From the Archives: The Cranes of Hokkaido, by Peter Matthiessen

Photograph by William Campbell/Corbis

From the Archives: The Cranes of Hokkaido, by Peter Matthiessen

A journey to Japan to see the world's largest cranes.

By Peter Matthiessen
Published: July-August 1995

Note: Renowned writer Peter Matthiessen, who died over the weekend, wrote more than 30 books as well as numerous magazine articles, including for Audubon. This story ran in the July-August 1995 issue of the magazine.

On a cold winter morning of northwest wind, the snow cone of Mount Fuji lights the sky in an aerial view never beheld by the immortal Hokusai, who painted Fuji-san from many vantage points on land and sea. On previous journeys to Japan, in spring and summer, I lived in its foothills for a week in a Zen monastery and climbed to the treeline, but never before have I had such a clear prospect of Fuji (literally, "Deathless"--the eternal mountain). The old volcano rules the southerly horizon, and the prospect seems an auspicious omen for a journey to see the red-crowned crane, or tancho, dance in its winter snows, one of the ultimate pilgrimages for ornithologists.

The silver plane with a tancho emblazoned on its tail banks wide and turns northeast, entering clouds. When the clouds part, the plane is over the snow country of northern Honshu, the main island of Japan. In former days, the red-crowned crane was resident in these river marshes, perhaps as far south as Kamakura, where in the 11th century, at the Hachiman Shinto temple, "the shogun Yoshiye at the ocean gate set free a multitude of cranes with silver and gold prayer strips attached to their legs . . . and a wind of awe rose at the spectacle of the great white birds, trailing the streamers down the Pacific sky." But in Japan today, this largest of the world's great cranes is confined to Hokkaido, the northernmost island of an archipelago that extends for some 1,800 north and south in a great arc off the coast of Asia, in the same latitudes as the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Florida.

 

Peter Matthiessen. Cover insert 1995
Photograph by Masahiro Wada

Peering out the window in the seat behind me is my old friend Victor Emmanuel, with whom I have gone craning since 1976, when together we observed wintering whooping cranes and sandhill cranes along the coast of Texas. Since then, together and separately, we have observed most of the crane species around the world.

The trip to Hokkaido is the final leg of an often-arduous journey to crane wintering grounds that began a month ago in western India, where we encountered the sarus and Eurasian cranes, the demoiselle and the rare Siberian. In the past few weeks, enjoying good luck and good weather, we have seen seven of the eight species of Asian cranes. The sightings of hooded and white-naped cranes in southeastern China were the first for Victor, and the sarus and Siberian were firsts for me, while the uncommon black-necked cranes seen in Bhutan were a first for us both. All but the sarus are considered to be rare and threatened species; yet all are considerably more numerous than the eighth species, the Japanese, or red-crowned, crane, which next to the whooping crane of North America is the rarest member of this splendid family.

In the old days, in the more southerly islands, the magnificent tancho was reserved for nobility, which hunted it with falcons. Not until after the Meiji Restoration, in 1867, were peasants permitted to kill and east--and salt and market--any tancho that foraged in their fields. As recently as a century ago a few still wandered as far south as Tokyo, but very soon the last birds on Honshu were killed. By World War II only the small population in southeastern Hokkaido still survived, and this flock was being steadily reduced by loss of habitat due to the draining of wetlands for agriculture.

In a bad freeze in 1950, the remnant band of 25 that hunched, half-starved, around a hot spring had to be rescued by farmers, who put out grain for them. Since then, several winter feeding stations and a ban on killing cranes have restored the Hokkaido flock to about 600 birds--roughly half the size of the Manchurian population, which breeds in the Amur River drainage of Siberia and northeast China.

Hokkaido now supports as many cranes as its limited marsh habitat can handle, and quite possibly more, judging from the fact that the size of the large breeding territory normally maintained by each pair of cranes has been steadily shrinking since their numbers rose after the 1950s.

Until recent years it was assumed that the tancho was an offshoot of the Manchurian population, and that most of the Japanese cranes crossed to the mainland in breeding season, since only a few local nests had been reported. Then, in the spring of 1972, an American crane student, George Archibald, noticed that juvenile birds were coming to the feeding stations in numbers greater than could be accounted for by those few nests. With the endorsement and support of the New York Zoological Society and a local airplane company, Archibald conducted an air survey of Hokkaido's southeast marshes. He located 53 active nests in just three hours, confirming his guess that the whole Japanese population of Grus japonensis was nonmigratory. Dr. Archibald, now a world authority on the evolution of these cranes and director of the International Crane Foundation, based in Wisconsin, is presently convinced that the birds on Hokkaido have no connection with the mainland population, from which they have probably been separated for thousands of years.

