Archive for the ‘Spirit of Enderby’ Tag

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

As well as a diagnostic underwing pattern …

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

… at least there were more Humpback Whales to watch.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

… whilst Chris Collins …

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And I made many good friends.

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

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

 

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

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

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

This post is just about the Solomon Islands.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

… and the adjoining football pitch.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

… and to sail north as the sun set.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

In fact our welcome was anything but hostile …

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

… or had such a warm welcome.

 

‘Canadian’ John (as he was known) was a big hit, showing the children pictures of the birds on their island.

 

Of course this wasn’t a birding excursion but we did see a fantail known as Willie Wagtail around the village. This is a well known Australian bird that also occurs in part of Melanesia, Papua New Guinea and the Moluccas.

 

It was a lovely excursion but in due course we had to be ferried back to the Professor Khromov.

 

… and from the beach we had great views of Pacific Baza.

 

As we set sail and headed north along the west coast of Marika …

 

… we saw a couple of raptors, Eastern Osprey, a localised and smaller species closely related to our Western Osprey …

 

.. and the enormous and highly impressive Solomon’s Fish Eagle.

 

As always the evening brought wonderful skies and cloud formations …

 

… as we headed northwards to wards the capital Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal.

 

We arrived at Honiara overnight and left the ship whilst it was still dark (this photo was taken on the return). Guadalcanal was the location of some of the most ferocious fighting in WWII see Wikipedia

 

 

We were up in the hills above the capital city by 0600 and soon seeing lots of birds lie the widespread Welcome Swallow …

 

… and Moustached Treeswift …

 

… to more localised specialities like Song Parrot …

 

… and Island Imperial Pigeon.

 

The following day we landed on the uninhabited island of Tetepare which has been declared a nature reserve. We split into a number of groups and I ended up with one that explored the coastal wetlands. To be honest apart from a couple of Beach Thicknees we didn’t see much

 

 

So it was playing catch up for the rest of the day, but among widespread birds like this Coconut Lorikeet I saw half a dozen life birds, but few posed for the camera.

 

Large monitor lizards could be seen along the shore …

 

But the star of the show was a group of Melanesian Megapodes, one of a group of species that lay their eggs either in rotting mounds of vegetation or volcanically heated soil to incubate them. Photo by Frédérik Pelsey from Oiseaux.net

 

Our final landing on our final day was on the island of Kolombangara. Again we departed before first light in order to get to our destination soon after dawn.

 

Much of our birding took place in the foothills along this forest track.

 

Quite a few endemic birds were seen ranging from the elusive Roviana Rail to this pretty Steel-blue Flycatcher (which is actually a monarch not a true flycatcher).

 

We also spent some time scanning from this lookout for various parrots and pigeons  …

 

… the view was dominated by the island’s volcanic cone. Two species Kolombangara Leaf Warbler and Kolombangara White-eye are only found at the top. To see all the endemics of the Solomons several treks to the tops of mountains followed by rough camping are required. As I said in the introduction the West Pacific Odyssey allowed me to see about 45% of the endemics without excessive effort, although I really wish I could have done a full tour.

 

In due course we returned to the Prof Khromov and set sail. I was sad to leave these enchanted islands with their lovely welcoming people and wonderful bird life. It and remains the highlight of the WPO for me.

 

As the evening drew on we saw a number of the very rare and little known Heinroth’s Shearwaters passing the ship and heading towards Kolombangara which was still visible astern. The breeding grounds of this enigmatic species remain unknown although the crater of Kolombangara must be high on the list of candidate locations.

 

So as dusk fell we saw the islands retreating into the distance. A true South Pacific paradise.

 

I’ll conclude with a shot of the Professor Khromov (aka Spirit of Enderby) again a threatening sky.

