In February 2019 I was lucky enough to visit Hokkaido in Japan to photograph the wildlife.

One of the things we focused on were the beautiful and enormous Steller's Sea Eagles.

As well as Steller's Sea Eagles we saw many White-Tailed Eagles, a variety of gulls and some ravens out on the sea ice.

These photos were taken over 3 mornings out at sea off the coast of Hokkaido leaving from Rausu fishing port.

The days started at  5.00am in order to get out on a boat to find the sea ice, which moved many miles from day to day. 

Early starts and temperatures of about -20ºC at times - a walk in the park really!

The tricky bit was eating raw fish, cold slimy seaweed and raw snails for breakfast, lunch and dinner and the communal showers with no towels allowed inside! 🤪

japan route

First Light

ISO 2500, f 5.6, 1/1250, +2/3EV, 500mm

These photos were taken as the first light crept over the mountains at dawn and reflected off the sea ice giving a warm rosy hue at first moving to a golden glow and then a blue aura. As light levels were very low I started off at high ISO and silhouettes. I tried a bit of back lighting but the plumage of the Steller's Sea Eagles is so dense that you don't get much of that translucent glow that you see on other birds. I also tried a few panning shots to keep warm! I found these very tricky as even if I got a sharp eye the backgrounds were too bland (sea or sky) and did not give any interesting striping or patterns when blurred.

  • ISO 2500, f 5.6, 1/1250, +2/3EV, 390mm

  • ISO 1600, f 6.3, 1/1000, +2/3EV, 500mm

  • ISO 1000, f 5.6, 1/1000, +2/3EV, 380mm

  • ISO 1000, f 5.6, 1/1000, +2/3EV, 500mm

  • ISO 2500, f 5.6, 1/1250, +2/3EV, 390mm

  • ISO 3200, f 5.6, 1/1600, +2/3EV, 500mm

  • ISO 800, f 5.6, 1/1000, +2/3EV, 240mm

  • ISO 800, f 5.6, 1/1000, +2/3EV, 230mm

  • ISO 400, f 5.6, 1/30, +2/3EV, 440mm

As dawn breaks and the light conditions change I  began to capture some portraits.

ISO 320, f 5.6, 1/3200, +2/3EV, 390mm

I also took some  wider  shots, setting the scene.

As the light levels increased I captured some in-flight shots of both the Steller's Sea Eagles and the White-Tailed Eagles.

A Few Eagle Facts

Steller's Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicu) is one of the heaviest eagles in the world, at about 5 to 9 kg (The Harpy and Philippine Eagle are similar in size). Its conservation status is listed as vulnerable in the IUCN’s Red List of Endangered species. It lives in coastal north eastern Asia and mainly preys on fish and water birds.

Steller's Sea Eagles reach their distinctive “black” and white plumage at about 5 years of age, on hatching the downy plumage of the chicks is white.  Juveniles can be difficult to distinguish from White-tailed Eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), having similar colouration, although they are generally bulkier with larger chunky bills and diamond-shaped tails.

White-tailed Eagles seem to co-exist relatively peacefully with the Steller’s Sea Eagles although squabbles do break out occasionally.

On Hokkaido, eagles are attracted by abundant Pacfic cod (Gadus macrocephalus) which peak in the Rausu Sea and the Nemuro Straits in February, which is why we chose this month to visit.

When feeding in groups where food is abundant, Kleptoparasitism (nicking each other’s fish!) is common. I’ll cover this a bit more in my next blog.

I hope you enjoyed the photos.

Look out for my next blog about these fantastic birds getting a bit feisty!