Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Hungry Birds - Hokkaido's Steller sea eagles

Only 16 months after the event I finally post some pics of our boat trip to photograph sea eagles in Rausu, Hokkaido, Japan in February 2016.  I might even get round to writing some proper text to go with them! As usual blogger blurs the photos slightly, frustrating!- one day I'll get around to using a better platform for them. If you click on a picture it should take you to a gallery of them with clearer images.

Cropping right into a photo of the eagles squabbling over food on the stone pier, this image looks Angry Bird cartoonish!

The eagles were photographed from a small (30 person?) boat against a backdrop of Rausu harbour and mountains

We had seen some eagles in the trees by the side of the coastal road but this was our first view of a Steller flying overhead

And when I say overhead - I mean within feet from our heads.  We were the only people on the small top-deck and this white-tailed eagle was taken with my 75-300mm lens so those talons were pretty near my head!

The boatmen throw fish for the birds and there is a procession of one eagle after another swooping down onto the water for them. They are so fast you need your camera set at highest speed

The power and size of these birds is awesome!

They are not far off the shore of the small coastal town of Rausu and like a bit of a fight over the best pieces of fish

I've got hundreds of photos that the Bedsock and I took of this astonishing experience - these are just a sample.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Buzzed at the Hive


Finally got to see the Hive at Kew Gardens yesterday.  It was quite extraordinary and beautiful.

As we 'listened' to a talk using vibrations instead of ears to hear - we got buzzed by a real life bee!

We had gone mid-week but failed to find a quiet corner to just commune with the hive - not that that stopped some people! :(

 - like the bees it was busy!

And we kept on getting buzzed by something else!

More constant than the buzzing bees and higher flying

But sadly not high enough!

Can you tell what it is yet children?


Thursday, 23 June 2016

Socks go wild in Hokkaido - Part IV the Blakiston Fish Owls

After our morning of enchantment with the Dancing Cranes we finally set off for the coast and a rendezvous with a Blakiston Fish Owl. Our destination is Washi-no-Yado, a small minshuku (BandB) near Rausu on the North East Coast. We have been warned that the accommodation is VERY basic and that we should only stay there one night. The Socks don't do 'basic' anymore, these days we like a bit of luxury, our own facilities and a decent mattress... (I never go anywhere without my Granny Goose, feather travel pillow, not least for villa rentals where you don't know who has previously been dribbling on the pillow!).  So in view of this, we are hoping against hope that Blakey hasn't 'dropped off his perch' (see previous blog) as a sighting of this rare beauty will be the only thing making the overnight hardship worthwhile.

We set off for the coast in the glorious sunshine that is still blessing our stay, driving through the snowy, volcanic landscape.

The roads are surprisingly clear and traffic is light, but whilst my fear of being stuck in snowdrifts in the middle of nowhere (as had happened to people a few weeks previously) had abated, the next fear on my tick-list, coastal tsunamis, was beginning to kick in. Recent tragic news of another big earthquake in Japan shows just how unexpected and violent these events can be, but the fact is that they are pretty much a daily happening in this part of the world, most so mild they pass unnoticed. Unnoticed except by me, who for the last few weeks has been perusing the Japan earthquake site with fearful fascination.

As we near the coast I am watching the skies for birds and spot a large blob at the top of a tree.

We turn off the road down a snowy lane leading to some farm buildings and to our amazement realise the blob is actually a white-tailed eagle! As the Bedsock gets busy setting up the tripod I notice that the thicket of trees around the lane is bursting with bird activity - a pretty nuthatch poses around a tree only a couple of feet away from me,

higher up on the branches a vivid Japanese woodpecker.

I spot a strange looking bird with spikey head feathers but it moves quickly and it is not until I tweet the photo that my ever-helpful twitter friend @simiansuter tells me it was a brown-eared bulbul!

We are so fascinated by the little birds that we miss the eagle as it launches from the tree!

Finally we hit the coast, the last of the late afternoon sun lighting the small harbours filled with fishing boats - this is the Sea of Okhotsk coming down from Kamchatka - in the distance we can see the Kuril islands - disputed territory between Japan and Russia - exciting names and places I only recognise from playing Risk as a child never thinking I would one day visit.

