Red-crowned Cranes A birdwatcher's paradise

Red-crowned crane in Tsurui village
Hideo Kishimoto

Experts' Voice

"The diverse bird population is unparalleled worldwide."
Keizo Funatsu
Adventurer / General Manager of NIKI Hills Village
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"I enjoy watching the wild birds."
Ting Pui
Ting Pui
Managing Director of Travel Alliance Japan
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"STELLER'S EAGLE: The world's most spectacular eagle winters in Hokkaido. RED-CROWNED CRANE: Tall, elegant, stately, and like a snow ballerina. WHOOPER SWAN: The Angels of Winter bring drama to the lakes. BLAKISTON'S FISH OWL: Ainu god of the village – The World's largest owl."
Mark Brazil
Dr Mark Brazil
Ornithologist, Naturalist, Author, Founder of "Japan Nature Guides”, Consultant of "HOKKAIDO Adventure Travel Association (HATA)”
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"Rare bird species can be observed in special habitats."
Man Kin Wong
Man Kin Wong
Chiiki Okoshi Kyoryoku Tai (Volunteers for Cooperation in Community Revitalization)
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"It is highly recommended to carry a binocular to enjoy wild birds."
Takayuki Shiraiwa
Takayuki Shiraiwa
Associate Professor, Dr. at the Institute of Low Temperature Science, Hokkaido University
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"In the early morning the sun rises and we can observe nature greeting the new day."
Mark Edward Harris
Mark Edward Harris
Photographer / Writer
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If you're interested in birdwatching, there's no better place to visit than Hokkaido. In eastern Hokkaido you can see the red-crowned crane, a bird so iconic that it appears on the 1000 yen note and as Japan Airlines' logo, while Teuri Island is home to around one million seabirds of 8 species. Hokkaido is also the winter home of various large seabirds, including the whooper swan and the rare Steller's sea eagle and white-tailed eagle. You can take a cruise from areas such as Shiretoko and watch these eagles on the drift ice. Hokkaido is also one of the only places where you can see the Blakiston's fish owl, an extremely rare owl that is an important part of Ainu mythology.
Red-crowned Crane Scientific name: Grus japonensis
Size: 150-158cm tall, wingspan 220-250cm
Weight: 7-8kg
Diet: Omnivorous, including water plants, grains such as rice, fish, amphibians, crabs, snails and smaller birds
Steller's Sea Eagle Scientific name: Haliaeetus pelagicus
Size:90-100cm in length, wingspan 2-2.5m
Weight: 6-8kg on average
Diet: Mainly fish
White-tailed Eagle Scientific name: Haliaeetus albicilla
Size: 66-94cm in length, wingspan 2.18m on average
Weight: 3-7kg
Diet: Fish, birds and small mammals
Blakiston's Fish Owl Scientific name: Bubo blakistoni
Size: 60-72cm in length, wingspan 178-190cm
Weight: 3-4.5kg
Diet: Fish and other sea life

Hokkaido is home to over half of the world's red-crowned crane population

Red-crowned cranes at Otowa bridge, Tsurui village
Red-crowned cranes at Otowa bridge, Tsurui village
Hideo Kishimoto

The elegant red-crowned crane has long been a beloved bird in Japan. Considered to bring good luck since ancient times, the red-crowned crane is deeply entrenched in Japanese culture, appearing in many folk tales and as a motif in Japanese art such as Buddhist paintings, sumi-e inkwash paintings, prints and decorated fusuma (sliding doors in traditional Japanese rooms). A pair of red-crowned cranes were depicted on a previous 1000 yen bill, and the red-crowned crane is even used as the logo of Japan Airlines (JAL). It is also famous as a symbol of peace after Hiroshima bomb victim Sadako Sasaki attempted to fold 1000 origami cranes upon hearing the legend that this will make the folder's wish come true.

At one point, the red-crowned crane was on the brink of extinction due to overhunting, but some were discovered in Eastern Hokkaido and the population recovered after strong conservation efforts. Half of the world's red-crowned crane population now lives in East Hokaido, where you can see them year-around. It is a particularly active feeding ground between November and March, and the snowy ground provides a backdrop that makes the birds' elegant beauty stand out all the more.

A birdwatcher's paradise

Steller's sea eagle in Shiretoko Rausu
Steller's sea eagle in Shiretoko Rausu
Hideo Kishimoto

Hokkaido is home to over 300 species of wild birds - around half of the wild bird species in Japan. It is a common place for birds to migrate from Siberia in winter, or to stop over on their way to the Japanese mainland. For a number of these birds, Hokkaido is the only place in the world where they can be found.

