The Birding Year

This is not definitive by any means but I hope it will give you a flavour of the area. All photos are my own and were taken in southwest Hokkaido; in and around Hakodate, in and around Onuma, Yakumo and Oshamanbe.

Winter is harsh in Hokkaido, much colder than what I grew up with in the UK. Heavy snow and subzero temperatures are the norm although southwest Hokkaido is relatively mild compared to further east and north. The first snow comes at the end of November and the last in late March. Lake Onuma freezes in early December.

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White Tailed Eagle White Tailed Eagle

The early part of the year is dominated by the eagles a up at Yakumo, they are most active and approachable at this time due to the river levels dropping and allowing the eagles to get at the salmon carcasses.

White Tailed Eagle

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They generally hang around until the end of February and then the salmon supply runs out and on they move.

Other winter raptors include Common Buzzard, Hen Harrier, Goshawk and more rarely birds such as Rough Legged Buzzard and Gyrfalcon. Merlin and the resident Peregrine are both common in winter.

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The fishing harbours dotted around the coasts can provide some close up views of a variety of wildfowl including Long Tailed Duck.

Long Tailed Duck

Other ducks include Common Goldeneye, Great Scaup, Black Scoter, White Winged Scoter and Red Breasted Merganser. Occasionally more interesting species like this Spectacled Guillemot can be seen.......

Spectacled Guilemot

Red Throated and Black Throated Divers occur throughout winter.

Red Throated Diver

Black Throated Diver

4 species of grebe occur. Black Necked, Slavonian, Great Crested and Red Necked. Here is the latter........

Red Necked Grebe

Gull species along the coast include both Glaucous and Glaucous Winged Gulls.........

Glaucous Gull

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Common species in town include these 2: Dusky Thrush and Daurian Redstart.

Dusky Thrush


In January the forests are full of the resident Tits and Nuthatches.These are Varied Tit, Long Tailed Tit and the local race of Common Nuthatch.

Varied Tit

Long Tailed Tit

Eurasian Nuthatch

January also sees the arrival of the 2 Waxwing species. These are very unpredictable, in some years both species come, in some years only one comes and occasionally both species are completely absent. Generally Bohemian Waxwing is the commoner.

Bohemian Waxwing

However in some years Japanese Waxwing are just as numerous.
Japanese Waxwing

Lapland Buntings sometimes appear on the beaches in winter..........

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Other unpredictable species are the various finches of the region. Hawfinch is generally the commonest and large numbers enter the area as the temperatures drop.

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 In some winters Common Redpoll are everywhere.

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Other winter finch species include Brambling, Siskin and Asian Rosy Finch. In late winter/early spring Bullfinches appear to nibble on the cherry buds.

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Another late winter arrival (in some years at least) are the Common Crossbills.

Common Crossbill

Early spring sees large numbers of waterbirds visiting the local harbours. The most noticeable of these are the Black Necked Grebes.

Black Necked Grebe

Alcids sometimes visit the ports too, Rhinoceros Auklet and this species, Ancient Murrelet.

Ancient Murrelet Ancient Murrelet

Late winter also sees large numbers of Brent Geese assembling.......

Brent Goose

In the forest at Onuma the various Woodpecker species become more active in late March, there are 5 species there including Hokkaido specialty the Black Woodpecker.

Black Woodpecker

Spring kicks in at the start of April. This seems to be a shortish sesson and by the start of June summer is well underway. The forest is bare until late April when the first greenery appears, the cherry blossoms bloom in early May in most years. The vegetation grows at an astonishing rate and by mid June the forest at Onuma looks like a jungle.

Spring comes quickly and the first migrants appear in early April. These are usually resident birds in Japan which leave Hokkaido in the winter, such species include Skylark, Japanese Bush Warbler, Bull Headed Shrike and Red Flanked Bluetail.

Red Flanked Bluetail.

Another returnee from the south of Japan is Japanese White-eye.......

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Rarer birds appear at this time of year. Hoopoe is one example and they occur fairly regularly........this one was 1 minutes walk away from my apartment.


Many species pass through Hakodate in spring and are easier to observe than in autumn. Eastern Crowned and Sakhalin Leaf Warblers arrive in late April.

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Many species of warbler, thrush and chat pass through. The most colourful are some of the flycatchers like these male Narcissus and Blue and White Flycatcher.

Narcissus Flycatcher

Blue and White Flycatcher

Other migrants passing through in spring include Pale, Brown, Japanese and Eye Browed Thrushes, Siberian Blue and Japanese Robin, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Siberian Rubythroat and Arctic Warbler, Asian Stubtail.

