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Birding Japanese: Japan in summer June-July 2023 (1 Viewer)

Andrew Whitehouse

Professor of Listening
Supporter
Scotland
Might have an attempt at another on the go trip report. I'm currently in Japan and will be here for around a month, visiting many different areas of the country. It's actually my fourth visit (fifth if you count some birding on an overnight layover), but all my previous visits were in winter. It's a country I really like birding in. It's both familiar to Europeans, in having mostly Palearctic habitats and birds, and also unfamiliar, with lots of exciting eastern Siberian birds, endemics and seabirds. Japan is also a pleasant and easy country to travel in and these days is not too expensive either.

I left the UK on 18th June and arrived at Tokyo Haneda airport late morning local time on 19th. I then swiftly and smoothly travelled via monorail and Shinkansen to Karuizawa, where I was spending my first couple of nights. I've been here once before but in the winter, when birds like Japanese Accentor and Solitary Snipe are possible. A different set of species awaited in the beautiful forests and hills at this time of year. After checking into my hotel and picking up a hire car at the station, I decided on some fairly casual birding to get my eyes and ears in. I went a short distance to look around the woodlands near Kumoba Pond. Most of the birds were species I've seen on previous visits but one of the first things I saw was my first lifer of the trip: a gorgeous Narcissus Flycatcher. This bird turned out to be pretty common in the forests around Karuizawa, and its Robin-like song was rarely out of earshot. The pond itself was fairly quiet, but a few Eastern Spot-billed Ducks gave good views.

I then headed up the road a bit further to look around some other areas of forest as dusk drew in. A bit of squeaking (which birds here seem to respond very well to) brought in another new bird for me: an Ashy Minivet. It perched up nicely in the treetops, alongside a busy group of other birds. It was good to see a few colourful Varied Tits. After that, I headed back to the hotel for some rest, still needing to catch up on my sleep but also wanting to get up early the following morning.
 

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Thanks for the comments. On to day two, 20th June. I was up pretty early at around 5am and was soon heading off to the forests of Karuizawa. On the way, I passed an Azure-winged Magpie in the village. I spent the next few hours along a quiet road to the west of Karuizawa and this proved to be an excellent area. A good selection of forest birds were active and regular bouts of squeaking drew a few more out. This included a very smart Japanese Grosbeak, which came in to investigate. I was accompanied by the weird 'Clangers' call of White-bellied Green Pigeons. Asian Brown Flycatcher, Eastern Crowned Warbler and Masked Bunting were also among the more familiar species.

One spot proved particularly good, about half way along the road near a side track. A high pitched cicada-like sound drew my attention to an Asian Stubtail, which came in very well to playback, almost landing on the speaker at one stage. I was very happy to get some decent views of this hard bird to see. As I was watching it, I noticed a bunting perching quietly in the nearby trees. This was the main bird I was looking for: a Yellow Bunting. Eventually it showed very nicely, with another calling nearby. I was feeling pretty good about things but then got another new bird in the same area when a male Japanese Thrush came in perched in the trees above. This particularly smart thrush is another that can be hard work to see. I eventually headed back to the car, where a brood of seven Mandarins were with their mother on a small pond.

After a late breakfast, I fancied a change of scene so headed south of Karuizawa to the rice fields near Hotchi. The day was pretty warm by this stage but the bird activity was high. The marshy fields were full of Black-browed Reed Warblers and Oriental Reed Warblers, which often perched up really well as they sang. Buntings were also prominent with Chestnut-eared Bunting a particularly pleasing feature and quite numerous. These aren't as bright as some buntings but in breeding plumage they're beautifully marked. My first Meadow Bunting of the trip was also around. A few Lesser Cuckoos were calling, usually out of sight but a couple of brief views of flying birds was had. One species I was hoping to get good views of was Green Pheasant, as I'd only had brief looks at this bird on my previous visits to Japan. I eventually had lovely views of a pair quietly feeding around the edge of a field. Later, three more males were seen.

