Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan's four large islands. It has many specialties: fresh dairy products, chocolate, seafood, an icy cold winter, stunning natural beauty and a variety of wildlife. For birders, Red-crowned Cranes playing in Hokkaido's snow is among the world's great avian spectacles.
I had wanted to visit Hokkaido to watch the cranes and when I discovered that my school friend Niaz and his wife Lisa had the same wish, we teamed up. Planning the trip took time as we had to find a guide. A self-driving trip is risky due to the winter road conditions. Besides, birding tours require knowledge of local birding spots. We were kindly referred to Tetsuji Hidaka, with a car, who knew the birding and wildlife spots, spoke English, and owned a beautiful lodge in northern Hokkaido where we stayed.
On our first day Tetsuji took us to two crane sanctuaries where the birds congregated. We joined many other photographers to photograph them.
But cranes were just the beginning.
Over the next few days we saw large birds such as Steller's Sea Eagles, which migrate here during winter from Russia, and White-tailed Eagles, which live here all year. Wearing snow shoes we hiked in knee-deep soft snow, looking for owls. We found a pretty Ural Owl in a cavity in an oak tree. We saw a tiny pygmy woodpecker, tits, bulbuls, jays, thrushes and finches in the forest.
There were ducks in the ocean. The cold-weather ducks are not seen in our country and included the exquisite Harlequin and Goldeneye ducks. The Whooper Swans had an unearthly beauty, white-on-white against the snow.
However, birds were not the only attraction. The island has a large population of Sika Deer. Over the week we encountered them in many places. They were shy in places where hunting was allowed, less so where hunting was banned. Older males sported magnificent antlers. But their plain brown colour was drab compared to Spotted Deer of Sundarban.
There was also the Red Fox with a luxurious thick fur, more handsome than our Golden Jackal, found trotting in the snow. The first one we spotted ran away. Later, we saw one close by that fixed us with a frank stare, observing us just as intently as we were observing it.
In the cold waters of the Okhotsk Sea we saw a group of Sea Otters. While we shivered in the cold wind, the otters frolicked in the water as if it were a warm swimming pool.
Several Spotted Seals also showed up in the water, floating with their eyes closed and soaking in the warmth of the sun.
During the entire week, I saw only one insect in Hokkaido – a small spiderlike creature in the snow. I saw no mosquitoes, roaches, flies or other bugs.
Although Hokkaido is sparsely populated (67 persons per square kilometre), we saw many people came from other parts of Japan to enjoy the region's natural bounties and snow sports. In the long narrow Notsuke peninsula with ocean on one side and an unbroken stretch of ice on the other, ice-fishermen drilled holes in the ice covering a lake to catch fish from water underneath using fishing lines. They pitched tents on the snow to stay the night. I was told that if you came here at dawn on a very cold day and watch the sun rise over the ice, it looked square.
They had photographs to prove it!
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