Japan, Feb 2018: Kyushu
We were soon on our way up the coast to the north as the rain only fell harder. Our arrival at the seawall/tsunami wall overlooking the Yatsushiro flats was timed well, as the tide was coming in, slowly covering the mud and pushing the birds closer to us. The flats were littered with several thousand NORTHERN PINTAIL and lesser numbers of other dabblers. A pair of RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS was new for us. Four spoonbills here were, not surprisingly, BLACK-FACED.
Haneda Inn offers buffet-style breakfast from 4am. They swiftly transferred us to HND for our direct flight to Kagoshima (KOJ). ANA’s domestic flights leave from Terminal 2. Check-in was a breeze, not a surprise for a domestic flight. We arrived to a seasonably cold day by local standards. We again rented our vehicle from Nippon via Tocoo; they have a shuttle van to their office, which is literally just across the street from the airport parking lot. Again, there were no issues with the rental.
We drove northwest towards Arasaki/Izumi, but we would stop en route along the Sendai River in Satsuma. We ended up spending three hours here; it was very birdy. We managed 43 species, highlights being 5 LONG-BILLED PLOVER, a cooperative CRESTED KINGFISHER at the northern bridge, many ASIAN HOUSE-MARTINS overhead, 3 JAPANESE WAGTAILS on the river, and 6 OLIVE-BACKED PIPITS in rice fields northeast of the north bridge. Actually, there were many more highlights, and most birds were firsts for the trip, but those are probably the “best” birds we had.
We would spend the rest of the day at the crane mecca of Arasaki/Izumi, specifically the East Fields followed by the Euchi River reedbeds. We had stunning weather and used every bit of daylight. The east fields were loaded with cranes, waterfowl, skylarks, pipits and wagtails. Some 5000 HOODED CRANES and 1500 WHITE-NAPED CRANES dotted the fields. Among them were a few each of COMMON and SANDHILL CRANES. There were no mega-rare crane species here this winter. Bird of the afternoon was probably the “Green-headed” EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL that popped up from a ditch along the road. Julian was all over the flight call of RED-THROATED PIPIT, which allowed us to pin down a few. REED BUNTING was the default bunting along the east field roads. We thoroughly enjoyed the crane spectacle, particularly as flocks of Hoodeds flew past in great afternoon light.
|Eastern Spot-billed Duck
We spent the waning minutes of daylight at the Euchi River reedbeds in search of Chinese Penduline-Tit, but all we could manage was possibly hearing a few birds calling in the distance. Perhaps we got there too late in the day. Two CHESTNUT-EARED BUNTINGS made the stop worth it for sure. In a wet ditch near the river we were treated to spitting-distance shadowy views of 2 RUDDY-BREASTED CRAKES and a BROWN-CHEEKED RAIL just moments and yards apart from one another!
|tasty Japanese eats
Night at Hotel King in Izumi.
We began this day where we ended the evening before, at the reed beds. This time we nailed about 10 CHINESE PENDULINE-TITS and headed for the crane center area for the first time. Feeding was happening, and the birds were abundant. Cranes and waterfowl especially were swarming. While we were watching the frenzy, we were surprised by 5 GEESE flying overhead incredibly backlit, which we figured were BEAN-GEESE. Knowing that they were good birds for the area, whatever they were, we followed their flight line and eventually found them feeding in a field just east of the bridge. There were actually 3 TUNDRA BEAN-GEESE and 2 GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE. Sweet!
Around the same time Nick had a look at our first BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL in flight. A HEN HARRIER quickly coursed very low over the fields. Another CHESTNUT-EARED BUNTING popped up. A large flock of RUSSET SPARROWS were conspicuous near the bridge. The same four crane species were again easily found, but one particular family group stole the show. A COMMON CRANE was paired with a COMMON x HOODED CRANE hybrid and had two young in tow. The young birds very much resembled Common Cranes. This was a fascinating surprise. There were a few rather gray-bodied Hooded Cranes also on site that makes one wonder if Common Crane genes are the culprit.
|hybrid crane family
We proceeded to a small estuary that borders the east fields at their east end. This seawall proved to be a great vantage point at low tide. Here we had our first looks at KENTISH PLOVERS, about 15 of them. Amongst them was a single LESSER SAND-PLOVER, a scarce winterer. A scouring of the ROOK flock revealed 8 or more DAURIAN JACKDAWS, seemingly all young birds. A sharp adult “TAIMYR” GULL, one of East Asia’s least-known large gull taxa, was seen well and photographed.
