Saturday 17 March 2018

Hokkaido - March 2018 : Part 2

Day 5:

Captain and I woke up quite early and went for an early stroll near the lodge, it was bitterly cold so we only dared to venture onto the wall overlooking Lake Furen, we spotted a pair of Goosanders which flew past, but nothing else. The clear sky after a night of heavy snow looked very promising.

Lake Furen at dawn

Goosanders under early morning sun

Matsuo San refilled the bird feeders outside and we were soon greeted by a nice looking male Great Spotted Woodpecker. Brown-eared Bulbuls also came by the feeders regularly, while a few Oriental Greenfinches made a brief appearance.

Great Spotted Woodpecker - male

Brown-eared Bulbul

Oriental Greenfinch

At breakfast we were told that the morning session of the pre booked Habomai Sea Bird Cruise may have to be postponed due to rough weather at sea...Matsuo San suggested that we go to the eagle feeding station close-by first and wait for updates from the Sea Bird Cruise. After breakfast we took some time photographing a few Eurasian Nuthatches near the feeders.

Eurasian Nuthatch

Marsh Tits and Willow Tits are notoriously difficult to identify in the field if you don't hear the bird call. Seeing that there were quite a few of Marsh/Willow type Tits around I took some time photographing those that came to the feeder. I noticed two individuals, one with ring and the other without. The one without ring had obviously less shine on it's head compare to the bird with ring, the pale panels on the wing was also a good indicator that it could be a Willow. Willow Tits white cheeks are also supposed to be more extensive.

Willow Tit - very little gloss on head, pale wing panels, larger white cheeks

Marsh Tit - glossy black head, wing panels not clearly marked

A head on comparison at the same location and lighting shows the clear difference in the gloss of the crown, Willow are supposed to have less clear cut bib which also seemed to be the case here if you compare the first photo with the last photo below...But apparently the most reliable identification method now is a very pale spot on the base of the bill present only on Marsh tit, where as Willow Tits have a fairly uniformly dark bill, you can just about see this characteristic on these two birds.

Willow Tit - no gloss, dark overall bill up to base

Marsh Tit - glossy crown, pale spot at the base of upper mendable

Marsh Tit

The eagle feeding station was a mere few hundred meters up the road, it was 1000yen per person to watch the feeding. The staff prepared boxes of fish for the feeding, a Large-billed Crow eyed the fish eagerly directly above. A few White-tailed Eagles and Steller's Sea Eagles were already present, waiting for the food. 

Large-billed Crow

White-tailed Eagle - juvenile

Steller's Sea Eagle

A Red Fox also came along looking for a handout, it must be a regular visitor as it had no fear of people and came within a few feet to us. We also saw a more 'wild' individual from just across the lake, probably attracted by the smell of fish.

Red Fox

At 9am, the staff carried the fish out to the lake and scattered them on the ice. Within a minute the sky was filled with birds, Steller's Sea Eagles, White-tailed Eagles and Black Kites swooped in. 

Hundreds of Eagles and Kites

Steller's Sea Eagle - juvenile

White-tailed Eagle

Black Kite

The next half an hour or so was a blast of shutters, with eagles after eagles soaring past constantly, it was nearly impossible to keep up! It was also amazingly easy to take fabulous flight shots thanks to the snow covered ground acting like a huge reflector. The White-tailed Eagles were impressive to look at, juveniles have darker bills.

White-tailed Eagle - adult

White-tailed Eagle - juvenile

White-tailed Eagle

Although the Steller's Sea Eagles were clearly more photogenic, with their amazingly large yellow bill and talons, they are easily the most striking and handsome raptor species in the world. I don't even know how much photos I took of them...I was happy to be trigger happy that day.

Steller's Sea Eagle - adult

Juveniles were not as striking, although their bright yellow beaks are clearly visible. They were equally impressive when in flight.

Steller's Sea Eagle - juvenile

After the smaller fish had been devoured the eagles started fighting over larger fishes, which resulted in some pretty epic battles on the ground...

Eagles fighting over food and dominance

When they took it to the sky it was even more spectacular. The eagles would chase each other for scraps. For any birders heading to Lake Furen, I would say it was a 1000yen well spent at the eagle feeding station, a must for photographers and birders alike!

Dogfights between the Eagles!

After an exciting early morning we continued our trip with more 'harbour hopping', which we found to be the most effective birding strategy in Hokkaido. We started at Ochiishi Harbour, where we got a single Black-necked Grebe. While Michelle soon spotted our target species; a male Long-tailed Duck. This beautiful sea duck was high on everyone's wish list, even though it was a bit far away, we still got decent views.

Black-necked Grebe

Long-tailed Duck

Black Scoters were numerous at every harbour, the only difference was whether they were close by or far way. A few Pelagic Cormorants also flew by.

