5 July 2012

Birding the Russian Far East Part 5 - Yankicha Island - "Planet Auklet"

Uninhabited by humans, Yankicha (sometimes spelled "Yankicho") is pretty much smack in the middle of the Kuril Islands, and home to huge colonies of both Crested and Whiskered Auklets.  Hundreds of thousands of them breed in burrows and rock crevices on the island's upper slopes. The island is the tip of a large sunken volcano, with the steep sides of the caldera forming a giant letter "C" - if viewed from space - rising from the ocean.

We approached Yankicha  on a clear afternoon. Laysan Albatrosses soared above heavy sea swells caused by the tidal flows between the seas separated by the Kuril chain - the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk. 

The choppy sea surface was liberally-dotted with white-capped waves. Crested Auklets, swam in small groups or flew in their hundreds.  A few Whiskered Auklets were there, too, - preferring  "..turbulent waters, particularly where tidal rips occur..." (Brazil) 

Access to Yankicha's caldera is possible only when the tide is fairly high so we had to wait until after 18:00hrs to try to get in.

Some "Four-wheel drive" Zodiac cruising through the roughest seas of the trip so far got us from the ship's sheltered anchoring point to the mouth of the caldera. 

The camera gear was kept well-covered from sea spray until after we crossed the shingle bar at the caldera entrance.  Thanks to the skill of the Zodiac drivers only one set of passengers got a good splashing. 

Once inside, the water was almost eerily calm, reflecting the blue sky and green grassy volcanic slopes.


Arctic Foxes were introduced to Yankicha by Japanese fur traders who wanted to start a breeding population more conveniently close to Japan than Bering Island, the most southerly part of the Arctic Fox's natural range. Apart from the odd raptor, the only threat to the Auklets comes from these. The foxes obviously don't see many people, and were completely unafraid of us.

The Zodiacs landed at a beach where hot springs and sulphurous fumes were boiling out of the sand.  

The geothermal wonders were interesting, but the birds were more enticing for some, especially with the weather so good. Guide Adam Walleyn drove several of us back into the waters of the caldera, where large flocks of auklets had settled on the water to bathe, while above noisy flocks of auklets streamed to and fro, looking like swarms of midges.

To be encircled by the still-steaming walls of this  volcano felt like an "other-worldly" experience, because this, plainly,  was the domain of the auklets.  They were by far the most numerous creatures around, and - apart from the odd raptor or fox - they seemed secure and confident in their environment. 

On their solitary island in the centre of a turbulent, blue ocean, no long distance migration would be necessary for them.  Apart from when the seas might freeze in a harsh winter, they knew they would never have to leave.

So in front of us, living in the moment, they bobbed on the water surface in their hundreds. Chattering away, they rose and circled and settled again, or wheeled overhead in noisy clouds.  On the sunniest of summer evenings they had no need to fret about what lay over the horizon. They were in charge, they were settled, they were relaxed. This was the only place they knew, their place - "Planet Auklet".

A lone Whiskered Auklet was sighted, and we were told that they tended to enter the  caldera later than the Crested Auklets... "We'll see plenty on the open sea as we leave.." Adam said.

Reluctantly, we left the lengthening shadows of the island and crossed back into the rough waters of the open sea.  

Adam had been right, of course, on the sea surface were rafts of chattering Whiskered Auklets.  In the pitching Zodiac we managed a few more shots without falling into the water.....

... and got back to the waiting ship as darkness fell.

End of Part 5


  1. Lost for words! I never knew there were still places like this. Absolutely staggering!

  2. Are you sure this wasn't Po Toi. Simply mega.

  3. OMG the close up shot of the auklet is amazing!
    Just like Dave, I'm lost for words.

  4. The Auklets are so adorable. Yet another wonderful post.

  5. David, Andrew, Stu, Ayuwat and Mun,

    Thanks again for the comments..... but we couldn't go wrong with strong sunshine and great birds !

  6. Wonderful photos. Really like the Arctic Foxes. These are the best images I've seen of them. I read a book called "Steller's Island" last year and Steller often wrote of them in his diary. They were unafraid back then, too.

  7. Russell,
    Yes, according to the Mearns' account in "The Bird Collectors" the foxes tried to eat the bodies of the Bering Expedition sailors before they could be buried properly. They also made off with various specimens Steller was trying to study.
    I've sent off for a book called "Where the sea breaks its' back" by Corey Ford - published in the 60s - which has more details of the Bering expeditions.

  8. Hi John

    I love that shouting Arctic Fox. Top, top image.

    1. Hi Christian, Yes, it was a strange yappy sort of call, too..

  9. Nice to see it all back! Greetings, Harvey

    1. Hi Harvey, Yes - unforgettable for all of us !