Coke & Som Smith Photography & Travelogue

Hokkaido Wildlife Adventure!


  Som's amazing catch of fighting Steller's Sea Eagles on the sea ice of Nemuro Strait.

 

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Please check out our other images of Hokkaido in our Pbase Japan galleries:

 

Birds of Hokkaido

Eagles of Hokkaido

Japanese Cranes of Hokkaido

Mammals of Hokkaido

Landscapes & Scenery of Hokkaido

 

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 Amazing Hokkaido!

Dancing Japanese Cranes at Tsurui Crane Center

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Like so many of our trips, the seed for our 2013 winter expedition to Hokkaido was planted during a viewing of a Nat Geo episode about 15 years earlier.  Watching images of the amazing Steller’s Sea Eagles fighting over fish on the sea ice, and the  dancing Japanese cranes captured my attention then and never quite left until this day.  I’ve wanted to experience the wildlife and nature for decades now and our Chinese New Year holiday this year just so happened to coincide perfectly with the peak of the sea ice season in the Nemuro Strait and the Japanese Crane staging in and around Tsurui. 

Our serious plans for the expedition started months ahead of time during the spring of 2012.  With our smashingly successful trip to Japan’s Chubu Region (See trip report here) just barely finished, we decided to make Japan are regular Chinese New Year destination!  So we decided to make Hokkaido our trip this year, with special emphasis on the amazing fauna of Japan’s northern-most island.  While winter in such a frigid place is a challenge to be sure, Hokkaido has much to offer folks like us.

Our targets were pretty basic.  I wanted to see a few mammals and some of the most charismatic bird species anywhere.  I planned the trip around three bird species mainly – the Japanese Crane, Blakiston’s Fish Owl and Steller’s Sea Eagles.  These three species are all very easy to spot (with the one exception being Blackiston’s Fish Owl, which can be hit or miss), but the bonus in visiting the areas that these species call home is that their areas are home to many other species, including some very cool mammals of which we scored SIX species!

This year, we ended up sharing our experience with a couple good friends from SAS, Reid and June Blickenstaff, who after reading our report from Japan the year before, wanted to join us this time around!  Our trip was a relatively short one, being only 9 days.  We started with a quick flight from Shanghai to Sapporo, or Chitose to be exact, where we were able to pick up our rental car in quick order and get on the road to Kushiro.  The weather was basically good, with  few snow showers en route, but the roads were basically OK.  I was very relieved as winter driving in Hokkaido is known to be fairly treacherous.  In fact, we found out that the day before our arrival, virtually all of the roads in the region had been closed due to some pretty serious snow. We definitely lucked out!

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Our expedition took us from Sapporo to Kushiro, over to Rausu and then down to Nemuro and back!  Eight days from February 9 to the 17th, 2013.

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Our Hokkaido crew!  June and Reid Blickenstaff along with Cokie and Som.  An unbeatable team!

 

Here is a GREAT wildlife resource for Hokkaido

 

 

Tsurui & Akan International Crane Center

Two Japanese Cranes coming in to Tsurui for a feeding!

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Our first stop was Tsurui, home to many of Japan’s famous and spectacular Japanese Cranes.  We arrived after dark on day one, so we were not able to spot much more than some Sika Deer on the way in.  After checking in to our new digs, Hickory Wind (see their website here), we were able to relax a bit and get to bed early, so we could head out at first light to see the cranes in the morning mist.  Well, we thought we would get to bed early, but around 10PM, a blues concert broke out upstairs at the inn and sleep would have to wait!

Makoto Ando and his wife, the owners of Hickory Wind (website here), are a couple of very eclectic folks who are very well rounded to say the least.  Makoto is an accomplished blues guitarist and nature photographer and perhaps the most knowledgeable person on the topic of American music trivia I have ever met!  While the midnight blues fest on the first evening may have been a bit much, we all really enjoyed our stay at Hickory wind and would highly recommend it to anyone planning visiting the area for the cranes.  And it didn’t hurt that the lodge is located directly across from one of the Japanese Crane feeding sights and the home of at least two Hokkaido (Kita) Red Foxes!  And the second night at the inn, we were included in the blues-fest and we all had a great time listening to music, playing some guitar and listen to Cokie compose and read his poetry and rap some tunes, both of which were new skills that I had no idea he possessed!

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An impromptu jam session broke out when Ando-san learned I came from Chicago and therefore of course knew how to play the guitar...

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And then Cokie decided to compose a poem and conduct a poetry reading...

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We made our very early the next morning to find our way through the snowy and icy back-country roads to the famous Otowa-bashi Bridge, located on the Setsuri (gawa) River, where the Japanese Cranes roost for the night and are often seen in the spectacular morning mist that enshroweds the river to give opportunities for some of the most sublime image imaginable.

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Otowabashi

The spectacular Setsugawa as seen from the Otowabashi ("gawa" means river and "bashi" means bridge).

