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Old Thursday 19th March 2015, 11:12   #1
Jos Stratford
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Ice Birds and Palms, Winter in Japan.

AKA Japan on a Shoestring, Budget Birding in Style.

I had not really planned a trip to Japan, I was merely scratching my head looking for a long weekend somewhere, pondering New York, thinking about Madeira ...half an hour later, the idea had evolved somewhat - the lure of ice packs crashing into rocky headlands with Harlequins and assorted auks bobbing on turbulent waters had proved too much. A land of stunning snowscapes and ice, this would be winter birding at its best - Steller's Sea Eagles by the dozen, Red-crowned Cranes dancing in the snow, umpteen auks and auklets. Ah I was hooked - off to Hokkadio, northern Japan I would go, the land of the ice birds!

Given the considerable distance, thoughts of restricting it to a long weekend soon evaporated too - I would also incorporate the southern island of Kyushu and a 17-hour pelagic trip on the Pacific. Three weeks later, I was on the tarmac of the airport in Lithuania - my twelve-day mini trip was about to begin, an adventure that would far exceed my expectations!
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Old Thursday 19th March 2015, 12:14   #2
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DAY LOG



5 March.

The inevitable day of long-haul flights. A light dusting of snow as I left Lithuania just before midday, much the same in Helsinki an hour later, two Common Ravens the only birds seen. Next up, an early evening departure for the 10 hour non-stop flight to Japan. And so the trip was underway!



6 March. Tokyo - Oarai.

The plan for this day was simple - arrive in Tokyo, take the train to Oarai on the east coast of Honshu and then wait for the 17 hour ferry boat that would take me through the rich Pacific waters to Hokkaido.

With the time differences, it was after 10 a.m. when we landed in Tokyo and nearer to midday when I found myself on the train platform, ticket in hand. Two squawking Long-billed Crows were the first birds in Japan, Rock Dove coming a close second! To get to Oarai from Narita Airport there are none of these legendary Japanese bullet trains, but rather slow rattling local trains, trundling through lands of paddies and small towns. So, settling back, my first chances to see Japan and a few birds ... not too bad a selection from the windows, one Black-eared Kite amongst the haul, so too several Oriental Turtle Doves, a couple of White-eared Starlings and a selection of more familiar birds such as Little Grebe, Little Egret and Green Sandpiper.

Oarai is a small provincial town and the massive MOL ferry was visible even as I stepped off the train, a port tower also rising above the town. With ubiquitous Tree Sparrows dotting the ten-minute walk, soon I was at the port, sorting out my ticket and dumping my bag behind the cashier for safe keeping, and then it was time for the birding to begin! With only three hours or so of light left to play, I decided upon a quick investigation of the fishing port to the immediate north and then a stroll towards a rivermouth about a couple of kilometres further, which I never actually got to. For my first encounter with Japanese gulls, the port was fun – lines of larids along the breakwaters, odd flocks drifting on the water or lounging nearer. Nothing too challenging for starters – Black-tailed Gulls in the main, but scattered amongst them plenty of Vega Gulls and smaller numbers of Slaty-backed Gulls. Also a few dozen Greater Scaup in the harbour, a couple of Black-necked Grebes and several Great Cormorants. Chosi Harbour, about 90 km further south, had been attracting up to ten species of gulls over the previous weeks, but my scans failed to produce any additionals, so I began to wander north, finding almost immediately a splendid Dusky Thrush feeding on the beach! Nice, I certainly didn’t expect one of those on a pebble beach! It was later to turn out that Dusky Thrush is actually the default thrush, with good numbers seen across the country.

Beyond, flocks of gulls seemed to be massing around the rivermouth. However, it was now late afternoon, the sun was definitely waning, a chill wind was cutting in from the cold grey sea and my enthusiasm was not exactly screaming for a drudge along the beach. Instead, encountering a small wooded hill, I decided to use the last hour of the day away from the sea …quite a good move, the hillside was actually a mosaic of pine, deciduous woodland and open scrub and a good little selection of birds so followed – three Black-faced Buntings in small bushes, one nice Brown-throated Thrush in the deciduous stuff and two more Dusky Thrushes in the pines. Japanese Tit, Oriental Turtle Dove and a Black-eared Kite also seen.