Short Tailed Bush Warbler

3 species of Swallow and 2 species of Swift are common sumer visitors, this is a Pacific Swift.

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Several species of egret appear in spring as overshoots. Little Egrets prefer rivers but Cattle and Intermediate Egrets prefer the ricefields.......

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Wader species appear on the local beaches in early May, the commonest are Grey Tailed Tattler.

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Other regular species include Red Necked Stint and Whimbrel.

Red Necked Stint

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Some waders appear in the local ricefields like this Wood Sandpiper.

Wood Sandpiper

Waders are generally commoner in the autumn however.

Offshore there are huge numbers of Red Necked Pharalopes in mid to late May.

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Countless numbers of Short Tailed Shearwater pass Hokkaido in the spring and can be seen from the shore through a scope, the ferry provides an easier view though.

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By the end of May the migration season fizzles out and only the breeding species remain. In town these include Red Cheeked Starling, one of the commonest summer visitors.

Red Cheeked Starling

Summer is the slowest time of the year. June is still interesting for birds though, July tends to be humid and overcast and August is by far the hottest month.

In town are lots of Oriental Reed Warblers, these are common in any area near water.........

Oriental Reed Warbler

Bullheaded Shrike and Asian House Martin are 2 other common summer birds in town.........

Bullheaded Shrike killing a Tree Sparrow.......

Asian House Martin

Black Crowned Night Herons nest in the trees alongside the small local river..........

Black Crowned Night Heron

The grasslands, wetlands and padi fields provide breeding locations for many species of bird...........

Siberian Stonechat are especially abundant in these open areas.......

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Black Browed Reed Warblers occur wherever there are large areas of long grass.........

Black Browed Reed Warbler

In summer Long Tailed Rosefinch occur in a variety of habitats from forest to grassland.

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Other summer breeders include Common, Oriental and Little Cuckoo, Grays Grasshopper Warbler and Chestnut Eared Bunting.

Chestnut Eared Bunting

One of the sounds of summer is the Lathams Snipe, an extraordinary sounding if plain looking bird..............

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On the coast Japanese Green Pigeon come down to rocky beaches to consume saltwater..........

Japanese Green Pigeon

All the major rivers and lakes in the area have their Ospreys in summer............

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Things tend to fizzle out a little in mid July, nothing much happens until the waders pass through again. The first generally arrive in the second week of August. There are over 30 species to be found on the beaches and in the ricefields.

Sanderling and Red Necked Stint are especially common on the beaches........

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Red Necked Stint

Other species on the beach include Great Knot, Mongolian Plover and Bar Tailed Godwit.

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Bar Tailed Godwit

Grey Tailed Tattler prefer rocky coasts......

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Long Toed Stints are numerous in the ricefields..........

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Autumn is a pleasant enough season. Though there are some typhoons the weather is usually clear and warm. It is a great time for birdwatching but not as good as spring for photography as the birds are more skulking and there is still plenty of vegetation for them to skulk in.

Smaller birds pass through is September and October. Many species can be seen flitting around in the bushes, usually these are breeders heading south.  Red Flanked Bluetail, Arctic Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat and Wryneck are some of the more interesting migrants to look for.

Species not breeding locally occur too of course including local scarcities like Taiga and Mugimaki Flycatcher as well as commoner stuff like this Grey Streaked Flycatcher.

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Raptors also pass through south Hokkaido in autumn, the main viewing point is Matsumae to the west of Hakodate. Oriental Honey Buzzard is the most noticeable and across the region Common Buzzard and the 3 accipter species can be seen easily.

Rustic Bunting is the commonest of several Bunting species and are abundant in October and November........

Rustic Bunting

They are often joined by Yellow Throated Buntings........

Yellow Throated Bunting

The first Dusky Thrush and Daurian Redstart appear in October and in most years there are plenty of Black Crowned Night Herons in the bushes next to the river near my apartment, as soon as the snow comes off they go south........

Black Crowned Night Heron

Great Egret appear in October and often stay the winter............

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Wildfowl numbers build up from late October. The Harlequin Ducks return to the coast in early November..........

Harlequin Duck

The Brent Geese appear in the local ports in late November..........

Brent Goose

In Onuma the lake freezes over in early December, a smal ice free area is occupied by a flock of Whooper Swan.

Whooper Swan

In the forest at Onuma the Ural Owls appear in their winter roosting spots.......

Ural Owl

The first snows come in late November and by then most of the eagles have arrived and we're back where we started........

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