Category Archives: Birding “Away”

The Fall Shorebird Spectacle of the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick.

shorebirds1-A

Jeannette and I spent our summer vacation in the neighboring Province of New Brunswick. For far too long, we have been saying we needed to get to the head of the Bay of Fundy in August, so this year we finally made it happen.

It’s a beautiful area, and August is a great time of year to visit the Maritimes. However, our primary motivation wasn’t the scenery, the weather, or even the poutine. We were here to see one of the great natural spectacles of the entire region: the fall migration of the Semipalmated Sandpiper.
monument

Up to 75% of the world’s population of this small shorebird (“peep”) passes through the Bay of Fundy each fall, stopping to feed and fuel up on the region’s immense mudflats, with recent estimates of several hundred thousand birds. With that Bay’s 40-foot tides and mudflats of over a mile wide, “Semi-Sands” find a lot of foraging habitat, and a lot of food. In particular, a species of mudshrimp that can be found in incredible densities of 60,000 per square meter!  Along with a nutrient-rich biofilm on the mudflats’ surface, Semi-Sands can put on enough fat reserves to fuel a three-day non-stop flight to their wintering areas in Northern South America. (For more information about the region, including a map and components of the food chain, I highly recommend the Bay of Fundy Mudflats website).
mudflats

While “flocks of over 100,000” are rare these days, flocks of 50,000 or more can be encountered, ebbing and flowing with each change in the wind and arrival and departure of flocks. This wonder of the avian world, a mere day’s drive away, is something we needed to do. And with the continued decline of Semipalmated Sandpipers – and sadly, most other shorebirds – we could not wait any longer.

We based our stay of three days in Sackville, a charming little town with surprisingly great restaurants and a remarkable downtown nature preserve. From our motel here, we drove the short distance to Johnson’s Mills twice each of our two full days of birding here – once each on the morning high to outgoing tide, and once each on the incoming to high tide in the evening.

Nature Conservancy Canada has an Interpretive Center on the shores of their reserve, a great place for viewing shorebirds or receiving information about the best current location of observation. Mostly, we spent our time nearby, usually by walking just a short distance south of the center.
viewingPlatform_edited-1

And it was truly incredible. I am to come up with the words to describe it. It was, literally, awesome. And there is no way photos can do it justice, either. I did post a few phone-scoped videos on our store’s Facebook page that might help capture the scene a little, but I’ll just let these photos tell as much of the story here as they can.
Shorebirds-1

Shorebirds-1B

shorebirds2

shorebirds3

Shorebirds3-a

shorebirds3-b

shorebirds4

shorebirds5

shorebirds6

shorebirds7

Both days, we then visited the Sackville Waterfowl Park. This wonderful little gem, with entrances all around downtown, features managed wetlands that was chock full of birds. We had mixed-species foraging flocks of migrant warblers at the edge, roosting Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs wherever they could find some open mud, and lots of ducks – including at least 6 family groups of regionally-very-uncommon Gadwall.
GADWGadwall_chicks

AMWI
And lots of other ducks, like American Wigeon.

yellowlegs
Roosting Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.

On our fourth day, we spent the high tide at Mary’s Point, on the other side of the bay, for a different perspective. A “mere” 8,000-10,000 Semipalmated Sandpipers were present here this morning, but likely due to the sandy beach, there were more plovers: both Black-bellied and Semipalmated.
Marys_Point1MarysPoint-2
A White-rumped Sandpiper stands watch over all.

We then enjoyed hiking and casual birding in Fundy National Park, before slowly making our way back to Maine via ferries and island-hopping to Campobello Island.
FundyNP

Seawatching from East Quoddy Head (Great and Sooty Shearwaters, etc), a Baird’s Sandpiper on the Lubec Bar, and two wandering Great Egrets at the Baring Unit of the Moosehorn National Wildlife were among the avian highlights of our first day and a half in the area.

Thwarted by dense fog, the last morning of our vacation featured just enough clearing to allow us to get out on the water with our friend Chris from Eastport. The swirling mass of gulls feeding on the swirling waters in and around the Old Sow Whirlpool is another sight that should not be missed – luckily, this is one we enjoy almost every year. In just a couple of hours on the water, before the fog once again closed in, we saw 2000-3000 Bonaparte’s Gulls, 40 or so Red-necked Phalaropes, 4-5 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, over 100 Black-legged Kittiwakes, a lost Atlantic Puffin way up the straight, a couple of Razorbills, and this lovely adult Little Gull.
LIGU

ARTE
Arctic Terns

BLKI
Black-legged Kittiwake

Lubec

So if you haven’t gone to the head of the Bay of Fundy in August, I cannot recommend it enough. Lubec-Eastport is pretty fine this time of year as well (hence my biennial August van tour.) And yeah, we had some good poutine, too.
Poutine_edited-1

2017 “Bicknell’s Thrushes of the White Mountains” Trip report

11.

Three weeks ago (OK, so maybe I am a little behind in my blogging and trip reports this summer due to an extremely busy tour and guiding schedule!) I conducted our annual “Bicknell’s Thrushes of the White Mountains” van tour to New Hampshire. This favorite outing features multiple opportunities to see one of the most sought-after, range-restricted, and enigmatic of North American breeders: the Bicknell’s Thrush.

For the only time this whole, busy, month, the weather could not have been better for the entire weekend! In fact, we began the tour close to home at Old Town House Park. Not for any “target birds,” but simply just to take a walk at a birdy place – full of Eastern birds our five visitors (of the eight on the tour) from California would appreciate – and enjoy such a beautiful morning. It was just that nice out.
1.2.
Bobolink.

We then worked our way around the Falmouth-Portland waterfront hoping to rediscover the Little Egret of the past two years(quite possibly oversummering in Delaware this year), still enjoying the morning, but also enjoying hearing a calling Virginia Rail at the end of Providence Avenue in Falmouth among other locally common species.

But then it was time to head for the hills. We picked up sandwiches, picnicked and sight-seed at Glen Ellis Falls, and paid a visit to the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center.
3.

After scoring a Philadelphia Vireo at my “secret spot,”
4.

…I began to stress about the evening’s outing up Mount Washington, the success of which is completely weather-dependent.
5.

We then checked into our hotel, had a short rest, and then thoroughly enjoyed our usual early dinner at the Saalt Pub in Gorham, once again keeping an eye to the sky (and some people come back on this tour a second time just to eat here!).
6.7.8.

But the timing of the weather could not have been any better. As we arrived at the base of Mount Washington to meet our Mount Washington Stage Company van and driver, the skies began to part.
9.

And as we climbed Mount Washington, we could not have dreamed about better weather in one of the windiest places on Earth.
Up at the “cow pasture” even the American Pipits were basking in the rare calm winds and sunshine. In fact, this one bird perched on a rock, preening for several minutes, was about as good as a look as I have ever had from the Auto Road on an evening tour.
10.

It was hard not to enjoy the privilege of being on the mountain after-hours, and the privilege of being atop the mountain on a truly exquisite evening!
10a.12.12a.

But then it was time to get to work. We were in the realm of the thrush – the only bird that mattered for the weekend! – and once again, the calm winds were incredible. If anything, the clearing skies made for a little too much light, and the birds remained in the shadows, and when the sun finally did set, it got dark quickly.

Some folks saw one particular bird very well, and everyone at least glimpsed a bird as it darted between openings. Incredibly though, we heard at least 15 birds, as the benign conditions and flexible driver (thanks, Wink!) permitted us to walk a good portion of the length of the road that passes through the birds’ narrow band of habitat. It was by far the best vocal performance I have experienced here in a very long time.
13.

Day Two of the tour began with a stroll at Trudeau Road, where Yellow-bellied Flycatchers and other boreal-transition species were vocal and often visible.
14.

Then, we took the aerial tram up Cannon Mountain, where once again we had incredible conditions. In fact, if anything, it was a little too warm with summit temperatures already a balmy 72!
15.

Although it was fairly quiet overall with increasing temperatures and increasing winds, we did get a good look at a Blackpoll Warbler, among other summit denizens. Most importantly of course, we saw another Bicknell’s Thrush (and heard at least three more), and this one was seen quite well by just about everyone!

Despite being high noon and a scorching 82-degrees, we easily found the Mourning Warbler along Base Road, and then moseyed our way into North Conway for our traditional late lunch at Moat Mountain Brewery to celebrate another successful Bicknell’s Thrush experience!

We’ll announce dates for the 2018 outing this fall, but be sure to keep an eye on the “Tours, Events, and Workshops” page of our website – this perennial favorite fills up quickly!

The “Coastal Quick Hit” Van Tour report

I think it is safe to say that the inaugural “Coastal Quick Hit” van tour was a resounding success! We not only found all of the target species that we were after, but also a few surprises, and we saw all of our target species incredibly well! And we really lucked out with the weather, as the only rain we encountered was a brief downpour while we were driving. I have “no” doubt that all future tours will be this successful.

We receive numerous requests for guiding for several local breeding species that can be hard, if not impossible, to see elsewhere. While Bicknell’s Thrush is my number one request, there are a number of coastal species that are also sought. Folks travel from far and wide for our annual “Bicknell’s Thrushes of the White Mountains” van trip, and often I get requests for private guiding for many of the other species before and after that tour. Therefore, for efficiency and economy, we introduced the “Coastal Quick Hit” tour.

We had four visitors from California on board who were here to take part in the weekend’s thrush tour, plus three local birders out for the day. The eight of us met here at the store on Friday morning, and worked our way south.

Beginning in Scarborough Marsh, we had the opportunity to study Saltmarsh and Nelson’s Sparrows side-by-side, and ponder over some hybrids as well. We compared their songs and subtleties of identification – and learned how to simply leave many, likely hybrids and intergrades, as unidentified. Meanwhile, “Eastern” Willets and many other marsh denizens were numerous, and several sparrows and Willets posed for photos.
WILL

Walking the Eastern Road Trail, a Fish Crow was unexpected, and we enjoyed Little Blue Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, and more. We then found this wading bird, which immediately brought to mind one of the ultra-rare Tricolored Heron x Snowy Egret (and now, possible a backcross there of) that calls Scarborough Marsh home.
LBHE,Marion_Sprague,6-9-17_edited-1

However, it soon became clear that this was a “pure” Little Blue Heron – nothing about its shape, size, structure, or behavior (a regular adult was nearby, and sometimes in the same field of view) was suggestive of anything else (or partly anything else), and so I hypothesized about a leucistic Little Blue Heron. Immature (1st through 2nd summer) little blues are piebald, but this was much, much paler than what I usually see, with more of a uniform “wash” of the purple-blue on the body and wings. What threw me off a bit were the essentially fully-developed head and back plumes (the “aigrettes”) that I did not think were present on a bird who’s plumage was this early in development. A little research showed those plumes were just fine for a 1st-summer bird, even one in which so little adult-like plumage had been obtained. Therefore, unless this bird looks exactly the same come fall, I think it’s just a paler-than-average 1st summer Little Blue Heron. Nevertheless, it was a fun bird to study and ponder – offering a lesson in comparing shape, structure, and behavior in two birds that didn’t look the same.

