Monday, 30 January 2012

Birding Narita, Japan: When life gives you layovers, make liferades...

Well... maybe that saying won't become popular with the masses, but I mentally committed to the saying "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."  That sentiment came about while planning my trip to Thailand last year.  I was looking for cheap flights and found one return trip that was priced quite reasonably.  I then looked at the flight itinerary and understood why it was such a bargain.  There was a day layover in Tokyo on the way to Bangkok and an 8 hour layover in Hong Kong on the way back.  I immediately disregarded the option and continued searching for better flights.  Finally, a little lightbulb went off in my head.  A day layover in Tokyo is... well, it's a day in Tokyo!  Japan is made up of islands and islands often have endemic species.  On top of the potential for endemics, there was an additional suite of birds that were possible in the winter around Tokyo, due to its higher latitude, that I wouldn't have a shot at in Thailand.  The latter went for Hong Kong, as well, but to a lesser degree as it is considerably closer Thailand.  I threw the pitch to Jamie, a friend and fellow birder that was joining me on the trip, and he was sold on the idea.  That settled it: flights were booked and the "Birds of East Asia" field guide was purchased.

I began to scour the internet for trip reports covering the Tokyo area in late January and I learned the airport was not in Tokyo proper, but rather in a satellite town called Narita.  We also learned that it is ill-advised to rent a car and attempt to navigate the roads because there is no English on street signs.  The quickest public options to get to Tokyo from the Narita International Airport take around an hour and are relatively expensive for a couple of budget travelers.  With all these factors swirling in our minds, we turned our attention to Narita and learned there was a great deal of appeal in staying close to the airport.  As Narita is less populous, navigating the area would be significantly easier and there was a good mosaic of natural habitat, developed areas, and agricultural fields.  Two features in particular made Narita even more appealing: the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, surrounded by forest, and an irrigation channel that looked like it could host some ducks.  I searched online for reasonable hotels in Narita and found the International Garden Hotel had the right price and was quite close to the temple.  Additionally, the hotel offered free transfers to and from the airport.  The scales were tipped and, needless to say, we booked it.

Jamie lived on Google Earth for many hours over many days to map out a plan for our only day in Japan.  In addition to working out a great walking route through some decent-looking habitat, he also found out we were staying just across the road from a hilarious love hotel:

You can expect to get coal in your stocking at Hotel Chapel Christmas because you're probably being naughty...

Our foot-based birding route took us from the hotel to the irrigation channel, over to the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, back to the irrigation channel, north along the waterway up to some agricultural fields, and then back to the hotel.  The layover was a full day, but it was in February and we were set to arrive just after dark.  That gave us around six or seven hours of quality birding time.  In the end, we managed to complete the planned route and still had over two hours to kill.  We ended up improvising by heading south of the hotel into more forested habitat and then around more agricultural fields.  As this is hard to envision, I have attempted to roughly trace out our route on Google Earth:

1) International Garden Hotel  2) Irrigation channel  3) Naritasan Shinshoji Temple and forests to northeast
4) First set of agricultural fields  5) Forested area behind hotel  6) Second set of agricultural fields

We arrived at Narita International Airport after dark on January 30th and had no problems catching our transfer to the hotel.  We were tired after the long flight and were not feeling adventurous so we ate at the hotel restaurant and went to bed.  We were up the next morning as light was just starting to break and Jamie was looking out the window to see if he could identify the first birds of the trip.  He had a few crows flying by in the dim light but couldn't put a name to them as both Large-billed and Carrion Crows are common there.  We grabbed a quick breakfast and hit the streets.

Our first bird of the trip was also our first lifer of the trip - to recap for those non-birders out there, a "lifer" is common birding lingo for a species you've never seen before.  Maybe the title of this entry makes more sense now... or not.  So, the first bird was Eurasian Tree Sparrow.  That's a pretty mundane first lifer as it basically looks like a House Sparrow with a black patch set at the edge of its white cheek and a completely chestnut cap.  We followed it up quickly with a Brown-eared Bulbul perched on a telephone wire.  We had heard the bulbuls were loud and quite common and the rumours were true.  Continuing on down the road, we heard a sharp call note overhead and spied a long-tailed bird with an undulating flight dropping down.  The bird landed on a concrete wall and it turned out to be a White Wagtail.  Shortly after, we made it to the irrigation channel and Jamie scanned for ducks:

Could that be a group of Chinese Spot-billed Ducks?


