In the Wake of Bering – In search of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper
Run as a co-operative venture with BirdLife International, this unique expedition follows in the footsteps of the Danish Explorer Commander Vitus Bering whose instructions from Tsar Peter the Great were to “sail north by north-east... chart the coast and collect information”
Our journey starts in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, the city which is named after two of Bering’s ships, and we will also travel north by north-east, along what is still one of the remotest coastlines on earth.
Our voyage is dedicated to looking for birds and wildlife and we can expect to have some truly spectacular experiences, however, there is one bird which makes this trip very special and that is the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. This species is classified as ‘critically endangered’ and it is believed there are now less than 200 pairs which make the annual migration to Northern Kamchatka and Chukotka to breed.
Very few people have had the privilege of visiting this region to see this species and we hope to repeat the success of our previous expeditions when we not only saw birds at Meinypil’gyno, the only monitored breeding site, but also made ornithological history by finding a new population further south.
Whilst the Spoon-billed Sandpipers are the central focus of our voyage, there will be plenty of other highlights and some of the special wildlife we will look for whilst ashore includes Steller’s Sea Eagle, Emperor Goose and Pechora Pipit, as well as Brown Bear, Kamchatka Marmot and Arctic Fox. The seas also support a rich diversity of species and Blue, Grey, Humpback, Sperm and Baird’s Beaked Whales are all possible, along with 13 species of auks and other regional specialities such as the Red-faced Cormorant and Red-legged Kittiwake.
Arrive into Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy the capital and administrative centre of the Kamchatka Region and transfer to the port to board the Spirit of Enderby.
After an opportunity to settle into your cabin we will set sail through Avacha Bay, one of the greatest natural harbours in the world and head north-east along the lower Kamchatka coastline.
As we cross the bay, we will look for Spectacled Guillemot, an uncommon species which breeds here in small numbers. Other birds we could see include Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants, Pigeon Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet and Tufted Puffin.
We plan to spend the morning Zodiac cruising on the Zhupanova River. Our main target here is the Steller’s Sea Eagle and there are usually at least three occupied nests close to the river. Other species we could see include Long-toed Stint, Aleutian Tern, Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler and Yellow-breasted Bunting. Good numbers of Largha Seals are also often hauled out on sandbars in the river.
By late afternoon, we should be over deep water heading for the Commander Islands and new species to look for include Laysan Albatross, Mottled Petrel and Fork-tailed Storm- Petrel. The Kamchatka Trench can also be excellent for cetaceans and we have previously seen Blue Whales on this crossing.
The wildlife-rich Commander Islands were first discovered by the Commander Vitus Bering when his ship was wrecked here in 1741. We intend to explore the islands through a combination of landings and Zodiac cruises and our first stop will be the village of Nikolskoye, where there is an interesting museum. Birding around the village is also excellent and we should find Rock Sandpiper, Mongolian Plover, Glaucous-winged Gull and Pechora Pipit, with the possibilities on subsequent landings including Rock Ptarmigan, Buff-bellied Pipit and Grey-crowned Rosy Finch.
Zodiac cruising is often spectacular and we hope to encounter Red-faced Cormorant, Red-legged Kittiwake, Pigeon Guillemot, Horned Puffin, as well as Parakeet, Crested and Whiskered Auklets.
Our plans also include a ship cruise along the southern coast of Bering Island, as this area is excellent for cetaceans with Humpback, Sperm, Northern Minke and Baird’s Beaked Whales all regularly encountered.
Our proposed landing site is a patchwork of boggy tundra, ponds and shingle spits and an interesting range of waders can be found here including Pacific Golden Plover, Red-necked Stint and Red-necked Phalarope. The ponds also support a range of waterfowl and previously we have encountered Red-throated Diver, Bean Goose, Greater Scaup and Long-tailed Duck. Potential passerines include Kamchatka Leaf-Warbler, Dusky Warbler, Bluethroat, Red-throated Pipits and Eastern Yellow Wagtail.
Verkhoturova Island has some huge seabird colonies and by following a short trail to the cliff top we should be able to enjoy some fantastic views of Tufted Puffins, Brunnich’s Guillemots, Pelagic Cormorants and Black-legged Kittiwakes. Both Steller’s Eider and Harlequin Duck occur too and we may also see some Steller Sea Lions, as they are often hauled out on some offshore rocks. Later in the day, there will be either a Zodiac cruise or landing on the Govena Peninsula. Good numbers of Brown Bears can often be found here, as well as King and Common Eiders and Black and Stejneger’s Scoters.
Tintikun Lagoon is one of the most scenic places in the Russian Far East and the lake is surrounded by jagged mountains, glaciers and forested slopes. A shallow river allows us to drive the Zodiacs onto the lake and we intend to make several landings with Eurasian Nutcracker, Dusky Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat and Siberian Accentor amongst the possibilities.
Later in the day, we will explore Olyutorskiy Bay, where we should encounter a range of seabirds which could include Aleutian Tern and the critically endangered Kittlitz’s Murrelet.
We plan to spend two days with members of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Taskforce searching remote bays looking for unknown populations of this critically endangered species. The experts estimate that there may only be 200 pairs left, however, the birds are very specific over the habitat they require for breeding. In 2011 we made ornithological history by locating three territories at a location which had not been previously surveyed. We will be assisting the Taskforce again and hope to repeat our success elsewhere.
Other possibilities include Mongolian Plover, Far Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, Red-necked and Long-toed Stints, as well as Gyrfalcon and Sandhill Crane.
Another beautiful fiord possessed of a dramatic allure in the low sun of the Subarctic. A walrus haul-out guards the entrance and we make a landing to explore the hinterland, surrounded by imposing mountain landscapes and verdant tundra. Nomadic reindeer herders are sometimes encountered in this region.
Meinypil’gyno is located on a 40 kilometre long shingle spit and is the most important site in the world for breeding Spoon-billed Sandpiper, as there are about ten pairs which are monitored by members of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Taskforce.
We hope to take you to at least one territory, although as we always put the welfare of wildlife first, viewing is likely to be at a range of at least 25 metres. Nevertheless, we hope to show everyone this iconic bird which is one of the most critically endangered on the planet.
Meinypil’gyno is extremely rich in other wildlife too and we may also find Emperor Goose, Pacific Diver and Sandhill Crane, whilst just offshore Grey Whales and Belugas often gather to feed. We anticipate offering a Zodiac cruise to watch these animals and the sheer number can be breathtaking and are certainly comparable with some of the best known whale-watching sites in the world.
This coastline is rich in marine mammals and one creature we will be looking for, in particular, is the walrus, as there is a known haul-out. The animals do regularly move between locations, so finding them is always very much a matter of luck, although we have had success here in the past.
Good numbers of Grey Whales often congregate here too, and we may well end the activities of the expedition by Zodiac cruising some spectacular cliffs where tens of thousands of seabirds breed, giving us a final chance to watch birds such as Tufted Puffin and Black-legged Kittiwake.
As we cruise into Anadyr Bay, there is an excellent chance of seeing more Belugas and after a final breakfast on board the Spirit of Enderby, it will be time to disembark. We will provide complimentary transfers to a downtown hotel and the airport.
* Itinerary may be subject to change