Aleutian Island Expedition - Part 3

This is the third and last installment of a voyage through the Aleutian Island chain to the Russian Commander Islands and Kamchatcka Peninsula. To read to the first installment - Anchorage to Unalaska - click here and for the second installment - Unalaska to Attu - click here.

10 June: Lost because of crossing the International Dateline backwards!

11 June: Bering Island.

The larger of the two main islands of the Komandorski (Commander) Island Group, Bering Island was 'discovered' in 1741 when Bering's Expedition was marooned on the island for more than nine months after the loss of their ship the St Peter. Here the naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller described the endemic and mysterious sea cow that bears his name, as well as the endemic flightless Spectacled or Pallas's Cormorant both of which were driven to extinction in less than a hundred years of their discovery. Vitus Bering and several other crew died from scurvy during the long bleak winter and a small cluster of Russian Crosses near the month of a small stream mark the site of their graves. Corey Ford gives a superb account of these miserable events in his 1966 book 'Where the Sea Breaks its Back'. Things had not changed much since Steller's time. The land was still bleak and forbidding. As the World Discoverer dropped anchor a short distance from the burial site, a Russian military vehicle equipped with caterpillar tracks rumbled along the beach to monitor our landing. It had traveled many hours from the Russian garrison at the northern end of the island.

Whilst at anchor off Bering Island awaiting processing by Russian immigration officials, we were able to watch good numbers of Red-legged Kittiwakes, as well as Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants passing over the ship. Although we could see small numbers of cormorants nesting on the sandy cliffs of the island, it was unclear where the Kittiwakes were actually nesting. Interestingly, as we had noted at sea, the Red-legged Kittiwakes showed a strong tendency to fly higher than Black-legged Kittiwakes. While most Black-legged Kittiwakes occupy a zone from sea level to around 100 ft, the Red-legged Kittiwakes tended to fly from about 70 ft and up. Even in loose mixed parties, the Red-legs would tend to be the highest birds. Seeing the red legs of Red-legged Kittiwakes was difficult because in flight the birds tuck their legs under their body feathers .

Pechora Pipits were the most evident passerine in the low scrub flanking the clear stream. Numerous males sang from the tops of small bushes or during short song flights and rivals constantly chased each other through the scrub. The next commonest bird was Lapland Longspur; this time birds of the rather distinctive and apparently endemic coloratus race. The males show a much more extensive black bib that extends further down the flanks compared to alascensis that we had been seeing through the Aleutians. In knee high willow scrub about a hundred yards away south of the stream, Andy discovered a singing Lanceolated Warbler. After a short wait the bird approached us within a few yards and sang from a relatively exposed perch in the top of a bush. Through my scope the birds head almost filled the frame, the gaping bill quivering as it trilled. This moment was one of my personal highlights of the trip as I have wanted to see this species for many years now. During this thrilling landing, we also had close views of a Common Snipe (presumably the nominate Gallinago gallinago gallinago) perched a few feet away on a small willow; a couple of Caribou grazing on a hillside, Rock Ptarmigan and an Arctic Fox patrolling near the beach.

Singing Lanceolated Warbler (Locustella lanceolata) on Bering Island. Photograph copyright of Andrew Guthrie©

During the rest of the day we sailed along the bleak eastern coast of Bering Island periodically seeing small groups of Red-legged Kittiwakes. Occasionally single adult Slaty-backed Gulls would fly out from the shore to inspect the ship for a few minutes and then return back to the island. At the northern end of the island we passed some large Northern Fur Seal rookeries before reaching the islands only town, the grim-looking military base of Nickolskoe (population c. 750, including 346 Aleut) - the only settlement in the islands. Immediately offshore was a small but very interesting seabird colony. Besides seabirds there were two separate groups of Steller's Sealions using the island, and we had good views of the immense bulls. These mighty animals were extremely alarmed at the proximity of the ship; an excellent illustration of why the US Fish and Wildlife's 3 mile shipping limit is so important for the protection of Steller's Sealion colonies.

