After several years of correspondence, phone calls and unflagging anticipation a trip to Russia's Far East really happened. This trip, organized by East-West Discovery of Volcano, Hawaii and physically executed by their partners, New Impressions of Vladivostok, Russia was a masterpiece of much planning and hard work. There were six participants, two leaders, and a third Russian ornithologist. While camping in Primorye, we were further supported by a translator, a driver, a cook and the owner of New Impressions.
We met in Seattle, flew to Anchorage and from there, by Alaska Airlines to Vladivostok with an in-plane layover in Magadan (dismal, rainy, and dreary), another in Khabarovsk where we saw European Tree Sparrows, Black-billed Magpies and House Martins during our 3 hour wait for Aeroflot and our final flight to Vladivostok. Aeroflot is all that you've heard it is: every seat filled, luggage completely blocking the aisle, between the seats and on people's laps, noisy, no service, but, to be practical, the only way to get from here to there, which we did and safely. Checked into our hotel in downtown Vladivostok, exhausted, excited, and happy to be there.
The following drizzly, but later sunny day, we spent observing waders such as Spotted and Common Redshank, Greenshank, Little Ringed and Snowy Plover, Great Knot, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Gray-tailed Tattler, Rufous necked Stint, Sharp-tailed and Wood Sandpiper, Lapwing and others more familiar. Land birds of interest: Black-browed Reed Warbler, Chestnut-eared and Yellow Breasted Buntings, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Great Tit, Skylark, Black-backed and Yellow Wagtails, Richard's Pipit, Oriental Turtle Dove, Stonechat, the list was endless.
Our first campsite was Ricord Island in the Sea of Japan, south of Vladivostok at the far south-east tip of Primorye. From the boat that took us there we saw Spectacled Guillemots, Temminck's Cormorant, Streaked Shearwater, Ancient Murrelet, Slaty Backed Gulls, Arctic and Red-throated Loons, Harlequin Ducks and more. On the island itself, we got our first looks at Eastern Crowned Warbler, Indian Tree Pipit, Blue Rock Thrush, Yellow-browed Bunting, Japanese Pygmy and Grey-headed Green Woodpeckers, Blue and White Flycatcher, Long-tailed Rosefinch, Black- faced and Yellow-throated Bunting.
This island had various habitats; in more open areas we saw European Woodcock and Latham's Snipe; the woods were dripping with passerines and the undergrowth bursting with spring flowers.
We departed Ricord Island by boat with all our gear and headed to Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve where our campsite was so isolated that we just pitched our tents on an unused side road where we found a picnic table with benches. We also found encephalitis-bearing ticks which were ubiquitous and dangerous, as well as gnats, flies and no-see-ums which were merely annoying; all were abundant.
The following morning, May 23, we went by truck up the Gryanya River for 8 K's and spent the next four hours walking back down. The forest was beautiful, replete with many flowers and breath-taking scenery. We saw Eurasian Jays, Tristam's Bunting, Vinous-throated Parrotbills, Azure and Willow Tits, Chestnut-flanked White-eye, Black-naped Oriole, Azure-winged Magpie, and a pair of Oriental Scops Owls that our leader, Noble Proctor, flushed off the trail while looking at flowers.
Also in the woods were Tassle-eared Squirrel with HUGE tassel ears, Siberian Chipmunk, the only chipmunk in Russia, and Siberian Hare.
The following day we awoke to frost on our tents, the only night of the trip that was cold. This was a travel day -- our lunch stop produced Forest Wagtail and Daurian Redstart; when we arrived at Lake Khanka about 6:30 p.m. we found Eurasian Hobby and Daurian Jackdaw while the cook made dinner.
We spent a total of four days at Lake Khanka, birding various habitats. One day we hiked along dikes where we saw Oriental (White) Stork, Red-crowned (Japanese) Crane, White-naped Crane, Whooper Swans, Far-eastern Curlew, Pechora Pipit, Hobby and Shrenck's Bittern. While walking through an insect-laden forest, we saw White-headed Woodpecker, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Daurian Starling and an Amur Red-footed Falcon on a nest
Every day we woke to the sound of both Common and Oriental Cuckoos calling; one morning our Russian leader, Yuri Gluschenko found a male Asian Paradise Flycatcher in the woods directly behind the cook tent. After breakfast we headed to another reed bed area where by miraculous luck and Yuri's sharp ears, eyes and knowledge he found a Reed (or Yangtze) Parrotbill, one of the world's rarest birds. It's bizarre-looking, as if it were made of parts from several different birds. A small, multi-colored bird with a huge, huge parrot-like bill and long tail.
The afternoon was spent by some people hiking over the mountain back to camp while others meandered through town observing and taking pictures. It was warm and sunny, most of us wore sweaters and hats not because we were cold but to protect ourselves from mosquitoes which had graduated from irksome to menacing.
On the 28th, we broke camp again, drove all day in our huge old Army truck to Bikin River Valley. At various stops along the way we saw Asian Martins, Chestnut-eared and Black-faced Buntings, a Pied Harrier and an endangered Black Stork. We made camp, had dinner, walked along the river listening to Lanceolated Warblers singing and Cuckoos calling. It was light until ll p.m.