Also off Eastern Road, we noted Glossy Ibis, American Black Ducks, and a White-rumped Sandpiper in spiffy breeding plumage – a treat for folks from the West Coast, and not a bird we see many of in spring here in the Northeast. It was hanging out with 4 tardy Semipalmated Sandpipers.
GADW,MS
A drake Gadwall at the Pelreco marsh was a nice sight as well.

Four unseasonable Brant greeted us at Pine Point, where we soon spotted one of our most sought-after species, Roseate Tern. At least 8, and likely many times that, as birds were coming and going, were quickly picked out from the crowds of Common Terns, with plenty of Least Terns zipping around.
COTE,MS
Common Tern

LETE,MS
Least Tern

This tour was designed to have at least two chances at all of our target species, but we “cleaned up” in Scarborough, so we elected to brake up our upcoming drive with a stop in Webhannet Marsh near Moody Point for a visit with the King Rail that, for the second summer in a row, has occupied a small corner of the marsh. While waiting for it, we spotted more Willets, and had another great view of a Saltmarsh Sparrow or too.

The rail never called, but about 2/3rds of the group, myself NOT included, were able to spot the rail as it crossed two successive small openings in the marsh grass. The rest of us were just a little too far up the road, and it never made it to the third clearing we were stationed at. But still, a King Rail in the middle of the afternoon! A loafing Surf Scoter with Common Eiders offshore was also unexpected.

A delicious lunch fueled the rest of our drive south and the timing of the rainfall could not have been better. Traffic was relatively minimal as we fought our way through the outskirts of Boston, arriving at Revere Beach just as a thunderstorm passed to our south.
Revere_Beach2

While this is not exactly the most aesthetically-pleasing stop of the tour…
Revere_Beach1

…it was incredibly rewarding, as in short order, we picked up our last two target species, Piping Plover…
PIPL,MS

…and, believe it or not, Manx Shearwater…
MASH1,MS

MASH2,MS

…from land, in a city, and not very far offshore!

This incredible phenomena (they are clearly nesting locally, but where!? One of the Boston Harbor Islands?) was the icing on the cake to a most-successful trip. Based on these results, you can expect to see the “Coastal Quick Hit” van tour again in 2018 and beyond. Stay tuned to the Tours, Events, and Workshops Page of www.freeportwildbirdsupply.com for more information about this and all of our tours.

Intriguing Apparent Hybrid Gull at Niagara Falls.

Jeannette and I took our annual pre-Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch (starts on Wednesday!) roadtrip this year to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.  We went to Buffalo on a pilgrimage to visit the Anchor Bar – the birthplace of the Buffalo Wing. And we spent the rest of the time in the gull-watching Mecca of Niagara Falls.

On our first day at Niagara, wind gusts over 60mph were ripping over the falls (the local airport recorded a gust of 72 mph!) and birding was brutal at best, but essentially impossible (at least for a vacation). We spent a couple of hours in Niagara Falls State Park, but although it looked pretty that day, it was a day to go to the Anchor Bar! We also checked out the Olmstead-designed Delaware Park while in the big city.
Day 1 falls

The next day (Thursday, 3/9) it was quite a bit colder, but the winds were “only” 15-25mph. It was far from pleasant, but it was most definitely bird-able! And the birding was very good!
IMG_3837-edited-2

Despite the relatively late date for the peak of “winter” gulling here (despite what it felt like), we sorted through the many thousands of gulls (predominately Herring and Ring-billed, with a small number of Great Black-backed) and conservatively estimated at least 31 Iceland Gulls, 23 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and 8 Glaucous Gulls in and around Goat Island alone.
IMG_3782-edited-2IMG_3789-edited-2
Third-cycle “Kumlien’s Iceland Gull

And then there was this one:
IMG_3806-edited-2IMG_3819-edited-2IMG_3822-edited-2

I identified it as a possible or “putative” Laughing Gull x Ring-billed Gull hybrid on account of several features:
– near-complete blackish hood with smudgy white around the eye.
– mantle was 1-2 shades darker than the surrounding Ring-billed Gulls.
– overall size and structure was comparable to Ring-billed Gulls, and didn’t bring one of the smaller hooded gulls to mind.
– large white apical spots on the outer primaries.
– dark orange bill with a blackish band, slightly smaller and thinner than nearby Ring-bills.
– yellow-orange legs

And frankly, it looked a lot like photos I have seen of this presumed pairing, such as this one from Amar Ayyash in Chicago.

Jeannette photographed it and we moved on. We never felt a need to flush it, and the bird clearly was not going to raise its wings on its own for us! But feeling the identification was solid, we enjoyed it, left it alone, and went on our way (perhaps we were simply being ultra-conservative about disturbance after the Great Gray Owl debacles this winter!)

A few minutes later, we ran into another birder, and alerted him to our find. He saw it, got some photos, came back to chat, and then went back to the bird. We continued to bird our way around the island.

I knew I needed to take a look at the photos on the computer, and do some homework. A couple of things really bothered me.  But before I had a chance to study the photos and re-evaluate my initial ID, chatter broke out on the area’s birding listserve. Chris Kundl was the birder we met, and he went back and spent some quality time with the bird, extensively photographing the wing pattern, which we – unforgivably!- did not. He, and several other local birders, then identified it as a (rarer) Black-headed Gull x Ring-billed Gull hybrid, based on the extensive white in the wingtips and the white leading edge to the wing. (His photos are here)

Kevin McGowan posted a link to a basic-plumaged individual of this presumed combination, and it definitely looks similar.

However, as Shai Mitra then pointed out on the listserve, a few things are a bit off for that combination. “(T)o me, this bird looks so unlike a Black-headed Gull that I remain puzzled. Specifically, it looks large, thick-necked, large-headed, broad-winged, and heavy-billed. Black-headed Gull is only half the mass of a Ring-billed Gull and very differently shaped, whereas this bird looks quite similar to Ring-billed Gull in overall size and structure. It is of course possible for hybrids to tilt toward one parent or the other in various ways, as opposed to showing intermediacy, but note that the Sullivan County bird from 2002 showed much more intermediacy in these very features (e.g., more obvious influence of Black-headed Gull in terms of size and shape). Looking more closely at the plumage, I also note that the hood seems to lack any of the brownish tones usually evident in Black-headed Gull, and that the mantle appears subtly darker than those of Ring-billed Gulls (Black-headed Gull is notably pale-mantled).”

The size, structure, shape, blackish (not brownish) hood, and darker mantle was what led me to the call of Laughing x Ring-billed. But how else does one explain that white leading edge to the wing? And the extensive white on the outer primaries? A hybrid Bonaparte’s Gull would explain that (and the black tone of the hood), but that’s even smaller and daintier gull than Black-headed.

So what does this mean? Simply: I don’t know. My initial ID does not explain the wing pattern, and that really bothers me.  So what is this? It looks like I have some more homework to do – and I will be sending this blog around to gather additional insight. I also want to look up when the various hooded gulls acquire their alternate plumage, as this seems incredibly early for a hooded gull to be hooded. Keeping in mind that not all hybrids are perfectly intermediate, that backcrosses occur, and that it’s hard to “prove” parentage, I think this bird is worthy of a little more debate.

Of course, we looked at everything else during our visit, including a couple of Harlequin Ducks off Goat Island, and goodly numbers of a wide variety of ducks (especially Common Goldeneyes, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Buffleheads) at a number of locations. And later, we finally caught up with a “as good as they get” Thayer’s Gull – a spiffy adult at Devil’s Hole State Park (after passing on labeling a couple as such at Goat Island earlier in the day).
gorge and whirlpool
The Niagara River Gorge and the Whirlpool from Whirlpool State Park.

IMG_3833-edited-2
Redheads

Unfortunately, it was already time to head home on Friday, so after another walk around Niagara Falls State Park, we began the trek eastward, birding Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, the winds were very strong once again and our time was limited, but we thoroughly enjoyed the hundreds of Tundra Swans (it’s been a while since we’ve seen any!), good numbers of many ducks especially Ring-necked, and sorted through many thousands of Canada Geese at the refuge and nearby cornfields (13 Cackling Geese in Gypsum Pond were our only non-Canadas, unfortunately) before beginning the long drive home (made much longer by snow squalls and that darn Norlun trough that set up over southern Maine!).

Our time was far too limited, as always, but it’s time to get ready to count some hawks!  And at least we still have this gull to mull over.
Falls from Goat Island

The Galapagos (Part II)

For the first half of our trip, visit my previous blog entry here.

6/23: Santa Cruz Island.
Albatross_monument

Anchored in Puerto Ayora, we went ashore and boarded a bus back into the highlands of Santa Cruz to Rancho Primicias. There, we encountered our first WILD Galapagos Tortoises!  It was much more satisfying watching them foraging naturally, rather than eating salad off of a cement platform. Like several other ranches in the area, small pools and ponds are dug and kept filled with spring water to attract these water-thirsty beasts. Altitudinal migrants, they stop in for a drink – especially during the dry season – on their seasonal commutes.
firstWildTortoise
Our first wild tortoise!

RanchoPrimicias1RanchoPrimicias2RanchoPrimicias3RanchoPrimicias4_edited-1

These ponds also attract a lot of birds, including numerous Common Gallinules that looked out of place walking around woodlands. A Purple Gallinule was spotted as we drove in – perhaps the island’s most recent colonizer, with breeding records only from the last few years. “Darwin’s Gallinule” may only be several thousands of years away! Another treat was the Paint-billed Crake, a widespread South American species that is very uncommon in the Galapagos, but perhaps is not this confiding anywhere else. Great views were had as it poked around the edge of the tortoise-filled mud.
Paint-billedCrake

Finches were also in abundance, attracted by the water. Lots of Small and Medium Ground-Finches were present, along with Woodpecker, Small Tree, and Vegetarian. With a little effort, our guide Peter, also found us a pair of Large Tree-Finches – the only bird Jeannette, Steve, and I were still missing from the group’s first day on the island.

I was, however, having a hard time taking my eye off the tortoises, and yeah, we all posed for some touristy photos. No selfies though; we draw the line somewhere.