Many large seabirds spend the winter in Hokkaido, such as the Steller's sea eagle, white-tailed eagle and whooper swan. The eagles come from the Kamchatka peninsula, the north of the island of Sakhalin and downstream of the Amur river in Russia, and gather in eastern Hokkaido and the Shiretoko and Nemuro peninsulas in winter. Eastern Hokkaido is also home to Japan's largest red-crowned crane sanctuary and is the only place in Japan where the rare tufted puffin can be seen. You can take a cruise along the Shiretoko and Nemuro peninsulas and admire the Steller's sea eagles and white-tailed eagles resting on the drift ice in the sea.

Another birdwatcher's paradise is Teuri Island off the west coast of Hokkaido, which is home to around one million seabirds of 8 species. May to July is the breeding season of the common murre, a seabird that is now endangered in Japan, and the spectacled guillemot, which can only be found in a few places in the world.

The Blakiston's Fish Owl: a revered guardian

Blakiston's fish owl in Rausu town
Blakiston's fish owl in Rausu town
Hideo Kishimoto

One of the largest species of owls, the Blakiston's fish owl is found only in Hokkaido and the easternmost parts of Russia. It is an important part of Ainu culture - its Ainu name means "God that Protects the Village". Blakiston's fish owls often appear in Ainu legends, bringing fortune to poor families and watching over villages with their big, sharp eyes to stop demons from creeping in at night.

Sadly, development has decimated the forests where these owls live and they are now on the Red List of Threatened Species. Only around 140 Blakiston's fish owls live in Hokkaido now, and conservation efforts are underway to protect the remaining owls.

Stories

Things To Do

There are plenty of ways to see Hokkaido's incredible bird population. Visit a red-crowned crane sanctuary in eastern Hokkaido, take a cruise through the drift ice in areas such as Shiretoko or enjoy a close-up view from various observatories.

Visit the "holy ground" of red-crowned cranes

At one point, the red-crowned crane population fell so low that the birds were in danger of extinction. Conservation efforts were carried out in eastern Hokkaido to save the red-crowned crane, and while November to March is the main feeding season, the presence of sanctuaries in eastern Hokkaido means that you can see these iconic birds all year round. Each season brings new, interesting behavior to see, such as the cranes' courting dance in February.

Recommended Tours

Tsurui Ito Red-crowned Crane Sanctuary
Tsurui Ito Red-crowned Crane Sanctuary
Wild Bird Society of Japan

Tsurui Ito Red-crowned Crane Sanctuary

JA EN

Tsurui Ito Red-crowned Crane Sanctuary was established to bring the red-crowned crane back from the brink of extinction. Almost 400 cranes can be seen in the sanctuary during the winter, when food is scarce in the wild. Experienced drivers will take you to the best places to see the cranes.

Webpage
Akan International Crane Center GRUS
Akan International Crane Center [GRUS]

Akan International Crane Center [GRUS]

JA EN

Akan was the first place in Japan to introduce artificial feeding of red-crowned cranes, helping to save them from extinction. These initiatives led to the opening of Akan International Crane Center [GRUS], where you can see red-crowned cranes being raised in conditions similar to nature. Artificial feeding takes place from November to March, with up to 300 cranes visiting the sanctuary on some days.

Webpage
Kushiro Japanese Crane Reserve

Kushiro Japanese Crane Reserve

JA

In 1924, when the red-crowned crane population had been driven almost to extinction by development of Hokkaido's land, around 10 red-crowned cranes were discovered in Kushiro's wetlands. The wetlands became a protected area the following year, and the Kushiro Japanese Crane Reserve was opened in 1958. Located just a 10-minute drive from Kushiro Airport, this reserve allows you to see red-crowned cranes in any season and weather.

Webpage

Watch rare birds from a cruise

See Hokkaido's amazing waterbirds up close from a cruise! These are available in various parts of coastal Hokkaido - see tufted puffins and rhino auklets on the Ochiishi Nature Cruise in Nemuro, or watch vast seabirds such as Steller's sea eagles and white-tailed eagles (there's a 90% chance of seeing them!) on the drift ice in Shiretoko. Enjoy birdwatching in a whole new way.

Recommended Tours

Ochiishi Nature Cruise
Ochiishi Nature Cruise

Ochiishi Nature Cruise

JA

Japan's easternmost point, Nemuro is home to more than 360 species of birds. Ochiishi Nature Cruise allows you to take a closer look at various birds, including species such as the Tufted Puffin which can only be found in eastern Hokkaido. Other species include the rhinoceros auklet, Laysan albatross, red-faced cormorant and spectacled guillemot.