We spent the next couple hours poking our way along the coastline to the east. A random roadside pool held 3 EURASIAN SPOONBILLS and our first real look at a BLACK-FACED. We thought it would be a good idea to drive on top of the tsunami wall there…until the wall ended and we (Dave) had to reverse the vehicle to what served as an exit ramp. While up there we did have nice views of the water, but that stretch of coast was devoid of birds. A JAPANESE BUSH WARBLER, a common passerine in the area, threw us for a bit of a loop by foraging high in a pine tree. We also had another one or two BLUE ROCK-THRUSH and a couple more OLIVE-BACKED PIPITS. The harbors around there did not seem to hold many gulls, which was a bit of a bummer as Nick was hoping for some quality gull photography on this afternoon.
|Black-faced Spoonbill at right
|Japanese Bush Warbler
|Blue Rock Thrush
We finished with that coastal drive around midday and wanted to give a look nearby for Ochre-rumped Bunting (AKA Japanese Reed Bunting). I am still unsure of this species’ winter distribution in Japan, but it supposedly can occur around here in very small numbers. We searched in vain along reed beds on the east bank of the Komenotsu River. We didn’t turn up anything unusual or unique here, but it was birdy and we recorded 27 species including four species of bunting.
The rest of daylight would be spent at Kogawa Dam. We circumnavigated the lake, birding along the road and from the dam itself. We arrived around 2pm, which happened to be a good time for soaring raptors. After quick NORTHERN GOSHAWK and EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK sightings from the dam, we spotted a MOUNTAIN HAWK-EAGLE soaring to the south. Views were distant but prolonged and sufficient for ID. This would be one of the better birds we would find all trip. They’re around in appropriate habitat, but quite scarce and rarely seen. Along the lake road itself we ran into small pockets of passerines. We had our fair share of tits, thrushes, bulbuls and buntings. A massive flock of 150 MANDARIN DUCKS on the lake was a sweet sight. Two RYUKYU MINIVETS flew over the road, calling as they went. A single GOLDCREST was new for the trip too. After some intense searching we finally found our biggest target, a pair of GRAY BUNTINGS. They were obnoxiously skulky, but we all eventually scored decent views.
|An ex White-bellied Pigeon
Night again at Hotel King, Izumi.
Today was forecast to be soggy, and sure enough rain of varying intensity fell throughout the entire day. Knowing this, we made today our Yatsushiro day. The birding up the coast at Yatsushiro consists largely of scoping gulls, waterfowl, and shorebirds. Since the passerine birding would be light there, we figured it would best suit the rainy weather. But the coastal birding at Yatsushiro is largely tide-dependent, and we wanted to avoid dead low tide since everything would be scattered far out on the mudflats. That gave us a bit of time to kill in the morning, which we spent around the wet fields at Arasaki. It was mostly the same stuff, though we turned up two LITTLE RINGED PLOVERS and two more BLACK-FACED SPOONBILLS.
The weather was atrocious. It was pouring rain pretty much nonstop. Light was low and visibility was poor. This made studying the gulls and shorebirds a bit challenging. We couldn’t even see the cormorants roosting on offshore rocks nearly well enough to ID. Still, Julian picked out a nice adult MONGOLIAN GULL in breeding plumage among the smaller, darker, basic-plumaged VEGA GULLS. We had decent views, on the ground and in flight, of about 10 SAUNDERS’S GULLS. The large gull situation here was, at best, confusing. The issue primarily lies with “TAIMYR” GULL, a taxon that looks intermediate between Vega Gull and Heuglin’s Gull. It may be a hybrid between those two; more work needs to be done. I was hoping to get in a solid study session with these birds, but the weather would not allow. A SLATY-BACKED GULL or two added more variety to the mix. BLACK-HEADED and BLACK-TAILED GULLS were common. That was as many as seven gull species, depending on your taxonomic philosophy.