The lifers were happening fast and furious.  Chinese Spot-billed Ducks were in tight formation swimming away from us and closer along the shore we had a Grey Wagtail, then an Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and we topped it off with a stunning Japanese Wagtail!  An hour earlier, Jamie had never seen a wagtail in his life and I had only seen a group of three Eastern Yellows that landed on a boat in the Chukchi Sea.  We were rolling in them now.

Grey Wagtail at the water's edge of the irrigation channel

On the other side of the channel, we picked up our first Dusky Thrush and also gawked at a pair of Great Tits.  Maybe it wasn't a pair, but I think Freud would appreciate my story more that way.  We found a trail that cut through our first patches of shrubs and forest.  We could hear a chip note that we figured was something new and eventually managed to track down the source: a Black-faced Bunting.  There was more movement in the shrubs and a bird shot out that only Jamie got adequate looks at, which turned out to be the only Brown Thrush of the day.  The trail led us out to the road that winds up to the temple grounds.  A short distance up the road, a bird was calling from the top of a tree in the distance.  I set up my scope for the first time and determined the culprit was a Hawfinch.  The forest started to look a little more mature as we neared the temple and as a result we started to encounter some interesting birds.  First, we managed to find a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker and shortly after we had our first Varied Tits.  At the top of the road, we found another trail that appeared to drop down to picaresque ponds surrounded by traditional Japanese gardens.

The start of the trail, which we assumed led to the temple, yielded two more new birds in the forms of Eurasian Jay and Japanese Bush Warbler.  We followed the trail around another pond with more exquisite landscaping and eventually came to a little frenzy of activity.  On the ground just off the trail, a Pale Thrush was feeding in similar vein to our robins.  A group of Varied Tits were amazingly confiding and I unfortunately could only muster an out-of-focus record shot of these extremely charismatic little birds.

Varied Tit down at eye level

Hawfinches were also in the trees in the same vicinity to add to the bustle.  Also, a mixed flock of Oriental Greenfinches and Eurasian Siskins swirled around before landing in the top of some tall conifers, requiring scope views to realize both species were present.  Just when we thought we had picked everything out of the mix, a Japanese White-eye popped into view.  We had another small group of these a little further on that were lit up perfectly by the morning sun.

The aptly-named Japanese White-eye

We broke out of the forest into the courtyard of the temple and we took some time to soak in the intricate architecture and ornamental features of the buildings.  It was still early in the morning and the local people were just starting to get moving.  The minimal activity around the temples made the setting very serene and, when paired with nicely manicured trees, it made me truly understand why people love Japanese gardens and temples.  See for yourself:

While wandering around the temple grounds, the bird highlight was a flock of Long-tailed Tits that flew over and gave us brief views.  The only other birds around were a few Carrion Crows and it was good to see they act much like the crows back home.

This Carrion Crow was hanging out near some steps leading up to a temple door

We left the temple grounds and wandered through a maze of streets and made our way back to the irrigation channel.  On the way, we came across a couple very cooperative White Wagtails.  It's interesting to see a bird like this wandering around on a small gravel parking spot between buildings when we dream about finding them in agricultural fields or sandy dune-like habitats, such as spits, back in British Columbia.  Maybe  we're doing it all wrong!

This White Wagtail was looking sharp as it strutted around close to the sidewalk

Back at the irrigation channel, we picked up a couple nice lifers.  First, a flash of turquoise darted by and we recognized the bird immediately as a Common Kingfisher.  While trying to find where the kingfisher landed, we pushed up a Common Sandpiper and tried to work out differences from the Spotted Sandpipers we see back home.  Very subtle.  As we passed back by the spot where we first crossed the channel, we accidentally flushed the same Japanese Wagtail up to a roof.  Despite the  awkward lighting, I snapped off a shot of it as it is a regional endemic and I thought it was the smartest wagtail of the four we encountered.

