Birders, bird-watchers, bird-spotters, ornithologists, listers, twitchers or birding dudes: Whatever you want to call them, they are the people — a friend, a family member or maybe an eccentric relative — who creep about at all hours of the day spotting, studying, grilling, scoping, twitching or, in common language, watching birds.
Here, the image of birding is of a group of middle-aged ladies and elderly couples out for a weekend stroll with the local chapter of the national bird-watching society, the Wild Bird Society of Japan.
Each is wearing a sun hat, carrying a small fieldscope on a tripod and lugging a backpack containing a bento and a bird guide. Each also carries a small notebook and lists the birds seen that day, a list that is eagerly compared with that of the group leader at lunchtime.
The location may be the Yatsu-Higata mud flats near Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture (where large numbers of plovers, sandpipers and other shorebirds are currently passing through on their northward spring migration).
Later in the summer, it might be the woodlands of Karuizawa or the lower slopes of Mount Fuji, where summer visitors like flycatchers and warblers can be observed.
During the spring and autumn, Tsushima Island in Nagasaki Prefecture, Hegura Island north of Wajima in Ishikawa Prefecture and Tobishima Island off Iwate Prefecture often turn up rare migrants and vagrants from the Asian mainland or even from as far afield as Europe and North America.
Classic winter sites include the Kushiro area of Hokkaido for the beautiful Manchurian crane and Lake Izunuma in Miyagi Prefecture for swans and geese, while in Kyushu, visiting the crane wintering site just west of Izumi City is sure to overwhelm even the most uninterested person — when I visited in late February over 13,000 cranes of five different species could be seen. An added bonus was a single Siberian white crane.
For those wishing to try bird-watching in Japan for themselves, a comprehensive field guide is a must. Unfortunately, the only English-language guide for birds in Japan is out of print now. Many of the species found in eastern Russia or northern China occur in Japan too, however, and there are now comprehensive English guidebooks to the birds of China (“A Field Guide to the Birds of China,” by John MacKinnon, Oxford University Press) and Russia (“A Field Guide to the Birds of Russia and Adjacent Territories,” by V.E. Flint, Princeton University Press). Japan Times Wild Watch columnist Mark Brazil’s book, “A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Japan” (Kodansha) lists the top 60 birding sites around the nation, what to look for and how to get to them.