Archive for the ‘Short-tailed Albatross’ Tag

World Albatross Day: The most magnificent seabirds in the world.   Leave a comment

Today I planned to complete the third instalment of the account of my West Pacific Odyssey. However looking through emails this morning I realised that it was ‘World Albatross Day’, a day to bring attention to the conservation of these magnificent birds. check this link for details

Now I don’t have many pictures that depict efforts to conserve these species but I do know that they face many threats from – for example:

  1. long-line fishing see here
  2. alien predators like mice and rats see this link
  3. mistaking plastic in the ocean for food another link to check out

However this post is on a happier note and celebrates the wonderful times I had watching these, the most magnificent of all seabirds.

When I started birding 43 years ago there were 13 species of albatross. Taxonomic change means that there are now 21. In fact there are a total of 24 forms/subspecies (there are three additional subspecies which haven’t been awarded species status, although this may change in the future).

I have seen all but one of these 24 forms and I have seen an individual that looked so much like the 24th as to be indistinguishable in the hand.

Many of the photos shown below were taken in 2004 before I got into digital bird photography. Pete Morris and Dick Newell offered a CD to the clients on the Sub-antarctic Islands of New Zealand trip in exchange for a donation to the ‘Save the Albatross’ fund. Hence many of the best photos in this collection are their’s. I also have used some photos that Dave Fisher gave me after the Atlantic Odyssey.

So here’s the story of how I got to see all (or almost all) of the most magnificent seabirds in the world.

 

 

In 1978 I went to a talk by RSPB warden Bobby Tulloch on the beautiful Shetland Islands. I was very taken by his slides of his homeland but what really got me was the fact that he showed photos of a Black-browed Albatross flying up and down the cliffs of Hermaness in the most northerly island of Unst. It looked stunning and impossible to miss, I knew Janet and I had to go and see it. So in 1979 we drove all the way up to Aberdeen took the car over to Lerwick and two more ferries to get to Unst. Needless to say we were unsuccessful. This photo is not Bobby Tulloch’s but © Richard Fairbank who has given me permission to use his scanned slide.

 

Well the albatross kept coming back year after year and after getting some great gen off my friend Paul Harvey (who was about to move to Shetland where he remains to this day) I found out that the bird spent most of its time on a nest waiting in vain for a mate. In 1982 once more we drove up to Shetland and on to Hermaness. The nest was only visible from a few angles and one of those involved getting perilously close to the edge. Photo from a scanned slide © Richard Fairbank

 

We have to fast forward to 1991 before I get another encounter with a Black-browed and that was on pelagic trip off Cape Town, SA on a trip led by Ian Sinclair and Iain Robertson. We saw three albatrosses on that trip, Black-browed, Shy and Yellow-nosed. Since then I’ve seen this species again off Cape Town, from two one-day pelagics out of NSW, Australia and from land in Western Australia, in the Cook’s Straight Argentina and on three major cruises, to Antarctica, Sub-antarctic Islands of New Zealand and the Atlantic Odyssey. In total I’ve seen about 8000 individuals. This photo was taken on the Subantarctic cruise with Heritage Expeditions and is © Pete Morris.

 

Whilst we are on the subject of Black-browed Albatross I’d better mention number 2, Campbell Albatross which breeds only on Campbell Island in New Zealand’s subantarctic islands. It is fractionally smaller than Black-browed but with a startling pale eye when seen close and thicker black margins to the underwing. Photo © Dick Newell

 

Being at sea where the albatrosses follow the ship and pass by at eye level is undoubtedly the way to get great views. Photo © Pete Morris

 

I’ll come back to Yellow-nosed and Shy Albatrosses later, so number 3 is the mightiest of them all – Snowy Albatross. In 1998 I went on a fantastic trip to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica. During the first night we sailed out of the shelter of Drake’s Passage and into the South Atlantic and I started sliding around in my bunk. When it got light I managed to haul myself onto the deck and virtually the first bird I saw was a ‘Wanderer’ with a 3.5m wingspan. Just fantastic and seen just in time before I had to rush below and be sick!. The taxonomy of the ‘wandering albatross’ group is a bit complex and I’ll return to it later. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

The plumage succession in albatrosses is complex especially in the ‘wandering group’. Generally the older a bird gets the whiter it becomes – but only up to a point. Females don’t become as white as males and exulans, the true ‘wanderer’, better called Snowy Albatross to distinguish it from other members of the ‘wandering albatross complex’ is whiter than the other species. So this bird photographed at South Georgia is about as white as they come. Snowy only breeds south of the Antarctic convergence at South Georgia, four islands in the southern Indian Ocean and on Macquarie.

