Japan is known worldwide for its unique winter wildlife, from the iconic snow monkeys of Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park to the impressively sized red-crowned crane of Hokkaido; this article will take you through the magical wildlife you can encounter in Japan during the winter months. From the Steller's Sea Eagles that dominate the coast of the northern tip of Hokkadio to the majestic cranes that migrate gracefully from Siberia, we invite you to explore the beauty of Japan's Winter Wildlife.
This article will explore some of the wildlife in Japan & uncover some unique species you can encounter during the harsh winter season. We'll share some of our favourite winter species & explain why these creatures are an integral part of the culture.
The Steller's Sea Eagles of Hokkaido
Japan is home to some of the most unique & magical winter wildlife one can ever experience. While some animals hibernate, others come alive during the harsh winter months in Hokkaido. One such bird is the Steller's Sea Eagle.
Belonging to the eagle family, the Steller's Sea Eagle has a wingspan of up to 2.2 meters, making it the second-largest species of eagle in the world.
This majestic bird is indigenous to the cold climate of Hokkaido, Japan & can be seen searching for food around Rausu & along the Shiretoko peninsula during the winter months. Its diet mainly consists of fish, & its powerful talons allow them to capture prey underwater while flying. They can also be found perched atop snow-capped tree branches, scanning the waters below for movement.
The Steller's Sea Eagle is, in our opinion, the crowning glory of Japan's Winter Wildlife; the species has striking black & white plumage; its white head, hindneck, & tail contrast with its dark brown body. On the upper wings & mantle, white patches highlight the black. The adults are primarily silent but give various loud calls while nesting.
In recent years, the population of Steller's Sea Eagles has been steadily increasing due to conservation efforts from the Japanese government. During Winter, it is common to find them in large groups searching for food in the waters of Hokkaido. While their feathers may turn a light shade of brown in the winter season, the spectacular sight of them soaring through the sky is a view many birdwatchers from around the world travel to Japan to witness.
The Steller's Sea Eagle of Hokkaido is a remarkable species & the perfect symbol of the magical winter wildlife that inhabits Japan. These eagles are breathtaking birds adding to the beauty of Japan's winter wildlife. With their graceful flight & majestic appearance, it's no wonder why members of this species are so highly revered in Japan.
The White-tailed Eagles of Hokkaido
White-tailed eagles inhabit Hokkaido during the winter months. During the colder season, they typically congregate in large flocks, creating a spectacularly beautiful spectacle of flight. The most popular spot to view these birds is on the eastern coast of Hokkaido, where the island's abundance of open waters provides the perfect feast for these magnificent birds.
Many wildlife photographers come to Hokkaido to capture both the Steller's & White-tailed eagles in action. Watching these birds swoop through the air & dive for their prey is a sight to behold. It's not uncommon for visitors to spend entire days watching impressive aerial performances.
The Red-Crowned Crane of Hokkaido
The Red-crowned Crane is an unmistakable emblem of the winter season in Japan's wild Hokkaido region. Its stark white body, black wings & eye-catching red crown make it a spectacular sight. Native to the marshlands & wetlands of Japan, particularly in the northern regions like Hokkaido, the Red-Crowned Crane is a protected species that has long been part of the local tradition, culture & folklore.
These large birds reach up to 140 cm in height with a wingspan of 226–244 cm, weighing up to 15 kg. During Winter, the Red-Crowned Crane migrates to Hokkaido & can be heard calling out in the wild with their loud, bugle-like whistle. While this majestic bird may look intimidating from a distance, they are pretty shy & prefer to stay away from humans.
In Japan, the Red-Crowned Crane has been held in high regard for centuries as a symbol of good fortune & longevity. The bird is often seen on kimono patterns, pottery, & artworks, & it has even been featured on several Japanese postage stamps. It is thought to bring good luck & long life to those who spot it, making it all the more remarkable for wildlife photographers visiting Hokkaido during wintertime.
The Red-Crowned Crane is also known as “Tancho”, representing the red feathered area that adorns its head. Feeding on various aquatic vegetation, fish & amphibians, the Red-Crowned Crane is an essential part of the Hokkaido wetland's ecosystem. They typically mate & nest in the same area, so those lucky enough to spot these birds in the wild may be able to observe other courtship rituals, like their unique & elaborate dancing on the snow during the Winter.
The Snow Monkeys – or Japanese Macaques – of Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
The Snow Monkeys – or Japanese macaques – of Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park are one of Japan's most iconic images of winter wildlife. Located in a mountain valley in Nagano Prefecture, these snow-white macaques bask in hot springs as the snow around them falls. Every year, tourists & locals flock to the park to marvel at these adorable primates' unique adaptations to the winter weather.
The Snow Monkeys live in family troops & survive on a diet of roots, buds, & occasional insects. The park provides supplemental food to the primates to help keep them healthy. With temperatures dropping below zero, the hot springs are a must for these primates to survive the cold winter season.
These monkeys provide a great photographic opportunity for visitors & show how animals adapt to the environment, demonstrating extraordinary resilience & social behaviour; & the park's staff works hard to protect & study these primates. This allows visitors to observe Japan's Snow Monkeys & admire how these creatures have adapted to this chilly climate.
The Snow Monkeys are a must-see for anyone who wants to observe Japan's Winter Wildlife. It's an experience that can't be replicated in any other region, & it will remain one of the highlights of any trip to Japan.
The Whooper Swans of Hokkaido
Thousands of elegant white Whooper Swans flock to Japan's northernmost island each year, where they spend the winter months frolicking among its snow-covered shores & coastlines. The Whooper Swan, also known as the Cygnus cygnus, is a large species of wild swan native to various world regions, including Russia, China, & Scandinavia. Its name comes from its signature call, likened to a trumpet-like “whoop”.
