Hokkaido Seasonal Occurrences

November 5, 2004: Mark Brazil, Hokkaido

Subject: Winter arrivals

Last weekend found me at almost the northernmost tip of Japan - the Wakkanai, Onuma, Sarobetsu area. The majority of Bewick's Swans have moved through, just a lingering 1500~2000 at Onuma, and about 900 at Kutcharo-ko. Bean Geese were still in hordes in Sarobetsu. Raptors are still on the move. During my hike up Pinneshiri (near Nakatonbetsu) on 31 October, a single Common Buzzard soared up the sun-warmed south slope then glided away, just after beginning my descent from the top, I flushed a male Hazel Grouse up into a birch tree, where it watched me suspiciously for several minutes. Then a few minutes later I found myself at eye-level with a stunning adult Steller's Eagle, resplendent in the sunlight and soaring just 50 m away from me. A little while later an adult White-tailed Eagle and three more Steller's circled up over the mountain top, reached their required height then set off gliding southwards --- The Eagles have arrived!

I'd hoped for more raptors at Komuke-ko on the Okhotsk Sea coast near Monbetsu, but drizzle, then rain prevented much movement - except one rapidly disappearing Peregrine. Surprisingly, shorebirds were in evidence: 500 or so Dunlin, a handful of Bar-tailed Godwit, 30 or so Grey Plover, and smaller numbers of Red-necked Stint and Mongolian Plover. Offshore, divers, mergansers, and cormorants were in good numbers, while close inshore were small groups of Ancient Murrelets, and star of the day one winter plumage Long-billed Murrelet.

Few passerines to talk of, though a single male Yellow-throated Bunting at Onuma, was a pleasant surprise, and a bush warbler was surprisingly confiding. A Red-flanked Bluetail at the back of the dunes near Komuke-ko/Shibunotsunai-ko was obviously a newly arrived migrant, and a few days later (3 November) they were one of the commonest woodland birds in a walk in Nopporo Forest Park - surprisingly late I thought.

Almost all of the White-fronted Geese have left the Miyajima-numa area (Bibai City), which has now been taken over by Bean Geese and hordes of duck. Found 140 female and imm male Smew on one nearby small pond (Ito-numa) on 1 November, and no doubt they will be heading south soon.

The only bush warblers I encountered on the trip all looked like typical 'cantans', I wonder if borealis has been seen this far north?; though far more frequent and in just about all areas with dwarf bamboo in the last few weeks have been Winter Wren: I think we experience quite an influx up here from parts further north, and they appear at all sorts of altitudes - not confined to their normal damp stream gully habitat either.

December 12, 2004: Stuart Price, Hakodate

Subject: 2004 Annual Report

Hakodate is located at the southernmost tip of Hokkaido, which is the northernmost of the main Japanese islands. Its location means that many migrants pass through on their way to and from Honshu (the largest, central island of Japan). The following species were all seen in Hakodate within walking distance of my apartment. The main areas near my apartment are the Shinkawa River (a glorified concreted stream) and the nearby, smallish Goryokaku Park. The river runs all the way down to the Pacific coast and a beach (well, sort of) in the south, from local foothills in the north. Farther east is the coastal suburb of Yunokawa with the slightly bigger Matsukura River and the only, tiny bits of farmland and reedbeds in Hakodate. Farther west is Hakodateyama, a small forest-clad mountain and cape. The whole area could in theory be covered by foot in a day, but you would have sore feet.

January (60 species)

The start of the year was very mild (though it would get very cold after a few days), which meant several species usually absent in winter were still around. Common birds seen in the first week of January were Mallard, Eurasian Teal, Tufted Duck, Spot-billed Duck, Black Kite, Dusky Thrush, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Brown-eared Bulbul, Feral Pigeon, Carrion Crow, Large-billed Crow, Black-backed Wagtail, Slaty-backed Gull, Herring (Vega) Gull, Black-tailed Gull, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Winter Wren, Eurasian Jay, Japanese Wagtail, Hawfinch, Daurian Redstart, Common Kingfisher, Common Bullfinch and Great Spotted Woodpecker. On the sea were Red-breasted Merganser, Japanese Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, some offshore Black-legged Kittiwake, Brent Goose and Black-necked Grebe (which were surprisingly scarce this season). A Glaucous-winged Gull was one of 2 adults present throughout the winter; in fact, they hardly seemed to move and were always in the same places. Raptors present in the first week were Common Buzzard, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Northern Goshawk, Peregrine (mobbing a Black Kite) and White-tailed Eagle. The most surprising bird of early January was a lone Long-billed Plover on the Matsukura River, which had arrived at the end of 2003, and remained until the end of this month.

