Japan in Winter: Birding on Ice
Sushi, seabirds and Steller's in the snow.
Japan – the clean-cut, modern economic powerhouse – is also an archipelago that is as variable as it is exciting. From the subtropics of Kyushu to temperate Hokkaido, the stark mountains, jagged coastline, and forests hold several of the world’s must-see birds. This tour is timed for winter, when the massive-billed Steller’s Sea-Eagles congregate on impressive ice floes waiting for fishermen’s scraps, and huge numbers of cranes gather at their wintering grounds. Add some great mixed-flock birding in the coniferous forests of the central islands, in addition to gulls and waterbirds galore, and you have a great mix of birding experiences. Another great experience is indulging in some sake (a pungent and strong white spirit) on a cold winter night while waiting for the Blakiston’s Fish-Owl at a floodlit waterhole stake-out. You will leave these enigmatic islands having experienced some of the greatest birding spectacles on earth.
Day 1: Tokyo to Karuizawa. The tour starts with a 10:00am meeting at a Tokyo Hotel, from where we travel into the Karuizawa area for a three night stay, and where we’ll begin our Japanese birding in earnest. Nestled on the slopes of the impressive Asamayama volcano, we’ll scour the snow-dusted forests for our first flock birds, including remarkable Varied and cute Long-tailed Tits, Oriental Greenfinch and maybe our first endemics in the form of Japanese Green and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers. If we are lucky we might even see some transient species such as Long-tailed Rosefinch, Pale Thrush, or the striking Meadow Bunting.
Days 2-3: Karuizawa. The woodlands here support some superb birds, the finest ones being the endemic Copper Pheasant and immaculate Japanese Waxwing. As we search the quiet forest trails and streams looking for these we hope to encounter the mighty Crested Kingfisher, Brown Dipper, Japanese Wagtail, Japanese Grosbeak and Hawfinch.
Day 4: Karuizawa to Izumi. Heading down to Lake Myogi we may pick up Daurian Redstart, Red-flanked Bluetail and Bull-headed Shrike. We’ll then head back to Tokyo and fly to the southern island of Kyushu, which is bordering on subtropical. We head to the town of Izumi, home to the most impressive gathering of cranes in the world, for a two night stay.
Day 5: Izumi. This morning we will be blown away by one of the most awesome birding spectacles on Earth; a gathering of more than 10,000 cranes. The cacophony of bugling crane calls will be heard seemingly right outside our rooms, in darkness before we have even left our beds. Regal White-naped Cranes join the more abundant Hooded Cranes, and by scouring these flocks of extremely elegant birds we may pick out a few Common or Sandhill cranes, or if we are really lucky a vagrant Demoiselle or ghostly Siberian Crane. After this overwhelming experience we’ll tap into a variety of other habitats in the region. The coast may yield Temminck’s Cormorant and the scarce Saunder’s and Vega gulls. Fields and meadows should reveal buntings and pipits, and perhaps the verdant Green Pheasant. Rivers will be scoured for one of the world’s toughest shorebirds, Long-billed Plover, while Japanese Bush-warblers skulk in the riparian thickets.
Day 6: Izumi to Mi-ike.After a final morning at Izumi, we will head to Mi-ike where we will overnight. On clear days we’ll see the impressive volcanic cone looming large in the background, while birds such as Ryuku Minivet, White-bellied Green Pigeon, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Gray Bunting, White-backed Woodpecker and Japanese Grosbeak may thrill us in the foreground. We’ll also visit a lake where we search for some rare waterbirds, chiefly the incredible Mandarin Duck, and hopefully a few equally impressive Baikal Teals amongst the many common ducks.
Day 7: Mi-ike to Kadogawa. We will take a trip out to Kadogawa Harbor to search for Japanese Murrelet. While out there we may also encounter Vega, Black-tailed, and Slaty-backed Gulls, Great Crested Grebe or Black-necked Grebe too. We will overnight in Kadogawa.
