Trip report: Russia’s Ring of Fire (May-June 2016) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Lisle Gwynn. This was a set departure tour.

Russia is a land that is difficult to put into words. Almost every single stereotype you’ve ever heard about the place is true, and yet it is nothing like you may imagine. It blindsides you with constant surprises, and yet it is comfortingly homely, despite being undeniably unfamiliar. The people are incredibly friendly, more so than many other destinations around the globe, and even here in the far far far east where a culture of paranoia and suspicion is a way of life strangers are met not with caution and wariness as you might imagine, but with open arms, warm smiles and some of the most friendly greetings I have ever experienced.

Without Heritage Expeditions’ ‘Spirit of Enderby’, a 50 passenger, Russian-flagged, Russian-crewed and tastefully refitted expedition vessel, birding this part of the world would be, with no exaggeration, impossible. The vast majority of sites we visit in this itinerary, and indeed all of our Russian Far East itineraries, are inaccessible by land and it is only by combination of ship and Zodiac inflatable boat that we are able to explore in the way that we do. Of course, this has led to some wildly successful expeditions, and 2016 simply raised the bar once again. Even before we’d stepped foot on the ship we were blown away by Kamchatka with the mythical Black-billed Cappercaillie giving walk-away views, and a superb supporting cast of Siberian breeders like Eyebrowed Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat and Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. Things simply got even better as we got underway and by the time we were finished in the Commander Islands we’d encountered spectacular wildlife like Blue, Humpback, Fin, Gray and Sperm Whales, atypically showy Pechora Pipits, and the Palearctic’s only breeding Gray-crowned Rosy Finches and Pacific Wrens, as well as an endemic subspecies of Arctic Fox that is likely to be split in the very near future. Back to the coast of Kamchatka and it was the bounty of Steller’s Sea Eagles peering down at us from their nests that stole the show, but Aleutian Tern, Kamchatka Gull, Long-billed and Kittlitz’s Murrelets and Long-toed Stint tried their hardest to out do the eagles.

The Kuril Islands are a wonder in their own right; long-disputed, under-explored and shrouded in mystery and legend. Oh, and the birding is superb. Days with 11+ species of alcid were common, including specialities like Spectacled Guillemot and the all-dark ‘Kuril’ Guillemot that will likely soon become a legitimate species. On land we found Japanese and Siberian Accentors, Siberian Rubythroats by the bucketload, Black-faced, Rustic and Japanese Grey Buntings, Pine Grosbeaks and Spotted Nutcrackers, Japanese and Rufous-tailed Robins, the hulking Crested Kingfisher, diminutive Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, and even discovered a previously unknown population of Japanese Murrelet. Even more mega though was a group of 4 Stejneger’s Beaked Whales off of Kunashir on our last evening, an animal only a handful of people have ever seen. Of course, our journey through the islands produced seabirds in numbers difficult to comprehend. An evening at Yankicha must rate among the top wildlife spectacles anywhere in the world. Bobbing silently in a volcano caldera as 5 MILLION Crested and Whiskered Auklets fly in to roost is indescribable.

With pre- and post-expedition options to explore Sakhalin and its endemic birds and Moscow, with amazing birding in between, this must rate as one of THE must-do ship trips anywhere in the world. Besides, how often do you get to bird in an abandoned top secret Soviet submarine base?

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