Japan in Winter: Birding on Ice

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 runs in 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. On this trip, we spare no expense, including three pelagic outings on our main tour, an important consideration when comparing this to other Japan tours.




Day 1: Tokyo to Karuizawa. The tour starts with a 10:00am meeting at a Narita Tokyo airport Hotel, from where we travel to the Karuizawa area for a two 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 birds, including the 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. We spend two nights in Karuizawa.

Varied Tits are reasonably common in the woods of Honshu
Varied Tits are reasonably common in the woods of Honshu (Sam Woods)

Days 2: 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 3: Karuizawa to Nagano. We head to the amazing Snow Monkeys first thing this morning, where we enjoy them in the steam baths with icicles forming on their snow-matted fur. Then we head to Komatsu for a two-night stay.

Snow monkey
Snow monkey (Keith Barnes)

Day 4: Western Honshu wetlands. Honshu’s western coastline is a waterfowl paradise and we seek out some great rarities here amongst a swathe of common waterfowl. Katano Kamoike is a small sanctuary that holds Baikal Teal, Bewick’s Swan and both Taiga and Tundra Bean Geese. We may also see Falcated Duck, Greater White-fronted Goose and others today.

Steller's Sea-Eagle
Steller's Sea-Eagle (Keith Barnes)

Day 5: Honshu to Hokkaido. On this day we fly via Tokyo to the island of Hokkaido, Japan’s Alaska, where we spend the next five days. 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. We spend the night in Kushiro.

Steller's Sea-Eagles can be seen extremely well during our boat trip in Rausu
Steller's Sea-Eagles can be seen extremely well during our boat trip in Rausu (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Tsurui-mura 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. 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. We spend two nights in Rausu.

Dancing Red-crowned Cranes
Dancing Red-crowned Cranes (Keith Barnes)

Day 7: 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.

Blakistons's Fish-Owl is a regular winner of the bird of the trip vote
Blakistons's Fish-Owl is a regular winner of the bird of the trip vote (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Notsuke Peninsula, Lake Furen, and Nemuro. Today we scour the coastline and capes looking for sea ducks 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.

Day 9: Nemuro Peninsula. This area provides some of the most exciting and varied winter birding in Japan, with a good diversity of species. This morning we indulge in a pelagic trip off this finger of land where we hope to get great views of alcids like Least Auklet, Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots and Ancient Murrelet. We’ll go as far as Cape Nosappu where the oceans are sometimes packed with sea ducks and gulls including Common Goldeneye and scoters, and cormorants. Red-throated Loon and Red-necked Grebe are also specialty species in this vicinity. We will leave the Nemuro area and drive back to Kushiro for a 1 night stay. If we have time on the way, we may stop in at Kiritappu, a great site for seawatching and Asian Rosy Finch, before arriving at Kushiro for the night.

Day 10: Kushiro to Izumi. We’ll fly back to Tokyo (Haneda) and then on to Kagoshima on 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.

Hooded Cranes walk in unison
Hooded Cranes walk in unison (Keith Barnes)

Day 11: 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 Gull. 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.

In some years stray Siberian Cranes turn up
In some years stray Siberian Cranes turn up (Sam Woods)

Day 12: 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 amongst the many common ducks.

White-naped Cranes number several thousand at Arasaki
White-naped Cranes number several thousand at Arasaki (Sam Woods)

Day 13: Mi-ike to Kadogawa. We will take a boat 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 Pacific Reef Heron. We will overnight in Sadowara.

Day 14: Kyushu to Tokyo. After some final birding in the area, the main tour finishes today with a flight back to Tokyo. If you are not joining the extension, you may connect with international flights home. Those staying for the extension will head for the ferry terminal.

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Tokyo Bay Pelagic Cruise extension (2 days)

This short extension offers a chance to see a few more landbirds such as the endemic Izu Thrush along with some superb pelagic birding.

Day 1: Tokyo to Miyake-jima. From Tokyo, we will take one of the regular ferries that service the Izu Islands. The ferry goes overnight, and we will spend the night on the boat.

