Sunday, 26 January 2003

JAPAN 2003: Kyushu (21-26 January)

This is the third and final post covering a winter trip to Japan with John Cooper, John King and Dave Sargeant. We had started in Hokkaido, visited Okinawa and Amami-Oshima and were now flying to Kagoshima in southern Kyushu.

Tuesday 21 January (continued). We arrived in Kagoshima early afternoon and went to pick up our rental car. Here we encountered problems. Sarus had pre-paid Hertz for us before we left and had been assured that there would not be a drop-off charge for taking the car to Osaka (unlike Avis who we had originally been going to use). Our pre-payment was not recognised and they were insistent that there was a hefty drop-off charge. An hour of arguing and phone calls to Head Office in Tokyo failed to resolve the situation and with daylight ticking away we really had no option but to pay the rental locally and take it up when we returned home. After almost six months we recovered most of the money paid but were left very unimpressed with Hertz. If we had known at the outset there would be a drop-of charge we would either have booked with Avis, with whom we had no issues at all, or flown back to Osaka from Kagoshima. Once we had the car we drove for an hour or so to Mi-ike where we spent the rest of the day birding the grassy edges of the lake and a few of the tracks and forest trails. We soon found some superb Yellow-throated Buntings, I saw 12 including 4 males living up to their alternate name of Elegant Bunting. There were about 500 duck on the lake but mostly Spot-billed, Mallard, Wigeon and Pintail. The woods were quiet with a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, 2 Varied Tits and in the more open areas 4 Daurian Redstarts, 7 Red-flanked Bluetails and 12 Pale Thrushes. At dusk we drove to the Kirishima Castle Hotel where a full-blown Japanese meal was served in one of our rooms. It was quite an experience but not an entirely un-agreeable one.
southern Kyushu
over Kagoshima

the room I shared with JK at the Kirishima Castle Hotel
the evening meal, there were even a few dishes I could manage
an inscrutable JFC, me and DES (photo JK)
a sprightly JK, me and DES (photo JFC)
Wednesday 22 January. We returned to Mi-ike where it was cold and dull. A thorough scan of the lake revealed 5 Baikal Teal including 3 males. We then walked around the lake, a 3 km circuit that was a bit of a scramble in places, seeing 18 Japanese Grosbeaks and somewhat unexpectedly finding a Japanese Accentor although there are winter records for Kyushu. We tried various forest trails hoping to find Copper Pheasant without success and signs showing Fairy Pitta, a scarce summer visitor, were very gripping. The forest was as dead as it had been the previous afternoon although during the course of the day I saw Wryneck, 2 Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, Ryukyu Minivet, 6 Red-flanked Bluetails, 11 Daurian Redstarts, a Dusky and 20 pale Thrushes, 6 Varied Tits, Hawfinch and 20 Yellow-throated, 42 Black-faced and 5 Meadow Buntings. We couldn’t find grey Bunting and only DS saw White-backed Woodpecker (looking more like they do in Europe). We drove to Izumi making one or two speculative and unproductive roadside stops on the way before arriving at the Izumi Wing Hotel in darkness. We checked in and found some food in a nearby 7/11.

drake Baikal Teal (photo JFC)

