Japan has become a second home to me over the last fifteen years of business and pleasure trips, learning the language, meeting and visiting friends, and travelling throughout the country. As a newly converted birder, the last three trips have included extensive birding itineraries, and of course all future trips will as well.
When I was called to Tokyo on business I immediately began planning how to get in some birding in the difficult post-spring early summer period. I called Nick Lethaby, an expert in palearctic birding, and asked his suggestions. He gave me great food for thought and a contact in Shizuoka whom he met but had not birded with.
I landed in Narita Airport in the late afternoon and, instead of going all the way in to Tokyo, took a train one stop (10 minutes) to the town of Narita to stay in a traditional Japanese Inn that I know of there called Ogiya (011-81476-22-1161). It's very basic, but the hot spring bath, tatami rooms, kio pond with waterfall outside the window and the traditional Japanese food would welcome me home after the long flight, and Narita could serve as a great base for birding the marshes of Chiba and Ibaraki Prefectures.
Early the next morning after 8 hours sleep, I took the first train to Sawara, then a bus to Oppori bus stop (Mark Brazil's A Birdwatcher's Guide to Japan location #13) and walked to Ukishima marsh to look for bitterns, buntings and Reed Warblers. The rain started just as I exited the bus of course and didn't stop until late afternoon. I combed the reedbeds for rarities but only discovered a noisy, effusive Great Reed Warbler, a displaying Zitting Cisticola (formerly Fan-tailed Warbler) and a brief glimpse of a Japanese (Ochre-rumped) Reed Bunting male.
Hoping for better luck I took the bus back, then the train a few more stops to Omigawa (Brazil's location #14) and walked to the bridge in hopes of seeing one of the Japanese Marsh Warbler (Marsh Grassbird) that breed there in summer. In the driving rain I only saw many Great Reed Warblers, Zitting Cisticolas, Japanese Reed Buntings and Black-browed Reed Warblers along with low flying Barn Swallows, Skylarks (displaying), the ubiquitous Tree Sparrow and a very frightened Spot-billed Duck that I flushed from the reedbed. Soaked, tired, trying not to be too discouraged I sloshed back to the train station and began the long trip back to Narita to change and pick up my luggage, then on to Tokyo.
This stop is very recommended for travellers to Tokyo who want to do a day of birding before or after the business.
On Saturday, I leave for Shizuoka for three nights birding with Mr. Kawada. We hope to find the elusive Japanese Night Heron which has been heard calling in the area. I'll report from there. [Editor's note: The first part of this report was sent to BIRDCHAT in mid-trip on Friday, June 13, 1997. U.G.]
Had my last meeting in Tokyo at noon, changed, checked my suitcase with most of my clothes into the hotel cloak room (President Hotel, only $100/nt, in Minami Aoyama), took my backpack and walked two blocks into Meiji Jingumae (the biggest park/forest in Tokyo) and saw Azure-winged Magpie and Jungle Crow, then headed to Tokyo Station and caught the 4:30 pm Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Kakegawa Station (one stop past Shizuoka) (Round trip around $150), where I was met by Takashi Kawada, with whom I had only talked on the telephone (I speak Japanese) thanks to a referral from Nick Letherby. Turns out, of course, that Kawada-san is not only a birder but a professional photographer, his specialty being raptors and especially the rare Mountain Hawk-Eagle (a.k.a. Hodgson's Hawk-Eagle), and even has a CD-ROM of the 9 species of raptor found in Japan with click-on information, range maps, photos, etc, and a CD-ROM called Bird Wandering of various species throughout Japan. If anyone is interested in purchasing these items please contact me.
We had decided to bird the mountains since there was no shore migration happening, and Kawada-san began by driving me to a Shinto temple in Kakegawa, where he grew up (he's now 45) where Ural Owl and sometimes Brown Hawk Owl are found. It seems that the only really tall trees left in Japan are at temples, and the temples are beginning to sell them off for cash. As we pulled up, there were two Brown Hawk Owls on the telephone line and as we were getting our flashlights up they flew off. Not the look I wanted and another reminder to always be prepared with the spotlight. Searched for the Ural Owl but no luck. Drove to a spot in the mountains near the city of Honkawane above a wet stream where Kawada-san had heard the very elusive Japanese Night Heron a week before. Pulled out portable chairs and sat with our flashlights in hand listening to Jungle Nightjars in the hills behind us but not seeing any even though they perch in trees unlike the Central, South and North American nightjars. Never heard a Night Heron so gave up on that and drove further up the mountain to the end of the road where we slept in the Forerunner when the drunken fishermen next to us weren't roaring with laughter.
