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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Return to Japan! Winter Wildlife Photography


A whooper swan stretches its wings fully in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Whooper Swan Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 640

Finally! After what seemed like forever I was able to return to Japan for the first time since the boarders closed in March of 2020 for my annual winter wildlife photography adventure. Outside Las Vegas, NV, eastern Hokkaido is where I feel the most at home. Returning after three years of absence only solidified that as everything came back to me like it was yesterday in knowing where to go and the rhythms of daily life in that region as I continue to experience them.


While this was not my longest visit, I was still able to reacquaint myself with all the important aspects along the routes I travel when in these parts. Both surprisingly and thankfully not much has changed since the winter of 2020. I had been worried that Covid would have impacted the small shops and restaurants to the point of having to close but that did not seem to be the case.


One factor that did trouble me was that this winter (December through February) is now going down as the second warmest winter on record for Japan according to the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA). The warmest on record: 2020. That said, certain areas such as the Tohoku region and areas in Hokkaido broke even those historical record temperatures. Having visited in 2020, I can honestly say this winter in Hokkaido had a LOT less snow. Areas that even in 2020 were completely iced over to the point of allowing ice fishing and snowmobile travel had open water this season. I freely admit it was just plain scary to see how much climate change is impacting areas like this at such an accelerated rate. Never mind how challenging it makes creating "winter" wildlife images if there isn't any snow.


Even with the challenge of changing weather, Japan continues to give amazing experiences each season. Below are some of the newest images I was able to create while there this season. From the endangered red-crowned cranes to the vulnerable Steller sea eagles, the Ezo red fox and the Yezo sika deer, they seemed appreciative enough of the mild winter as it does make it easier for them to survive if they aren't having to deal with extreme cold and deep snow. I felt that only the whooper swans, ensconced high in the mountains on the volcanic Kussharoko, had a seemingly "normal" winter environment.


A red-crowned crane in flight in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Red-crowned Crane Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/3200 | ISO 400
Red-crowned cranes landing on snowy field in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 1000
Red-crowned cranes during courtship dance in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 800
A red-crowned crane eats snow in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 800
Red-crowned cranes land during snow fall in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 400
A juvenile red-crown crane jumps up while playing with a leaf in the snow in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Unpaired cranes, and sometimes paired, can frequently be seen showing off while tossing little objects like leaves (seen here), grass, twigs, and even pieces of litter like plastic or metal.
A red-crowned crane comes in to land in the snow in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 800
A close up of a red-crowned crane head while in flight in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 500
Two red-crowned cranes perform courtship dance in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 640
A red-crowned crane stands
Due to the record warmth, many cranes could be seen outside the normal areas as there were many fields with exposed dirt for them to forage for other food like dormant insects, seeds, and worms.

Two whooper swans in the water during a snow storm in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Whooper swans Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 1250
Close up portrait of whooper swans in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 1000
A whooper swan floating on a lake in winter conditions in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 800
Whooper swans in shallow water during a misty sunset in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1600 | ISO 5000
A mother whooper swan and three fledglings in flight on a cold winter morning in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
A mother whooper swan guides three of her fledglings along the lake edge early one morning. Young whooper swans stay grey through their first winter.
A Yezo sika deer buck in midday light in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Yezo sika deer Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/3200 | ISO 800
A yezo sika deer buck in winter in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 1000
Steller sea eagle in flight in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Steller sea eagle Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/3200 | ISO 800
A juvenile Steller sea eagle in flight in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Juvenile Steller sea eagle Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 1250
A Steller sea eagle in flight in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/2500 | ISO 1000
A Steller sea eagle portrait while sitting on drift ice in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 800
A Steller sea eagle on drift ice against a pastel sunrise in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 10000 | Topaz DeNoise
A Steller sea eagle in flight against bright yellow sunrise over drift ice in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 2500
A Steller sea eagle standing on shallow drift ice in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 1250
Two Steller sea eagles fight in air over drift ice in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 3200

It was a bit surreal to have some of the densest drift ice that I've seen directly off the coast while the snow drifts were non-existent in places. Having the drift ice for the sea eagles was amazing though. I always hope for it but, as fast as it can move, it is never guaranteed, even day to day in some cases.


Sunrise over drift ice flow off the coast of Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sunrise over drift ice flow off the coast of Hokkaido.
Steller sea eagle in flight over drift ice with pastel sunrise in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/1600 | ISO 5000
A white-tailed sea eagle comes in aggressively against a Steller sea eagle over drift ice in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
A white-tailed sea eagle comes in aggressively against a Steller sea eagle.
Two Steller sea eagles one coming in to land on the ice and the other taking off in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 640
A Steller sea eagle on drift ice in Hokkaido Japan on a cloudy day | A. Bender Photography LLC
Not taken from the boat. Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 1600

The drift ice being so close into the coastline brough new opportunities that I have not had on previous visits; namely it provided calm coves for wintering sea ducks, such as the long-tailed ducks, close to shore, making them much easier to photograph. It also allowed me to photograph foxes hunting on the icebergs that had become beached. They understood that these temporary platforms might provide the chance at ducks, too.


