Japan:  May 24 - June 6, 1986 and March 18 - 23, 1982                                                                                                                                 

BIRDING IN JAPAN – SPRING 1986 – Jon Hornbuckle

This trip has remained one of my fondest memories and so I have decided to reissue the report to incorporate changes in taxonomy and include records from my brief trip in March 1982. Beidaihe in China has, understandably, caught on as THE accessible place to see Siberian birds but many such species can be seen in Japan, along with 21 endemics (excluding the two restricted to the Bonin Islands, Ogasawara) and some excellent seabirds. The avifauna is a fascinating mixture of the exciting and the familiar species, for example with all our common tits except Blue Tit but totally different thrushes and almost no Magpies and Kestrels. Japan is certainly more “civilised” than China, hardly any more expensive to reach, but the costs of living and internal transport are much higher.I had to make do with site-guides on Honshu only (by Mark Brazil) and advice from a few pioneering birders and locals. However, now there are two comprehensive site-guides, the one by Brazil being particularly good, a commendable field guide now unobtainable published by the wild Bird Society of Japan (WBSJ) and a fine handbook “The Birds of Japan” by M Brazil.My trip was combined with a little business which restricted me to about 13 days of birding. I saw 16 of the endemics, only missing the scarce Japanese Night Heron, the 3 species on Amami Oshima (Amami Woodcock, Amami Thrush (now lumped), and Lidth’s Jay) and the very local Ryukyu Serpent Eagle. I recorded 13 of the 14 near-endemics, missing Grey Bunting, although only heard Ryukyu Scops Owl. I was particularly fortunate to see two Short-tailed Albatross from the ferry to Hokkaido, possibly because of being earlier than other western birders before me – a local birder had seen it on a similar date the previous year – but I was just too early for Gray’s Grasshopper- and Lanceolated Warblers. Of the other megabirds, I had an unsatisfactory view of Blakiston’s Fish Owl, and due to lack of time did not try for Steller’s Sea Eagle (seen previously) or Fairy Pitta. I later discovered I had missed Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo, Brown Hawk Owl, Ural Owl (not uncommon on Hokkaido but no breeding sites known by my contacts this year) and Thick-billed Shrike. The weather was generally warm, often cloudy, with little rain apart from a continuous period of 50 hours when rain followed me on the ferry to Hokkaido. The few Japanese birders I met were very helpful and in two cases outstandingly hospitable, and so I do recommend making local contact, eg through the Wild Bird Society of Japan in Tokyo.




Bus from Narita airport to Ukishima marsh. Train to Tokyo. Night ferry to Miyake-jima, Izu Islands


Miyake-jima. Ferry to Tokyo. Night train to Karuizawa


Yacho-no-Mori, Hoshino. Paddies and golf course to the south. Evening in hills to north. Night at Takao’s.


Hoshino area. Afternoon train to Tokyo. Bus to Kawaguchiko. Night at Youth Hostel.


Mount Fuji. Afternoon bus to Momijien, then bus and train to Tokyo. Night at Okubo House hostel.


Suburban trains to Futagoyama, Tama River and Yatsu. Night ferry from Tokyo towards Kushiro, Hokkaido.


Ferry to Kushiro. Lake Shirarutoro, car to Cape Kiritappu and Lake Furen. Night at Minshuku Furen.


Lake Furen, Capes Ochiishi and Kiritappu, Notsoke Penininsula. Night at Minshuku Furen.


Lake Furen to Lake Udo, via Lake Ikiusota, to Lake Shikaribetsu. Night at Hiroshi’s, Obihiro. 


Obihiro fish farm, university and river. Flight to Tokyo.

Business trip to Seki City

Monorail to Oi-koen. Business trip to Nagoya.


Flight to Okinawa. Afternoon drive to the far north via Yagagi Island. Night in car at Benoki Dam.


Early morning in the north, drive back to Naha airport for 12.15 flight to Hong Kong.


Hire-car from Narita to Ukishima Marsh in evening. Night in car.


Ukishima Marsh, Tone River, Lake Hinuma, Kenmin no Mori, Yatsu and Narita. Flight home via Anchorage.


Saturday May 24

Arrived at Tokyo in the afternoon and went to Ukishima Marsh, fairly near Narita airport. Took longer than expected as bus service was infrequent; had to hitch a lift back to the station at dusk. Saw little, possibly due to strong wind and lateness of arrival, but an Oriental Pratincole was a pleasant surprise. Train to Tokyo followed by night ferry to Miyake-jima in the Izu Islands (22.10 – 04.30); slept well on carpeted deck with locals.

Sunday May 25

Ferry docked at dawn surrounded by Streaked Shearwaters. Teamed up with a party of young Tokyo birders, catching bus to the shrine in the SW and walking from there to the cape beyond. Good introduction with both the endemics (Izu Island Thrush and Ijima’s Warbler) easily seen, plus Bamboo Partridge, Japanese Woodpigeon, Lesser Cuckoo and Pleske’s Warbler.

Wanted to catch 07.52 bus to Tairo-ike but we discovered it did not run on Sundays so had to wait for the 08.32. Tairo-ike, a forested lake, was disappointingly noisy as road-works were in progress, but had several sightings of Grey-faced Buzzard (like Booted Eagle in jizz), plus 2 skulking Japanese Robin. Intended to stay overnight but as main objectives were already achieved, decided to save a day by returning with the locals. Ferry left at 13.30, not 14.00 as I had been told, and the first 3 hours of fairly rough sea provided lots of shearwaters, 20 Tristram’s Storm Petrels and my only Japanese Murrelet.

Proceeded to Ueno station for the train to Karuizawa but having just missed the 20.00 had to wait till midnight. Slept on the train, with some discomfort, and missed my stop.

Monday May 26

Had to wait several hours in the middle of nowhere for a train back to Karuizawa. Only place open in the town was Dunkin Donuts, a welcome relief from the chilly early morning air! Thank God for America. Had difficulty explaining to the conductor why I didn’t have a ticket, but was eventually allowed off the train at Naka-Karuizawa at about 07.00. Walked to Hoshino and was immediately rewarded by the sight of singing Siberian and White’s Thrushes. Tried to see Mr Hoshino senior, renowned bird authority, at his luxury hotel but he had just left for a two week vacation.

Morning in Yacho no Mori woodland, where birds included Ashy Minivet, Narcissus Flycatcher, Stub-tailed Bush Warbler and Japanese Grosbeak. I met Takao Baba, the reserve warden/ranger, showing two hotel residents around and he kindly offered to assist me in the afternoon. Late morning I took the train to Karuizawa to check Mark Brazil’s route up the Yagasaki River – not very profitable apart from Green Pheasant, Azure-winged Magpie and Arctic Warbler. Takao took me to overgrown paddies where Chestnut-cheeked Buntings were prominent, followed by a golf course and the Christian Mission Centre, on the wooded outskirts of Karuizawa where the American director generously offered cheap accommodation. Reluctantly declined in favour of staying with Baba-san, a good move as the scarce Japanese Yellow Bunting sang in his garden and Mr Hoshino Jnr offered a trip to the hills to look for Japanese Robin, a local rarity. We drove for c.30 minutes on rough tracks, saw White-backed Woodpecker but only heard Robins, and then caught Grey Nightjar in the headlights on the return. An enjoyable evening included bathing communally in hot spring water. (“Volcano” in Naka-Karuizawa recommended for cheap eating but shut on Mondays.)