While a stop at a nearby lava tube did not produce a Barn Owl as hoped for, it did offer an impressive lavatube. Also, one of the highlights of the day was the Woodpecker Finch that we watched at close range as it probed a trailside branch. It was fascinating to see the bird hammer with its open bill (unlike a true woodpecker), and even more interesting watching its rapidly-flickering tongue appearing almost snake-like in its speed and purpose.  Jeannette, Steve, and I lost the group as they descended into the tube, us left behind smitten with the finch. Luckily for all, it was in the same exact place when we all resurfaced.
WoodpeckerFinch

lava_tube

A rather unhappy and perhaps exceedingly unhealthy Barn Owl was added to the list in a little maintenance shed housing an old air conditioning unit – a circumstance that definitely took away from truly enjoying yet another endemic subspecies.

Back in Puerto Ayora, Jeannette and I were granted permission to leave the group as they returned to the boat for lunch. Instead, we wandered around town, had some local food for lunch, checked email (yup, store, house, and Sasha all fine!), photographed a ton of finches (including several Common Cactus-Finches) and Galapagos Mockingbirds in town.
lunchlunchGround-Finch
A Small Ground-Finch visiting us at lunchtime

Mediumor LargeSmall
Small Medium or large Small? Goodness these things are tough!

A visit to the fish pier provided the chance to study and photograph Lava Gulls at close range: begging and battling pan-handling Brown Pelicans and Galapagos Sea-Lions for fish-gut handouts, these seemed to be de-volving back into Laughing Gulls!
beggingSeaLion_edited-1

photographingLavaGull1

Lava_Gull

MAFR

PuertoAyora1PuertoAyora2PuertoAyora3

Reunited with the group, we all walked across town – including a stop at the fish pier, working the occasional finch flock. It was really good to see the finches proliferating in urban and developed areas, but it did take a little of their mystique away – if you know what I mean.
finches_edited-1finches2-edited

CommonCactus-Finch
Common Cactus-Finch not on a cactus.

largeMedium
A large Medium or a small Large?

CommonCactus-FinchonCactus
Common Cactus-Finch back on a cactus to restore the mystique.

ProbLargeGround-Finch
Probable Large Ground-Finch?

Photographing_LavaGulls,Steve

We continued on until we reached the visitor’s center for the National Park, and slowly worked the scrub. Arriving at the Darwin Research Station, we learned about the conservation efforts underway for Mangrove Finch and five of the island’s 10 extant populations of tortoises. There was more good finch and mockingbird-watching to be had as well.
DarwinResearchStation1DarwinResearchStation2
GalapagosMockingbird
<img class=”alignnone size-full wp-image-2928″ src=”https://mebirdingfieldnotes.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/saddlebacktortoise.jpg&#8221; alt=”SaddlebackTortoise” width=”3264″ height=”2448″ />
“Saddleback” tortoise

grou_in_town

sunset

6/24: Santa Cruz Island.

We pulled anchor in Puerto Ayora well before dawn and headed over to Plazas Islet. In stark – and most welcome – contrast to the busy harbor or Puerto Ayora (which was like a Maine harbor in summer, but with more frigatebirds!), we awoke to the peaceful cove at Plazas Islet off of Santa Cruz. We were the only boat around, and the only sign of humanity was the rustic concrete landing for our panga (our inflatable zodiac used for landing; any small boat in the Galapagos are called pangas).
Brown_Noddies
Galapagos Brown Noddies

Galapagos Shearwaters and Swallow-tailed Gulls greeted us instead of yachts and city lights, and once ashore, we looked down on the islet’s cliffs onto huge schools of reef fish (mostly Yellow-tailed Mullet, King Angelfish, surgeonfish, and a few stunning Blue-chinned Parrotfish. Swallow-tailed Gulls, Brown Noddies, Blue-footed Boobies, and Red-billed Tropicbirds glided by, with wheeling flocks of Galapagos Shearwaters calling as they returned to their partners in cliffside crevices.

King_Angelfish
King Angelfish

MAFR
Female Magnificent Frigatebird

Short-earedOwl
Roosting “Galapagos” Short-eared Owl

It was a hot, dry, and rather vegetatively-desolate island. It’s been remarkable how different every island has been, and for some reason, my mental vision of what to expect from the Galapagos was more like this – few species, lots of bare lava, hot and dry – than the varied habitats that we have been exploring.
PlazasIslet1PlazasIslet2PlazasIslet3Native plant restoration.

Peter_and_prickly_pear_tree

petrifiedSeaLionpoop
Petrified sea-lion poop!

We then motored to our next island, Santa Fe. Some deep water snorkeling produced a wide variety of fish, with Blue-chinned Parrotfish and Reef Cornetfish stealing the show.

On land on Santa Fe, we checked out the endemic subspecies of Galapagos Mockingbird – with longer bills, a different call, and more inquisitive behavior than the birds on Santa Cruz. Galapagos Hawks put in a couple of appearances, including some low and close passes overhead. Galapagos Doves, Gray Warbler-Finches, Small and Medium Ground-Finches, Galapagos Flycatchers, and Common Cactus-Finches – with much larger and imposing bills than the birds we have seen elsewhere – joined Santa Fe Ground Iguanas and Galapagos Lava Lizards on the land.
maleLavaLizard
Santa Cruz Lava Lizard -male.

LandIguana
Santa Cruz Land Iguana

GalapagosFlycatcher
Galapagos Flycatcher

The highlight for many, however, were the Galapagos Sea-Lions that greeted us on our arrival on one beach, and others, escorting us away from the departure beach. Inquisitive pups came up to inspect us, with one even exploring Jeannette’s leg with its soft but yet somehow prickly whiskers. It also took a liking to one of her boots.
SeaLions1SeaLions2SeaLions3SeaLions4SeaLions5
SeaLions_J-Mo_edited-1

Pelagic birding on the way northward off of the east side of Santa Cruz yielded more Galapagos Petrels, Swallow-tailed Gulls commuting offshore to feed after the sun went down (and squid come up to the surface), scattered Band-rumped, Wedge-rumped, and Elliot’s Storm-Petrels. But the massive boil of thousands of Galapagos Shearwaters encountered near a couple of sea stacks was simply astounding.
IMG_9051_edited-1

6/25: Bartolome Island.
Bartolome
Desolate, bleak, and vulcan: this is how I pictured more of the Galapagos Islands. But the older islands we have been visiting were softened around the edges by time. Soil built up, and endemic plant communities flourished.

It was different in the northern part of the archipelago, which we sampled around the edges of Santiago Island.  In a busy and fulfilling final full day aboard, we did a lot, beginning with a pre-breakfast panga ride around Bartolome Island. At least 17 Galapagos Penguins were encountered, with several calling their donkey-like bey (the closely related Jackass Penguin is named for this sound). One pair engaged in awkward, and as far as we could tell, unsuccessful, copulation, while Blue-footed Boobies looked on from the cliffs above.
GBHE-and-photographer
A Great Blue Heron (endemic subspecies) looks on.

humpingPenguins

GalapagosPenguins

Landing on Bartolome, the islands’ geology was on full display. Mostly a tuff cone, there wasn’t much here but lava, ash, and a few pioneering plants. Eeeking out a living among them were only a few Small Ground-Finches and a Galapagos Snake (our first of the trip).  Over 370 steps later (hmmm…it feels like we’ve been mostly sitting on a boat for a week!) we were rewarded with spectacular views of Santiago and the surrounding islets, including Santiago’s massive lava flow from less than 200 years ago.
Bartolome1Bartolome2

GalapagosSnake
Galapagos Snake

maleLava Lizard
Male Santiago Lava Lizard

While snorkeling nearby didn’t produce any penguins in the water as we hoped, we did see several new fish, and enjoyed more stunning parrotfish (Blue-chinned and Bicolored).

The Nemo III slowly motored past Bainbridge Island, allowing us to peer into its caldera lagoon. Eleven American Flamingos and at least 20 White-cheeked Pintails were present, with more wheeling flocks of Galapagos Shearwaters coming and going from the cliff.

Yet another round of snorkeling offered up a close encounter with two White-tipped Reef Sharks and a jaw-dropping (which was a problem since you had to clench onto the snorkel gear!) Moorish Idol – a spiffy damselfish with a very long, thin and waving dorsal fin that trailed behind it like the underwater equivalent of a tropicbird.

Another panga ride found three Galapagos Penguins (how did we miss those while in the water!?), many more Galapagos Shearwaters, American Oystercatchers, and our first two Whimbrels of the trip – our 58th and final species in the islands.

Motoring again, we encountered several more Galapagos Petrels and countless shearwaters, lots of Brown Noddies, and a few Waved Albatrosses.
ChineseHat
Chinese Hat

We circled Daphne Major, and although we failed to see any Galapagos Martins, we did see our first two juvenile Swallow-tailed Gulls among adults on the short shoreline cliffs.
SWTGU-nest

Also, I was just happy to get an idea of what this island looks like, having read so much about it, such as in The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner, a Pulitzer-prize winning recount of the groundbreaking research by Peter and Rosemary Grant, and others on rapid, ongoing evolution of Darwin’s finches (Small and Medium Ground-finches in particular).

With the sun setting, and few more Galapagos Petrels, Wedge-rumped Shearwaters, etc added to the tally, we dropped anchor between Baltra and North Seymour Island for our final dinner.
checklist
Final evening checklist session

fruitcarvings
Each dinner was accompanied by a fruit/veggie carving. The final one was our favorite.

6/26: Departure.

One last panga ride before breakfast along the shore of North Seymour Island (our first stop on the first day aboard the boat) produced our final endemic mammal of the trip: the Galapagos Fur Seal. Preferring bolder-strewn beaches, or in this case, a few small rubble landslide slips, the more-local fur seal was not expected elsewhere on our itinerary (they’re more common on the western and northern islands, closer to their deep sea fishing grounds).
GalapagosFurSeals

Lots of Swallow-tailed Gulls, both frigatebirds, and Brown Noddies escorted our boat, along with our last looks at Blue-footed Boobies, Red-billed Tropicbirds, Lava Gulls, Galapagos Shearwaters, and Brown Pelicans. Elliot’s Storm-Petrels circled the Nemo III, and on the beach of Baltra, a couple of Ruddy Turnstones and singleton Sanderling and American Oystercatcher.