 

The next post will cover our journey north over the Equator to the Micronesian island of Chuuk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The West Pacific Odyssey part 1: Aukland, New Zealand to Norfolk Island – 14th-19th March 2019.   Leave a comment

The West Pacific Odyssey (often abbreviated to WPO) is a classic birding journey. Just like its ‘sister voyage’ the Atlantic Odyssey, this comes about every (northern) spring as Heritage Expedition vessel Professor Khromov (aka Spirit of Enderby) is relocated from the Antarctic at the end of the southern summer to the Arctic for the start of the northern summer.

This gives birders and other interested travellers a chance to see the diverse seabirds of the western Pacific as well as a number of seldom-visited islands on-route.

Due to earlier problems in visiting sites in Japanese waters this trip had been truncated to the South-west Pacific Odyssey but these issues were resolved and the full trip was offered for 2018. However there were ‘operational problems’ (timing of the annual refit etc) which prevented the trip from going ahead and it was deferred to 2019 – and fortunately those who transferred, kept the 2018 price.

This the first of a number of posts about the voyage, I don’t know at this stage how many there will be, but there will be a mix of pelagic seabirds and cetaceans along with photos taken on land. Not all of the planned landings took place, this was the only downside to an otherwise excellent trip.

Most of the photos are mine, the few that aren’t or were taken from another pelagic trip are cleared marked.

 

We travelled on the Professor Khromov, which the New Zealand company Heritage Expeditions likes to call ‘The Spirit of Enderby’. I’ve been on two other expeditions in this vessel; to the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand in 2004 and to Russia’s Kuril and Commander Islands, Kamchatka and Sakhalin in 2017. I’ve also been to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica on the sister ship Akademik  Shuleykin in 1998. There were nine ships of this class built in the 80s as Russian ‘research’ vessels (a euphemism for American submarine detection) and were ice strengthened and had the capacity to remain at sea without re-provisioning for extended periods of time. As soon as they were in service the Cold War was over and many were converted for ‘adventure tourism’ in high latitudes. They have given good service but are now looking rather dated. The electronics on the bridge and communication room looks 1940s vintage but they are tough and can withstand anything the polar seas can throw at them. The Professor Khromov is seen here moored off Norfolk Island.

 

The cruise from Tauranga in New Zealand to Yokohama in Japan took 31 days, add to that three days to get there and one to get back and I was away from home for almost five weeks. We disembarked at Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, four places in the Solomon Islands and Chuuk in Micronesia. Unfortunately due to mixture of bad weather and official intransigence we made no landfalls in Japan except at Yokohama. The cruise covered 5650 nautical miles (10500km), we collectively saw 248 bird species including 48 ‘tubenoses’ and 21 species of cetacean. We visited eleven islands in six countries.

 

I left home on the 12th March 2019 and took a flight from Heathrow to Hong Kong. With the time difference it was mid morning on the 14th before I landed at Auckland in New Zealand. After two very long flights I was glad to get off the plane. My friend Steve, who had gone to NZ a few days earlier to attempt to see a Kiwi met me at Auckland airport. I’m glad he was driving as I was far too tired to be behind the wheel.

 

We stopped at the wader spot spot of Miranda. The waders were some distance away as the tide had dropped but we were able to identify Wrybills and Double-banded Plovers among the many Bar-tailed Godwits. More approachable birds included this White-faced Heron …

 

… and the inevitable Pied Stilts …

 

… and Grey Teal.

 

We stayed overnight in Tauranga …

 

… where we saw a few more birds like Silver Gull (formerly split as Red-billed Gull but now lumped with the Australian species) …

 

… the introduced Black Swan …

 

… and the only endemic New Zealand passerine I was to see on the tour – the Tui (one of four extant bird species that have the honour of having the shortest English name of all – I’ll let you puzzle over the other three).

 

The clients met up at a hotel, there were 48 of us. At least a dozen I knew from UK birding or previous foreign trips. There was time to wander around before the bus came to take us to the docks. People in the shops kept asking if we were from the big cruise liner that was already docked. Certainly not – our ship was much, much smaller.

 

Along the shore at Tauranga there were good numbers of Variable Oystercatchers …

 

… and a bird that is very widespread in the Southern Hemisphere – Kelp Gull. This is an adult …

 

… and this is a first year bird.

