Wednesday 29 June 2016

JAPAN 2016: Hokkaido (23-29 June)

Introduction. Nick Preston and I were considering destinations for a summer trip and ever since visiting Japan in January 2003 I had been keen to return in summer, not least to see Japanese Robin, a species we had heard in 2003 and tracked down to a cage. Nick and Russell Gardner's report from a trip in July 2015 reassured us that late June/early July would not be too late for most of the summer visitors to be in song and we decided to go ahead. Nick contacted Nigel Moorhouse at Sarus who offered a do-it-yourself trip and with concerns about finding our way around on a tight timescale we decided to go down that route. It generally worked very well although most of it we could probably have done ourselves, as Nick and Russell did, with a bit more preparation. This blog is the first of three covering the trip ...
for me the main trip target was Japanese Robin
Tufted Puffin was up there too ...
21 June. Megan dropped me at Pool Valley. The Heathrow bus was waiting and left on time arriving at Terminal 4 at midnight.

22 June. I slept fitfully to 04:30 on hard plywood seats. Checked in and left on time meeting Nick in Amsterdam. We had seats together to Narita, a decent flight with good food but limited foot room being against a bulkhead.

23 June. Another fitful night’s sleep with no films worth staying up for. Once at Nartia and reacquainted with our bags we caught the shuttlebus to Haneda which was very straight-forward. At Haneda our flight to Kushiro was on the departure board with a warning that bad weather might lead to it being diverted or returning to Tokyo. We left 15 minutes late and arrived in very poor visibility, skidding across the runway somewhat alarmingly on landing. We were expected at the car hire counter and were taken to the depot just beyond the airport car park. We were given a Nissan Note, a decent sized car for two of us. Most important the SatNav was set to English and we were shown how to use it! Nick drove to our hotel in Kushiro in continual rain where we checked into the basic but perfectly adequate Hotel Palude and dumped our bags. Despite feeling pretty wrecked, and it still raining, we drove back out to Kushiro marsh near Tsurui. Very low cloud made visibility poor but the rain was more patchy. We found the boardwalk at Orenai and saw a few species including a Russet Sparrow, a pair of very distant Red-crowned Cranes and some smart Black-faced Buntings. We returned to the hotel, settled up as we intended leaving early and crashed out.
preparing for take-off at Haneda
poor visibility at Kushiro

Sika Deer at Orenai
24 June. We were awake soon after 04:00, it was already light and although dull was not raining. We left the hotel at 04:30 to return to Orenai boardwalk where a stunning pale lime green Moon Moth was flying around the car-park but unfortunately landed almost completely out of sight. The weather was improving and we walked a longer circuit. We saw Japanese Bush and Black-browed Reed Warblers, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Brown Flycatcher and on our way back a superb, very showy, Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler. We continued to Kusharro seeing several Latham’s Snipes on roadside telegraph poles and wires. At Lake Kusharro we walked around the Wakoto peninsular but it was very quiet with Osprey and grey-headed woodpecker best. We checked into Gastof Papilio, a very nice lodge, and drove to Kawaya taking the track up into forest between two hills. It was overgrown and hard going at first but slowly improved. Two Hazel Hen flushed from the path, one landing in view on a branch were an excellent start but we saw very little subsequently, hearing White-bellied green Pigeon and Brown-headed thrush of which we had a brief glimpse or two. Very noisy cicadas were drowning out most bird song which did not helping. We returned to the lodge at 17:30 and had our first Japanese meal, not greatly encouraging with raw fish starters but it did improve.
male Stegneger's Stonechat
juvenile Stejneger's Stonechat
Oriental Greenfinch
Black-browed Reed Warbler, autofocus preferring the reeds
Black-faced Bunting, one of 10 seen from the boardwalk
with a nest nearby
Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler
until recently considered a race of Gray's Grasshopper Warbler 
at times it looked quite like a large Cetti's Warbler and its song had a similar quality
this was a particularly showy individual, presumably newly arrived and keen to see off a perceived rival

one of the main summer birds on Hokkaido and nice to see one so well so early into the trip
roadside Red-crowned Crane
Latham's Snipe, we saw several driving across Hokkaido
they would make good tightrope walkers
the Watoko peninsular at Lake Kusharro with hardly a cloud in the sky
Japanese fisherman at Lake Kusharro
views from the Watoko peninsular