Saying goodbye to the Nemo III’s fantastic crew, we boarded the bus for the short ride to the airport. With a little time to kill, I took a stroll, enjoying some cooperative Galapagos Doves and studying a Medium Ground-Finch for the last time in the foreseeable future.  Small Ground-Finches, meanwhile, were easy to get last looks of as they foraged for crumbs on the tables of the airport food court. At least a couple of us sipped one last vacation Pilsener.
Departure

The flight to Quito, once again with a short layover in Guayaquil, was smooth and easy, and we arrived at our San Jose hotel with just enough daylight for a little more birding. Jeannette and I quickly scored three more lifers: stunning Sparkling Violetears, pantaloon-sporting Western Emeralds, and impressive Great Thrushes (yes, we do need to bird the South American mainland!).
airportHotel

A final group dinner at the hotel was a nice wrap-up to the trip, even if several folks were a bit under the weather. While Don and Bill were joining Steve on his Mindo Tour in the mountains, the rest of us were begrudgingly heading home dark and early the next morning.

As the trip came to a close, Jeannette and I reflected on how lucky we were to be able to take part in this incredible opportunity. Somehow, we made it work, and despite the hellish couple of weeks that made the trip happen, we could not be any more thrilled about the trip. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity WINGS offered us, and it was truly wonderful to marvel at Rich Hoyer’s wide wealth of knowledge from plants to birds, bugs to ecology. Our local guide, Peter Freire, was also tremendously knowledgeable, and throw in a little seabird discussion from Steve Howell, and I am overflowing with new information (ah, now, the key: retain some of it!).  Rich was really a pleasure to travel with, and I have never seen a tour group bond so well. Other than a bit of a bug of some sort that was passed around the boat (‘tis life on a boat tour!) that affected some more extremely than others (i.e. Jeannette), few complaints were uttered.

A friend strongly encouraged us to “take the opportunity…and go NOW!” Noah could not have been more right, and I am glad I heeded his advice. And between different government rules, climate change, tourism and population pressures, and much more, I would also encourage you to go to the Galapagos, and do it soon!

I also highly recommend that if you are a birder, you MUST go here with a birding tour group. We would have not seen many of the rarest species (like Large Tree Finch or Galapagos Rail) were we on a “regular” package tour. And with the need for knowledgeable local guides for almost anywhere you go (and Peter is one of the rare, true and talented birders among them), we would never have pulled off the near-complete list that we did.

Rich will likely be leading a WINGS tour in 2018 to the islands, perhaps the “other” route, that would yield one of our most wanted species: Flightless Cormorant. While we knew this itinerary would not produce it, it did produce most everything else – including some real surprises. But, we still need a subspecies of Large Cactus-Finch that will likely get split…and Galapagos Martin (which we missed on our one chance at Daphne Major; our only “dip” of the trip)…and Sharp-beaked Ground Finch…and the blood-sipping subspecies of Woodpecker Finch…and that cormorant.  Hmm, maybe we’ll just have to see you aboard!

Here’s our trip’s birdlist (an * denotes a life bird for both of us, ** is a life bird for only Jeannette, and *** was a life bird for me alone), in currently-accepted taxonomic order:

        1. White-cheeked Pintail (endemic subspecies galapagensis)
        2. Galapagos Penguin*
        3. Waved Albatross*
        4. Galapagos Petrel*
        5. Galapagos Shearwater*
        6. Elliot’s Storm-Petrel*
        7. Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel (endemic subspecies tethys)*
        8. Band-rumped Storm-Petrel
        9. Markham’s Storm-Petrel***
        10. Red-billed Tropicbird
        11. Magnificent Frigatebird (endemic subspecies magnificens)
        12. Great Frigatebird
        13. Blue-footed Booby (Endemic subspecies excise)*
        14. Nazca Booby*
        15. Red-footed Booby
        16. Brown Pelican (Endemic subspecies urinator)
        17. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (endemic subspecies pauper)
        18. Striated Heron (endemic subspecies sundevalli, including dark morph “Lava Heron”).
        19. Cattle Egret
        20. Great Blue Heron (Endemic subspecies cognata)
        21. Great Egret
        22. American Flamingo**
        23. Galapagos Hawk*
        24. Galapagos Rail*
        25. Paint-billed Crake*
        26. Common Gallinule
        27. Purple Gallinule
        28. Semipalmated Plover
        29. American Oystercatcher (endemic subspecies galapagensis)
        30. Black-necked Stilt
        31. Whimbrel
        32. Wandering Tattler
        33. Ruddy Turnstone
        34. Sanderling
        35. Lava Gull*
        36. Swallow-tailed Gull*
        37. Brown Noddy (endemic subspecies galapagoensis)
        38. Dark-billed Cuckoo
        39. Smooth-billed Ani (introduced)
        40. Barn Owl (subspecies punctatissima)
        41. Short-eared Owl (endemic subspecies galapagoensis)
        42. Galapagos Flycatcher*
        43. Galapagos Mockingbird*
        43a. Sante Fe Galapagos Mockingbird
        44. Espanola Mockingbird*
        45. San Cristobal Mockingbird*
        46. Floreana Mockingbird*
        47. Green Warbler-Finch*
        48. Gray Warbler-Finch (Espanola subspecies cinerascens)*
        48a. Gray Warbler-Finch (San Cristonal subspecies luteola)
        48b. Gray Warbler-Finch (Santa Fe subspecies bifasciata)
        49. Vegetarian Finch*
        50. Woodpecker Finch*
        50a. Woodpecker Finch (San Cristobal subspecies productus)
        51. Large Tree-Finch*
        52. Medium Tree-Finch*
        53. Small Tree-Finch*
        53a. Small Tree-Finch (San Cristobal subspecies salvini)
        54. Small Ground-Finch*
        55. Medium Ground-Finch*
        56. Large Ground-Finch*
        57. Common Cactus-Finch (subspecies intermedia)*
        58. Large Cactus-Finch (Espanola subspecies conirostris)*
        59. Yellow Warbler (endemic subspecies aureola)

Mammals:
1. Black Rat (introduced)
2. House Mouse (introduced)
3. Galapagos Sea Lion*
4. Galapagos Fur Seal*
5. Feral Cat (introduced)
6. Bottlenose Dolphin
7. Short-beaked Common Dolphin
8. Minke Whale
9. Blue Whale

Reptiles:
1. Santa Cruz Giant Tortoise*
2. Green Sea Turtle
3. Marine Iguana (four subspecies)*
4. Land Iguana (two or three subspecies)*
5. Galapagos Lava Lizard*
6. Espanola Lava Lizard*
7. San Cristobal Lava Lizard*
8. Floreana Lava Lizard*
9. Galapagos Snake*

A small variety of insects were also identified, including several endemics, and a wide variety of fish and other marine life.

And finally, we’ve been posting videos daily (with a few more left to post) on our store’s Facebook page that I took with my iPhone during the trip. You can view all of them here.

YWAR
The ubiquitous, adaptable, and inquisitive Yellow Warbler (endemic subspecies) was with us throughout the trip, occupying most any niche. It – the most colorful landbird on the islands! – seems like an appropriate species to bring this travelogue to a close.

The Galapagos (Part I)!

Jeannette and I now have a saying: “When opportunity knocks, we buy plane tickets!” And such was the case when WINGS – for whom I am a Senior Leader – offered their guides and significant others the chance to take some open berths on Rich Hoyer’s Galapagos tour.  Because the boat was chartered, those empty beds would have gone to waste, so for the price of airfare and various expenses, this was a chance we simply had to make happen. Because the Galapagos!

As luck would have it, one of my weekend tours cancelled with too few participants, and I had kept the second half of June much more open than normal to work on a project. Well, with all of my guiding packed into the first two weeks of the month, plus finishing that project, plus running the store in a very busy season, etc, etc, we simply said “we have to do this” (despite all rational common sense suggesting otherwise)!

And so we did.

(I’ve taken the “travelogue” approach to this blog post as usual, recounting our trip and sharing a few thoughts and tidbits here and there. However, for a great and informative treatment of the Galapagos from birds to geology, I highly recommend John Kricher’s Galapagos: A Natural History.)

6/17: Travel Day.

It was a long day. A drive to Logan, a flight to Miami, a four hour layover, and then a flight to Quito…we didn’t get to bed until 11:30 local time (12:30 EDT). We were tired.

6/18: No time for rest yet.

A 5:45 breakfast, which we were barely conscious for, started the day. In addition to seeing Rich for the first time in many years, and Steve Howell (who also took advantage of the opportunity ahead of his upcoming Ecuador tour) for the first time in a few years, we immediately recognized two of the participants. In the “birding is a small world” department, we came to realize that we met Bill and Don in a van on St. Lucia in January!  We came together when the local guides we each were spending time with teamed up to get us to and from a remote part of the island, and search for Bridled Quail-Dove and White-breasted Thrasher. Go figure.

Organizing luggage and getting ready to board the minibus in the hotel’s parking lot, Jeannette and I quickly picked up a couple of life birds, as neither of us have been to the region before: Blue-and-yellow Tanager and Scrub Tanager. There were no doubt others in the garden, but they would have to wait for our return.

Already back to the airport, we boarded our flight to Baltra in the Galapagos, with a short stop in Guayaquil. After landing in Baltra, the short walk from the tarmac to the arrivals building yielded our first endemic of the trip: Galapagos Dove – with its spiffy, screaming-blue eyeliner.
North Seymour Island
Our first Galapagos Island – North Seymour Island, as we arrived in Baltra.

Our first “Darwin’s finches” flitted about: the un-evocatively but fairly descriptively-named Medium Ground-Finch. I was looking at a Darwin’s finch. Seriously, this was a dream come true.

We cleared immigrations and customs, and then we temporarily split off from the group; we were on our own this afternoon. We hopped on the bus to the ferry for the short crossing to Santa Cruz, enjoying numerous (Galapagos) Brown Noddies along the way.

A half-hour drive to our hotel gave us a sample of the transition between habitats as we gained elevation. We arrived at the Twin Lodges Galapagos, a quaint eco-lodge with lovely and spacious rooms, on the outskirts of the town of Bellavista.
Twin Lodges GardenTwin Lodges room

We walked into town for lunch, first feasting on numerous Yellow Warblers of the near-endemic subspecies aureola. Introduced Smooth-billed Anis were also common, and we began our education of Darwin’s finches by comparing numerous Medium and Small Ground-Finches.  Separated almost exclusively by bill shape and size, we struggled a bit, especially with lone birds, even with a small mixed group in town allowing helpful direct comparisons.

Lunch from a small streetside restaurant was superb, and a nice introduction to the local cuisine.
lunch

We picked up some vittles at a bakery for dinner (lunch was the large meal of the day!) and walked back up to our lodge, spotting our lifer Dark-billed Cuckoos.

