Japan, Feb 2018: Hokkaido

February 12:
We awoke to a coating of snow on the ground but had no issues getting to the airport. We made sure we were there for rental car office opening. The vehicle was dropped off quickly and we made our flight easily. We flew from KOJ to KUH (Kushiro, Hokkaido) via a quick layover at HND.

We rented from Nissan at Kushiro airport via Japan Experience. Another easy-breezy car pickup. This time we made sure to rent a beast, a Nissan XTrail with snow tires.

It was a mad dash to get birding! We had two stops to make before our first shot at Blakiston’s Fish-Owl. So we drove north to Otowa Bridge, where a NORTHERN SHRIKE had been wintering. We spotted the shrike straight away, perched rather low to the stream. We parked the car and gathered our gear only to find that the bird had vanished. Better view desired. Yes, we have this species throughout the northern tier of North America, but shrike taxonomy is far from settled, and we would at the very least be seeing a different subspecies here. While here we had our first looks at the majestic RED-CROWNED CRANE. This is a well-known roost site for the crane, so it is a popular dawn location for birders at this time of year.

Very nearby we had a tip on a URAL OWL roost. With directions well-researched, we found the bird resting comfortably in its tree. The Ural Owls on Hokkaido are ghostly pale, IMO a better looking form than the darker subspecies. This was without a doubt one of the most sought after species of the trip for the three of us.

Ural Owl
Julian scopes the owl for an intimate view
On a roll, we spent as much time with the owl as we could before we had to continue northeast to Yoroushi Hot Spring, where we would be spending the night at Yuyado Daiichi. We wanted to be set up by dark, in case the owl came in for an early meal.

From the moment we rolled up, we realized that this would be a different experience. Lodge staff greeted us with tea and sat us in their lobby that overlooked the stream and feeding station. We had our first looks at “BRANDT’S” EURASIAN JAY and the asiatica subspecies of EURASIAN NUTHATCH.

"Brandt's" Eurasian Jay
Our traditional Japanese-style room was luxurious and spacious, also with a view over the stream.

We headed downstairs, made dinner reservations, and set up for the owl vigil. Basically, you sit along the large glass windows and wait for the owl. Visits, as you would imagine, are unpredictable. The birds did not show at all the night before. Sometimes one has to wait through the night for a predawn visit. They keep a calendar of sightings at the front desk. Well, it’s a good thing we were set up early, because the owl caught a fish right outside the window around 6:10pm. The entirety of the visit probably lasted a minute or two, max.

Blakiston's Fish-Owl
You are very, very close to the action
As you could imagine, dinner was quite relaxed! Pressure’s off, baby. Our two target owl species within hours of one another, and great views to boot. Already on a bit of a high, we were about to enjoy the meal of the trip. Some five courses came out for us, all wonderfully presented and delicious (though we weren’t quite sure what some of it was). Halfway through our meal, Mark Brazil, who was guiding a group of his own, was kind enough to notify us when a SABLE appeared around the feeding station. This was a life weasel for us and one of the cooler mammals of the trip for sure.

After dinner we again set up shop at the lobby windows to wait for another owl appearance. This time there was no tension, so we enjoyed local Whiskey and recounted the afternoon’s wildly successful events. At 10:15pm, after being entertained by two Sables chasing one another, we called it a night.

February 13:
At breakfast this morning we learned that the Fish-Owl made a repeat appearance around 4am. Breakfast was buffet style and truly superb. In the stream right outside the breakfast room was a SOLITARY SNIPE. This is a regular wintering bird here but is far from guaranteed on any given day. We were pleased to have great on-the-ground views to compliment our flight views from Karuizawa.

Solitary Snipe

We reluctantly departed Yuyado Daiichi at 9am. We were in no rush to leave that place! We had scheduled more time on Hokkaido than any other island, in part to allow for a weather delay or two if necessary. The forecast for the rest of our stay was fine with no imminent blizzards on the horizon. Given that information, we had the opportunity to explore a bit. Of interest to us was the Shari-Abashari stretch of coast, which marks the southernmost edge of the Sea of Okhotsk. There is actually a history of Ross’s Gull wrecks here during inclement weather in early winter. We assume that this is an under-birded stretch of coast and deserved a check while we were nearby. Shari itself was iced in. Solid sea ice. While it made for quite a visual (my first personal experience with sea ice), it was no good for waterbirds. We had our long-awaited first looks at EAGLES, one or two each of STELLER’S and WHITE-TAILED. We could see that there was open water to the west, towards Abashari, so we continued in that direction, hoping for a concentration of alcids, waterfowl, and/or gulls. We were disappointed to find the open water mostly devoid of birds. Hey, it was worth a shot.

