Friday 18 July 2014

Volcano Islands seabirding

This trip around the Volcano Islands (Io-to or Iwo-jima) is one I've looked forward to for a long time, there are so many wonderful seabirds that are otherwise so difficult, if not impossible, to see elsewhere in Japan.

After six hours after arriving on Chichijima we re-grouped at the port for a pre-sailing orientation before the ship sailed again at 7pm to cover the 350km to Minami Io-to. Having seen my first Bannerman's Shearwater on the way down to Ogasawara I was hoping for another six seabirds additions to my Japan list, five that were definitely possible plus with a slice of luck one of numerous potential wild cards. Optimistic perhaps where birds are concerned, it's rare for everything to go as planned, even more optimistic given the vagaries of seabirding.

Dawn from the ship, fantastic towering, flat-bottomed clouds tipping torrential rain over limited areas. Venus, approaching its brightest, was clearly visible but has disappeared in this low resolution shot.

Minami Io-to (South Iwo-jima)  was visible on the horizon at dawn but the spectacular sunrise was quite a draw. I've noticed so many people (non-birders) get up early on ferry trips to see the sunrise as though it doesn't happen every day, then disappear below deck again. More often than not they don't see anything worth the effort but this particular morning it was impressive enough to hold the birders attention. Well, until light was sufficiently broad to see the birds anyway. And there were birds aplenty. The sea was awash with Bulwer's Petrels and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters plus a few Bonin Petrels.

Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.

Bulwer's Petrels look very much like minature dark shearwaters and are unlikely to be mistaken for dark oceanodroma petrels.

Being so common, even my relatively small hand-held lens could get some reasonable images. The guys with huge lenses and top-of-the-line tripods were getting amazing shots.

Minami Iwo-to rises an impressive 915 metres from the ocean. I've seen steep-sided islands before but just knowing how remote it is and the palpable sense that this was the tip of a huge mountain made approaching it something special.

The fore and aft cargo decks were opened for the cruise round the islands allowing plenty of rail space for photographers.

Minami Io-to.

As we approached the island a couple of Greater Crested Terns flew by. Red-footed Boobies, the first of the hoped for species, arrived to join the Browns accompanying the ship. Quite a few Red-tailed Tropicbirds were flying high on the slopes but trying to pick out a White-tailed proved a real challenge.

As we slowly circled the island twice it was hard to know where to look, which side of the ship to check - birds were everywhere! No sooner had I started to check a flock of Brown Noddies for a Black on the off-side than a flock of White Terns appeared off the bow. Before I could get any decent shots a Sooty Tern was called off the island side, this actually looked like a Bridled even if Sooty is the expected species. Then back to the Brown Noddies before the flock was gone... this was hectic! Luckily I found one Black Noddy before the flock was out of sight. Next, it was time to focus on the Red-tailed Tropicbirds gliding high round the peak, they were way up and we weren't having any luck finding a White-tailed. Suddenly I spotted a frigatbird drifting along just below the cloud line. It looked all dark but at that range it would have been difficult to see a small amount of white, it'll have to remain unidentified.

White Terns.

A poor record shot of Bridled Tern. 

Brown Noddy.

Part of a Brown Noddy flock containing at least one Black.

Black Noddy, the size difference and darker plumage were obvious in direct comparison with Brown. The large cleaner white cap was also eye-catching.

Still high above, this is one of very few tropicbirds that ventured over the sea away from the peak.

Before we knew it we were heading north again, 56km to Iwo-to (Iwo-jima). The species shifted back to petrels and shearwaters. Bonin Petrels were fairly common and there were several Bannerman's Shearwaters.

Bonin Petrels.

Bannerman's Shearwaters.

Iwo-jima. Amazingly flat compared to its towering neighbours to the south and north.

The only visible caldera of the trip, though there are more below water than above. In fact the original and current volcanic activity is at the north of the island. 

I was surprised to see a JAL cargo plane landing at the SDF base on the island. Don't the military have their own transports? 

The north end of the island looks (and smells) rather hostile.

The western shore doesn't look much better, Minami Io-to is still impressive in the background.

Long and flat Io-to contrasts remarkably with its southern neighbour. It's also relatively birdless by comparison, except for a huge tern colony on a small island just off the north end. Unfortunately we couldn't approach close enough to see what might have been there... apart from Brown Noddies.

The next stop was Kita Io-to (North Iwo-jima) 65km back towards Ogasawara. The northern island of the group is another mountain top reaching a more modest 792 metres and again hosts huge numbers of breeding seabirds.

Kita Io-to from the south appears to be a single conical peak similar to Minami Io-to. It's difficult to appreciate how large these islands are until you're under the cliffs. 

8km long, the island is more a series of peaks. 

It wasn't easy trying to identify the tropicbirds because of distance. The birds in this shot are low on the mountain and therefore much closer. 

Many tropicbirds perched in treetops and (below) nearby mainly Red-footed Boobies. 

Red-tailed Tropicbirds were very numerous on Kita Io-to.

Finally a White-tailed! As is often the case, when you finally see the bird you're after it's actually quite easy to identify. The smaller size and black markings were quite obvious even at very long range. 

Though the return voyage to Ogasawara was through southern waters we don't normally get to visit and there was still an outside hope of Bryan's Shearwater, I nevertheless couldn't help but feel the best was behind us. The hoped for Bryan's never materialised but there were quite a few Bannerman's and I must have seen 20-25 in total by the end of the trip. I also managed to get a few very poor shots of Matsudaira's Petrel on this leg, one of only three birds seen on the day. The other highlight was to see a Sperm Whale, up till now I'd always been on the wrong side of the ship when any were seen.

Even these awful shots of Matsudaira's are enough to easily tell it apart from Bulwer's.

They may not the best ever shots of Sperm Whale but as they're my only shots I'm quite pleased with them.

Species seen:-
Bonin Petrel   common south of Ogasawara, a few to the north
Streaked Shearwater   common close to Honshu
Wedge-tailed Shearwater   common from day two
Bannerman's Shearwater   c25
Short-tailed Shearwater   2 possibles
Bulwer's Petrel   common
Matsudaira's Petrel   3
Black-crowned Night Heron   in Tokyo
Grey Heron   in Tokyo
Great White Egret   in Tokyo
Little Egret   in Tokyo
Red-tailed Tropicbird   common around breeding islands, 2 north of Hachijojima
White-tailed Tropicbird   2 Kita Io-to
frigatbird sp   1 Minami Io-to
Red-footed Booby   fairly common close to breeding islands
Brown Booby   common and more wide ranging
Great Cormorant   Tokyo Bay
Black-tailed Gull   Tokyo Bay
Greater Crested Tern   2 Minami Io-to
Little Tern   4 Tokyo Bay
Bridled Tern   1 Minami Io-to plus Sooty/Bridled away from the islands
Brown Noddy   common south of Ogasawara, a few to the north
Black Noddy   1 Minami Io-to
White Tern   c15-25 Minami Io-to
Pomarine Skua   1+
Long-tailed Skua   2+

Seen by others:-
Black-footed Albatross   1
Wilson's Petrel   1 possible
Slaty-backed Gull   1 Tokyo Bay
Common Tern   1 near Tokyo Bay
South Polar Skua   1

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