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Setsugawa

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After getting lost for a bit, we finally found the bridge to be greeted by about ten million other photographers with similar plans as ours!  I had a feeling we’d be competing with other people for photo-ops during our trip to Hokkaido, but I had no idea just how many people come to photograph the wildlife here!  I mean wow!  There were easily over 100 photographers on the bridge this morning!  Maybe 200….Thankfully I am tall and could therefore take a place in the back and simply shoot over the others.  We got some decent images I suppose.  But the scene itself was worth all of the effort of trying to squeeze in between so many photographers and deal with the subzero weather!

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Just a few nature photographers there to capture the spectacle....We were trying to guess the value of all of the camera gear on the bridge that morning....Wow!

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The spectacular setting in the fog-filled Setsugawa River, filled with Japanese Red-crowned Cranes.

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The view from Otowabashi!

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A couple taking off from Setsugawa toward Tsurui for a morning feed.

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Spectacular!

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We spotted some several Hokkaido Red Foxes as well as several species of birds during our first morning.  After a great porridge breakfast and some rest, we ventured back out to photograph the cranes dancing in the feeding area in Tsurui.  We learned there that there was a town about and hour’s drive away, Akan, that was home to another feeding spot that attracted not only cranes but White-tailed Eagles and Hokkaido Sika Deer.  We spent the better part of two hours in the famous Akan Tanchou International Crane Center capturing images of the eagles and cranes interacting in a pretty surreal manner.  It is not every day that you see giant eagles swoop down to grab fish in the middle of a sizable flock of cranes!  And what was perhaps even more interesting to me was how the cranes were not bothered at all by the eagles dropping in, talons blazing, to grab the fish!

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The dancing cranes of Tsurui!

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Dancing Japanese Cranes at the Tsurui Crane Center.

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During the two short days we spent viewing the Japanese Cranes in Hokkaido, we were fortunate to see them in great light and exhibiting much behavior.  Here a couple are courting in Tsurui.

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Courting Japanese Cranes in Tsurui.

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Courting cranes at Tsurui.

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Japanese Cranes

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On our first afternoon with the Japanese Cranes, we were very lucky to have a bit of snow to make the scene amazing.

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Japanese Cranes in the Tsurui snow.

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Spectacular!

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Japanese Cranes coming in to the Akan International Crane Center.

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Japanese Cranes!

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A flock of cranes near the birch forests of Tsurui.

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The White-tailed Eagles of Akan

A spectacular White-tailed Eagle taking a look at me (or one of the other 300 photographers!) on approach to nab a fish...

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It was awesome watching the eagles fly directly in to the flock of cranes.

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Got it!

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White-tailed Eagles at Akan

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White-tailed Eagle

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Hokkaido (Kita) Fox (Vulpes vulpes schrencki)

Our first of well over 25 wild Hokkaido Red Foxes spotted while traveling the island.

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Trekking in the snow...

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A mating pair of Hokkaido Red Foxes.

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Hokkaido Red Fox

 

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Hokkaido Sika Deer (Cervus nippon yesoensis)

After the amazing Japanese Crane and White-tailed Eagle show at the Akan International Crane Center, we were treated to a very impressive visit by about a dozen Hokkaido Sika Deer stags.  Outstanding!

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Hokkaido Sika Deer at Akan.

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The deer were exhibiting pre-rut behavior.  Too bad nothing more than simple play today though....

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There were several females in the nearby forests as well.

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We all agreed that our first day in Hokkaido was a great success!  We had two mammal species and many bird species under out belts already, and had taken well over 2000 images!  The photo-ops were simply unbelievable.  It was one of those days where if you had not taken good images, it was YOUR fault!

 

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Lake Kussharo

The famous Whooper Swans of Lake Kussharo.

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On day two, it was time to hit the road again.  Our destination today was Yoroushi with side trips to Lake Kussharo and Musha Lake.  After spotting still a few more Hokkaido Red Foxes, we made it to Kussharo-ko in pretty good time.  The Ainu Museum, our first destination, was unfortunately closed for the winter, but we were lucky enough to find our first flock of Whooper Swans frolicking in the warm geo-thermal waters of the lake just behind the museum.  The setting was a bit touristy, but you would be hard-pressed to tell from the images we were able to snap.  I was hoping to get a glimpse of a Hokkaido Red Squirrel, as it seemed like the perfect place, but there was no sign around.  We did see sign of what I was sure was a Japanese Marten in the snow, however.

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A couple courting Whooper Swans on the Lake Kussharo ice...

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Small sections of the lake were warmed with hot spring waters, allowing spots for the Whoopers to overwinter.

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Whooper Swans of Lake Kussharo.

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Whoopers!

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In the woods on the shores of Lake Kussharo, we spotted loads of little birds, but this cute Long-tailed Tit was one of the coolest!

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Eurasian Nuthatches were more comman that tree sparrows in Hokkaido!

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Hokkaido Sika Deer (Cervus nippon yesoensis)

Hokkaido Sika Deer near Lake Kussharo.

