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BIRDING TRIP REPORT:

Japan (Hokkaido & Kyushu)

16 November to 1 December 2013

By Stephen Burch

Introduction
With a business trip to Tokyo in mid November 2013, I could not possibly turn up this opportunity for some early winter birding and photography afterwards! The lure of highly charismatic species in Hokkaido such as Steller's Sea Eagle, Red-crowned Crane, Blakiston's Fish Owl, not to mention the possibility of several pacific auks was irresistible, despite the somewhat daunting prospect of lone travel in a country with a completely different language, alphabet and customs!

Most birders visiting this region go in mid-winter - January/February, so in the planning stage of this trip I was somewhat concerned that late November would be too early. I was however reassured by fellow Oxon birder and photographer, Tom Bedford, who had also visited Japan in late November/early December. He had seen all three of my main target species in Hokkaido and moreover recommended the southern island of Kyushu as a useful addition for more cranes and many other species as well. So visiting about a week earlier than he did, should be OK, I very much hoped...

For a while I also considered following the well worn trail of other birders which usually involves also taking in the mountainous area to the north west of Tokyo (Karuizawa etc). But in the event I decided that with only 9 nights available there was just not enough time to fit all this in, and I would be better off having a more relaxed time in Hokkaido (5 nights) and Kyushu (3 nights) with my final night at Narita airport.

As others have reported, travelling in Japan without knowing more than a handful of Japanese words was generally not difficult. A little English was spoken and nearly everyone in the hotels were friendly and welcoming. Only on a couple of occasions did language cause some minor issues, but these were sorted out quite easily. Food also proved to be less problematic than expected, with some menus in English. One helpful waiter in Kyushu even translated for me using his phone! I can't imagine that happening in reverse in England! For lunches, there were numerous convenience stores which stocked western style sandwiches and other necessities. For comments on driving and navigation, see below.

General
Flights
My long haul flights were with BA direct from Heathrow to Tokyo (Narita) and return, which had a flight time of about 12hrs. Note that a time difference of +9hrs produced, for me at least, considerable jet lag, which I was fortunately able to get over during the business part of my trip!

For the internal flights within Japan I took advantage of the special airfares available for non Japanese residents. ANA offer "Visit Japan" fares for about JPY 13,000 a leg (less than £100), which is much cheaper than booking on-line. From the UK, these fares can only be booked by phoning ANA reservations - tel: 020-8762-8977 (Mon-Fri 8:00-17:30 / Sat, Sun & UK Bank Holidays 09:00-17:30). For Hokkaido I flew from Tokyo (Haneda) to Kushiro. Then to get to Kyushi I flew from Kushiro to Kagoshima, via Haneda (counts as two legs). At the end, I returned to Haneda and then caught the inter-airport limousine bus (took about 1hr - JPY 3000). 

There were soft drinks but no food available on all the internal flights. There were however many beautifully packaged lunch boxes of unknown content available at all the airports, which I avoided in favour of the less common western sandwiches!

Travel arrangements
For Hokkaido, I used the services of London-based Tommy Onita at Japan Bird Watching.com. He was very helpful and patient, promptly answering numerous e-mails on the fine details of the arrangements. His fee of £15 per booking was very worthwhile, given that very few of the hotels or other places in Hokkaido have websites or booking arrangements in English. I would certainly recommend Tommy's services to any birders travelling independently to Hokkaido.

For Kyushu, I made all the hotel and car hire reservations myself using websites that were in English. Strangely though I had more language issues in Kyushu than in Hokkaido.

Car Hire
For Hokkaido, Tommy Onita made a reservation for me with Nippon Rent a Car for collection/return at Kushiro airport. He recommended a 4WD for the likely snowy conditions, that never materialised. This booking worked out fine, and it wasn't too difficult collecting & returning the car, despite virtually no English being spoken by the staff. The rental document was in English which helped! Note that there was some minor issue on my return concerning re-fueling the car. I had done this, but I think they wanted to see the receipt for the fuel, which I wasn't sure I could find. In the end it seemed a verbal confirmation was sufficient, but I couldn't understand why this was needed - it was obvious I had re-fuelled from the fuel gauge which read full!

For Kyushu, I made an on-line reservation with Hertz, whose partner in Japan is Toyota. Note that on arrival at Kagoshima airport, you need to exit the arrivals building, turn right and walk about 100m to the collection point for the hire car shuttle buses. This reservation also worked fine, and my car was of good quality. Again there was something about returning the car filled with fuel - using the recommended filling station adjacent to the Toyota depot - and getting a form completed by them. I had also filled up elsewhere in Kyushu, but they didn't seem to need the receipt for that.

