Tag Archives: seabirds

2016 Birding By Schooner Trip Report

My 7th (now annual) Birding By Schooner aboard the Lewis R. French tour got underway on Monday morning from Camden Harbor with sunny skies and a light breeze perfect for a little sailing. Black Guillemots, Common Eiders, and Laughing, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls escorted us out of the harbor, as Ospreys kept a close eye on the proceedings.
1. Camden Harbor Departure_edited-1
3. map session_edited-1

Out in the bay, Harbor Porpoise were soon spotted (they were very plentiful on this trip) and plenty of Harbor Seals. Merlin, Bonaparte’s Gulls, and Common Loons were quickly added to the list. Sailing towards the Fox Islands Thorofare, we picked up an unexpected inshore Great Cormorant, an immature hanging out with Double-cresteds on Scraggy Island. Burnt Cove Harbor on Swan’s Island was our destination for the evening.
2. Entering Fox Islands Thorofare_edited-1

In the morning, we took a walk onshore, birding and naturalizing our way to the lighthouse. A Red Crossbill flew over calling as we landed at the dock, my 132nd all time Birding-by-Schooner species! The walk sampled the common denizens of the Red Spruce-dominated Acadian habitat of the region, with numerous Black-throated Green Warblers and many others. A White-tailed Deer crossed our path, and we spent some time learning the local trees.
5. Burnt Coat Harbor 2_edited-1
As we checked out the feeding station at this house, we couldn’t help but feel as if we were being watched…and we were!  I remember being creeped out by this doll when we last landed here a few years ago.
6. Burnt Coat Harbor 3_edited-1
7. Burnt Coat Harbor 4_edited-1
8. DEJU1C_edited-1

9. Burnt Coat Harbor -later_edited-1
10. Burnt Coat Harbor-departing_edited-1

Back on board, the fog had lifted, and we sailed through Blue Hill Bay, arriving at tiny Babson Island for the evening. Usually, the famous lobster bake is the finale of the trip, but this tour’s focus is having the chance to get out to Seal Island – far offshore and needing a narrow suite of conditions to make it possible (or, at least comfortable). Therefore, Captain Garth decided to mix things up a bit and take advantage of a pleasant evening and a lovely little beach. Much food was consumed. Several more Bald Eagles were noted.
11. Babson Island1_edited-1
12. Babson Island 2_edited-1
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Tobias, visiting us from Sweden, shares the story – and flavors – of Skane aquavit, while Dan shares stories of Garth as a young mate.
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15. Lobster Bake 3_edited-1
16. crew at lobsterbake_edited-1
The crew.

17. post Lobster Bake1
18. post Lobster bake2

Once again, Garth nailed the window, and conditions were absolutely perfect for a trip out to Seal Island, part of the Maine Coastal Island National Wildlife Refuge.  We passed between Stonington and Isle Au Haut, and cruised by Saddleback Ledge and into open water. I became more vigilant.
19. Babson Island am_edited-1
20. Saddleback Ledge_edited-1
Saddleback Ledge

One of the reasons I most look forward to the annual trip is for the chance to visit Seal Island. Our goal is to head out there every year and spend a night anchored offshore. It’s a very unique and special opportunity, and of course a chance at some great birding. Not the least of which is the chance to see “Troppy,” the Red-billed Tropicbird that has come to the island for the past 10 summers (and 11th year in the area overall). But this year, my anticipation about a visit was stoked even more with a spate of other rarities recently, including a Royal Tern, a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and – two days prior to our departure, an inconceivable 1st Western Atlantic seaboard record of a Great Knot! A bird that breeds in Siberia and winters mostly in Southeast Asia and Australia, this is truly an incredible record.  Needless to say, it was not on my annual list of Next 25 Birds for Maine! I was showing symptoms of rarity fever.

Also, needless to say, I couldn’t wait to get out there!  But, at the mercy of the wind (or often, lack thereof), I had little say in whether or not we’d have a chance to look for it (although I really had zero expectations of it sticking around), Troppy, other rarities, or simply enjoy puffins, Common Murres, Razorbills, and calling Leach’s Storm-Petrels through the night.

