Photos with this report (click to enlarge)
Red-capped Green Pigeon
Narita, Karuizawa, Ukishima Marsh and ferry to Hokkaido
The trip was scheduled for January 30th to 17th February 2005 and began when I landed at Narita airport, south-east of Tokyo, after a 12-hour flight from the UK. I took the free bus to the Holiday Inn, on the way seeing flowering camellias and small bamboo trees. It was at the Holiday Inn that I was to meet Armas Hill of Focus on Nature Tours (FONT). He had told me to ask at the desk for him. I duly did so but the desk attendant did not understand what I wanted and tried to book me in to the hotel. I declined his offer and went to sit on one of the chairs in the foyer and see whether Armas turned up. He did say he might not be there because he would be getting our first vehicle of the trip. After a few minutes wait an American came up to me and asked if I was waiting for someone. I said who I was and so met Armas. A few minutes later we were joined by a couple from Texas, although originally from Ireland, Claire and Ian, and we sat and chatted whilst we waited for the other three people of the party to arrive. Peter was next to arrive, hailing from The Netherlands and we decided to investigate the birds of the Holiday Inn carpark. At first bit seemed quiet but soon we had a Brown Thrush and a small party of Brown-eared Bulbuls, both lifers for me. The far end of the carpark held a fine male Daurian Redstart and a Dusky Thrush flew in and out of the bamboo trees. A Black-backed Wagtail showed in a small garden and about five Japanese White-eyes called from a treetop soon to fly over our heads and away. Two birds on a telegraph wire proved to be White-eared Starlings and finally a Pale Thrush was found feeding in leaf litter beneath a row of bushes. That made eight lifers for me, all in a hotel carpark. A good start but nothing that we were not to see again.
About and hour and half after Peter arrived the last two of the group arrived: Graham and Hemme, respectively an Englishman residing in Vienna and a chap from The Netherlands. Graham told me he was somewhat surprised to see Claire, Ian and myself as he had understood he had arranged a private trip for himself and his Dutch friends.
So, we were at gathered. We loaded the van and sat in the rather cramped seats ready for the off. We were aiming for the town of Karuizawa, north-east of Tokyo, in the mountains. En route we were to stop at an area of mudflats. We got rather lost trying to find this site but, after some back-tracking, we found the place: Yatsu Hagata Park. 'Scopes up and we began to check out the mud and water. Our second taste of Japan was akin to being back home! About 250 Dunlins, three Sanderlings, two Greenshanks, 50 Grey Plovers, 200 Eurasian Wigeons, 150 Common Teals, 50 Northern Shovelers, 100 Northern Pintails and 100 Black-headed Gulls. A hint of the exotic, at least for me, was present in the form of about 100 Kentish Plovers and two Black-winged Stilts. Cormorants were examined closely and judged to be Great Cormorants, but a lone gull proved to be a Vega Gull. The most interesting sight was what looked like a Northern Pintail x Northern Shoveler hybrid.
We decided to walk to another viewing area, getting Black-backed Wagtail, Dusky Thrush and Oriental Turtle-dove on the way. We then added Grey Heron, Little Grebe, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and a Common Sandpiper. Some fleeting views of buntings were judged to be Eurasian Reed-bunting. As expected, the birds seen earlier in the carpark were seen again: Brown Thrush, Japanese White-eye, White-cheeked Starling and Brown-eared Bulbul.
Now for our roughly four-hour-drive to Karuizawa. We set off at about 4.30 and, after taking a few wrong turnings on the way and having to ask for directions, not helped by the fact that none of us spoke Japanese, reached snowy Karuizawa at about 11pm. It was then we discovered that Armas had not booked a hotel so we turned into the first one we saw, The Prince Hotel, and pulled up at the main entrance. Snow lay all around and it was pretty cold. We lurked in the hotel's reception area whilst Armas tried to negotiate a room-rate he was happy with. After half an hour or so we were taken to our cabin, which had four rooms, and quickly did the day's bird list. Then to bed after what felt like a very long day.
Dawn arrived in Karuizawa and we decided to walk around the grounds, which are pretty extensive, with cabins dotted around and quite a lot of trees. Large-billed Crow turned out to be the first bird of the day, soon followed by calling Eurasian Jay and a Hawfinch atop a tree. We stopped in a carpark to decide which way to go and I found a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, which kindly flew towards us and landed in a nearby tree. Here we also had Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit, Oriental Greenfinch, Coal Tit and Carrion Crow. Armas suggested a short drive to a wooded are he knew, a site I believe Graham had mentioned to him, for a look for Copper Pheasant. As we drove there a town sign told us the temperature was -6°C.
We reached out site, disembarked, and left Armas to park the van. We walked slowly up the icy hill, surrounded by snow-covered, wooded slopes. Very quickly I saw a bird fly towards us and alerted the others. It fortunately landed quite close by and we were treated to good views of a superb male Pallas's Rosefinch. I think it was Graham who then spotted a pair of griseiventris Common Bullfinches, with the red only on the throat and cheeks rather than the whole breast and onto the belly. This was a beautiful pair of birds and I was very pleased to see this race. The walk up a couple of paths in the wood was pretty uneventful: Eurasian Jay, flyover Red Crossbill, Brown-eared Bulbul and a Japanese Squirrel. Although it was very cold, especially when the wind blew in our faces the rosefinch and bullfinches made it a very worthwhile stop.
Back in town we picked up three Black(-eared) Kites, then it was back to the hotel for breakfast. The hotel has small lake and on/by this we picked up 15 Yellow-nibbed (Eastern Spot-billed) Ducks (split from Spot-billed), Grey Heron and Great Egret. Of course, being birders, we sat by the window whilst eating breakfast, binoculars to hand. Peter spotted a Japanese Green Woodpecker, which showed not to badly for some, but then disappeared into the trees.
