Category Archives: Birding “Away”

Pelagic Birding by Cruiseship: NYC-NS-NB-NYC, Oct 2019.

Skua
Bonxie!
Jeannette and I took round trip a Princess Cruise from New York City October 26 (pm departure) through October 31st (early am arrival). It made ports of call in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Saint John, New Brunswick.  The full-day at seas between NYC and Halifax on 10/27 and from St John to NYC on 10/30 were the draws for us.  Cruise ships offer steady, stable and unreasonably comfortable deep-sea birding opportunities. Paul Lehman helped put the “repositioning cruise” itinerary on the West Coast on the birding radar and he, along with several others around the world, demonstrated the value of these floating behemoths for pelagic birding.
departing NYC
Verrazano

Our transit from NYC to Halifax was our best stretch, with seas a mere 2-3ft, partially cloudy skies, and unseasonably warm temperatures. We awoke to find ourselves at 49.9 nautical miles south-southeast of Nantucket.
Sunrise, 10-27

After a surprisingly slow first 2 hours of the day, the action really got going and remained strong into the early afternoon. The day ended up yielding an impressive 5 Great Skuas and 6 unidentified skuas. A small dark storm-petrel – likely a very late Wilson’s – may have been the one that got away this day as we were unable to photograph it. A Manx Shearwater was well seen, along with 9 Cory’s Shearwaters and many of the expected species. A Song Sparrow arrived on the boat, first seen shortly after sunrise that morning.  A complete list is below, but all of our highlights were in Massachusetts waters.
GRSHGRSH2
Great Shearwaters
COSH
Cory’s Shearwater.

A 27-minute stretch in Maine waters (U.S. territorial waters with the closest point of land being 101nm to Mt Desert Rock) yielded little, and not my most-desired bird of the trip: a Great Skua in Maine waters, a bird that has become an unreasonable nemesis for me.  Nova Scotia waters were very slow, and an area of low pressure caught up to us, with rain becoming steadier and rapidly reducing visibility and light.
NOFU
Northern Fulmar
IMG_1181.PNG

On 10/28, we arrived in Halifax Harbor before sunrise, and our friends Eric and Anne Mills picked us up at the dock for a day of local birding. A continuing Yellow-throated Warbler at Point Pleasant Park and 2 Indigo Buntings at the old city dump were highlights, but like it has been in Maine, landbirds – especially in the woods, but also sparrowy-edges – were sparse.
old_city_dump
Point_Pleasant_Park

leaving_Halifax
The boat pulled away after sunset, but we were pleasantly surprised to awaken on 10/29 with a considerable distance of the Bay of Fundy left to transit. The boat was at a lower speed than usual, as we had to wait for high water in St. John Harbor. Beginning 17.3nm WSW of Brier Island, we enjoyed very productive birding through 11:00am as we were entering St. John Harbor.  Single American Robin, Horned Lark, Dark-eyed Junco, American Pipit, and Savannah Sparrow made morning passes around the boat, but the alcid show we had been waiting for had arrived: 58 Atlantic Puffins, 44 Razorbills, and 12 Common Murres (the majority of all were in New Brunswick waters). We were very excited to see a total of 5 Dovekies – a group of four followed by one lone bird in flight – all on the Nova Scotia side.  This was another one of the “target birds” we had identified for this itinerary.
IMG_1236

We arrived in Saint John at noon, and walked across the city to get to Rockwood Park. There were “no” birds in the woods here, either, so we visited a couple of breweries and had our best meal of the trip at the St. John Alehouse on our way back. It was not until almost midnight that the boat departed as the world’s highest tides had finally filled back in.
RockwoodPark1RockwoodPark2
St_John_dusk
Gulls commuting back from Rockwood Park with us.

The morning of October 30th has been circled on the proverbial calendar for a while, but there was quite a bit of apprehension about where we would find ourselves at dawn. I had my eyes on Maine waters – especially for my state Great Skua! – but also out of my own general birding interests of course.
Sunrise,10-30

Rolling over in bed at 5:30 EDT, I pulled up the Navionics Boating app and found our position to be 64.8nm ESE of Mt. Desert Rock, well within Maine-countable waters and with a current track that would keep us in these waters for some time. Breakfast was consumed rapidly, and we were on deck at 6:45, with just enough light to start looking for birds. Seas were still 2-3ft, with very light chop, and a little breeze. Skies were partly to mostly cloudy all morning. Conditions were once again unreasonably perfect.
me_sunrise

Great Shearwaters and Northern Fulmars were soon visible, and we picked up our first Red Phalaropes of the journey. Since Jeannette and I were the only birders on board, not surprisingly, we had been taking turns looking for passerines on the open decks and going on coffee and restroom runs. At about 8:00 or so, Jeannette went to the upper decks and returned about 30 minutes later to find me writing furiously. At 8:21EDT, I had a good bird, and I think it was a very, very good bird. Of course, she wasn’t there to see it, but as importantly for the task at hand, she was not there to try and document it while I studied it for as long as I can.

