Wednesday 24 July 2013

Hello Alaska

First day was on up the Kamchatka Peninsula to Kaminestaya Bay and the Chazma River, and then back the next day to the Zhupanova River, where the change snow and ice in even a few days was incredible. We did a landing in the afternoon at Morzhovaya Bay, and amongst other things a relatively freshly dead Steller’s sea eagle was found. We were able to really see the massive talons and huge bill of this magnificent bird.

Then it was back to Petropavlovsk where we checked out of Russia, did all the formalities, and then headed towards the US! A day at sea across the Bering Strait brought very little in the way of birds or mammals, but as we reached and passed some of the outer Aleutians we started to encounter good numbers of birds, many of the same we had been seeing in Russia of course. We did a cruise past Buldir Island in the late afternoon seeing a lot of good seabirds, and even managing to spot a few red-legged kittiwakes flying amongst the flocks of black-legged kittiwakes. Ancient murrelets, crested auklets, and even a few whiskered auklets were all spotted, as well as a few Laysan albatross.

We were supposed to have cleared into the United States at Attu Island, but we had severe fog and strong winds and the customs officials were not prepared to land in those conditions. So we had no choice but to continue to Adak, where there was a better all-weather runway…just as well as the weather was still foggy and raining, gusting 50 knots in the morning, and not much better in the afternoon. So we got the clearances out of the way and then continued on our passage.

The next day we spent another very wet and foggy morning on Atka Island, with not a lot of birds of note, but some nice flowers and a rather lost B-24 bomber which is in rather a state of disrepair after going down here during WWII. The afternoon however, started to fine up, and we explored an absolutely incredible little island which was swarming with breeding seabirds. As we pulled in to the anchorage a small group of Dall’s porpoise came in and gave an awesome display playing and feeding around the ship. We explored the coast of the island where there were thousands of breeding seabirds – black-legged kittiwakes, guillemots, but best of all least, parakeet, crested and the odd whiskered auklet. Thousands of them! We spent almost two hours out in the zodiacs just enjoying the spectacle. That evening as the ship headed further along the Aleutian chain we had a massive pod of more than 30 killer whales around the ship, with some of the smaller sub-pods coming in very close to the ship to check us out.

Next morning we did a hike up to a waterfall on Chuginadak Island, with lots of beautiful wild flowers, and a few birds, plus a little sunshine. The weather got a bit windier in the afternoon so our exploration of Chagulak Island was in a sheltered bay (well somewhat sheltered!), where we had great views of Steller’s sea lions and a few birds, plus some incredible cliffs and small sea caves.

Next day into one of the famed places of the region – Dutch Harbor – on Unalaska Island. We led a short bird walk along the shore towards town, and then I went and checked out some of the fishing supply shops…absolute heaven! Spent far too much money on bits and pieces, caps, clothes, etc. A pretty cool town, would love to see it in the winter when all the fishing boats and fishermen are coming and going! As we left Dutch Harbor we had a couple of humpbacks, with a well grown calf getting a little playful and doing a few breaches for us.

The next day we had a little coastal cruising, with a few distant brown bears, and a very wet zodiac cruise in the morning, then an even wetter one in the afternoon at Unga Island. Wet wet wet! The following day however we struck better weather and some stunning sun and cloud around the Alaskan Peninsula and then the afternoon on the Semidi Islands. We did some stunning zodiac cruising around the Semidi Islands, with lovely little caves and waterfalls and massive cliffs of breeding seabirds. Mainly guillemots and black-legged kittiwakes, but also a few cormorants, and some great action with Arctic skua chasing guillemots to force them to drop fish. Really amazing!

The next morning dawned foggy again, but we were ever hopeful, and as the morning wore on the sun burnt the fog off…we were in one of the true meccas for Coastal brown bears – Geographic harbor. This place is incredible and we were in luck as we launched the zodiacs, having already seen a couple of bears from the bridge as the ship came in. Out in the zodiacs we had absolutely fantastic close views of several really large bears feeding on grass right on the shoreline. Over the course of the day we probably had 10+ bears at close proximity, and really nice close views with them being completely unperturbed by us. The scenery showed itself off spectacularly in the afternoon, with clear blue skies and warm calm conditions. Hard to believe it was the last day of the trip, with the ship arriving into Seward, Alaska the following morning. Disembarkation day again!