After breakfast Armas was seen at the check-in desk and soon after we were told we were moving out of this hotel because of some problem with the room costs. Consequently we lost a fair amount of time as we drove down the mountain to find an alternative hotel. We did find a snow-free village, near our new hotel, in which we enjoyed watching a flock of about 25 Rustic Buntings and a Siberian Meadow Bunting. Driving around this area we also picked up Bull-headed Shrike and more of both buntings. A river gave us both Grey and Japanese Wagtails.
Our new hotel was nicely situated away from other habitation and surrounded by woods and steep rocky hills. As we waited in the carpark for Armas to check us in we found our first Varied Tit and Willow Tit. We decided to walk a little way down the road, which took us over stream, and soon had added Red-flanked Bluetail and Brown Dipper to the list. A nearby lake named Myogi-ko (ko means lake) added female Goosander, Mallard and Yellow-nibbed Duck but no Mandarins, a bird that stops here on migration and a few can usually be found overwintering. Not today however.
We drove back up the mountain to a hotel in Karuizawa Armas knew about that had active bird feeders. We spent a very nice hour of so watching birds come to the various feeders, mostly only a few feet away from us as we watched from behind large, floor-to-ceiling-windows and drank coffee. Eurasian Tree Sparrows fed on the snowy ground along with Oriental Turtle-doves, the fat-feeders attracted Great, Willow and Varied Tits plus Eurasian Nuthatch. The bird tables, as well as the tits, attracted some great birds: Japanese Grosbeaks (three individuals) and a Japanese Accentor. We also saw a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Oriental Greenfinches and a dark-looking Winter Wren.
Next we drove to a little-used road Armas knew of to see what birds we would come across. It was rather quiet along this road and we drove until we reached quite a steep hill. About half way up the hill the van began to slide and we had to get out. Despite pushing and trying a few more times the van would not get up this snowy hill. Funny in a way because a few other vehicles, including a coach, came past and made it up easily! They all seemed to have at least winter tyres if not snow chains, however, and many were equipped with 4-wheel drive. Perhaps Armas had failed to tell the car rental company that we would be going to the mountains? At any rate we did suggest ignoring the Drive option of the automatic gearbox and trying second and first but that was to be tried later. Graham decided to walk along the road towards the next town, getting Long-tailed Rosefinches and more Eurasian Bullfinches on the way, showing the value of walking against 'rallycross birding' from a car. At the base of the hill the rest of us found a hotel. After walking around for a while, picking up Brown Dipper on a small stream, and Bramblings, Great and Willow Tits on a birdtable by the hotel entrance, we went into the hotel (The Park Hotel) and they kindly gave us green tea as we sat at the window watching our van disappear up the road on another attempt to defeat the hill, only to reappear again a few minutes later. This went on for about three or so hours until the determined Armas used the suggested technique of dropping down to second, then first, and got the van up the hill. One of the people at the Park Hotel then kindly gave us a lift up the hill to the van. By this time it was getting dark and the (unnecessary) hotel change and getting stuck in the snow had cost us most of our only day in Karuizawa, which was a great pity. We later learned that several flocks of Baikal Teal were present in the area and had we been equipped with a more suitable van we should have had no trouble in reaching the lakes where they were spending the winter.
Next morning we did an early walk up a sometimes-very-slippery mountain path, running alongside a small river. A Red-flanked Bluetail was again found as were a pair of Eurasian Jays. After breakfast we birded around the carpark and the bridge over the stream and picked up another Japanese Accentor, a Japanese Green Woodpecker, Daurian Redstart, Varied Tit and a female Long-tailed Rosefinch.
We then drove back to the lake used by Mandarins on migration. This time we found some wintering Mandarins, about 40: it was nice to see genuine wild Mandarins. Yellow-nibbed Ducks were again present along with a few Mallards. An interesting passerine caught my eye as we drove along and I shouted for Armas to stop. We reversed to the bird and Hemme identified it as a male Grey Bunting. Abandon van! The bird showed well in binoculars but was very mobile and unphotographable. After seeing this bird we were distracted when Graham spotted a Crested Kingfisher flying over the water. We tracked this bird down and Graham found it's perch in a tree above the lake - a very good-looking bird.
Back in the village where we had seen the Rustic Buntings the previous day, we drove through the narrow streets and alongside orchards and fields. We picked up another 30 or so Rustic Buntings and a few Meadow Buntings plus 10 Oriental Greenfinches and a Brambling. A nearby river added another Mandarin and a Brown Dipper and we had good views of a Common Buzzard of the race japonicus, which several groups believe is a distinct species. From the van Peter spotted our first Japanese Macaque, the world's most northerly living non-human primate and one often see on wildlife programmes bathing in hot springs. We stopped to watch it and soon realised there was a large group of about 30 individuals, mostly sunning themselves on a concrete bridge. Armas dropped us off and drove off to turn around, although I don't know why. He then drove past us to turn around again in the nearby town. Nearly an hour later he came to pick us up after being stopped by the police for doing an illegal U-turn! Sadly this meant that yet more time lost in what was to become a pattern on the trip. We drove down the rest of the mountain and onto the expressway heading for Tokyo. A brief lunch stop at a service station gave us Dusky Thrush, a female Daurian Redstart, three Meadow Buntings and about 100 Eurasian Tree Sparrows.