And with that, as dusk fell, I turned and returned to the port. The ferry was scheduled to depart only at 01.45 a.m., but a warm waiting room gave good cover for writing my notes and, very considerate of the ferry company, you are permitted to board from 10 pm. Into my cabin I went, much anticipation for what daylight would bring!
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Old Thursday 19th March 2015, 17:33   #3
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Cabin on the MOL ferry ...use of a fieldguide, na not dreaming of birds to follow next day, just using it as convenient shield against photographs :)
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Old Thursday 19th March 2015, 19:47   #4
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7 March. Oarai-Tomakomai Ferry


The Oarai-Tomakomai ferry runs a grand 750 km though the cold waters of the northern Pacific Ocean, offering great potential for some excellent pelagic birding, albatrosses and assorted auklets amongst the goodies possible.

So it was, I woke a little before 7.00 a.m., we were steaming past the adjacent rocks and islands off Oshika Peninsula and the sun was streaming through my cabin window. On deck, blue skies all around and almost within seconds of stepping out, a pair of White-billed Divers flew down the part side of the boat and round the rear! Wow, what a start! Despite this dramatic start however, the first hour was actually very quiet – milling around the islands, a couple of Slaty-backed Gulls and hundreds of Black-tailed Gulls, precious little else. Just before 8.00 a.m., six small auks came zooming by, smart white eyebrows marking them out as Ancient Murrelets, then a little later the first Common Guillemots of the day. A pod of Pacific White-sided Dolphins cutting wave tops, flocks of Pacific Kittiwakes as we entered more open water, four more Ancient Murrelets. Another hour ticked by …pleasant, but still a rather low diversity of birds.

Not so the next couple of hours though …again moderately close to the coast, suddenly birds started to materialize – large gatherings of Kamchatka Gulls drifting on the now millpond sea, flocks of Kittiwakes still present, plus too the only Vega Gulls of the journey and the occasional Slaty-backed Gulls. But here, a far greater attraction, auks! After a few unidentified fly-bys, suddenly I was in their midst - lines of Ancient Murrelets strung out across the ocean, at least 150 in all, plus 26 Rhinoceros Auklets sporting fine gonks and a good smatterings of Common Guillemots too. Four small pale-bellied auks zipped by at distance, chunky with yellowish beaks catching the sun, certainly Parakeet Auklets, but rather frustrating as they veered directly away. Also in this rich section, three Temminck’s Cormorants and, near a fishing fleet that was attracting in thousands of Kamchatka and Black-tailed Gulls, one hyper-pale immature Glaucous Gull. More Pacific White-sided Dolphins, some Dall's Porpoises, one Short-finned Pilot Whale.

Then like magic, the seas emptied of birds and for almost two hours, we cruised through waters that were beautifully calm, but amazing sparce of birds – between 11.00 a.m. and 12.45 p.m., I saw a grand total of 11 Black-tailed Gulls, five Kamchatka Gulls and nine Common Guillemots! I began to worry if perhaps the day’s action was over, I had hoped to have seen a few shearwaters or similar by now! I needn’t have worried however, the bird that broke the quiet spell was an absolute corker – hugging low over the sea, arcing in from the north, a resplendent Laysan Albatross …yippee, I quietly yelped, this was one of the main birds I’d been wanting to see. A magnificent bird, in it came, flying directly by at good range, then vanishing off to the south. No sooner had it disappeared and suddenly yet more good birds were flying by, puzzling me at first in their chocolate browns of summer coat, Long-billed Murrelets, excellent stuff!

It was now 1 p.m. and we had entered open water, the coastline no longer visible. From here on, I would see land no more and the birding just became better and better. Almost immediately, Crested Auklets began to appear, dumpy brown birds in dense flocks – a couple of packs numbering around 35 birds each, then a super flock of about 140, almost scoter-like in appearance as they scuttled low across the water. Pleasingly, six birds also sat on water as the ferry passed, allowing very fine views. Over the next three hours, a constant stream of birds past the boat, hundreds of Pacific Kittiwakes, a second Laysan Albatross, good numbers of Common Guillemots, at least three Brunnich’s Guillemots (and several more suspected) and, in many ways, one of the highlights of the trip, several exquisite Least Auklets. Always in pairs or small flocks, these would sit of the sea as the ferry approached, only flitting up at the last minute to fly a short distance away. Little crackers, I noted 19 in total, but given their diminutive size and all that I saw were right by the boat, I suppose a far greater number went unseen.