With Seal Island on the horizon, we scanned the open waters, which we found to be unusually quiet. Commuting Common Terns and several Arctic Terns (who recently regained the crown of longest-distance migrants in the world: up to 55,000 miles a year!) began to appear, a sign that we were getting close. Under full sail (we often have to motor-sail to get this far out on a nice enough day), we spotted a lone Northern Gannet, and as we neared the island, numerous Atlantic Puffins became visible.
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Juvenile Arctic Tern
22. Seal Island approach_edited-1

We slowly plied the waters off the islands southwest side, enjoying close up puffins, practicing our tern identification, watching Great Cormorants, and keeping an eye out for…

Troppy!  Just a few minutes ahead of schedule at 4:17pm, the famous Red-billed Tropicbird appeared. I was able to spot him as he was flying low, and dropped in for his usual (as long as it is sunny!) afternoon bath. Captain Garth and 1st mate/co-Captain Dan adeptly positioned the boat to slowly approach him on the water, without flushing him. We got incredibly close and cameras clicked away (my photos are a little distant as I decided to try for video this year when we were making our closest approach). Soon, he relocated to his more-usual bathing location closer to the island.
23. Troppy1
24. Troppy8_edited-1

Success!  And with happy birders and a Captain basking in his glory of once again perfectly timing our arrival to once again put us in perfect position for an enjoyable view, we sailed over to the Eastern Bight and dropped anchor for the evening. Besides our incredible success rate of seeing Troppy (5 out of 6 visits to Seal now, a great batting average), this tour also – again, conditions permitting – affords the unique opportunity to spend a night off of this incredible and remote island.

As per tradition, we invited the Seal Island crew of Puffin Project biologists aboard for dinner (thanks to the talents and perfect planning of our cook, Carla and her Mess Mate, Genevieve) and a visit, giving the crew and participants a chance to pepper them with all sorts of questions. We all kept an eye out for shorebirds passing or rounding the island, and Keenan and crew took the opportunity to survey the growing contingent of Laughing Gulls that have been congregating on the island. The sunset was particularly spectacular this evening as well.
25. Seal Crew visits2_edited-125. Seal Crew visits_edited-1
25B. L1060029_edited-1
26. Seal Sunset 2_edited-1

But we weren’t done with the “unique experiences” yet!  In addition to the remoteness of our anchorage, spending the night at Seal also gives us a chance to listen (and perhaps even see) Leach’s Storm-Petrels, vocalizing as they return to their nesting burrows under the cover of darkness.

While staying up a little later, or getting up a little earlier, would likely yield some calling birds, I don’t want to just hear them; I want to experience the cacophony to its fullest extent. Therefore, I suggest people wake up in the middle of the night for a listen. This year, I proposed waking up at 3:00am, and since several folks wanted to also see them, staying up through the twilight until sunrise.

As I stumbled to the deck at 3, I was pleasantly surprised to see seven people had joined me in the insanity. And, with a light fog rolling in (perfect!), the birds were calling a lot – and some giving their almost-sinister, cackling chatter very close to the boat.  Five of us stayed up right through daybreak, and although we didn’t actual spot a Leach’s (although Dan glimpsed a shadow of what was undoubtedly one), we thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Adding to the mystique was the low fog, and the low, deep moans and groans of baying Gray Seals.
27. Seal sunrise_edited-1

We were, however, anxiously anticipating the arrival of morning coffee and muffins!

A Savannah Sparrow briefly alighted on the boat before returning to the island, puffins and guillemots were abundant, and terns were busy, heading to and fro. We only saw one Razorbill on the water, and no Common Murres on this visit, and sorted through the handfuls of shorebirds that were around (migrants, mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers and a smattering of others, along with local and vocal family groups of Spotted Sandpipers).

The skies cleared after breakfast and with a light south-southwest wind, we decided to head out for a little offshore sailing. We passed along Seal, hoping for another visit from Troppy, but then turn around the north end of the island and tacked our way offshore. Dan, Garth, and the sailing fans were having fun, while the birding fans enjoyed the numerous commuting puffins. We also spotted a few good pelagics: led by a Cory’s Shearwater, my first ever from the windjammer, soon followed by a second sighting. A single Great Shearwater passed close by, shortly before encountering a more-distant raft of 36.  There were painfully few Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, but we did have a Minke Whale, and moments after I said we “could use a Manx Shearwater now” a Manx Shearwater passed by!
28. Seal Day 2_edited-1<

We had hopes of sailing around Matinicus Rock, but time and wind suggested it was time to head inshore. We rounded Wooden Ball Island, still under full sail, but then the wind ran out. Drifting mostly with the incoming tide, and soon into dense fog our progress was slow. But napping was in order, and this was the perfect opportunity.

