This Time Last Year Japan In Winter – Birding In The Freezer At Times January 2020

The first of so many new birds enjoyed in Japan - Dusky Thrush in the hotel garden.

Exactly one year ago today Alan arrived in Japan. There are some birds that once you are aware they exist you really want to see them. As a teenage birder I came across illustrations of a bonkers looking bird of prey, its name, Steller’s Sea Eagle. A massive eagle, reason enough to want to see it, add in amazing patterned plumage and the most ridiculous huge orange beak and I was hooked! Sadly I also discovered that it built its huge nest in the most remote parts of far east Russia and wintered on ice-flows off the northern coast of Japan. For a birder that had never left the UK an impossible dream, ho-hum.

Fast forward a lot of years and the marvel of the internet opened up all sorts of amazing bird information and images. By now I had travelled a lot to see birds but never got anywhere near a Steller’s Sea Eagle sadly. But now thanks to Facebook I could see people who I knew and had even been birding with posting photos of the eagle with the big orange beak. You know when you get that feeling? Something has to be done. Doesn’t matter how it just has to be done.

The target bird of the trip to Japan - Steller's Sea Eagle - yes Alan did see them!

I have never been great at saving money, always quick to spend it on seeing birds as soon as possible. But in late 2019 I had, just about, enough cash to think about a trip to Japan. Ruth did not want to join me on this adventure, numerous reasons, so sadly it would be just me if I was to go for the big eagle. Japan can be expensive and tricky if you don’t speak Japanese in the more remote areas so seemed like a good idea to join a tour. Now a few of our lovely Birdwatching Trips guests have asked about Japan and it wasn’t long before five of us were signing up for Tropical Birding Japan in Winter tour 26th January to 7th February 2020, the Steller’s Sea Eagle felt within my grasp! At last.

Sadly events conspired that three of the five in our group of would be eagle watchers had to cancel at the last minute, such a shame. So five became two, the Glenn and Alan show! I met Glenn at Heathrow Airport, London on the 25th January and Glenn kindly blagged me into the BA business lounge with him. We were so relaxed sipping champagne that we nearly missed the flight and had to run a long way to slide onto the plane as the doors were about to close!

Another new bird around our first hotel - Brown-eared Bulbul.

A very long flight then finally we landed in Tokyo, Japan, all went smoothly and we were soon in a taxi to our first hotel. After a quick freshen up Glenn and I went out to explore the area around the hotel. It was a rather urban area but had some trees and formal gardens but hardly any birds! Dusky Thrush hopped about on the close mown lawn, Brown-eared Bulbuls shot about but too fast for our cameras and we had brief views of Japanese Whiteyes. We came across the first of many vending machines, this one offering drinks and snacks including hot canned coffee! We later discovered that this wasn’t as bad as you might first think.

Back at the hotel all the staff were just so nice, and this was the way of the Japanese people, so lovely, so polite and so helpful, how wonderful. After dinner our guide Charley Hesse, an old friend, popped in to check we were OK and make plans for the morning.

Glenn and I enjoyed a superb breakfast on the 26th January at the hotel but swallowed hardest when we settled the bill, £21 each for breakfast! We should have eaten a lot more! We thanked goodness that meals were included in the tour from now on. Charley arrived and we met Tyler, a Canadian birder, who was also joining us. So we had our Japan team, just four us so plenty of room in the minivan, maybe as well three dropped out! Japanese minivans are just that, mini.

Charley was taking us on a twitch right away, a Naumann’s Thrush, a scarce visitor to Japan, had been seen in Mizumoto Park on the outskirts of Tokyo. When we reached the park it was grey and raining but calm and mild. It was a huge park and we couldn’t see any other birders or more likely here photographers looking at a rare thrush.

We enjoyed amazing views of a young Goshawk in the park sadly the light was awful for photos.

We walked around the huge park enjoying the regular birds of a well treed Tokyo park, Dusky Thrushes, Brown-headed Thrush, lifer, White-cheeked Starlings, Azure-winged Magpies, Hawfinches and more. The large lakes here held plenty of waterfowl and we had great looks at Eurasian Wigeon, Pochard, Tufted Duck and of more interest Eastern Spot-billed Ducks. A redhead Smew was also great to see but no sign of the rarity. Charley chatted to some locals and they told him to try an area further into the park. Still no sign of birders or cameras as we had hoped for – to give a clue where to look! But we did see a lot of Dusky Thrushes, some 200, feeding in an open grassy area. We began checking through them and also watching Buff-bellied Pipits, Oriental Greenfinches and Oriental Turtle Doves. After a while I finally saw a different thrush, fair way off but looked good even in the steady rain, I grabbed Charley’s scope and bingo the Naumann’s Thrush was found! We all enjoyed good scope views but the rain meant the photos were awful, still a super bird though not a lifer for me, one in the UK many years ago. The thrush in the bag we had a quick look for some other special birds Charley knew were about and soon enjoyed close views of Long-tailed Rosefinch, lifer, though somewhat upstaged by a juvenile female Goshawk catching and killing a feral pigeon in front of us, Goshawks are big!

The bird was well worth waiting for - a stunning male Pallas's Rosefinch!

We then had a long drive, Japan has great roads and not really that much traffic so getting around was fine. Climbing up into wooded hills, late afternoon we reached a spot where local bird photographers were feeding the birds. We joined four chaps already on site and quickly saw stunning Varied Tits coming to the seed just yards away, wonderful. A few Rustic Buntings, Willow Tits and Eurasian Nuthatch were also coming to feed here. But “the” bird was nowhere to be seen. Time was ticking away then a brown and red bird dropped in right in front of us, Pallas’s Rosefinch, wow! A female or immature male but a lifer for the three of us, super. More of these finches arrived in various brown and red plumages until at last the hoped for adult male arrived, oh my! What a stunning bird, pink with a white beard and wing-bars what a show-stopper! Cameras went crazy as everyone tried to capture this beautiful bird and take the memory home with us. We enjoyed amazing views of the Pallas’s Rosefinches and other birds before we dragged ourselves away and headed off to our nearby hotel. A great first day of Japanese birding with 14 new species for my life list!

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