28 Jun 2012

Birding the Russian Far East Part 3 - Kamchatka Peninsula

We arrived at the mouth of the Zhupanova at midday on May 31st.  An afternoon zodiac cruise upriver was to give us our only access to this kind of habitat on the trip.

It was overcast as we passed the seasonal salmon fishing settlement at the mouth of the river, but some Steller's Sea Eagles were soon sighted on some low driftwood perches and a riverine sandbar.

It turned out that there were at least three nests viewable from the river, and about 15 - 16 birds were seen in total.  One or two flew quite close, but the leaden skies were not best for photos.

Steller's Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus)

In the river, a large group of Largha seals were only mildly curious at our presence.

Some "longipennis" Common Terns were noted, and the first of several breeding Aleutian Terns were seen hunting for sprats in the Zhupanova's cool waters.  

 Aleutian Tern (Onychoprion aleuticus)

Kamchatka is billed as the place of "Fire and Ice" in the imagery of the Petropavlovsk tourist industry, and here, a few dozen kilometers north of that city, we could see why.  Evidence of "Fire" was clear enough in a smoking volcano visible on the horizon.

Some passerine movement was noted in the riverside bushes, but mostly the only birds seen well were "tschutschensis" Yellow Wagtails.

Some fly-by duck were seen here and there, but they were mostly pretty shy, as were Red-throated and Black-throated Divers seen distantly.  The sun came out as we returned as we returned to the mouth of the river, and eventually back to the ship. 

Common Terns (Sterna hirundo longipennis)


By the following morning the "Spirit of Enderby" was anchored off Bhukta Russkaya on a clear, calm morning. The view of the snow-covered mountainous countryside was magnificent. A few early risers were on the top deck taking it all in. (Actually we were following Chris Collins's suggestion to get up early for possible Long-billed Murrelets.) 

Suddenly, an adult Steller's Sea Eagle was spotted approaching below eye level from the coastline.  I was taken by surprise with the 800mm and tripod on the wrong side of the deck.  The Eagle swooped up, passed low over us, actually right over Jemi (see below) - a true "frame filler". 

To the delight of all, it settled on the ship's rear mast.

Steller's Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus)

There it stayed, ignoring the people already on deck, and completely unconcerned about the rest of the passengers who came up to see it after an announcement on the ship's PA.  After about forty minutes it casually glided back the way it had come.

Another ship visitor at Bhukta Russkaya was this "lugens" White Wagtail.  Somehow less celebrated than the Eagle.

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)

We motored up the fiord-like bay and it was the eagle-eyed Chris Collins who first spotted the next wildlife highlight - "Brown Bear !"  It was a few hundred metres away, on a snow-covered hillside, but close enough for an animal that size.

Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)

A couple of hours were spent ashore, where the call of Eurasian Cuckoo seemed odd in such a place. There weren't many birds, but on the other hand, there were no bears around, either.


After lunch, back at the mouth of the fiord, a Zodiac excursion took us to some nervous-looking Steller's Sea Lions on a rocky outcrop.  

We soon found out why none of them were in the water.....

Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)

Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)

Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) and Steller's Sea Lions 

A sight to quicken the pulse of even the most jaded of nature lovers, especially when seen from a smallish rubber boat !  There were nine or ten Orcas in total, and we had great views.

Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)

An action-packed day in fine, sunny weather…..  unforgettable.

Kamchatka sunset

25 Jun 2012

Birding the Russian Far East Part 2 - Medny and Bering Islands

At daybreak on the 30th May we were moving off the southern coast of Medny Island, into a strong headwind.  

Two views from the deck

For a while, the birds were flying quite slowly relative to the ship. 

Common Guillemot (Uria aalge)

Red-faced Cormorant (Phalacrocorax urile)

But the strong winds ruled out the possibility of any kind of Zodiac activity on Medny Island and so we turned south, heading for Cape Monati, the southern point of Bering Island. On the way, Laysan Albatrosses followed the boat, with the wind and light direction helping with photo opportunities from the rear deck of the ship.

Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis)

"The Bird Collectors" by Barbara and Richard Mearns details some of the abuse Laysan Albatrosses have suffered at the hands of humans.  In the early 20th century their eggs were harvested on Laysan and other mid-Pacific Islands, the albumen being used for the manufacture of photographic plates.  A horde of introduced rabbits ate all the island vegetation, and turned much of Laysan into a desert.  Remedial measures began in 1923, and the Laysan Albatross just survived,  although by then several other endemics had already been already wiped out. 

There were also plenty of views of Northern Fulmars from the back of the ship.

Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis rodgersi)

Rounding Cape Monati the weather seemed to clear a little, and a few Pigeon Guillemots appeared here and there.

Cape Monati

Pigeon Guillemots (Cepphus columba)

As the sun poked through the clouds a chance was seized to do some Zodiac cruising off the southern coast of Bering Island.

Sitting out on the shoreline were a number of Steller's Sea Lions.

Steller's Sea Lion (Eumatopias jubatus)

There were a few Sea Otters in the surf..

Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris)

And a solitary Spotted Seal

Spotted Seal (Phoca larga)

On the rock stacks, colonies of Brunnich's Guillemot and endemic Red-legged Kittiwakes.

Red-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)

It was quite sunny by the time we got these closer views ... 

Pigeon Guillemots (Cepphus columba)

Common Guillemot (Uria aalge)

and these Horned Puffins, our second "Puffin Tick" of the trip !

Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata)

The highlights of just two fascinating days at the Commander Islands.