Trip Report: Tokyo, Okazaki, Kyoto (Japan), March 4-12, 1997

Urs Geiser, Woodridge, Illinois, USA;


I had the opportunity to visit Japan in order to present a paper at a scientific conference in Okazaki, a medium-sized city southeast of Nagoya. I spent three days there and was able to add three more days for sight-seeing and birding. These I spent in Kyoto, where I also met with scientists at the university. This was my second visit to Japan, but on the first one, in August 1994, I only saw Tokyo. Because of the location and the season, my previous birding experience in Japan was pretty slim. On the other hand, I have birded in Europe several times before, and I preceeded my 1994 visit with a short stay in Seoul, thus not all of the palearctic species were new for me.


First, I would like to thank all the people who helped me with the birding on this trip. After my query on BIRDCHAT, I received helpful comments from Desmond Allen, David O. Matson, Peter Browne, and Jim Ingold. Jim was so nice as to lend me his copy of Brazil's book. On the last day before my departure, I located a Kyoto birder on the BIRDCHAT subscriber list, Dr. Taichi Kato,, who rounded up one of his birding friends, Kazuho Kawashima, to join me for an afternoon of birding (with the thankless mission to find the few species that I hadn't already found by myself!). Ms. Kawashima was a pleasant and knowledgeable companion with excellent English speaking abilities, and I thank her especially for taking the time to bird with me. The trip report by Haynes Miller on Kyoto and Arasaki, published just in time for my trip was of invaluable help in finding birding locations and also served as a reference point for my own trip list. Finally, Bob Fisher lent me his copy of Yamashina's book.

Reference Materials

I carried with me (beside Haynes Miller's trip report) the Field Guide to the Birds of Japan published by the Wild Bird Society of Japan. This guide is compact and reasonably accurate, it covers all species, but it is not very descriptive. Unfortunately, the English language version of this field guide appears to be out of print (according to ABA Sales). My Japanese companions carried both the English and the Japanese versions of this field guide with them. Mark Brazil's A Birdwatcher's Guide to Japan had useful general comments and a more modern checklist than the WBSJ guide. My itinerary unfortunately didn't lead me near any of the birding locations that Brazil describes in some detail. Another useful reference with even more detailed introductory chapters was Birds in Japan -- A Field Guide by Yoshimaro Yamashina (Shubun International, Tokyo, 3rd Ed., 1982), although I don't think this book would be so suitable in the field because of its bulk and limited species coverage.

For navigation, I like the bilingual Kodansha maps and atlases, available in the U.S. I already owned the Tokyo atlas, and I bought the Kyoto/Osaka map for this trip. The standard tourist guide books are of course also helpful with general information.

Getting Around

I did almost all my travel by train. The train system is extensive, but at first bewildering. One has to deal with many different rail companies, often with different stations. However, there are enough signs with English writing that with the help of a map one can usually find the right train. The major train lines have English announcements before stops, so usually it isn't a problem to get off at the right place. Keep your ticket to the end -- you'll need it to exit the train station.

Kyoto has only north-south subway lines, thus traveling east-west required experimenting with the bus system. Luckily, most busses travel for a considerable length along the same street on the essentially square grid before they make a turn, and I pretty soon figured out the lines that I needed. Line 203 travels along Imadegawa Dori from the Kyoto University campus to the west side of the city. Where it turns south at Nishioji Dori is the terminus of the Kitano side branch of the Arashiyama train line (change train at Katabiranotsuji). Line 17 is a convenient connection between the east bank of the Kamo-gawa river and Kyoto Station. The fare is 220 Yen and paid when exiting the bus. Change is available. Taxis are readily available but extremely expensive.

General Bird-Related Comments

Mid-March is still considered winter in terms of bird life, although the 50-60 deg F weather felt a lot more like spring to this Chicago area resident. Only a few of the wintering ducks, shorebirds, and cranes (elsewhere in Japan) have already departed by then. Most overseas migrants don't arrive until about early May. However, many birds in Japan are altitudinal migrants, and winter is the easiest time to see these. The lowlands of Japan are so densely populated, and every flat spot that isn't built up is occupied by a rice field. Therefore, the winter guests from the largely forested mountains concentrate heavily in the few tree-filled spots available, i.e., city parks and the like. On the contrary, summer birding in the same habitats brings very few species, see my trip report from August 1994.