Tuesday May 27

Excellent early morning views of the thrushes, including Siberian Blue Robin, plus Japanese Green Woodpecker, Blue-and-white and Narcissus Flycatchers, all near Takao’s garden. A distant large raptor was probably Mountain Hawk-eagle. Revisited the reserve and saw a pair of Siberian Thrush feeding in leaf litter, then took an interesting track along the stream on Reserve’s northern boundary, seeing the only Copper Pheasant of the trip. Note that Paradise Flycatcher is no longer found here and Hodgson’s Hawk-Cuckoo is not common till June.

In the afternoon returned to Tokyo to catch the last bus to Kawaguchiko in order to visit Mt |Fuji early following morning. In retrospect it would have been better to have travelled on to Nagano to visit Togakushi for Grey Bunting, etc and done Fuji on a day trip. Stayed at Youth Hostel (found with difficulty), a soul-less almost deserted place, where I was amazed to receive a phone call from Hiroshi on Hokkaido, who kindly volunteered to meet me at Kushiro ferry terminal.

Wednesday May 28

Fine views of cloudless Fuji on early walk to the entrance of the “new” road to 5th Stage. Found gates were shut till 06.00 and first bus not till 10.00. Heard more than I saw as forest was impenetrable until beyond the gates. After a short wait hitched a lift to the end of the road where trees were alive with Red-flanked Bluetails, but blue males were scarce. Clambered about in volcanic ash above the tree-line looking for accentors, but may as well have kept to the path to the 6th Stage, although found an occupied Alpine Accentor nest under a large rock. Poor view of Japanese Accentor as cloud descended around me. Essential to get high early, as “low” cloud is endemic from mid-morning.

Took steeply descending path which started just beyond he left side of the concrete below the car park. Lovely walk through various life-zones, tempered by the worry that the path might never meet the road; fortunately it did, halfway to the gates. Scanned for raptors for some time but only saw Japanese Green Pigeon.. Caught bus down and then another bus (slow and expensive) to Odawara, having abandoned plan to visit Hakone as all likely species had already been bagged. Stopped at Momijien to look for Greater Pied and Ruddy Kingfishers – futile as Greater Pied only fishes at dawn and dusk and Ruddy is a rarely seen forest bird. Train to Tokyo where checked in at Obuko House, a pleasant private cheap hostel. Ate at excellent Chinese restaurant as recommended by Brazil (1984).

Thursday May 29

The only problem with Obuko House was that it did not open till 07.00 and all outdoor footwear was locked away, as I belatedly discovered. With difficulty I eventually persuaded someone to open up at 06.00; then proceeded to Futagoyama in search of Jap Paradise-Flycatcher. A long walk up a pleasant quiet valley was finally rewarded with a pair of this stunning species, well up the valley. They disappeared after all too soon but a Blue-and-white Flycatcher was more obliging nearby.

Next stop was the Tama River, for Long-billed Plover, via Minami-Tama station per Brazil. No luck – may have been better from Seisekisakuragaoka station but I couldn’t pronounce it. Final destination was Yatsu, an extensive but largely deserted mudflat, which I reached in the rain. Good views of Terek Sand, Mongolian Plover and Grey-tailed Tattler.

Proceeded to Tokyo station for 20.00 bus to the ferry terminal. Eventually discovered the bus had ceased running and I had to back-track on the Tozai train to Toyuche for the 21.30 bus (which also runs at 20.30), from its stop in front of Tokai Bank. There I found 3 Japanese birders, including the experienced Munemaro Imai, who accompanied me on the Kushiro ferry. The large vessel departed at 22.30 with c.20 passengers.

Friday May 30

Sea-watched from dawn to dusk, 04.00-19.00. Rained all day long so I couldn’t follow Brian Little’s advice to ‘keep your bum on the funnel” for warmth (anyway the view from there was partly obscured by life-boats). Found a spot fairly sheltered from the gale but VERY cold. Fog drifted in and out, seriously impairing visibility but only for a minority of the time. Birding was patchy but brilliant at times, particularly from 08.00-09.00 when there were 100s of Swinhoe’s and Band-rumped (Madeiran) Petrels and 3 species of Albatross: 25 Black-footed, 4 Laysan and a real bonus, an immature Short-tailed.

An adult Short-tailed flew S at 09.30, followed in the next hour by 7 Laysan and c.20 Black-footed, but very few petrels. After this the seas were fairly quiet until 15.30 when many Short-tailed and Streaked Shearwaters appeared, along with 2 South Polar Skuas, one of which flew N alongside the ship for over 5 minutes. During the next 1½ hours a further 5 South Polar Skuas were recorded and a single Pomarine, plus 3 Laysan and 8 Black-footed Albatrosses. Ate a reasonable dinner in the restaurant, which was only open for a short time, bathed in the surprisingly calm communal bath, and slept well on the carpet.

Saturday May 31

When the fog cleared at 05.30 the sea was sprinkled with Leach’s Petrels, but not for long. The remaining two hours into Kushiro were fairly quiet but some good birds were seen, notably 3 Laysans, c.150 Red-necked Phalarope, 7 Rhinoceros and single Ancient Auklets and one Marbled Murrelet. Hiroshi Hianuma met me as promised and took my 3 Japanese friends and myself c.30 km along Route 391 to Lake Shirarutoro where 4 pairs of Japanese Crane were nesting, Latham’s Snipe displaying and Long-tailed Rosefinch singing.

The Japanese trio reboarded the ferry back to Tokyo and I proceeded to Lake Furen in Hiroshi’s Landcruiser. It continued to rain all day but we saw Japanese Sparrowhawk, Siberian Rubythroat and at Cape Kiritappu 15 Harlequin Duck but no Tufted Puffin. Night at the delightful Minshuku Furen (213-7 Tobai, Nemuro, Hokkaido 086; 4,400 yen a day full board) run by the Matsuos, although Mr Matsuo was away aerially counting Crane nests in a Cessna.

Sunday June 1, 2005

The shores of Lake Furen were alive with Glaucous and Slaty-backed Gulls, Black-browed Reed Warblers and Rubythroats, but the 3 Locustella species had not yet arrived. The nearby mixed woodland south of the bridge held a lot of birds including Hazel Grouse, Oriental Cuckoo, White-backed Woodpecker, Red-flanked Bluetail, White’s Thrush and Narcissus Flycatcher.

A thorough search of the cliffs at Cape Ochiishi revealed 6 nesting Red-faced Cormorant, at a different location from the previous year’s nests, which is typical of this species. Pairs of Spectacled Guillemot and Siberian Stonechat were added attractions. The Tufted Puffin watch was resumed at Kiritappu, but only enlivened by the activities of the nesting Slaty-backs. The Puffins only rarely relieve their incubating partners in the burrows, whereas visits are much more frequent when young are being fed in July. However, as we started to walk back to the vehicle, a fine Tuftie whirred in, flew around the nesting site but headed back out to sea, probably deterred by the presence of so many gulls.

The Notsoke Peninsula provided the only dancing Cranes of the trip – a superb site – but no White-tailed Eagle. The return journey was notable for many Latham’s Snipe perched atop telegraph poles or performing their extraordinary display in flights. Evening at Minshuku Furen, with the best food of the trip and a brief, unsuccessful, sortie to listen for Blakiston’s Fish-Owl in the nearby woodland.

