This is the story of how Ross and I almost died got to see Blakiston’s Fish-owl, an endangered owl species found in East Asia. Oddly enough, one of the only reliable places to find this particular owl is in a little Japanese woman’s backyard. She has turned her home into a small lodge and thanks to crazy bird people like us, regularly has business for birders who pay to come enjoy the owl that hunts the stream in her front yard.
The night before setting out to find the fish-owl, we stayed in a hotel in Nemuro, a little town on the eastern tip of Hokkaido, and we planned to set out for Rausu in the morning, which is approximately 75 miles north.
Unfortunately, getting to our destination was complicated by a Hokkaido-style blizzard with snow coming down heavily and 50mph winds, making travel nearly impossible for the average person. Although I tried to reason with Ross that it would be best to stay in our hotel room until the weather calmed down a bit, he was able to talk me into going out in it anyway. Anyone who knows Ross probably knows by now that he isn’t going to let a little bad weather stop him from seeing a bird, but really, I’m not sure which is worse; Ross thinking the roads were okay to drive or me being talked into joining him… but either way we set out on the 75 mile journey through the snow.
When we first arrived in Hokkaido we weren’t sure why there were red arrows suspended from poles every 30 yards or so from each other. Initially we laughed thinking “Oh that’s funny, they are pointing as a reminder for us to drive on the left hand side of the road” but on that drive we soon found out what they are really used for — pointing to where the edge of the road is when you can’t see where the road is AT ALL. When we left our hotel at 7am, there was about eight inches of snow on the roads, but the snow never let up and there were times where there was absolutely no visibility farther than a few inches in front of where we were driving.
The roads were covered with snow and we were afraid that parts of our course would be closed to all traffic, but as it turns out folks in Hokkaido take their snow plowing to a new level and for this we were very thankful, as we were able to travel behind a snow plow for a good portion of our drive. We probably saw over a hundred snow plows out and about clearing and reclearing the roads during the drive. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a larger arsenal of snow removing trucks, some even had giant snow blowing apparatuses attached. When it was all said and done Hokkaido probably received 1 ½ – 2 feet of snow that day.
By some miraculous feat, we made it to the little town of Rausu in about 4 hours, arriving around noon. Since we still had 3 hours until it started to get dark (sun sets around 1600), we decided to drive along the harbor and look at gulls and ducks while we still had daylight left. We found a small fish factory where a congregation of gulls and crows had gathered to feed on the fish scraps on the ground. Ross was in heaven. Dozens of Slaty-backed, Glaucous, Glaucous-winged, and Kamchatka Gulls to photograph at an arms length!
At one point an adorable Japanese man came outside, presumably to find out why two people were on his property. I figured he was going to ask us to leave, but through some fine charade work, we were able to explain that we were photographing and watching the birds. The man was so thoughtful that he went back to the factory, grabbed a shovel-full of fish scraps and proceeded to throw the scraps into the ocean so Ross could get better pictures.
After all that fun we drove the rest of the way to the Japanese woman’s house to gear up for seeing Blakiston’s Fish-owl, the reason we had originally braved the storm. The Japanese woman spoke absolutely no English, but CLEARLY the universal sign for birds is to flap your arms, so she knew why we had come. She talked to us in Japanese as if we understood even a word of what she was saying while we just smiled and shook our heads. Sadly, I won’t be able to do her quaint hospitality justice and I never did catch her name, but she was adorable and I’m sure she was happy to have us. She gave us some tea, showed us where we would be sleeping for the night, and pointed to the stream to where the owl would come in but she made an “X” with her fingers because she didn’t think the owl would show with how bad the weather had been. We were hopeful nonetheless.
There was a lot of snow on the ground from the recent blizzard so she went out to shovel part of her stream for the owl. Ross had offered to help, but I guess since we were paying guests, she said no. We stood in our room watching as a grandma-aged woman donned knee-high snow boots and climbed down into a stream for probably the 300+ time. It was equal parts adorable and equal parts terrifying as we didn’t want her to slip and break a hip or two. So after about 5 minutes of watching Ross decided he was just going to go help her and the two of them cleared off a side of the stream.
When she was done risking her health for us, she cooked for us a delicious Japanese dinner of fresh sushi, crab legs, fish, rice, soup, chicken, fruit and tea to drink. YUMMYYYYYYYYY.
After dinner she again put on her snow boots and climbed down into her stream to put in some live fish for the owl to eat. Then she came back inside to wait with us. With the wind howling and snow falling, we had no idea if the owl would actually materialize, but lucky for us, he must have been hungry as it didn’t take long for the little Japanese woman to come running over to us and point to the enormous owl perched in a nearby tree.
The owl quickly made its way down to the small pond near the stream and began to feed on the fish. It was a sight to see! The owl stayed for about 15 minutes, eating multiple fish, before it had enough of the strong winds and disappeared back into the night.
We woke up the next morning after ANOTHER 6 inches of snow had fallen. Our plan was to leave at 5am, but the access road back to the main road had a small hill towards the end just before getting onto the main road. We figured our little car could handle the snow covered road as long as we kept speed. We pulled out of the driveway and picked up speed to make it up the snow track. Ross had enough momentum to make it up the hill and onto the road, but had to slow down in order to see to avoid pulling out into oncoming traffic. Slowing down caused the car to get caught in the snow and we could neither go forward nor backward. Believe me when I say the day before Ross was able to navigate some pretty precarious road conditions, and even navigate his way out of some almost-stuck situations, but this time we were really stuck. Ross got out to push and I tried to drive, but the wheels just kept spinning. We spent about 20 minutes in the dark trying to dig ourselves out before a snow plowing bulldozer came down the road and noticed we were stuck. The bulldozer passed our stuck vehicle and turned down the snowy road we had just driven up. A few minutes later it reappeared pushing a large pile of snow in front of its bucket. Ross realized his intentions and quickly jumped back into the car and threw it into drive. The bulldozer pushed the snow into the back of the car as Ross pushed the car. The car lunged forward and out of its entrenchment. Success!
It was a sight to be seen, but sadly I have no picture to show for it. We thanked the kind Japnese man and drove off into the dark, heading back south to Nemuro. This ended the 24hr experience of ticking the Blakiston’s Fish-owl for the year list.