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JAPAN

21 November–5 December 2014

This superb new tour designed specially for us by Dr Mark Brazil, renowned expert on birdwatching in Japan and author of various books on the birds of Japan and east Asia, visits two of the three main islands of Japan: Hokkaido and Kyushu, where we will enjoy one of the world's greatest bird spectacles; huge gatherings of wintering cranes. Additionally, we will see many of Japan's endemic birds together with a number of other specialities including Steller's Sea-eagle and the rare Blakiston's Fish-owl, along with a wide range of seabirds.

Day 1 Overnight flight from London to Kagoshima, Kyushu, via Tokyo.

Day 2 On arrival, we will meet with our local guide and move to Yunomoto Hotspring, our base from which to explore southeast Kyushu. Two nights Yunomoto.

Day 3 On our first morning in Japan, we set off to the east coast, to visit rocky shores, headlands and river mouths in search of numerous common Japanese species, but our target will be a search for the rare and endangered Japanese Murrelet, which breeds on rocky offshore islets, and the scarce wintering Black-faced Spoonbill. Along the way we are likely to 'bump into' Pacific Reef-heron, Japanese Cormorant, Black-tailed Gull and the red-bellied race of Blue Rock-thrush. Time permitting; we may also explore inland to the forest-ringed crater-lake known as Mi-ike, lying within the Kirishima Volcanic area. Here, various familiar waterfowl such as Eurasian Wigeon and Eurasian Coot are often joined by local specialities such as Eastern Spot-billed and Mandarin Ducks and sometimes even Baikal Teal, while the surrounding woods are a good area for Pygmy and Japanese Woodpeckers, Ryukyu Minivet, Japanese White-eye, Dusky and Pale Thrushes, Red-flanked Bluetail, Brown-eared Bulbul, Olive-backed Pipit, Varied Tit, Daurian Redstart, Japanese Grosbeak and Grey and Yellow-throated Buntings. There are also Copper Pheasants in this area though the chance of seeing one is very slim.

Day 4 This morning we continue our explorations of eastern Kyushu, visit Mi-ike again in search of more forest species, then during the middle of the day we head northwest across Kyushu, stopping to look for Long-billed Plover, Crested Kingfisher, Asian House-martin and Russet Sparrow along the way. The now world-famous coastal farmland at Arasaki is the gathering ground for over 10,000 cranes, mostly the diminutive Hooded Cranes but with smaller numbers of the elegant White-naped Cranes. This enormous flock often attracts other species to join it and there are usually a few Common and Sandhill Cranes along with the chance of a vagrant Demoiselle or Siberian Crane. The area also regularly attracts spoonbills, raptors and wintering passerines. Common birds in this part of Japan include White-cheeked Starling, Carrion (Oriental) and Large-billed Crows, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, and Meadow Bunting and if we are lucky, we may spot the versicolor green race of Ring-necked Pheasant strutting along the field margins. Three nights Izumi.

Day 5 We have a full day to enjoy the extraordinary crane spectacle of Arasaki. This is the very best winter birding site in all Japan. We will visit the cranes at dawn to watch them fly out from their roost and return again after our breakfast to enjoy them at close range for photography. We will also explore the local areas, farmland, rivers, reed-beds, woodlands and coast in search of birds. Other species we may see include Chinese Bamboo-partridge, Japanese Quail, Bull-headed Shrike, the japonicus race of American (Buff-bellied) Pipit and Red-throated Pipit, Zitting Cisticola, Japanese Bush-warbler, Black-faced, Chestnut-eared and Pallas’s Buntings, and if we are lucky we may encounter Chinese Penduline-tit or even Daurian Jackdaw. If we can tear ourselves away, we will explore south-westwards down the coast in search of Japanese Cormorant, Brown Booby, raptors such as Common (Eastern) Buzzard, flocks of wintering Mandarin Duck and more wintering passerines.

Day 6 With a final full day in Kyushu we have several options, in addition to visiting the cranes briefly again, we may explore further north visiting river mouths in search of Eastern Marsh-harrier, Saunders's Gulls, wintering shorebirds and spoonbills, or inland in search of White-bellied Pigeon, buntings (including Black-faced, Chestnut-eared, Grey and Yellow-throated) and any other wintering forest species we have missed so far.

Day 7 This morning we drive south to Kagoshima Airport, stopping for birding along the way if time allows. We fly to Tokyo where we connect with a flight to Kushiro, in east Hokkaido, arriving late afternoon. We then have a road journey of less than an hour to Tsurui, home to wintering flocks of beautiful Red-crowned Cranes. Two nights Tsurui.