Two years ago in Siberia, Archibald told me that when he first visited Hokkaido, in the winter of 1972, he was familiar with eight species of crane but had never laid eyes on Grus japonensis in the wild. "And when I saw it raise its wings and arch its back during its dancing, I realized that this species had gone far beyond the others in its pair-bonding behavior. Later I learned that the Siberian crane did something very similar, and that in this respect, these two species are quite different from the other.  . . . But of all crane species, the red-crowned may be the most exciting."

 

The clouds gather again, for the weather is unsettled in Japan's far north, with severe earthquakes in recent days. The next glimpse is of the jade-green, choppy sea of the Tsugaru Strait, and then the volcanoes and snowscapes of Hokkaido, or "North Sea Island," which lies off the coast of southeastern Siberia.

At the paper-mill and fishing town of Kushiro, on the Pacific coast, Victor and I are met at the small airport by Yulia Satsuki Momose. On Archibald's first visit to Kushiro, he lived with the family of Shoichiro Satsuki, and though Dr. Satsuki died some years ago, his kind family looks after Archibald and his friends to this day. Both of the Satsuki daughters have studied in the United States and speak good English. Yulia and her ornithologist husband, Kunikazu Momose, will serve as our expert guides in the Kushiro region.

Yulia Momose takes us straightaway to the haunts of tancho. In winter these haunts are largely confined to the region of the great Kushiro Marsh, which surrounds small rivers flowing down to the Pacific from the wooded Akan Mountains. The 104-square-mile marsh is the heart of the whole crane conservation effort, supporting about 35 of the estimated 161 nesting pairs on Hokkaido; another large group breeds in the region of Nemuro, to the east. Like wetlands all around the earth, the Kushiro Marsh is under great pressure from development (the developers like to call it reclamation), and it is shrinking. But in 1987 a part of it was set aside as a national park--the largest wetland still relatively undamaged on the four main islands of Japan.

Yulia Momose's first stop is Tsurumidai ("Crane Lookout"), a feeding station on the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Yoshiaki Watanabe, where observers are engaged in the annual crane census. The countryside is frozen deep beneath heavy snow--Hokkaido receives more snow than any other location at this latitude on earth--but the day is bright, without much wind, and it is pleasant out of doors if one stamps hard enough.

The eighth and rarest of the Asian cranes is also the least difficult to see, being nonmigratory on its range in Japan and therefore quite accessible to its well-wishers. To the minds of most people who know one crane from another, Grus japonensis is the most striking of the world's 15 species, with its snow-white body accented by a bright-red crown and, when the bird is alighted, by a fine bustle of velvety black plumes that are not tail feathers but the long secondary feathers of its folded wings.

The magnificent tancho most resembles its close relative the whooping crane, which is also a striking black-white-and-red. However, in Grus americana the red crown and black lores form a pointed mask, and the bustle is white, since the black of the wing is not in the secondary feathers but in the outer primaries. These long black feathers are usually hidden when the wings are folded, so that the whooper, from any distance, is almost pure white in appearance, like the Siberian. There are only about 140 whoopers in the wild, as opposed to an estimated 1,800 in the combined populations of the red-crowned, and perhaps twice that number for the Siberian. (Why the three white cranes should be the least numerous of the 15 species is not known, but large size and high visibility on the breeding grounds cannot have helped.)

At the feeding station a group of whooper swans with jet-black legs and golden bills is basking in the snow light, with assorted tits and woodpeckers flittering around a bird feeder and a large golden thrush (White's thrush) loitering nearby. One nervous tancho stalks restlessly across the snow, but finding no food, it flies off almost before Victor, still in shock from the bitter cold, can bundle up warmly enough to go get a look. At the next feeding station (a former farm sold by Yoshitaka Ito to the Wild Bird Society of Japan) there are no cranes at all. Not that Victor cares much, since, like me, he was looking forward to a first impression of Grus japonensis in wilder surroundings.

