Russia's Ring of Fire: Kamchatka, the Commanders, and the Kurils

The Pacific Ring of Fire manifests itself in numerous places on the rim of the Pacific Ocean – but nowhere more dramatically than in Russia’s Far East. Along one of the world’s most active plate boundaries, the Pacific plate subducts under the North American plate and the resulting volcanic and geothermal activity has built a unique and amazing landscape. Imagine cruising the coast and birding landscapes dominated by enormous perfectly conical volcanoes and vast ice-fringed Taiga forest. Upwelling from the deep trenches formed by this action and currents around the many islands also creates perfect conditions for seabirds and cetaceans. Consequently the area is one of the richest in the world, both in terms of the number of species which can be seen, and their sheer abundance.


For many birders, the undoubted highlight is the alcids, and during our voyage it is possible to see up to fourteen species including Tufted and Horned Puffins, Parakeet, Whiskered and Rhinoceros Auklets, Ancient, Japanese, Long-billed and Kittlitz’s Murrelets, as well as ‘Kuril’ and Spectacled Guillemots. Other seabirds we regularly encounter include Laysan, Black-footed and the holy grail Short-tailed Albatross, Mottled Petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Red-faced Cormorant, Red-legged Kittiwake and Aleutian Tern. For those keen on cetaceans we can reasonably expect to see Fin, Sperm, Humpback Whales as well as Orca (Killer Whale), Baird’s Beaked-Whale and Dall’s Porpoise. On previous occasions we have seen the near-mythical Hubbs’ and Stejneger’s Beaked Whales.

The region’s human history is equally interesting and fascinating. The original settlers were the Ainu and Itelmen who were displaced with the arrival of the Cossacks in the 18th century after the Explorer Vitus Bering had put the region on the map. The Soviet empire encompassed the region and at the height of the Cold War, Russia’s formidable Pacific Fleet was based here. The secrecy surrounding the fleet resulted in the region being ‘closed’ even to Russians who had to get special permits to travel to and within the area. It is only now, two decades since Perestroika, that people can travel relatively freely here, although there is still very little in the way of infrastructure for visitors. This makes the region that little more fascinating for us as seekers of all things wild though, as it presents a unique opportunity to bird an underappreciated, oft-forgotten and under-explored region where surprises are common.

The region we explore on this expedition falls into three quite distinct and unique geographical regions: the Kamchatka Peninsula; the Commander Islands (the western extremity of the Aleutian chain of islands) and the Kuril Islands. Each region is very different and each has its own story. Join us as we go in search of the people, birds, animals and unforgettable landscapes that make this part of the Pacific Ring of Fire so special.

Day 1: Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Depending on shipping schedules, this morning you will be transferred to the vessel and home for the next two weeks – the Spirit of Enderby. There will be plenty of time today to settle in, unpack, and more importantly join us on deck to begin the birding. As we leave we will target birds like Ancient Murrelet, Stejneger’s Scoter, and enjoy our first looks at the dapper and clown-like Tufted Puffin among plenty of other highlights. You are also welcome on the bridge as we sail from what some people consider the best natural harbour in the world which is quite strikingly lined with perfectly-conical volcanoes. It really is breathtaking.

Tufted Puffin - beautiful, bizarre, or both? You decide...
Tufted Puffin - beautiful, bizarre, or both? You decide... (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 2: At Sea. A day at sea as we cruise towards the Commander Islands. Enjoy several lectures and briefings as we prepare for the days ahead. We will spend the majority of our time on deck or on the bridge though as we cross some very productive waters. Our first Red-legged Kittiwakes will likely join us early on, and we stand a good chance of seeing cetaceans including Sperm Whale, Humpback Whale, Dall’s Porpoise and perhaps even Blue Whale. Seabirds can be spectacular with a near-constant escort of Laysan Albatross and undoubtedly thousands of Pacific Fulmar, whilst Fork-tailed and Leach’s Storm Petrels will undoubtedly steal our attention along the way.