Accommodation
Wherever possible, I opted for western style en-suite accommodation throughout, which was available in both Hokkaido and Kyushu. Only in two places did I need to take my shoes off on entry, in the Japanese way.

Most of the hotel staff were very friendly and spoke enough English to make check-in easy enough. Only at one (Hotel Wing in Izumi) did I have some problems - the e-mail confirmation I had from the hotel seemed to mean nothing to them!

Maps and navigation
In advance I managed to purchase a second hand copy of a multilingual road atlas of Japan - a yellow book at 1:250,000 scale but with Hokkaido only at 1:600,000. This was quite expensive and of very limited value given the small scale of the maps, especially in Hokkaido where the free map provided by Nippon Rent a Car was better!

Being a recent firm convert to SatNav technology, I was dismayed to find a few weeks before my departure that a map of Japan was not available for my TomTom. There isn't an official Japan map available for Garmin either, but a bit of web searching revealed the existence of a third party map for a Garmin available from UUD. So I ended up investing in a low cost Garmin SatNav (Nuvi 42), and a download of the most recent (2012) Japan map from UUD. This download proved problematic to install, but I eventually managed to load it onto an old 1 GB microSD card I had lying around - it refused to have anything to do with a new 8 GB card!

Armed with this technology, in advance of my trip, I set about using Google Maps to find out the GPS co-ordinates for all the locations I wanted to visit, which I give below. Hopefully others may find this info useful - I certainly did. 

For those who don't want to go to this expense, note that nearly all road signs were in English, and all hire cars in Japan have in-built SatNavs. My two both came with partially English menus and English voice directions. Unusually, they needed you to enter the phone number of your destination (not always available) and once, in Kyushu, this produced an erroneous location. Hence I considered my own Garmin SatNav and UUD map, together with my collection of favourites, very worthwhile.

Birding information
For bird ID, I acquired the excellent "Birds of East Asia" by Mark Brazil. For site information, I managed to find on-line a reasonably cheap second hand copy of Mark Brazil's "A Birdwatcher's Guide to Japan". Note that this appears to be almost a collectors item, and can be very expensive - if so, it is not worth it, as although it was reasonably useful, it is now very dated (1987). There are many useful trip reports available on-line, which I spent sometime researching before my departure. I'd also like to thank Tom Bedford for the invaluable information and tips he provided me based on his own experiences from a recent trip.

Weather
Hokkaido in mid winter can be very cold (down to -15° C or even lower at dawn) with frozen lakes, snow cover down to sea level and pack ice offshore. In late November, I experienced nothing like that and many of my specially purchased warm weather clothes were not needed! It was instead milder than England at the same, with only a slight overnight frost on one or two nights. I was also lucky to have a considerable amount of sunshine, and the one period of heavy rain, which lasted for at least 18 hours, occurred when it was least problematic - a day earlier and I would have missed the Blakiston's Fish Owl!

In Kyushu my luck ran out, and for 48 hrs it was much colder than I expected and also windy and wet at times. However after leaving the Arasaki area, it brightened up, and I enjoyed bright, sunny but cool conditions for the final part of my trip at Lake Miike.

Photos
All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 7D with EF400mm/f4 DO lens, and often the x1.4TC, generally either hand-held or on a monopod. All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 9 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website. For general shots, I used a point and shoot Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ30.

I now describe the main sites and areas I visited, in approximate chronological order.

Tokyo (16 - 22 November)
Arriving at Narita airport, immigration and baggage collection was straightforward so I was quickly on the airport bus for the relatively lengthy journey to my business hotel - the Hyatt Regency. Eagerly looking for my first Japanese birds, all I could see from the bus was a Large-billed Crow or two - which are incredibly common throughout Japan!

Shinjuku Central Park
I briefly visited this park, which is adjacent to the Hyatt Regency, in the afternoon of my day of arrival. Despite hordes of people on a fine Saturday afternoon this compact site provided me with my first Brown-eared Bulbuls, which are very vocal but surprisingly difficult to see, hiding in the (leaf covered) trees. Other common species included Tree Sparrows (again numerous over large parts of Japan), Oriental Turtle Dove and Eastern Great Tit. The best birds however were a party of Asian Azure-winged Magpies in a quieter corner near the shrine - the only the siting I had.

