Birding Japan Throughout the Year

Japan, a chain of hundreds of islands off the Asian continent stretching in an arc for over 3,000 km, is a paradise for birdwatchers. Well over 600 species have been recorded so far, and there are also over a dozen endemic species, too. 

To foreign birders, the country is famous for its winter concentrations of cranes: 14,000 or more Hooded Crane and White-naped Crane at Arasaki, in southern Kyushu, and hundreds of Red-crowned Crane near Kushiro, in eastern Hokkaido. That same island boasts a gathering of Steller's Sea Eagles along the Shiretoko Peninsula and, in the town of Rausu, the famed stakeout for the endangered Blakiston's Fish Owl

Foreign birdwatchers often follow a set path during a winter visit, taking in the cranes in Kyushu, the forests of Karuizawa, the Izu Islands south of Tokyo, and east Hokkaido. Also on the list for some are Okinawa and Amami-Oshima, way down in the Nansei-shoto or the southwest islands, the culture of the ancient capital of Kyoto, and occasionally other destinations such as Katanokamoike, in Ishikawa Prefecture, and Lake Izunuma in Miyagi Prefecture -- both worth visiting for impressive numbers of waterfowl. 

In the south, thousands of White-naped and Hooded cranes gather at Arasaki, near Izumi in Kagoshima Prefecture, between mid-November and late February, and among them, if you look closely, you'll likely find a few Common Crane and Sandhill Crane.

Some winters, if you are really lucky, you might even find a rare Siberian Crane or Demoiselle Crane among them. 

At the opposite end of the archipelago,in eastern Hokkaido, cranes of another species -- the Red-crowned Crane can easily be seen at three feeding sites around Tsurui village and Akan town. Over on the east coast of Hokkaido, the magnificent Steller's Sea Eagle can be found, sometimes in abundance, at Rausu and at other places along the coastline such as Lake Furen, near Nemuro, and Lake Akkeshi, on the south coast. Never very far away from these are White-tailed Sea Eagle, and one attraction during the cold winter months is watching the interaction of eagles and cranes competing for live fish at Tancho no Sato, in Akan town.

Japan is a wonderful place in winter for wildfowl, and with a bit of perseverance (and some luck!) in coastal areas and at lakes and along rivers, it is possible to see 20 or more species of ducks, as well as several species of geese and both Whooper Swan and Bewick's Swan.

Recommended waterfowl locations around the country are Lake Izunuma in Miyagi Prefecture, Fukushima-gata and Sakata near Niigata City, Lake Biwa near Kyoto, Miike in Miyazaki Prefecture, and the Ogata area in Akita Prefecture. 

For those unable to get out of the capital, right in the centre of Tokyo there is Shinobazu pond at Ueno, which attracts good numbers of duck of several species. There are even Mandarin Duck in Yoyogi Park, just south of Shinjuku, and this species, as well as Falcated Duck and various other waterfowl, can often be seen on the moat of the Imperial Palace.

In east Hokkaido, flocks of colourful Harlequin Duck are sometimes abundant around the rocky headlands, and they are never too far from Rausu Harbour. The area also holds large numbers of Black Scoter and Stejneger's Scoter, Long-tailed Duck and the occasional rare visitor such as Surf Scoter or Bufflehead

Read Winter Birding in Hokkaido for more on that season.

It is always worth scanning through duck flocks in the depths of winter as various vagrant species turn up: Scaly-sided Merganser, Bufflehead, Canvasback, Baer's Pochard, Lesser Scaup and Ferruginous Duck, to name a few, have been found in recent years.

Another species high on the list of visiting birders is the colourful Baikal Teal. Formerly common during the winter months in both Japan and on the Korean Peninsula, it is now restricted to a few places, although birds can often be seen wherever there are concentrations of wildfowl. Katanokamo-ike in Ishikawa Prefecture hosts what is probably the largest flock in Japan, but numbers fluctuate and are never the same two winters in a row. 

For seabirds, the ferry routes to and from the Izu Islands, south of Tokyo, and the northern route from Oarai to Tomakomai, can be very productive during the winter months, and during the summer, different species can be encountered. Albatrosses are often present in large numbers, with Laysan Albatross being the commonest. From late January until late April, Short-tailed Albatross can often be seen on these two routes, and there are usually a few birds lingering off northern Honshu during the summer months, too. 