Monday June 2

Another visit to the local woods, this time accompanied by the highly trained ear of Takeyoshi Matsuo, returning via the other recommended minshuku, Takada-san’s (better positioned for landbirds but out of sight of the lake). Left Tobai with regret, stopping at a meadow near Kushiro to watch Needle-tailed and Fork-tailed Swifts tearing through the skies. Nearing Obihiro, a Red-necked Grebe on Lake Ikusota (at Toykoro) was the prelude to foggy Lake Udo where there were White-tailed Eagle nests, but the only birds were Falcated Teal, Middendorf’s Warbler and the ubiquitous Latham’s Snipe.

The final destination was Lake Shikaribetsu, tucked into the mountains at the southern end of Daisetsuzan NP. At the NE corner of the lake Black Woodpecker nested near the camp site and Osprey fished in the lake. At dusk Siberian Blue Robins and a Sooty Flycatcher sang from the top of conifers and a distant Blakiston’s Fish-Owl flew lazily along the lakeside towards the fish farm. After dark we visited the fish farm and heard the owl calling at fairly close range but, most frustratingly, it stopped before I could locate it. Drove to Obihiro to bed at Hiroshi’s.

Tuesday June 3

Spent final morning in Hokkaido in Obihiro, starting at the fish farm where Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler sang invisibly, and the hoped-for Greater Pied Kingfisher was not apparent. Could only find LRP on the shingle beds of the major river, not Long-billed, but Yellow-breasted Buntings were in good voice in the scrub bushes. Searched woodland near both the university and High School for Japanese Sparrowhawk (present a week earlier) but only saw Goshawk. Finally tracked down Long-billed Plover at the river near the airport, although a fine Rubythroat was more memorable. Flew to Tokyo for a business appointment.

Wednesday June 4

An early morning visit to Heratsuka Shrine (just up the hill from Kanu Nakazato station), a Brown Hawk-Owl site, was unsuccessful. The business trip to Seki City, via Nagoya, yielded at least 4 Grey-headed Lapwing in paddies.

Thursday June 5

Early morning trip on the monorail to Oi-koen (alighting at 2nd stop after Hamamatsucho, 3rd stop from Haneda airport). The smaller reserve was quiet and a major construction development in progress beyond, but the mudflats and marsh were untouched and held a good selection of waterbirds including a fine male Pacific Golden Plover.

Friday June 6

Counted a further 9 Grey-headed Lapwings in paddies south of Nagoya. Flew from Osaka to Seoul, South Korea, geographically close to Japan but where the few common birds included Black-naped Oriole and Tri-coloured Flycatcher (which closely resembles and replaces Narcissus Flycatcher), both rare transients in Japan.

Sunday June 8

Flew to Okinawa, via Fukuoka, and on the road in a hire-car by 13.45. A quick phone-call to Doug McWhirter was helpful. Tedious drive north through many traffic lights, past the huge American airbase, to the expressway to Nago and Yagagi Island. At the bridge to the latter were Eastern Reef Egret, Black-naped Tern and Pacific Swallows. Continued N, past local women playing croquet (!), finally reaching the remnant forest. Checked a pig farm site for Okinawa Rail but soon left as it looked unpromising. Turned west on to Route 2 and saw Red-capped Green Pigeon. Took a left turn c.12km along Route 2, through an open metal gate on to a rough roadthat, after 2km downhill, became the sealed “Pipeline Road”. This short stretch passed through pristine habitat; 2 of the highly endangered Okinawa Woodpecker fed in the ancient trees and the more widespread endemic Ryukyu Minivet was also present (as were two local hunters).

At 18.00 returned to Route 2 and after 2km reached the high bridge over the steep-sided Benoki Dam, recommended by Doug for the Rail. Surrounded by thick deciduous forest, the reservoir was not my idea of rail habitat (as I was not aware then that it is a forest species which roosts in trees). Darkness fell at 19.00 and 2 night-heron sp flew around, followed later by an unseen Okinawa Rail calling from the forest edge by the res., answered by another. I slept in the car to the sound of Ryukyu Scops Owls.

Monday June 9

I watched the water’s edge where it was illuminated by floodlights but the only activity was a pair of Mandarin foraging. I later learnt I should have driven back along Pipeline Road in the dark to look for Amami Woodcock. At dawn invisible Ruddy Kingfishers called from the forest and a woodpecker drummed, but still no rails. Returned to Pipeline road and rounding a bend near the Woodpecker site, I was amazed to see an Okinawa Rail in the middle of the road. I screeched to a halt but it immediately ran into thick cover by a steep stream. It called a little but could not be seen. An Okinawa Woodpecker fed near the end of the road, Ryukyu Robins and two Jap Paradise-Flycatcher gave brief views.

I returned to the coast well satisfied. Drove N another 5 km along Rte 58, past a party of Black-naped Tern, then inland to search for Ruddy Kingfisher, eventually seeing one in flight. This area was starting to be developed, with new roads destroying the forest, and so is probably now a write-off, leaving very little pristine habitat for the Woodpeckers and Rails. Drove back to Naha down the east side of the island, intending to visit the Manko for waders but the journey was so slow that I ran out of time. Flew to Hong Kong at 12.15.

Saturday June 14

Intended to return to Tokyo via Amami-Oshima but had to change plans and fly direct to Narita from Shanghai, arriving at 17.30. Rented a car to visit Ibaraki Prefecture, hoping to reach Ukishima before dusk. Failed due to a major traffic jam at the Tone River bridge, where, frustratingly, many egrets flew over to a nearby roost. Slept in the car at the marsh, which was surprisingly quiet, except for frogs.

Sunday June 15

A beautiful day dawned at 03.45 with a resounding chorus of dozens of singing reed and Fantail warblers and buntings. Egrets and Night-Herons commuted to the river and lake, while Yellow Bitterns flew across the marsh. A single Schrenck’s Bittern was also spotted in transit. Moved to the Tone River where the scene was similar but there I detected a different song, and on seeing the bird was in flight, I knew it to be the highly localised Japanese Marsh Warbler – with its long tail it had the appearance of a prinia.

North to the Ibaraki coast where 2 Streaked Shearwater were evident, but the Nara river mouth was devoid of birds. The west end of Lake Hinuma was attractive and a long search I was rewarded by my first ever Painted Snipe, a female in a paddy, but no Ruddy Crake. A last attempt to photograph Paradise-Flycatcher nearly succeeded at Kenmin no Mori but the pair located at the NE corner proved elusive.

The final destination was Yatsu, but I made the mistake of leaving the expressway after 50km to take the direct route, which then took nearly 2 hours for 40km, thanks to innumerable traffic lights and heavy traffic. I finally arrived just before dusk, and the few birds present included Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Whimbrel. Returned to Narita well satisfied.


  1. All public transport is expensive. The best deal is to buy a Japan Rail Pass. This must be bought outside Japan before departure and can then be used for unlimited travel during a specified period.
  2. Car hire, and the few expressways, are very expensive, and roads difficult to follow due to few comprehensible signs, but is worth considering if in a small party and is essential in Okinawa. Driving is easy on Hokkaido, except for the total absence of “English” names on road signs. Do book a car in advance as the less expensive, small cars were not readily available at airports, amazingly, particularly at weekends.
  3. An apparently good site not in Brazil (1987) is Togakushi in the Central Alps. It holds Grey and Japanese Yellow Buntings, Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo, Ural Owl and sometimes Japanese Waxwing into May, Ruddy Crake and Thick-billed Shrike. Togakushi Forest Park and Izuna Shrine are said to be the best areas. It is reached by train to Nagano, a further hour or so from Karuizawa, and then bus.

