Rarities on the west coast
ON A WOODEN FLOOR overlain with rice-straw matting, I sit cross-legged and wait. While uncomfortable for someone of my size and inflexibility, I am following local custom here on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Beside me, five fellow birdwatchers – Australian, British and Japanese – are similarly prostrate, similarly patient. Inside Yoroushi Onsen, a traditional ryokan inn offering health-boosting thermal baths, the decor is minimalist, the lighting warm, the ambience cosy. Outside, where our collective gaze is directed, the pitch of freezing night is illuminated by spotlights and late-winter snow duvets the ground. We sit and wait.
And then, from the depths of obscurity and in a flurry of silent wings, arrives the world’s largest night bird. All half-dozen birders release an involuntary gasp that conveys relief, awe and excitement in similar measure. Within five metres of our cross-legged forms, a male Blakiston’s Fish Owl grabs a fish from Yoroushi’s pond then vanishes back into the dark. Minutes later, a female arrives. Unlike her mate, she takes her time – enabling us to admire her immense size and reflect upon her rarity (the species is classified as globally threatened). Then she, too, absconds. This cues our own departure, to consume a sumptuous banquet of sushi and more, lubricated with a most delicate sake. There is nowhere quite like Japan, home to what is surely the world’s most exciting winter birdwatching. The accolade is merited because Blakiston’s Fish Owl although worthy of a 5,500-mile trip in its own right, is ‘merely’ one of a series of jawdropping, unmissable birdwatching experiences provided by the islands of Hokkaido (in the far north of Japan) and Kyushu (south-west). In recent years, British birders’ interest in winter Japan has burgeoned. This winter alone, a childhood friend, my former London birding crew, an usher at my wedding, and one of my publishers all experienced Japan for the first time. All loved the country – for its birding and scenery, food and culture. The time to visit, they argued, is now, thanks to Japan’s affordability, the legacy of decades of stagflation. Buoyed by such enthusiasm, my friend David Capper and I negotiated a nine-day departure from family life, pleading that David’s 40th birthday merited unprecedented celebration. (Nine days was sufficient to cover two islands, but not three – so we were obliged to leave Honshu for another visit.) We timed our trip for late winter, flying east on the penultimate day of leap-year February. The spectacular Blakiston’s Fish Owl is the world’s heaviest owl After an abbreviated night in a nondescript Tokyo business hotel, we flew two hours to Kumamoto, midway along Kyushu’s west coast. The island has a subtropical vibe despite lying no further south than Israel. Towering bamboo stands flanked paddy fields, and unexpected warmth coaxed butterflies into the air and birders into their shorts. Our starting point was Uki’s estuary. The first bird we clapped eyes on was among our most wanted: Black-faced Spoonbill. Smaller than Eurasian Spoonbill, this is a very rare bird, with just 1,600 mature individuals worldwide. We watched a dozen at pleasurably close range. The same cannot be said for our second target bird, another globally threatened species. The flock of Saunders’s Gull was roosting mid-estuary, nearly a mile distant. But there was compensation for poor views in terms of numbers: we counted 720 birds, one-third of Japan’s wintering population. As we looked for waterbirds, we found ourselves distracted by common passerines of field and scrub. Several were familiar from field-guide illustrations of potential or actual vagrants to Britain. Dusky Thrushes hopped boldly across