By 4 p.m., things were quietening down, a last pair of Least Auklets scuttled up from the boat’s wake, but otherwise it was just Pacific Kittiwakes and Slaty-backed Gulls for the last hour of my watch. At 5 p.m., now feeling rather chilly after ten hours on deck, I decided to call it a day. Into my cabin I went, rather chuffed with the day’s haul! At 19.45, long after dark, we docked in Tomakomai. Popped into the train station to reserve train tickets for next morning, then checked into a hotel, one productive day over.


Species list:

White-billed Diver – pair
Laysan Albatross – 2
Temminck’s Cormorant – 3
Black-tailed Gull – numerous in early stages, scarce later.
Kamchatka Gull – especially common mid-morning stage.
Glaucous Gull - 1
Vega Gull – 5
Slaty-backed Gull – minimum 25, probably more.
Pacific Kittiwake – 1190+
Brunnich’s Guillemot – 3
Common Guillemot – 90+
Long-billed Murrelet – 18
Ancient Murrelet – 160+
Parakeet Auklet – 4
Least Auklet – 19
Crested Auklet – 215
Rhinoceros Auklet – 27
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Old Thursday 19th March 2015, 21:59   #5
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A terrific haul of auks/auklets from the ferry and I envy you those White-billed Divers. What plumage were they in?

I've never heard of Pacific Kittiwake before. I assumed all black-legged (lower case) Kittiwakes were the same species.

Just don't go upsetting me by finding Red-legged Kittiwake . . .

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Old Thursday 19th March 2015, 23:25   #6
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I can feel another good read coming on.
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Old Friday 20th March 2015, 05:05   #7
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Excellent stuff, exciting birds. Looking forward to the next chapter.
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Old Friday 20th March 2015, 12:00   #8
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A terrific haul of auks/auklets from the ferry and I envy you those White-billed Divers. What plumage were they in?
I would not like to add to your envy, so let's just say the nicer end of the plumage range

The birding from the ferry was actually far better than I had expected on the auk front - reading through past reports, the picture seems quite hit and miss, some people doing very well, others seeing next to nothing. I had hoped to see perhaps a shearwater or two and maybe more albatrosses, but I certainly did not expect such a super selection of auks and auklets.


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I've never heard of Pacific Kittiwake before. I assumed all black-legged (lower case) Kittiwakes were the same species. Just don't go upsetting me by finding Red-legged Kittiwake . . .
Pacific Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla pollicaris) is the North Pacific race of the 'everyday black-legged' Kittiwake ... I wait for someone to split it

Rest in peace, I saw no Red-legged Kittiwakes.
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Old Friday 20th March 2015, 12:03   #9
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Given the considerable distance, thoughts of restricting it to a long weekend soon evaporated too
I'll go back for longer next time as well! Nice one with the Long-billed Murrelets - sounds like you had a good ferry trip!

cheers, alan
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Old Friday 20th March 2015, 13:17   #10
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I'm one of those whose struggled to see auks at all! - just Rhinoceros Auklet in three different trips to Hokkaido!

Summer plumaged WB Divers . . . very nice! (retires to find car jack to ungrit clenched canines . . .)

As for the Pacific Kittiwakes, I'll look forward to the armchair tick. Did you notice anything different from the normal ones?

Looking forward to reading more . . .

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Old Friday 20th March 2015, 13:26   #11
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Pacific Kittiwakes. Did you notice anything different from the normal ones?
They have flocks of Crested Auklets et al as backdrops
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Old Friday 20th March 2015, 14:52   #12
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They have flocks of Crested Auklets et al as backdrops
Rub it in why don't you!
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Old Friday 20th March 2015, 14:58   #13
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As for the Pacific Kittiwakes, I'll look forward to the armchair tick.
So will I. That would be a world and an ABA tick for me.

Keep it going, Jos. I'm thinking about Japan for 2016 (in spring, mind you), so I'll look forward to the next installments, too.
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Old Friday 20th March 2015, 19:05   #14
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Just got back from Hokkaido a few weeks ago, it's up there with the best places I've ever been to, looking forward to Jos's view of the experience.
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Old Friday 20th March 2015, 19:32   #15
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8 March. Into the World of the Dancing Cranes.


