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Japan Birding Trip Report
Dave Sargeant, John Cooper, Richard Fairbank & John King
11 – 26 January 2003
Our fifteen-day Japan trip, privately arranged through Sarus Bird Tours, was largely based on their published itinerary. It made a refreshing change to bird in a country with almost zero hassle, where everyone was helpful, things worked and worked on time. We found the Japanese people very service oriented, friendly and polite. It was also nice to meet local birders, even though the language difficulties meant resorting to pointing at plates in the field guide. We enjoyed the trip immensely and would thoroughly recommend Japan to other world birders.
Although this was largely a do-it-yourself trip, we used Sarus to pre-organise the ground arrangements for us. This worked out very well with Sarus able to deal with several last minute changes effectively. All the vouchers and tickets were waiting for us on arrival in Japan. Thanks to their organisational efforts, we were all surprised at how smoothly it went, as we'd been expecting a number of difficulties, especially with language and communication. Based on the past, it is still somewhat of a pre-conceived idea that Japan is prohibitively expensive. For sure it is expensive, but by sharing costs, not eating in expensive restaurants and staying in more moderate accommodation, its cost is comparable to some western European countries.
For further information contact Dave Sargeant: akalat [at] gmail.com
Health, Safety and Hassles
No problems at all on this front. Travel was quite hassle-free: in fact more hassle-free than we had expected. The main issue we faced was our inability to communicate effectively.
Being winter, mosquitoes, or any other type of biting insect, were in effect absent. DES picked up a couple of small ticks in the forest on Amami. Much has been written about the Habu-hubu snake on Amami, but unsurprisingly we never saw one, although being winter they are no doubt much less active.
If arriving from a tropical destination at the main airports you are required to fill in a health card, presumably to assist the tracing of people in the event of a public health problem; not a bad idea considering the outbreak of SARS a few months after our return. Tap water is safe to drink everywhere, and hygiene standards are way above what most westerners would consider the norm.
Getting there - Flights and Visa
The main Japanese cities are well served by a variety of international airlines. DES took Thai Airways via Bangkok from the Middle East; the others took Air France from London via Paris to Tokyo. Most operators will allow an open-jaw for the same price as a straightforward return. This is useful as it can save at least one domestic flight. We flew into Tokyo and out of Osaka. Be aware that both these cities have two international airports.
Visas are not required of most European, Australian or US passport holders. A 90-day tourist visa is granted on arrival. As the airport tax is included with domestic tickets there is no separate collection of an airport tax on departure. This applies to some international flights as well (but not Air France).
Car Rental and Driving
All our car rentals were pre-booked through Sarus. On Hokkaido and Okinawa we used Avis. None of the major rental companies have offices on Amami, so we went with one of the local companies at the airport. On Kyushu we had originally pre-booked with Avis, but when we discovered that a one-way drop from Kagoshima to Osaka cost 55,000 Yen we changed the booking to Hertz (pre-booked in the UK). In theory Hertz did not charge a one-way rental fee. However, on collection of the car at Kagoshima not only did we get charged a one-way fee, but they failed to honour the pre-payment in the UK. To date we are still arguing with Hertz's customer services in the UK for a refund on the enforced one-way rental fee.
We found car rental offices do not open outside of normal office hours, including the Avis office at Sapporo international airport at Chitose! This needed to be taken into consideration when planning an itinerary.
One excellent feature of all the cars we rented, other than on Amami on which the need does not arise, was the fitting of GPS navigational systems as standard. These proved incredibly accurate and made getting around a real doddle. We failed to get lost! However, the market has yet to mature sufficiently for a dual language interface, so it's necessary to get to grip with the all-Japanese interface and buttons before heading-off. Models differ, but only three functions are necessary to work out: zoom in/out, pan, and switch off the irritating Japanese lady presumably telling you to turn left, turn right, watch the junction, blah, blah.
In Japan's service-oriented society, no petrol stations are self-serve. As a pre warning, the first question you are asked when stopping at a station is “cash or card”. This threw us a few times as we assumed we were being asked how much petrol we wanted and had great difficulty in understanding what they were waiting for.
Car parking is problematic in most urban areas, and probably a nightmare in cities. We were amazed to discover we had to pay to park our car overnight at the hotel in Kushiro - 500 Yen to simple leave it in front of the hotel. Although free for guests, it turned out that the car park at the Kansai Hotel (near the airport) in Osaka would have cost those of the group opting to sleep in the car more than a room in the hotel, despite arriving at 01.00!
Road tolls are very steep, with a basic cost of about 20 Yen per km – which soon mounts up. Speed limits are low when compared to European roads. However, the general volume of cars and the number of junctions means that “speeding” in urban areas is quite difficult except maybe early in the morning. The limit is only 50 km/h on the whole, and most people stick to it. Even on the toll highways the limit is 80 km/h. The only place where we saw speeding was on the highways around Osaka. During the run-up to the 2002 football World Cup almost all road signs have been replaced and are now bi-lingual. This alleviates the need to some extent of a bilingual map.
