Trip report: Japan in Winter: Birding on Ice (February 2015) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Charley Hesse. This was a set departure tour.

This year was our most successful Japan tour yet, with 175 bird species seen. Mammals were also on the menu, and we saw an impressive 13 species, including such treats as Racoon Dog, Japanese Giant Flying Squirrel and Dall’s Porpoise. Japan is all about quality of birds though, not quantity, and we sure had plenty of that. Of course we saw all the big Hokkaido draw cards of Blakinston’s Fish-Owl, Red-crowned Cranes dancing in the snow plus close encounters with dozens of Steller’s Sea Eagles on the ice flow, but we also enjoyed the thousands of cranes on their wintering grounds in the south, an incredible 10 species of alcids on our 4 separate pelagics, plus plenty of great forest birding. On this tour, there is always a likelihood of disruption due to bad weather conditions. Despite the unusually mild temperatures for most of the tour, we almost were affected by road closures, ferry and flight cancelations, but with a little bit of luck and some skilful management, we managed to avoid all adversities and lost no birding time whatsoever. On Honshu we visited the picturesque, forested slopes of the Asayama volcano at Karuizawa where we saw Japanese Woodpecker and Japanese Accentor; we watched the Snow Monkeys keeping warm in the hot springs at Jigokudani; and saw hundreds of Baikal Teal & Falcated Ducks amongst countless other waterfowl at the Western Honshu wetlands. On Kyushu we saw over 10,000 cranes of 4 different species at Arasaki, dozens of rare Saunder’s Gulls at Yatsushiro, Japanese Waxwing at Miike, Japanese Woodpigeon at Hyuga, Black-faced Spoonbills at Hitotsuse River and Japanese Murrelet on a boat trip from Kadogawa. After the previously mentioned Hokkaido highlights we finished the tour with a pelagic extension round-trip ferry ride to Hachijojima on which we saw Black-footed & Laysan Albatrosses. You cannot visit Japan without experiencing the culture, and clients were patiently navigated through the intricate maze of etiquette and cuisine by our fluent Japanese- speaking guide, for a fascinating side dish to Japan’s birding wonders.

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