male Daurian Redstart (photo JFC)
Thursday 23 January. We were up at first light, de-iced the car and drove to the crane sanctuary at Arasaki. It had not opened but we were able to access the roof and find limited shelter from the icy wind to scope the thousands of cranes in the fields beyond. As soon as it opened we went down to find out whether there were any stragglers amongst thousands of Hooded and White-naped Cranes. A sightings board appeared to indicate another three species of crane were present but as it was all in kanji we were left wondering which. There were 2-3 individuals of two, presumably Common and Sandhill, and a single other, presumably Siberian or Demoiselle. We had hoped for both. I had seen Siberian at Bharatpur more than 20 years earlier but not Demoiselle. JFC had seen Demoiselle in Israel but missed Siberian by less than a day at Bharatpur and it was his bad luck that continued – the wintering bird of previous years had not returned. Fortunately for me we soon found the Demoiselle Crane and then spent most of the morning watching the thousands of cranes. According to the board there were 7307 Hooded and 3134 White-naped and as well as the Demoiselle we saw a Sandhill, 2 or 3 Common and a Common x Hooded hybrid. Seeing and hearing 10,000+ cranes was truly amazing. We bumped into Barry Reed at the crane centre, he was with a rather chaotic Focus on Nature trip and had seen a wintering Scaly-sided Merganser on a dam in Honshu. Very gripping but unfortunately it was nowhere near anywhere we would be going. We left the crane sanctuary to bird more generally around Arasaki seeing 3 Black-faced Spoonbills (no possible doubt with these) by the seawall, the Sat-Nav showing us to actually be in the sea at this point. Two Long-billed Plovers and a Crested Kingfisher were along a gravel banked river and Buff-bellied Pipits, Japanese Sky Larks and Daurian Jackdaws in fields although all five of the latter were dark morph birds and so a bit of a disappointment. We flushed a male Green Pheasant from the edge of a ditch and had a brief view of a Water Rail but failed to find Chinese Penduline Tit, not helped by the strong winds. We also saw a superb fly-past White’s and 50 Dusky Thrushes. We encountered a young Japanese birder who spoke some English and gave us directions to a small flock of Japanese Waxwings he had seen the previous day a couple of hours drive to the north. We also met Arman Hill, of Focus on Nature Tours, and swapped Black–faced Spoonbill and Chinese Penduline Tit sightings. We returned to the hotel after dark before trying a noodle shop we had seen the previous evening.
thousands of cranes at Arasaki from the observation tower
grain is put out each morning creating quite a scrum

the larger paler more elegant cranes are White-naped, the smaller darker ones Hooded

lots of Pintail and Wigeon were taking advantage of the grain too

views from inside the centre rather than on the roof were more at eye-level

Hooded Cranes

White-naped Cranes

Demoiselle with mainly Hooded Cranes, the pale back and black neck made it stand out well (just below centre)
a much better image of the Demoiselle Crane showing what an elegant bird it is (photo JFC)
Friday 24 January. We left the hotel soon after first light to try for Chinese Penduline Tit at Arman Hill’s site. The wind had dropped marginally and we found a flock of about 10 feeding unobtrusively in the reedbed. With an early success we drove to the Yatsushiro estuary to look for Saunder’s Gull but the tide was high, no mud exposed and no gulls in sight. We continued on to look for Japanese Waxwings. We found several berry bushes in the area we had been told of but they were all full of squabbling Brown-eared Bulbuls and after a couple of hours of searching without success for the waxwings we gave up. We wondered if the bulbuls might have chased them off. Not seeing them was the biggest disappointment of the trip, particularly as our hopes had been raised. We returned to Yatsushiro where the tide was just dropping and soon found 7 Saunder’s Gulls although all appeared to be second-winters. DES found an adult Great Black-headed Gull and, based on his experience in the Middle East, a potential adult tamyrinsis Heuglin’s Gull. During the day we saw 3 Daurian Jackdaws including a pale morph bird, several large flocks of Brambling totalling over 1500, 2000+ Hooded and 500+ White-naped Cranes, 6 Daurian Redstarts, 60 Dusky and 12 Pale Thrushes and 25 Black-faced, 6 Meadow and 6 Chestnut-eared Buntings. Of Rustic Bunting, which used to be a common winter visitor, there was sadly no sign at all. We returned to the hotel and again visited the noodle shop.
houses in Kyushu
manicured trees were very popular