We needed our yawl boat to push our way past Vinalhaven and into the Fox Island Thorofare where the fog finally lifted. Anchoring between the village on North Haven and a dock on Vinalhaven, our day came to a close. Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the day for an evening walk.
29. Fox Islands Thorofare 1_edited-1
30. OSPR1_edited-1
31. Galley1_edited-1
32. Green flash_edited-1
Look? We saw “the green flash” at sunset!

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Tobias’s breakfast of champions.
It was a lovely, albeit humid and rapidly warming, morning, which began with a pair of vocal Merlins from the boat. Making up for lost time, we hopped to shore, and I lead a walk in the North Perry Creek Preserve on Vinalhaven. Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warbler, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and many others were added to our triplist, but most birds were Black-capped Chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Black-throated Green Warblers, or Red-breasted Nuthatches. Twelve-spotted Skimmer (a dragonfly), Smooth Green Snake, Wood Frog, and a spiffy diurnal moth, the Virginia Ctenucha were also observed.
51. North Perry Creek Preserve_edited-1
52. North Perry Creek Preserve 2_edited-1

We extended our loop a bit, but our selected return trail turned out to be more rugged than expected, so we made it back just in time for lunch. After another scrumptious, and this time well-earned, meal, we pushed to the east, then set sail and turned north into East Penobscot Bay.

While the occasional Razorbill is regular in the bay, small groups are often found after storms, and at this time of year fathers leading flightless juveniles are regularly encountered. But earlier in the season, Garth had started noticing 30-40 regularly in a particular area, roughly between Eagle, Butter, and Bradbury Islands. Seeing them often enough, it was more than a random occurrence.

Needless to say, I was intrigued (and a little bit proud, I must say!), and since we only had one distant Razorbill out at Seal, it seemed like a good plan to check it out today. As we approached the area, I spotted one Razorbill in flight, then a group of 5 passed by. Black Guillemots were even more numerous than usual, and gulls (including several Bonaparte’s) were more common than elsewhere in the bay. But no rafts of Razorbills.
53. BLGU2_edited-1
54. BLGU5_edited-1
56. BLGU12_edited-156. BLGU9_edited-1
I kept scanning, but noticed Garth was looking a little disappointed. Then I asked Dan to check out what appeared to be a large raft of birds. I immediately thought Razorbills, but the group was so big, I doubted myself. It was way more than 30-40. Were they just eiders distorted by distance and heat shimmer, or were we about to see something really, really exceptional?

We’re going to go with the latter. But no, there were not 30-40 Razorbills anymore. There were now 252. And while there were a few fathers escorting kiddos, the majority of the group were adults. I need to do some research, but this is probably an unprecedented number for inshore waters, and perhaps even a summertime record for Maine? Regardless of the statistics, it was amazing, and as we simply drifted among them, many photographs were taken, and we were even able to hear many of them growling, and one of the juveniles piping.
65. RAZO1_edited-1
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I also spotted a spec in the distance, which I photographed for later analysis. Blowing it up on the computer, I can confirm the 134th species to be seen from the Lewis R. French during the Birding By Schooner Tour: Red-throated Loon (a rare but regular summertime lingerer that I have been expecting to spot at some point).

But, did I mention all the Razorbills!?

59. Garth and Dan_edited-1
With another extraordinary experience under our belts, we pulled into Gilkey Harbor on Islesboro for the night.
57. roast beef_edited-157. Carla Cooking1_edited-1

Carla at work. 
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61. last sunset_edited-1
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63. last piping_edited-1
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I was up early the final morning, hoping to add a few more singing birds from the mainland to what was a paltry total triplist. But once again, the dawn chorus was nearly non-existent, and for the first time, species such as Swainson’s Thrush and Winter Wren went undetected during our tour. Was it just because of our few-days-later-than-usual outing? Did the drought lower productivity and birds have already cleared out? Or, was it an early and successful breeding season and birds have already finished doing everything other than secretively undergo molt?
33. last morning1_edited-1

While we did have 1 or 2 fewer walks than usual, we had a better seabird tally than in most years. But no migrant swallows? And a low diversity of migrant shorebirds.  So our total checklist was well below average, so I was working hard to pad the list: American Black Duck and Belted Kingfisher in the harbor, and as we slowly sailed back to Camden: Turkey Vulture and Red-tailed Hawk over the Camden Hills.

