TOKYO TO ALASKA MAY 2017
On May 4 we had a long wait for our Uber ride because of all the holiday traffic but we arrived at our "mega yacht", the Silver Shadow and boarded by 12:30PM. The ship carries less than 400 passengers and is all-inclusive with a butler for every suite, not exactly our usual mode of travel. In the harbor we saw many Black-tailed and Black-headed Gulls. The ship departed about 5PM and we passed a small island with breeding Gray Herons and egrets. The view of the Tokyo skyline was lovely.
May 5 was a sunny day at sea on our way to Hokkaido Island. The sun rose before 5AM and, after breakfast, we sea watched from deck 10, the top of the ship, and were rewarded with good looks at 54 Short-tailed Albatrosses, including one immature, life birds for both of us. About 3000 Streaked Shearwaters were the most abundant birds, with about 100 Short-tailed and 50 Sooty Shearwaters. A surprise was an Oriental Turtle-dove which circled the ship for a while. That evening we had dinner in La Terrazza, the ship's Italian restaurant, where the waiters take the woman's arm and escort you to the table. My lobster tail and Joe's veal were so well prepared and the presentation of each course was exquisite. We found this to be true whether you were eating in one of the dining rooms or having filet mignon served in your suite.
Arriving in Aomori (apple capital of Japan) on May 6 we encountered rain and fog but we had booked an excursion up into the mountains to Lake Towada, a volcanic crater lake 1100 feet deep. It was so foggy we could not see the surface of the water but, as we drove to a resort for lunch, we saw a Black Kite carrying nesting material. On the return bus ride, we saw many apple orchards in bloom and a few lingering cherry blossoms. Back in Aomori the group paid a visit to the Nebuta Festival Museum. A nebuta is a float made of paper and bamboo, colorfully and powerfully depicting warrior figures. Lit from within, they make for a vibrant nighttime spectacle and the museum is kept dark to allow one to experience the effect.
Later in the afternoon Joe and I birded a grassy field across from the dock. We were happy to see Eurasian Skylarks displaying and singing in flight and some Little Ringed Plovers acting like they may be nesting.
Our next port was Hakodate, Japan on May 7. It was sunny in the morning as we left the ship about 8AM to meet our bird guide, Stuart Price and his wife. Our first stop was Mt. Hakodate and we hiked for about 3 hours seeing Japanese Tits carrying nesting material, Siberian Meadow Bunting and a brief but good look at a Narcissus Flycatcher. We birded a few spots back near town and then went to Goryokaku Park, a western style fort with moat. Red-eared Starlings Chestnut-cheeked Starlings amongst the cherry blossoms were very cooperative. The day was extremely windy and the smog increased in the afternoon. Stuart mentioned that the smog was blowing from China. We enjoyed the day and getting to know the local birding spots.
May 8 found us in Kushiro and we left the ship by 8AM to meet our wonderful guide, Takeyoshi Matsuo. He drove
us to Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, a 100 square mile wetland area, famous for a Red-crowned Crane reserve.
On our way we stopped to look at a White-tailed Eagle nest but there were no occupants visible. Our consolation
was a displaying Latham's Snipe which obligingly posed on top of a high-tension power telephone pole. We continued
on to Onnenai Visitor Center to explore the riparian areas. The songs of Pale-crowned and Sakhalin Leaf Warblers
filled the morning air. Black-faced Buntings were singing and behaving territorially. Two Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers
were a treat and an immature male Long-tailed Rosefinch sat up high and sang. A male Blue-and-white Flycatcher
posed and we also enjoyed great views of a the usually secretive Japanese Bush Warbler. About 11AM the threatening
clouds turned to heavy rain and we made a run for the car.
The night of May 8 we turned the clocks ahead one hour and would do so again for the next four nights. It was in response to our approach to the International Date Line. The idea is to prepare us for the time and date change but, by the fourth day, it was getting tough to get up an hour earlier each morning. May 9 was a day at sea on our way to the Kamchatka Peninsula. We had met a couple from England who were also birders, Doug and Judie. We were all on deck 10 late morning and saw an albatross with a dark white head and white body. Much excitement ensued when Joe identified it as an immature Short-tailed Albatross, a plumage none of us had ever seen. As the day's sea watching continued, we were lucky enough to see one near adult Short-tailed Albatross as well. The most abundant seabirds were Short-tailed Shearwaters, they numbered in the thousands. About 250 Northern Fulmars were joined by 100 Crested Auklets and 50 Tufted Puffins. We saw about 15 Laysan Albatrosses and one Black-footed, many of these sightings were near the Kurile Islands.
The morning of May 10 brought 50mph winds and the temperature was 34 degrees. We could see from the windows at La Terrazza restaurant during breakfast that the ship was surrounded by Northern Fulmars. We attended a lecture by former astronaut Kathy Sullivan on living in space, which was excellent. When we returned to our cabin there were balloons on the bed for Joe's birthday, a fun surprise. After lunch we were back in the deck 10 Observation Lounge, a wonderful warm space with good views of the ocean over the bow. We were seeing a few Slaty-backed Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes but the gale force winds kept the birds at bay. We enjoyed a tasty birthday dinner in La Terrazza, Mahi Mahi for Joe and Osso Bucco for me. Our butler had left a special birthday dessert for Joe in our suite but we were too full to try it.
We arrived in Petropavlovsk, on the Kamchatka peninsula about 6:30 on the morning of May 11. It was 40 degrees and overcast with a light wind. It is very difficult to get a Russian visa and we opted to go on a shore excursion arranged through Silversea, which did not require a visa. We had hoped to see Steller's Sea Eagles here but our Russian guide explained that they move inland to the rivers to nest in April. We boarded tenders to get to the dock and very high, large ATV "busses" to go out of town to a sled dog training facility. There we tramped around in melting snow banks and eventually had a lunch of reindeer soup and salmon washed down with vodka and tomato juice.