Days 3-4: Commander Islands. There are two main islands in the Commander group, Bering and Medny, and during our two days we will explore several sites combining the best of the natural and cultural history. There is an excellent chance of finding Rock Sandpiper, Mongolian Plover, Pechora Pipit and Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch, as well as the endemic subspecies of Arctic Fox on Medny. Zodiac cruising can be extremely rewarding here with several species of auklets as well as Red-legged Kittiwake. The area is also extremely rich in marine mammals. Potential species include Sperm, Humpback, Northern Minke and Baird’s Beaked-Whales, as well as Orcas, Steller Sea Lions, Northern Fur Seals and Pacific Sea Otters. Off the coast of Medny and Bering we also stand one of our best chances of seeing the colossal and much sought after Short-tailed Albatross. We have also seen Black-footed Albatross here in the past. The museum in Nikol’skoye holds one of the very few examples of a full Steller’s Sea Cow skeleton in existence.

Arctic Foxes sometimes almost walk on your feet!
Arctic Foxes sometimes almost walk on your feet! (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 5: Zhupanova River, Kamchatka. We will spend several hours in the Zodiacs today, cruising on the scenic Zhupanova River where we should get great looks at Steller’s Sea Eagles as the birds often nest in the trees adjacent to the river. Other highlights could include Far Eastern Curlew, Kamchatka Gull and Aleutian Tern, as well as an absolute bounty of great birding with species both familiar and unfamiliar to many of us. The number of Red-throated Divers in the river is often spectacular and there is a very real chance of turning up something out of the ordinary. There is also a major salmon fishery on the river which we can visit for the primary purpose of scouring its land for breeding Long-toed Stint.

Steller's Sea Eagle dwarf most other birds
Steller's Sea Eagle dwarf most other birds (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 6: Bukta Russkaya, Kamchatka. In this deep fjord on the southern end of the Kamchatka Peninsula we will look for two key alcids – the endangered Kittlitz’s Murrelet and Long-billed Murrelet. Often these are seen well on the way in and out of the fjord, leaving our time ashore for other pursuits. Once on shore we will hopefully get good looks at Siberian Rubythroat, Brown-headed and Eyebrowed Thrushes, and possibly Japanese Grey Bunting. We have also recorded Rufous-tailed Robin here. Once we’re done on land we’ll transfer to the mouth of the fjord where we’ll take time to Zodiac cruise among the almost always present Orca and Steller’s Sea Lions. Birding here can also be good with a chance of good looks at the murrelets as well as Parakeet Auklet and good photo opportunities with both Horned and Tufted Puffins.

Horned Puffins are seen regularly and at close quarters
Horned Puffins are seen regularly and at close quarters (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 7: Second Kuril Strait, Atlasova and Onekotan Islands. Very early in the morning we will pass through the Second Kuril Strait which has one of the highest densities of Sea Otters in the Kuril Islands. Our landing on Atlasova Island is great for birders and non-birders alike. There are the remains of a Gulag to explore and a good variety of birds including Kamchatka Leaf Warbler, Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler and often a good number of waterfowl, among other things. This evening on Onekotan Island we can stretch our legs through an amazing field of wild flowers as we walk to Black Lake, potentially encountering Asian Rosy Finch and Pine Grosbeak en route.

Day 8: Ekarma and Toporkovy Islands. During an early morning Zodiac cruise at Ekarma Island we should see various alcids, with close looks at Tufted Puffin and Whiskered Auklet. This afternoon at Toporkovy Island in the shadow of the active Matua Island volcano we can expect to find Harlequin Ducks, Red-faced Cormorants, Tufted Puffins and Brunnich’s Guillemots. Ashore we could encounter Grey-tailed Tattler, Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler and Black-faced Bunting.

Day 9: Simushir and Yankicha Islands. One Tropical Birding guide considers Simushir one of the ‘must see’ wildlife watching locations on the planet. Not because of its abundance of rare wildlife, but for the setting. We will enter a flooded caldera at the northern end of Simushir Island at dawn, making our way along the caldera lake by Zodiac to the shore of an abandoned top secret Soviet submarine base. It’s as though one day everybody just upped and left, leaving the base just as it was when in use, though now in a state of disrepair and decay – it really is quite impressive, and it’s not often you get to bird from the seat of anti-aircraft gun! Among the ruins that nature has taken back we will look for Siberian Rubythroat, Spotted Nutcracker, Pine Grosbeak and Japanese Grey and Black-faced Buntings.