12 June: Kronotsky Nature Reserve, Kamchatka:

A short time after dawn, the Kamchatka mainland appeared ahead of us through a light seamist. As we drew closer to the mountainous coastline, the extensive, but still leafless, forests covering the low hills seemed out of place after so many treeless islands. The leafless trees and extensive snow cover suggested that the long Siberian winter was only just beginning to lose its grip on the landscape. A Grey Wagtail flew out to the ship and circled around several times possibly landing briefly on the ship's 'Zodiac deck'. As the ship anchored we scanned the coastline through telescopes quickly finding a huge Siberian Brown Bear exploring a freshly exposed grassy area. Within minutes Rick Bowers discovered three fairly distant Steller's Sea Eagle, including one adult, perched on the crest of a rocky promontory. Even at this distance we could make out the immense orange bill, white tail and white shoulder patches on the adult bird. Nearer the ship, a shallow shoal attracted a number of Red-throated, Arctic and Pacific Loons as well as Harlequin Ducks and Velvet Scoter (a.k.a. White-winged Scoter) and Long-billed Murrelets. Completing a remarkable 'loon fullhouse', a full-summer plumage White-billed Diver (a.k.a. Yellow-billed Loon) flew over the ship.

Zodiacs making their way up the recently thawed river at the entrance to the Kronotsky Nature Reserve, Kamchatka. Photograph copyright of Angus Wilson©

While most of the birders took a Zodiac tour along the coast to view and photograph the Steller1s Sea eagles, a few of us were able to explore the recently thawed river using the Zodiacs. This was an entrance way to the immense Kronotsky Reserve (Kronotsky Zapovednik), which was founded in 1934 to protect the local Sable population and covers some 964,000 ha, much of which is uninhabited. In 1984 the Kronotsky Zapovednik was recognised as a biosphere reserve under the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme, and is part of a large package nominated for recognition as a Natural World Heritage Property.

The mouth of the river was full of Arctic and Red-throated Loons - waiting to move further upstream. Yellow Wagtails were abundant along the banks and were accompanied by single Grey, White and Black-backed Wagtail. Eurasian Skylark could be heard singing above the engine noise from the grassy areas. Although restricted to the Zodiacs, the still generally leafless overhanging vegetation allowed reasonable but brief views of several Common Bluethroats, at least one Arctic Warbler (the large Siberian Phylloscopus borealis borealis race), several rather nondescript Dusky Warblers, a singing Common Reed Bunting, Common Rosefinches (race grebnitskii; with red extending to lower belly), and good views of a singing Common Cuckoo. In addition, we picked up several flying Carrion Crows, numerous Common Black-headed Gulls and three Common Sandpipers plus a single Dunlin on the exposed sandbars. The driftwood strewn beach held a pair of Eurasian Oystercatchers and we noted a first summer Kamchatka Gull and a couple of Vega Gulls.

As we watched pair of Steller1s Sea Eagles glide down from the high snowy slopes, a rather ratty immature White-tailed Sea Eagle passed over head. Foraging Siberian Brown Bears were everywhere, presumably fresh from hibernation. The huge animals clambered across the steep cliffs and snow fields with great dexterity. In the Zodiacs we approached an enormous bear as it excavated a deep hole in the shingle of the beach presumably in search of some festering morsel buried by a winter storm. Sea Otters and Steller's Sealions watched us anxiously from the kelp beds. By scanning the towering cliffs with a telescope from the ship, John and Tony managed to pick out a small party of Pacific Swifts hawking for insects over the higher snow fields.

Cruising south along the Kamchatka peninsula, we were joined by larger numbers of Slaty-backed Gulls of all ages, many of the first and second year birds bleached almost snow-white by the arctic sun. Perhaps because of more commercial traffic in this area, the seabirds seemed to take more interest in the ship that before, and large numbers of Northern Fulmars rode the standing pressure waves formed by the ships wake. A couple of Laysan Albatrosses tried the same thing but basically couldn1t fly slowly enough to ride the updraft and so would ricochet in towards the ship almost colliding with excited photographers on the stern.

Dark-phase (Pacific) Northern Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis rodgersii) riding the pressure waves produced by the ships wake. Photograph copyright of Angus Wilson©

13 June: Zhupanova River Estuary, Kamchatka Peninsula:

Near the rivermouth was a moderate sized colony of the distinctive longipennis race of Common Tern. Darker than the familiar nominate hirundo and more likely to be mistaken for either Aleutian or Arctic Terns, longipennis Common Terns have a stouter, all black bill; a noticeably darker mantle and darker underparts that produce a clear cheek stripe.

