At Number 2 – Japan

I’ve never met anyone who’s been to Japan and not absolutely adored it and I was no exception.  In fact I’d been before to a tiny island in the south to film Streaked Shearwaters. It was hot, humid and semi-tropical.                                                                                                                            This time I flew to Hokkaido in deepest, darkest February. Short bitingly cold days, frozen seas, fresh snowfall, incredible gardens that could have been created by the snow queen  and long hot baths in geothermal springs.  White-Tailed Eagle, Richard Kirby                                                                                                                         White-Tailed Eagle The air temperature frequently falls to minus 20 or below. Even the sea is frozen in places.  Over  a period of 2 weeks I filmed the snow macaques where my family back in England could watch me filming through the live webcam feed;  the dancing Japanese Cranes with 100 other mad keen Japanese photographers with better gear than me, and the stunning  Steller’s and White-Tailed Sea Eagles picking frozen fish from the frozen sea.  All of these were very special wildlife moments for me. There’s something magical about ice.

Japanese MacaqueJapanese Macaque Huddled against the cold, Japanese MacaquesHuddled against the cold, Japanese Macaques
There was one morning though when we encountered no other photographers with Hasselblad bodies and Phase One digital backs, no  £150,000 Phantom Slow Motion Cameras, not even a man with a point and shoot and yet, for me it was the most beautiful scene of all. There’s a place on Lake Kusshara where a hot spring bubbles up through lake sediment and keeps a small area of the lake ice free. In fact there are several such springs around the lake shore and they’re a lifeline to whooper swans. The spot we found to set up the camera was just behind some houses down next to the communal hot baths on the lake shore.  There were no swans there when we arrived and in theory we could have stripped off in the minus 20 air and immersed ourselves in the hot water to wait.  The  pool was shrouded in steam that lifted and settled with the slight breeze. Walking out over the frozen lake we had to be careful not to break through. Every so often it would creak in protest. Thin shafts of sunlight  which escaped the silver birch trees on shore pierced the billowing steam.
Whooper Swans natter over the weather Whooper Swans natter over the weather Whooper Swans on Lake Kusshara Whooper Swans on Lake Kusshara
We could see the swans 400m away in another bubbling pool which was very frustrating at first since it was too dangerous to approach over the ice and no clear way around the shore.  Through binoculars the scene looked beautiful. Then  a little gaggle  of half a dozen swans  started running over the ice. One by one  their outstretched wings lifted them into the air and brought them in our direction. They flew against a backdrop of monochrome forest in winter  and then descended into our foreground   and plunged into the steam with much loud whooping.  A few minutes later another gaggle took off from the farthest pool and flew to ours.  In little groups of 4 to 10 birds they eventually all came to us, all 160 swans.  They swam through the mist looking beautiful, sifted morsels from beneath the water surface and they squabbled a lot, little smoke signals of breath floating above them. They were fearless of the camera which I was able to get within inches of them. I spent 4 hours lying on the snow and ice and in spite of my frost nipped fingers it was one of the most magical mornings of my life.

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