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Cape Ochiisi, Lake Furen and environs (Eastern Hokkaido)
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A Brief Southeast Hokkaido Trip, June 27-29, 2004
This was a Blakiston's Fish-Owl trip. We flew into Nakashibetsu Airport on Sunday the 27th. By the time we got the rental car, it was 1:00 pm, so I decided that, morning birding being lost, we might as well go on down to Ochiisi Cape. This was a two-and-a-half hour drive through slightly rolling, very open hay and dairy country. There is an extreme urge to far exceed the speed limit, but my 20,000-yen speeding ticket from a previous trip put the governor on, and I never drove faster than 80 kph, which seems very slow when you're trying to get anywhere on Hokkaido's straight, open, unpeopled road system. It is beautiful countryside, but the only birds to watch along the way are on the wires: big birds were either Black Kite or Carrion Crow; medium-sized birds were inevitably Oriental Turtle Dove; and small birds were 80% Siberian Stonechat, with an admixture of Eurasian Tree Sparrow and Russet Sparrow, and Black-backed (White) Wagtail. Oh yes, and the dumb Latham's Snipe on top of the power poles, lots of them. We were to drive back and forth through this kind of countryside several times during the three days, and that's just about the species list; we also saw a fox, a dozen Hokkaido deer, and hundreds of Holsteins.
We arrived at Ochiisi at 3:30 p.m. to a dense coastal fog. There is a long boardwalk through an alpine-like miniature forest and out to the lighthouse (1.7 km from the closed gate). When I got to the lighthouse, there was a Eurasian Wryneck on the power line. The foghorn was blasting away and the fog was too thick to see the rocks. I spent half an hour there, saw perhaps a dozen each of Pelagic Cormorant and Great Cormorant flit in and out of the fog, then gave up on the possible appearance of anything more interesting (Red-faced Cormorant, Long-billed Murrelet, Spectacled Guillemot), and retreated.
We turned around and headed back along the same route to Fujiya Ryokan (Inn) in Nakashibetsu. Going and coming I also got Gray's Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler and Middendorf's Warbler, the three [i]Locustella[/i], and watched the Latham's Snipe's phenomenal aerial displays.
A word about directions and distances: I have no idea how I got where I went in Hokkaido. With my wife along, she was able to program the GPS by simply inputting the telephone number of the ryokan, or the name of wherever we wanted to go, and a complete route map appeared-- I just followed it blindly, never looking at road signs or the position of the sun, until the electronic green line terminated and we had arrived wherever. Amazing; I was an automaton driver.
Fujiya ( http://kashikiri-onsen.com/hokkaidou/doutou/yoroushi/fujiya.html )(phone 01537-8-2341) is a ryokan (inn), not a minshuku (pension), so the price is higher and the food is better (featuring shrimp, a local specialty-- and the second night we actually had a lovely tender Hokkaido beefsteak). 10,000 yen each per night got us a minimal room with a toilet (one-seater) down the hall. For 16,000 yen, we could have gotten a private toilet and an owl-view out our room window. It is a grandly-rustically-decorated place with a very hot indoor/outdoor hotspring.
But on to the owls. The trout pool they come to is ridiculous, no more than a small backyard koi pond. They birds come sometime after dark, and Channel One on all the room TV sets is tuned to the backyard camera, so you can sit in your room and watch the pool till they arrive. The previous night, they had arrived about 9 p.m. After dinner we went back to the room and switched back and forth between Ch 1 and the Giants-Tigers baseball game. At 8 p.m., there was suddenly a motionless owl standing by the pond. We scampered to the dining room, where we could view it through the window. Breath-taking, of course. A parent and one of the two juveniles stood around for perhaps 20 minutes before grabbing a fish apiece and taking off.
I went to bed at 9:30, with the alarm set for 4:30. Monday the 28th, I awoke without the clock at 3:30 a.m. and it was full daylight, with the sun appearing over the horizon at 4 a.m. The ryokan is at the end of the paved road, and there is a gravel logging road from there on through mixed wood and planted fir forest. I walked along it and back from 3:45 until 8:00, while wife and son got their beauty sleep, rose and had their breakfasts. The two mornings I did this, I heard lots of Siberian Blue Robin, Brown Thrush, Eastern Crowned Warbler (a strange experience to be mobbed by 3 or 4 of the latter), Oriental Cuckoo, Japanese Green Pigeon, a few White's Thrush and Narcissus Flycatcher, and saw 2 birds I wanted for the year-- Marsh Tit and Eurasian Treecreeper, and a surprise Ural Owl. I saw other more common woodland birds here, and of course I heard a few mystery skulkers. Mosquitos were bad-- thankfully they were low fliers, and stayed mostly around my pantlegs; kept me busy swatting, though.