The weather along the south-eastern coast between Tokyo and Osaka is typically dry in winter, as the prevalent Siberian cold air masses reach Japan from the northwest, dropping a lot of snow on the northwestern shore, and then descending from the central mountain range completely dried out. I only encountered rain once during the week I was there, and it was sunny or partly cloudy with temperature highs up to 70 deg F (mostly around 60 deg F) and early morning lows around 40 deg F. The forest floor felt dry and not at all like around here (Chicago) where one needs rubber boots well into May. A pair of light hiking boots were a suitable choice. These are therefore very pleasant conditions for "winter" birding.

The Places

Tokyo was only a brief overnight stop before I traveled by train to the conference location. I just had enough time for a short walk from my hotel (Ginza Dai-ichi, near Shimbashi train station) to the Sumida Gawa River and to the Hama Detached Palace Garden (Hama Rikyu Teien). This nice park with a tidal pool and several other ponds is an excellent (for being in the middle of a huge city) birding location for ducks, herons, and passerines. It is located adjacent to the central wholesale market and the river, thus numerous gulls can be observed from the park grounds (although the views were somewhat distant and in the morning into the sun).

In Okazaki, my hotel was adjacent to Okazaki Park, another green oasis in the concrete jungle. The park also houses a castle (replica -- the original is from the Tokugawa shogunate period) with a partial, water-filled moat, and a museum. A small river (Oto) with numerous wintering ducks flowed in front of the hotel and the park. About half a mile to the west, there was a larger river whose concrete-lined bed contained much more brush and weedy grass, good for buntings.

In Kyoto, I was able to visit several of the places described in Haynes Miller's trip report. My hotel (university guest house) was located in the northeast section of town, between the confluence of the Kamo-gawa and the Takano-gawa rivers and the Kyoto University campus, thus it was natural that I walked these river banks several times. The Shimogama Jinja shrine, between the two rivers, is surrounded by a heavily forested park, accessible from the south. I visited this park twice. Kinkaku-ji with its golden pavillion is nice tourist attraction, but rather limited for birding. One of its ponds held Mandarin Ducks, although I'm not sure if they were really wild.

The Arashiyama area is well described in Haynes Miller's trip report. I first checked out the river area near the bridge and the weedy bank to the east, then walked the trail along the river into the gorge, and finally climbed the Iwatayama (sanctuary for Japanese Macaques). I didn't encounter any monkeys outside the sanctuary. During my visit, Iwatayama wasn't quite as dusty, as it had rained the night before.

I spent about an hour on the Old Imperial Palace grounds with Taichi Kato and Kazuko Kawashima, where T. K. thought he had seen some Olive-backed Pipits before. In less than two minutes, we found the flock, then were told by some more birders about a Scaly Thrush, whose location was clearly marked by a photographer with a gigantic telephoto lens. K.Kawashima and I then continued the afternoon at the Botanical Gardens and at the lake Midoroga-ike, both described by Haynes Miller. Alone, I then walked around and over the hill to the other near-by lake Takaraga-ike, which is more "civilized" with a concrete shore. However, on its south shore there is a bird observation station, with a wooden wall with eye slots overlooking a small pond in the woods. Several bird houses were evident, and there were descriptive plates for likely-seen birds. Unfortunately, during my visit the little pond was dried out, and I didn't see much there, but for educational purposes, this might be good spot. The only interesting birds in the Takagara-ike area were a flock of Bullfinch and a Kingfisher.

Finally, on my last mornng in Kyoto, I walked part of the trail behind the Ginkaku-ji temple with it's "silver" pavillion (itself a worthwhile tourist attraction) up into the hills. This area is also described by Haynes Miller. However, due to time constraints (such as to catch my train back to Tokyo and the airport), I only had time for a short walk there.

The Birds

The species list is very similar to that reported by Haynes Miller for Kyoto two months earlier (I missed seven species on his list, but had three more in Kyoto and four extra ones in Tokyo, two of which he saw elsewhere). None of the species were rarities (I missed a reported Hoopoe by a day or two), and most were seen in many different locations. Therefore, instead of presenting a list for each place, I'll just show an annotated species list.

The common and scientific names are from the listing program (BirdBrain 3.0.1). Where there are significant discrepancies with other accepted names, these are indicated in parentheses. Japanese names are shown in square brackets. Life birds (18 total) are preceeded with an asterisk.

