BIRDING TRIP REPORT:
(Hokkaido & Kyushu)
to 1 December 2013
By Stephen Burch
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!
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
For bird ID, I acquired the excellent "Birds of East Asia" by
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.
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 time, 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.
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)
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 sighting 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)
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.
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
Pelagic Cormorant and Slaty-backed Gulls.
Close offshore was a Glaucous-winged Gull.
Ochiishi nature cruise
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
much smaller numbers of Rhinoceros Auklet,
and Common Guillemot. The find of the trip was a single
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
||Pigeon Guillemot (click to
||Boat & guide
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
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
||Lake Furen Nature trail
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.
||Red necked Grebe (click to
Lake Furen Nature Centre
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
Lake Furen track at Kawaguchi
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
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
(click to enlarge)
||White tailed Eagle
(click to enlarge)
|Black Eared Kite
(click to enlarge)
||Goosander (click to
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!!
Eagle (click both to enlarge)
|White-tailed Eagle (click
||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 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
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 (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.
||Mount Rausu at sunset
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
Tsurui Ito Sanctuary (GPS
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 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
Akan International Crane Center (GPS
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!
(click left to enlarge)
(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 -
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.
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
suffered somewhat. I will now describe the various locations I
visited over the course of this stay.
Arasaki Crane Observatory (GPS
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.
Cranes (click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)
||Feeding cranes from the
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
Northern fields of the Higashi-Kantaku (GPS
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 (click
||Hooded Crane (click to
||Cranes at dusk
Ponds of the Higashi-Kantaku (GPS
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
||Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker
(click to enlarge)
River Takaonogawa south of route 3 (GPS
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.
||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
overhead and some Daurian Redstarts. Also one
obliging Common Sandpiper!
(click to enlarge)
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
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.
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
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
unfortunately it had flown off before I could deploy my camera.
|Yellow-throated (Elegant) Bunting record shot
||Lake Miike walking map
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
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
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!
|East Harbour Hotel,
|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
|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,
|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
|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
|Kirishima Royal Hotel
|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.
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