After their breakfast, it took us two hours to drive to Shunkunitai, the southern peninsula embracing Furen-ko (Furen Lake), arriving at 10:30, where my wife dropped me off. It was cool and overcast, and I had a lonely walk of the place until 2 p.m. Very disappointing-- no woodpeckers, no Redshanks, almost no nothing. Two White-tailed Eagle. Several Middendorf's Warbler appeared nicely. It's a great-looking place-- a boardwalk through bog and among alpine-like firs, a long sandbar and the sea. You cannot drive in anymore, but must park at the bridge and hoof it. I did not wade across the marsh and try to get into the woods at the farther end-- if you are willing to do that, it might be more productive.
My wife picked me up and we made another run to Ochiisi (one hour return from Shunkuitai). Same damn thing again: as we approached the coast it got foggier and foggier-- I had a quick look at the point next to the cape, above the Ochiisi fisherman's wharf, but again could see nothing for the fog. So in disgust I gave up on seabirds. We drove back to Furen-ko again, around to the northern peninsula this time, birding that by car from 3:30 to 4:30 pm. It is a long narrow uninteresting grassland/bog. By this time the weather was getting really nasty-- cold and blowing. I got no Lanceolated Warblers or Redshanks here, either; I didn't get out and walk much. Some large rafts of Common Scoters were out on the ocean. There were a couple of Japanese Cranes here. On the entire trip, we saw eight cranes in four groups, in various accidental places en route.
Time and energy was expended, and we headed back to the ryokan. At a little river bridge, I pished up a gorgeous Siberian Rubythroat who perched and sang his little heart out for us. And a small raft of Goosander.
After dinner, same routine: back to the room to watch and wait for the owls on TV. This time I was quite relaxed, however. (My wife was a little disappointed that we had seen them the first night, and wished that we could cancel the second night and move to a cheaper place-- not cricket, though. Actually, the fishpond is visible from the road, and if one wanted to rent a cheaper mishuku nearby, it would be possible to drive over, park discreetly, and wait in the dark. The view would be a much more distant one, though, and hard to see satisfactorily in the gloom. And not cricket either, really.)
Again at 8 p.m. two birds silently appeared on the screen, and we went down to the dining area again to watch them. They are magnificent, but boring. They just stood immobile, staring into the pond. After 10 minutes this time, however, a fox came bounding out of the shrubbery and flushed them up into a tree. Fox soon left, owls returned... and stood. Finally, I went back to the room where my sake bottle was, and watched them on TV. They stood for an hour, never making a grab at a fish, and I got nicely drunk waiting and watching. I finally stumbled back down to the side door to take a last good look, but they took off (not my fault), one soaring right above my head as it cleared the porch roof. There is road construction and deforestation going on right up the ryokan road, so who knows how long the birds will continue to come here. Meanwhile, it had started to drizzle.
It rained all night, and continued drizzling the next day. Tuesday the 29th, I took the same morning walk up the logging road but didn't start until 6 a.m. because of the rain and an owl-related hangover. With the rain still drizzling, and a plane to catch at 1 p.m., I gave up on a planned mad dash to Notsuke Peninsula, the third site I'd chosen (only real hope there now was the year-list Common Redshank anyway), and I finally let my wife have a bit of a choice on this trip. We headed west from Nakashibetsu for an hour, to Lake Mashuko, a crater lake famed for its mists. I had not scheduled any mountain birding, so it sounded interesting. Not so: fog also increased with the increasing elevation, and the lake itself was totally invisible, the busload of tourists at the visitors' centre milling about taking pictures of each other next to the Big Soft Cream Cone at the concession stand. Another Siberian Rubythroat perched and sang on an invisible bush; I heard two Grey-headed Woodpeckers calling each to each.
And that is the grit and gristle of this experience. I would suggest: that one complete day and two half days is way, way too short to try to do this prime birding area of Japan. There is a lot of travel time to consider, there is a lot of ground to cover to get to the good spots, and not much in the way of interesting stops in between (I did spend a lot of time along the way looking for Brown Shrike; I saw no shrike of any species). I just did not have enough time to do justice to any of the modest three areas I had chosen (although the weather can also be blamed to some extent). One should also anticipate fog ruining the coastal birding-- evidently it is a common weather pattern there in June.
Other (non-)sightings of possible interest: a single Red-rumped Swallow and many Sand Martins; only a single White-rumped Swift (no White-throated Needletail); several Black-browed Reed Warbler; only Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker and Great Spotted Woodpecker (no Black, White-backed or Lesser Spotted); all the tits except Varied Tit; no flycatchers except Narcissus Flycatcher; [i]brandtii[/i] Jay; no Yellow-breasted Buntings anymore, of course.
Content and images originally posted by Charles Harper