We were aiming for Oarai where we were to catch the ferry to Tomakomai on Hokkaido. En route we stopped at Ukishima Marsh (after a brief stop by a ricefield to add Northern Lapwing to our Japan list), an area of ponds, reedbeds, farmland and a river. Here we quickly found Eastern Marsh-harriers and Buff-bellied Pipits and our first Common Coots (about 150) and two Common Moorhens. The cormorants here were mostly Temminck's with only the odd Great amongst them. Driving around the fields as the sun set we added our first Merlin, 30 Grey Herons, a Great Egret and a couple of Black (-eared) Kites. Then it was off to Oarai for our 23.59 sailing.
February 4th dawned and our first stop was Utonai-ko. There is a nice nature centre here with feeders, many books, both in their for-visitors library and to buy (although they don't take credit cards or foreign currency), and a heated floor. The feeders brought the birds close and we admired Great, Willow and Marsh Tits, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Common Nuthatch, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Also here, but no at feeders, we saw Black Kites, Dusky Thrushes and Large-billed Crows, and, on the actual lake 34 Whooper Swans and about 150 Northern Pintails. The biggest surprise was a Black-billed Magpie seen in Tomakomai, probably an introduced bird.
Now it was time for the drive across Hokkaido to the town of Akan. En route we kept our eyes open and were rewarded when Graham spotted some eagles and we stopped to admire our first, if a bit distant, Steller's Sea-eagles, two adults, and a White-tailed Eagle. Common Buzzard was the only other bird of note seen on the drive.
Steller's Sea Eagle
As we approached Akan we scanned the fields in the hope of finding our first Red-crowned Cranes. We saw none driving into Akan and were soon stopped in a carpark and then walking into a building that turned out to be the crane-feeding centre of the area. The actual cranes, although very good to see, where a bit of a disappointment as it felt like watching captive ducks in a wildfowl reserve. The birds are admittedly very close and separated from the watcher only by a chest-high concrete wall. They are fed regularly during the winter and have become rather used to humans. In total we saw between 130 and 160 of these rare birds. Also here were a couple of White-tailed Eagles, left over from the feeding session earlier that afternoon, about 50 Eurasian Tree Sparrows and a Black-backed Wagtail.
As we were leaving Armas said he had got the last three rooms in a nearby hotel. This meant I had to share a room with him, although I had paid single supplement. Still, anything to help out, and Armas did say he'd ask again at the front desk to ensure there were no more rooms.. As I waited for our room to be prepared Graham walked past and told me the room he was supposed to share with our two Dutch friends was too small so he'd asked at the desk and they'd given him another room. As you can imagine I was slightly put out by this piece of news and by the fact that the tour leader had apparently lied to me to save money. I gave him the benefit of the doubt (although I am not sure there was any doubt) and we shared a room as Graham reclined in splendid isolation.
Next morning, February 5th, we did a walk around the town and the crane place. Only a single crane was seen this time but we did pick up eight Whooper Swans, a Eurasian Treecreeper, two Goldcrests and a Great Tit, plus the ubiquitous Large-billed Crow. After breakfast we drove to Kushiro and birded a river, where we saw a flock of Goosanders and about 50 European Goldeneye and some Eurasian Wigeon. Next stop was Akkeshi Bay where we were soon watching beautiful Harlequins and Long-tailed Ducks. 'Scoping the sea added good views of a flock of about 300 Black Scoters, about 200 distant Red-breasted Mergansers, Glaucous and Slaty-backed Gulls and some distant Steller's Sea-eagles plus a Kurile Seal.
Our next stop was a headland near the town of Kiritappu. Despite being cold this was a good stop with more Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Slaty-backed Gulls, about 10 Dusky Thrushes and a bonus bird in the form of a grey-phase Gyrfalcon - thanks to Peter for that one. The sea was good with small flocks of Harlequins and Black Scoters being common on the water, alongside Pelagic Cormorants and five male and two females of the distinctive stejnegeri race of Velvet or White-winged Scoter - surely a species in its own right.
Continuing along the coast we briefly saw a small flock of Asian Rosyfinches fly across the front of the van but couldn't relocate them. A little later we found another flock of this species, this time about 100 individuals. We stopped and walked to where they had been seen, on a windy and cold field on a hill, and were soon watching these sometimes flightly birds fly between small bushes and open ground where they were feeding. They gave excellent views and are very good-looking birds.
As we drove through and past Nemuro, where the Russian Kurile Islands are so close that many of the road signs are in Japanese and Russian, we saw a small flock of gulls, comprising Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Slaty-backed, and admired eight sitting and flying Steller's Sea-eagles and three White-tailed Eagles. As the light began to go we drove to a nearby site Armas knew. The entrance was marked with a small sign with an owl on it. We parked and waited. Darkness fell and our only entertainment was a barking dog. Another car arrived and they too sat there waiting. Someone came out of a house, spoke to Armas, and went back in again. As we had almost given up hope a man appeared and took the three birders that had arrived after us off into the darkness. A couple of minutes later they returned and drove off. We were then ushered only a few metres from the van and had our gaze directed along the path of a beam from a fairly weak torch. At the end of this was a post and on the post was a Blakiston's Eagle-owl! As we watched another bird flew in and displaced the first. Unfortunately photography was not allowed. After a few minuted both birds flew off and we heard them calling. We were mightily relieved to be successful with the owl.
Slaty-backed Gulls and Glaucous Gullls
We spent the night at the Notsuke Horse Riding Farm, a delightful and very Japanese hotel run by very nice people.
Next morning a scan across the bay to the peninsular that curves out into the sea gave us Slaty-backed and Glaucous Gulls, Red-breasted Mergansers and Goosanders, European Goldeneyes, nine distant Steller's Sea-eagles and Long-tailed Ducks. The area around the hotel gave us Eurasian Tree Sparrows.
