Birds of Eastern Hokkaido in Winter

During this winter, we were able to observe many birds, including red-crowned cranes and Ezo Ural owls. The number of photographers from abroad has also increased considerably—especially in Tsurui Village, where red-crowned cranes can be seen. Over 200 people gathered on the Otowa Bridge to photograph the birds sleeping in the river.

Near the Otowa Bridge, from January to early March, temperatures drop below -15°C, and on humid days, a phenomenon known as “Steam Fog” in which steam rises from the river, can be observed. The white breath of the red-crowned cranes as they chirp at each other is beautiful, and the large snowflakes that fall create a magical scene.

Steam Fog
red-crowned cranes
red-crowned cranes
red-crowned cranes
Otowa bridge in early morning

Ezo Ural owls are usually found in the trees they’ve chosen for their fixed nest sites, but they may change their location from year to year. We speculate that this may be due to changes—precipitated by the amount of snowfall in a given year—in their rodent-hunting spots. In the month of February, at the nests we observe every year, we can see the owls stand side by side in pairs—for them, this is courtship season. In some nests, we could not see the pair line up together, perhaps because one of the two had disappeared.

Ezo Ural owl
Ezo Ural owl
Ezo Ural owl
Ezo Ural owl

The long-tailed tit is the most popular wild bird in Hokkaido nowadays. In winter, they look like snowmen when viewed from the front, puffing up their feathers to ward off the cold.

Long-tailed tits are only about the size of a ping-pong ball and usually hang from branches at the top of trees, pecking at insects and winter buds. If you are lucky, they will come down to a lower branch to catch their food, and you may even be able to photograph them at eye level.

Food is scarcest from February to March, and in addition to the food they normally eat, they strive to eat really small plant seeds to sustain themselves.

In April, insects appear, ensuring that the long-tailed tit will be well nourished. By May, we can expect to see new chicks.

Long-tailed tit
Long-tailed tit
Long-tailed tit
Long-tailed tit

Red-crowned cranes, Ezo Ural owls, and long-tailed tits are all difficult to observe from mid-March onward, as their activity patterns change dramatically for the breeding season.
Mid-February, when they are actively courting, is the best time to observe these three species.

Photo & Text: Kaito IMAHORI
Observation: Tsurui Village, East-Hokkaido

*Contact  us, Saiyu Travel for more information about wildlife and bird watching in Hokkaido. We can make various arrangements for your trip. We have a guesthouse, Shiretoko Serai, in Rausu, Shiretoko Peninsula.

*Youtube : Wildlife of Japan

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Wildlife Sightings for January in Eastern Hokkaido

February is generally the peak season in Hokkaido’s eastern region, but what is it like in January? In this blog, we would like to introduce the wildlife that you might see in East Hokkaido (Kushiro, Notsuke Pennisula, Rausu) in January.

Short-Eared Owl (Notsuke Peninsula)

During this period, short-eared owls migrating from Siberia and other places, could be observed (depending on the year). This grassland owl is a rarity in Japan, but when you visit the open grassy fields in the evening, you might observe them flying around looking for mice. After that, as the weather gets colder, many of the owls migrate to other places around the main island of Japan (Honshu), so Hokkaido in January might be the best time to photograph the snowy landscapes with short-eared owls.

Ural Owl (Eastern Hokkaido)

The ural owl, is an endemic species that inhabits Hokkaido as a resident year around. It is easy to spot these birds in the leafless trees.

Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Rausu)

The Blakiston’s fish owl can be seen from a facility along the Chitorai River in Rausu. It is a very rare species that inhabits only eastern Hokkaido and Far East Russia (Kunashir Island).

White-Tailed Eagle (Rausu, Notsuke Peninsula, Nemuro)

In eastern Hokkaido, there are wildlife that migrate here to overwinter, and there are also resident birds as well. They are most abundant in February, and can be easily seen flying around Lake Furen and Rausu.

Steller’s Sea Eagle (Rausu, Notsuke Peninsula, Nemuro)

The Steller’s sea eagles, which breed in Far East Russia such as in the Kamchatka Peninsula, migrate to eastern Hokkaido in the winter. February is the most common, month they start arriving, but I was able to confirm their appearance in January as well.