Looking towards the Shiretoko Peninsula from the Abashari area

White-tailed Eagle

Sea ice map:

From Shari we were ultimately headed to Rausu for the night. The most direct route would have been over the Shiretoko Pass, which is along the Shiretoko-Odan Road (Route 334 per Google maps) on the Shiretoko Peninsula. BUT this pass is CLOSED during winter, so instead we drove southeast along 244, which reaches the coast at Shibetsu. From the Shibetsu area we drove north up the coast towards Rausu and began stopping at overlooks and harbors. At a small coastal harbor (one of many) possibly called Kunbetsu (?) we began to get into some birds. The dominant sea ducks in east Hokkaido are BLACK SCOTER, COMMON GOLDENEYE, HARLEQUIN DUCK, COMMON MERGANSER, RED-BREASTED MERGANSER, and GREATER SCAUP. This particular spot had one each of ARCTIC and PACIFIC LOONS plus one or two distant Arctic/Pacific. A bit further north, from the Sakimui Bridge, we picked out another ARCTIC LOON and our first SPECTACLED GUILLEMOT. Loons were scarce for us, and these were the only two Arctics we would see, so they are especially worth mentioning. Our first Hokkaido flocks of large white-headed gulls were apparent; SLATY-BACKED GULL is by far the most common species, with lesser numbers of GLAUCOUS and GLAUCOUS-WINGED. There was no sea ice in sight, which we took as a bad omen for tomorrow’s eagle cruise!


Unfortunately we had to call it quits with light still left because we had yet another date with Blakiston’s Fish-Owl that evening and still had to check into our hotel in Rausu. We booked this trip too late to get a room at Washi-no-Yado, so we had to settle for a place in town called Rausu-no-Yado Marumi, booked via Japanican. We were surprised to get a room on the second floor that overlooked the ocean! There is a Seicomart right there for foodstuffs. 

Room with a view...of a gull roost!
Anyway, we arrived at Washi-no-Yado and were shown the “observation room.” See my notes in the “Hokkaido planning” section of the full report on Cloudbirders for more info. To reiterate…it's a bit of a shit show here; very disorganized. But we all crammed in and made it work. Once again we got lucky with the owl, having to hardly wait at all after dark for its 5:45pm appearance. Satisfied with our two easy BLAKISTON’S experiences, we took off at 7:45pm.

Blakiston's Fish-Owl
The Observation Room at Washi
February 14:
We were greeted by a stunning sunrise view from our hotel room. There was nothing moving offshore, which is a shame because we had a great vantage. I went down to the water’s edge behind the hotel to try to chum in some gulls with cat food. Amazingly they would not take the bait. Spoiled by quality fish I guess! I was still able to get a few photos before we had to leave to make the eagle boat.

Glaucous Gull
Our eagle cruise was at 9am on the boat Kamuiwakka. Upon arrival we were informed that there was in fact no inshore sea ice, so we would not get that experience. The trip was shortened from 2 hours to 90 minutes, and price was knocked from 10,000yen to 7,000yen per person. We had heard that we were still in for a treat regardless of the ice conditions, and this was 100% accurate. The eagles put on quite a show. We estimated 50 STELLER’S and 75 WHITE-TAILED – just wow. At one point at least 100 eagles were visible at once. In addition to the star attraction, we had some nice looks at gulls and ducks as we commuted through the harbor. Back at the dock, a couple of ASIAN ROSY-FINCHES called as they flew high overhead, but we did not score any views.

size comparison between the two species


In the afternoon we chose to explore a bit more, birding our way up the coast north of Rausu, stopping at any decent ocean view. It was still very quiet on the water. Where were the birds? We did have some nice gull flocks along the way, especially a few pure groups of KAMCHATKA GULLS. The highlights were few but included PACIFIC LOON, 2 COMMON MURRE, several SPECTACLED GUILLEMOTS, a flight view of a CRESTED AUKLET, and our first SIKA DEER of the trip.

mixed gull flock

Kamchatka Gulls

Slaty-backed Gull

Sika Deer
Night back at Rausu-no-Yado with full dinner included.

February 15:
We were on the road early this morning, eager to get ourselves further east and hopefully into some waterbirds! Hopes were high for the Notsuke Peninsula, a long sandspit that juts into the sea. The road out to the tip is some 10 miles long. We went about as far as we could, to the nature center/observation tower about 9 miles out. The weather was…challenging. We were greeted by a gale from the northwest which could not be escaped in this open landscape. We’re talking the kind of wind that knocks scopes over with ease, blows sand above eye level, and makes winter birding miserable. Returning here later in the week would have taken us far out of our way, so we had to power through.

