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Spoon-billed Sandpipers on Siberia's Forgotten Coast

Russia Birding Tours: our Kamchatka, Commander Islands and Chukotka birding tour is certainly one of our more adventurous and unusual bird watching and wildlife holidays. This northeastern Siberia expedition cruise explores some very remote and little-visited regions that are home to the endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Steller’s Sea Eagles, Red-legged Kittiwakes, Whiskered Auklets, Brown Bears, Walruses and much more besides.

Tuesday 23rd June — Monday 6th July 2020
(14 days)

Leaders: Chris Collins and other Heritage Expeditions leaders

Group Size Limit: 15

Tour Category: Easy walking for the most part and comfortable accommodations

The cute Whiskered Auklet is restricted to remote islands in the middle of the North Pacific and is one of the greatest prizes on the cruise (Mark Beaman)

The cute Whiskered Auklet is restricted to remote islands in the middle of the North Pacific and is one of the greatest prizes on the cruise (Mark Beaman)

This expedition is as unique as the First Kamchatka Expedition of 1725 – 1730 which was led by Danish explorer Commander Vitus Bering on orders of Peter the Great. His orders were to travel overland to the Kamchatka Peninsula (from St Petersburg) and there build two ships and sail “north by northeast...... chart the coast and collect information”. It was an ambitious journey and a remarkable expedition.

Bering set sail from Nizhnekamchatsk on the lower Kamchatka River, our expedition will depart from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy a city named in honour of Bering’s two ships which sailed from here for the second Kamchatka or Great Northern Expedition which he also led.

From here we will sail ‘north by north east’ to discover wildlife and a wilderness that few people have seen or experienced because of the region’s remoteness and the fact that it was a ‘closed area’ until the early 1990s. It is a land of extremes and myriad environments including snow-capped active volcanoes, geothermal regions, vast forests, extensive tundra, uninhabited islands and rich oceans.

Every day we will search for the best wildlife experience, and there will be many, but we want to find one bird in particular – the extremely rare Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus).This bird is now classified as ‘critically endangered’ and its only known breeding ground is in northern Kamchatka and Chukotka – the area that we will be visiting. Recent field studies suggest that the global population is much lower than previously thought, possibly fewer than 320 breeding pairs and declining.

It is not often that one can utterly ‘get away from it all’, but this is certainly an excellent opportunity!

We begin our journey in Kamchatka. The enormous, diamond-shaped Kamchatka peninsula projects southwards well over 1000 kilometres from the Siberian mainland and divides the Sea of Okhotsk from the Bering Sea and the North Pacific. Situated like the Kurils on one of the earth’s major fault lines, part of the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, Kamchatka is peppered with volcanoes, around ten of which are currently active. The constant geological upheavals in this unstable part of our planet have created some of the most extraordinary and spectacular scenery on earth, with immense, Mount Fuji-like, snow-covered volcanic cones towering high above the birch forests and rugged coastline. Here we will look for the majestic Steller’s Sea Eagle, surely the king of raptors and one of the largest flying birds in the world, as well as Far Eastern Curlew, Long-toed Stint, Aleutian Tern, the smart little Long-billed Murrelet (split from Marbled), Rufous-tailed Robin, Eyebrowed Thrush, Middendorff’s Grasshopper and Arctic Warblers, Grey-streaked Flycatcher, and Grey, Rustic, Yellow-breasted Buntings.

To the east are the lonely Commander Islands, two small islands at the eastern end of the chain of islands that stretches from Alaska to Kamchatka. Here the Danish explorer Vitus Bering died in 1741 after being shipwrecked together with Steller (of eider, sea eagle and sea cow fame). Far less well known than the nearby Aleutians, the Commanders are home to some of the largest seabird colonies in the region. We plan to visit both Bering Island and Medny’y Island, where highlights will include not only the uncommon and highly localized Red-legged Kittiwake, but also Red-faced Cormorant, Harlequin Duck, the restricted-range Rock Sandpiper, Mongolian Plover, Glaucous-winged Gull, Brünnich’s Guillemot (or Thick-billed Murre), Pigeon Guillemot, Crested, Parakeet and Least Auklets, the restricted-range Whiskered Auklet, Tufted and Horned Puffins, Pechora Pipit and the Bering form of the Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch, not to mention some huge Northern (or Steller’s) Sealions, thousands of Northern Fur Seals and the delightful Sea Otter.