After watching it in the scope for a minute or two, I made the decision to go for the camera, despite the extreme distance of the bird. I paused for a moment at the idea of attempting a phone-scoping session, but I realized the unlikelihood of that being successful. I snapped a couple of pictures, realizing they were unlikely to be anywhere within the realm of realistically seeing “something” and went back to following the bird in the scope, hoping for it to turn or land, or at least stick around long enough for Jeannette to return.

I have seen a lot of Manx Shearwaters, and ample numbers of Audubon’s Shearwaters. Instantaneously, it was obvious this was not a Manx, so I started scribbling notes. I had a feeling based on my studying before the trip, that I was looking at a Barolo’s Shearwater, a bird not yet recorded in Maine (but on my long list of likely new additions).

Here are my transcribed field notes, lightly edited only for decipherability (comments added later):

  • Coordinates: 42(d) 35.966”N, 67 (d) 56.02’W
  • small seabird spotted distance while J was on coffee/passerine run.
  • Blackish back and white undersides but extremely stiff and very shallow wingbeats noticed immediately.
  • Thought alcid, but wings too narrow and relatively long (compared to size of body)
  • (First) observed at approx 60-degree angle as it was angling slightly towards the bow, but rapidly getting further away.
  • White underwing clean and appeared to go right out to wingtips.
  • White face – could possibly make out eye – rose well up towards narrow-appearing crown. Even compensating for morning light, face was far too white and clean for Manx Shearwater, more like Audubon’s, but with even more white than that
  • Could not see undertail coverts (specifically), but white did appear to “continue” towards rear.
  • Small bill, almost imperceptible at distance.
  • No shearwatering, stayed level (low over water) with shallow, stiff wingbeats/
  • Did not see “saddlebags” or not (too far for such fine detail).
  • No molt visible.
  • Dwarfed by passing Great Shearwater
  • Flight considerably different from Manx, plus extensive white on face and extensively white and clean underwings. Very short wings, relatively.
  • White as “far as I could see to” wingtips and undertail.
  • Need to get out field guides to compare Barolo’s vs Audubon, but this looked smaller, pudgier body, whiter underneath, and wingbeats so stiff and shallow.
  • Cannot reconcile wingbeats/flight and extensive white face, undertail, (underwing), with anything but Barolo’s Shearwater.
  • (wishing I went for the camera sooner!)

As I was scribbling away, Jeannette returned, I took one sip of coffee, and went back to my notes. Shortly thereafter, she yelled “BONX-IIIIEEEEEE!”  And finally, at 8:37am, 82.2nm southeast of Matincus Rock, and only about 6-10nm closes than any point on Cape Cod, I had my Maine state Great Skua. Finally. Mission accomplished.
IMG_1292

But then, it was back to the shearwater. Plans were made to celebrate later (wait, why can’t I get a drink delivered to me outside?). I added to my notes, still before checking any references, summarizing my observation:

  • Manx quickly eliminated by short wings, very small size, and bright white face. Flight style quite different. This was closer to an alcid with super-shallow wingbeats.
  • Single bird, all alone, picked up in straight, powered flight.
  • Distance could have obscured internal underwing markings, but none noticed
  • White rose up face – even if compensating (for) sun “overexposure,” so high that when going away, appeared to have a very narrow dark crown. (I made an exceedingly poor drawing of the impression. It is not worth sharing).

I had Howell and Zufelt’s Oceanic Birds of the World and the Nat Geo field guide with me, so I consulted them, along with an online image search. I revisited those resources and looked longer online when we returned to our cabin later. After that, I added the following:

– (my bird) looked “normally” tapered/pointed wing(tip) and not at all rounded like Audubon’s.
– did not appear particularly long-tailed
– short bill; Audubon’s looks longer-billed.
– cold/cool water environs. No water temperature measurement on board boat, but well within Gulf of Maine at 689ft depth. No “warm water species” seen on entire trip.
– too small for Manx, as a Great Shearwater crossed in front of it (while I was viewing through the scope). 3-5 had been circling the ship (consistently).
IMG_1358

Oh, and my desperate attempt at a photograph I alluded to? Well, I think it was one of the Great Shearwaters (is that a hind collar behind a dark cap?), but it could also be a giant piece of sushi. I whiffed. And that does not make me happy, as even a crappy photo might have had some value.