Of course, no one would have traded Troppy, three shearwaters, countless calling Leach’s Storm-Petrels, or an unprecedented aggregation of Razorbills for a few more total ticks!

As Ospreys called around us as we entered Camden Harbor – the same ones that announced our departure, and the trip came to a close, another successful, unique, and bird-tastic Birding By Schooner tour was in the books.
34. entering Camden1_edited-133A. entering Camden2_edited-1
35. COLO11_edited-1
One of the first birds we saw was also the last, this Common Loon, apparently with a broken lower mandible, sneaking away from our docking boat.

Here’s our complete list from the trip:

  1. Mallard
  2. Canada Goose
  3. Osprey
  4. American Goldfinch
  5. Yellow Warbler
  6. Rock Pigeon
  7. European Starling
  8. Cedar Waxwing
  9. American Robin
  10. Song Sparrow
  11. Chimney Swift
  12. Double-crested Cormorant
  13. Herring Gull
  14. Great Black-backed Gull
  15. Black Guillemot
  16. Laughing Gull
  17. Common Loon
  18. Ring-billed Gull
  19. Bonaparte’s Gull
  20. Merlin
  21. GREAT CORMORANT
  22. Bald Eagle
  23. American Crow
  24. Mourning Dove
  25. Killdeer
  26. RED CROSSBILL
  27. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  28. Purple Finch
  29. White-throated Sparrow
  30. Black-capped Chickadee
  31. Gray Catbird
  32. Dark-eyed Junco
  33. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  34. Black-throated Green Warbler
  35. Common Yellowthroat
  36. Savannah Sparrow
  37. Broad-winged Hawk
  38. Hermit Thrush
  39. Eastern Phoebe
  40. Great Blue Heron
  41. Spotted Sandpiper
  42. ARCTIC TERN
  43. Semipalmated Sandpiper
  44. Northern Gannet
  45. ATLANTIC PUFFIN
  46. RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD
  47. Greater Yellowlegs
  48. Semipalmated Plover
  49. Ruddy Turnstone
  50. LEACH’S STORM-PETREL
  51. RAZORBILL
  52. CORY’S SHEARWATER
  53. Great Shearwater
  54. Wilson’s Storm-petrel
  55. MANX SHEARWATER
  56. Common Raven
  57. Blue Jay
  58. Downy Woodpecker
  59. Northern Parula
  60. Black-and-white Warbler
  61. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  62. Northern Flicker
  63. Chipping Sparrow
  64. RED-THROATED LOON
  65. American Black Duck
  66. Belted Kingfisher
  67. Turkey Vulture
  68. Red-tailed Hawk

And the list of mammals, and a selection of other critters:

  1. Harbor Seal
  2. Harbor Porpoise
  3. Red Squirrel
  4. White-tailed Deer
  5. Orange Sulphur
  6. Gray Seal
  7. Minke Whale
  8. Wood Frog
  9. Twelve-spotted Skimmer
  10. Smooth Green Snake
  11. Virginia Ctenucha
  12. Great Spangled Fritillary
  13. Red Admiral

Since every year’s tour is so different, if you would like to look back on previous trips and their respective birdlists, please click on the links below. Furthermore, for more (and better!) photographs of the birds we see, check out the tours (2015 + 2013) that Jeannette was on!

2015

2014

2013

Hope to see you aboard next year!

 

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!

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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

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Lava_Gull

MAFR

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

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A large Medium or a small Large?

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

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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
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<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).
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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.

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King Angelfish

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Female Magnificent Frigatebird

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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.

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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.
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Santa Cruz Lava Lizard -male.

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Santa Cruz Land Iguana

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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.
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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.
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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.
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A Great Blue Heron (endemic subspecies) looks on.

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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.
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Galapagos Snake

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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.
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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!

Birding By Schooner Trip Report, 2015

It’s hard for me to pick my “favorite” tour, but if pressed, I would probably answer our annual “Birding by Schooner” aboard the Lewis R. French tour. It just offers such a unique way to bird, and such unique birding experiences. The scenery, the food, and the good conversation can also not be beat.

Last week was my 6th tour aboard the French. And one of the aspects of the tour that I so very much enjoy is that every tour is different. We often don’t know where we are going even as we depart Camden Harbor on our first morning! Weather (especially wind, or lack there of) dictates the plan. And I must say, it’s a nice bit of respite to not have any control over where we go! All I have to do is point out birds wherever our captain takes us.