Next to be seen in mid-January were Grey Starling, Greater Scaup, Harlequin Duck, Common Goldeneye, Oriental Greenfinch, Blue Rock Thrush, Long-tailed Rosefinch and Siberian Meadow Bunting. January 18 on the Matsukura provided 5 new birds: a surprising pair of Little Grebe, Brown Dipper (a species I didn't see last year), a lone female Eurasian Kestrel, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker and a flock of Rustic Bunting.

Heavy snow towards the end of the month resulted in a lot of birds on the move: a flock of 40 Hawfinch, several Long-tailed Rosefinch, lots of Grey Starling (which are usually pretty rare in winter) and, best of all, a flock of over 100 Bohemian Waxwing with a few Japanese Waxwing mixed in. This heralded a mini-invasion of waxwings, with several groups around town. Last year was the same: they hung round for a few days in the last week of January and then disappeared. Several Peregrines were also present and were often a nice 'balcony bird'.

Seawatching in winter at the bitterly cold and windswept Tachimachi-misaki (the aforementioned cape) proved a test of endurance. On more than one occasion, I was forced by the weather to take refuge in the only shelter, a public toilet. Birds seen included Black-throated and Red-throated Divers, and Red-necked Grebe. Actually, there were many unidentified divers out there, some of which were probably Pacific Divers; but the only one that came close enough inshore to positively identify was a Black-throated. The common seaducks were present at the cape, including a regular flock of about 50 Black Scoter and smaller numbers of Red-breasted Merganser. About 40 Brent Goose were dotted around the town, and a group of 5 Common Buzzard (presumably heading south) was an unexpected sight on 22 January. A distant White-tailed Eagle seen from the town centre and a flock of Brambling were the last species of any interest in January.

February (51 species)

Basically more of the same in February. January was a pretty good month in the sense that I saw most of the species I could reasonably expect to see in winter, so February did not provide much in the way of new birds. Long-tailed Rosefinch remained, as did Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Northern Goshawk and Common Buzzard (including a very pale individual that had me going for a while, as a possible Rough-legged Buzzard). New birds in the month included Marsh Tit, a group of 4 male Eurasian Wigeon on the Shinkawa River (where there was a also a peak of 16 Tufted Duck), a female Yellow-throated Bunting in the local park (where there were also Varied and Coal Tit, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Hawfinch, Daurian Redstart and Bullfinch), Eurasian Siskin and (finally) a second winter Glaucous Gull. Once seen, of course, the siskin and wigeon were everywhere around town. Up to 65 species for the year.

March (63 species)

There was not much of interest in the first two weeks of March, apart from a huge passage of Common Gull which coincided with a very mild spell of weather with strong southerly winds. Thousands were offshore and on both the rivers in Hakodate. Several Black-legged Kittiwake were present and there was a peak of about 30 Harlequin Duck. A female Ring -necked Pheasant was the only new species for the year around this time.

The second half of March saw both the birds and the weather changing. The trail up the mountain became passable, which allowed me to get several of the resident forest species: Long-tailed Tit, Willow Tit, Goldcrest, Eurasian Treecreeper, Eurasian Nuthatch and Grey-headed Woodpecker. The forest was alive with birds including Siskin, Bullfinch, Great Spotted and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, Coal and Marsh Tit, and Brambling. A party of 20 Whooper Swan flying north on the 24th were accompanied by an unidentified grey goose. Birds returning from the south included Japanese Skylark and Bull-headed Shrike.

I saw 2 'firsts' for Hakodate at the end of March. A female Common Pochard was on the Shinkawa River; but it paled in comparison to the Ural Owl, my first owl in Japan. This was seen on temple grounds, being mobbed by a very excited flock of Large-billed Crows. My wife, an avid Harry Potter fan, was present at the time and screamed as she thought the iwl was going to get killed by the crows. The owl was trapped for a time under a bush by the crows, but I think it managed to escape. Large numbers (hundreds) of Red-breasted Merganser passed through at the end of the month, as did a small influx of adult Glaucous Gull (which would continue until mid-April). Up to 77 species for the year.