Near the Akan River, where most of the cranes roost every night all winter, is the main feeding area, Akan-cho Tancho. (The first cho is "town," and the second is "peak." Tan is a Chinese word for "red"--akai in Japanese. Thus "red peak" is "red-crowned," a more fitting name than "Japanese crane" for a bird that also breeds in mainland Asia.) At Akan-cho Tancho, which is supervised by the former owner, Teisaku Yamazaki, we finally catch up with Yulia's husband, Kuni Momose, the ornithologist overseeing the crane census at this main feeding station. Here 23 wary cranes await the daily offering of ugui, a coarse fish of the carp family that is netted in the mountain lakes and delivered live to the crane station each week.

The cranes stalk about and preen and dance, without much fervor--they are here to feed. As Mr. Yamazaki flings the flopping fish onto the snow, the cranes draw closer, and more fly in from the Akan River. But the elegant big birds take their time, making no effort to compete with the gang of crows or the black kites or four white-tailed eagles that circle overhead. Then they swoop down and up again in a graceful arc, having seized a flopping, red-finned ugui off the snow. The spectacle attracts visitors, and so there is a small building with a food counter, tea souvenirs, and even an observatory on the second floor--little used except for warmth, since the feeding birds are but a fish throw from the wood barricade outside.

Beyond the meadow where the cranes dance and feed is a line of spruce trees along the Akan River; beyond the river rise low, wooded hills of bare brown trees. In pairs and family groups of three or (rarely) four, the great white birds swing in through the conifers, alighting so daintily on long black legs that the toes seem to strain to touch the snow and even to lift a little at the final second, as if flinching from the frozen surface.

A red fox (a warmer red, and lacking the black points--ears, paws, and tail--of its new-world cousin) comes trotting from the spruce, staying low to the ground as it slips among the cranes. Biting at the still-flopping fish, it struggles to manage two or three at once, running to drop them in a little cache at some distance from the birds, then trotting back for more. No doubt the bold fox is watched keenly by the beady black eyes of the vixen and their kits back in the spruce. In spring the fox preys on the crane nests, taking eggs as well as chicks, though it probably scavenges less than the ever-alert crows. Occasionally a white-tailed eagle makes off with a chick, and Mr. Watanabe at Crane Lookout has seen a fox attack and kill an unwary adult crane that it caught probing in a ditch, permitting the fox to leap onto its neck from the bank above.

Like Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe and Mr. Ito, who are elderly people, now retired, Mr. Yamazaki's father began feeding the cranes many years ago, in the freezing year of 1950, when it was clear that without help the dwindling cranes of Hokkaido might not survive. Mrs. Tome Watanabe sent local schoolchildren out to feed the cranes in 1952, and Mr. Ito joined the cause a little later. In 1957 a Crane Club was founded at Akan Junior High School that remained active for many years, but not until 1965 did the town of Akan and nearby Tsurui village help the farmers pay for the grain they were dispensing and hire Mr. Ito and Mr. Yamazaki as watchmen-caretakers.

In the evening, Yulia Momose's sister, Rori Satsuki, a musician, and their lively mother, Mrs. Yoshie Satsuki, escort us to Kushiro's most ancient restaurant, called Yatsunami, for a wonderful fresh-seafood supper. The name means "Eight Waves"--that is, eight generations. Eight is a lucky number, Rori tells us. As for Kushiro, its names derives from the Ainu word kusuri, sometimes translated as "place where people gather." Perhaps there were Ainu settlements on this coast even in A.D. 794, when Japan's first shogun, or "general for subduing the barbarians," was sent out to deal with invasions of "a wild blue-eyed people called Emishi [the Ainu] fro the northern island of Hokkaido, who 'gathered together like ants but dispersed like birds.' "

Though there were still a few old Ainu to be found during Rori's childhood, their descendants were almost entirely assimilated--only recently has there been a movement to document traditional Ainu culture. Today Kushiro is a fisheries, coal, and paper-mill town ("Newsprint and cardboard," says Rori. "It's the cardboard plant that smells"); having used up all the local forest, Kushiro now imports its rough wood rom abroad. Though nobody kills the cranes anymore, according to Rori, many local farmers still resent them--they consume the maize needed for livestock and may damage the new green shoots of the spring crops.