I photograph a beautiful Japanese fox as we drive past - the first of many we will see living amongst the coastal fishing shacks.

We follow the sea road to Washi-no-Yado, directly after a tunnel just to the North of the small town of Rausu a steep gorge cuts into the side of the Shiretoko peninsula with a stream flowing out of it. The sides of the gorge are dotted with gates - presumably to help prevent avalanches of snow falling on the buildings below.

A  narrow snow compacted drive runs to the side of the stream and snuggled into the base of the gorge a group of slightly scruffy buildings and old dumped cars greets us. We have arrived! An elderly lady emerges from a further building and ushers us into our accommodation for the night.  Basic it might be... but we still have to go through the traditional footwear removing performance before we can enter the building - a process which takes me a good few minutes of hopping about and overbalancing due to the mobility restrictions of several layers of thick clothing added to my general state of decrepitude. We are shown to a small room at the front of the building one wall of which is floor to ceiling glass. This is our window on the owl spectacle - our own private bedroom/hide. Visitors are not allowed to wander out of, nor turn the lights on, during the possible owl visiting period between 8.00 and 12.00 pm. The room contains nothing but a heater (which has made it insufferably hot and stuffy but the minute we turn it down we feel frozen - it is -10c outside) and in the corner some thin mattresses, duvet-type-things, and those ghastly pillows full of beans which are probably sprouting, watered by years of accumulated dribble! Thank God for Granny Goose!   There are also some useful instructions on the best setting for your camera to photo the owls.  And a bottle of Jack Daniels - not my favourite whisky but one which has travelled with us all the way from Heathrow duty free.  We open it and in the absence of glasses take a quick fortifying swig from the bottle.

We set up the tripod and camera which takes up enough of the room to make it impossible to lay out both mattresses.  In any event I am still jet-lagged and know that if I put my head on my pillow I will just totally conk out! Another swig of Jack Daniels to keep me going.  We are called away for our evening meal which is fine and enough to soak up the Jack Daniels but not so great it warranted all the boots on and off procedure just to get to the dining shack in the next building.  We are the only guests there.

And so we return to the room and wait.... and wait... I have commandeered a couple of stools found in the outside corridor and we sit in the dark and wait. And have a few more glugs of Jack Daniels and wait.. Outside, about 10ft away from us is an 8ft tower holding floodlights that are aimed into a stony pool on the stream where the owl comes to feed.  Over the years the owls have got used to the floodlights.  We are in prime position directly opposite the most photogenic stream spot but it won't be much of a photo with no owl!

Suddenly I sense a presence, something has changed outside but I'm not sure what until I look to the top of the lighting tower and there, straight in front of us, is the silhouette of an enormous owl!  Blakey!!!!!! I'm on that camera clicking before I even draw breath!

And what a spectacle the owl puts on for us!

Dancing in the shallows,

shaking its fabulous feathers,

stalking fish,

then staring around at us as if it knows very well that cameras and curious eyes are hiding behind glass windows.

I pass control of the camera to the Bedsock so we both have time to photograph and time to just sit and stare.

The show goes on for maybe 15 minutes and then Blakey is gone.  We celebrate our experience with another swig of Jack Daniels.  The owl doesn't return and finally we are too tired to watch for it any more and sink onto the hard mattresses and into what is more of a stupor than sleep.  The jet lag awakes me at  3.00 a.m. I can feel vibrations coming up thru the mattress into my back. An earth tremor! OMG - what if it gets worse and the snow covered sides of the gorge just avalanche down on top of us! We will never get to show our Blakey photos to the world!  I look at the not quite empty bottle of Jack Daniels next to me - the level of the whisky is entirely flat no micro tsunamis in the bottle.  There are no tremors! It is 'merely' a mass of tiny mis-timed muscle spasms that I sometimes
get with my ME!  I finish off the last drop of Jack Daniels and fall back to sleep.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Socks go Wild in Hokkaido - Part III Dancing Cranes


Our second and last morning at the Wilderness Lodge and we got a lie-in! Ando had already disappeared with the next small group to be hauled out of bed at the crackov and carted off to see the cranes in their early morning river setting.  So it is a late 8.30 a.m. before we were packed and off on the snow covered roads.  We decided to drive around the marshlands for a while to see what we could find on our own and then return to the crane reserve at Tsurui in the hope that the cranes would turn up on schedule this time.  We had seen cranes in the evening, cranes in the morning, but had yet to see them in their full glory dancing!

