Archive for the ‘Professor Khomov’ Tag

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.

The West Pacific Odyssey (WPO) part 3: New Caledonia -19th-24th March 2019   Leave a comment

This is the third post about the West Pacific Odyssey, the cruise on the Professor Khromov from New Zealand to Japan in March-April 2020. It covers our time in New Caledonia and the sea journey as far north as the Solomon Islands.

 

We arrived at Noumea, New Caledonia early on the 21st March and spent the rest of the day and part of the morning of the 22nd there. In the late morning of the 22nd we sailed north to the Solomon Islands. We had received some bad news; due to a serious oil spillage. all planned landings on the island of Rennell had been cancelled. This meant that we would loose out on six endemic species. Instead we would head for the island of Santa Ana which is situated on the extreme bottom left tip of the S in San Cristobal. We arrived at Santa Ana on the afternoon of 25th March. The Solomon Islands will be the subject of the next post.

 

We arrived at Noumea early in the morning. For the only time on the trip we were able to dock, so we were soon disembarked and took a coach to Riviere Bleu, the prime national park in Southern New Caledonia. New Caledonia is a ‘Special Collectivity’ of France see here for more details. There are 22 endemic bird species, three of which occur on offshore islands. I have visited New Caledonia before, in 2013 on a trip which also took in Fiji and Vanuatu. That time we were there for a week not a day and a half and saw all but two of the endemics (one of which, the NC Owlet-nightjar once occurred in the north of the island and is now presumed extinct).

 

The weather was lovely at Noumea but by the time we reached the reservoir formed by the damming of Rivierre Bleu the clouds had gathered and rain was on it’s way.

 

This bridge is no longer considered suitable for vehicles. On my last visit we had difficulty with ongoing transport once we had crossed the bridge and had to hitch a lift in a pick up truck, but all worked well this time. My friend and cabin-mate Steve leads the rather damp march to the awaiting vehicles. For more details of my 2013 trip see here

 

Once deep in the forest we hurried on to a site where we could see our main target, a very special bird indeed. New Caledonia is the smallest and most remote fragment of the ancient super-continent of Gondwanaland and is the only site for a very ancient bird, one that is the only species in its family – the Kagu.

 

About the size of a chicken and remarkably tame, as there were no ground predators before Man arrived, the Kagu is flightless in spite of having fully formed wings, As you can see in the photos, in spite of there being about 50 of us, we all eventually got close up views and photographs.

 

The drizzle we experienced earlier soon turned to heavy rain. We saw a good collection of the endemics but not all.

 

At least the huge Goliath Imperial Pigeon posed nicely.

 

As conditions for photography (see above) were so bad I’ve included a few bird pics that I took in 2013.

 

Six years earlier the sun was shining on the reservoir …

 

… we got great views of Yellow-bellied Flyrobin …

 

… and the gorgeous Cloven-feathered Dove …

 

… which is just as impressive in a rear view.

 

Also seen was Dark-eared Honeyeater …

 

… and New Caledonian Friarbird (another species of honeyeater).

 

The local guy Patrice, who has done much to protect these wonderful birds from predatory feral dogs, is seen here in 2013 with a group of tourists demonstrating just how tame the Kagus can be.

 

When he approached too closely they spread their wings in this impressive threat display.

 

But coming back to 2019, the weather had turned from bad to awful so there was little option but to return to the bus and head back to Noumea … (photo Suzanne Gucciardo)

 

… of course once away from the mountains the weather improved and we could see Noumea below us basking in sunshine. A problem arose when the clutch on the bus failed halfway round a major intersection in the middle of the rush hour. Pretty soon the gendarmes arrived and they cleared some of the traffic jam whilst we pushed the 50 seater bus off the road. It took surprisingly little time for a replacement to arrive, a reminder that New Caledonia is effectively a part of the EU and not some impoverished island state.

 

The nice thing about being docked at Noumea is that we could leave Prof Khromov in the evening and get a decent signal to phone home. The following morning we set off before dawn to Mount Khogi where we hoped to get a few more endemics under-the-belt before our departure.

