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

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