the ice. A female Sika Deer pranced elegantly across the ice, evoking a scene from a Babycham commercial! Sea-eagles (the majority Steller’s) roost in the trees surrounding the lake, and by 09:00 dozens of them had gathered on the ice waiting to scavenge the fish scraps discarded by the fishermen. Others remained in the trees, dwarfing the many Black-eared Kites also present.
The impressive spectacle was later marred by the sight of a magnifcent stag Sika Deer being chased across the ice by two wild dogs. The stag was still managing to run, despite having a broken foreleg which had almost been severed and was hanging limply. A fisherman tried to drive off the dogs with his snow-scooter, but they persisted and eventually brought the animal down. It was shocking to see the dogs tearing open its belly as it lay on the ice with its head still held proudly aloft. The dogs were soon red with blood, and before long were joined by some scavenging crows.
Next we drove back up Route 44 to the small nature centre at Tobai, close to the bridge to Shunkunitai. Here we walked the circular 1.3km woodland trail – this was even quieter than the earlier trail, with only a few Eurasian Nuthatches and Asian Marsh Tits apparent.
We then headed along the Nemuro-hanto to check the seabirds at Nosappu-misaki. On the way we paused at Onnemoto – Matsuo-san had informed us that a small flock of Rock Sandpipers had been wintering on the rocky islets immediately to the west of the harbour. A scan of the islets revealed Harlequin Ducks and Pelagic Cormorants, but unfortunately no sandpipers. At the cape, we met four British birders, who had only just arrived in Japan and were grateful for some gen. On the ocean, there were still many Common and Spectacled Guillemots. The previous day’s large movement of Ancient Murrelets had ceased, but several groups of birds were still apparent. A Red-necked Grebe was swimming offshore, as well as the usual sea-ducks, gulls and seals; a distant Black Brant flew past to the northwest.
The sight of the Black Brant at Nosappu-misaki inspired us to go to see the wintering birds at Kirritapu. Upon arrival it took us a short while to locate the flock, which we found close inshore in the southern part of Biwase-wan. The geese were associating with a similar number of Whooper Swans, and together the birds made a beautiful sight in the perfect light. The bay also held many Northern Pintails, Greater Scaups and Goosanders.
Next we made a return visit to Lake Hichirippu, which Matsuo-san had told us held a few wintering Red-crowned Cranes. We took the road which passes the harbour area along the southwestern shore of the lake, eventually reaching a snow-plough depot at the end of the road. On seeing two women working nearby, I tried to ask them, without great expectations, if they knew where we might find the Tanchos. I was rather surprised that, although they spoke no English, they immediately understood, and enthusiastically confirmed via sign language that two families were in residence (one of three birds, and one of two). They then led us behind the vehicles, and proudly showed us a a handsome pair of cranes standing nearby in the shallow water of a side channel, in the company of a few Wigeons and a Whooper Swan. We thanked them for their help, and spent some time enjoying ‘their’ Tanchos. Afterwards we found the second pair (with juvenile), on the main lake, surrounded by swans. Amongst the many ducks were several Falcated.
Returning to the Furen-ko area, we witnessed a pre-dusk gathering of three Blakiston’s Fish Owls, before each flew off in turn to begin the night’s hunting. We finished the day with a nocturnal visit to Hattaushi Bridge, to check for any Ural Owl activity, but without success. Returning for our last night at Lodge Fuhren, Nial and his Belgian group had departed, and a British birding couple had arrived.
This morning we headed north towards Rausu. First we made a stop on the north side of Furen-ko, in a lay-by on Route 244 close to a lone fisherman’s house, which according to Matsuo-san afforded views of the largest numbers of sea-eagles. We took the short path down to the lakeshore, and spent a while ’scoping the hundreds of eagles scattered across the ice. A birding tour group was visible on the ice a kilometre to the east.
Further north along the coast, a scan from Tokotan Bridge produced the only Smew of the trip – a handsome drake. In Tokotan itself, a party of beautiful white-headed Northern Long-tailed Tits flew across the road, and we stopped to admire them foraging in a garden.
Next stop was at the Odaito Hakucho-dai (swan viewing point, Brazil site 32). Descending to the shoreline of Notsuke-wan, we noticed an area containing a number of impressive snow sculptures, which Erica wanted to photograph. But I suggested that we first continue down, and have a coffee break while watching the Whooper Swans. About 40 swans were asleep on the ice, but were gradually becoming active. It was entertaining to watch them moving with some difficulty on the slippery surface, first taking turns to bathe in the few holes in the ice, and later trying to run fast enough to get airborne in the still air. Behind them on the open water, Glaucous Gulls drifted past while standing on tiny one-gull-only ice floes. Returning to the main road, we paused to allow Erica to take her pictures, but were horrified to find that a bulldozer had completely demolished all of the sculptures during our short coffee break!
We then drove the length of the Notsuke-hanto, enjoying impressive views of the mountains of the Shiretoko-hanto and Russian-occupied Ostrov Kunasir (Kunashirito). Lone sea-eagles were at several points along the peninsula. At the end of the road (at Todowara) we discovered a large flock of Asian Rosy Finches feeding around the beached fishing boats. We made several stops to scan the mirror-flat waters of the Notsuke-suido as worked our way back to the coast. Common and Spectacled Guillemots and Ancient Murrelets were scattered offshore; Asian White-winged Scoters were present in the largest numbers that we had seen, in addition to the commoner sea-ducks. A few Dusky Thrushes and Asian Rosy Finches were encountered by the roadside, and we were surprised to come across a lone Eurasian Nuthatch feeding on the road surface, a considerable distance from the nearest trees.