An International Driving Permit is absolutely essential – don't leave home without it. The number of drivers on the rental agreement does not seem to be an issue, as anyone with a valid licence can drive. As a general tip, try to limit long drives; progress is generally slow and the ubiquitous traffic lights at what feels like every junction, become quite irritating. Using toll roads is highly recommended if you can afford them. They cut down driving times considerably.
Being such a large country with potentially many islands to cover, almost all birders will end up flying at least some of their itinerary. Internal airfares are potentially very expensive, but this can be sidestepped by making use of the Visit Japan Air pass. Details are available on the Japan Airlines website or via a Japanese tour operator. During our stay we flew three sectors, each at around 11,000 Yen, which included the three-hour flight from Chitose to Okinawa – a great deal.
One oddity of all the internal flights we took was that none served food, including three hours to Okinawa with no breakfast!
Note that you should retain your domestic and international baggage tags, as they are verified before you are able to leave the arrivals hall.
Other Miscellaneous Information
We found obtaining a good bi-lingual map in advance in the UK to be difficult. The best road atlas is the 1:250,000 Japan Road Atlas published by Shobunsha. We purchased a copy in the bookshop situated on the 4th floor of the arrivals of terminal 1 in Narita Airport. The price was 3,000 Yen.
Post offices were available and efficient, and are generally locatable on the in-car GPS systems. Even in airports they only opened normal business hours.
Japan appears to have a dearth of Internet cafés, other than at airport terminals. Beware of keyboard mapping difficulties. Snappy Internet telephones were available in some airports, which even though allowed keyboard mapping in either Japanese, Korean or English still gave problems. None of the tourist hotels we stayed in had Internet facilities.
During our visit the exchange rate was around 118 Yen to the US$ and 185 Yen to the UK £, both of which were freely exchangeable. As we had pre-paid most of the trip in the UK, we only exchanged money at one of the exchanges in the international airport on arrival. The rate appeared to be very similar in all the exchanges and banks we passed. Only at hotels, as usual, was a noticeably inferior rate offered. Despite its high tech image, credit cards are not widely accepted in Japan. Don't rely on being able to use one other than for major expenses such as hotels, car rental and expensive restaurants.
We stayed at a variety of tourist hotels and guesthouses. Most were pre-booked and paid in advance through Sarus, and several included meals. This is probably a good idea for evening meals as buying them separately at a restaurant would prove expensive. However we skipped breakfast just about everywhere (except Furen) as it was served too late (usually 07:00–10:00) and the hotels too distant from birding sites to make going out after, or popping back, a viable option. We stayed at the following:
Overnight ferry from Oarai to Tomakomai. We had a four-bedded (2 bunks) first class cabin, which was very comfortable. The food in the restaurant didn't look very exciting - we ate our own.
Tokyo Inn Hotel, Kushiro, Hokkaido. A typical clean but characterless high rise city hotel. Only seen in darkness. The only hotel we did not have prebooked (due to uncertainty about the length of the drive from Chitose).
Furen Nature Inn (Matseo-san's house), Hokkaido. This is one of the birders' standard places and is mentioned in both bird finding guides. Finding it is not straight-forward as it isn't signed at all - Matseo-San found us parked at the end of the road scratching our heads as to where his place was - we'd driven right past it without noticing his small name-board on the font door. The place has a nice atmosphere with good Japanese food and flexible mealtimes. The homemade saké was especially memorable. Recommended, but note later comments concerning Blakiston's Fish-Owl.
Hotel Nikko Chitose, Hokkaido. Another clean and characterless hotel not seen in daylight.
Okuma Resort Hotel, Okinawa. A very snazzy place that we didn't see in the light! The restaurant was self-service Chinese - OK but unexciting. Probably a waste of money on a birding trip, although there appeared to be no alternatives that were not much farther from the main birding site. Camping or sleeping in the car for at least one night should be given serious consideration.
Caretta House, Amami. The owner/manager was extremely hospitable, spoke English and drove to the airport to greet us and make sure we collected our car successfully. The hotel is situated in a good locality on a quiet bay just a few kilometres from the Amami Natural Forest Reserve. We stayed two nights, where we ate in the restaurant - one poor, one very good.
Kirishima Castle Hotel, Kyushu. A good base for Mi-ike (which is well worth a visit). An excellent Japanese dinner was served in the room – a great experience – we even photographed the meal before we ate it!
Izumi Wing Hotel, Izumi. A typical tourist hotel. It might have been better to stay in the Crane reserve, which would be handier, though would have more basic facilities. Several eating-places were a short walk from the hotel - one an excellent, relatively cheap noodle shop.
Kansai Airport Hotel/car park, Osaka. The car park would have cost a non-resident more than a room!