Saturday 25 January. Our final full day during which we had to drive 800 km to Osaka in southern Honshu. We thought it would take 10-12 hours but were keen to fit in some birding on the way. The Scaly-sided Merganser Barry reed had seen was too far north but a detour to Kadogawa to look for Japanese Murrelet seemed feasible. We left Izumi at 06:00 and arrived at 10:30 having seen a Brown Dipper on the way. We had some difficulty interpreting the sketch map we had from a trip report but after a couple of false starts found our way onto a headland north of the harbour. Here we quickly found two Japanese Murrelets feeding out in the bay. Initially they were rather distant but fortunately it was sheltered and the sea calm. Over the next couple of hours we had better views, eventually seeing seven. Leaving Kadogawa early in the afternoon we saw a small group of Red-billed Leiothrixes by the road. They were listed in the Birds of Japan as an escape but the number and location, a patch of woodland seemingly remote from the nearest town, might suggest a newly established feral population? The long drive back to Osaka was pretty awful and more than ever we wished we’d decided to fly. It was particularly slow along the Kyushu coast and although the roads did improve when we crossed over to Honshu it was still a long way.  

Sunday 26 January. We finally made it back to Osaka by 01:00. DES had booked the night in the Kansai Airport Hotel although the rest of us had decided to wait and see as we were not sure when we would arrive. In the event the Sussex contingent opted to sleep in the car for what remained of the night but we were decidedly worried when DS came out in the morning to tell us the cost of the car park was more expensive than the room rate! Fortunately his resident’s swipe card let us out and we returned the car to what we thought was the airport rental office. It wasn’t but directions were soon programmed into the Sat-Nav to take us there. Having to pay for the airport bus from the car rental office was a final insult. Final morning birds were Blue Rock Thrush and White-cheeked Starling while JK also saw a Varied Tit.  

It had been a very enjoyable trip to somewhere I had long wanted to visit and John Cooper, John King and Dave Sargeant were excellent travelling companions. Having flu or something similarly nasty on Hokkaido somewhat marred the early part of the trip for me, JK putting up with sharing a room with someone coughing half the night without protest. JFC did some epic driving and DES controlled the Sat-Nav admirably. We saw nearly all of the birds we’d particularly hoped to, the main exception being Japanese Waxwing which was always going to be a bit of a long shot, while the views had by the three of us fortunate enough to see Blakiston’s Fish Owl were decidedly poor. The arrangements made by Sarus worked out very well allowing us to maximize our time although with the benefit of hindsight we would have flown back to Osaka saving a very long and tedious drive and the hassle we had with the final car hire. 

Tuesday, 21 January 2003

JAPAN 2003: Okinawa and Amami (17-21 January)

This is the second of two posts covering a two week winter trip to Japan with John Cooper, John King and Dave Sargeant. We had arrive din Japan, caught an overnight ferry to Hokkaido and were now flying south to Okinawa ...

Friday 17 January (continued). We landed at Naha, Okinawa after a three hours flight from Chitose. About 2250 km from almost the north of Japan to a few islands short of the south. We made straight for Avis where it took a while to find a car with working GPS that also accommodated our bags. We headed through town to the expressway passing an estuary with a few waders and what appeared to be a Black-faced Spoonbill. An optimistic call perhaps and frustratingly there was nowhere to stop to be sure. We headed north for 2.5 hours arriving at Fungawa Dam just before dusk. On the journey we saw several Grey-faced Buzzards and Ospreys, 8 Pale Thrushes and a male Daurian Redstart. Neither the hoped for Okinawa Rail nor any owls were calling around the dam and soon after dark we headed back to the west coast to find the Okuma Resort Hotel where we were staying. It looked rather posh although we never saw it in daylight and so was unnecessarily so although it was well located for the area we wanted to go birding. We ate in the hotel at the ‘western’/Chinese buffet. It wasn’t overly special but I managed to find something.

