Japan –spring in central Honshu


Hokkaido in winter is famous as one of the top birding destinations in the world, and the south is visited for endemics and scarce wintering species. But what about the populated centre of Japan, on the island of Honshu? In fact, there are large areas of wilderness even quite close to Tokyo and the birding is excellent, as I found when I visited this spring on a trip that included travelling and photography, as well as 10 days of birding.

Tuesday 3 May: East of Narita

The Tone River is an enormous expanse of grey water 30 minutes' drive east of Narita. It is flanked by a broad green ribbon of reeds and scrub that is home several to several marshland species. Many warblers were singing as I arrived and the gruff voices of Oriental Reed Warblers could be heard among the swaying stems. Marsh Grassbirds and Zitting Cisticolas were fluttering up in brief song flights and Japanese Bush Warblers, members of the Cettia family, delivered their deceptively powerful syllables from the scattered bushes. A few Japanese Reed Buntings also made brief appearances but were difficult to catch in the blowing reeds.

Marsh Grassbird, Japanese Reed Bunting and Oriental Reed Warbler at the Tone River.

Walking further revealed an Eastern Marsh Harrier over the distant reeds and an Osprey flying fast up the river. Waders included four Common Snipe on a muddy scrape and a Latham's Snipe flushed from a short grass area. Two endemic Japanese Green Pheasants jumped out of the grass at my feet and as I walked back to the car I saw a Japanese Wagtail next to the concrete factory just south of the Kurobe River bridge.

The strength of the wind was calling me to the coast and with just a few hours of daylight left I headed for the lighthouse at Nagasakimachi, the easternmost point of central Honshu, about 45 minutes away. The scene when I arrived was thrilling for a sea-watcher like me. A force 7 SSE breeze was piling breakers against the headland and thousands of Whimbrel, Turnstone and Streaked Shearwaters were streaming north along with a few Black Scoter. Unfortunately, the light was fading fast under the heavy cloud cover and I resolved to return the following morning.

Wednesday 4 May: Inubosaki area

The day started with torrential rain and a southerly gale so I delayed until the sky was mostly clear before walking out along the headland. Almost immediately a small wader flew up and perched on a rock just 10 metres away, seemingly pinned in place by the wind — a Grey-tailed Tattler, my first lifer of the day.

Grey-tailed Tattler at Nagasakimachi headland.

A Red-necked Grebe was sheltering in the bay just to the north while careful scrutiny of a Whimbrel and Turnstone flock sheltering on the north side of the headland a revealed another Grey-tailed Tattler and a Red-necked Stint. Screeching flocks of longipennis Common Terns flew south low overhead.

After a happy hour or so watching the waders repeatedly wheel around and settle back on the rocks as the Peregrine tried its luck several times, I walked north up the coast road and saw my first philippensis Blue Rock Thrush, in the garden of one of the houses looking out to sea. This has a smart red belly and looks like an elongated Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush but, of course, a blue uppertail.

Inubosaki lighthouse sits on the next headland up the coast and just to the north of it lies Kimigahamashiosai Park, a long strip of dry grassland adjoining the beach fringed by pines. It seemed the perfect location for migrants and migrants there were, but not the passerines I was hoping for. A flock of Lesser Sand Plovers took flight almost immediately, no doubt brought down by the earlier heavy rain. A Kentish Plover was presumably a local bird. Patience brought fantastic views of both the Lesser Sand Plover flock and a Pacific Golden Plover — magic!

Lesser Sand Plovers at Kimigahamashiosai Park.

I returned to the Nagasakimachi headland for the evening. Even though I was sheltering behind the lighthouse, the buffeting from the gale made seawatching very difficult, so I fired off some shots of any interesting bird going past in the hope that I would get a few keepers. In this way I captured an all-dark Pacific Reef Egret and a distant Pacific Diver flying past in the company of a Streaked Shearwater. I also saw single Temminck's and Pelagic Cormorants and an all-dark shearwater which with hindsight must have been a Short-tailed Shearwater.

