Besides Brazil's book, I posted to Birdchat for suggestions, and received responses from Urs Geiser, Gary George, Kanae Hirabayashi, and Fer-Jan de Vries. I also checked trip reports that Urs Geiser maintains at his web site.
Bilingual maps and a compass are priceless commodities.
This was my second trip to Japan. My first was also a winter trip (January, 1997) with a similar itinerary. On the first trip I had seen 44 species including 33 lifers, mainly at the temples of Kyoto, and Meiji Shrine and Ueno Park in Tokyo.
The purpose of my trip was to attend meetings related to seismology, especially the prediction of ground motions. December 2-3 were rainy. I attended a meeting in Kawasaki (a suburb of Tokyo) and had no opportunity for birdwatching. On December 4, I took the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, and attended meetings in the afternoon, so again no birding other than what can be done at 200 miles an hour from the train window.
Saturday, December 5, aware of my hobby, my hosts arranged a trip for me to 'go birdwatching'. With another scientist (Jacobo Bielak), I took a train to Kobe where we met Yasu Kakehi and his wife Chisako. It was raining, so first we went to the new earthquake museum on Awaji Island. We stopped at the overlook of the new bridge to Awaji Island (sightseeing), where one of the sights was dozens of Black Kites. During the brief drive along the narrow road by the seashore on the way to the museum, I didn't see anything that made me want to stop (if that were possible). The shore was almost entirely covered with riprap to protect the highway, and I didn't notice a single bird on the water. The earthquake museum preserves a part of the fault that ruptured in January 1995, and is a fascinating place also to observe the crowds that come to visit. We had an excellent lunch. Besides dozens of more Black Kites, I saw Rock Doves, Tree Sparrows, Black-Headed Gull, and Carrion Crow.
Next we crossed back over the Awaji bridge, and went to Mt. Rokko, where there are some trails and overlooks of Kobe. In the fading light of the afternoon, we walked among some beautiful Japanese maple trees at the peak of their color, and I added Little Grebe, Siberian Meadow Bunting, Brown-eared Bulbul, and a possibe Bullfinch to the day's list.
Sunday, December 6, was the first dry day since I arrived. I was free to go on my own, but not with an early start. My hotel was part way between Nara and Kyoto. With the available time, I was aware of three possible choices: Nara, sites in Kyoto, and train stops along the shore of Lake Biwa (renting a car seemed impractical). I elected to try Nara, which offered a combination of extensive parks including ponds and important temples that I hadn't already visited. Also not knowing if a walk from the train station at Makino or other towns along Lake Biwa would be productive, this seemed to offer less risk of unproductive travel. The Todaiji Temple in Nara is an unforgettable sight.
From the birding viewpoint another choice might have been better. The extensive park around the Todaiji Temple is in mixed woodlands (deciduous and evergreen), with two moderate-sized ponds. I think the park could give very good birding on a weekday. This Sunday, it had large crowds, perhaps swollen above usual numbers by the lovely maple trees and the finish line of a 10 km marathon. An announcer with a more-than-ample loudspeaker encouraged the runners as they approached the finish line, and just as it sounded like most of the runners had finished, a concert began. A good dirt road starting at the eastern side of the park goes south past several shops and restaurants (lunch), and then turns east and climbs through mixed woods to the top of Mt. Wakakusa (about 3 km, and I estimated about 1000 foot gain in elevation). After getting far enough along, the excitement of the park was sufficiently muted. The view from the top is spectacular.
From the train, I spotted Common Pheasant, Gray Heron, and Great Egret. In the park approaching the temple, I found Little Grebe, Gray Heron, Little Egret, Pygmy Woodpecker, Rock and Oriental Turtle Dove, Black-backed, Japanese, and Gray Wagtail, Great and Long-tailed Tit, Dusky Thrush, Gray Starling, Brown-eared Bulbul, Tree Sparrow, and Large-billed Crow. On the trail I added only Varied Tit and Gray Bunting, but perhaps on a quieter day I could have tracked down a few more calls.