Owston's Tit is an endemic species found on the extension
Owston's Tit is an endemic species found on the extension (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Miyakejima. At dawn, we will disembark on the island of Miyake-jima, and spend the morning exploring the forested slopes for Izu Thrush, Japanese Wood-Pigeon and Japanese Robin, amongst others. After midday, we will re-board the boat returning from Hachijo-jima and spend the last few hours sea-watching on the most productive stretch of the ferry ride. We hope to see several albatross species which are regular in these waters, especially the rare Short-tailed Albatross. Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, Streaked Shearwater, and Black-legged Kittiwakes are all mouth-watering possibilities, and there is always the chance of picking up a serious rarity. After a full afternoon searching for these ocean wanderers, we’ll dock at Tokyo, where we’ll return to Haneda for outward bound flights. If your flight schedule requires an overnight, we can help you book a hotel.

Izu Thrush is available on the extension on Miyakejima
Izu Thrush is available on the extension on Miyakejima (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Relatively early starts are necessary on some days (as early as 5:30am), such as when watching the cranes awaken at Tsuruimura & Arasaki. Because there are only about nine hours of daylight in mid-winter, there will not be much downtime during daylight hours, but there is usually plenty of time to relax during the long nights. The driving isn’t too bad on this trip, with drives of four or more hours on about two days of the trip. Most meals will be in restaurants, but several lunches will be bought at convenience stores as this gives us a lot more flexibility and saves valuable daylight birding time.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Some of the birding will be from the car. Most of the walking will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks although there will be some longer walks along narrower forest trails at Miike & Karuizawa. Due to snowy and icy conditions, suitable footwear is required, and walking sticks and crampons are also recommended. All walks are done at a slow pace. The longest walk is the 2.5 mile (4 km) roundtrip walk to see the Snow Monkeys, which has some inclined sections and some steps, but anyone with a reasonably good level of fitness can handle it.

CLIMATE: Cold and possibly snowy for most of the trip, with temperatures ranging from about 7° to 32°F (-14° to 0°C) in the coldest areas. Kyushu is the mildest place we will visit on this tour, with temperatures ranging from about 39° to 56°F (4° to 13°C). Blizzards are possible in some areas, and there is a chance of road closures, possibly causing on-the-spot changes to the itinerary. We try our very best to keep to the schedule and not miss any birds, but travel insurance is always a good idea.

ACCOMMODATION: We will stay in two distinctly different types of accommodation on this tour: Typical western style accommodation with private bathrooms, and Japanese style Minshukus (primarily in Hokkaido and usually four nights total). The Minshukus are normally large shared rooms for 2 or 3 people. The bathrooms are large, shared bathrooms. There is some etiquette about the use of such bathrooms, and we will discuss this at the start of the tour. Minshukus do not have single accommodations available, and the single supplement for this tour has been calculated based only on the accommodations where we can provide single rooms. We use the Minshukus because they are located at some of the best birding localities, and some of their owners are birders that supply excellent local information. They also provide a distinct and unique Japanese ‘flavor’ to the tour, and most people really enjoy the experience of staying in them.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have great opportunities to photograph birds, Snowy Monkeys, and scenery. Photo opportunities on Hokkaido are particularly good. We should have a cruise from Rausu to see Steller’s Sea-Eagles and White-tailed Eagles on the ice flow (if it has arrived). We should also have great opportunities to photograph Japanese Cranes waking in the Setsuri River and dancing on the snow at the feeding sites. Please bear in mind that all of these are weather dependent. There are feeders at our lodge at Karuizawa and Nemuro although we will watch these through glass. We often get good shots of birds such as ducks and gulls in the harbors of Hokkaido. Serious bird photographers may wish to check out our Japan Photo Journey.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required for entry into Japan. It must be valid for at least 6 months past the time of your scheduled return. Currently, visas are not required for citizens of the US, Canada, the UK, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. For other countries, please check your nearest embassy or consulate for current requirements, or ask us for help. Travel requirements are subject to change; it is a good idea to double check several weeks before the tour.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from night of day 1 to the night of day 13, and, if taking the extension, the night of day 1 of the extension; meals from lunch on day 1 to lunch on day 14, and if taking the extension, meals from dinner of day 1 to lunch on day 2 of the extension; some drinks (the lodges typically include water or juice and tea or coffee with each meal, and if any meal does not include drinks, Tropical Birding will provide reasonable non-alcoholic beverages for that meal); safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and playback gear from 10:00am on day 1 to the evening of day 14, and, if taking the extension, from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 2 of the extension; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from 10:00am of day 1 to the evening of day 14 (the tour leader usually is the driver); internal flights as specified in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?:
Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters if you require their services; international flights; excess luggage charges; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.