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The Awesome Power of a Humble Bird: Honshu Days 1 & 2 - Part II of our winter trip to Japan 2024

I had decided to take this trip with stated desires (see Part I) for two massive birds - the Blakiston's Fish Owl and the Steller's Sea-Eagle. But never count out the birds you didn't imagine: they will sneak up and surprise you with a moment vouchsafed and utterly unpredictable.

On the day after our arrival Peggy, Donna and I had a quiet day of recovery and rest, with some birding and iNaturalizing at open weedy patches near the Hotel Nikko. We stumbled across a nice flock of passerines, and added a few lifers for all of us. The best bird, at least for me, was the Masked Bunting - quite a cutie! We also found ambivalent signage and our first "crane." Here's the eBird list from that small excursion.

<-- Donna in our weedy patch

(below) Masked Bunting

Just a little bit special. Not a lot. Merely a tiny bit. You can't afford really special.

Our hotel here - the Hotel Nikko Narita - has a very special garden area outside of the restaurant where we took all our meals. In the day it is an excellent compressed birding spot, with some spectacular lichens too. At night, it is a wonderland of light. In the gallery below, the birds are the ubiquitous Brown-eared Bulbul and a White Wagtail. The lichen is in the Graphic Lichen family. There are also pictures of our room and the complimentary robe they lend you for the stay.

The first full day of the tour we started at a channelized river (the Tokko River outflow) near the hotel. We had our only extended looks at the Common Kingfisher here, and also got to see some ducks, including the gorgeous Falcated Duck with its stiff-feathered bustle. Two animals I hoped to have longer looks at frustrated us here - a furtive glimpse at a Brown-headed Thrush (just long enough for me to detect a bird that had the shape of an American Robin with something dulled and patchy in the plumage) and a distant road-kill Japanese Raccoon-Dog (later on in the trip we'd also find Raccoon-Dog scat. Suffice to say I only got shitty looks at this animal).

<--- Falcated Duck through the fence. (below) White-cheeked Starling

Another stunning unidentified lichen, on a stone wall. Wow. -->

My hopes for global domination for Sequoia Audubon Society are being realized. I had no idea we even had a van, let alone one parked in Japan!

We traveled further east through some agricultural land to a magnificent pond closer to the coast - Hacchoike Pond in the Tonosho Prefectural Forest. There were lots of other birders and photographers here - this is clearly a popular spot. The target bird here was the Baikal Teal, which was a lifer for all three of us. Like the Steller's Sea Eagle, this is a species I've wanted to see for decades. The Baikal Teal here were distant but still wonderful. Then during a deep scan, Phil spotted a Bean Goose. Turned out to be a Taiga Bean Goose. Too distant for definitive photos, unfortunately. This entire visit was constantly accompanied by hundreds of Tundra Swans, Mallards, Northern Pintail and other ducks vocalizing, flying, and making a racket! It was wonderful.

Top Row: Me; Donna & Phil; Peggy.

Lower Rows: Fuzzy Close-up of Baikal Teal (green back of face); Grey Heron and Great Egret; Baikal Teal amidst other ducks; overall scene at Hacchoike Pond.

What we didn't know immediately was that the verified presence of the Taiga Bean Goose enabled our tour to seek out a continuing rarity. The leaders consulted among themselves, then announced that we would change the itinerary to include this rarity rather than going to another pond for more Taiga Bean Goose. Because it was the first day of the tour, I don't think the leaders knew the three of us well enough to know that "going for the rarity" would always be among our top choices! After a quick stop at our first Japanese highway rest stop

(luxurious! and a tasty bowl of Ramen), where I got a two-fer picture of Warbling White-eye (the artist formerly known as Japanese White-eye) and lichen in the parking lot, off we went, into the famed traffic of Tokyo (well, suburbs) to Mizumoto Park. We walked about half a mile to a pond visible through reeds. There were a lot of photographers milling about, but the rarity had not been seen since morning. We had a few passerines and ducks, but then I noticed Jun had wandered off. Next thing I knew, he had come back and told us to move to a different location, more distant from the water. And there it was - the Japanese Night Heron!

This is an amazing bird. Mid-sized heron, with feathering that repays close and closer attention for its subtleties. Quiet denizen of forest floors rather than marshes per se, it waddles from its diaphragm. I've seen birds before that can quiver their throat, bob their tail, droop their wings - but shake from their tummy? That was a new one for me! This bird captivated me in its uniqueness and its timid normality. It was unassuming, even with photographers flocking to photograph it. I was, and remain, in love. When it was time to vote for Bird of the Trip, I had no doubt who won - from official tour Day One.


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