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Birds Bears & Sea Otters in Northern Japan: Late June 2010

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Old Sunday 4th July 2010, 02:38   #1
MKinHK
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Birds Bears & Sea Otters in Northern Japan: Late June 2010

Hokkaido and Northern Honshu, Japan
18-29 June, 2010


18th & 19th June
My wife Carrie and I flew into Narita airport from Hong Kong and bussed to Oarai ferry port for the 20 hour overnight voyage to Hokkaido. There were a few birds on the way, with my personal highlight being the extremely clean-looking Grey Herons looking immaculate against the vivid green young rice-fields – they never look this good in HK – a combination of fishpond mud and air dirty enough to chew on probably being the key factors. Honesty also compels me to admit that they don’t breed in HKso we never see them in pristine plumage. I also had three or four Chinese Spotbills, a couple of Black-crowned Night Herons, 200-odd Grey Starlings, a Brown-eared Bulbul and 80 or so unidentified egrets.

We caught the earlier ferry, which leaves at 6:30 pm. A later boat goes at 01:45 and gives several more daylight hours in prime sea-watching waters, but I had no chance of persuading my non-birding wife of the merits of hanging around for another eight hours after a full day’s travel! There was a lone Black-tailed Gull at the port, but about twenty minutes out, as the gloom gathered, I started to see Streaked Shearwaters and in 20 minutes had notched up about 100 birds from the cabin window.

I woke up to fog – and frustration. Some of the best pelagic birding in Asia out there - and invisible! Apart from 30 minutes between 0500 and 0530 and about 90 minutes in the last two hours when the sun finally began to burn the fog off, I was chasing shadows and straining my eyes to the point of seeing little flashing dots and streaks and the odd Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwater in the mist.

However the patches of clear light showed the potential. The first bird out of the gloom was a juvenile Black-tailed Gull . . . but the second, always impressive, but not unexpected, a fine Laysan Albatross drifted away down the right side of the ship. Changing sides I immediately found the first of the round dozen Black-footed Albatrosses which appeared within a 20 minute spell. All dark except for a ring of white around the bill, they are larger and rangier than the more compact Laysan, which itself dwarfed the 1,000-odd Sooty Shearwaters heading north and loafing on the sea in groups of up to 100 birds. I was worrying about splitting them from the very similar Short-tailed Sheatwater, but Brazil notes an extremely useful feature – up to seven flaps and a swift glide is typical in light winds – which all the birds I saw were doing. I also noted much clearer pale underwings and pointier wings than the short-tailed shears that go through HK in May. Other birds included fifty-odd dusty brown Northern Fulmars, a few Streaked Shearwaters another Laysan and three more Black-footed Albatrosses, and a couple of Slaty-backed Gulls.

It might sound churlish to be disappointed by such a day, but with Band-rumped, Leach’s and Swinhoe’s Storm Petrels breeding on the shores I passed, plus several species of auks, Bonin, Matsudaira’s and Tristram’s Petrels also breeding not much further away and regular sightings of South Polar Skua, and Fork-tailed Storm Petrel not to mention the rarer birds like Short-tailed Albatross, it was something of a downer to come away without a sniff - any one would have been a tick.

The train from Tomakomai to Kushiro was better – a pair of Japanese Cranes on a tiny marsh within 100m of the track was the highlight, and it was good to see a couple of Bull-headed Shrikes, Siberian Stonechat, Black Kite, and Oriental Turtle Dove. A handsome Black-backed Wagtail was a delight in the park in Tomakomai where we had lunch, but the huge-billed local race of Large-billed Crow that came snooping after scraps and perched within 30 feet of us was nothing but menacing.

Cheers
Mike
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Old Sunday 4th July 2010, 12:11   #2
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Looking forward to more of the same!
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Old Sunday 4th July 2010, 15:10   #3
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Thanks John

More to come in the next few days

Cheers
Mike
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Old Monday 5th July 2010, 00:45   #4
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Great, was hoping you were going to tell us about the trip! Sounds like a good start, despite missed birds.
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Old Monday 5th July 2010, 11:02   #5
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look forward to hearing more- fog can be a heartbreaker on that run, so congrats on what you did get..
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Old Monday 5th July 2010, 13:01   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ed keeble View Post
...fog can be a heartbreaker on that run...
...and wind, rain, sleet, snow. Had a very miserable return crossing in February a few years ago, but hoping for slightly better weather on our second attempt next June!