April (80 species)

April is always the best month species-wise. Most of the winter stuff lingers on into the middle of the month, while birds come up from farther south in Japan on their way north. The first real summer visitor was Barn Swallow on April 8. This was followed by Asian House Martin the next day. Also seen in early April were returning Japanese Bush Warbler and Grey Wagtail. Small groups of Eurasian Wigeon were scattered across town.

Mid-April saw several new passerines, as well as all the resident species, now in full voice: lots of Black-faced Bunting, Red-flanked Bluetail and Common Stonechat scattered across town, Buff-bellied Pipit on the Matsukura, large numbers of Japanese White-eye, Pale Thrush and Eastern Crowned Willow Warbler on the mountain. Other new birds included a lone northbound Osprey, some exotic-looking groups of summer-plumaged Black-headed Gull, and several beautiful Blue-and-white Flycatcher on the mountain (including one male in a tiny front garden in the middle of town).

April 22 was an excellent day on the Matsukura-- Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (a brownish Phylloscopus warbler-- or was it a Pale-legged Warbler?), a superb male Narcissus Flycatcher (one of several across town), Oriental Turtle Dove and the first Common Crossbill of the year (it was very common in 2003 and would get commoner later in April this year). Two early morning visits to the mountain right at the end of the month brought me Short-tailed Bush Warbler, Rhinoceros Auklet, singing Grey Thrush and Japanese Thrush, as well as lots of common stuff passing through (huge numbers of Coal Tit and Great Tit, for example, plus Long-tailed Rosefinch, Red-flanked Bluetail and lots of Eastern Crowned and Sakhalin Leaf Warblers). The last day of April was spent on the Matsukura when an Oriental Reed Warbler had the honour of being my 100th species for the year. Little Ringed Plover and Red-cheeked Starling brought me up to 102 species for the year with 3 "firsts" in April for Hakodate.

May (64 species)

For various reasons, I could not do much birding in Hakodate in May. The first 5 days in May were spent birding with Charles Harper and Ray Gossen on Tobishima in the Japan Sea where I was amazed at their ability to get up so early and also by their wonderful telescopes. Thanks for the wonderful hospitality, Ray.

May 12 was my first decent birding day: I too got up very early and visited the mountain. Large numbers of the same migrants as April were present, plus several Siberian Blue Robin and Japanese Robin, Eye-browed Thrush and one singing Oriental Cuckoo. The first Grey Heron of the year passed north, and there there were small numbers of Grey-tailed Tattler on the coast. Also present on this day were Common Buzzard and another 3 species of Thrush (including a late Dusky Thrush which was also seen the next day). A Chestnut-eared Bunting was singing on the same patch of wasteland on the Shinkawa River as last year. Highlight of the month were the huge flocks of Red-necked Pharalope seen off Yunokawa on May 16. Calm conditions meant the flocks could be easily seen about half a kilometre offshore. Mid-late May seems to be reliable for this species, as I saw hundreds of thousands of them a few miles east last year too. A lone Sand Martin was also seen on the Matsukura, and another tattler well upstream which remained until at least the 23rd, Little Ringed Plover, singing Grey Thrush, Stonechat and Chestnut-eared Bunting. The same place provided a Common Cuckoo a week later. A final visit (until autumn) to the mountain provided a singing Arctic Warbler plus sundry warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, tits and woodpeckers. Up to 113 species for the year.

June (37 species)

Summer allowed me to wallow in lethargy. The weather was humid and foggy and the mountain was the haunt of large numbers of mosquitoes, while the leaf cover means I can't see the birds anyway. Plus, Euro 2004 was on TV. The Matsukura River provided (very difficult to see) Gray's Grasshopper Warbler and Black-browed Reed Warbler (which was much easier to see). There were at least 2 of each as well as around 25-30 singing Oriental Great Reed Warbler on a single kilometre stretch of river. Also present and apparently breeding along this river were Little Ringed Plover, Japanese Skylark, Grey Thrush, Black-faced and Chestnut-eared Bunting, Japanese Bush Warbler, Bull-headed Shrike, Stonechat and Common Cuckoo. Nearer my apartment on the Shinkawa River there were also good numbers of Oriental Reed Warbler (at least 7 singing males on a highly-urban, mostly concreted river). Also breeding on this river were Asian House Martin, Red-cheeked Starling, Bull-headed Shrike, Chestnut-eared Bunting, Black-backed Wagtail and Great Tit. A surprise juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron was around for a few days from June 18. Up to 116 species for the year.