Looking at those resources, photos online, and more resources upon our return home, I concluded that this bird was indeed a Barolo’s Shearwater. Whether “sight records” are “good enough” for First State Records, well, that’s a debate for another day…

But yeah, we had other birds that day too, with Great Shearwaters and Northern Fulmars leading the way, and lots of dolphins, including several small close pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphin.  We also had another skua in Massachussets waters that suggested South Polar to me, but it was just too far, and Jeannette was unable to get on it in the camera for closer study.
COSHandGRSH
Cory’s Shearwater with Great Shearwaters.
GRSHandGBBG
Great Shearwaters with Great Black-backed Gull

At 4:15, with nearly-lifeless waters – the same early morning dull stretch from day 1 that got us worried about whether this entire trip was a good idea or not, we called it quits and went inside. A beer and a top-deck jacuzzi were in order. Come dawn, we’d be back in port in Brooklyn, so maybe we’ll even have a second drink tonight!
J-Mo_on_deck

Yeah, this cruise ship pelagic birding has its perks! And you can expect us to offer this as a tour in the near future. Unfortunately, a change in ships on this route next year may hamper the birding access, so we’re going to figure this out before we promote the tour and the future of birding possibilities on this intriguing cruise route.

Here’s the breakdown of the birdlist:

10/27.
-On deck 6:30 EDT. Mostly cloudy, lt-mod SE, light-moderate chop and 1-1.5m swell.  49.9 nm SSE of Nantucket.

1) Massachusetts waters:
GREAT SKUA: 5 total (coordinates recorded for each).
UNIDENTIFIED SKUA: 6 (coordinates recorded for each)
Parasitic Jaeger: 4
Unidentified Jaeger: 9
Black-legged Kittiwake: 4
Herring Gull: x
Lesser Black-backed Gull: 1
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Northern Fulmar: 3
Cory’s Shearwater: 9
Great Shearwater: 259
Manx Shearwater: 1
UNIDENTIFIED STORM-PETREL – 1, Wilson’s-type most likely.
Northern Gannet: 186
Song Sparrow – 1 found on Lido Deck

Atlantic White-sided Dolphin pods: 1

2) Maine: 27 minutes.
Herring Gull: 1
Great Black-backed Gull: 1
Northern Fulmar: 2
Great Shearwater: 1
Northern Gannet: 1

3) Nova Scotia waters.
Black-legged Kittiwake: 1
Herring Gull: x
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Northern Fulmar: 2
Great Shearwater: 2
Mourning Dove: 1 – 81.4 nm SW of Seal Island. Reappeared and was stooped upon by PEFA.
Peregrine Falcon: 1- 83.8nm SW of Seal Island

Pilot Whales: 4-6
PEFA1PEFA2

10/29: Bay of Fundy.

  • On deck 7:54 ADT. 7.5nm W of Boar’s Head, Briar Island, NS..
  • Nova Scotia waters through about 9:30am EDT:

Common Eider: 13
White-winged Scoter: 2
DOVEKIE: 5
Razorbill: 3
Atlantic Puffin: 15
Pomarine Jaeger: 6
Unidentified jaeger: 3
Black-legged Kittiwake: 59
Herring Gull: x
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Red-throated Loon: 2
Northern Fulmar: 7
Sooty Shearwater: 2
Northern Gannet: 24
American Robin: 1 at dawn, flying parallel to boat.
Horned Lark: 1 flying with DEJU 9.4nm W of Centreville Harbor
American Pipit: 1
Savannah Sparrow: 1
Song Sparrow: continues on deck.
Dark-eyed Junco: 1 flying with HOLA 9.4nm W of Centreville Harbor
AMRO

New Brunswick waters (after about 9:30 EDT):
Common Eider: 186
Common Murre: 12
Razorbill: 41
Atlantic Puffin: 43
Large alcids sp: 9
Pomarine Jaeger: 1
Black-legged Kittiwake: 49
Herring Gull: x
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Northern Fulmar: 1
Northern Gannet: 8
Red-throated Loon: 14

Minke Whale: 1
Harbor Porpoise: x

10/30.
– On deck 6:45 EDT. Maine waters, 64.8nm ESE of Mount Desert Rock and 60nm W of Seal Island, NS, but in US territorial waters.  Seas 2-3ft, light chop, increasing breeze.

1) Maine Waters:
GREAT SKUA: 1 – 42  31.291’N, 67  58.735’W
Pomarine Jaeger: 1
Red Phalarope: 16
Atlantic Puffin: 1
Black-legged Kittiwake: 7
Herring Gull: x
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Northern Fulmar: 76
Great Shearwater: 74
BAROLO’S SHEARWATER: 1, See Above. (42.35988’N, -67.5602’W)
Northern Gannet: 1

  • Massachusetts waters:

Unidentified phalarope: 30
UNIDENTIFIED SKUA: 1 (probable South Polar)
Pomarine Jaeger: 2
Parasitic Jaeger: 2
Unidentified Jaeger: 4
Black-legged Kittiwake: 14
Herring Gull: x
Lesser Black-backed Gull: 1
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Northern Fulmar: 158
Cory’s Shearwater: 6
Sooty Shearwater: 1
Great Shearwater: 233
Northern Gannet: 77

Atlantic White-sided Dolphin pods: 3+
Short-beaked Common Dolphin Ponds: 3+
Unidentified dolphin pods: 4+

Common_Dolphin
Common_Dolphin2
Short-beaked Common Dolphin.

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!