More than just ducks

Bird Watching (UK) - - Bird The World -

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.

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