We drove up the coast a little way to another fishing village where we saw a raft of duck by the harbour arm. We found a good place to park on the snow-covered waterfront and scanned the ducks. There were about 206 Greater Scaup and two male Falcated Ducks. A bit further out were a few Goosanders and close in we found a family of Whooper Swans. Further grilling of the flock added two male and one female Northern Shoveler, a pair of Northern Pintail and a peculiar-looking female Pochard that may have been a hybrid but which could not be turned into a Canvasback!
Next we drove the length of the peninsular. The gulls were mostly Slaty-backed and Glaucous, with a few Common (Kamchatka) Gulls. For those of us used to seeing one or two Glaucous Gulls at a time or in a year the sight of what was eventually hundreds was impressive. Steller's Sea-eagles were also abundant, mostly sitting out on the frozen water of the inner bay. We were to see at least 100 of these birds today. There were far fewer White-tailed Eagles around but those that were showed well as they stayed on the land rather than out on the ice. We also picked up three Dunlin of the sakhalinensis race. The sea on the unfrozen Kurile side of the peninsular held both Black and Stejneger's Scoter and Red-breasted Merganser. Passerines were rare and we saw only six Oriental Greenfinches, about 30 Asian Rosyfinches and, of course, Large-billed Crows.
Back on the main coast road we again headed north, this time to Chisho where we were again soon standing on the edge of the water checking the large gull flocks and hunting for seabirds. As ever, Slaty-backed and Glaucous Gulls were abundant, with the occasional Glaucous-winged Gull being sighted. We had one target bird here and it was proving very elusive. As we searched we found Harlequins, pelagic Cormorant and both Common and Brunnich's Guillemots. Armas announced he had found our target bird, a Spectacled Guillemot. A few minutes searching failed to produce the bird but our persistence paid off when it was finally relocated and eventually seen by all, albeit rather distantly. We managed to find another as we tried to get everyone on the first bird.
At another stop, yet further up the coast, we found another Spectacled Guillemot, one presumed Pacific Diver, Harlequins and more Steller's Sea-eagles. A head appeared above the water and some of us managed to see the huge body of a female Steller's Sealion. Not as large as the male but still noticeably larger than the Kurile Seals we were occasionally finding.
During a brief stop on a bridge overlooking a river we picked up a new gull for Hokkaido, Black-headed Gull, plus four male and a female Smew.
Heading back down the coast to our hotel we saw lots more Steller's Sea-eagles in trees overlooking the road and sea and a few White-tailed Eagles. A Brown Dipper was seen on a river, as were yet more Steller's. At a further stop in another fishing town, where we were again checking the harbour, we noticed what looked like a group of cormorants along a rather distant harbour arm. We drove round to as near as we could get and, as the sun was going down, watched 1000+ Pelagic Cormorants and 101 Goosanders. Also here, Ian spotted our first Tufted Duck amongst a group of Greater Scaup.
The morning of the 7th of February dawned and we were soon on our way to Kushiro for our flight to Haneda, Tokyo. We did a non-stop drive and were soon sitting in the airport waiting for Armas to get us booked in. We waited for over half an hour until Armas appeared and announced that there was a problem. We heard some rather confused story about the flights being on JAL's computer but we could not fly because we didn't have hardcopy tickets and that it was not possible to e-ticket internal flights in Japan from the US, despite, we were told, Armas's travel agent having done so. The key point came when Armas told us he had to buy tickets and could afford only four of the seven. At first we sat there in shock, not really believing what we were being told. However, the choice was clear *ndash; no pay, no flight! Graham told us later that he had heard many rumours that Armas was known to run out of money during trips but none of us could have suspected the extent of this problem.
After Armas had promised to repay me promptly I put the three tickets on my credit card and we left Hokkaido. On arrival at Haneda we went to the bullet train station where it turned out that Armas had not booked tickets and so we were seven tickets short with a leader with no money. Out came the credit card again and two hours later we were in Kyoto. We later found out that Armas's technique for funding the trip was to have some kind of credit/charge card account into which his wife put money each day. He then used that money to get us around and pay for food. On Mondays, it was Sunday in the US so no money was transferred although we couldn't see how a Monday could come as a surprise. Nevertheless, Armas' card seemed to work when he came to hire a van and after a lengthy wait at the airport (another unfortunate pattern of the trip) we were asked to load up in a cramped van that we were assured was the largest available. We drove straight to the Sunbridge Hotel, Imazu, at the north end of Lake Bi-wa.
Our first morning at Lake Bi-wa dawned wet and grey but some of us were up at dawn and soon scanning the lake. There were quiet a few ducks about: Goosander, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler and Smew (three males) and Yellow-nibbed, plus Great Crested Grebes. In the grounds of the hotel, from our balcony viewpoint, we had Dusky and Pale Thrushes, White-cheeked Starling, Black-backed Wagtail, Little Egret and a flyby Merlin. A smallish bird caught my attention and in checking it found our first Long-billed Plover at the edge of a small pool.
After breakfast we drove north around the lakeside to Makino where we again scanned the lake. Falcated Ducks were quite common and as well as the species we had seen this morning we added Slavonian Grebe, Temnminck's Cormorant, Great Egret and Black-tailed Gull plus a female Daurian Redstart and a Japanese Wagtail. At another lakeside stop further on we found a lone male Mandarin, the usual ducks, a single Red-flanked Bluetail and our first Black-faced Bunting. We had hardly got moving in the van again when we saw a group of passerines by the roadside and quickly got out. The birds flew on a way and we decided to weather the rain and to walk a little way along. We had found a mixed flock of birds comprising Black-faced Buntings, Great, Varied and Long-tailed Tits, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, a 'hondoensis' Great Spotted Woodpecker, with buffy face and breast, and, surprisingly, our third Japanese Accentor of the trip! We also had a fly-past Grey Wagtail.
