RUSSIA’S RING OF FIRE: KURIL ISLANDS, KAMCHATKA & COMMANDER ISLANDS BIRDING & WILDLIFE TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Day 1 As you travel across Russia on your way to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in the southern part of Sakhalin island and gaze down on the seemingly endless forested plains, hills and mountains, punctuated only by lakes and rivers, you will surely appreciate the immensity of Siberia.
The tour begins today at Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk airport, where you will be met by our leaders and Heritage Expeditions staff and transferred by coach to the nearby port of Korsakov, where we board our ship before sailing for the Kuril Islands. We will spend the next 12 nights aboard.
At the harbour of Korsakov we should encounter our first Pelagic Cormorants, Black-tailed Gulls, Slaty-backed Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes, and perhaps also a lingering Glaucous Gull.
As we leave Sakhalin behind and sail towards the southeast we should encounter many Northern Fulmars, huge numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters (which are up here escaping the rigours of the southern winter) and some rather ghostly Fork-tailed Storm Petrels, as well as small numbers of alcids (auks), including Thin-billed Murre (or Common Guillemot). We may see our first cetaceans today, most probably Dall’s (or Spray) Porpoises hurling themselves through the water. Even in late spring, the water temperature in the southern Sea of Okhotsk is quite low, which explains why it is so rich in marine life.
Day 2 As we approach the Kuril Islands this morning we will be looking out for our first Ancient Murrelets, Crested Auklets and Rhinoceros Auklets. The numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters are likely to be awesome!
Later today we should be anchored off Kunashir Island at the southern end of the Kurils chain. These wild, rarely-visited specks at the end of the world are dominated by a series of volcanoes, linking Kamchatka and Japan, and Kunashir is towered over by the 1822m peak of Tyatya. The Kurils were annexed from Russia after the Russo-Japanese war in the early years of the 20th century, but seized back by the then Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. Japan still claims some of the southern islands, making for a long-term political dispute with Russia.
Scenically spectacular, and still largely wilderness, the Kurils are a refreshing change compared with most of our overcrowded planet. We will explore the Zapovednika Kurilskiy (Kuril Nature Reserve) on Kunashir, which has the highest biodiversity in the Kurils chain, with many rare plants and a rich avifauna by local standards. More than 200 Brown Bears roam Kunashir, probably the highest density in all Russia, and we may well see a few during our explorations, particularly along the island’s rivers where they feast on the summer salmon run.
Along the coastline with its black volcanic beaches we should encounter the handsome Japanese (or Temminck’s) Cormorant, the splendid Harlequin Duck, Stejneger’s Scoter (sometimes split from White-winged) and a few oversummering Red-throated and Pacific Loons (or Red-throated and Pacific Divers). We should also come across the handsome Spectacled Guillemot, a speciality of Northeast Asia, for the first time.
Once ashore we are likely to find White-tailed Eagle, Latham’s Snipe (which will be giving spectacular dive-bombing display flights), Oriental Turtle Dove, Common (or Eurasian) Cuckoo, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, White Wagtail (of the lugens form, known as ‘Black-backed Wagtail’), Grey Wagtail, Stejneger’s Stonechat, Japanese Bush Warbler, the skulking Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler (their presence amongst the grass and reeds betrayed by their characteristic song), Asian Brown Flycatcher, the lovely Narcissus Flycatcher, Coal Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Oriental Crow (sometiumes split from Carrion), Large-billed Crow, Grey-capped Greenfinch and Black-faced Bunting. With a bit of luck we will find Eastern Crowned Warbler, Bull-headed Shrike or even the huge Crested Kingfisher.
Blakiston’s Fish Owls nests in the reserve, but while we may see the enormous nest boxes put up for the species we are unlikely to see the birds themselves.
Day 3 At Iturup Island we will visit the main settlement of Kuril’sk, dominated by the high volcanic peaks of Teben’kova (1211m) and Baranskogo (1124m), which has a hardy population of around 10,000 souls. It is interesting to see just what a remote outpost of Russia is like, with Soviet-era apartment blocks juxtaposed with an old Russian Orthodox church and traditional Siberian-style wooded houses (where Russet Sparrows nest).
Much of our time ashore will be spent exploring wooded and shrubby areas in the lowlands and in the highland interior. Here we will be looking out in particular for Kamchatka Leaf Warbler, as well as Japanese (or Eastern) Buzzard, the gorgeous Japanese Robin (a bird with a most beautiful, bell-like song), the equally spectacular Siberian Rubythroat (often perching right out in the open while delivering its song) and Brown-headed Thrush. More widespread species include Pacific Swift, Eurasian Skylark, Eurasian Wren and Common (or Northern) Raven.
Day 4 This morning we will probably land near the northern end of the island of Urup, where wildflowers will likely put on an impressive display and where we may also see our first Sea Otters.
