Archive for the ‘West pacific Odyssey’ 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 5: Solomon Islands to Chuuk, Micronesia and beyond: 30th March – 8th April 2019.   Leave a comment

This post continues the story of the West Pacific Odyssey, the month-long epic journey on board the Professor Khromov from New Zealand to Japan.

We made a single landfall during this time at Chuuk (formerly spelled Truk) in the Federated States of Micronesia (Caroline Islands). I have visited Chuuk previously in 2010 as part of a wider tour of Micronesia. As I didn’t get to see much of the island group on this tour I’ve added a number of photos taken then.

 

Leaving Kolombangara in the Solomon Islands behind we sailed along the western side of Bouganville and close to the southernmost tip of New Ireland. The following day we crossed the Equator and we spent the following day at sea as well. On 3rd April we arrived at Chuuk in the Caroline Islands and spent the latter part of the day and the following morning on the island. The next three days were spent at sea. We arrived in Japanese waters on the 9th.

 

As we left the Solomon Islands we had great views of the volcanic summit of Kolombangara (see post four on the WPO for more).

 

The following morning we passed to the west of the island of Bougainville. Although geographically part of the Solomons, administratively it belongs to Papua New Guinea although it has been lobbying for independence for a long time. Many of the tribes in the highlands jealously guard their territory and are suspicious or even show violence to outsiders. Recently the security situation has eased and a bird tour to this little known island with its myriad of endemics was advertised for 2020. I’d absolutely love to go but a) is it really safe? b) am I fit enough to hike up the top of that mountain? and c) could I afford it? its incredibly expensive. I think this is as near as I’ll ever get to Bougainville.

 

On route we found a few Little Terns roosting on floating coconuts …

 

… but the birding highlight was this Beck’s Petrel, a small version of Tahiti Petrel which is mainly seen around Bougainville and New Ireland.

 

Beck’s Petrel. These images are shown at a smaller size as the bird was so distant.

 

Also in the area were some more Heinroth’s Shearwaters …

 

… and the next day, close to the PNG island of New Ireland we saw these Pygmy Sperm Whales.

 

They are very hard to separate from Dwarf Sperm Whale but as Pygmy Sperm Whale has more of a falcated dorsal fin.

 

As we approached New Ireland the sea state got calmer and calmer …

 

… and just as happened when we approached the Equator on the Atlantic Odyssey three years earlier, the sea took on an oily appearance. We were entering the doldrums.

 

However that wasn’t to last long, with New Ireland disappearing away in the distance we saw a waterspout, that is a tornado at sea.

 

As the day drew on the clouds got darker and darker …

 

… and there was a dramatic sunset.

 

It was really rough in the night, not what we expected as we neared the Equator, with a big, slow swell that moved everything around in your cabin. OK I’ve been through much worse on the way down to Antarctica but this is supposed to be the doldrums. The outer bulkheads were closed and we were banned from going on deck. There had been plans to stop the ship and going for a swim at 0 degrees (latitude that is not temperature) but of course that was cancelled, as was all the usual tomfoolery that usually accompanies ‘crossing the line’.

 

All we could do was gather on the bridge and watch the GPS as we moved from the southern to the northern hemisphere. It was the 1st April, if there were any ‘April fools’ it was us.

 

Taken within four metres of ‘crossing the line’.

 

Around the Equator and during the bad weather we saw hardly any birds at all, but between the Solomons and New Ireland and to the south and north of Chuuk we had good numbers of the common tropical seabirds including Sooty Tern …

 

… Red-tailed Tropicbird …

 

… this Red-tailed Tropicbird has a all white tail (just to confuse things).

 

Also seen were frigatebirds, this is an adult female Lesser Frigatebird.

 

Three species of booby were commonly seen around the ship, chasing flying fish or roosting on the superstructure. This an adult Brown Booby.

 

This Brown Booby can be sexed as a female on account of the greenish facial skin. A recent publication ‘Oceanic Birds’ by Howell and Zufelt, which wasn’t available when I did this trip, proposes that there are three species of Brown Booby, this is the Indo-Pacific form.

 

This is a adult Masked Booby …

 

… you can just see it’s pale eyes in the photo. The dark eyed race tasmani which occurs to off Australia has been illustrated earlier in my WPO account.

 

Red-footed Boobies come in several morphs. This is a typical brown morph here seen chasing flying fish.

 

This is the light morph. Red-footed Booby is the smallest of all the six species of booby.

 

Identification is complicated by these partially brown dark-tailed immatures.

 

Boobies would often perch on the superstructure as they scanned the ocean for flying fish and would sometimes roost there.

 

We arrived at Moen on the main island of Weno in Chuuk, one of the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia, in the afternoon but it took ages to get customs and immigration clearance.

 

… but as soon as we could we went for a walk …

 

Norfolk Island and New Caledonia were fully westernised developed islands, whilst the remoter villages in the Solomons were basic but rustic and attractive. Chuuk on the other hand just seemed tatty with derelict buildings and poorly repaired roads.

 

This derelict ship photographed over a line of washing between two tumbledown shacks sums up the air of neglect.

 

The people were welcoming enough though (see also the cheerful chappie in the photo two above)

 

In 2010 I did a comprehensive tour of Micronesia visiting some of the Mariana Islands, and Palau plus Chuuk, Yap and Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia (Caroline Islands). As I didn’t take many good photos of Chuuk on this visit I’ve included some taken in 2010 to give a better idea of the scenery and wildlife of this island group. In 2010 we were staying in a hotel outside the town and so had to drive through it every time we wanted to visit anywhere. They were having big problems with the high tides flooding the streets. I don’t know if they have fixed it now or whether it was neap tides during our visit in 2019. This photo was taken in 2010.