Sika Deer and a Red Fox sprint across the frigid, barren landscape
This can be a decent place for Asian Rosy-Finch and Snow Bunting, but in this weather we were not holding our breaths for any passerines. We finally got out of the car to scope from the tower. While unloading his gear from the trunk, Dave’s camera slipped out of his hand and slammed against the pavement. Turns out that pavement beats camera like rock beats scissors.

Dave wouldn’t be missing that camera today. From the tower we were pleased to see many alcids moving offshore, for the first time. But they were mostly specks that were rocketing between whitecaps. We were able to identify some birds as they shot past; there were several SPECTACLED GUILLEMOTS, three LEAST AUKLETS, and a THICK-BILLED MURRE.

BLACK SCOTER was the dominant duck, but we were on a search for “STEJNEGER’S” WHITE-WINGED SCOTER. After many stops on our way back towards the mainland, we finally located a handful. It seems that the first 5k of the road is actually the most productive for this species based on previous reports, and this is where we had ours.

"Stejneger's" White-winged Scoters

Once we were done with the Notsuke Peninsula we headed southeast for the Nemuro Peninsula. Stopping at a couple harbors en route we had the usual suspects except for a single adult “HERRING” GULL, the only one we would see on all of Hokkaido. This bird was interesting in that it seemed pale-mantled and had a staring pale iris, recalling smithsonianus. I ran back for my camera only to have the bird fly seconds before I returned. My flight photos were equivocal, though the broad white trailing edge was more vegae-like.

Our first Nemuro Peninsula stop was the Onnemoto Bird Hide, where there is a history of a wintering flock of Rock Sandpipers. We did not connect with this species, and there had not yet been any reports from there all winter. We had our first of many PIGEON GUILLEMOTS there, apparently of both the snowi and columba subspecies.


Next we scoped for a while from Cape Nosappu, where alcids were more abundant. SPECTACLED GUILLEMOTS were common, including several small flocks. We estimated about 45 of them. We also had 1 COMMON MURRE, 3 PIGEON GULLEMOTS (both forms), 1 ANCIENT MURRELET and 1 LEAST AUKLET. Most views were quite distant, but a few of the guillemots hung pretty close to shore. Immature RED-FACED CORMORANTS are known to winter here in ones and twos, and we had at least two birds this afternoon. One came in to roost on the cliffs to the west of the lighthouse, and another was seen well flying by with the numerous PELAGIC CORMORANTS.

Red-faced Cormorant (right) with Pelagic Cormorant

Japanese Coast Guard patrolling waters between Hokkaido and the Kuril Islands, in dispute but currently claimed by Russia


We stopped back at Onnemoto hide for another Rock Sand check, also in vain. But Julian spotted a SHORT-EARED OWL coursing the fields. We had a second one further down the road as we drove back west.

We checked in at Furen Lodge and met Take and his wife Masako. This is a true birder’s lodge, run by a birder for birders. Take’s enthusiasm is infectious, and his wealth of knowledge on Hokkaido birdlife is impressive. We picked his brain for as much info as we could, and we spent some time going through his extensive library. Dinner was delicious.

February 16:
Dave and I took a pre-breakfast walk up the road to the Shunkunitai Nature Center woodlands. There were a couple of birdy pockets, and we tallied a quick 21 species, including two encounters with a flyover BOHEMIAN WAXWING, before we had to be back for breakfast at 7.

Black-eared Kite

This morning we were scheduled for the 9am alcid boat out of Habomai. It cost 5000 yen per person for 900-1045am cruise (see my notes on this in the Hokkaido Planning section above). Despite our gripes, we had fine views of several alcids. We ended up with 10 PIGEON GUILLEMOT (both forms), 30 SPECTACLED GUILLEMOT, 3 ANCIENT MURRELET and 3 LEAST AUKLET.

Least Auklet

Ancient Murrelets

Pigeon Guillemot (Which form, though? We had trouble with a couple individuals)

Spectacled Guillemot (transition plumage)

Spectacled Guillemot (basic plumage)

Pigeon Guillemot, form snowi

same bird as above

Spectacled Guillemot (alternate plumage)

Common Pochard

Harlequin Duck
Shiretoko Peninsula

alcid boat out of Habomai

passing Cape Nosappu

Birders call out alcids from the bow

After the cruise we dropped Dave back at the lodge for a rest, and Julian and I decided to check a couple more harbors. Wheel Rock at Hanasaki Harbor provides a great vantage to the sea. There were no alcids here, but we did have 4 more “STEJNEGER’S” WHITE-WINGED SCOTERS and 7 RED-NECKED GREBES. Down at Hanasaki Port itself we photographed some gulls and proceeded to Ochiishi Port. A Gyrfalcon had been reported here a few days prior as a flyby, and Asian Rosy-Finches are known to winter along the slopes above the harbor. It was dead for us.