Saturday 18 January. We were up early and were back at the Fungawa Dam at 06:00. We heard an Okinawa Rail call nearby seemingly from a moderately isolated tree beside the road but it did not call again and we were unable to locate it with spotlights. Very frustrating. At first light (07:00) we started down the ‘US Marine track’ at km 8.6. At dawn a woodcock flew over, presumably Eurasian but Amami was a possibility. I then saw a smallish owl which briefly landed in a tree appearing short-tailed. I assumed it was a Scops but I’m not sure it was that small? Much more satisfactory were Ryukyu Robins and we saw several hopping around the edges of the track. They were one of my main targets for the trip and absolutely superb. We spent three hours on the US Marine track hoping an Okinawa Rail would cross our path but one didn’t. We had no luck with Okinawa Woodpecker either and decided to return to the Fungawa Dam but the area was now disturbed by noisy construction work. We tried another track at km 7.6 (the ‘woodpecker road’) which went through decent looking forest for about 1km before entering a more open area where we turned around. It was very quiet and we were almost back at the car when we saw a pair of Okinawa Woodpeckers in nearby trees although they were not easy to see well. We revisited the US Marine track as it had looked promising for the rail. We spent the rest of the day there, walking quietly and sitting watching sections of the track but all to no avail. We were out until well after dark but nothing was calling and we reluctantly returned to our hotel and another buffet. It had been a good day despite no rail. I had seen Japanese Sparrowhawk, 2 Japanese Wood Pigeons, 3 Ryukyu Green Pigeons, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, 2 Ryukyu Minivets, 8 superb Ryukyu Robins, 4 Red-flanked Bluetails, 4 Japanese Bush Warblers and 10 Varied Tits and was definitely starting to feel better.

female Ryukyu Robin (JFC's digitised slide)
Varied Tit (JFC's digitised slide)
Sunday 19 January. We left the Okuma Resort Hotel at around 05:00 and were back in Naha by 07:00. We spent a couple of hours looking for Saunder’s Gull and Black-faced Spoonbill on the local estuary but without success. A local birder told that both were in the area but couldn’t suggest where might be best to look. We suspected that the tide was wrong and the best we managed were 8 Long-toed Stints, a Grey-tailed Tatler, 5 Avocets, 2 Band-tailed Gulls and 2 Blue Rock Thrushes. We returned to the airport, dropped off the car and caught the 11:30 flight to Amami-oshima.  We arrived on time and were met by the owner of the Caretta House Hotel where we would be staying. They also arranged our car which unfortunately had no Sat-Nav although we were provided with a map, in Japanese. The Amami Natural Forest, on a range of hills near to where we were staying, was recommended to us as a good place to find birds and we headed straight there, seeing 3 Lidth’s Jays from the approach road. A good recommendation which became even better when walking the trails around the centre produced the distinctive endemic races of White-backed Woodpecker and Ryukyu Robin and a superb Asian Stubtail. Despite cold and windy weather we also saw Japanese Wood Pigeon, Ryukyu Green Pigeon, 30 Pale and 3 Dusky Thrushes, 2 Daurian Redstarts, 2 Varied Tits and 3 Black-faced Buntings. We returned to the hotel by 18:00 where we were ‘treated’ to a cook-your-own meal consisting of a pile of raw stuff and a hot-plate. None of us were overly impressed although we felt the hotel had been well meaning. It was just a clash of cultures beyond me and I ate a few raw vegetables. After our meal we returned to the Amami Natural Forest and tried for owls but heard nothing. Perhaps it was not surprising as the weather had not improved.