After a little rest, a short casual mosey in the other direction gave us more time with finches, including our first Green Warbler-finches, as well as garrulous Galapagos Mockingbirds.

We were in bed by 7:30 and slept for 9 ½ hours. It was wonderful.

Twon Lodges Room 2
Perhaps the most “countable” Large Ground-Finch of the day.

6/19: Birding to the Boat.

After a breakfast overflowing with fresh fruit from the garden of the lodge, we took a short cab ride to meet up with the WINGS group at their resort. It was time to let Rich do the work!

A Small Tree-Finch worked the resort grounds, and following a discussion with Rich and Steve, added Large Ground-Finch to our list from yesterday. These birds are not easy, and a lot of them seem best left unidentified, but one pair of birds in the Bellavista town square clearly had the massively deep bill (as deep or deeper than it is long) and bill ridge above its forehead that should, in theory, confirm it as a Large…and not just a large Medium!

Our birding outing uphill yielded a few Woodpecker Finches. In particular, one bird that was perched on a snag was holding a thin, straight twig in its bill. One of the only birds in the world that uses a tool, this bird had its handy, wood-boring-larvae-extracting device at the ready. “Woodpecker Finch with a tool” was one of my most-wanted observations of the trip. Score!
Woodpecker Finch with tool

A Short-eared Owl almost took out Jeannette as it went crashing into the brush, offering up some of the best photographs that this species(s) will ever offer.

Then Rich went to work and got us a great look at the secretive (about the only secretive thing on these islands) Galapagos Rail – one of the most challenging species to see in the islands.
group hike

As we moseyed downhill, several Vegetarian Finches were encountered, including a few that were observed, well, eating their vegetables. One particular bird was fond of a certain type of fern frond. The uniqueness of each of Darwin’s finches is not found in their plumage, but in their diet and the amazing evolution of specialized bills to aid in that particular diet.
Vegetarian Finch

Galapagos Flycatchers, a rather dull Myiarchus, made their presence known, and one bird graciously posed for photos.

We then took a bus down to the ferry across the channel back to Baltra (with our first views of Galapagos Shearwaters). Then the other bus to the airport. And then another bus to the port where we took a zodiac to our home of the next week, the Nemo III.  Marine Iguanas, the endemic subspecies of American Oystercatcher, our first Galapagos Seal Lions and Blue-footed Boobies, were all soon spotted.

We settled into our exceedingly comfortable cabin, then wandered around the boat, spied Elliot’s Storm-Petrels as we ate lunch, and noted a lingering Sanderling on the beach. A single spiffy Lava Gull (arguably the rarest gull in the world with only about 300 pairs) stood guard.
cabin

Blue-footed Boobies and both Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds escorted us out of the harbor as we made our way to North Seymour Island.

As we dropped anchor, the magic really began. Swallow-tailed Gulls, one of my “most wanted” species in the world were jaw-dropping. Much larger than I expected, with a loping wingbeat reminiscent of a small egret, these simply stunning birds were even more astounding than I expected.

And then we landed.

And this is what Galapagos dreams are made of. While studying dull finches in town squares was pretty cool, having to move Swallow-tailed Gulls out of the landing was a little more impressive.
Swallow-tailed Gull

With an onshore breeze, frigatebirds, Blue-footed Boobies and Swallow-tailed Gulls were cruising by at literally an arm’s length. Our lifer Nazca Boobies punctuated the sorties of Blue-foots, Galapagos Shearwaters were numerous offshore, and Small Ground-Finches worked the dry ground.
MAFR-flight

As we walked along the trail – a mere half-mile that took almost 3 hours! – both frigatebirds were enganged in all stages of breeding, from “ballooning” males to nearly-fledged chicks. A few Blue-footed Boobies were dancing, but most were already incubating or brooding chicks of various ages.
BFBO1BFBO2BFBO-people

Galapagos Lava Lizards darted and prehistoric Land Iguanas lumbered.  A couple of Galapagos Petrels passed by offshore, and a Great Egret was escorted off the island by a Swallow-tailed Gull.

This place was simply extraordinary, and even surpassed what I thought were outsized expectations and visions for being here. As one member of the group said, “Why the hell did I wait so long to do this!?”  It defied superlatives. I just wandered around with a smile. Jeannette filled three memory cards.  I’ll let the photos do the rest of the talking.
frigatebirdcolony

iguana crossing
Iguana crossing.

IMG_8496_Swallow-tailedGull1_edited-1

Land Iguana

MAFR

MAFR-nestMale Great Frigatebird

Marine Iguana

prickley pair

sunset

6/20: San Cristobal Island.
sunrise

We awoke at our anchorage of the tiny Sea Lion Island, just offshore of San Cristobal. After the information and sensory overload yesterday, it was rather relaxing to stroll the tiny island. Plenty of Blue-footed Boobies, both Frigatebirds, and –you guessed it – Galapagos Sea-Lions were present. While there was a photo at every turn yesterday, and our heads were on a swivel, we instead spent a little more time closely looking and watching behaviors of the boobies, and still trying to figure out how to separate the different ages and sexes of Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds. Wandering Tattler (2) and Great Blue Heron (1-2) were added to our list, along with Green Sea Turtles just offshore. A Lava Gull finally posed for photos.
BFBO

posing Blue-footed Booby

Sea Lion Island

Sea Lion

The second half of the morning was spent snorkeling, it was stellar. Besides massive amounts of fish of many varieties and Diamond-backed Sting-Rays, we had feeding Marine Iguanas. It was rather surreal looking down into the water at a lizard, and we were treated to one in full swim commuting from patches of green algae – their required food source that is just starting to recover from the recent El Nino (we have seen quite a few dead iguanas that didn’t make it through the spell of warm water that kills the green algae; they apparently cannot digest the brown algae that flourishes in the warmer waters).

The fish – of which I know nothing about – were a lot of fun, but then, out of nowhere, a Sea Lion appears, and is swimming full speed right towards me!  At what seemed to be the last second, it wheeled around and dodged right, as if entertaining itself in a game of chicken. It did this several times to me, then to others, and then appeared to attempt to get one of us to play. Of course, it was probably just showing off – yeah, they’re a little more nimble in the water than us flopping humans.

The icing on the cake for me was the Brown Pelican that dove into a school of baitfish nearby. It was absolutely amazing to see the bird plunge down, massive maw agape. Unfortunately for the pelican, the little fishes dodged skillfully away.

Being in the water with Marine Iguanas, Galapagos Sea-Lions, and plunging pelicans is not something I will ever forget.

Back on the boat, we motored into some deeper water, hoping to see Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels. Galapagos Shearwaters were numerous, and we passed a sea stack with Nazca Boobies and a Swallow-tailed Gull.

We glimpsed only one Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, along with one Band-rumped and many Elliot’s, but as we sat down for lunch, two Wedge-rumps came darting in and spent at least 20 minutes in our wake, affording great views and photo ops.

IMG_8590_edited-1
Anchoring in the unexpectedly (to us) busy harbor of the Galapagonian capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, we boarded a bus for a short drive to the outskirts of town, just uphill. Starting at a small but packed cemetery, followed by a slow walk downhill on a wide bike path, we quickly scored San Cristobal Mockingbird (followed by five more on our walk), Gray Warbler-Finch (at least a dozen in all), the San Cristobal subspecies of Vegetarian Finch and Woodpecker Finch, and the largest-billed Medium Ground-Finches we have so far seen (adding to our confidence of our Large Ground-Finch identification from the first day). Small Tree-Finches and numerous Small Ground-Finches, ubiquitous Yellow Warblers, and several Smooth-billed Anis rounded out the list.
Sea Lions at dock

San Cristobal Mockingbird
San Cristobal Mockingbird

Having gotten slightly more confident in the identification of the Darwin’s finches that we have been seeing, I have found more time to simply study their remarkable behaviors, such as the Woodpecker Finch foraging on a trunk like a nuthatch, the warbler-finch probing the ends of tiny branches like a parula, and the range of foodstuffs fed upon by the two ground-finches.
Gray Warbler-Finch
Gray Warbler-Finch

Small Gorund-Finch
Small Ground-Finch

largerSmallGround-Finch
A larger Small Ground-Finch? Or a small Medium?

Medium Ground-Finch
Definitely a Medium Ground-Finch.

Back in town, we gawked at gaudy Sally Lightfoot Crabs covering the rocks, Galapagos Sea Lions covering the docks, and a patient Lava Heron (dark-morph of the endemic subspecies of Striated Heron) waiting for passing fish.
Sally Lightfoot Crab
Sally Lightfoot Crab

Lava Heron
Lava Heron (dark-morph Striated of the endemic subspecies)

6/21: Espanola Island.
sunrise

Today was incredible! I’m going to let the photos do most of the talking today.

The morning started with the exceptional Espanola (Hood) Mockingbird, the first of which left the beach to inspect the deck of our boat. Many more came out to investigate us as we strolled the beach, taking in the Large Cactus-Finches (soon to be Espanola Ground-Finch) and magnificent Galapagos Hawks – a bird Jeannette and I have wanted to see for a very, very long time.
EspanolamOCKINGBIRD_edited-1
Espanola Mockingbirds

femaleLavaLizard_edited-1
Female Espanola Lava Lizard

GalapagosHawk
Galapagos Hawk.

MarineIguana
Marine Iguana

SeaLion

Another mind-boggling hour of snorkeling (even with a wetsuit, that’s about the maximum in these chilly waters) in deep water, with sealife clinging to the shear cliffs included more close passes by Galapagos Sea-Lions. King Angelfish stole the show, however, although the Chocolate Chip Seastar was also a crowd favorite.

After lunch, we visited the Waved Albatross colony (lifer!) at Suarez Point. Dozens of nesting albatross were scattered about and many more were cruising by the cliffs, riding updrafts.
IMG_8689_WAAV_edited-1

I could have stayed at these cliffs all week: close passes by albatross, countless Red-billed Tropicbirds, many in display flight and Nazca Boobies, with goodly numbers of Blue-footed Boobies mixed in, a smattering of Swallow-tailed Gulls, and staggering numbers of Galapagos Shearwaters coming and going from their cliffside burrows.
MarineIguanaPile
Marine Iguanas

NazcaBoobyNazcaBooby2-SuarezPoint
Nazca Booby.

