(Editor's note: Some time ago, I asked Chris Cook, our resident mountain climber and ptarmigan expert, for permission to publish some of his voluminous writings on his montane adventures. Below are a representative two such tales, one at Christmas 2018 and one the following summer. The photographs are his. — C. Harper)
25 December 2018
Hi Kantori birders — This week, with three days off, I had my last chance this year to check on my buddies. With just one mountain hut open, the only place I could go to was Enzan-so.
Luckily, when I arrived at Hodaka Station at 0630 on Tuesday, two other people were also going there, so we split the cost of the taxi to Miyashiro Gate. It was exactly 0700 when I began hiking the 11.5 km along the forest road, and I arrived at Nakabusa Onsen in good time, at 0930. A single Alpine Accentor (Iwa-hibari) was the only bird of note seen, and just as I reached Nakabusa Onsen, three Japanese Macaques (Nihon-zaru) appeared. This year, the road was virtually snow- and ice-free, so I was able to make good progress, despite the fact I was carrying a 20-kg backpack.
At Nakabusa, I was welcomed by Spotted Nutcrackers (Hoshi-garasu), and in the end there were 10 birds on the ground or in the trees in and around the car park. I had a quick breakfast and filled my flask with hot water at the onsen, and then I began the challenging 5.5-km hike up to Enzan-so. The trail was under snow, and after Gassen-goya, the higher I climbed, the deeper it became.
On the way I met Imura-san, who used to work at Enzan-so but who now is in charge of Hutte O-yari, on the west side of Otensho. We had not met for over two years. I handed over half a dozen Kit-Kats from the bags of chocolate I was carrying for the staff at Enzan-so, and continued on in an upward direction.
I made it to Gassen-goya in 3.5 hours. At Gassen-goya I stopped to make a hot coffee and ate some lunch before beginning the final and very challenging section of the hike: the 2 km to the top. This is the hardest part, as there are two steep sections to climb.
On a sunny and calm afternoon, it was just beautiful up there: snow-capped Fuji-san hugged the skyline ‘way to the southeast, and to the west the sharp spear of Yarigatake soared above the nearby Hotaka range. As it was clear and sunny, I didn't expect to see any Rock Ptarmigan (Raicho), but I walked slowly, looking for any sign. Although I did not see or hear any, I did see some tracks in the snow on the steep side of the mountain below Enzan-so.
After a long day and a 16-km hike, I was happy to finally arrive at the entrance of Enzan-so at 1630, over nine hours after starting. Instead of a flock of welcoming nutcrackers, Enzan-so's staff gave me a warm welcome, and I sat down to rest and have a hot coffee. Dinner was served at 1730, and the surprise — it being Christmas Day — was some fruit-covered "Christmas cake" for dessert. On a full stomach, I snuggled under some soft, warm blankets and slept for nine hours!
Wednesday was the exact opposite of the previous day: the sun hardly showed at all, and thick fog and light flurries of snow hemmed in Tsubakuro-dake and the surrounding area all day long. The fog occasionally lifted a little, improving visibility just a fraction and allowing a weak sun to peep through. Although it was blowing a gale along the top of the ridge, in the more sheltered areas lower down on the east side there was little wind. The temperature was not so cold, around -8oC all day, but of course much colder in the wind. I was ready to go out as soon as it was light, and headed down to the area where I had seen the tracks yesterday.
At the bottom of the steep ridge just below Enzan-so, I found a fresh line of footprints in the snow. It wasn't very impressive — only about three metres long — but at least it told me a bird had been here very recently. Looking around, I found a male ptarmigan on the snow about 10 metres away, so I went straight over to where he was. When I got there, two all-white females appeared. For about 10 minutes I slowly followed them at a distance as they moved along the top of the ridge. At this time of the year, with food in very short supply, they do not stay in one place very long, and after about 20 minutes they flew off and out of sight.
While I was watching them, another three birds flew over about 15 metres above me — I could only see the black outer tail feathers as they quickly flew through the fog and snow. Soon after, in a different place nearby, I saw another two females walking on the snow before they dropped down beyond the ridge and out of sight. The male and two females were cooperative and allowed me to get close to them, so I was able to take some nice photos.