Cruising northwards along the Kamchatka Peninsula in stunning conditions.

The opening leaf bud of an alder bush. Kamchatka.

A small herd of reindeer with stunning mountain backdrop. Kamchatka.

Evening light through the willow catkins. Kamchatka.

Beautiful purple ground orchids of some kind just starting to appear as the temperatures increased and the snows melted. Kamchatka.

Foggy early morning conditions just off the Zhupanova River, Kamchatka.

The ship against a stunning backdrop of snowy mountains in Morzhovaya Bay, on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The massive talons of a relatively freshly dead Steller's sea eagle. Kamchatka Peninsula.

Evening light in Morzhovaya Bay. Kamchatka.

The birch woodland near Petropavlovsk just starting to burst into leaf. Kamchatka.

Small group of ancient murrelets about to hit the water just off Buldir Island, another massive seabird breeding site. Aleutian Islands.

One of the volcanic islands in the outer Aleutians.

Fantastic least auklets taking off from the water - tiny little things. Aleutians.

Flock of crested auklets just off one of the breeding islands in the outer Aleutians.

Stunning little crested auklet resting on the water. Aleutians.

Black-legged kittiwakes nesting on the rock ledges. Aleutians.

Zodiac cruising along the shore of one of the outer Aleutians.

Another pod of killer whales which we encountered. This was a massive pod of maybe 30+ animals, many of which came in and investigated the ship. Aleutians.

Taken from Chuginadak Island looking towards Chagulak Island across the water. Aleutians.

Stunning waterfall on Chuginadak Island. Aleutians.

A slightly tighter view of the waterfall on Chuginadak Island. Aleutians.

Looking back at the waterfall on Chuginadak Island with incredible cloudscape. Aleutians.

Zodiac cruising in aquamarine waters on Chagulak Island. Aleutians

Harbour seal peering out from the kelpy water surrounding Chagulak Island. Aleutians

Grey-crowned rosyfinch perched on the shoreline in Dutch Harbor. Aleutians.

Young breaching humpback whale as we left Dutch Harbor. Aleutians.

Sunshine as we reached the Alaska mainland and skirted through some of the wild Alaskan Peninsula.

Beaut little waterfall on one of the Semidi Islands. Alaska.

Looking back out from a navigable crevice on one of the Semidi Islands. Alaska.

Common guillemot in flight near the Semidi Islands. Alaska.

Black-legged kittiwakes calling to each other as they fly overhead. Semidi Islands, Alaska.

Sunning rock formations and lichens on the Semidi Islands, Alaska.

Coastal brown bear feeding on grasses at Geographic Harbor, Alaska.

Coastal brown bear feeding on grasses at Geographic Harbor, Alaska.

Young coastal brown bear walking out over the exposed sandflats looking for food. Geographic Harbor, Alaska.

Young coastal brown bear walking out over the exposed sandflats sniffing for food. Geographic Harbor, Alaska.

Bald eagle sitting majestically against a blue sky. Geographic Harbor, Alaska.

Young coastal brown bear looking for food on the exposed sandflats, with zodiacs in the back ground. Geographic Harbor, Alaska.

Stunning scenery and blue sky day in Geographic Harbor, Alaska.

Stunning scenery and blue sky day, with all the zodiacs out in Geographic Harbor, Alaska.

Young coastal brown bear feeding on grasses right on the shoreline in Geographic Harbor, Alaska.

Young coastal brown bear pretty relaxed whilst feeding on grasses right on the shoreline in Geographic Harbor, Alaska.

Hello Russia

Sooo… has been a very long time since my last blog. The last two months have been hectic with some incredible trips through the Russian Far East and Alaska, so I just haven't had time to update this blog. I did however, start writing the below way back when it was timely, and so have finished it along with photos to post here. I will over the next week add subsequent blogs for each of the next three trips!