Brazil, M.A. (1984) Finding Birds in Japan: The Tokyo Area. Shimizu.

Brazil, M.A. (1985) Finding Birds in Japan: Honshu. Shimizu.

Brazil, M.A. (1987) A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Japan. Kodansha International and WBSJ.

Brazil, M.A. (1991) The Birds of Japan: Christopher Helm.

Robinson, J.W. (1987) A Birder’s guide to Japan. Ibis Publishing Co.

Wild Bird Society of Japan (1982) A Field Guide to the Birds of Japan. WBSJ.


Many thanks to the following for help and advice: Mark Brazil, Noritaka Ichida, Munemaro Imai, Ed Keeble, Brian Little, Doug McWhirter, Rod Martins, Takeyoshi Matsuo, Andrew Moon, Shunji Usui, and especially Takao Baba and Hiroshi Hiranuma.


Taxonomy and nomenclature based on Brazil (1991) with a few more recent updates.

E indicates endemic breeder to Japan; NE near-endemic breeder.

Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis

One or 2 present on most waters

Red-necked Grebe Podicepts grisegena

One Lake Ikiusota 2.6

Black-footed Albatross Diomedea nigripes

c.75 Kushiro ferry 30-31.5

Laysan Albatross D.immutabilis

16 Kushiro ferry 30-31.5

Short-tailed albatross D. albatrus (E)

Adult at 09.30 and 2nd stage juv/lst stage imm. at 08.15 off N Chiba, Kushiro ferry 30.5

Northern Fulmar Fulmaris glacialis

A blue phase bird near Kushiro, from ferry, 31.5

Streaked Shearwater  Calonectris leucomelas (NE)

Many thousands around Miyake-jima 25.5; fewer thousands Kushiro ferry 30-31.5

Flesh-footed Shearwater  Puffinus carneipes

c.50 Miyake-jima ferry 25.5
Sooty Shearwater P.griseus

1000s Kushiro ferry 30-31.5

Short-tailed Shearwater P.tenuirostris

50+ Miyake ferry 25.5; 1000+ Kushiro ferry 30-31.5

Leach’s Storm Petrel  Oceanodroma Leucorhoa

1000s off Hokkaido, Kushiro ferry. 31.5

Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel  O.monorhis (NE)

100s off Chiba, Kushiro ferry 30.5
Band-rumped Storm Petrel  O.castro
100s off Chiba, Kushiro ferry 30.5

Tristram’s Storm Petrel O.tristrami

20+ Miyake ferry 25.5

Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo

Common around Tokyo

Japanese Cormorant P.filamentosus (NE)

Several from ferries; numerous on Hokkaido coast
Pelagic Cormorant P.pelagicus

A few from Kushiro ferry; small numbers on Hokkaido coast

Red-faced Cormorant  P.urile
7 nesting at Cape Ochiishi 1.6.

Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis

10+ at both Ukishima marsh and Tone River 15.6
Schrenck’s Bittern  I.eurythmus

Single sighting of bird in flight at Ukishima marsh 15.6

Black-crowned Night Heron  Nycticorax nycticorax

Widespread and common, with some feeding in heat of day. The only herons seen at Benoki Dam, Okinawa were 2 at late dusk on 8.6, while a deep call was later heard from a bird in flight. They were undoubtedly night-herons and in this heavily forested habitat and range were likely to have been Japanese Night-Heron Gorsachius goisagi

Striated Heron Butorides striatus

A few in flight or in paddies on Honshu

Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis

Fairly common throughout, often in small parties

Eastern Reef Egret Egretta sacra

Okinawa only, 2 at Yagagi 8.6 and 3 near Hentona 9.6

Little Egret E.garzetta
Widespread and numerous
Intermediate Egret E.intermedia
Two at Tama River 29.5 and a few on Honshu journeys
Great Egret E.alba

Fairly common in small numbers on Honshu. A big egret roost noted a few km south of Ukishima 14.6

Grey Heron Aredea cinerea

Only a few on Honshu but common on Hokkaido

Mute Swan Cygnus olor

Feral pair with 5 young in Nagoya castle moat and a pair at Lake Udo 2.6

Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata

Pairs at Lake Shikaribetsu 2.6 and Benoki Dam 9.6 where fed at night under artificial light

Eurasian Wigeon Ana penelope

One at Oi-koen, Tokyo 5.6
Falcated Teal A.falcata
Pair at Lake Udo 2.6
Common Teal A.crecca
Few at Lake Furen 1-2.6
Mallard A.platyrhynchos
Widespread and common on Honshu and Okinawa
Spot-billed Duck A.poecilorhyncha

Most widespread and numerous duck sp., including one with young at Benoki Dam, Okinawa 8.6

Northern Pintail A.acuta
One at Oi-koen 5.6
Northern Shoveler A.clypeata
Fairly common in small numbers on Hokkaido

Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula

Few at Lake Furen 1-2.6
Greater Scaup A.marila
c.100 at Lake Furen and Notsoke Peninsula 1.6

Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus

15 at Cape Kiritappu 31.5 but only 3 on 1.6; 2 at Cape Ochiishi on 1.6

Red-breasted Merganser  Mergus serrator

Two at Cape Ochiishi 1.6
Goosander M.merganser
Only 1, at Obihiro 3.6
Osprey Pandion haliaetus

One at Notsoke Peninsula 1.6; 2 at Lake Shikaribetsu 2.6

Blake Kite Milvus lineatus

Common in small numbers with 20+ at Futagoyama 29.5; absent from Okinawa

Japanese Sparrowhawk  Accipiter gularis

One between Kushiro and Tobai 31.5. An Accipiter at Lake Shikaribetsu on 2.6 was either this sp. or nisus.

Northern Goshawk A.gentilis

One in Obihiro High School grounds 3.6

Grey-faced Buzzard Butastur indicus

One or 2 at Tairo-ike 25.5; one at Kenmin no Mori 15.6

Common Buzzard Buteo buteo
One Lake Shikaribetsu 2.6

Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus

A male at Cape Kiritappu 1.6
Hazel Grouse Bonasa bonasia

One seen at Tobai 1.6 and another heard “whistling” on 2.6

Chinese Bamboo-Partridge  Bambusicola thoracica [introduced]

One flushed at Tairo-ike, Miyake-jima 25.6, heard calling near Miyake shrine and at Hoshino and Futagoyama

Copper Pheasant Syrmaticus soemmerringii (E)

One at Hoshino 27.5

Green Pheasant Phasianus versicolor (E)

Several seen at Karuizawa 26.5 and commonly heard.

