Mothing – something to get me through lockdown   Leave a comment

 

Before I continue to catch up with accounts of my foreign birding I thought I’d add a post about another area of interest of mine  – mothing.

Many birders have developed an interest in butterflies and dragonflies and other interesting invertebrates that they might see whilst out birding, but in recent years the arrival of some very good field guides have opened up the world of moths to non-specialists.

There are about 70 species of butterfly in the UK (and you’d only get to see about 20-30 of these unless you made an effort to go and see the rarer/more localised species) but there are 750+ species of macro-moth and if you include all the micro-moths then the total rises at around 2,500!

I first starting to hear about mothing back in the late 90s. There were always people talking about and pouring over moth traps at Portland Bill Bird Observatory but it was the publication in 2003 of ‘The Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland’ by Waring and Townsend that really got birders interested, because for the first time moths were depicted as you would see them alive in the filed and not dead and pinned to a board. Of course moths caught in a trap are released unharmed.

I got a moth trap at the end of 2003 and started mothing in my garden in 2004. Unfortunately soon afterwards my life went through some major changes over the next few years and it was hard to find time to keep the hobby going. Things improved markedly by the end of 2007 when Margaret moved in with me and settled life resumed, but I spent less and less time on mothing and by the time we were married in 2009 I had given up.

Fortunately I kept the old trap. In April of this year with Coronavirus lockdown in place, I couldn’t do any bird ringing outside the garden and birding was reduced to what could be seen on the short one-hour walks from home that were permitted under the guise of ‘exercise’.

To maintain some sort of sanity I dug out the old trap and was surprised to find that the mercury-vapour bulb still worked after all this time. Of course it was like starting from scratch I had forgotten all the moth names and during the intervening eleven years my metal acuity had diminished somewhat. But nevertheless I still greatly enjoyed sorting through a night’s catch, a few of the results of which are shown below.

As the autumn approached and lockdown eased, then I spent more time bird ringing and mothing has been relegated to the occasional day when I couldn’t go ringing for whatever reason. I’ll have to wait and see if I can manage to maintain mothing, birding, bird ringing and foreign travel when (or should I say if) Coronavirus restrictions are ever lifted.

 

You can start mothing but just looking for the species that fly by day or by tapping vegetation in the hopes of dislodging resting individuals, but most moth-ers (note the hyphen to distinguish them from mothers!) attract moths to light. This can be as simple as leaving the porch light on, but it’s best is to use a purpose designed trap with a mercury-vapour light (which shines in the UV as well as visible) or an actinic light. Such traps can be bought commercially but mine was built by a friend in Weymouth for a much reduced sum. The interior of the trap is usually filled with old egg boxes to give the trapped moths somewhere to rest.

 

The first picture was greatly under-exposed so you could see through the perspex lid but in practice it looks more like this. I usually run the trap between the conservatory door and the neighbour’s fence a) because its sheltered from any wind and b) to avoid shining the light directly into neighbour’s bedroom windows.

 

So the first thing you are going to say is that all moths are brown and boring. Well some like this Shuttle-shaped Dart, are brown, but few are boring. Also the vast majority of moths larvae don’t eat clothes, I think there are only two or three species that do.

 

So as well as a trap and some small plastic/glass pots to hold them in until you have identified and/or photographed them, you will need a guide. There are various versions of this guide but I find the Concise Guide to be the easiest to use when mothing, although I think I will buy the updated version of the full guide soon.

 

Moths can be photographed easily with any pocket camera or phone. The main problem is photographing them before they fly away, something I have yet to master! Moths have some wonderful names, some are purely descriptive like Large Yellow Underwing others are bizarre like The Uncertain, the Anomalous or Cousin German. There is both a Bright-lined Brown-eye and Brown-lined Bright-eye! This species is called Setaceous Hebrew Character. The Hebrew character bit I get, but apparently there is no known origin for the word ‘setaceous’

 

Although may of them do come in dull colours, the variety of shades, patterns and shapes is extraordinary. This is an Angle Shades.

 

Moths can vary greatly within the same species, some come in a variety of shades depending on their sex and/or location. This is a typical Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing (probably a male) …

 

… this is a female, but both sexes share the startling yellow-orange underwing which has probably evolved to startle predators. Photo by Bernard Dupont from Wikipedia Commons.

 

Like most wildlife moths can be habitat specific and moving just a short distance can result in a completely different series of species being trapped. I have a friend who lives a stone’s show from the wetlands of Lytchett Bay and gets a much higher variety in his garden than I do. Another friend from birding trips abroad lives in the Peterborough area and was surprised to find that I regularly catch this species, Bird’s Wing, albeit in very small numbers, as in decades of mothing he’s never had one in his garden.

 

Another moth that is brown but far from boring is The Drinker, so called because the caterpillar sips on drops of dew on grass stems. Initially I used a cork mat to photograph the moths as it resulted in a neutral background colour for the camera exposure without too many shadows but more recently I have gone for white sheet of paper as it is less distracting.

 

Of course moths are a major food resource for birds and many are consumed, so it makes sense that some pretty amazing camouflage will have evolved. None more so than this Buff-tip which has evolved a perfect imitation of a broken-off twig. Photo by Iain Leach from Butterfly Conservation

 

A similar deception seems to be at work in this moth known as The Spectacle …

 

… you have to see it head-on to see where it got its name.