Keep it coming, Mike.

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Old Monday 5th July 2010, 17:40   #7
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Also looking forward to more! Sorry to hear about the bad weather conditions for the pelagic portion of the trip. I hope Hokkaido birds made up for it.
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Old Tuesday 6th July 2010, 23:49   #8
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also looking forward to more...heading to Hokkaido the first week of August for birding :P
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Old Wednesday 7th July 2010, 17:17   #9
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also looking forward to more...heading to Hokkaido the first week of August for birding :P
Hey, that's awesome! I hope you do a trip report.
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Old Friday 9th July 2010, 14:58   #10
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Many thanks for all the encouraging comments and the five star rating. Apologies for being slow to post - its been a busy week.

20th June
Another day of bits and pieces. It was fun watching the Slaty-backed Gulls stealing nesting material from each other as we sat having breakfast on the top floor of the Royal Inn, Kushiro. It seemed to be a never-ending game of capture the flag, with gulls apparently not bright enough to work out that if one stayed to watch the nest their efforts did not run the risk of being pillaged while they were both out trying to steal from another pair. Despite this I did see three pairs happily settled on the roof of the station.

We picked up a hire car and drove up to Akan National Park seeing another pair of Japanese Cranes in a field, a Common Buzzard from the amazingly ugly reserve centre near Kushiro, and en route numerous Siberian Stonechats, and a few Oriental Turtle Doves. The real pleasure was seeing three different Latham’s Snipe perched on telegraph poles at the roadside – we did not stop for them, but I’m looking forward to getting good views around the Furen/Nemuro area. We stopped for lunch on the edge of the larger of Akan’s lakes, and the lawn and large trees near an excellent restaurant (next to the Ainu museum) held several Oriental Greenfinches, both Tree and Russet Sparrows, six or eight Black-backed Wagtails, which all took off after a Japanese Sparrowhawk and a Great Spotted Woodpecker which flew into the tree directly above our heads and began hammering away at the branch.

Driving north out of the park what must have been a female Northern Goshawk flipped over the road, Black-faced Bunting sang prominently from strip of yet to bloom wildflowers near Shari, a male philippensis Blue Rock Thrush sang from a seaside cliff and a couple of hundred Pacific Swifts and a couple of smaller colonies of Asian House Martins provided entertainment along the coast road to Shari to Utoru. We stayed at the rather shabby Youth Hostel in Shiretoko National Park but a dusk drive to look for Bear revealed many Ezo Deer by the side of the road, a rather scruffy Fox and a roding Woodcock. A good number of Gray’ Grasshopper Warbler were singing, but I didn’t find that out for another two days.

21 June

Once again in hot pursuit of bears I was up at 3:30 and with the valleys still dark enough to require headlights I headed up to the onsen about 4 km from the youth hostel along a narrow river valley, with a beautiful rocky riverbed set among Sakhalin spruce and deciduous woodland, with plenty of hanging moss and dead trees. Every so often the valley would widen and run through a meadow with smaller copses. As with the previous evening there were good numbers of Ezo Deer in both brindled winter coats and richer brown, cream-spotted summer coats feeding on the meadows and the roadside verges. On the way up I noticed a couple thrushes on the road, one of which stopped long enough to be seen – a female Brown Thrush. On the way down I was within a few hundred metres of the youth hostel, when I saw first one, then another a broad brown rump trundling away from me right by the road and about 30 metres ahead - Bear! – it turned out to be two young bears and their mother - a much larger animal with golden brown fur on the back of her head and neck. She led them over a bank of grassed-over boulders and across the river where they explored amongst the boulders and a fallen tree for a few minutes - just 50 metres away! I then zipped back to the hostel to get Carrie, but by the time we got back they had disappeared. However I learned from a Japanese lady staying the hostel that the same family party had been working that section of the river for the last two mornings.

