For someone from the tropics, it was a challenge getting used to winter bird watching. Bird watching wasn’t just grabbing the camera and binoculars, we had to spend some thought into keeping warm in the freezing weather. Else, the fun from bird watching would quickly diminish in the freezing weather.
During this Hokkaido winter trip, right from the start, our goal was to look for the long-tailed tit, also known as shima-enaga (シマエナガ or 雪の妖精). In Hokkaido, this tit species has a pale white face, making it look like a cotton toy with black dots for its eyes and beak. So throughout the trip, we spent a great deal of time outdoors in the hopes of catching a glimpse as we missed in on our previous trips in summer.
Starting from Chitose, we headed to the wild East of Hokkaido, we made our base at Kushiro for a couple of days. We visited the marshlands and nature reserve. In winter, it was easy to see large flocks of red-crowned cranes, also known as tancho, gathered around feeding stations, marshlands or fields. If you have a chance to spot them, do observe their territorial or mating courtship behaviour. Keen to spot one? You can look for them at the following areas in Kushiro on this map (both summer and winter spots are available).
There are two species of owls that can be found on Hokkaido. The ural owls are small in size and are not uncommonly seen. We chanced upon this blog by Dev in the “A textbook winter trip in Hokkaido – Japan under Day 11 – Mar 5 paragraph. We followed the instructions to a tee and indeed, they was an owl in the tree hole.
After Kushiro, we started to make a anti-clockwise loop back to Chitose. Along the way, we passed by the prime location of Hokkaido’s other owl species, the Blakiston’s Fish Owl around northeast Hokkaido, Akan and Shiretoko. The Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Bubo blakistoni) is the largest species of owl in the world. They require pristine freshwater habitats, which are rapidly disappearing. Hence, their numbers are low and are considered to be an endangered species. We stayed in a local ryokan, Yuyado Daiichi, in Nakashibetsu. The ryokan is next to a freshwater stream and during the evening, there was a chance to spot this rare, elusive owl. However, we didn’t manage to see any owl, but instead saw a Japanese sable and mink.
Since it was in December, it was still early winter in Hokkaido. But we got lucky and spotted a Steller’s Sea Eagle from the telescopes in the Akkeshi Waterfowl Observation Centre. Even though, it was a really far, but they look so much bigger than the already very large Hokkaido crows. If you want to see them up close, there are the drift ice tours in January – March to see them on the north-east to east coast of Hokkaido.
Another winter migrant to Hokkaido are the Whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus). In winter, large flocks of them will fly down south and some will end up on Hokkaido. We saw a small flock of them in Lake Kussharo area. They are quite easy to see especially if you visit large inland lakes or freshwater areas.
Back to Chitose area and we still haven’t caught sight of the shima-enaga. So we decided to visit Utonai Sanctuary on our third last day. It turned out that Utonai lake was a great place to do winter birding. We saw quite a diversity of birds and we also saw our only long-tailed tit in a mixed flock of other tit species. A quick online search revealed that another place to catch sight of these snow angels was at Maruyama Park, Sapporo.
We got to Maruyama Park early and we strike gold. There was a flock of about 10 of them feeding and moving among the trees. They are small, more slender than the other tits and they do not sit still for long. We spent some time watching them go about their activities and managed to get some cute photographs of them. Below are two long-tailed tits (white ones) and a varied tit at the Maruyama Park.
Since we cleared our challenge, last minute, we tried our luck to find the crested kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris) or Yamasemi (山せみ). We have seen some Japanese photographers post some really great photos on social media. After asking Google, we managed to narrow it down to a place in Sapporo, where we might see them. So off we go to Makomanai Park, Sapporo. We followed the river along Makomanai Park and near the end, lo and behold, was this large kingfisher sitting on a branch looking at the river for potential prey. The Crested Kingfisher is one out of three species of kingfishers that Japan has, the other two are the Common Kingfisher and Ruddy Kingfisher.
Winter bird watching can really be a challenge sometimes, but it can be real rewarding when you find more elusive wildlife. Stay safe and have a great winter wildlife watching experience!