We were so sad to be leaving this area, the beautiful intense brightness of the light and our luck to have such blue sky'd sunny weather had already improved my health and well being, the wildlife encounters turned my anxieties to excitement and cut through my general state of exhaustion, buoying me up with enough energy to keep going. How we wished we were spending longer here to explore this wilderness landscape. Even our short drive produced curious deer, buzzards, kites and distant eagles. We could have happily have spent a week or more there, instead of our meagre two days.

We returned to the crane reserve and waited patiently, with a few other photographers, praying that we would see a few more cranes than the couple pootling about in front of us in a desultory fashion.

And then the cranes suddenly raised their heads to the west and started hollering!  A small squadron of three more cranes was on its way

They looked so funny their large bodies so graceful in flight, a little ridiculous as they glided slowly over the tree tops. Daddy Crane, Mummy Crane and Baby Crane!

Mummy and baby (not yet old enough to develop the red crown of the adults) land first

then Daddy comes in to land


In Japan everything comes with a tune, like the announcements on the Shinkansen which start with a little jingle in my mind segueing straight into 'Young Gifted and Black'. Most videos of the cranes are accompanied by tinkly Japanese music - but as the next flight of cranes arrived all I could hear was BeyoncĂ©  playing in my mind.  The Red-Crowned cranes were dancing to 'Single Ladies'.... , as in the video of  BeyoncĂ© and her backing dancers,,

All the single ladies (All the single ladies)


All the single ladies (All the single ladies)


Now put your hands up!


Cause if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
If you liked it then you should've put a ring on it

Wuh uh oh uh uh oh oh uh oh uh uh oh
Wuh uh oh uh uh oh oh uh oh uh uh oh

And then more and more cranes started to arrive, flights of three to six birds starting as distant dots until descending over the trees and landing like dancers in the field in front of us. After an hour we drag ourselves away... we have owls and eagles to see and our first view of the Hokkaido coast.  What a wonderful, life fulfilling, spectacle it has been - I laughed out loud at the joy of it and the crazy, funny, cranes.

The cranes are extremely rare and as their meat was prized they were almost wiped out by hunters in the early 1900s. And then, as in so many places, their breeding grounds were eroded by
rampant land development for agriculture the population reduced to fewer than 20 surviving in the Kushiro marshes.  As the population dwindled to the point of extinction, local people around Kushiro started to provide food for them in the winter and they gained legal protection. Over the years the population made a dramatic recovery - it is believed there are up to 2000 cranes around this part of Hokkaido now.  A wonderful story of conservation!

[Photography note: the Bedsock used the Canon 70D with 600mm sigma lens and tripod. I used the Canon 600D and 75-300mm lens handheld.  Both had their uses and drawbacks, it was more difficult for the Bedsock to track the moving cranes and to get a full 'squadron' in the photo. But obviously the quality of his pictures is better. I got better framed subject matter due to the ease of handheld and being able to change position more easily without a tripod - but the quality is not as good and I didn't have the camera on an ideal setting as I had forgotten to reset the sensor.  Nevertheless we are pleased that between us we got some pretty good and occasionally 'artistic' photos as a wonderful souvenir of our trip.]

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Socks go Wild in Hokkaido Part II - Owling

I recently read a birders blog who noted that according to the dictionary of Urban Slang 'Owling' means, not searching out and watching owls but
"the new viral craze; a bit like planking, except you crouch down, and stare like an owl. You then take a picture and post it on facebook. Brownie points for random places to owl"
Who knew?  I suspect that is another craze that has been long gone before I even heard about it.

I doubt Ando, our wildlife guide in the Hokkaido wilderness, would have been too impressed by this definition, although after his revelation of the previous evening, that he loved The Who, Brighton and wanted to be a Mod (rather than a Rocker) it was clear he was a man of many surprises.