Meiji Jingu Park
I visited this large park, which is a Brazil site, on the Sunday morning, and entered by the northern entrance which was closest to my hotel. Google Maps provides a surprisingly detailed map of this area - much better than that in the Brazil book! Here I very soon had good views of Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese White Eye and the startling Varied Tit. The lake (GPS 35.679453,139.699777) which can be reached by taking the right-hand path from the northern entrance provided me with my first Spot-billed Ducks and the only (native) Mandarins  of my trip. Thereafter birding became more difficult as the morning wore on and the crowds increased in the fine weather. The only other species I found was an juv/immature Daurian Redstart in the restricted area with ponds just to the south of the Meiji Jingu shrine (a small entrance fee was payable).
Unfortunately there was no sign whatsoever of any of the thrushes mentioned by Brazil for this site (which include White's).

Hokkaido (22 - 27 November)
Arriving at the small Kushiro Airport in the early afternoon, I was very quickly taken to the hire car depot in a courtesy bus. After signing the rental doc, and loading up my luggage I was just about to drive off when I noticed a very large raptor in the distance. It was clearly an eagle, but I couldn't be sure if was a Steller's or "only" a White-tailed! Also in the immediate vicinity of the airport were several Black-eared Kites - again a very common species in Japan. I then headed east on route 44, through sprawling Kushiro towards Nemuro City for two nights.

Just east of Akkeshi, on route 44, I had another very large raptor fly over the road in front of me, but the light was fading fast (it got dark very early in late November in Hokkaido - with sunset at about 15:45!) and again I couldn't be sure of the ID.

Hanasaki Port (GPS 43.286547,145.583132 )
The next day, with a little time to spare before my 09:00 boat trip, I found myself birding this small port by driving around the dock. There were a few sea duck around, including my first Black Scoter and Scaup. There were also several Pelagic Cormorant and Slaty-backed Gulls. Close offshore was a Glaucous-winged Gull.

Ochiishi nature cruise (GPS 43.178573,145.506812)
This boat trip doesn't seem to feature very often in other birder's trip reports, but when Tommy mentioned it, I jumped at the chance and promptly re-arranged my planned itinerary around it. This seemed a great opportunity to connect with some pacific auks/alcids without having to spend hours scanning the sea from exposed headlands for distant specs on the horizon with a 'scope which I didn't take. Out of season however it does not seem very popular. In the end I was the only passenger and had to pay for three tickets to reach the minimum number required to guarantee a sailing. Even so the JPY 210,000 (about £150) was well worth it!

On the first morning of my trip I drove the short distance from Nemuro City to Ochiishi for the 09:00 trip, which lasted about 2.5 hrs. The "cruise" was on a small fishing boat, with a crew of two and the bird guide. Fortunately the rain and strong wind of the previous evening had abated leaving breezy but fine and relatively mild conditions, but with a heavy swell. The guide spoke almost no English apart from the names of the birds we encountered!

In the sheltered harbour we first encountered a Long-tailed Duck, before heading out to sea, whereupon the first bird spotted was a cracking if distant Steller's Sea Eagle - one of my three main Hokkaido targets! There were also a couple of White-tailed Eagles perched up on a distant headland. Over the course of the next couple of hours we found several quite large flocks of very wary Ancient Murrelets and much smaller numbers of Rhinoceros Auklet, Spectacled Guillemot and Common Guillemot. The find of the trip was a single Pigeon Guillemot that is quite scarce in these waters and, unlike all the others, came very close to the boat. Photography was however very difficult due to the pitching boat and the birds bobbing around in the swell.

In addition to these splendid auks, there were other good sea birds as well - numerous Black-throated Divers, and the odd Kittiwake. Sea duck included Harlequin, Velvet Scoter, Black Scoter and Red-necked Grebe. Towards the end of the trip, the boat rounded an offshore island to the north which had Sea Otters and a distant pair of Steller's Sea Eagle and White-tailed Eagles, before a fast return to port.

This was a very successful excursion, getting my trip off to a great start. All the auks were well offshore and were the only ones I saw. The complete absence of pack ice may have had something to do with their dispersed nature. For more info (in Japanese) see http://www.ochiishi-cruising.com/.

Long-tailed Duck Black-necked Gull
Long-tailed Duck Kittiwake
Ancient Murrelet Pigeon Guillemot
Ancient Murrelet Pigeon Guillemot  (click to enlarge)
Rhinoceros Auklet Spectacled Guillemot
Rhinoceros Auklet Spectacled Guillemot
Black Scoter
Black Scoter Boat & guide

Ochiishi viewpoint (GPS 43.213719,145.533646)
After the boat trip, leaving Ochiishi I paused at a viewpoint on the right, close to some wind turbines. In the stiff breeze this spot was something of a raptor magnet, with 2 Steller's Sea Eagles (1ad, 1juv), a Black-eared Kite and a Peregrine all in a short space of time. Further along on route 142 towards Nemuro city I had 2 more adult Steller's fly over the road! So no problems today with connecting with the first of my main 3 Hokkaido targets!