Next stop was some farmed fields where we admired five Grey-headed Lapwings, both in flight and on the ground, and watched a Bull-headed Shrike. After one photo of the lapwing my camera stopped working, I think due to the damp. It started working again later after it warmed up. Most irritating!
Another stop and we added Taiga Bean Geese to the trip list. A stop by a harbour jutting out in the lake surprised us because we found about 10 Barn Swallows feeding by the harbour arm. Another bird of note here was Black-necked Grebe.
Next we went to a couple of lakes Armas knew where he was sure we'd see Baikal Teal. The first one had a lot of wildfowl on it: Mallard, Yellow-nibbed Duck, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Common Teal, Bean Geese, Gadwall and two male and three female Smew. Despite intensive searching we failed to locate a Baikal Teal but Peter found a Northern Goshawk. Just as we were to leave, some of the group already in the van, I found a White's Thrush. Peter was near and saw it and then he ran to the van to get the others. The bird showed nicely but only in flight, but at least we all saw it. The second lake was much smaller and held mainly a couple of hundred Common Teal. We also drove, rather randomly it seemed, along small roads looking for Green Pheasant. We did see a flock of 20 or so Meadow Buntings but no pheasants.
February 9th, our last morning in the Bi-wa area before our flight to Kagoshima on Kyushu. We worked hard to find a Scaly-sided Merganser but despite checking all the mergansers we saw were unlucky. I decided to count Falcated Ducks today and the morning gave us 91 males and 24 females, although the females were most likely undercounted. We did add new species to the trip list: a male Red-crested Pochard, which is very unusual in Japan, and eight Olive-backed Pipits. Graham also located another White's Thrush, this time feeding quite close to the road, and we spent a while admiring this bird as it feed in the open only a few metres away.
We dropped off the van at Kyoto and caught the bus to the airport in Osaka. Armas again had insufficient funds to cover the flights and this time Peter picked up the bill for five flights to Kagoshima and five flights from Kagoshima to Amami! Ian paid for his and Claire's flights as they wanted return tickets: they planned to spend some time in Kyoto after visiting Kyushu instead of accompanying us to the southern islands.
On the flight down from Osako to Kagoshima we asked Armas whether we could pick up the van at the airport and drive to a hotel near the crane site. He agreed and left us at the airport to get the vehicle. An hour or so later he returned with a small vehicle, too small for us plus luggage together and said he'd got a local hotel. We did the trip in two goes and were eventually ensconced in our business hotel. It might have been a cheap hotel but the restaurant was, although small, very authentic Japanese and served good food.
Because we were still near the airport we had a early start in our rather small vehicle. Driver and passenger in the front, three of us in the middle and two in the back, blocked in by the middle seats. We had quite a problem with misted windows for a lot of the morning. It was raining when we arrived in Izumi, an area of flat farmland, and we were soon seeing lots of cranes flying in the distance. We were soon out and watching hundreds of close Hooded and White-naped Cranes. Many had been attracted to food that had been put out for them but the whole feel of the place and the birds was of truly wild birds. Apparently amongst the hordes were a Common Crane, a Demoiselle Crane and a Sandhill Crane. Sadly no Siberian Cranes had turned up this year. Finding these individuals in such a large area and amongst 2000 White-naped and 9000 Hooded Cranes spread over a large area seemed difficult to say the least. However, our luck was in and helped by Pete Morris, who was leading a Birdquest trip but was nevertheless more than willing to point out birds to us, we soon had both the Common and the Demoiselle Crane on our list plus a bird that looked like a hybrid Common x Hooded Crane. No sign of the Sandhill though. Also taking advantage of the free food were Black-backed Wagtails, Oriental Greenfinches, Buff-bellied Pipits and Japanese Skylarks. We had a bonus in the form of a immature Red-crowned Crane, the first in this area for many years, and there was a Peregrine sitting in a field on a mud ridge. I am not sure what prey species it had in mind! We also had our first Cattle Egrets of the trip plus Little and Great Egrets and Grey Herons, all rather dwarfed by the cranes.
We then drove to another site that was good for cranes to see whether the Sandhill was there. It wasn't but we spent a while admiring hundreds if not thousands more of both Hooded and White-naped Cranes. A truly impressive spectacle.
We spent the rest of the day in this area, mostly working the fields but a couple of times checking nearby river mouths for gulls and waders. As well as the cranes we were hoping to see Daurian Jackdaw amongst the Rooks. There were hundreds of Rooks scattered about and during the day we checked them all. Alas, no Daurian Jackdaw. The fields gave us Oriental Turtle-doves (over 100 seen during the day), Eurasian Reed-buntings and Oriental Greenfinches. A short wet and muddy walk across a field added a few Common Snipe. A small bird seen feeding along a mud ridge turned out to be a male Chestnut-eared Bunting, soon to be joined by another male. A female Blue Rock-thrush was found by Graham as we drove along the concreted edge of the area, where it borders a river. The tide was in and the river held only a few Mallards, Northern Pintails and Eurasian Wigeons.