 

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Lake Kussharo is a very spectacular caldera lake surrounded by ample wilderness.  We spotted many dozens of Hokkaido Sika Deer, and some more red foxes.  After cruising the shores of the lake bird watching, and visiting some very impressive fumaroles and hot springs just alone side Mount Iwo, we attempted to make it up the hill to see Musha-ko but the road had been closed for the winter, so we decided to drive straight to Yoroushi and check in to our new home at Daiichi Spa. 

Mount Iwo fumaroles were a nice stop along the road to Yoroushi...

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Sulfur filled fumarole at Mt. Iwo.

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The geology of the region was amazing...

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Yoroushi Onsen

 

To our delight, we spent some quality time with several Japanese Sables who visited the bird feeders at Daiichi Spa.

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What an amazing place Yoroushi’s Daiichi Lodge is!  On top of being one of the nicest Onsen spas in Hokkaido, it is home to the famous and very rare, Blakiston’s Fish Owl.  Now we were warned that it was highly unlikely that we would see it, as it was now a rare visitor to the ponds of the lodge, but when we checked in, I just happened to ask if the Owl had been seen, and our hostess said, “Sure, it’s here right now!”  So for the next hour or so, we observed and photographed this massive fishing owl, a nocturnal species, in the middle of the afternoon!

http://www.pbase.com/cokesmith/birds_of_hokkaido

Blakiston's Fish Owl perched in a branch directly outside the dining room of Daiichi Spa in Yoroushi Onsen!  He was there ALL afternoon!

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What a rare treat to see this massive and very rare nocturnal predator in the middle of afternoon!

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Blakiston Fish Owl

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After getting our fill of the owl, we proceeded to relax in the amazing onsen of Daiichi.  Wow!  The perfectly hot pools were situated very aesthetically along the river edge, facing a spectacular forested hillside, filled with snow.  After soaking in the onsen, we were treated to an outstanding culinary experience as well.  The ten-course meal was too much.  The food kept coming and coming, and it was all spectacular, including the still-live fish I was served for an appetizer.  It was delicious but I don’t think I will ever partake in something like this again…We all took full advantage of this amazing place and refused to leave until the absolute last minute of check-out time the next day! 

Daiichi offered yet another surprise. When I was inquiring about the possibility of seeing the Hokkaido Red Squirrel, I was told that it was a bit rare, but there were Japanese Martens that made daily appearances!  What!?  I knew there was no way I could be so lucky to see Japanese Martens in this amazing setting… No way.  But I decided to spend my evening sitting outside in the lobby, which had a series of massive windows allowing uninterrupted views of the garden, forest, stream and adjacent hillside.  It didn’t take long for our first Japanes Marten to come bee-bopping along searching for seeds at the bird feeder situated in the garden!

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Japanese Sable (Martes zibellina brachyura)

Japanese Sable (Martes zibellina brachyura) at Daiichi!

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Japanese Sable (Martes zibellina brachyura) playing in the snow.

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Martes zibellina brachyura at Daiichi!

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Spectacular!

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At any given time, we were treated to at least 8 of these little boogers!

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Awesome animal!

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Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch...

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Waiting for lunch...

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Wow!  What a great stroke of luck!  Surely this would be our only sight of this very rarely seen mustelid!  Well, not really.  For the next 15-17 hours, we spent time observing the antics of at least eight of these little critters!  They were very entertaining and clearly a crowd pleaser for the guests of Daiichi.  But I did learn later that their presence is most likely the reason the Owl is very rarely seen nowadays.  I am not sure exactly what the connection is, but I suppose it would not be too hard to guess, but they were a blast to watch anyway!  I am pretty sure however that they are the main reason we did not see a squirrel…

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Daiichi Spa at Yoroushi Onsen is definitely someplace we will endeavor to return to!

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Perhaps one of the best breakfasts I've ever had.  I love washoku!

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June and Som enjoying breakfast at Daiichi!

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Along with the Japanese Martens, the garden was home to many species of birds, ranging from Eurasian Jays to Hawfinches to Bulbuls.  One could easily spend a couple days watching the wildlife event at Daiichi.  But even if there were no wildlife show, I would still highly recommend Daiichi. I can’t remember ever visiting a more well-run, pleasant inn as Daiichi.  Initially we thought the price was a bit high, but after experiencing Daiichi, and enjoying their amazing dinner AND buffet breakfast, we all agreed that it was a bargain!  We will definitely return!  (Check out Daiich’s website here)

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Eurasian Jays were very common at Daiichi, number nearly 100 or more as they raided the bird feeders.

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A nice Hawfinch came in for a treat as well...

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On the way out of Yoroushi Onsen we had a spectacular drive through the back roads of Hokkaido.

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Absolutely stunning.

 

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Rausu & Shiretoko National Park & Peninsula

 

Steller's Sea Eagles perched on the Sea Ice in the Nemuro Strait.