Webpage
Shiretoko Nature Cruise
Shiretoko-Nature-Cruise

Birdwatching Cruise & Drift Ice Cruise

Shiretoko Nature Cruise
JA

A must for winter trips in particular. From January to April, you can take a cruise through the drift ice on the Sea of Okhotsk and see large eagles such as the Steller's sea eagle and white-tailed eagle. With around 700 of these birds, you'll have a 90% chance of spotting them! In summer you can see flocks of petrel (as well as whales and dolphins). Enjoy an up-close view of sperm whales spraying water and flipping their mighty tail fins, and dolphins and orcas swimming gracefully through the water. Take a cruise to see the wildlife that lives on the drift ice, such as seals and rare seabirds such as Steller's sea eagles and white-tailed eagles.

Webpage

Birdwatching

With around half of the wild bird species in Japan, including some that cannot be found almost anywhere else in the world, Hokkaido is a birdwatcher's paradise. Visit a red-crowned crane sanctuary in eastern Hokkaido, watch seabirds on Teuri Island or take a cruise in Shiretoko to see rare eagles resting on the drift ice. No matter where or when you visit, there are rare, beautiful and fascinating birds to see.

Recommended Tours

Shunkunitai Wild Bird Sanctuary

Shunkunitai Wild Bird Sanctuary

JA

This sandbank between the Sea of Okhotsk and Lake Furen is famous throughout Japan as a prime birdwatching spot. With a variety of habitats such as the sea and lake, forest, grassland and wetland, it is home to an extremely diverse range of flora and fauna, including around 250 species of birds. From birds migrating from the Southern Hemisphere in spring to waterbirds in autumn and rare eagles in winter, this birdwatching spot never disappoints.

Webpage
Tofutsu-ko Waterfowl and Wetland Center
Tofutsu-ko Waterfowl and Wetland Center

Tofutsu-ko Waterfowl and Wetland Center

JA EN

The brackish waters of Lake Tofutsu are home to a wide range of wildlife. Around 250 species of birds visit throughout the year, including 50 species of migratory birds such as whooper swans and various ducks. Whooper swans measure in at 140-160cm, and around 300 of them live on the lake throughout the winter.

Webpage

Discovering Red-crowned Cranes

May to July: Breeding season of seabirds such as the common murre and spectacled guillemot
KOICHI OHASHI / Naturally
May to August: Breeding season of the tufted puffin
KOICHI OHASHI / Naturally
January to April: Migration destination for the Steller's sea eagle and white-tailed eagle
Hideo Kishimoto
February to March: Courtship of the red-crowned crane
Hideo Kishimoto

Red-crowned cranes can be seen all year round at some facilities, although the best time is November to March. Food in the wild is scarce during this time, so a large number of cranes come to feed at the sanctuaries. Come during February to March and you can watch their courtship dance.

Migratory birds such as white-tailed eagles, Steller's sea eagles, and whooper swans can be seen throughout Hokkaido from October onward, particularly in coastal areas of eastern Hokkaido such as Shiretoko and Rausu. In addition to visiting nature parks and sanctuaries, you can book a nature tour or cruise to see wild birds up close and personal.

Best Season To See

Red-crowned crane: February-March
Steller's sea eagle and white-tailed eagle: February-March
Common murre and spectacled guillemot: April-August
Various other species of birds can be seen throughout the year.

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Red-crowned crane
Steller's sea eagle/ white-tailed eagle
Common murre
Spectacled guillemot
Tufted puffin
Blakiston's fish owl
: Best : Good : Possible

Getting Here

Tsurui Village, Akan-cho in Kushiro City, Teuri Island, Ochiishi in Nemuro City, Lake Tofutsu, Rausu Town

1
Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary
2
Akan International Crane Center [GRUS]
3
Kushiro Japanese Crane Reserve
4
Otowa Bridge
5
Teuri Island Seabird Observatory
6
Teuri Island Akaishi Observatory
7
Ochiishi Nature Cruise
8
Shiretoko Nature Cruise
9
Tofutsu-ko Waterfowl and Wetland Center
10
Shunkunitai Wild Bird Sanctuary
11
Fish-Owl Observatory

Dos & Don'ts

  • Please remain quiet when watching the cranes and do not get too close. Wild birds and other wildlife are frightened of humans and will spot even the smallest sign that you are approaching, especially mother birds with babies.
  • Please do not feed the cranes. If people feed them, they will no longer be able to find their own food, and become unable to live in the wild.