The first thing to say about winter birding in Japan is that there are lots of birds around. Business in Kyoto left me time for morning birding in the immediate area, and in a week I found 55 species. Then I travelled to the Arasaki Crane Reserve in the southern island of Kyushu and spent an intensive two days of birding (72 species). The Japanese total was 88 species, 49 new to me (as they would be to most who have not birded east Asia).
I prepared for this trip by obtaining from the ABA Mark Brazil's A Birdwatcher's Guide to Japan and Jane Washburn Robinson's A Birder's Guide to Japan. Their style is rather different and both were helpful. I borrowed the Wild Bird Society of Japan's A field guide to the birds of Japan from my local library, since according to ABA it is out of print. (Perhaps it can be obtained directly from WBSJ, however. They list it on their website.) I also read Brazil's August, 1993, article in Birding, Birding in Southern Japan and borrowed his informal red volume Finding Birds in Japan: Honshu, by Mark Brazil, 1985, Shimizu Print Co. Ltd., 118 pp., from Mark Oberle.
Finally, I submitted an RFI to Birdchat and received generous advice from Desmond Allen, Erik Bredon, Eriko Fujioka, Garry George, Paul Green, Kanae Hirabayashi, and Steve Hampton. Thanks to all of you! I had also archived earlier Birdchat reports, including ones by Thomas Grey and Alan Wilkinson, and I downloaded from BIRDTRIP the report by Francis Toldi. At the suggestion of Kanae Hirabayashi, I e-mailed Armas Hill, who kindly sent me the trip list from his FONT winter tour of Japan. This is one of the very few tours which visit Japan. The WBSJ runs some tours but they apparently have a Japanese attitude (a large group, spending much time eating) which may get on a western birder's nerves.
While in Kyoto I stopped by the excellent map store on the north side of Imadegawa between Higashi-Oji and Shirakawa, just west of the Engineering Faculty of the University of Kyoto. You can recognize this small storefront by the maps in the window. I bought a road map of Kumamoto Prefecture and excellent 1:50,000 topographic maps of the area around Arasaki. At ¥290 a piece the latter are a great value, even if they lacked not only alphabet but route numbers as well. I was glad later that I had a compass with me as well.
Several times Japanese told me that they had never heard of birdwatching as a hobby. Moonwatching, yes; birdwatching, no. I had no qualms about walking around with binoculars nevertheless. As a Westerner you stand out there in any case, and added oddities hardly matter. The Japanese are very good at minding their own business. Kids ogle and point and are swatted by their parents. I encountered only one pair of Japanese birders (if you exclude the photographers at Arasaki) during the whole trip.
I've gathered some comments below which I hope may prove useful to other Western birders, and end with a species list including scientific names.
Kyoto (at least the northern parts) is a beautiful city, very well organized and easy to get around. Most major road carry alphabetic signs as well as Japanese, and the road system is an orthogonal grid. Of course it is well known for its spectacular array of shrines and temples. I was staying near the Demachi-yanagi stop on the Keihan subway line, in the northeast quadrant of the city near the University of Kyoto.
A splendid way to begin birding in and around the city is to walk from that station across the east branch of the Kama River (the Takano River) and then north past the administrative buildings of the Shimagamo Shrine. The tall trees there held perched BLACK KITE, PYGMY WOODPECKER, LONG-TAILED, GREAT, and VARIED TIT, and JAPANESE WHITE-EYE.
Then cross the small east-west street and continue into the Shimagamo Shrine park. This is a large mixed forest park with a considerable amount of undergrowth. Three paths run north and south through it, each worth walking. Check especially the buildings at the south end (where I found JAPANESE GROSBEAKS and HAWFINCH) and the large open forest east of the wood inscribed panels at the north end. Throughout, you should find BLACK-FACED BUNTINGS, ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE, JAPANESE WAGTAIL, BROWN-EARED BULBUL, PALE THRUSH, JAPANESE BUSH-WARBLER, LONG-TAILED, GREAT, and VARIED TIT, JAPANESE WHITE-EYE, CARRION and JUNGLE CROW, GREY-CAPPED GREENFINCH, HAWFINCH, JAPANESE GROSBEAK, BLACK-FACED BUNTING.
Then exit at the north-west corner (from the open area with the wooden panels) past the visitors' parking lot. Head west; the street will wind somewhat but you will find yourself coming up to the west branch of the Kama River. Follow it north along its east bank for about a kilometer to the Kita-Oji Street bridge. The river is good south of here too. You should find LITTLE GREBE, LITTLE EGRET, GREY HERON, GREAT EGRET, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON, EURASIAN WIGEON, COMMON TEAL, MALLARD, SPOT-BILLED DUCK, PINTAIL, NORTHERN SHOVELER, BLACK KITE, BLACK-HEADED GULL, FERAL PIGEON, BLACK-BACKED WAGTAIL, JAPANESE WAGTAIL, BROWN-EARED BULBUL, DUSKY THRUSH, LONGTAILED and GREAT TIT, JAPANESE WHITE-EYE, BULL-HEADED SHRIKE, CARRION CROW, JUNGLE CROW, WHITE-CHEEKED STARLING, EURASIAN TREE SPARROW, GREY-CAPPED GREENFINCH.