open heathland from the overgrown Kawaya track
distant fumarole
25 June. We were up at 03:00 and left at 03:10 just as it was getting light. We drove back to Kawaya and started walking at 03:40. We saw more birds than the previous afternoon but it was still a little disappointing with White-bellied Green Pigeon, White-backed Woodpecker, Narcissus Flycatcher and the local grey-bellied race of Bullfinch best. The cicadas started at 07:45 when we were most of the way back to the car. it was overcast, our hopes we had seen the back of the bad weather not materialising. We had breakfast at 08:20 and left at 09:20 just as it was starting to rain. We drove back to Wakoto and walked around again in light drizzle. It was as quiet as before with Grey-headed and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers best and was raining more heavily as we returned to the car, uncertain how much longer to stay. While deciding it cleared somewhat and a superb White-throated Needletail started zooming over at times at little more than head height before arching up into the sky and back down again. It was a procedure it repeated for half an hour or so bringing home, not that I needed reminding, why for many it is the ultimate rarity in Britain. A second circuit of the peninsular added Treecreeper and Marsh Tit and after lunch in the car we left at 14:20 and headed to Yoroushi, arriving at 16:05. A very posh, upmarket onsen we wouldn’t normally be seen dead in but each night fish were put out into a very small pond overlooked by the reception and most nights a Blakiston’s Fish Owl comes in to feed. The food for guests was very upmarket too and I was concerned when at the appropriate time we were led to a private cubicle. There an assortment of raw items were laid out with a couple of candles lit under pots that would slow-cook them in half an hour. It was still light and I bailed out and went for a walk, finding a nice trail up over a nearby hillside and seeing Blue & White Flycatcher, white-headed Long-tailed Tits and Oriental Cuckoo. I returned at dusk. The meal had improved and Nick had saved me a piece of Salmon and some ice cream. As the light started to go we sat in pole position overlooking the pond. Most evenings the owl came in between 19:30 and 20:30, rarely later with two no shows in the last two weeks or so. Come 20:55 I was more than a little concerned when suddenly it dropped in from above us. It was massive, its size exacerbated by it being so close. It caught five or six fish, giving meaning to 'shooting fish in a barrel', and stayed until 22:09 when it finally flew off away up river. An amazing encounter although I had rather mixed feelings about the fish not having a chance.

grey-bellied Bullfinch
an interesting variant on ours
the female looked more familiar
Narcissus Flycatcher
an Olive-backed Pipit was singing from the trees in front of the fumarole, just like being on a Sussex heathland

our room at Yoroushi Onsen, unnecessarily up market as we were only really in it from 10pm to 4am and were asleep for most of that time
it was huge

on its favourite perch

a vast improvement on my previous views when after dark one landed in a stream bed and promptly flew off as I got my bins on it. So brief a view that John Cooper looking only paces away didn't see it at all.
26 June. We were awake at 03:45 and left soon after, having packed the night before. We didn’t feel too bad about missing breakfast as it was unlikely to have been to our Western tastes. The Blue & White Flycatcher was singing and delayed us slightly. It was dull with steady light rain. We drove to the coast and north to Rausu making a few brief stops for gulls (notably some puzzling very bleached presumed Slaty-backed), a couple of White-tailed Eagles and to check rafts of duck-like fishing buoys. We were in Rausu at 06:15 and drove up Shiretoko Pass but soon hit low cloud/thick mist as we climbed higher. We continued to the top where it was patchy but it soon clouded over completely. We went back down below the clouds to the visitor center and tried a muddy trail where very little was seen. We returned to the pass hoping it would clear and stopped at km 15 where visibility was ‘birdable’. We walked along the road seeing female Red-flanked Bluetail and a Hawfinch but little else. By now it was the middle of the day and we tried a trail to some lakes that started by a bus-stop where we were parked. A couple of hundred metres in we flushed a Ural Owl from beside the trail which flew across a valley and landed out of view. I had looked for a Coal Tit in the thin tree it had come out of and am not sure how I didn’t see it as well, very frustrating. We tried the pass again but visibility was less than 50m. Four friendly non-English speaking Japanese bird photographers were there and we established that they were waiting for Pine Grosbeaks, one of which had been seen there at 10:00. We had noticed a photographer at the pass that morning, I’m not sure when, but hadn’t then thought to ask what he was waiting for. The photographers were visitors to Hokkaido too and unfortunately did not know where best to look for Grey Bunting. After an hour of waiting for the grosbeaks in weather that was not improving we returned to find our hotel, Ryokan Minenoyu, and check in at 16:00. We drove north along the coast seeing 25 Rhinoceros Auklets passing offshore but little else before calling it a day. That is until another cook-it-yourself meal of raw stuff was presented to us and I went birding along the road instead. I'd hoped to see Japanese Wagtail or Long-billed Plover along the river but saw nothing on the sections that were viewable. Nick told me the meal didn’t improve so i made the right decision even though I had seen nothing. A room only deal elsewhere would have been a much better option and I'm not sure why we were not booked to stay at the lodge nearby where fish owls were fed, even if after our success at Yoroushi we’d not felt up to staying up late into the night to look for them.