Steller's Sea Eagle

Steller's Sea Eagle Lake Furen Nature trail view

Cape Nosappu (GPS 43.384998,145.816101)
After the morning boat trip, this famous headland was something of an anti-climax. A nearby Harlequin and some distant Black-throated Divers was about all I could see during some brief scanning with binoculars from the rocks below the lighthouse. There was no sign of any auks, which judging by the boat trip, were probably all well offshore. Immediately west of the lighthouse there was a concrete "beach" that could be reached by car down a narrow track. This had a Red-necked Grebe quite close in.

Returning to Nemuro City via the wilder northerly route I had distant views of snow capped islands to the north (probably Russia) and another White-tailed Eagle on some rocks. 

Harlequin Red necked Grebe
Harlequin Red necked Grebe (click to enlarge)

Lake Furen Nature Centre (GPS 43.270019,145.476213)
My first stop the next morning was the nature centre on route 44 near to the mouth of Lake Furen. Here there was a short (c. 1mile) nature trial though a wood, with views over the sea at one point. The wood was reasonably birdy, with a pale sub-species of Nuthatch, Jay, Marsh Tit, Coal Tit and Eastern Great Tit. Also two Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers.

Lake Furen track at Kawaguchi (GPS 43.260175,145.393188)
Somewhat further west along route 44, a drivable track leads down to an inlet of Lake Furen, past some houses. This led to a fisherman's jetty with a few boats tied up. I visited this site twice, first in the late afternoon and the second time in the morning of my second day. Both times it was a pleasant spot. There were plenty of common winter duck on the inlet, including a succession of high speed fly-past Goosander that were worthy if difficult photographic targets in the brilliant light.

More interesting though were the raptors - firstly an immature White-tailed Eagle flew in very close. Soon after a superb adult Steller's Sea Eagle did almost the same, with a Crow in hot pursuit, having followed a fisherman's boat in. There were also plenty of Black-eared Kites around.

It was remarkable to think that in a couple of months the lake would be completely frozen over, to a depth that allows people to walk out on it!

Steller's Sea Eagle White tailed Eagle
Steller's Sea Eagle (click to enlarge) White tailed Eagle (click to enlarge)
Black Eared Kite Goosander
Black Eared Kite (click to enlarge) Goosander (click to enlarge)

Notsuke Peninsula (GPS 43.567954,145.346863)
Working north from Lake Furen towards Rausu, I drove as far as the road would take me along the Notsuke Peninsula and then went for a short but not very productive walk further on. There were a few sea duck offshore, and some fresh water duck (Wigeon etc) on the inland marshes, together with some Whooper Swans. There was also my only settled Steller's Sea Eagle of the trip on the inland side which unfortunately didn't permit a close approach. On my return I came across an amazingly tame adult White-tailed Eagle on a telegraph pole - it just stayed put as I walked right up to it!!

White-tailed Eagle White-tailed Eagle
White-tailed Eagle (click both to enlarge) 
White-tailed Eagle Steller's Sea Eagle
White-tailed Eagle (click to enlarge)   Steller's Sea Eagle

Washi no Yado (GPS 44.033565 145.209133)
Arriving in the Rausu area before dark, it seemed prudent to reconnoiter the famous Washi no Yado site for Blakiston's Fish Owl. This turned out to be an extremely good move as road works were making the entrance to the narrow unsurfaced track difficult to spot - it would have been very tricky to find for the first time in the dark. Having found the site, I had a quick look without any success for Brown Dipper in the stream that runs in front of the buildings. The river in Rausu was similarly un-productive, although the tail-end of the salmon run was on, with many large fish visible, as well as the remains of the several dead ones. I then headed back south to the Hotel Marumi to check in before shortly heading back to Washi no Yado for about 17:00, by which time it was almost completely dark.

On arrival I found a Belgian birder with a Japanese guide staring up into the trees above the buildings. A distant, indistinct blob in the gloom was apparently a Blakiston's Fish Owl! The setup here is worth detailing as it seems quite different from several trip reports from a few years back. There is a now a heated room which serves both as a dining area (with chairs) and a hide. Most watch from here and not their cars - indeed from my car the owls, when they appeared on the stream, were rather too close for my 400mm lens! The 'hide' was a bit further away, at a better distance.

Prior to the owl watching, Tommy had managed to negotiate a dinner for me, although I wasn't staying there. This was excellent, even for my western (non sushi) tastes! Even before dinner started, the floodlights were switched on, and at least one owl appeared in the stream - clearly impatient for its dinner as well!  After our dinner, the lady waded into the stream and deposited a number of fish in an enclosed pool for the owls to feast on, while 4 onlookers viewed with awe. Up to three owls appeared, with two by the pool at once for some of the time.

