Several times this past week I ventured outside my normal Sapporo city birding hot-spots and headed south by southeast to one of the better Ramsar wetlands maintained by the Wild Bird Society of Japan. For my fellow non-car possessing Hokkaido-ites, here’s a walk through of my trip(s) to the Lake Utonai Sanctuary:
After a 5:00 AM late winter snowfall walk to JR Sapporo Station, I hopped on the first Airport Rapid Express at 5:50 for the 40 minute ride to Shin Chitose Airport.(￥1,150) Always be sure to avoid the local train.
At the airport at 6:30 AM, I had time to wander a bit. This early in the morning makes the domestic arrival lounge seem actually bearable. Look for bus stop 29 outside, and use the pristine airport bathrooms while you wait for the 7:17 arrival of Donan (道南) bus #30 for Tomakomai (苫小牧). Bus #30 is you lifeline for the Lake Utonai Sanctuary. Here is the timetable link:(weekday / weekend). Get on the nearly empty bus, grab a ticket stub from the machine after you enter, and take the 20 minute ride which weaves off the highway through farms and side villages until you arrive at ネイチャーセンター入口 (Nature Center Entrance). Drop your ticket and exact change in the slot as you depart. The fee is ¥410 (as of March 2023). Be sure to check the return times and plan your birding accordingly.
Make a right after leaving the bus, walk to the first traffic signal and turn left. You might be a bit bewildered being at first surrounded by an industrial wasteland. Rest assured you are on the correct path. After turning on this country road, walk past several factories and a Buddhist temple facility until you reach the sanctuary grounds (10-15 min). Take the trail next to the sanctuary sign, avoid the road, and walk the short way towards the nature center (open only on weekends and holidays).
The WBSJ maintains an excellent network of trails that take you along the lake’s shoreline and its adjacent wetlands. Trails are well manicured and most feature elevated wooden walkways to keep you out of the marshland slop. Trailheads also feature disinfectant mats upon entry to avoid alien microorganism transfer. I hiked these trails for several hours (on both a weekday and a recent holiday in late March), and came across surprisingly little foot traffic.
One of the best features of the sanctuary are its two bird towers/blinds. On quiet days you can often have one of these all to yourself and both offer excellent elevated views of the lake and associated scrub-land. Set up your scopes, enjoy an onigiri, and take a moment to listen for White-fronted geese or the slightly less common Taiga bean goose. Or if you are like me, neither… as I missed the window on their migration! (hint: these migrating birds often alight on the water very early in the morning, March-April, pre-bus arrival time 🙁 ).
Keep in mind that on weekdays and non-holidays, the only bathroom will be at the Lake Utonai Wildlife Conservation Center or the 道の駅, which are a 25 min directly west of the WBSJ Nature Center. This walk along the shoreline offers the best chance of seeing the most migrating water birds. Be prepared for crowds once you reach the end of the course, but the 道の駅 does give you a chance to buy local products and features an unnecessary amount of products featuring the shima-enaga / シマエナガ/ Long-tail tit. This bird is all the rage in Hokkaido these days and seems to be becoming the official wildlife mascot of the island. It isn’t even that rare a bird or the most remarkable in color. But fads will be fads. I for one enjoyed some locally produced beet cider and was ready to roll back to the sanctuary.
The Wild Bird Society of Japan’s Nature Center (open on weekends and public holidays) is where you want to spend your hard earned birding yen. Their facility is two floors, with a tatami room viewing area up above and a tidy gift shop on the ground floor with tons of birding information available to interested parties. Yes, their products are pricey. But they are a worthy cause and they need your support. Get yourself a playing card set featuring 54 Japanese wild birds, a pair of form fitting gloves, or a bird bookmark (featuring the ubiquitous Long-tailed tit).
As spring birding season gets into full swing, it’s good to have options slightly outside the city that let you see more species and at a decent cost utilizing public transport. Transit time from Sapporo to the sanctuary (without layover time at the airport) is just around one hour, is punctual, and pretty straightforward. I look forward to heading back a few more times this year.