 

In the late afternoon with the cabins all allocated, luggage stowed, customs cleared etc we cast off and the voyage began. Our starting location was 37 39’S 176 01’E.

 

We made our way out of Tauranga bay and into the open ocean …

 

… we passes a number of islands to port as we headed north.  The rest of the day was taken up with introductions, orientation lectures and the inevitable lifeboat drill.

 

We woke the next day at the northern end of the Hauraki Gulf. We approached the Mokohinau Islands …

 

… the site of a Australasian Gannet colony.

 

Australasian Gannet breeds, as the name suggests, in New Zealand and Australia and is very similar to our Northern Gannet except for having black in the secondaries and a long black gular stripe. We saw several hundred today, a single one the next day, then none.

 

We came across this dense flock of Silver Gulls feeding on what was presumably a huge bait ball. A few Buller’s Shearwaters (Top right) joined the flock …

 

… also seen were a number of the small Fluttering Shearwaters and a couple of the tiny Grey Ternlets (or Grey Noddy).

 

Grey Ternlet was the first life bird of the trip for me!

 

In 2009 I did a comprehensive birding tour of New Zealand which included a pelagic trip into the Haukaki Gulf. We did well, but missed one species, the Black (or Parkinson’s) Petrel. There were no such problems here as we were to see around 30 today and similar numbers the next day.

 

The northern most tip of New Zealand is a group of islands known as the Three Kings. We were 13 miles off there at dawn at 33 57’S 172 24’E and approached closer during the morning, sea birding was superb but our number one target was storm-petrels.

 

In this one photo there are three species of storm-petrel, White-faced on the left, Wilson’s lower centre and above it the enigmatic New Zealand Storm-petrel.

 

This photo wasn’t taken on the trip but from a small boat off the coast of North Carolina but it shows a number of birds we saw on the WPO. The large bird is an Arctic Skua (or Parasitic Jaeger) a bird that breeds in the arctic and subarctic (as far south as northern Scotland) and winters as far south as NZ. The two storm-petrels close to it are, as far as I can tell, Band-rumped. This complex probably consists of multiple species. We were only to see a few on the WPO and all were to the north of here and included one of a larger form that could be as yet undescribed. The lower left bird and the three on the right are Wilson’s Storm-petrels, the most numerous seabird and one of the most numerous of all birds in the world. Breeding in the Antarctic they are found in most oceans of the world at some time of the year. I saw a number off the Three Kings and others saw the odd one further north. Bizarrely it has been shown that the so called ‘northern storm-petrels’ are not closely related to ‘southern storm-petrels and they are found before and after the albatrosses in world bird lists. So the top two stormies on the left are not even in the same family as the top two on the right!

 

But the stormy we all wanted to see was the New Zealand Storm-petrel. This bird has a most interesting history. First collected in 1827, it was later claimed, without any justification, that Wilson’s Storm-petrels have paler streakier bellies the nearer they bred to the equator. So after this it was forgotten about and lost to history until it was rediscovered by a group of British and New Zealand birders in 2003 and given back its rightful specific status. It is likely that it persisted in tiny numbers all those years, breeding on a rat-infested island in the Hauraki Gulf. When the rats were removed, as they have been from many of these islands, the population started to bounce back. On my pelagic in 2009 I saw just one, here we saw 25 …

 

… including three together along with a White-faced Storm-petrel.

 

White-faced Storm-petrel breeds in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, off South Australia, around Kermadec Islands and New Zealand and according to the book ‘Oceanic Birds of the World’ by Steve Howell et al they could comprise between 4 and 6 different species!

 

Here L-R is a Wilson’s Stormie, a New Zealand Stormie and a Black Petrel.

 

Black Petrels were seen regularly in these waters, like NZ Stormie they only breed around the Hauraki Gulf and have been heavily impacted by introduced rats and cats. With these aliens being slowly removed their numbers are increasing from being close to extinction to perhaps 10,000 birds today. On upper mandible, close to the base, you can see the salt excreting tubes that give tubenoses (members of the Order Procelliformes) their name.