The Short-tailed Albatross, an endemic breeding species, is the rarest of them all in Japanese waters. It breeds on Torishima, some 800 km south of Tokyo, during the winter, and during this season feeding birds can regularly be seen around Oshima in the northern Izu Islands. There is also a small isolated breeding population on the disputed Senkaku Islands, near Okinawa, and a new "insurance" colony is in the process of being established on Mukojima, in the Ogasawaras. 

More good news, too, about Short-tailed Albatross: one or two pairs have recently successfully bred at the albatross colony on Midway Island, northwest of the Hawaiian islands. You can read more about the recovery of the Short-tailed Albatross in BBC Wildlife April 2014 issue in an article by Mark Brazil and Tui de Roy.

During the winter of 2012/2013 a new colony of Black-footed Albatross was discovered on Hachijo-Kojima, a small island off the northewest coast of Hachijojima, so it looks as if this species is expanding its range.

On the Oarai-Tomakomai route during the winter, alcids are often present in large numbers, with flocks of Crested Auklet, Least Auklet, Rhinoceros Auklet, and Ancient Murrelet. During the summer and autumn, vast flocks of Short-tailed Shearwater are offshore in the Pacific, and sometimes tens of thousands can be seen moving north. 

Japan, being a "shima-guni," or island nation, is well blessed with ferry routes. Look at a map of Japan and you'll see ferry routes marked all over the archipelago. However, despite the abundance of routes, only a few seem to be productive, and they all depend on the season and the wind and weather conditions. What can be a great trip birdwise in December can be virtually devoid of seabirds in mid-summer. 

While the now-defuct Tokyo-Kushiro ferry is just a happy memory for Mark and I, the present Oarai-Tomakomai route is a productive one, as is the Nagoya-Sendai-Tomakomai ferry and the convenient daily sailing from Tokyo to Miyakejima or Hachijojima in the Izu Islands. On a less regular basis, there is a sailing to Chichijima, in the Ogasawara Islands 1,000 km south of Tokyo. 

Through the Sea of Japan there is a route linking Maizuru in Kyoto Prefecture to Otaru, west of Sapporo, and in the south, there is a route linking Kagoshima with the islands as far south as Okinawa. 

Beyond Okinawa, there are ferry services around the islands of  Ishigaki, Iriomote and Miyako -- all good -- if expensive -- winter birding destinations. 

Despite Japan's reputation as a nation of whale-meat eaters there are, surprisingly, a number of dedicated whale-watching tours in various parts of the country, and these of course have the potential for observing seabirds. 

Locations include Rausu and Utoro on the Shiretoko Peninsula, both Chichijima and Hahajima in the Ogasawara Islands, Naha in Okinawa, Wakayama Prefecture, near Osaka, and Kochi, on Shikoku lsland. 

Utoro even boasts Brown Bear-watching cruises! 

There are no such thing in Japan as dedicated pelagic trips, but from Ochiishi and Habomai harbours on the Nemuro Peninsula in east Hokkaido, boat trips around the immediate area are organized with the aim of connecting visitors with marine wildlife. 

One of the target species on the Ochiishi boat tour is Tufted Puffin, a hard bird to get in  Hokkaido nowadays. 

Likewise, at Rausu during the depths of late winter, the not-to-be-missed boat trips take visitors to the sea ice for truly out-of-this-world close-up encounters with Steller's Sea Eagle and other wildlife.

In the Izu Islands, in March and April, there is an opportunity to join a cruise to the breeding area of Japanese Crested Murrelet on Sanbondake, a group of stacks off the west coast of Miyakejima.

During migration time, many Japanese birders -- and 10 times more photographers -- can be found at places such as Hegurajima in Ishikawa Prefecture, Tobishima in Yamagata Prefecture and Tsushima in Nagasaki Prefecture. These islands, during certain weather conditions, act as  magnets for migrating birds, and all have long lists of quality birds to their names. 

Other, less well known destinations include Teuri off the west coast of Hokkaido, the Oki Islands off Shimane Prefecture in the Sea of Japan, and the many headlands all around the country which can turn up anything at any time. 

Surprisingly, some city centre parks -- green islands in a sea of concrete -- turn up some star birds: Japanese Night Heron at Osaka Castle, plus the infamous one at a small city "pocket park" in east Tokyo,  Baer's Pochard on a swimming pool in Suminoe Park in Osaka, and another at Kasai Rinkai Koen in east Tokyo, just a stone's throw from Tokyo Disneyland, Asiatic Dowitcher at Tokyo Port Wild Bird Park, Collared Scops Owl in Yoyogi Park in central Tokyo, are just a few examples. 