 

The views from the mountain were pretty impressive and fortunately yesterday’s rain had cleared.

 

Birds seen on the mountain included the widespread White-breasted Woodswallow (taken in 2013) …

 

… Metallic Pigeon …

 

… the endemic Barred Honeyeater (taken in 2013)

 

… also photographed in 2013 but seen well on this trip was the New Caledonian Crow, said to be the most intelligent bird in the world. Captive individuals have solved puzzles that involve shaping tools and going through seven different stages to get a food reward.

 

But the highlight for me was brief views of the mega-skulking New Caledonian Thicketbird. I heard about four singing in dense roadside vegetation and even got a brief view as it moved though the bushes. This was the only endemic species (other than the probably extinct owlet-nightjar) that I didn’t see in 2013. My views were nowhere near as good as those previously enjoyed by photographer Lars Petersson (see his website here)

 

Unfortunately the trip schedule is already 31 days long, any longer and they probably wouldn’t be able to sell any berths, so most of our disembarkations seemed far too short. But although we’d missed a few of the endemics, I had seen them before and so I was quite content when we started back to Noumea at about 0900.

 

We were told that we must be back early as we had to sail about 1000 or else we wouldn’t get to the Solomon Islands in time. As we approached the dock we got caught in a huge traffic jam. We decided to get out and walk. The issue was a big rally, I think in favour of independence for New Caledonia, right outside the dock. That’s some of our group on the right pushing our way through the crowds.

 

Once boarded and tags turned (a necessary precaution to prevent anyone being left behind) we could watch the demo from the deck. Years ago I visited the Comoros, a group of four former French islands in the Indian Ocean. Three islands, Grande Comore, Moheli and Anjouan voted for independence from France in 1974, the fourth Mayotte voted against. The three independent islands are impoverished to say the least, whilst Mayotte looks like the Cote d’Azur transplanted into the Indian Ocean. I can understand the desire for self-government but hope the inhabitants have considered the economic implications.

 

As we left an Eastern Osprey flew over the dock with a rather large fish. This species has been split from (Western Osprey) on account of being 25% smaller and having a different head pattern.

 

So farewell to New Caledonia, after two visits I doubt if I’ll be back even if the owlet-nightjar is pinned down. There’s just too many beautiful places in the world to see.

 

We headed out of the lagoon, so we were no longer ‘atol protected’!

 

… and waved farewell to the local pilot.

A bird we really wanted to see was the so-called ‘New Caledonian Storm Petrel. There is no evidence that it breeds at NC, or if it does, no evidence that it only breeds at NC, so it can’t be considered an endemic. In fact it’s not clear that its an actual separate species. The bird was discovered on the West Pacific Odyssey in 2008 and has been seen several times since. It is clearly similar to the recently (re)discovered New Zealand Storm Petrel but is larger with broader wings and less white in the underwing. Birds fitting this description have been found off Queensland on pelagics led by Paul Walbridge (brother of Portland birding stalwarts, Grahame and Duncan Walbridge). He suggests the name Coral Sea Storm Petrel as they are not restricted to NC waters. It seems likely that they are the bird described as Pealea lineata and considered by Murphy et al as aberrant Wilson’s Storm Petrels in 1952 ( a fate that also befell New Zealand Storm Petrel). This taxa is still being evaluated and as far as I know efforts to catch one at sea have proved unsuccessful.

 

New Caledonian Storm Petrel (undescribed taxon?), New Caledonia, south-west Pacific Ocean, 20 March 2013 (photo © Kirk Zufelt)  see figure 9 in this paper for more details.

 

 

Seawatching from the upper deck was now becoming unbearably hot. Several expedition staff helped erect this awning and somehow got expedition leader Helen to climb the mast to secure it.

 

Manager Heidi Dohn also was co-opted to do the climbing.

 

Now in tropical waters you would expect never-ending sunshine but instead we got a whole succession of showers. The cloud formations were incredibly dramatic and made a great back drop to our seabirding.