  1. Little Grebe, Tachybaptus (Podiceps) ruficollis [Kaitsuburi]
    Commonly found in rivers and lakes.
  2. Great Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo [Kawa-u]
    Abundant near the river in Tokyo, common elsewhere. Most individuals already had their summer plumage with white heads and a flank patch. This species presents somewhat of an identification problem because of its similarity with Temminck's (Japanese) Cormorant. However, the latter species is unlikely to be found away from the sea coast.
  3. Gray Heron, Ardea cinerea [Ao-sagi]
    While walking on the trail, I spooked at least two of these from a tree at the Hama Rikyu Teien in Tokyo (rookery?). Small numbers of Gray Herons were found along river banks in Okazaki and Kyoto
  4. Great Egret, Ardea (Egretta) alba [Dai-sagi]
    I saw one of these along the bigger river in Okazaki, and a few in Kyoto (river and Midoroga-ike).
  5. Little Egret, Egretta garzetta [Ko-sagi]
    Much more numerous than Great Egret along rivers. In Okazaki, I once saw a resting flock of at least 25 birds.
  6. Mute Swan, Cygnus olor [Kobu-hakucho]
    This is an introduced species in Japan and probably not countable by purists. A pair was with the ducks on the Oto River in Okazaki, and several were on the lake Takaraga-ike in Kyoto (along with domestic white and Chinese geese).
  7. * Mandarin Duck, Aix galericulata [Oshidori]
    The first flock, at Kinkaku-ji in a small pond behind the Golden Pavillion, could have been ornamental, but the flock of ca. 30 on the Katsura-gawa River in the gorge behind Arashiyama was clearly wild. One of the most spectacularly plumaged birds in existence!
  8. Green-winged Teal, Anas crecca [Ko-gamo]
    A few birds on a pond at Hama Rikyu Teien in Tokyo, and common on the rivers in Okazaki and Kyoto. They seemed to be shyer than the other dabbling ducks and didn't approach for handouts.
  9. Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos [Ma-gamo]
    Common everywhere near water. Not all Mallards seen were wild, and some, especially in Okazaki Park, were hybridized with domestic ducks.
  10. Spot-billed Duck, Anas poecilorhyncha [Karu-gamo]
    Common on rivers and ponds. Usually in smaller flocks than the other dabbling ducks.
  11. Northern Pintail, Anas acuta [Onaga-gamo]
    Common on rivers in Okazaki and Kyoto. They were usually associated with the even more numerous Widgeons. A rather sizeable flock of Pintail (30-40) landed on Takaraga-ike,probably to spend the night. When in the company of Widgeons, Pintail readily took handouts of stale bread (a common practice in Okazaki and at Midoroga-ike).
  12. Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata [Hashibiro-gamo]
    The only place I found Shoveler was the lake Midoroga-ike. Haynes Miller reported this species to be common on the rivers, thus I assume that some Shovelers (as well as Gadwall, see below) have already started their spring migration.
  13. Gadwall, Anas strepera [Okayoshi-gamo]
    I only found a small flock of five Gadwall on the river near the Arashiyama bridge.
  14. Eurasian Wigeon, Anas penelope [Hidori-gamo]
    Easily the most numerous duck on the rivers in Okazaki and Kyoto. Some flocks numbered in the hundreds. They were frequently fed stale bread by the town people in Okazaki.
  15. Common Pochard, Aythya ferina [Hoshi-hajiro]
    One female Pochard was among the Tufted Duck flock on the tidal pool at Hama Rikyu Teien in Tokyo.
  16. Tufted Duck, Aythya fuligula [Kinkuro-hajiro]
    A flock of ca. 40 on the tidal pool at Hama Rikyu Teien in Tokyo.
  17. Black (Black-eared) Kite, Milvus migrans (lineatus) [Tobi]
    This is by far the most common raptor in Japan. I saw numerous Kites from the train between Tokyo and Kyoto, and in Kyoto they frequented mainly the river area and the hills around the city.
  18. Common Sandpiper, Actitis (Tringa) hypoleucos [Iso-shigi]
    Not at all common in March. Finally, I found a bird, still in basic plumage, in the rapids at Arashiyama.
  19. Black-headed Gull, Larus ridibundus [Yuri-kamome]