When you come to Kita-Oji Street, regain the city streets on the east side and find the entrance path, heading north, to the Botanical Gardens. Pay the modest entrance fee, walk to the southeast corner of the park and follow the water system northwest to some lakes. I found GREY HERON, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON, MALLARD FERAL PIGEON, ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE, PYGMY WOODPECKER, JAPANESE WAGTAIL, BLACK-BACKED WAGTAIL, BROWN-EARED BULBUL, RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL, PALE THRUSH, GREAT and VARIED TIT, JAPANESE WHITE-EYE, BULL-HEADED SHRIKE, CARRION CROW, WHITE-CHEEKED STARLING, BRAMBLING, GREY-CAPPED GREENFINCH, HAWFINCH, BLACK-FACED BUNTING.
Then find the exit of the park at its northeast corner, and head north along the road which bounds the garden on the east. (This should be Shimonamoaka-dori.) After some blocks you will approach the hills bounding Kyoto on the north, and the road will become quite small. You will turn a sharp right corner (the cross-street here is Kamigamo-dori) and find yourself at the lake Midoroga-ike. Continue along this road, being careful of the traffic, leaving the lake shore to your right. There are reed beds. You will soon find yourself on the grounds of a conference center of some sort. Then reverse directions, return to the sharp right turn, continue around the lake skirting an apartment building right at the lake's edge. You will enter a forested area with a rough trail along the lake side. It seems to lead to a dead end as well. Around the lake I found LITTLE GREBE, LITTLE EGRET, EURASIAN WIGEON, FALCATED TEAL, MALLARD, NORTHERN SHOVELER, GREEN PHEASANT, ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE, DUSKY THRUSH, JAPANESE BUSH-WARBLER, LONG-TAILED and GREAT TIT, JAPANESE WHITE-EYE, BULL-HEADED SHRIKE, EURASIAN JAY, CARRION CROW, EURASIAN TREE SPARROW, MEADOW BUNTING, EURASIAN BULLFINCH.
Another essential walk is up the hill Daimonji, behind Ginkakuji Temple. The main trail up threads along the northern edge of Ginkakuji. You should stay as close to the fence with gold piping as you can, till you find the trail. There are no major subtrails, so you will not lose your way. The view from above the bonfire Dai is quite good. I did not find the trailhead, and instead worked my way south past Ginkakuji, along the "philosopher's walk." (The philosopher in this case is Nishida Kitaro (1870--1945). I found Gouverneur Mosher's Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide wonderful reading in appreciating many things about Kyoto. In particular, he has a good map of this area.) I wandered into Honen-in, which does not seem to have any alphabetic indication or entrance fee and is open early. It is beyond an impressive driveway. I found there my first RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL (a male).
A little further south is the large graveyard of Anraku-ji, where I had a SCALY THRUSH fly by. In this area there were also ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE, PYGMY WOODPECKER, BROWN-EARED BULBUL, LONG-TAILED and VARIED TIT, JAPANESE WHITE-EYE, JUNGLE CROW, GREY-CAPPED GREENFINCH, JAPANESE GROSBEAK, MEADOW BUNTING, BLACK-FACED BUNTING.
Continue south past Reikan-ji (about 2 km south of Kinkaku-ji now) and finally you will come to a road heading straight east, with a ravine on its south side. After a few blocks you will see a path fork off to the left behind the houses. It passes what appeared to be a small electrical substation, and continues into the woods. This path eventually meets the main path up Daimonji where it makes a sharp left turn, and allows you to make a sort of loop. On Daimonji I encountered PYGMY WOODPECKER, JAPANESE WOODPECKER, BROWN-EARED BULBUL, RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL, JAPANESE BUSH-WARBLER, LONG-TAILED, WILLOW, GREAT, and VARIED TIT, JAPANESE WHITE-EYE, EURASIAN JAY, JUNGLE CROW, GREY-CAPPED GREENFINCH. Also, a Japanese Squirrel (Sciurus lis).
