Japanese Red-Crowned Cranes

I had always wanted to see these elegant cranes for myself, and seeing them in the serenity of winter seemed like the best time to do so.

These once near-extinct birds symbolizes longevity and happiness to the Japanese, and are designated a Natural Monument. The largest and heaviest of cranes, they can grow to as tall as 158cm/5’2″.


Tancho is the Japanese word for Japanese red-crowned cranes.


In Hokkaido, Japan, the red-crowned cranes—Tancho in Japanese—live primarily in the east of the island around Tsurui village, just north of the city of Kushiro. From open fields to wetlands, and from their feeding grounds to riversides, people eager to see them in their natural habitat come here from all around the world.

Otowa Bridge

The Otowa Bridge is a popular bridge for photographers wanting to capture the red-crowned cranes in their natural habitat as they sleep and wake up in the early morning light. In the winter, the snow and ice-covered trees surrounding Setsuri River offer a picturesque backdrop to these birds—and even more so if you’re lucky to see hundreds of cranes waking up in the morning. The place is so popular that most days you will need to come here well before sunrise to get a decent spot on the bridge.

The parking lot seen in the back has space for lots of cars and buses.
The bridge is packed with photographers and tourists alike.

Where’s the bridge?

The bridge is located about 30km away from Kushiro city (marked in the left map below), which means you’ll need to stay somewhere closer to the bridge if you want to get there before sunrise. Since we drove in a camper van, we conveniently parked by the parking lot right beside the bridge, allowing us to wake up and walk to the bridge whenever we needed to. There are parking lots on either side of the bridge with ample space for cars and buses to park in. Yes, buses do come dropping off bus-loads of tourists/photographers at this bridge.

Map of Hokkaido
The route we took from Otowa Bridge to Kushiro City.

See more of my Hokkaido Winter Adventures as I photograph the beautiful nature and wildlife of Hokkaido, Japan.

A milder winter

We were in Hokkaido in February 2020 when the winter season had a very slow start. With mild temperatures in the first half of the season, places where snow was expected, barely had any and the area surrounding Otowa bridge was no exception. WIth bare trees surrounding the river that was free-flowing, we unfortunately weren’t able to capture the frozen landscape that we so wanted to see. Granted, this warmer climate made for photographing outside a little easier on us and for our gear.

A crane contemplates entering in the field by the river.

Further, for the two mornings we were there, we only had a handful of cranes actually sleeping in the river, and not the hundreds that were once seen in the past.

4:24am

That’s the time I woke up the first morning because I heard a car come and stop beside us. It wasn’t too long afterward when more cars came, including some mini-vans full of photographers—more than likely a photo tour.

As cars and vans came by, people went to the bridge to stake out their location and reserve their spots by putting their tripods out. For tour groups, the tour guide would usually stay behind on the bridge while the rest of the tour group stayed warm in the van or bus.


With the sun rising around 6:20am, you still have a ways to go before the first light actually appears, so pack your patience when you come here.


How far are the red-cr0wned cranes?

Simply put, the cranes are very far from the Otowa Bridge. To give you an idea, here are some shots that I photographed at different focal lengths at various times in the mornings, spanning two mornings, using my Nikon D800 and Nikon Z 7.

112mm

Nikon D800 with 70-200mm f/2.8 at 112mm, ISO200, f/9.0, 1.3sec.

200mm

Nikon D800 with 70-200mm f/2.8 at 200mm, ISO 200, 30sec.

400mm

Nikon Z 7 with 200-500mm f/5.6 at 400mm, f/8, ISO400, 1/15sec.

500mm

Nikon Z 7 with 200-500mm f/5.6 at 500mm, f/9.0, ISO200, 10sec.

700mm

Nikon Z 7 with 200-500mm f/5.6 and 1.4x teleconverter at 700mm, f/8.0, ISO1600, 1/8sec.

My setup was a Nikon D800 with 70-200mm f/2.8 and Nikon Z 7 with a 1.4x teleconverter on a 200-500mm f/5.6 lens (with an FTZ adaptor). The latter setup allowed for a focal length of 700mm, albeit the resulting photos were slightly soft I found. Either way, I was still able to get some decent shots of the cranes with this combination of camera and lenses. Tripods are a must with these telephoto focal lengths.