General view of Kushiro wetlands

After breakfast we are loaded into Ando's van along with the students, and the 'Birders' who are fun company and a mine of interesting and useful information. First stop is the nearby feeding station where the red-crowned cranes are due to show up at about 11.00a.m. They don't! This is the trouble with wildlife - so flippin' unpredictable! As the cranes have refused to stick to Ando's schedule we are packed back into the van and driven along snow compacted lanes to our next stop - we have been promised a Ural owl!  And what an exquisite creature it is too, roosting in a tree that is picture perfect on its own.  Like so many things in Japan, the owl comes beautifully packaged.

Ural owl, Kushiro area, Hokkaido

But this is where the slight disappointment creeps in! Despite the general remoteness of the area, we are suddenly not alone! Another van load of people has turned up bursting into the reverent silence we and the Birders observe for our encounters with wildlife.  This is not just an owl, it's a tourist destination! Small groups at a time are allowed to clamber down the path, boots crunching deep into the snow and instructed to keep at a certain distance to photograph the owl.  The Bedsock and I are very excited by the chance of a good picture but the Birders are less happy with the experience, particularly as the other group seem more interested in chatting loudly to each other than watching the owl.  As it happens, the owl doesn't do much other than occasionally opening its eyes and glaring disdainfully at those disturbing its peace.

Ando explains that although he is a registered guide there are some who operate without license, picking up the GPS co-ordinates of the various wildlife sightings and driving (small) bus loads of tourists around them.  Worse, there is mention of some of the unregulated tourists chucking snowballs at the owls and generally being disrespectful.  We are saddened by this but aware that in terms of 'wildlife tourism' we are part of the 'problem'.  The fact is tourists bring money into areas and ultimately that helps in the conservation of wildlife.  The red-crowned cranes were hunted and eaten almost to the point of extinction before it was realised they were worth more to the area alive and dancing!

We leave the Ural owl to a bit of peace and quiet before the next visitors turn up and Ando drives us to a Sushi-go-round restaurant in Kushiro the largest town in the area, for lunch.  It's fun and cheerful, the sushi is the best ever and Ando orders some of the more unusual fish sushi for us to savour. Then onwards for cake and coffee at a rather chic cafe! We are amazed, last time we were in Japan we had some difficulty outside of the big towns finding places to lunch, and certainly not cake unless it was of the disappointing type that looks wonderful and turns out to be full of bean paste!  It's worth having a guide just to find the best local eating establishments.

Sika deer - might have been a great photo had it not been taken thru van window as we travelled

The Birders are doing a similar circuit of Hokkaido to us, arriving the previous day Ando has already taken them to see owls which they had all to themselves and also white-tailed eagles. We see a very distant solitary Steller's eagle on our tour but we hadn't expected to see them here at all.  We will be travelling to Rausu on the coast the next day in the hope of seeing both eagles and the famous Blakiston Fish Owl.  The owl is supposed to be a major highlight of our holiday but the Birders tell us that when they researched it they found that fish owls only live for about 40 years and 'Blakey' was nearing that so there was a possibility that poor 'Blakey' might have carked it! As the brochure described the accommodation for viewing the fish owls as  'VERY basic' they didn't want to risk it being a no show!  Blakey's possible demise would be terrible for the Socks but even worse for the poor owners of the 'very basic' shack which Blakey has turned into a moneyspinner for them over 20 years!  We speculate that they may have nailed Blakey to a perch and be working him with strings, in a tragic copy of the Dead Parrot sketch.

Whether Blakey lives or not remains to be seen on another day, for now there is another chance to see a different pair of Ural owls snuggled together on the edge of a small woodland.

Ural Owls, Kushiroshiysugen, Hokkaido

And then a stop for some beautiful landscape photography, a sighting of Hooper swans on a frozen lake in the Kushiroshitsugen National Park. 

Black kites circle overhead the scene and the light are amazing.

Our day out is over, the Birders go to the local onsen for a good soak in the hot spring waters but I am regrettably too exhausted for this and grab a quick pre-dinner snooze.  I can't wait to wake up and see what the next day holds... so much to see and so little time to see it in.  Will Blakey be a no-show? Will we be lucky enough to see eagles? Will we ever see the red-crowned cranes dance?  All will be revealed in the next few blogs.. I could be writing them for some time...