After looking around the fields, I headed back towards the car through the nearby woodlands. Aside from another Narcissus Flycatcher, things were quiet for birds but I had a really unexpected mammal sighting. Along the quiet road I noticed a medium sized mammal was shuffling about at the edge. I was quite startled to see that it was a Japanese Badger. This was in the middle of the day! It scuttled off through the undergrowth before I could get pictures, but I could hardly believe what I'd seen. Returning through the fields, I had good views of a male Amur Stonechat singing from a telegraph post. A couple of Eastern Buzzards gave good fly pasts but this was bettered by a splendid Oriental Honey Buzzard that soared right over my head as I got back to the car. It looked to have a large grub of some sort in its bill.

I rested during the afternoon, recovering from the flight and the early morning. By early evening, I was back in the car and heading eastwards towards Myogi Lake. Not too much could be seen, although a couple of Asian Stubtails and a Japanese Thrush were singing. As night fell, I made my way to the abandoned hostel at the end of the road. Things were starting to get dark when a loud 'chuck-chuck-chuck' was heard and a Grey Nightjar took to flight. It swirled around, called in the distance and then came in to land on the roof of the hostel and call a bit more. Another was heard higher up. An excellent end to the day, with a bird I thought would be hard to get. Driving back along the road through the dark produced a group of three Japanese Badgers as well as a few Sika Deer.
 

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I began 21st early morning on the trails of the 'Wild Bird Forest' in Karuizawa. I'd visited this area in the winter, so it was interesting to see how this beautiful woodland looked in the full luxuriance of summer. There were plenty of birds singing but they weren't always that easy to see. I tried a few times to get more views of Asian Stubtail, which I was hearing frequently. Unlike yesterday, they remained out of sight. I eventually did manage to find one of the birds I was looking for: a lovely male Blue-and-white Flycatcher. It was singing high up in the mid canopy along a ravine. Mammals were probably more of a feature than birds. I came across some large nest boxes and, wondering what might occupy them, I soon noticed a big face looking back at me. It was a Japanese Giant Flying Squirrel. A bit further along, a large shaggy goat-like creature was a Japanese Serow - very pleased to see this quirky looking hairy beast. Finally, a reddish looking Japanese Squirrel appeared by the roadside where I'd parked.

That was it for Karuizawa and I headed off on the road to the northeast. I stopped at the Ikaho Forest Reserve, which has some very nice mixed forests. I wasn't totally sure where the best place to look was though and, to an extent, things were fairly quiet. I eventually managed a reasonable selection of forest birds and some decent views of Japanese Thrush again.

I continued on through the early afternoon to Nikko National Park, the area where I was going to spend the next couple of days. My first stop was at the Tadenoumi Trail, which leads along the side of a ravine fairly high in the mountains. This was quite a productive area. A tapping sound proved to be from a female White-backed Woodpecker - always a fine bird to see anywhere in the world. A peculiar seesaw piping song helped me to see one of the other species I was looking for: Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. There were a couple zipping about rather rapidly in the lower levels of the forest, although I got some reasonable views when they stopped for a second or two. I also had some more very nice views of Blue-and-white Flycatcher - a really elegant bird.

I headed further down the road to a large plain called Senjogahara Moor. This is a splendid expanse of lightly wooded bog and moorland, studded with red-flowered azaleas and cotton grass. I walked out to a viewing platform where I could see the moorland dotted with Amur Stonechats and Chestnut-eared Buntings. An Olive-backed Pipit sang from a low tree. A strange gurgling sound coming from the grass eventually put me on to a skulking Latham's Snipe as it sang its odd song. Back by the road, a gingery male Russet Sparrow was good to see.

I headed down to the village of Chuzenji by the lake below the moor. I was going to be staying here for a couple of nights. A scan over the lake produced a Pacific Swift as well as numerous Asian House Martins.
 

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Enjoying the report. Bringing back great memories of my 3 trips, been wanting another for a while now! Always said my best birding was Japan in Spring. Let me know when u fancy your next visit! šŸ˜€šŸ‘šŸ¦šŸ¦
 
Some people spend consoderable time in Japan looking for the badgers and you just bump o to them? In daylight? This area looks quite promising! I am gonna be in Japan in a month, with about 4.5 free days in Nagoya and I am considering the Nagano area as my probable destination.
 