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We woke on day three to incredibly blue skies.  On the way out of Yoroushi, we all had to stop and breath deeply the fresh (ZERO PM2.5) air of Hokkaido!  And after a roll in the snow, we proceeded to Rausu, on the north coast.  We drove very slowly and basically absorbed the local sights and smells of rural Hokkaido.  We stopped for a bit at the Shibetsu Salmon Museum, where we got a deep education on the entire Salmonid family!  This was a very good museum and well worth the trip!  And I even learned about a place a few hours down the road that could be our spot for Hokkaido Red Squirrels!  We’re still not sure if we’re going to make the effort to get there, as it really is out of the way, but we will find out tomorrow if the weather is on our side or not and make a decision then…

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The Shiretoko Peninsula.  We were a bit worried at this stage as we did not see any sea ice...  But it was a spectacular view anyway!

 

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Rausu is home to the great eagle-ice flow event.  When the seas north of Hokkaido form sea ice, the eagles chase the ice edge to find food.  Consequently, there are literally hundreds of eagles congregating in the area around Rausu.  I am sure it doesn’t hurt that there is now a thriving tourist industry doing “Ice Flow” cruises out of Rausu, and attracting the eagles with massive amounts of frozen fish tossed from the half-dozen or more tourist boats cruising the seas around the Shiretoko Peninsula.

In the past few years, the sea ice has been creeping ever further north due to climate change, but for some strange reason, the ice flow this year was a record breaker! I mean we had to travel absolutely NO distance at all to catch the ice’s edge. The only problem we had was trying to navigate a passable route out to the eagles through all of the sea ice jamming the harbor and nearby sea shore!

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We got a very early start to the morning....5AM cruise through the ice-clogged harbor at Rausu.  It was amazing watching (and hearing!) the boat slam the bergy bits as we proceeded very slowly out to Nemuro Strait.

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Amazing is an understatement!

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Some of the sea ice was a bit problematic...but spectacular!

 

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We spent about 2-3 hours feeding, photographing and just watching in amazement, about 300 Steller’s and White-tailed Eagles! The wildlife spectacle was outstanding, even if it was anthropogenic. The eagles were outstanding. Photography from our ship was a challenge again due to the number of photographers competing for space, but we did manage a few decent images in the melay. Just watching the behavior and pandemonium of the event was surreal, and I cannot imagine anywhere else I am aware of where you can see anything remotely similar to this. There was non-stop action, and I found it actually exhausting trying to keep up with it all!

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Eagles of Shiretoko!

The eagle show on the sea ice was amazing.  So much action, everywhere you looked.  This almost looks like a hunt!  But it's just a landing....

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Seriously awesome bird...my favorite!

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We spent time with well over 300 of these amazing animals this morning.

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Som's amazing shot of a landing White-tailed Eagle!

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 White-tailed Eagles were at least as numerous as the Steller's Sea Eagles this morning.

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Coming in for a landing!

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Squabbling over some frozen fish!

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Steller's Sea Eagles

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Steller's Sea Eagle party!

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Heading out to sea...

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 Eagle interspecies competition!

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Steller's Sea Eagle

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Awesome! 

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When not out on the sea ice, the Steller's Sea Eagles would roost in the forests around Rausu.

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This fight had a referee!

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Abashiri, Komoba & Ki no Hiroba Forest

 

An amazing Hokkaido (Red) Squirrel seen in Kinohiroba Forest!

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The day after eagle and ice cruise, we did take the advice of the helpful scientist at the Shibetsu Salmon Center and made the drive to Abashiri, on Hokkaido’s northern coast.  Initially I was very leary of making the 3-hour drive in snow country, with only a slight possibility of spotting a squirrel.  But what the hell, we all decided that a nice drive through some new terrain would be nice.  So we got on the road pretty early and were greeted with some good driving conditions thankfully. 

The cruise to Abahiri was spectacular. Luckily the sun was out in full force and we were able to see the Shiretoko Peninsula and Mount Shari in all their glory. The entire area was filled with nature and with stunning landscapes. Som and I talked about how we could live in such a place… While driving through the snowy landscape, we could spot the tracks of Sika Deer, Foxes and Japanese Hare dotting the hillsides.

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The scenery enroute to Abashiri on the north shore of Hokkaido was stunning and in itself worth the diversion.

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Mount Shari on a gorgeous morning!

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Absolutely stunning.

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The landscapes heading to Abashiri were sublime.

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Once we finally made it to Abahiri town, we inquired at a local gas station, whose attendants were more than happy to give me the information I needed to find our spot – “Ki no Hiroba”.  After comically expressing their dismay that I came all this way to see a silly squirrel, they told me it would be tough to find the forest, and there were in fact Hokkaido Squirrels there, but they were not sure if we would see them or not.  The did tell us about another potential location called “Risu Kouen”, or “Squirrel Park”, that was located in the Abashiri athletic complext further in to the city itself.  As luck would have it, we would not need to travel that far….

With a bit of searching, we finally found the famous Ki no Hiroba forest park.  The park itself is basically a spectacular stretch of forest that is far longer than wide, and hugs a bluff overlooking the Ohkost Sea.  The forest is evidently a remnant stand of trees that were once much more common in this part of Hokkaido and was filled with Japanese Oaks, various conifers and many other species that I could not identify.  In the spring, it is famous for its wild flower show.

