Arriving at Arasaki late in the evening of the 12th, the total silence was a little worrying – numerous reports speak of atmospheric nights to a backdrop of the calls of cranes. But here, at the key wintering site of many thousands of Hooded Cranes and several hundred White-naped Cranes, I heard not a peep all night. Had I left it a little late in the season? Had they all migrated?
Waking at 5.00 a.m., a little confused why it was still pitch black, it took me a few moments to appreciate that Kyushu is not only much further south than Hokkaido, but also much further west – sunrise and sunset are basically an hour later! So, sitting there in the dark, pondering the silence outside, I was rather pleased when the first traces of orange began to flood the sky and, simultaneously, the unmistakeable cries of cranes began to echo out. Within moments, the sky was full of noise and wings ...hundreds of cranes, then thousands and thousands, were falling out of the sky, spirally downward to settle in the rice paddies aside the Arasaki crane centre. Where they had spent the night I do not know, but now the spectacle was simply awesome! As the sun broke the horizon, flocks continued to pour in, the dark shapes now transforming into identifiable birds – Hooded Cranes. Jam-packed into a patch of paddies barely the size of a couple of football pitches, it was a mad scrum of birds, a carpet of slate grey stretching far, countless heads and necks poking up ...never have I seen quite so many cranes in such a small area! As the sun rose yet further and the flock expanded ever more, I relocated a little to view from another angle. Within this mass of birds, there should also be a thousand of so White-naped Cranes and possibly a Common Crane or two, perhaps Sandhill Crane too. With the birds packed so densely however, it was actually very difficult to sift through the birds – I was now looking at perhaps 10,000 Hooded Cranes, a figure representing about 80-90% of the global population, but where were the White-naped Cranes? After a while, finally finding only a single individual, I had to conclude that these indeed had probably already begun their migration. The one White-naped Crane I did see however was quite a stunner – taller and more elegant than the Hooded Cranes, I was quite happy that at least this individual had been good enough to delay his migration for me!
At about 8.am., the reason for their mass congregation appeared, a truck that trundled up the embankments through the paddies disgorging vast quantities of grain. And the feeding frenzy that followed was impressive – Hooded Cranes shoulder to shoulder, masses of Rooks squeezing into gaps on the fringes, yet more birds still flying in. Quite how I spotted them, I am not sure, but also found two Common Cranes in their midst and had a very smart Sandhill Crane stalk straight through my scope view on one occasion. The Common Cranes, and a a couple of Common-Hooded Crane hybrids I managed to relocate a few times, but never again did I see the Sandhill Crane – pretty much the same size as the Hooded Cranes, once he had vanished into the pack, that was it! By 9 a.m., with most feeding over, the cranes began to spill out into neighbouring paddies and also to paddies beyond the nearby river. Hooded Cranes would be my constant companions for the whole day, but their departure from the feeding site also served as cue for me to widen my activities ...plenty more birds to also see at Arasaki!
Dusky Thrushes by the dozen, Japanese Skylarks singing high on the wing, flocks of Oriental Greenfinch commonplace, Daurian Redstarts flitting along edges of scrubby ditches. Nice birds all, but even better, one of the first birds I found was a Chestnut-eared Bunting feeding at the edge of a paddy field, suitably backed up by rather more abundant Meadow Buntings and Black-faced Buntings. Along the reeded fringes of a river loop north-west of the crane centre, Pallas's Reed Bunting and a very smart Green Pheasant were, plus a couple of Bull-headed Shrikes, more Daurian Redstarts and my first Red-bellied Rock Thrush of the trip (more to follow in subsequent days). All in all, the next few hours were just fantastic, Hooded Cranes everywhere, spirals of Black-eared Kites overhead, cocktails of familiar and unfamiliar birds at every turn – Ospreys, Northern Lapwings, Oriental Turtle Doves, Japanese Bush Warblers, plus many more. A slight disappointment came with the discovery of two spoonbills roosting in a wet ditch – I had high hopes of a black face peering up at me when I checked them out, but alas they were both Eurasian Spoonbills ...not a bad species, but in the Far East they could have been even more exciting!
Mid-afternoon, I departed ...one more important site to squeeze in on this day.
Departing Arasaki at middle afternoon, I then travel north to Yatsushiro. Arriving at 4 p.m., I was delighted to find I had timed it just perfect for the falling tide. Peering over the seawall, a mere slither of mudflat was exposed and birds were already congregating after their highwater roost. Lots of Grey Plovers, bucketloads of Kentish Plovers, a few Marsh Sandpipers, two Terek Sandpipers, dozens of Dunlins and Red-necked Stints, single Greenshanks and Far Eastern Curlews, but far better were the birds hawking the mud and looping back over the sea wall itself ...the very birds I had hoped to see were flying around directly over my head – Saunder's Gulls! Cracking little things, they were basically dainty little gulls that looked and behaved very much as marsh terns. A rare species with a global population of perhaps as few as 15,000 birds, it was pleasing indeed to see about 40 hawking back and fro, several in full summer plumage.