After returning to Enzan-so for a mid-morning coffee, warm-up, and then a siesta, I ate lunch and went out again. I followed the same route, but in over two hours the only bird I saw was a somewhat out-of-place Spotted Nutcracker. After another large dinner, I headed upstairs and enjoyed another nine hours of sleep!
I kept to the same schedule Thursday, getting up at 0500 and going out at first light. I'd already packed my backpack, so after an early morning coffee I said goodbye to the staff of Enzan-so and began my descent to Nakabusa. The temperature today was nearly -13oC, so I was glad that I was well wrapped up in my winter gear.
On the way down I stopped for 30 minutes and checked in several places for my buddies, but today I could only find fresh footprints in one place where a bird had fed earlier. Although I looked in many different places, there was no sign of the bird that made them. The only bird I saw was the Spotted Nutcracker flying high over the ridge and heading up towards Enzan-so.
Being the first person out meant that I had to break the trail, which is always hard work, but luckily not too much fresh snow had fallen overnight, so I had it easy! Through knee-deep snow on the ridge, I arrived at Gassen-goya at 0930 and came out at the trail entrance at Nakabusa just before 1100.
As I was ahead of schedule, I treated myself to a relaxed hot bath at the onsen. Although I have been to Nakabusa many times, I had never actually been to the onsen there, as I have always arrived just in time to catch the bus. The friendly and welcoming lady spent some time talking with me about my buddies, the raicho, and about bears in the area. I then went to the bath — and was surprised to find it was a mixed-bathing (konyoku) onsen. Today, though, I had the place to myself. It is only the second konyoku bath I have ever been to in Japan. The other was up in the mountains in Okayama Prefecture, although I've been to a couple of places — Kotan and Wakoto-hanto — at Kussharo-ko in Hokkaido where only a large stone separates the two sides.
At Nakabusa, the men's side and the women's side were "separated" by a large rock in the middle. The water from the hot spring spilled out of a hollowed-out tree trunk, and the water itself was very soft to the touch. By midday, I was all cleaned up and ready to hike back to Miyashiro Gate. At exactly 1200, as I was leaving Nakabusa, I telephoned the taxi company in Hodaka to order a taxi. By 1420 I was at the gate, and five minutes later the taxi arrived to pick me up. I made it back to Hodaka Station in time to get the 1443 train to Matsumoto.
Another adventure in the mountains came to an end, and I was lucky that I could meet with my buddies and do one last check this year!
Yoroshiku — Chris
26 July 2019
Hi Kantori birders — After a few weeks of having just one day off from the salt mine, I suddenly found myself with three days off this week. What to do? Stay home and do some cleaning? Hang out in a coffee shop? Go to the beach? In the end, the mountains called me, and I caught the bus to Matsumoto. Early on Tuesday I caught another bus from Hotaka Station to Nakafusa Onsen, where Sato-san, the attendant at the onsen car park, boiled water for my breakfast coffee, as he always does.
It was just after 0800 when I began hiking up to Enzan-so — I actually timed my departure wrong, setting off five minutes after a crowd of 50 high school students heading up to the hut and Mount Tsubakuro — but once I had passed them, I basically went non-stop, arriving at Enzanso hut at 1130. It was another humid day, and I just couldn't find the energy to go any faster.
Also, in my backpack I was carrying two bottles of wine for Jonen-goya, my destination the following day. But first I had to get up the 5.5 km to Enzan-so, then the 6 km to Daiten-so, and on Wednesday, the final 5 km to Jonen-goya — and no one was going to help me carry them! So I learned one lesson (as if I didn't know it already): Don't carry the extra weight of wine bottles up steep mountainsides and for several kilometres along the ridge!
At Enzan-so the staff welcomed me when I stuck my head in the door to say "Hi!" (the first time I'd seen them since I went up last Christmas), and Kawachi-san gave me the latest information about my buddies, the raicho. This season there are two females with chicks around the hut, but even though I went as far as Kita-Tsubakuro and back, a round trip of about 2.5 km, I could not find any sign other than one feather dropped beside the trail.