Since Carrie was up – 4:30 is definitely not a normal time for her – we continued driving and after another fruitless pass along the river (except for the opportunity to photo a fine stag with its elegantly-spotted summer coat) we headed up towards the Five Lakes. God was definitely smiling on us, as we found yet another female Bear with two cubs about a kilometre up the road! They were rooting at something we could not see behind a boulder, but I managed to get a few dodgy pix. These cubs were a bit older and a little more independent; staying around to peer at as and exploring behind the rock while their mother headed off after a few seconds, massive shoulders rolling high above her back. Six higuma (the Japanese word for the Hokkaido bears) in an hour! The three days of almost continuous travel to get to Shiretoko suddenly seemed much more worthwhile.

After breakfast we headed up to the Five Lakes, seeing Olive-backed Pipit and Siberian Meadow Bunting singing from atop a pine tree, had another Brown Thrush posing in a dead tree and displaying Latham’s Snipe overhead. Pacific Swifts were zipping about above the car park and as we headed down the trail that wound past two of the five lakes we quickly found a Great Spotted Woodpecker exploring an ant nest in a small tree, a Coal Tit begging from its mate, and a couple of ducks that disappeared into the fog before I could sort them out. The highlight here was getting excellent scope views of a Latham’s Snipe perched on a rock among the reeds and dwarf bamboo. My wife took one look down the scope and informed me that it looked like a tiramisu. Looking again at the head pattern I had to admit that she had a point!

We then drove staright to Lake Furen, spending just a few minutes at a fog-bound Rausu Pass, where a male Black-faced Bunting provided scant compensation for the Pine Grosbeak and Japanese Accentor that did not show. We had an excellent lunch (world’s best tempura prawns) at a restaurant that showed photos of the world famous Blakiston’s Fish Owl, which come down to feed on trout at a small pool in from of a minshuku (Japanese B&B) just to the north of Rausu. However, with a site at Lake Furen we did not need to stay here, and swiftly pushed on south. We did stop partway down the spit at Notsuke Hanto where a couple of Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warblers (with long plain un-tipped tails) headed a cast among the flowers and grasses that also included a Common Cuckoo, Common Reed Bunting, Black-browed Reed Warbler, Siberian Stonechat and Oriental Greenfinch. Further south the back edges of Lake Furen produced a family of fox cubs playing at the side of the road, and a patrolling Eastern Marsh Harrier.

At Lake Furen we stayed at the minshuku of Takeyoshi Matsuo – well known as an English-speaking birder – which overlooks the southern outfall of the lake, where tidal mudflats generally hold a pair of Japanese Cranes and a loafing White-tailed Eagle along with the usual hordes of Large-billed Crows and Slaty-backed Gulls. The bank behind the house has a few trees, and at least at this season luxuriant understory, which held pairs of Great Tit, Chestnut-eared Starling, Black-faced Bunting, Black-browed Reed Warbler and surprisingly showy Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler.

Having enjoyed an early dinner (Mrs Matsuo’s cooking is first class!) we headed up to the famous site at Hattaushi Bridge in the hope of seeing Blakiston’s Fish Owl. We heard but did not see the pair that was calling - the male slightly higher in pitch than the female, but did have a couple of roding Woodcock giving their bizarre gurking call and were surrounded by vigorously singing Gray’s Grasshopper Warblers as darkness fell. Their song is loud and rich and gives me the impression that inside the body of every GGW is a frustrated thrush desperate to break out!

More to come . . .

Cheers
Mike
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Old Friday 9th July 2010, 20:05   #11
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brilliant on them bears- and you really conjure up the atmosphere, with Grays' Groppers belting it out from deep cover
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Old Friday 9th July 2010, 20:19   #12
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Great stuff Mike, keep it coming!
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Old Saturday 10th July 2010, 20:34   #13
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Congrats on the bears! Hokkaido sounds fantastic.
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Old Monday 12th July 2010, 14:26   #14
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Wow Mike, only just found this thread.