A long-tailed duck in flight between drifting icebergs in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Long-tailed duck Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 800
A long-tailed duck floating just beyond drift ice in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 1000
A ezo red fox patrols on beached drift ice in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Ezo red fox Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 640
A ezo red fox dog hunts on beached drift ice in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 640
A ezo red fox patrols a snowy beach in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 640
A ezo red fox patrols along a beach in winter in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 640
An ezo red fox investigates smells along exposed rocks on a beach in winter in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 2500
An ezo red fox patrolling a snowy embankment in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 4000

Planning for next year's visit, I decided to focus a bit more on some of the smaller species that Hokkaido offers as well. Especially in the mornings when small birds are most active, I was able to capture a few images of various passerines we encounter throughout the tour.


A marsh tit among winter barren branches in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Marsh tit Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 1000
A Eurasian jay forages among leaf litter during the warmest winter on record for Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Eurasian Jay Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 800
A dusky thrush investigating a thermal vent area in the dead of winter in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Dusky Thrush Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/2500 | ISO 400
A common kingfisher in winter barren tree in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
When researching this bird (common kingfisher) in Japan, one of the first pages that came up was a page from Canon saying that these birds are not seen in Hokkaido during the winter. LOL Must be a Sony/Tamron only sighting...
Shima-Enaga snow fairy long-tailed tit in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Long-tailed tit (Japanese endemic sub-species) aka Shima enaga aka "Snow Fairy"

After only a week in Hokkaido, I jetted down to Nagano prefecture for a quick visit to Joshinetsu Kogen National Park - home of the famous Japanese macaques aka snow monkeys. Mother Nature must have heard my birthday wish and she provided a light but beautiful dusting of snow over the park the morning I visited. It was the first time in over a week they had snowfall. Still, the temperatures quickly rose above freezing meaning the snow fell but didn't stick for long and that the monkeys were less active in the baths as they didn't need the warmth.


A young Japanese macaque snow monkey in hot spring pool in Nagano Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1600 | ISO 6400
A young Japanese macaque snow monkey giving a thumbs up while in the hot springs pools with light snow fall in Nagano Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Thumbs up for the snow! Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1600 | ISO 6400
A Japanese macaque snow monkey watches over the valley from a snowy rock outcrop in Nagano Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1250 | ISO 2500
A Japanese macaque snow monkey climbs down a snowy slope in Nagano Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1600 | ISO 2500
A large female Japanese macaque snow monkey pauses along a ridgeline in the mountains of Nagano Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1600 | ISO 2500

By late morning the snow had stopped and the number of people in the park was growing which was my signal to head out. A relaxing afternoon with my friend and her other AirBnB guests was a nice way to start winding down my trip.


The last stop I like to make before heading back to the states at this time of year is to a residential area on the outskirts of Tokyo. While the ice flows and winter resident wildlife continue to flourish in Hokkaido, in Tokyo and the southern areas of the country the annual ume (plum) blossoms start peaking. In 2020, I found a wonderful park where they have upwards of 30 different varieties of ume trees. Where the blooms are, there is also birdlife. My favorite subjects are the warbling white-eyes.


A Japanese warbling white-eye among dark pink plum ume blooms in Tokyo Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Warbling white-eye Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 2000

A Japanese warbling white-eye among white plum ume blooms and a pink background in Tokyo Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 4000

Spending an afternoon among the flowers and partaking in the local ume matsuri (festival), I watched the sun set, illuminating a hazy Fuji-san between high rise apartments before retuning to my hotel for my last night in Japan.


A fitting end to what felt like a whirlwind visit. With two sold out tours in 2025, I really can't wait for next February to roll around!


Want to join me in Japan in 2026? Make sure to subscribe to my newsletter to be the first to know when those dates are released!


Silhouette of Steller sea eagle sitting on drift ice against golden sunrise in Hokkaido Japan | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 250


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4 Comments


Hector Jose Mallar
Hector Jose Mallar
Mar 20

Alyce, beautiful photography! Thanks for sharing. I got to meet you at NANPA last year. Your presentation was excellent. Thank you for sharing your art and expertise. I got the Sony a7r v with the Tamron 150-500 at the PPA vendor exhibit in Nashville, TN. The Tamron lens is very sharp and a pleasure to use for wildlife photography.

Safe travels in your upcoming tours.

Best regards,

Hector

Instagram: drmallarphotography

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denatoceania1928
Mar 19

STUNNING... ABSOLUTELY...STUNNING!

✨✨💝✨✨

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marsha l
marsha l
Mar 12

Beautiful images!

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Alyce Bender
Alyce Bender
Mar 12
Replying to

Thank you very much Marsha!

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