Change of climate, anyone? Think of winter clothes, hats, gloves, boots, minus 10 degrees. Several of us went for a winter self-drive bird photography trip to Hokkaido in February 2011.
Although summer season (June-August) does have more bird species, there are some winter specialties that are well worth seeing in this area of northern Japan. February is probably the best single month for winter birding, the conditions are just right for most of the species to be seen, and towards the end of the winter lasting from December to February the light is strong and bright. The entire trip went flawlessly: Hokkaido is not heavily populated, the roads are good, and enough English is spoken so that visitors can manage. We visited four main spots, each with their unique features.
Rausu is a small coastal fishing town, population just over 6,200. It’s the most northeasterly town in Japan, and the gateway to the rugged Shiretoko Peninsula. In winter large concentrations of Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-tailed Sea Eagles hunt for fish on the pack ice, which drifts down from the Sea of Okhotsk. Nature tour boats from Rausu harbor are the best way to see these birds. We stayed for three nights in a small minshuku (Japanese style bed & breakfast) famous for nightly visits of the Blakeston’s Fish Owl. The food was out of this world, Hokkaido crabs, sweet and delicious.
The Steller’s Sea Eagle Haliaeetus pelagicus is the heaviest eagle in the world. It breeds in northeastern Russia and winters further south, reaching Hokkaido where it spends its days hunting for fish around the pack ice. Dozens of birds gather in Rausu harbor for the free meals provided by the tour boats.
The White-tailed Sea Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla is another large eagle, closely related to the Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus of North America. It is more widespread than Steller’s and breeds across northern Europe and Asia, and is a year round resident of Hokkaido.
The Blakiston’s Fish Owl Bubo blakistoni is one of the largest owls in the world. It is endemic to northeast Asia and needs good forests near a fast flowing stream that does not freeze in the winter. It is globally endangered with perhaps 20 breeding pairs left in Hokkaido.
The individual pictured is part of a family that has it considerably easier than most: they were being fed small trout daily near this stream at Rausu.
Nemuro is a larger coastal town, population just over 30,000. We stayed four nights outside of town in a minshuku run by a very knowledgeable birder and his wife. There is lots to explore, many fishing harbors, several lakes, the most easterly cape in Japan, and the largest herd of Sitka Deer. Our inn had a wonderful bird feeder which attracted many species of birds.
The harbors of Hokkaido have less pack ice and are calmer than the open oceans, so the are a good spot for watching many species of migratory ducks such as this pair of Long-tailed Ducks Changula hyemalis.
The male has the elongated tail.
Bird feeders are a good place to look for a variety of resident birds; these birds brave the winter in Hokkaido, but surely ejoy the food left out for them. Here is Coat Tit Periparus ater
the Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea
and the Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major.
Lake Kussharo is the largest volcano crater lake in Japan, and although it freezes over, the water is warm to the touch. There is a large wintering flock of Whooper Swans. The swans concentrate around the edges of the lake where the water usually is not frozen. Inn owners feed the swans oats; by February they will be beginning their mating rituals. We spent one full morning with the swans.
The Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus breeds throughout northern Europe and Asia and winters further south with a sizable wintering population in Hokkaido, most notably at Lake Kussharo. Since the water is warmer than the air it creates a misty effect. This pair of swans has started an early spring mating display.
Tsurui is a small village of around 3,000 people. Hokkaido is home to a resident population of the endangered Red-crowned Crane, and the cranes live mainly in the marshes around this village. Red-crowned Crane watching is clearly one of the pillars of Tsurui’s economy. There were several hundred tourists scattered around a half dozen prime viewing sites watching the cranes. In the winter the crane’s natural diet is supplemented with cracked corn, and at the Akan International Crane Center they also provide fish. We spent two nights in Tsurui at a modern inn run by a well known photographer.
The Red-crowned Crane Grus japonensis is probably the most iconic bird in Japan. Globally endangered, the resident population in Hokkaido has been nutured over the years and has now reached a stable population of arund 1,000 birds. In February they begin their elaborate mating display.
Every day at 2 pm staff from the Akan International Crane Center put out fish for the cranes which attracts the White-tailed Sea Eagle who try to steal the fish, not without some resistance from the cranes. This spectable also attracts about one hundred photographers!
We departed for Singapore from Kushiro airport. Our ten days, nine nights trip was just the right duration for a group of photographers, birders could do the trip in perhaps half the time. Altogether the trip was very enjoyable; and especially after the triple disasters in Japan this year, one of the best things we can do to help our Japanese friends is to go and spend our tourist dollars there.
Note: A version of this article appeared in Nature Watch (a publication of Nature Society Singapore) Vol 19 No 4, Oct-Dec 2011
Places we stayed:
Washi no Yado
Kyoeicho, Rausu-machi, Menashi-gun, Hokkaido
Field Inn Furo-so
249-1, Toubai, Nemuro-shi, Hokkaido
Nishi-1chome, Tsurui, Tsurui-mura