Food varied from excellent to junk, but in the main we considered it dull and uninteresting. Some items we struggled to identify. Despite staying at several hotels catering to western tourists, we encountered little in the way of western meals, so be prepared to eat Japanese most of the time, unless you buy your own ingredients from a supermarket.
Restaurants looked expensive and we never dined in them other than those where we had already pre-paid as part of the package. As might be expected there is a heavy bias to fish, seaweed, rice and green tea. We would suggest bringing plenty of snacks from home – cereal bars, Mars bars, raisins, dried fruit etc. to supplement what can be found in local supermarkets. Fruits and vegetables were readily available but expensive. Decent, wholemeal bread was impossible to find. Beer was reasonably priced and available freely in convenience stores or often at the vending machines.
In the junk food line, some convenience stores, such as the Lawson Stations and 7-11s, served French fries, fried chicken and a line of local fried items we couldn't identify. Noodles and noodle soup were similarly available. McDonald's was thankfully almost non-existent.
Each hotel room had a kettle enabling us to fill flasks each morning and the ferry had an urn of boiling water. This enabled us to make take coffee/tea/soup anywhere – highly recommended in the cold climates we experienced.
Few people speak English, other than airline staff and a few staff at hotels accustomed to dealing with foreign tourists. For some inexplicable reason, although we had a phrase book we rarely found it useful – possibly because our accents were so terrible we confused people even further!
During the duration of our stay the weather was generally cold and windy with variable amounts of cloud cover. We experienced a few rain showers as well as snow flurries. Hokkaido experienced a cold snap during our stay, when for two days the weather was decidedly arctic with a maximum daytime temperature of around minus 10 degrees backed by a biting northerly wind. Temperatures here at night dropped to around minus 17 degrees, so come well prepared – long-johns, many layers of shirts/jumpers, two hats, wind proof jackets and gloves are required. It would be easy to be ill prepared for this type of weather. In such conditions we found it difficult to sea-watch. Although some lighthouses or other buildings offered shelter, the wind always seemed to be coming straight at us!
On the southernmost island of Okinawa the weather was much more pleasant, but surprisingly still required a coat during the day. During our time in Japan, daylight hours varied from 07:00 to 17:00 on Hokkaido and 07:00 – 18:00 on Okinawa.
Field Guides: A Field Guide to the Birds of Japan by the Wild Bird Society of Japan (1982). (Out of print). Despite the taxonomy being somewhat dated, this still remains the main English language field guide to Japan. Although some of the plates leave something to be desired, identification of most of Japan's birds is possible.
A Field Guide to the Birds of Korea by W.S. Lee, T-H Koo and J-Y Park (2000). LG Evergreen Foundation.
Bird Finding: A Birdwatcher's Guide to Japan by M.A. Brazil (1987). Kodansha Institute and Wild Bird Society of Japan. We found the directions and maps still accurate.
A Birder's Guide to Japan by J.W. Robinson (1987). Ibis Publishing Co. Either of these two birding guides is useful for general overviews and directions, although we felt the Brazil book to be slightly more useful and to have better maps.
The Birds of Japan by M.A. Brazil (1991). Helm.
Threatened Birds of the World. BirdLife International, edited by N.J. Collar (2000). Lynx Ediciones and BirdLife International.
Birds of the World: A checklist by J.F. Clements (2000). Ibis Publishing Co.
All our travel arrangements were made through Sarus Bird Tours in the UK. In Japan, Sarus used a local agent - Hankyu Express International Travel, Yokohama. (Tel: 045-329-8911) which seemed very reliable.
In addition to the authors of the trips reports we used, we would like to especially thank Nigel Moorhouse, for up to date information and additional behind the scenes assistance, and who's efforts greatly assisted the success of the trip. We would also like to thank the unnamed local birders in Japan whom we met in passing and with whom we exchanged information. We would as well like to express our dissatisfaction with the poor customer service and difficulties of our dealings with Hertz UK and Hertz Japan, whom we would not recommend to others visiting Japan.
In general we saw what we expected, though were disappointed with the lack of auks and the lack of numbers of seabirds from the ferry. We felt the trip would probably have produced more auks later in February when the pack-ice reaches the Hokkaido coast. The comments below are intended to add to information provided in any of the references listed above, either to correct any changes or add to that provided, and should be read in conjunction with them.
The Ferry Crossing from Oarai to Tomakomai
If one had more time we would recommend taking the ferry both ways. If not it would be worth considering doing the ferry route from north to south and/or take the midnight ferry crossing. The crossing takes approximately 18 hours, depending on the sea condition, so by leaving at 18:30 there are only six hours of daylight. We also felt that the chances of albatrosses and shearwaters would be better if doing the southern end of the crossing in the light. Leaving at midnight would ensure 12 hours birding in the light. However, we were subsequently informed that the midnight ferry, being a different ship, is less suitable for birding, although of course this may well be subject to change in the future.