Next we drove to another river area where there are reed beds, small open pools, a mud-edged river and some scrubby bushes. Eurasian Reed-buntings were seen as was a Japanese Bush Warbler. I noticed some small birds in the most distant reeds and went back to the car to get my 'scope. A worthwhile trip since the small birds comprised a couple of Japanese White-eyes and our target species here, Chinese Penduline-tits. At least 12 of these birds were seen working their way along the edge of the reeds and back again. Also here we picked up Black-faced and Meadow Buntings. A little further up the road we went for a short walk. Peter was ahead of us by a few metres and suddenly beckoned urgently saying he'd just seen a pheasant and it had gone into the long grass in front of him. Fortunately for us the grass, although too deep to see the bird, was not extensive and bordered the river so the bird had nowhere to go except back towards us, which it did it typical pheasant way, exploding from the grass and flying over our heads. It was a male Green Pheasant and we were all very pleased to have run across this bird.
Time for another estuary and by now the tide had receded and there were birds to look at. On the shingley mud were gulls and ducks so up went the 'scopes and the grilling began. Black-tailed, Slaty-backed and Vega Gulls were quickly identified and some discussion was made of whether a couple of the birds were Heuglin's Gulls. We noted the features and later confirmed that they were indeed of that species. The ducks were entirely Eurasian Wigeon except for a single male American Wigeon that Graham found. Three Ospreys cruised over our heads and five Olive-backed Pipits were scared up from the grass by the path and flew off into nearby buildings.
As the tide was now low, we checked another river and saw our first Common Kingfisher plus hundreds of Eurasian Wigeons. Then it was back to where we first started to ask about our other target species. We received positive news and were soon up on the concrete wall overlooking now-exposed mud. Immediately we all saw our target birds: four Black-faced Spoonbills. We marched a few hundred metres along the road, hidden by the concrete wall until we found a gap. 'Scopes up and we watched the four individuals of this rare species feeding and occasionally flying. We were all very pleased to have seen this species. Also in the immediate area were 3 Little Egrets, 16 Kentish Plovers and five Dunlins, and on the fields behind us we could see the Peregrine of this morning, a group of 16 Grey Herons and a Great Egret and Northern Lapwing.
Finally we drove back to the first crane site and we soon watching the Sandhill Crane - a six crane species day! I don't think there is anywhere else in the world that could happen.
The 11th February was our last day on Kyushu and we had two target species: Copper Pheasant and Japanese Murrelet. It was along drive to the mountainous region Armas thought we might get the pheasant. It's a lovely area with steep tree-covered slopes, the trees growing in patches of conifers, deciduous trees or bamboo. We stopped quite low down on one mountain to check a river valley and were rewarded with at least nine Yellow-throated Buntings and a male Grey Bunting. Peter found four Japanese Green Pigeons flying over and a male and two female Mandarin were on the river. A little further up we stopped again and had a Crested Kingfisher. A stop by a roadworks traffic light was fortuitous. I looked out of the window and saw a raptor against the skyline. 'That looks interesting' I said and we piled out to check out the bird. It was a Mountain Hawk-eagle, a bird rumoured to soon to be split into its own species, Hodgson's Hawk-eagle. The bird disappeared behind the mountain after only two of us had seen it! We waited, watching where it had gone when I saw another bird to the right. 'Here's another one' I called and sure enough another Mountain Hawk-eagle was coming past. Then the first one reappeared. This was great - a hard to get bird and a future split. Could it get better? It did. Both settled on a tree on the skyline and we spent quite a while 'scoping these birds as they sat in the open apparently enjoying the morning sun.
Further up the mountain we stopped in a village and saw about 30 Yellow-throated Buntings, a Brown Dipper and yet another Mountain Hawk-eagle! The rest of the morning was spent 'safari birding' - driving quickly up a mountain road and down the other side to where Armas had seen one Copper Pheasant in December. Needless to say we were not lucky. Time was moving on so we headed for the coast. Unfortunately Armas did not have a site for Japanese Murrelet other than a place where he'd been shown one a few years before. We tried scanning various bits of water from various heights but did not find the sparrow-sized auk we sought. It was not a bird one lucks into without local knowledge, and we subsequently heard that the Birdquest group had enjoyed excellent views of up to 15 individuals. We did pick up more Yellow-throated and Black-faced Buntings, Blue Rock-thrushes (five males and a female) and our first and only Eastern Reef-egret of the tour. Now to Amami, although without Ian and Claire.
On the morning of 12th February 2005 we had our only smooth ride through an airport for an internal flight because Peter had kindly bought the tickets in advance. We flew to Amami and spent a while looking for birds around the entrance to the airport as Armas was off finding a vehicle for us. We found a Dusky Thrush, a Nauman's Thrush and a Brown Thrush on a lawn and had good close views of a male Blue Rock-thrush. I also enjoyed seeing and listening to a singing Japanese White-eye. Armas arrived and again we were in a less-than-ideal car but Armas had said the hire place had no vans. We drove past the hire place and it had quite a few vans parked there. Maybe they were all booked. Who knows?
Blue Rock Thrush
The drive to our hotel in Naze gave us 8 Grey-faced Buzzards, usually on telegraph poles and a very brief view of a Lidth's Jay, which we stopped for but it had gone. Somewhere between the airport and Naze, in a town, we spotted another Lidth's Jay. We stopped and spent a great half hour or so watching a pair of these birds going to and from a nest hole in a tree and showing exceptionally well. This species is more normally associated with woodland and we did see a few in Amami's woods but the views were terrible. We were lucky to have found this pair. Also here were three Red-capped Green Pigeons (Sphenurus sieboldii - scientific name added because this bird seems to have lots of common names!).