Of note, Pallas’s Gull had been recorded here for several winters in a row, but it has been a few winters since it has occurred. I don’t know the whole story, but this might have been just one bird that wintered for several years in a row there and is now gone. In other words, don’t count on it, but keep an eye out.
While navigating one of the many tsunami wall ramps, Dave briefly forgot that he wasn’t driving his pickup truck and scraped the front fender of the car at the base of the ramp. Our vehicle had pretty low clearance. Oops. At least you didn’t drop your camera, Dave! (Can you feel the foreshadowing?…)
As we drove our way further north up the coast, we noticed several SAUNDERS’S GULLS in flight and pulled over to find a flooded rice field full of them. Sixty-eight birds, to be exact. Mostly first cycles, but a few adults as well. Always nice to see a high percentage of young of a declining species. Other birds were commuting over the fields as we enjoyed the gulls, including two more BLACK-FACED SPOONBILLS. We were quite surprised to see a flock of three SWANS flying northward, and more surprised when we realized that two were WHOOPER SWANS and one was a “BEWICK’S” TUNDRA SWAN. Both species are unusual in the area.
We continued to poke our way through the wet fields. As we drove past a few farm houses surrounded by thickets and small trees, we flushed a dumpy-looking thing from the roadside that I could not immediately place. Luckily it landed further into the thickets – EURASIAN WOODCOCK. Actually two of them! A life look for me (Nick)…larger than I was expecting!
Even further north we came to yet another estuary. This must have been a weak lunar tide because there was still some exposed mudflat at dead high tide. There were loads of birds here, too. We spent more time sorting through the commoners in search of rares. Shorebirds were the main attraction here. We ended up with 8 species on the limited flats, which I imagine is solid late-winter diversity. Twenty-five BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER, 8 LESSER SAND-PLOVER, 12 KENTISH PLOVER, 3 EURASIAN CURLEW, 45 DUNLIN, 1 COMMON SANDPIPER, 6 COMMON GREENSHANK, 1 COMMON REDSHANK. We also had a hybrid EURASIAN x AMERICAN WIGEON among the many hundred Eurasians. We could have continued further and found more mudflats, but we finally lost light for the day.
Yatsushiro tide tables:
We did not have local lodging booked for that evening because our initial plan was to be all the way on the east coast of Kyushu, near Kadogawa, for an 8am Japanese Murrelet boat cruise the next morning. However after finding that species on the Izu Islands ferry earlier in the trip, we decided to bag the murrelet boat. It would have been a half-day detour plus a lot more driving to take that cruise. Doing so probably would have also gotten us Pacific Reef-Heron and given us an outside shot at Japanese Wood-Pigeon, but we opted for a more relaxed pace instead. We booked Hotel Route-Inn via booking.com’s phone app. Surprisingly, it was one of the very last rooms in town that were available via the popular English language booking apps. The hotel had all the necessities for us for one night, but we were forced to take smoking rooms.
Out of nowhere this morphed into a delightful evening. The hotel happened to be located in a hopping little downtown area that was loaded with restaurants, bars, and all sorts of adult entertainment. Many places didn’t open until 8pm or later. We enjoyed tasty Japanese whiskey at a hole-in-the-wall bar followed by delicious noodle soup. If we had not planned a very early start the next day, we would have enjoyed ourselves well into the night. Who’d have thought Yatsushiro could have this sort of personality – we sure didn’t! These are the little pleasures of travel…those unexpected discoveries as you’re exploring a new area on a whim.
We were out the door very early this morning because we wanted to be at Lake Miike for sunrise or so. We did well with keeping to time and arrived just as it was getting bright enough to bird the woods. We stuck solely to the campground area, which is on the west side of the lake. It was birdy enough to keep us busy for nearly 3 hours. We did well with one of our biggest targets right away, WHITE-BELLIED PIGEON. We probably had a total of three of them, but one in particular was singing from the canopy over our heads near the parking area. This was my favorite bird sound of the trip, and it reminded me more of something you’d hear in a tropical rainforest than temperate forest during winter!
