ULTIMATE JAPAN BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Note: Flight schedules in the Ryukyu Islands tend to change. This itinerary represents a possible sequence, but changes to the order in which the islands are visited are quite frequent.
Ultimate Japan: Day 1 The main section of our tour begins this morning at Narita near Tokyo, where we will stay overnight. In spite of its proximity to the city, much of the region to the north of Tokyo retains a rural, market-garden atmosphere thanks to an abundance of level land, good soil and a mild climate. The lakes and marshes of the area are of particular interest to birdwatchers and we shall spend this morning at two wetlands with extensive reed beds. The main species we hope to find is the very uncommon and localized Japanese Marsh Warbler, here at one of its few known breeding grounds. At this time of year, they are usually relatively easy to see as they song flight from the tops of the reeds. Also present will be Japanese Reed Buntings in their neat black-headed breeding plumage, while other species we should encounter include Little Grebe, Great Cormorant, Yellow Bittern, Great Egret, Grey Heron, Black-eared Kite (split from Black), Eurasian Coot, Common Snipe, Oriental Turtle Dove, Japanese Skylark (split from Eurasian), Barn Swallow, the near-endemic Brown-eared Bulbul, Oriental Reed and Black-browed Reed Warblers, the smart Bull-headed Shrike, White-cheeked Starling, Grey-capped (or Oriental) Greenfinch and Eurasian Tree Sparrow. With a bit of luck we will also see Great Bittern and Grey-faced Buzzard.
There are international flights into Tokyo arriving early this morning, in time for the tour start, or we can book you into an hotel near the airport if you are arriving the previous day.
Ultimate Japan: Day 2 After some more birding near Narita if need be, we will drive westwards, crossing Tokyo, and then continue on into the mountains to Karuizawa for a two nights stay. Later today we will begin our exploration of this superb locality by visiting an area of abandoned paddyfields and farmland. Here our prime target will be Latham’s Snipe and we should be able to watch them engaging in their incredible aerial display flights. Other species here will likely include the very distinctive and colourful endemic Green Pheasant (split from Common), Siberian Stonechat, Asian Azure-winged Magpie, Oriental Crow (split from Carrion), Large-billed Crow, the colourful Chestnut-cheeked Starling and Chestnut-eared Bunting.
Ultimate Japan: Day 3 Karuizawa is situated in the mountains of central Honshu to the west of the capital and this attractive region of rugged peaks and forested valleys is excellent for birding. At this season summer visitors will have swelled the ranks of the resident birds. We will spend much of our time in the forest where our main quest will be the rare and elusive Japanese Yellow Bunting. Whilst looking for the bunting we should encounter many other species including Japanese Buzzard (split from Common), Common and Lesser Cuckoos, Pacific (or Fork-tailed) Swift, the endemic Japanese Green Woodpecker, the diminutive, restricted-range Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Asian House Martin, Grey and Japanese Wagtails (the latter is a breeding endemic, though it occurs in the Korean peninsula in the non-breeding season), Ashy Minivet, Eurasian Wren, Brown Dipper, the attractive Siberian Blue Robin, Japanese and Brown-headed Thrushes, the shy Asian Stubtail (not an easy bird to find here), Asian Brown Flycatcher, gorgeous Narcissus and Blue-and-white Flycatchers, Long-tailed, Willow, Japanese (split from Great) and Coal Tits, the beautiful Japanese Varied Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Japanese White-eye, Eurasian Jay, the amazing Japanese Grosbeak and Meadow Bunting. With luck, we will encounter one or two of the more elusive species, such as the secretive Copper Pheasant or Ural Owl. We will also make an excursion to a nearby river where we will be hoping to find Mandarin Duck, Long-billed Plover and perhaps Crested Kingfisher, as well as more widespread species such as Common Sandpiper and Common Kingfisher.
Ultimate Japan: Day 4 After some final birding in the Karuizawa region we will drive south to Gotemba for an overnight stay. In the late afternoon we will have our first opportunity to explore the bird-rich forests on the northern flanks of Mount Fuji.