looking down from the Amami Natural Forest

Ryukyu Robin information board. fortunately we had seen one as it was one of my main targets for the trip
Monday 20 January. We left the hotel at 05:30 to drive to the Supa-rindo track and the Kinsakabaru Virgin Forest, the main birding site on Amami. A combination of the directions in Mark Brazil’s bird finding guide and signs to the virgin forest got us there although at times we started to wonder if we were going the right way. The site guide wasn’t very specific about distances and we were surprised that the journey took an hour and a half and we arrived just as it was getting light. We had seen or heard no owls, or anything. Not even an Amami Black Rabbit. Soon after dawn a woodcock flew over but I missed it. We spent all day walking, sometimes splitting into pairs to cover more ground, and driving forested tracks but it was very quiet despite the forest looking superb. We saw nothing we hadn’t already encountered on the trip and I recorded just 17 species. Not a great return for 14 hours birding. I saw 4 Grey-facedd Buzzards, Ryukyu Green Pigeon, 2 Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, 2 Ryukyu Minivets, 4 Red-flanked Bluetails, 110 Pale Thrushes, 2 Asian Stubtails, 8 Japanese Bush Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, 6 Varied Tits and Black-faced Bunting and heard a Lidth’s Jay. We were hoping to find the endemic Amami Thrush, although if we had it might have been difficult to identify and eliminate a wintering White’s. Disappointed, the day was probably the low point of the trip, we returned to the Caretta House by 20:00 and had a better more western style meal.

Kinsakabaru Virgin Forest
Lidth's Jay, we only heard one in the Kinsakabaru Virgin Forest
Tuesday 21 January. Our final morning on Amami and we decided after the disappointment of the Kinsakabaru Virgin Forest to return to the Amami Native Forest at first light. It was much closer to where we were staying and also nearer to the airport from where we would depart at noon. We had excellent views of 3 Ryukyu Robins and 4 Lidth’s Jay and also saw Japanese Sparrowhawk, 5 Japanese Wood Pigeons, Ryukyu Green Pigeon, owstoni White-backed Woodpecker, 5 Dusky and 25 Pale Thrushes and 2 Red-flanked Bluetails. The robins, two males and a female, were feeding in a ditch at the edge of the car park. We left at 09:00 and stopped briefly at a pond at the bottom of the hill where we saw a flock of about 35 Bramblings. We found a Richard’;s Pipit on the coast and a Brown Booby offshore, our first trip birds for a couple of days. We dropped off the car at the airport and caught the 12:00 flight to Kagoshima on Kyushu. It was on time.

male Ryukyu Robin (JFC's digitised slide)
a very bright Dusky Thrush on Amami (JFC's digitised slide)

Friday, 17 January 2003

JAPAN 2003: Hokkaido (11-17 January)

Introduction. In Autumn 1983 Andrew Moon, the late much missed Rupert Hastings and I started thinking seriously about a winter trip to Japan but the more we looked into it and decided where we wanted to go (Hokkaido, Arasaki and Okinawa) the more expensive it looked like being. I was unemployed at the time and started to have serious doubts as to whether I could afford to go so when the costs approached the total of my savings I very reluctantly pulled out. Andrew and Rupert, with Richard Bosanquet and Steve Webb, had a great trip. My only consolation at not going was that in February 1984 while they were away I found a job at The University of Sussex and at the time of writing this (August 2016) I‘m still there. Japan remained high on my wanted list without my ever really considering going there, that is until late in 2002 when Dave Sargeant posted on the OrientalBirding email discussion group. He had been going on a two week trip put together by Sarus Bird Tours but the other participants had dropped out. He was looking for others to join him to make it feasible. Most of the bookings were made and it would be at cost. I didn’t know Dave but had come across his name several times and knew him to be a serious birder so I found out more details. The trip was covering the main areas I wanted to visit and at an estimated cost that appeared very reasonable, my only slight concern being that it was in January whereas February is traditionally the best month. This wasn’t a deal breaker and I agreed to join Dave and to see if I could find one or two others to come as well. I asked John and David Cooper, John was very keen and came, David was regrettably unable to do so due to work commitments. A week later John, John King and I drove up to Scrabster for a Rufous Turtle Dove near Stromness. On the long journey John and I were talking enough about Japan to spur JK’s interest and with just over a month to go before we left he decided to join us to making a group of four, the ideal number for most trips.

