My son's long-held wish to make a birding tour in Japan became finally fulfilled in January 2018. For our decision to join the VENT Japan-in-Winter 2018 birding tour, the programme's 'cranes and sea eagles spectacles' were a leading motive.

Cranes are among the most iconic warshipped living birds in the world. Since ancient times, they feature prominently in various peoples cultures (religions, traditions, arts). Notably so also in Japan. The tour's 2 weeks birding programme included visits to crane wintering ranges in South Japan (Arasaki on Kyushu island) and to the resident (non-migratory) range of the iconic Red-crowned crane (grus japonensis) in Northern Japan (Tsurui and Akan on Hokkaido island).

There is extensive documentation (also in English) describing the historic and cultural significance and the geographical distributions of cranes in Japan. Comprehensive  reading is provided by a.o. this article/link


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Crane sanctuary, Izumi city, Kyushu

Historic records mention that cranes started to arrive in this place as early as around 1700, in the Edo period .

That occured a few decades after extensive land reclamation was undertaken in Arasaki, near the present Izumi City.
In 1921, an area of over 250 hectares was registered as a natural monument and sanctuary as one of Japan’s largest wintering places for cranes. The Izumi crane migration grounds were designated as a special natural monument in 1952.

The tour-promised 'crane spectacle' surely didn't disappoint.  Multiple thousands of cranes, predominantly hooded cranes and white-naped cranes, were fouraging in the fields as far as the eye could see. The present total number of yearly wintering cranes at Izumi is estimated to have grown to over 12000.

In this 'sea-of-birds', our local guide Kaz Shinoda, after much searching, managed to spot also just one or two indivuduals of the locally more rare Sandhill crane and the Common (Eurasian) crane. Of the even more rarely visiting (vagrant) Siberian crane and Demoiselle crane, we expectedly saw none.

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Hooded cranes (foreground) and white-naped cranes (background) are fouraging in rice fields near Izumi city, Kagoshima prefecture, Kyushu island.

Hooded crane

White-naped crane

Winter migration

The hooded crane and the white-naped crane both are winter migrants to Japan. Their summer breeding grounds are located in Eastern Siberia (Russia) and in Northeastern parts of Mongolia and China, and their migration route to Japan leads via the Korean peninsula.

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Hooded crane range map

White-naped crane range map

Red-crowned cranes, Hokkaido

The thousands of hooded and white-naped cranes migrate to the more balmy temperatures and ever-green/brown pastures and rice fields on Kyushu island. The hardened non-migrating red-crowned crane (Grus Japonensis) rather endures the biting winter conditions on Hokkaido. With their beautiful black&white plumage and red crown, backdropped against the snow and the clear blue winter skies, it is no wonder that this bird enjoys celebrity status in peoples hearths and in arts alike. The indigenous Aynu people of Hokkaido in their native language call it the 'Sarorun Kamuy' (deity of the wetlands).

Otawa-bashi bridge - view point

On a bitter cold (- 10 degrees C) early morning of January 22, we made our first birding stop at the Otawa-bashi bridge. A very popular location for viewing red-crowned cranes roosting in the Setsuri-gawa river. The early morning scenery was truly magic. Hundreds of roosting cranes standing in the river. Their  silouettes graceously contoured against the golden light-of-dawn. A scene vailed in a thin fog rising from the relatively warm river water, which is fed in part by artesian waters from volcanic hot spring activity in the area.

While cranes crowded the river, the bridge was (over)crowded by birders in competing numbers. Gathered there before the crack of dawn and ahead of our group, they had taken their priced shooting positions on the crane-facing edge of the bridge. A dazzling array of SLR-bodies with long, longer and longest lenses beaming their AFs down the river. Local guardians were 'policing' the crowds, keeping over-eager photographers off the no-go sections of the bridge.  The policing of course being done in an elegant ultra-polite Japanese way.

The roosting cranes proved lazy that morning. None took to their wings as early as hoped for, and when the light conditions lost their golden magic touch, the photographers crowds slowly thinned out.

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Red-crowned cranes at dawn, roosting in the Setsuri-gawa river. View from the Otawa-bashi bridge

Crane sanctuaries: Tsurui-Ito Tancho and Akan

When one sees the hundreds of gathered red-crowned cranes, one could easily forget that the bird still is an endangered species. Forget also that in Japan a century ago, this treasured bird was pushed almost to the brink of extinction, with only some 40 cranes surviving in the hearth of the Kushiro Marsh wetlands. Due to loss of wetlands habitat and to hunting. 

Their present global population is estimated at some 2700-2800 birds. Of which some 1000 are resident in Japan (Hokkaido). These are still precariously small and vulnurable populations. The good news is that thanks to stringent conservation and protection measures, their numbers keep increasing.

Farmer villagers of the town of Kami-Akan have played a crucial role in the birds survival and recovery, by feeding them grain throughout the winter time.  Mr. Sadajiro Yamazaki reportedly had started doing so already back in the fiftees of the last century. Artificial feeding of grain now is a standard practice in the crane sanctuaries across all of Japan.

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Hooded cranes. Artificial feeding of grain, Izumi crane observation centre, Kyushu island

Our 12 day 'Japan-in-Winter' (2018) birding tour took its close with a red-crowned crane spectacle at the Akan International Crane Center (GRUS). In the fields covered by fresh snow, we saw the birds perform their gracious courtship dances and heard their fascinating calls. We could not have wished a more memorable way to bid farewell to Japan and its impressive bird life.

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Red-crowned cranes in flight. Impressive wing spans of up to 2.5 metres.

Red-crowned cranes. Courtship dancing and calling

Red-crowned cranes. Courtship pas de deux

Red-crowned crane. ..................Call of survival

Origami and Senbazuru

In Japan mythology and folklore, the red-crowned crane (tanchōzuru) is portayed as a bird that lives a thousand years. A symbol of longevity and good fortune. A special Japanese token is the 'Ori-gami' (lit. 'paper-folded') crane. Traditionally, it was believed that if one folded 1000 origami cranes, one’s wish would come true. The Origami also has become a symbol of hope and healing in times of adversity and misfortune. As a result, it has become popular to fold 1000 cranes (in Japanese, called “senbazuru”). The cranes are strung together on strings, usually 25 strings of 40 cranes each, and given as 'wish-well' gifts.

Origami crane


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