I had a really unexpected mammal sighting. Along the quiet road I noticed a medium sized mammal was shuffling about at the edge. I was quite startled to see that it was a Japanese Badger. This was in the middle of the day! It scuttled off through the undergrowth before I could get pictures, but I could hardly believe what I'd seen.
I had a similar experience in Yamaguchi years ago when a much smaller creature crossed my path and it was an Itachi (weasel). Fortunately Iā€™d been taking pictures and was able to catch one blurry shot of it before it disappeared.
(picture from internet)
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22nd June was a bit of a write off. It had been forecast to rain but the forecasts seemed to suggest it wouldn't be heavy until the afternoon. It chucked it down from around 7.30am and continued throughout. I did manage a couple of hours of early morning pre-deluge birding, however, as I walked around the scenic woods and marsh of Senjogahara Moor. A lot of the same birds as the previous day were present, with impressive numbers of both Common Cuckoo and Lesser Cuckoo calling and lots of Amur Stonechats, Chestnut-eared Buntings, and Masked Buntings. A group of Russet Sparrows were in trees alongside the stream that runs through the moor. I saw my first Brown-headed Thrush of the trip, with a few more heard singing, and also had decent views of a Japanese Woodpecker. And then I got very wet as I walked back to the car.
 
The weather was a touch clearer on 23rd June, although I was still worried that rain might come in and that low cloud might make things hard at higher altitudes. And I needed to go to higher altitudes to look for one bird I was missing that I suspected I wouldn't find elsewhere on the trip. I headed up towards the highest point on the road at Konsei Pass on the hunch it might be high enough for what I was looking for. I parked by the tunnel in fairly clear conditions and noticed the very steep path going up the mountainside, through lush, mossy mixed forest. I suspected this was the right habitat but was hoping I wouldn't have to go far up, particularly given the changeable weather.

I couldn't hear anything from the car park, aside from a few Sakhalin Leaf Warblers, so began up the path. One bird that was a welcome sight in the forest was Red-flanked Bluetail, one of which popped out nicely on a low branch. I continued further up, still not hearing what I was hear for. Then, just past a landslide, was a thin, alternating, almost Dunnock-like song. It was quite a bit higher but was what I was after. After a bit of encouragement, it came down the slope and was soon zipping about, somewhat angrily, in the trees around me: a Japanese Leaf Warbler. It eventually came in so close I couldn't focus my bins. This species is a split from Arctic Warbler and is a bit more brightly coloured. It seems to only breed in high altitude scrub and scrubby forest, so the challenge is getting up to where they can be found. A couple more sang from higher up, so I was clearly into the zone.

I headed further down the mountain and had a look along the Tadenoumi Trail again. The birds were pretty similar to two days previously though. Then I continued to the resort area by Yunoko Lake. Two drake Tufted Ducks on the lake were mildly surprising but it was fairly quiet otherwise for birds and was very busy with tourists. I enjoyed seeing the rather tame Japanese Macaques and Sika Deer. I went on lower down, where the weather was actually a bit worse. When I was low enough to be beneath the clouds, I was able to do some birding. I searched along the road near Chuzenji Temple, getting nice views of Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Eastern Crowned Warbler and Japanese Woodpecker. I continued on through Nikko town to Kinugawa where I was staying for the night. The rain returned and I decided to catch up on some sleep and plan for tomorrow.
 

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A very nice start Andrew, and I too will follow your trip with interest.

Like Jan I envy you your badger sightings.

I'm impressed with your photos. could I ask what kit you're using?

Cheers
Mike
 
A very nice start Andrew, and I too will follow your trip with interest.

Like Jan I envy you your badger sightings.

I'm impressed with your photos. could I ask what kit you're using?

Cheers
Mike
Thanks Mike! Current gear is OM1 with 300mm f4 and 1.4x converter.
 
24th June was a warm, sunny day after the previous day's rain. I began around the scenic forests of Shojinzawa Spring. The forests were very pleasant but it wasn't always easy to see many birds there. The river running through the area was good for Brown Dippers, a number of which showed nicely, including a juvenile. The highlight in the forest was a good view of a couple of Asian Stubtails, which I noticed hopping about on the ground in a small gully. Other birds included a female Blue-and-white Flycatcher, its bill filled with grubs for its young. A distant Ashy Minivet was seen back at the car park. I continued on to Mount Haguro, which was hot and mostly fairly quiet. Some nice views of Narcissus Flycatchers were the highlight.