This blog puts my spin on the trip. It is based on somewhat scant notebook entries and unreliable memories and is cribbed heavily from Dave’s excellent report (see or cloudbirders). It is illustrated with a few digitised prints. John Cooper took much better photos and his account of the trip is at

Friday 10 January. JFC, JK and I left a snowy Heathrow for the short hop to Paris where the weather was even worse. Our flight to Tokyo was delayed by an hour while some orange foam was sprayed over the aircraft’s wings to de-ice them. Otherwise the flight was uneventful with the usual worries as to where we would meet DS as we were arriving late. We had to catch a train to Oarai and the overnight ferry to Tomakomai in Hokkaido so had little time for contingencies. We would have been even more concerned if we had known Dave had been delayed by 18 hours leaving Bangkok but fortunately his message to that effect didn’t get through …

Saturday 11 January. We arrived in Tokyo mid-morning, collected our luggage and found Dave waiting for us. He had only arrived a couple of hours before us rather than the previous evening but had fortunately had time to visit the hotel he had been booked into to collect various travel and hotel vouchers, buy a road atlas from an airport bookshop and suss out where the station was. I just had time to visit a chemist and buy what I took to be some cough medicine as I felt a cold coming on. We hurried there and soon bought tickets to Oarai, finding the platform and catching the train with 10 minutes to spare. The journey and changing trains was easy, helped by the train being spot on time and almost empty. We could easily follow our progress against the timetable and we soon noticed that station signs had small English names of the station and the next one. Birding was just about possible from the train with a couple of Bull-headed Shrikes seen well and a Brown-headed Thrush rather poorly. At Oarai we took a taxi the short distance to the ferry terminal where we were left our bags in the ticket office. We had a couple of hours of light hours before the ferry departed and walked around the town and looking in the inner harbour.  A superb Brown-headed Thrush was feeding in berries by the terminal entrance and we saw Black-faced Bunting, Brown-reared Bulbuls and Vega Gulls. We tracked an interesting song to a neighbouring street and a Japanese Robin in a cage. It, and its song was superb and immediately became a most wanted species for me. Sadly not on this trip though as they were only summer visitors to the areas we were visiting.  Also seen in cages in Oarai were Japanese Bush Warbler, Blue & White Flycatcher (!!), Varied and Marsh Tits and Meadow Bunting. Sad. We boarded the ferry and found our four-berth cabin which was very decent, more than we could say for the food being sold on board. Just as well we’d brought our own, making use of the unlimited supply of hot water.

Sunday 12 January. Our cabin was comfortable but I didn’t sleep well mainly due to jet-lag and some cold symptoms and it was no effort at all to be on deck at dawn. It was dull and cold but not as bad as expected when out of the wind at the rear of the ferry. There were fewer birds than expected too which was disappointing and it was hard to get decent views of those we did see, especially the auks which predominated. A superb Dusky Thrush flew around the ferry and for a long time looked set to be the best bird seen until a single Laysan Albatross appeared. I identified 4 Least and 11 Crested Auklets, 2 Ancient Murrelets, 30 Brunnich’s Guillemots and 2 very distant shearwaters that were almost certainly Streaked. Approaching a snowy Hokkaido the sun came out and Tomakomai harbour, where we docked at 13:15, was comparatively full of birds with Harlequins, Long-tailed Duck, Black Scoter, Scaup and Black-tailed, Glaucous, Slaty-backed and Vega Gulls. After some delay, we were a bit slow to leave the ferry, we found a taxi to take us to Tomakomai station from where we caught a train to Chitose, readily changing to another train to Chitose Airport. Japanese railways were living up to their excellent reputation. From the Avis desk at the airport we were bussed back to their office near Chitose station, Japanese car hire wasn’t at quite the railway standard of efficiency. There we were given an all-wheel drive Honda Accord and DS quickly mastered the Sat-Nav, quickly turning off the annoying Japanese instructions. JFC skilfully drove us over the mountains on icy roads and through quite a bit of snow. We broke the six hour journey to Kushiro with a fast food stop at a Lawsons convenience store although the range of food sold was rather limited. We arrived in Kushiro at 23:00 and were turned away from the first hotel we tried which was apparently closed. Fortunately the second, the Inn Hotel had vacancies. We’d opted not to book somewhere in advance as we hadn’t been certain how long the journey would take.

