The Red-crowned Crane is on the way back from the brink of extinction in Japan. Protection and active assistance have helped. In return the cranes have added to the local economy by becoming quite a tourist magnet. There are several crane reserves where supplemental feeding mean that good numbers can be seen and photographed in the winter. In the summer breeding season they are widely dispersed, harder to find and hard to approach.
At one of the reserves spring feeding includes fish, added protein to assist in breeding readiness.
A free feed is obviously going to attract other eager participants. There are two common crows in Japan, this is a Carrion Crow, the other is the Large-billed Crow which is easily distinguished by its steep forehead.
Also common and always happy to share food that it doesn’t have to catch for itself is the Black-eared Kite. In some taxonomies this is included in Milvus migrans, the widespread (including Australia) Black Kite.
But sharing top billing with the cranes, a large and very impressive eagle …
After roosting in the river overnight, the Red-crowned Cranes fly out to the fields or into the marsh to feed. We followed them out into the marsh.
Morning temperatures were around the minus twenty Centigrade mark. If there is moisture in the air it will freeze out as hoar frost …
It transforms the country into a winter wonderland, a phenomenon familiar to many but we don’t see much of it in Australia! Conditions in the marsh suit the Sika deer and we saw several little groups of females and some youngsters.
From a hill we had the marsh spread out below us and distant views of White-tailed and Steller’s Sea Eagles, but more of them later …
In Japanese folk tradition, the crane is a symbol of fidelity, honesty, health and longevity. A crane will live a thousand years and if you fold a thousand paper cranes one will carry a wish to heaven for you. That wish may well be for a long and happy marriage.
At Arasaki in Kagoshima prefecture you have every chance of finding just the right crane to entrust your wish to. It is the wintering place for perhaps as many as 17,000 of them. The majority are Hooded Cranes, almost all the rest are White-naped Cranes. Both these species fly north via the Korean peninsula to nest in swamps in continental Asia.
At Arasaki there is a visitor centre with an outdoor observation deck. Grain and fish are put out for the cranes. They are quite a tourist attraction but the birds are assured of a little peace by fences that keep out the people. Some fields are kept flooded, the cranes always spend the night standing in water.
They start to arrive in mid October, start to leave in February and are gone by March. Numbers have risen over time from less than 300 in the late 1940’s to 17,005 (an unlikely degree of precision) in 2015. That is very likely good news for cranes although there are now fewer of them wintering in other locations.
The pair bond is maintained during the winter and last year’s young stay with their parents until it’s time to go north again, so as you watch what can seem like an amorphous mass of birds you soon start to pick out adult pairs that may have one or two youngsters with them.
At times they are a fairly noisy bunch and as spring approaches they start to dance and display.
Just occasionally you can find a Sandhill Crane or two. Their breeding ground is further north and most cross the Bering Strait to winter in North America but a few come south to Kyushu. I was also lucky enough to see a Common Crane that had wandered east from its normal range. It was keeping company with a Hooded Crane, the two species do occasionally hybridise.
The donation of free food attracts a few other birds as well. Black-eared Kites, Grey Herons, Eastern Rooks, Daurian Jackdaws and Common Starlings (not at all common in Japan) all drop in for a feed.
In the marshes not far away we encountered nine distant spoonbills. Seven were Eurasian Spoonbills, two were Black-faced. This was indeed a treat, the Black-faced Spoonbill is rare and endangered (and new to my list).
Back at the Haneda Excel Tokyu Hotel it was time to meet up with my companions for the Zegrahm Expeditions Snow Monkeys and Cranes tour of Japan. It is a very popular tour that I have been hearing about for years and was obliged to book about three years ago. You can find the brochure <HERE>. The itinerary is summarised on their map.
Japan is a country of marked seasonality. This is a winter tour which will give access to some spectacular wintering migrant birds and it will also show the Japanese Macaques at their most photogenic. It is not the best time to see the smaller birds but you can’t have it all.
As well, one expects, from Zegrahm, excellence in tour leaders, great accommodation, at least two kilos weight gain from the good food and a stream of cultural insights. In short, the bird watcher can take his wife without laying himself open to criticism. In fact, you don’t even have to be a bird watcher at all.
The leaders on this occasion are Mark Brazil and Mineko Dohata.
Dr Brazil is an ornithologist and a prolific writer. He was once a professor at Rakuno Gakuen University in Hokkaido. Although that is no longer the case, any thought that he is no longer an educator has to be dispelled, he just can’t help sharing his extraordinary knowledge. He writes a nature column for the Japan Times and he has written the book on Asian birds. Originally a pom, despite which he is a lovely bloke, he has lived in Japan for much of his adult life. Mark has made major contributions to the understanding of speciation in Japanese convenience stores, not all of which seems to be allopatric.
Mineko-san is a nationally certified guide. She lives in Kyoto. Her English is impeccable. She manages to convey the impression of the archetypal Japanese woman, polite, deferential, shy whilst at the same time bursting with humour and personality. She, also, will educate us over the next few weeks. And she will translate for us, keep us out of trouble and ensure that we have our seatbelts on whilst travelling. Oh so modest, but oh so influential, by the end of the trip we were all wondering why she has not yet been listed as a living national treasure.
That evening we wined and dined. Next morning we flew to Kagoshima Airport on the island of Kyushu.