But we were there for one thing and one thing only! The Hokkaido Red Squirrel!  Once we started trekking in to the forest, I came across an elderly gentleman who told me that the squirrels were in fact there just about ten minutes ago, but they had boogied back in to the forest and most likely they would not return!  I was starting to get that feeling in my gut that I should not have had that third leisurely cup of coffee that morning…

So we continued in the direction where the gentleman told me the squirrels had just been spotted and luckily there were some people still there feeding the birds.  Ki no Hiroba is a famous place for bird feeding, and the local bird fauna is so habituated to people that they come right to your hand and take nuts without fear at all!  We watched as at least 5-7 species of birds came down and took peanuts from the people at the feeding station.  Of course, Cokie, Reid and June could not resist and they too got in on the experience.

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Getting directions to the squirrels from a local woman hiking in Kinohiroba Forest.

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There was plenty of snow in Kinohiroba Forest this season.

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The birch and oak woodlands of Kinohiroba and the surrounding forests were outstanding.

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Most likely the Betula maximowicziana species of birch.

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After feeding birds for a few minutes, another gentleman, whom we had been asking about the squirrels, recommended that I follow him across a ravine to a spot where he knew the squirrels actually lived. So we all followed him across a a small bridge and then up some stairs ascending the other side of the ravine. Just as I was to complete the climb, I just happened to look up and sure enough, a massive and spectacular Hokkaido Red Squirrel was sprinting through the leafless canopy of the Ki no Hiroba forest! I snapped some initial crappy images and called Som to join the chase, and we proceeded to follow that little booger through the forest for several minutes before he simply disappeared deeper in to the woods.

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Hokkaido Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris orientis)

It's hard to imagine why this still be lumped in with the Japanese Red Squirrel of Honshu Island.  This subspecies is far larger and has very little red at all.

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One of the Hokkaido Squirrels spotted at Kinohiroba checking out his stash...

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Hokkaido Red Squirrel

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The snow at Kinohiroba was nearly a meter deep, but these little Hokkaido Squirrels could care less...

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Hokkaido Red Squirrel

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A couple of Hokkaido Squirrels saying "hello" on an old Japanese Oak at Kinohiroba Forest.

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I was so excited to see this little boogers!

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Very cute...

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Watching these squirrels work their way through the forest canopy was outstanding!

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Jump!

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Nailed it!  Our mammal list for Hokkaido was complete!  Well, at least it was about as complete as I dared hope for – four mammal species in the dead of winter in one of the coldest places on earth is not too shabby in my opinion… Actually in preparation for the trip, I was actually hoping for three species – there was no way I could have hoped to see the Japanese Marten!  But now we had a quality sighting of the elusive and rare Hokkaido Squirrel!

We were all impressed with how large this subspecies is.  And now that I have seen both subspecies, the Hokkaido and the Southern Japanese Red Squirrels, I can say definitively that there are dramatic differences:  the fur of the Hokkaido subspecies is much darker, the Hokkaido form is much larger, and the tufts of fur on the ears of the Hokkaido variant are much longer and distinct.  I would not be surprised at all if somewhere down the line there are some taxonomic revisions. 

After we inspected the burrow the squirrels called ‘home’, we returned to the feeding station, but before we could arrive, we were greeted by two more Hokkaido Squirrels!  These two entertained us for a long time, scurrying back and forth in the canopy; up and down the branches and trunks.  I could tell they really wanted to approach us and see what we had to offer them but they never mustered up enough courage to complete the action. Still though, they gave us some outstanding views and photo-ops.  It was fantastic!  And what impressed me even more was how Reid and June were equally in to the simple “squirrel experience”. 

And while we were photographing the hell out of the squirrels, we were also feeding the birds again.  Varied Tits, Eurasian Nuthatches, Coal Tits, Willow Tits, Marsh Tits, Great Tits, Long-tailed Tits and some other species that I cannot remember right now, were all waiting in line very politely (this is Japan afterall!) for their turn to grab a peanut that was most likely a third their own body size and mass!  How the hell they consumed all of this was a mystery to all of us…

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Kinohiroba's Other Claims to Fame...

A Varied Tit at Kinohiroba Forest in Abashiri.

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The birds at Kinohiroba Forest showed no fear!

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Even the Varied Tits got in on the free lunch!

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Very cool....But how the hell does he eat that whole nut?

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After congratulating ourselves for a mission accomplished, we made our way back to Rausu, but only after feasting on supermarket sushi!  For $20, we gorged ourselves on fresh sushi, sashimi and local crab!  Although Japan is known for being one of the world’s most expensive countries, if done right, it can be a bargain, and supermarket sushi is one of them.  And it is better than most sushi you get outside of Japan!

 

 

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Notsuke Peninsula, Shunkunitai

We weren't finished with the Steller's Sea Eagles.  We continuted to spot them all the way to Nemuro.  This one was seen perched on ice at Notsuke Peninsula.

