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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Trip Report: Japanese Winter Wildlife Adventure 2020

So many images, so little time! Well scratch that last part. Many of us have plenty of time these days as we battle COVID-19 from the safety of our sofas. To those of you who have been deemed essential, from the doctors and nurses who treat those in medical need to the store stockers and the truck drivers who ensure the supply chains continue to run for the rest of us, I thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Before this virus kicked off, I had planned to be in Japan for three weeks during February (2020). Planning for this annual trip starts late spring to early summer each year, so it had been in the works for a while. As the date approached, news of the virus broke from China, but it was not seen as terribly serious per the US State department so I went. Thankfully, nature photography by its own very nature is an exercise in social distancing and the majority of my time was spent solo or in the company of very few people. The weather kept us with baklavas or scarves around our faces as well, so there was added protection when other photographers where close by.

Long story short, I had little worries when traveling through Japan, even as the virus jumped boarders and progressively got worse worldwide. I joined the locals in wearing masks when using mass transit and as I always do, but was much more aware of this time around, washed my hands or used hand sanitizer when necessary. Late February, after many miles in my rental car, hours and hours spent in the elements, and shooting over 330GB of images, I returned stateside to meet with Tamron USA while they were in Vegas and then drove to Monterey, CA to be with my husband.

Since then, I have had limited contact with people other than required medical appointments or to grab groceries on occasion. No symptoms ever surfaced and I want to keep it that way. I hope you will join me in doing the same by staying home and looking at beautiful pictures or enjoying your own backyard until our health care system can catch up with all that is being thrown at it. #flattenthecurve

Now that the obligatory public service announcement and personal COVID-19 backstory have been handled, how about some wonderful Japanese winter wildlife images and stories?

Because I was in Japan for so many weeks and I bounced around as the weather dictated, I am going to share the images based on subject rather than chronological order. Some will have stories, others will just be included in a large collection of images for each subject. I urge you to reach out if you have any questions or would like to know the story behind a particular image that doesn't have a story told here, for all images have stories.

Red-crowned Cranes (Grus japonensis)

The red-crowned cranes were the original subject that brought me to Hokkaido four years ago. They are one of the world's rarest cranes and are endangered. While the Hokkaido population is steady, the overall global population is still in decline. Best known for their seemingly choreographed mating dance, these cranes have long been symbols of longevity, fidelity, luck, and happiness throughout Asia. As a living National Treasure in Japan, this small population is supported through the harsh northern winters by local farmers who supplement the fields with corn a few times a day. Thus, the Hokkaido red-crowned cranes are non-migratory.

For me, the call of the crane is something that conjures up a primal feeling of happiness. Even when they are not dancing, just watching and listening as they call to one another or herald in others from distant river bends, makes it enough for me to stand out there in the cold. This year it was warmer than past years which made things a bit easier to tolerate. Most mornings were around -9°C or 15°F to start and warmed from there.

The most challenging parts of this year's visit were the days and days of full sun. When shooting in snowy conditions, bright sun makes it extremely easy to blow out your highlights and lose all detail in those areas. Shooting white birds on white snow in bright light is really just asking for trouble. If I lived there, I think many of these days would have been spent at home, waiting for snow days or at least overcast conditions. However, since I don't live there or even close anymore, I have to make the best of what I am given when my boots are on the ground. And in all honesty, the challenge of making images in less than ideal conditions only makes one a better photographer in the end.

One prime example of this is the image above. This image would not have been possible without a sunny day, as overcast winter skies typically don't lend themselves to shadow casting. I was tracking pairs flying in as they will sometimes do a bow with wings up (similar to the image below) upon landing. I had also noticed the elongated shadows being created by the low winter sun a bit beforehand as other birds landed and walked down the snowy hill to the rest of the flock. When these two came in they were in such perfect unison upon landing I had to take the shot and made sure to include the shadows for an added element in the image.

Now for just a whole collection of various crane images!

As many of you know, I also take great delight in creative photography; using in-camera techniques to create painterly or abstract images. Working with the cranes for long hours over many years, I have started worrying less I might miss the perfect dance shot and have been experimenting in various ways with creative techniques. Below is a collection of the creative pieces that made this year's final cut.

Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus)

This was an animal I had not really concentrated on during past trips. Not sure exactly why, but needless to say, the swans, as beautiful as they are, had not really gained my attention in the past. This year that changed. I found them in several locations, the two primary shooting locations being Lake Kussharo and a small area off the eastern coast.

Each location had its own challenges, including weather and access. Lake Kussharo, Japan's largest caldera lake (aka lake that is formed in the mouth of a volcano), is thermally active and doesn't fully freeze over in the winter. There are small areas where natural hot springs occur that allow the swans a place that is warmer and ice-free. Due to the close proximity of the swans to the hot springs, many of which are used by winter vacationers, the swans have little fear of people as long as you don't get too close or make sudden movements.

