2 Jul 2012

Birding the Russian Far East Part 4 - Northern Kuril Islands

The Kuril Islands stretch in a 1200 km line from Kamchatka to Hokkaido, along the edge of the edge of the west pacific tectonic plate - there are about 40 active volcanoes among the 22 main islands and 30-ish smaller islets.

Tufted Puffin - Fratercula cirrhata

Since 1945 Russia has been in charge of all the Kuril Islands, although Japan still claims four islands in the south, close to Hokkaido. 

Most of the islands are unpopulated now, and there is plenty of wildlife to be seen.

On 2nd June we began with a Zodiac Cruise off Ptichi Rocks, near Paramushir Island.

Sea Otter - Enhydra lutris

The area had a large colony of Sea Otters, and was the place where we had our best (but still not very good) views of Parakeet Auklets (right, below).

Parakeet Auklet (r) - Aethia psittacula

The seabirds make easy prey for a Peregrine Falcon - the local race is "pealeai"

We also saw more Pigeon Guillemots.  The Kuril form is "snowi", and it has fine lines on the wings, instead of the usual white patches.  Mark Brazil (Birds of East Asia) treats this as a separate species.

Pigeon guillemot - Cepphus columba

We passed close to Severo-Kurilsk on Paramushir with many Northern Fulmars attracted by the waste from the fish-processing plant.

In the "narrows" between Paramushir and Shumshu Islands... some more Common Guillemots, and - familiar to Hong Kong birders - Ancient Murrelets...

In the afternoon we landed on the island of Atlasova, dominated by Mt Alaid, at 2339m the highest volcanic cone in the Kuril chain.

Some duck were seen on a small lake, and Hoary Redpoll found breeding in the beachside scrub.


Clear weather, too, on the 3rd for a morning landing on Onekotan.  We surprised a (Red) Fox on the beach, and had time to ponder the remains - in the form of dry stone rings - of the dwellings of the Ainu, Onekotan's  former  inhabitants, "re-settled" by the Japanese in the late 19th century.

Dwarf pines covered the often windy island, and Pine Grosbeaks were a highlight among the land birds.

Leaving Ekarma.


In the afternoon we visited a colony of breeding Northern Fulmars on the island of Ekarma.   The sky was full of them.

 "the sky was full of them..."

view bigger video here 

There also a few Pigeon Guillemots around, and the inevitable Horned Puffin...

Late in the afternoon we got a foretaste of what was to come the following day, with a flock of about thirty Crested Auklets

Crested Auklet - Aethia cristellata

A single small blob on the water was spotted.  A Whiskered Auklet  in clear sunshine ! 
We were keen to get photos while we could, but it kept scuttling away when we got too close.

It seemed to be saying.....

Whiskered Auklet - Aethia pygmaea (composite photo)

"Follow me"  - it called- " to Planet Auklet  !! "...

End of Part 4


  1. I just love these seabird images. Well done - again!

    1. Mun,

      Thanks, glad you like the seabird pics...

  2. Wonderful (again). Did you use the 800 from the zodiac?

    1. Andrew, Thanks...

      800mm ? Yes, I did, with a monopod..... but some of these are Jemi's with the 400mm/5.6. For example, the auklet pics here.

  3. Superb especially the Puffin shots.........

    1. Thanks, Stu - you can't go wrong with Puffins....

  4. I'm speechless...
    The Tufted Puffin is stunning, not to mention the Pigeon Guillemot, Red-faced Cormorant and Crested Auklet. The Peregrine Falcon also looks interesting.

    1. Thanks Ayuwat ! I'm hoping some of these will turn up in HK in winter...

  5. Some of these birds are familiar to me, living in Alaska. I would love to see the Whiskered Auklet. Your photos are wonderful. I also follow another Hong Kong blog, Friend of HK. Do you know of it?

    1. John, it must be great to be more familiar with these birds.... I believe many occur on the Pribilof Islands, but they must be hard to get to.

      "Friend of HK" ? yes I've bookmarked the blog

  6. Wonderful adventure! Oh, I really want to see a puffin. They are unreal.

  7. Thanks Russell, Puffins certainly are spectacular, especially in breeding plumage. I saw my first at Skomer, in Wales (Atlantic Puffin), but it took twenty years to get around to seeing the others...

  8. Hi John, Stunning images of what looked like an amazing trip... another one for my list of places to visit! I love the auklet and puffin images.. and the scenery looks magical... Thanks for writing this up! Terry