The crossings to and from the islands offer great seabird and cetacean possibilities, including Laysan Albatross (and quite possibly Short-tailed Albatross), Mottled Petrel, Fork-tailed and Leach’s Storm-Petrels, Dall’s Porpoise, Great Sperm and Fin Whales, and possibly even Blue Whale.

From the Commanders we make our way northwards along the wild and largely uninhabited coastline of northernmost Kamchatka and southern Chukotka, that long finger of Northeastern Siberia that terminates at the Bering Strait, just a short distance from Alaska. Not only we will experience some truly amazing scenery and see Subarctic and Arctic vegetation at the best season, but we should also encounter Brown Bears, Walruses, Grey Whales and Belugas, as well as many Arctic-breeding birds including Yellow-billed Diver (or Yellow-billed Loon), King Eider, Kittlitz’s Murrelet, and possibly Emperor Goose.

One of the great highlights of our wilderness journey will be helping the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Team survey a new area where small numbers of this critically-endangered species may yet breed, and we shall be spending some time at an area in southern Chukotka which may be the last ‘stronghold’ of the species, if anywhere in the Russian Arctic can be called that these days.

By the time we finish our voyage at Anadyr in southern Chukotka we will have visited places that only a few other western birders have ever seen and truly come to understand the meaning of ‘wilderness’.

We shall be sailing on the Professor Khromov, a ship operated by Heritage Expeditions of New Zealand (who call her Spirit of Enderby). Ships of this class are Finnish-built vessels under Russian registry that were built in the 1980s and early 1990s under commission from the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. They were originally intended for oceanographic research, but were subsequently adapted for expedition-style cruising following the financial cutbacks that later affected all formerly Soviet research programmes. These ships are, of course, not ‘cruise ships’ in the traditional manner and will appeal most to those for whom exploring wild places and enjoying wild nature, rather than enjoying luxurious surroundings and ‘black-tie’ dinners with the officers, is the prime attraction.

Cabins are furnished with two berths and have some storage space and an outside view (many having en-suite bathroom facilities). Public facilities include restaurant, lounge/bar, lecture facilities and library. Food is plentiful, of good quality, waiter-served and prepared by European, New Zealand or Australian chefs. The ship carries a small complement of expedition staff, including a naturalist, who give informal talks on the environment, wildlife and history of the region, where required, and also guide shore excursions.

As much of the sailing as possible is done at night, thus maximizing opportunities for going ashore and enjoying the beautiful landscapes to the full. Landings are carried out by means of a fleet of zodiacs and naiads, rugged, fast-moving inflatables designed for expedition work, which allow safe landings on remote coastlines in all types of conditions. The sheer speed and efficiency with which the crew carry out these landings, coupled with the small complement of passengers, allows everyone plenty of time ashore at most locations. Further information about the cruise, including photographs and details of the ship layout, including cabin layouts, are available on the Heritage Expeditions website (www.heritage-expeditions.com).

The great advantage of taking this particular cruise, if you are especially interested in seeing the fantastic wildlife of this remote region, is that the itinerary and day to day schedule are strongly wildlife-orientated, and our group will greatly benefit by having a dedicated ornithologist guide present.

Birdquest pioneered expedition cruises to this part of the world as far back as 1991.

Shore-based Birding Option: We can arrange accommodation and local birding for you at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy on request.

Around Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy it is possible to see such interesting species as Aleutian Tern, Eyebrowed Thrush, Lanceolated Warbler, Taiga (or Red-throated) Flycatcher and, with luck, Black-billed Capercaillie, Northern Hawk-Owl and Grey-streaked Flycatcher.

Accommodation & Road Transport: For details of the ship, see the introductory section. Road transport is minimal and is by coach.

Walking: The walking effort is mostly easy, but there are a few optional moderate walks.

Climate: Rather variable. Conditions will range from fairly warm to distinctly cold and dry and sunny periods will be interspersed with overcast weather. Sea fog is quite usual at this season and there may be some rain.

Bird/Sea Mammal Photography: Opportunities are good.