Japanese Wagtails have a narrow distribution but are not actually endemic to Japan

We followed the channel further northeast in hopes of spotting some different waterfowl.  We were not let down in the slightest.  In a narrow stretch with cattails on both sides, we found a perfect specimen of a male Falcated Duck.  We were only able to view it for a few minutes before it floated out of view into the reeds.  Other than that, the only other species we found in the water were Great Cormorants, a lone Common Moorhen, and some Common Teals.

Some authorities treat Common Teal, the Eurasian counterpart to our Green-winged Teals, as a distinct species

In the adjacent agricultural fields, Jamie scanned out and spied a Bull-headed Shrike but it flew off before I could get a look at it.  We followed paths between the fields and were rewarded with a couple new birds.  As we cut through a weedy patch, the whir of wings erupted as a female Green Pheasant flushed a couple metres away from us.  I am fairly certain that flushing pheasants has to be one of the most frightening experiences you can have as a birder.  They have a tendency to wait until you are right on top of them before exploding into flight.  We walked a little further and pushed up another female Green Pheasant likely causing my heart rate to elevate significantly from the back-to-back flushes.  Sometimes called Japanese Pheasant, this species was the only truly Japanese endemic we managed in Narita.  As we made our way out into the more open fields, a flock of Rustic Buntings flew up and landed in the trees lining a small slope a couple hundred metres away.  We watched them in the scope for a bit before deciding to head back towards the hotel.  As we left the fields, the Bull-headed Shrike re-emerged and gave us both great views and we were even able to watch it hunt at close range.

The winter weather was pleasant but still chilly.  As we approached the hotel, we found a vending machine along the sidewalk and decided to get a hot beverage in a can to warm up a little.

For a relaxing time, make it Suntory time

Once at the hotel, we realized we still had a couple hours to kill.  We opted to trek into the forested area behind the hotel as a start and just see where the journey led us.  In the forested area, we were delighted to see stands of bamboo.  This, however, did not equate to new birds.

The towering bamboo creaked and groaned while swaying in the wind

Due to the minimal bird activity through the forested area, we moved along quickly and came out to a road on the other side of the forest stand.  A flash of movement alerted us to the presence of another much-sought after gem: a male Red-flanked Bluetail!  This diminutive flycatcher actually has orange flanks and the head, back, and tail are all a dazzling shade of blue.  They have also been called Orange-flanked Bush-Robins which reflects their former placement under the thrush family Turdidae.  They have now been placed in with Old World flycatchers under the family Muscicapidae.  The latter is more fitting as we saw it swiftly sally out and dart back into the roadside vegetation.  We quickly lost track of the bluetail but we savoured the moment and followed it up with a high five.  Another high five-worthy bird was right around the corner in a beautifully-manicured front yard.  Sitting right out in broad daylight, we had a male Daurian Redstart.  Old World redstarts look nothing like the redstarts back home, which is why some have suggested we call our birds "whitestarts".  Just like the Red-flanked Bluetail, the placement of Daurian Redstart has shifted from Turdidae to Muscicapidae.  They are equally as tantalizing with their neat lines defining a silver-grey cap, rusty-orange chest and belly, black throat and back, and topping it off with white patches in the wings.

Is this just an average person's home?  I have no idea, but it is visually appealing to me and Daurian Redstarts!

The street came to a T-junction and opened up into another stretch of agricultural fields.  Out on the fields, a flock of pipits took flight and eventually dropped back into same field.  We eventually managed to get them in the scope and found they were the japonicus subspecies of American Pipit.  I watch for japonicus American Pipits in Victoria as they are one of the more likely Asian vagrants to show up in my opinion, but I have never managed to find one.  It was nice to get some experience with them and see how boldly marked they are with dark streaks contrasting their whitish undersides and broad, dark, flaring malars, reassuring it would stand out in a group of nominate rubescens American Pipits.  After studying the pipits for a while and ensuring there wasn't a juicier pipit in the mix, we proceeded to circumnavigate the fields.  We didn't find anything new in the process, but we got more great looks at Bull-headed Shrike, Japanese Bush-Warbler, and found a female Daurian Redstart.

