Tuesday 26 January 2016

Japan 2015 day seven: cranes and eagles on Christmas Day

25 December 2015

An early flight from Tokyo saw us arrive at Kushiro airport by mid-morning and, with a few hours to kill before the daily feed was scheduled to take place at Akan Crane Centre, we decided to make the short journey in to Kushiro to explore the port area for gulls.

Although there wasn't much snow on the ground the skies were grey and the temperature hovering just below freezing, and it was no real surprise when it began to snow a short while after our arrival - my first truly 'white' Christmas!

Kushiro harbour was busy despite the date, with plenty of trawler activity attracting hundreds of gulls. Quickly we found our first Kamchatka Gulls of the trip off the main pier, with birds of all ages performing well for the camera as they came in for our bread and popcorn handouts.

Adult Kamchatka Gull

Rather unlike Kyushu, Slaty-backed Gull was by far the commonest species. Among the hundreds gathered were a few tens of Glaucous-winged Gull and about five Glaucous Gulls, with all three species looking particularly striking and imperious as the snow fell. Over the next hour or two we happily papped away in what was a great session for photography - despite the minor issues with auto focus caused by falling snow!

 Slaty-backed Gull appreciating our offerings

Slaty-backs chasing a dumpster truck out of Kushiro harbour in the snow

A couple of Black Scoter were seen distantly but the commonest duck in the harbour was Greater Scaup though there were a few Harlequin Ducks and Goldeneye present and about 10 Goosanders at the nearby river mouth. Our first Hokkaido eagle - 'just' a White-tailed - landed on the outer breakwater.

Female Greater Scaup

With time pressing we decided to head inland (via a food stop at 7-11; these convenience stores proved staple to our daily diet) to Akan. On arrival around 70 Red-crowned Cranes were showing very well from the viewpoint. By early afternoon the skies had cleared and the cranes looked simply stunning against the blue skies and snowy backdrop, even if the experience did feel a little dudey. Generally peaceful in their antics, scuffles and display would occasionally break out among the gathered birds.

At 14:00 the feed began and a bucket load of fish was thrown out. Within seconds up to five White-tailed Eagles appeared from nowhere, swooping down to grab the offerings and giving absolutely outrageous views as they did so. The cranes acted quite aggressively towards the eagles as a peaceful scene became utter mayhem in the space of seconds. The eagles, evidently wary of the cranes' flying limbs, rarely paused to enjoy their meals and soon flew off to the safety of nearby trees. This spectacle was over in little more than ten minutes, and serenity soon returned.

We enjoyed the delights of Akan for the rest of the afternoon, focusing almost entirely on photographing the cranes as well as we could. The light changed quite frequently as banks of cloud rolled over and mist occasionally began to rise, allowing for photos to be taken in a range of conditions.

I went for a little wander late on and came across a Grey-headed Woodpecker giving excellent views near the captive crane pens - the only individual of the trip. Other birds included Willow Tits, Jay of the race brandtii and Great Spotted Woodpecker.

With darkness falling we made the short drive to our accommodation in Tsurui where I was very quick to head for the onsen to warm up. After that we we treated to a superb Christmas dinner, consisting of several dishes of traditional Japanese cuisine - a fitting end to a fine first day on Japan's northerly island.

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