18 Feb 2019

Watching Sea Birds in Winter

Long-tailed Duck, male © HIH Princess Takamado
Long-tailed Duck, male © HIH Princess Takamado
By HIH Princess Takamado

'Through the Lens', Fujingaho Magazine, February, 2019

Click here to view pdf

Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado

English Translation: Asia Club, a WBSJ Volunteer Group (YOKOYAMA Kazuko, KASE Tomoko)

Come October birds migrate to Japan from the north. When watching birds in winter, it is natural that our nose turns red and our hands holding binoculars and cameras feel numb because of the cold weather. For watching sea birds, in particular, we have to make a full preparation, as the hard wind from the sea may get us frozen to the bone while standing on the quay. In February last year I encouraged myself to go photographing sea birds in Nemuro. Here I would like to show you some of the photos of sea ducks taken at then.


Some duck species dive for foraging and others don’t. The former are called sea ducks, and the latter, freshwater or land ducks. However, “sea ducks” that dive can be observed closer to the land, on ponds or moats in towns and cities, on lakes and estuaries, or at fishery harbours, while non-diving “freshwater/land ducks” sometimes appear on the turbulent open sea. Ducks dive for food. It is said that diving ducks mainly feed on animals and non-diving ducks, on plants, but I have ever seen a photo of freshwater/land ducks diving to forage. Analogized from such facts, “a lot about sea duck’s ecology could not be known without asking them directly”, why they live on the open sea.

Harlequin Duck © HIH Princess Takamado

Heavily wrapped up in a thick snowcoat as the preparation against the coldness of Hokkaido, I left Nemuro Harbour on board a fishery boat, being “delighted” with the increase of temperature to “minus three degrees centigrade”. The sensory temperature while on board must have been almost minus 25 degrees and it was really cold! The fishermen found birds first by the naked eyes while I searched for them with the telephoto lens. This situation continued repeatedly. Thanks to the fishermen’s keen eyesight and amazing kinetic vision, I could see quite a few birds and, at the same time, learned a lot about the geography from the local people. It was a very helpful lesson, for birds’ behavior and evolution greatly depends on their habitat. When I took pictures back at the harbour, I unexpectedly felt warm at the minus three degrees!


The first photo is that of the male Long-tailed Duck. The beautiful white body reminds us of an image of ice and the long tail is so fashionable. As they are rarely seen in Japan in summer, it may be difficult to imagine its plumage becomes blackish in summer from the white winter version. The next is the photo of a part of a group of Harlequin Ducks. The male plumage is colorfully complicated with mysterious patterns. Possibly it is a protective coloration. While the duck is diving and foraging, the light and waves may make it hard for the predators aiming at it from above to distinguish the bird in the water as well as in the air. The last photo is of a pair of Black Scoters. The male’s yellow bulb at the base of its beak is so clear and conspicuous even in the open air. Closely observed, you can see the yellow beak reflected on the surface of the water.

Black Scotter © HIH Princess Takamado

These three species are all diving ducks. I watched them busily diving for food repeatedly in the sea of Nemuro where angry waves break against the rocks in the open sea. I was pretty excited, for it is rather difficult to guess where the duck will rise to the surface after diving. As it was already in its breeding season, I could have a chance to watch the male making courtship displays. Though bird’s love is described as very passionate, I wonder how it is on the winter sea. In most cases females looked comparatively indifferent. Wouldn’t the male get disappointed with the female’s cool reactions? That’s another example that “we cannot know without asking the duck”. The more mysterious, the more attractive. That is why I cannot give up birdwatching. By the way, it is most recommendable to soak in a hot spring after birdwatching in winter thinking over one thing after another.


Back to BirdLife's Honorary President home