Ultimate Japan: Day 5 Gotemba lies beneath imposing Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest volcano (3776m) and one of the world’s most famous and spectacular mountains. Its perfect snow-capped cone is a fantastic backdrop on a clear day, and even at this time of year, there are occasionally fresh falls of snow on the peak! We shall explore the northern and eastern slopes of Mount Fuji itself as far as the treeline scrub, as well as the extensive areas of coniferous and deciduous forest that all help make this one of Japan’s most scenically outstanding regions. Prime target here will be the rather Dunnock-like Japanese Accentor, but we should also find a number of other new species such as White-bellied Green Pigeon, Oriental Cuckoo, the superb Northern Hawk-Cuckoo (split from Hodgson’s), Black-backed Wagtail, Olive-backed Pipit, Red-flanked Bluetail, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Japanese Leaf Warbler (split from Arctic Warbler), Goldcrest, the elusive Grey-bellied Bullfinch (formerly lumped in Eurasian) and Black-faced Bunting (of the yellow-bellied subspecies personata). If we are fortunate we will come across the fantastic Siberian Thrush. Later we will travel back to Tokyo and catch an overnight ferry bound for Miyake-jima, one of the Seven Islands of Izu that lie to the south of Tokyo.
Ultimate Japan: Day 6 As we approach Miyake-jima we will see our first Black-tailed Gulls. Miyake-jima suffered from some serious volcanic eruptions in 2000 and as a result was closed to visitors for several years. Much of the forest on the island was destroyed, but fortunately some protected areas survived and here it is easy to find the Izu specialities. During our visit we will explore the rocky coastline, grassy headlands and remaining forests. There is a wide variety of birdlife, including a number of specialities. The endemic Izu Islands Thrush is common, as is Ijima’s Leaf Warbler. This latter species is restricted to the Izu islands as a breeding species and has hardly ever been recorded in the winter months, although it is suspected that it winters in the northern Philippines. Miyake-jima is also a reliable location for the localized Styan’s (or Pleske’s) Grasshopper Warbler, a small-island specialist that favours dense herbage close to the coastline. Other species we hope to find include Black-crowned Night Heron, the extremely localized Japanese Woodpigeon, Japanese Bush Warbler (known as ‘the Japanese nightingale’ due to its rich song) and the highly distinctive endemic Izu Tit (split from Varied, from which it differs by its large size and chestnut cheeks). We will also have another chance to find Japanese Robin, here of an endemic race. The ‘weep and sweep’ of the Chinese Bamboo Partridge is a familiar sound on the island and we should encounter these introduced gamebirds along the road verges.
Ultimate Japan: Day 7 After some final birding on Miyake-jima we will take the ferry back to Tokyo for an overnight stay. At times during the voyage we will be surrounded by seabirds, including many thousands of Streaked Shearwaters, and we will search diligently for other species which may well include the large Tristram’s Storm-Petrel, Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters and, if we are lucky, the elusive and little-known Japanese Murrelet. On the run up to Tokyo Bay, we may well see several other species, such as Red-necked Phalarope and Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses.
Ultimate Japan: Day 8 Today we will take a flight to Amami-Oshima (in the middle of the Ryukyu chain). We will be staying in the principal town, Naze, for two nights. We should arrive in time for some initial exploration. Tonight will be our first opportunity to search for the endemic Amami Woodcock. After dinner we will drive along some of the many forestry roads. With a bit of luck we should find the woodcock and we may also see the rare and declining Amami Black Rabbit, a relict forest rabbit found only on this one island.
Ultimate Japan: Day 9 Amami-Oshima is the greenest and most rural of the Ryukyus and possesses very attractive coastal scenery with rocky headlands alternating with small sandy bays. Along the shoreline and rivers, we may see Common Kingfisher and Striated (or Little) Heron, though we shall devote most of our time to searching the lush subtropical evergreen forests where the bird we will be most keen to find is the cobalt blue and cocoa-coloured endemic Lidth’s Jay. We will also be looking out for the distinctive, very dark, Amami Woodpecker (often lumped in White-backed), the endemic Amami Robin with its black flank streaks (often lumped with Okinawa Robin under the name Ryukyu Robin) and the endemic Ryukyu Flycatcher (which is resident and differs from Narcissus Flycatcher further north both in plumage and song, so is surely a good split?!). If we are fortunate we will also see the secretive endemic Amami Thrush, which until recently was lumped in the closely related Scaly Thrush. As the population of this secretive bird numbers only 100 or so individuals, finding one is none too easy (although we have often succeeded).