Continuing through Shibetsu, we noticed a large banner in English demanding the return of the occupied islands. Further north we noticed a car leaning to one side in the deep snow by the roadside. We quickly realised that it was the rental car driven by the group of four Dutch birders from Lodge Fuhren, and we stopped to check that they were OK. As they were returning from a dawn boat trip at Rausu, they had passed a sea-eagle in a roadside tree. On trying to turn the car around to go back to take photographs, they had accidently driven into the deep snow, which concealed a sudden drop. Fortunately a truck had stopped to assist them, and it soon towed their vehicle back onto the road. Definitely a case of one eagle too many! As the road followed the Shiretoko-hanto (Brazil site 31), the depth of snow became much greater, and in some places snow-clearance teams were at work, widening the cleared route and removing snow from around buildings.
As soon as we arrived in Rausu we called at the tourist information office. Although it had not been our original intention, we made a snap decision to reserve places on one of the sea-eagle boat trips the next morning (+81-(0)1538-9-2036, fax +81-(0)1538-9-2077). We had listened to the accounts of the photographers at Lodge Fuhren, and we decided that it would probably be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we should not miss. However, being rather lazy, we decided to forego the 05:00 trip favoured by the photographers, and instead made reservations for an 08:30 sailing. We continued along the snowy coast road for a few kilometres beyond Rausu, stopping occasionally to admire the sea-eagles high in the trees lining the valleys.
Then we went back towards Rausu and checked into Minshuku Washi-no-yado. From the Chitorai Bridge, the small building was immediately identifiable by the crowd of vehicles parked outside, linked by spaghetti-like cables to a barrage of tripod-mounted flash-systems positioned both alongside and even in the stream. A we parked alongside the stream, a Brown Dipper was within 2m of a photographer standing in the water to set up his equipment. A fisherman was delivering some enormous live king crabs – we looked forward to dinner! Sea-eagles roost in the trees on both sides the valley; many were viewable from our room. The owner’s wife presented us with a beautiful set of photographic postcards of the fish-owls, and told us that the owls visit the stream from about 19:00. Dinner was taken with a large gathering of Japanese wildlife photographers (most not actually staying at the minshuku), seated on the floor at a long, low table, and was an absolute feast of fresh seafood.
At 18:20 we all took up positions in our vehicles. The feeding pool in which small fish were placed was a small hole in the snow on the far side of the stream. The area was illuminated by a powerful spotlight. Almost immediately, the deep sound of duetting began to reverberate down the valley, and we assumed that action was imminent. However, we waited, and waited… After a couple of hours it became very cold (despite multiple layers of clothing and sleeping bags), and we were forced to run the engine occasionally to avoid freezing. At one stage a blizzard developed, but was fortunately short-lived. We took turns to doze while the other maintained watch. Midnight arrived and there was still no owl. We reflected that this had to be one of the craziest birding situations that we had experienced – we had paid for a warm bedroom, only to spend the night sitting outside in a freezing car!
Shortly after midnight, several of the photographers abandoned the vigil, and began to dismantle their equipment. We became pessimistic, as we reckoned that the disturbance would surely deter any owl from visiting for a considerable time. As the photographers departed we were sorely tempted to do the same, but incredibly, within minutes, at about 00:45, a Blakiston’s Fish Owl swept silently into view from downstream, settling on the branch of a small tree adjacent to the pool. The huge bird looked quite magnificent as it sat staring at the assembled throng, the light breeze ruffling its breast feathers. After a few minutes, it flew down onto the snow beside the pool. Several times the owl dropped into the shallow water, emerging each time grasping a fish in one foot, which was then manoeuvred carefully into position for swallowing. When it had eaten enough, it flew off downstream again. Now totally elated, we considered whether to remain on-station in case there were further visits. But satisfied that the views that we had just enjoyed could not be bettered, we quietly retreated to the minshuku to get some sleep. As we entered, the owner’s wife cheerfully congratulated us on our successful, if belated, sighting. We were relieved that we had not made a reservation for the 05:00 eagle boat!
In the morning, we drove into Rausu and bought some provisions. Two Brown Dippers and a few Common Teals were on the Rausu-gawa. A Black-headed Gull was making circuits of the harbour.
We boarded ‘Kamuiwakka III’ for the 08:30 trip, to find that the only other passenger was a Japanese photographer. We had expected the price to be ¥10000=£53.89 each, but found that this applied to photographers – for birdwatchers the price was ¥7000=£37.72 (it seemed that Erica’s Coolpix didn’t count as photography!). The crew then wanted us to accept a 1-hour trip (rather than the 2* hours advertised), but relented when we expressed our disappointment. When the boxes of fish heads and guts had been loaded, we set off. The powerful boat accelerated rapidly, and we easily carved a path through the surface ice, pursued by an assortment of gulls. But as we got further out from the harbour, we reached an area where the drift ice was much thicker, and had accumulated into large, jagged piles. Despite repeated reversal and high-speed ramming, we were unable to progress further. We were surprised that the boat could withstand the continual crashing and the pressure inflicted on the hull sides. At times we would ride up onto the ice and list worryingly to one side. Although we were still only a short distance from the harbour, the engine was cut and a crewman began to scatter our bait on the ice. Within minutes the sea-eagles approached and began to feed. White-tailed Eagles seemed to be braver, sometimes approaching to within a couple of metres. Steller’s Sea Eagles seemed more cautious, generally staying a little further away. The crows were quite bold, often snatching a morsel from under the talons of an eagle. The eagles seemed unconcerned, but would occasionally despatch a persistent crow with a casual swipe. Gulls were rather more wary, rarely coming close to the feeding eagles. The photographer on board spoke to us a number of times – we guessed that he was politely asking us to step aside so that he could take a particular shot, and we always readily moved away. Eventually, we realised that he was on board to take publicity shots – he had actually been seeking our permission for him to take pictures of us watching the birds, and we had hitherto been rather uncooperative!