    This is the only gull that I found away from Tokyo, although there it was the most numerous species as well. Small numbers occasionally flew along the river in Okazaki, and in Kyoto there was a large procession (50-100 at a time) up-river every morning.
  20. Black-tailed Gull, Larus crassirostris [Umineko]
    In contrast to August 1994, where this was the only gull on the river in Tokyo, I only found a few individuals this time.
  21. Herring Gull, Larus argentatus [Seguro-kamome]
    This was the second-most numerous gull along the river in Tokyo. There might have been some other large gulls there (some immatures with possibly light wing tips), but I didn't get a good look at them (distance, sun angle).
  22. Rock Dove, Columba livia [Dobato]
    Introduced. Is there any city in the world that doesn't have pigeons?
  23. Oriental (Rufous) Turtle-Dove, Streptopelia orientalis [Kiji-bato]
    Also very common, but less obtrusive than the pigeons.
  24. Common Kingfisher, Alcedo atthis [Kawasemi]
    I saw two Kingfishers during the week, one along the water-filled moat of Okazaki castle, and the other a fast fly-by at Takaraga-ike in Kyoto.
  25. * (Japanese) Pygmy Woodpecker, Dendrocopos kizuki [Ko-gera]
    One or two of these small, relatively quiet, woodpeckers was found at just about every birding location.
  26. Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica [Tsubame]
    One individual (over-wintering or early spring arrival?) flew over the river in Kyoto.
  27. Carrion Crow, Corvus corone [Hashiboso-garasu]
    Are there a lot of crows in Japan? Are they huge? Are they noisy? You bet! In most locations, I would estimate the ratio of Carrion to Large-billed Crow as about two-to-one. All Carrion Crows were of the black type.
  28. Large-billed (Jungle) Crow, Corvus macrorhynchos [Hashibuto-garasu]
    Slightly more prone to locations with trees than Carrion Crows.
  29. Coal Tit, Parus ater [Hi-gara]
    I found a mixed tit flock every day in Okazaki Park, but the Coal Tits were always a little by themselves. Other flocks were found in Kyoto at the Botanical Gardens and in the grove of Shimogamo Jinja.
  30. Great Tit, Parus major [Shiju-kara]
    This most numerous tit was found in every park from Tokyo to Kyoto. The form found in Japan is paler-bellied than the one in Europe.
  31. * Varied Tit, Parus varius [Yama-gara]
    Except for Tokyo, I found this showy species in just about every tit flock.
  32. Long-tailed Tit, Aegithalos caudatus [Enaga]
    I found only one Long-tailed Tit once in Okazaki Park, but in Kyoto they seemed to be in every park.
  33. Brown-eared Bulbul, Ixos (Hypsipetes) amaurotis [Hiyodori]
    The archetypical trash bird: abundant, noisy (many different sounds!), and obnoxious. Imagine a cross between a jay and a grackle, but without redeeming good looks.
  34. * Japanese Bush-Warbler, Cettia diphone [Uguisu]
    A common drab bird that is much easier heard than seen. I couldn't quite figure it out when I mostly heard it in a thicket in Tokyo (the brief glimpse that I had showed a bird that was much lighter-bellied than the picture in the field guide, but I later learned that there is some variation), but it became obvious in Kyoto, where I found some in several locations. Along the river in Arashiyama, I even saw and heard one singing out of a shrub.
  35. * Daurian Redstart, Phoenicurus auroreus [Jo-bitaki]
    In Okazaki, I saw a male on two days, and at Arashiyama (Kyoto) there was a female.
  36. * Red-flanked Bluetail (Siberian Bluechat, Orange-flanked Bush-Robin), Tarsiger cyanurus [Ruri-bitaki]
    I wanted to get a look at a male of this species, but I kept seeing females in Kyoto, at the Shimogamo Jinja grove, at Arashiyama, and at the Botanical Gardens. Only on the last day did I find a male, albeit in bad light, near the trailhead behind Ginkaku-ji.
  37. * Pale Thrush, Turdus pallidus [Shirohara]
    This thrush was commonly seen on lawns, but always near cover.
  38. * Dusky Thrush, Turdus naumanni (ssp. eunomus) [Tsugumi]
    This was the most common thrush, seen virtually in all locations visited. There was considerable variation in the amount of spotting, breast band, and amount of reddish-brown, but all individuals seen were of the eunomus type.