You were really lucky to see so many bears, unbelievable!
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Old Monday 12th July 2010, 15:48   #15
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6 bears was way beyond my expectations Stu, the area round the Shiretoko hostel is good this Spring - Matsuo-san suggested it - and what a great recommendation. Apparently there was another one about too! A shame we couldn't fit Hakodate into the programme.

22 June - morning
I got going around 4:30 the next morning but didn’t get far as I was distracted by a singing competition between a Black-browed Reed Warbler and a Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler right outside the inn. This was my first chance to have a good look at a Middendorff’s, which has a rather plain grayish face with a pale and indistinct supercilium and unexpectedly bright pinky-orange feet – at least in spring. There was a group of 50-odd Greater Scaup at the rivermouth by the bridge, including a female showing a very distinct white bar on the closed wing that is not illustrated in the field guides, and a White-tailed Eagle on the sea wall a few hundred metres down the Shunkunitai spit that separates Lake Furen from the sea.

I planned to drive over to Ochiishi, and driving through the very rural backroads, came across several pole-top Latham’s Snipes and a small group of the distinctive griseiventris Hokkaido/Kuril race of Eurasian Bullfinch, which has red only on the cheeks. I also heard a warbler singing from a well-vegetated roadside stream and hoping it was Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler I found a track down to a bridge about to investigate. After a few minutes of pishing the bird emerged, showing itself to be a Japanese Bush Warbler – one more song leaned (loud, melodious - definitely cettia-like and rather reminiscent of Mountain (Brownish-flanked) Bush Warbler). However soon afterwards another bird began singing and deciding by a process of elimination this one was Gray’s I went to work to try to see it.

True to its reputation it proved pretty difficult, but did keep singing as it toyed with me – a flash of head here and a disappearing tail there was becoming pretty frustrating before it decided I couldn’t see through a bush that in fact I could, and I had good views of my first Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler lifting its bill heavenwards every time it sang. It showed a more rufous cap than I expected, along with a grayish throat and supercilium. It was great to nail down the two big locustellas in consecutive days. My pishing here also pulled in a couple of Eastern Crowned Warblers, an Asian Brown Flycatcher, and a Great Tit.

Ochiishi turned out to be a bit of a shocker. I tried to drive along a farm track to get views across the bay. Reversing back along a dead end track I managed to drop the left side wheels into a marshy ditch and stuck fast – plonker! Thankfully a fisherman and his son, and their truck cheerfully helped me to pull it out, and had the good manners not to laugh too obviously at me. That used up all my time and I headed back to Matsuo’s for breakfast, stopping only for a pair of Siskins and a Japanese Bush Warbler singing from a treetop on the way.

Carrie and I headed out to Cape Nosappu and fortunately what fog there was lifted steadily. I had distant but tickable views of several Spectacled Guillemots, which could be separated at range from the several hundred Rhinoceros Auklets by their darker bellies. Closer-up it was possible to see the broad white eye patch, but I only saw the white cheek feathers on a single Rhino. The small stack just to the right of the “lost territory” monument (big brown arch and eternal flame) held several pairs of breeding Slaty-backed Gulls, but much more exciting was a single Red-faced Cormorant perched at ideal digiscope range on the left hand side of the stack. My records show that I saw one at Ochiishi in October 2005, but since I have no recollection of that bird and this one showed so well, this seemed like a tick. There were also a few Japanese Cormorants and a couple of hundred Pelagic Cormorants, including one that was resting and preening at the base of the stack. Other birds here included a diver that was too far away positively identify as Pacific or Black-throated, and a large all-dark shearwater, which was presumably Flesh-footed or Wedge-tailed.

We were surprised to find no seals, but the sole mammal present more than made up for it – a Minke Whale that was cruising gently up and down about a kilometer offshore. We identified it, following discussion with Matsuo-san by the sickle-shaped fin situated close to the tail and the fact that neither its head or tail appeared as it breached. It also seemed rather smaller than the Humpbacks I’ve seen elsewhere.

Cheers
Mike
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Old Tuesday 13th July 2010, 01:06   #16
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Nice! Congratulations on the red-faced cormorant, and such a lovely picture of it as well! Sounds like you were seeing a great variety of fauna...
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Old Saturday 17th July 2010, 02:50   #17
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It only gets better Gretchen . . .