Photographically, I had been wanting to get a very minimalist image of just the outline of a swan in a snow storm. This image had been in my head for a while but I never put it at the top of my list to create until this year. With the dismal snowfall I was prepared to have to wait another year or so to achieve this image. When I arrived at the lake, the sky had some puffy clouds and some snow was expected later that night. As with the cranes, I went out looking for the swans regardless to see what I could do.

As I got down to the lake's edge I was greeted by 20+ mile per hour wind gusts that just cut through a person and yet, I happily embraced these winds, that would soon have me frozen to the lake ice, because they were picking up the very fine powder snow from the surface and creating localized whiteout blizzards for minutes at a time.

Scrambling as I saw this, I laid down on the ice and slowly worked my way into position near the flock. Thankfully the wind was at my back, otherwise I would be singing an entirely different tune about snow in the face and on the lens. Note, when laying down and the wind is at your back, make sure your jacket waist band and pants cuffs are cinched tight otherwise you end up with snow blowing up into your protective clothing! Not ideal...

The wind worked its magic and I was able to capture a series of minimalist images portraying swans in this harsh climate.

As the afternoon progressed and the snow storm predicted for later that night moved closer, the winds died down and I moved on from this particular spot to see what else I might capture before retiring to my ryokan for a long soak in a hot spring of my own. Below is a collection of swan images taken that afternoon and into the next day when the snow that was promised finally fell.

The other location I found swans during this trip was on the eastern shores between Rausu and Nemuro. Along quiet bays and sleepy harbors, I cruised the back roads looking for these brilliant white birds against the dark blue waters. My patience and persistence paid off when I found a quiet cove, filled with large pieces of drift ice and a flock of swans. These seafaring birds were much more skittish with human presence. Ever so slowly I was able to make my way down the shoreline to where a piece of drift ice had moored itself in the sand. To give you an idea, this piece of ice was larger than a queen-size bed. The lip on the seaward side of the ice was much thicker and craggier than the side along the sand, giving me an ideal natural blind to use. So I once again found myself laying down for quite a while, shooting over the ice formation as the swans grazed the underwater grasses this cove provided.

Note the Steller's sea eagle on the rock in the background!

The only issue with using something like drift ice as a blind is that as the tide comes back the ice has a tendency to return to actually drifting! Keeping a close eye on the rising seas, I was able to make a slow exit out of my blind without disturbing the flock. From further away and from an elevated position, I was able to continue to shoot until sunset, watching as the swans were crowded out of the cove by drift ice forming a dense blanket as more and more was pushed in towards the coast that night.

I revisited that location two more times in the following days and never was there a swan to be found. They had moved on to find other areas to forage, away from the drift ice.

Steller's Sea Eagles (Haliaeetus pelagicus) and White-tailed Sea Eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla)

As in past years, the best viewing of the sea eagles is found by taking a boat tour out into the Nemuro Strait. When the drift ice is in the area, this allows for great images of the eagles on ice. If the ice isn't present, then you get images of eagles diving into the water to grab at fish scraps.

The fishermen save their scraps throughout the year and feed them to the eagles when the birds are in the area overwintering from Russia. To me this strikes a certain balance as many of the waters have lower stocks of fish due to human fishing activities and this helps the eagles through the toughest part of the year by supplementing them. For a vulnerable and decreasing population, this winter feeding is a bit of a lifeline.

The tours are scheduled around various elements such as sunrise, tides, weather, and ice flow. In the past, the weather has always been such that we departed the harbor around 8 to 9am. Not so this year! I had the great experience of a 5:30am departure so that we could catch the sun rising over the island of Kunashir, Russia.

With a heavy line of clouds hanging over our portion of Hokkaido, the sky turned all shades of orange, pink, and yellow, reflecting back onto the birds and surrounding landscapes. It was stunning to just witness, never mind capture in images.

Due to the early hour and limited light, high ISOs had to be used for the majority of these images until the sun was fully up later in the trip. Yet the Nikon D500 that I use is a beast when it comes to handling low-light conditions and any noise left in the image was handled neatly by Lightroom in development.

Photo tip: It is extra important to expose to the right (on your histogram) when shooting at high ISOs. Noise first shows up in shadows/dark areas, so avoid doing heavy recovery in those areas of your image when using high ISOs.

Our first day out, the captain found the only piece of drift ice around for miles. We were the only boat to have done so and had it all to ourselves as the eagles stirred from their roosts on the coast. This particular piece of drift ice was about the size of a pick-up truck but twice as wide. So plenty of eagles were able to perch along its many peaks and shelves.