Red Crowned Crane (Tsurui Village)

In January, the red-crowned cranes are preparing for the breeding season. I was able to see the paired couples singing and dancing together, and a young bird practicing alone. From February to March, the breeding season is in full swing, the number of couples increase and the time they spend doing their displays goes on for longer periods of time.

Red Fox

The red fox, a subspecies that inhabits the Sakhalin, Hokkaido and its surroundings, is also approaching their breeding season as well. During this period, males will walk large areas in the deep snow searching for females, so the muscles of the upper body are said to be very developed, and this one here is a good example, showing very developed pectoral muscles.

One fox approached us with the Kunashir Island in the backdrop, and if you look closely at its tail, you can see some small hair loss. Scabies is spreading among the red foxes, and is seems to be causing a population decline.

Ezo Sika Deer

These are some Ezo Sika Deer with the Kunashir Islands in the background. At this time of year, they have winter fur and are very cute, but they have a voracious appetite and are highly successful at reproduction, so in some areas they are being exterminated due to damage to agricultural areas. At Shiretoko Sarai, the venison is added to the menu so it is not wasted.

In addition, you might see kestrel and a group of long-tailed tit.

January was a fulfilling time to encounter wildlife in eastern Hokkaido for a 3 nights and 4 days stay in January.

Photo & text: Wataru HIMENO

Observation: Jan 2023, Eastern Hokkaido

*Contact  us, Saiyu Travel for more information about wildlife and bird watching in Hokkaido. We can make various arrangements for your trip. We have a guesthouse, Shiretoko Serai, in Rausu, Shiretoko Peninsula.

*Youtube : Wildlife of Japan

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Winter in Hokkaido:The Season of Love for the Ural Owl

Hokkaido’s Ural Owl(Strix uralensis japonica)

In Hokkaido you can find 10 out of the 11 species of owls that live in Japan, making it an owl sanctuary of sorts. There are two species that are especially sought after by birders, the Ural Owls and the Blakiston’s Fish Owls.

The Blakiston’s Fish Owl lives in only a limited number of places in the northeastern part of the Eurasian continent, and due to that, many birders come from around the world for a chance to see them in the wild.
The Ural Owls are more widely distributed in northern Eurasia – from Scandinavia to East Asia. Although it is a common pet species, the subspecies that lives in Hokkaido, Strix uralensis japonica, is particularly lovely in appearance, with whiter feathers compared to their cousins elsewhere. For this reason, they are often pursued by bird watchers in Japan and beyond.

Hokkaido’s Ural owl (Strix uralensis japonica)
Hokkaido’s Ural Owl(Strix uralensis japonica)

From January to March, the courtship activities of the Ural Owl can be observed. Especially in February, when the mating is at its peak, you will often see the pairs cuddling. They will often preen each other’s wings and feathers, sticking close together. This is often referred to as a symbol of happiness.

A pair of Hokkaido’s Ural Owl(Strix uralensis japonica)


Photography & text : Kaito IMAHORI (Shiretoko Serai)

*Contact us, Saiyu Travel for more information about wildlife and bird watching in Hokkaido. We can make various arrangements for your trip. We have our guesthouse Shiretoko Serai in Rausu on the Shiretoko Peninsula.

Please see other article from Kaito IMAHORI about Wildlife of Hokkaido

Rausu : Where the Killer Whales Gather

Blakiston’s fish owl that lives in the forest of Shiretoko

Experiencing Autumn From the Notsuke Peninsula to Tokachi Plain: Seeing Flocks of Snow Geese, Brandt, and Pika (Part 1)

Experiencing Autumn From the Notsuke Peninsula to Tokachi Plain: Seeing Flocks of Snow Geese, Brandt, and Pika (Part 2)

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Winter Photography Tour of Red-Crowned Cranes, Tsurui Village -Part 2

Red-crowned cranes

This is the second part of the winter tour report by bird photographer Gaku Tozuka, during the Tsurui Village Tour to capture  Red-crowned Cranes, Jan 10 – 13, 2022.

Winter Photography Tour of Red-Crowned Cranes, Tsurui Village -Part 1

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In the middle of the night, while at the lodging, I heard a large sound, which was like “Zuzaa…” from outside several times, and I thought it was sound of the strong winds blowing. But when I looked out in the morning, I figured out it was instead, the sound of the snow falling off the roof. I cancelled the early morning photo outing because it was very windy and some occasional snow. After our breakfast, I was planning to go out shooting, but the sleet had turned into rain, so I decided to wait until noon. In the meantime, while waiting with everyone, I conducted a course on how to get good shots, for about an hour.