We worked our way around the semi-open campground, which held its fair share of sunlit passerines. A stunning male RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL had our cameras held up for a while. There were DAURIAN REDSTARTS present for comparison. JAPANESE WHITE-EYE was the most common passerine, as expected. We were focusing closely on woodpeckers, as we were in search of good views of White-backed Woodpecker. For a while though, all we could turn up was JAPANESE WOODPECKER, a good bird in its own right.
A very cooperative (and likely unhealthy) WHITE’S THRUSH stole the show for a bit. It let us creep a bit too closely for a well bird, but we took advantage of the photo ops. A second individual kept a greater distance from us. We had our first perched looks at RYUKYU MINIVET here, about the same time we stumbled across a small flock of YELLOW-THROATED BUNTINGS.
As we were finishing our loop we came across a few OLIVE-BACKED PIPITS feeding on the lawn. Per reports, this is a very reliable place to see this species.
Before departing we decided to take a walk back up the entrance road where we ended up finding a very vocal pair of WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKERS, which is a species that Julian was rather keen on seeing. Dave and I got our fill of Julian’s stories of mythical UK megas from his childhood, sparked by our killer views of Daurian Redstart (AKA ‘deadstart’) and White’s Thrush in particular.
Oh, we did scope the lake, despite the light being harsh looking east; we only had common stuff. It was worth a look though, as there are records of Baer’s Pochard and Baikal Teal from here.
|Dave scans Lake Miike
Keeping on schedule, we drove further east to Kota Ponds/Shrine in search of Baikal Teal that were reported here a few days earlier. Not knowing anything other than the location of the ponds on a map, we had some trouble actually getting a view of said ponds. First we attempted to approach from the west side, which meant walking trails uphill to a few vantage points that overlooked the shrine and pond. The problem was that most of the water view was blocked by vegetation. We were able to pick out a few BAIKAL TEAL anyway, and we got lucky with a couple RYUKYU MINIVETS that teed up for our best views yet. On our way back to the car we flushed a Turdus thrush from the path that looked and sounded good for Brown-headed, but we were unable to relocate it and felt that we could not completely eliminate another Pale Thrush from the equation.
|japonicus American Pipit
We were still hoping for better views of the ponds. I’m not sure if there’s trail access from the west side or not. It’s entirely possible that we simply did not find the right path, but we did not want to take the time to explore any further. Instead we drove to the northeast corner of the ponds, which on satellite imagery looked as if one could drive right to the water’s edge. Sure enough, we were basically able to do this. We did have to ascend a small berm to get our views. From here we happily counted 58 sexy BAIKAL TEAL (not too shabby!) and 30 MANDARIN DUCKS amongst the more common waterfowl.
Very pleased with our day so far, and making good time, we wanted to continue to the east coast of the island to explore the Hitotsuze River and the Sadowara Farm Ponds. The farm ponds, depending on water level, can be good for waterfowl, long-legged waders, and shorebirds. The water was too high for many shorebirds to make use of it, but it was a fine spot for spoonbills. We had a flock of 14 BLACK-FACED SPOONBILLS and one immature EURASIAN SPOONBILL. Otherwise the ponds were quiet. We spent some time poking around the river mouth in search of gull flocks to photograph. Gulls remained scarce, though we did have one flock roosting on a small sandbar in the river that included 4 SAUNDERS’S GULLS. Our attempt to chum them in with bread and cat food failed miserably.
We poked around the coast for the next couple hours in search of gulls and shorebirds on sandbars and mudflats, but we were unable to find much of anything. There were no flats to speak of, so perhaps we had poor tide timing. Rather than spending more time exploring, we decided to head back towards Kagoshima Airport and get some sleep, as we had a long day planned for tomorrow!
Of note, a couple evenings prior, a tour group had a Greater Spotted Eagle flying over the mouth of the river, presumably to roost. We would have lost quite a bit of sleep waiting for that needle in a haystack, but it is worth noting for future visitors. We did keep a close eye out as we drove up and down the river.
We spent the night at City Hotel in Kokubu, which was much farther from the airport than we had realized when we booked it. It was way too far to offer an airport shuttle, so we would have to return the rental car first thing in the morning, before our early flight.