Black Scoter

Pelagic Cormorant

It was around lunchtime when we received a message that we got the green light for the Habomai Sea Bird Cruise, upon hearing the news we skipped lunch and drove straight to Habomai Harbour, where we were greeted by one of the crew who led us to the small boat docked in the harbour. None of the crew spoke English, so we relied on sign language as they instructed us to put on our life jackets.

The boat for Habomai Sea Bird Cruise

We were the only passengers onboard, all 12 of us huddled around the bow of the boat as we made our way through the harbour. Pelagic Cormorants and Black Scoters swam past at close range. While Long-tailed Ducks were much more common here.

Pelagic Cormorant

Black Scoter

Long-tailed Duck

A larger bird flew past our boat soon after we exited the harbour, I was just quick enough to grab a recognisable record shot of what turned out to be Red-throated Diver. We got a second diver soon after but this time likely a Black-throated Diver. Harlequin Ducks were quite numerous.

Red-throated Diver

Black-throated Diver

Harlequin Duck

Pigeon Guillemots turned out to be the commonest Cepphus species, adults of the race kaiurka were very pale with white upper wings. A few darker individuals were moulting into breeding plumage.

Pigeon Guillemot - kaiurka

There were also a lot of darker backed Guillemots, closer inspection confirmed them to be Pigeon Guillemots as well, but of the race snowi which breeds in Kuril Islands, they have completely dark upper wings and looked very different. A possible split in the future perhaps?

Pigeon Guillemot - snowi

Common Guillemots were surprisingly uncommon, we only saw one bird throughout the entire cruise.

Common Guillemot

We had a few Spectacled Guillemots, a few individuals were already close to completing their moult into breeding plumage, making their 'spectacles' very conspicuous.

Spectacled Guillemot

We saw a few Ancient Murrelets along the way, but having seen hundreds onboard the Sunflower Ferry they were the least of our concerns!

Ancient Murrelet

Least Auklets were another highlight of this boat trip and were in pretty good numbers, a few came exceptionally close and I even managed a few good flight shots.

Least Auklet

Even they were not as confiding as a few Crested Auklets which came within arms length with the boat. A 1st winter bird with a very short tuft on it's forehead was the first one we saw, later a much better looking adult in winter plumage which totally stole the show!

Crested Auklet - 1st winter

Crested Auklet

If there was anything to complain about the Habomai Sea Bird Cruise, it would certainly be the fact that it was way too short! Our trip lasted no more than an hour and a half. Although we got some pretty decent birds and good views, we felt that we could have gotten one or two more species if we had went on for longer. We scanned the harbour for gulls and found plenty of Glaucous Gulls and Glaucous-winged Gulls around.

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

After the cruise we drove to Cape Nasappu, this is the most easterly point of Japanese territory, while the Northern Territory Disputes between Japan and Russia had gone on for over half a century, for now the island of Habomai and Kunashir belongs to Russia...

Cape Nasappu

Overlooking Kunashir

One of the sea stack provided a good platform to scan for gulls, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Slaty-backed Gulls and Glaucous Gulls all on one stack for good views...while at the bottom of the stack a pair of Red-faced Cormorants sat quietly, Hokkaido is likely the most southerly limit of it's range, easily separable with similar looking Pelagic Cormorants with their paler bills.

Assorted Gulls...

Red-faced Cormorant

Day 6:

Breakfast at Lodge Furen was once again delicious and enjoyable, with views of a pair of White-tailed Eagles right outside the window, Brown-eared Bulbuls came back and forth to the feeders and a wonderful looking Great-spotted Woodpecker visited as well. We said our goodbyes with Matsuo San and followed route 244 towards the Notsuke Peninsula.

White-tailed Eagle

Brown-eared Bulbul

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Along the way we saw plenty of Sika Deers, a common sight in Hokkaido, we regularly encountered large herds feeding by the roadside.

Sika Deers

We reached the harbour of Odaito, where we again scanned for birds. We immediately found a White-tailed Eagle and a Steller's Sea Eagle perched along rocks and walls of the harbour.

White-tailed Eagle

Steller's Sea Eagle

The harbour also provided plenty of opportunities to have close looks at Glaucous-winged Gulls and Glaucous Gulls. We don't see a lot of these gulls in adult plumage in Hong Kong, so it's quite a nice change to see them in their 'true form' without much disputes of their identification.

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous Gull

There were also a good number of ducks in the harbour, a flock of Harlequin Duck made an appearance. We got closest to a few Common Goldeneyes here, a male provided some fairly close views before taking off.

Harlequin Duck

Common Goldeneye

Red-breasted Mergansers were in good numbers, there were at least a dozen of them in the harbour. I spotted a single female Goosander, which took to the air with a female Red-breasted Merganser and provided a great comparison shot between the two species.

