20 June 2012

Birding the Russian Far East Part 1- To the Commander Islands

An article by Chris Collins in Birding World (Vol. 25, no.3) about cruising the Commander Islands, Kamchatka and the Kurils sparked our interest. The article was accompanied by an advert by Wildwings in the UK for "Expedition Cruises" to the area.
Although, generally, we'd shy away from any kind of "cruise" this looked different: - there was to be no faffing around "dressing for dinner" and plenty of time to see birds and other wildlife, from the deck of the ship, from Zodiacs, or on landings at various places. 

We discovered that Petropavlovsk Kamchatskiy (the starting point, known as "PK") was only two airbus "hops" from Hong Kong - via Vladivostok - on Siberian Airlines.  Some rapid emails, form-filling and an express Russian visa (not to mention the efficiency of Heritage and Wildwings) secured our passage in far less lead time than is customary.

THE field guide to the region is Mark Brazils' excellent "Birds of East Asia". Mark gave a lively talk to the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society about his book and the area it covered in April 2010.

On May 27th we sailed from Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka aboard the vessel "Professor Khromov" which Heritage Expeditions of New Zealand leases and markets as the "Spirit of Enderby". The "Professor Khromov" has a Russian crew of 22 and room for about 50 passengers, although the boat was about four-fifths full.

A few yards from the dock we saw the first of many Tufted Puffins.  Sometimes on a birding trip one finds that yesterday's life tick is today's distraction....  but we never got tired of Tufted Puffins !

Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata)

It had snowed the previous day, but the sun came out as we sailed through Avacha Bay.

"PK" view

Avacha Bay

Guillemots on the water surface turned out to be both Common and Brunnich's, pictured here.

Brunnich's Guillemot (Uria lomvia)

There were some Skuas around, migrating north 

Long-tailed Skua (Stercorarius longicaudus)

A full day's sailing the following day gave us plenty of time to get used to various aspects of shipboard routine, such as briefings on boarding the Zodiacs and lifeboat drills.

It was also a chance to start to get to know our fellow passengers.  Many of the trip participants had been attracted to the trip by the scenery, the remoteness of the areas to be visited and other wildlife such as whales and dolphins, and the birds were just part of the experience for them.  There were seven of us who had booked through Wildwings and the personable Chris Collins was aboard, having accompanied the other Wildwings people out from the UK. 

A full day at sea on the 28th meant plenty of deck-time, too, with the tripod and 800mm lens.  There was only minimal engine vibration, and a lot of photo opportunities from the ship's foredeck, although a lot of shots tended to feature seabirds fleeing from the shadow of the boat.  

By far the commonest seabird between Kamchatka and Bering Island was Northern Fulmar.  The north pacific race rodgersi is mostly very dark brown, and could be mistaken with a poor view for many other petrels .

Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis rodgersii)

On 29th May we woke to find ourselves anchored off a cold, windy and wet Nikolskoye, the only inhabited settlement on Bering Island.  Vitus Bering perished on the island in 1742, on his way back from Alaska. The expedition's naturalist was Georg Steller, who survived the winter on the island, but who also never made it back across Russia to "civilization" although some of his notes and a few of his specimens did.  

All aboard the Zodiacs, then - a process we all got the hang of in due course.

The settlement looked pretty bleak, even in late May.


Near a monument to Bering and the members of his expedition who never left, Chris Collins pointed out a few Rock Sandpipers along the shoreline.

Rock Sandpiper (Calidris ptilocnemis)

Mongolian Plovers and Dunlin were noted, usually in pairs and in breeding plumage.  It was nice to see species familiar as passage migrants or winter visitors in Hong Kong here on their breeding grounds.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

There were a few Snow Buntings on Bering Island..

Snow Bunting (Calcarius nivalis)

While some birders plodded on for a view of Pechora Pipits breeding nearby, some of us turned back early to visit Nikolskoye's modest museum.  

A part-skeleton of Steller's Sea Cow, said to be the only one in existence, is the star exhibit. The Sea Cows were wiped out by sealers and trappers within 30 years of their discovery by the survivors of the Bering Expedition (who had eaten a few to survive themselves).

Steller's Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas)

In the afternoon we cruised south along the coast of Bering Island. The water is very deep just offshore and the abundance of nutrients means that it is a good place to see whales.

A couple of Humpbacked Whales showed well.  Usually, it seems, whales are just finny dark lumps in the water, but here are two shots of some "tail bashing"..

And a distant shot of one actually breaching..

Humpbacked Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

On the open sea again, and flocks of migrating Red Phalarope in breeding plumage were regularly seen.  They may have a long way to travel, but at least they can rest on the surface of the water, unlike other waders...

Red Phalarope  (Phalaropus fulicarius)

The rock stacks of Bering Island with their thousands of seabirds promised to be a highlight of the trip....  

Bering Island

End of Part 1


  1. Simply brilliant. What a great phalarope.

  2. That Rock Sandpiper shot hurts! Keep up the good work and good luck.

    1. WW, I've tried commenting on your blog, but my comments are returned as "spam"... oh, well. Rock Sandpiper was a "tick" for most people on the trip.

  3. Great images and post of such an exotic location. Eagerly waiting for the next part.

  4. Wow this is an exciting post, John!
    Can't wait to see more of your photos.

  5. drooling from the first puffin to the immaculate Red Phalarope!

    Mike K

  6. Absolutely brilliant John, want to go there immediately. Chris Collins was one of seven on my trip to Colombia with Verity & Richard Stott back in 2006!

  7. Great blog and amazing images John & Jemi, well done - can't wait for the rest, so good to relive the trip we shared!

  8. Thanks, everybody, for the kind words ...... we're up to Part 4 now, and we'll have Part 5 up when we've decided which Auklet shots to use.... a tough call !