As my spouse, Amy, and I both had to travel to Japan for business reasons, we took the opportunity to schedule a bit of birding in as well. Since it is still winter in Hokkaido, and the Red-crowned (Japanese) Cranes congregate there in one of the world's great wildlife spectacles, we decided to head to the northernmost of the four main Japanese islands. We left California early in the morning on a JAL flight that arrived at Narita Airport in time to allow us to transfer to Haneda Airport and catch the last flight to Kushiro. There we rented a car from Toyota ($160 US for three day's rental of a Starlet, inclusive of mandatory insurance and taxes) and drove to Akan-cho where we had reserved a room for the night. All in all, it was a long day of travel.
The next morning, we rose at before dawn and drove to the crane roost on Setsurigawa River. It was clear and quite cold outside and we knew we were at the right place as a number of Japanese observers equipped with scopes and massive telephoto lens were standing in the middle of the bridge crossing the river. The cranes were present both up and down stream standing in the mist shrouded water and poking around in the shallows. Also present were Mallards, Whooper Swans, and Japanese Wagtails, a Japanese endemic. The cranes only engaged in a bit of desultory dancing; the good stuff is later in the day at their feeding grounds. Since the birds were not expected to fly out to the feeding stations until nine or ten in the morning, and we were starting to freeze, we eventually decided to continue our journey and revisit the cranes at a later time.
Our ultimate destination was the Nemuro Peninsula and the various birding sites located there. We drove southeast over the mountains towards the coast. Along the way, we noticed a bird fly into some trees next to road; we stopped and found a Nutcracker, not a common species in the area. Later, the undulating flight of a woodpecker caught our eyes, and we found a Great-spotted Woodpecker, which is a very attractive little bird. Lake Toroko was completely frozen, so there was no chance for the Falcated Teal often seen there. Both Common Goldeneye and Black Kite were also seen on the drive south.
We reached the coast just west of to town of Akkeshi. While crossing the bridge in town, we saw numerous Slaty-backed Gulls, by far the most common gull species we were to find on the trip. Taking the coastal road got us off of the main highway and enabled a relaxed drive, as there was almost no traffic to contend with. In the hills a few kilometers from town at Cape Aikappu, several raptors were observed circling slowly in the sky. They turned out to be eagles: White-tailed Eagle and Steller's Sea-Eagle. Both of these birds were magnificent, however only immature Steller's Sea-Eagles were present, and we really wanted to see the adults. We were to see both species frequently for the rest of trip, particularly near the coastline.
We reached our next destination, Cape Kiritappu, late in the morning. The Cape is a peninsula sticking out into the Pacific; there is a small lighthouse near the tip and good places to sea watch. Birds present included hundreds of Harlequin Ducks and Black Scoters. White-winged Scoters were seen in smaller numbers and a group of Temminck's Cormorants were sunning on nearby offshore rocks. There were small alcids feeding offshore, and we spent a lot of time trying to get satisfactory looks at them with the scope. As soon as a bird was found, it would dive underwater, only to pop up somewhere else. Eventually we were able to determine we were seeing Least Auklet. A bit later, a small flock of Crested Auklets arrived and lighted on the water. Throughout the trip, we saw far fewer alcids than we expected based on information published in the Brazil and Robinson books; like all birding, you put in your time and enjoy what you find.
After leaving the Cape, we drove back through the town of Kiritappu and its small harbor. There we found Common Merganser, two Red-crowned Cranes, and a small flock of Dunlin, which is a Hokkaido rarity during winter.
Our last stop for the day was further east on the coast. Cape Ochiishi is a lovely, but barren spit of land. A boardwalk led from the deserted parking area through a section of forest before reaching the open grassy areas along the edge of the cliffs that form the Cape. The woods were quite quiet, but a few Great and Coal Tits put in a noisy appearance. The same species of seabirds present at Cape Kiritappu were seen, with the addition of Long-billed Murrelet, the Asian subspecies recently split from Marbled Murrelet. A couple of Peregrine Falcons cruised by just offshore. We explored up and down the coast a bit on foot, but the weather turned colder, and snow started the fall heavily, so we returned to the car. We stopped at Ochiishi harbor and waited until the snowfall let up. In the harbor were numerous Slaty-backed, Glaucous, Mew, and Black-headed Gulls. A single Black-tailed Gull was see although more might normally be expected. Several Oldsquaws and a small flock of Greater Scaup were seen in the harbor as well. Just off the breakwater, Least Auklets were easily seen; this time they were more cooperative and just floated on the surface instead of feeding continuously.
By now, it was getting late in the day, so we reluctantly headed north across the Nemuro peninsula toward the Furo-so Lodge, where we had reservations for the night (11,000¥ per night for two including breakfast). Furo-so was recommended in both bird-finding guides as the best place to stay. It is a private house with a bunk room furnished with futons and quilts for visiting birders. The host, Mr. Tadaka and his wife are both avid birders, and both speak English. We were the only guests that evening. The lodge has a very nice hot Japanese style soaking bath that proved to be a wonderful way to warm up after a long cold day in the field. Tadaka-san was able to answer a number of questions about what birds were around and gave us a couple of tips for the next day. He told us that it had been a very cold winter, and passerine numbers were much lower than normal.