Despite its long history in Japanese culture, the tancho has been the national bird only since 1952, when that notion was borrowed from the Americans. As Rori remarks tartly in a discussion of the great film director Akiro Kurosawa, who went unappreciated in his own land for many years, "We Japanese tend to appreciate certain things about our country only after other countries admire them first."

 

At 6 a.m. the next morning we set off from Kushiro with the Momoses, going first to the road that follows the Shitakara River upstream toward the Akan foothills. Deciduous woods climb to the spruce ridge, and behind the ridge rises the cone of the snow-peaked volcano known as Akan-Fuji. The day is clear and very cold--it is -20 degrees centigrade, or -4 degrees Fahrenheit--and our boots squeak on the snowy road the leads along the frosted trees by the Shitakara (sometimes translated as "Place of Elms" in the language of the Ainu. But the elms were displaced long ago, and the Ainu, too). Smiling in honest delight, Mr. Yamazaki has already located 18 or 20 cranes that are still roosted a little way upriver, and we stoop to peer at them from between the icy branches.

Beyond the stream bend, the huge white birds hunch in the mist. Where soft, plump snow descents to the very edges of the ice, the cranes, one-legged, have formed a line of motionless black-and-white shapes, strung like a snow fence all the way across the stream. Already one or two are waking, and one preens a little, but they seem to await the first cold rays of sun before starting to move about in a small riffle, the only stretch of water not frozen. In an ancient defense against mammal predators, now all but gone (wolves are extinct here, and the bears hibernate), the cranes of Kushiro roost in streams--the largest group roosts in the Akan River--and few if any are caught by the ice, though they sometimes fly up with long legs ringed with ice anklets.

Most are preening, moving a little, the black-and-white patterns shifting mysteriously in the ice mist. Suddenly two elevate their necks, point their bills skyward, and utter together the loud, wild call that I last heard on the breeding grounds in Siberia. The unison call, as this bonding cry is known, rings across the brittle cold of the dawn valley.

Though we are 200 yards away, well screened by bushes, these exceptionally alert and sharp-eyed birds are quite aware of us. But they do not fly, and they remain calm when we walk quietly away. Though wary, the tancho in Japan seem to know that man is no longer their enemy. Perhaps one day they will regain the confiding behavior that is so stirring in wild creatures of remote places that man reached very late, such as the Galapagos, or of places where man has long honored the prohibition against killing, as in certain Buddhist regions of the Himalayas.

In connection with their crane census, the Momoses take us on a survey of the Onbetsu River drainage to the west, where last year they located cranes that rarely come in to the Kushiro stations. Last month's earthquake damage--landslides and big cracks in the roads--is much more apparent west of Kushiro, and in places the road over the foothills to the town of Onbetsu has fallen away in the valleys. Farther on, a head of pretty sika deer, white-tailed in gray winter pelage, waits large-eyed at the wood edge, peering out as if seeking to determine whether this road might still be safe to cross.

From Onbetsu, a road follows the river north into the mountains, and here there are works crews, for the lower Onbetsu has been blocked and diverted by the landslides. Thought the upper river is still clear, there are no cranes, only a white-tailed eagle, broad-backed in a tree, and a long dog in the river meadows, running to somewhere across the shining snow.

Eventually a side road leads up to the Muri tributary ("Foggy Village," though the town is long since gone), where a few old farms lie well scattered in the valley. Soon a pair of cranes appear on a river bend, then three more back downstream a little ways, then two more that join the first pair, feeding along on small insects and larvae under the stream rocks as they must have done before the feeding stations were established, all the time moving unhurriedly away from the would-be admirers.

Soon the four climb up onto a snowbank, in a sun-bright composition of black-white birds inlaid in the white-black of snow and water. Traditionally, tancho is perceived as an emblem of the yin-yang of existence--the "dark-light"--with the blood-red crown as the essence or source of All That Is. In this brilliant moment one might believe that the red crowns are the crimson heart of being, and the dark evergreens the great mystery looming behind.

Victor wonders why these red-crowned cranes, which apparently endure the coldest temperatures of any crane species, have longer bills and necks and legs than the black-necked cranes in the mountains of Bhutan, which are bulkier birds whose shorter necks and legs are adaptations to a cold climate. (The black-necked crane's altitudinal migration rarely takes it below 10,000 feet, and it nests at 16,000 feet or more on the Tibetan Plateau, so that it lives in a cold climate all year round.) I, in turn, wonder if the red-crowneds, which enjoy temperate summers, are intrinsically the hardies or only circumstantially so, since all know Grus japonensis of the mainland population also migrate, and presumably these Hokkaido birds once flew south to the island of Honshu in winter. Only in the last century, having been extirpated on Honshu (where not only were they hunted hard but where the last large wetlands have been despoiled or destroyed), ahs the species been reduced to this nonmigrant population on the northern island.

