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.
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
and Red-throated Loons - waiting to move further upstream.
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
Crows, numerous Common Black-headed Gulls and three
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©
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.
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.
Male White-crowned Sparrow near the Glenn Highway. Photograph copyright of Angus Wilson©.
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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