Japan in Winter Jan 13—25, 2018

Posted by Steve Hilty


Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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One of the top highlights mentioned by most members of the group was a Ural Owl sleeping in a large, picturesque tree hollow. It was, in fact, an image that could have been plucked straight from an illustrated book of fairy tales from the Middle Ages. A male Eurasian Bullfinch in beautiful morning light also garnered top honors and, surprisingly, so did the diminutive Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker. For several of us, a large flock of Rooks eluding repeated prey-capture attempts by a Peregrine Falcon (the Rooks being more capable and wily than they might appear) over a large expanse of rice paddies was a trip highlight. Also prized were more than a dozen Stellar’s and White-tailed sea-eagles perched on a forested Hokkaido hillside during a snowstorm. The arrival of a Blakiston’s Fish-Owl at a small pool resulted in a mass exodus from our rather sedate and stylized Japanese dinner.

Red-crowned Cranes

Red-crowned Cranes— Photo: Steve Hilty


And yes, then there were the Japanese Cranes, lumps of black and white fluff standing in a frigid river as steamy mists from the thermally-heated river water rose around them—a surreal and unforgettable setting. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Mandarin Ducks received not a single nod at the end—perhaps because they were a little distant—although they generated much excitement the morning we saw them, and the image of a stately pair cruising steadily across a mirror-smooth lake in early morning light, their narrow wake line trailing behind, will not likely be forgotten.

The list of highlights could certainly go on. This is an unusual birding tour, one that blends, for westerners, a unique cultural experience with a remarkable number of birding highlights—more than might be imagined from our list of barely 150 species, and all of it in temperatures that hover around the freezing point. So bundle up in scarves and warm hats and gloves because as Kaz, our guide, so aptly put on a couple of occasions, “this morning it will be bitterly cold.” And on a few occasions it was, although temperatures generally were not extreme, and in the south they were decidedly moderate, although not exactly balmy.

Read Steve’s full report in his Field Report.