 

South Georgia is a fantastic place to see Snowy Albatrosses on the nest. I have seen about 230 of this avian giant on the the three southern ocean cruises that I’ve been on (Falklands-South Georgia-Antarctica, the Atlantic Odyssey and the sub-antarctic Islands of New Zealand) plus one off New South Wales, Australia. For more pictures of the Atlantic Odyssey including South Georgia see here

 

Albatross number 4 is Grey-headed. Breeding a little to the north of Snowy, off southern Chile and at Campbell Island to the south of New Zealand as well as the islands of the southern Indian Ocean. I have seen a little over 100 of this species on my three southern ocean cruises, but 40 or so were chicks on the nest in South Georgia. Only eight were seen in the NZ Sub-antarctic Islands where this photo was taken by © Pete Morris

 

9-11 species (depending on your taxonomy) of medium sized southern ocean albatross are known as ‘mollymawks’ Here are two, Black-browed on the right and number 5, Shy Albatross on the left (along with a White-chinned Petrel).

 

The ‘shy albatross’ group contains three or four species. ‘Tasmanian Shy’ or ‘nominate race Shy’ depending on your taxonomy breeds only around Tasmania but travels as far west as Cape Town which is the only place I’ve seen it, with about 250 seen on my two Cape Town pelagics . Note the back mark in the ‘armpit’ which is a characteristic of all the ‘shy albatross’ group. This bird has not got a yellow base to the upper mandible which means it might be a ‘White-capped’ from New Zealand and the bird in the first photo (with the Black-browed) is an immature so can’t be identified beyond Shy/White-capped. However I have seen undoubted nominate Shy in these waters.

 

The other race/species is White-capped Albatross which breeds in Aukland Island and Antipodies Island south of New Zealand. IOC lumps it in Shy; Howell and Zufelt’s ‘Oceanic Birds of the World’ and HBW’s Illustrated Checklist split it. Photo from NZ’s Subantarctic Islands © Pete Morris

 

The other two species in the ‘shy albatross group’ are number 6 Salvin’s Albatross which we saw breeding in great numbers, 10,000 or more, on and around Snares Islands south of New Zealand. I also saw one on a pelagic off Lima, Peru. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

…and number 7 Chatham Albatross which breeds only a single pyramid shaped rock south of the Chatham Islands where I saw a minimum of 5000. Photo © Dick Newell.

 

Another species pair that can be seen off South Africa is number 8 Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross which breeds in the Indian Ocean to the north of the Antarctic Convergence. It has a light-grey wash to the neck. I have seen 2 off Cape Town in 2011 and 2 from shore in Western Australia. In addition some 30 Yellow-nosed Albatross sp were seen on my 1991 Cape Town pelagic.

 

However this individual photographed on the same pelagic looks intermediate between the Indian pictured above and the Atlantic pictures below. It is possible to to separate them based on the exact shape of the yellow on the bill but I think you would need a photo of it coming straight for you to do that.

 

Number 9 is Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross which has a darker grey hood making the white crown stand out more clearly. When I did my first pelagic off Cape Town in 1991 I was unaware of the pending split, so I was pleased to catch up with undoubted Indian Yellow-nosed when I did another pelagic out of there in 2011. In 2016 we went on the Atlantic Odyssey and passed Gough and stopped at Tristan da Cunha where Atlantic Yellow-nosed breeds in good numbers with a minimum of 250 seen.

 

We landed on Nightingale Island and climbed to the top to see the endemic Wilkin’s Bunting on route we passed some Yellow-nosed Albatross chicks almost ready to fledge. At this age they lack the yellow on the bill and the grey wash to the neck. A lot were sitting on the path and we had to carefully pick our way around them.

