In Photographic Pursuit of Hokkaidō’s Rare Owls (Photos)

Tanaka Hiroshi [Profile]

[2017.10.02] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | العربية |
The shimafukurō, one of the world’s largest owl species, was once thought extinct in Japan and is still considered endangered. Tanaka Hiroshi has been focusing his camera on these magnificent raptors in his native Hokkaidō for over two and a half decades.

It was the middle of the night, and I had summoned my courage to venture deep into the dark forest. The year was 1990, and I was 41 years old. And there I saw it, my first shimafukurō, or Blakiston’s fish owl. Hokkaidō, where I was born and raised, is part of the range of this owl, designated an endangered species by the Japanese government and even now skirting the edge of extinction in Japan. Overwhelmed by my surprise at actually spotting a shimafukurō in the wild and by the majesty of this magnificent bird, I resolved to dedicate myself to capturing images of these owls as they live and breed in their natural habitat.

Since then I have spent spring days sharing the woods with shimafukurō, gentle sunlight shining on the new greenery amid the rich scents of the trees and the ceaseless chitter of the songbirds. I have also spent hours in the inky black of the forest night, perking my ears to catch the calls of owls that I cannot possibly see. These experiences have captivated me, making me entranced with the behavior and appearance of the shimafukurō. And I have come to truly feel what I thought I had vaguely grasped but did not really know at all—the preciousness of our great natural world.

I have not pushed myself too hard on this quest, and I have refrained from stressing the shimafukurō. I do not barge into their habitat. I wait patiently until they cease to concern themselves about my presence. To this day, that is the way I take my pictures.

An owl beats its wings a couple of times before diving toward the river below.

An Endangered Species Makes a Modest Comeback

The shimafukurō is one of the world’s largest owl species. From its head to the tip of its tail feathers it measures 0.7 meters, with wings fully extended it spans 1.8 meters, and it weighs more than four kilograms. Its range is limited to Northeast Asia—Japan, China, and the Russian Far East. In Japan, these owls are found only on Hokkaidō. Once they ranged across the island, but today they cling to stretches of forest in just a few locations, such as Tokachi, Konsen, and Hidaka, and on the Shiretoko Peninsula, which is home to about 40% of the bird’s population.

In 1971 the Japanese government designated shimafukurō a natural monument, and in 1984 it launched measures to ensure their preservation, subsequently designating them an endangered species. At one point the population was believed to have fallen to as few as 70 birds, but today, thanks to 30 years of preservation efforts, it has recovered to around 140.

Life Among Century-Old Giants of the Forest

Shimafukurō are ordinarily nocturnal creatures, hunkering down to rest during the daylight hours and springing into action when the sun goes down. But during their breeding season they are also active during the day.

As their English name, Blackiston’s fish owl, suggests, these birds subsist mainly on fish, plunging into the slow-moving waters of shallow rivers to snag trout and other fish with their talons. In the harsh northern winter, when ice forms on the rivers and it becomes hard to catch fish, they survive by preying on small mammals and other birds. Frogs are among their other favorite catches.

The shimafukurō fly by beating their long, broad wings and gliding, and they can also soar high into the sky. Their eyes are large and tinted an intense yellow. Their cry is deep and low and carries far through the forest, the males calling out bwu-bwō, to which the females respond bwōu.

A fledgling shimafukurō huddles on a tree, partially lit by the morning sun.

Shimafukurō, either solo or in breeding pairs, live through the year in territories of about 15 kilometers by two kilometers along the course of rivers in the forest. They can live as long as 30 years, the females laying only one to two eggs each year. Unlike some owls, shimafukurō hatch and raise their chicks in holes in tree trunks rather than in nests. This means they are limited to habitats with broad-leaved trees at least 100 years old so as to be able to find cavities large enough to hatch and raise their young.

(Originally published in Japanese on August 23, 2017. Photos and text by Tanaka Hiroshi.)

  • [2017.10.02]

Born in Higashikawa, Hokkaidō in 1949. Employed by the Asahikawa City government in 1970, Tanaka began photographing Hokkaidō’s wilderness and wildlife on his days off, and spotted his first shimafukurō (Blakiston’s fish owl) in 1990. The following year he started to study this elusive owl in earnest. He has continued his observations since retiring in 2006, and has published the photo collection Shimafukurō no koe ga kikoeru (I Can Hear the Call of the Shimafukurō).

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