Owls have acquired symbolic meaning at different places and at different times. In the west we tend to think of the wise old owl and that was true for the ancient Greeks as well. The owl was the companion of Athena, goddess of wisdom and also associated with wealth. But they don’t always give folk the same impression, back in the dark ages they were associated with witches, black magic and evil doings.
The Japanese for owl is fukuro 梟. Other kanji can be combined to render the same syllables. One way is 福来郎 which means luck will come. Another way is 不苦労 which means no suffering. So, by a play on words, the owl offers good fortune and protection. It is a popular lucky charm in Japan.
About a dozen species of owl have been found in Japan. In a short visit you obviously aren’t going to find too many. The easiest seems to be this one …
They tend to roost at the entrance of a sizable tree hollow. Suitable hollows are fairly uncommon. Some roosts are well-known and reliable, the bus stops seemingly in the middle of nowhere and a well trodden path leads off through the snow to a roped off viewing spot.
The Ural Owl is found throughout Japan and through a large area of the adjacent Asian mainland.
The ultimate owl, though, is Blakiston’s Fish Owl. On the one hand this is rare and endangered on the other hand it is large and spectacular, a heady mix, enough to make any twitcher twitch. They are only found north of Blakiston’s line (what a tragedy it would have been if Blakiston’s owl didn’t care two hoots about Blakiston’s line). Their stronghold is in east Hokkaido where they are found in steep-sided , forested valleys adjacent to the coast.
As rare as they are my chances of seeing one were excellent because my guide was none other than Mark Brazil. He is on intimate terms with some pairs having carried large and heavy nest boxes up suitably steep and forested valleys to make up for a shortage of natural hollows. He has earned his knowledge the hard way and handsomely repaid the birds in the process.
So it was off to the coast at twilight.
We staked out a spot where the stream ran from a valley under a road bridge and into the sea and waited for dark.
Even before it was pitch black we could hear the low double note call of the male. Initially it was given every few minutes and went unanswered. Then it was answered. The response was a single note, even deeper than the male’s, you could feel it as much as hear it. From then on it was as though it was a single bird calling. The technical term is antiphonal duetting. It sent a tingle down the spine (technical term frisson).
After a while I became aware that, well away from the lights, a bird had landed silently on the bow of a small boat. The binoculars gathered just enough light to turn the tingle into a twitch but could do nothing to satisfy the camera. Continued study through the gloom revealed another bird, how long it had been there was anybody’s guess. Then two more sitting on nearby boats. The whole family had come down to the sea to fish for their supper. The male, the female and two large youngsters.
One did fly closer and into the outer reaches of the lighting on the dock … but I won’t bore you with the photo because two nights later one flew and landed under the outside lighting of a streamside building. What are the chances?