Tohoku – July 2012

From June 27th to July 3rd 2012 i made a short birdwatching trip to Northern Japan, visiting 4 locations 6 days. Tohoku, the northernmost part of the main Japanese island Honshu, seems completely off the map to visiting birdwatchers, who tend to concentrate on Hokkaido (sea eagles, red-crowned cranes), Kyushu (wintering crane flock of Arasaki) and a few convenient locations around Tokyo to pick a selection of endemics. With more time in hand, one might want to push to Okinawa in the south for more endemics (Okinawa rail, Pryer’s woodpecker, etc…), but why spending time visiting remote Tohoku, which has no endemic bird to offer ? In the 60  locations listed in Mark Brazil’s “A Birdwatcher’s guide to Japan”, none is in Tohoku, so why bother ?
Well, it’s precisely because it’s so overlooked that it attracted my attention ! Tohoku is a lovely region to me, that has somehow preserved its traditional rural lifestyle, a sparsely populated mountainous backcountry with large tracts of intact forested habitats remaining.
In 6 days you won’t be able to cover the entire area, so i concentrated on Fukushima and Yamagata Ken, starting at Ura Bandai, less than 4 hours drive from Tokyo, to finish at Mt Gassan near the sea of Japan, about 500km from Tokyo.


Urabandai is located north of Fukushima ken, a very scenic area of lakes and forests which is a true geological newborn : it has been shaped by the explosion of Mt Bandai in 1888 and the major landslide that ensued obstructed the main valley and created 2 major lakes, Hibara ko and Onogawa ko, and a bunch of smaller ones, like the famed, and truly beautiful, Goshiki Numa. Worth mentioning that the area is more than 100km away from the infamous Fukushima nuclear power plant, and has therefore not been significantly affected by radioactive pollution (they say…).
The area is fairly touristy, there is a choice of hotels and other accommodations around the Goshiki numa and Lake Hibara area, and a number of trails give an easy access to surrounding forests and marshlands.
The trail going along the south-east shore of Lake Hibara and looping back to the road through marshlands (about 7km) produced a good selection of birds : Narcissus (abundant), Blue-and-white and Asian brown Flycatchers, 4 Tits including Varied Tit, Japanese pigmy, Japanese green and Great spotted Woodpeckers, Yellow-faced and Meadow Buntings, Oriental Greenfinch, the unmissable Japanese Bush-warbler and the more skulking Asian Stubtail, Lesser and Common Cuckoos. Mandarin and Spot-billed Ducks breed on the larger ponds, and in the large reed beds Oriental Reed Warbler is often heard and fairly easily seen when calling from the small willow trees that dot the marshlands. Black-browed reed warbler is also said to occur there but i failed to see nor hear it.
While scouting the area i found a location with Japanese yellow Bunting, following a small road that forks right from the main road, 4km before Goshikinuma when coming from the south. That road, that turns into a dirt track for some time, leads to the bottom of Lake Akimotoko, and on both sides i could easily hear and see a good number (i counted up to 8) of singing males, perched on the top of small trees or even on electric wires. And on another small forest road nearby i encountered a fine Japanese Serow.

Mt Zao

Driving North approximately 100km from Urabandai will take you to Yamagata city, to the west of which is located the famous Mt Zao, a still active volcano with a scenic crater lake named Okama. A road leads visitors close to the crater, at around 1700m, and also to a network of trails that crisscross the forested surroundings. A good amount of birding can actually be done form the road, if one avoids coming on a week-end when the traffic gets fairly busy. Olive-backed Pipits and Japanese Bush-warblers are abundant, and i also found Brown-headed and Japanese Thrush, Eurasian Bullfinch, Bull-headed Shrike, the 2 common buntings (grey bunting is also said to occur). I could hear the 4 Cuckoos (common, lesser, oriental and hodgson’s hawk) but saw only common. For the endemic Japanese Robin, it took a harsh hike down an overgrown narrow trail to find a number of singing males at elevation 1400m.

Mt Haguro

Driving North-west from Yamagata for a further 100km will bring you to the small city of Tsuruoka, close to the sea of Japan coast. 10km east of the city lies the important buddhist site of Mt Haguro, a temple complex dating back several hundred years located atop a forested hills overlooking the coastal plain to the west. Large plantations of sugi (cedar) trees surround the hill, but original deciduous forest remain along the streams and around the few ponds that dot the area. Those patches are fairly birdy, with a similar mix of Flycatchers (Blue-and-white being quite abundant), Buntings (including japanese yellow), tits, Woodpeckers (including White-backed) and warblers (including Black-browed reed warbler) as Urabandai. I heard Japanese Paradise Flycatcher but failed to see it. The star bird of the area is however the Ruddy Kingfisher, a rare bird in Japan, that haunts the forest around the streams and ponds. I only got fleeting views of it flying, but it’s better than what most get out of this bird. My best sightings in this location were in the mammal category, in the same morning just after rain stopped, first close views of a Japanese Marten foraging in a tree just above my head, and 2 hours later, at a lazy 930am, a young Asiatic black bear coming up the path toward me, and figuring me out only 25 meters away !

Mt Gassan

Just south of Mt Haguro rises the mighty Mt Gassan, another important religious mountain, famed for the white-clad pilgrims “yamabushi” who come in parties to pay reverence to the sacred mountain. A temple actually sits at the summit. The north road from Haguro san leads to a car park at 1400m, and from there it’s a 2-3 hrs hike to reach the top, just below 2000m. I just spent one afternoon there in poor weather, the only noticeable sightings were of Japanese Accentor and Eurasian Skylark. The rare (in Japan) Golden Eagle occurs on the slopes of Mt Gassan.

The trip was fairly productive overall, i added a few birds on my Japan list and discovered a great location around Mt Haguro and Mt Gassan, not only for birds and mammals but also for the cultural value of the area. Had time allowed i would have forayed further north toward Akita, Iwate and Aomori prefectures where promising locations are also to be found. Next time.
A few more comments and tips :
– At this period of the year young birds are just fledging, so i had several nice encounters with parties of juveniles waiting for the feeding.
– Season wise it was supposed to be in the middle of the infamous japanese rainy season. Well, i had 5 sunny days out of 6.
– Sun rises at around 4.20, 4.30 am, so be prepared for very early departures. A consequence of which i gave up on any plan for night birding. And i did not see any owl.
– Mosquitoes are a real nuisance in damp areas, be prepared as well.

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