In 1995 I had the good fortune to spend five weeks in Kushiro in eastern
Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan. I was there looking at census
techniques of Latham's Snip on their breeding ground and befriended a local
birdwatcher and bander. He invited me to participate in a exercise to band a
pair of Blackerston Fish-owl chicks near Nemuro.
On the car trip over he casually warned me that "This pair of fish-owl
particularly dangerous, each year one of our team injured". "OK", I think,
"I'm on my way now". A little further on he adds, "Also, in this forest,
many Brown Bear.". No backing out now.
On arrival we parked the car and walked a kilometre or so through the misty
forest. We then stop and I am informed that we must now proceed carefully
as we are approaching the owl's territory. Then , out of the gloom comes
this HUGE bird gliding towards us. The biggest owl I have ever seen. It
perched and we moved on keeping vegetation between us and it.
We then positioned ourselves among a grove of saplings and the nest was
pointed out to me - a huge barrel fastened to a tree. A pair of downy
chicks were sitting on the limb next to the nest box. One of our team opens
a large bag, pulls out and put on what seemed to me to be a samurai outfit.
Heavy leather cape and helmet with a visor. Owl protection!! He climbs the
tree with a large net with the idea of capturing and lowering the two
chicks. Excited calling from his colleagues and he hugs the branch as the
owl comes from apparently no-where and strikes him heavily. This is
repeated every time one of the two owls launches themselves at him.
Eventually the two chicks are captured and the samurai also retreats to the
safely of the thicket with huge gashes in his armour.
The chicks were banded with metal bands with fluorescent tape attached.
This apparently discourages photographers from disturbing this highly
This species is heavily managed, the entire population being only about 80
pairs. Most birds now nest in boxes as the number of large hollows in
suitable habitat (forested stretches of river with rapidly flowing water
that tends not to freeze over) has been reduced. Fenced enclosures with
flowing water have also been built next to the river and stocked with Brown
Trout. These provide additional resources through winter. This has
increased the number of young raised by the owls as it was common for birds
to lose chicks during periods when the rivers completely froze over. To
reduce the incidence of road-kills on bridges, flags on poles are placed
close together on the rails of bridges to force the birds over the height of
The population is now increasing but this also means that more management is
required for newly established pairs. There is still much suitable habitat
that could be occupied so further expansion of numbers is possible.
I found that, in Hokkaido, the locals, and government, had a real commitment
towards conservation. For those that haven't been to the northern island it
is worth the effort. Very unlike the southern islands.
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