Okinawa Rail Gallirallus okinawae (E)

Two called from north arm of Benoki Dam at 20.05 on 8.6; one crossed Pipeline Road at 06.00 on 9.6

Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus

Widespread and common
Common Coot Falica atra
Several at Oi-koen 5.6 and possibly elsewhere

Japanese Crane Grus japonensis

4 nesting at Lake Shirarutoro and several between Kushiro and Tobai 31.5; at Lake Furen 15-20 near Tobai and several further north 1.6; c.10 Kurhsiro Obihiro 2.6

Painted Snipe Rostratula benghalensis

Female in paddy at southwestern end of Lake Hinuma 15.6

Oriental Pratincole  Glareola maldivarum

One on paddy at Ukishima 24.5

Little ringed Plover  Charadrius dubius

Common: 2-4 wherever suitable habitat
Long-billed Plover C.placidus
Three on river near Obihiro airport
Kentish Plover C.alexandrinus

c.40 at Yatsu 29.5 and few 15.6; 12 Oi-koen 5.6

Mongolian Plover C.mongolus
5 at Yatsu 29.5

Pacific Golden Plover  Pluvialis fulva

One in full breeding plumage at Oi-koen 5.6
Grey Plover P.squatarola

10 at Yatsu on 29.5 and 16 on 15.6, all in non-breeding plumage

Grey-headed Lapwing  Vanellus cinereus

4 at Seki City 4.6; 9 between Chtahauda and Otagawa, Aichi Pref. on 6.6 and 3 near Kyoto

Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis

One at Yatsu 29.5
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper  C.acuminata
Two at Yatsu 15.6
Dunlin C.alpina
One at Yatsu in breeding plumage 29.5 ang 15.6

Latham’s Snipe Gallinago hardwickii (E)

Numerous on Hokkaido, both in display and perched (often on telegraph poles)

Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola

Two “roding” at Lake Shikaribetsu 2.6

Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica

One at Yatsu 29.6
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Two at Yatsu 15.6
Eurasian Curlew N.Arquata
One in flight at Obihiro 3.6

Common Redshank Tringa tetanus

25+ at Lake Furen and Notsoke Pen. 1.6

Terek Sandpiper T.cinerea
One at Yatsu 29.5
Common Sandpiper T.hypoleucos
Pairs on all suitable rivers
Grey-tailed Tattler  T.brevipes

5 at Ukishima 24.5; c.20 at Yatsu and 4 Taxa River 29.5; 2 at Lake Furen and 5+ Notsoke Pen. 1.6; 1 Oi-koen 5.6

Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres

Three at Notsoke Peninsula 1.6

Red-necked Phalarope  Phalaropus lobatus

300+ from Kushiro ferry 30-31.5

Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus

One from Kushiro ferry 30.5
Long-tailed Skua S.longicaudus

One Kushiro ferry 30.5 (and 1 missed from Miyake ferry)

South Polar Skua Catharacta maccormickii

7 from Kushiro ferry 30.5

Common Black-headed Gull  Larus ridibundus

C.10 at Lake Udo 1.6; possibly elsewhere

Black-tailed Gull L.crassirostris (NE)

Common along the coast in small numbers
Slaty-backed Gull L.schistisagus

15+ from Kushiro ferry 31.5; hundreds off eastern Hokkaido

Glaucous Gull L.hyperboreus
C.10 at Lake Furen 1-2.6

Black-naped Tern Sterna sumatrana

Two Yagagi Island 8.6 and c15 north of Hentona at start of route 2, Okinawa on 9.6

Common Tern S.hirundo

4 in Tokyo harbour 25.5 and 3 at Lake Hinuma 15.6

Little Tern S.albifrons

20+ Tokyo harbour 25.5, c.10 Oi-koen 5.6 and c.5 Yatsu 29.5

Common Guillemot Uria aalge

One near Kushiro from ferry 31.5

Spectacled Guillemot  Cepphus carbo

Two Cape Kiritappu 31.5 and 4 at Cape Ochiishi 1.6

Marbled Murrelet Brachyramphus mamoratus

One near Kushiro from ferry 31.5

Ancient Murrelet Synthliboramphus antiquus

One near Kushiro from ferry 31.5

Japanese Murrelet S.wumizusume (E)

One from Miyake ferry 25.5

Rhinoceros Auklet Cerorhinca monocerata

7 near Kushiro from ferry 25.5

Tufted Puffin Lunda cirrhata

One in flight at Cape Kiritappu on 1.6
Rock Dove Columba livia
Common and widespread

Japanese Woodpigeon  C.janthina (NE)

C.20 on Myake-jima 25,5 and 2 Pipeline Road, Okinawa 9.6

Oriental Turtle Dove  Streptopelia orientalis

Widespread and common in small numbers

Japanese Green Pigeon  Treron sieboldii

5 on Mount Fuji 28.5
Red-capped Green Pigeon  T.formosae

C.10 on Route 2 and Pipeline Road, Okinawa 8-9.6

Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo  Cuculus fugax

One heard singing at night near Lake Shikaribetsu fish farm 2.6

Common Cuckoo C.canorus
Widespread and common
Oriental Cuckoo C.saturatus

Two at Hoshino 26-27.5 and Mount Fuji 28.5; one at Tobai 1.6 and Lake Shikaribetsu 2.6

Little/Lesser Cuckoo C.poliocephalus

5+ at Miyake-jima 25.5; 2+ Hoshino 26-27.5; singles Futagoyama 29.5 and Kenmin no Mori 15.6

Oriental Scops Owl Otus Sunia
Three calling at Lake Shikaribetsu 2.6
Ryukyu Scops Owl O.elegans (NE)

6+ scops owls calling at Benoki Dam 8-9.6 presumed to be this sp. on distribution

Blakiston’s Fish-Owl  Ketupa blakistoni

One in flight at dusk, Lake Shikaribetsu and calling at night at the fish farm on 2.6

Grey Nightjar Caprimulgus indicus

Two on track north of Hoshino after dusk 26.5 and one calling in the hills at dusk

White-throated Needletail  Hirundapus caudacutus

10+ east of Kushiro 2.6

Fork-tailed Swift Apus pacificus

5+ at Karuizawa 26.5 and 10+ east of Kushiro with needletails 2.6

House Swift A. nipalensis

C.15 at Tairo-ike 25.5

Ruddy Kingfisher Halcyon cormandia

One inland from Hentona and 4 calling at dawn at Benoki Dam 9.6

Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis

One at Benoki Dam 8.6 was the only sighting!

Japanese Green Woodpecker  Picus awokera (E)

Two at Hoshino 27.5 and one at Mt Fuji 28.5

Okinawa Woodpecker Sapheopipo noguchii (E)

Two at Pipeline Road 8.6 and a female early on 9.6

Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius

Pair feeding young at Lake Shikaribetsu camp site 2.6; one heard at Tobai 1.6

Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major

Widespread and common, excluding Okinawa
White-backed Woodpecker  D.leucotos

Two at Hoshino 26-27.5 and one in hills; one at Tobai 1.6

Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker  D.kizuki (NE)

Common and widespread including one at Pipeline Road 9.6

Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis

Widespread and common, excluding Okinawa

Sand Martin Riparia riparia

Fairly common on Hokkaido only

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica

Widespread and common
Pacific Swallow H.tahitica
Fairly common in northern Okinawa only

Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus

Widespread and common, excluding Okinawa

Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni

Common in woodland throughout Honshu and Hokkaido, even in stunted pines high on Fuji

Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea

Pairs on most rivers
Black-backed Wagtail  M.lugens
Common near water everywhere except Okinawa
Japanese Wagtail M.grandis (E)

Common on Honshu and a few on Hokkaido

Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus

5 at Hoshino 27.5
Ryukyu Minivet P.tegimae (E)

Two at pig farm south of Hentona 8.6; 5 at Pipeline Road 8-9.6 and a few further north 9.6

Brown-eared Bulbul Ixos amaurotis (NE)

Abundant throughout Honshu; c.10 at Obihiro 3.6; common on Pipeline Road, Okinawa