The following day, there was no ice and higher winds (equating to heavier wave action) so we did not go out as far. Still, it was another great sunrise with a bit later departure. During this shooting session, I decided, once again, to get creative in my shooting techniques. Using longer shutter speeds and panning with my subject I created these images.

We also did more work along the snow-covered sea wall that protects the harbor. Here, the top deck of the boat is at just the perfect level to give the same perspective as if you were laying on the wall with the eagles. My favorite perspective!

The second location I went to view eagles is down towards Lake Furen. The lake was frozen over and the locals supplement the eagles with fish scraps to help them get through the winter here as well.

I'm not sure if it was because the weather was warmer this year or what, but in both locations it did seem like there were fewer eagles than in previous years. It was more noticeable at the lake as, since the scraps hadn't diminish, the eagles were squabbling less and there was less mid-air combat than I have witnessed on prior occasions. There were still some altercations though.

Fox vs. eagle encounters happen on occasion as I observed my first year visiting this location. Ever since then, I look forward to this spot for those chance encounters more so than really anything else in this spot. After a few years of just eagles during my visit, this year, a fox made an appearance. With less competition for food between the eagles, I guess it was "calm" enough that a fox thought to try its luck in grabbing some food to-go. Here is the sequence of images I was able to capture.

Ventures out on the ice, looking around.

Grabs a mouth-full, plus some. Only large-billed crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) was standing guard at this scrap pile.

And it takes off, hoping to get back into the cover of the forest at the lake shore before any of the eagles know something is up.

But then a sub-adult white-tailed eagle notices and engages the fox.

A bit of high intensity dodging, and the fox makes a get away again.

However, just before it can get to the lake edge and safety, an adult white-tailed eagle attacks, swooping in to get a full claw on the fish.

The fox doesn't give up and is able to breakaway, a bit less food, but still holding a meal in its jaws.

Note these are all sea eagles, meaning their diet consists mostly of fish. They will scavenge as carrion presents itself, but it is unlikely that one of these eagles would actually kill a living fox if there are fish around. That is a saving grace for foxes who try to get a meal in this manner.

Ezo Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes schrencki)

Speaking of foxes, let's move on to those wonderfully cute canidae family members. The Ezo subspecies is found only in Hokkaido, Japan and can be seen across the island in all seasons. However, to me, there is just something magical about red foxes in snow.

Each year, finding, observing, and capturing images of these wild foxes is the highlight of the trip for me. This year was no different.

What was different was that the population, especially those in the Betsukai area, have been hit by mange, a very communicable (between foxes) skin disease caused by parasitic mites. Many of the individuals I saw this year had little to no fur on their tails and some even had fur-bare paws and legs.

Note the mangy tail in this image.

Because of this widespread affliction, I had to concentrate on how to best photograph certain individuals and completely pass up shooting opportunities with others. Not only does it not look pleasing in images, but the absolute last thing I want to do is potentially impact the already tentative survivability of an ill fox in winter by introducing my presence.

Along those same lines, I refuse to photograph those who are begging by the road either. To slow down is to give them hope that they are going to get another free handout of food. This problem has been increasing over the years I have been visiting these areas and is highly concerning. The age old adage of "a fed fox is a dead fox," rings very true.

This fox was just trying to cross the road when a truck came by causing it to side step. This was not a begging fox.

I digress. These red foxes are clever though. A few have learned to stake out the ice fishermen's tents, knowing that the fishermen will toss aside "trash" fish and then go back into their tents where it is warmer. I had the privilege to watch as one fox did just this and then proceeded to eat some and carry a good bit away to bury for later. Bonus for me: it took place during the only snowstorm I had while searching for foxes!

On the tail-end of that series, here are other images of Ezo red fox taken during the adventure.

Japanese Macaques (Macaca fuscata)

Last but not least, before departing back to the States, I took some time on the main island of Honshu in the Nagano area, photographing the famous snow monkeys. Though this year, they were more like mud monkeys than anything. I spent five days with them and only had one night where it dusted the park with a tiny layer of snow and one day that there was actual snow falling.

These are the images I returned with, many of which are of a young macaque who was one of the few that did not avoid the hot springs even in the warmer weather. Other times, I concentrated on getting detailed shots of the monkeys, such as hands or feet. The absence of desired conditions often pushes the creativity in this career.

And so that concludes my long, but amazing 2020 Japanese Winter Wildlife Adventure! If you would like to join me next year, just message me and we can talk details. Limited spots (up to 3) are available as I want to ensure each client gets individualized attention while ensuring the wildlife does not feel crowded or pressured, and maximizing our time to observe their natural behaviors.

I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did and think your friends or family would enjoy it was well, please share it on social media. Your continued support of my work is truly appreciated!

Until next time, stay well and cheers!

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