Red-billedTropicbird
Red-billed Tropicbirds

SuarezPoint

Swallow-tailedGull
Swallow-tailed Gull

usWavedAlbatross

The last hour of daylight was spent searching deeper waters for pelagics, which included our first Band-rumped Storm-Petrels of the trip. Then Steve Howell called out “Markham’s Storm-Petrel!” as this big, dark storm-petrel winged by – a lifer even for Rich, and a most unexpected addition to the now-hefty roster of lifer birds for me (unfortunately, Jeannette had just left to hit the shower!).
ElliotsStorm-Petrels
Elliot’s Storm-Petrels.

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel

6/22: Floreana Island.

As the Nemo III cruised close to the cliffs of Gardiner-by-Floreana, a few curious Charles (Floreana) Mockingbirds came out to investigate. Critically Endangered and now found only on two offshore islets around Floreana, this was a bird I was not counting on seeing. Seeing about a half-dozen was a real treat, even if they were about as far as anything we had seen the whole trip!
Gardner-by-floreanaGardner-by-Floreana2

A landing at Cormorant Point (named for a wrecked ship, and not the endemic flightless bird our itinerary will not be taking us to) to visit a brackish lagoon was an interesting new habitat, and yielded 11 American Flamingos, and the endemic subspecies of White-cheeked Pintail. Resident Black-necked Stilts, oversummering Ruddy Turnstones, and a single tarrying Semipalmated Plover padded the trip list as well.
CormorantPoint,Floreana

displayingBFBO

White-cheekedPintailandRUTU
endemic subspecies of White-cheeked Pintail with an oversummering Ruddy Turnstone

AmericanFlamingo

Flamingo1_edited-1Flamingo2_edited-1
phone-scoped American Flamingos

Some more birding by boat produced one (perhaps 2) Galapagos Penguins in the water – another bird I did not expect to see on this tour. It only surfaced a few times, but it was seen well, and it was a real treat to see a flamingo and a penguin in the same morning!
group_in_panaga

In the afternoon, we landed at Puerto Velasco Ibarra, where a truck ride uphill into the island’s higher interior, took us to a very different habitat, and into the realm of Medium Tree-Finches, a Galapagos Tortoise reserve (non-releasable hybrids; a long story) and some fascinating island history.
truck_to_AsilodelePaz

AsilodelePaz-view

captiveTortoises

MediumTreeFinch
Medium Tree-Finch

YWAR_and_tortoise
The endemic subspecies of Yellow Warbler occupies many niches, including foraging for flies around tortoises.

A couple of Common Cactus-Finches welcomed us back to town, joining the Small and Medium Ground-Finches, not to mention the Marine Iguanas and sea lions lining the pier.
CommonCactus-Finch
Common Cactus-Finch

Heading into our most productive seabirding waters after lunch, we were soon rewarded with a staggering amount of Galapagos Shearwaters, 100’s of Brown Noddies, and countless swirling Elliot’s and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels. A feeding frenzy attracted both Nazca and Blue-footed Boobies, and was centered around a group of feeding whales, which we unfortunately did not get very close to. We did have a couple of Minke Whales before and after, and a little while later, a magnificent Blue Whale – the largest animal to ever roam the earth.
GASH
Galapagos Shearwater

gape
Galapagos Petrel

Steve_checks_in
Steve checks to make sure he isn’t missing anything.

sunset

With our trip already half-over, it seems like a good place to break. Look for Part II (including our species list) in a separate blog post in the coming days!

St. Vincent and St. Lucia (with a quick stop in Barbados), Feb 2016!

23a_edited-2
St. Lucia Parrot.

Awoken by the light and warmth of the sun, I could muster little more than to roll over, push the curtains aside, and look at the tiny brown bird sitting on the fence. My lifer Barbados Bullfinch! Jeannette staggered to the window to glimpse it as well. We then went back to sleep for a couple more hours.

Those extra two hours did little to alleviate our exhaustion, but hey, at least we saw our bullfinch! The only endemic landbird on Barbados (as well as an endemic subspecies of Carib Grackle, which we also saw out the window), this was the reason for our layover here. A layover that was supposed to be 24 hours, including some time to explore and a get a full night’s rest. Instead, we had 10 hours on the island. And by the time we finally got out of bed for real, it was only about 5 hours – and that included getting to and waiting at the airport.

See, our trip from Maine was anything but smooth. During the second half of the Super Bowl, our early am flight from Portland to JFK in New York was cancelled, and everything was re-booked for two full days later. That was not going to work. So Jeannette spent the better part of the half on hold, and eventually getting us on a flight the next afternoon, and rebooking our JFK-Barbados flight.

Jet Blue ostensibly cancelled that early am flight due to weather, but that was complete B.S. There was nothing more than some wet snow at JFK that next morning, and snow didn’t reach Maine until after noon. There would not have been any interference with that 5:20am flight.

But there was a storm coming, so we were worried about our 3:10pm flight out of Portland. Instead of chancing it, we took the 6:30am Concord Trailways bus from New York City (a newer service, under better circumstances, this was actually a very pleasant experience and one we would consider again…especially at only $69 per person each way). 6 hours later, we walked a mile to a subway station for the E train, and took the E to the Airtrain. While on the Airtrain, a text message alerted us to the arrival of our original flight to Barbados. Salt in the wounds. Moments later, the Airtrain was evacuated when someone left a bag on board.

Finally arriving at the airport, we had 8 hours to explore. 8 hours is a lot in an airport terminal. Anyway, at least we were there, and our 9:30 pm flight out of JFK left with only a minor delay, and we were on our way.

We arrived on Barbados at 3:30am, cleared customs, and then got a cab to our Christ Church guesthouse where we were supposed to spend the night. We had alerted them to our delay, but when our cab dropped us off and sped away, no one was to be found. We knocked, and knocked some more, and finally got someone to pick up the phone. We crawled into our room at about 5:00am.

It was about 7:30 when I looked out the window, and by the time we made it outside (sans coffee, so it was really a struggle! And thank goodness we travel with Cliff Bars) we had just little more than an hour to wander. But Barbados Bullfinch was as common and conspicuous as promised, and so were the grackles.  And Bananaquits – one of our favorite birds in the world.

A short walk fueled by a Coca-Cola from a little shop provided just a glimpse into the island’s town avifauna, such as zippy Black-faced Grassquits, stunning Green-throated Caribs, and ubiquitous Gray Kingbirds.
1_edited-1Our Barbados guest house.

1a_edited-1With bullfinch habitat right out the door.

2a_edited-2Caribbean Elaenia

2b_edited-2

Barbados Bullfinch.

2c_edited-2Green-throated Carib.

2d_edited-2Carib Grackle

3_edited-1View of Kingstown from Grenadine Hotel.

But before we knew it, we were back at the airport. 40 minutes after departure we were back on the ground – and back on schedule – in St. Vincent, the first of our two primary destinations of our trip. We were kinda awake on the cab ride to our hotel, the Grenadine House, on the outskirts of Kingstown. An early dinner, and then early to bed. It was a much needed night of rest.

Unfortunately, we had another snafu, as our birding guide for the day had to postpone because the truck she was going to be using for the day broke down. Luckily, we had two full days on the island, so we just rescheduled for the next day.

This turned out to work to our advantage, as we awoke to pouring rain in the morning. Once again, we went back to bed.

Finally revived, we took a walk to the nearby botanical gardens. We were finally birding for real (read: awake), and enjoyed reacquainting ourselves with some of the common birds of the region, including Grenada Flycatcher, Antillean Crested Hummingbird, and Scaly-naped Pigeons. And the spiffy all-black St. Vincent race of the Bananaquit – one of our favorite birds just got even better!

The afternoon was spent wandering the markets and shops of Kingstown, adding a few species to our fledgling island list along the waterfront, such as migrant Barn Swallows and resident Brown Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds.
4_edited-1
5_edited-1Cannonball Tree flower.

6_edited-2St. Vincent Bananaquit.

6a_edited-2Gray Kingbird

7_edited-1St. Vincent Parrot captive breeding program.

8_edited-1

Day 3, 2/11:
Lystra Culzac-Wilson (one of the island’s two birding guides) picked us up early in the morning, and by 6:00 we were already on the trail. Shortly after sunrise, from an overlook, we had spotted our quarry: St. Vincent Parrots! At least 15 in all, with pairs and family groups (pairs plus a youngster from the previous year) squawking from nearby hillsides, flying from ridge to ridge, and feeding in trees across the valley. It was cloudy, and the light was still low, and most of the birds were far, so photography was a challenge.

However, Jeannette managed a couple of shots of a close fly-over, and we did enjoy great views as the birds flew around.  Wow. What a bird!  (Yeah, I know, our pictures don’t do it justice.)

Moseying along the nearby Vermont Nature Trail, Purple-throated Caribs were our next lifer – big, gorgeous, stunning hummers.  The endemic subspecies of House Wren finally showed itself, and we saw regional endemics like Lesser Antillean Bullfinch and Lesser Antillean Tanager for the first time since we visited Grenada 7 years ago.

But the endemic and Endangered Whistling Warbler eluded us, so we were off to the other side of the island to search for it. On some seemingly-random trail (accessed by crossing some farm fields and cattle pasture) in the Montreal area (yes, we traveled from Vermont to Montreal, but had to pass through Mesopotamia to do it!), we hiked up yet more stairs (there are a lot of stairs on trails in St. Vincent, we found) and after quite some effort, Lystra whistled a Whistling Warbler into our vicinity, and after a couple of glimpses, I was treated to a stunning view as this shy little bird popped out in the open for a moment just where I happened to be looking. Unfortunately, Jeannette wasn’t looking in the same exact place, so she only caught a fleeting glimpse. Lystra worked hard for us though.

Our lifer Brown Tremblers a’ trembling were anything but fleeting, as near the bottom of the trail three birds put on quite a show. The “chocolate thrasher-wren” was one of our most-wanted non-endemics (but limited to the Lesser Antilles) of the trip, so it was nice to get a good show.
9_edited-19a_edited-2St. Vincent Parrots!

10_edited-111_edited-1

Day 4, 2/12.
Since Jeannette wasn’t completely satisfied with her Whistling Warbler, we decided to try again at the Vermont Nature Trail. We glimpsed a few more parrots, had some better looks at Purple-throated Carib, but unfortunately only heard a single Whistling Warbler. We knew it was time to give up when several busloads of cruise ship passengers arrived on the trail, quite a few clearly out of their element and voicing their displeasure about things like steps, mud, and the pleasantly few mosquitoes.

Back in Kingstown, we finally twitched some delectable curried goat at Stoplight 2 restaurant, on Lystra’s recommendation. As you know, food is second only to birds when we travel, and it’s a local place off the tourist route (well, what there was for a tourist route here) that we love to find.