22 June afternoon & evening
Next stop on what was turning out to be a pretty good day was a “primeval meadow” which held a range of native wildflowers and a highly atmospheric stand of trees all bent away from the prevailing northerly winds. The flowers were not yet in full bloom, but the site held a few Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warblers. Numerous Japanese Skylarks and Latham’s Snipe, showed off the full glories of their aerobatic breeding displays.

I also found a couple of droppings that I suspected came from foxes – containing the dazzling emerald green wing casings of rose beetles, small mammal bones and feathers. A little further on I found another in a fine shade of delicate pink that appeared to consist entirely of the legs of shrimps, crabs or crayfish. I rather ambitiously wondered if this might be either the dropping of a Racoon Dog or a pellet regurgitated by a Blakiston’s Fish Owl. Any thoughts would be most welcome.

A couple of rather slender-billed Carrion Crows were lurking for food scraps in the carpark, and a White-tailed Eagle (one of three seen casually from the car that day) flew over the road. Other roadside birds we didn’t stop for included a Long-tailed Rosefinch, and a pair of Chestnut-eared Starlings on a pile of horse manure.

After a brief lunch we dropped in on a park in Nemuro containing three distinctive red-topped watchtowers and, much more fun, a Japanese Bush Warbler that was singing its heart out. Responding to my pishing it came bouncing out of the undergrowth to check us out, and it switched to a loud two-note call which it continued until we were out of earshot. The tall pines at the entrance to the park also produced the distinctive grey-backed race of Eurasian Nuthatch.

Our last stop of the day was the Stone Chrysanthemum rock formation at Hanasaki port to the south of Nemuro. Confused by the otherwise excellent GPS system we got lost first time and ended up at the port. This worked out well – while Carrie asked from directions from a fisherman I found a distant pair of Harlequin Duck inside the sea wall. We could also see hundreds of Black-tailed and Slaty-backed Gulls, and as we were driving out I heard a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler singing from the giant rhubarb covering the base of the cliff at the back of the port.

When we finally worked out our directions we parked at the lighthouse and walked down the steps to the viewing point for the Stone Chrysanthamum. The slope was covered in the familiar dwarf bamboo and held a couple of singing Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warblers and a Black-backed Wagtail. More importantly the top of the headland held a breeding colony of Slaty-backed and Black-tailed Gulls and among the several hundred (mostly Slaty-backed) loafing on the sea wall was a solitary juvenile Black-legged Kittwake. I found a couple more Harlequins exploring some buoys about 500m offshore and 20 minutes later a pristine male - today was only the second time I'd seen this stunning duck - flew out of the harbour and along the cliffs below us.

The top sighting of the day was a strange shape bobbing in the sea below the gull roost. When I got my scope onto it I was blown away to find myself staring at a very relaxed-looking Sea-Otter! It was lying on its back, front paws clasped prayerfully in front of it face and heavily webbed back paws sticking straight up in the air – a brilliant moment! Having seen the bears yesterday and the Minke Whale that morning this was beyond all expectations. We had seen newspaper clippings about sea otters between Nosappu and Kushiro in the last few months at the Northern Territories Museum, and I had noted that one was reported on Nemuro’s online bird info service back in March, but we never had any realistic expectation of seeing them.

Absolutely delighted we headed back to the Matsuos for dinner, and riding our luck rushed out to Hattaushi Bridge for another crack at the Blakiston’s Fish Owl . . . and scored magnificently! The same as yesterday evening we heard two birds calling soon after we arrived. The male was calling from close to the gate into the protected area, but too far away to be seen. But a couple of minutes later I glimpsed a large bird flying away through the trees and we hurried onto the road to find it had perched about 30 metres away in a bare tree, from where it gave fantastic views in the last light of the day for over 20 minutes. My attempts at digiscoping were not much cop – handheld for 2.5 seconds was never a viable proposition, but another birder Tobias got a decent shot. It was fantastic to watch it calling – leaning forward, filling a throat pouch and give a heavy boo-oo, which was immediately replied to, a little more deeply, by the female. A wonderful finish to an absolutely superb day!
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Old Saturday 17th July 2010, 03:02   #18
MKinHK
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It was such a rich day I couldn't decide on which pix to use so I've added a few more
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Old Saturday 17th July 2010, 03:47   #19
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. . . and a few more!

