Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Japan, Feb 2018: Honshu leg 1


February 3:
We departed JFK (New York) mid-afternoon on ANA Flight NH109. There were many empty seats in coach, so we were able to spread out. A long flight, but not unbearable. Included beer and wine didn’t hurt.

February 4:
We arrived on-time or early to HND in Tokyo and went to the courtesy desk for our shuttle to the off-site Nippon Rent-A-Car. The shuttle was held up, and the agent told us that we would be taken there via taxi instead. A 5-minute drive later and we were at the rental agency, where our car was being prepared for pickup. The rental agency paid for the taxi. Moments later we were in our rental car. We had booked lodging about 45 minutes to the northwest, en route to Karuizawa, at the Flexstay Inn Ekoda. The first drive of the trip was uneventful. After some major confusion with parking instructions due to language barrier, we eventually found our way to our room. We crashed for a few hours before it was time to rise and find some birds.

February 5:
Up and out early with a goal of getting to Karuizawa, which was about 2 hours away, for first birdable light. We arrived at 6:45am to bright blue skies and zero wind. We began birding along the Kose-Rindo Road at the Wild Bird Forest with our biggest targets being Japanese Waxwing and Copper Pheasant. This was an invasion year for the waxwings, and small numbers had been seen here for a few weeks. It did not take long for us to spot our first few JAPANESE WAXWINGS in trees over the road. The mistletoe berries along this road had kept them pretty reliable here. The ticks kept coming in the form of DUSKY THRUSH, VARIED and JAPANESE TITS, and JAPANESE WOODPECKER.

Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker

Varied Tit
Dave and Julian walk the Kose-Rindo Road

Continuing our chicken search, we took to the trails. A quick look at a WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER was nice. Alas, no pheasant.

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S42505583

Around midday we opted for a change of scenery and went to the Shiotsubo Hotel to watch the feeders for JAPANESE ACCENTOR. This is THE place to see that bird in winter. We walked inside to watch the setup through the windows, and we had an accentor on the ground around the feeders almost immediately. The feeders were pretty quiet otherwise, so we did not linger. On our way out of the property we had nice looks at our first JAPANESE GROSBEAKS and our first couple PALE THRUSHES.

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S42505587

The habitat behind the famous 7-11 would be our next stop. We arrived to find a large area of new construction behind said market, so we were unsure if some/most of the habitat had been trashed or not. (We still do not know the answer to that question). Anyway, it was birdy enough regardless. More JAPANESE GROSBEAK, many ORIENTAL GREENFINCH, and our first HAWFINCH were coming to a feeder setup at the residences in back. Further back there is a slope of woodland with a stream that runs through it. Julian went to check it out and flushed a SOLITARY SNIPE from the stream. We had a heck of a time relocating it, but eventually we did. It had joined a second individual, and they both flushed back towards the original bird’s section of stream. We actually had nice flight looks as they doubled back past us.

Active construction behind the Karuizawa 7-11. Has good habitat been developed?

A few buntings in the area included RUSTIC and MEADOW. Among the common Dusky Thrushes were two WHITE’S THRUSHES along the stream. A CHINESE HWAMEI (introduced) picked through leaf litter on the hillside.

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S42507072

With not much light left, we would give the ISAK fields west of town a shot, with an eye out for rosefinches and Japanese Green Pheasants. Other than some stellar views of MEADOW BUNTINGS in evening light, it was very quiet here.

Meadow Bunting
Night at Karuizawa Pension Sato no Nukumori, which took a while to find due to a map error (forget if it was the car GPS or Google Maps in the wrong). Cheap room was just fine for our needs.

February 6-7:
There was a very light snowfall overnight, just enough for an atmospheric coating, but we awoke to fine birding conditions. 

packing the car in the morning
This morning we would hit some familiar locations in search of the birds we missed yesterday, most notably both pheasants and rosefinches. This was actually quite a poor winter, up to this point, for rosefinches. Long-tailed Rosefinch, normally reliable around Karuizawa most winters, seemed far scarcer locally than we were expecting. And there had been zero reports of Pallas’s Rosefinch, which is an irruptive species that is often missed. We did not even sniff a rosefinch and again dipped on Copper Pheasant. We spent the first few hours of the morning returning to the Kose-Rindo Road/Wild Bird Forest followed by the 7-11. The highlight of the morning was probably the JAPANESE SEROW that we spotted skulking in the forest.

