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.