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Japan Winter Tour

Japan Winter Safari: All Good Things Come to an End …

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Ben Reports from the Japan Winter Safari: All Good Things Come to an End …

Here we are in Hong Kong … on the way home from an amazing safari that was filled with excitement, action and fabulous photography.

And fittingly, our final morning today in Tokyo was beautiful. We visited the Shrine of the Emperor – set in a large, manicured, lush garden paradise with massive trees. We hoped to find a Mandarin Duck or two and were thrilled to see and photograph two males and two females.

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The Ducks spend the breeding season in the mountains to the south of Tokyo, and descend to look for unfrozen water during the harsh winters. The gardens here are a welcome haven for them.

Their beautiful plumage with vivid blues and orange coloring with striking markings makes these spectacular birds appear almost unreal and painted rather fancifully.

The time for departure came, and we were very aware that it was the final leg of our journey. Now we return home to enjoy our images … and to look forward to the next safari …

Japan Winter Safari: Leaving the Cranes

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Ben Reports from the Japan Winter Safari: Leaving the Cranes

After breakfast we went straight to the Tsurui Red-crane Centre for our final day photographing these spectacular birds. Not only are they beautiful and elegant, they look quite magnificent in the white snow – or against the dark trees in the distance. And their courtship displays need to be experienced even just once in a lifetime. The dances, pirouettes, bowing – and the singing all add up to one of those sights that is never forgotten.

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Today there were far fewer birds, which made it so much easier to isolate and photograph individuals and dancing, courting pairs as they flew in, or left again. They looked truly spectacular against the dark trees behind them.

Once again we decided to visit Akan for the feeding time.

And again the fewer numbers meant that we could focus on individuals and pairs again.

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Even when the fish arrived for feeding time, photography was very different from yesterday’s frenzied chaos. Even when 5 White-tailed Eagles and 3 Black Kites started to dive from lofty heights, we were able to focus on individuals, pinpointing and capturing the amazing dramas.

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As the eagles and kites dived, the cranes jumped up to evade them, but then flapped and kicked to get rid of the pirates. And as always every successful grab by an eagle or kite started an aerial combat of some ferocity, with opportunistic onlookers hoping that the fish would be dropped and therefore available to them.

Then, when it was over, it was sadly time for us to pack and and leave for the airport at Kushiro for our flight to Tokyo and our farewell dinner together.

But – we have been told that there are Mandarin Ducks currently at the Emperor’s Palace, and we have just enough time to fit that in tomorrow …

Japan Winter Safari: Countless Dancing, Singing Cranes

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Wim Reports from the Japan Winter Safari: Countless Dancing, Singing Cranes

The sunrise this morning was particularly beautiful – and maybe it took on an extra splendor after our many stormy, blizzardy, overcast days.

We went straight to the Tsurui Red-crowned Crane area and waited for the cranes to arrive from their overnight roosting spots, and before long pairs of started to fly in. More and more arrived – certainly many more than we expected. And the dancing, courtship displays, singing, aerial lifts started immediately. The sight was quite spectacular!

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We watched and photographed the beautiful interactions for the entire morning, and then decided to visit the Akan feeding station for the 2pm feeding time.

When we arrived there were cranes everywhere, with the courtship dances and songs going strong. There were so many birds, with numerous Whooper Swans that also arrived, that it became quite difficult to isolate and focus on one pair of courting cranes for photography.

Feeding time arrived – and of course, with the arrival of the fish, White-tailed Eagles and Black Kites swooped in to grab what they could.

The cranes valiantly tried to protect their bounty, but time and again the scavengers stole a fish and tried to make a fast getaway. But each time, the thief would be pursued by another Eagle or Kite, and aerial combats took place regularly. Often the fish would be dropped – and picked up by another hopeful and opportunistic bird.

The action continued without a break for more than thirty minutes. There was so much going on that at times one was hard pressed to decide which of the aerial disputes or ground battles made the best picture.

And as always, as soon as the last fish was gone, so were the Eagles and Kites.

We returned to Tsurui, where, if anything, the numbers of cranes had increased even more. We remained there until it was simply too dark to see or photograph anything at all.

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Back at the hotel, our daily onsen was as fabulous as ever and now we are off to dinner.

Tomorrow we leave for Tokyo …

Japan Winter Safari: Red-crowned Cranes Face Feeding Frenzies

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Ben Reports from the Japan Winter Safari: Red-crowned Cranes Face Feeding Frenzies

Our hotel in Tsurui is so comfortable that it was a real pleasure to make the decision to have a late start this morning. The cranes only arrive from their overnight roosting areas near the river at around 09:00, so we indulged in a leisurely breakfast at 8am.