Japanese Serow
Brown-eared Bulbul
It was soon mid-morning, and our Karuizawa birding was over. We had to settle for a few misses here, perhaps not surprisingly given the brevity of our visit. We departed the town for the Jigokudani Monkey Park. Seeing Japanese Macaques (“Snow Monkeys”) was a priority for us, so we would spend the early afternoon with them. En route we encountered a roadside group of five more JAPANESE WAXWINGS. 

Japanese Waxwing




Later, driving through an orchard-laden valley, we encountered a few flocks of AZURE-WINGED MAGPIES, the only ones we would see on this trip. Jigokudani itself was birdless midday. We took the half-hour long walk to the springs to find the monkeys – a whole lot of them – cavorting through the valley. The place has a very touristy feel, especially with there being so many, um…tourists. This is what we expected at midday, though. It was recommended that we arrive early, at park opening to beat crowds, which would have been wise if we had not needed that morning to bird. Still, this was an experience we would highly recommend. The macaques were abundant and tame, but they did not interact with the humans, which was a relief. They were doing their thing…bathing, grooming, eating, drinking, etc. If you plan on taking photos, a long lens will do you no good. Our second SEROW of the trip, this one more in the open, was a nice treat.








Japanese Macaques

Serow

the valley of the Snow Monkey

Before we knew it, it was time to leave. We could not afford to linger because we were about to embark on the most logistically challenging and stressful portion of the itinerary. We had to drive back to Tokyo, return the rental car, get transport to the train station near the ferry terminal where we would store our large bags, and hope to catch the ferry in time. It was a scramble!

To make a long story short, Julian drove expertly through and around traffic to get us into Tokyo at a time that gave us a good shot at making the ferry. We had overstayed a bit with the monkeys, which put us behind the eight ball. The trickiest part would be getting ourselves from the car rental location to the Hamamatsucho train station in a timely manner. We had initially planned on taking the subway, but we were feeling very tight on time and decided it would be faster to take a taxi. Explaining our predicament to them, the folks at Nippon Rent-A-Car called us a taxi. It was expensive ($50!), but it got us to the train station with enough time for us to find the luggage lockers. We would take only small packs on the ferry, leaving our big luggage behind. Each large locker fit one large suitcase. Lucky for us, there were three empty ones available. Quantities seemed limited, though, so be warned, especially if visiting during a busy time of year. Cost was 600 yen per large locker per calendar day, so when taking the overnight ferry, you will find you need to add an extra 600 YEN to retrieve your bag. From the train station we walked to the ferry terminal, picked up our tickets, and grabbed a small dinner while we waited for boarding.

Once on the Tachibana-maru we found our way to the Special 2nd Class Cabins, which were bunks arranged in rows. These were not private rooms, but they may as well have been, because we had an entire row of bunks to ourselves. There were few passengers on board this large ship. 

Tachibana-maru
We had each purchased two one-way tickets: Special 2nd Class cabin from Tokyo to Miyakejima (nighttime), and 2nd Class cabin for the ride back (during the day). The 2nd Class cabin was merely divided floor space. As we would be seawatching from the deck on the way back, we did not need any sort of comfy sleeping situation and took the cheapest option for that leg.


The bunks (photo courtesy of ferry website)
2nd Class floor space
Our plan was to sleep in the bunks overnight, disembark upon arrival at Miyakejima at 5am, bird Miyakejima for a few endemics (Izu Thrush, Owston’s Tit, “Izu” Japanese Robin, and Japanese Wood-Pigeon), then catch the ferry back to Tokyo around midday and enjoy pelagic birding from the deck. BUT, winds were high and the seas were forecast to be around 3 meters. In these conditions, the ship might not be able to land on Miyakejima.

It turned out that we did arrive at 5am at Miyakejima, but the forecast for the afternoon was only for increasing wind, so we had a decision to make. We could disembark per the original plan and risk being stuck on the island if it could not dock for us on its return. OR, we could stay on board for the duration of the day, all the way to Hachijojima and back, forfeiting those four landbirds and sticking to just pelagic birding. We ultimately decided that we could not take the risk of being stuck on the island because we had an early flight out of Tokyo the next morning; missing that would have seriously gummed up our plans.