After some time, the ocean currents had caused some movement of the ice, and with another bout of charging and ramming, we were able to carve a channel allowing us to reach more open waters. Here amongst the heaped drift ice were small areas where the ice was flat, but still easily thick enough to support the eagles and gulls. As the eagles moved in again, we took in the dramatic scene, with the iced-up ocean and the snow-covered mountains of the Shiretoko-hanto looking dazzling in the bright sunshine. At one point I performed a quick 360° scan, and counted more than 240 sea-eagles on the ice within about a kilometre of the boat. Eventually, the eagles became less interested, and we turned our attention to the gulls. The crewman offered us his rubber glove (!), and we were able to hand-feed a succession of gulls (Vega, Slaty-backed, Glaucous-winged and Glaucous), which greedily snatched the juicy guts on offer. We watched a steady procession of trawlers returning to port, their hulls and rigging draped with ice. The sequence of vertical black plumes of diesel exhaust emitted as they carved their way through the drift ice stretched to the horizon. As we energetically crashed our way back to the harbour, we agreed that although we had not seen a single new bird in Rausu, it had been an unmissable experience.
On the drive back southwards we stopped briefly at the Notsuke-hanto, again seeing many Spectacled Guillemots and a few Asian Rosy Finches. We ate lunch at the Odaito Hakucho-dai, where a few tame Whooper Swans and Northern Pintails begged for scraps in a car park.
When we reached the Nemuro area, we decided that there was enough time for a short visit to Nosappu-misaki. There had been quite an accumulation of surface ice on the north side of the cape since our last visit. At the lighthouse, we met the Birdquest tour group (who had visited Kyushu since our previous meeting at Karuizawa). The Ancient Murrelets had now largely dispersed and the only noteworthy bird that we saw was a Brünnich’s Guillemot. A quick check for the Rock Sandpipers on the islets off Onnemoto was once again unsuccessful. We knew that Lodge Fuhren was fully booked that night, so instead we checked-in to the East Harbour Hotel in Nemuro City, having first purchased take-away sushi suppers.
We awoke to find that the roads had received a fresh coating of snow, and the snow was still falling. As there seemed to be a southerly element to the wind, we drove carefullly down to Ochiishi-misaki, reasoning that the conditions could be favourable for sea-watching. However there was little movement on the ocean.
We decided to make a final visit to Nosappu-misaki, where we found that the previous day’s ice had now dispersed. On reaching the lighthouse, we met Takada-san with two Californian birders who were staying with him at Field Inn Furo-so, near Furen-ko. They had just seen some Least Auklets and a possible Surf Scoter, and also mentioned that a flock of waxwings (including some Japanese) had been seen in Nemuro City in recent days. We scanned the ocean, soon finding two Pigeon Guillemots. After much patient searching we located two Least Auklets, which we watched for some time as they fed, occasionally flying a short distance before diving again. While we were sea-watching, a Huey helicopter of the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force patrolled the shoreline on the south of the peninsula, searching for the body of a woman who had fallen into the ocean the previous day while collecting seaweed. Before leaving the area, we decided to check for the Rock Sandpipers on the islets at Onnemoto yet again (third time lucky?). A careful scan with the ’scope gave the same negative result, but as we were about to leave, Erica picked up some movement with her bin’s. She checked with the ’scope, and immediately reported that she was looking at some small waders with yellow legs! They were indeed the Rock Sandpipers, moving in and out of view on a small rocky ridge just above the waterline. As we studied them, we saw a maximum of six birds at any one instant, but the total present was almost certainly greater.
Although the Californians had found only a few Bohemian Waxwings in an extensive search for the Japanese Waxwings the previous day, we decided to have at least a brief search ourselves. We checked the trees around Nemuro City Hall and the nearby school on Route 44 in the city centre, where the birds had been reported, but the berries had been stripped and we found only Dusky Thrushes and a Hawfinch. We also checked the park on the northeastern edge of the city, but could not see any trees with berries or mistletoe.
Our last birding of the day before leaving the area was at Kirritappu-misaki. We located the small house near the top of the headland mentioned by Anderson. Although we could not actually see a feeding station, there was indeed a large flock of Asian Rosy Finches there. A sea-watch from the lighthouse revealed no new birds, but the huge gatherings of sea-ducks and Pelagic Cormorants on the ocean surface around the cape were impressive.
The drive to Kushiro was unpleasant, with frequent sleet showers; and I received a police warning for driving on a major highway at the reckless speed of 80km/h! It was dark when we arrived in Kushiro, and it was a bit of a shock to negotiate heavy city-centre traffic again. We followed signs to the JR station, and checked-in to the Hotel Adachi nearby, dining later at a station restaurant.
Today was to be devoted to enjoying the famous dancing Red-crowned Cranes of Kushiro (Brazil site 39). We rose early in order to reach the Kottaro viewpoint on the Setsuri-gawa shortly after dawn. The specially provided viewing bridge parallel to the road bridge was already crowded with wildlife photographers. The roosting cranes in the snowy landscape made a beautiful, tranquil scene, as they stood quietly in the shallow water a few hundred metres downstream. Amongst the photographers, we found Nial Moores with two of his Belgians, and also the Swiss couple from Lodge Fuhren, and we spent some time exchanging news of our experiences since last meeting. [Nial and his group had stayed for two nights at one of the two onsens at Yoroushi to try to photograph the fish-owls, as there had been no vacancies at the minshuku at Rausu. Unfortunately, although up to three owls had visited their onsen on preceding evenings, they were unlucky – it later transpired that the other onsen had been visited during their stay.] As we chatted, a Japanese Wagtail was feeding at the water’s edge, a Rough-legged Buzzard flew past, and a flock of Bramblings was seen in flight.
Next we moved north the few kilometres to the Tsuri-itoh Sanctuary at Tsurui-mura. The cranes had yet to arrive, but the bird feeders were attracting a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Brown-eared Bulbuls, Eurasian Nuthatches, Asian Marsh and Northern Long-tailed Tits, and Eurasian Tree Sparrows. A few photographers began to take up position at the edge of the crane feeding area. Around 09:00, a warden appeared and began to criss-cross the field, scattering feed from a sack mounted on a small sledge. Nial arrived on the scene, now with his full complement of four Belgian photographers. Soon the cranes began to arrive, in twos and threes, appearing suddenly at low level from behind a wood, and elegantly gliding onto the field. Although only about 15 birds arrived during our stay, this proved to be the most natural and attractive of the three feeding sites that we visited. As pairs indulged in bouts of bugling with necks and heads stretched aloft, we enjoyed the classic scene, with the bright sunshine highlighting their scarlet caps and their breath, steaming in the freezing air. From time to time a pair would start to dance, soon followed by others around them.