The Blakiston's Fish-Owl situation needs sorting out and clarifying, as it appears to be very difficult to rely on being taken to a roost site or feeding station by a local guide and is probably frowned upon locally. We noted that all trip reports were rather vague on detail as to how to arrange a local to escort you to these owls. The most reliable way to see the owl is either at a feeding station or a daylight roost – the visibility at the Hattoushi bridge not being particularly good. This requires the services of a local guide. However, trying to find one who can legally escort you appears to be a problem. Neither Matseo-san at the guesthouse, nor Takamoto-san, the conservation project manager, wished to take us in, as it would set a precedent for others to visit. They are afraid of a demand from Japanese photographers; at least that was their excuse. We had to view nightly from the bridge with limited views. We would recommend trying to clarify this situation with Matseo-san in advance. He did tell us he knew of another property "up north", where they fed the owl that he could take us to. However he didn't, and he hasn't seen it himself there recently as we suspected he hadn't visited recently (it is apparently near Rauso, an estimated two to three hours drive from Furen-ko). This was one of our major frustrations on the trip. Three of us saw the owl briefly at the bridge when it landed after dark.
The drive from Chitose to Kushiro is long and the roads can be very icy. Some Americans we met had flown to Kushiro and collected their car there. It might be worth doing the same, then taking a train to the ferry at Tomakomai. This would save about seven hours of driving in possibly treacherous conditions.
Okinawa and Amami
Our time on both these islands was, by necessity, very limited. We were lucky with the weather on both, as a day of rain on either could have wiped our itinerary completely. We felt that a couple of days longer on either island would be preferable in order to improve the chances of success. One would be hard pushed to see Okinawa Woodpecker with less than a day. We also dipped on the Okinawa Rail due to a shortage of time. The Ryukyu Scops-Owl appears to be almost impossible in winter - unless someone knows a stakeout?
We strongly recommend on Amami to visit the Amami Natural Forest north east of the main town. The manager of the Caretta House where we stayed recommended this place to us, and we were glad of his recommendation. It proved quite easy to see Lidth's Jay and Ryukyu Robin in this area, whereas we failed to see either along the Supa-rindo track. The Natural Forest is easy to get to from Caretta House (20 mins.) and has all the birds except maybe the Amami Thrush.
The drive to Supa-rindo took 75 minutes from Caretta House – longer than we had expected. Directions to Supa-rindo in Brazil, while accurate are not specific in the distances between the relative points. They are more than expected. Basically follow signs to the virgin forest. The best area was definitely the central part. Although the forest petered out outside this area still has lot of nice forest on the hills. Night drive useless in winter.
In generally we were very happy with the itinerary we followed, and how the trip worked out with limited difficulties and hassles. It would probably be difficult to have made it more efficient or visited more sites without sacrificing something somewhere or dipping on a key bird. It would have been better to have spent last night on the east coast of Kyushu, instead of Izumi, and then flown back from Kagoshima to Osaka Kansai (assuming suitable flight available). It would also be tempting to try and fit in a day's birding north of Osaka/Kyoto as we met a British birder at Arasaki who'd just seen Scaly-sided Merganser on a reservoir there. Perhaps flying back from Kagoshima to Osaka a day earlier might allow that, though it would be hard to cut out a day anywhere.
Sat 11 Jan: Arrival in Tokyo. Train to Oarai. Overnight ferry to Hokkaido.
Sun 12 Jan: Morning on ferry to Hokkaido. Afternoon and evening drive to
Tue 14 Jan: Morning at Ochiishi. Afternoon at Nosappu Miski. Evening at Hattoushi Bridge.
Wed 15 Jan: Morning on pack-ice at Furen-Ko. Afternoon at Ochiishi. Evening at Hattoushi Bridge.
Thu 16 Jan: Morning at Hadoshi, then Kiritappu. Afternoon drive to Chitose.
Fri 17 Jan: Early morning at Utonai. Morning flight to Okinawa. Afternoon drive to Fungawa.
Sat 18 Jan: Fungawa Dam area all day.
Sun 19 Jan: Early drive to Naha with a couple of hours at Naha estuary. Flight to Amami. Afternoon in Amami Forest Reserve.
Mon 20 Jan: All day in Kinsaku-baru Virgin Forest Reserve and along the Supra-Rindo track.
Tue 21 Jan: Morning at Amami Forest Reserve. Flight to Kagoshima. Late afternoon at Mi-ike.
Wed 22 Jan: Morning at Mi-ike. Afternoon Drive to Izumi.
Thu 23 Jan: All day at Arasaki.
Fri 24 Jan: Early morning at Arasaki. Afternoon at Yatsushiro estuary.
Sat 25 Jan: Early drive to Kadogawa. Long drive to Osaka.