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Now it was time to leave the Rausu Pension and head toward Nemuro, about 120 kms to the south.  Our first stop was the Notsuke Peninsila and the Shunkunitai area around Lake Furen, which is a great spot for birding and watching Hokkaido Red Foxes and Hokkaido Sika Deer, both of which we saw numerous examples while driving the main track along the spit.  There were loads of Steller’s and White-tailed Eagles there as well.  We had excellent light so we continued to add to collection of images, even though by now we’d taken literally thousands of pics of these critters!

Aside from a fascinating exhibit on sea-level rise, there was not much else to be seen on the spit this frigid winter morning, although I did catch a brief glimpse of a Common Redpoll fluttering along the roadside.  There were several stands of Sakhalin Fir trees that had been killed by salt-water incursions due to sea-level rise.  But I suppose this is all part of the liberal conspiracy perpetrated by America’s far left…

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These Sakhalin Fir trees were drowned by rising seas on Notsuke Peninsula.

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We did see a nice bachelor herd of Hokkaido Sika Deer stags at Notsuke, on the frozen ice lake.

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Nosappu Cape & Nemuro Peninsula

A spectacular Long-tailed Duck seen in Hanasaki Harbor on the Nemuro Peninsula!

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We made it to Nemuro in mid afternoon and decided to forgo a proper sit-down lunch and instead opt for Som and Cokie’s favorite 7-11 lunch consisting of Salmon O’nigiri, “Juicy Niku” Bao and “Bigu Amerikan Hoto Dogu”!  I was glad with this decision as the light was great and sunset happens this time of year at 4:47PM, and we were burning daylight!  So we proceeded on a whirlwind tour of the famous Nosappu Cape & Nemuro Peninsula, making stops at the various spots I was told to see by one of the rangers at the lake Furen nature center.

Interestingly I told the ranger I was looking for Steller’s Eider and he told me to search at some of the local harbors, which I did with great success for many species, but no Eiders.  I was thrilled to see Long-tailed Ducks (Old Squaw) at very close range and in outstanding light for the first time in my wildlife-watching career!  Wow did they give us views.  But no Eiders….  We continued from one port to another until I began to wonder if there were any Eiders to be seen this day.

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Hanasaki Harbor as seen from the cape with the same name.

 

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Long-tailed Ducks of Hanasaki!

Long-tailed Duck.  Not a Steller's Eider but it was outstanding to see these so close and in such good numbers!

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Long-tailed Duck

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Long-tailed Duck

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Hence the term "diving duck"...

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I asked a local fisherman about the Eider situation and he pointed directly to a nearby Long-tailed Duck and told me it was an Eider….and then I started to wonder a bit more…..I found out later that day that the suffix for Eider (the only part of the word I actually knew) was the exact same word for Long-tailed Duck!  So, I guess the ranger was telling me where to see the ducks …..so I guess, mission accomplished… It was still fun traveling the spectacular coastline of Nemuro Peninsula.  We made it to the lighthouse on the tip of the peninsula just in time for sunset and a quick look at a spectacular Spotted Seal bobbing in the pounding surf.  Species number 5!

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Spotted Seal (Phoca largha)

Spotted Seal spotted swimming in the seas off Nosappu Cape.

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An great look at a Hokkaido Red Fox just as the sun was setting on our day on the Nemuro Peninsula.

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The entire Nemuro Peninsula is filled with stunning view of the Pacific and Nemuro Strait.

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The massive and dramatic ice formations along the cape were spectacular.

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We spent the evening at Lodge Furen (email here), situated spectacularly along the shores of Lake Furen, just outside of Nemuro.  The lodge owner and his wife are wonderful hosts and put on quite a culinary show.  And they speak good English and are avid birders as well.  The first thing you notice upon entering their home is the substantial birding library (mostly English!) and natural history collection they have.  Lodge Furen is a great spot to spend a night or two for sure.

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Our hosts, Takeyoshi Matsuo and his wife at Lodge Furen.

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Our next morning was the first day we really had no plans at all.  Our main goal was to get as close to Sapporo as possible for our flight back to Shanghai.  I did have a few stops I wanted to make on the south edge of the Nemuro Peninsula, but the blizzard had different plans.  We started the morning with the first serious winter driving of the trip.  There were parts of the first 20-30 km drive that I was questioning the wisdom of starting a trip this morning.  I was nearly snow-blind in some sections and the snow was increasing in depth on the remote and almost unused section of road we were traveling.  Luckily we were able to get out on a main track before too long and about 30-minutes later, the skies cleared up and we had a great weather day to travel all the way back to Chitose.  And then the snow started again…

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Singing in the snow of Chitose town!

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So now we are sitting in Chitose Town, waiting at the Route Inn for the snow to subside so we can catch our flight back to Shanghai.  For now though the snow looks like its planning on continuing….  But looking back on the last few days, it is easy to feel a high degree of success and satisfaction with the experiences we’ve all had during the expedition.  How are going to explain to our bosses that we’re stuck in Sapporo?  Well, I suppose this is all part of the Hokkaido experience, and even if we have to use a personal day and suffer the inconvenience of a missed flight, we’ll all look back at the past eight days and relish the memories of the amazing nature, people and critters with whom we shared time and space.

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Chitose, Hokkaido....hmmm....will our flight leave today?  (Of course it did!)

