Trip report: Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk (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.

A small pocket of cold water sitting inside of the Kuril Island chain, bordered by the warmer Pacific, the Sea of Okhotsk is a hidden gem full of palpable history, great wildlife and thick atmosphere. Our adventure began with a short extension on the unique island of Sakhalin where we sought local endemics like Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler. From here we made our way along the coast northwards to the landmark town of Magadan, stopping frequently to explore. Our first stop was at Piltun Bay where we cruised alongside Gray Whales and bobbed below flocks of Aleutian Terns, whilst in the Shantar Archipelago we faced thick ice that held hundreds of ‘Arctic seals’ like Ringed, Largha, Bearded and the most beautiful of all pinnipeds, and a Russian Far East speciality, Ribbon Seal. We also enjoyed watching Steller’s Sea Eagles hunting fish in their icy homeland. Further along the coast we made a stop to bird within an abandoned military base, finding Pallas’s Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat and Siberian Accentor among other highlights, before pulling into the town of Okhotsk. Within Okhotsk we watched 20+ Steller’s Sea Eagles at close range, a flock of hundreds of Aleutian Terns, and enormous flocks of gulls. We ended the expedition with three glorious days in clear sunshine along the coast north-east of Magadan and at the Yamskie Islands. Our time at Talan was a stunning highlight, not only for its huge seabird colony, approachable puffins and Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warblers, but also for our time spent sitting among a flock of several hundred Ancient Murrelets as the sun went down. Along with Yankicha in the Kurils, Yamskie must rate among the world’s best birding spectacles. Sitting on our Zodiacs in perfect quiet as the alcids start to arrive at their burrows, first in flocks of tens, then hundreds, and then suddenly the sky is black with auklets, flocks of tens of thousands and a total of several million. This could only be topped off with a bright day in pristine Taiga forest surrounded by Spotted Nutcrackers, Brown Shrikes, Siberian Rubythroats, Arctic and Pallas’s Warblers, and several stunning Brown Bears. A long King Eider and flocks of hundreds of Goosander saw us out to the port of Magadan.

Tundra, Taiga and ice, the Sea of Okhotsk is as varied as it is stunning, and surely holds some of the greatest numbers of birds anywhere on the planet. This is a unique expedition, and one that teams perfectly with the very different ‘Ring of Fire’ expedition that precedes it.

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