What a first cruise we had here in the Russian Far East! We started in Niigata, Japan and headed up the west coast of Honshu and then Hokkaido, seeing a short-tailed albatross on the way (as per my previous blog), before then heading up through to Sakhalin (yes – Sakhalin leaf warbler in the bag) and then on to the Russian Far East through the Kuril Islands and to the Kamchatka Peninsula. We unfortunately missed Yankitcha Island due to fog and very high winds, but got a landing on Shiashkotan Island (more male rubythroats singing) and then to Atlasova and Shumshu Islands where we had a little rain and cloud, but things improved over the day. During the course of the day we had seven species of waterfowl, which brought the total to 13 species so far, with a total of 18 species (excluding the three species of diver we also saw during the trip). Pretty awesome. We again had singing male rubythroats and then off Shumshu had great sea otters offshore, including mothers with pups.

Next day was our first landing on the Kamchatka mainland, with a landing at Listvenichaya Bay. We spotted a couple of brown bears before getting in the zodiacs, and there was still a lot of snow and ice around. Getting in the zodiacs we headed in towards the shore, hoping to then get closer to one of the bears, but we managed to find another adult and then a mother with two second-year cubs, before then finding a pair of Steller’s sea eagles perched beside a nest. Crusing the shoreline we had some nice views of harlequin ducks and greater scaup, before doing a landing and finding eye-browed thrush and Eastern yellow wagtail ashore. Of course there were more singing male rubythroats as well!

That afternoon was an absolute stunner with a couple of zodiac cruises around Cape Kekyryni. By this time the sun was coming out and we hadn’t even anchored the ship and I spotted some killer whales, which came pretty close to the ship giving great views. Then in the zodiacs we had stunning Steller’s sea eagles and sea lions, with some other good stuff around, before ending with the killer whales again from the zodiacs – just awesome!

The next day was a vodka induced blue-sky blur in Petropavlovsk, with some rustic buntings in the birch woodland that was still covered in snow, a trip to the local museum, and then back to the ship. Phew! Kamenistaya Bay didn’t disappoint the following day with stunning blue sky weather again, a great walk with rough-legged buzzard, a few pipits, and other bits and bobs, before a zodiac cruise spotting a grey whale and several brown bears! Then around the corner to Chazma River, getting stunning killer whales and then I managed to spot the blows of several sperm whales out in deeper water. We had absolutely incredible views of several animals, including one large bull right beside the ship logging on the surface and then diving. Simply awesome! A landing at Cazma River was postponed a few hours when we spotted a brown bear ashore, so we watched it feeding from the zodiacs before then going ashore and enjoying the thermal waters.

Then to the Commander Islands, where we visited some of the seabird breeding islands just off Bering Island. A foggy morning gave rise to stunning blue skies again (one of the few blue sky days they get each year), and we had amazing views of red-legged kittiwakes breeding, with parakeet auklets, guillemots, red-faced and pelagic cormorants and horned puffins. Incredible! Then ashore on Bering Island in the afternoon for a cultural experience and a little rambling over the nearby fields. The final day was then on the Zhupanova River back on the mainland, where there was still an incredible amount of snow on the ground and even a lot of fast ice still in the sheltered sections of the river. We easily managed to find more Steller’s sea eagles, common terns (the subspecies longipennis which has a black bill even in the breeding season) about to start breeding, a few wading birds including incredible views of wood sandpiper and some more distant long-toed stints, and even a muskrat or two!

So then back into Petropavlovsk for turn around day, managing to get a few hours ashore, before doing it all again!

Stunning Pacific white-beaked dolphins porpoising right beside the ship.

Beautiful reflections at Onuma Park, Hakodate, in Japan.

Large-billed crows in Hakodate, Japan.

Some of the local school kids doing the 'Squid Dance' for us at the pier. Hakodate, Japan.

Short-tailed albatross taking off from the water just to the SW of Rishiri Island, Japan.

Black-tailed gull in flight beside the ship.

Male black woodpecker working a tree trunk on Rishiri Island, Japan.

Sakhalin leaf warbler on Sakhalin, managed to track it down!

Soviet style housing on Sakhalin.

Slaty-backed gulls on Tyuleniy Island on the SE coast of Sakhalin.

Northern fur seals up on the beach on Tyuleniy Island on the SE coast of Sakhalin.

Adult male Northern fur seal on the beach on Tyuleniy Island on the SE coast of Sakhalin.

Black-legged kittiwakes at the nest site, but yet to lay, also on Tyuleniy Island, Sakhalin

Flock of crested auklets takes flight off the water at Chirpoy Island in the Kuril Islands.