Sun 26 Jan: Depart from Osaka.
Sat 11th January
All four members of the party arrived late, and somewhat apprehensively, at Osaka International airport mid morning on the 11th. DES, flying on Thai Airways via Bangkok suffered a 13-hour delay in Bangkok due to aircraft technical difficulties. First up was to collect the pre-arranged vouchers and tickets from the Narita View Hotel, where he should have been staying the previous evening if not for the delay. The hotel shuttle bus proved easy to find and within 45 minutes DES was presenting our various vouchers to the helpful lady at the airport tourist information counter asking for them to be translated so that we knew which voucher was which. DES also investigated the airport bookshop where he purchased the Shobunsha Road Atlas Japan – the best bilingual map available – for 3,000 Yen - and was waiting for the others as they cleared customs, the Air France flight being an hour late due to the plane having to be de-iced before leaving Paris. Without too many problems, we quickly purchased railway tickets from the JR station below the airport to Oarai (2,170 Yen pp) and made it to the platform with 15 minutes to spare. We had expected this journey to be quite difficult, but with the train connection times written down, it made the process much easier. Unlike British Rail, we knew which station we were at as the train arrived and departed exactly to schedule. Fortunately this journey was on a Saturday, so the trains around Tokyo were largely empty, which even allowed us to do some birding from the train, seeing Bull-headed Shrike in the Tokyo suburbs. From Oarai station we took a taxi the short distance to the ferry terminal (660 Yen). As we arrived several hours before ferry departure and were kindly able to leave our luggage in the ferry ticket office, we took a hike around the terminal and Oarai town, where we bought a few stock items for the ferry crossing – 12 bananas and 4 buns for 1,200 Yen. Hmm, welcome to Japan – definitely not cheap. The walk around town produced a few of the commoner species, such as Black-faced Bunting, but also the only Brown Thrush seen well during the trip, feeding on a berry bush directly outside the terminal entrance. The ferry departed for Tomakomai after dark, exactly on schedule at 18:30. The four-bedded first class cabin (12,000 Yen pp) was definitely more than adequate, and we slept well. The on-board restaurant didn't look too appetising, and besides we had brought our own food. A water-heater was available on board for making coffee, soup, noodles etc.
Sun 12th January
We awoke at dawn to a cold, overcast and windy day. The outside temperature, while pretty cold, was not as bad as we had expected. Sheltering in the lee at the rear of the ship was passable although after several hours the cold worked its way through no matter how much clothing we wore. The general lack of birds was disappointing, and it wasn't until mid morning as we were approaching Hokkaido that auks started to appear in any reasonable number - until then a Dusky Thrush circling the ship looked set to be the highlight of the voyage! We had only single sightings of Laysan Albatross and Streaked Shearwater, although we hit a reasonable number of Crested and Least Auklets. The ferry docked slightly ahead of schedule at 13:15. Unfortunately, as we were quite slow in leaving the ferry, all waiting taxis and the one bus at the terminal had departed. Eventually we lucked into a taxi picking up another passenger, the driver of which radioed another taxi for us. From Tomakomai station we took a train to Chitose, where we changed onto an airport train. We arrived at the Avis desk at the airport, only to find that Avis transported us back to their office near Chitose station! Given the amount of ice on the roads it was reassuring that the Honda Accord we were given was the all-wheel drive version. Next followed the long, six-hour journey to Kushiro, with JFC ably driving over the mountains through quite a bit of snow in sub-zero temperatures. We stopped en route for some fast food (chicken and chips) and basics at one of the many Lawson Stations scattered throughout Japan. The drive was completed somewhere around 23:00 when we pulled into the Tokyo Inn Hotel (11,000 Yen/double) near the railway station in decidedly sub-zero temperatures. Fortunately it was open and had vacancies.
Mon 13th January
Up and out at 06:00. The car had frozen-solid; the temperature having dropped to about minus 12 degrees. The drive to the crane roosting area on Kushiro Marsh took only about 30 minutes, ably assisted by the in-car GPS. Surprisingly, despite the early hour, there were already heaps (c75?) of Japanese photographers crowding along the bridge over the river. Very reminiscent of a major twitch, except they hardly had a pair of binoculars between them! However, only a few of them remained more than an hour or so, and by 07:30 we pretty much had the bridge to ourselves – oddly the photographers appeared to depart with the improving light. Three hours were spent in the bridge area, where in addition to the cranes, we observed Japanese Wagtail in the river (one of the few places we actually did). At around 10:30 we were thoroughly chilled, so piled into the car for soup and coffee, after which we proceeded a short distance to the first piece of decent-looking woodland, in which Pygmy Woodpecker was found readily. During the afternoon we slowly worked our way around the coastal inlets and headlands. At an early stop a stunning adult Steller's Sea Eagle flew right past us along the coast. It was the first of many we were to see on Hokkaido but was one of the most memorable. At a garden feeder on Cape Kiritappu we had a flock of 150+ Asian Rosy Finches – another highlight of the trip. We timed our arrival at Furen-ko for dusk, where we took up position at the bridge for Blakiston's Fish-Owl. Although one was heard shortly after dusk it remained distant, and after an hour or so we gave up, assuming and hoping that we would be able to find a local to show us one at a daytime roost, or feeding station. Finding Matseo-san's lodge, the Furen Nature Inn, proved none to easy as the small sign on the door is in Japanese only. Luckily he spotted us driving forlornly along the road and came out to assist us. At dinner we had our first taste of his excellent homemade saké, over which we did the daily log and then retired to the tatami mats for a good night's kip.
