The erratic weather continued, with some unseasonably warm days, including the warmest December day recorded for over 140 years, with cold days in between.
My recent encounters with wildlife seem to be limited to birds – I’ve seen up to six egrets together on my morning and one morning spotted a pair of kingfishers on my morning commute. I also encountered a female pheasant and a kite on the same morning. But without a doubt, the best experience was when a kite perched near a window at my school and I got within four metres of it.
Getting close to a bird of prey is quite an experience, and I envy the family mentioned in this article from the Asahi Shimbun. Clicking on the link will also give you access to a short video clip of the bird in action.
Giving a hoot about an endangered owl in Hokkaido
RAUSU, Hokkaido–Just past sundown on a stretch of river dimly lit by lamps, a rare owl suddenly swoops out of the darkness and glides down to a rock in the water. A family, watching from nearby, whoops with delight.
The bird remains motionless for several minutes. Then in a flash, it breaks the silence by leaping into the pool and catching a Yamame trout.
Known as the “guardian of the village” to the Ainu, the Blakiston’s fish owl is said to have once numbered approximately 1,000 in all of Hokkaido. But now it is on the government’s critically endangered list with about 140 remaining.
Visitors, such as the family above, are able to witness the Blakiston’s fish owl up close in a special program organized by the Shiretoko Rausu Tourism Association in Rausu, a town in the Shiretoko Peninsula of eastern Hokkaido.
The peninsula in 2005 became the first region in Japan to be selected entirely as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“The program is an attempt to promote conservation and raise awareness of a species rarely seen by humans by showing it to them,” said an Environment Ministry official. “We hope it progresses smoothly in the right direction.”
Measuring nearly 70 centimeters in length with a wingspan of about 180 centimeters, the Blakiston’s fish owl is the largest owl species inhabiting Japan.
They reside around rivers and lakes in Hokkaido and the Southern Kuril Islands (referred to as the Northern Territories in Japan). The ministry classifies it as an Endangered Species IA Class, meaning the bird is “critically endangered.”
Visitors watch the owl in action from a bird-watching station next to Washi no Yado (Inn of the eagle), an inn located beside Chitoraigawa river. Live fish are placed inside a small pool surrounded by rocks within the river and it is here that the bird can be watched by the tourists.
“The main prey of the Blakiston’s fish owl is the Dolly Varden trout, a kind of char. Considering the size of their population, we think only one owl family can inhabit a single river zone,” said Shinji Sato, a member of the tourism association who acts as a guide.
The Blakiston’s fish owl, which also dines on amphibians, crustaceans, birds and small mammals, was in danger of dying out with the population falling to about 70 in the 1960s and 1970s due to massive deforestation and dam construction projects.
The central government started working on the conservation of the owls from 1984, mainly by setting up feeding stations and bird houses in its habitat. Due to such efforts, the 140 or so Blakiston’s fish owls now live mainly around eastern Hokkaido, with about half of them inhabiting the Shiretoko Peninsula.
“Down here, the Blakiston’s fish owl shows its true form in the wild,” said Sato. “By looking at them, we hope for visitors to develop a sense of respect for nature.”