Red-breasted Merganser

female Red-breasted Merganser (above) and female Goosander (below)

The best find in the harbour was probably a pair of Long-tailed Ducks, which came in fairly close. We find this species to be fairly shy and often swam away from the shore if we stood along the pier, so we decided to stay in our car which seemed to did the trick.

Long-tailed Duck

We soon arrived at Notsuke Peninsular, it is actually a Spit formed when sand is carried by the sea current out to sea and dumped along the shallower waters, in time forming this huge sand bar reaching out into the sea. There's one road which you can drive along this 28km long geographical marvel. One one side you overlook the sea towards Kunashir, the other side a salt marsh and Notsuke Bay, which was completely frozen during winter. Notsuke Peninsular was designated as a Ramsar site in 2005.

The frozen salt marsh doesn't provide much for the waterbirds in the winter, although the Sika Deers seemed to be enjoying this stretch of frozen plain and were extremely abundant here. It was very scenic in the area, although it's probably worth returning here during summer when you get more waterbirds and breeding warblers.

Sika Deer

Not a lot was seen along the road, we scanned for sea ducks along the way but all we had were Black Scoters. A few White-tailed Eagles perched along the shore. Our only more exciting find and addition to our trip list were a flock of Snow Buntings, we saw what looked like a few flocks but they could be the same flock of birds just going up and down the road.

White-tailed Eagle harassed by Carrion Crow

Snow Bunting

We made a stop at the Notsuke Peninsular Nature Centre, there was a shop in there and a simple exhibition about the wildlife of the pininsular

Notsuke Peninsular Nature Centre

We had a delicious lunch at Shibetsu in a restaurant call Local Cuisine Takeda, I rarely took photos of food I ate but this place was fabulous and I would definitely recommend anyone passing Shibetsu to give it a try.

Amazing food at Local Cuisine Takeda

After lunch we birded the harbour at Shibetsu. We had a few Greater Scaups on show, while Red-breasted Mergansers showed very well. The most interesting 'find' was witnessing a Glaucous-winged Gull trying to steal fish from a Goosander, I was surprised by how fierce the Goosander was and managed to fend off the huge Gull several times! Not a bird you want to mess with!

Greater Scaup

Red-breasted Merganser

Goosander vs Glaucous-winged Gull

Along the way towards Rausu we stopped at a bridge overlooking a river with flowing water, Yuen spotted a Brown Dipper venturing into the icy stream, it is amazing how such a small bird can withstand such cold! We stopped very briefly at the Rausu Harbour, the only note worthy bird were a few brilliant looking Harlequin Ducks at close range.

Brown Dipper

Harlequin Duck - just look at those colours...

We soon arrived at the Minshuku Washi no Yado, the little lodge famous for being the best place in the world to observe the rare Blakiston's Fish Owl. This legendary species is amongst one of the largest living owls in the world, with wingspan measured up to 185cm. The lodge owners history with these owls goes back a long time, and had been putting out live fish for them on a daily basis for a long time. The owners had created a setup in the stream in front of their lodge, where overhead flood lights illuminate the stream below so people can get good views of the owls as they come down to catch the fish. The best thing about this place is that you can photograph the owls in the comfort of your heated room, I took my position on the second floor, which I thought gave me a pretty decent view out to the river. Alternatively you can also observe the owls from the dining area, which also acts as a bird hide after dark. Dinner was served early at 5pm so everyone could get ready to see the owls by 6pm.

View from my room at Washi no Yado

Dinner being served

There was a logbook recording the time and frequency of the owls appearances on a nightly basis, and it showed that one of the male had been coming out to feed at around 8pm, so I was very surprised when at 6:30pm I suddenly saw this huge shadow swooping in from the opposite slope and perched on a dead tree on the other side of the stream! It could only be the Blakiston's Fish Owl! It perched and looked down into the small pool of fish for a minute or two before swooping down next to it.

Blakiston's Fish Owl

The owners had written a clear instruction in how to photograph the owls, as you need to sync your shutter speed with the frequency of the LED flood lights. In order to do so your shutter speed must be 1/80, or else you may get a dark line across your photo. With modern day cameras even ISO3200 can yield acceptable results. The owl did not stay long, it ate two fishes and left. We waited and waited for hours but no owls returned, the weather turned from heavy snow to heavy rain which could have been one of the reason...we all settled in for the night after mid-night, only to learn that Yuen caught sight of the owl again at 12:30am! Although it stayed very briefly, as it was already gone by the time Yuen came and called us. Although we only had very brief views it was better then no views at all!

Blakiston's Fish Owl - a brief but amazing encounter!


  1. Absolutely amazing journey that you are having. Your photos and stories are an inspiration.

    1. Thank you Heather, was an absolutely joyful trip with friends and great birds. Hokkaido is a lovely place to visit!

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