The overcast conditions meant that a lovely diffuse light permeated all around, and we captured images of the birds as they arrived and flew around at Akan, a crane feeding and viewing site. The courtship dances and singing were particularly poetic in that ethereal light.

Then at 14:00 feeding time began – with the frantic action that accompanies this each day. As the Red-crowned Cranes vie for their share of the spoils, White-tailed Eagles and Black Kites dive among them to steal whatever possible. The cranes leap up, flapping wildly and try to kick the thieves away – with limited success, but the effect is terrific! To add to the drama today, Whooper Swans arrived and also tried their luck. The resulting turmoil was something to behold! (And to photograph).

Within seconds of the last of the fish disappearing down a lucky bird’s gullet, peace abruptly descends on the area. It is difficult to realize that less a half a minute before, chaos reigned. The sudden transition takes a moment or or to adapt to.

Once calm was restored we could resume flying shots, portraits, action images, and beautiful high-key photos. The latter are particularly with snow surrounding the white birds, whose red polls, dark beaks and legs, and black feathers on the neck and tail area stand in dramatic contrast.

We remained at Akan until we were politely reminded that it was closing time and we were invited very kindly to depart.

Back at the hotel a luxuriated in an onsen, followed by a delicious traditional dinner – an excellent end to yet another wonderful day.

The forecast for tomorrow is for clear skies …

Japan Winter Safari: Dashing to Escape Another Blizzard

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Wim from the Japan Winter Safari: Dashing to Escape Another Blizzard

We left early and were on the ocean soon after sunrise. We tried to get close to the Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-tailed Eagles with some great success – we had more quality than quantity and were able to capture some fabulous shots. The snow fell heavily – adding another wonderful dimension to the world around us.

Then another massive frontal moved in – it was ahead of schedule but we realised that before long the roads would be impassable again so as soon as we reached the harbour at lunch time we dashed to the hotel to pack up and move out ahead of the storm.

Sure enough we hardly reached Tsurui before the white-out closed the roads behind us. And then what a magnificent afternoon with the Red-crowned Cranes – they were dancing and singing and creating the most beautiful show for us. There were between 30 and 40 cranes at any one time! What a special treat!!

The snow started to fall again – adding that extra magic to the scene.

Back at the hotel we enjoyed an onsen and are now ready for a delicious dinner …

We are really looking forward to the cranes again tomorrow ….

Japan Winter Safari: In Between the Arctic Storms

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Ben Reports from the Japan Winter Safari:

This morning we were delighted to wake up and find that the storm had passed at last, and it was a still, clear morning. So we hurried our breakfast and clambered onto the bus, ready for our first cruise into the pack-ice.

But the snowfall had been so heavy that the roads to the harbour were impassable and we had to wait until the snow ploughs had cleared them enough for us to continue. And at the harbour, our boat was barely visible under a thick blanket of snow. When that had been cleared we were on board in just a second, ready for action. While we had waited for the snow to be removed from the boat, dozens of Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-tailed Eagles flew around us, clearly hoping that we were a fishing boat.

When we finally set out, it was a little disappointing to find that the storms had driven the pack-ice into Russian waters, and we have no access to those areas. So our skipper turned the boat and kept us close to the shore. The problem when there is no pack-ice is that the Eagles have nowhere to land, and therefore they remain on the mainland.

But because of of our really good skipper, photography was good. Eagles came to inspect us, to do some fishing close to the shore, and to put on their wonderful aerial displays.

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(Photograph by Ben Cranke)
When we returned to the port at lunch time,  we saw that pack-ice had been trapped in the harbour, and dozens of Eagles were roosting there. What a fabulous opportunity for really superb portrait shots. And now and again one or more would take off to scout the area, returning a few moments later – wonderful opportunities for flying images.

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This afternoon we spent a few more amazing hours out on the boat, photographing the Eagles again.

Then this evening we had a wonderful surprise. On our way back to the inn we received a call from Minshuku to say that people were unable to access the area from further south and that we would be welcome to visit the Blakistons’s Fish Owl spot if we wished.

Did we ever!

And again, we were lucky enough to see the male owl twice. At present he is courting a female in the area, so when he arrives at his fishing spot he catches one fish which he consumes and then he returns for a second which he offers to the lady as part of the courtship ritual. And we photographed him at both visits to the fishing hole – plus numerous fly-byes.

We are feeling ultra lucky!

Tomorrow we are hoping to cruise into some pack-ice if it has shifted closer, and tomorrow evening we plan to head south to the Red-crowned Cranes earlier than planned – to avoid another massive storm that is predicted for Thursday before dawn …

Japan Winter Safari: ODP 0/Arctic Storm 1 – The Elements Win!