 

Tropical species like Great Frigatebird …

 

… Brown Booby …

 

… and Red-footed Booby became common.

 

At night boobies would come and roost on the superstructure and cover the foredeck with booby poo.

 

By now we had all got to know each other, I have known Neil Bostock for many years having been on a pelagic trip with him in the central Pacific in the 90s and seen him a number of times when birding in the UK.

 

Japanese birders Hiro and Shoko Tanoi were some of the finest seawatchers I’ve ever met and Hiro probably found more quality birds than anyone else on the trip. They could always be found at the same spot on the fore-deck, from dawn to dusk, continuously scanning the ocean.

 

Jeff and Mike were also always on deck and found many good birds. I met them on the Atlantic Odyssey in 2016.

 

However when things got quiet I sometimes would get bored and go down for a coffee or sometimes go to a talk in the lecture room. Some 250 nautical miles off Santa Ana I did just that and missed a real cracker. There were three sightings (once of two together) of a bird that no-one could initially identify. Fortunately later on there was a 4th. They had striking, white flashes in the upperwing and underwing and at least the one I saw had a bright white dot on the flanks below the wing. Photos and videos were later compared and two of the earlier birds showed a most bizarre flight, possibly a display. Lisle Gwyne said they were identical to a bird he saw off one of the Lava Islands off Vanuatu a few years before and called them ‘Lava Petrel’. I thought as they were so ‘obscure’ they should be called just that, but in deference to their skua like wing flashes it should be spelt ‘Obskua Petrel’! In size and shape they looked most like a Pseudobulweria species, like Tahiti Petrel. I thought they resembled an extreme dark variant of Kermadec Petrel in plumage if not in shape and others have suggested Providence Petrel.

As the ship had always gone to Rennell in previous years and this year was heading to the east to reach Santa Ana then we may have sailed through a previously unbirded part of the ocean. Did we discover a new species for science? I really don’t know and wonder if those who said we had at the time are having second thoughts, but it was one of the most exciting moments of the trip.

Whilst the last of these four birds was flying past a rather large Band-rumped Storm Petrel flew in the opposite direction. Given how confused the taxonomy of this group is, its perfectly possible that this was also an undescribed taxon. Chris Collins later commented that ‘it isn’t very often that birders largely ignore an undescribed bird because something more interesting is flying in the opposite direction’!

The following low res photos were taken from the Wild Wings web site.  Photos © Chris Collins. See here.  I know better quality photos were taken but I don’t have access to them.

 

I’ll conclude with one of the dramatic cloudscapes that were such a feature of this part of the trip.

West Pacific Odyssey part 2: Norfolk Island and the journey towards New Caledonia: 19th – 21st March 2019   Leave a comment

This post covers the second part of the West Pacific Odyssey (WPO), an epic boat trip from New Zealand to Japan and deals specifically with the the short visit to Norfolk Island and the sail north to New Caledonia.

 

Here is the Professor Khromov anchored at Norfolk Island.

 

There to greet us was a ‘Tasman Booby’ the dark-eyed race of Masked Booby that breeds on the island. The cloudy conditions early on soon cleared and we had a nice sunny morning.

 

We headed ashore by zodiac, a White Tern flew in front of us as we neared the shore.

 

Landing at the pier …

 

… we had good views along the shore where a number of waders fed on the tideline …

 

.. put first we had to go through a customs check. Norfolk Island belongs to Australia and the official and dog were checking that we weren’t bringing foodstuffs ashore.

 

A Welcome Swallow did just that …

 

… although perhaps the sight of an introduced Crimson Rosella was less welcome. Actually Norfolk Island has a lot of introduced birds like California Quail and if we had of had time I’d have liked to have sought them out so I could add them to my Aussie list.

 

Along the shore were a number of Pacific Golden Plovers beginning their moult into summer plumage. Soon they will set off on a epic flight to the Siberian tundra to breed. We also saw a number of Wandering Tattlers which breed in Alaska but they were distant and my photos are poor.

 

Perhaps Norfolk Island’s most famous endemic is the Norfolk Pine. Planted everywhere around the world as an ornamental tree, it was originally endemic to the island.