As spring turns into summer, the rainy season arrives from the south and, with each passing day, humidity levels rise. Officially, the rainy season is over by about July 20. Then, humidity soars and, in most years, the first of the typhoons head up from the central Pacific, at times bringing heavy rain, strong winds and traffic disruption. With the humidity at its highest in August and early September, birding in the lowlands is not a very pleasurable experience. At this time of the year, hiking in the Japan Alps, which extend from Yamanashi Prefecture north to Nagano Prefecture and Toyama Prefecture, is always a good alternative as, at 3,000 metres, the air is definitely less humid. 

High-altitude species like Rock Ptarmigan, Spotted Nutcracker, Alpine Accentor and Japanese Accentor can be found at such places as Mount Norikura on the Gifu/Nagano border and Tateyama, in Toyama Prefecture -- both places accessible by public transport, and with accommodation, too. 

Another popular place for both Japanese birders and visitors alike is Karuizawa, in Nagano Prefecture. On the west side of town, about 2 km north of Naka-Karuizawa station, is Yacho no Mori, or Wild Bird Forest. 

During the cooler summer months, from late May onward, the summer breeding birds, such as Blue & White Flycatcher and Narcissus Flycatcher, Common, Lesser, and Oriental cuckoos, and Eastern Crowned Warbler can be heard singing at dawn. Also in the area are Brown-headed Thrush and Japanese Thrush, and Japanese Yellow Bunting have been seen. 

Karuizawa and surrounding areas, such as Kose Onsen, Hanareyama and the forests around Lake Myogi, are good places for Copper Pheasant -- they are all over the hills and in the forests, but their secretive nature makes them hard to find at times. During the spring and early summer the males can be located by listening for the drumming sound they make with their wings while displaying, but actually seeing one is a different matter! 

As Japan lies along the Pacific flyway, it is a good place to see shorebirds during the spring and autumn migration seasons. 

Although industrialisation has devastated much of the habitat around the country, and Japan's penchant for concrete has destroyed even more, there are still a number of places that are worth looking at. 

On the east side of Tokyo, the easily accessible sites of Yatsu-Higata and Sanbanze regularly turn up interesting species, and should be checked (as should tide times!) between the middle of April and mid-May and again in August and September. During the winter Sanbanze is home to flocks of Pied Oystercatcher of the eastern race osculans.

Other locations for shorebirds include the Shiokawa estuary, not far from Toyohashi in Aichi Prefecture, the Daijyugarami area in Saga Prefecture, which has hosted both Asiatic and Long-billed dowitchers, and the Kuma River estuary, a few kilometres southwest of Yatsushiro City in Kumamoto Prefecture (also a well-known winter site for gulls, especially Saunder's, Heuglin's and, occasionally, Pallas's). 

Further south, on Amami-Oshima, Ose Beach, just north of the airport, is a good place for  shorebirds during the winter months, and on Okinawa, the Manko estuary in Naha is the local hotspot for shorebirds at the same time. 

Throughout the country, during the northward spring migration, shorebirds on their way to Siberia drop in at flooded rice paddies, and it is not unusual to find species such as Grey-tailed Tattler, Red-necked Stint, Sharp-tailed, Wood and Green sandpipers, Black-tailed Godwit (of the eastern race melanuroides) and Whimbrel feeding in their favoured habitat. 

In reed-beds, the Oriental Reed Warbler is one of the commonest species, alongside Chinese Yellow Bittern. Further north, Black-browed Reed Warbler can be seen, and in east Hokkaido, in marshy areas, Gray's Grasshopper and Lanceolated Warbler are breeding species during the  summer months. 

Predictably, city birding is often confined to parks and rivers, and the main protagonists are Large-billed Crow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Brown-eared Bulbul and Oriental Turtle Dove.

But, if you look more closely, over the course of a year several tens of species can be seen.

In Tokyo, Barn Swallow can be seen flying around the upscale Ginza shopping area or in trendy Shibuya, Falcated and Mandarin ducks can be found on the Imperial Palace moat, and Eastern Azure-winged Magpie are usually not very far away from the skyscraper area on the west side of Shinjuku station.

In Osaka, the grounds of Osaka Castle are like a green oasis in the concrete jungle, and attract migrating flycatchers, warblers, thrushes and a variety of other species.  

So whether you are stuck in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka or some other city during a business trip, whether you are fortunate to visit and travel throughout the country or even to live here and find the time to explore Japan's countryside more extensively, you are never too far away from a good spot and to indulge yourself in some good birding!

Read Summer Birding in Japan for more on that season.

© 2016 Mark Brazil & Chris Cook

Last updated: 20160724