After lunch in the hot sun, I packed everything back into my bag and set off along the trail towards Otensho peak. For most of the way it was sunny, but with some foggy patches. There were hardly any birds to see, so the highlight was definitely the single female Rock Ptarmigan near the top of Okudari.
Halfway up the side of Otensho I scanned the trail below and saw an Asiatic Black Bear (Tsukinowaguma) feeding quite close to where I — and four noisy girls from Hong Kong —had hiked past about 45 minutes before.
It was about 1830 when I arrived at Daiten-so hut, where Sagaki-san, the manager, gave me a nice welcome, despite the fact that I was an hour late for dinner! He arranged for a meal, and as soon as I'd eaten I went to sleep.
On Wednesday, another early morning: up at 0400 and outside well before 0500. First on the agenda was a pre-breakfast walk around the area to look for the raicho family that Sagaki-san had told me about. I spent an hour or so checking the summit, but drew a blank. Apart from the noise of flying insects, no birds were calling, and I didn't see any, either. Then I checked the area immediately around the hut. No birds!
Next on the list was a walk along the trail to the south, towards Jonen. Eventually, after a lot of scanning, I saw the head of a female among rocks — but at least 50 metres from the trail. I watched from where I was, and from her behaviour, I thought she was keeping her chicks warm. After about 10 minutes, one chick popped out, followed by another and then another. From where I was standing, all I could see were three little balls of fluff running about between the stones.
Satisfied with finding my buddies, I headed back towards Daiten-so. As it was still quite early — not yet 0700 — I decided to have another look around the summit. I walked slowly to the top, checking all the likely places. No luck! But as I was walking back down to the hut, I heard the soft "peu peu" call of a raicho chick. Looking around, I saw one chick among the rocks and its mother perched on a nearby boulder. A few seconds later, chick #2 emerged from under some leaves. The female was likely the same one that I saw last year in about the same spot, when she had five chicks.
I sat quietly on a nearby rock for well over 30 minutes with the female just a couple of metres away. The chicks came even closer at times as they hunted insects among the leaves and rocks. It was nice to see one chick take a break less than a metre away from my boots, where it sat in a hollow between the rocks and enjoyed the already hot sunshine.
One of the occasions I always feel privileged to be a part of is when, on the wide, open mountain peaks, it is just me and a female raicho and her chicks, and I can listen in on their ‘conversation’. The contact call of the chicks is "peu, peu", and the female's reassuring answer is a very soft "kru, kru, kru" or a faster "kru kru kru-kru-kru-kru". But you have to be close by to hear it. On Wednesday, it was one of those occasions.
I left my babies in peace and returned to have some breakfast at the outside tables, enjoying the spectacular mountain views all around as I listened to the high-pitched buzz of the hoverflies coming to perch on my head. Sagaki-san kept my coffee mug filled up while I ate my two-day-old onigiri, and when I was ready, I thanked everyone and then hit the trail.
Luckily, on Wednesday there were hardly any other hikers around, and I only met a couple of them over the next five hours. I hiked slowly along the trail to Jonen hut, admiring the show of alpine flowers that coloured the rocky terrain, and on the way, finding two more families of raicho.
When I dropped down through the large area of haimatsu below Higashi-tenjo, I checked the side of the valley on the west side of Yokodoshi — the grassy east-facing slopes are favoured by feeding Asiatic Black Bears. At midday, in the middle of a hot hike, I found a comfortable stone to sit down on and began looking for any black shapes moving among the long vegetation.
It didn't take me long to find one bear, and then close by I saw another. "This is good," I thought, and as I continued to look through my binoculars, I was surprised to find a third animal — and they were probably all within 100 metres of each other. Two were quite close and one a bit higher up the mountain. I looked again, in an area below the three, and was surprised to find another bear following the trail and heading up in their direction.