Brown Dipper Ciculus pallasii

Two on river at Hoshino 26-27.5; one at Momijoen 28.5 and 2 at Obihiro 3.6

Winter Wren Trogladytes troglodytes

Widespread but uncommon in woodland on Hoshu and Hokkaido

Japanese Accentor Prunella rubida (E)

One on Mt Fuji above the 5th Stage 28.5

Alpine Accentor P.collaris

4 on Mt Fuji above the 5th stage 28.5

Japanese Robin Erithacus akahige (NE)

Two at Tairo-ike 25.5; all others only heard; 2 in hills above Hoshino 26.5, 2 on Mt Fuji 28.5 and 4 at Tobai 2.6

Ryukyu Robin E.komadori (E)

One flushed on Pipeline Road 15.6 and 4 heard singing

Siberian Rubythroat  Luscinia calliope

Males common on Hokkaido, with 20+ east of Kushiro and c.5 at Obihiro 3.6

Siberian Blue Robin  L.cyane

5+ at Hoshino 26-27.5 (but only visible early in morning); 10+ heard on Mt Fuji 28.5; 2 Lake Shikaribetsu at dusk 2.6

Red-flanked Bluetail  Tarsiger cyanurus

c.20 on Mt Fuji 4th-5th Stages 28.5 and a male at Tobai 1.6

[Siberian] Stonechat  Saxicola torquata maura

Common throughout Hokkaido

Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius

Two rufous-breasted males at cape beyond Miyake shrine (Toga-jinja) 25.5; one on coast near Kushiro 2.6 and a pair on coast near Hentona 14-15.6

White’s Thrush Zoothera dauma

Two at Hoshino 26-27.5; one at Tobai 2.6 and heard at Lake Shikaribetsu 2.6 and Benoki Dam 8.6

Siberian Thrush Z.sibirica

4 males and one female at Hoshino 26-27.5 and 3 singing in hills at dusk

Grey Thrush Turdus cardis

4 at Hoshino 27.5; 2 on Mt Fuji 27.5 and one at Lake Shikaribetsu 2.6

Brown Thrush T.chrysolaus (NE)

Common in all woodland in Honshu and Hokkaido

IzuIslands Thrush T.celaenops (E)

10-15 on Miyake-jima 25.5
Asian Stubtail  Urosphena squameiceps
Singles on Hoshino 26.5 and Mt Fuji 28.5
Japanese Bush-Warbler  Cettia diphone

Heard in all woodland except pure conifer but seen on few occasions

Fan-tailed Warbler Cisticola juncidis

Common in reeds and sedge on Honshu and Okinawa

Middendorff’s Warbler  Locustella ochotensis

One at Lake Udo 2.6

Pleske’s Warbler  Locustella pleskei

Two at Miyake Shrine, Miyake-jima 25.5
Gray’s Grasshopper-Warbler  L.fasciolata

Two heard singing Obihiro fish farm and one at river 3.6

Japanese Marsh-Warbler  Megalurus pryeri

Three in the tone River reed-beds 15.6

Black-browed Reed-Warbler  Acrocephalus bistrigiceps

Common in all beds of reed and sedge
Oriental Reed-Warbler  A.orientalis
Common in all reed-beds

Eastern Crowned Warbler  Phylloscopus coronatus

Two at Hoshino 26-27.5; 10+ Fuji 28.5; 3 Tobai 1.6 and a few elsewhere on Hokkaido 1-3.6

Pale-legged Warbler  P. tenellipes

A few singing on Mt Fuji 28.5

Sakhalin Warbler P.borealoides

One near Kushiro 31.5 and 2 at Lake Udo 2.6

Ijima’s Warbler P.ijimae
20+ on Miyake-jima 25.5
Arctic Warbler P.borealis

Two at Hoshino and Karuizawa 26.5; 10+ on upper reaches of Mt Fuji 28.5

Goldcrest Regulus regulus
A few in coniferous woodland on Honshu and Hokkaido

Blue-and-white Flycatcher  Cyanoptila cyanomelana

Two males at Hoshino 27.5 and a pair at Futogoyama 29.5

Sooty Flycatcher Muscicapa infuscate

One at Lake Shikaribetsu 2.6
Asian Brown Flycatcher  M.dauurica

Three at Hoshino 26-27.5; 2 Fuji 28.5; 4 Tobai 1-2.6; 2 at Lake Shikaribetsu 2.6 and one at Obihiro 3.6

Narcissus Flycatcher  Ficedula narcissina (NE)

Fairly common in deciduous woodland on Honshu and Hokkaido

Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher  Terpsiphone atrocaudata (NE)

A pair at Futagoyama 29.5 and Kenmin no Mori 15.6; an adult and an immature male at Pipeline Road 9.6

Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus

Widespread and fairly common in single pairs, with white-headed japonicus race on Hokkaido

Marsh Tit Parus palustris
A few at Tobai and Lake Shikaribetsu
Willow Tit P.montanus

Several at Hoshino, Fuji and throughout Hokkaido

Varied Tit P.varius (NE)

6+ owstoni race at Miyake-jima 25.5; a few at Hoshino, Fuji and Futagoyama

Coal Tit P.ater
Common in all woodland with conifers
Great Tit P.major
Abundant throughout

Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea

A few in mixed or deciduous woodland throughout Honshu and Hokkaido

Common Treecreeper Certhia familiaris

A few at Hoshino, Fuji, Tobai and Obihiro

Japanese White-eye Zosterops japonica

A few on Miyake-jima and at Hoshino and Kenmin no Mori; common on Okinawa

Bull-headed Shrike Lanius buephalus

Two Tairo-ike 25.5; 5 Hoshino/Karuizawa 26.5; several on journeys in Honshu; a few in Hokkaido; one Tone River 15.6

Brown Shrike L.cristatus

Two on Honshu journeys. (one missed at Obihiro 3.6)

Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius

Several at Hoshino, Fuji, Tobai and Lake Shikaribetsu – the brown headed brandtii race on Hokkaido

Azure-winged Magpie  Cyanopica cyana

A few at Karuizawa and Tokyo; one at Lake Hinuma 15.6

Eurasian Nutcracker  Nucifaga caryocatactes

Three at Mt Fuji 28.5

Carrion Crow Corvus corone

Abundant throughout Honshu and Hokkaido, with some large flocks

Large-billed Crow C.macrorhynchos
Common throughout

Chestnut-cheeked Starling Sturnus Philippensis (E)

A pair at Hoshino and 3 Karuizawa golf course 26.5; pairs at Tobai 1-2.6 and Obihiro 3.6

White-cheeked Starling  S. cineraceus

Abundant on Honshu and Hokkaido, including roost of 1000s at Ukishima 15.6 and 2 pulli in reeds at Tama River 29.5

Russet Sparrow Passer rutilans

One at Obihiro fish farm 3.6
Eurasian Tree Sparrow  P.montanus
Abundant throughout

Oriental Greenfinch  Carduelis sinica

Common throughout Honshu and Hokkaido
Eurasian Siskin C.spinus
Two at Tobai 2.6

Long-tailed Rosefinch  Uragus sibiricus

Fairly common in single pairs throughout Hokkaido.
Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula

A few at Hoshino and Fuji; common on Hokkaido

Japanese Grosbeak Eophona personata

Common at Hoshino; a few at Fuji and Obihiro

Hawfinch Coccothraustesw coccothraustes

A few at Tobai and Obihiro

Black-faced Bunting  Emberiza spodocephala

Common in mixed and deciduous woodland throughout Honshu and Hokkaido

Japanese Yellow Bunting  E.sulphurata (E)

A single male singing high in a tree in Takao’s garden at Hoshino on 26.5

Meadow Bunting E.cioides
Common throughout Honshu and Hokkaido
Chestnut-eared Bunting  E.fucata
4+ in old paddies south of Karuizawa 26.5
Yellow-breasted Bunting  E.aureola

Three in riverine scrub at Obihiro and 2 at Obihiro University 3.6

Common Reed Bunting  E.schoeniclus
Fairly common on Hokkaido
Japanese Reed Bunting  E.yessoensis

5+ pairs, many feeding young, at both Ukishima and Tone River on 15.6


Red Fox Several on Hokkaido

Eastern Red Squirrel S.lis Up to three in woodland throughout

Flying Squirrel One in owl nest box at Hoshino

Racoon Dog One at Hoshino

Northern Fur Seal c.50 Kushiro ferry (assuming all seals were this sp.)