 

A small proportion of the clients went on a guided tour of the island but the majority of us headed for the hills where we were to look for the endemic birds.

 

One of the most obvious of the endemics was the Norfolk Parakeet …

 

… a few of which showed well around the clearing.

 

Inevitably Norfolk Island has it’s own white-eye know surprisingly as the Slender-billed White-eye rather than name with ‘Norfolk’ in it. Birds in the genus Zosterops are known as ‘great speciators’ ie birds that colonise islands and then rapidly evolve into a new species to match the opportunities offered in their new environment.

 

Another ‘great speciator’ are the Petroica robins, a group in a completely different family from the Eurasian robins. This is not surprisingly known as Norfolk Robin. Photo by fellow traveller Suzanne Gucciardo.

 

The final endemic species was the Norfolk Geregone, one of a group of non distinct Australian Warblers found in the Australo/Papuan/Melanesian area. Photo by Alex Ferguson from https://birdsoftheworld.org

 

There really should be a fifth endemic. The taxonomic status of the Golden Whistler complex has been debated for decades. There are/were between 59 and 73 or so subspecies (depending on which authority you follow) making Golden Whistler the species with the highest number of subspecies in the world. Following a review some have been split but not xanthoprocta, the one on Norfolk Island  Here both males and females have a plumage like the females seen on mainland Australia. Photo by fellow traveller Suzanne Gucciardo.

 

It took around an hour to see the five species well but we were allowed around four hours. I would have liked to board the buses and go on an island tour for part of that time, after all I’m never going to be coming back.

 

Soon we were back on the pier and being shuttled back to Prof Khromov by zodiac.

 

During that afternoon and all of the following day we sailed north towards New Caledonia. As well as some species familiar from our earlier time at sea we saw new birds like Red-tailed Tropicbird …

 

There are three species of tropicbird in the world, Red-billed is confined to the coasts of the Americas, the Atlantic island and Arabian sea but Yellow-billed and Red-tailed occur in the Pacific.

 

We were to see all three northern skuas (jaegers) off and on during the trip. This area was good for Long-tailed Skua (Jaeger) with up to 15 seen.

 

The views in general weren’t all that close. These birds would have been wintering in the area, or perhaps have been further south and now on their way to the Siberian tundra to breed.

 

A common species was Wedge-tailed Shearwater usually abbreviated to ‘Wedgie’ …

 

They exist in two morphs, the dark morph is seen in mainly in the south-west Pacific, the light morph in the north-west Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

 

Other species seen included Black-winged Petrel, a Pterodroma with a wide distribution in the SW pacific …

 

… and Gould’s Petrel which breeds on an island just off the Australia east coast and on New Caledonia.

 

Yet another Pterodroma was Kermadec Petrel which has a wide breeding range across the islands of the southern Pacific. It also has a number of morphs, appearing in light, dark and intermediate forms.

 

This bird however, photographed a bit further north, is the very similar Providence Petrel. It has shorter wings and the uppersides don’t show the skua like flash at the base of the primaries. This bird was so named because the once huge colony of Norfolk Island was harvested by settlers/convicts during a famine in 1790 and was dubbed the ‘bird of providence’. However introduced rodents and pigs soon wiped the colony out and it breeds mainly on Lord Howe Island today.

 

We also saw the impressive Tahiti Petrel, in the genus Pseudobulweria it has a less arcing, acrobatic flight than the Pterodromas

 

Although I’ve blown quite a few photos up to show detail, this was the sort of distance that most birds were seen and photographed from. This flock contains White Terns, Black Noddies and presumed Providence Petrels.

 

On the morning of 21st March we docked at Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia. We arrived at about 0630 and after a tug had pushed us into place docked and were able for the only time on the cruise (away from Tauranga and Yokohama) disembark by the gangway. Our day and half on New Caledonia will be the subject of the next post.

 

During the cruise we experienced a number of superb skies and cloud formations, so rather than the dingy Nouméa docks, I’ll conclude with a lovely sunset.