This evening we will visit Yankicha Island which is likely to be one of the highlights of the voyage, and undoubtedly some birders’ lives, as the number of alcids which breed here is truly unbelievable. There is simply no putting into words what it is like to spend an evening in the caldera of Yankicha with up to 5 MILLION Crested and Whiskered Auklets wheeling and whizzing around your head. From the Zodiacs we experience unrivalled photographic opportunities with both species as well as others, including particularly inquisitive Arctic Foxes.

Dapper, regal, comical - the Crested Auklet
Dapper, regal, comical - the Crested Auklet (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 10: Chirpoy and Urup Islands. As this part of the Kurils is particularly exposed, a lot depends on weather today. This morning we plan to either Zodiac cruise or land on Chirpoy Island where there are some dramatic volcanic landscapes and headlands covered in breeding seabirds, including a chance of our first Rhinocerous Auklets and Spectacled Guillemots. This afternoon’s landing on Urup Island is a chance to stretch your legs on an extended walk with the hikers, beachcomb and look for Sea Otters, or come on an exploratory birding excursion into the forest behind the beach.

Day 11: Iturup Island. This morning we land at the small settlement of Kurilsk on the island of Iturup, from where local buses/trucks will take us into the volcanic highlands to a series of thermal hot pools. Here you can choose to enjoy a long, relaxing soak, or come birding. Possible highlight species on this day include Kamchatka Leaf-warbler, Japanese Robin, Siberian and Japanese Accentors, Pine Grosbeak and Japanese Bush-Warbler. The birding on this island is generally pleasant and is set among some of the most fantastic scenery imaginable. We will undoubtedly come away thrilled and awe-struck. The bay here is often host to White-billed and Pacific Divers.

Day 12: Kunashir Island. Kunashir is the largest island in the Kuril chain, and also one of the most southern. We plan a landing in the Kurilsky Reserve and will explore an extensive area of woodland, criss-crossed by rivers, where there are some good walks and excellent birding. Laying close to Japan we notice a slight change in species composition today and new birds may include Brown Dipper, Crested Kingfisher, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Narcissus Flycatcher, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Latham’s Snipe and Long-billed Plover among others. There are also several pairs of Blakiston’s Fish Owls breeding on this island, however the birds are early breeders and we would need to be extremely lucky to see them. In 2016 the birds were still on the nests when we visited.

This afternoon while we are at sea there is an opportunity to recap and pack, punctuated by the legendary slideshow of images taken throughout the voyage. This of course falls once the birding is done, if it ever can be. These waters hold great concentrations of Rhinocerous Auklet and good numbers of Spectacled Guillemot and we often see White-tailed Eagles hunting in the channels. Orca are often seen in good numbers here, as are Harbour and Dall’s Porpoises, and in 2016 we found a group of the barely-known Stejneger’s Beaked Whale. Also as recently as 2016 we discovered a good number of Japanese Murrelets in these waters, so an effort will be made to locate these birds.

Day 13: Sakhalin Island. Arriving at the port of Korsakov on the large and subtropical island of Sakhalin we will be faced with a very different feel to sub-Arctic Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Similarly though we plan a birding excursion to target some of the local specialities, the itinerary of which is flexible and dependent on timings and conditions. As such the following must be used as a guide only.

First up we plan to locate Black-browed Reed Warbler, followed by a targeted assault on a local forest to try and secure good views of the endemic Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. Hopefully we can also tease a Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler out of hiding here. Time-permitting we will then visit a local park where Narcissus Flycatcher, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese Tit, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Pallas’s Warbler and Russet Sparrow are possible. Our main target here though is Rufous-tailed Robin, a bird that can be exceptionally difficult to get good views of and will undoubtedly give us a good-humoured run-around.