As we continue northeastwards, en route to Chirpoy island, we will keep a good lookout for cetaceans, for this is ‘Sperm Whale alley’, one of the best places for seeing these leviathans on earth. We should see a series of Great Sperm Whales resting on the surface, breathing between their deep dives, which can reach depths of over 1000m as they pursue squid. After their final ‘blow’ that huge back arches and then the great triangular flukes rise clear of the water before the whale plunges into the abyss. Truly a thrilling sight! Northern Minke Whales are not uncommon in these waters and Fin or Sei Whales are also a possibility, while we also have a good chance of encountering our first Orcas (or Killer Whales).
During the afternoon we will make a zodiac cruise and perhaps a landing at Chirpoy Island. Here we will see our first very handsome Red-faced Cormorants nesting on the cliffs, while auks include large numbers of Thin-billed Murres (or Common Guillemots), Thick-billed Murres (or Brünnich’s Guillemots), and comical Tufted Puffins, as well as smaller numbers of Horned Puffins and Pigeon Guillemots (here of the distinctive Kuril form snowi, which wholly or almost entirely lacks the white wing patch). We may also come across Greater Scaup. Sea mammals include the huge Northern (or Steller’s) Sealion, Harbour (or Common) Seal and the delightful Sea Otter.
Day 5 This morning we will arrive at the northern end of Simushir Island in the central Kurils. The scenery is quite awesome, with huge, snow-covered volcanic peaks rising straight up out of the sea, as if they are all that is left of a drowned continent. The cold current that sweeps southwards along the Kurils creates an almost Arctic climate, so there are snow patches almost down to sea-level in June and the tallest vegetation is limited to willow and birch scrub, or low mats of gnarled Siberian Stone Pine.
At the northern end of Simushir there is a huge flooded caldera, Bukhta Broutona, that gives easy access to the lower slopes of the Karlomyy volcano. In Soviet days this was a busy submarine base and when we land here we will see the decaying buildings and piers.
Spotted Nutcrackers are a bird one does not expect to find far from true forest, but here they forage amongst the low, matted stone pines! The most interesting species regularly to be found at Broutona is the shy, restricted-range Grey Bunting, while Buff-bellied (or American) Pipits nest in the grassy areas and Red-necked Grebes sometimes fish in the caldera. If we are in luck we will also encounter the impressive Pine Grosbeak.
Later, as we sail north past Ketoy, we should find a number of Laysan Albatrosses amongst the huge numbers of Northern Fulmars, and this is also a good area for finding Short-tailed Albatross.
Almost unknown in the west, the huge seabird colonies of the remote Ushishir Islands in the central Kurils are some of the most impressive in the entire North Pacific. Here literally millions of auks nest along with millions of Northern Fulmars and hundreds of thousands of Fork-tailed Storm Petrels and Black-legged Kittiwakes, and numerous Pelagic Cormorants, Red-faced Cormorants and Slaty-backed Gulls. Alcids (or auks) reach their greatest diversity in the North Pacific region and the Kurils look set to become world famous for their sheer quantities of these dumpy but attractive birds.
This afternoon/evening we shall explore glorious Yankicha island, the remains of a partly submerged volcano, where the grassy and rocky slopes of the flooded caldera provide nesting places for vast numbers of rather comical-looking Crested Auklets. Best of all, the exceedingly localized and much sought-after Whiskered Auklet nests here in huge numbers and we should get wonderful close-up views of those long white ‘whiskers’. In spite of their numbers, the Whiskereds are still greatly outnumbered by Crested Auklets. We will also encounter numerous feeding flocks of both species in the tidal races offshore.
As the light dims during the long Kuril evening, huge streams of birds fly low over the sea, or suddenly gain altitude and fly high over the grassy slopes and wild cliffs and peaks, the heavy avian traffic creating a continuous chirruping, growling and gurgling (Crested Auklet flocks in particular sounding just like sandgrouse as they sweep overhead). Hundreds of thousands of birds are present and flocks of thousands of auklets are commonplace! The long swirls of auklets contract and expand all the time and, at a distance, look like moving smoke. All in all this is one of the most amazing seabird spectacles on earth!
Yankicha is still quite active and we should get the opportunity to see the smoking sulphur vents and boiling mud pools close up.
Day 6 This morning we will be off Matua island, where the Japanese constructed an air base during the Second World War, later taken over by the Russians and abandoned following the fall of the Soviet Union. Here, below the huge and spectacular volcano that dominates Matua, we will explore Toporkovyy island. The island’s name means ‘Tufted Puffin’ in Russian, a highly appropriate epithet as there is a huge colony here and we should enjoy some wonderful views of these spectacular and rather comical birds, as well as other alcids, Red-faced Cormorants and Harlequin Ducks.