Tues 14th January
Woke up to freezing conditions - zero degrees even inside the bedroom. We started with an early walk out onto the frozen lake just behind the Nature Inn. The icy northerly wind blasting straight across the pack-ice made standing around difficult. Multiple layers of clothing, two hats, long-johns, double trousers and two coats made conditions barely tolerable. Many superbly plumaged adult Glaucous Gulls were feeding on the ice. After an excellent breakfast we set off to Ochiishi Lighthouse, where we spent the first couple of hours scanning the harbour for Spectacled Guillemot, seen the previous week, without luck. Sea ducks were much in evidence with numerous Harlequin, Velvet Scoter and Goldeneye. We also found a single Pacific Diver. Quite some time was spent, without success, trying to differentiate between Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants. The next couple of hours were spent walking around the peninsula, through often knee-deep snow, to the lighthouse where we were able to do some sea-watching in the lee of the buildings. The best bird seen was a couple of Long-billed Murrelet. Following the return trudge to the car, we continued our drive to Nosappu Miski and sea-watched from the headland. The wind here was vicious and the flying snow flurries made viewing difficult, so by 16:00 we gave up and returned to the Hattoushi Bridge to again look for the owl. Again around 17:15 a single call was heard, and then somewhat miraculously around 17:30 one bird flew in along the frozen river and perched on the ice at the forest edge for about 20 seconds before disappearing back the way it had come. It never returned, and this was to be the only sighting of the trip, to our great disappointment. Somewhat reluctantly we returned to the Nature Inn by 18:40.
Wed 15th January
An even colder morning, with overnight temperatures dropping to around minus 17 degrees. We started the day with a short walk around the nearby nature centre, where a cute Hokkaido Squirrel was feeding on the bird feeders along with the usual collection of tits and woodpeckers. At breakfast a female Hawfinch came to the bird feeder directly at the window less than 2 metres away. After fortification we decided to head out across the ice of lake Furen to watch the Steller's Sea-Eagles feeding on the pack-ice. Despite the excellent sunny day, the strong wind and freezing temperatures took some beating – this was the coldest weather most of us had ever experienced. However, seeing over 200+ eagles (both Steller's and White-tailed) more than compensated for the harsh conditions. After an hour or so on the ice every one was frozen-through so we headed back to the car to thaw-out. We then returned to the Ochiishi Peninsula, where we again looked for, and failed to find, Spectacled Guillemot. By now we had discovered that it was unnecessary to walk around the peninsula, and took the short route to the lighthouse along the board-walk through the pine forest, seeing Coal Tit and Goldcrest en route, as well as a large heard of Hokkaido Deer. Sea-watching produced nothing new, so by 16:00 we returned to the Hattoushi bridge one last time to try for the owl. Again no luck.
Thurs 16th January
We set off early at 07:00 in order to check Cape Hadoshi, where according to Matseo-san, we had a chance of finding auks. However we saw little, so continued on to Kiritappu again, this time walking right out to the end of the cape, but again seeing little new. A last look at the Asian Rosy Finches before heading off to Chitose, where we arrived seven hours later and checked into the Hotel Nikko Chitose.
Fri 17th January
We started the day with a short drive to Utonai - well positioned, just off the highway, for a short trip from Chitose. This allowed us an hour to check out the completely frozen lake as well as the feeders around the bird centre. Little of note however, other than a small group of Eurasian Siskin in the birches behind the hostel. After an hour we drove directly to the Avis office, which returned us to the airport in time for our 11:00 flight to Okinawa. It was on this flight that we discovered internal flights in Japan do not serve food, much to our chagrin as we had been relying on them for breakfast. Consequently we were pretty hungry when three hours later we arrived in Okinawa. We experienced a bit of faffing around at the Avis rental where the GPS navigation system on the first car did not work, and the substitute car, although the same group, wouldn't take all our baggage. After a small discussion over there “being no other car” another was produced and we set off. Frustratingly we drove past a number of interesting looking birds on the nearby estuary but there was nowhere immediately obvious to pull in and we were keen to get to the north of the island in daylight. Using the toll highways now cuts the travel time to northern Okinawa down to about two and a half hours, so we arrived at the Fungawa Dam area shortly before dark where we heard neither Ryukyu Owl nor Okinawa Rail. After dark we drove the twenty minutes down hill to the JAL Okuma Resort Hotel, our accommodation for the next two nights. Dinner at the 'western'/Chinese buffet of the hotel.