A note for photographers: even with the floodlights, the light for DSLR photography was poor. I was driven to using ISO 3200 @  f4 and even then the shutter times were 1/10 to 1/20 sec. I was very fortunate to be able to borrow a tripod from the Japanese guide (many thanks if you ever read this!), but wished I had brought the cable release to minimise camera shake. Also manual focus was needed at these light levels, which was an added difficulty. So none of my images were pin sharp, but some weren't too bad. Flash is forbidden, so I don't know how it is possible to get action shots - impossible to capture at 1/20 sec! It is also forbidden to move around outside when the owls are in the stream, although it didn't bother them earlier on.  Having eaten all the fish, all the owls had departed by about 20:00 - so there was no waiting around for hours in extreme cold, as reported by some others.

The owls are apparently very reliable here and show virtually every night. Beforehand, Tommy was adamant that only one night was needed to be sure of seeing them! However a word of caution - the night after I was there the conditions would have been atrocious with torrential rain and strong winds and apparently no owls showed.

Blakiston's Fish Owl Blakiston's Fish Owl
Blakiston's Fish Owl Blakiston's Fish Owl
Blakiston's Fish Owl (click any to enlarge) 

I also re-visited this site the next morning and found two reasonably obliging Brown Dippers on the stream, before I headed off on the longish drive toward Tsurui.

Brown Dipper
Brown Dipper  Mount Rausu at sunset

Tsurui
Tsurui is the winter site for Japanese or Red-crowned Cranes, but there were few if any other birds of note to be found in area. There are a number of sites for the cranes in the area, as follows.

Tsurui Ito Sanctuary (GPS 43.228445,144.332174)
This low key site consists of a small apparently unoccupied building with tiny car-park. In the field behind there were varying numbers of the cranes, which seemed to attract several Japanese photographers. I think in mid winter they are fed here in the morning, when they fly in from the Otowa bridge area. Note that the light for photography is much better in the afternoon here, but I found this an un-inspiring place and didn't spend long here, even though it was adjacent to the Hickory Wind Wilderness Lodge where I spent two nights. Also the cranes were often too distant for good pics.

Tsurumidai (GPS 43.178612,144.319265)
This is another low key site about 3miles south of Tsurui village, facing east, right by the main road where the cranes are fed. Only a few were present during my visits, and again were rather distant.

After the overnight rain had cleared, I did however have a superbly productive (and probably very lucky) half hour crane photo session almost directly opposite Tsurumidai, where I found several feeding in a field right by the road, with a convenient pull in for the car. The light was superb and at one point a group of three cranes starting walking towards me (in the car) and just kept on coming and coming. At their closest approach they couldn't have been more than a few meters away, and their head filled my camera's field of view (see below)!  Despite the early season, I even managed to capture a pair displaying briefly and to cap it all, a few flew in at one point, again passing very close. There was however of course no snow to make them even more photogenic.

Red-crowned Crane Red-crowned Crane
Red Crowned Crane Red Crowned Crane
Red-crowned Cranes (click any to enlarge)

Otowa bridge (GPS 43.187851,144.334204)
This site is famous for dawn viewing in mid-winter of the ice bound Setsurigawa river where the cranes roost, and is very close to the other Tsurui sites.  When I was there I was told it wasn't worth a dawn visit, as no birds were roosting on the fast flowing river.

Akan International Crane Center (GPS 43.144688 144.146403)
This centre was most unlike the other sites in the area, and was about a 30-40 min drive from Tsurui, and even has a website in English. It was similar to a mini Slimbridge with a big visitor centre and even a small captive collection. When I visited on my first afternoon in the area, it was pouring with rain and there were only three distant wild cranes in the adjoining field.  To my dismay, I found that the famous feeding session at 14:00 wasn't taking place, as it only starts on 1 December. So I didn't spend long. On a fine day in mid-winter I am sure it would be completely different!

Ural Owl guided hunt
Makoto Ando, the proprietor of the Hickory Wind Wilderness Lodge, is also an experienced and very knowledgeable professional wildlife photographer and guide. A couple of weeks before my departure I was informed by Tommy Onita that there were good prospects of seeing a daytime roosting Ural Owl by means of a half day guiding session with Makoto Ando. I jumped at this exciting prospect, as Ural Owl would complete my set of the five northern owls - having seen the other four in Finland in 2010.