The Whooper Swans of Hokkaido are a significant part of the region's local ecology. These birds come to the area searching for their winter home, taking advantage of the comparatively milder temperatures & large shallow ponds, lakes, & rivers. As well as providing ample opportunities for food & shelter, this area also acts as a breeding site for the swans, which typically lay ten eggs in one clutch.
The Whooper Swan's distinct physical features make it easy to identify when out in the wild. They have an all-white plumage with black on their primary & secondary feathers, long yellow-orange bills, & a black-tipped tail. When flying, the Whooper Swan has an impressive wingspan of up to two meters. In addition, these birds are often seen in small flocks & make their famous whooping call as they fly.
The Whooper Swans of Hokkaido put on an incredible show each year; moreover, bird photographers should have no trouble finding the Whooper Swans of Hokkaido, as they are a common sight during Winter.
The Sika Deer of Hokkaido
The Sika Deer of Hokkaido, located on Japan's northernmost main island, is a spectacular species in the region. During Winter, their coats become thicker & more luxurious, making them more beautiful. On these cold days, they can be seen grazing in the snowy forests.
The sika deer is a species of large deer characterized by its compact body & short legs. They typically have a dark coat ranging from a deep brown to a blackish hue with white spots. During the season, males grow thicker antlers that are likely used for many ceremonial displays for courtship.
The sika deer is a herbivore, mainly consuming vegetation like grasses & shrubs. In Winter, they may also search for nuts or fruits on the ground. To survive the cold temperatures of Hokkaido, sika deer have adapted by having thicker wax-like coats that repel water & faster metabolism to regulate their body temperatures.
Hokkaido's sika deer population is threatened due to excessive hunting, habitat loss, & competition from other deer species. As a result, the Japanese government has implemented various conservation measures to help protect its population. One of these initiatives includes introducing stronger hunting regulations, such as limiting the number of deer that can be hunted annually.
The Black-eared Kites of Hokkaido
Japan's picturesque winter landscape is a mecca for beautiful wildlife, especially the Black-eared Kites of Hokkaido. These stunning birds make their homes among the snowy mountain ranges of the second-largest island of Japan, where they can be seen soaring high in the sky.
Black-eared Kites are medium-sized raptors with wingspans that average over four feet. Their bodies are predominantly white & grey, though their wings feature distinctive black patches along the edges. The species gets its name from the black stripe that can be seen near their necks & heads.
The birds are highly social & hunt in large flocks, often flying in formation or chasing after prey. They feed primarily on carrion or small rodents in the wild, though they will also scavenge for food in urban areas. In the Winter, they tend to be warier of humans than usual due to their increased vulnerability to the cold.
These birds prefer to nest in tall trees, though they will also take shelter in cliffs or crevices when necessary. Females lay one to three eggs, & both parents take turns caring for them.
Other species of wildlife found in Japan during the Winter
Japan is rich, & the winter season is no different. While the Winter cold might make it difficult for many of its nature to thrive, some species have adapted to make the most of the chilly season. Below are just a few other species of wildlife found in Japan during the Winter.
The Japanese Red Fox is one of the most iconic animals in Japan. With their pointed ears & long, fluffy fur, these foxes are a delight to find during Winter, especially in snow-covered areas like the Shiretoko Peninsula. They can be seen hunting in the snow & competing with other species for food.
Ural Owls are another species that is common in Japan during the Winter. They can be found in more wooded areas, & they are ideally suited to survive in this cold weather & they can often be seen in tree hollows or abandoned buildings.
The winter season in Japan can be magical, & its wildlife plays a significant part. These are just a few of the other species of wildlife found in Japan during the Winter that add to the overall beauty of the season.
What is Japan like in the Winter?
Japan in the Winter is a magical experience. The snow gently catches the morning light, creating a blanket over the land. The sight of snow-capped mountains against a deep blue sky is breathtakingly beautiful. Winter in Japan brings a unique set of wildlife & creatures to explore. With cold temperatures, the countryside – & most notably Hokkaido – offers a breathtaking peek into the natural world of Japan.
Pristine, white snow blankets the land, allowing all sorts of animals to explore their surroundings. Icy ponds, frozen rivers, & patches of snow attract various birds & mammals. In Japan, you can look for multiple species of deer, foxes & many other species. These animals often venture out for food or shelter from the cold in the colder months. Furthermore, with snow & ice, birds come down to the lower elevations to take advantage of the new winter environment.
Winter in Japan offers many unique wildlife opportunities. Whether looking for birds, mammals, or aquatic wildlife, the chilly months are the perfect time to spot some fantastic creatures. With the proper attire & perseverance, you will have an unforgettable winter wildlife experience in Japan.
When do NaturesLens Schedule tours for Photographing Japan's Winter Wildlife?
NaturesLens schedules at least one tour per year to capture images of Japan's Winter Wildlife; the itinerary is designed to allow photographers of all levels to add pictures of the magnificent winter wildlife to their portfolio. These trips generally are conducted in February when the winter wildlife is most active.
Our Japanese Winter Wildlife Photography Tour allow wildlife photographers to capture stunning images of Black-eared Kites, Ezo Red Foxes, Ezo Sika Deer, Japanese Macaque, Red-crowned Crane, Steller's Sea Eagle, Ural Owls, White-tailed Sea Eagle, Whooper Swan & many other Japanese species.
At NaturesLens, we aim to provide photographers with an unforgettable experience that will leave them with beautiful, memorable images. Our trips are led by experienced wildlife photographers who are passionate about wildlife photography & are dedicated to helping photographers capture the best images possible.