I knew I needed to get back to Karuizawa by 4pm to deliver the hire car back. It was a bit of a long drive so there wasn't too much time for birding. On a whim, I decided to detour slightly to the wetlands at Waterase. It wouldn't be the best time of day, but there should, in theory, be something to see. I had a look from the observation tower, but it turned out there wasn't that much to see from there. One thing I did notice was a large group of people who were obviously looking for birds along a track running through the marsh. I wondered if that might be an interesting area to check out. Once I'd figured out where to park, I started walking towards this area. One bird I knew occurred at this site was Marsh Grassbird, but I figured it would be hard to find such a skulking species in the middle of the day in late June. I'd walked about ten metres from the car when I heard a distinctive brittle twittering coming from the marsh and then saw a small brown passerine launch into an odd song flight. It wasn't going to be that hard to see them after all! Along at the track, there were several Marsh Grassbirds on either side. They were singing all the time but were often hard to see on the deck. Eventually I had some quite good views of one that sang from a perch in the reeds. There were also lots of Zitting Cisticolas around, which sip more than zit out here.

I headed back to Karuizawa, dropped off the car and got the Shinkansen to Tokyo. Then it was off to the ferry terminal for an evening sailing.
 
I woke at just after 4.30am. It was already light and the island of Miyakejima was coming close. As we approached, the boat drifted through a huge flock of several hundred Streaked Shearwaters. I've been to Miyakejima before but that was in the winter and I'd only done the classic 'day trip' (overnight ferry, morning birding on the island, ferry back to Tokyo in the afternoon). This time I was staying overnight and was going to have a hire car.

I got collected by the hotel owner at the ferry. He had arranged the hire car, although it turned out it wouldn't be available until mid-morning. I was going to be up at the hotel on the north side of the island until then. I was a bit worried about this, as I didn't want to lose the best time of the day, so I decided to go for a walk near the hotel. I noticed on a map that there were some tracks leading up into the forest, so thought I would follow those. It didn't take too long to start seeing island specialities. The first of these was Owston's Tit, a young bird and then a very bright orange adult. These are quite distinct, both in plumage and size from the mainland Varied Tits. A bit further up the road and I noticed a beautiful Izu Robin hopping about on the track. This was great to see, as I'd only had poor views on my previous visit. In summer it seems to be much easier and is often heard all over the island. Then I had good views of another species I'd only seen poorly on my previous visit: the big dark Japanese Wood Pigeon. A few Izu Thrushes appeared along the roadside, sometimes giving nice looks. As I entered the forest, I started hearing Ijima's Leaf Warbler and soon had good views of one as it flitted about the canopy. This species is very numerous in summer but it wasn't present on my winter visit. Lesser Cuckoos were calling all the time and I soon had good flight views of a couple. The distinct long-billed subspecies of Warbling White-eye was also common.

So I'd seen almost all the island specialities on my work around the village. There was one more remaining and I thought I might have a chance if I wandered just a short distance along the coast. As soon as I got to an area of grassy scrub, I started hearing what I'd hoped for. It then didn't take too long to get some good views of Pleske's Grasshopper Warbler, perhaps the showiest grasshopper warbler in the world.

So much for staying overnight: I'd seen all the notable island birds really well in a couple of hours around one of the main villages. After picking up the hire car and resting for a bit, I sauntered around the island, fairly casually birding. Cape Izu produced more good views of Pleske's Grasshopper Warbler and shed loads of Streaked Shearwaters. The beautiful forests at Tairo Ike were good for a lot of the island specialities. The Toga headland had more Pleske's Grasshopper Warblers and Streaked Shearwaters and the first Blue Rock Thrush of the trip.

One reason for staying overnight was the chance to look for night birds. I didn't go too far, as I was pretty exhausted, but it turned out there was some decent activity right outside the hotel. A loud two-night call revealed a Northern Boobook that was hunting insects in the street lights right outside. A wander along the tracks revealed quite colossal numbers of toads, although these seem to be the Japanese Common Toad from the mainland, which is supposed to be a threat to native species.
 

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