Timewise and costwise, it made little difference whether I rented a car in Tomakomai or took the train to Kushiro in eastern Hokkaido and rented from there. Given there was always possibility that the roads could be blocked or affected by snow, I opted for the train.

So, Dusky Thrush, Brown-eared Bulbul and Tree Sparrows in the streets of Tomakomai, I then boarded the 7.00 a.m. eastbound train. Just outside Tomakomai, large flocks of Taiga Bean Geese dropping out of the sky to feed on snow-free patches adjacent to the train lines, but otherwise the journey was a relatively birdless meander through the pleasant hillscapes of Hokkaido, the snow piled an amazing metre or two deep in most places. Two Sika Deer en route, then as we approached the coastal city of Kushiro, White-tailed Eagles began to appear, great dirty lumps hanging out on street lampposts and girders. A taster of what was to come, Slaty-backed Gulls were everywhere and, in the last open fields before the sprawl of Kushiro unfolded, one exquisite pair of Red-crowned Cranes too, grandeur in white to a backdrop of snow.

Right on time, at precisely 11.03, I departed the train, walked the few metres across the street to the car rental office and within minutes was driving off through the street. And 40 minutes later I was in the heart of the lands of the Red-crowned Crane. Very much a symbol of Japan, this bird came dangerously close to extinction in the 1950s, the population dropping to a mere 25 or so birds, all in this Kushiro heartland. Fortunately, led by local populations, conservation efforts have very much turned things around the population is now expanding and currently stands at over 900. In winter, in several areas, local farmers and conservations have established feeding centres and it was at the most significant of this that I was now visiting, the Akin Crane Centre. With visitor centre, coffee shop and all the trimmings, the initial setting is not totally unlike Slimbridge, but navigating through, the sight that unfolds is genuinely unique from a lowered observation pit, you gaze out across a meadow bedecked in snow, low hills rising beyond. And upon that snow, lines of majestic Red-crowned Cranes serenade, honking calls drifting across the winter landscape. With many of the birds just metres away, literally towering above you, it truly is a rather breathtaking setting around 80 Red-crowned Cranes in all, plus 140 Whooper Swans. For more than an hour, I stayed and watched, then suddenly like an infectious wave, a bout of collective dancing erupted two birds initially started prancing into the air, then within seconds then entire vista was a mass of jumping birds, pirouetting across the meadow in pairs and threes, black and white wings a flurry, long legs dangling, a musical cacophony of honks and yodels. Certainly a wow moment!

As it quietened down, so commenced the event I had been waiting for the daily feed at 2 p.m. Into the meadow, a guy clutching a bucket walked, into the sky appeared ominous great shapes of birds. From the bucket, he began tossing fish, Red-crowned Cranes stalked closer and began the feast. Then the spectacle began, the shapes in the sky were twofold - White-tailed Eagles and Black-eared Kites - and they were intent on a feast too. Bombarding through the packed cranes and not in the slightest bit wary of the gathered human observers a mere 100 metres or so from the action, repeatedly the raptors tried to snatch fish, muscling in on the crane flocks and doing their utmost to part crane and fish. For ten or fifteen minutes this performance played out, all of the four White-tailed Eagles eventually grabbing big enough morsels to so settle on the snow to feast.

Ah, I think I had truly seen the cranes of Hokkaido now! As the last scraps of fish went down various gullets, I decided to part and head east to my main destination for the next days, the Nemuro Peninsula and environs. By now quite late in the day, my last plan for the day was to spent the hour around dusk at Hattaushi bridge, a famed site for Blakiston's Fish Owl. Something however was not going according to my plan ...as I approached the site, a cold fog rolled in, cloaking the landscape in a spooky dinge, dropping the temperatures down to around zero. Barely able to even see beyond the first lines of trees, I did not hold great hope of any owls, but stuck it out anyhow. One White-backed Woodpecker appeared in a tree, one Eurasian Treecreeper too, but as darkness fell, all remained quiet and still. Then, raising hope for a while, the distinctive calls of Blakiston's Fish Owl began, a deep hoo hoo eminating somewhere a little up the slope from the stream. It was not to be however, a brief few moments of calling and all returned to silence. It was cold, it was wet, I decided to depart.