 

We certainly got close up views. Photo © Dave Fisher

 

Moving back to the Pacific we come across a couple of albatrosses with yellow on the upper and lower mandibles as well as the gape, that are usually treated as races of the same species (even by the very splitty ‘Oceanic Birds of the World’) number 10 is Buller’s Albatross of the southern form that breeds on the Snares and Solander Islands where we saw about 15. Photo © Dick Newell

 

… and the Northern or Pacific Buller’s which breeds mainly on the Chatham Islands east of New Zealand, about 75 were seen. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

Another group of albatrosses is the ‘sooty albatross’ group. Variously called Light-mantled and Sooty or alternatively Light-mantled Sooty and Dark-mantled Sooty. Photo © Pete Morris

 

Light-mantled Albatross number 11 breeds across the islands of the sub-antarctic and ranges further south into Antarctic waters. I have seen around 200 spread over the three southern ocean cruises that I have taken. Photo © Pete Morris

 

It (along with Sooty) is the smallest and most graceful of the albatrosses. The synchronised display flight of a pair along the cliff edges is a beauty to behold. Photo © Dave Fisher.

 

Younger birds have a paler neck and mantle with the wing feathers lightly edged. Photo © Dave Fisher.

 

The discovery of number 12 was a real surprise. We were at the Antipodes Islands on the Sub-antarctic Island cruise (exactly the opposite side of the world to London, hence the name). Leader Pete Morris was off on zodiac cruise with some clients and I was waiting my turn. I found this all dark ‘mantled’ albatross gliding around the cliffs, I was so chuffed to have found a vagrant and couldn’t wait to tell Pete, but when he got back I found that he’d seen it and photographed it from the zodiac. A somewhat enlarged version of © Pete Morris’s photo.

 

The reason I was so excited about it is that Sooty Albatross breeds on Gough Island in the south Atlantic and so was thousands of miles off course. On the Atlantic Odyssey we saw around 50 at sea from a bit north of South Georgia to the Tristan group. Photo taken near Gough Island by © Dave Fisher

 

We now turn our attention to the four species of ‘north’ Pacific Albatrosses. Number 13 is Black-footed Albatross which breeds in the Hawaiian Island chain. I first came across the species on a couple of pelagics out of Monterrey California where 13 were seen. I have since seen one off the Kuril Islands, Far-eastern Russia and 150 to the south of Japan.

 

Seen close up the feathering around the bill and under the eye is quite distinct.

 

I first saw number 14 Laysan Albatross breeding on Oahu, Hawaii where some 10 adults were displaying, but as the name suggests it also breeds all along the Hawaiian Chain. I’ve also seen it off the Russian Far East where it was common with c400 seen but …

 

… the most bizarre sighting, indeed the most bizarre sighting of any albatross was on Nusa Island, Papua New Guinea. We had caught a small boat from New Ireland to New Hanover to see the New Hanover Manikin, on the return the boatman asked if we wanted to see the albatross. After a bit of questioning from his incredulous clients he detoured to Nusa Island where we treated to the sight of a Laysan albatross wandering around the village and feeding out of a plastic bowl.

 

Apparently it was picked up becalmed at sea and brought to the village to be fed. It was shepherded into a hut at night to keep it safe from dogs. The villagers hoped to release it once the winds increased. It was later discovered to be ringed 12 years previously as a pullus on French Frigate Shoals in the Hawaiian chain.

 

Returning to the West Pacific Odyssey, during the latter part of the cruise we sailed close to Torishima Island south of Japan (more photos of this albatross and of Torishima will appear when I post the last episode of my West Pacific Odyssey) …

 

… here we had the most wonderful views of number 15 Short-tailed Albatross. This species was believed extinct as by 1930 every single one of them on their only breeding island had been killed for their feathers. Fortunately a few immatures must have survived at sea and 25 or so years later a tiny number were found to be breeding back on Torishima. Now they are carefully protected and numbers are increasing. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen this species, we encountered around a dozen off the Kurils three years earlier but this time we saw at least 700. It is such a wonderful story how this bird came back from the dead.

 

Of all the vernacular names given to albatrosses ‘Short-tailed’ must be the worst. It would be far better to name it after Georg Stellar (of jay, eider and sea-cow fame) who first collected it or perhaps call it Golden-headed Albatross for obvious reasons. On appearance alone it has to be one of the best of them all.

 

Last of the Pacific albatrosses and the last albatross that I got to see (and the last new one that I will ever see) is number 16 – Waved Albatross.

