Japan: Part Four — Eagles

Every winter some very special guests from Russia visit the island of Hokkaido, Japan — magnificent sea eagles. These gigantic birds migrate south from Siberia to spend their winters in a relatively warmer climate along the shores of the northeastern region of the island. While the Sea of Okhotsk becomes packed with sea ice, the Sea of Japan and the Pacific are usually ice-free. It is along these coastal ranges that the eagles concentrate.

There are two species of sea eagle that share the winter territory — the Stellar’s Sea Eagle and the White-tailed Sea Eagle. Both species are very, very large, with talons about the size of your fist. They are scavengers, feeding on just about anything dead or dying that they can find, but mostly they eat fish. They feed on spawning fish in shallow rivers, but they also commonly pursue fishing boats at sea to pick up whatever fish scraps slip through the nets. Tour operators in Hokkaido’s port cities take advantage of this behavior, and for a price they will bring visitors out on their boats, tossing frozen fish into the sea from the vessel’s bow to draw the Eagles closer for the tourists.

Although Hokkaido shares the same latitude as Oregon, its climate is much different. Fierce, severely cold winds sweep down from the Arctic, plunging temperatures down to sub-zero degrees. During my time there in February, staying warm was a challenge as temperatures routinely dropped to around -20° F in the early morning hours. One of these mornings, in particular, I was out on a tour boat with my small group of photographers when a severe storm began to brew. We were well beyond the harbor when the temperature dropped dramatically, the light snow turned heavier, and the wind began to howl. We were photographing the eagles in these conditions, and the captain was expertly positioning the boat so that we would have the best view of the eagles swooping down for their meal. The scene was so captivating that I had nearly forgotten just how cold I had become. My fingers were numb and my feet practically frozen to the deck of the boat. The Eagles didn’t seem to care about the extreme weather but continued to gorge themselves.

We stayed out on the water for as long as we safely could, but it had become clear that the storm was turning into a blizzard. While motoring back to the harbor, the visibility had dropped significantly. The short walk from the dock to the bus was treacherous in the wind. By the time we got back to our hotel, you could not see the road anymore. I honestly don’t know how our driver managed to navigate in those conditions, but he was a hero for getting us back safely. When we arrived, the door to the hotel, a short 20 feet away from the bus, was barely visible. I spent the remainder of that day inside, sipping tea and watching the storm from the comfort and safety of my room. The next day, we went out again on the boat at dawn. The storm had cleared, and a beautiful, pink dawn greeted us.

 

Cold-Breakfast
“Cold Breakfast” — Completely oblivious to the severe cold, a White-Tailed Sea Eagle expertly swoops down to pick up his meal.
In-for-the-Kill
“In for the Kill” — Stellar’s Sea Eagles are named for German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who was the first to identify them in the 1740s. The Steller’s Jay, Steller’s Sea Lion, Steller’s Sea Cow (extinct), and Steller’s Eider are also named for him.
Flight
“Flight” — White-tailed Sea Eagles are found mostly in northern Europe and northern Asia and are distantly related to our own Bald Eagle.
Soar
“Soar” — The White-tailed Sea Eagle is a very large bird, measuring over 3 feet tall with an 8-foot wingspan. Some birds have lived to 25 years.
Eagles
“The Eagles Arrive” — When the tour boat operators start tossing fish to the water, the Eagles seemingly appear from nowhere, flying down from their roosting spots in the forested mountains along the coast.
Ruffled
“Ruffled” — White-tailed Eagles suffer intense persecution by shepherds and gamekeepers who consider them (usually wrongly) a threat to their livestock and gamebirds. During the period 1800-1970, white-tailed eagle populations in most of Europe declined dramatically and became extinct in many regions of western, central and southern Europe.
Sunrise-Breakfast-Hunt
“Sunrise Breakfast” — The storm having passed, the seas the following day were calm, making it a fine day for photography.
Race
“Race” — Two White-tailed Sea Eagles compete to grab the same fish. They are terrible kleptomaniacs, commonly stealing food from one another in startling mid-air antics. 
Air-Force
“Air Force” — Stellar’s Sea Eagle numbers are on the decline. Although they are legally protected, being classified as a National Treasure in Japan, many threats to their survival persist. These mainly include habitat alteration, industrial pollution, and overfishing, which in turn decrease their prey source. The current population is estimated at 5,000 and decreasing.
Hotshot
“Hotshot” — The White-tailed Sea Eagle is more athletic than it’s cousin, Stellar’s Sea Eagle. They usually outmaneuver the larger bird in competition for food.
Early-Bird
“Early Bird” — A pink sky greeted us after a stormy night, and the Eagles didn’t seem any worse for the wear despite the harsh weather the previous day.

2 Comment

  1. Ace Batacan says: Reply

    As always, great work Charlotte. They look so majestic. My favorite is the last one. I love that the wings spread out but not straight like we normally see. You are blessed having the opportunity to photograph these birds with your talent. Thanks for sharing.

    1. charlottegibb says: Reply

      Thanks, Ace! It was quite the adventure!

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