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Japan in winter

13th - 27th January 2019


9th - 23rd March 2019



Leader: Carlos Bocos and Chikara Otani

Max group size: 8


Differences between January and March
January and March are excellent times to visit Japan in winter, allowing ALL the specialities to be seen, including large numbers of eagles, cranes and other species. Skipping February is beneficial by avoiding the crowds of photographers who descend on Hokkaido at that time focussed solely on crane and eagle photos.
January has the added bonus of larger numbers of cranes at Arasaki, along with higher numbers of birds in Hokkaido, whereas March has warmer temperatures and increased chances of Japanese Waxwing, an erratic winter visitor now.
Sea-ice can reach Hokkaido at any time between late January and early March but is very unpredictable these days. If sea-ice is present then we will take a boat into the ice to sea Steller’s Sea Eagles but sightings at close range are still available from the mainland even if no sea-ice is present.

Day 1:
Arrivals into Narita International Airport. Night in Narita.

Day 2:
Morning bullet train inland, to Karuizawa. Afternoon birding around our hotel at the bird feeders could result in our first endemic – Japanese Accentor. Night at Karuizawa.

Days 3-4:
Birding below the rugged peaks of the mountains in central Honshu is where we explore the snow-drenched forested valleys with our primary goal being the splendid, but highly elusive Copper Pheasant. Despite the cold and snow, passerines are surprisingly conspicuous, with both resident and winter migrants being present, including several sought-after species – Japanese Accentor, Japanese Green Woodpecker, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese Wagtail, Azure-winged Magpie, Brown-eared Bulbul, Varied Tit, Long-tailed Rosefinch, Grey-bellied Bullfinch and Dusky Thrush while occasional winter rarities include Japanese Waxwing and Pallas’s Rosefinch. Nights in Karuizawa.

Day 5:
Depending how the birding has gone thus far will decide on our exact plans for today, but heading northwest to Jigokudani will provide us with the opportunity to see the famous ‘snow monkeys’ – troops of Japanese Macaques taking a dip and relaxing in the natural, thermal-heated pools. Surprisingly, birding is limited here, but a scan of the forested slopes could reveal Japanese Serow. Following on from here we head back to Tokyo, using the train once more. Night near Haneda Airport.

Day 6:
Morning flight south to Kagoshima, on the island of Kyushu. Driving between the airport and our final destination, Arasaki, takes us along the coast, where Saunder’s Gull winters. Gull enthusiasts will enjoy it here with Black-tailed, Kamchatka, Heuglin’s, Slaty-backed and Vega Gulls are all usually present. Night at Arasaki.

Day 7:
The first major ‘Winter in Japan’ spectacle appears this morning. After listening to the calls of the cranes overnight, dawn will see us looking out at thousands of cranes, with up to 10,000 Hooded and 3000 White-naped Cranes, while a handful of Sandhill and Common Cranes are often present, and occasionally, even Siberian Crane. The cranes feed metres away from us so make sure you start the day with an empty memory card!
As well as the cranes, the maze of canals, reedbeds and fields will have us looking further afield. Green Pheasant is a big target today, while other species possible include Chinese Penduline-tit, Long-billed Plover, Dusky and Pale Thrushes, Crested Kingfisher, Japanese Bush Warbler, Bull-headed Shrike, Daurian Jackdaw, Eurasian Skylark and ‘Masked Bunting’, a sure-fire split from Black-faced Bunting, and a near-Japanese endemic. Night at Arasaki.

Day 8:
After spending the morning at Arasaki we drive east to Mi-ike Lake. Around the forest-fringed Grey Bunting and Ryukyu Minivet are possible, and even Copper Pheasant can sometimes be found lurking in the shadows, while the lake holds Mandarin Duck among other wildfowl. Night at Mi-ike.

Day 9:
Lots of scanning will be required this morning as we go in search of the endangered breeding-endemic Japanese Murrelet. The murrelets favour the seas off the headlands and harbours in a large bay, and if conditions allow we can attempt a boat ride for closer views. In addition, Japanese Cormorant is likely. Free time left available during the afternoon will be spent further along the coast or inland forest-fringed rivers for any targets left remaining.

Day 10:
Morning flight to Tokyo then onward north to Hokkaido, the focal point of the tour. Afternoon driving through the snow-filled landscape will most likely see us looking out at parties of Red-crowned Cranes at a feeding station, with them occasionally jumping up and performing their elegant dancing display. Night on Hokkaido.

Days 11-13:
Three full days exploring the Hokkaido wilderness. We have a lot to pack in during these days – the amazing spectacle of the steam rising from the river as the cranes dance and call at dawn, waiting in the evening for the Blakiston’s Fish Owls to appear under the spotlight by their favoured pool in front of our little hide-away minshuku in the forested valley, and the enthralling encounters with groups of loafing Steller’s Sea Eagle. As the sea-ice becomes less-and-less reliable off northern Hokkaido, the chances of being out on the boat with the Steller’s Sea and White-tailed Eagles all around us are increasingly slim, nonetheless we still get incredible views of large numbers of confiding birds along the coast and particularly around the fisheries, waiting for hand-outs and by-catch, as they sit on the branch and roadside telegraph posts.

Along the coast, birding from the land, scanning each little harbour and out to sea allows us great views of Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, Stejneger’s and Black Scoters, while along the shoreline we look out for Asian Rosy Finch. In the harbours, large numbers of gulls are largely Slaty-backed, Vega, Glaucous and Glaucous-winged.
From vantage points scanning further out, all manner of alcids are possible depending on the current conditions, but can include Spectacled Guillemots and Common Guillemots, Ancient Murrelet, or Crested and Least Auklets. Divers can include Arctic, Red-throated and Pacific. While on the rocks, Red-faced Cormorant is possible among the commoner Pelagic Cormorants. If conditions are favourable, we intend to take a boat out to sea in search of these Alcids for closer looks.

Spending some time along the forest edge in search of passerines which linger here during the cold winter months can include Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Grey-bellied Bullfinch along with a chance of finding a roosting Ural Owl. Rarities that we have seen here before include Pine Grosbeak, Redpoll and Bohemian Waxwing. Nights on Hokkaido.
Nights on Hokkaido.

Day 14:
One final morning on Hokkaido before taking our afternoon flight back to Narita. Night at Narita.

Day 15:
Departures from Narita International Airport.