Friday 6 — Saturday 7 May: Karuizawa

After a day of travel on the Thursday, a relatively slow start saw me entering Karuizawa's famous Wild Bird Sanctuary at 07:00, by which time chattering parties of schoolchildren with binoculars around their necks were already leaving. Clearly I was going to have to sharpen up my act! Even so, the woods were still ringing with the song of Japanese Bush Warblers, Narcissus Flycatchers and Japanese Thrushes. The Winter Wrens, sounding very like their British cousins but with dark underparts, and Eastern Crowned Warblers stayed near the courses of the streams. Siberian Blue Robin, Japanese White-eye and several Japanese Grosbeaks also gave brief but very good views. After lunch I walked up the Kose Forest Road and found several Blue-and-white Flycatchers singing over the sound of the rushing water. A couple of Ashy Minivets chased noisily around the treetops.

Blue-and-white Flycatcher and Siberian Blue Robin at Karuizawa.

The following morning I was determined not to fall into the same trap as the previous day and arrived at the Wild Bird Sanctuary at 05:15, parking on the Kose Forest Road, much closer to the action. As I started up the path alongside the stream, a dumpy black bird whirred past me — Brown Dipper! A similar range of species was seen to yesterday but this time a lovely male Blue-and-white Flycatcher was also near the stream while a Japanese Green Woodpecker flew across the road as I approached its terminus with the Shiraito Highland Way. Unfortunately, I had run out of time and reluctantly headed back down into Karuizawa to catch the Shinkansen back towards Tokyo and onwards to Mount Fuji.

Narcissus Flycatcher
Narcissus Flycatcher along the Kose Forest Road at Karuizawa.

Sunday 8 May: Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji was about an hour's drive from my guesthouse and by 09:00 I was at the Fifth Station in perfect conditions. I walked east from the hubbub of the visitor centre and it became obvious very quickly that Red-flanked Bluetails were singing everywhere. As I scanned a recent lava flow a Spotted Nutcracker flew across and disappeared.

Mount Fuji in perfect weather — the grassland in the foreground was good for buntings.

Though a landslide had covered the path up to the Sixth Station and nearly buried the tunnel built to protect hikers, it was possible to pick a way through. The path was again blocked further on, this time by deep snow; with no mountain boots or poles I decided against climbing further and settled down to scan the mountainside. Far above the snow line a party of about 25 Pacific Swifts was wheeling about. Even up here a Japanese Bush Warbler was singing and on the way down an Olive-backed Pipit flew up from the side of the path by the Sixth Station.

I had a very welcome ramen lunch at the visitor centre and drove about two kilometres back down the access road to a nature trail on the right of the road. The landscape here consists of moss-covered volcanic rocks and stunted pines which have grown slowly, undisturbed by recent lava flows and ash falls. Revisiting what appeared to be a large area of publicly accessible defence land at the foot of Mount Fuji, where I had taken a photo of the mountain that morning. I parked the car and explored the woods and grassland on foot as the day drew to a close. There were many buntings present — a few Meadow Buntings, a singing male Black-faced Bunting and several Chestnut-eared Buntings. The latter were difficult to photograph, calling invisibly from the grass, sitting tight until I was almost on top of them and then flying off some distance. Another male Japanese Green Pheasant also appeared briefly and several parties of Siberian Stonechats flitted among the stems.

Male Meadow Bunting.

Monday 9 — Wednesday 11 May: Sado-ga-Shima

I visited Sado because I had tried to book a couple of days on Hegurajima (Japan's answer to Fair Isle) in the Sea of Japan off the west coast of Honshu, but had failed to break through the language barrier when booking. In any case I suspect that the accommodation on Hegurajima, an island even smaller than Fair Isle, is booked up by birders well ahead in early May. Sado was my attempt to find some migrants, though in that respect I largely failed. I still saw some good birds, including a White-billed Diver at point-blank range on the outward journey, an Ancient Murrelet at Sawasaki Lighthouse and a late drake Falcated Duck on the way back. Good numbers of migrant waders such as Red-necked Stint and Grey-tailed Tattler were observed at Mano Bay, where there was also a Crested Ibis — this one of the tiny population of birds re-introduced to Sado as part of the efforts to save it from extinction.