Ural owl

After lunch, the snow and rain had stopped, and so I took the group to see the place where the Ural Owl had been seen. At first, I had to check the trail and location ahead of the group. After I had confirmed the location of the Owl, I went back to get the group and lead them into the woods. We still had some time after that, so we headed to see the Red-crowned Cranes and get photos of them. As soon as we arrived, we spotted the cranes, amongst the fresh snowfall and captured some beautiful scenes. Gradually, the sky grew dark and we were forced to call it quits at 4PM. We were lucky, because in Tsurui Village, the snow had been relatively mild, as I heard reports later, that there were other places that suffered considerable damage due to the heavy snowfall.

Red-crowned crane

And then, it is the last day of the Photography Tour.
Departure was scheduled at 6am. The stars were twinkling in the night sky. There were some clouds to the east, but the weather looked stable enough to go out. However, it was a warm minus 3°C (26°F) and so we would not be able to get photos of the “rime ice” or the fine powdery ice frost we had seen before. Just the fact that it was not snowing or raining was a blessing.

When we arrived at the Otowa Bridge, it was still dim, but there were no other tourists there! It is unbelievable compared to the time when there were so many inbound customers before the Covid-19 Pandemic. It was too warm for the rime ice, but as the sky brightened up, the mallards started moving around and flew away. Back in the Setsuri River, we could see the whooper swans swimming in the beautiful river.

Red-crowned crane

Red-crowned crane

The sun was rising, the temperature fell, and even though the tips of my fingers were hurting from the cold, everyone was focused on their photography. At 8am, the car came to pick us up and we had breakfast. When we went for getting photos of the Red-Crowned Cranes, yesterday’s fresh fallen snow was shining so brightly making it a dazzling scene. I was aiming for their flight and calling, but they were only doing their display towards the back of the flock…so it was difficult to get a good photo!

I was deeply appreciative of Mr. Wada, the owner of HOTEL TAITO, and all the staff who took care of us for the 4 days.


The Birds Photographed: Red-crowned Crane, Ural Owl, Whooper Swan, Eurasian Nuthatch

Birds Observed: Steller’s Sea Eagle, White-tailed Sea Eagle, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Japanese Wagtail, Great Tit, Bulbul, Long-billed Plover, Crested Kingfisher, Carrion Crow, Jungle Crow

Mammals Observed: Sika deer

Photography & Text: Gaku TOZUKA (Bird photographer)
Visit: 2022, 10-13 JAN, Tsurui Village, Hokkaido

Profile:Gaku Tozuka (戸塚 学)

gaku tozukaBorn in Aichi Prefecture in 1966 and currently resides there. Became interested in photography when he was a junior in high school. He has been taking photographs mainly of natural scenery and wildlife, which he has loved since he was a child. Currently, rather than taking “pretty, cute, and cool” photos, he focuses on taking photos of scenes that have a human touch and environmental scenes that show the relationship with human life. Ultimately, he aims for “photographs that have a smell. His work has been published in photo collections and exhibitions, and used in magazines, illustrated books, and calendars. His photographic collections include “Raicho Korokoro” and others.

*Please contact us, Saiyu Travel for arrangements for wildlife and bird photography tours in Japan.

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Hokkaido’s Ural Owl Feeding on a Large Field Mouse

Eastern Hokkaido Winter 2021 Report

Being told that the owls aren’t in their nests that much this year, we went to check the hole in the tree where they can usually be spotted. But just as our local guide said, they were not home. This owl pair that live near the “Tsurui Dosanko Ranch,” are a favorite because they are usually quite reliable to be close by and so very cute to watch.
Eventually we could see them. I couldn’t see both of them at the same time, but one of them had caught a large Japanese field mouse (Ezo Akanezumi). This subspecies of field mouse is Apodemus speciosus ainu and it is endemic to Japan!

Ural Owl(エゾフクロウ)|西遊旅行

After the video was taken, the owl did not eat his prize field mouse right away, but instead put it down inside the burrow and just sat there watching us.

Video & Text : Mariko SAWADA
Observation: Feb 2021, Tsurui village, Hokkaido

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