White-tailed Eagle

first cycle Kamchatka Gull

Black Scoter

Black-eared Kite
A quick check of woodlands near Furen Lodge didn’t get us much. Night at Furen Lodge, back before dark to plan our last day on Hokkaido.

Sika Deer

Whooper Swan
February 17:
This was our Hokkaido “clean-up day,” and we had many stops scheduled on our way back towards Kushiro. Snow was forecast for the day and we had lots to accomplish before our 7pm flight to Tokyo! We took an early start on our stealth mission for ASIAN ROSY-FINCH. We would visit the infamous house on Cape Kiritappu that feeds the local wintering finch flock. The problem is that the owner of the home/inn detests birders that try to view his finches from the road. Our plan was to get in and out early, not long after sunrise, before anyone could notice our presence. The plan worked, as we didn’t have to wait very long before a flock of 48 birds landed on the powerlines along the road. Here we had prolonged views of the skittish flock from the car. We did not have any issues with the owner. Next we quickly scoped from the lighthouse parking area further down the road and had another 3 “STEJNEGER’S” WHITE-WINGED SCOTERS. Note that seawatching here on a sunny morning is tough because you’re mainly looking to the east. This cape is also a known spot for Rough-legged Hawk, but we were not aware of any being seen this winter.

Asian Rosy-Finch
"Peep is a crime."
The infamous sign in front of the rosy-finch yard.

Flock of Asian Rosy-Finches on the wires
seawatching further out the cape

We jogged inland a bit to the Kiritappu Wetlands Center because Eurasian Bullfinch (“Baikal,” a possible split) had been reported there before. It was a shot in the dark, and we only had common passerines here.

Biwase Observation Point is the known local wintering spot for “BLACK” BRANT, and we had little trouble finding the flock, though they were distant. A trip tick anyway.

Our route took us by Lake Akkeshi where we would check for Smew, which had eluded us to this point and was a major target bird. After a quick convenience store stop we picked a random side road to check for a view of the lake on its south shore. In the open water directly in front of us was a handsome pair of SMEW!

drake Smew

We continued towards the city on Route 44 and chose a random pull-off to stop and bird. We were caught off guard when a flock of 4 EURASIAN BULLFINCHES flew over calling – nice! Looking on a map now, I see that this was on the northern border of Kushirocho Forest Park.

We were really kicking butt at this point, even ahead of schedule for the day. We took advantage of this extra time to drop into Kushiro itself so Dave could try to track down a new camera body. He found a camera shop and soon walked out with a brand new Nikon D500 J

The snow began to fall as we made our way north out of Kushiro. We stopped by Otowa Bridge again in hopes of a better look at the wintering NORTHERN SHRIKE that we had seen so briefly back on the 12th. Lo and behold the bird was back. This time we were able to set up scopes for prolonged views before it flew off to the north. I hit a bit of a dead-end trying to ID this bird to subspecies:

"Asian" Northern Shrike
Red-crowned Crane
Our last scheduled stop of the day was the Tsurui Ito Red-crowned Crane Sanctuary. Up to this point we had not yet had a chance to really spend time with this iconic Japanese bird. The moderate snowfall made for a wonderful wintry atmosphere. There were some 125 birds in the field here, plus a bonus COMMON CRANE, which is a rare bird on Hokkaido. The cranes weren’t doing much around midday other than feeding in the field. A few birds flew out, but we did not see any fly in. There was a bit of dancing and calling, which I’m glad we were able to see/hear. For those looking for a more exciting crane experience, I recommend researching the various local crane sanctuaries and their feeding schedules. With some effort, you can get a good show from them.


some perspective
We were prepared to spend the entire day searching for our targets, but we got everything very easily and were able to grab a relaxing lunch before heading back towards Kushiro Airport, where we had another easy vehicle drop-off and shuttle across the street to the terminal. The weather cleared just in time to get us out with only a minor delay. Note that the restaurants at this airport only exist BEFORE you go through security; there are only snacks available at the gates. We learned the hard way and I got a bit hangry...

giant Fish-Owl sculptures bidding us farewell outside the Kushiro Airport
Easy arrival back in Tokyo (HND). Night at Haneda Inn, again.

 - NB


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