Archive for the ‘Sooty Tern’ 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 Atlantic Odyssey: a summary – 23rd March – 6th May 2016   Leave a comment

Margaret and I have recently returned from a very long trip known as the Atlantic Odyssey, a repositioning cruise that is available once a year as a tourist ship ends its program in the Antarctic at the onset of the southern winter and moves to the Arctic for the northern summer. On top of that we went straight from Cabo Verde, the end point of the cruise, to Mallorca to join our friends at Birdquest in Mallorca to celebrate their 35th year of operation. It total we were away 45 days.

I hope to upload many photos from this remarkable and highly photogenic journey from each of the locations we visited, but for now here is a brief overview of the entire trip.

111 Atlantic Odyssey map

Here is a map of our route. There is one important difference to what shown above. In 2016 for the first time the operators, Oceanwide Expeditions, didn’t take the Plancius to the Antarctic Peninsula before heading to South Georgia, instead cruised directly from Ushuaia to South Georgia. You could take a Ushuaia – Antarctica – Ushuaia trip immediately prior to the Atlantic Odyssey, but this would have lengthened our entire tip to 55 days which we though was too much. I have already been to Antarctica but we both intend to to visit some time in the future.

IMG_1101 view from hotel on arrival

After a couple of days of travel we arrived at Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of Argentina, just as darkness was falling. The view from our hotel was breathtaking.

IMG_4510 Beagle Channel views

Over the next day and a half we explored the Tierra del Fuego National Park …,

IMG_4250 Andean Condor

…. seeing wonderful birds like Magellanic Woodpecker and this Andean Condor.

IMG_4587 Humpback Whale

We took a boat trip on the Beagle Channel and had close up views of Humpback Whales as well as several species of seals and seabirds.

IMG_4682 Plancius

In the afternoon we boarded the Plancius, the ship that was to be our home for the next 34 days.

IMG_4705 fogbow

The passage from Ushuaia to South Georgia was disappointing, we were following the line of the Antarctic Convergence and at this time of year this means fog. This meant few seabirds were visible, even though we did see some lovely fogbows.

7F1A6898 SG glacier

South Georgia was an absolute delight, one of the most wildlife rich and photogenic sites on the entire planet. Described as being like the Alps rising straight from the sea, huge glaciers sweep down from 3000m peaks to the coast.

IMG_4793 Wandering Albert fem + chick

We were able to see Wandering Albatrosses on the nest ….

7F1A7187 King Penguins

…. enormous colonies of King Penguins ….

IMG_5203 KPs

…. many which waddled by completely indifferent to us.

IMG_5227 Fur Seal

There can be few cuter things in this world than a Fur Seal pup.

IMG_5118 Grytviken

We also paid a visit to the old whaling station at Grytviken.

7F1A7748 rough seas

As we left South Georgia we headed north towards Tristan da Cunha we encountered rough seas and several icebergs.

7F1A7910 Wandering Albert

This was the best section of the entire trip for seabirds. Species varied from the enormous Wandering Albatross with its 3.5m wingspan ….

7F1A7931 Wilson's SP

…. to the tiny Wilsons’ Storm Petrel.

7F1A9629 Spectacled Petrel best

As we approached the island of Gough the endangered and much desired Spectacled Petrel put in its first appearance.

IMG_5474 approaching Gough

No landings are allowed on Gough but it is normally possible to cruise inshore in the zodiacs and see the endemic species. On arrival we found the stiff easterly wind had built up a big swell, so we couldn’t approach any closer.

IMG_5622 remotest island

Good weather the following day allowed us to land on the main island of Tristan – the most remote inhabited island in the world.

7F1A9801 Inaccesssible Island

We were not so lucky with the nearby (and appropriately named) Inaccessible Island. Although vertical cliffs prevent access to the interior, the tussocks at the base of the cliff hold a population of the smallest flightless bird in the world – the Inaccessible Island Rail. A swell breaking on the steeply shelving beach prevented any hope of landing and dashed our hopes of seeing this enigmatic bird.

IMG_6032

We were luckier with the neighbouring island of Nightingale, although the landing was far from easy. The endemic finch and thrush were abundant and we hiked up to the relict forest at the top to see the critically endangered Wilkin’s Finch.

IMG_5829 Great Shearwater on launch post

On route we saw many Yellow-nosed Albatross chicks and recently fledged Great Shearwaters (above) which launched themselves into the air from these take-off posts and sometime pattered across the top of our heads to give themselves an extra push.

7F1A0133 Flying Fish

The sea crossing between Tristan and St Helena was the quietest of the trip with only one or two individual birds seen on some days. There were plenty of flying fish about to challenge your photographic skills.