(Note that sometimes the ferry is entirely canceled due to high seas. We were told that we should start to be concerned at 3-4 meter seas, as that is around the cutoff.)

The next several minutes were quite comical. One of the female crew members, who did not speak a lick of English, realized that we had not disembarked as scheduled on our ticket and became very upset with us as we refused to leave the ship. We tried to explain what we were doing, and that we would have to book additional fare, but she did not understand. With the help of one of the other crew members, who understood enough English to facilitate communication, we finally got our point across. They were really quite polite about the whole thing, and I could understand that woman’s initial displeasure with us. In Japan one is expected to stick to schedule, and we certainly delayed the ship’s departure from Miyakejima while we figured that whole thing out.

With plenty of time for pelagic birding ahead, and already running on fumes, we went back to sleep as the ship proceeded towards Hachijojima. We were in no rush to get to the deck for first light because we knew from research that the stretch of sea between Miyakejima and Hachijojima tended to hold far fewer birds than the waters between Miyakejima and Tokyo.

After a bit more sleep and feeling much better we arrived at Hachijojima, where the ship would be docked for 20-30 minutes. Our first order of business was to disembark and go straight to the ticket office on the island so we could purchase our unexpected additional fare. Once that was taken care of, we had a handful of minutes to bird the island. We knew that IZU THRUSH was sometimes seen near the ferry dock, and we were lucky to find one rather quickly in some scrub! Nice save. A BLUE ROCK-THRUSH was on a jetty, a few JAPANESE CORMORANTS flew by, and we saw our first gulls of the trip.

As advertised, the leg from Hachijojima to Miyakejima was mostly bird-free. We did have a few quality seabirds, such as our first distant SHORT-TAILED ALBATROSS and a fleeting glimpse of JAPANESE MURRELET, a bonus bird for the trip. But we did not have anything on that leg that we wouldn’t see between Miyakejima and Tokyo.

The ship did end up landing for passengers at Miyakejima, so in hindsight we would have gotten away with the original plan. But I think that the decision we made was the right one as far as weighing risk versus reward with the information we had at the time.

Once on our way from Miyakejima, the pelagic birding picked up. We started with a nice variety of gulls: SLATY-BACKED, VEGA, BLACK-TAILED, and KAMCHATKA GULLS were in evidence, and our first of several BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES was nice. I eBirded the journey in ~10-mile legs to give a more accurate depiction of what we saw and where along the route. In total, we ended up tallying 10 LAYSAN ALBATROSS, 8 BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS, 14 SHORT-TAILED ALBATROSS, 26 albatross sp., 1 STREAKED SHEARWATER, 1 POMARINE JAEGER, 3 JAPANESE MURRELET, and 18 BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE. Views were mostly distant, some incredibly so with birds identified only via DSLR “chimping.” This is seawatching from a passenger ship, so you can only hope to intercept birds during your straight-line transect.

From what I could gather from other trip reports, we did well with albatrosses, poorly with Streaked Shearwaters (often abundant), and we did well to get the murrelet. Tristram’s Storm-Petrels are very hit-or-miss, usually missed but can appear in large numbers if the winds are right. Northern Fulmars are sometimes seen, and rarely a Bonin Petrel is reported. At least that is my understanding. Anything is possible with seabirds.


adult Short-tailed Albatross

immature Short-tailed Albatross

Laysan Albatross

immature Short-tailed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross
Majestic Mount Fuji was visible to our west as we approached sunset in Tokyo Bay. With no rush this time, we walked the 5-10 minutes to the Hamamatsucho station to retrieve luggage and navigated the subway. This initially was confusing, but with the help of friendly Japanese commuters, we were able to select the correct ticket for the zone of travel, and we found using Google maps and selecting the train option made the journey quite logical.   We arrived at the Haneda Inn for the night, where an English-speaking staff greeted us! Our stay here was quite good. We had negotiated a crazy first few days in Japan without any mishaps. From here on out the pace would be much less hectic.


 - NB

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