Steller's Sea Eagle and The White-Tailed Eagles East Hokkaido Winter in Japan
Jun 19, 2020 | By: Japan Dreamscapes Photography Tours
A Report from Our Veteran Hokkaido Photo Workshop Leader
The Pacific Coast in Hokkaido from Nemuro to Rausu Shiretoko National Park is Raptor Country. I love leading my annual Hokkaido Photography tour, offered annually in January and February, of course, I always include, Mt. Fuji, Snow Monkey, and a day at an original Samurai castle and one of Japans most holly Shrines with Zen gardens in the valley of the dragons. And no Japan photo workshop tour would be complete without sublime minimalist Landscape winter wonderland Hokkaido landscapes of my annual photo tour winter Extravaganza.
The highlights on this winter Hokkaido Japan photo tour for many visiting photographers are the snow monkeys and The Steller’s Sea Eagles, and the White-Tailed Eagle. With these two species of raptors close cousins, there always a thin truth between the local wildlife, the White-tailed Eagle, and seasonal migrating Steller's Sea Eagle! And the battles between the two factions rage from time to time and can turn brutal, especially when fresh fish is on the table. This could be the subject of an Epic Spartan Poem of adventure and hard-fought victories on ice packs slick with the blood of the fallen. In Hokkaido, where these birds are plentiful in winter, young human children and house pets such as dogs and cats are carefully watched when venturing out on their own once and when the fishing is terrible, or the weather is foul for days. The Steller’s Sea Eagle and the White-tailed Eagle’s food supply becomes scarce. There are even fables of children going missing during these periods due to insufficient safety protocols being followed. It's far too common that cats, dogs, and even deer go missing.
From time to time, when the weather turns bleak on the pack ice, the birds return to dry land, and I have often seen The Steller's Sea Eagles and White-tailed Eagles along with Ravens huddle for warmth and to shield themselves from the wind chill when needed. However, this sympathetic behavior is purely survival and always a short-lived armistice. As soon as fishing resumes, this becomes their primary focus, and as a member of the uneasy cabal catches a fish, a rodent, a rabbit, or any form of edible prey, the battle begins anew. The land campaigns can very quickly turn into aerial warfare. And the successful hunters try immediately try to land and devour their prey, but on many occasions, they take to the air to defend their catch while others seek higher elevations to start their divebombing or a sneak attack from below or a blind spot in the hunter’s line of sight to strip the prize away. This is why one of the main events on my Hokkaido Photo Workshop/Tour takes place from the deck of a ship photographing the Steller's Sea Eagle and the White-tailed Eagles.
On many occasions, participants on my Hokkaido winter tours are so close to the feeding frenzy that we clearly hear the battle cries of the bird as they exchange barbs and slashes. The conflicts normally end with a clear victor, but sometimes the catch is dropped back into the pacific ocean, and the fish retreats to the depths. But when the catch is taken, and we are close enough, you can hear the stripping of the flesh away from the fish’s carcass and the victorious eagle crushing the bones as it eagerly devours its prize. The Steller’s Sea Eagle is one of the most magnificent and fierce diurnal birds on Earth, which is why they are such formidable hunters, tracking prey since the age of the dinosaurs. Their plumage is blackish brown-black all over except on the shoulders, rump, tail, thighs, and forehead, which are white. Their HUGE, hooked bill is a vibrant yellowish-orange, and when they feed, it’s with natural raw power their bills are razor sharp. These Eagles are huge, on average, the heaviest raptor on our planet, weighing up to and over 10 kg (22 pounds). They are also tall, measuring up to 94 cm (3 ft) sometimes even taller, with a huge wingspan of up to 250 cm (8 - 9 ft). I have personally photographed a Steller’s Sea Eagle I swear had a wingspan eclipsing 10 ft that I witnessed from my chartered helicopter while I was on assignment for the Smithsonian capturing landscape shots between Hokkaido and Russia. Suddenly, this enormous blur of white and black strafed us, and both the pilot and I were astounded at the size of the monstrous Steller’s Sea Eagle, which could have been the largest Steller’s Sea Eagle on the planet ever photographed. I asked the eagle to stay still so I could break out my measuring tape, but the eagle had places to be and prey to hunt, I assume.
The Steller's Sea Eagle prefers a diet of trout, salmon, or other fish but will eat sea lions or land animals when fishing is slow. The Steller's Sea Eagle is protected by law and is designated as a national treasure in Japan, listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)'s Red List of Endangered Species. Around 5000 remain in the wild, and over 2500, visit Japan every winter. The photo’s in this newsletter of the Steller's Sea Eagle and other raptors I photographed on the deck of a ship out of Rausu with the Nikon D850 and Sigma’s 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sport with Sigma’s 2x teleconverter giving me a focal range 240-600mm. I prefer to use zodiac boats, but they are not comfortable and not always safe as the waters around Rausu are often not calm, so I always have clients and me reserved on the same chartered boat service, the ship’s captain grew up in Rausu, on boats he knows well how to jam us in the pack ice with the rising sun to our backs; my camera settings for birding on clear days is usually around 1/3200th, f/11, ISO 500.