Sunday, 28 February 2016

Japan in November (No.9): Red-crowned Cranes in the marshes of Kushiro

A century ago, the wetlands inland from Kushiro were the last place in Japan to provide a safe haven for the Red-crowned Crane.
Formerly quite widespread in Japan, the crane suffered a major decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  For a while they were thought to be extinct, then a small population was re-discovered in Eastern Hokkaido, breeding in the extensive Kushiro Marshes and spending the winter near the village of Tsurui.  Conservationists and local farmers came to the rescue, protecting the wetlands and feeding the cranes over the winter.  The population gradually recovered and now number over a thousand.
Red-crowned Crane portrait
Firmly established as a very special bird in Japan, and designated a "national monument", the cranes are the cornerstone of local ecotourism and an incredibly popular subject for photographers. We stayed one night in the village of Tsurui to watch them at sunrise at the famous viewing point at Otawa Bridge.  Large groups sometimes roost in the river, mostly during the coldest weather.  When we arrived there were just a family of three cranes, but others were flying around the area and as we stood and watched a group of four flighted in.
this adult was adept at finding food in the river
flock of four flighting in

The party of cranes were also gathered at a roadside sanctuary, and started to display and "dance".  Wonderful sight.
dancing cranes
Later in the day we explored the wetlands and had some more great views of the cranes, as well as herds of whooper swans and bean geese.
Whooper Swan family
Bean Geese (Taiga)
adult and juvenile
family of cranes in wet grassland habitat
A couple of large freshwater lakes provided good fishing for large flocks of Goosanders and Smews. Overhead, a couple more Steller's Sea Eagles, our last of the trip, and quite a few White-tailed Sea Eagles.

There are a couple of great viewpoints that give you a vista across the landscape.  It is only then that you really appreciate how big and relatively wild this place is.  It is thankfully now a protected area for the cranes and much other wildlife.  It is not pristine - there has been drainage and reclamation around the edges, but it is still a much bigger (22,000ha) and more natural wetland ecosystem than we are used to in most of Europe and there is certainly nothing like it in the UK.  Think "Insh Marshes on a grand scale" (Insh Marshes are a wonderfully wild wetland nature reserve in Speyside, Scotland).

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