 

Often its easy to identify a moth to a ‘group’ but harder to tie it down to a species. In this ‘group’ there are only two species both of which shown here. On the left is Lesser Swallow Prominent and on the right is Swallow Prominent.

 

Even brown and grey moths can be extraordinarily beautiful. This Buff Arches has an intricate pattern on the forewing …

 

… whilst the large triangular patches on the rear of the forewing (next to the abdomen on the the closed wing) glisten like polished flint or grey obsidian.

 

Moths vary considerably in size from a few mm to big critters like this Oak Eggar with a forewing length of 40mm. One of the largest is the Death’s Head Hawk Moth (see photos towards the end of this post) which has a forewing of up 60mm ie its wingspan would be a full 12cm or 5 inches.

 

In general butterflies have a club-shaped antenna whilst moths have a feathered antenna, especially in the male. Most butterflies rest with their wings closed whilst most moths rest with the wings open. An exception is this Canary-shouldered Thorn which usually rests in this position. Butterflies are very closely related to moths, in fact genetically the butterfly Families are embedded between the various moth Families.

 

As well as brown ones and yellow ones, moths come in delightful pastel shades like this Buff Ermine …

 

… or pearly white as in the Common White Wave.

 

A few moths are a rich shade of green like this Common Emerald …

 

… or the delightful Scarce Silver-lines, but most of the ’emeralds’ fade to an off-white in time.

 

Black-and-white moths such as this Knot Grass abound (and I find many difficult to separate) …

 

… but there was no confusion when I trapped this pretty little Rosy Footman.

 

I never caught this spectacular Swallow-tailed Moth in the trap but found it on the conservatory door one morning. I got one or two pics before it flew away.

 

This individual was photographed when some of us ran a portable moth trap at Lytchett Bay earlier in the summer but I have also caught the striking Black Arches in my garden.

 

Moths are very sensitive to climate change as it effects both their life-cycle and the timing and availability of their food plants. So species like this Jersey Tiger are moving in from the continent. I was very pleased to trap one in the garden although I had to get this photo from Wikipedia Commons (photographer wasn’t credited).

 

Some of the most spectacular of the moths are the hawkmoths. I’ve trapped four species in my garden this year, Poplar Hawkmoth …

 

… Elephant Hawkmoth, was probably the commonest. The other two are Privet and Lime HM.

 

There’s always a chance of catching something really rare when mothing, a species that has drifted over from Europe or even North Africa. That is exactly what I thought had happened when I found this strange looking moth which wasn’t in either of my field guides. I sent this photo to a local moth expert who told me it was an invasive species called Box-tree Moth which was accidentally introduced to the UK from the Far-East and is spreading rapidly. The caterpillars doing serious damage to ornamental hedges.

 

One group of moths, the pugs, is renowned for being very difficult to ID. However this one, Lime-speck Pug is the exception and is uniquely patterned. Pugs are the only moths in the ‘macro’ field guide that are shown at greater than life-size. Although obviously most ‘macros’ are larger than the ‘micros’ there is considerable overlap.

 

When I used to do mothing in the ‘naughties’ I used to ignore the micros but this year I though I’d buy the guide and give it a go.

 

I quite like a group of ‘micros’ known as plume moths. This one is Beautiful Plume Moth.

 

Many micros can only be identified by dissection, many have dozens of near identical species in the same genus and nearly all only are known by their scientific names This one is Anania coronata. Unfortunately although I have picked up the scientific names of most British birds over the years I very much doubt that I will be able to repeat that with the micro-moths.

 

This micro for example cannot be identified to species without dissection and so I’ll have to find a way of recording it on my Wildlife Recorder program as Cnephasia sp.

 

Not a micro but a very usual macro. This moth belongs to a group called clearwings. They don’t come to light, they are diurnal and are wasp mimics. The only way to see these is to buy specially prepared clearwing pheromones to attract them in. This is exactly what my friend Nick did for this Yellow-legged Clearwing at Lytchett Bay. So I was introduced to the new experience of ‘moth twitching’ when I went round to his house (all of half a mile away) to see it. However some ‘moth twitchers’ will drive hundreds of miles to see a new moth which in most cases is sitting in a pot in someone’s fridge awaiting their arrival (the moth of course will be released when it gets dark).

 

Of course moths occur everywhere and I have come seen a number of species in locations other than my garden. If my interest grows I will make the effort to see species that I’m not going to see at home, such as this beautiful Magpie Moth.

 

Because I’ve been there so many (probably hundreds) of times for birding I’ve encountered a number of special moths at Portland Bird Observatory as they trap just about every night. Perhaps my favourite has been the enormous Death’s Head Hawkmoth, a moth that actually squeaks if touched.

 

This is a rare migrant/immigrant from the continent and I was very lucky to see one at the Observatory. The origin of the name is obvious with the striking skull-like marking on the thorax.

 

Of course I’ve travelled a lot for birding and, especially when staying at remote lodges, rather than city centre hotels, I’ve seen a lot of impressive moths. I’ve photographed a few and sent them to interested people when I get back to the UK, but little is known about moths in the tropics. many species haven’t even been scientifically described and those that have have only scientific (Latin) names.

 

Some like this fella that I photographed in Paraguay are truly enormous (compare it to the size of the bricks in the photo above) and undoubtedly have been named but there is little information available and on birding tours little time to even take in their beauty.

