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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Winter Wildlife in Japan - Part 2

Steller's Sea Eagle in flight

I left off the last post getting ready to head away from the endangered Red Crowned Cranes and Kushiro for the northeastern coast of Hokkaido to find Steller's Sea Eagles (Haliaeetus pelagicus). And find them I did!

The northeastern coast of Hokkaido is the overwintering ground for the largest concentration of Steller's Sea Eagles outside of Russia. Listed as a vulnerable species, there is only an estimated 5000 individuals in the world currently and the population is declining. These raptors are magnificent creatures to watch, standing over 3ft tall with a wing span of over 4ft, they are a much larger cousin to the American Bald Eagle. In Japan, they are protected as a National Treasure.

Pair of Steller's Sea Eagles

Alongside the Steller's Sea Eagle is the more common White-tailed or Eurasian Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). These birds are amazing to view as they interact with the Steller's. To tell the two apart, look for the bright white tail of the Eurasian Sea Eagle, as the alternate name suggests, and a solid light yellow beak. The mature Steller's will also have a white tail, but they also have white shoulders and a rich, almost golden beak. Confusion can come in when faced with the adolescent Steller's as they have an almost white tail and no white shoulder feathers yet. The beak is what will give it away as a juvie Steller's as they have a black-tipped yellow beak. See if you can tell which bird is in which picture and I will post the correct answers at the bottom.

Juvenile Steller's Sea Eagle Portrait

Getting there is Part of the Adventure!

Once again, in remote locations such as Hokkaido, even the travel between shooting locations can be very rewarding. The trip from Kushiro to Rausu can be made in a couple different routes depending on the weather you encounter when visiting. I had good, only partly cloudy skies predicted for my travel day so I opted to take the longer route through the Akan National Park.

Home to several beautiful volcanic crater lakes, Akan National Park is one of the oldest National Parks in Japan and covers more than 223,000 acres of mountains, lakes, and forest. Lake Kussharo is one of the three lakes and is accessible during winter. Known for the overwintering wild whooper swans that migrate to keep warm in this geothermic region, it makes for a great lunch stop or even a stay of several days depending on your schedule. Unfortunately during this trip I did not have much time in this area. A stop for lunch and a couple hours mid-day to watch the swans was all I had. It is definitely on my list of places to revisit though.

Frozen Lake Kussharo and wild swan between broken ice sheets

From the lake, I pressed on over the mountain pass (-11C and snowing) and made my way across the beautiful countryside until I reached Rausu.


Shiretoko Peninsula mountains in February

This tiny little harbor town is the southeastern gateway to the Shiretoko Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Surrounded by amazing natural beauty, Rausu has something to offer at all times of year. On this trip I focused on the fact that winter brings the eagles.

Juvie Steller's Sea Eagle in flight

I spent two days in this fishing village, each morning taking a boat out to photograph the assortment of eagles present. There are several companies that offer eagle viewing tours. I chose Godzilla Rock Sightseeing. Not only were the prices competitive, they also are highly versed in English (website, email, and on board).

Row of sea eagles along the harbor

Location tip: These boats do fill during peak viewing season. Make sure you have seats reserved well in advance of your trip. I suggest booking several days so you have back up days reserved if the weather doesn't cooperate the first time around.

Steller's Sea Eagle in flight

The tours depart in the morning with two options for eagle viewing. If there is drift ice, Godzilla Rock offers a sunrise drift ice eagle tour (departure 0500). If the ice is not near by, they do a 0900 departure (which is regularly scheduled as well). I was really hoping to catch the drift ice that comes down along the coast but there was none close enough to access. So I ended up on the later of the two options both days. Consolation prize: extra sleep!

Steller's Sea Eagle in flight

Photographing from a boat definitely has some interesting challenges. First know yourself: know if you need to take medicines for seasickness and if you have good enough balance to move about on a boat in motion without assistance. If you need medication, take it prior to departure so it has time to work. If there is a chance you might get seasick, take the medicine as it would be awful to get out there and then be too sick to photograph. If you don't really have sea legs, try securing a spot along the side of the cabin where you can brace yourself against the wall and railing. This might limit some of the images you can get but not by much. It is also a popular location to stand so make sure you get there early to claim a spot.

White-tail Eagles in flight

Gear tip: Tripods on the boat. They are allowed but I found it very cumbersome to try to work around the legs of my tripod while on the shifting deck. It was not long before I abandoned it for hand-holding. If you can avoid bringing a tripod on board, that would be my suggestion. To give you an idea of what lens to bring, I was shooting with my Tamron 150-600mm again. For all the flight images in this article, all were taken at 300mm or less. Only the portrait/sitting images were taken at glass lengths longer than that. So, if you are not comfortable hand shooting that big 400mm or even you 150-600mm, don't worry too much about it. Bring something more manageable like a 70-300mm.

Close up of juvie Steller's Sea Eagle in flight

Regardless of the ice, or lack thereof, this is by far the best way to capture stunning images of these huge eagles in action. In an effort to ensure the overwintering eagles have enough to eat, the fishermen (and your tour assistant) throw fish scraps to the eagles. This is one of the reasons you will have so many chances to get the perfect diving shot, although my favorites are the environmental captures of them soaring against the peninsula's mountains.

Steller's Sea Eagle extended to catch fish

Photo tip: Be aware of the background. Since the town runs along the coast, if you are not careful, you will end up with many shots that have an urban landscape behind the eagle. While, yes, the town is there, I feel these images don't actually portray the environment correctly as so much of the area is wild except for the small part around the port. Also, when shooting the eagles diving onto the fish in the water, use a shallow depth of field to help focus on the eagle and less on the water. This does not necessarily apply if you are lucky enough to have the birds on ice.

Steller's Sea Eagle with fish in talon

Gear tip: Pack large memory cards. It would be very easy to fill a 16GB or even a 32GB memory card in the two and half hours usually provided by the tour. I used a 32GB card each trip and came very close to filling it both days.

Steller's Sea Eagle portrait

After several hours of shooting, the light gets a bit too high and the captain brings the boat back to harbor. At this time it is up to you if you return to your hotel to warm up a bit or if you go exploring for more photo opportunities. I chose to go hunting for fox and deer before returning to my hotel.

Steller's Sea Eagle mid-air acrobatics

Next article I will go into detail on where I was able to photograph a multitude of fox and deer, as well as an unexpected find as I finish this expedition review. Cheers!

White-tail Sea Eagle flight profile

Bird ID answers from the top: Steller's; Steller's; juvie Steller's; juvie Steller's; mostly White-tail with 8 Steller's and 2 juvie Steller's; Steller's; Steller's; White-tail; juvie Steller's; Steller's; Steller's; Steller's; Steller's; White-tail

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