 

This magnificent bird nests almost entirely on the Galapagos, a place I have yet to visit, so my only experience is of this one bird that made a close pass of our boat whilst on a pelagic out of Lima, Peru.

 

Now we return to the ‘great albatrosses’, the ‘royal’ and ‘wandering’ groups. the ‘royal group’ consists of two species. This is an adult Northern Royal (number 17) and with its all dark wings with a dark leading edge and black cutting edge to the bill is possibly the easiest of all the ‘great albatrosses to identify. Photo © Pete Morris.

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Some older Northern Royals get a bit of white speckling in the wing. This species breeds mainly on the Chatham Islands with a few on the NZ mainland near Dunedin but wanders all over the southern oceans. I’ve seen about 10 in South Georgia area, 250 in New Zealand/Chatham Island waters and one just to the north of NZ on the WPO. Photo© Pete Morris

 

Southern Royal (number 18) which breeds primarily on Campbell Island, whitens with age from the mantle outwards … Photo © Pete Morris.

 

… and along the wing, especially on the already white leading edge. This is a fully adult bird. ‘Great albatrosses’can take over 10 years to become fully mature. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

Southern Royal Albatross on the nest Campbell Island. Photo © Pete Morris

 

Southern Royal Albatrosses OTJ on Campbell Island Photo © Pete Morris.

 

A Royal Albatrosses’ view of Campbell Island. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

There are a couple of other species to add in the ‘wandering’ group: number 19 Tristan Albatross, a slightly smaller and darker version of Snowy that breeds in  Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island  that we saw well on the Atlantic Odyssey. This species is endangered as the young are being eaten by mice! We had about 100 sightings on the Atlantic Odyssey between South Georgia and Tristan da Cunha but a) it’s hard to know how many when the same bird can follow the ship for hours and b) it was hard to tell when the last Snowy Albatross that breeds in South Georgia was seen and when the first Tristan’s was encountered.

 

And another in the ‘wandering group’  number 20 Antipodean Albatross which breed mainly in the Antipodes Islands south of New Zealand. I have seen about 80 on the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand cruise, 40 on pelagics out Kaikora, NZ and a very small number off New South Wales. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

.. and Gibson’s Albatross which is usually treated as a subspecies of Antipodean. It usually retains some gingery tones into adulthood and keeps a dark tip to the tail. It breeds mainly on Aukland Island. About 85 were seen on the Subantarctic cruise, 8 off NSW and one north of New Zealand on the West Pacific Odyssey. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

I said there were 21 species of albatross and I had only seen 20. Well here’s the 21st! Amsterdam Albatross, seen only by the lucky few who get to visit Amsterdam Island in southern Indian Ocean, the most remote of islands. With a population of less than 130 birds and 25 breeding pairs (just 5 pairs when first discovered) the chances of encountering it at sea are low to say the least. And visiting the island isn’t easy either unless you’re a researcher and French. Photo © Vincent Legrendre via Wikipedia.

 

However on a pelagic out of Sydney in 1999 we encountered a most unusual bird. It’s presences was already known and it was obvious the pelagic organisers were targeting it. The bird on the left is a typical juvenile Antipodean but the bird on the right has the dark cutting edge to the bill, green gonys and paler face of an Amsterdam. Photo taken from a scanned slide

 

With a bit of manoeuvring and careful placement of chum the bird was caught and brought on board. It looked like an Amsterdam but French researchers later said the entire population of Amsterdams are ringed and it wasn’t. I don’t recall if a blood specimen was taken but apparently it was logged as an unusual juvenile Antipodean. So I might not have seen the rarest of world’s albatrosses but I’ve seen a bird that looks just like one! Photo taken from a scanned slide.

 

If you go searching for albatrosses in the southern ocean you’ll be bound to encounter some rough seas …

 

.. but you’ll also get views of albatrosses on a daily basis and see wonderful places like Campbell Island. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

Celebrated in literature, poetry and Monty Python sketches, few birds inspire like the albatross does. Photo © Pete Morris

 

This post has taken far longer and has involved many more photos then I originally imaged (the initial idea was to post just 24 images) but it has allowed to go back and look at how much joy these, the most majestic of all birds have given me and this is my contribution to ‘World Albatross Day.

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!