Reports, with Bird Lists, of our Meetings, Walks and Outings

Birds of the Russian Far East
by Chris Collins

Date: Thursday 19 November 2015 at 19:30


Fifty-two people, including four new members, attended the meeting and were fortunate to be present for an outstanding and thoroughly enjoyable presentation, with superb photographs.

Chris took us on a whistle-stop tour of some of the shores and islands of far eastern Russia, north of Japan and west of Alaska.

The combination of high quality photography, clarity of presentation, fascinating stories of the history and culture and an array of exotic birds and sea creatures, many of them endemic to that area and even to a specific island, created a near perfect evening. The one single disappointment was that time constraints meant Chris could not give us his full presentation – such a shame.

A number of bird species seen were morphologically similar to UK species but sufficiently different to cause discussions amongst experts as to whether they are one species or sub-species or something else. For example Long-tailed Tit, Nuthatch, Fulmar, Bullfinch, Pied Wagtail are all much paler in east Russia, while Common Terns do not have a red bill and some Kittiwakes have red legs.

The sheer number of birds was vast, especially Auks. One island had seven million sea birds nesting on it. Many Auk species have counts in the millions e.g. there are an estimated five million Least Auklet in the area (the smallest of all Auk – similar size to House Sparrow). There are 16 Auk species in the area, we saw: Least Auklet, Parakeet Auklet, four Guillemot species, Horned Puffin, Crested Auklet and Tufted Puffin, most of them present in their millions.

Finches, waders, owls, thrushes, eagles, albatrosses, skuas, gulls, pipits, buntings, some familiar, some exotic and endemics were shown. The pictures of the top bird predator, the Steller’s Sea Eagle, were stunning.

Animals and sea creatures were not left out, Arctic foxes (a long way from their normal habitat), Brown bears, Sea Otters, Ribbon Seals (a beautiful creature), Lagha Spotted Seals and Siberian Chipmunks. The variety of whales included the world’s two largest species the Blue and the Fin, as well as the Grey and the not so well-known beaked whales, of which there are 15 species (one was shown).

The statistics of sheer number of individuals and species is amazing but so is the distance travelled by some birds seen, e.g. the Short-tailed Shearwater – 30 million of these birds exist and most of them make an annual migration from Australia to Russia via the USA of 20,000 miles and records show that some live to be 20 years old.

Despite big numbers being an important part of the presentation the stand-out bird story was all about a small fairly nondescript wader with a world population of 200 to 300. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is thought to be on the verge of extinction and Chris’ involvement in searching the coastal tundra of eastern Russia for this species was graphically shown and told, with pictures of eight eggs and subsequent newly hatched birds in incubators on their way to Slimbridge to join a breeding programme. This was a great way to finish an astonishing evening.

Peter Gaines reported these birds in our area:

  • Dinton Pastures – Bittern, Pintail
  • Dorney Wetlands - Cetti's Warbler
  • Little Marlow – Kittiwake
  • Theale – Red Crested Pochard, 4,000 Wood Pigeon roost
  • Slough Sewage Farm (M4) – 2,000 Parakeets roost
  • Wraysbury – Garganey
  • Aldermaston – Great Grey Shrike
  • Woodley and Ascot – Bramblings, Redwings and Fieldfares
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Steller's Sea Eagle
Steller's Sea Eagle

Chris has been a keen birder for as long as he can remember and has visited over sixty countries and territories around the world in search of birds including multiple visits to all the continents and has seen over 5,300 species of birds.

Although professionally qualified as a Chartered Accountant, Chris gains far more of a ‘buzz’ sharing his knowledge of birds with others than working with figures and in 2003 decided to change career and become a full time birder and freelance wildlife guide.  He now works primarily with the Bristol-based company, Wildwings, and Heritage Expeditions, a New Zealand company that run expeditions to remote parts of the world on their expedition ship, the Spirit of Enderby. 

Chris has visited the Russian Far East on six separate occasions, spending a total of seven months in this isolated region and tonight will tell us more about the birds and wildlife of this amazing part of the world.

Crested AukletSpoon-billed Sandpiper
Crested AukletSpoon-billed Sandpiper


Birds of the Russian Far East

This is my most frequently requested talk which is a comprehensive review of the birds and wildlife of this amazing, but rarely visited, region.  The lecture covers the Sea of Okhotsk, Sakhalin Island, the Kamchatka Peninsula and further North (Koriak and Chukotka) with top quality images of many species including Auks (eg Tufted and Horned Puffins), Steller’s Sea-eagle and Siberian Rubythroat.

Part of the lecture also covers the searches I participated in for three years (2011-13) to locate new populations of the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  These searches have been a collaborative venture between Birdlife International, Birds Russia and the New Zealand expedition company, Heritage Expeditions.

We were lucky enough to find a new breeding site for this amazing bird in 2011 and that year I was also working with Heritage Expeditions on their ship, Spirit of Enderby, when the Spoon-billed Sandpiper eggs and chicks which the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust team had collected (to start a captive breeding programme at Slimbridge) began their long journey to the UK.  Seeing a Spoon-billed Sandpiper chick moments after it emerged from the egg was a unique privilege and truly one of life's special moments !!!


All pictures are © Copyright. Do not reproduce without permission from Chris Collins.