 

Mothing will undoubtedly remain a side-show in my desire (obsession?) to see the birds of the world but I’m glad that lockdown has forced me to revisit it as a hobby. I hope that I will continue to run my trap throughout the rest of this year and into the future and hopefully get to recognise (and remember) all the species that visit my garden.

IF ANY MOTH EXPERTS READ THIS POST AND FIND ANY GLARING ERRORS PLEASE E-MAIL ME OR LEAVE A COMMENT. BUT IF I’VE ID’d A MOTH INCORRECTLY PLEASE TELL ME WHY!

West Pacific Odyssey part 6: Japanese waters and the Bonin and Izu Islands. 9th – 14th April 2019.   Leave a comment

Sorry to any readers who may have visited this blog recently to find a series of photos with no captions. After uploading the photos I though I clicked on ‘save’ I must have hit ‘publish’ instead.

 

This is the 6th and final episode of my account to the West Pacific Odyssey, an epic 31 journey on the ship Professor Khromov (aka Spirit of Enderby) between New Zealand and Japan and covers our time from when we entered Japanese waters on 9th April until when we flew home from Japan on the 14th.

 

On 9th April we entered Japanese waters. The composition of the species we had been seeing had already changed from being predominately boobies, tropicbirds and terns to predominately storm-petrels and shearwaters. With a number of Matsadaira’s Storm-petrels being seen in the wake it was decided to drag a bag of chum behind the ship which brought them in closer. This in turn brought bird photographers off the foredeck to the stern (including stalwart birders Mike and ‘green sock’ Geoff who had both travelled with me in 2016 on the Atlantic Odyssey).

 

Matsadaira’s Storm-petrels are a large storm-petrel with a wing span 8cm or more than a Leach’s. Their wholly brown underparts …

 

… and the white bases to their primaries give them a very different look. Around 1990 there was a spate of claims of this species in the UK although none were substantiated. Indeed it was shown that at least some of the records were Eurasian Nightjars, feeding offshore at dusk and performing a strange fluttering flight, something that totally baffled the observers at the time..

 

Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were relatively common. They have a wide range across the Indian and Pacific Oceans and breed in both hemispheres. Dark phase birds predominate in the southern hemisphere and light in north …

 

… whether this indicates incipient speciation is not clear but at the moment they are not acting like separate species.

 

If you want to see some photos of dark phase birds then follow this link to part 2 of my account of the West Pacific Odyssey.

 

Also in these waters to the south of Japan we saw our first Bonin Petrels, the only Pterodroma I was to see in the northern hemisphere part of this cruise.

 

As well as a diagnostic underwing pattern …

 

… this species shows a much greyer back than other similar Pterodromas.

 

And along with the shearwaters we started seeing our first Black-footed Albatrosses. This is a species that breeds mainly in the Hawaiian chain but ranges widely over the North Pacific.

 

Early on on the 10th we passed the island of Hahajima in the Ogasawara (or Bonin) Islands. A Humpback Whale greeted us as we arrived. It was such a pity we couldn’t go ashore as it was calm then …

 

… but we had to head north to Chichijima in order to clear customs and have a bio-security check. The officials from Japan had spent days travelling by ferry from Tokyo and perhaps unsurprisingly insisted on doing a though job. We had expected that we could go ashore to clear immigration and then have a look around but instead they came on board. Even so it took four hours before they departed and then there wasn’t enough time to go ashore …

 

… at least there were more Humpback Whales to watch.

 

Not landing was a bit frustrating as we had been at sea for six days now and although there was no specific wildlife to see ashore, quite a few people wanted to ‘stretch their legs’. However for the birders (which meant almost all of the clients) a treat was in store …

 

… as the day drew to a close we headed round to the east side of Chichijima. We were on the look out for a very rare and recently described species of small known as Bryan’s Shearwater …

 

… however nobody had told me that Bannerman’s Shearwater, another small shearwater and one we had seen at sea further south, also occurred there as well. So in fact the first four or five ‘Bryan’s’ that I saw were in fact Bannerman’s … Photo by Niall D Perrins see here

 

… however eventually at least one Bryan’s Shearwater, smaller and with more white around the eye than Bannerman’s, flew down the starboard side. This is a very little known species, critically endangered and only recently described. This photo is by Hiro Tanoi, the ace Japanese seawatcher who along with his wife Shoko, was onboard the Professor Khromov with us, but was taken on an earlier trip to Chichijima. See here for his website.

 

We were back off Hahajima at dawn but the weather was deteriorating. The Bonin Islands have two endemics, the Bonin Honeycreeper (actually a white-eye, albeit a very attractive one) and the soon to be split greenfinch. There was a a major blow when we were told at the last minute that customs had forbidden us to use our zodiacs in case we introduced foreign organisms into this pristine environment. So whilst the expedition organisers tried to get local boats to come and ferry us ashore we stood on deck and watched the antics of the local Humpback Whales.

 

Eventually the captain decided that as he couldn’t safely anchor any further inshore and the local boats might be bashed against the hull, so both for the ship’s safety and ours he would have to abandon the visit.

 

As you can see the weather (the tail end of a typhoon that has swept across the Tokyo area) deteriorated even further, so we had no option but sail north. Getting to Hahajima from Tokyo is a very difficult proposition so as we sailed away I knew that my only realistic chance of seeing those birds was sailing away with me.

 

However the day still had a goody in store for us. We started seeing the odd Tristam’s Petrel. Similar to Matsudaira’s but smaller, with a stronger pale bar along the greater coverts and lacking the white base to the primaries …

 

… this species was also high on my wanted list, as of course is any new species of seabird.