I had planned to stay at the well-known Furen Lodge this evening, but not having done my homework very well, I only had a hazy idea of where it was! And where I thought it was turned out to be just a line of everyday looking houses on this dark foggy night, nothing resembling a hotel or lodge jumped out. A couple of circuits of the immediate area and I gave up on the search and drove instead to Nosappa-misaki, the easternmost headland of Hokkaido. Here at dawn, if the fog cleared, I had high hopes of a stunning start. Out came my sleeping bag, so ended the day.
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Old Friday 20th March 2015, 22:25   #16
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I suspect you were in the right place for Furen Lodge as it isn't that obvious. If you didn't get to stay there then you missed a real treat. Still, I'm sure you'll have made up for that elsewhere on your trip; that ferry trip certainly sounded good.
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Old Saturday 21st March 2015, 00:05   #17
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Advance, stab, twist, withdraw, smiling evilly over slain victim.

Serves me right for asking I suppose.

As Stuart says -Lodge Furen is one of the houses in the row by the sea wall.

Cheers
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Old Saturday 21st March 2015, 18:09   #18
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I suspect you were in the right place for Furen Lodge as it isn't that obvious. If you didn't get to stay there then you missed a real treat.
I've been banned from future stay. By not finding the place, he said I broke 'honour' by cancelling without giving advance notice
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Old Saturday 21st March 2015, 18:40   #19
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A few pictures from the first day, the Red-crowned Cranes at Akin...

1. Graceful bird
2. Dance
3. Eagle on the rob
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Old Saturday 21st March 2015, 19:46   #20
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9 March. The Nemuro Peninsula.

Nossapa-misaki, eastern Hokkaido. The fog had dispersed overnight to produce what can only be described as a spectacular dawn ...glancing out from my sleeping bag, the lighthouse towering adjacent, the sun was just rising over a gently dappled landscape of pack ice churning up against the rocks of the headland, abundant seaduck bobbing in gaps between the ice and, just breathtaking, four Steller's Sea Eagles and one White-tailed Eagle sat atop a bloodstained chunk of ice flow plucking the fresh corpse of a scoter, Large-billed Crows looking on with intent. Truly an atmospheric start like no other!

As I gathered myself together and winched the scope into place, the stunning reality of this place further crystallised – scattered across the sea in great rafts, there were Harlequin Ducks and Black Scoters in their thousands, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Goosanders and Common Goldeneyes all alongside in lesser numbers. You could almost have cried! Slaty-backed and Glaucous-winged Gulls drifting about, two White-winged Scoters flying past, one Black-necked Grebe on the sea, plenty to keep me occupied for a good few hours. With this headland one of the top sites in all Japan for auk species, a potential ten or so species possible, I spent quite a lot of time scanning the open stretches of water between and beyond the ice. Fortunately, I had managed a pretty impressive haul on the ferry crossing a couple of days earlier because the number of auks present on this day were very low ...but for all the lack of quantity, the quality was not lacking – of the grand total of 28 auks seen, 26 were Spectacled Guillemots in their full summer dress, one was a Pigeon Guillemot and the last an Ancient Murrelet. If I had been greedy, a couple of puffins would have been nice too, but sadly none decided to pop in! Still, as I watched the Harlequins in their colours up against the rocks and as yet another Steller's Sea Eagle drifted by, I could really say this was one of the best mornings of birding I have had for a very long time! One Ringed Seal bobbed just offshore, a Sea Otter basked on a slab of ice a little further out.