Couldn't this Bull-headed Shrike choose a more attractive perch?

We decided it was time to get back to the hotel and catch a shuttle to the airport, so we booked it back.  Being stubborn, we decided to give a small field next to the hotel once last look over and we were duly rewarded with our only Meadow Bunting.  We shook our heads at our incredible luck and were impressed with the total we amassed from walking around on foot in a non-tropical foreign country in the middle of winter.

My hope is that this trip report will be instructive to birders in the same boat as I was on my trip to Thailand.  If you have a lengthy layover in a destination you've never visited, make the best of it.  If your layover happens to be at the Narita International Airport and you don't want to cut it too fine by heading into Tokyo, the Narita area has a nice range of habitats that can be explored on foot.  I found internet resources to be rather slim for birding in Narita and just wanted to try and fill the gap a little.  If you find this useful and end up doing something in similar vein, please take the time to write up your own report to help out future travelers.

Trip List (* denotes lifer):
Chinese Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha) *
Common Teal (Anas crecca)
Falcated Duck (Anas falcata) *
Green Pheasant (Phasianus versicolor) *
Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) *
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) *
Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) *
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) *
Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) *
Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis) *
Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) *
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Dendrocopos kizuki) *
Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) *
Japanese Wagtail (Motacilla grandis) *
Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis)
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) *
American Pipit (Anthus rubescens japonicus)
Brown-eared Bulbul (Microscelis amaurotis) *
Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus) *
Brown-headed Thrush (Turdus chrysolaus) - Jamie only
Pale Thrush (Turdus pallidus) *
Dusky Thrush (Turdus eunomus) *
Japanese Bush Warbler (Cettia diphone) *
Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus) *
Daurian Redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus) *
Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus) *
Great Tit (Parus major) *
Varied Tit (Cyanistes varius) *
Japanese White-eye (Zosterops japonicus) *
Black-faced Bunting (Emberiza spodocephala) *
Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica) *
Meadow Bunting (Emberiza cioides) *
Oriental Greenfinch (Carduelis sinica) *
Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus) *
Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) *
Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) *
White-cheeked Starling (Sturnus cineraceus) *
Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) *
Jungle Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) *
Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) *
Total: 41 species/36 lifers


  1. This is an incredible resource. I'm thinking about adding a layover in Tokyo to pick up some extra birds. Now that I've seen your report, I'm convinced!

    1. Thanks, Mike! I wrote this up on the off chance that some birder might stumble across it when faced with a similar scenario. You are the first to let me know that it has some value, so I appreciate your kind words! Good luck if you pop in to the Tokyo area!

  2. Thanks, Jeremy. I've booked my trip for early December and will let you know if my experience was similar to yours. If you have any other information to share, please e-mail me!

  3. Any chance you can share your walking map?
    Great to read about birding on a Narita layover as we have one in October.

    1. Hi Alice,

      I unfortunately made that in a photo editing software program using a screen capture from Google Earth and manually drawing in the route. There might be an easier way that is more functional, but I'll need to look into that. In the mean time, let me know if this mock-up works for you:

      Google Maps rough route

      It should at least be navigable and perhaps you can look at Google Maps and see areas that might be worthwhile that were not included in the route I trekked. I imagine you came from 10,000 Birds to read this as that has a good following, but in case you did not see the post from that blog, see here:

      10,000 Birds: Nice, Nice Birding in Narita

      Let me know if that works as a solution or if you need more details. I hope you didn't get inundated with messages saying I replied, but you probably did. I just wanted to get the links to work in my response and I needed to learn how to do that!

  4. I plan to do something similar in July. I hope that summer birding there will be just as productive. Thanks!

  5. Hello, great photos :) I'm wondering if I can ask your permission to use 1 or 2 of the nature photos here for a visual novel I am creating. The photos would be edited and I can also credit you. I don't know if this game will ever sell but may I ask your permission incase it does? thank you!

  6. Just had a short (2 hour) connection in Marita Airport. When looking out the lounge window into the scrubby trees and bushes below this I saw a black and white bird. I was not able to photo it, but after reading this and looking at your pictures I am convinced we saw Japanese Wagtail! As this was not a birding trip I am thrilled! Thank you!