11/10/2011
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Birding the Kurils and Commander Islands: part 2

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This article follows the second part of Colin Bradshaw's trip to the Kurils and Commander Islands, eastern Russia; the first part can be viewed here.

Following out departure from the Kurils, the rest of the day and overnight was spent heading for the Kamchatka Peninsula and Russkaya Fjord. The weather here was miserable, as it had been when we left our last location, although this didn't stop us finding several pairs each of Long-billed and Ancient Murrelets in the mist, while a lump on the shore morphed into an immature Steller's Sea-Eagle as the fog swirled away. We landed on the moraine beach at the base of the fjord but weather conditions precluded passerines showing themselves. This was particularly frustrating as the habitat looked fantastic and, amongst the usual Middendorff's Warblers, a single Eye-browed Thrush singing for long enough to be scoped and a few Eastern Yellow Wagtails alarm calling showed us a glimpse of the potential of the area. A Zodiac trip along the fjord mouth took an unexpected twist when we accidentally got between a hunting pack of Orcas and their lunch — a sea-lion colony — but our boatmen successfully extricated us; and we were off to Zhupanova River Reserve, a huge area of flooded forest and oxbow lakes.


Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler (Colin Bradshaw).


Orca (Colin Bradshaw).

In a tiny marsh next to a small fishing community at the mouth of the Zhupanova reserve we discovered breeding Long-toed Stint and Pechora Pipit, while the low bushes were home to Scarlet Rosefinch as well as rubythroats and the commoner warblers. Upriver, we passed several pairs of Pacific Divers, a few Kamchatka (Common) Gulls and a colony of longipennis Common Terns, with their grey underparts and black bills; occasionally waders, most noticeably Far Eastern Curlew, flew overhead. However, the master of this watery landscape is undoubtedly Steller's Sea-eagle and there were at least three occupied eyries with the inhabitants seemingly completely oblivious to us. Returning along the forest edge allowed us to spot Taiga Flycatcher amongst the rubythroats and warblers. Once again, had it been warm, sunny and still, instead of cold, misty and windy, we may have seen rather more passerines.

A severe storm hit us as we travelled across the Bering Sea to the Commander Islands. I managed to stay on the lookout until I'd got my next lifer, a Mottled Petrel, of which at least 15 passed the boat. However, once that was under the belt, lying down in a dark room dosed up with seasickness tablets seemed the best option.


Steller's Sea-eagle (Colin Bradshaw).


Zhupanova river Zodiac (Colin Bradshaw).

Because of the severity of the storm, we were behind schedule and still three hours short of Bering Island next morning. This had the unexpected consequence of our being able to watch the specialist seabirds of the area without distraction. Both Red-legged Kittiwake and Red-faced Cormorant have a very limited distribution, yet here we had both species passing the boat in numbers while flocks of Crested Auklets were augmented by almost as many Parakeet Auklets and, rather surprisingly, Common Guillemot outnumbered BrĂ¼nnich's.


Tufted Puffins (Colin Bradshaw).

Arriving at Nikolskoye on Bering Island, we zodiacked to the quay and set off along the rocky shoreline. Here, ten Rock Sandpipers hid from the persistent icy rain and there was a collection of gulls, mainly Glaucous-winged, though two odd-looking birds could have been sub-adult Vega Gulls.

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Rock Sandpiper (Colin Bradshaw).

Walking inland along the river we came to mudflats where two pairs of Mongolian Plovers tripped amongst groups of Dunlin. Lapland Buntings sang beside tussocks, sheltering from the high wind, while Pechora Pipits kept to the ditches and rank grass. Later that afternoon, as the swells abated, we took a Zodiac trip around Ariy Kamen Island, a tiny island with huge seabird colonies. Parakeet Auklets dotted the water below cliffs laden with Red-faced Cormorants and Red-legged Kittiwakes.


Parakeet Auklet (Colin Bradshaw).


Red-faced Cormorant (Colin Bradshaw).


Horned Puffin (Colin Bradshaw).

Finally we arrived at Medney Island, the most easterly of the Commanders, which was still enveloped in low cloud and mist although the wind had decreased. Common Eider of the v-nigra race commuted between the surf and a lagoon giving us excellent views of their bright orange bills. Upon landing, we found Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch on the old survey huts and several pairs of Pechora Pipits, giving better views than in previous encounters. Lapland and Snow Buntings sang and a Rock Ptarmigan showed well on the slope above the huts. A slight movement in some dune grass eventually turned out to be a Lanceolated Warbler that paused long enough for a single photograph. How much excitement would that have caused if it had been 250 miles further east on the Aleutian chain?


Pechora Pipit (Colin Bradshaw).


Lanceolated Warbler (Colin Bradshaw).

The long haul back to Kamchatka started that Thursday afternoon and took 36 hours. The first afternoon, as we moved between Medney and Bering Islands before swinging out into the Bering Sea, was full of birds with numerous Laysan Albatrosses, a few Mottled Petrels, lots of puffins, Crested and Whiskered Auklets and, best of all, four Least Auklets in flight. Humpback Whales dominated the cetaceans, with one breaching repeatedly. The Friday was much slower but a group of adult and immature Red-legged Kittiwakes hitched a lift with us for several hours jostling for position on the superstructure. In the late afternoon, fog and rain thickened, staying with us till we docked on Saturday morning in Petropavlosk prior to our long flight home.


Red-legged Kittiwakes (Colin Bradshaw).

Written by: Colin Bradshaw