I visited Arashiyama, site of a troupe (two, actually) of Japanese Macaques. The Togetsukyo bridge crosses the Oi river. There is a paved trail heading north along the west bank of the river, skirting the monkey sanctuary. (The map in Brazil's red book seems to have an incorrect compass heading.) After about 1 km it comes to a Ryokan and the gates of a temple. The scenery here is beautiful, and when I took the walk I had very close encounters with the monkeys, in more pleasant surroundings than the dusty hillside of their park on the hill Iwatayama. South of the bridge, still on the west side of the river, there is a fairly extensive stretch of fallow reedy land, good for buntings. I also climbed Iwatayama (there is a gate which opened at 9:00 on the Saturday I was there, and a small charge). The only bird I found there which I did not find elsewhere was COAL TIT. The river area held LITTLE GREBE, GREAT CORMORANT, LITTLE EGRET, GREY HERON, GREAT EGRET, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON, EURASIAN WIGEON, GADWALL, COMMON TEAL, MALLARD, SPOT-BILLED DUCK, PINTAIL, BLACK KITE, COMMON SANDPIPER, DUNLIN, BLACK-HEADED GULL, FERAL PIGEON, ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE, BLACK-BACKED WAGTAIL, JAPANESE WAGTAIL, BROWN-EARED BULBUL, DAURIAN REDSTART, DUSKY THRUSH, GREAT TIT, JAPANESE WHITE-EYE, BULL-HEADED SHRIKE, CARRION and JUNGLE CROW, EURASIAN TREE SPARROW, GREY-CAPPED GREENFINCH, JAPANESE GROSBEAK, RUSTIC BUNTING.
One day I took the subway to Uji. (Don't panic when the train reverses direction at Chusho-jima.) This is a beautiful resort village, on the broad Uji River. The bridge there has a famous history, and just beyond it is Byodo-in, site of the oldest major temple building in Japan (constructed in 1053). The train station is on the east bank. I walked south along the east bank of the river. After perhaps .5 km I came to a side-stream, and followed the path along the near side of this stream up to a hydro-electric plant. This place is very good---I found: LITTLE EGRET, GREY HERON, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON, EURASIAN WIGEON, GADWALL, BLACK KITE, COMMON SANDPIPER, BLACK-HEADED GULL, FERAL PIGEON, COMMON KINGFISHER, PYGMY WOODPECKER, BLACK-BACKED, JAPANESE, and GREY WAGTAIL, BROWN-EARED BULBUL, WHITE'S THRUSH, LONG-TAILED, GREAT, and VARIED TIT, EURASIAN TREE-SPARROW.
I met my Japanese hosts at Uji, and, after visiting Byodo-in with them, tried to find the Baikal Teal mentioned by Robinson on the lake behind Kisenyama Dam. She explains that she was never able to get to the lake, and I can reveal the reason. She took the wrong road. You drive south along the east bank of the Uji river till just before the Amagase Dam, and then turn left. After 1.0 km you will find yourself in a small village. There you must take an unpromising right-hand turn, which turns out to lead out of the village and into a conservation area operated by Kyoto Prefecture. This is an old road and it crosses the end of the lake as indicated on the map in Robinson's book. If you come to a crossing (not a T as marked on Robinson's map) you have come too far. I found only Mallards on the lake, however. I have heard that Baikal Teal have been declining in Japan and perhaps they no longer winter on this lake.
I also took the Keihan rail line north from Demachi-Yanagi to Kurama. A large hiking club shared my train car. At the Kurama stop they all piled into taxis and disappeared. I hiked up the road (leaving the temple to my left) for 2 km. The road leads through an evergreen forest, mostly cedar. There were not many birds: BROWN-EARED BULBUL, RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL, DAURIAN REDSTART, GREAT TIT, JUNGLE CROW, MEADOW, RUSTIC, and BLACK-FACED BUNTING.
Arasaki refers to about 1.5 sq km of land reclaimed from the sea by large seawalls at the mouth of the Takano River, near to the town of Izumi, half way between Kumamoto and Kagoshima, on the west coast of Kyushu. It harbors the largest flock of wintering cranes in Asia. It is largely given over to agricultural uses and is traversed by a number of rough roads. In the middle of the western segment is a several acre area dedicated entirely as a crane reserve. As I understand it, a farmer started to feed the cranes on his own initiative. This operation grew as other wintering locations became inhospitable to the cranes. It is now subsidized, I believe by the Wild Bird Society of Japan.
I flew into Kumamoto and rented a car from Mazda. I had to rent this car through my Japanese host, but perhaps knowing the rental company you can do this directly from the US. The agent there did not speak English but the information agent at the airport did and was very helpful. The drive to Arasaki from the Kumamoto airport takes 2 hours 45 minutes, or, allowing time for wrong turns, 3 hours 30 minutes. The southern portion of Rt 3 is quite scenic, with views across the Yatsushima-Kai to mountainous islands.