 

Russia’s Ring of Fire – May 23rd – 11th June 2016   1 comment

At long last, another post! This time about my recent trip to the Russian Far East, the Kamchatka peninsula, the Commander and Kuril Islands and Sakhalin in the Sea of Okhotsk – the so-called ‘Russian Ring of Fire’.
Getting to see the avian gems of the north Pacific has taken some time. In 1996 on my trip to Arctic Siberia trip we were delayed for four days on the north coast and had to completely abandon our visit to the seabird megacities of the Sea of Okhotsk and last year this trip, run by Heritage Expeditions, was cancelled due to Russian intransigence over the Ukraine situation.
Its taken 20 years, but at long last I have visited this wild part of the world and seen it’s amazing wildlife. Of course I didn’t plan to go on two cruises just a few weeks apart, but with last years cancellation that’s the way it worked out .
One thing that strikes you is how lucky we are in the UK with our climate, The northernmost point of the cruise was on the same latitude as northern England, the southernmost point is level with the French Riviera, but for part of the time, even in June, we had snow on the ground at sea level and had fog, gale force winds and temperatures that seldom rose above 5 – 10c. At sea level in Kamchatka birch trees were just coming into leaf, but ascend 100m and they were still bare and many migrants appeared not to have arrived.
This post is just a summary of the trip, as I still have most of my photos to edit. At its conclusion we were given a Powerpoint presentation prepared by a member of staff.  All photos in this post, except those labeled with my name, are taken from this presentation. Although each picture cannot be individually credited (as this information was not supplied) the photographers whose work has been used are: Lisle Gwynn, Leonid Kotenko, Meghan Kelly, Chris Collins and Katya Ovsyanikova.
IMG_5030 Welcome to Kamchatka

Travelling across 11 time zones took ages, especially as there was a 13 hour wait between flights in Moscow. We arrived on a rare perfect day at Petropavlosk-Kamchatskiy (universally abbreviated to PK).

IMG_5099 Forests near PK

We birded the birch forest that surrounds PK. The birch forest was just coming into leaf ….

IMG_5118 Forest nr PK

…. but you only had to ascend about 100m and the trees were still bare. The prime avian target was the very elusive Black-billed Capercaille. We eventually all saw a female, but for me at least, it was under extremely frustrating circumstances.

IMG_5162 Avacha Bay

We also explored the shores of Avacha Bay, the beautiful natural harbour that surrounds PK. The above four photos taken by Ian Lewis

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In the evening we set sail on Heritage Expedition’s ship, the Professor Khromov or Spirit of Enderby as they call her, into Avacha Bay.

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Pk is the central marked point on the Kamchatka peninsula. From here we sailed north to the Commander islands, back to two more locations in Kamchatka, visited seven islands in the Kuril chain before crossing the southern Sea of Okhotsk to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on the island of Sakhalin.

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The Sea of Okhotsk is very cold whilst the NW Pacific receives warmer water from the tropics. The result is fog, grey skies and bad weather. Even though the sun seldom shined once we left PK, we had calm seas and great wildlife viewing such as this flock of Red-necked Phalaropes on a glassy ocean.

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On the trip we saw four Blue Whales, two Fin Whales (above), Humpback Whale, many Sperm and Killer Whales, Baird’s and Stenejger’s Beaked Whales and Harbour and Dall’s Porpoise.

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We made three landing in the Commander Islands, the most easterly of the Aleutian Chain and the only ones not to belong to the USA. The islands are named in honour of Commander Vitus Bering who led the first expedition to explore these waters and died here after a shipwreck.

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A short climb took us to North-west Cape where lo0king over a cliff ..

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…. we had good views of Red-faced Cormorants ….

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…. and some enormous Steller’s Sea Lion bulls (the fourth biggest pinneped in the world) with an inquisitive Arctic Fox as a bonus.

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There were also large numbers of Northern Fur Seals in the area.

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A visit to an offshore stack in the zodiacs gave us views of Horned Puffins ….

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…. and the enigmatic Red-legged Kittiwake, a gull confined to the Aleutian chain.