IMG_6154 Jamestown

The capital of St Helena, Jamestown is nestled in this steep-sided valley.

IMG_4093 Jacob's Ladder

There is a winding road connecting Jamestown to the rest of the island of course, but if you want a short cut you can always try the 700 step Jacob’s Ladder.

IMG_3990 White Tern

St Helena’s tourist trade is mainly based on sites associated with its famous former resident , Napoleon Bonaparte. Of course the birders were more taken with nesting seabirds, like this White (or Fairy) Tern photographed at the site of Napoleon’s former tomb.

IMG_4216 Wirebird

Although St Helena had a number of endemic birds before the arrival of man, only one remains, St Helena Plover or Wirebird. We had great views of up to 40 at two locations in the mountains.

7F1A1247 PTS Dolphins

We encountered a few more seabirds as we headed towards Ascension Island but we also saw a good number of cetaceans, such as these Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins.

IMG_4405 view from Plancius

Ascension is basically just a huge military base and is covered with listening and communication devices. It is technically uninhabited as none of the 800 or so residents has right of abode or can buy property, all are on fixed term contracts.

7F1A1180 Ascension cliffs

Ascension, a relatively new volcanic island, has stunning coastal scenery comprised of layer after layer of lava and ash.

7F1A0921 Sooty Tern colony

The two biggest wildlife spectacles are the Sooty Tern colony on the mainland ….

IMG_4438 Frigates

…. and the huge offshore Ascension Frigatebird colony.

IMG_4443 Boatswain Bird Island

We arrived at the offshore stack of Boatswain Bird Island at first light and saw just about all of the world’s population of Ascension Island Frigatebird leave their roost.

7F1A1086 Ascension Frigatebird imm

As the light improved we had fantastic views of this rare and range restricted seabird right over our heads.

7F1A1417 Leach's SP

As we headed north we crossed the Equator and it became very hot on deck. The following day we passed through the doldrums and the sea was still and flat with an oil-like texture. You could see the reflections of the Leach’s Storm-petrels in the glass like surface ….

7F1A1389 Clymene Dolphin

…. and when a group of Clymene Dolphins came in to bow ride, you could see every detail underwater.

IMG_4286 Praia church

On the 28th of April, 34 days after we left Ushuaia, we docked at Praia on the island of Santiago, Cabo Verde. Margaret opted for a cultural tour of the city visiting churches, museums and sites of historical importance ….

IMG_4518 Santiago rocks

…. whilst I joined the other birders for a trip into the interior.

IMG_4523 GH Kingfisher

We saw three of Cabo Verde’s endemic species, a number of vagrants to the island (from the New World and the Old) and other residents like this beautiful Grey-headed Kingfisher.

From hotel

Whilst most of the other passengers headed home we continued on (via Lisbon and Barcelona) to the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. We spent much of the first day relaxing after our overnight flight, but in the evening we met up with 19 other Birdquest clients and 9 members of staff who had come to Mallorca to celebrate Birdquest’s 35th year of operation. Rain affected the first part of the trip but it brought down many migrants ….

IMG_4640 Tyrrenian Spotted Fly

…. as well as newly arrived ‘Tyrrhenian’ Flycatchers, the pale and lightly streaked local race of Spotted Flycatcher, which recent research had indicated is worth specific status.

7F1A2168 Tawny Pipit

Agricultural areas held lovely birds like this Tawny Pipit.

Formentor

The mountainous spine of the island ends in the picturesque Formentor Peninsula, a location for Crag Martins, Eleanora’s Falcons and other great birds.

7F1A2106 Cinereous Vulture

Higher up in the mountains we saw Griffon and Cinereous Vultures (above) ….

Albufera at dawn

…. whilst the marshes of S’Albufera and S’Albufeteta gave us views of many specialties ….

IMG_4774 Red-nobbed Coot

…. such as this Red-knobbed Coot, a mainly African species that in Europe is restricted to Spain.

Cabrera (3)

The highlight of the trip for me was our visit to the island of Cabrera off the south coast of Mallorca. In this untouched area of maquis and woodland we found many migrants and well as stunning views of the endemic Balearic Warbler ….

7F1A1738 Moltoni's Warbler

…. and the range restricted Moltoni’s Warbler (which contrary to what I posted last year) is actually the last European breeding bird that is a life bird for me.

7F1A2048 Scopoli's Shearwater

On the way to and from Cabrera I had my best ever views of Balearic and Scopoli’s Shearwater (above). All-in-all our four days birding on the reunion gave me many more species than I saw during the whole of my last two-week visit to the island.

 

As I said at the start this is just an overview of the trip. Probably starting some time in the summer I will post a lot more pictures, treating each site in more detail.