Clouds of Northern fulmars in the air over the breeding islands. One of the Chirpoy Islands, Kurils.

Beautiful dark Pacific morph Northern fulmar off Chirpoy Island.

Flocks of the Northern fulmars on the water just off the breeding colony. Chirpoy Islands, Kurils.

Stunning kelp and seascape, with the ship and a smoldering volcano in the background at the Chirpoy Islands, Kurils.

A blur of a black-legged kittiwake as it takes off from the water. Chirpoy Islands, Kurils.

Breeding ledges full of black-legged kittiwakes on Chirpoy, Kurils.

The sea got up a little whilst we were out cruising at Chirpoy, so made for a slightly wet disembarkation from the zodiacs at the stern platform.

Laysan albatross in flight off Matya Island, Kurils.

Whiskered auklets in flight off Matya Island, there were massive numbers of them around the ship, but unfortunately rouh weather and fog prevented zodiac operations. Kurils.

Crested auklet in flight off Matya Island. Kurils.

The landscape on Shumshu Island in the Kurils with plenty of snow still on the ground.

Sea otter mother and cub in the kelp off Shumshu Island.

One of our first ports of call on the Kamchatka mainland - Listvenichaya Bay, where there was still a lot of snow present and rather cold conditions.

Pair of Steller's sea eagles at a nest site on the Kamchatka mainland.

Subadult Steller's sea eagle in flight, an absolutely stunning bird!

Steller's sea lion rookery with massive males on the rocks and females and subadults in the water. Kamchatka.

Subadult Steller's sea eagle taking off in a rather bedraggled state, looking like it had spent some time in the water.

Steller's sea lions in the water just off the rookery. Kamchatka.

Steller's sea lion under the water beside the zodiac. Often they are quite curious when they are in the water.

Massive male Steller's sea lion defendong a harem of females. Kamchatka.

Tufted puffin taking off from the water. Kamchatka.

A stunning male killer whale breaking the surface as it approaches the zodiac. An absolutely stunning encounter, my first from the zodiacs with this species, and we had them come right past us. Kamchatka.

Masive volcanoes around Petropavlovsk as we came into port there. Kamchatka.

Beautiful blue sky day in the birch woodland near Petropavlovsk, still with a lot of snow on the ground and leaf buds just prior to bursting. Kamchatka.

Kaminestaya Bay on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Kamchatka brown bear, one of several we saw relatively closely, although they tended to be a little skittish, possibly due to still be hunted.

Another stunning male killer whale, this time almost bow-riding the ship. We had some stunning encounters with these marine mammals around Kamchatka.

A little after the killer whales I managed to spot some sperm whales blowing not far off our course, and we had unbelievable views of several of these amazing animals also.

Down, down, down, the fluke of a sperm whale not far off the ship as it dives to the depths below, just of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Another large Kamchatka brown bear, this one altered our landing plans for a little while until it moved off.

A landing at the Chazma River, with hot tub out buildings and small fishing/research huts and wild flowers.

Awesome little horned puffins on one of the breeding islands at Bering Island.

Red-faced cormorant in the sunshine, an absolutely stunning bird with breeding plumes. Bering Island.

Pair of parakeet auklets fly down from the breeding site in a breeding display. Bering Island.

One of the stars of the show, a pair of red-legged kittiwakes, displaying at the nest site. Bering Island.

Mostly common guillemots on the water, but ne immature bird and an adult Brunnich's guillemot in the group. Bering Island.

Some of the nesting ledges covered in guillemots. Bering Island.

Stunning horned puffin on a rock ledge. Bering Island.

Breeding plumage common tern (subsp. longipennis) in flight. This subspecies has a black bill in the breeding season and looks quite different to the 'usual' European race. Zhupanova River, Kamchatka.

Wood sandpiper beside the river. Zhupanova River, Kamchatka.

An adult and two sub-adult Steller's sea eagles roosting on a headland. Zhupanova River, Kamchatka.

Still a lot of snow and indeed ice on the slower parts of the river. Zhupanova River, Kamchatka.

Muskrat carrying a branch as it swims along the edge of the river. Zhupanova River, Kamchatka.

Fast ice breaking up with stunning blue sky conditions. Zhupanova River, Kamchatka.