The farmer Matano-san who started feeding the cranes is now the crane warden, and he and his family run the Minshuku Tsurumitei (which means "Crane observing inn"). None of them speak any English. The price was ¥6800 per night with breakfast and dinner. I stayed three nights and for some reason (perhaps because I missed dinner the first night) I got a ¥2000 price reduction. You pay in cash. The rooms are unheated and it was very cold at night. One warms up by means of the Japanese bath. The other guests included a film crew making some sort of documentary, several Japanese couples apparently there just for a vacation (perhaps the men were photographers), and an American couple, Frank and Betty Maher. Frank and I spent the next two days birding the area together, joined occasionally by his wife.
I had a scope with me. It was useful in identifying distant grebes and buntings, but I would say not essential. I had rented a car and was glad of this. For one thing it rained one morning and it was much more pleasant to bird from the car than it would have been without. Moreover, while there is plenty to keep you busy on foot for two days in Arasaki itself, the car allowed access to a number of other areas and some 17 species I did not see in Arasaki proper.
According to a sign in the Minshuku, on Jan 11 there were 5747 Hooded Cranes, 2201 White-naped Cranes, 3 Common Cranes, 3 Common x Hooded Cranes, and 1 Siberian Crane. I did not find the Common Cranes, but did not compulsively search the flock nor ask the interpreter in the observation building. I did find one of the hybrids. The Siberian stood out and was easy to locate.
Birds seen in Arasaki: LITTLE and GREAT CRESTED GREBE, TEMMINCK'S CORMORANT (I suppose; the cormorants I checked were Temminck's), LITTLE EGRET, GREAT HERON, GREAT EGRET, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON, EURASIAN SPOONBILL, EURASIAN WIGEON, GADWALL, COMMON TEAL, MALLARD, SPOT-BILLED DUCK, PINTAIL, NORTHERN SHOVELER, BLACK KITE, EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK, COMMON BUZZARD, OSPREY, COMMON KESTREL, COMMON MOORHEN, GREEN PHEASANT, SIBERIAN CRANE, WHITE-NAPED CRANE, HOODED CRANE, HOODEDxCOMMON CRANE, KENTISH PLOVER, NORTHERN LAPWING, COMMON SNIPE, DUNLIN, BLACK-TAILED GULL, FERAL PIGEON, ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE, COMMON KINGFISHER, JAPANESE SKYLARK, BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT, BLACK-BACKED, JAPANESE, and GREY WAGTAIL, BROWN-EARED BULBUL, DAURIAN REDSTART, PALE THRUSH, CHINESE PENDULINE-TIT, JAPANESE WHITE-EYE, BULL-HEADED SHRIKE, DAURIAN JACKDAW, ROOK, CARRION CROW, JUNGLE CROW, WHITE-CHEEKED STARLING, EURASIAN TREE SPARROW, GREY-CAPPED GREENFINCH, MEADOW, RUSTIC, BLACK-FACED, and REED BUNTING.
One morning we drove onto the island off the northwest corner of Arasaki. The access is via a road leaving from the end of the seawall. It takes you up past lovely views through trees down to the bay to an isolated small garden area and a dead end. There we found COMMON BUZZARD, YELLOW-THROATED and BLACK-FACED BUNTING.
We drove to various bridge crossings over the Takano River mentioned in the guidebooks, and found WATER RAIL, STRIATED HERON, PACIFIC GOLDEN PLOVER, COMMON SANDPIPER, COMMON KINGFISHER, GREY WAGTAIL, JAPANESE BUSH-WARBLER, HAWFINCH, JAPANESE GROSBEAK.
We followed the road directly out from Takano Station (Rt 504 I believe). After several kilometers you come to a bridge on the left; later there is an abandoned farm over a bridge on the right. Both sites had BROWN DIPPERS, and we also found RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL, JAPANESE BUSH-WARBLER, VARIED TIT, EURASIAN BULLFINCH.
We drove to the next town "south" (west, actually) on Rt 3, Akune. There is a port there where we found BLACK KITE, BLACK-TAILED, HERRING, and SLATY-BACKED GULL.
Beyond the port is a peninsula. We drove to the top of this, where there is first a conference center of some sort and at the top, strangely, a sawmill. We found EURASIAN BULLFINCH there. Then we found a road along the eastern edge of this peninsula which leads to a fishing harbor, where we found an EARED GREBE.
On Rt 3, 5 km south of exit 18 from
the Kyushu Expressway, in Yatsushiro, the road crosses two large branches of
the Kuma River. On my return I turned west along the north shore of the
southern branch, onto a broad riverside waste area. This turned out to be a
good stop: EURASIAN WIGEON, BLACK-HEADED GULL, DUSKY THRUSH, FAN-TAILED
WARBLER, CHINESE PENDULINE-TIT, CARRION and JUNGLE CROW, and JAPANESE
REED-BUNTING. Between Brazil and Robinson I could find only one winter site
mentioned for Ochre-rumped Bunting (the Tonegawa). Since they breed on Mt.
Aso, this is presumably an ideal location for them in winter.
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