Also, unlike most tourists, we prefer mass transit, and although we did need a cab to get to the Vermont Trail in the morning, the afternoon was spent traveling strictly by mini-bus. Cheap, easy, a great way to see the towns, meet the people, and especially here (as in Grenada), listen to some local beats.

A short trip to Villa Beach was a change of scenery from the rainforest, and added several birds to our paltry island list, including Royal Tern, Brown Pelican, Osprey, and Belted Kingfisher. A walk into the village of Villa Flat added Tropical Mockingbird, and since we were on the island’s dry side, most of the Bananaquits had yellow-bellies. Undoubtedly, the extra melanin was a benefit in the wet environs, where it likely helps protect the feathers from mold or lice or something.

The Friday afternoon-evening streets of Kingstown were hopping, so after a couple more Harouns (the local endemic lager), we foraged for dinner, finding a great little barbeque stand near the harbor, where we enjoyed a little local flavor – both food wise and conversation. Actually, talking with the grillmaster was a lot of fun and provided that view into local life that you don’t get at a sterilized resort. I do think we were officially “liming,” which is an art form of relaxation and conversation that is practiced like a religion in the Caribbean. Oh yeah, and the BBQ pork was outstanding – perfectly succulent, tender, and the sauce hit every note.
12_edited-112a_edited-214_edited-1Curried Goat at Stoplight2 Restaurant.

15_edited-1 Villa Beach

16_edited-117_edited-1Kingstown BBQ

Day 5, 2/13.
We felt our return to the Vermont Nature Trail the prior day in the hopes of improving Jeannette’s view of the Whistling Warbler precluded exploration of more of the island and its habitats. However, despite the temptation to go further afield, we decided to take it easy (despite having also missed the endemic subspecies of Brown-throated Solitaire which apparently had not yet begun to sing; we never heard a peep from a single one while in the forest), and just return to the Botanical Gardens, a short walk away, for some relaxed birding and photography.

A single Little Blue Heron was the only “new” bird for us (our 38th species on the island), but we had great looks at all of the local flycatchers, including Yellow-bellied Eleanias and Grenada Flycatcher. We were also very surprised to spot a Lesser Antillean Tanager so low, and at the back of the gardens, we flushed a hunting Common Black-hawk, which also came as a surprise to us at the outskirts of the city.

We then went into town for lunch once again (the food at the Grenadine House was quite good, but as usual, we prefer to be even more local in our dining). Our disappointment that our new BBQ friend wasn’t open yet was alleviated when I turned on my “food-dar” and found a fried chicken stand down a waterfront alley, which turned out to be the best piece of fried chicken we have ever had. It was thoroughly coated with what tasted like more spices than flour, and each bite was packed with flavor.

We really could have used another day on the island, but once again, we were back at an airport, and this time, we were heading to St. Lucia. Rich (for its size) in endemics, and with an impressive conservation ethic (compared to most of the region), this island has always been very high on my list.  And it did not disappoint.

Our hour-long taxi ride crossed through the middle of the island, and deposited us at our quaint and quiet little guesthouse, Peace of Paradise (aka “Lorraine’s’). Lesser Antillean Bullfinches, Antillean Crested Hummingbirds, and Bananaquits (100% yellow-bellied on this island) greeted us, which were more welcome than whom we shared our bedroom with(The next day we learned that Sun Spiders were completely harmless. Nonetheless, we were thankful for the bug netting over the bed at night…even if I may have become a bit ensnared in it as I stumbled to the restroom in the middle of the night).

19_edited-219a_edited-2Black-faced Grassquit

19b_edited-2Grenada Flycatcher.

20_edited-1Best fried chicken ever!

21_edited-122_edited-1“Lorraine’s” Peace of Paradise, St. Lucia.

23_edited-1Our bedroom Sun Spider.

Day 6, 2/14:
With a larger roster of endemics, and with two sides of the island to seek them on, we hired local birding guides for two days to hedge the bet. While we can’t really afford to hire a guide for every day of a trip, we also wouldn’t really want to as we like to also learn and explore on our own. However, we ALWAYS hire local guides for a day or two, for several reasons.

Obviously, they are LOCAL and therefore know the spots better than reading someone’s trip report <ahem>. We certainly could have gotten to the Vermont Nature Trail on St. Vincent without Lystra, but we could never have known the best places to stop and the prime patches to search. We also never would have found that back-up trail near Montreal (nor did I have any interest in renting a car and taking on those roads!). We want to see these endemics, and we never want to leave feeling we “need” to come back (wanting to come back is another story) because we missed something. We also want to learn more about the birds, the habitat, the plants and animals, the places to eat lunch, and what life is really like in the places we visit. Some of our best experiences with guides haven’t even been about the birds, such as eating street food in Port of Spain, Trinidad or getting a tour of our guide’s mother’s garden in Grenada.

Most importantly, however, after we leave, these guides are the ones who will make sure these birds exist for the next visitor. Protecting the birds and places they love, and that provide the income for them and their families, are how these special places and special species will have a chance to survive. Without supporting the local economy, too many of the remaining natural areas we want to protect will fall to development, agriculture, and other ways for an economy to be developed or sustained.

St. Lucia has a great infrastructure (much wider and safer-seeming roads than we saw on St. Vincent, for example) to get around, and it wasn’t hard to discover online that the Des Cartier Rainforest Trail was the place to go. Nonetheless, we looked forward to our time there with our local guide and dark and early (checking clothes and footwear for snoozing Sun Spiders), we met our guide, Vision, who, along with Adams (who we would spend time with the next day), make up Wildlife Ambassadors, the upstart nature tour company of the island.

Our first stop was in fact the Des Cartier trail, and it wasn’t long before Vision pointed out our first St. Lucian endemic (and one of the more challenging and endangered ones), the St. Lucia Black Finch.

And that’s when our life list really began to blossom (at least from an island), as in rapid succession, we added St. Lucia Oriole, Antillean Euphonia, St. Lucia Parrot, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, and St. Lucia Pewee (split by most everyone except the AOU). And unlike on St. Vincent, we lucked into some great views and photo opportunities of the local parrot.

Our luck continued with great views of two more lifers, Rufous-throated Solitaire and St. Lucia Warbler. The song of the solitaire was other-worldly, and the charismatic (and common) little warbler would become one of our favorite birds of the trip.

Earlier, I mentioned how local guides are so important for conservation, and after we exited the forest, our next stop was a perfect example of this. The Aupicot Wetlands was an old coconut estate that the local guides have gained access to and are working to protect. With future plans for an ecotourism destination of some sort, for now, they have got the local landowners to reduce the impact of local fisherman and protect the habitat. And because of this effort, it was teeming with birdlife, even though a very dry season was quickly drying out the shallow pond. Migrant Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Semipalmated Plovers were joined by migrant Blue-winged Teal and American Wigeons. Great and Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Herons were joined by single Green and Great Blue Herons, and we identified a spiffy Little Egret among the flock. A couple of Common Gallinules joined a little “cover” of coots – both resident the-species-formerly-known-until-very-recently-as-Carribean-Coots and presumed migrant, small-shielded “American” American Coots.

After a check of some of the environs around the Hewanorra International Airport (migrant Solitary Sandpipers and some of the only Eared Doves on the island), we dined on chicken curry and chicken pelau among Carib Grackles on the beach at The Reef Beach Café.

Next up was the southern tip of the island, with the second highest lighthouse in the world. More importantly, however, there were Red-billed Tropicbirds below.

Back in Prasline, Vision had one more trick up his sleeve, eventually pulling out our lifer Endangered White-breasted Thrasher from some roadside scrub, along with a couple of Lesser Antillean Saltators – our 12th lifer of the day!

23b_edited-2St. Lucia Parrot pair.

24_edited-124a_edited-2Little Egret, Aupicot Wetlands.

25_edited-1

26_edited-1

Day 7, 2/15:
We really cleaned up the day before, but we had a few more birds to search for – and more of “someone else doing the work” – as Vision picked us up dark and early for a drive to the island’s northeastern side. There, we met up with his colleague, Adams, and three other visiting birders from the States to pile into one high-clearance, 4WD vehicle for the rough and treacherous road to dry native forest in Grand Anse.

A most fruitful Mango tree (pun intended!) yielded our next lifer, the Gray Trembler, plus better looks at St. Lucia Oriole and several Lesser Antillean Saltators. The forest yielded oodles of St. Lucia Warblers, at least two pairs of St. Lucia Black Finches, a whopping 7+ White-breasted Thrashers, and a pair of ultra-cooperative Lesser Antillean Flycatchers.

Bridled Quail-Doves were giving us fits though, as this shy and reclusive bird was not making it easy for us. Adams worked hard, and we stalked at least 5 different birds. Mostly, they were glimpsed by one or two people as they flew across a gully or flushed straight away. Eventually, I saw one (in flight) well enough to count, but Jeannette was still looking for more than a shadow. I had a decent look at one on the ground as we returned to the vehicle and Vision (rejoining us after a quick vehicle repair) spotted one, but Jeannette is still waiting for her satisfactory view.

Back up the hill and in Vision’s roomy van, the group headed towards the water, arriving at Pigeon Island National Landmark. We ate chicken rotis as we watched Royal Terns and Brown Boobies.

At Gros Islet Bay, Vision was excited to point out the first island record of Great Black-backed Gull, a 1st winter bird that he found here in December. While there was some disagreement over its identification, he and Adams had become convinced by a visiting birder that it was in fact a Great Black-backed Gull. Just on a quick impression of overall shape and size, I thought otherwise, so we pulled around for a closer view.

And as I suspected, it was a Lesser Black-backed Gull, and an impromptu gull workshop explained why. I felt bad, however, as I was afraid I had burst the bubble of a rarity, and I took a lifer off my guide’s list. But then Vision assured me it was quite alright – Lesser Black-backed Gull was also a first record for the island and a life bird for himself!  (I’ll be submitting a write-up to Vision, Adams, and the regional editor for North American Birds, so feel free to shoot me an email if you too would like a copy of the report)

Sandwich Terns and a handful of Ruddy Turnstones were new for our triplist, and we finished up with yet another high-note: an urban Cattle Egret rookery teaming with adults, juveniles, and sprinkled with Snowy Egrets, a family of Common Gallinules, and a confiding Green Heron (hmm… I think I know which hotel, and which rooms, we want to stay at next time!).

Vision dropped us off at our final lodging of the trip (speaking of ending on a high note), Fond Doux Plantation and Resort. A heavily-vegetated eco-lodge with its own cocoa plantation (and fruit trees, and garden that provided much of the food for the restaurant), we were surrounded by Scaly-breasted Thrashers and hummingbirds in our little cottage. Yup, we were definitely on vacation now!
27_edited-127a_edited-2St. Lucia Oriole

27b_edited-2St. Lucia Warbler.