We then drove back south the short distance to the Tsurumi-dai feeding area (Watanabe Kyuji-ba in Brazil’s guide). This site on the east side of Route 53 is far more commercialised, with a café and souvenir shop opposite, and large parking areas on both sides of the road. It attracts a constant succession of tourist coaches, whose passengers disembark, take a photograph or two, make a quick visit to the café/shop and toilets, and then continue on their way. Nevertheless, the 40-50 cranes present put on a good show of bugling and dancing. We enjoyed a tasty and warming bowel of ramen while sitting at the rear of the café, watching a few more cranes in the field behind the building.
For our final crane-viewing session we headed west, climbing away from the Kushiro-shitsugen on the rather snowy road, and dropping down again to the Akan-gawa valley. The grandly-titled Akan International Crane Center (Tancho no Sato in Brazil’s guide) is the most famous winter feeding site. Visitors must enter through an indoor observatory (¥400=£2.16), beyond which is a lowered observation area, allowing a worm’s eye view of the field in which the cranes gather. By now we were unsurprised to find Nial and the Belgians, and the Swiss couple, amongst the assembled photographers! The snowy field contained 130-140 cranes, with some birds approaching very closely – from our ‘orchestra pit’, the sight of these tall cranes towering immediately above us was impressive. At 14:00 each day, there is a special feeding session during which fish are scattered on the snow. This attracted numerous White-tailed Eagles and Black-eared Kites, which made for an unusual scene as they descended amongst the cranes. At one point a juvenile crane was knocked flat by an eagle, and sprawled helplessly on the snow for a while. A single adult Steller’s Sea Eagle repeatedly circled the field, but did not have the confidence to join in.
Satisfied with the Tancho finale to our Eastern Hokkaido visit, we drove back to Kushiro station and returned our car to Nissan, having driven a total of 1285km. We purchased boxed meals, reserved our seats, and boarded the 16:18 Limited Express ‘Super Oozora’. At Minami-Chitose, we transferred to a JR Limited Express ‘Super Hokutu’ for the short (15-minute) stage to Tomakomai. On the journey, we reflected on our week in Hokkaido. It had undoubtedly included some of the most spectacular birding that we had experienced anywhere in the world, and in outstanding scenery. But the prevalance of supplementary feeding, observation centres etc., sometimes resulted in a level of predictability which removed the feeling of ‘real’ birding, rather like visiting a major reserve in the UK. (It also seemed a little sad that the large numbers of photographers were interested only in the same few flagship species, as with tourists chasing the ‘big five’ mammals when on safari in Africa.) The time spent sea-watching had always provided a welcome contrast, and offered more of a birding challenge.
At Tomakomai, we took a taxi (¥1200=£6.47) back to the ferry terminal, and at 22:30 boarded the Shosen Mitsui Ferry ‘Sunflower Sapporo’ for the 23:45 sailing to Oarai. We settled into our cabin, hoping for better results on the southbound crossing…
Sat 19th Feb: Tomakomai – Oarai – Narita
We comenced our on-deck vigil at dawn, by which time we were abeam of Hachinohe, near the southern limit of the coast of Aomori-ken. Also on deck were a Japanese birder, and a young British birder from Norfolk, named Simon (who impressively was undertaking a comprehensive solo birding tour of Japan entirely by public transport). The Japanese birder was using an amazing optical set-up: he had configured two Kowa 82mm telescopes to form a massive pair of binoculars attached to an adjustable rectangular frame, in turn mounted atop a heavy tripod! However he seemed to spend most of the morning making adjustments, presumably trying to align the two instruments correctly. Even then, it must have been rather difficult to independently focus both ’scopes on the same point. We suspect that the idea is unlikely to catch on in the birding world.
The conditions were initially quite comfortable for sea-watching: the ocean was calm, and it was dry, with little wind over the deck. For the first few hours, there were plenty of gulls (including Pacific Kittiwakes), and Common Guillemots. Rather surprisingly, given our distance offshore, we also saw two Peregrines during the morning. Large parties of Ancient Murrelets began to appear, we saw a few probable Brünnich’s Guillemots and Least Auklets, and seals were numerous. After a few hours it became more overcast and the wind became more gusty; the birding was very quiet around the middle of the day. Later in the afternoon, the activity picked up, and again there were many gulls and Ancient Murrelets, but soon it began to rain steadily, and visibility decreased. As a spectacles wearer, it became very frustrating for me, repeatedly drying spec’s and bin’s only to have them soaked again within seconds. Simon saw an unidentified shearwater, but we were unable to get onto it before it disappeared into the murk. A few Pomarine Skuas were seen before dusk fell, but the hoped-for Laysan Albatrosses again failed to appear. Feeling somewhat deflated, we changed out of our wet clothing, and had some dinner before docking at Oarai, a little earlier than the 19:00 scheduled time.
After disembarking, we caught the 18:55 bus to Mito station (¥600=£3.23, 27 minutes), where we said farewell to Simon, and wished him luck on his forthcoming visit to Karuizawa. From Mito, we caught a Ueno-bound JR Limited Express ‘Fresh Hitachi’ to Kashiwa (¥2350=£12.66 without JR Pass, 55 minutes), there transferring to a JR Narita Line service for the final leg to Narita (¥650=£3.50 without JR Pass, 48 minutes). At Narita, our careful planning came unstuck for the first time: in heavy rain, and burdened with our luggage, we struggled over to the U-City Hotel, only to find that there were no vacancies. By the time that we checked-in to the Mercure Hotel instead, we were wet and demoralised, and needed several stiff drinks to restore our spirits (no pun intended).