Kuni Momose, intrigued by the question, is undecided. He speculates, in the absence of much evidence, that even in the old days some of the Hokkaido population migrated and some didn't.

These hills, clear-cut years ago to feed the sawmills, are healed over with a small second-growth forest of oak and bird and larch and spruce. Elsewhere they have been replanted with conifers. Reforestation, Yulia says, has become "a passion" in Japan. The valley farms are well spread out and appear prosperous, and many more small birds are to be seen than in the Kushiro Valley. A lovely fawn-and-blue Eurasian jay is common here--six together peck seeds from a manure heap in a cattle yard--and we also note four dusky thrushes, great and marsh tits, a spotted woodpecker, and a brown-eared bulbul in fresh country colors that looks nothing like the soiled street specimens in Tokyo.

Farther upriver, three red-black-and-white heads on long white necks come up over a snowbank on a bend. The heads turn, catching the bright light, against a dark background of steep, wooded hillside already overtaken by afternoon shadow. We are able to get closer, though not close. The sight of these sun-silvered silhouettes, stalking away unhurriedly and yet so swiftly in the snow and black-diamond shimmer of the Muri River, is a crane spectacle almost too elegant to be imagined.

The Muri Valley birds seem wilder than those that come so blithely to the Kushiro stations, or so I happily suggest as we turn back downriver. The Momoses agree, but we also agree that perhaps this is illusion, wishful thinking. A few years ago, the local government down near the confluence with the Onbetsu established a crane-feeding program like those at Akan and Tsurui villages, administered by an old gentleman, Ichiro Sato, who feeds the cranes in a pasture outside his small farmhouse. The cranes, Mr. Sato assures us, will appear about 3:30 p.m.--late afternoon at this time of the year not long before dusk, when they go to roost--and each will peck up 50 grains of maize before resting awhile, perhaps eating a little snow to wash them down.

Whether or not they draw the line at 50 grains, Mr. Sato's cranes are certainly not greedy--the reticence of all crane species in the presence of food is one of their numerous attractive traits. They stand around awhile after sailing down the valley at the time appointed, swinging up in the freezing wind until it fills their broad, cupped wings, and stepping lightly down out of the air. They may preen a little, dance a little, even stand upon one leg, lifting the other foot into their breast feather so warm it, after delicately shaking off any ice or snow. Like the Kushiro cranes, these birds are becoming dependent up on humans, but they are still nervous and more quickly wary. Here in an honest farmyard that makes no concessions to visitors, they seem somehow less demeaned than the birds in the ugui show at Akan-cho Tan-cho.

When the cranes have fed (I forget to count the grains), they move away a little, and some begin to bow and dance, using the cold twilight wind to lift themselves straight up, legs dangling, four or five feet into the air. Even the immatures join in, to get some practice. Still steeped in winter, most of the tancho remain silent after the low rolling greeting call made in flight as they sail in; but sometimes newcomers are challenged with a loud unison call by a pair already present. Soon 23 birds have arrived, with a pair of twins among the five immature born last spring. These young birds are brown-headed, with brown feathers in their bustles as well as a light-brown spackle on the mantle. Late this spring, though not yet mated, they will attain full adult size and will be driven off by the breeding parents.

As the sun descends behind the wooded ridge and faint stars appear in the fading blue above, the cranes dance forward and lift off the snow into the north wind. They bank away toward the Muri River, which they will follow down along a ridge to their roost in an open stretch of the Onbetsu. There they will form their line in the black water and feather-shift and preen and hunch and place their heads under their wings and settle for the night.

Soon all that may be seen in the near dusk are the last pairs of white wings flicking upward, the black plumes of the trailing edge like ancient Oriental symbols, even to the sharp black arrow in the middle of the wing that points straight forward like a black compass needle. At first that mark appears to spoil the black-white symmetry of the great wings, but in truth it intensifies their beauty, like the twisted pine on a high ridge that redeems the dull perfection of the moon.

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