So at about 10:30 on my only full day in this area, we set off in good conditions after the rain and wind of the last 18hrs had thankfully passed over. The first site we went to was in a most surprising location. While I waited in his vehicle for a short time, my guide went off in search of the owl and returned only about 15min later. Within the next 5 mins I had spotted my first Ural Owl, or at least some it, as it was roosting in a very obscured location - surrounded by branches and twigs! No amount of slight changes of angle produced anything other than very partial views of this bird, which was also in deep shade in the middle of the wood.

Fortunately, he knew of another less reliable location where views were usually much better. So we then proceeded to this site, whereupon he spotted the owl immediately on arrival, directly from the track we were on! It was something of a scramble to get within good photo range, but after about 10 mins, we arrived at the bottom of a steep slope, and there directly above us was a magnificent Ural Owl, almost completely out in the open in sunlight! We proceeded to take numerous photos from various different positions. Here are just two of the hundreds I took. With the amazing crane photo-session earlier, this was definitely my lucky day!

Ural Owl Ural Owl
Ural Owl (click left to enlarge)

Kyushu (27 - 30 November)
After 5 very successful days on Hokkaido, almost all of the daylight hours of the next day were spent flying from Kushiro to Kagoshima via Tokyo Haneda. With a departure at 09:50, I was pleased to find the Kushiro Nippon rent a Car depot in full operation at around 08:40 - somewhat before its official opening time of 09:00, so I could get to the terminal about 1hr before departure. After two uneventful flights, I arrived at Kagoshima airport at  around 15:15.

From the airport I then took route 504 NW towards Izumi. Only just outside the built up area I spotted a Bull-head Shrike on wires, which was a good start.  It was then slow going and the light was fading by the time I reached Satsuma or Miyanoyo-cho as it is called on some maps. According to other trip reports, the river here is worth a stop, so I duly parked up on the south (near) side in a convenient spot by what I think was a children's play area (GPS 31.914608,130.461809). With storm clouds approaching, a strong wind and surprisingly cool conditions (which were to persist for much of my stay on Kyushu) there was little of interest showing. Certainly no Asian House Martins or Swifts over the river. All I found were some Spot-billed Ducks, a few Wigeon, a possible Japanese Wagtail and a glimpse of an un-identified thrush (possibly Pale).

Thereafter the storm clouds arrived,  and there was torrential rain and difficult driving conditions on route 328 to Izumi over the hills. I finally arrived the Hotel Wing in Izumi, well after dark.

Arasaki
I spent the better part of a day and a half birding around the Arasaki area, but the conditions were against me - cool, windy and very wet at times. There were only a few brief brighter intervals, so I think both the birding and certainly the photography suffered somewhat. I will now describe the various locations I visited over the course of this stay.

Arasaki Crane Observatory (GPS 32.102989,130.27503)
Sunrise was at about 07:00, and I left the hotel at around 07:30 (breakfast was available from 06:00 which was unusually early - 07:00 was the norm) in very dull, wet and windy conditions - not promising! En-route to the Crane Observatory I was fortunate to spot a Black-faced Spoonbill over the river. There were also several White-naped and Hooded Cranes feeding in the fields by the road, close to the Observatory. Arriving there at about 08:00, it was totally deserted and I found it didn't open until 09:00. So naturally, wanting to get nearer to crane feeding area behind the Observatory, I walked over, going a slightly circuitous route due to various barriers. Arriving at the black fence at the edge of the field, just behind the Observatory, I was presented with a reasonably impressive sight of large numbers of quite distant cranes feeding, with more arriving all the time. Other birds were few and much less spectacular -  Buff-bellied Pipit, Lapwing, Snipe and the Japanese sub-species of Skylark.

At around 9:00, I returned to the observatory to find I had clearly been somewhere forbidden! It seems that these days all visitors are strongly discouraged from going anywhere other than from the car park directly into the Observatory, which I then did - to be briefly admonished (I think) when paying the small entry fee. Inside the observatory there was a board totally in Japanese apparently detailing the numbers and species of cranes seen. As far as I could make out, small numbers of Common Cranes and Sandhill Cranes were being seen daily, but it seemed very difficult to try to pick these out in amongst the thousands of Hoodeds and White-napeds, and I didn't try in earnest. Very small numbers of Demoiselle Cranes, which were of more interest to me, was only being reported sporadically and the board was unfortunately blank for Siberian Crane.

The top of the Observatory had an open viewing area, which gave great elevated views of the main feeding field, and was almost on an eye level with the cranes coming into to feed. Some even came close enough for photos, and I spent a happy hour or so which benefitted from a brief brighter spell. Thereafter the clouds rolled back in, and the rain returned, so I headed back down to the car.