We got up before dawn again (sometimes jet-lag works in your favor) and drove the nearby Shunkunitai Island. The island is low-lying and has some older coniferous forest. There is a boardwalk and a couple of observation towers in the nature reserve located there. The morning was bitterly cold, at least to two Californians. Our target was Black Woodpecker, which Tadaka-san said had been seen in the area. Soon after we arrived, we heard some tapping and quickly located the woodpecker. A female was working on dead trees, hewing great chunks of wood off their sides. The attractive large bird is in the same genus as our Pileated Woodpecker. Groups of smaller birds were also observed working through the tree tops. These included Great, Coal, Willow, and Marsh Tits, Nuthatch, and Siskin.
We returned to Furo-so around 7:30 to thaw out and eat breakfast. Tadaka-san's feeder was active, with Nuthatch, various tits, and Brown-eared Bulbul coming in to feed. A pair of Hawfinches also showed up, which was a real treat. After breakfast, we drove east to the tip of Cape Nemuro hoping for eiders, loons, and more alcids. Unfortunately, none were observed among the relative few birds seen among the floating chunks of sea ice. Glaucous-winged Gulls were seen near a dump just south of the Cape. Eurasian Kestrels were also seen just east of the Cape, and Brant were observed flying by offshore.
Leaving Cape Nemuro, we headed west and then north along the coast. We stopped at several river mouths hoping for birds, but most of the rivers were frozen. At the Shibetsu River, however, we were rewarded with Gray Heron and Smew, which was my favorite bird of the trip. I had seen it once before at the Tama River near Tokyo, but this time we both were able to enjoy the beautiful merganser in a much more attractive setting.
Continuing north, we next stopped at Odaito to view the large numbers of Whooper Swans in Odaito Bay. The birds are fed here and tame enough to allow close approaches. Various ducks were also present, including Pochard, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and a few Canvasback, which is an Hokkaido accidental. Beyond Odaito is the long peninsula of Notsuke Hanto. This cold, windswept, and snow covered spit juts into Nemuro Strait and is often good for birds. Not much was in evidence during our visit, but we did have excellent close-up views of two Short-eared Owls hunting over the open fields.
Our final stop for the day was the Shiretoko Peninsula just beyond the town of Rausu. Here the Steller's Sea-Eagles roost in large number in the tree filled gullies along the coast. We had excellent views of the huge birds returning from the sea to perch on the trees. Dozens of the magnificent birds could be seen at any one time, and many were in striking adult plumage with huge bright yellow-orange bills. Brown Dippers were seen in the streams flowing along the bottom of the gullies. The one disappointment was the environment. Based on the bird-finding guides we had been expecting a rather wild area along the coast north of town. The area is now extensively developed; the narrow road lined with structures and with lots of new construction underway. Whether this is having any effect on the eagles was not clear, but it makes for less than optimal birding. We spent the night at Furo-so Lodge again.
Sunday morning again saw an early departure. We first returned to Cape Ochiishi for seabirds. Again, we found few alcids, but the windswept solitude of the place made it a beautiful place to visit. We spent more time wandering in the woods on the way back to the car, and among the common tits and nuthatches, a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker was found.
We needed to be back at Kushiro airport by mid-afternoon, so we decided to work our way back to the crane reserves to see the birds displaying. A brief stop was made to check out the woods near Lake Oneto, where a pair of Bullfinches was seen. By midday, we had reached the Tsuri-mura Crane Reserve, where we spent several hours. The setting was quite nice. Several large fenced-off fields held about sixty Red-crowned Cranes. Behind the fields were snow-covered hills and copses of trees. The day had warmed up to almost pleasant temperatures, and the bright sun illuminated the strikingly elegant cranes. The birds were feeding on grain put out on the snow for them. Often a pair would engage in their nuptial dances with wing flapping, jumping into the air, bugling, tossing of sticks into the air and so forth. Sometimes a pair of birds would point the heads skywards and march in stately circles around each other. The immature birds would imitate the adults in practice sessions. The entire scene was fascinating and well worth the trip to Hokkaido. At a nearby feeder, a variety of smaller birds would come and go. Among these birds were a Bohemian Waxwing and a Gray-headed Woodpecker.
Eventually, it was time to leave for the airport. We drove back across the hills toward Achan-cho and along the way were rewarded with good looks at a small group of Eurasian Jays poking around along the edge of the road. The birds were of the endemic Hokkaido subspecies brandtii. By 2:30 in the afternoon, we had arrived back at the Kushiro airport where we caught our plane back to Tokyo.
The short trip yielded sixty species of birds, including twenty-one lifers. The travel was surprisingly easy, with no real problems navigating or getting lost. Hokkaido was quiet and attractive, the people were friendly, even though there was almost no English spoken anywhere. If you ever have a chance to go, we recommend taking the opportunity. Seeing the cranes dancing in the snow was a wonderful experience and was quite different than anything we have seen before in the wild.
Life birds in bold text.
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