 

In 2019 we birded an area of woodland around the ‘Japanese gun’ however you had to pay to see the gun itself and time was pressing. In 2010 we did visit the gun and accessed it via a tunnel through the hillside. Photo taken in 2010.

 

During WWII the Micronesian Islands were of great strategic importance, especially Chuuk due to the huge size of the lagoon and were occupied by the Japanese. This large gun was installed to defend the island of Weno from attack. Photo taken in 2010.

 

 

From Wikipedia:

Chuuk Lagoon, previously Truk Atoll, is an atoll in the central Pacific. About 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) north-east of New Guinea, it is located mid-ocean at 7 degrees North latitude and is part of Chuuk State within the Federated States of Micronesia. A protective reef, 225 kilometres  around, encloses a natural harbour 79 by 50 kilometres, with an area of 2,130 sq km. It has a land area of 93.07 square kilometres (35.93 square miles), with a population of 36,158 people and a maximal height of 443 m. Weno city on Moen Island functions as the atoll’s capital and also as the state capital and is the largest city in the FSM with its 13,700 people.


“Truck atoll” was the Empire of Japan’s main naval base in the South Pacific theatre during World War II. It was the site of a major U.S. attack during Operation Hailstone in February 1944, and Operation Inmate, a small assault conducted by British and Canadian forces during June, 1945. 

 

The gun was situated here to guard the approaches to Moen. However now the platform allows good views of the birds in the marsh below. Photo taken in 2010.

 

We saw a number of endemic or near endemic species in the area including this Purple-capped Fruit Dove. Photo by from weedmandan

 

… and the endemic and elusive Caroline Ground Dove. Photo by from weedmandan

 

Another Caroline Island endemic seen was the Oceanic Flycatcher Photo from weedmandan

 

As it was April the Pacific Golden Plovers were now in breeding plumage and about ready to head for the Siberian Arctic. I was given this photo and the ones of the Teardrop White-eye and Chuuk Monarch by another participant. Unfortunately I didn’t note their name. If you are reading this please let me know and I’ll credit you accordingly.

 

In 2010 we travelled to the island of Tol South in the south-west of the lagoon. There were two species, Teardrop White-eye and Chuuk Monarch that couldn’t be seen elsewhere. Also we saw Micronesian Pigeon which we also saw later in the trip. The climb was really tough and in parts much steeper than shown here. It was a real case of scrambling up on your knees. On the WPO a half-day trip to Tol South was offered but I declined. Those that did it managed to see the white-eye and the monarch ….

 

… indeed they saw something I didn’t see in 2010, the gorgeous white male monarch. As it was now the breeding season they might have been more conspicuous. Our late autumn visit in 2010 meant that the only ones I saw were drab juveniles.

 

When I went nine years earlier we had some local guides, indeed the entire village tried to be our local guide – which wasn’t very helpful.

 

The view from half-way up across the lagoon was stunning. Some of climbed much higher up Mount Winipot to see the pigeon, it was a really tough slog. Photo taken in 2010.

 

Here is the Teardrop White-eye also known as Grand Chuuk White-eye, a species found only on this island.

 

Our tour in 2010 was much more relaxed. Infrequent flights between the islands meant that we often had time on our hands, not something that you see very often on a bird tour. So we took the opportunity to go snorkelling. I’m not a great swimmer and I found it a bit tricky but I thoughtfully enjoyed it. Participant Richard Clifford was a keen snorkeler and brought an underwater camera. Photo by Richard Clifford in 2010.

 

The coral reefs were beautiful and full of lovely fish, this one is a Redfin Butterflyfish. Photo by Richard Clifford in 2010

 

But Chuuk Lagoon has the reputation of being the best wreck diving in the world. The lagoon was the base of operations for the Japanese Navy, an attack ‘Operation Hailstone’ in 1944 caught the Japanese unaware and the Americans were able to inflict major damage see Wikipedia – here   The lagoon is littered with wrecked supply ship and some military craft. Photo by Richard Clifford in 2010

 

I had been interested in military aircraft as a child, so seeing the remains of a Mitsubishi Zero on the bottom of the lagoon was pretty exciting. Photo by Clubmarine

 

As we left the Chuuk Lagoon and entered the open ocean we encountered a number of ‘Tropical Shearwaters’.  The thinking is that these species are essentially non-migratory and so each breeding population has evolved into its own species with distinct vocalisations and plumage. However they are certainly difficult to tell apart. Some like Bannerman’s Shearwaters and Byran’s Shearwater have already been given specific status. This form Puffinus bailloni dichrous is colloquially known as ‘Atol’ Shearwater. Photo taken by Mike Danzenbaker in the Caroline Islands. see here

 

We slowly made our way north, first through Micronesian waters then through the waters of the Mariana Islands, crossing the Mariana Trench which at nearly 11,000 metres is the deepest point in the ocean.

 

Of course we saw many of the birds I have illustrated earlier but we also started to see a number of shearwaters and storm-petrels, evidence that we were heading out of the tropics but I’ll save most of those photos for the final post. We also saw a number of cetaceans including this close Omura’s Whale. This was a species I hadn’t heard of before, although it was formerly called the ‘small-form’ Bryde’s Whale. It was only described as a full species in 2003 which is later than the publication date of the cetacean guide that I use. It’s range is tropical west Pacific from Sumatra/Java east to New Ireland and north to Japan. It reaches a maximum length of 12m so would just fit in our garden.

 

We also saw four (but only caught two in this shot) of the rare Blainville’s Beaked Whale.

 

Not too far north of Chuuk we found our first Matsudeira’s Storm-petrel. We were getting into the realm of the Japanese seabird specialities. More of that in next and final post about the West Pacific Odyssey.

 

But I’ll conclude with this photo of an exhaling Omura’s Whale seen over the Mariana Trench.

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 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 …