 

They didn’t come as close as Matsudaira’s had earlier, but as the day drew on they started appearing in staggering numbers, several flocks holding a thousand plus birds were seen and at times the surface of the sea looked like it was covered in a swarm of gnats.

 

On the morning of the 12th we approached the active volcano of Torishima.

 

Beautiful Black-footed Albatrosses sailed in front of the dramatic cliffs, but this wasn’t our main target.

 

… distant white specks on the slopes were revealed to be what we had longed to see, Short-tailed Albatross colonies at their main breeding colony.

 

We could also see the research station, once the base for those who almost drove this magnificent species to extinction by killing them for their feathers.          From Wikidedia: The IUCN classifies this species as vulnerable with an occurrence range of 34,800,000 km2 and a breeding range of 9 km2 . The Short-tailed Albatross came perilously close to extinction. They were hunted on an almost industrial scale for their feathers in the latter half of the 19th century, with some estimates claiming upward of 10 million birds hunted. By the 1930s the only population left was on Torishima, between 1927 and until 1933 hunting continued when the Japanese government declared the ban of hunting to save the species, by which time the albatrosses had stopped breeding on the island. At this point the species was assumed to be extinct and research became impossible with the outbreak of World War II. On 1949 an American researcher arriving on this island declared the species to be extinct, but an estimated 50 individuals, most likely juveniles, survived at sea (all albatross species take a long time to reach sexual maturity and will not return to their natal colony for many years). After the return of the birds they were carefully protected, and the first egg was laid by the returning birds in 1954. Varieties of albatross decoys were placed around on the island after it was discovered that like other albatross species, this species also were enticed to breed if placed in a group. Today, longline fisheries, and volcanic eruptions on Torishima are the largest threats; however, introduced predators, environmental contaminants, soil instability, and extreme weather are also threats. There are many measures underway to protect this species. Japan, Canada, and the United States list this bird as a protected species. Torishima is a National Wildlife Protection Area, and native plant species are being transplanted to assist in nesting. Also, most commercial longline fisheries use bycatch mitigation devices.

 

So the species survived thanks to the immature birds that remained at sea when all the adults had been slaughtered. Fortunately no feather collectors went back to check if there were any more left. As a size comparison here is an immature Short-tailed Albatross (left) with a Black-footed Albatross (right) and a Wedge-tailed Shearwater (lower centre).

 

 

The immatures (left) are great but the adult with its pink bill, white body and golden head and neck is a joy to see.

 

As the Wikipedia article says, there remains a threat from volcanic eruptions but now the population has reached around 2000 there would be a good population out at sea that could recolonise the island at a later date, certainly more than the estimated 50 that survived at sea after the end of the feather trade.

 

Of course landing by anyone other than researchers is banned and there is an exclusion zone around the island where fishing and the dumping of any material (including chum) is prohibited, so we steamed away from the island with a whole bunch of albatrosses and shearwaters in our wake …

 

… whilst Chris Collins …

 

… and Lisle Gwynn got on with the unpleasant job of chum preparation.

 

Soon of course the albatrosses keen sense of smell told them there was food available …

 

… and Black-footed Albatrosses glided in for a free feast (and the day brightened up as well).

 

Short-tailed Albatrosses joined the melee of Black-foots and shearwaters around the stern …

 

… giving truly wonderful views. I saw a few of this species on my cruise (also on the Prof Khromov) off the Kuril Islands on the ‘Russian Ring of Fire’ trip in 2016 but views were distant and nothing like as good as this.

 

As well as the brown immatures there were a number of sub-adults. An albatross of this size (only out competed by the Royal and Wandering groups) will take ten years to reach maturity.

 

I had to ask the question when preparing this post: just how many photos of this wonderful and enigmatic species that almost went extinct, is too many? But I though I’d squeeze in another couple. If you want to see my review of all the albatrosses in the world posted for ‘World Albatross Day’ then click here

 

By my standards the photos were good, but here is a truly great photo of a truly great bird (in every sense of the word) by fellow passenger Toy Janssen. Short-tailed is hardly the best name. Some have suggested calling it Steller’s Albatross after its discoverer Georg Wilhelm Steller the first European to set in North America by travelling eastwards across Siberia, but no other albatross sports a patronym. I think a great opportunity was lost when they failed to call it Golden-headed Albatross.

 

The following morning we anchored off Miyakejima in the Izu Islands. Then Helen dropped a bombshell. Although we had been ensured that we could use our zodiacs to get ashore but overnight the authorities had changed their mind and we would have to use local boats. We could see the busses hired to take us to the forest to see the endemic birds waiting by the quayside. Long dialogs ensued with the port, but the wind started to increase and the consensus was that the boatmen might be able to get us off but couldn’t guarantee getting us back on board again. I might add that Helen and the expedition staff did everything they could to try and get us ashore. The fault doesn’t lie with them.

 

Having had three shore excursion cancelled in last four days we were all pretty pissed off. It would mean that we would be ten days at sea without landing, but far more important was that we would miss the island endemics and specialities, Japanese Woodpigeon, Ijima’s Leaf Warbler, Owsten’s Tit and Izu Thrush. However when I got home I found that the Birdquest spring tour of Japan includes the Izu islands and I had plan to do that tour sometime soon (pandemics permitting of course). So unlike the Bonin Islands all is not lost. Later we took a short excursion around some nearby rock stacks with Mijakejima looming in the background.

