It had always been a fanciful desire of ours to see momonga in the wild here in Hokkaido. With the amount of time we spend in the backcountry here, we thought it only a matter of time before we would happen upon a pair of deep, black, drop-dead cutie-pie eyes peering longingly in our direction as we climbed quietly up a mountain.
That dreamy, somewhat ignorant hope was shattered when our guide Takuji gave us a briefing the evening before our scheduled momonga tour, which we’d paid for as a special occasion treat to ourselves.
“We’ll leave the lodge at 5am,” he began. “You’ll have to dress warm, because we’ll be standing around in the snow at about -15℃ for just over one hour.”
Perhaps this momonga-spotting thing isn’t quite as straight forward as we’d expected, we thought.
Thankfully though, Takuji has been doing this for over 10 years now. While his main business is fly-fishing guiding (inspired by multiple extended stays in New Zealand), almost a third of his tours are to see these fascinating nocturnal creatures. “Even after all these years, I still think they’re super cute,” he beamed.
Ezo momonga flying squirrels are nocturnal, so you’re very unlikely to see them in the daytime. About 20 minutes either side of dawn and dusk is the time to shoot for. Make sure to scout in advance. Look for yellow rice-sized poop at base of trees. Also look for patches of snow with lots of small twigs scattered about.
They love large stands of old-growth forest, but even long stretches of wind-break woods are prime momonga territory. The sure-bet easiest way to spot a momonga in the wild is to pay for a tour.
While many people might imagine having to trek deep into the woods to see momonga, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. “Where ever there’s a large stand of old-growth trees, there’ll be momonga,” explained Takuji.
Our destination for today’s private tour was an old 30m wide wooded wind-break not far from Takuji’s lodge. “Some of these are tens of kilometers long,” Takuji told us as we drove along the pitch black road deep in the rural Tokachi pains, north of Obihiro City in southern central Hokkaido. “The momonga can fly up to 100m, so even if there’s a road cutting through the line of trees, they can move along the wind breaks.”
At 5:15am, we arrived at the morning’s location. I asked him how he knew that there were momonga in this particular location. “A lot of wandering over the years!” he replied.
“And this particular spot has more momonga this year than usual, so it’s a really nice place to see them,” he continued.
In the van, he gave us one last briefing on what to expect. He explained that the momonga spend most of the night snacking on buds on twigs, high up in the tree canopy. As soon as the sky starts to lighten up, they start to make their retreat back to the safety of their tree-hole nests, to avoid daytime predators. “The window of opportunity to see them is super short,” he explained. “Sometimes, if they hear a crow before it’s light, they might even fly down to their nest early. Realistically, we’ll only have about 10 minutes or so of seeing them clearly before they disappear for the day into their nests.”
He gave us one last warning to keep our camera flashes off and to keep as quiet as possible, so as to not spook them too soon, and then we made the short three-minute walk into the woods.
My long-exposure shot above makes it look lighter than it was.
It was almost pitch black.
Just enough light to see one’s footing in the snow.
After a few minutes of picking our way through the brambles, Takuji stopped in his tracks and pointed up at a tree. To my un-trained eye, I just saw tree.
“See that blob?” he whispered.
We did see a blob, but it just looked like a large warty knob on the side of a tree.
Then it moved.
The blob scurried up the tree into the canopy.
As if on auto-pilot, Takuji moved on deftly, deeper into the woods with ease, eyes gazing upwards, hardly looking where he was putting his feet. We followed clumsily, trying hard not to twist an ankle on the uneven snowy surface.
“You can see them clearer here,” Takuji whispered as he set up his sighting scope.
Sure enough, there were a number of furry blobs high up in the canopy, nibbling on twigs.
My 400mm-ish lens struggled to get in close. It was still very dark.
Now, it was a waiting game.
“They’ll eventually fly down here, over our heads,” Takuji said, gesturing to a tree about 1m away from us.
“Their nest is right there, just behind us.”
We were, quite literally, right between the momonga and their nest.
“They don’t care though,” explained Takuji. “They’ll quite happily barge their way past us. That nest is home to two momonga, usually.”
As we waited, the sky very slowly started to lighten. A few crows squawked in the distance, causing the momonga to momentarily stop their nibbling.
They soon carried on though, dropping spent twigs down to the snow below.
Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flat, furry, square object careening toward Haidee’s head. At the last moment it pulled on the brakes and attached itself to the tree behind us. The curious momonga scurried around the tree a couple of times, stopping every now and then to peer at us with its gorgeous big eyes. After a few more gawks at the strange humans, it disappeared into an impossibly small hole in the tree.
Not long after, a second momonga careened down from the canopy towards us. It landed on a branch not far away, and gave us a long look before flying down into the nest hole.
They were quick little critters, and they were testing my low-light photography skills to their limits. It was still quite a murky morning. Overcast, with no sun rays to paint on some contrast to the scene.
Just as we, including Takuji, had thought the nest behind us was full, another three momonga flew down one after the other past us to the tree. All disappeared into the hole.
“Well that’s a first,” commented Takuji. “I’ve only ever seen two go into that hole. Now there’s five in there!”
Now, there was one lone momonga left in the canopy, still having one last chew on the twiggy morsels.
Eventually, it too flew down to a lower height, did a poo, and then finally off to another nest somewhere further on in the thicket.
Yes, that is a momonga doing it’s business.
Which brings us to the how-to section of the story…
How to spot momonga in the wild in Hokkaido
“The first step to finding momonga is to look for their poop,” explained Takuji. “Trees with nests in them will have a lot of poop around the base. There’ll also be lots of pee-stains near the base too.”
Look for the poop, then look for the hole in the tree.
Takuji also told us to look out for lots of twigs on the surface of the snow.
“These will let you know that there have been momonga feeding in the area. Then all you need to do is to sit, wait till morning, and watch for where the momonga fly to.”
This is all to say that the steps in finding momonga are, in theory, all quite straight forward.
- Step 1: Find twiggy left-overs in the snow.
- Step 2: Find poop next to tree.
- Step 3: Find furry Pokemon fluff-ball momonga.
But it’s the time required to translate all that into actual sightings that’s the hard part.
“Even when you’re out ski touring,” proffered Takuji, “you could probably at least see where momonga have been feeding, so long as it’s been about three days since the last snowfall. But you’ll need to return to the spot at nightfall or before dawn to actually see them.”
We could now very clearly see why people (including ourselves) are quite happy to outsource that ‘finding’ to people like Takuji. We paid 15,000 yen (about US$140) each for the 2-hour tour. As a special-occasion sort of a splurge (Haidee’s 5-year long Ph.D. was conferred that day), it felt like extraordinary value for money.
And there was a lot of learning during those two hours too. On the way back to his lodge, Takuji drove via a very recent almost-disaster wind-break felling site.
“We successfully appealed for an emergency injunction against the felling of this wind-break,” Takuji told us, in his distinctive softly-spoken way. “Look, they were this close to felling a tree with momonga living in it,” he said, gesturing towards a 100-year old elm, spared from felling only a few centimeters from the cleared section of woods. “The town council approved of the felling without any idea what was depending on the wind-break for their livelihood – the world-famous momonga! Now, they’re doing in-depth checks before approving any felling work in the area.”
He continued and explained that the momonga need these long stretches of unbroken wind-breaks to survive. “These old stands of trees are the momonga’s habitat here now, so we have to preserve them. The momonga don’t travel across land…they need their wooded canopy highways to survive.”
Usually, this would be the end of the tour, but we’d opted to stay at Takuji’s lodge the night before. Included in the 8,500yen per person (US$80) lodging was dinner and breakfast. So we returned to the lodge to warm up with a rustic morning meal next to the wood stove.
The night before, Takuji’s four year old son asked us what we’d prefer for the freshly baked bread in the morning.
“Bread with raisins in it, or plain white bread?” he asked enthusiastically.
“What do you recommend, young sir?” I replied.
He feigned an exasperated fall.
“OK then, we’ll take the raisin bread, if that’s not too much bother” I said.
“Roger that!” he replied, as he ran into the kitchen, commanding all hands on deck to set the cogs in motion to ensure the guests’ order was fulfilled.
The next morning as we were eating that freshly baked bread, along with a cooked breakfast prepared by Takuji’s wife Nagisa, Takuji’s daughter politely said farewell to us as she rushed off to catch the rural school bus.
We eventually dragged ourselves out of their warm oasis and made the 2.5hr drive back to Sapporo. Armed now with some new knowledge about the curious momonga, we hoped one day we’ll find our own momonga in the wild.