Day 8 Red-crowned Cranes breed throughout eastern Hokkaido and winter at three major sites, two of which are in Tsurui. Our first visit will be to their riverine roosting site to see if the flock has begun its seasonal communal roost. We may be treated to the sound of these wonderful birds giving their first calls of the morning, and perhaps even to dancing displays. Later, we will visit them at their feeding grounds where the arrival and departure of pairs and families frequently stimulates other members of the flock into greeting or even courtship displays and dances. At bird feeders nearby we are likely to see more common Palaearctic woodland birds including Great Spotted Woodpecker, Marsh Tit and Eurasian Nuthatch. In the afternoon, we will visit the crane feeding area in Akan village, where the cranes are commonly joined by a flock of Whooper Swans, and where Black (Black-eared) Kites and White-tailed Eagles are frequently in close attendance. We may also see Sika Deer and Red Foxes today.

Day 9 This morning before breakfast we will have a second opportunity to visit the cranes at their roost before heading northwards towards Kussharo-ko and Mashu-ko. We will look for birds of prey and forest birds along the way and may be lucky and sight our first Steller's Sea-eagle of our journey today soaring along the caldera rim at Lake Mashu. We will visit a gathering site of Whooper Swans, where close-up photography at arm's length will be possible, then we will travel east to a lodge in a remote valley, timing our arrival to have the opportunity for a woodland walk in the late afternoon looking for roosting Ural Owls. Here, at the river outside our lodge, we will look for Brown Dipper and Crested Kingfisher, and as dusk falls and the temperature drops we will look for the rare Blakiston's Fish-owl. A pair has a territory in the valley here; male and female typically begin calling soon after darkness falls and then begin moving round their range in search of food. It will be a very cold vigil, but the reward of a sighting of this rare riverine owl is enormous. We may even encounter the elusive Sable here too. Two nights near Nakashibetsu.

Day 10 Our breakfast room overlooks bird feeders typically visited by Brown-eared Bulbul, Great Spotted Woodpecker, (Eastern) Great Tit, Hawfinch and Dusky Thrush. After breakfast we set off in search of northern forest and wetlands species such as Grey-faced Woodpecker, Long-tailed Tit and Solitary Snipe. We then head east to the Notsuke Peninsula, exploring the harbours and coastline there, watching for Steller's and White-tailed Sea-eagles, Harlequin Duck, White-winged Scoter, various loons and grebes and Slatybacked and Glaucous-winged Gulls. We return late afternoon to our lovely lodge for a further chance of Solitary Snipe, Crested Kingfisher and Blakiston's Fish-owls in the evening.

Day 11 After breakfast we head off for the Sea of Okhotsk coast to look for more raptors, waterfowl and seabirds. We will visit harbours and river mouths in search of stormblown seabirds, which occasionally include Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots, Fork-tailed Storm-petrel, and innumerable wintering gulls. We continue across the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula to reach our destination just beyond the town of Rausu. We keep watch offshore, as Steller's Sea Lion, and Largha Seal are possible, while on land Sika Deer are common and Red Fox likely. Tonight our accommodation is very basic but provides us with another chance of seeing the magnificent Blakiston's Fish-owl. Two nights near Rausu.

Day 12 From our base in Rausu we will explore the Shiretoko Peninsula National Park, looking for more sea-ducks and seabirds, which may include Ancient Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Harlequin Duck and Long-tailed Duck, Common Goldeneye, Black and White-winged Scoters – and, depending on the severity of the winter, perhaps our first Asian Rosy-finches. Sika Deer are common along the peninsula and whale (Minke and Orca) and seal sightings are possible offshore. If conditions are calm and the weather is dry we have our final chance with the Blakiston's Fish-owls this evening.

Day 13 We leave Rausu this morning and travel south down the east coast of Hokkaido towards the Nemuro Peninsula, exploring capes, headlands and bays along the way for any coastal species we may have missed so far. Although there are fewer land birds to look for here in winter, Asian Rosy-finch, Long-tailed Rosefinch, Oriental Greenfinch, Common Redpoll and Snow Bunting are all possible, and in some winters a few Rough-legged Hawk join the local Common (Eastern) Buzzards. Two nights Nemuro.

Day 14 Weather permitting, we take a boat trip along the southeast coast of Hokkaido from Habomai. Our main focus will be on searching for seabirds. Off this coast, persistence may be rewarded by a considerable array of species: Pelagic and sometimes Red-faced Cormorant, Common and Thick-billed Murres, Pigeon and Spectacled Guillemots, Ancient Murrelet, Crested, Least and Rhinoceros Auklets, Long-billed Murrelet and loons and grebes are all possible, though their numbers and visibility depend very much on the local conditions. With the remainder of the day at our disposal and after warming up, we will search local forests for Black Woodpecker and Hazel Grouse.

Day 15 Today we must travel westwards to Kushiro, taking a flight from there to Tokyo to connect with our international flight back to the UK arriving in the evening.

General Information Conditions in Japan can be very variable at this time of year ranging from very cold with snow in Hokkaido to mild with rain in Kyushu. The tour pace is moderate with generally easy walking. There are no special health requirements. Visas are not required for EU, US and Canadian citizens.

Group size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 6; maximum group size: 12 with 2 leaders.

Red-crowned Crane

Red-crowned Crane