Important: It is important to bear in mind that circumstances may be encountered during the voyage which will make it necessary or desirable to deviate from the planned itinerary. These circumstances include poor weather conditions and unexpected opportunities for making additional zodiac excursions. The expedition leader will provide more information at the start of the voyage and keep you fully informed throughout. While as many landings as possible will be made, few of these are crucial in terms of actually seeing the local wildlife, which can mostly be seen from the ship or during an inshore zodiac excursion.


For Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy/Anadyr arrangements

£6220, $8400, €7120 in a Main Deck triple-berth cabin with shared bathroom facilities

£7150, $9660, €8180 in a Main Deck twin-berth cabin with shared bathroom facilities

£7620, $10300, €8720 in a Superior Cabin with private bathroom

£8160, $11025, €9340 in a Superior Plus Cabin with private bathroom

£8470, $11445, €9690 in a Mini Suite with private bathroom

£9220, $12450, €10550 in an Heritage Suite with private bathroom.

Includes surface transportation, accommodations, meals, some soft drinks and entrance fees.

Gratuities for the expedition staff and crew, and a charge of $500 (payable in cash on board) to cover the landing fees levied by the local governments, are not included in the tour price. Gratuities are entirely at your discretion. The staff work very long hours to make such cruises a success, including a great deal of night sailing, and we have been told that most passengers give gratuities of around US$200-300 for such a cruise.

Single Cabin Supplement: Single occupancy of most cabins can be obtained in return for an 80% supplement on top of the cruise-only price (but suites require a 100% supplement). Please note that if you are willing to share but no cabin-mate is available you will not have to pay the single occupancy supplement.

Deposit: 25% (including any single supplement).

This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Kindly note that the balance due will be invoiced around 5 months before departure for payment not later than 120 days before departure.

Cancellation Charges: For cancellations made 180 days or more before departure, the cancellation charge is US$850 per person or equivalent. For cancellations made 91-179 days before departure, the cancellation charge is 100% of the deposit paid. For cancellations made 1-90 days before departure, or on the day of departure or later, the cancellation charge is 100% of the tour price.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

The range-restricted Red-legged Kittiwake is another splendid speciality (Mark Beaman)

The range-restricted Red-legged Kittiwake is another splendid speciality (Mark Beaman)

The Professor Khromov (or Spirit of Enderby) (Mark Beaman)

The Professor Khromov (or Spirit of Enderby) (Mark Beaman)

In what is a fantastic tour for alcids, other highlights include comical Crested Auklets (Mark Beaman)

In what is a fantastic tour for alcids, other highlights include comical Crested Auklets (Mark Beaman)

... stunning Tufted Puffins (Mark Beaman)

... stunning Tufted Puffins (Mark Beaman)

... and stocky Horned Puffins (Mark Beaman)

... and stocky Horned Puffins (Mark Beaman)

Other brilliant seabirds include the attractive Red-faced Cormorant (Mark Beaman)

Other brilliant seabirds include the attractive Red-faced Cormorant (Mark Beaman)

... and the attractive Laysan Albatross (Mark Beaman)

... and the attractive Laysan Albatross (Mark Beaman)

The attractive Rock Sandpiper can be found in the Commanders (Mark Beaman)

The attractive Rock Sandpiper can be found in the Commanders (Mark Beaman)

The amazing Steller's Sea-Eagle is always a crowd-pleaser (Mark Beaman)

The amazing Steller's Sea-Eagle is always a crowd-pleaser (Mark Beaman)

Sea mammals include smart Sea Otters (Mark Beaman)

Sea mammals include smart Sea Otters (Mark Beaman)

Many of the flight-inclusive holidays on this website are financially protected by the ATOL scheme. But ATOL protection does not apply to all holiday and travel services listed on this website. Please ask us to confirm what protection may apply to your booking. If you do not receive an ATOL Certificate then the booking will not be ATOL protected. If you do receive an ATOL Certificate but all the parts of your trip are not listed on it, those parts will not be ATOL protected. Please see our booking conditions for information, or for more for more information about financial protection and the ATOL Certificate go to: www.atol.org.uk/ATOL Certificate

Birdquest Ltd is Registered in England, Company No. 01568270. The address of our registered office is Two Jays, Kemple End, Stonyhurst, Clitheroe, Lancashire BB7 9QY

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