Serendipities abound in a wintery wonderland

By Mark Brazil | Dec 16, 2004


Recently I spotted a Quetzal from Central America, a Snowy Owl from the Arctic, a Short-tailed Albatross from a remote Pacific island — and a hovering Skylark. Amazingly they were all together, along with woodpeckers and barbets, thrushes and flycatchers, finches, frigate birds, other albatrosses and owls — birds from around the world cheek-by-jowl.

It was as if some bizarre global maelstrom had whipped them all up together and dumped them in one tree. A Christmas Bird Tree?

One moment I was thinking about money, the next there was an eyeful of birds. Personally, the loss of the Japanese Crane from the reverse of the 1,000 yen note is a bitter blow. That image was taken from a photograph by Hayashida Tsuneo, someone I count as a friend, and each time I spent one it was a reminder of him — and of the near-extinction and then recovery of that beautiful bird.

With thoughts of that pending monetary extinction, I was driving through the small rural community of Otoineppu in northern Hokkaido, when my companion and I spotted the oddest town monument I have ever seen: That tree, and it was literally covered with birds. And not just generic bird images, but realistically colored (if not proportioned) models.

Somehow that tree’s ornitho-jumble, encountered on my way north to greet the swans arriving on a blizzard of white wings at O-numa, Wakkanai, seemed symbolic of the extraordinary mixture of images and thoughts I have experienced of late, making it hard to know quite where to begin.

Foglike haze

The previous weekend I encountered a blizzard of a different kind. Then a cold north wind had blasted in from Siberia, blowing snow horizontally. The mountain trail I was on was fast disappearing as the snow bowed down the dwarf-bamboo under its weight, and visibility was reduced to a foglike grey haze. Somewhere ahead loomed a mountain, somewhere below a lake; but where?

I was awed by the experience. Blasted and buffeted by that wind and snow, it was as if I was suddenly immersed in my own personal mobile winter, while I knew a little to the south on the Tokachi Plain, autumn still reigned.

As the snow piled up around me, and my boots slipped and slid on the slick rocks, the chill began to bite even through my merino and fleece layers. Then I heard the quiet calls of a Coal Tit, and there, foraging along a branch just a few meters away, was the tiny bird, demonstrating life’s incredible capacity for survival under the harshest conditions.

I need these reminders from nature of the world-at-large to help keep life in perspective.

Retreating from the blizzard was the only safe thing to do. The pass to the south was closing with deepening snow, and I still had summer tires on my car — but that was to lead to an extraordinary concatenation of serendipitous events.

I inched down until I was safe below the snow line and once again on dry roads, and felt very much in need of a reward when, like the appearance of a sudden mirage, I noticed a roadside sign saying clearly in English “The Nest.” How could I not go in? It was a new restaurant/coffee-shop miles from anywhere and I had just escaped an unexpected blizzard — surely I deserved some comfort.

On entering, an atmosphere of calm, and the beauty of natural things struck me immediately. Handcrafted wooden furniture was tastefully arranged, but most stunning of all were two enormous, window-sized photographs gracing the walls — one of a wonderfully textured mossy forest; the other of Polar Bears — both by the late, and much admired nature photograher Michio Hoshino. The chances of lucking into such a splendid place and finding such incredible images of nature there were so slim as to seem impossible — but the next serendipitous link was equally astonishing.

At random, from an array, I picked up a single magazine. It fell open at a picture of a familiar face — that of the late Masayuki Yabuuchi, bird artist extraordinaire, whom I wrote about in this column on June 17 this year! As I flicked the pages, the images were of the new gallery opened in his honor in June in Shirasu-cho in Yamanashi Prefecture, where some of finest works adorn the walls.

Birds, blizzards, The Nest, Michio Hoshino, Masayuki Yabuuchi, inter-linked images all rolled into a day that was far from over.

Winter was hanging in leaden clouds around the Daisetsu Mountains and the hills surrounding Shikaribetsu-ko; south across the Tokachi Plain the sun was shining warmly and lighting up a glow on still lingering leaves — that clearly was the way to head, and so from enduring a wintry morning I was soon mentally bathing in afternoon colors.

However, further surprises were ahead when I bumped into a gathering of 16 Japanese Cranes (not on bank notes), and then a little further south I found the flock I was seeking — geese. Thousands of subtly elegant Bean Geese were packed into just two fields, here and there a raised head, here and there a collared bird, and so the next hour or so disappeared in a distraction of attempting to read collar codes on gray-brown necks to pass on to friends who study these birds’ movements.

Mirage of whiteness

So lost was I in this forest of gray necks, that I hardly noticed the sudden appearance of another mirage of whiteness. Not snow this time, but Snow Geese. Once abundant here, this species suffered the combined ravages of the proliferation of firearms and the rapid increase in waterfowl hunting in Japan following the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Absent for many decades, it is a lucky winter when a single bird appears. A few years ago my goose-watching friends introduced me to an unprecedented flock of five, but on this remarkably fortunate day there were nine of them — the largest flock in the country for many decades.

Among the grays and browns of the larger Bean Geese, the Snow Geese were almost blindingly white, sharply marked with black wingtips — definitely the height of cool. They made an extraordinary finale to a day of unexpected adventure, coincidences and serendipity that began and ended with snow.

It seemed as if winter was merely dropping a hint of its impending arrival that weekend in late October, because the following weekend, warmth returned and I found myself sitting in the open on the O-numa lakeshore surrounded by hordes of Bewick’s Swans. They were by no means the forerunners, many thousands more had already passed through, some I had heard at night flying over one of my favorite onsen; some I had seen in long wavering Vs high above the urban sprawl of Sapporo, and some as brilliant white arrowheads beating southward against a backdrop of the glowering gray Hidaka Mountains — but none were as inspiring as those that took off and landed virtually at my feet on the shore of O-numa. O-numa is the only stop in Japan for Bewick’s Swans migrating between their summer quarters in Siberia and their overwintering sites in Honshu.

It’s a long pilgrimage north to Wakkanai, but on the way back on Nov. 1, I paused to hike a small peak ever in the hope of encountering passing migrants. No swans came within my range on that mountain, but another symbol of winter did. The sun-warmed south-facing slope of Pinneshiri must have been generating a column of rising air. A Common Buzzard soared up it, passing my eye-level, and then shot away to the south. An hour or so later, a White-tailed Eagle was using the same updraft to aid its migration and then one, two and finally three stunning adult Steller’s Eagles rose one by one over the peak into the rising air, their snow-white shoulders glinting in the sun and promising winter ahead. They shrank in size, but retained their distinctive silhouettes as they tucked in their wings a notch and set their sights southward.

Pang of jealousy

I watched them go with a pang of jealousy as they continued, apparently so effortlessly, on a journey that may have begun that morning in Sakhalin, without passport or visa, and, perhaps even without refuelling, would see them reach southern Hokkaido or even northern Honshu.

I set out today to write about hornets, yuki-mushi and the sex lives of winter moths, but just like nature-watching when you never knows what is round the next corner, sometimes words have a habit of wandering off on their own too. Sorry, but you will have to wait till next time to find out how fox shrines, flightlessness and sex all belong in the same nature story.