July (25 species)

Not much happening in July. I was surprised to see Peregrine still around (I had assumed they were only winter visitors but they appear to be resident). Immature Grey Wagtail were moving down from the foothills and a Common Sandpiper on July 30 brought me up to 117 species for the year. The end of the month was very hot and the hot spell continued for a few more weeks.

August (25 species) Very hot weather meant little birding for most of the month. A few birds were on the move, notably Common Cuckoo and Grey Heron. The weather turned at the end of the month as the typhoon season began (several big ones this year, which is unusual in Hokkaido). The wader passage was light (or maybe I just missed them all, as the typhoons kept me indoors) with only a few Common Sandpiper and a lone Red-necked Stint. A White-throated Needletail was a nice flyover bird on August 31st, bringing me up to 119 species for the year.

September (39 species)

Most of my birding this month was on the Shinkawa River where I saw lots of southbound Stonechat, Eastern Crowned and Arctic Warblers, and the first Hawfinch since early June. All 3 Muscicapa flycatchers were present-- Asian Brown Flycatcher (the commonest), Sooty Flycatcher and Grey-streaked Flycatcher. Sometimes 2 different species were on the same tree branch, allowing easy ID. A huge typhoon on the 8th did a lot of damage in town and even knocked out the power for most of the day. At least 2 Eurasian Hobby. were seen from my balcony, from where I also saw several Pacific Swift heading south on the 14th. Several Grey and 1 juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron were also on the Shinkawa River. Red-cheeked and Grey Starling were flocking ahead of migration. Up to 124 species for the year.

October (64 species)

Early October probably provided my best birding of the year. Near my apartment in the first week were 2 superb male Siberian Rubythroat. Rather common elsewhere in Hokkaido, this was a great bird to see so near home. The same clump of trees also provided a Wryneck (which remained for a week). On the mountain there were lots of birds on the move, including huge numbers of white-eye, Coal Tit, Black-faced and Rustic Bunting. Eclipse Northern Shoveler and Northern Pintail were both 'firsts' for Hakodate, as was a female Mandarin Duck-- all on the Matsukura River. All 3 Accipiter species were seen on migration at the mountain, including a pair of Japanese Sparrowhawk. An Olive-backed Pipit was seen sheltering from the rain in Goryokaku Park. Eye-browed and Pale Thrush passed through in small numbers. The end of the month was more about quantity than quality-- large numbers of commoner stuff moving south (including huge numbers of Japanese Bush Warbler) as well as the return of many of the commoner winter visitors, such as Daurian Redstart, and large numbers of many of the resident species in the mountain forest. Up to 131 for the year.

November (38 species)

Two female Goosander in Goryokaku Park on the 1st was the last new species of the year. A basically lazy, quiet month also provided a very late worn-looking Arctic Warbler on the 5th, and a lost-looking female Grey-headed Woodpecker in Goryokaku Park at the end of the month. The first Dusky Thrush was seen on Nov 25th. Up to 132 species.

December (32 species).

A pretty mild winter so far. Glaucous-winged Gull, Brent Goose, Goldeneye and Black-necked Grebe have all returned.

So 132 species is a pretty good return for a place like Hakodate. Birds I saw in 2002/3 but not this year were Common Guillemot, Smew, Common Redpoll, Rosy Finch, Slavonian Grebe, Water Rail, Japanese Green Pigeon, Intermediate Egret, Striated Heron, White's Thrush and Sanderling.

January 2005: Stuart Price, Hakodate

A pretty quiet month up here in South Hokkaido. There was absolutely loads of snow the last couple of days but little in the way of birds. I got back from the UK on January 7 and found that the end of December had been much colder than last year, meaning that a lot of birds I saw in early 2004 were not around this year. Bad weather throughout the month meant not much birding, but here are some of the sightings, in no particular order: