Hokkaido is the northern most of Japan’s three main islands. Unlike the rest of Japan, ecologically its fauna and flora are closer to Siberia than East Asia. For example, brown bears are found on Hokkaido but not elsewhere in Japan. During the ice-age there was a land bridge connecting Hokkaido with Siberia and this allowed free movement of animals. The sea between Hokkaido and neighbouring Honshu was too deep and kept Hokkaido separate from what we now call Japan.
Hokkaido is one of the top birding destinations in Japan and, indeed, throughout Asia. In my opinion, Hokkaido in winter provides some of the most memorable birding experiences in the world. In winter it holds three of the World’s most iconic bird species – Red-crowned Crane, Blakiston’s Fish-Owl and Steller’s Sea-Eagle. It’s possible to see them all in one day in the wonderful area of eastern Hokkaido.
The endangered Red-crowned Crane is something of a conservation success story on Hokkaido because the wintering population has now built up to almost three thousand birds thanks to specially created nature reserves and supplementary feeding. The feeding stations provide good opportunities for relatively close views of this beautiful bird. The communal gathering of the cranes regularly stimulates the wonderful displaying and bugling calls of these tall but elegant birds. A famous place to see a roost site of the cranes is from the Otawa Bridge near Tsurui. The cranes roost in the geothermal water of the river that doesn’t freeze despite sub-zero temperatures. Birdwatchers and photographers gather before dawn to see the birds in the river and when the cranes fly out of the roost they often provide close views as they fly by as they make their way to their feeding grounds. It’s one of several highlights of a winter birding trip to Hokkaido. Close by are some of the nature reserves that give more close views of the cranes while they feed in the snow-covered landscape. Some of the reserves have visitor centres where you can learn more about the conservation and ecology of this and other species of cranes.
Blakiston’s Fish-Owl is the world’s largest owl and, fortunately, there are a couple of famous places that provide excellent opportunities to see this bird up close. Both sites have small pools that are stocked with fish providing easy meals for the owls and stunning views for us to enjoy this globally endangered species. I never grow tired of watching this magnificent owl sitting just a few metres away as it contemplates which particular fish is going to be its next victim. If you have a camera then be warned that you may take a few hundred photos of the obliging birds so be prepared to do some difficult deleting later– at least most of us don’t buy film these days which helps to avoid a significant expenditure.
Steller’s Sea-Eagles migrate from Russia for the winter to take advantage of the relatively easy feeding opportunities in eastern Hokkaido. As with the other two, an endangered species is benefitting from feeding by people. Many fishermen discard their unwanted products and the opportunist eagles are one of the main recipients. The relationship with people provides more good viewing and photographic opportunities. White-tailed Eagles are another top raptor found here. These are another large bird but are dwarfed by Steller’s, which is the largest sea-eagle in the world. Every time I see one of these birds I marvel at the size of its beak and the general magnificence of a supreme predator. As with the crane and the owl, it’s a privilege to get such great views of stunning birds that are on the wishlist of many birders.
Although this trio are the highlights, there are many more good birds and wildlife here. Hundreds of whooper swans can be found close to the shore at places like Lake Kussharo giving more opportunities for good photos. The Notsuke peninsular provides the best chance of seeing Asian Rosy-Finch as well as sika deer and red fox. Off the coast here and in the fishing harbours there’s a chance of Long-tailed Duck, Black Scoter, Harlequin Duck and a good variety of gulls that include Slaty-backed, Glaucous, Glaucous-winged, and Kamchatka. On a boat trip you may see Ancient Murrelet, Pigeon Guillemot, Spectacled Guillemot, sea otter, Pelagic Cormorant and, if very lucky, Red-faced Cormorant.
Hokkaido provides great birding but, of course, the whole Japanese culture is part of the experience of a holiday there. A range of good accommodation, superb food, exemplary service and typical Japanese efficiency make it a top destination for a holiday. When I take groups there I’m as excited as the clients, even though I’ve experienced these birds and places several times. How can you fail to get excited when getting stunning views of the world’s largest owl, the world’s largest sea eagle and a beautiful crane?