 

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Some More Pics of the Mammals of Hokkaido!

A Hokkaido Red Fox in the snow-bound fields of Tsurui.

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Glorious light on this distant Hokkaido Red Fox.

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Hokkaido Red Fox

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Hokkaido Red Fox on the Nemuro Peninsula.

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Hokkaido Red Fox seen near Abashiri Hokkaido.

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This Hokkaido Red Fox had enough of us!

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Hokkaido Red Fox at the Tsurui Crane Reserve.

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Hokkaido Red Fox

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Hokkaido Red Fox

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Hokkaido Sika Deer at the Akan International Crane Center.

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A sizable herd of Hokkaido Sika Deer seen outside of Rausu on the Shiretoko Peninsula.

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Nice stag seen in the forests near Rausu.

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A young doe giving us a warning near Akan.

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Although we never spotted a live one, we did see ample sign of the elusive Japanese Hare.

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The Japanese Sables were very curious at Daiichi Spa.

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Japanese Sable standing tall!

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Japanese Sable

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So cute!

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Hokkaido Red Squirrel at Kinohiroba Forest.

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Hokkaido Red Squirrel

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Hokkaido Red Squirrel

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What a great treat to see so many Hokkaido Red Squirrels in Kinohiroba Forest.

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Hokkaido Pony (Dosanko), a unique breed found only in Hokkaido and has been around since the 1600's. 

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Hokkaido Mammal List

  1. Hokkaido Sika Deer (Cervus nippon yesoensis)
  2. Hokkaido (Kita) Fox (Vulpes vulpes schrencki)
  3. Japanese Hokkaido Sable (Martes zibellina brachyura)
  4. Spotted Seal (Phoca largha)
  5. Hokkaido Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris orientis)
  6. Bank Vole (Clethrionomys glareolus)**

 

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Other Sign or Interesting Sightings

1. Japanese Hare  (Lepus brachyurus) - sign in snow common

2. Hokkaido Dog - domestic and one of the older breeds around

3. Hokkaido Pony - Dosanko

 

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More Eagles of Hokkaido

I will never forget our time with the Steller's Sea Eagles of Hokkaido.

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White-tailed Eagle of Akan.

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White-tailed Eagle

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Amazing bird!

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"Hello!  I am a White-tailed Eagle!"

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White-tailed Eagles (and a Black Kite) perched in the forest around the Akan International Crane Center.

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White-tailed Eagle in the Nemuro Strait!

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White-tailed Eagle coming in for a landing on the sea ice off Rausu.

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More Cranes of Hokkaido!

The cranes of Otowabashi.

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An immature coming in for a landing at Akan.

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Japanese Cranes at Tsurui.

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Dancing cranes at Tsurui.

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Singing cranes at Akan.

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Courtship in Akan.

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We will never forget our time with the Japanese Cranes of Hokkaido.

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Other Birds of Hokkaido

Brown-eared Bulbuls were common in Hokkaido.

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Bullfinches were spotted in many woodland locations.

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Siberian Meadow Bunting seen at Otowabashi.

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We did come across many Pelagic Cormorants while in Hokkaido, but spotted only one Great Cormorant and zero Red-faced....

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Pelagic Cormorants darting about at Nosappu Cape.

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Jungle Crows were everywhere in Hokkaido!

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Jungle Crow!

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Carrion Crows were the only other corvids seen on the trip.

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Common Goldeneyes were seen in the thousands in the harbors and off-shore waters of Nemuro Strait.

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Common Goldeneye in Rausu Harbor.

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Common Mergansers in Rausu Harbor.

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Crappy image of the more common Red-breasted Mergansers.

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Greater Scaups were another very common species in Nemuro Strait.

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Greater Scaups!

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It was great to see my old friends the Harlequin Ducks again. 

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Harlequin Ducks are very common in Hokkaido!

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Harlequin Ducks in Nemuro Strait off Rausu.

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As much as I love Harlequin Ducks, they still aren't as cool as these Long-tailed Ducks!

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We only saw one Northern Pintail while in Hokkaido.  This one was spotted with the swans in Abashiri.

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Black Scoters were another very common bird in the waters of northern Hokkaido.  We spotted many Velvet or Stejneger's Scoters as well.

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We spotted 3-4 species of gulls in Hokkaido.  This one is a Glaucous Gull seen on the sea ice off Rausu.

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We even spotted several Glaucous-winged Gulls, a rarity in Hokkaido.

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Slaty-backed Gull - by far the most common gull in Hokkaido.

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Some first-year immature Slaty-backed Gulls fighting over frozen fish in Nemuro Strait.

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Hawfinch at Daiichi Spa.

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Eurasian Jay at Daiichi.

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Eurasian Jay

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Black Kite looking for a free lunch at the Akan International Crane Center!

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Black Kite in Nemuro.

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Thin-billed Murres were the only Auk or Alcid seen during our trip to Hokkaido.  Granted we were not looking too hard....

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Eurasian Nuthatch at Kinohiroba Forest.

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I love these little birds!