In the morning, we heard Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoo, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Oriental Cuckoo but nothing flew. A beautiful Blue-and-White Flycatcher popped up in the top of tree just below us giving us beautiful views in the scope while it was singing. After breakfast we took a long winding drive higher into the mountains to the site for the Mountain Hawk-Eagle. We sat in portable chairs waiting but it was cloudy, and apparently the Hawk-Eagle, a forest bird, doesn't soar without updrafts which aren't present when it's cloudy, and because the trees are covered with leaves in June you can't see them perch unless you are lucky. Anyway, no luck except for a Japanese Grosbeak which sang and popped up down the hill and a Siberian Meadow Bunting tending her nest nearby. Kawada-san says the best time for the Hawk-Eagle is in March when the leaves aren't on the trees yet and the bird is displaying, and tumbling with it's mate. I strike out on the Hawk-Eagle giving me 0 for 2 for the most wanted birds. We try for the Ruddy Kingfisher at its usual spot but no luck. We give up on this area as the rain starts.
On the way down off the mountain, we stop at another temple on Mt. Awagatake where Kawada-san calls in a Narcissus Flycatcher. We make another stop in Abina in Kakegawa and, in the rain, get great views of the Japanese Paradise Flycatcher male answering Kawada-san's call. The Japanese name for this bird is SanKoChoo because it's call is three (san) lights (ko) bird (cho) the three lights being the sun, moon and I've forgotten the third. Two pairs of Jap. Paradise Flycatchers have taken up residence this year, down from the usual four. It seems they winter in Vietnam and SE Asia. Amazing bird with a long streamer tail and blue eye skin. As it gets dark and more rainy, we head for Kawada- san's house, and I am privileged to see his photographs and even more to be the first one into the bath tub (O-FURO) (the guest goes first, family last) and happy to have a refreshing bath after the last two long days. We drive up a mountain called Sobatsubo, still in Shizuoka prefecture, where we sleep in a recently built "Mountain Lodge" which is a concrete foundation/floor and a raised polished wood U-shaped platform where you put your pad and sleeping bag and some toilets outside. It's like sleeping in a zendo. I was happy to see a star from the entryway which meant maybe good weather tomorrow.
I was awakened at 5 by the lilting repetitive song of a Lesser Cuckoo nearby, and we grabbed our binoculars and clothes and ran outside to try to sneak up on this seldom-seen bird. Even though it sounded as if it was only a few feet away we couldn't see it and it flew off. As we were walking away, it flew above us, calling, and we got great looks through our binoculars. As the weather cleared, we walked around the lodge and saw a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers protecting a nest, a Japanese Green Woodpecker flew by, and a feeding flock of Great Tits and a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker flew by. Japanese Bush Warblers were calling all around us, and every once in a while we would see one fly but never actually see them in the bush no matter how close. Kawada-san called in a Japanese Robin, and a Brown-headed Thrush hopped on the trail ahead of us. As we drove down the mountain the unexpected happened. We spotted a drab female Copper Pheasant with two chicks and hoped for a male. No luck. We drove a little further and spotted another female with chicks. No male. "Very lucky" Kawada-san kept saying. A little further we saw another female and Kawada-san thought he saw a male run off the road. We sat quietly for a while, him with his large camera ready, hoping the male would return to the female. I head small stones rolling down the hill so I knew something was there, and I couldn't stand it any more so I got out of the truck and looked down the hill. There was the male pecking through the undergrowth and I got great looks at him for about ten minutes until he disappeared. We stopped and looked again for Hawk-Eagle, which we heard, but couldn't find it. We heard a Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoo and coaxed it down from the mountain, and it turned out to be a family of three who flew right over our heads and perched down the road. We ran for more looks, and each time we would get to them they would fly. We got another brief look and considered ourselves very lucky.
As the weather was clear we debated whether to go to Mt. Fuji for more species or back to the Hawk-Eagle spot. We chose Mt. Fuji and drove 2 hours to a famous seep (Mizuba) in Yamanashi prefecture where birdwatchers sit for hours and plopped ourselves down. A few species came by, highlighted by a male Siberian Blue Robin, but it was slow and cloudy and rainy, and we gave up and climbed back in the car with a brief look at a singing Indian Tree Pipit. We stopped at Yamanaka-ko, a lake habitat recommended by Mark Brazil in A Birdwatcher's Guide to Japan, but all of the marsh and reed beds had been chopped or burned to make room for giant swan boat concessions. Ironic. We drove back to Shizuoka for a meal of kabayaki (barbecued eel and rice) and Kawada-san dropped me off at a ryokan in Kakegawa where I spent the night ($65) and had breakfast before hopping the train back to Tokyo (seeing House Swift in the town as I walked out) to begin the long trek back to the U.S. I will return for the Mountain Hawk-Eagle and the Japanese Night Heron, hopefully next May for the Night Heron, and March for the Hawk-Eagle.
* is HEARD ONLY
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