Slaty-backed Gulls on the coast south of Rausu
a very bleached first-summer bird?
Shiretoko Pass with the weather improving
it briefly cleared
view East from Shiretoko Pass, disputed Kunashir Island hidden by low cloud
cloud coming in again and shortly after visibility was back down to 50m
the first lake on the 'bus-stop' trail. we didn't have the footwear, or inclination, to go further
27 June. We left the hotel at 04:00, another breakfast missed, and drove to the pass. We were soon into the cloud and if anything it was thicker. The pass was no better so we returned to km 12.5, a Grey Bunting site we had not found the previous day (a sign marking it was no longer there). We walked the road there and at km 14.5 where we had been the previous day but had no success, two smart grey-bellied Bullfinches were the only birds I saw. We returned to the pass to find five bird photographers waiting but the weather no better. They were concentrating on the dwarf conifers behind the car park so I wandered over to the other side of the road and almost immediately saw a male grosbeak sitting up in the gloom. It stayed in view for a few minutes, long enough for Nick to get over and one of the photographers obtain an identifiable image. We had three or four further views but all in the murk and so not showing its full colour. We came down at 07:40 for another try at km 12.5 but it was no better. We left after 4 hours of birding on Shiretoko Pass, one of the prime summer sites on Hokkaido, had produced just 3 species for me (White Wagtail being the other). We drove to the coast where it was clear and south to the Notsuke peninsular. An excellent boardwalk, in the middle of the day where we saw several Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warblers, Siberian Ryubythroats and Black-browed Reed Warblers as well as White-tailed Eagles, Red-crowned Cranes and Falcated Duck. Looking back Shiretoko Pass was still covered in cloud and we continued on to Lodge Furen, arriving just after 16:00. We were given a very warm welcome by Takeyoshi (Take) and Mesako Matsuo and Lodge Furen was just as I remembered it from 2003, apart from the lake not being frozen and snow everywhere. We walked the nature trail loop which was quiet although a White-backed Woodpecker made it worthwhile. Another Japanese meal but I managed most of it, and using chopsticks, working around the raw seafood.
likely Grey Bunting habitat, we didn't manage to find any
Pine Grosbeak habitat at Shiretoko Pass
South of Rausu, Shiretoko still in the clouds
adult Black-tailed Gull
first-summer Black-tailed Gulls
the rather striking lugens race of White Wagtail
southern end of Russian held Kunashir Island from the Notsuke Peninsular
Red-crowned Cranes on the Notsuke Peninsular

White-tailed Eagle
male Long-tailed Rosefinch, deserving of a much better photo
this much drabber individual was more approachable
Black-browed Reed Warbler

Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler was superficially similar
they were very vocal despite it being the middle of the day

Cuckoos were common, keeping a look out for warbler nests to lay their eggs in
we saw several Siberian Rubythroats to
this one thought it was well hidden and remained as we approach its bush

White-backed Woodpecker from the Furen Nature Centre trail

28 June. We were up at 03:30 and drove the short distance to the start of the Onetto Rindo. We parked about 1.5 kms down the track in an area of dense conifers and were about to start walking when we heard our main target bird, Japanese Robin, singing reasonably close by. We followed the song down a steep slope into a small valley and after some uncertainty as to how high up it was - very, when I saw a small bird fly across at tree top height - Nick then spotted it singing from the very top of a conifer where it remained for 20 minutes or so, long enough for him to return to the car for his telescope. Brilliant. I had wanted to see one since my first day in Japan when we tracked down a flutey song to one in a cage in a garden in Oarai. We returned to the car, getting lost in the process, and headed back to the Nature Centre trail. We soon heard Sakhalin Leaf Warbler singing but it took some time to obtain decent views. A Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler gave excellent views too. Breakfast was much more to our liking – toast with a choice of 6 home-made jams. I tried all 6, Japanese Plum being my favourite. Take had booked us on a boat trip to look for Tufted Puffins and we drove to Ochiishi hitting fog on the east side of the peninsular, it had been nice and sunny at Furen. Feeling very glum we continued to the Nature Cruise Office where about 15 Japanese tourists were assembled. One told us the 2.5 hour cruise would go ahead and the weather was often clearer around the islands we were going to visit, we hoped they were right. We were to be taken out on two fishing boats and we were put on the boat with an excellent English speaking guide, a retired ANA executive who had been office manager in London for four years. He was confident we would see Tufted Puffin, they did on 90-95% of trips in June, but following the first boat out of the harbour at 09:00 with it just visible in the murk little more than 100m away was not encouraging. First bird we saw was a Guillemot, an unusual sighting which caused our guide some excitement. We couldn’t understand what the fuss was about and hoped it hadn’t used up all our good fortune! Approaching the islands visibility did improve, although it came and went. I saw a Tufted Puffin on the water not too far ahead but it dived before Nick got onto it and at that point the mist rolled in again. Nearer the islands we found a pair first on the sea then flying around the cliffs, although at some distance. It was clearer but the boats stayed a certain distance from the islands to avoid disturbance. A noble attitude but on this occasion we felt being half the distance wouldn’t have made any difference. We were just leaving somewhat disappointed when I saw another bird on the sea outside the ‘exclusion zone’ and we headed towards it. It stayed on the water allowing close approach much to the delight of all on board. It then took off and flew a big circle around us and almost overhead. Absolutely superb. We returned to the harbour soon hitting the fog which was still hugging the coast. A very enjoyable cruise despite the weather. We drove to Cape Nosappu and seawatched until 16:15. It was generally foggy to the south and clear to the north but it came and went and we moved our position accordingly. Highlights were a Horned Puffin which disappeared from view before I coulds get onto it, 2 close Tufted Puffins and a Pigeon Guillemot while, when they were visible, off-shore rocks held a Red-faced Cormorant and 5 Harlequin. We returned to Furen where I spent half an hour seeing little on the boardwalk before our meal. This one was much more to our taste with greatly reduced seafood. A superb day with my two main trip targets seen well, and staying in a very nice lodge, perfect.

