Japan, in winter, is home to several million ducks, geese and swans which move south in October and
November from their breeding grounds in Siberia and the Russian Far East before spreading out across the Japanese archipelago. Most of the concentrations of these birds are in Hokkaido or on Honshu, but smaller numbers of ducks winter in Shikoku and Kyushu, and sometimes geese and swans even get as far south as Okinawa and other southwestern islands – Greater White-fronted Goose, Greylag Goose, Bean Goose and Swan Goose have even been recorded on Okinawa main island!
Vast numbers of geese migrate through Hokkaido, where they rest at ornithologically important staging areas such as Sarobetsu in the north, Miyajima-numa in the centre, Lake Utonai, near Tomakomai, the Tokachi Plain, Lake Tofutsu east of Abashiri, Lake Shirarutoro northeast of Kushiro and Lake Furen, near Nemuro. As autumn progresses into winter, these birds move south or southwest and fan out across central and northern Honshu, to places such as Izunuma in Miyagi Prefecture, the Ogata region of Akita Prefecture, Lake Shinji in Shimane Prefecture and, in Niigata Prefecture, Fukushimagata and Sakata, east and west of Niigata City, respectively.
Fukushimagata, to the east, attracts several hundred Middendorf's Bean Geese, as well as Whooper Swan and Bewick's Swan, various species of duck, including such sought after species as Baikal Teal and Falcated Duck.
In turn, the sheer number of birds there serves as a rich feeding area for predators, and up to 10 species may be seen in a day: White-tailed Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Northern Goshawk and Eastern Marsh Harrier are just some of them.
On the west side of Niigata City is Sakata, another large lake surrounded by rice paddies that serve as a
feeding area for Bewick's Swans and geese. Greater White-fronted Geese are the commonest, and in recent years, Sakata has attracted a small, but growing winter population of Lesser (or Cackling) Canada Geese and Lesser Snow Geese. One recent rarity that appeared was a wayward Japanese Crested Ibis from the released captive-bred population on Sado Island, off the coast of Niigata Prefecture.
In midwinter there are several thousand duck on the lake, so a close examination is likely to turn up something of interest – Smew, or Baikal Teal, and perhaps even a Baer's Pochard, which have occasionally been recorded here.
Note, however, that from the observation centre, you will be looking towards the west, and from mid-afternoon onward the distant birds on the lake are nothing more than silhouettes – morning is definitely the best time to scan through the duck flocks.
For Fukushimagata, drive east on Route 7 (or the Nihonkai-Niigata expressway) from Niigata City. At
Toyosaka, turn south onto Route 46, drive southeast for about 4 km, then change onto Route 254. Fukushimagata is signposted on Route 46 soon after coming off the expressway.
Fukushimagata location: http://diddlefinger.com/?ll=37.910075,139.250550&z=15&t=m
To reach Sakata, follow Route 116 (Niigata-nishi bypass) west out of Niigata city, then turn right onto Route 46, and right again onto Route 2. Along Route 46, check any flocks of geese for rarities such as Aleutian Canada, Lesser Snow or even Swan Goose.
Sakata location: http://diddlefinger.com/?ll=37.817446,138.877316&z=14&t=m
Information (in Japanese) http://www.ramsarsite.jp/jp_18.html
Nearby, accommodation can be found at Meiwa Sunpia hotel/hot spring (025-239-3232).
Around Niigata Station there are many reasonably priced business hotels, as well as car hire companies.
To reach Niigata City, there are express trains from Osaka (via Kanazawa or Toyama) and Tokyo, and there is a regular shinkansen service from Tokyo to Niigata.
There are also night buses between the two cities, which are much cheaper than trains.
Niigata Kotsu: http://www.niigata-kotsu.co.jp/kengaikousoku/index.shtml
Niigata tourist information: http://enjoyniigata.com/english/
Train information in English: http://www.hyperdia.com/en/