Rar­i­ties on the west coast

Bird Watching (UK) - - Bird The World -

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

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