Japanese Robin from the Onetto-rindo
it was singing from the top of the tallest tree where its voice carried for some distance

it was the bird I had most wanted to see in Japan

Chestnut-cheeked Starling from the Nature Centre trail

Nick with two of the Japanese on board the nature cruise fishing boat in Ochiishi Harbour
visibility wasn't great
following the first fishing boat out of harbour, we were in radio and radar contact even if we couldn't always see it
Moyurun-to Islands, it was clear around them as had been forecast
Spectacled Guillemots were common, we saw about 100 although this was the most approachable
we stayed at the limit of the self-imposed exclusion zone
Tufted Puffins, in the 'exclusion zone'
this one was outside it and fair game to be approached

brilliant views of a brilliant bird, it then got up flew around in a big circle and passed directly overhead as it headed out to sea. A big thank-you to Frank Lambert who alerted me to the possibility of seeing tufted puffin from an Ochiishi cruise, and to Take Matsuo for booking it for us. 
it was all too soon time to head back to Ochiishi, note the line of fog clinging to the coast. at times only the tops of the wind turbines had been visible
back in Ochiishi harbour
Tufted Puffin shop at Cape Nosappu 
another very faded gull, we assumed it to be first-summer Slaty-backed but I couldn't help wondering if there might have been a bit of Glaucous-winged in its ancestry too
29 June. We returned to Onetto Rindo at 04:00 and parked in the same place as previously. Three Japanese Robins were singing but none were responsive. We walked to 05:30 before turning back seeing fly-over White-throated Needletails, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Hawfinch, a brief Brown-headed Thrush and Red-flanked Bluetail. Another Japanese Robin was singing a little way beyond the car. It was more responsive and flew low across the track several times before perching in view, at first briefly then for more prolonged periods. We returned for another excellent breakfast and said goodbye to our hosts. We stopped at Chouboshi Lake but were unable to entice any Lanceolated Warblers to respond although did see Middendorf's Grasshopper and Black-browed Reed Warblers while displaying Latham's Snipe put on a good show. We continued along the coast, parts in thick fog, stopping for a pair of Red-crowned Cranes by the road. At Kiritappu we saw a pair of cranes with a 1/4 sized youngster but drew a blank at another Lanceolated Warbler site, something we rather belatedly realised we should have made efforts for a little sooner. Our time at Lake Furen had definitely been a little on the short side, especially compared with Lake Kusharro, and another day or even two would have been ideal. We drove back to Kushiro Airport, dropped off the car at 13:55, were driven (less than 500m) to the airport where we caught a shuttle bus to Kushiro Station at 14:35. We arrived at 15:15 and bought tickets to Tomakomai (an English speaking cashier helped). The train arrived from Sapporo was cleaned and ready to depart. We had a choice of seats in one of the well signed unreserved carriages and departed on time. We were a little late arriving at Minami-Chitose and could see our Tomakomai train on the opposite platform. We crossed on a footbridge and boarded the local train which departed almost immediately. At Tomakomai we took a taxi to the ferry terminal, paid for the pre-booked tickets, 2 berths in a cabin for 4. We boarded at 22:40 and I was soon asleep, not even hearing us depart.
back along the Onetto-rindo where another Japanese Robin was putting on a great show
yesterdays had been good but this was something else again
having been beaten to 'bird of the day' by Tufted Puffin this one was doing its best not to miss out again
it didn't

Siberian Rubythroat at Lake Chouboshi
nice but in my opinion somewhat lacking the charisma of the robin
Red-crowned Crane by the road

seaweed drying at Kiritappu
Lanceolated Warbler habitat at Kiritappu, at least we supposed it was, we didn't encounter any although were probably too late in the day?