Finally dragging myself away from Nossapa-misaki, I cruised around a few small harbours on the peninsula (mostly frozen, but otherwise full of assorted gulls and occasional dabbling ducks) and then stopped for for a short while at the seaward end of Furen-ko. Though totally frozen in mid-winter, vestiges of the coming spring thaw now revealed moderate expanses of open water in the lower reaches. Flocks of Whooper Swans and Eurasian Wigeons mingled with Goosanders, a mass of gulls including large numbers of both Glaucous and Glaucous-winged Gulls, two Red-crowned Cranes paddled in the shallows. I did not stay long however – I wanted to explore the small sand spit at the north end of the lake (the Notsukefurendoritsu National Park), a drive of about half an hour from where I was. Quite nice it was, a slither of land about 10 km in length, the waters of the north Pacific sat to the one side, the frozen expanses of Furen-ko to the other. Amazing for the numbers of Sika Deer in particular, hundreds and hundreds of them were congregating all the way down the spit, regular little groups trotting across the ice, large herds gathering aside the road where traces of grass poked out from the snow. Not at all bad for birds either – 12 Smew on the river at the head of the spit, a smart male Falcated Duck bobbing on the sea with Harlequins, regular Steller's Sea Eagles dotting roadside posts or lounging on the adjacent ice. Finding the end of the spit blocked by considerable depths of snow, I turned instead to the small village of Hashirikotan midway down the spit. Basically three or four streets clustered around an ice-locked harbour, the village would hardly been worthy of a second glance, but stunning it was – an impromptu raptor capital of the region! A few scrawny cats strutted about, no doubt keeping one eye on the sky, two or three folk worked on boats at the harbour, others sat as dots scattered across the ice, huddled over little holes to trying to catch fish. All however were outnumbered by the raptors – in the village itself, a flock of at least 90 Black-eared Kites seemed to be bombarding a bulldozed heap of snow; out on the ice, dozens of White-tailed Eagles and Steller's Sea Eagles sat sentinel, many in little clusters around the fishermen. It was quite a sight, but the best of the lot was not a raptor – feeding in a parking lot near the harbour with a bunch of Tree Sparrows, I stumbled across four splendid Asian Rosy Finches! As I have missed all species of rosy finch wherever I have been, these were most welcome indeed.

Before departing the spit, I also found a Fieldfare. To a backdrop of Steller's Sea Eagles and Sika Deer, this bird should have barely deserved a second glance for a birder now resident in eastern Europe (the species even breeds in my garden), but I sure hadn't been expecting this species on Hokkaido. A quick check of literature and a little sunsequent research, it turns out that Fieldfare is accidental in East Asia as a whole and this is only about the tenth ever for Japan! Typical, I find a major rarity and it has to be a bird that is basically a back garden bird for me!

Anyhow, the day was edging towards its end, a stop in woodland added Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, caudatus Long-tailed Tit and asiatica Eurasian Nuthatches, and then it was back to Hattaushi Bridge for a second attempt on Blakiston's Fish Owl. It truly would have been the icing to the sugar to have rounded the day off with the owl, but again the weather was conspiring against me on this one – it had been non-stop sunshine until about 3 p.m., a bank of high cloud then rolling in. Now however, exactly at the wrong moment, the weather broke. Just as a Ural Owl started to call and I expected the Blakiston's Fish Owls to follow suit, it began to rain! Within minutes, it was absolutely lashing it down, so ended attempt number two on the owls!

Departing, heavy rain seemed set for the duration, I drove to Ochiishi on the south side of the Nemuro Peninsula and called it quits, what an amazing day it had been!
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Old Saturday 21st March 2015, 19:49   #21
Jos Stratford
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Dawn at Nosappa-misaki, Black Scoters and Harlequins, Black-eared Kite...
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Old Saturday 21st March 2015, 20:27   #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jos Stratford View Post
I've been banned form future stay. By not finding the place, he said I broke 'honour' by cancelling without giving advance notice
Blimey, harsh! Best make sure we find it next year then......
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Old Sunday 22nd March 2015, 12:41   #23
chris butterworth
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Glad you enjoyed your trip Jos. You do tend to get a bit blase about Stellers after a while ( although they never stop being stunning birds ) and the sight of Red-crowned Crane displaying in a snowy landscape is something that burns itself permanently into your memory. There's quite a few potential armchair ticks on your list so far ( dunno about Pacific Kittiwake though ).


p.s. The Fieldfare is a brilliant find. You've just got to submit a description in Japanese now.
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Old Sunday 22nd March 2015, 16:12   #24
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Great birds so far

We are just firming up our plans for Japan next Feb so will be paying close attention to best spots.
We were considering ferry trip to Hachijojima and back then flying to Kushiro but we might think again.
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Old Sunday 22nd March 2015, 16:55   #25
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Sika Deer in their absolute hundreds ...
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