BIRDS seen from the viewpoint at ANCHORAGE AIRPORT, ALASKA on 16 June 1986

Canada Goose, Mallard, Bald Eagle, Short-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs, Hudsonian Godwit, Snipe, Least Sandpiper, Common Gull, Arctic Tern, Violet-green Swallow, American Robin, Black-billed Magpie, Northwestern Crow



 This was a long weekend's birding associated with a business trip. The weather in Tokyo was bright and sunny but Hokkaido was covered in snow clouds most of the time, with some precipitation and occasional sun. I hired a car at Kushiro airport, only to find there were no English road signs, the roads were covered in snow and ice, and credit cards were not accepted anywhere, including by the car-hire company, and my Bank of Scotland traveller's cheques were not accepted by the only bank I could find! Otherwise, it was a great trip.
18th March  Tokyo 

19 Fly Tokyo to Kushiro, drive to Rausu, Shiretoko peninsula, via Crane feeding site

20 Shiretoko peninsula and trip to Lake Furen via Notsuke peninsula

21 Drive from Rausu to Kushiro, via Crane feeding site

22 Fly to Tokyo, visit Ueno Park
23 Narita, fly to Shanghai
Checklist of Birds

Little Grebe 5 Palace moat, Tokyo, several Ueno Park

Great Cormorant Numerous around Tokyo, nesting in Ueno Park

Japanese Cormorant Several Shiretoko peninsula

Pelagic Cormorant Few Shiretoko peninsula

Little Egret Common around Tokyo

Mute Swan Nesting in Palace moat

Whooper Swan 1000++ Notsuke peninsula

Mandarin Duck 1 Palace moat, Tokyo

EurasianWigeon c.10 Palace moat, Tokyo
CommonTeal Common Ueno Park
Mallard Common Ueno Park
Northern Pintail Common Ueno Park
Northern Shoveler Common Ueno Park
Common Pochard Common Ueno Park

Greater Scaup 10-15 Kushiro

Harlequin Duck Numerous Hokkaido coast

Long-tailed Duck Common Hokkaido coast

Common Scoter Common Shiretoko peninsula

Velvet Scoter Numerous Hokkaido coast

Common Goldeneye Numerous Shiretoko peninsula

Red-breasted Merganser Few S of L Furen

Goosander Common Shiretoko peninsula

Black Kite Common around Tokyo; a few near L Furen and Kushiro

White-tailed Eagle 2 Lake Furen, 5+ Shiretoko peninsula

Steller’s Sea-Eagle 1 Notsuke, 8+ (mainly imm.s) Shiretoko

Rough-legged Buzzard 1 near Kushiro airport

Common Moorhen Several Ueno Park

Japanese Crane Up to 26, many dancing, at feeding station N of Kushiro

Common Gull Few at Kushiro

Herring-type Gull Abundant Shiretoko peninsula

Slaty-backed Gull Abundant Shiretoko peninsula

Glaucous Gull Common Shiretoko peninsula

Glaucous-winged Gull Several Shiretoko peninsula

Black-legged Kittiwake Few at Kushiro

Oriental Turtle Dove Several around Tokyo

Black-backed Wagtail 2 Palace moat

Japanese Wagtail 3 singing at Narita

Brown-eared Bulbul Common around Tokyo

Brown Dipper 2 Shiretoko peninsula

Wren 1 Shiretoko peninsula

Daurian Redstart 2 near Palace, Tokyo

Dusky Thrush Numerous around Tokyo

Japanese Bush-Warbler 1 singing at Narita

Long-tailed Tit Several at Narita

Marsh Tit Several on Hokkaido and at Narita

Japanese White-eye c.6 near Palace and at Ueno Park

Azure-winged Magpie c.20 near Palace, Tokyo

Jungle Crow Common throughout

White-cheeked Starling Common around Tokyo; small flock Notsuke

Eurasian Tree Sparrow Common around Tokyo

Brambling Several N of Kushiro

Oriental Greenfinch Several at Narita

Hawfinch 2 near Royal Palace, Tokyo

Meadow Bunting Common at Narita

 A  DAY WITH SEA  EAGLES:  20 March 1982 at Rausu in Hokkaido, Japan

Early morning at Rausu on the northeast coast of Hokkaido was grey and bitter. On the previous day I had flown from Tokyo to Kushiro in south Hokkaido, where I had witnessed the exquisite dance of 26 beautiful Red-crowned (or Japanese) Cranes Grus japonensis, as they displayed and fed in a snow-covered field. I will not dwell on the problems of the harrowing 240 km drive to Rausu,over treacherous, icy roads signposted only in Japanese, and of searching in the dark for a ryokan (Japanese inn), for this was my first and perhaps only chance of achieving a long incubated ambition – to see the legendary Steller’s Sea Eagle Haliaetus pelagicus. This species, the world’s largest eagle (along with the Harpy Eagle Harpia harpypja), breeds on the Kamchatka  peninsula and nearby islands, which were inaccessible to westerners until the fall of Communism, but winters as far south as Hokkaido.

I set forth on foot along the ice-packed road. Everywhere was covered in a deep blanket of snow, and the only bird life was a pair of Marsh Tits Parus palustris which fed busily in the roadside alders. At the bridge over the small river a call, identical to that of Dipper Cinclus cinclus, heralded the arrival of a pair of Brown Dipper Cinclus pallasii searching for food in the water in typical Dipper fashion. A large gull circled overhead and spiraled down to bathe - it looked identical to me to a Great Black-backed Larus marinus, although probably smaller, and so I concluded it to be a Slaty-backed L.schistisagus, which replaces Great Black-backed in the far eastern Palaearctic.

I returned to the ryokan for breakfast - an artistically arranged tray of dried raw fish, sea-weed, gherkins, soup, rice and an egg which made a dreadful sticky mess when I cracked it in the mistaken belief that it was hard-boiled. The rest of the food I ate out of necessity. After struggling to de-ice the car windscreen with paper, the only available aid, I set off in the car and soon reached the town. It was an unattractive collection of mainly prefabricated houses, with a few shops illuminated by incomprehensive signs, and with a harbor sheltering small trawlers.