  39. Scaly Thrush (White's Ground Thrush, Tiger Thrush), Zoothera (Turdus) dauma [Tora-tsugumi]
    This large thrush was a sought-after species among my Japanese birding companions. I got lucky three times: One at Okazaki Park, among the low bushes between the moat and the street that separates the park from the river, the staked-out bird at the Imperial Palace Gardens in Kyoto, and another bird (on the same day!) in the shade of some evergreens at the Botanical Gardens.
  40. * Japanese Wagtail, Motacilla grandis [Seguro-sekirei]
    I missed this species in Tokyo, found a few along the river in Okazaki, and many more in Kyoto along the river and singing from TV antennas.
  41. Gray Wagtail, Motacilla cinerea [Ki-sekirei]
    Three observations, all from Okazaki: along the river, in a small drainage ditch near Okazaki park, and at the gravelly end of the castle moat.
  42. * Black-backed Wagtail (formerly a race of White W.), Motacilla lugens [Haku-sekirei]
    Common, mainly near water. Most birds were still in their gray-backed winter plumage with little black on the throat.
  43. * Olive-backed (Indian Tree or Olive Tree) Pipit, Anthus hodgsoni [Binzui]
    Two separate flocks of about 5-6 birds each on the Old Imperial Palace grounds in Kyoto. Most individuals showed the diagnostic small white spot behind the auriculars.
  44. * Bull-headed Shrike, Lanius bucephalus [Mozu]
    One bird each were seen in Tokyo and Okazaki, but in Kyoto, they were quite numerous in locations with open spaces near shrubbery, e.g. Arashiyama east of the bridge, Imperial Palace grounds, Botanical Gardens, and in the marsh north of Midoroga-ike.
  45. White-cheeked (Gray) Starling, Sturnus cineraceus [Mukudori]
    A common city bird, but not in the overwhelming numbers of European Starlings in America.
  46. Japanese White-eye, Zosterops japonicus [Mejiro]
    This bird was seen almost daily in all three cities, often in the vicinity of feeding tit flocks.
  47. * (Siberian) Meadow Bunting, Emberiza cioides [Hojiro]
    All three observations were of pairs: along the larger river in Okazaki, in the river gorge (near the Ryokan) at Arashiyama, and near the Takaraga-ike conference center.
  48. * Rustic Bunting, Emberiza rustica [Kashiradaka]
    Two or three of these buntings were found along the larger river in Okazaki, and a flock feeding on the lawn under shade trees at the Imperial Palace grounds (in the company of Scaly Thrush, Dusky Thrush, and Olive-backed Pipit).
  49. * Black-faced Bunting, Emberiza spodocephala [Aoji]
    This was the most commonly seen bunting, first along the larger river in Okazaki, then also at Okazaki Park, and at several Kyoto locations. Its presence was usually revealed by sharp chipping (similar to a Song Sparrow) from the shrubbery.
  50. * Oriental (Gray-capped) Greenfinch, Carduelis sinica [Kawara-hiwa]
    One bird was seen flying over the park in Tokyo, a small flock was resident at Okazaki Park, and others were seen at Shimogamo Jinja (near the administration buildings), Arashiyama (east of the bridge), and on the Kyoto University campus.
  51. Eurasian Bullfinch, Pyrrhula pyrrhula [Uso]
    I came across a flock of seven or eight Bullfinch a couple of times in Okazaki park and found another group of three near the Takaraga-ike conference center. Every time, they were quietly feeding on cherry buds.
  52. * Hawfinch, Coccothraustes coccothraustes [Shime]
    Two birds at Hama Rikyu Teien in Tokyo and two more at Shimogamo Jinja (near the administration buildings) in Kyoto.
  53. * Japanese Grosbeak, Eophona personata [Ikaru]
    This bird, reported in many places by Haynes Miller, was the bogey bird of the trip. Only at the very last birding location, at the trailhead behind Ginkaku-ji in Kyoto, did I finally find a bird singing in a tree.
  54. Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus [Suzume]
    Quite possibly the most numerous bird in Japanese cities, completely replacing the House Sparrow of American and European cities.

Return to trip reports.

This page served by Urs Geiser;; March 19, 1997