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Hokkaido, Japan in winter - Chitose Airport, JASDF and Sea Eagles
Where? Hokkaido, Japan
When? 02/2014

Hokkaido, Japan's Northern island, is a special experience and cannot really be compared with the rest of Japan. Vast landscapes and scenic mountain ranges prevail instead of megacities and densly populated areas. And in the winter months this experience is even more exciting! Birds of all species populate the air, and Chitose's International Airport is busy with winter operations, assuring the safe handling of civil and military air traffic alike.

Regarding aviation the first contact with Hokkaido will most probably be the „New Chitose Airport“. It is the island's the main aviation hub and around 45 minutes by car South of Hokkaido's largest city Sapporo. "CTS" hosts apart from the civil terminal building also an airbase of the Japanese Air Defence Forces (JASDF). Regarding operations the Eastern part of the airport is mainly used for civil operations on runways 01R/19L and 01L/19R, both 3000m long, whereas the JASDF operastes mainly from the two Western runways 18R/36L (2,700m) and 18L/36R (3,000m).

Civil traffic at Chitose itself is domitated by the two big Japanese carriers ANA and JAL and the local "Hokkaido International Airlines" Air Do.

Other carriers connecting to the rest of the Land of the Rising Sun are Vanilla Air, Skymark, Jetstar and Fuji Dream Airlines, with the rest of the remaining airlines connecting to many Asian countries, mainly to China, Taiwan and Korea.

The JASDF operates three flying Squadrons at Chitose: the 201 and 203 Hikotai flying the F-15 Eagle, as well as the " Special Airlift Group " – 701 Hikotai – that is responsible for the operation of the two Boeing B747-400 governmental aircraft, the "Japanese Air Force One", being responsible to bring the Emperor, Prime Minister and other high-ranking officials safely to destinations worldwide.

But the main task of the JASDF remains the responsibility to defend of the Northern airspace of Japan around Hokkaido and the many small islands.

With the Russian island of Sachalinsk as well mainland Russia is very close to Japan’s Northern point of Defence, and the activity of Russian Air Force and Navy aircraft noticeable increased in the recent years and it is thus not rare to see F-15J Eagles armed with live AAM-3 missiles going on an intercept mission.

Apart from the metal birds Hokkaido is also very popular amongst bird photographers. I also took my time to visit two interesting places for bird photography during that trip: Rausu and the Kushiro Region.

Rausu is famous for the Sea Eagles, that come with the sea ice close to the mainland in the month of February. Two species can be seen when taking a boat cruise from Rausu harbor: the Steller's Sea Eagle and the White-tailed Eagle. The appearance of both eagles is very impressive with a length of around 90cm and a wingspan of up to 2,50m!

They are basically fish eaters and when being fed from the boat they present a stunning "flying display" and offer multiple possibilities for some nice photos. Those boat trips were an amazing experience, and it can only be argued of the Stellar's Sea Eagle with its huge beak in bright yellow and the overall blackish feathering with distinctive white shoulder is more photogenic than the White-tailed Eagle and a more camouflaged body colour in overall brown.

Tancho, the famous red-crowned Crane has been the reason for the next stop on this trip. The cranes are one of the biggest birds in Japan at 140-150cm height and with wingspan of 220-240 cm. The entire body is white, while from bill to neck and a part of wings are black, and the top of the head is red. The crane can be found around numerous spots in the Kushiro region, such as the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary or the Akan International Crane Center, where the birds gather in masses as they are being fed there and taken care of. Especially at that tie of the year you can witness the spectacle of the cranes gracefully dancing on the snowfields, with seemingly choreographed dips and jumps.

It was a real pleasure seeing all these birds, and the rather bad weather at Chitose is also a reason to come back on day - back into the cold!

If you are keen on getting more information about the birds of Hokkaido, please visit this link: https://www.wbsj.org/en/tsurui/birds.html, that also provided parts of birds descriptives given on this page.

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