Hooded Crane Hooded Crane
Hooded Cranes (click to enlarge)
White naped Cranes
White-naped Cranes (click to enlarge) Feeding cranes from the Observatory roof

For the rest of this day, and the morning of the next I birded the Arasaki area generally, in search of additions to my life list. Due to the inclement conditions, my main strategy was usually to drive slowly around the smaller roads, stopping whenever I spotted anything and emerging for short walks if the conditions allowed.

Northern fields of the Higashi-Kantaku (GPS 32.106643,130.287416)
The flat area to the east of the main river/inlet is somewhere I spent a fair amount of time, touring around the minor roads. The fields along the northern edge have been fenced off and appear to be a further protected area for the cranes with no access. The road down to a large white building close to the sea (see GPS co-ordinates) was a convenient spot for crane photography from the car. Other birds in or over these fields included masses of Black-eared Kites, one Kestrel, several Snipe, one Kingfisher, Little and Great White Egrets and good flocks of Oriental Greenfinch. Also just to the south of the protected fields I found a small group of Bean and White-fronted Geese which might have been unusual here?

White naped Crane Hooded Crane
White-naped Crane  (click to enlarge) Hooded Crane  (click to enlarge) 
Cranes Cranes
Crane road-block! Cranes at dusk

Ponds of the Higashi-Kantaku (GPS 32.097741,130.292033)
There were at least two accessible ponds in the Higashi-Kantaku, with the more westerly one (with the co-ords given here) being better. In a brief stroll between heavy showers, I flushed a juv Night Heron, and saw a mixed flock of Brambling and Oriental Greenfinch. The wooded area behind had a typical small tit flock and an obliging Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker. There was even a Common Sandpiper pottering around the flooded car park! The small village close to the other pond had a good flock of Daurian Starlings (at around 32.098958,130.30071 and elsewhere on wires around the houses).

Oriental Greenfinch Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker
Oriental Greenfinch Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker
(click to enlarge)

River Takaonogawa south of route 3 (GPS 32.078529,130.292503)
The Brazil book describes a site south of route 3 along the river Takaonogawa which sounded good so I visited here early-ish on my second morning. It was a surprising area with a lot of development and no access to the river apart from two closely separated bridges. But by the more easterly bridge I had a short purple patch, with a Dusky Thrush on the wires by the river and then even better a superb Green Pheasant emerged from cover briefly from a spot almost directly underneath it! There was also a Meadow Bunting showing very well just by the road and a short walk east along a track by a large building produced another Bull-head Shrike. There was no sign however of any of the birds mentioned by Brazil - Long-billed Plover, Crested Kingfisher & Grosbeaks - all of which eluded me completely apart from the Kingfisher, for which see below.

Green Pheasant Dusky Thrush
Green Pheasant Dusky Thrush
Meadow Bunting Blue Rock Thrush
Meadow Bunting  Blue Rock Thrush

Noguchi Harbour (GPS 32.119638,130.26446)
This small harbour is just to the north west of the Arasaki plain, and features in a number of other trip reports. I didn't do very well here, despite visiting it a few times. There were a few of the local sub-species of Blue Rock Thrush (with an orange belly, they look very different from the European ones), one solitary Vega Gull, a fishing Osprey overhead and some Daurian Redstarts. Also one obliging Common Sandpiper!

Common Sandpiper Daurian Redstart
Common Sandpiper (click to enlarge) Daurian Redstart

Hills to the west (GPS 32.106311,130.259061)
The hills to the west of the plain have a number of very narrow roads up into them. I briefly explored one, up to around the GPS co-ords given here. Going for a short stroll, I caught a glimpse of my first Plain Thrush. There were also some raptors soaring along the edge of the slope below - Eastern Buzzard and also a very probable Goshawk (which I had seen earlier from a minor road along a canal at the base of the hills). 

Komenotsu River in Izumi
Following other trip reports, I spent sometime looking for hirundines and other interesting species without any success from the minor roads to the west of the river in Izumi. All I could find were plenty of common ducks (no Falcated Teal either here or in the estuary/river near to the crane observatory). However when leaving the area on route 447 towards Lake Miike, I stopped briefly in brighter and slightly warmer conditions at a spot to the south-east of Izumi where the river could be conveniently viewed from a roadside pull-off. Here I was surprised to see a Swallow and Sand Martin, but there was no sign of more interesting hirundines or swifts. There were however all three species of wagtail to be seen at once - White, Grey and a finally confirmed Japanese.

Lake Miiki (GPS 31.886285,130.966512)
The drive from Izumi to Lake Miike took about 2hrs, and included an all too brief stretch of (toll) motorway which was quite expensive given the short distance travelled on it. There were few birds of interest en-route - just a Bull-head Shrike was notable.