 

Black Petrels are in the genus Procellaria (along with White-chinned, which has recently occurred in the UK and two other species). They have a very different jizz and flight action to the Pterodroma petrels and certainly are an impressive sight, especially when seen head on.

 

Another species that we only saw in the southern leg of the trip was this Fairy Prion. Prions are a group of six fast moving and hard to separate tubenoses that occur mainly in subantarctic/antarctic water. This Fairy Prion was photographed by Pete Morris on the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand cruise in 2004.

 

The waters around New Zealand are probably the best in the world for albatrosses, however we saw few on this trip. Most move to the south to feed and this year the water was particularly warm so wouldn’t have been suitable for these subantarctic birds. This is a Antipodean Albatross, a split from Wandering Albatross, of the race gibsoni which breeds on islands to the south of NZ.

 

Another albatross seen was this Northern Royal Albatross, which breeds in the Chatham Islands and at Dunedin in South Island of NZ. The solid black wings (with some specking as in here on older males), lack of black tip to the tail and a fine black cutting edge to the bill distinguishes it from the ‘wandering’ group. Photo taken by Pete Morris on the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand cruise in 2004.

 

Of the several species of shearwater, Bullwer’s was the most numerous …

 

… easily identified by its striking upperwing pattern, these birds wander as far as California in the non-breeding season.

 

Two petrels in the genus Pterodroma – Cook’s Petrel …

 

… and White-necked Petrel. With their fast, high arcing flight and elegant appearance Pterodroma petrels are among the most sought after of all seabirds.

 

There were a number of other excellent sightings none of which I got photos of; the first was ‘Magnificent Petrel’ currently described as a race of Cook’s Petrel but probably deserving species status in it’s own right, see here for an account of its recent discovery, Grey-faced Petrel (the first time I’ve seen it since the split from Great-winged), the local form of Little Shearwater (which like most of the Little Shearwater complex is probably a species in its own right), the rarely observed Pycroft’s Petrel, Kermadec Petrel which we’ll see in the next post …

 

 

… and what appeared to be the incredibly rare Fiji Petrel. I was slow getting on to this bird when it was first found and struggled to pick it up. The situation was made worse as ace Japanese seawatcher Hero Tanoi called ‘it’s got a black body’ unfortunately in the commotion all I heard was ‘it’s a Black Noddy’ which isn’t rare at all! Fortunately the ship was turned round, a chum slick was laid and the bird was encountered again. The known breeding population near Fiji is only about 50 pairs but as there have been other sightings in the Western Pacific it may be that there is an undiscovered population there, alternatively these birds may be a different species. This photo of an undoubted Fiji Petrel is by Dr. Jorg Kretzschmar/NatureFiji-Mareqeti Viti Fiji.

 

I haven’t mentioned cetaceans yet, we certainly saw a good variety throughout the trip. Here a number of Long-finned Pilot Whales are seen with Bottle-nosed Dolphins. The photo looks a little confusing. On the left a Pilot Whale is spy-hopping showing the characteristic mark on the throat, a smaller individual has risen out of the water beside it, whilst a dolphin swims in front and another dolphin is seen just left of centre.. Further back two more Pilot Whales swim towards the camera

 

The characteristic dorsal fin of an adult Pilot whale can be seen, the other fin belong to dolphins. The birds are Black Petrels.

 

The bulbous head of a Pilot Whale and the white patch on the back of an adult male can be seen in this photo, with a Black Petrel for company of course.

 

One further seabird is worth mentioning in these southern waters the ‘Tasman Booby’ a race of Masked Booby that breeds on Lord Howe, Norfolk Island and the Kermadecs. Unlike the other races of Masked Booby it has a dark eye.

 

This must have been the most seabird rich section of the entire trip, certainly so for the Southern Hemisphere. On the morning of the third day we anchored off the Australian administered Norfolk Island (at 29 04’N 167 57’E) which will be the subject of the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!