More than just ducks
The sea surface was extensively frozen, caked in a solid crust and decorated by endless ice sculptures. Wherever open water survived, it was thronged with seaducks. The protagonists riffed through our coastal forays along this northern coast, around Rausu, onto the Notsuke peninsula, across Nemuro, and near Akkeshi. There were Harlequin (the world’s smartest duck?) in abundance, White-winged and Black Scoters, plus the more familiar Scaup, Smew, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, and Long-tailed Duck. There was much more besides ducks. We watched a vagrant White-billed Diver, Pacific gulls ranging from Glaucous-winged to Slaty-backed, and a bevvy of auks. Least and Crested Auklets were common, with a supporting cast of Ancient Murrelet plus Pigeon, Spectacled and Brünnich’s Guillemots. Four Red-faced Cormorants became my 4,000th world bird – an achievement of sorts. And then there were Hokkaido’s eagles. In Britain, we commonly describe White-tailed Eagle as ‘a flying barn door’. Never did I think that this immense raptor could look small. Once again, I was mistaken. When a White-tailed rubs shoulders with Steller’s Sea Eagle, it appears, if not quite bonsai, certainly bijou. Steller’s Sea Eagle has it all: the allure of the rare (another globally threatened species), great beauty, immense power (it’s the world’s heftiest eagle), a denizen of wild places. It is, justifiably, why everyone travels to wintry Hokkaido, birder or not. Excitingly, this eagle is locally common; we saw nearer 1,000 than 500. Birds were scattered along the coast from north-west of Abashiri to Kushiro. They perched on sea ice off the north coast, on harbour walls at Rausu, and on a ice-bound lake at Furen. Local ecotourism entrepreneurs have cottoned onto the money-generating potential offered by the eagles, and furnish the birds with fish at Rausu and Furen. The views for their human admirers You can see Steller’s Sea Eagle pretty much anywhere in eastern Hokkaido, even inland. Three unmissable spectacles stand out, however. First, ensure you see the eagles perched on ice floes off the north coast. If sea ice has not reached Rausu (as was the case last winter), you will need to scan the frozen sea from land. Second, camera at the ready, join a boat trip from Rausu for exceedingly close views around the harbour (we used Gojiraiwa Sightseeing). Third, arrive at a roadside cottage immediately west of Furen shortly before 9am to see the eagles cruise in, underlit by the ice, for a fishy feast. are breathtaking, the photographic opportunities unparalleled. Each eagle encounter left us punch-drunk. And yet still Hokkaido – consummate wintry Japan – was not finished. The island – the country – kept on giving, right up until we boarded our final internal flight ahead of our last night in that same dreary Tokyo hotel. Between checking in and departing, I had time to exit Kushiro airport terminal, tread five minutes into adjacent snowbound forest, and admire a sumptuous Ural Owl as it dozed the day away. Japan, without question, offers the most exciting winter birding anywhere in the world.
James Lowen will be giving a lecture on winter birdwatching in Japan at the British Birdwatching Fair (or Birdfair), in Lecture Marquee 1 at 1.30pm on Saturday 20 August. The event is held at Rutland Water.