This afternoon we will make a zodiac cruise at Ekarma Island where we should see more Whiskered Auklets, as well as numerous other alcids.
Day 7 This morning we will explore the northern end of Onekotan island, landing below the Nemo volcano and walking to Black Lake. Beautiful wildflowers carpet the meadows surrounding the lake and, if it is clear, the backdrop of the volcano is spectacular. Amongst the birds here are Rough-legged Buzzard (or Rough-legged Hawk), Long-toed Stint and Common Reed Bunting. This is also another good locality for the uncommon and localized Grey Bunting.
As we head northwards to Atlasova we will be on the lookout for Killer Whales (or Orcas), as this is a good area for them, perhaps seeing some the huge males with their tall dorsal fins. Sea Otters are also common in this area. They are one of the few tool-using animals and here or elsewhere on our journey we should see at least one or two lying on their backs in the water and hammering away with a small stone at clams positioned on their chests! At this season many of the females have cubs and as our ship approaches they will paddle away with the cub resting on their chest, or tow it away by hanging on to the scruff of its tiny neck.
This afternoon we will reach the island of Atlasova which hosts the highest volcano in the Kurils. Our landing site is at a long-abandoned Gulag-era camp and the pools here sometimes hold Falcated Duck, while the spectacularly-eroded cliffs host a colony of nesting Red-faced Cormorants. This evening we will have to leave the magical Kurils behind and sail onwards towards the southern tip of Kamchatka.
Day 8 As we sail along the southeastern coast of Kamchatka today we will, provided it is clear, be treated to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. In good weather the combination of blue sky, white, snow-covered cones, ash-grey lower slopes, green forests and deep blue water is something quite extraordinary.
In the morning we will, if time permits, visit the Utashud islands in Bukhta Vestnik. The islands are small and steep-sided, and hold a large colony of Slaty-backed Gulls and alcids which attracts huge and impressive Steller’s Sea Eagles.
Further north is Russkaya bay, a fjord like opening in the coast to the south of Petropavlovsk from where we will, if it is clear, enjoy spectacular views of the Mutnovskaya Sopka volcano (2328m). The smart little Long-billed Murrelet (a northeast Asian speciality, which favours shallow, inshore waters, unlike most other auks) is not uncommon in the bay and we will also keep a lookout for Brown Bears, which are common in Kamchatka. There is even a fairly good chance of finding Kittlitz’s Murrelet, a species that is endangered in Russia.
While cruising along the amazing Kamchatka coastline we will also keep a lookout for our first Least Auklets, as small numbers either oversummer or perhaps breed in this region (the species has only relatively recently been found breeding in very small numbers in the northern Sea of Okhotsk, so similar small and unknown colonies may occur in Kamchatka). Ancient Murrelets are regularly encountered in this ultra-scenic area.
Day 9 This morning we will explore the Zhupanova River by means of our zodiacs and naiads, upstream from the small settlement of Zhupanovo at the river mouth. The river flows out of the southeastern part of the huge Kronotskiy Reserve. Here the tall, snow-covered volcanic cone of Kronotskaya Sopka (3528m) looms over a remote, virtually uninhabited tract of land.
The star attraction is the enormous Steller’s Sea Eagle. This huge raptor, one of the heaviest of all flying birds (with a bill that looks as if it could make short work of one’s hand and a wingspan of nearly three metres), nests in good numbers in the area, the breeding adults feeding their single eaglet on the copious supplies of salmon. To watch this wonderful bird soaring on a sunny morning, its white wing flashes catching the sunlight, is something truly unforgettable.
Other birds we should find here include Red-throated and Arctic Loons (or Red-throated and Black-throated Divers), Common Merganser (or Goosander), Far Eastern Curlew, Black-headed Gull, Kamchatka Gull (sometimes split from Mew or Common Gull), Aleutian Tern (which often breeds at the river mouth), Common Tern, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Common Rosefinch, Rustic Bunting and perhaps Yellow-breasted Bunting.
Either here or elsewhere during our cruise, there is a fair chance of finding a lingering Yellow-billed Loon (or Yellow-billed Diver), with the same also applying to Largha Seal and Grey Whale.
In the afternoon we will weigh anchor and sail for the Commanders. As long as the sea fog does not roll in, the views northwards towards Kronotskaya Sopka will be quite breathtaking as we head out to sea.
Day 10 The Commander Islands (or Komandorskiye Ostrova), named after Commander Vitus Bering, are two lonely slivers of land that mark the easternmost extension of the largely submarine mountain ridge that extends from Alaska to Kamchatka and which gives rise to the Aleutian Islands to the west. These savage but beautiful islands, right at the end of Asia, are about as far ‘off-the-beaten-track’ as one can get.
