Our annual winter wildlife-watching journey through Japan offers fabulous wildlife concentrations, a plethora of incidental cultural experiences, fantastic UNESCO-registered Japanese cuisine, all in the company of our resident Japanologist, naturalist, and author Mark Brazil.
Four of the stunning iconic species that we encounter during this journey are the Japanese Macaque (aka Snow Monkeys), Red-crowned Crane, Steller’s Eagle, and Whooper Swan. All four, and many more, feature in Mark’s forthcoming books Wild Hokkaidō: A Guide to the National Parks and Other Wild Places of Eastern Hokkaidō, and Japan: The Natural History of an Asian Archipelago, both of which will be published in 2021.
The magnificent Steller’s Eagle is named in honor of the 18th-century German zoologist and explorer Georg Wilhelm Steller. With a wingspan of up to 2.5 meters, it is an impressive sight, but what makes it so striking is the adult’s boldly patterned plumage with white shoulders, rump, diamond-shaped tail, and legs.
This huge fish-hunting raptor breeds around the northern parts of the Sea of Okhotsk and on the Kamchatka Peninsula. It migrates south into northern Japan, mostly Eastern Hokkaidō where it spends the winter, from November to March. It forages for fish along coasts, at river mouths, along riversides, and at coastal lagoons and inland lakes. Its stiletto-like talons are ideal for grasping slippery fish and its massive hatchet bill rips easily into its prey. It also scavenges at seal and deer carcasses, and will sometimes kill birds such as ducks and gulls.
To the indigenous Ainu of Hokkaidō Steller’s Eagle is a revered deity known as Kapatcir-kamuy. During our Snow Monkeys & Cranes journey, we expect to encounter these dramatic eagles several times and make special excursions on the Shiretoko Peninsula specifically to photograph them.
The stately and elegant Red-crowned Crane, which stands about 1.5 m tall and has a wingspan of 2.4 meters, is an ancient and potent symbol of long life and happiness known as Tanchō to Japanese, and as Sarurun Kamuy, the deity of the Marshes, to Ainu. The species’ stronghold today is in eastern Hokkaidō where we will spend several days and have opportunities to watch and photograph cranes at close range.
Red-crowned Cranes are territorial during summer, but during winter they gather with their families into large flocks sometimes numbering more than 100 individuals. As winter progresses adult crane pairs, the epitome of grace, duet, and dance as they engage in their winter courtship displays to re-kindle and reinforce their pair bonds and prepare for the breeding season that lies ahead. Few sights are more inspiring than the spectacle of graceful monochrome snow ballerinas leaping and pirouetting during their delightful dancing displays.
We will watch them at their overnight roosting site and at their feeding grounds to maximize our photographic opportunities.
Our Japanese winter journey includes a special pilgrimage to Jigokudani, in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, in Honshū. There we spend two fun days observing and photographing the endlessly fascinating social behavior of the endemic Japanese Macaque. It is here that these extraordinary monkeys exhibit the unique and unconventional behavior (for a monkey) of bathing in hot springs.
Whereas the majority of primates occur in tropical or subtropical areas, here in Japan the macaques are at home even in the cold and snowy conditions of the Japanese Alps. They are said to be the northernmost of all non-human primates
Japanese Macaques are social, clannish creatures living in a relatively ordered society for most of the year. Their groups consist of multi-male and multi-female hierarchies, with each troupe ruled over by an alpha male, with several subsidiary males, a hierarchy of females (dominated by an alpha female), and their offspring. It doesn’t take much to imagine the macaque social interactions that take place when ‘fight club’ meets ‘women’s institute’. For those with even only a passing interest in primate behavior watching these macaques at close range is mesmerizing and the photographic opportunities are endless.
Our visit to Lake Kussharo, Japan’s largest caldera lake, situated in the Akan–Mashu National Park of east Hokkaidō, is not merely to witness the region’s fascinating geology but also to watch, up-close, the enchanting Angels of Winter —Whooper Swans.
Thermal vents in and around this enormous lake keep portions of it ice-free, enticing flocks of swans to remain during the cold winter months. The swans, winter visitors to Japan from regions further north, are very vocal, giving soft contact calls by day and at night, and much louder clamoring or bugling calls whenever excited. They look ethereal in the early morning mist rising off open water, and their beauty is a photographer’s delight.
Winter Whooper Swan gatherings can be noisy, even aggressive, affairs. Clamoring swans stretch out their necks and make jousting thrusts at each other with their long necks and bills. They may grasp their opponent’s feathers with their beaks, thrash with their wings and kick with their feet, sending water spraying and, eventually, their opponents fleeing. Pairs then turn towards each other to perform an emotional display strengthening their own bond while celebrating successfully having defended against intruders.