Also here, my only Black-headed Gulls of the trip, a male Falcated Duck, a group of about 25 roosting Black-crowned Night Herons and good flocks of Black-eared Kites. The best was still to come however – as the tide began to recede and the sun headed towards the horizon, a flock of five birds flew in from the west. Five big white birds, big white birds with honking great bills with spoons at the end! And so they landed on the mud directly in front, five superb Black-faced Spoonbills! A globally endangered species, this was just the icing to the cake, what a fantastic day it had been. The sun was setting, the Black-faced Spoonbills paddled in the shallows surrounded by masses of Grey Herons and Great White Egrets. I retreated from the sea wall, time to find somewhere to sleep.
Back on the Yatsushiro River at dawn – Daurian Redstarts and Red-bellied Rock Thrushes on the seawall, Buff-bellied Pipits and Oriental Turtle Doves in the meadows, but on the mudflats a very similar selection to that of the day before. Interestingly however, the Black-faced Spoonbills present appeared to be a new set of birds – scattered across the estuary, no less than seven birds were feeding in the shallows (a pair, a group of four and a single), but the flock of five the day before had included a ringed individual, it was certainly not present today! If so, that would put 12 birds on the estuary, a number representing approximately 0.5% of the global population! No Saunder’s Gulls this morning though.
From Yatsushiro, my plan was to cut across the central mountains of Kyushu to reach Kadogawa on the east coast. Selecting Route 443 for the early stages, I spent quite some time exploring the parallel Hikawa River and forested slopes on either side. Picturesque with blossom already in the small villages, it was also not bad at all for birds – regular stops along the river soon added the desired Mandarin Ducks and Brown Dippers, while the associated forest fringes added Japanese White-eyes, Ryukyu Minivets and Varied Tits (top bird!), along with more abundant Japanese Tits, japonensisGoldcrests and kiusiuensisLong-tailed Tits. Perhaps the nicest find however was a big flock of passage buntings in a scrubby field near the top of the valley – associating with Oriental Greenfinches and Tree Sparrows, the flock included at least 35 Meadow Buntings and 15 Elegant Buntings, the latter birds including some very fine males in their vivid yellow headwear. Also here, one Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker and, in pines nearby, one Rustic Bunting.
Having meandered along various sideroads, I eventually arrived at Kadogawa Harbour in the middle of the afternoon. I did not have high expectations of seeing my main target here and I was correct in my expectations – despite checking a couple of headlands and searching the harbour quite extensively, I did not find any Japanese Murrelets, a regional speciality that breeds on offshore islands in this region. The harbour area was however quite a nice area – a lot of common ducks on a side river, heaps of Black-eared Kites hanging around and massing on fish frames in the outer harbour, dozens and dozens of herons, egrets and cormorants. Scanning through this lot, totals approximately equated to minimums of 85 Grey Herons, 20 Great White Egrets, 80 Little Egrets, one Pacific Reef Heron and 30 Temminck’s Cormorants. One Osprey also present and plenty of Vega Gulls and Black-tailed Gulls.
Much as with the owl on Hokkaido, the Japanese seemed to have developed a sense of humour to rub it in when you miss a bird – in fine fashion, the entire harbour wall at Kadogawa has been painted with colourful murals by local schoolchildren. In various states of abstractness, a hundred Japanese Murrelets peer out of the wall at you!
I had considered staying overnight at Kadogawa to try again for the murrelet at dawn, but I didn’t really rate my chances too high, so instead I turned at dusk and drove south. There was still one big target for me before I was due to leave Japan – built like a Hawfinch on steroids, the bird I wanted to find was Japanese Grosbeak. With this in mind, I drove to Lake Mi-ike and slept quite nearby, hopefully this bird would mark the new day.
Rain at dawn, pretty much staying the same most of the morning! The apparently beautiful settings of Mi-ike Lake lay shrouded in low cloud, alternating drizzle and heavier rain leaving all drenched and dripping. On the lawns of the lakeside campsite, Olive-backed Pipits pattered around growing puddles, Pale Thrushes and Carrion Crows too.
Seeking shelter under the roof of an open-sided camp kitchen, there I stayed for an hour, roving flocks of small birds moving through the trees with regularity – Japanese Tits and Varied Tits in the main, Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers on occasion, Japanese White-eyes now and then. A flock of Bramblings appeared on the lawn, Spot-billed Ducks paddles offshore. The weather was not showing signs of improvement, but seeing my chances of Japanese Grosbeak slipping away, I decided to take a walk anyhow. Thoughts of scrambling up the slippery slopes into the gloom of the higher hills certainly did not appeal, so instead I undertook the path circumnavigating the lake – despite the rain, a lot of birds seen: Japanese Tits and Japanese White-eyes almost all the way round, Varied Tits quite frequently, sometimes flocks of kiusiuensis Long-tailed Tits. A landslip had blocked part of the path requiring a lot of scrambling through and over wet vegetation, protruding roots and mud slopping over sodden trunks …yuk! Midway though this though, a good-sized flock appeared, the landslip providing a forest-edge effect and good viewing conditions – all the usual contenders present, Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers and Eurasian Nuthatches included, but also one Japanese Green Woodpecker, two Ryukyu Minivets and, slipping through dense vegetation, one Red-billed Leiothrix (as a social species, presumably others were present too). Getting back to the car however, I still had not seen Japanese Grosbeak!
Driving to a nearby slightly higher shrine, the conditions were even worse – a dark eerie fog was virtually turning day to night, visibility was non-existent. I did not bother getting out of the car! Reasoning it might be drier at lower altitudes, I reluctantly left Mi-ike, knowing it probably meant the end of any hope of Japanese Grosbeak...