Day 8: Kyushu to Hokkaido. On this day we fly to the island of Hokkaido, Japan’s Alaska, for a three night stay. Huge tracts of taiga-like mountainous wilderness, covered in snow and ice fields make this the most visually stunning part of Japan. While bird species diversity is low in this barren icy seascape, it supports some of the world’s must-see birds including the spectacular, gargantuan, Steller’s Sea-Eagle.
Day 9: Tsuruimura to Rausu. We’ll head out at dawn for another extraordinary birding experience. More than 100 Red-crowned Cranes gather in the white powder snow to dance and bugle in an unforgettable nuptial display. Once we have soaked up these majestic birds we head off to Kushiro Marsh. Frozen lakes harbor White-tailed Eagles and Whooper Swans. We finish off the day in a forested valley where we will wait eagerly near a fishpond for one of the ultimate birds of the tour – the massive Blakiston’s Fish-Owl.
Day 10: Rausu sea trip. Today’s boat trip is phenomenal. We head out between the ice rafts into a massive ice-sea. While gulls abound, we’ll mostly be on the lookout for eagles. We’ll notice the size difference between the already impressive White-tailed and simply gigantic Steller’s Sea-Eagles. These chocolate-and-white leviathans are crowded on the ice at times, and when our boatman starts throwing out fish scraps, they wheel in and gorge themselves within a few meters of the boat, offering unbelievable photographic opportunities. This evening we will try again for the temperamental Blakiston’s Fish-Owl if last night’s vigil proved luckless.
Day 11: Notsuke Peninsula, Lake Furen and Nemuro. Today we scour the coastline and capes looking for seaducks and alcids, including Black and White-winged Scoters, Harlequin Duck and Long-tailed Duck, and hopefully some rarer species like Spectacled Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet or Crested Auklet. The day should also yield an amazing gull-fest including the likes of Glaucous and Glaucous-winged gulls. We’ll overnight in Nemuro for the following two nights.
Day 12: Nemuro Peninsula. This area provides some of the most exciting and varied winter birding in Japan, with a good diversity of species. We’ll go as far as Cape Nosappu where the seas are packed with seaducks and gulls including Common Goldeneye and scoters, cormorants and alcids such as Black Guillemot and Ancient Murrelet. Red-throated Loon, the fantastic Falcated Duck and Red-necked Grebe are also specialty species in this vicinity.
Day 13: Cape Kiritappu to Kushiro. We’ll spend this last morning dividing our time between the sites we have visited previously before we return to the town of Kushiro around midday. En route we’ll also take in a great site for Asian Rosy Finch. The main tour finishes after lunch, with those joining the extension continuing for an amazing overnight pelagic cruise on a ferry liner back to Tokyo.
Hokkaido to Honshu Pelagic Cruise extension (3 days)
We board the overnight ferry around midnight for a bit of rest in our sleeper cabins. Chomping at the bit, we will all be out on deck at first light, where we hope to see Short-tailed, Laysan and Black-footed Albatross, Least and Crested Auklets, Spectacled Guillemots, Thick-billed Murres, and Black-legged Kittiwakes. There is always the chance of picking up a rarity. Mammals include Steller’s Sealions and even rare cetaceans such as Orca and Pacific White-sided Dolphin. After a full day searching for these ocean wanderers we’ll dock at Oarai, where we’ll take a thirty-minute drive to Mito for the night. The tour concludes the next day when we transfer you back to Tokyo’s Narita Airport.
Day 1: Board the ferry bound for Oarai
Day 2: Full day pelagic birding. Dock at Oarai, drive to Mito and overnight.
Day 3: Transfer to Tokyo and depart.
CLIMATE: Cool to very cold, with some rain and snow possible.
DIFFICULTY: Mostly easy. There will be some fairly long walks at Karuizawa.
ACCOMMODATION: Varies from good hotels to very simple Japanese-style guest houses (minshuku). These will be spotlessly clean and comfortable, but minshuku are simple with futon mattress beds, shared rooms and shared bathroom facilities.