27c_edited-2White-breasted Thrasher

27d_edited-2Lesser Antillean Flycatcher

28_edited-2Adams and Vision.

29_edited-129a_edited-1

Lesser Black-backed Gull, 1st St. Lucia Record!

29b_edited-230_edited-130a_edited-2Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron.

30b_edited-2Green Heron.

30c_edited-2Cattle Egrets.
30d_edited-2

Day 8, 2/16.
Jeannette out did herself finding this place, as it was a real birder’s paradise (without trying). A St. Lucia Oriole surprised us on a pre-breakfast walk, and at breakfast, we were joined by dining Lesser Antillean Bullfinches. Two bold pairs not only picked up scraps, but they also foraged on the table while we were eating. One even landed on Jeannette’s water glass and took a sip!

This was pretty awesome, and the biologists in us had to have some fun, too, so we conducted a little “food preference study,” a video of which we posted to our store’s Facebook page.

After a long and educational breakfast full of lots of fresh fruit and good coffee (finally!), we decided to explore the island by mini-bus. We took the bus from Fond Doux into the town of Soufriere, then got a connection to the big city of Castries.

Small city parks hosted Zenaida Doves, Carib Grackles, Rock Pigeons, Gray Kingbirds, Shiny Cowbirds, Black-faced Grassquits, Bananaquits, and American Kestrels, while walking the path along the harbor yielded Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Herons, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and a couple more Green-throated Caribs. But after lunch, some shopping for spices, hot sauce, and a couple of souvenirs, we had enough of city life (and crowds of cruise ship passengers) and took the bus back to the quieter town of Soufriere.

Laughing Gulls (our first of the trip) were right where Vision told us they would be, and bacon-wrapped fried plantains at Petit Peak restaurant which we enjoyed with a couple of afternoon Pitons (the endemic beer) need to become “a thing.”  Also, you couldn’t beat the view of Petit Piton for the enjoyment of your Piton beer.

After a little walk, we decided to have dinner at Water Front De Belle View because I wanted some more curried goat and I was desperate for a good callaloo soup (the one at Fond Doux was just too salty). I wholeheartedly recommend both here.

We grabbed one of the last mini-buses back to Fond Doux, and called it a night.
31a.31b. Bullfinch maleFemale (top) and Male (bottom) Lesser Antillean Bullfinches joining us for breakfast.

30e_edited-2Scaly-breasted Pigeon.

34_edited-1Castries.

Day 9, 2/17.
We squeezed in a little more birding by hopping on the bus and taking it uphill from Soufriere to the Bouton Gap. A short, but steep and muddy hike brought us to a series of small overlooks and passed through some productive edge habitat.

We were out in search of our last likely lifer of the trip, Lesser Antillean Swift, but with frequent downpours and low clouds, we were not holding out much hope for high-flying aerial insectivores. So we were forced to content ourselves with a couple of looks at fly-by St. Lucia Parrots, lots of St. Lucia Warblers, cooperative St. Lucia Pewees, and our best view yet of a Pearly-eyed Thrasher.  And then, between a break in the rain, several dozen swifts were on the move, heading into the valley below, affording us very good views from above and below. It was my 20th lifer of the trip (19 for Jeannette and she remained unsatisfied with her quail-dove shadows).

We found some great vegetarian Jamaican-style patties from a food truck on the streets of Soufriere, before we hopped on a bus once again for the short ride back to Fond Doux. There, we finally took the plantation tour that we have been trying to find time (or lack of heavy rain) for, enjoyed some good views and nice looks at Purple-throated Caribs, St. Lucia Warblers, and another Pearly-eyed Thrasher. The grounds turned out to be more extensive, and with more less-disturbed forest than we thought, so had we a little more time, no doubt we could have picked up a few more “yard birds” of note.

Our last night of vacation, it was time for our splurge dinner, and so we headed over to Boucan Resort – “the chocolate hotel” – where everything on the menu of their fine restaurant had cacao incorporated in it some way. Sometimes themes like this come across as gimmicky and forced, but that was most definitely not the case here. From the cocktails to the amuse bouche to each entrée – and of course, dessert! – were incredibly well-conceived and perfectly executed. In fact, when all was said and done, Jeannette and I both agreed it was one of the top 3 or 5 meals we have ever had. Anywhere.  So yeah, good way to finish a trip!
38_edited-1

39_edited-139a_edited-2Antillean Crested Hummingbird

39b_edited-2St. Lucia Pewee.

39c_edited-2Antillean Crested Hummingbird

40_edited-141_edited-1.1Our cottage at Fond Doux.

41a_edited-2Purple-throated Carib

42_edited-1.2Dinner at Boucan.44_edited-2

Day 10, 2/18.
We awoke to heavy rain, and rain that didn’t quite let up as quickly as we would have liked. Therefore, we dallied a bit, fed more bullfinches at breakfast, and eventually had a break in the rain to walk up a nearby side road towards a Nature Trail that was recommended for its birding, and especially its views of the two Pitons.  A Gray Trembler, lots of St. Lucia Warblers, and a couple of good looks at Mangrove Cuckoos suggested we probably should have done this sooner as well. In fact, the birding was good enough, and combined with waiting out a few downpours under trees, we made it to the entrance of the trail just as we had to turn around.

Jeannette worked on photographing Antillean Crested Hummingbirds and both Green-throated and Purple-throated Caribs from the porch of the office at Fond Doux as we waited for Adams, who surprised us with an offer of a ride to the airport in exchange for a discussion about developing their ecotourism business. With the third employee now on board, Wildlife Ambassadors has the potential to become a force in birding and nature tourism on the island, and this could be a very good thing for birds and bird conservation here. The Aupicot Wetlands and their protection is a perfect example, as both resident and migratory birds (including some of “our” birds from North America) are rapidly losing safe refugia in the Lesser Antilles. Even better, unlike some islands, they don’t shoot everything that lands here.

We were happy to add our limited travel dollars to the cause – money will talk; when these places are financially worth protecting, they are much, much easier to protect – but also happy to offer some advice and suggestions on everything from websites and Facebook, to tour amenities. We certainly wish Adams and Vision well, and look forward to keeping in touch and seeing what they accomplish in the future.

We also made a quick stop to see if any Grassland Yellow-finches were present near the airport, squeezing in a few more minutes of birding before we began the long trip home.  But alas, it was smooth and easy, and nothing like our trip south!
44a_edited-2Scaly-breasted Thrasher.

45_edited-1Fond Doux. At least I finally looked at the pool!

45a_edited-2Green-throated Carib

45b_edited-2Purple-throated Carib.

Trip/Island List (* life bird).

Barbados:

  1. Barbados Bullfinch*
  2. Zenaida Dove
  3. Carib Grackle
  4. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  5. Black-faced Grassquit
  6. Cattle Egret
  7. Caribbean Elaenia
  8. Bananaquit
  9. Shiny Cowbird
  10. Gray Kingbird
  11. Green-throated Carib
  12. Common Ground-Dove
  13. Rock Pigeon
  14. Scaly-naped Pigeon
  15. Antillean Crested Hummingbird

St. Vincent:

  1. Cattle Egret
  2. Magnificent Frigatebird
  3. Bananaquit
  4. Black-faced Grassquit
  5. Rock Pigeon
  6. House Sparrow
  7. Shiny Cowbird
  8. Gray Kingbird
  9. Common Ground-Dove
  10. Antillean Crested Hummingbird
  11. Broad-winged Hawk
  12. Yellow-bellied Elaenia
  13. Grenada Flycatcher
  14. Scaly-naped Pigeon
  15. Green-throated Carib
  16. Eared Dove
  17. Great Egret
  18. Barn Swallow
  19. Carib Grackle
  20. Brown Booby
  21. Spotted Sandpiper
  22. Common Black-Hawk
  23. St. Vincent Parrot*
  24. House Wren
  25. Black-whiskered Vireo
  26. Lesser Antillean Bullfinch
  27. Lesser Antillean Tanager
  28. Purple-throated Carib*
  29. Smooth-billed Ani
  30. Whistling Warbler*
  31. Brown Trembler*
  32. Green Heron
  33. Royal Tern
  34. Brown Pelican
  35. Osprey
  36. Belted Kingfisher
  37. Tropical Mockingbird
  38. Little Blue Heron

St. Lucia:

  1. Royal Tern
  2. Cattle Egret
  3. Zenaida Dove
  4. Rock Pigeon
  5. Carib Grackle
  6. Gray Kingbird
  7. Common Ground-Dove
  8. Lesser Antillean Bullfinch
  9. Bananaquit
  10. Antillean Crested Hummingbird
  11. Green-throated Carib
  12. Spectacled Thrush
  13. Scaly-naped Pigeon
  14. Mangrove Cuckoo
  15. St. Lucia Black Finch*
  16. St. Lucia Oriole*
  17. Purple-throated Carib
  18. Antillean Euphonia*
  19. Pearly-eyed Thrasher*
  20. St. Lucia Parrot*
  21. Broad-winged Hawk
  22. Scaly-breasted Thrasher*
  23. Lesser Antillean Flycatcher*
  24. St. Lucia Pewee*
  25. Rufous-throated Solitaire*
  26. St. Lucia Warbler*
  27. American Kestrel
  28. Greater Yellowlegs
  29. Great Blue Heron
  30. Little Blue Heron
  31. Snowy Egret
  32. Great Egret
  33. Green Heron
  34. American + Caribbean Coots
  35. Little Egret
  36. American Wigeon
  37. Blue-winged Teal
  38. Common Gallinule
  39. Yellow Warbler
  40. Lesser Yellowlegs
  41. Semipalmated Plover
  42. Osprey
  43. Eared Dove
  44. Solitary Sandpiper
  45. Shiny Cowbird
  46. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  47. Red-billed Tropicbird
  48. Caribbean Eleania
  49. Lesser Antillean Saltator*
  50. White-breasted Thrasher*
  51. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  52. Spotted Sandpiper
  53. Tropical Mockingbird
  54. House Wren
  55. Gray Trembler*
  56. Black-whiskered Vireo
  57. Bridled Quail-Dove*
  58. Brown Booby
  59. Magnificent Frigatebird
  60. Barn Swallow
  61. Sandwich Tern
  62. Ruddy Turnstone
  63. Lesser Black-backed Gull
  64. Laughing Gull
  65. Lesser Antillean Swift*

36_edited-1Enjoying a Piton in Soufriere, overlooking Petit Piton.