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A wide-angle view of the island of Medney, although I never saw it from this angle as I was birding along the shoreline of the bay.

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After birding/exploring the bay we took a zodiac cruise along the spectacular shore line.

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There were plenty of Sea Otters, many with a little cub resting on their bellies.

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Most of the passengers were from Europe, North America or Australia but we also had four Russian tourists who could always be identified by their bright red jackets.

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Overnight we sailed back to Kamchatka. Dawn was wet, with low visibility, quite a few migrants came aboard the ship, including Brambling, Eastern Yellow Wagtail and this Olive-backed Pipit; seeking refuge, appropriately on the lifeboat.

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Conditions improved as we zodiaced ashore and headed inland up the Zhupanova River.

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Our main target was the enormous and magnificent Steller’s Sea Eagle, here seen feeding on a salmon. Compare its size with the adjacent Carrion Crow.

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Several pairs of Steller’s Sea Eagles nest along the river. With the zodiacs it was possible to get quite close without disturbing them. The leader’s 500mm lens with 2x converter helped as well.

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We returned down the Zhupanova River and spent some time near the mouth looking at terns.

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It didn’t take long to find our target, the range restricted Aleutian Tern, which calls more like a wader than tern. As this species has occurred in the UK (once) I was delighted to see it, as it my ambition to see every extant species on the British List (just one to go now).

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The next day we went ashore at a fjord near the southern tip of Kamchatka, in spite of the fact that it was already June and we were at the same latitude as London, the ground was covered by snow right down to sea level.

IMG_5432 Brown Bear

After some good birding we returned to the ship and at the mouth of the fjord I picked up this Brown Bear on the snowy slopes. It was at least a mile away but I got some record shots. The colour made it look more like a Polar Bear than a Brown Bear. The only other one we were to see at Kunashir in the far south of the Kurils looked more like an American Black Bear in colour!

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Our next stop was at Atlasova, one of the northernmost of the Kuril Islands. Here we had a real surprise, a Red-billed Starling, a species that was a mere 4000 km out of range!

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The deep trench off the Kurils is known as a good location for Killer Whales or Orcas and they certainly didn’t disappoint with up to 80 individuals seen.

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We heard that a cyclone was coming but we didn’t know just how bad. That evening the winds gusted over 80 knots (that’s 160 km/hr). Unable to anchor the ship took shelter in the lee of the island of Onekotan. Of course we couldn’t make a landing that afternoon and we weren’t able to make any landings the following day either.

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On the third day of rough seas, a brave attempt was made to get us ashore inside the flooded caldera of Simushir Island. However as can be seen from this photo the swell was still pretty bad and I nearly fell in the sea trying to board the zodiac and got soaked up to mid-thigh. The attempt to board the zodiacs was aborted and the ship steamed about 5km to a new location whilst we followed, bumping along in the zodiacs. By the time a more sheltered location was found I was very cold and had no alternative but to re-embark and get thawed out. Most of the others in the zodiacs stayed and many more still on the ship joined them, but it was now a hour’s ride to the caldera and an even longer journey back.

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Those that made it to Simushir and its former secret Soviet submarine base said the expedition was worthwhile and quite enjoyable, but they returned cold and wet several hours later.

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The number of seabirds in these waters is staggering, Fulmars and Laysan Albatrosses swarm around a trawler, there was another trawler about 2km away and the flock extended as far as the second boat. Estimates of the number of birds present varied from 100,000 to half a million.

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Heritage Expedition have done this itinerary at least a dozen times. They usually see one or two of the mega-rare Short-tailed Albatrosses per trip (but have missed it some years and there is no guarantee that any one observer will connect). This year we saw 14! The storm may have prevented some landings but it delivered quality seabirds. Short-tailed Albatrosses were hunted to the point of extinction on their only breeding island (Torishima, off southern Japan) in the early part of the 20th century for their feathers. It was only because there were a number of immatures still at sea that the species survived. The population now numbers a couple of thousand but they wander over a huge area of ocean and we were very lucky to see them so well and so often.