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Wim’s News from the Japan Winter Safari:
Well yes – we set out from the harbour early this morning, hoping that the storm would hold off for the morning, and that the Eagles would be around looking for food. When we set out, visibility was about 200-300 meters, but by the time we returned to the harbour, visibility was down to less than 30 meters – so no photography!
Then, to add to this, the roads became impassable, and all vehicles that tried to get through got stuck within moments. Our bus of course had no chance – and we had to be towed back to our lodge by a huge snow plough/tractor/caterpillar vehicle.
We have spent the remainder of the day back at the hotel, relaxing, socialising, reviewing our images, and catching up on our much needed sleep.
So in summary – we were beaten by the Arctic Storm … ODP scored 0/Arctic Storm scored 1!
The weather forecast for tomorrow is much more promising …

Japan Winter Safari: Blakiston’s Fish Owls!

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Ben Reports from the Japan Winter Safari:

Luckily for us the roads were open this morning and we were able to reach Rausu by lunchtime … just in time to climb aboard our afternoon charter boat and head out to photograph the Steller’s Sea Eagles.

The pack-ice was extremely dense … and we couldn’t venture too far, and because of the weather, the Eagles sought shelter close to the mainland. We cruised along the coastline to photograph the birds huddling there.

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But this evening was simply stupendous!

We decided to try our luck at a favourite fishing spot for Blakiston’s Fish Owls, and gathered at the river, waiting expectantly.

Before long, an owl swooped in silently, and within minutes he had caught a fish and was ready to fly off again.

Well, that was great! We waited for a few minutes, wondering if that would be the only appearance of this huge owl. And suddenly, there he came again, this time to perch on a branch of a tree overlooking the river. It was snowing hard, and the contrast between the owl and the white surroundings with the huge snowflakes was fabulous! He waited long enough for us to capture great images of him perched there before he swept down to the river again. There he caught another fish, and after waiting a a moment for another few photos, he flew off again.


Tomorrow morning we plan to take a sunrise cruise to photograph the Steller’s Sea Eagles. Another blizzard is forecast for the afternoon and if the afternoon weather looks stormy, we may head south to the Cranes …

Japan Winter Safari: Everything Changed to Ice

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Wim’s News from the Japan Winter Safari:

I had a chance to download some of the images from yesterday – and a video to show you what it was like at Lake Kussharo … in some places even the warm upwelling geothermal water froze as it reached the surface!

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Brrrrr! Everything turned to ice, and even our cameras were covered in freezing snow and icicles …

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Many of the swans peered around, searching for their warm, cozy water.

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But as with all circumstances in nature, we had plenty of opportunities for extraordinary photography in these unusual conditions.

More when we get a connection again …

Japan Winter Safari: Wildlife Photography from a Wheelchair!!!

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Wim Reports from the Japan Winter Safari:

Yes! I am in a wheelchair! Or on crutches! … So what happened? …

The largest blizzard that we have experienced blew up overnight – and that is saying something – we have seen some monsters! But this one was something else.

So when we woke up this morning with that incredible storm still raging, the majority to decided to remain at the inn. The flying ice, snow, driving rain, gale-force were just too much to contemplate. But of few of us hardy souls – or maybe foolhardy souls – decided that another trip to Lake Kussharo in these conditions would be well worth it.

So we climbed through snow-drifts and clambered past massive ice stalagmites that continued to grow. Another group decided that this was not worth it and returned to the warmth and shelter of the inn.

We persevered and were rewarded with some extraordinary of the Whooper Swans as they hunkered down in the warm waters on the edge of the lake, while the wind did its best to blow them away, or to remove their feathers, which stood up in unkempt styles fashioned by the ongoing howling gale.

(Photos from before – no time to download after the hospital …)

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After capturing some fabulous shots we returned to the inn for breakfast and to our fellows, only to be told that all roads have been closed and there will be no passage to Rausu until further notice. So we traveled to our backup lodge in Kushiro.

We stopped along the way at another good area to photograph the swans. The birds obligingly flew back and forth, and while we were there, many more flew in from surrounding areas and there were dozens in the water …

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And then off again to Kushiro. As the bus stopped and I made my way to the door, I looked out and realized that conditions outside looked treacherous to say the least. As I reached the stairs I reminded myself – and others – to be very, very careful. With that, I stepped off the bus.

THUD! CRACK! I heard it as I keeled over – something snapped in my ankle – what had happened? I looked around, flat on my back, bewildered for a second or two. Then the pain! Something in my ankle …

To cut a long story short then, after a few hours at the local hospital, I now have a cast – a wheelchair – and crutches!

Hopefully we can reach Rausu tomorrow to photograph the Steller’s Sea Eagles. We have been looking forward to that part of our adventure …