Summer Birding in Japan

Japan is now firmly established as a superb winter birding destination. Since the early 1980s, when I first began writing about the delights of winter in Japan and leading the first birding tours here, winter Japan has become a destination visited by most of the major international bird tour companies, many smaller companies too, and many individuals and private groups.

I led the first major summer bird tour of Japan for a British company back in June 1987, yet since then summer tours have proven less popular than winter tours, perhaps because of the perceived lack of dramatic up-close spectacles attractive to the increasing numbers of birders carrying cameras, or keen on digiscoping, and perhaps because of the high costs of travelling to multiple islands in the bubble-era Japan of the 1990s. Summer in Japan, though, is a superb time for birding with a much greater diversity of species to look for, limited only by the amount of time that can be devoted to seeking out regional specialties and endemics.

The opportunity in summer 2013, for me to squeeze in, between international tours, travel from Okinawa to Hokkaido, by way of Amami Oshima, central Honshu and the Izu Islands, looking for birds and other wildlife with Dr Robert Kleiger, was an irresistible one. The trip provided an opportunity to experience the widest possible array of mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians that make up part of the fascinating biodiversity of Japan. The trip exceeded expectations for each of these groups, with 216 bird species, 12 mammal species and 16 species of amphibians and reptiles; it allowed me to travel the length of the country in one continuous trip (something I haven’t done for several years), to catch up with local birders and naturalists in each region, and to reflect on thirty years of travels around Japan.

Late spring and early summer (late May and early June) are important periods for migrants moving through east Asia – including Japan – and for breeding residents, making this an ideal window of opportunity for summer birding in Japan. In travelling the length of the country, the challenges are to reach Hokkaido after the very last of the summer visitors have arrived, while starting early enough to avoid the approaching rainy season in the south, and the onset of summer heat in Honshu that causes cicada noise to rise to such heights that most bird song cannot be heard after the first hour of the day if it is sunny. Furthermore, the weather at this time of year can be variable and unpredictable making for some interesting challenges. We were extremely fortunate with the weather throughout the trip, we were not hampered by typhoons and the only rains we encountered didn’t dampen either our spirits or our birding opportunities, in fact we had some of the best frogs and some of the best birds on rainy nights and days.

Each journey around Japan depends very much on the target species for those involved, whether they have been in Japan before and on which species they wish to focus, hence no single trip provides a complete indication of what is possible. In the case of this most recent trip, Robert Kleiger, a widely travelled birder from the United States, had visited Japan and other parts of East Asia on several previous occasions, including a complete winter trip to Japan with me, and a spring trip to Hong Kong, so was very much focused on Japanese endemics, East Asian specialties and summer visitors here that he had not previously encountered. Our goal was to enjoy birding at a reasonable pace in as wide a range of habitats as possible, though that did include the occasional 18-19 hour day, starts mostly at around 05:00, and rather little sleep! Had we moved on more rapidly from location to location we might have encountered more species (though we also felt that by staying longer at each site we found more, so perhaps there is a balance there), and we did not access high altitude habitats either in Honshu or Hokkaido, so all of the species associated with those are lacking from the list. Nevertheless, the birds we found, watched and photographed, made for a very pleasurable and unique trip, in great company. We had a very enjoyable first day on 28 May in the company of Lisa Leung Indelicato and Shannon Fox in southern Okinawa, and a very wet, but equally enjoyable final day in the field in Chiba and Ibaraki prefectures with Chris Cook. In between, we met up with several of my old friends and colleagues in northern Okinawa, central Honshu and east Hokkaido, making for a very enjoyable time.  

When I wrote Birds of Japan in the 1980s, reviewing the avifauna of the archipelago, I found myself making repeated comparisons between what was described in the ornithological literature of the 1880s and in the 1980s. Dramatic change is not unexpected over the course of a century, and there was plentiful evidence for that change, but it was impersonal, somehow detached. This journey led me to look back over the relatively short timescale of my own experiences in Japan, drawing out some of the inescapable contrasts I have witnessed personally between the early 1980s and the early 2010s, the greatest realization is how much has changed during that shorter period. While travel has become ever easier, faster and more efficient, and information so much more readily available over those three decades, when I compare my earliest notebooks, with my most recent, it becomes even more dramatically clear just how many species have undergone changes in status and distribution; there have been some gains, but most have been losses.