In Naze we stopped at the hotel and Armas went in. We milled about for a bit until Armas came out and said we were going to another hotel, which we duly drove to. We unloaded at this hotel and checked in but were soon heading out again, aiming for Amami Virgin Forest at Kinsakubaru. We walked down a track surrounded by thick woodland including exotic-looking tree ferns. The woods were quiet but we did come across one mixed flock that comprised Japanese White-eyes, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Varied and Great Tits, Japanese Bush Warbler, Brown-eared Bulbul and a pair of Ruyuku Minivets, endemic to the Ruyuku Islands and a target species. We also found a couple of Phylloscopus warblers that we couldn't immediately identify. After getting the salient characteristics of these birds we concluded we had found Ijima's Willow Warbler, a bird that breeds only on the Izu islands of Japan and who's wintering areas are pretty much unknown. We eventually saw a few of these birds during our stay on Amami so believe that Amami is at least one wintering site. We also found another Red-capped Green Pigeon in a tree and saw at least ten Pale Thrushes on the track. We had another target bird that Armas said he had heard tapping. We carefully searched the area and found the owstoni race of White-backed Woodpecker. A potential split we believe. It certainly didn't look like a White-backed Woodpecker although it did behave and sound like one. A little further up the track we found another, which gave better views than the first although it was pretty well unphotographable. Finally, as we were at the car ready to leave, we heard a distant Japanese Black Woodpigeon.
We weren't done yet as we had to drive to Mount Yarno and look for Amami Woodcock after the sun had set. We were there before sunset and so walked around the area. As dusk arrived we heard both Northern Boobook (split from Brown Wood-owl) and Ruyuku Scops-owl. We also found Yellow-throated and Black-faced Bunting. We spent the next few hours driving around the roads of this mountain watching for woodcock on the muddy slopes. We had one woodcock species briefly shoot in front of us but that was it.
Next morning we set off at 5.30 to again walk through the woods of Amami Virgin Forest looking for Amami Thrush. We had two possible sightings. Possible because White's Thrush winters here as well. It was otherwise quiet with only 12 Pale Thrushes and a Japanese Wild Boar.
The next site was Amami Natural Forest, where it was raining a lot and very wet. The woods seemed very quiet and we did a short circuit returning to the information centre. Armas went into the centre but we decided to carry on walking round looking for our next target species. We were brought to an abrupt halt when a loud and melodious song suddenly pierced the silence. We scanned about and a couple of us lucked on brief views of our target bird: Ruyuku Robin, a startlingly beautiful bird and a real skulker! We waited about an hour for it to reappear and although we heard it singing a few times we could not relocate it. We headed back towards the info centre coming across another mixed flock of the usual suspects: Japanese White-eyes, Great and Varied Tits, Japanese Bush Warbler and Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker. Near the info centre is a playground for children, empty today because of the rain. Here we were lucky. Red-flanked Bluetail plus a male Ruyuku Robin in the open, at least for a while. Eventually, after much effort, we all had excellent views of the bird. I tried photographing it but it didn't like to stay still and my camera does not like to focus in dark, wet woodland!
That night we were back out looking for woodcock. We finally scared one up from the road in front of us. It has a very strange fluttering flight, quite unlike Eurasian Woodcock, and settled in long grass. I got a brief view of the head in the car headlights and saw the bare patch behind the eye - a definite Amami Woodcock. Now for the owls. Finding owls is best done using a torch and a tape of the bird's song. We had a torch, with almost powerless batteries but no tapes, despite having been told earlier in the tour by Armas that he did have tapes. Armas's 'technique' is to drive along with full beam headlights on and hope to spot the birds as they sit on branches above the road. Apparently this always works and he has had 50+ Scop's owls. We got a couple of brief flight views, only because one of us was lucky enough to be looking in the right direction at the right time. We never did see a scop's-owl sitting. We did stop suddenly when one, then another birds flew from a branch above the car. These were clearly large white thrushes and we believe they were Amami Thrushes rather than White's, although the views could have been better.
Next morning we (minus leader who was recovering in bed) were back in Amami Virgin Forest, again hunting for Amami Thrush. No luck, just the usual species including a Ruyuku Scops-owl seen as it flushed. Then we had to fly to Okinawa. At the hotel Armas left us to go sort out flights. He came back and tried to convince us that the phrase 'all internal flights included' did not include the flight from Amami to Okinawa. We disagreed and eventually he paid for the tickets. We asked him whether we could pick up the rental vehicle when we landed on Okinawa and head immediately to the north of the island so we could start early next morning. He agreed. On arrival at Okinawa we were left for one and a half hours and on his return Armas said he'd got a local hotel. However, there was good news. Tomorrow we would have an eight-seater van, so there would be plenty of room for all of us plus luggage.
At the hotel in Naha, on Okinawa, I had just opened my suitcase when I heard a knock on the door. It was Armas who asked how many beds I had in my room. Strange question, I thought. Two I said, to which he replied, 'they seem to have put me in with you'. At this I baulked and said 'this is a big hotel and they have lots of rooms. I paid single supplement and, nothing personal, but you are not coming in'. Then he went off and found his own room.