Sat 18th January
Up early, and the short drive back to Fungawa Dam had us there by 06:00, whereas in fact it was not even remotely daylight until 07:00. However we did hear a single Okinawa Rail close-by, but as the call was not repeated we had no chance to locate it – very frustrating. At first light we walked the side road at the 8.6 km marker. At dawn a woodcock flew over and Ryukyu Robin was found surprisingly easily, as we had several hopping around the track edges in the first couple of hours. We spent the next three hours along this track, but disappointingly found neither Okinawa Woodpecker nor Okinawa Rail. As others have seen the woodpecker around the dam itself we decided to try there next, but discovered construction work in progress, together with several workers and keep-out signs – so we blew that off. We next tried the road off at the 7.5 km marker, parking in the first parking area, and then walking down the road through fairly promising-looking forest. Unfortunately after about 1 km the forest petered out so we returned to the car, where a pair of Okinawa Woodpecker were discovered in the trees right next to the car! They proved surprisingly difficult to view well. After this success we revisited the first track we had tried in the morning as it was quiet and looked fairly promising for the rail. Although we stayed out until well after dark we didn't get a sniff of the rail. Returned to the hotel for another Chinese buffet.
Sun 19th January
A very early start around 05:00, with the almost empty roads allowing us to complete the drive back to Naha by 07:00, where we parked in a side street near the estuary and spent a couple of hours scanning the waders and gulls in the hope of finding Saunder's Gull and Black-faced Spoonbill. We found neither, although we did meet a local birder who gladly informed us that both were around in the area. Back to the airport for the 11:30 flight to Amami island. On arrival at Amami the very friendly and helpful manager of the Caretta House hotel met us. Although the car here had no in-built GPS, the island was relatively small and it was easy to find our way around with the map provided. Initially we had intended to drive to the Virgin Mangrove Forest in the centre south of the island. However, on the recommendation of the manager we tried the close-by Amami Natural Forest. This proved to be an excellent and well-recommended spot. The first birds we saw driving up hill to the forest was a group of 3 Lidth's Jay! At the top we walked the wide trails around the centre finding the very distinctive Amami form of White-backed Woodpecker, as well as Ryukyu Robin and an Asian Stubtail. The weather was surprisingly cold and windy. Returned to the hotel by 18:00 where we seemed to get special attention and had a Korean bar-b-que. This was one of the poorest meals we had in Japan, although it seems the hotel meant well. Despite the cold and windy weather we returned to the Amami Natural Forest and tried for Ryukyu Owl. Not surprisingly we heard nothing. Winter would appear to be a particularly poor time to search for this bird, which is no doubt common in the warmer months.
Mon 20th January
An 05:30 start to drive to the Supa-rindo track. We had some confusion with the directions in Brazil's book, but managed to locate it without getting lost, mainly by following signs to the virgin forest. However the journey took an hour and a half – much more than we had considered initially. Directions in Brazil's book do not include distances – a bit misleading. We spent the whole day here walking and driving most of the tracks that looked to have good forest (as well as some that didn't). We found this a frustrating day with few species seen. Lidth's Jay's were only heard, and the Amami Thrush and Woodcock were non-existent. The drive produced not a single owl sighting, no sign of the endemic Amami Black Rabbit (hibernating?) and only a single fly over of a possible woodcock. All in all a difficult day bird-wise although the forest did indeed look very promising, and would no doubt be excellent at the appropriate time of year. We felt the time of year was definitely not optimal. We returned to the Caretta House by 20:00 but despite a much better, more western style bar-b-que, this day was to be the low point of the trip.
Tues 21st January
At first light we returned to the Amami Native Forest in a last look for possible Amami Thrush. No thrushes, but some excellent views of Lidth's Jay and Ryukyu Robin (feeding fearlessly in the roadside draining channel, and photographed down to a few metres). We left at 09:00 and had a quick stop at the pond at the bottom of the hill where a small number of Brambling was found, as well as a quick look at the sea with Brown Booby of note. We took the 12:00 flight to Kagoshima. It was here in the Toyota Rent-a-Car office that we had our biggest hassle of the trip. Although we had pre-paid the car in Europe they refused to honour our pre-payment, and also insisted that a one-way drop charge to Osaka would be 55,000 Yen. After an hour of difficult explanations and telephone calls to the head office in Tokyo we gave up arguing (or we might well still be there) and paid the rental locally with a view to taking up the issue with Hertz in the UK [note we are still arguing with Hertz at the time of writing in May 2003!]. The drive to Mi-ike took a little over an hour. We initially looked at the grassy edges of the lake, almost immediately finding Yellow-throated Bunting – an excellent-looking bird. Next we explored a few of the trails and roadsides but saw very little. Activity in the forest at this time of year is apparently very poor, a view with which we would concur. At dusk we returned to the hotel where an absolutely splendid full-Monte Japanese meal was served in the room – well worth staying here just for this. The staff was very helpful and allowed us the use of the hotel office PC to send a much needed e-mail to Sarus concerning the car rental. However, using the Japanese version of MS-Explorer took some getting used to.