Ultimate Japan: Day 10 After a final morning on Amami-Oshima we will take a flight to Naha on Okinawa where we connect with a flight to Ishigaki-jima, one of the most southerly of the Ryukyu Islands that stretch from the main islands of Japan to Taiwan, for an overnight stay. Later we will begin our exploration of this fascinating subtropical island.
Ultimate Japan: Day 11 As well as holding an endemic species and other very restricted Ryukyu endemic, this fascinating island is also home to some interesting endemic subspecies, as well as a few species which are difficult to find elsewhere. Being situated so close to Taiwan, there are even some species that just creep into Japan at this point.
Of prime interest to us will be the Ryukyu Serpent Eagle, which is endemic to the southern Ryukyus and which was formerly treated as a race of Crested Serpent Eagle, and the endemic Ishigaki Tit (probably a good split from Japanese, this form is very dark and shows reduced white on the cheeks). We will also have a fair chance of tracking down one of Asia’s more secretive and difficult species, the stunning Malayan Night Heron.
Whilst exploring Ishigaki-jima we should also encounter a number of other species including Cinnamon Bittern, Eastern Cattle Egret (split from Western), Pacific Reef, Little, and Intermediate Egrets, and possibly even the globally-threatened Chinese Egret, Purple Heron, Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Common Moorhen, White-breasted Waterhen, Kentish, Greater Sand and Mongolian Plovers, Red-necked Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Grey-tailed Tattler, Terek Sandpiper, Eurasian Whimbrel, Greater Crested and Little Terns, Emerald Dove, the stunning Ruddy Kingfisher (the subspecies here has a beautiful lilac hue to the upperparts), Pacific Swallow, Chinese (or Light-vented) Bulbul, the endemic Ryukyu Minivet (split from Ashy), Blue Rock Thrush (here of the red-bellied form philippensis), Zitting Cisticola and Large-billed Crow (here of the tiny subspecies oatesi and another candidate for a split). We may also see one or two of the scarcer species that are to be found on the island, such as Watercock, Slaty-legged Crake or Oriental Pratincole.
The mellow hoots of the endemic Ryukyu Scops Owl are amongst the commonest night sounds here – the others being the sounds of frogs, several of which are endemic to the island – and we should see this lovely species as well as the more menacing-looking Northern Boobook (split from Brown).
After completing our birding on Ishigaki-jima we will take the inter-island ferry across to Iriomote-jima for an overnight stay. The main species of interest here is the recently-split, near-endemic Iriomote Tit. This evening we can take a look for Iriomote Cat (now treated as a subspecies of the Asian Leopard Cat), although our chances of seeing one are fairly slim.
Ultimate Japan: Day 12 After some final birding on Iriomote-jima we will take an early afternoon flight to Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyus. From the airport we will drive almost the whole length of the island to the Yamburu region for a two nights stay. Here, we will begin searching for one of Japan’s most spectacular endemics, the Okinawa Rail. This species was only described for the first time relatively recently. Although it is still quite common in its ever-shrinking range it can be hard to see and may require some persistent searching. At dusk, we may see more Ryukyu Scops Owls and, with luck, we will even see the little known Japanese Scops Owl, here of the form pryeri.