Monday 13 January. I slept really well although hadn’t shaken off my cold. We were up and out at 06:00, thermoses filled, to find the car had frozen and hard to get into. Once we did and started it we discovered the temperature had dropped to minus 12 degrees. It took 30 minutes to drive to Setsurigawa Bridge, the Red-crowned Crane roosting site on Kushiro Marsh, with DS working Sat-Nav. We had no concerns about not being in the right pace when we arrived as there were about 75 Japanese photographers waiting on the bridge over the river. It looked like a major twitch but on closer examination only one or two had binoculars and they were more like opera glasses. They were all there hoping to take the perfect photo (sunrise, roosting cranes and the steaming thermally heated river they roosted in) and the few we spoke to didn’t know of any other birds in the area. Most departed before the cranes did and by 07:30 we pretty much had the bridge to ourselves. We stayed another couple of hours seeing 220+ Red-crowned Cranes, 2 Japanese Wagtails (I only saw one other) and a Great Grey Shrike. After a warming drink (soup in my case) we started to head back to Kushiro but had only gone a short distance when a small patch of roadside woodland was too tempting to ignore. We quickly found a female Pygmy Woodpecker and some Marsh Tits but it was generally quiet. We saw some of the Red-crowned Cranes again at a feeding station but as a spectacle it didn’t match the river. Once at the coast we headed east and at one of our first ‘stop and scans’ a stunning adult Steller’s Sea Eagle flew right past us at eye level and continued along the coast. Brilliant, we saw another 6 during the day but none as memorable or as close as this. Most harbours we looked in had small flocks of Harlequin and we saw Red-necked Grebe, Whooper Swans, a Rough-legged Buzzard and a few Glaucous and Glaucous-winged Gulls. Superb winter birding. At Cape Kiritappu we checked some garden feeders for Asian Rosy Finches and found a flock of over 120. We arrived at Lake Furen at dusk and headed to the Hattoushi Bridge, a recognised site for Blakiston’s Fish-Owl. We heard one calling briefly shortly after dusk but it was distant and well away from the road which we were restricted to. The good looking forest on both sides was fenced off and inaccessible. After an hour of it calling only once or twice more and never any closer to the road we gave up, hoping that we might find a local to show us one at a daytime roost. We headed for the nearby Furen Nature Inn where we were staying for three nights but were struggling to find it when Matseo-san, the lodge’s owner, fortunately spotted us driving by (more than once) and came to get us. We were warmly welcomed and well fed, his homemade sake being as good as cough medicine for my cold which was taking hold.