 

The rough conditions didn’t stop boatmen landing fishermen on these rocks!

 

The day was sunny, the scenery magnificent and our target appeared right on cue …

 

A flock of Japanese Murrelets, the only auks I saw on this trip.

 

I had seen a couple of distant Japanese Murrelets from the bridge of Prof Kromov just to the east of Sakhalin on the ‘Russian Ring of Fire’ trip but the views this time were so much better.

 

We circumnavigated the rocks and headed back towards Mijakejima before heading north towards Yokohama …

 

On the way back we noticed that the outcrop that we had seen from the other side now seemed to have a teddy bear perched on the summit!

 

A few Streaked Shearwaters had been seen by some of the birders ever since we we left the Solomon Islands, but now we were in the core of their range and they we positively abundant. Not so the Short-tailed Shearwaters from Australia which normally arrive by this time in order to moult. They were conspicuous by the absence.

 

We were treated to hundreds of the speckled heads and white underparts of the Streaked Shearwaters (a species that has even been seen in the Western Palaearctic off Eilat) during our final afternoon.

 

Although this post is about a trip in 2019, it was 2020 before I posted it. This year we have heard of a Short-tailed Shearwater found moribund in Ireland, a White-chinned Petrel in Orkney, a Zino’s Petrel off Scilly, a Scopoli’s Shearwater in the North Sea, a Yelkoun Shearwater in Dorset (one that I did see) and multiple records of Brown Boobies. Something is happening to the world’s seabirds, undoubtedly caused by the warming of the oceans and the disrupting of currents. Maybe one day a Streaked Shearwater will reach Britain.

 

As evening approached we continued to sail north towards Tokyo and the volume of shipping traffic, which had been so light on on the cruise, dramatically increased.

 

On the morning of the 14th we entered Sagami Bay which leads to Tokyo Bay and the Port at Yokohama. We started seeing a whole bunch of new birds, such as Black Kites, Large-billed Crows and a whole host of gulls including Black-headed, Kamchatka (a race of Common), Vega, Slaty-backed, Glaucous-winged and this Black-tailed Gull.

 

It was quite hazy as we approached the port at Yokohama and Mount Fiji could only be seen faintly through the haze, so I’ve used this photo from Celebratory Cruises . Note that this shot must have been taken in winter as there is far more snow on the mountain then when we saw it in mid-April.

 

We were transferred to a bus that took us to the airport at Narita. There was some time to spare, so an hour or so was spent birding around the car park which produced views of a few good birds like Dusky Thrush. This photo is actually of a vagrant Dusky Thrush seen in Derbyshire in December 2016 taken by my friend Roger Howell when we twitched the bird.

 

We also saw Azure-winged Magpie (this photo taken by Janos Olay on my 2018 Mongolia trip.) I’d have loved to stay and spent some time birding in Japan but I’d been away for five weeks already, it was time to go home.

 

So for the last time I’ll post this map of our route. It had been an incredible journey of 5650 nautical miles (10,460 km) over 31 days (35 days away from home).

I landed on ten islands (plus photographed and admired many more from the ship) in six countries and entering the territorial waters of another two.

I saw 258 species of bird including those on New Zealand and Japan. That total included 42 species of ‘tubenose’ and 80+ seabird species (including all the gull, tern and cormorant species we encountered).

60 species were additions to my life list including 20 species of seabird (mainly ‘tubenoses’).

I saw 20 species of cetacean of which six where additions to my life list.

And I made many good friends.

On the negative side not being able to land on Rennell in the Solomons and Hahajima and Miyakijima south of Japan where serious blows but things went far smoother than say in 2020, when the ship having departed New Zealand had to sail to Vanuatu where the tour abruptly ended due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

It will remain one of the most rewarding trips I’ve ever undertaken.

 

But if I have to choose one photo to end the account of this amazing trip it would have to be a Short-tailed Albatross approaching head on.

West Pacific Odyssey part 5: Solomon Islands to Chuuk, Micronesia and beyond: 30th March – 8th April 2019.   Leave a comment

This post continues the story of the West Pacific Odyssey, the month-long epic journey on board the Professor Khromov from New Zealand to Japan.

We made a single landfall during this time at Chuuk (formerly spelled Truk) in the Federated States of Micronesia (Caroline Islands). I have visited Chuuk previously in 2010 as part of a wider tour of Micronesia. As I didn’t get to see much of the island group on this tour I’ve added a number of photos taken then.

 

Leaving Kolombangara in the Solomon Islands behind we sailed along the western side of Bouganville and close to the southernmost tip of New Ireland. The following day we crossed the Equator and we spent the following day at sea as well. On 3rd April we arrived at Chuuk in the Caroline Islands and spent the latter part of the day and the following morning on the island. The next three days were spent at sea. We arrived in Japanese waters on the 9th.

 

As we left the Solomon Islands we had great views of the volcanic summit of Kolombangara (see post four on the WPO for more).

 

The following morning we passed to the west of the island of Bougainville. Although geographically part of the Solomons, administratively it belongs to Papua New Guinea although it has been lobbying for independence for a long time. Many of the tribes in the highlands jealously guard their territory and are suspicious or even show violence to outsiders. Recently the security situation has eased and a bird tour to this little known island with its myriad of endemics was advertised for 2020. I’d absolutely love to go but a) is it really safe? b) am I fit enough to hike up the top of that mountain? and c) could I afford it? its incredibly expensive. I think this is as near as I’ll ever get to Bougainville.