Sun 20th Feb: Narita-san; Ichikawa; Gyotoku
Fortunately the rain ceased during the night. It took a while to get used to the mild temperature after our cold week in Hokkaido, and it seemed strange to venture out without the usual thermals and fleeces etc. Narita-san is reached from the station area by a 10-minute walk north along Omotesando, a characterful narrow street lined with bars, restaurants and food shops selling exotic-looking delicacies. The impressive Shinsho-ji Temple is located within the attractive 16.5-hectare Narita-san-koen. A free English-language map is provided on entry to the temple grounds. We easily found our target bird: two Brown-headed Thrushes showed well around the ponds by the Narita Shodo Museum, close to the Great Pagoda of Peace. A Kingfisher was also in the same area. The park is a pleasant place for anyone with spare time at Narita Airport to enjoy some of the everyday birds of Japan: within a short time we saw Rufous Turtle Dove, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Brown-eared Bulbul, Pale Thrush, Japanese Bush Warbler, Japanese Tit, Japanese White-eye and Black-faced Bunting.
Our back-up plan, if we failed to find Brown-headed Thrush at Narita-san, had been to travel into Tokyo for a more extensive search of Yoyogi-koen, which we had visited briefly before travelling to Hokkaido. But as we had found our thrush so easily, we now had time for some twitching! The Californians that we had met a few days earlier in Hokkaido had told of us of some rare winter visitors in the Tokyo area. We hadn’t taken details of a Scaly-sided Merganser at a site about 100km from the city because we were quite hopeful that we would later see the species in South Korea. An Oriental Stork was supposedly on the Tone-gawa at Abiko, a short train journey from Narita, but again we hoped to see the species in Korea, and anyway we had not taken any more precise details of the location. But we knew that a Baer’s Pochard was on a small pond at ‘Kozato-koen’ in Ichikawa, to the east of Tokyo. It seemed rather a long shot, as Ichikawa-shi covers quite an extensive area, but we decided to go for it.
We walked back to Narita JR station where we took a JR Limited Express ‘Ayame’ to Chiba, and then caught a JR Sobu Line service to Ichikawa. At Ichikawa station we approached the first taxi at the taxi rank outside, and showed the driver a piece of paper on which we had with clearly written the name of the park. He looked puzzled and clearly had not heard of the place, but within seconds he had gathered all of the other drivers. There was much shrugging and head shaking, but soon one driver offered a suggestion, and we duly set off through the narrow streets. We travelled for a few kilometres and the taxi driver again looked rather puzzled, but he stopped the vehicle and asked a young woman for help. To our relief she knew the place, and we were already close. Moments later we were deposited at a small park consisting of two adjoining ponds, and we thanked and paid our driver (¥1860=£10.02).
We immediately saw a birder with binoculars. We hurried over and asked if he knew anything about the Baer’s Pochard. He gestured to a sleeping duck, floating just outside the reeds on the far side – it was the bird sure enough. We continued watching, hoping that it would eventually wake and give better views. Within minutes, a Northern Pintail rushed past, disturbing the pochard, which then swam around giving excellent views before disappearing deep into the reedbed, not to re-emerge. The Japanese birder had also departed by now, and we reflected on how lucky we had been – if we had arrived just 10 minutes later, we would have found a pond with no Baer’s Pochard, and no birders to verify that the bird was still present (or that we were even at the right place). The park proved to be a pleasant oasis amidst the urban environment: other birds around the ponds included Common Teal, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Continental Cormorant, Black-crowned Night Heron, Eastern Great Egret, Common Moorhen, Black-headed Gull, Brown-eared Bulbul, Eastern Carrion and Large-billed Crows, White-cheeked Starling and Eurasian Tree Sparrow. Not really knowing where we were, we asked a passer-by for directions to the nearest station, which proved to be Ichikawa-ono. (Actually, at first I carelessly asked for the nearest ‘Ike’ (pond), rather than ‘Eki’ (station), which caused some confusion!) We strolled to the station, about a kilometre away, and had hot dumplings for lunch before making our next move.
To occupy the remainder of the afternoon, we decided to visit the Wildlife Protection Area at Gyotoku (Brazil site 4). From Ichikawa-ono we took a JR Musashino Line train to Nishi-Funabashi, and then the Tokyo Subway Tozai Line to Gyotoku (¥160=£0.86). The walk from the subway station to the reserve took about half an hour. On the pools or in the woods were assorted wildfowl (including Mute Swans), Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes, a large colony of Continental Cormorants, Black-crowned Night and Grey Herons, Eastern Great Egrets, Common Moorhens, Eurasian Coots, a Common Sandpiper, various gulls, and many of the commoner passerines (including Daurian Redstarts, Asian Azure-winged Magpies and Northern Reed Buntings). Close to the observatory building were a number of small cages containing birds – many were recovering from injuries, but some at least seemed to be held for display purposes. The ethics of keeping wild birds
in such a manner might be questionable, but it nevertheless provided a fascinating opportunity to observe many common species in close detail. To give some idea of the unusual mix of birds being held together, the following is a rough inventory:
Retracing our steps to Gyotoku station, we then returned to Narita (taking the Tozai Line back to Nishi-Funabashi, then the JR Sobu Chuo Line to Tsudanuma, the JR Sobu Line to Chiba, and finally the Sobu Line again to Narita), making the last use of our JR Passes before they expired that night. I am ashamed to admit that we later ate our last dinner in Japan at MacDonalds.
Mon 21st Feb: Narita – Incheon – Mokpo
We had a relaxed morning, packing our luggage and then taking a leisurely stroll along Omotesando in pleasant sunshine. We then took the hotel shuttle bus to Narita Airport Terminal 1 and boarded the Korean Air 747-400 for the 160-minute flight to Seoul/Incheon. The flight was almost completely full, and most passengers seemed to be young Japanese students, mainly girls.