Composition

With the bridge being no more than about 40m wide, it’s not the easiest place to move around on—especially with all the other photographers bunched up beside you. If you’re able to though, I would definitely make the effort to move to various places along the bridge to get different vantage points. It never hurts to get a variety of angles from the bridge.

Some cranes will also fly closer towards you. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll be able to get much closer shots with these cranes.

A crane family flying closer to us. This was a rare treat as it doesn’t always happen.
The three cranes flew much closer to us allowing us to get better photos of them.

If you’re there closer to 9am, the cranes will start to fly towards their feeding ground, the Tsurui Ito Tancho Sanctuary, located just a few kilometres away from the bridge. At this point, they will fly toward and above you, making for possibly even more varied shots of the crane. You do need to be quick though since you won’t have time to fiddle with your camera settings as they fly right above you.

Cranes flying above the Otowa Bridge at sunrise.

Tsurui Ito Tancho Sanctuary

With a population of less than 20 in the early 1920s, it was believed that the Japanese red-crowned cranes were on the verge of extinction. In an effort to save this species, the Tsurui community started feeding the birds in the winter when it was more difficult for the cranes to find food. By the late 1980s there were more than 400 cranes wintering in Kushiro, and in 1987, the Tsurui Ito Tancho Sanctuary was established by the Wild Bird Society of Japan. Yoshitaka Ito, a dairy farmer, agreed to have the sanctuary on his dairy farm as he took on the responsibility of feeding them. Now, there are believed to be more than 1200 of these red-crowned cranes in Hokkaido.

Photographers lined up along the fence at the Tsurui Ito Tancho Sanctuary.

After about 9am, the Japanese red-crowned cranes fly from their sleeping grounds to their feeding ground located some few kilometres away from the Otowa bridge. Naturally, the photographers who were on the bridge that morning all moved to this feeding ground as well.

The fence seen here, however, is much wider than the Otowa bridge so you will have ample room to move around from one end of the fence to the other. I would highly recommend you move around as well, as you get very different perspectives of the cranes from one end to the next.

Japanese red-crowned cranes over the hilltop.

The view here at the sanctuary offers a chance to see the red-crowned cranes in many different scenarios. You can see them flying in and towards you, like this:

A couple of red-crowned cranes coming in for a landing.

And you can see them flying away from you as well, which is particularly interesting as you see them running to get a good start on their flight:

A group of red-crowned cranes running for a take-off.
A closeup of the plumage of a Tancho.

It’s all in the details

What I particularly like is the ability to capture the details of the red-crowned cranes. If they get close enough, you can use your telephoto lens to really appreciate the beauty of these cranes.

A couple of red-crowned cranes dance together amongst the crowd.

The Magical Dance

The magic of these red-crowned cranes happen when they find their mate. They dance in unison together as they reciprocate to each others’ dance moves. It’s a very touching experience and it would be considered lucky if you see this performance on your first visit.

I can’t say that I saw an actual mating ritual for sure, but I did see some couples who were playing around with each other as they hopped around and danced together.

A couple of red-crowned cranes dancing with each other.

Sunset Flight

At sunset, these Japanese red-crowned cranes are known to fly back to their resting ground by the Setsuri river. Enroute to this river, they fly by a field where the sun sets, allowing for another photo opportunity. We stumbled upon this place from another photographer who mentioned this to use the first morning. This field, however, is on private property—but the property owner graciously allows photographers to come by and take a few shots before he closes the field for the night. For larger groups, you should seek permission before venturing into his farm.

Overall, I had fantastic opportunities to photograph the Japanese red-crowned cranes in Kushiro even with the milder winter conditions that were seen this year. If ever you have the opportunity to see these wonderful birds, I highly recommend you make the effort to see them in your journey to Japan.

A Japanese Red-Crowned Crane Flying

Have you seen these Japanese Red-Crowned cranes before? Let me know in the comments if you ever have!

This post is part of my Hokkaido Adventures Series.

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