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OPTIONAL PRE-TOUR EXTENSION

Subject to shipping and flight schedules there is often time for a two-day exploration of the area surrounding Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, before we depart on our expedition. The itinerary of this extension will depend entirely on factors including the state of migration, however the key target is a bird endemic to the Far East and one of near-mythical status – the Black-billed Capercaillie. Fortunately for us these birds have been relatively well staked out in recent years, however they are by no means guaranteed. The search will undoubtedly turn up other highlights though, and birding in this part of the world is never anything short of exciting. We expect to find a bounty of Far East migrants and residents here including Rustic Bunting, Olive-backed Pipit, Taiga Flycatcher, Eyebrowed Thrush, Northern Hawk Owl, Spotted Nutcracker, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler, Dark-sided and Grey-streaked Flycatchers, and on the coast Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants, Slaty-backed and Kamchatka Gulls, as well as the first of the alcids for the tour.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Breakfast will typically be taken between 6:00-7:00 am to maximize birding opportunities. Earlier breakfasts may be required on some days. There is very little driving in land vehicles on this tour; almost all transport is by inflatable boats known as Zodiacs. At times these can be uncomfortable in rougher weather, but they are essential for our expedition activities. All Zodiacs are driven by competent drivers who will keep you as dry and comfortable as possible, however it should be noted that GOOD waterproofs are essential for this tour. All nights during the expedition itself will be spent on the Professor Khromov, also known as the Spirit of Enderby. This is a well-equipped, comfortable and stable 50 passenger Russian icebreaker ship, meaning after each day you come back to your ‘home base’ which won’t change for the entire tour.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Nowhere on this tour is particularly challenging and so it is suitable for anybody with a good general level of fitness. Most of the land-based birding will be on flat or slightly inclined tracks and you can expect to walk around 2 miles (3.2 km) per day on average. As this is not solely a birding expedition there are often opportunities to join other groups if desired, which could include longer and more strenuous walks, however this is always laid out in detail prior to leaving the ship. Most of our birding will be at or very close to sea level, with no significant altitude encountered anywhere on the tour.

CLIMATE: As this tour runs in early summer and the climate is for the most part sub-Arctic, temperatures can be on the cooler side, especially in the morning and at night. Generally temperatures range between 50°-54°F (10°-12°C). Even though this is quite mild, you must factor in wind chill with rapid Zodiac travel and time spent at sea feeling significantly cooler. Better is to dress warmly and in layers, and to prepare for temperatures between 41°-44°F, 5°-7°C. Full waterproof coverings are essential, since although only light drizzle and rain is expected on land, the Zodiac rides can be subject to splashing and wave spray at times.

ACCOMMODATION: All nights during the main expedition will be spent onboard (though depending on flight schedules, and if the extension is available, you may require additional nights in hotels). There are several levels of accommodation on the ship, please contact us for details. Some cabins have private, en-suite bathrooms, whilst all have full-time hot water and 24h electricity. Meals are exceptional and of an international standard. All but one or two lunches will be taken onboard.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Superb opportunities. Birds and other wildlife are often at close range from the Zodiacs. Many of the guides on the Spirit of Enderby, and particularly Tropical Birding guides, are keen photographers and know how and where to get you in a position to get good shots. Alcid photography is particularly rewarding on this tour.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently required for most nationalities. The process of obtaining a Russian visa is fairly straightforward, though it may need to be submitted in person. Nationalities not requiring a visa include many South and Central American countries, Thailand, and ex-Soviet states. Heritage Expeditions and Tropical Birding work with a ground agent in the Far East that assists and aids the visa process for passengers. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: (This applies to the expedition cruise only, please contact us for info about the extension) Accommodation onboard the Spirit of Enderby from the night of day 1 to the night day 12; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 13; safe drinking water at all times; Heritage Expeditions OR Tropical Birding tour leader from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 13; ground transport for certain landing sites.

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader, crew, and expedition staff; flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras on the ship such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, internet usage, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.