Soon we were to head to a local mudflat, apparently the only mudflat on Okinawa. This is the place where Armas has never failed to see Saunders's Gull. We took two taxis there, the first containing Peter, Hemme and Graham, the second Armas and me. We had a bit if difficulty getting a second taxi, it was about 5pm and so commuter time, so we were quite a way behind the first one, but eventually we got there. We spent a couple of hours checking the area. In that time we didn't see a single gull. There were a few curlews about. We were hoping for Far-eastern Curlew and were carefully checking all the long-billed orientalis Eurasian Curlews. Armas wandered off and came back about fifteen minutes later declaring he had had good views of a Far-eastern Curlew. Our checking of the curlews yielded only long-billed and very-long-billed orientalis Eurasian Curlews. Also here were two Bar-tailed Godwits, 100+ Pacific Golden-plovers, about 40 Kentish Plovers, Common Greenshanks, Grey Plovers, Common Redshanks, Whimbrel, Common Sandpiper and a Green Sandpiper. A bonus wader in the form of a Grey-tailed Tatler was pleasing because it was a lifer for me. Also here we had a single Black-faced Spoonbill and both Intermediate and Little Egrets. We decided to drive past here tomorrow to check for gulls if the tide was low. That evening we ate in a very nice Japanese restaurant Armas had found near to the hotel.
The 15th February arrived and it was time to head north in search of two key target species. The eight-seater van had magically turned into a much smaller car, two in front, three squeezed in the back. We asked what had happened to the promised van and were told it was too expensive and that he (Armas) had had to go to another hire company.
We first drove past the gull site but the tide was in and we couldn't see any birds so we didn't stop. Once we had got past the extensive urban area of Naha we were surprised to see how much woodland remained on the north of Okinawa. We had been led to expect a lot less and it was nice to see a lot still remained. Our hotel was excellently placed away from habitation and in prime rail habitat. After checking in we did some safari birding hoping to run into a rail, although not literally because there are many road signs warning that rails are in the area. We did stop for a few minutes, twice, but were soon off again. We didn't find any rails.
Next morning at dawn we were out again. The night manager at the hotel had said we had a 90% chance of seeing the rail in the morning and failing that a 90% chance at a site he knew. We didn't see the first 90%-chance rail. So we went to the second site. We didn't see it there either.
Next it was time for woodpecker hunting. We went to a woodland site where Armas had seen the birds before and searched the area. We heard one woodpecker drum and saw Japanese White-eye, and Great and Varied Tits. We spent quite a while here but had no luck.
Later we were back at the rail site when the night manager walked past. He asked whether we'd seen the rail and we said no. He looked horrified. He looked intently at the open muddy area and asked whether there had been another car here when we were. We told him yes and that it had parked on the mud rather than on the road. He threw his hands up in horror and muttered something in Japanese. Try later today he said, about 5pm. We said we would.
We then went to another possible woodpecker site and although there were signs of woodpecker activity none of it looked recent and the place was very quiet. We did pick up a couple of Japanese Yellow Buntings, which was an unexpected bonus as this species is usually difficult to see in winter.
Since the traditional woodpecker site seemed deserted, possibly due to its being well known and so rather disturbed, we went to the University of the Ruyukus to seek out the man who studies these very rare birds and ask whether he had a possible site. He drew us a map and we headed off seeing a Striated Heron by the river on the way. We walked back and forth along a 50 metre stretch of road edged by thick woodland. We had Varied Tit and Ruyuku Minivet and finally brief flight views of a Pryor's Woodpecker. Big sigh of relief. At least that was one of the key species seen, although again the views could have been better.
We told Armas we needed to get back to the small area of mud recommended by the hotel chap and he told us just say what we wanted him to do and he'd do it. Park there and wait we told him. We duly did so and within seconds Graham quietly announced that there was an Okinawa Rail behind a fallen log. A quiet panic ensued as we all tried to get on the bird. There was no need to panic, just to stay quiet and wait. In just a few minutes the bird came out into the open and most of the next 90 minutes calmly feeding near the car, sometimes only 1metre away from us. Armas said he gets the rail in maybe 1 in 3 trips and views are usually just flashes as the car whizzes by or as a rail runs across the road. The rail even called for us as it disappeared into the vegetation. As a finale we noticed about 30 Grey Wagtails on telegraph wires. None of us had ever seen that many Grey Wagtails together. As we watched we realised more were coming in and we eventually had at least 100, probably around 150. Back at the hotel we thanked the night manager!
February 17th 2005 was our last full day in Japan. We started at 5.15 up at the new woodpecker site and spent a few hours hours without Armas, who was said he was going to sort out our flights, just walking back and forth and checking everything that moved. We located a mixed flock that came through a couple of times. First time we noted Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Varied and Great Tits, Japanese White-eye and Japanese Bush Warbler and Ruyuku Minivet. We heard Ruyuku Robin, which sounded close but could not be located. No sign of the woodpecker today. The second time to flock came through it stayed around a little longer and amongst the usual species Peter found the Ruyuku race of Narcissus Flycatcher, thought by some to be a separate species. We also found two Japanese Black Woodpigeons and a further Japanese Yellow Bunting.
We then had to leave northern Okinawa for the airport in the south. Armas took us on a short detour to some rice paddies. This was a good idea because as well as Eurasian Tree Sparrows, Great, Little and Cattle Egrets, eight Little Ringed Plovers and 20+ Oriental Turtle-doves we added Chinese Bulbul to the list, seeing about thirty birds. Also here we had about 10 Common Snipe and one, possibly two, Swinhoe's Snipe. Then it was to the airport where Armas announced that our late arrival meant that we would have to take a later - and more expensive - flight than he had planned and he feared his credit card would be unable to cover the cost. We flatly refused to pay yet again for flights that were included in the price and Armas eventually managed to produce the required number of tickets. We thus took the plane to Haneda, caught the bus to Narita and the courtesy bus to the hotel and could finally relax knowing we'd survived. Armas had one final surprise in store when he told me that breakfast on the final morning was not included in the tour price. When the group - minus Armas - met the following morning I was the only person to have been told this but the others accepted the news with good grace. The only remaining problem for Ian, Peter and me would be to persuade Armas to repay the money he had borrowed from us during the tour.