05/10/2011
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Birding the Kurils & Commander Islands: part 1

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

If the nine-hour flight from Moscow didn't make me realise just how far east I had come, the sound of Lanceolated Warbler singing just outside the arrivals hall certainly did. We had arrived at a wet and misty Sakhalin Island for the start of the 1,500-mile WildWings 'Ring of Fire' trip through the island chains of the Russian Far East. Directly across from our hotel for the night was Yuri Gagarin Park — a delight for space buffs — and the miserable conditions had forced down large numbers of migrants, especially Siberian (Dark-sided) Flycatchers, to supplement the residents such as Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Rufous-tailed Robin and Sakhalin Warbler (the latter formerly considered a race of Gray's Grasshopper Warbler).


Siberian Flycatcher (Colin Bradshaw).

Embarking on the Spirit of Enderby, our home for the next two weeks, we set sail across the Sea of Okhotsk via the trip's least inspiring tick, Japanese Cormorant. The Spirit is a well-appointed Russian polar exploration vessel complete with two gourmet chefs, an excellent bar and five Zodiac inflatable boats, which we used each day to land on or cruise around various Kuril or Commander Islands. The Sea of Okhotsk is the moulting ground of the all the world's Short-tailed Shearwaters and huge rafts of this species proved an ideal camouflage for small numbers of the much-sought-after Spectacled Guillemot, which we occasionally saw over the next three days.


The Spirit of Enderby off Kunashir (Colin Bradshaw).

The first of the islands, Kunashir (the southernmost Kuril), is still a source of dispute between Japan and Russia. The island was almost invisible in the low rainclouds that hung on the branches of the gnarled woodland home of Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker and Narcissus Flycatcher. Because of the large numbers of Brown Bear in the reserve we visited, we were accompanied everywhere by an armed forest ranger — although this didn't seem to put off the one bear that appeared right next to the Zodiac landing site. Latham's Snipe displayed over more open areas while Japanese Bush Warbler and Long-tailed Rosefinch skulked in the wet bushes. Blakiston's Fish Owl breeds on the island but we couldn't find them as they have left their nestbox by mid-June, but did chance upon both White-backed Woodpecker and Crested Kingfisher along the same creek.


Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Colin Bradshaw).


Kunashir creek (Colin Bradshaw).

We were blessed with good weather for the next two islands: Iturup, with its active volcanoes and hot springs, and the uninhabited Urup. Iturup has a small town and a KGB border post where we were delayed before venturing into the field. The town is the most northerly regular breeding site for Chestnut-cheeked Starling, while low-lying fields host numerous Latham's Snipe. However, it is higher up, on the Juniper-strewn slopes of the steaming volcanoes, that you search for Iturup's specialities. A secretive Japanese Robin briefly showed well; we heard Japanese Accentor on a couple of occasions but only one was glimpsed. There was some compensation for this miss with a steady stream of Pacific Swifts, several very showy Siberian Rubythroats and even a Red-flanked Bluetail.


Chestnut-cheeked Starling (Colin Bradshaw).


Iturup volcanoes (Colin Bradshaw).

The main valley in Urup is the site of a deserted summer fishing camp and within minutes of landing I was watching one of my key species of the trip. Because of its limited geographical distribution, only breeding around the Sea Of Okhotsk, Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler is a difficult bird to catch up with but here dozens were reeling and displaying in territorial disputes. Siberian Rubythroats sang from every tall bush and Brown-headed Thrush fluted from the single mast. Long-tailed Rosefinch and Eastern (Grey-bellied) Bullfinch flushed from small willow patches in the wet valley bottom, while both Pallas's and Kamchatka (Arctic) Warbler fed in the canopy on the valley sides. Later that day, on a small island that we visited to photograph Steller's Sea-lion, we found a pair of Grey Buntings on the slope above the landing beach.


Siberian Rubythroat (Colin Bradshaw).


Steller's Sea-lion (Colin Bradshaw).

The Zodiacs were used to cruise close to the island cliffs and with this, and the long journeys between the islands, we accumulated an impressive list of seabirds and mammals, including large numbers of Sperm and Humpback Whales, Steller's Sea-lion, Fur, Common and Largha Seals, Dahl's Porpoise, Orca and numerous Sea-Otters. Tufted Puffins were with us all the time and we saw up to 50 Laysan Albatrosses in a day. Highlights included three Short-tailed Albatrosses (about 0.2% of the world population) just off Chirpoy — all three of which, at some stage, sat on the water close to the boat — and a fly-by summer-plumage White-billed Diver.


Laysan Albatross (Colin Bradshaw).


Short-tailed Albatross (Colin Bradshaw).

The summer weather continued for a third day as we zodiacked into one of the more bizarre birding localities I have visited. The flooded caldera had been a Soviet submarine base until the end of the Cold War, when they suddenly upped and left, abandoning bedding, children's toys, cutlery and crockery as well as vehicles and machinery. Trees on the island grew to no more than six feet but, despite that, there were at least two pairs of Nutcrackers as well as the by-now-routine rubythroats and Kamchatka (Arctic) and Middendorff's Warblers.


Kamchatka Warbler (Colin Bradshaw).

Leaving this esoteric location the weather began to deteriorate with a strange combination of high winds and thick fog that I have only ever encountered close to the Bering Sea. Because of this, most of us didn't make it onto Yanchiko Island where Crested and Whiskered Auklets are present in six-figure numbers. Fortunately the next morning, though conditions were still pretty awful, we found shelter around Toporkovy Island and bumped into an obliging Whiskered Auklet that posed for photographs. The weather got progressively worse bringing an unexpected bonus of several hundred Leach's and Fork-tailed Petrels and three Black-footed Albatrosses. As we travelled further northeast, auks became commoner with numerous Crested and Whiskered Auklets, Brünnich's and Kuril Pigeon Guillemots and Tufted Puffins. However, without doubt, the most amazing site was the number of Blue Fulmars, which we estimated at nearly 100,000 on some days.


Whiskered Auklet (Colin Bradshaw).

Our final landing on the Kurils was on Onekotan Island with its sweep of heathland dotted with thickets of Stone Pine and Dwarf Birch, none more than 5 feet high. Drenching squalls coming out of thick fog was an unusual combination that kept us wiping our binoculars all day. Having previously only seen Pine Grosbeak in taiga forests of northern Europe and Canada, it seemed bizarre to find them on this virtually treeless island. Otherwise, our standard Kuril fare of passerines was augmented by Asian House Martin and Buff-bellied Pipit.

Part II of this article appears here.

Written by: Colin Bradshaw