Soon, all four bears were reasonably close together, and I saw one sit on its haunches and stare at its closest neighbour. There was no physical interaction — each kept its distance from the other bears — and they eventually wandered off in different directions, two still in the middle of the grassy area, one off to the left near some bushes, and one off to the right by a dry stream bed.
I kept looking and checking where each one was, but it was hard work, as sometimes an animal would disappear from sight due to the height of the vegetation and reappear some metres away. Was that bear #2 or bear #4, or the one which was at the left side or one of the two which were close together? Then I had to try to relocate all of them to make sure which was which. But finally, after checking them for the XXth time, I found another bear had joined them, meaning there were five bears in the same area! I've seen bears before, but never five together in the same place at the same time. They were not rubbing noses, but at their closest, three of them were only tens of metres apart.
After such an exciting encounter, I got up and headed on, climbing to the top of Yokodoshi — which was a waste of an hour, as I could not find any raicho there — and down the other side until I arrived at Jonen-goya. There, another warm welcome awaited me, and after a quick lunch I began hiking to the summit.
On the way, a couple of other hikers said they had seen a single female ptarmigan near the top, so there was some hope that my climb would not be in vain. Halfway up, I noticed a male sitting between rocks, but he did not move even when I got to within a couple of metres. Near the top, in the fog, I saw a shape which turned out to be a female — again, from her behaviour, I thought she was keeping her chicks warm, but I did not disturb her.
I hiked to the top, but the only bird I saw was a Thick-billed Crow — a species which bred in trees by the hut this summer: when I sat at the tables outside late in the afternoon and early on Thursday morning, I could hear what I assumed were young birds begging for food.
After a coffee break, I began descending, but on the way decided to check the trail off to the east, going to Mitsumata. About 50 metres along the trail, a single female raicho was standing under a rock, and as I approached, she ran ahead and round the corner out of sight. A bit further down, I met the female and her three chicks right on the side of the trail. From the chicks' size, I guessed they were only about five days old. I sat a while on a rock, and they just walked close by as they searched for food, totally unconcerned about me. Likewise, the female came close — less than two metres away at one time.
Back down at the hut I joined the staff for dinner, and at the start of the meal, I thanked everyone and also offered my congratulations to Jonen-goya, which this Saturday celebrates its 100th anniversary!
Among the guests at Jonen-goya this week were two foreigners: Sarah, from the UK, and Oscar, from France. I'd heard about Oscar, as in the early 2000s I had seen an advertisment in a Tokyo English-language magazine, with a small photo, for bear-watching tours in Nagano-ken. This week, after several years away, Oscar was back for a visit, and our paths crossed at Jonen-goya.
Oscar had taken part in monitoring and research programs around Matsumoto so had considerable knowledge about Asiatic Black Bears —which I was more than happy to hear about! Most of the Japanese hikers I meet have never seen a bear, let alone have any knowledge of their habits or movements. Suffice to say, it was an enlightening 15-minute conversation while I was eating my lunch and also during our 30-minute post-dinner talk in the dining room. As can be expected, Oscar was very interested in my sighting of the "bear herd", and he and Sarah were soon on their way up to the other side of Yokodoshi to see them.
I had better, more important things to do: make sure my buddies at the top of Jonen-dake were OK. I left my big backpack inside the hut and taking a flask of hot coffee, a Marmite sandwich and some sports drink, I began the steep climb to the summit.
On the way up I met a few hikers coming down, and two of them reported a single raicho just below the peak. I was always on the lookout for any sign, and about halfway up I noticed a male hunkered down between some rocks. Very slowly, I moved closer, taking care not to stress him, and he let me sit on a rock just a metre away. He didn't move, and I did not need to get any closer. He sat there, and I sat here — we were just friends hanging out! I couldn't stay all day.
It was a hot and humid afternoon, so my progress was slow, but within an hour or so from the start, I reached the fog-shrouded top. At the shrine, I thanked the raicho kami and the kuma kami — I guess they were close by, somewhere — and sat down to have coffee and eat a sandwich. A Thick-billed Crow (Hashibuto-garasu) flew in and landed on a boulder not far away. This year, a pair appear to have bred in the trees close to Jonen-goya, as I heard what sounded like the begging calls of nestlings when I was outside the hut. I wonder what their menu consists of? Baby raicho? Baby hares?