We landed at Incheon International Airport at 16:35 to find that the weather there was equally pleasant, if rather cooler. Nial Moores was waiting for us in the arrivals hall – after our recent encounters in Hokkaido, it seemed like meeting an old friend. We obtained some cash, picked-up our Avis rental car (a Hyundai Sonata EF 1.8GV) and immediately got off to a rather inauspicious start: as I manoeuvred to pull away, I accidentally reversed into a minibus! But it was only a gentle kiss, and no damage resulted. Fortunately Nial didn’t panic and abandon us. We set off down the expressway, crossing the twin-decked Yeongjong Bridge from Yeongjong-do to the mainland. The first birds encountered were roadside Oriental Magpies, and a flock of Eurasian White-fronted Geese overhead.
Nial’s strategy to find our target birds in the three days that we had available was to start in the extreme southwest of the country (where there had been some wintering Oriental Storks), and then work our way back north. Therefore our plan was to complete the long drive down the expressway to Mokpo, Jeollanam-do, that night. [With hindsight, we could have flown direct from Tokyo to Busan (where Nial resides, in the southeast), both saving Nial the long journey to Incheon, and reducing the distance to the first site] The traffic was quite heavy as we passed between Incheon and Seoul, but after that the road became clear and the drive was easy. We broke the journey with a short stop at a service area for some supper, where we had our first taste of the obligatory gimchi, finding that it was not quite as evil as legend would suggest. On arrival at Mokpo, we checked-in to the 500th Motel, our first experience of a Korean love motel (see Accommodation).
We left the motel at 06:00 and drove to the huge reclaimation area of Yeongam-ho, near Haenam. Almost immediately we encountered a single Oriental Stork on an area of ice in the wet fields. Unfortunately, due to its proximity to the road, it quickly flushed and flew far into the distance, out of view. In a reed-filled ditch at the same spot, we saw the first of many Vinous-throated Parrotbills. Other birds on the fields nearby included ~200 Tundra Bean Geese, plus Ring-necked Pheasant, Great White Egret, Grey Heron, Hen Harrier and Common Kestrel. On the open water were many ducks and a few Great Crested Grebes. We drove slowly along the retaining wall, carefully scanning the fields. Eventually we found a group of five Oriental Storks, which gave excellent ’scope views.
Having nailed one of our most-wanted birds so soon, Nial suggested that we make a brief visit to nearby Gocheonam-ho, a regular wintering site for Chinese Grey Shrike. We checked the riverside trees and bushes without success, but enjoyed much better views of parrotbills. Other birds at this site included middendorffii Taiga Bean, and Eurasian White-fronted Geese, other assorted waterfowl, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Eurasian Goshawk, Eastern Buzzard, Merlin, Mongolian Gull, Japanese Skylark and Yellow-throated Bunting.
We then drove east to an area of rice fields near Suncheon Bay, where a Chinese Grey Shrike had been wintering. Again, we failed to find the shrike despite much searching. Birds here included ~250 Eurasian White-fronted Geese (Nial also saw a Lesser amonst them), 140+ Hooded Cranes (plus a single Common and a couple of hybrids), a Bull-headed Shrike and Grey-cheeked Starlings. Some Korean birders were observing the cranes. We decided to abandon the hunt for Chinese Grey Shrike, and drove northwest into Jeollabuk-do, noting some Asian Azure-winged Magpies on the way.
After a quick lunch stop at an expressway service area, we arrived in the Gunsan area at about 17:00. We went straight to the south shore of the Geum-gang, below the expressway bridge, and immediately saw a dense flock of Baikal Teals about a kilometre upstream. We drove up-river to get closer to the flock, and found two birders already watching. They had recently seen 13 Swan Geese fly far downstream, but did not see them land. We decided anyway to back-track and check whether they had alighted near the barrage. On the way we had our first sight of the extravagant and inappropriately-sited observation centre between the expressway bridge and the barrage, complete with a replica Baikal Teal the size of a couple of double-decker buses! The brisk wind at the barrage made it rather difficult to ’scope the area. ~100 Saunders’s Gulls were on the estuary downstream of the barrage, but we were unable to locate any Swan Geese. As dusk was now falling we hurried back up-river to watch the departure of the Baikal Teals to their nocturnal feeding grounds. As we arrived, the first birds were already rising from the river – the huge flock began to curl away downstream. We raced back towards the expressway bridge, where the swarm was veering away from the river and heading to the south. We leapt out of the car and stared in wonder as the dense waves of birds twisted past immediately overhead. It was hard to believe that these were ducks – it was more like watching locusts, or bats leaving a cave. Nial estimated that we had witnessed some 300K Baikal Teals departing – stunning!
When the spectacle was over, we drove into Gunsan and checked-in to the XY-Tel. We visited a traditional restaurant nearby, where, seated on the floor, we enjoyed a typically spicy Korean meal.
Wed 23rd Feb: Geum-gang; Imjin-gang; Jeongok
Dawn saw us back on the south shore of the Geum-gang, watching the Baikal Teals assembling. Several separate groups gradually converged until the surface of the river was black with ducks. As the sun rose, we were able to fully appreciate the fine plumage details of the birds on the closest edge of the flock. One handsome drake obligingly settled on the water just 25m from us, almost as if he understood that we would appreciate a closer look. Nial estimated that 400K-450K Baikal Teals were present. The low calls emanating from such a large number of birds gave an effect much like the roar of a distant busy motorway.
We spent the rest of the morning searching the river for Swan Geese, including the northern (Chungcheongnam-do) shore, carefully checking all groups of Whooper Swans or Taiga Bean Geese, but without success. Nial guessed that the group which had been seen flying off the previous day could have been migrating north. There were thousands of Eurasian White-fronts on the river. As we scanned from below the expressway bridge, we shared the river bank with a couple who had lit a fire and were performing shamanist rituals. Later, several km upstream, we found a nice spot (just to the west of the first bridge beyond the expressway), where we were able to study a large flock of Eurasian White-fronted and Taiga Bean Geese, including a few Lesser White-fronts. A pair of Grey-headed Woodpeckers also gave excellent views at this location.