We saw a lot of birds upon leaving the port about 6PM. Red-faced Cormorants and Black-legged Kittiwakes were nesting on off shore rocks. We encountered about 20 Tufted Puffins as well as a dozen Crested Auklets, a few Pigeon Guillemots and 6 Steller's Eider. It was disappointing that we missed the eagles so I guess we should go see them in Japan one day.
Friday, May 12 we were far at sea, and the weather was rainy and 35 degrees. We relocated our small group of birders, now including Nigel and Kathryn from Australia, to the deck 8 Panorama Lounge in the stern. About 10:30AM two breeding plumage Lapland Longspurs were found huddled on the deck outside the door. An American Pipit also landed on the stern and a Jack Snipe followed the ship for about 15 minutes. We investigated further and found 7 Bramblings on the pool deck and one Yellow Wagtail. It was a graphic example of how exhausted birds get on their migratory routes. By late afternoon there were still four Bramblings and one Lapland Longspur near the pool. I took some crackers from the dining room and broke them into pieces. It was satisfying to see the birds eating the crumbs.
The next day was May 12B, as we had crossed the International Dateline. The Silver Shadow was following a course north of the Aleutians, not south as we had expected. We were far from land and there were few birds during the day. About 6PM we did spot about 8 Laysan Albatrosses, a few hundred Northern Fulmars and a couple Fork-tailed Storm Petrels. Later I saw the captain feeding crumbs to the remaining 2 Bramblings and 1 Lapland Longspur. It remained light until late and a pod of Dall's Porpoise entertained us.
May 13 brought us few birds as we were far from land on our way to Dutch Harbor, Unalaska. We docked there at 7AM on Sunday, May 14. Joe and Doug had arranged for a birding tour through Extra Mile Tours and Nigel and Kathryn joined us so we were 6 in Bobbie Lekanoff's van. Once again it was cold and foggy but not raining luckily. First we drove up into the hills above the port and admired American Pipits displaying. We looked for Rock Ptarmigan and Doug spotted our first one, we saw about 6 in total. Two Snow Buntings were skittish but a couple Least Sandpipers cooperated. Bobbie found us an American Dipper in a fast-moving stream. Beautiful Harlequin Ducks were abundant in the harbor as were Glaucous-winged Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes. We stopped to admire the Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, built in 1894. Bald Eagles were everywhere, especially near the ship when we returned to the dock, as the locals feed them there. We departed Dutch Harbor at 2PM and began cruising south of the Aleutians toward Kodiak Island.
May 15 was another day at sea but we were closer to the archipelago and did see about 15 Laysan Albatrosses in the morning and 3 distant probable Cook's Petrels. Joe and I were on our verandah at 10AM when he spotted 3 Orca's swimming a few hundred yards from the ship. Later in the afternoon we were seeing Leach's Storm-petrels, Sooty Shearwaters and Black-footed Albatross. We had a delicious dinner in our suite including soft-shelled crab and filet mignon. The service is amazing, it's nice to be pampered.
We docked in Kodiak about 8AM on May 16 with showers and temperatures in the 40's. About 25 Bald Eagles of all ages perched in trees nearby or flew overhead. Rich Macintosh, a former California birder, met us at the ship and took us to Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. We saw Harlequin Ducks, Green-winged Teal, Greater Scaup, White-winged Scoters and Brandt as well as a few shorebirds. Amongst the hundreds of Black-legged Kittiwakes and Glaucous-winged Gulls bathing on a freshwater pond, Rich spotted one Sabine's Gull. Land birds were few in the gloomy weather but Rich was happy to see about 25 Tree Swallows, the first of this spring. We stopped at Rich's vacation cabin on the way back to the ship. The stock of split firewood was impressive.
May 17 we arrived in Homer, Alaska and our bird guide, Gary Lyons, met us at the dock about 9AM. Doug and Judie joined us and we began by birding along Homer spit. We were fortunate to see a Lesser Sandhill Crane on a nest with 4 others in flight or foraging nearby. At Beluga Lake Overlook we were entertained by a couple of Gray Jays and a singing Hermit Thrush. Rusty Blackbirds flew over the marsh and one White-winged Crossbill perched obligingly atop an evergreen. In the afternoon we boarded Gary's small boat for a tour of Kachemak Bay. We were unsuccessful in finding any murrelets but Common Murres numbered in the thousands and Tufted Puffins posed for photos. We returned to port just as the showers began after a fun day. We needed to have our bags packed and outside our suite by 10PM so our adventure was coming to an end.
The Silver Shadow docked in Seward early on the morning of May 18. We boarded the Seward to Anchorage Train and by 9AM we were on our way to Anchorage and our flight home. We saw four Trumpeter Swans as we passed through Moose Town and Bald Eagles were common. Waterfalls and glaciers were numerous in the first few hours and we were lucky to see 3 Dall's Sheep. Once we reached Turnagain Arm the landscape changed and spring had arrived. On the ponds we noticed a couple Barrow's Goldeneye, Bufflehead and 2 Arctic Terns. Mew Gulls were abundant. The train arrived at the airport by 1PM and we relaxed and awaited our flight home.
The weather was a challenge on many days this trip but we made the most of the spacious Observation Lounge on the ship. We discovered we were too late for some species, like Steller's Sea Eagle, and too early for many nesting species in the Aleutians. Probably our biggest disappointment was the time at sea north of the Aleutians, we had expected to sail south and closer to the islands. It was a luxurious cruise and a bit formal for us but, as always, seeing new places was worth getting out in a part of the world seen by few others.