Ultimate Japan: Day 13 Okinawa is still a verdant subtropical island, but sadly much of the original forest has been cut and nowadays the remaining patches are mainly along the ridges. As well as the Okinawa Rail, the forests hold the endemic Pryer’s (or Okinawa) Woodpecker, one of the rarest woodpeckers in the world. The latter is almost as elusive as the rail, but their distinctive calls should help us locate them. Whilst out on the forest tracks we should also encounter the endemic Ryukyu Green Pigeon (split from Whistling), the spectacular Japanese Paradise Flycatcher and the most attractive and voluble songster of the region, the endemic Okinawa Robin. We will also have another chance to find species such as Ryukyu Minivet and Ruddy Kingfisher. At the various dams we will look for the colourful though secretive Mandarin Duck and we may well see House Swifts overhead. Along the coastline, the rocky islets and harbours hold elegant Black-naped and Roseate Terns, both of which are likely to give good views.
Ultimate Japan: Day 14 After some final birding on Okinawa we will take a late afternoon flight to Tokyo, where the main section of our tour ends.
Ultimate Japan (Hokkaido): Day 1 We will overnight in Tokyo.
Ultimate Japan (Hokkaido): Day 2 This morning we will take an early flight to Asahikawa, situated in the heart of the northernmost island of Hokkaido, from where we will head east to Lake Oketo for an overnight stay. Lying to the north of Blakiston’s Line, the avifauna is somewhat different here, having a more Siberian influence, and spring will only recently have arrived.
The lush forests in this part of Hokkaido share many species with the forests of central Honshu and so we will reacquaint ourselves with many of our old friends such as White-bellied Green Pigeon, Japanese Robin (although the form here is brighter and has a blackish breastband) and Narcissus Flycatcher.
There are, however, a number of species that do not occur or are much harder to see further south, and so we will be focusing our attention on these. In particular, we will be wanting to find Sakhalin Leaf-Warbler and the furtive Grey Bunting.
Other birds of interest include the elusive Hazel Grouse, White-throated Needletail, the imposing Black Woodpecker, White-backed and Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Marsh Tit, Hawfinch and Eurasian Siskin. We also have another chance for Siberian Thrush.
At dusk the characteristic grunts and ‘kisick’ calls should lead us to roding Eurasian Woodcocks overhead and we will also try to find Oriental Scops Owl and the declining Grey Nightjar. We will also have another chance to look for Ural Owl.
Ultimate Japan (Hokkaido): Day 3 After spending much of the day in the Lake Oketo area, we will head northwestwards to Rausu for an overnight stay.
Rausu, situated at the base of the Shiretoku peninsula, is dramatically scenic, with high mountains rising just behind the town. We will arrive in good time, for we have an exciting evening ahead of us! This area of eastern Hokkaido is home to a small population of the almost mythical Blakiston’s Fish Owl and we have a very high chance of seeing this magnificent bird during our stay in the area.
Only about 60 pairs are believed to survive in Hokkaido, but here at Rausu the local people are very fond of ‘their’ owls and every evening, as dusk approaches, the owners of our minshuku put out a few small fish for them at a floodlit pond! It usually does not take too long before this huge owl puts in an appearance, gliding down to the edge of the pond, hopping into the water and grabbing its first snack of the evening! A pair of Blakiston’s Fish Owls regularly comes to the pond, and both birds may make several visits during the course of the night. Watching these splendid birds from only a few metres is indeed a rare privilege and surely ranks amongst the world’s most extraordinary birding experiences!
Ultimate Japan (Hokkaido): Day 4 Today we will we will travel eastwards to Kiritappu for an overnight stay. Along the coastline of northeastern Hokkaido, and around the vast Lake Furen, we shall turn our attention to wetland habitats. Here we will encounter our first magnificent Red-crowned (or Japanese) Cranes. The latter is widely dispersed across eastern Hokkaido during the breeding season, as the cranes seek undisturbed marshes in which to breed. Latham’s (or Japanese) Snipe are common and can frequently be seen displaying overhead and Black-browed Reed Warblers and Common Reed Buntings sing from the marshes. Occasional White-tailed Eagles put in an appearance, whilst other highly sought species in this area include the stunning Siberian Rubythroat, Russet Sparrow and the gorgeous Long-tailed Rosefinch.
