Second time around...
'Ring of Fire'
the second birding cruise from Japan to Alaska
visiting the Kuril Islands, Kamchatka, the Aleutian Islands and the Pribilof Islands
25 May to 16 June 2003
'Seabirding the North Pacific'
The following is an abridged report
(the full hard-copy report was sent to those who came on the tour)
The tour was organised by
of Romsey, Hampshire, UK
Special thanks to co-leader Simon Boyes for all the help and input
Sunday 25 May - Wednesday 28 May
Travelling to Japan and birding Hokkaido. Birds include Red-crowned Crane, Great Knot, Red-necked Stint, Japanese Grosbeak, Long-tailed Rosefinch, Siberian Rubythroat, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, White-throated Needletail and White-tailed Eagle.
Thursday 29 May
Local birding close to our hotel produces displaying Latham's Snipe, Mandarin Duck and a singing Siberian Blue Robin. Late afternoon and we board the magnificent World Discoverer.
....We set sail promptly, heading north-east. A hundred or so Leach's Petrels fly alongside the starboard side in the darkness, coming into the light enough to make out white rumps. They give whistling contact calls.
Friday 30 May
….we are formally admitted to Russia in the early morning. There is thick fog and a strong wind welcoming us to the Kurils: well, nobody booked this cruise for the sunny weather! Yet after lunch, suddenly, fog lifts, clouds part: here comes sunshine, and a wonderful backdrop of volcanoes. Rhinoceros Auklets and Tufted Puffins are the first seabirds to be seen, flying in small groups. A great shout goes up as a Spectacled Guillemot appears, a rare and local auk, all black but for white spectacles and red legs. In the next half-hour, several fly past, offering fine views to all on the forward decks. We have stumbled upon a breeding area by chance
….As the scout boat goes ashore to assess conditions, ten White-tailed Eagles take to the air together. The bloated carcass of a Steller’s Sea Lion on the beach is the reason for this amazing gathering. One flies overhead shortly after we are all ashore. Behind the beach, the terrain is almost impossible for walking, which prevents any exploration of a promising wooded valley. Pacific Swifts fly over, and Oriental Greenfinches feed on the valley floor. A Black-backed Wagtail is on the beach. Ann puts us onto a Brown Thrush behind the landing beach: this Kuril Islands breeder is closely related to the American Robin, and has a similar colour scheme.
Saturday 31 May
....Sperm Whales are on our starboard side in the early morning. We see the bushy, forward-facing blow and the great size, indicating that they are adult males. The females stay in warmer waters with the calves.
….As we cruise past the island of Chernye Bratya, the sea and sky are filled with seabirds. Huge numbers of Northern Fulmars, of the dark morph, sit on the sea and fly past the cabin windows. With them are Short-tailed Shearwaters, Tufted Puffins and Kittiwakes. Crested Auklets fly up from the bows, small and dark, and fly past in dense flocks. Among them are a few Whiskered Auklets, much less common and usually associated with riptides. Red-faced Cormorants begin to appear too, and Pigeon Guillemots, of the subspecies snowi, with no white in the wing. For two hours the seabirding is spectacular, with a backdrop of rugged volcanic scenery and smoking fumaroles at one point. Steller’s Sea Lions can be seen in a pack in the water, staring nervously at the ship; and two huge males are hauled out on a rock.
….During lunch, a small pod of Orcas passes by, visible to many of the passengers without moving from their seats. The male's huge dorsal fin can be seen from a great distance. In the afternoon we have a zodiac tour round the sheltered side of Ostrova Broutona, a small island with an enormous colony of Fulmars occupying every nook and cranny. Below them are Kittiwakes paired up on their grassy nests. Pigeon Guillemots and Harbour Seals allow approach close enough to photograph: even to fill frames in some cases. A White-tailed Eagle flies over and settles on a steep slope. Harlequins are a regular sight, either flying low and fast, or diving in the kelp beds.
….Two Pelagic Cormorants, with thin necks and dark bills, perch on rocks. The great swell makes the transfer from zodiac to sidegate quite a hazardous experience. But the abiding memory will be a sky filled with thousands of milling Fulmars.
Sunday 1 June
….After breakfast we have a zodiac cruise along the shore of Ketoy Island, in calm, cloudy and mild conditions: in fact, excellent weather for the Kurils. It is easy to hear Wrens singing along the shore, and indeed some are seen as we try to find a Siberian Rubythroat that keeps disappearing behind rocks. In the end two of our three zodiacs see it well, just behind the beach. An Eastern Crowned Warbler is also feeding on huge boulders above the beach. Black-backed Wagtails are a common sight, flying with white wings like a Snow Bunting. Nutcrackers are flying high above the scrub, a surprise habitat for them as there are no conifers in sight. A Rough-legged Buzzard flies along the lofty crags, past its nest built of sticks on a ledge. Other raptors are only seen by a few of us: a distant White-tailed Eagle, and a Peregrine of the dark subspecies peliae.
….Harlequins are again a regular sight along the kelp-beds close inshore, and there is an easily photographable Red-faced Cormorant colony. Harbour Seals put heads and long whiskers out of the water to watch us; another is hauled out on a rock.
….Yankicha Island, a Sperm Whale appears but soon sounds, with an impressive display of its huge tail-flukes. There are three in all: two very close to the ship. When they have dived deep for another squid dinner, we know we will not see them for 20 minutes or more - so we press on.
….Yankicha is shrouded in fog and strong wind, unfit for landing zodiacs. But this doesn't dismay us, since we have come to the world's centre of breeding Whiskered Auklets. This is one of the rarest of the Pacific Alcidae, nesting on Yankicha's cliffs and feeding in the tidal currents. Luckily their feeding grounds offshore have clear visibility, and so we spend half an hour slowly cruising through thousands of these fascinating little seabirds. They have a wacky punk hairstyle, with drooping feathers pointing forwards over their bills. This feature they share with the larger Crested Auklet (which is also here in much smaller numbers): but the Whiskered has three white plumes on the head, and a pale undertail. As they fly they make a high-pitched mewing call. Also here are Tufted Puffins, all-black Pigeon Guillemots, and the inevitable Fulmars.
….Afterwards, the Crested Auklet count grows fast: thousands can be seen (at once) in one flock lifting off from the bows.
….Instead of Yankicha, we have a landing at Mashua Island, where possibly no birding has ever been done before. There are plenty of old military remains, dating first from the Second World War when the Japanese occupied it. After the bombing of Nagasaki, the Russians occupied this desolate spot until six years ago. Before we leave the ship, we watch a Steller’s Sea Eagle perched on a rock on shore. This huge raptor with its great orange bill is a bird we all especially wanted to see. On a patch of snow nearby, a White-tailed Eagle feeds on some prey at its feet.