Here the St Peter, Bering’s ship, was wrecked in November 1741 on its way back from Alaska and during the terrible winter that followed nearly half its crew, including Bering, died from scurvy and other diseases. Steller himself survived, through the care he had taken to collect anti-scorbutic plants whilst the ship slowly worked its way along the Aleutians before the shipwreck, and became the first and only naturalist to observe the large and almost flightless Spectacled Cormorant and the huge, docile Steller’s Sea Cow, both of which were hunted to extinction in less than a century. Steller reported that the Arctic Foxes on the island were so fearless of man, and indeed so aggressive, that they would rip the meat from his fingers whilst he skinned animals or bite off the toes, fingers and noses of dead sailors before they could be buried. By the summer of 1742 the survivors had managed to rebuild the ship and in August they sailed it back to Kamchatka.
This morning we will arrive at the small settlement of Nikolskoye near the northern end of Bering Island, the largest of the two Commander Islands. The terrain here is rather low-lying, with extensive marshy areas, dry, hummocky tundra and low hills. In the marshy areas we will find the restricted-range Rock Sandpiper and also such species as Red-breasted Merganser, Long-toed Stint, Dunlin, Common Snipe and Pechora Pipit (the latter has a dry, Corn Bunting-like, rattling song). Smart male Lapland Longspurs seem to be displaying and song flighting everywhere. Around the settlement itself Snow Buntings nest and numerous Glaucous-winged Gulls throng the beaches, whilst on the drier areas of tundra we will find Lesser Sand Plovers in their breeding finery.
In spring great numbers of Northern Fur Seals come ashore to breed, crowds of animals thronging the beaches at the northwestern end of the island. Amongst the main mass of seals the mature bulls lord it over their harems, whilst at the periphery the bachelor males are scattered about, grumpily baring their teeth when a rival comes to close or roaring aggressively if pressed too far.
Offshore islands hold large seabird colonies. On one small islet there are thousands of breeding Tufted Puffins and numerous Glaucous-winged Gulls. On another, much rockier, island are a good number of breeding Red-legged Kittiwakes, a major speciality of the Bering Sea region, as well as large numbers of Common and Thick-billed Murres (or Common and Brünnich’s Guillemots), Parakeet Auklets, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants, and some spectacularly huge male Northern (or Steller’s) Sealions surrounded by the much smaller females.
Day 11 We plan to visit the smaller of the Commanders, Medny’y Island, this morning, enjoying the spectacular scenery of this wild place that has now been abandoned to nature, even the Border Guard station having been left to decay gently away. We should see Rock Ptarmigan and Pechora Pipit here, as well as the large Bering Sea race of the Grey-crowned Rosy Finch. We will keep a lookout for Least Auklet, which breeds here in small numbers, and there are large numbers of Whiskered Auklets. The waters surrounding the Commanders also hold large numbers of Humpback Whales and Killer Whales or Orcas.
After our visit to Medny we will return to Nikolskoye to drop off the local Russian nature reserve staff and then sail for Kamchatka.
Day 12 The crossing back to the mainland will give us another chance to find some uncommon seabirds or cetaceans. We pass over some very deep water today and this area, where we should see small numbers of Leach’s Storm Petrels amongst the more numerous Fork-tailed Storm Petrels, should also turn up a good number of Mottled Petrels, a Pterodroma which breeds in the New Zealand region, but which spends the southern winter in the North Pacific. Laysan Albatrosses will also be a feature of the crossing, as will other seabirds we first encountered in the Kurils, and we also have a chance for both Black-footed Albatross and Short-tailed Albatross. Pomarine Jaegers (or Pomarinme Skuas) are usually moving through the area in small numbers, and sometimes Long-tailed Jaegers (or Long-tailed Skuas) can also be seen. We also have a good chance of encountering the huge Fin Whale and there is even a small but real chance of the mighty Blue Whale!
Day 13 This morning we will sail into Avachinskaya Bay and end our journey at the port of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, where we must say farewell to the ship and crew we have grown to know so well. This is one of the most scenic harbours in the world with a spectacular skyline of volcanic peaks including Avachinskaya Sopka (2741m) and the perfect white cone of Koryakskaya Sopka (3456m).
We will be transferred by coach to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy airport for flights home (if you are travelling to Europe you can generally reach home the same day).
Day 1 We will be transferred to our hotewl in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsak for a two nights stay. There will be time for somne initial birding today.
Day 2 There is some attractive and interesting Taiga (boreal) foresat in the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk area. Interesting species include Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler in particular, as well as Oriental Cuckoo, Rufous-tailed Robin, the smart Siberian Blue Robin, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Thrush, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler and Radde’s Warbler.
Day 3 There will be time for some more birding early today before we meet up with those arriving for the cruise itself.