The marshy area along the river edge produced several singing Common Reed Bunting (race pyrrhulina), spectacular Yellow-breasted Buntings, a few Pechora Pipits, Lanceolated Warblers, Common Rosefinches and numerous Yellow Wagtails, while the shallow pools held Red-throated Loons, Greater Scaup, Common Black-headed Gulls, and two Far Eastern Curlews. Overhead we spotted several Steller's Sea Eagles, a subadult Northern Hobby and a female Smew that circled several times before landing out in the river. Checking the scrub growing the boundary of the marsh grasses and birchwoods we had great views of a male Siberian Rubythroat singing from an exposed perch. Within the birch woods, thick with blooming Kamchatka trillium, we had good views of several Olive-backed Pipits (a.k.a Indian Tree Pipit), Red-breasted Flycatchers, Brambling, Rustic Buntings and three Willow Tits of the strikingly pale Parus montanus kamtschatkensis race. Both Common and Oriental Cuckoos called from the wooded hillsides. After some careful searching we finally established that a unfamiliar long descending trill came from the rather elusive Swinhoe's Rufous-tailed Robin.

A stiff hike through the birch woodland up to the crest of the hill produced more views of Olive-backed Pipit (walking along tree branches and slanting bows), several more singing male Siberian Rubythroats, fleeting glimpses of Oriental Greenfinch and a very fresh set of bear paw prints. We also discovered a (female?) Stellar's Sea Eagle incubating on a bulky nest built in a large tree some twenty to thirty feet off the ground, while its mate stood guard at the top of the tree.

June 14th Petropavlosk-Kamcatskij:

During the morning we steamed in the large sheltered Avacha Bay that protects the regional administrative capital of Petropavlosk (Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskij). After clearing customs, we board two buses and headed through the town. Typical Soviet-style architecture, there were few tall building taller than five stories because of the constant earthquake risks. Near the monument to Vitus Bering (who founded the town in 1740 during his second expedition), we searched some grimy birch trees in vain for Grey Buntings but instead came up with a single Common Cuckoo, a rather bedraggled Eurasian Tree Sparrow, and the severed leg of a large dog lying on a pathway!! Hurriedly, we reboarded the buses and proceeded out into the countryside, passing several snow-covered volcanic cones. To view a detailed Russian military map (916K gif image) of the Petropavlosk area, click here.

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava simillima) on the outskirts of Petropavlosk. Photograph copyright of Angus Wilson©

In the farmland of the Avacha River floodplain we found many Yellow Wagtails, Eurasian Skylarks, 3 Rough-legged Buzzards, singing Arctic Warbler and more Siberian Rubythroats. The plan was to visit a Common Black-headed Gull colony, however, the fast rising melt water prevented access. Instead, we spent more time exploring the riparian woodland and looking at the commoner local species such as Siberian Rubythroats, Rustic and Common Reed Buntings, Common Rosefinches and Oriental Rosefinches. Moments before the bus was due to leave, Andy and I noticed a dull skulking passerine flit low across the dirt road and move along the base of the hedgerow. Approaching the size of a New World Catharus-type thrush, the bird had us a little baffled at first, but by crouching low and scanning the bases of the bushes we eventually got a decent view of the bird - a Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler, even seeing the diagnostic white tips to the otherwise unmarked tail.

At a facility devoted to breeding endangered Aleutian Canada Geese, our hosts served a traditional Russian lunch of fresh salmon soup, sliced cucumbers and tinned meats. As we understand it, the geese are to be released within the Kamchatcka region but it was unclear whether this will include the mainland as well as offshore islands. Besides more of the commoner species, we added a single Lesser Spotted Woodpecker to our list. After a brief visit to a local market we very sadly headed for the airport and our charter return to Anchorage. It was very hard to leave such an interesting and beautiful part of the world after so short a visit.

June 14th (again) Anchorage:

Despite the combined effects of exhaustion and jet-lag, we birded north of Anchorage and along the Glenn Highway, again enjoying many species characteristic of mainland Alaska and Pacific northwest. To our trip list we added: Sandhill Crane, Brown Creeper, 2 nesting Trumpeter Swans, and the Alaskan subspecies (kennicotti) of Arctic Warbler. This form differs from nominate in having a finer bill and yellower underparts. The primary wintering grounds are in the Philippines with some go to Malaysia and east to the Moluccas. Thus we nicely rounded out a truely terrific expedition.

Male White-crowned Sparrow near the Glenn Highway. Photograph copyright of Angus Wilson©.


Many thanks to Andy Guthrie for numerous comments and additions to this trip summary and to everyone aboard the 'World Discoverer' who helped make the trip so memorable.

Special thanks must go to Tony Lauro for his astounding generosity and for making this wonderful adventure possible - Cheers!!

To read to the first installment - Anchorage to Unalaska - click here
For the second installment: 'Unalaska to Attu', click here

Page and photos copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999 All rights reserved.
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