 

On route we found a few Little Terns roosting on floating coconuts …

 

… but the birding highlight was this Beck’s Petrel, a small version of Tahiti Petrel which is mainly seen around Bougainville and New Ireland.

 

Beck’s Petrel. These images are shown at a smaller size as the bird was so distant.

 

Also in the area were some more Heinroth’s Shearwaters …

 

… and the next day, close to the PNG island of New Ireland we saw these Pygmy Sperm Whales.

 

They are very hard to separate from Dwarf Sperm Whale but as Pygmy Sperm Whale has more of a falcated dorsal fin.

 

As we approached New Ireland the sea state got calmer and calmer …

 

… and just as happened when we approached the Equator on the Atlantic Odyssey three years earlier, the sea took on an oily appearance. We were entering the doldrums.

 

However that wasn’t to last long, with New Ireland disappearing away in the distance we saw a waterspout, that is a tornado at sea.

 

As the day drew on the clouds got darker and darker …

 

… and there was a dramatic sunset.

 

It was really rough in the night, not what we expected as we neared the Equator, with a big, slow swell that moved everything around in your cabin. OK I’ve been through much worse on the way down to Antarctica but this is supposed to be the doldrums. The outer bulkheads were closed and we were banned from going on deck. There had been plans to stop the ship and going for a swim at 0 degrees (latitude that is not temperature) but of course that was cancelled, as was all the usual tomfoolery that usually accompanies ‘crossing the line’.

 

All we could do was gather on the bridge and watch the GPS as we moved from the southern to the northern hemisphere. It was the 1st April, if there were any ‘April fools’ it was us.

 

Taken within four metres of ‘crossing the line’.

 

Around the Equator and during the bad weather we saw hardly any birds at all, but between the Solomons and New Ireland and to the south and north of Chuuk we had good numbers of the common tropical seabirds including Sooty Tern …

 

… Red-tailed Tropicbird …

 

… this Red-tailed Tropicbird has a all white tail (just to confuse things).

 

Also seen were frigatebirds, this is an adult female Lesser Frigatebird.

 

Three species of booby were commonly seen around the ship, chasing flying fish or roosting on the superstructure. This an adult Brown Booby.

 

This Brown Booby can be sexed as a female on account of the greenish facial skin. A recent publication ‘Oceanic Birds’ by Howell and Zufelt, which wasn’t available when I did this trip, proposes that there are three species of Brown Booby, this is the Indo-Pacific form.

 

This is a adult Masked Booby …

 

… you can just see it’s pale eyes in the photo. The dark eyed race tasmani which occurs to off Australia has been illustrated earlier in my WPO account.

 

Red-footed Boobies come in several morphs. This is a typical brown morph here seen chasing flying fish.

 

This is the light morph. Red-footed Booby is the smallest of all the six species of booby.

 

Identification is complicated by these partially brown dark-tailed immatures.

 

Boobies would often perch on the superstructure as they scanned the ocean for flying fish and would sometimes roost there.

 

We arrived at Moen on the main island of Weno in Chuuk, one of the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia, in the afternoon but it took ages to get customs and immigration clearance.

 

… but as soon as we could we went for a walk …

 

Norfolk Island and New Caledonia were fully westernised developed islands, whilst the remoter villages in the Solomons were basic but rustic and attractive. Chuuk on the other hand just seemed tatty with derelict buildings and poorly repaired roads.

 

This derelict ship photographed over a line of washing between two tumbledown shacks sums up the air of neglect.

 

The people were welcoming enough though (see also the cheerful chappie in the photo two above)

 

In 2010 I did a comprehensive tour of Micronesia visiting some of the Mariana Islands, and Palau plus Chuuk, Yap and Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia (Caroline Islands). As I didn’t take many good photos of Chuuk on this visit I’ve included some taken in 2010 to give a better idea of the scenery and wildlife of this island group. In 2010 we were staying in a hotel outside the town and so had to drive through it every time we wanted to visit anywhere. They were having big problems with the high tides flooding the streets. I don’t know if they have fixed it now or whether it was neap tides during our visit in 2019. This photo was taken in 2010.

 

In 2019 we birded an area of woodland around the ‘Japanese gun’ however you had to pay to see the gun itself and time was pressing. In 2010 we did visit the gun and accessed it via a tunnel through the hillside. Photo taken in 2010.

 

During WWII the Micronesian Islands were of great strategic importance, especially Chuuk due to the huge size of the lagoon and were occupied by the Japanese. This large gun was installed to defend the island of Weno from attack. Photo taken in 2010.

 

 

From Wikipedia:

Chuuk Lagoon, previously Truk Atoll, is an atoll in the central Pacific. About 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) north-east of New Guinea, it is located mid-ocean at 7 degrees North latitude and is part of Chuuk State within the Federated States of Micronesia. A protective reef, 225 kilometres  around, encloses a natural harbour 79 by 50 kilometres, with an area of 2,130 sq km. It has a land area of 93.07 square kilometres (35.93 square miles), with a population of 36,158 people and a maximal height of 443 m. Weno city on Moen Island functions as the atoll’s capital and also as the state capital and is the largest city in the FSM with its 13,700 people.