The following day we went to Verhnii Pereval, the home town of our new guide, Yuri Shibnev who is not only a fine ornithologist but also a renowned photographer. Yuri's parents have lived in this village for many decades, his father brought education to the region in the 30's, and is in his own right a respected educator. The town seems to have but one industry -- logging. Everywhere one goes, along the town's dirt roads, huge stacks of wood are piled up for cooking fuel and heating in winter. Life in this part of the world is austere and difficult, yet everyone was friendly, helpful, and interested in our activities.
Another morning we arose at 4:30, had our usual breakfast of brown bread, cheese and tea, went down to the Bikin River, across it by motorized canoe, hiked through an endless swampy, tussocky woods to a vast vast marsh where several hours and miles later, we finally saw one Hooded Crane fly up over the woods and completely around the huge marsh - back to where it had started. Awesome! We slogged through that marsh for several more hours; it was tough going but wondrously magical. Both Oriental and Common Cuckoos were calling, Lanceolated Warblers sung from deep in the swampy shrubs; Ashy Minivet and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker appeared briefly in the woods and an Oriental (Crested) Honey Buzzard soared above. Stonechats and Bog Lemmings were ubiquitous. After our picnic lunch of bread, cheese and chocolate, we walked through more woods to another swamp. While some settled down on grassy hummocks for a much needed nap, others went searching for Yellow Bittern; the sky became overcast, the wind rose, the temperature dropped and it started to rain.
It rained all night and most of the following day which didn't deter the no-see-ums one jot, nor did it interfere with our birding. During a long up-hill hike, we saw Chestnut-flanked White-eye, Blue-and-White Flycatcher, Daurian Redstart, Gray and White Wagtails, Dollarbird and White-throated Rock Thrush.
After another rainy night, we headed again to the River, this time to take an 8 hour trip down it to see Mandarin Ducks, Chinese Mergansers, Needletail Swifts, White-tailed Sea Eagle, Common Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover, Oriental Turtle Dove, Hobby, Black Woodpecker and an Asiatic Black Bear fishing from a small sandbar as we drifted by. Our faithful truck was at the dock to take us back to camp. We drove past spectacular forests in which we saw both Common Buzzard and Ural Owl, arriving at our campsite about 10 p.m. - not yet dark. At our final meal we were joined by uncountable numbers of no-see-ums while in the background we could hear volleys of gunfire from the Chinese-Russian border, a mere 2 or 3 miles away. They engage nightly in this activity, each side reminding the other that they're here and not to be trifled with. It's spooky being so close to the border, wondering if real trouble could erupt any time.
The morning of June 1, though we rose early, was already hot and very buggy but the rain had stopped. The birds were still so we broke camp, packed up, and headed north by truck, arriving at Lutschegorsk late in the evening. It's here that we boarded the Trans-Siberian Railroad for a 6 hour ride to Khabarovsk. Four sets of tracks were by this station and from our arrival till we departed at 3 a.m. there was a surprising amount of traffic. We were told to stand between Track 2 and 3, and to board Car 13. Nine of us miraculously got ALL our camping and personal luggage -- and ourselves -- onto the train in the less than 90 seconds allotted for this stop. Four of us were then abruptly shoved into a roomette about the size of a two-man tent. We stacked the duffels on the ends of our beds and on the floor between them, removed our boots and crashed.
Arrived promptly at 9 a.m. and were met by several people including our new translator. Loaded up the van and drove directly to Hotel Amur in downtown Khabarovsk. It was sunny and very very warm. Khabarovsk, with a population of 500,000, is one of the major cities of the Far East, located on the banks of the Amur River and facing the bare steppes of China. We spent the next two hours actually relaxing, writing notes, washing clothes, resting, and the afternoon looking for new birds in city parks.
The following day, both leaders and another participant headed home leaving four of us to spend a leisurely day in Khabarovsk and then brave an Aeroflot flight to Kamchatka on Sun, the 4th of June.
The flight, northeast through heavy cloud cover and two time zones, took 2 1/2 hours, We arrived in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski to rain and light snow, like many of our arrivals at Attu which is several hundred miles east of Kamchatka, in the Western Aleutians. Our new guide and translator. Svetlana Golubeva, met us at the airport with a warm welcome, a van and a driver. She took us immediately to our hotel where we had nice rooms, dinner in the hotel's restaurant and HOT water -- the first since leaving Seattle.
Kamchatka, long shrouded in secrecy, is a peninsula in far northeast Asian Russia, 7000 miles and 9 times zones east of Moscow. It is a land of mountains, river valleys, lakes and 160 volcanoes, 29 of which are active. Brown bears, not found in Siberia, are abundant here as are all species of Pacific Salmon. For a region with few birders, it has an impressive bird list of about 200, half of which are either migrants or vagrants. Even without a local ornithologist, we saw a total of 59 species. Many of these we'd seen in Attu but here in Kamchatka they were sitting in trees, in full breeding plumage, singing and singing.