Meetings continued all day Monday and Tuesday (Dec 7-8), but birding would have been dampened by rain in any case. Through the window at my meeting room in Uji I added Oriental Greenfinch. Wednesday, I moved back to Tokyo, to a hotel near Ueno Park. I spotted a swan from the window as we sped through Ashigara Valley - it might have been Whooper or Whistling Swan.
Thursday, I had a free hour in the morning to walk to the lake in Ueno Park (site 2 in Brazil's book). The weather was dry but chilly -- I estimate just above freezing. There are large flocks of ducks in the ponds -- many waiting for a hand-out. There I added Tufted Duck, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Mallard, Spot-billed Duck, Common Pochard, and Eurasian Wigeon, and an unexpected female Smew, to the trip list.
Friday, Dec 11, I unexpectedly had the morning and half the afternoon free before heading for the airport. The weather was partly cloudy and warmer than previous days -- a sweater would have almost been warm enough. I went to Tokyo Port Wild Bird Park, which is an expanded version of Oi Yacho Koen and Shioiri-no-ike (site 3 in Brazil's book). The Hamamatsucho Station, where you change to the monorail, is the third stop south of Tokyo Station (in case the train is too crowded to bend over and see the station name). The Ryutsu Center stop is the third monorail stop (no longer the second, as stated in Brazil's book) on the way to Hameda Airport. The walk east from Ryutsu Center is about a mile, over a bridge, across one highway, past an open field (apparently not part of the park but with adjacent bird quiz signs to build your anticipation), under a freeway, and then alongside the park fence to the entrance. The park has an admission fee (400 Yen). The main visitor center overlooks a pond with brackish water and tidal flats. There were three helpful rangers there (some ability in English) and about 20 free spotting scopes. Elsewhere in the park there are freshwater ponds. Excellent blinds in several locations offer additional scopes or mounts if you brought your own scope. This was the best birding stop of the entire trip (33 species), so I left for the airport on a high note.
Birds sighted at Tokyo Port Wild Bird Park included all the ducks (except Smew) from Ueno Park plus Gadwall and Greater Scaup, Eurasian Coot, Common Moorhen, Common Greenshank (which the ranger said is not normal at this time of year), Common Snipe, Bull-headed Shrike, Daurian Redstart, and Reed Bunting.
There are plenty of birds to see in the Japanese parks surrounded by heavily populated areas. As I left the Tokyo Port Wild Bird Park, I felt the birding that I had been able to do was very rewarding. Although I missed a few birds mentioned in other reports, I also think that it is likely that for winter visits, I reached a point of diminishing returns for the types of habitats that I visited. Of all the suggestions that I received, a visit to Arasaki (site 51 in Brazil's book) sounded the most exciting for this time of year. To make that excursion worthwhile, I think one needs two full days, plus the better part of another day to return to Tokyo or Osaka for the return flight -- a block of time that I could not squeeze into this trip. The trip total was 47 species (12 were firsts for me). The complete list follows.
K = Kobe & Mt. Rokko
A = Awaji Island
N = Nara
U = Uji
E = Ueno Park
T = Tokyo Wild Bird Park
Little Grebe K N ET Great Cormorant ET Eurasian Wigeon ET Gadwall T Mallard ET Spot-billed Duck ET Northern Pintail ET Northern Shoveler ET Common Pochard ET Tufted Duck ET Greater Scaup T Smew E Little Egret N T Gray Heron N T Great Egret N T Black Kite A U Ring-necked Pheasant N Common Moorhen T Eurasian Coot T Common Snipe T Common Greenshank T Common Sandpiper T Black-headed Gull KAN ET Rock Dove KANUET Oriental Turtle-Dove NUET Pygmy Woodpecker N Carrion Crow AN Large-billed Crow NET Bull-headed Shrike T Dusky Thrush N T White-cheeked Starling N T Daurian Redstart T Long-tailed Tit N Brown-eared Bulbul K N T Japanese White-eye N T Japanese Bush-Warbler E Great Tit N ET Varied Tit N Eurasian Tree Sparrow K NUET Black-backed Wagtail N T Japanese Wagtail N E Gray Wagtail N Oriental Greenfinch U Eurasian Bullfinch N Meadow Bunting K Gray Bunting N Reed Bunting T
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