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Absolutely awesome to see this Blakiston's Fish Owl at Yoroushi Onsen!

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Whooper Swan seen on the ice of Lake Kussharo.

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Whoopers circling the fields of Akan International Crane Center.

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Courting Whooper Swans in Lake Kussharo.

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So many Whoopers!

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Whooper Swans in the warm waters of Lake Kussharo.

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Lake Kussharo's Whooper Swans.

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Lone Whooper Swan in the foggy morning mist at Otowabashi on the Setsugawa.

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Dusky Thrush seen on the stream's edge at Yoroushi Onsen.

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Coal Tit getting a free lunch at Kinohiroba Forest.

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Great Tit at Kinohiroba!

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Great Tit

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Varied Tit at Kinohiroba Forest.

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Varied Tit

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Willow Tit spotted at Tsurui Crane Center.  These little birds were everywhere!

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Great Spotted Woodpecker seen at Daiichi.

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Great Spotted Woodpecker

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker seen at Kinohiroba Forest.

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Winter Wren seen on the basalt formations of Hanasaki.

 

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Hokkaido Bird List

  1. Pelagic Cormorant
  2. Great Cormorant
  3. Whooper Swan
  4. Mallard
  5. Spot-billed Duck
  6. Pintail (Northern Pintail)
  7. Eurasian Wigeon
  8. Common Goldeneye
  9. Greater Scaup
  10. Long-tailed Duck
  11. Harlequin Duck
  12. Black Scoter
  13. Velvet or Stejneger's Scoter (Melanitta stejnegeri)
  14. Common Merganser
  15. Red-breasted Merganser
  16. Thin-billed Murre
  17. Glaucous Gull
  18. Slaty-backed Gull
  19. Black-tailed Gull
  20. Black-headed Gull
  21. Japanese Red-crowned Crane
  22. White-tailed Eagle
  23. Steller’s Sea Eagle
  24. Black Kite
  25. Eurasian Kestrel
  26. Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Ketupa blakistoni)
  27. Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius)
  28. Great Spotted Woodpecker
  29. Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Dendrocopos kizuki)
  30. Japanese Wagtail (Motacilla grandis)
  31. Brown-eared Bulbul
  32. Dusky Thrush (Turdus naumanni)
  33. Goldcrest
  34. Marsh Tit (Parus palustris)
  35. Willow Tit (Parus montanus)
  36. Great Tit
  37. Varied Tit
  38. Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus japonicus)
  39. Nuthatch
  40. Siberian Meadow Bunting (Emberiza cioides)
  41. Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea)
  42. Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)
  43. Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)
  44. Tree Sparrow
  45. Jay
  46. Carrion Crow
  47. Jungle Crow

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More Cool Stuff!

The amazing views along the road to Abashiri.

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Mount Shari as seen from Hokkaido's north shore.

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The stunning columnar basalt formations of Hanasaki Cape!

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The grasslands near the Akan International Crane Center.

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Ikura, my favorite...

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An interesting puzzle art, symbolizing all of the mammal species of Hokkaido...at least the charismatic ones...and my little primate is featured in the middle...

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Cokie and some new friends in Shibetsu!

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Waves crashing on the columnar basalt of Hanasaki Cape.

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Cape Hanasaki Light House

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Cokie burying his head in snow again!

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Our Kushiro ramen stop!

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We needed a bit of culture on this trip so I made sure to stop at a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple to make sure everyone was happy!  This one is the Kushiro Shinto shrine...

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Kushiro Shinto shrine!

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At least this part of it seemed old...

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Cokie's been doing this since he was about a year old....I think he must have been a monk in a previous incarnation...

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Cokie and Som at the Mt. Iwo fumaroles.

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My little swan at Lake Kussharo!

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"Team Hokkaido" at Lake Kussharo!

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June taking in all the swans...

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"Team Hokkaido" at the Nosappu Cape Lighthouse!

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Rausu Harbor

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The streams were still littered with the carcasses of dead salmon...

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And according to these data, the salmon runs are doing great!  Hard to imagine actually.

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Our pad at Hickory Wind Lodge, Tsurui town.

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Breakfast at Hickory Wind!

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Our chefs at Hickory Wind.  Great grub for sure!

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Makoto Ando jamin' the blues!

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Cokie's crane poem.

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Som trying to figure out where the hell she can stand!

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Who could resist!

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Our Hokkaido caravan....

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Oh yah! Fresh baby!

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Russia!  The last time I saw this island (Kunishir Island), I was on it!  An amazing expedition! (Check our Kuril Island travelogue here)

 

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Setsugawa from Otowabashi

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The sublime forests surrounding Setsugawa.

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Yes it was cold!  But worth every minute of it!

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Simply beautiful.

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Fog on the Setsugawa...

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I know who has been here...

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Sunset on our last night in wild Hokkaido.

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Please check out our other images of Hokkaido in our Pbase Japan galleries:

 

Birds of Hokkaido

Eagles of Hokkaido

Japanese Cranes of Hokkaido

Mammals of Hokkaido

Landscapes & Scenery of Hokkaido