Amongst reed bed birds, Schrenck’s Bitterns no longer breed, Yellow Bitterns have disappeared from once famed sites, and Black-browed Reed Warblers too seem missing from a number of their old haunts where they were once common. The steady range contraction and decline in many of Japan’s summer breeders occurring in forested, woodland and wetland areas that became noticeable in the 1990s and 2000s, not only continues, but, at least in Hokkaido this year, that decline seems to have gone into free fall. Many species previously widespread and abundant now have to be targeted and sought out. The loss of the once-common Yellow-breasted Bunting from Hokkaido is perhaps well known. Common speculation is that the buntings disappeared (trapped/hunted/eaten) on their wintering grounds in China. That Siberian Rubythroat and Long-tailed Rosefinch seem to be following the same trajectory is probably less talked about; they may be suffering from loss of habitat on their wintering grounds, as perhaps are Brown-headed Thrush, Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler and Lanceolated Warbler. These species were missing from many of their traditional sites this summer, as were a number of others, notably Olive-backed Pipit.

Species once common on the Izu Islands (Streaked Shearwater, Grey-faced Buzzard and Eurasian Woodcock) no longer breed there because of competition from or predation by introduced Japanese Weasels. Thankfully the issue of the introduced Small Asian Mongoose in Okinawa and Amami Oshima which was making inroads into endemic and indigenous wildlife populations on those islands is now being tackled, and tackled with some success it seems. According to local naturalists, increases in a wide range of frog species and in the Amami Woodcock population have been noted, and they were certainly easily found this summer. That something similar, to eradicate the introduced weasels on Miyake-jima, is not being done there makes a mockery of the protected wildlife area status of much of the island. The almost complete loss of the lizards that were once common on Miyake and provided food for nestling Grey-faced Buzzards can be put down to the numbers of weasels and feral cats on the island, likewise the loss of ground nesting birds such as woodcocks, and the shift in behaviour of the Izu Thrushes.

Whereas sites in central Honshu have changed considerably and visibly over the last 30 years as a result of continued development, sites in east Hokkaido have changed least because of the lower human population there, yet bird populations in east Hokkaido have seemingly suffered as much if not more. The decline in Hokkaido’s summer birds seems not to be the result of changes within Hokkaido, and may perhaps only be explained by changes to the wintering grounds or migratory stop over sites.

One of the most spectacular changes, which has taken place just in the last 10 years, is that in the behaviour of the Okinawa Rail. When I conducted research into the status and distribution of this species in the early 1980s, very soon after its discovery, it was elusive, hard to see, best heard at night, and best found when roosting on trees near forest tracks. Now in the northeast of Okinawa, in the Ada area, especially near the pig farms there, it frequently wanders in the open, suns itself and preens beside roads, and can be encountered at any hour of the day or night. Elsewhere in Yambaru it can be heard during the day or at night, and can also be encountered relatively frequently beside forest roads or crossing them. Where photography of this species was a major challenge 20 or 30 years ago, now it is simply a matter of spending a morning in their favoured area and waiting for one or more individuals to relax and preen in view. Sighting 20 or more in a day is now a reasonable goal. Less spectacular, though noticeable, is that Chinese Bulbul, once confined to southern Okinawa, now occurs commonly as far north as the northernmost cape, Hedo-misaki, though not yet, it seems on Amami Oshima. 

Such ‘long-term’ changes in bird populations are only noticeable to those of us who have been in the field visiting the same sites over several decades. Visitors, with just a brief window into Japan’s avifauna may be unaware of such range changes or behavioural changes, however they will still find a wonderful abundance of species as attested to by what Robert and I found during our trip.

In 2016, in the company of Terry & Jenny Cloudman, Jim & Linda Hargrove, and my wife Mayumi, I was able to make a similar north to south journey through Japan. As one would expect, the diversity of birds differed somewhat from the previous "all Japan birding tour" described above, much of the difference in the species total being attributable to differences in the weather between the years (2016 has seen a super El Nino event which has impacted Japan). While the total number of birds seen was somewhat fewer than in 2013, it was not lacking in quality at all. Furthermore, in 2016 we found many more species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

For details of these two "all Japan birding tours" see their relevant pages.

© 2016 Mark Brazil

Last updated: 20160808