Wed 22nd January
A reasonably early return to Mi-ike where we started with a thorough scan of the lake. This was rewarded with several Baikal Teal nicely picked out by RJF, including three males. We then took the 3 km walk around the lake, seeing a reasonable collection of birds including good numbers of Japanese Grosbeak. The highlight was unexpectedly finding a Japanese Accentor among the rocky edges. This bird seems to be very rare in southern Japan. We then decided to try various forest trails for Copper Pheasant. This proved to be abortive – the bird seemingly impossible to locate in the very dead forest. Drove to Izumi, the last part in darkness, with one or two not very productive roadside stops. We checked into the Izumi Wing Hotel on a cold and very windy night and tried to find a simple restaurant in the vicinity but gave up, ending-up scoffing junk chicken and chips in a 7-11. After, we walked to locate a beer/food shop to stock up for the next day and in the process discovered a likely-looking fast noodle restaurant that appeared reasonably cheap – earmarked for tomorrow.
Thurs 23rd January
An early start on yet another icy morning. Having first de-iced the car, we drove to the crane sanctuary, where, as it was not yet officially open, we were able to get onto the roof and sheltered from the ever-persistent wind. We spent most of the morning watching and photographing the thousands of cranes, many of which continued to pile-in to the area throughout the morning. A few Common Crane and a single Demoiselle were present among the hoard, but alas no Siberian Crane. A couple of dark phase Daurian Jackdaws were a bit of a disappointment. Next we explored various areas, as mentioned in the other trip reports, for specialities such as Green Pheasant and Penduline Tit. The strong winds definitely did not help with the later. We also tried the rivers for Long-billed Plover successfully and had a nice fly-by Crested Kingfisher. A young Japanese birder gave us directions to a group of Japanese Waxwing a couple of hours drive to the north. As we'd not had a particularly good day we decided that tomorrow we would try farther up the coast for Saunder's Gull, as well as the waxwings. In the late afternoon we met Armas Hill, of Focus on Nature Tours, to whom we gave directions for Black–faced Spoonbill and received a suggestion of where to find Chinese Penduline Tit. After our return to the hotel, we tried yesterday's discovered noodle shop – a good find (500 Yen for a large noodle soup with vegetables). Shopped at Lawson for food and beers.
Fri 24th January
We started the day at 07:00 trying the reed-beds for Chinese Penduline-Tit. Despite the wind, which was at least less than yesterday, we were fortunate to discover a feeding flock in some reed-beds. This species would be very easy to overlook. Feeling suitably victorious we drove to the Yatsushiro estuary for Saunder's Gull. However the tide was completely wrong so we continued on to the waxwing area we had been previously informed of. This proved to a total failure and, having had our hopes raised, was one of the main disappointments of the trip. Although we discovered several berry bushes in the general area they seemed to be infested with bulbuls and after a couple of hours of searching we gave up. We returned to Yatsushiro where the tide was just dropping, and just about perfect for Saunder's Gull. Several were found within a few minutes of arrival. DES also found a Great Black-headed Gull and a potential Heuglin's Gull which gave a great deal of debate, and food for thought. Checked the fields around the estuary, which had impressive flocks of thousands of Brambling. After our return to the hotel we again visited the noodle shop discovered yesterday.
Sat 25th January
Although the primary aim was to drive to Osaka, which we figured would take most of the day, we decided it was worth the detour to Kadogawa to try for the highly restricted Japanese Murrelet. Having left at 06:00 the drive took us four and a half hours. We had great problems interpreting the map and directions in Andersen's report, but eventually found our own way out onto the headland north of town and harbour. To our surprise we immediately found two Murrelets feeding in the bay, and over the next couple of hours discovered a few more feeding well out in the bay. All in all a very worthwhile detour. The drive back to Osaka was pretty awful, especially the first part along the Kyushu coast, and we finally made it back to Osaka by 01:00 on 26th Jan where some members of the group opted to sleep in the car.
Sun 26th January
A hefty parking charge for non-residents had those not staying in the hotel worried – it was more expensive than the cost of a room! Fortunately a residents swipe card released the car and we quickly departed. We had a few problems to find the Toyota Rent-a-Car office, but after turning up at the wrong office we were given directions programmed into the GPS that anyone could follow. It was annoying to have to pay for the airport bus from the car rental office. Late morning plane departures for all members of the group.