We spent the next 5 days exploring much of the area around Petropovlovsk. Monday we saw a bit of the city but mostly explored Avacha Bay where we saw Black-headed and Slaty-backed Gulls in great numbers, Oriental Greenfinch, Scarlet Rosefinch, Black-backed Wagtail, Willow Tit, Indian Tree Pipit and others.
Tuesday we went southeast. From the beach we saw Steller's Sea Lions on the rocks and an adult Steller's Sea Eagle flying above. In a one hour walk at the edge of a Stone Birch forest, we saw and heard singing Rustic Bunting, Common Reed Bunting, Scarlet Rosefinch, Siberian Rubythroat, Olive Tree Pipit, Willow Tit, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Yellow Wagtail. Across the road, Skylarks were displaying everywhere while Steller's and White-tailed Eagles soared overhead.
Wed was spent on a small yacht in Avacha Bay cruising by huge rocks where an unbelievable number of birds were either nesting or flying around. From this boat we saw hundreds of Tufted Puffins, Common Murres, Black-headed and Slaty-backed Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Red-faced Cormorants, Steller's Sea Eagle, White-tailed Eagle and a pod of Orcas. It was cold but sunny - both binoculars and cameras were in demand.
Thursday was colder with some rain. We drove to more Stone Birch forests and more singing Rosefinch, Greenfinch, Rubythroats and a Gray Bunting.
Friday, our last birding day, was beautifully sunny. We headed northwest of the City driving almost to the end of the road to a region of volcanoes and underground hot springs. A plant will soon be built here for generating heat from those thermal sources. The view was awesome -- huge expanses of Stone Birch forest, Alder and Marsh Cedar -- all bursting into leaf. On all sides were snow-capped volcanos. Birds were everywhere, Rustic Buntings, Rosefinch, Pipits, Wagtails and Tits. At Paratunskie Hot Springs blooming Kamchatka Trillium were abundant too.
Saturday, June 6. In the morning we went to the Institute of Vulcanology where the Director very enthusiastically told us about local volcanoes and their history. Then -- to the Airport. Alaska Airlines had just organized a new flight between Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski and Anchorage and we were the first passengers. There then ensued endless baggage inspections, document inspections -- red tape beyond belief. Eventually, while TV cameras rolled, we were bussed out to the plane and photographed as we boarded -- and then we waited and waited and waited. . . finally departing at 5 p.m.
At 8 p.m. Petropavlovsk time (11 p.m. in Anchorage, midnight in Seattle) we crossed the International Date Line, flew over St. Lawrence Island and waved to friends at Gambell below. Above, the moon was clearly visible, the sun was shining; it was broad daylight. After a stop in Anchorage, we arrived in Seattle at 6 a.m. Saturday, June 10 was about to happen again. I stayed there a few days with family. My son took me birding, of course, to see a long sought-after shame bird -- Blue Grouse, booming, standing around and finally flying off to the next tree. A very special treat to top off a wonderfully exciting and magical trip.
In Primorye/Ussuriland we saw and or heard a total of 10 reptiles and amphibians, 15 mammals, and 227 birds. In Kamchatka our total was 59.
This includes birds heard only
Areas visited: DeVries Peninsual off Vladivostok, Rikord Island in Peter the Great Bay, Kedrovia Pad Reserve, Khanka Lake Reserve, Bikin River.
Great Crested Grebe
Japanese (Temminck's) Cormorant
Common (Green-winged) Teal
Long-tailed Duck (Oldsquaw)
Chinese (Scaly-sided) Merganser
Great Bittern - heard only
Oriental (Black-billed) Stork
Oriental Honey Buzzard
Western Marsh Harrier
Greater Spotted Eagle
Amur Red-footed Falcon
Yellow-legged Button Quail - Heard only
Band-bellied Crake - Heard only
Japanese (Red-crowned) Crane
Far Eastern Curlew
Temminck's Stint - heard only
Pacific Golden Plover
Grey (Black-bellied) Plover
Common Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Common Black-headed Gull
Oriental Turtle Dove
Hodgson's Hawk Cuckoo
Oriental Scops Owl
Ural Owl - heard only
Brown Hawk Owl
White-throated Needletail Swift
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Large-billed (Jungle) Crow
Chinese Gray Shrike
White-throated Rock Thrush
Blue Rock Thrush
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Blue and White Flycatcher
Siberian Blue Robin
Asian Paradise Flycatcher
Bank Swallow (Sand Martin)
Japanese Bush Warbler
Black-browed Reed Warbler
Great Reed Warbler
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler
Eastern Crowned Warbler
Oriental (Great) Tit
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Grey-capped (Oriental) Greenfinch
Common (Scarlet) Rosefinch
Ochre-rumped (Japanese Reed) Bunting
Yellow Breasted Bunting
Asiatic Black Bear
Southern Bog Lemming
Steller's Sea Lion
Shrenke's Rat Snake
Rock Pit Viber
Japanese Tree Frog
Spotted Wood Frog
Amur Forest Frog
Black Spotted Frog
Indian Tree Pipit
Japanese Gray Bunting
Common Reed Bunting
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
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