Winter Ballade in Hokkaido
On February 27th i set off for Hokkaido, an almost routine trip that i managed to do every winter since 2005. My preferred way of going there is driving my car from Tokyo to the harbor of Ooarai in Ibaraki prefecture, and board a ferry that will land 20 hrs later in Tomakomai, south of Sapporo. And from there it’s another 6 hours drive to reach Eastern Hokkiado where the action takes place. Not the fastest way for sure, but it’s convenient and easy to prepare : just pack everything i think i might need in the back of the car instead of carefully choosing each item with the constraint of luggage weight limit in mind. This is how Airline companies end up losing business, tormenting photographers and other travelers with ever stringent rules. Also for a birdwatcher, the ferry gives the opportunity to see pelagic birds, the highest prize being an Albatross (3 species are indeed possible in Japan). But luck was not on my side, and February is a little early for them anyway to venture that far north, and only notable birds were flocks of Crested and Least Auklets when approaching Tomakomai.
It was a rather cold -2 C when we landed in Tomakomai, and it got colder as i drove toward the east across forested landscapes. First stop was at the Papilio “gasthof” (http://www.tabi-hokkaido.co.jp/~papilio/english/index.html) by Kussharo lake, a charming birdwatcher friendly little Japanese Inn in the midst of the woods. There i connected with Ayuwat (http://ayuwat.blogspot.jp) and a group of Thai birdwatchers who for most of them were discovering Hokkaido’s winter. Almost all the birds were new to them, and so was the environment as well. And later in the trip when conditions got really harsh, they got as uncomfortable as i get when trekking in a steamy tropical rainforest swarmed by leeches and mosquitoes ! But in Kussharo the weather was pleasant albeit cold, and the bird feeder just outside the breakfast room provided lots of photography opportunities of the common winter birds. Kussharo lake has much volcanic activity around it, and the hot springs flowing into the lake keep part of it ice free throughout the winter, allowing a large flock of Whooper swans and other ducks to stay along its shores. As the swans are being fed every morning at Sunayu, they are super tame and allow for great close-ups.
The next stop for us was Rausu, but on the way we had a stop at Notsuke Hanto to check for seabirds and possible rarities. Snow Bunting, Rough-legged Buzzzard stayed elusive but there were plenty of Steller’s eagles and a few Spectacled Guillemots on the sea, along with the usual ducks. And Ayuwat even managed to find a lone Pine Bunting foraging on the frozen ground, a rare winter visitor in Hokkaido. But the weather got quite harsh with wind and snow hampering visibility, so we continued our way to Rausu.
The main attraction in Rausu in this season is the large number of wintering Steller’s Sea eagles (accompanied by White-tailed Sea eagles), a magnificent sight when the sea is covered by ice floes as it was this year. A couple of sightseeing companies offer boat cruise to nature enthusiasts, allowing great views of the eagles and its supporting cast of gulls with a backdrop of pack ice and mountainous landscape. Depending on weather conditions, a “sunrise” cruise can be available, leaving at 5am so that the stunning sun rise above the volcanoes of Kunashiri island can be experienced. Another main attraction for birdwatchers in Rausu is the rare Blakiston Fish Owl that occurs along the streams of the Shiretoko Peninsula. A small Japanese Inn, Washi no Yado, is feeding the owls with live fish, attracting a pair almost every night. But our stay in Rausu was marked by a severe storm that hit one night, with strong winds and huge snow fall, shutting down Rausu and the surroundings the next morning : electricity, water and phone all cut-off as well as the coastal road… hopefully Japanese are well equipped for this kind of incident, and by noon everything was back to normal. The storm left big scars in the region however, as 8 people found their death, most poisoned by Carbon monoxide inside their stranded vehicle. As there was not much to do for us that day, we simply stayed around the harbor watching birds, and we had the nice surprise to find a male Bufflehead in the midst of a Goldeneye flock, a vagrant duck from North America that occurs very rarely in Asia. When in Rausu in winter, i also like to venture into the mountains with snowshoes, but there was so much fresh snow this year, knee deep at best, that a long hike was just impossible. During my 2 hours stroll is however managed to see 2 pairs of Northern Raven, a rare WInter visitor in Hokkaido.
As my Thai friends were heading back to Kushiro we made a stop at Kiritappu peninsula on the way, a good place for sea birds and sometimes rare winter visitors : a white-phased Gyrfalcon has been reported there earlier this winter but we could not catch a whiff of it. We were however delighted with the long sighting of a playful Sea otter along the cape, feasting on urchins while swimming on its back. Hunting has severely depleted their population on this side of the pacific and they are just starting to recover, with a few individuals visiting the east coast of Hokkaido in winter.
My last stop was at Tsurui near Kushiro, where a large flock of Red-crowned cranes gathers in winter. I just had a half-day in hand and i did not get the snowy/windy conditions that i love for taking pictures of those magnificent birds, but as breeding season was about to start some pairs were in display mood, gracing me with the amazing spectacle of their dance. While watching the cranes i bumped into Mark Brazil, THE Japan bird specialist, and he very kindly tipped me for an Ural owl roosting site nearby, which i went on to visit straightaway. After some wait, the bird finally gave me great views when it came out of its hole, preening and stretching before an active night of hunting in the woods.
After the storm, the temperature had started to rise steadily, well above 0 C during the day, and further south around Tokyo it was much warmer, pushing the first migrants on their way north. During the 2 last days i saw the likes of Wigeon, Brent Goose, Japanese Cormorant, Vega Gull, all early sightings, and before boarding the ferry around Tomakomai hundreds of Greater White-fronted Geese were feeding in the fields, their first stop on their way to their arctic breeding grounds. The ferry trip on the way back brought fine views of Rhinoceros Auklet and a large flock of Streaked Shearwaters, feeding in the sea just a few miles off the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
As i arrived in Tokyo it was 24C and the Sakura tree just outside my house was about to start blooming, calling an end to the Japanese winter.