In particular, a trio of skulking Locustella warblers will keep us busy here. The tiny and streaked Lanceolated Warbler and the larger Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler can usually be watched relatively easily once we have tracked them down by their repetitive songs. The larger Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler is, however, rather more secretive. Fortunately they are both noisy and fairly common, and this early in the season the lush vegetation in which they can hide is not too plentiful, and so, with a little persistence, we should be rewarded with some views of this, the largest member of the genus!
Whilst searching the marshes and adjacent coast, we will come across a number of other species which may include Red-necked Grebe and Sand Martin, and we are likely to find a few species of wildfowl, including some lingering winter visitors, which may include Red-throated and Pacific Divers (or Red-throated and Pacific Loons), Falcated Duck, Greater Scaup, Goosander (or Common Merganser), Stejneger’s and Black Scoters (split from Velvet and Common respectively), and the superb Harlequin Duck.
Cape Kiritappu was long famous as a breeding location for Tufted Puffins, but sadly this species is now on the verge of extinction here. Whilst looking out for the last of these impressive puffins, we will see a number of other species including Japanese (or Temminck’s) and Pelagic Cormorants, Slaty-backed Gull, a lingering Glaucous Gull or two (either here or elsewhere) Black-legged Kittiwakes, Spectacled Guillemot and hopefully Rhinoceros Auklet. Lingering Glaucous Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes are also possible here or elsewhere along the coastline of eastern Hokkaido.
(If we are really ‘well ahead’ with the major eastern Hokkaido specialities, we could take an optional boat trip in the area, which would yield high chances for Tufted Puffin and Rhinoceros Auklet, and perhaps turn up a rarer alcid or some other unexpected bonus.)
Ultimate Japan (Hokkaido): Day 5 After spending much of the day birding in eastern Hokkaido, we will head for Kushiro. airport, From there, we will take an evening flight back to Tokyo Haneda, where our tour ends.
There are international flights out of Haneda departing later this evening or after midnight, or we can book you into an hotel near the airport if you are departing the following day.
BONIN ISLANDS EXTENSION
Ultimate Japan (Bonins): Day 1 In the late morning we set sail from Tokyo and leave ‘mainland’ Japan behind. Once we are out in Tokyo Bay we can start looking for seabirds. We are sure to see many thousands of Streaked Shearwaters, and we will look out for other species, which are likely to include Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, the large Tristram’s Storm Petrel, Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters and, if we are lucky, the elusive and little-known Japanese Murrelet. We also have a fair chance of seeing the rare Short-tailed Albatross.
There are international flights into Tokyo arriving early this morning, in time for the extension start, or we can book you into an hotel near the airport if you are arriving the previous day.
Ultimate Japan (Bonins): Day 2 This morning we are approaching the Bonins, and this is where the really special birds will start to appear. Prime amongst these are Bonin Petrel, Bannerman’s and Bryan’s Shearwaters, and Matsudaira’s Storm Petrel. There is also a fair chance for White-necked Petrel and we should encounter Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Brown Noddy and Sooty Tern.
We are scheduled to arrive at the main island of Chichijima in the late morning and here we will transfer to another ferry for the sail across to Hahajima, where we will spend three nights. The crossing will give us another chance for seabirds.
Ultimate Japan (Bonins): Days 3-4 There is no choice but to have two full days on Hahajima, as that is how the ferry schedule works, but the island is an attractive place and of course home to the endemic Bonin Islands White-eye (formerly treated as Bonin Islands Honeyeater), as well as the distinctive Bonin forms of the Japanese Wood Pigeon and Japanese Bush Warbler, both of which may well represent distinct Bonin endemic species.
Ultimate Japan (Bonins): Day 5 Today we take the inter-island ferry back to Chichijima where we transfer to the overnight ferry bound for Tokyo. The latter leaves in mid-afternoon, so we will have yet more chances for Bonin speciality seabirds today.
Ultimate Japan (Bonins): Day 6 Today we return to Tokyo (arriving in mid-afternoon after a final pelagic seabirding session). We will overnight at Narita.
Ultimate Japan (Bonins): Day 7 This morning we join up with those arriving for the main tour.