Archive for the ‘Wedge-tailed Shearwater’ 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 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.