Thursday 12 May: Miyake-jima

The tannoy crackled into life at 04:30 rousing everyone, myself included, from an uncomfortable few hours' sleep on the ferry from Tokyo. By 05:00 the air was already warm and the sun was shining brightly as we filed down the gangplank on to the quayside and looked up at jungle-clad slopes surrounding the summit of a volcano. This was the island of Miyake-jima, in the Izu Archipelago, some 500 km south of Sado.

Miyake-jima from the Tokyo ferry.

Noda, owner of the Snapper Inn, met me and we drove the 15 minutes to his guesthouse in the north-east corner of the island. I dropped my luggage and was handed the keys to one of his minibuses. Then I drove back to Tairo-Ike Lake near the island's southern tip, one of the birding hotspots.

The sheer intensity of the birdsong as I entered the forest was stunning. After a while I pieced together the jigsaw of sound, based on fleeting sightings: the machine-gun trills, squeaks and grunts of Japanese Robins; the high-pitched electric hissing of Ijima's Leaf Warblers, like crickets on steroids; the explosive metallic song of the Izu Thrushes. The wrens sounded puny by comparison!

There were also many Japanese White-eyes, Owston's Tits and Japanese Wood Pigeons. The latter were very hard to see at close range but were calling frequently and at intervals flew across the tops of the trees. An Oriental Cuckoo was making its rhythmic, repetitive 'boo-boo, boo-boo' call.

As I descended to the lake two Great White and an Intermediate Egret were flying around. A female Black-faced Bunting skulking near the northern landing stage was a surprise, as was a fly-through Wood Sandpiper which tried to land but decided against it, regained height and disappeared over the southern rim of the crater.

I continued my clockwise circumnavigation of the island and stopped at Izu Cape, on the north-western corner, looking for Pleske's Warblers. There is a large area of short bamboo grass here and many males were singing, starting their song with a few stuttering notes before flying up briefly. I also saw more Japanese Wood Pigeons and Izu Thrushes flying back and forth over the woods. A seawatch failed to reveal any murrelets but I did see three enormous turtles swimming slowly past.

Izu Thrush, on the left, and an Owston's Tit, from the same colour palette.

My final stop was to explore the 'pass' (or circular road) around Mount Oyama, the peak of the giant volcano that forms Miyake-jima. The danger from volcanic gases up to the level of the pass has now gone but access higher is still barred. Best bird was a White-throated Needletail, bird of the trip for me, circling high above the road with half-a-dozen Pacific Swifts. There were also many of the other songbirds I had seen and another Oriental Cuckoo singing. Back at the Snapper Inn I tucked in to a hearty supper to sleep to the strange sound of a Common Cuckoo singing in the darkened forest outside the window.

Distant, heavily cropped shots of a singing Pleske's Warbler and a Japanese Woodpigeon.

Friday 13 May: Miyake-jima and ferry to Tokyo

I was back at the Tairo-Ike Lake visitor centre car park at 06:00 and slowly retraced my steps down the track to the lake and back. In addition to the birds I had seen the previous day I flushed a Lesser Cuckoo twice along the track and put up two Chinese Bamboo Partridge from next to it — the benefits of being the first birder of the day! A couple of Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers showed the darker underparts and brown cap of the local subspecies matsudaira. Two Black-crowned Night Herons were flying around the lake and an Osprey appeared several times. I finished the morning with a photography stake-out at the visitor centre though the deep shade or dappled sunlight was challenging to say the least — definitely high-ISO territory.

Ijima's Leaf Warbler

Japanese Robin
Ijima's Leaf Warbler and Japanese Robin at ISO 5,600 by the visitor centre at Tairo-Ike Lake.

I had been looking forward to the return voyage to Tokyo for the whole trip. The weather was perfect — sunshine and light winds. The number of Streaked and Short-tailed Shearwaters was incredible, especially in the inner recesses of Tokyo Bay where the Streaked Shearwaters seemed to be nesting on some uninhabited islands. The best bird, however, was just out of Miyake-jima — a Japanese Murrelet seen briefly in flight close to the boat, unfortunately too brief to photograph.

The trip ended in Tokyo Bay, with the sun setting behind the greatest city on earth.

Written by: Rod Standing