Seabirding the Ring of Fire - continued from Page 1
Friday 7 June
….Ketoy Island lay to starboard as we enjoyed breakfast. Another zodiac cruise was on offer this morning and I arranged that our group would once again have our own zodiac. There was a slight swell as we headed towards the shoreline. Both Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants were on the sea-stacks and Slaty-backed Gulls were sitting on the first seabird nests we had seen. Three Harlequins were diving for food in the kelp. The shoreline had a number of Black-backed Wagtails, maybe eight to ten in only a few hundred yards.
….We left Ketoy to head next towards Yankitchka. This is a very important seabird island as it has the largest breeding population of Whiskered Auklets - the rarest of the Pacific Alcids. We started seeing small parties of this small auk - smaller in size than Crested Auklets that were also here - and noticed that they preferred feeding in the tidal races. This bird has a ‘wacky punk hairstyle’ with individual drooping feathers pointing forwards and sideways from the forehead and sides of the head. A couple of Laysan Albatrosses passed close to the ship and in one area we suddenly encountered Fork-tailed Storm Petrels. As if this wasn’t enough to take in, a superpod of maybe forty Orcas decided to put on a fine show. Many came close to the boat and at times ten or more were surfacing together.
….Yankitchka was impressive. This was a volcano with a flooded crater. There were seabirds everywhere. Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Brunnich's Guillemots were on the ledges. On the sea Crested and Whiskered Auklets, yet more guillemots, Fulmars and the ever-present Short-tailed Shearwaters still coming past. Unfortunately the swell was too much for the zodiacs and we just couldn't land here - a great disappointment, as the plan was to drive the zodiacs into the crater itself.
….We sailed for three hours to Simushir. Here the World Discoverer sailed into another flooded caldera of a volcano. A deserted Russian submarine base was in front of us. Concrete buildings, one of which was four floors high, looked weird so far from anywhere. Rusting fuel containers and abandoned vehicles were scattered around. This must have been quite a posting for a new Navy recruit in its day, but it was a front line first-attack site during the ‘cold war’. It was very ‘James Bond’, a submarine base sited inside a volcanic crater.
….The zodiacs took us ashore where the group split up for different walks. It was thrilling to consider that any birds found here may have not been documented before, as the few scientific papers for this entire region are written in Russian, and we suspected that no other cruise ship had been before us. Even in the windy conditions with light rain our group found a Nutcracker, Arctic Warblers, Brown Thrushes and many Siberian Rubythroats. What else lay undetected? A couple of days here could turn up all sorts of avian surprises.
Saturday 8 June
….It was a lovely morning - the sun was shining and there was a flat calm sea. The zodiacs were launched to take us around Skaly Lovuski, a cluster of small islands and rocky outcrops. Here we were to have our best views of auklets by far! Surrounding the boats were Whiskered, Crested and Parakeet Auklets. We drifted in amongst them. Also Tufted Puffins with their ridiculous bills and flowing yellow head plumes were here, and many ‘milky coffee’ Fulmars. Some of the Crested and Whiskered were only twenty-five feet distance from the zodiacs at times. Inshore were the Northern Fur Seals. Occasionally a large bull would be inquisitive and stick his head out of the water to check out the approaching intruders.
….We set sail again, now heading towards Ostrov Onekotan. In the distance we could see a feeding frenzy as thousands of birds congregated at the edge of a drop-off, the shelf here being shallow, only 60 metres deep. Many Orca, and two schools of Dall's Porpoises, were seen during this three-hour period crossing the shelf. To our starboard were islands, most were obvious volcanoes, some had a snow covering and several were smouldering with steaming vents.
….We dropped anchor in Nima Bay, Ostrov Onekotan. We went ashore where a small stream ran to the coast. A Red-throated Pipit called as it flew over. A lone Grey-tailed Tattler was on the stream bank, and from further upstream came the distinct call of a Greenshank. A climb up the slopes led to a plateau. Here we spent some time trying to sort the pipits. Most were Buff-bellied Pipits of the japonicus race, very different to those of the western United States. Twice we saw a Rough-legged Buzzard as it appeared over the skyline.
Sunday 9 June
….We sailed towards Atlasova, this was to take three and half hours. A Leach's Petrel flew high to one side of the ship, and may even have taken off from somewhere on the upper decks? Seabirds do get attracted to ships’ lights at night, especially in cloudy or misty conditions.
….It was cold at the bow; by mid-morning only two passengers were braving the wind and still seawatching. Most were inside having coffee or relaxing. I saw sudden panic when one of the two went running across the deck from one side to the other. As I looked out the Observation Lounge front window a large albatross was crossing in front of the ship. Two black crescents on the white upperwings were immediately obvious - Short-tailed Albatross! There was pandemonium as all the lounges emptied and everyone ran outside. Most people at the front would have seen the bird as it drifted away, and at about one mile distance it turned to move for a short while in the same general direction as the ship. Some of our group, either in the right place or by running fast, saw this rare bird. It is classified as ‘endangered’ with a world population of some one thousand individuals. They may take up to twenty years to attain adult plumage - this bird was adult or near-adult.
….A Raven was flying around the ship and hitched a ride for a while, seen sitting on the handrails at the stern.
….We had plenty of time ashore on Atlasova. Two Greater Scaup were on a freshwater lake and were joined by three Eurasian Wigeon. Around the water’s edge Black-backed Wagtails were very common and the males were disputing territories. Siberian Rubythroats sang from exposed branches, and the tops of old telegraph poles (these remained from an abandoned women's prison/gulag - no-one would attempt to escape from here!) In one bush we found five rubythroats, all males! We thought the collective noun should be a ‘glittering of rubythroats’. It was good to see Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler so well - one bird remaining still for about a minute, a long time for a Locustella, long enough for all to see well. A flycatcher was sallying from the tops of bushes and identified as Siberian Flycatcher, sometimes called Dark-sided or Dusky Flycatcher.
….The wind started to increase as we headed for the Kuril Straight and soon we were in Beaufort Force 9. For those on deck caution was needed, and a firm grasp to a handrail. The new ship took the gale easily – indeed, it was hardly noticed within the lounges, whereas this wind speed would have had other ships rolling and pitching.
….At the Ptichy Islands a late zodiac cruise was offered after dinner. With the extended evening light we left the ship at 2030. The highlight was watching Sea Otters with their heads sticking out the water and staring as much at us as we did at them.