By early afternoon we were getting worried – it was beginning to look as if we would fail to see one of our key targets, one that we had believed would be relatively easy. We decided to try the Imjin-gang instead.
We travelled north up the expressway and into Gyeonggi-do, once again passing between Incheon and Seoul, where austere-looking apartment blocks lined both sides of the road. We crossed the Han-gang and joined the busy road which follows the eastern bank northwards. After about 20km, the Imjin-gang joins from the northeast, and the river turns west towards the Yellow Sea. The Odusan Dora Unification Observatory, on a prominent hill near the confluence, provides views across the rivers to the North Korean ‘propaganda village’ of Gijong-dong.
The main road continues along the shore of the Imjin-gang, with North Korea on the opposite bank. There is a tall fence alongside the road, patrolled by troops, with watchposts every few hundred metres. As the road is a dual carriageway, we had to drive beyond the area of interest, and undertake a U-turn in order to get onto the carriageway alongside the fence. Nial briefed us that whenever we stopped on the inside lane of the road, we would need to be quick, scanning the shore for geese as discretely as possible, as we would rapidly be ordered to move on by the sentries. The tide was low, and the mud flats were almost completely covered with large dirty piles of accumulated ice. The freezing wind, the intimidating location, and the traffic rushing past, all combined to give a very hostile atmosphere. We did find some geese huddled amongst the ice, but all were asleep and difficult to identify. I considered that there was little chance of finding any Swan Geese in such adverse conditions, and was ready to call it a day. But Nial had not lost hope – he suggested that we turn around again, and try further up river.
We drove northeast to the bridge which crosses th river from Munsan to Imjin-gak. We turned around at the bridge and made more stops along the road as we again followed the river southwest. At one point, two White-naped Cranes were visible just over a small ridge. Nial suddenly exclaimed that he had briefly seen the head and neck of a Swan Goose in the same area. With adrenaline flowing, we leapt out of the car and swiftly set up ’scopes and tripods. Viewing was made quite difficult by the combination of the wire fencing and a low sun, and we could not relocate the bird. At that point a soldier emerged from a nearby watchpost to order us to move. I felt absolutely gutted, as we had come so close to success. But Nial was undeterred – speaking in Korean, he explained how long we had searched for this bird, and pleaded with the sentry to turn a blind eye for just a few minutes. Miraculously the sentry agreed. We soon found that several Swan Geese were present, but before we could study them properly, they took flight and landed several hundred metres downstream. We quickly re-found them, in an inlet close to the fence. There were about 25 in total and they gave excellent views as they waded in the shallow water. Surprisingly, a single drake Baikal Teal was with them. One of the Swan Geese was wearing a neck-collar marked ‘R90’ – this bird had recently been wintering on the Geum-gang, lending some credence to Nial’s hypothesis that the previous day’s flock had moved north. Other birds by the river included a few Eurasian Black Vultures and White-tailed Eagles, and a single immature Steller’s Sea Eagle.
With the day’s tensions quickly forgotten, we visited an attractive stretch of river in a wintry landscape near Jeongok. Ducks on the river included Ruddy Shelduck, Common Goldeneye and Goosander, but unfortunately no Scaly-sided Mergansers. Other birds present included a White-tailed Eagle, a Hen Harrier, a Short-eared Owl, abundant Vinous-throated Parrotbills, and several Pallas’s Reed Buntings. As we departed at dusk, several villagers equiped with stoves and provisions were making their way along the river-bank, preparing to spend the night outdoors to celebrate the first full moon since the Lunar New Year (Seollal).
In Jeongok, we stayed at the N Motel. Dinner was particularly appreciated, as the day’s hectic pace had precluded even a brief lunch stop. It seemed to be Nial’s first experience of clients who were trying to starve him! We celebrated our memorable day with some soju (as well as the usual beers).
Thu 24th Feb: NE River; Gwangneung; Ingmun; Cheorwon
Another early start: we drove to a site in Gangwon-do where a number of Scaly-sided Mergansers had been wintering, hoping that they would still be present. Upon arrival at the river, the first few sawbills checked were Goosanders, but then we saw a stunning pair of Scaly-sided Mergansers swimming and diving near the bank. We watched them at close range, as they climbed out onto a tiny protruding rock, posing perfectly until, after several minutes, they were spooked by a White-tailed Eagle. A little further along the river, we located at least seven more. Other birds included Falcated Duck, Common Goldeneye, Japanese Wagtail, and a flock of Asian Azure-winged Magpies.
We travelled back into Gyeonggi-do to visit the National Arboretum at Gwangneung, approached along a narrow icy road (admission W1000=£0.54/person + W3000=£1.63 parking). We soon located a wintering Solitary Snipe a short distance upstream from the bridge adjacent to the entrance. It provided superb views as it first bobbed in the shallow water, and then climbed onto the bank and fell asleep. A stroll around the snow-covered grounds revealed a couple of smart Naumann’s Thrushes and an Asiatic Chipmunk. Other birds included Asian Marsh, Varied and Japanese Tits, and Rustic Buntings. We heard a woodpecker, but Nial quickly explained that although the arboretum is a good site for ’peckers, the sound was a recording played over loudspeakers within the grounds to create the right ambience! Beware also of the model White-bellied Woodpecker (almost certainly extinct in South Korea), mounted high on a tree trunk beside the entrance gate. A migrating flock of about 50 White-naped Cranes flew over to the north – we reflected on the fact that we had probably last seen the same birds at Arasaki three weeks earlier.
It was time to look for for our last major target, Siberian Accentor. It had been a poor winter for the species in South Korea, so we were not particularly optimistic. First we tried along a snow-covered road leading to an army camp near Pocheon, which ran alongside some suitably weedy vegetation. But there was little bird activity – a few Rufous Turtle Doves and Meadow Buntings, and an Eastern Buzzard. The ROK and US armed forces were very evident in this area, with slow-moving convoys and even tracked vehicles on the roads, and frequent military traffic control points.