Arriving at this site around 15:30, I drove straight down the track to the campground on the west side of the lake for about an hours reasonably productive birding. From the camp ground car park, I almost immediately saw some Ryukyu Minivets high up in the trees. There were also some Olive-back Pipits in amongst the building near the lake shore while mixed tit flocks included the now familiar Varied Tit, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker and Japanese White-eye.

Scanning of the lake produced only relatively small numbers of common duck, with no sign of Baikal Teal (which might have been difficult to spot with only binoculars). Three Black-necked Grebes were not much compensation!

After about an hour, the light began to fade and I was aware of reports that the track down to the campground is closed after dark, so I retreated to find my hotel for the night - about a 30min drive away.

I returned the next morning but somehow missed a turn and ended up on some very narrow and winding roads through a remote area. There was however a considerable bonus - a very brief sighting of a magnificent Crested Kingfisher. This was by a very small stream at 31.827198,130.975782 but unfortunately it had flown off before I could deploy my camera.

Olive-backed Pipit Varied Tit
Olive-backed Pipit Varied Tit
Lake Miike
Lake Miike 
Elegant Bunting
Yellow-throated (Elegant) Bunting record shot Lake Miike walking map

Back at the Lake Miike campground the next morning, I at last found some more buntings - two small groups of the rather smart but wary Yellow-throated (or Elegant) Buntings but I couldn't find any others. There were also a couple of skulking Pale Thrushes, as well as most of the species from the previous afternoon.

Thereafter I went for a fair walk along the trail towards Lake Koike, hoping for the larger woodpeckers (Japanese and White-backed) but unfortunately of these there was no sight nor sound (apart from one brief & distant burst of Great-spotted like calling at the summit of the ridge, which could possibly have been White-backed). This was as far as I got in the available time. There were many tits and almost constant Nuthatch calls, but these were little compensation.

Return to Tokyo
Thereafter I packed up my gear into 'flight mode' and headed back to Kagoshima airport to return my car and fly to Tokyo Haneda airport. From here I caught the limo bus to Narita airport (about 1hr) and then the hotel courtesy transport for my last night in Japan. No significant birds seen!

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
East Harbour Hotel, Nemuro City
43.326972,145.578758
Adequate and reasonably priced hotel in the centre of Nemuro City where I spent 2 nights. The check-in staff spoke enough English and the restaurant had an English menu. My dinner choice the first night was better than the second. Breakfast was fine. My 8th floor en-suite room had a good view  of Nemuro City and the sea beyond, but was cramped and had a nasty smell in the bathroom! WIFI in room, I think.
Hotel Marumi, Rausu
43.972249,145.148571
A quite expensive (over-priced!) mixed Japanese/Western hotel where you have to take your shoes off at the entrance. My en-suite room had a great view of the sea and the sunrise (unfortunately no camera to hand) but no chair. Minimal English spoken but the proprietor was very friendly. Rather odd breakfast from what I can remember. Outside Rausu to the south, but only about a 10mins drive from Washi no Yodo. Advertised WIFI but none detectable in my room.
Hickory Wind Wilderness Lodge, Tsurui
43.225982,144.334998
Conveniently placed for the crane sanctuary and the other Tsurui crane sites. The proprietor, Makoto Ando and his wife both spoke excellent English. Again shoes off at the entrance. Good food but no alcohol! I shared my single room (WC & basin but again no chair) with a huge motor-bike (one of Mr Ando's other interests). None of the other rooms were en-suite. No WIFI. 2 nights.
Hotel Wing, Izumi
32.088516,130.357464
A very well priced business hotel close to the station in central Izumi. Some difficulty on check-in - the staff couldn't make any sense of the booking e-mail I had received direct from the hotel! But my room was excellent - spacious, desk & chair, WIFI, comfy settee. Probably best of my stay. The restaurant was a Japanese bar style with a difficult to understand menu - not clear how much to order. At one point the kind waiter was using his iphone to translate! Can't imagine that in reverse in England! Recommended. 2 nights. Booked direct using hotels website.
Kirishima Royal Hotel
31.844272,130.872894
Quite expensive huge hotel within about 30mins of Lake Miike, but off route 223 to the south so would be difficult to find without SatNav (but beware the one in-built in the car misplaced this hotel using its phone number). Coming from Lake Miike, turn left just as a different large hotel appears in front of you. Then follow that road directly to the even larger Kirishima Royal - main entrance is the right-hand one. Little English spoken. Large room with a double and single bed, but badly marked carpet. Choice of 3 restaurants, but the French one (good but expensive) I selected seemed to expect prior reservation at reception. Also pricey breakfast in huge function room in the other wing of the hotel. 1 night. Booked via Agodo.com - worked fine.

© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch 

 

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