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Even better was the sighting of a couple of adults, one seen here is with smaller Laysan Albatrosses. The name ‘Short-tailed’ doesn’t do it justice, ‘Golden-headed’ would have been better, or perhaps  Torishima Albatross.

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For all of the birders on board (and most of the non-birders too) the highlight of the entire trip was the evening visit to Yanchika Island.

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Fortunately the swell had subsided enough to let us enter another flooded caldera, complete with its hot springs and fumaroles.

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On the way we saw prodigious numbers of Crested Auklets ….

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…. and the exquisite Whiskered Auklet, surely the most charismatic of the auk family.

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Inside the caldera the water was covered with auklets and both Crested ….

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…. and Whiskered could be found all over the rocks.

Ravens, Peregrines and at least six Arctic Foxes gathered to feast on the assembled auklets.

7F1A4405 auklets

For over an hour there was a constant stream of auklets pouring into the caldera. It was more impressive than even the biggest starling murmuration. It was hard to estimate numbers, but two million pairs are said to nest there, so a million Crested and perhaps ten thousand Whiskered would be a reasonable estimate. It was by far the best experience of the trip. Photo by Ian Lewis

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The next day saw us zodiac cruising alongside a lava flow on Chirpoy Island. The lava front was slow-moving and the lava had cooled from red-hot to merely hot ….

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…. but even so the site of hot rocks tumbling into a caldron of boiling water was spectacular to say the least.

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The island of Urup will be best remembered for the hours it took to get a (poor) view of Japanese Robin, so I’ll gloss over that one and go on to talk about the next island, Iturup (above).

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Unlike the other Kurils, Iturup is still inhabited and we were transported around the island in these big trucks, which was less than satisfactory as you couldn’t communicate with the driver and so couldn’t request a stop for birding ….

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…. but for the first time since boarding the ship we were able to get away from the coastal fringe. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to bird the area properly and although we heard a Japanese Accentor, we never saw it.

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In the southern Kuril Islands, Steller’s Sea Eagles are largely replaced with the smaller, yet still spectacular, White-tailed Eagle.

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The southernmost island in the main Kuril chain is Kunashir. After the bleak conditions of Kamchatka, the Commander and northern Kuril Islands it seemed almost tropical.

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The mature forest held many more birds,such as this exquisite Narcissus Flycatcher, but also a lot of mosquitoes.

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Quality birding continued as we sailed north across the southern Sea of Okhotsk bound for Sakhalin. Large numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters were seen, along with a few Pacific Divers (or Loons) and hundreds Rhinoceros Auklets (above). Most surprising was a few Japanese Murrelets, a species that has not been recorded on this itinerary before and presumably had been displaced northwards by the cyclone.

7F1A5071 Gagarin Park

On the morning of 8th June we docked at Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and the cruise ended. Many passengers departed for flights that afternoon, but some of us had delayed our departure to be able to do some birding on Sakhalin. We were joined by passengers on the next cruise (around the Sea of Okhotsk) who had just arrived in Russia. This woodland is in Gagarin Park (named in honour of the first man in space) which was immediately opposite our hotel. This photo and the next were taken by Ian Lewis.

IMG_5927 BB Reed Warbler

We were able to see the endemic Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (a species that may have occurred in Dorset) and Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler, plus the super-elusive Rufous-tailed Robin, but it was only this Black-browed Reed Warbler that posed, in the rain, for photos. There were no flights on the 9th, I got to Moscow without difficulty on the 10th, but there was a major delay which meant I had to sleep in the airport overnight. I finally got home late on the 11th.

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Although there were some issues getting back and the weather was more like a British winter than what you would expect in June, I have to say that this was a most wonderful trip. I would like to thank Rodney Russ (above) the owner of Heritage Expeditions and all his staff plus the crew of the Professor Khomov/Spirit of Enderby for a truly fantastic experience.

 

 Again a reminder that only seven of the above photos are mine and the rest were taken by Heritage Expedition staff. Once I have edited all my photos I hope to upload many to the blog but I know have quite a backlog!