I was very lucky to be given the opportunity to have a Christmas with a difference this year. While everyone was rushing around in the days leading up to the big day, I was busy packing my camera gear, bins and field guide to the Birds of East Asia…I was off to Japan.
On 22nd Dec, Hazel, my good friend Michael and I headed off to Tokyo. It was a very long flight and we landed early in the morning of 23rd into Hanenda airport. From the airport, it was surreal to see the snow-capped Mt Fuji for the first time. I have seen many mountains in my life and all I can say is that Mt Fuji is every bit as impressive as I had imagined it would be. I remember as a kid looking at pictures of this awe-inspiring mountain in books and wondering if I would ever see it in my lifetime. How lucky am I to continue to fulfil my childhood dreams?
Arriving into any new country is always exciting and birding nerves were edgy as we saw Black-eared Kites and White-cheeked Starlings as we drove to our hotel near Yokohama harbour. We had three crazy days of birding ahead of us. Despite our exhaustion and the heaviness of jetlag, we forced ourselves out birding straightaway on the first morning. We had arranged to go birding with top local birder Kaz Shinoda on 24th and 25th. Christmas is a national holiday in Japan (despite the fact that few Japanese are of the Christian faith) so we were delighted to be facilitated by Kaz who gave up his holiday time to guide us.
We had planned to spend the first day indulging our passion for gulls around the harbours and piers of Yokohama. As a gull fanatic I felt I had reached gull heaven as I watched Black-tailed, Slaty-backed, Vega and ‘Kamchatka’ Gulls (the eastern race of Common Gull considered by most to be a full species). We even had a brief encounter with a Thayer’s Gull for good measure. Incidentally, Black-headed Gulls were the common gulls as they are here in Ireland. We also felt like real Irish birders as we discovered a large roosting flock of gulls and ignored the 'No Entry' signs around the pier. We got superb views of many gull species of all ages before a very polite security guard asked us to leave. The first day's birding also afforded great opportunities to familiarise ourselves with the common birds of Japan such as Brown-cheeked Bulbuls, Japanese White-eyes and wintering Oriental Turtle Doves. By the end of the first day, we had connected with all of our gull targets and were ready for two days birding in the mountains and woodlands south of Haneda.
Using the highly efficient Tokyo train service (the 07.09am train left at 07.09am!) we travelled to Kamakura where we had arranged to meet Kaz each morning of our two days with him. It is worth saying that while the train lines appear complicated, we found that it was not too difficult to follow. As well as that, everyone was friendly and helpful if we needed directions.
Our two days birding with Kaz were superb. On our first day we visited KazGenjiyama Park, Sasuke-inari and Zeniarai-benten Shrines, Sakai-gawa Wetlands and Maioka Park. These were a mixture of winter woodlands and reservoirs. The birds we saw were amazing with species ranging from Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers and Long-billed Plovers, to Dusky Thrushes (a bird I’ve waited to see all of my life) and colourful Chinese Bamboo Partridges.
Christmas morning had us under the imposing presence of Mt. Fuji as we watched Meadow and Chestnut-eared Buntings around the Samukawa Farmlands while Bull-headed Shrikes and Japanese Skylarks added to the excitement of the birding. From here we travelled up to the cooler mountains (over 1000m) to walk the Hayatogawa Woodland Path around Lake Miyagase. Birding here was hard with many species very skulky and difficult to see. However, the hard work paid off with Mountain Hawk Eagle, Varied Tit, Japanese Accentor, Long-tailed Rosefinches and a fabulous Crested Kingfisher (the size of a crow) to name but a few. It was here I also had my very long-awaited encounter with a Red-flanked Bluetail (a charming Robin-sized chat).
I have been to various places in Asia in the past and yet, over those three days in Tokyo, I saw just over 30 new species. So what was the bird highlight for me? Dusky Thrush perhaps? Red-flanked Bluetail? Surely Black-tailed Gull? These were indeed species I have longed to see for many years. It is hard not to count them among the highlights of such a trip. However, the highlight of the trip for me was in fact a species I have seen in Ireland hundreds of times. This year I have even had one flying over the garden in late summer.
This encounter happened in the woodlands of Maioka Park late on Christmas Eve. There were areas of small open muddy areas on which Black-eared and Rustic Buntings were feeding. as we were watching the buntings, a bird flew in and landed in front of us…a beautiful Pale Thrush. As I watched the thrush I saw a movement among the leaf litter behind it. It took a little time to adjust my eyes to actually focus on what I was seeing. It moved again and there, almost emerging from its magnificent camouflage against the woodland floor, was a feeding Eurasian Woodcock. I focused the scope onto this bird and truly saw Woodcock for the first time.
The truth is that this was the first time I have ever been able to watch a Woodcock in all its cryptic glory. In 40 years birding I have only ever seen a Woodcock on the ground once before and that was for only for a second or two. Every other Woodcock I have seen other than that have been in flight. Yet here in front of me was a feeding Woodcock. It trusted its wonderful plumage to remain hidden and fed away unconcerned by our presence. While a Pale Thrush was feeding to one side and exotic buntings to the other, my whole attention was focused on a species I have seen hundreds of times. I was truly seeing my first Woodcock and what a beautiful wader it is.
It may seem strange to some that I should travel 10,000km from Ireland, see so many incredible new birds under the imposing Mt. Fuji and yet return home reflecting that the birding highlight of such a trip was seeing a feeding Woodcock. Anyone who has watched a Woodcock in all its glory will understand.
Sometimes we forget that what we have around us here in Ireland is every bit as wonderful as anywhere else. What a shame that Woodcock is still on the shooting list in Ireland…how anyone can shoot such a thing of beauty is utterly beyond my understanding.
May I wish everyone who has taken the time to read my blogs over the past year a safe, healthy, happy and bird-rich 2017.