The Sea Otter pix are so poor because it was miles away - its the tiny dot above the rock that is directly above the logo on the scope cover!

Cheers
Mike
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Old Saturday 17th July 2010, 06:13   #20
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Wow! Though it was far away and thus the picture not everything you might hope, it does seem like you got good views of the otter. And how fun to see it in such a typical pose, just resting I suppose. I still remember seeing clips of sea otters cracking urchins on their bellies with a rock (I believe) - wonderful animals and great chance to see one.

Sounds like lots of nice experiences with birds as well. I wouldn't have guessed you would see breeding displays that late. Sounds like a very friendly bush warbler too.

Quite a 48 hours for you guys!
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Old Saturday 17th July 2010, 08:16   #21
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Great stuff Mike. Love the photos - very atmospheric.
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Old Saturday 17th July 2010, 12:41   #22
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Your trip reports bring it all back! We had a week in north-east Hokkaido in early May two years ago,and had some superb birding thanks to Take.Spring comes late to this area but the morning we left there were six Siberian Rubythroats along a mile of old railway track just outside Kushiro,and the Latham's Snipes calling from the street lights were amazing.Harlequin Ducks were everywhere along the coast.The Matsuo minshuku is THE place to stay.As the Blakiston's Fish Owl was not being very oblidging at the bridge site Take arranged for us to have a night at the well known minshuku just outside Rasau and from our bedroom window we watched an adult fishing in a nearby stream for over an hour. We plan to go back in February/March for the Steller's Sea Eagles.Driving round Hokkaido was a doddle-the road signs are all in English as well as Japanese but you need to watch out for the numerous deer by the roadside as hitting one of these isn't covered by the car insurance!
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Old Saturday 17th July 2010, 13:06   #23
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a pleasure again- great pics for ambience
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Old Saturday 17th July 2010, 18:50   #24
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I'm not jealous, Mike, no, I'm really not. No, I'm not jealous at all. Not one whit. No, not me, no, not at all. Bears? Tick! Sea Otters? Tick! Blakiston's Fish Owl? Tick! No, wouldn't want to see any of 'em. Hopefully if I keep repeating this mantra I might start to believe it myself!
Stunning trip, great report!
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Old Sunday 18th July 2010, 16:16   #25
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Sorry John, can't help you there, but yes it was a top couple of days.

23 & 24 June
The next morning I got up late and added little around the minshuku, but did see three more White-tailed Eagles, a small group of Sand Martins and a couple of Eurasian Oystercatchers. After breakfast I walked up to the first watchtower on Shunkunitai with Carrie and added a flock of some 150 Eurasian Wigeon and offshore about 50 Black Scoter, yellow bill-knobs standing out distinctly against the all-black plumage of the males. We watched a Japanese Crane make a short flight and heard another bugling. There were also plenty of singing Japanese Skylarks.

Our next stop, Cape Ochiishi, was bathed in fog, but still produced a piece of uniquely Japanese bizarreness in the form of an extremely high-tech eco-friendly portaloo at the gate where we parked the car – which in the fog appeared to be in the middle of absolutely nowhere! Despite the fog area held Long-tailed Rosefinch, Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler, Latham’s Snipe, Coal Tit and the creepiest Large-billed Crows ever. They loomed in the fog-wreathed Sakhalin Pines on either side of the boardwalk like something from a horror movie. The appearance of the knarled and wild-haired photographer who had also appeared the day before as we were looking at the Sea Otter and informed us the otter was not a dead human added substantially to the creepiness, and since we could not even see the sea, let alone any birds, we left. Kirritpau was equally fog-bound –but had a (nother) trio of White-tailed Eagles -perhaps they should be renamed Hokkaido on the sea wall as we entered the town, so we stayed only long enough for lunch before continuing though the fog and rain to Kushiro, where we returned the car and next morning took the largely birdless train-ride to Otaru.

Cheers
Mike
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