We headed north to a river near Ingmun, and walked along the snow-covered banks. Within a kilometre, we reached a particularly promising spot close to a bridge, which had extensive tangled, weedy vegetation on both banks, and a chilli pepper field nearby (Nial had explained that these were particularly favoured by the accentors). There was a lot of passerine activity, including large numbers of Meadow and Rustic Buntings, and a few Daurian Redstarts, Vinous-throated Parrotbills, Bramblings, Grey-capped Greenfinches and Pallas’s Reed Buntings. Eventually Nial caught a glimpse of a Siberian Accentor, and within a few moments we had found seven birds, quietly feeding together. Those were indeed Red Hot Chilli Peppers! Other birds included Mandarin and Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, Goosander, Great White Egret, Green Sandpiper, Mongolian Gull and Common Kingfisher. It was a pleasant spot to bird despite the intense military activity overhead – helicopters constantly droned past, while higher up, was the roar of fighter jets engaged in Air Combat Manoeuvres, from time to time ejecting salvoes of infra-red decoy flares.
Very pleased that we had now seen all of our main targets, we decided to drive north to the edge of the 4km-wide De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), where there was a slim chance of finding Upland Buzzard. On the way we passed a pig farm which had attracted a large kettle of Eurasian Black Vultures. The Cheorwon Basin proved to be a beautiful area, with views of mountains both to the east and across the nearby border to the north (the 2nd North Korean infiltration tunnel was discovered here in 1975). We soon encountered small groups of White-naped and Red-crowned Cranes as we scanned the wintry landscape. Eventually we reached a checkpoint beyond which a permit (only available by prior arrangement) is required. But once again Nial worked his charm with the military: the Korean sentry summoned the NCO in charge, and after a few minutes of animated discussion, we were presented with a pass for our vehicle and waved through. We birded along the snow-covered road for a few kilometres, as far as a second checkpoint which barred further progress. The road passed a feeding site where animal carcasses are put out for Eurasian Black Vultures, but the day’s activity was largely over, and only a few loafing vultures remained. We checked the few buzzards in the area but unsurprisingly failed to find an Upland. A snowy field had attracted a small flock of Daurian Jackdaws, including several pied individuals. At one point, we encountered a flock of ~200 Meadow Buntings beside the road (possibly the largest flock yet reported in South Korea), and many Rustic Buntings were also present. While we were watching the buntings, a local bird photographer, Jin Ik-Tea, approached us in a 4WD vehicle – he had recognised Nial from a TV appearance, and presented some postcards of his favourite shots taken at Cheorwon. As we left the area, many cranes were flying off to roost – Nial estimated 80 White-naped and 30 Red-crowned in total.
At the end of a wonderful last full day in Korea, we set off on the drive back south to Incheon. The plan had been to say farewell to Nial, and then find a hotel close to the airport, in readinesss for our flight home the next day. However Nial had decided to remain in the area overnight, and visit the Song-do tidal flats (on the south of Incheon) the next morning, to perform a recce for an iminent tour. We decided that, as long as Nial could tolerate us for another night, it would make sense to accompany him – we could drive Nial to his motel, and then to/from the tidal flats, while we would enjoy a little extra birding, and also avoid the hassle of independently finding an airport hotel. That agreed, we checked-in to the Hotel Sisily in Song-do, and then enjoyed a final (rather alcoholic) restaurant meal together.
After a lazy (08:00) start, we drove the short distance to the promenade at Song-do and ’scoped the gulls on the tidal flats. The tide was receding rapidly and the gulls were therefore some distance away, but Nial was able to quickly verify that at least seven Relict Gulls were still present, as hoped. 200+ Saunders’s Gulls were also there, together with many Black-tailed and Vega. Other birds included Common Shelduck, Dunlin and a few Eastern Oystercatchers.
Back at the motel, we thanked Nial for a memorable few days in South Korea, and wished him well in his conservation work. We had enjoyed fabulous views of all seven of our Korean targets, and of many other much-sought-after species too. We drove back into Incheon City and onto the expressway for the drive to the airport. We returned the car to Avis, having completed 1887km since arriving in Korea (more than twice the distance we had driven in Kyushu, in half the time).
At check-in, we were informed that our KLM flight had been delayed by 90 minutes, but that our connection at Schiphol should still be OK. As we waited, we resisted the temptation to buy some kimchi, on sale at several of the airport souvenir shops. The 747-400 was not full, and we were able to spread out a little and get some sleep. But we had not escaped the kimchi – both meals served on the flight included an individually-packaged portion! The Fokker 70 cityhop to Bristol, was again packed with tired-looking businessmen (but sadly, kimchi was unavailable on this flight).
The trip was hugely enjoyable, both for the birds and for the insights into the Japanese and Korean cultures. There were of course some disappointments. We were rather careless in not seriously targeting Green Pheasant in southern Kyushu, but this should be recoverable on a spring visit; and we should clearly have persevered longer in our search for Japanese Murrelet. It was unfortunate that certain irregular winter visitors (Siberian White Crane, Japanese Waxwing, Pallas’s Rosefinch) were either absent or scarce. Perhaps the greatest disappointments were the Pacific ferry crossings where we just seemed to have bad luck, although once again a subsequent spring visit should provide a second chance for the birds missed. Against that, we were pleased to see some species that cannot always be guaranteed (Baer’s Pochard, Copper Pheasant, Red-faced Cormorant, Rock Sandpiper), and we were relieved to quite easily find some others that we had imagined could prove more difficult. The short extension to South Korea was a great success, and provided a spectacular end to the trip.
Looking ahead, we are determined to return one year for a late spring/early summer visit. The logistics of such a trip will inevitably be more complex, with the need to visit several outlying islands in addition to Kyushu, Honshu and Hokkaido. But the experience of our winter trip has totally allayed any concerns about travel and survival in Japan. And then there’s the lure of Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann’s Greenshank in South Korea. Life’s too short!