“Truck atoll” was the Empire of Japan’s main naval base in the South Pacific theatre during World War II. It was the site of a major U.S. attack during Operation Hailstone in February 1944, and Operation Inmate, a small assault conducted by British and Canadian forces during June, 1945. 

 

The gun was situated here to guard the approaches to Moen. However now the platform allows good views of the birds in the marsh below. Photo taken in 2010.

 

We saw a number of endemic or near endemic species in the area including this Purple-capped Fruit Dove. Photo by from weedmandan

 

… and the endemic and elusive Caroline Ground Dove. Photo by from weedmandan

 

Another Caroline Island endemic seen was the Oceanic Flycatcher Photo from weedmandan

 

As it was April the Pacific Golden Plovers were now in breeding plumage and about ready to head for the Siberian Arctic. I was given this photo and the ones of the Teardrop White-eye and Chuuk Monarch by another participant. Unfortunately I didn’t note their name. If you are reading this please let me know and I’ll credit you accordingly.

 

In 2010 we travelled to the island of Tol South in the south-west of the lagoon. There were two species, Teardrop White-eye and Chuuk Monarch that couldn’t be seen elsewhere. Also we saw Micronesian Pigeon which we also saw later in the trip. The climb was really tough and in parts much steeper than shown here. It was a real case of scrambling up on your knees. On the WPO a half-day trip to Tol South was offered but I declined. Those that did it managed to see the white-eye and the monarch ….

 

… indeed they saw something I didn’t see in 2010, the gorgeous white male monarch. As it was now the breeding season they might have been more conspicuous. Our late autumn visit in 2010 meant that the only ones I saw were drab juveniles.

 

When I went nine years earlier we had some local guides, indeed the entire village tried to be our local guide – which wasn’t very helpful.

 

The view from half-way up across the lagoon was stunning. Some of climbed much higher up Mount Winipot to see the pigeon, it was a really tough slog. Photo taken in 2010.

 

Here is the Teardrop White-eye also known as Grand Chuuk White-eye, a species found only on this island.

 

Our tour in 2010 was much more relaxed. Infrequent flights between the islands meant that we often had time on our hands, not something that you see very often on a bird tour. So we took the opportunity to go snorkelling. I’m not a great swimmer and I found it a bit tricky but I thoughtfully enjoyed it. Participant Richard Clifford was a keen snorkeler and brought an underwater camera. Photo by Richard Clifford in 2010.

 

The coral reefs were beautiful and full of lovely fish, this one is a Redfin Butterflyfish. Photo by Richard Clifford in 2010

 

But Chuuk Lagoon has the reputation of being the best wreck diving in the world. The lagoon was the base of operations for the Japanese Navy, an attack ‘Operation Hailstone’ in 1944 caught the Japanese unaware and the Americans were able to inflict major damage see Wikipedia – here   The lagoon is littered with wrecked supply ship and some military craft. Photo by Richard Clifford in 2010

 

I had been interested in military aircraft as a child, so seeing the remains of a Mitsubishi Zero on the bottom of the lagoon was pretty exciting. Photo by Clubmarine

 

As we left the Chuuk Lagoon and entered the open ocean we encountered a number of ‘Tropical Shearwaters’.  The thinking is that these species are essentially non-migratory and so each breeding population has evolved into its own species with distinct vocalisations and plumage. However they are certainly difficult to tell apart. Some like Bannerman’s Shearwaters and Byran’s Shearwater have already been given specific status. This form Puffinus bailloni dichrous is colloquially known as ‘Atol’ Shearwater. Photo taken by Mike Danzenbaker in the Caroline Islands. see here

 

We slowly made our way north, first through Micronesian waters then through the waters of the Mariana Islands, crossing the Mariana Trench which at nearly 11,000 metres is the deepest point in the ocean.

 

Of course we saw many of the birds I have illustrated earlier but we also started to see a number of shearwaters and storm-petrels, evidence that we were heading out of the tropics but I’ll save most of those photos for the final post. We also saw a number of cetaceans including this close Omura’s Whale. This was a species I hadn’t heard of before, although it was formerly called the ‘small-form’ Bryde’s Whale. It was only described as a full species in 2003 which is later than the publication date of the cetacean guide that I use. It’s range is tropical west Pacific from Sumatra/Java east to New Ireland and north to Japan. It reaches a maximum length of 12m so would just fit in our garden.

 

We also saw four (but only caught two in this shot) of the rare Blainville’s Beaked Whale.

 

Not too far north of Chuuk we found our first Matsudeira’s Storm-petrel. We were getting into the realm of the Japanese seabird specialities. More of that in next and final post about the West Pacific Odyssey.

 

But I’ll conclude with this photo of an exhaling Omura’s Whale seen over the Mariana Trench.

West Pacific Odyssey (WPO) part 4: Solomon Islands – 25th-29th March 2019   4 comments

This is the fourth post about the epic boat trip I undertook in 2019, travelling aboard the repositioning cruise of the Professor Khromov as it sailed from New Zealand to Japan.

This post is just about the Solomon Islands.

From Wikipedia: Solomon Islands is a sovereign state consisting of six major islands and over 900 smaller islands in Oceania lying to the east of Papua New Guinea and northwest of Vanuatu and covering a land area of 28,400 square kilometres (11,000 sq mi). The country has a population of 652,858 and its capital, Honiara, is located on the island of Guadalcanal. The country takes its name from the Solomon Islands archipelago, which is a collection of Melanesian islands that also includes the North Solomon Islands (a part of Papua New Guinea), but excludes outlying islands, such as Rennell and Bellona, and the Santa Cruz Islands.