Driving along the pot-holed, icy coastal road, I looked out over a cold sea covered in lumps of ice up to a metre high - the influence of Arctic currents and Siberian air in a region at the same latitude as southern France. The sea was alive with ducks and gulls, mostly Slaty-backed and Herring-type Gulls Larus argentatus as dark as the Mediterranean form. Although both species had pink legs, the adults were readily distinguishable, the Slaty-backed having much darker wings, but the immatures appeared similar. Slaty-backed were a little bigger than “Herring” but generally not as large as the Glaucous Gulls L.hyperboreus, that were present in dozens - a fine sight to European eyes. Surprisingly, there were no smaller gulls.

The real gems were the Harlequin Ducks Histrionicus histrinicus, pairs of which dodged in and out of the ice-floes with equally numerous Goldeneye Bucephala clangula. The drakes were resplendent in the dark blue plumage with chestnut flanks and heads boldly patterned with white. The drab ducks were readily identified by three white spots on each side of the head. As I drove towards Cape Shiretoko, I saw small parties of Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis, Goosander Mergus merganser, Common Scoter Melanitta nigra and, the most numerous, Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca. There were also a few Japanese Cormorant Phalacrocorax filamentosus which looked identical to Cormorant P. carbo, except for a greenish gloss on the wings which could be seen only on the rare occasion when the sun shone.

The mountains of the Shiretoko peninsula were 1500 m high but their peaks were shrouded in cloud. I was looking for the river valley where sea-eagles were reputed to roost, but as I had been told it was not far from Rausu I suspected I had driven too far. Finding a fisherman, I showed him my Japanese map and although his directions were unintelligible, his gesticulations confirmed my fears. I drove back along the road and reaching a village at the mouth of a river, noted that the valley entrance was blocked by a rock-face 30-40 m high, which tallied with the description of the roosting site. I had not expected it to be so close to human habitation.

The eagles were said to leave the roost in mid-morning, but an hour’s wait produced no sign of one. I set off to walk up the valley. It was hard work as I frequently sank thigh-deep in the snow. At a waterfall by the rock-face the way appeared blocked by a snow-drift. The valley beyond was partly visible, with steep high slopes covered in trees and snow. The only sounds were the familiar song of a Wren Troglodytes troglodytes and the occasional call of Brown Dipper. I recalled the warning in Tokyo that the eagles departed for their Siberian breeding grounds in the second half of March.

Reluctantly I turned to retreat when a huge dark broad-winged bird glided along the top of the gorge before disappearing over the nearby crest: definitely a sea eagle! From the relatively long wedge-shaped tail and bulging secondaries, it was undoubtedly an immature Steller’s. It had a white band under the length of the wings, like some immature Aguila eagle species, and extensive white flecks elsewhere. In my elation I forgot the cold and returned to the shore, hoping that this would be the first of many eagles leaving the roost. However, it was not,and I had to wait in suspense for 35 minutes before an eagle flew in from the sea, passing over the houses 100 metres away with six flaps and a glide on flat wings. This was a magnificent sub-adult Steller’s. It looked almost black, with a largely white long tail and a huge cream bill that appeared to be nearly as large as its head. I wanted to photograph the species and this one presented an excellent opportunity (the best of the trip, in retrospect), but I could not bear to take my eyes off it as it swept past before turning up the valley.

Fifteen minutes later a flurry of gulls at sea signaled the approach of an eagle gliding over the icy water and then landing on a small iceberg. Its short tail, mid-brown plumage and heavy pale streaks characterized it as an immature White-tailed Eagle Haliaetus albicilla. After 10 minutes it swooped from the ice to the sea, seized a large fish and landed on a nearby iceberg. It consumed the fish in 10 minutes, preened and stayed in view for the rest of the day, making short flights from time to time.

The presence of other eagles was also marked by flights of gulls and by mid-afternoon there were four Steller’s and two White-tailed Eagles in the area, all immature birds. Identification was not easy at long range, as there was no apparent difference in the behavior of the two species, and I didn’t posses a scope. Mostly they perched on the ice, often two or even three eagles being within a few hundred metres, but they look little notice of each other. They fished from their perches or occasionally swooped from a low flight, but never plunged like an Osprey Pandion haliaetus. Although the gulls invariably took to flight at the approach of an eagle, no attacks were seen, and neither did gulls attempt to rob eagles of fish (which they certainly do with Osprey).

The sea was a pied kaleidoscope with gulls, ducks, cormorants, ice and a few trawlers in perpetual motion against a backdrop of extinct volcanoes 30 km away on Kunashirito, the southernmost of the Russian Kurile Islands. The birds included two new species for me - Pelagic Shag Phalacrocorax pelagicus and Glaucous-winged Gull Larus glaucescens. Pelagic Shag, the dark-billed eastern counterpart of our Shag P. aristotelis, were rarely visible for long as they spent most of their time diving for fish. Their facial skin turns red when breeding, but I could not detect any evidence of this. Among the gulls, I saw one that I took to be an aberrant Herring Gull as it appeared identical to that species except for grey, rather than black, wing tips. However, when I saw several more, together with dirty pale brown immature birds, I realised they were Glaucous-winged Gulls, inhabitants of the high Arctic and uncommon winter visitors to Japan. One adult obligingly perched for some time alone on a prominent iceberg only 10 meters offshore.

It was quiet in the village. Outside many of the houses small fish hung up to dry, like clothes on a line, and giant icicles trailed from the leaves. There was a brief flurry of activity when the local schoolchildren trooped past on their way home. I appeared to be as great a focus of interest to them as the eagles were to me. Shortly after this, at 3 p.m., a White-tailed Eagle flew in shore over the village, and disappeared beyond the large rock sheltering the valley from off-shore winds. It was another hour before a Steller’s came in, with unhurried flight of a few flaps and a glide, rising above the hill top along the coast and then flying inland up the valley. The remaining four eagles followed during the course of the next hour, making landfalls at different places and thereby frustrating my attempts at photography.

The sun had finally appeared for more than a fleeting moment, and as it set behind Kunashirito, the trawlers made for Rausu harbour. Then eagles arrived from afar: in thirty minutes eight flew up the valley. I believed these to be three White-tailed and five Steller’s, although identification of the younger immature was not easy as the tails of Steller’s were shorter and the bills smaller than those of older birds. The flight of all these eagles was more direct than their predecessor’s, with no gliding, which made it difficult to distinguish the characteristic convex trailing edge of the Steller’s wings. All went straight from the sea to the valley, some flying 15 metres directly above me, their bulging crops clearly visible. The massive body of a Steller’s dwarfed a passing Jungle Crow Corvus macrorhynchos (which was nearly as large as a Raven Corvus corax).

The most impressive bird of all was the single full adult Steller’s, resplendent with white forewings (lesser and median coverts), rump, upper - and – under tail coverts and tail, contrasting against the remaining burnt umber plumage. Its enormous bill was bright orange-yellow. An adult White-tailed Eagle with white head as well as tail, circled twice over the river mouth and landed in a hillside tree where it perched for about a minute before continuing up the valley. At 5:30 an immature Steller’s also broke its journey in a similar tree. On the following afternoon I was able to penetrate the valley, during a prolonged snow storm, and found it was long and deep, with many large trees suitable for roosting; one eagle landed high in a large tree while another flew far up the valley.

No more eagles appeared .The light was fading and the air freezing. As I had not eaten all day, I quickly returned to the inn where I thawed out in the scalding water of the chest-deep communal bath. Even the prospect of raw fish and dried octopus for dinner did not diminish my elation at the memory of the magnificent eagles sailing silently overhead.

Jon Hornbuckle



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