There were no other birds to see, but it was nice to sit at the summit, with no one else around, and all I could hear was the noise of insects as they flew past my head. After 30 minutes I began to descend. At the junction of the Mitsumata trail, I turned right and walked for about 75 metres along the path. By a rock outcrop, I found the female raicho the other hikers had seen by the junction, but she didn't like my presence and quickly moved away and out of sight.
A bit further down, the female that I had seen earlier was now at the side of the trail with her three small chicks. I could see that the chicks were following the narrow strip of vegetation between the trail and the edge of the mountain, so I sat on a rock and waited for them to come to me. Five minutes later the three chicks, which I estimated to be about five days old, were around me, and Mom was following closely behind and keeping an eye on things. Like earlier in the morning at Otensho, all I could hear in the stillness was the sound of the chicks calling and the contact call of the female as she walked with them.
Soon it was time to go back down to Jonen-goya and get some dinner and sleep. I was invited to eat with the staff, and after a delicious meal, I joined Oscar and Sarah for half an hour to talk about bears and mountain hiking in the area. Before 2100, I was snug inside my sleeping bag and dreaming about bears and raicho!
Thursday dawned clear and bright, and it was also a travel day: Hike the 15 or more kilometres back to Nakafusa Onsen in time for the 1515 bus back to Hotaka Station. I set out at 0455 and climbed to the top of Yokodoshi again, but apart from one small white feather, I could not find any raicho. From the top of Yokodoshi I could scan the ridges, and I saw one bear on a slope close to Nishi-dake hut, and also a black object in a different place, which I think was a bear lying in the sun. It was too far away to be certain, and it was not moving, but most black objects on green mountain slopes turn out to be bears!
Down the other side, along the trail a bit, and then...bear-watching again! In the same place where I had seen five animals on Wednesday, I could only find two today. But in a nearby grassy gully, another bear was feeding. This one disappeared into the haimatsu bushes, and the two in the large grassy area were hard to see as the vegetation was taller then they were, and they kept disappearing from view.
So I moved on...and found another three bears — a single and a mother and cub — feeding in a grassy area near the snowfield below Higashi-tenjo. Actually, there could have been four there, as the single animal was quite far up the slope, and when I looked for it again after watching the female and cub, I saw a bear near the bottom of the snow. It could have been the same one, but bears don't usually move very fast...but I could not locate the single one I had seen at near the top of the snowfield.
From the trail I was on, these three were the closest, and I had great views of them as they slowly fed and moved through the grass. If only I had carried a telescope...and a camera and 500mm lens! The female and cub eventually disappeared into the large area of haimatsu bushes, and the single one (like all the other single animals, it was presumably a male) did the same.
On the way back to Daiten-so, I found a new family of five raicho, plus the female and six chicks and the female and three chicks that I had seen the previous day. I arrived at Daiten-so at 0830 and stopped for breakfast and another cup of Sagaki-san's coffee before starting the hike back to Enzan-so.
On the way, I met some hikers who told me they had seen some ptarmigan in a couple of places, but I could not find any. But I did see a new bear in a grassy area just west of Enzan-so. It was just before midday when I arrived there, and I had about 90 minutes to rest and eat lunch before I had to drop down to Nakafusa Onsen.
Unfortunately my arrival coincided with a film crew from Nagano SBS TV using a drone, so there were no ptarmigan to be found anywhere. Akanuma-san, the owner, told me that there are two families of ptarmigan around the lodge this year, but I could not find even one bird. At 1345 I thanked the staff at Enzan-so and began the hike back to the bus stop, arriving there at 1550.
This hike was one of my best ever in the area: a total of 27 ptarmigan and a minimum of 10 / maximum of 11 Asiatic Black Bears. Those are going to be hard numbers to beat!
Yoroshiku — Chris