In 1568, the Spanish navigator Álvaro de Mendaña was the first European to visit them, naming them the Islas Salomón. Britain defined its area of interest in the Solomon Islands archipelago in June 1893, when Captain Gibson R.N., of HMS Curacoa, declared the southern Solomon Islands a British protectorate. During World War II, the Solomon Islands campaign (1942–1945) saw fierce fighting between the United States, Commonwealth forces and the Empire of Japan, such as in the Battle of Guadalcanal.

Back in the 80s several of us in Poole, Dorset got to know a young local birder called Guy Dutson. After Uni Guy spent a lot of time living and birding in Melanesia, especially in the Solomon Islands and went on to write the definitive bird guide to the area. Partially because it contained so many life birds for me but also because I had heard so many great stories about the islands from Guy, the Solomons became a much desired destination for me.

 

 

 

However the more I looked into it the more difficult it sounded. To do the islands justice you needed a full four week tour (plus travel time), which made it impossible to do when I was working and to see all the endemics in the upland areas you needed to be particularly fit, which I’m not. Visiting on the West Pacific Odyssey was an alternative but you end up spending a small fraction of the time birding compared to a full tour. However in the end I was able to see over 40 of the 90 or so species that are endemic or nearly endemic to the Solomons.

 

The route of the west Pacific Odyssey from New Zealand to Japan. The Solomon Islands form an oval to the SW of New Guinea. The capital is Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal.

 

We made five landing in the Solomon Islands: 1) Santa Ana Island off the SE tip of Makira (on the map just above the ‘U’ in Makira-Ulawa); 2) Anuta Island off the west coast of Makira (on the map just right of the ‘a’ in Makira); 3) Guadalcanal accessed from the capital Honiara; 4) Tetepare (on the map an island below and right of Gizo); 5) Kolombangara (on the map just above and right of Gizo). Map from Geology.com

 

We were to spend a day ashore on the island of Rennell which has six or seven endemics, or near endemics. Tragically a tanker had recently gone ashore on a reef and had spilled oil everywhere. Whether this prevented landings or whether the Solomon government just didn’t want the world to see this environmental disaster we don’t know, but all landing had been banned. As a result we detoured to Santa Ana Island just to the south-east of the much larger Makira Island. Arriving about lunchtime we we were ferried ashore for an afternoon’s birding.

 

The Solomon’s are the classic South Pacific paradise, beautiful beaches dotted with coconut palms, sleepy villages with friendly but not intrusive inhabitants and of course wonderful birds.

 

We were able to start birding as soon as we stepped ashore (and before some clients had taken their life jackets off)  …

 

… with plenty of birds to see within the village itself …

 

… and the adjoining football pitch.

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Note that many of the bird photos taken on the island either had to be cropped to a large degree or were taken in poor light, so I have often posted smaller image sizes than usual to compensate.

 

Most of the birds we saw would be seen again on other islands. but this Silver-capped Fruit Dove was the one Rennell specialities that also occurs on Santa Ana and hence was we thought we had missed. Photo by Frédérik Pelsey from Oiseaux.net

 

Also seen was this Uig Monarch, a species only seen on a few islands to the south of Makira and unfortunately lumped in Chestnut-bellied Monarch by IOC.

 

It had been a most fulfilling afternoon with about a dozen life birds under the belt but it was time to be ferried back to the ship …

 

… and to sail north as the sun set.

 

We were heading for Anuta Island off the north-west coast of Makira.

 

The following morning we were zodiaked ashore to a small island just off Anuta in the Santa Cruz Islands (to the west of Makira).

 

We set off on a narrow trail, you can really see the problem of birding in tropical forests with such a large group. However before long we naturally split into smaller units around each of the bird guides and still most of us got to see most of the birds.

 

A lot of the forest was smothered by an introduced creeper, a common site on Pacific islands.

 

One of the species we saw was the beautiful Red-knobbed Imperial Pigeon. I first saw this species in New Ireland back in the 90s with my friend Guy Dutson. Guy is fluent in Melanesian ‘pigin english’ and when inquiring if the locals had seen this species he called it ‘im bilong strawberry on top’.

 

However Chestnut-bellied Imperial Pigeon was a new species for me …

 

… as was the little Sooty Myzomela, endemic to the islands around Makira.

 

 

 

As the day heated up we returned to the ship quickly changed out of our sweaty clothes and set off for the island on Anuta. Usually only two zodiacs were used to ferry us a shore but this time all five were out into the water.

 

As we approached we could see the entire population of the island had turned out to greet us.

 

As we approached the reason for the simultaneous arrival of all the passengers became clear …

 

… some islanders had dressed up with masks and spears in a re-enactment of their historic attempts to defend their island from European intruders. As they ran into the water and brandished their spears you could see how conflict easily arose between European explorers and local tribes.

 

In fact our welcome was anything but hostile …

 

…we were greeted by lines of children and draped with garlands of flowers.

 

The ladies of the village sang a ‘we welcome you to Anuta’ song and the village chief gave a speech.

 

Expedition leader Helen replied on behalf of the staff and crew and Chris Collins expressed the thanks of all the birders and other clients. Helen had arranged for educational material surplus to requirement in New Zealand to be donated to the children (the contents of the boxes in the above photo) and this was gratefully received.

 

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a happy smiling group of people …