me at the Setsurigawa Bridge
Red-crowned Cranes in the thermally heated river

superb on the ground
even better in flight

Tuesday 14 January. We woke at dawn to freezing conditions and walked out onto the frozen lake and into the face of an icy northerly wind. DS had come direct from the Gulf and was particularly struggling despite wearing all his clothes (two hats, long-johns, double trousers and two coats). I wasn’t doing much better as my cold had moved onto my chest. Glaucous-winged and Glaucous Gulls were common, feeding on the ice, as were Black-eared Kites with a few White-tailed and Steller’s Sea Eagles. We returned for an excellent breakfast (our best in Japan were at Furen) and a chance to warm up before heading to the Ochiishi Peninsular. After a short drive we reached Ochiishi Harbour. It was full of sea duck with Harlequin and Black scoter the most numerous (I recorded 150 of each for the day) and smaller numbers of Goldeneye, Long-tailed Duck, White-winged Scoter, Goosander and Scaup. After a long and tiring walk, at times through knee-deep snow, we reached Ochiishi Lighthouse. Here we found some shelter and sea-watched before returning. We saw 2 Long-billed Murrelets and 2 Pacific Divers but our time on the peninsular failed to produce the hoped for Spectacled Guillemot that had been seen a few days earlier or any red-faced Cormorants amongst the 100 or so Pelagics. We then drove to Cape Nosappu and sea-watched but the wind at the headland was vicious and horizontal snow flurries made viewing difficult. Despite this we saw a Least Auklet and 30 Ancient Murrelets but at 16:00 we decided to return to the Hattoushi Bridge to look again for the fish owl. Again at around 17:15 a single call was heard, and then around 17:30 a bird flew in along the frozen river and perched on the ice at the forest edge for a few seconds before disappearing back the way it had come. Unfortunately we were spread out a bit at the time and JFC was just too far away to see it. I only just did, having returned from collecting something from the car. The owl was on the ice for long enough for me to get my bins on it, just. A huge owl with a small head and when it flew away down the river very broad wings and a square tail. That was it, it never returned leaving us all very disappointed. Somewhat reluctantly we returned to the Nature Inn by 18:40. I had become really cold waiting for the owl and was now suffering flu symptoms as well as a chesty cough.
Ochiishi Harbour
Nemuro Peninsular


Wednesday 15 January. Overnight temperatures dropped to around minus 17 degrees and I hadn’t slept well and was feeling quite ill. Before breakfast we walked around the nearby nature centre seeing a few tits and woodpeckers. After another good breakfast we walked out onto frozen Lake Furen to watch the Steller’s Sea-Eagles feeding around fishing holes cut in the ice. I found it a real effort walking into the strong wind. Despite bright sunshine the freezing temperatures and wind-chill made it the coldest weather any of us had ever experienced. I counted 119 Steller’s Sea Eagles on the ice (and another 21 during the course of the day), 75+ White-tailed Eagles and 100 Black-eared Kites (quite unlike their European counterparts which head for Africa when it starts to get cold). We only managed to stick it for an hour or so before heading back to the car to thaw-out. We returned to the Ochiishi Peninsula, where we again looked for, and failed to find, Spectacled Guillemot although we did see two Red-faced Cormorants. We had discovered a short route to the lighthouse which was just as well for me as I was struggling to keep up with the others and resorting to sitting a lot. It was along a board-walk through the pine forest where I saw a Coal Tit and missed a Goldcrest, fortunate really that it was not anything serious. Sea-watching produced nothing new, so by 16:00 we returned to the Hattoushi bridge one last time to try for the owl. Walking the road we encountered a local coming out of a track from the fenced off area. He spoke some English and was appearing quite encouraging as we were asking about access to look for the owls but when he heard where we were staying he rather shut down and moved off. We heard an owl calling several times but never close to the road.
frozen Lake Furen, the dark specs are mostly eagles
Thursday 16 January. We had an early breakfast and I caught up with the Hawfinch on the bird feeder by the window having missed it the previous morning. We left Furen at 07:00 to visit Cape Hadoshi (Haddashi?) and continued on to Kiritappu where we walked out to the end of the cape. I was feeling little better and have virtually no recollection of the day but noted seeing amongst others 4 Steller’s and 3 White-tailed Sea Eagles, 75 Harlequins, single Long-billed Murrelet and Least Auklets, 3 Dusky Thrushes and 8 Asian Rosy Finches. JFC drove us back to Chitose, the journey back over the icy mountains being as tricky as it had been on the way out. It took 7 hours and we checked into the Hotel Nikko Chitose for our last night on Hokkaido
Cape Hadoshi

Friday 17 January. Rather than having breakfast we drove to Utonai where we had an hour to check the frozen lake and feeders around the bird centre. I saw 8 Whooper Swans, 5 Marsh Tits and 2 Hawfinches but was still not well. We then went to the Avis office to return the car and catch their shuttle bus to the airport in time for our 11:00 flight to Okinawa. I was pleased to be sitting down, less so that no food was served on a three hour flight although anything we were given would probably not have been to my taste. 
Chitose street scene, it was a scold as it looks