Owl …

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 …

Ural Owl
Ural Owl

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?

Blakiston's Fish Owl
Blakiston’s Fish Owl

A Mammal or Two …

Hokkaido has quite a list of mammals, it still has Brown Bears for example. These are formidable creatures closely related to the Grizzly. They may reach more than two meters tall, weigh about 300 kg and can run at a speed of 50 kph. They mostly eat shoots and salmon but are not averse to the occasional hiker. It does nothing for your comfort to know that, not only can they outrun you, they can out swim and out climb you as well. According to a Japan Times article the government started keeping records in 1962, between then and 2008 there were 86 attacks 33 of which were fatal. The article has some amusing suggestions for people venturing into bear country. They hibernate from mid-December to late March. So no photos this trip, here’s a Long-clawed Shrew to make up for it …


Long-clawed Shrew
Long-clawed Shrew

Blakiston’s line divides the Brown Bear, found only in Hokkaido,  from the Asiatic Black Bear of Honshu and Shikoku. The Long-clawed Shrew is also found only to the north of the line.

For more on bears in Japan, including the story of the Sankabetsu Brown Bear Incident of 1915 go <HERE>. The Long-clawed Shrew standing on its hind legs would barely make 10 cm, it weighs up to 20 g moves quite slowly and has never been involved in attacks on humans.

A few other mammals were kind enough to pose. This Sable, once again only found north of Blakiston’s line, had its den under the deck of one of the hotels I stayed at.


It is a Mustelid along with weasels, badgers and otters. It is happiest eating squirrels, smaller rodents, birds and fish but will also eat berries, vegetation and pine nuts when the going gets tough. This one mostly ate bread.

The next couple of species have no regard for Blakiston. They do not toe the line.

Sika Doe
Sika Doe
Sika Stag
Sika Stag
Red Fox
Red Fox

Rausu …

Time to head to the coast and the fishing port of Rausu.




We were going to sea to get some stunning views of some eagles. We donned our life jackets, packed several trays of frozen fish, which meant that they were pretty much at ambient temperature and headed out onto the briny. The gulls were quick to take an interest, this is a regular event for them …



But once we started throwing out the fish they were obliged to make way for the White-tailed Sea Eagles,


and when the big guys show up, look out. Steller’s Sea Eagle was the bird I had come to Japan to see. On a previous trip I had been on a ship outside Petropavlosk. The Russian port authorities, perhaps because there were mainly Americans on board, had kept us waiting for hours. By the time we docked it was time to head straight to the airport. The only significant result of that was to deny some dollars to the local economy. I was not too upset, I spent the whole time looking for the world’s largest and most spectacular eagle. I would have stayed an extra day … in fact I would have needed to. None showed up. Going hungry improves the appetite, dipping on a bird sweetens the eventual sighting …


Whilst back in the woods …

Hokkaido is a really cool place, literally, the year round average temperature is just 8°C. Trees are found up to about 1500 metres. In the lowlands there is deciduous forest dominated by Mongolian oak (Quercus mongolica) with dwarf bamboo (Sasa spp.) undergrowth. Above that the dominant forest cover is coniferous, mainly Asian spruce (Picea jezoensis) and various firs (Abies spp.). Where climate and landform suit agriculture the forest has been cleared and much of the remainder has been logged but there still seems plenty for most of the birds.

Eurasian Nuthatch
Eurasian Nuthatch

This one is right way up but the nuthatch is often seen creeping head first down the trunks of trees inspecting the bark for insects.

Eurasian Jay
Eurasian Jay
Greater Spotted Woodpecker
Greater Spotted Woodpecker

These three are old friends. Their range extends across Asia and Europe. As a kid growing up in England I could find all of them in the local forest.

This next guy is another example with which to illustrate Blakiston’s line. In the three large southern islands of Japan there is an endemic squirrel, funnily enough called the Japanese Squirrel (Sciurus lis). In Hokkaido, though, we find the Eurasian Red Squirrel. The local subspecies (Sciurus vulgaris orientis) has really cute ears. (The scientific term being auribus vere bellus).

Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris orientis)
Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris orientis)

Feeding Time …

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.

Red-crowned Crane
Red-crowned Crane

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.

Carrion Crow
Carrion Crow

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.

Black-eared Kite
Black-eared Kite

But sharing top billing with the cranes, a large and very impressive eagle …

White-tailed Sea Eagle
White-tailed Sea Eagle

Kushiro Marsh …

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 …


Kushiro …

Stepping out of the airport in Kushiro was all it took to realise why the packing list had called for serious cold weather gear. Quickly onto the bus and off to the hotel. The hot spring bath soothed away the day’s travel stress and warmed me through. Ready for the dawn …


This is the view from the Otawa Bridge, dawn will be along shortly.

The bridge is already lined with photographers. This is the place to shoot Red-crowned Cranes, the only accessible overnight roost. Every time a bird blinks there is an epidemic of  shutters in hyperdrive.

The cranes spend the night standing in the river. As the light gathers they become active and vocal. They will fly out to feed in the fields and marshes, sometimes in twos and threes sometimes in flocks. The mist hanging over the Setsuri River puts a special luminosity on the scene.

The Red-crowned Crane is an east Asian species that, on the mainland, breeds in Siberia and north-eastern China and migrates south for the winter. The Hokkaido population is resident, found in large flocks in winter but widely dispersed when breeding. They are endangered. Slightly more than a third of the world population are in Hokkaido where they are protected and numbers are increasing.


This is the only crane that breeds in Japan, this is the one that epitomizes the values of health, longevity and fidelity in Japanese tradition. This is the real crane, symbol of JAL, and to the Ainu the Sarurun Kamuy, god of the marshes.