Of course, this is a birding-themed trip, so we make our best efforts to get into position for some great birding, especially to visit one or more islands with breeding seabirds. But when I boarded the vessel on Sunday night, I could only guess what a plan might be.

We awoke to fog and calm on Monday morning, departed the harbor on the very lightest of breezes, and pushed our way across a bay with only the minimum of ripples. We found a whole in the fog bank as we rounded Owl’s Head Light…
1. L1020522_OwlsHeadLight,7-20_edited-1
(click on photos for larger images)

…but soon we were back in the murk.
2. L1020526_IntotheFig,7-20_edited-1

Wilson’s Storm-Petrels began to show up, with at least 50 noted by the time we pulled into Port Clyde. Bald Eagles were conspicuous, as were the common bay denizens such as Black Guillemot…
3. IMG_1540_edited-2

…and Common Eider.
4. IMG_1770_edited-2

A stroll to Marshall Point Light added to our landbird list, while a Greater Yellowlegs in the harbor was the first migrant shorebird of the trip.

Overnighting in Port Clyde set us up nicely for a short trip to Eastern Egg Rock, which we rounded slowly to enjoy Roseate Terns among the Arctic and Commons, lots of Black Guillemots, and over 100 Atlantic Puffins. The fog lifted enough for us to have great visibility when near the island, but the offshore fog bank and cloudy skies meant a lot of puffins were on the water, and many loafed close to our boat or zipped right by.
5. IMG_1567_edited-2

Back into the fog as we trudged offshore, seabirds were few and far between. Or, I should say, we saw few seabirds…I am sure plenty were out there. We encountered some more puffins, and this one Northern Gannet.
6. IMG_1589_edited-2

Our destination this afternoon was none other than Monhegan Island…one of my favorite places in the world. It was pretty foggy, so the views were limited…
7. L1020530_MonheganFog,7-21_edited-1

…But few complained. Especially those of us who ended up at the Monhegan Brewing Company (Wait, how do so many of my tours end up at breweries?).
8. L1020548_MonheganBrewery,7-21_edited-1

Several common breeding birds were added to our trip list, but no mid-summer vagrants were detected. We had hoped to overnight in the harbor and take a birdwalk in the morning, but a tenuous anchorage and an approaching cold front led Captain Garth to err on the side of caution, and head for the shelter of the mainland, so we said an early farewell to Monhegan.
9. L1020554_departingMonhegan,7-21_edited-1

We sought shelter up the St. George River, first in Turkey Cove, but then Garth made a last minute decision to anchor on the river’s other bank, in the Pleasant Point Gut. Overnight, the storm cleared, and so did the fog.
10. L1020565_PleasantPointGut,7-22_edited-1

We didn’t have much wind, but what we did have facilitated a trip out to remote Seal Island. We had to motor-sail most of the way, but we had an afternoon date with a punctual local.

On the way, we enjoyed some great birding. While we didn’t have enough wind to take the long way out to Matinicus Rock and deeper water, cutting a straight line around the north end of Metinic produced a whole lot of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels (450+ on the day), 6 Red Phalaropes (along with another 20 phalaropes that were just a little too far to ID), and a Mola Mola that gave us the slip. Most surprising, however, was a pair of American Oystercatchers that were flying around Little Green Island. Whether this is a previously-unknown pair of this slowly-increasing species in Maine, southbound migrants, or Maine breeders undergoing post-breeding dispersal is impossible to know, but it was a new “Schooner Bird” for me: my 116th species seen during our “Birding by Schooner” tours!

It was a bit of work, but we made it to Seal Island on a sunny, fairly calm day at the perfect time. And “Troppy” the Red-billed Tropicbird that has returned to Seal Island for its 9th straight summer (10th overall in the area), made his afternoon appearance for a little bath. This was my fourth visit to Seal aboard the French, and we have seen Troppy three times (the only miss was on a cloudy day with fog the next morning).
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And despite that sign, we dropped anchor for a special evening. One of the unique experiences for participants on this most unique tour is an evening with the Seal Island’s biologists. Not only do the passengers get a break from hearing me talk, the biologists get a break from cooking and their usual routine.
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19. L1020648_Seal_biologists_onBoard,7-22_edited-1

20. L1020658_Seal_Island_sunset,7-22_edited-1

Yet another unique experience afforded by spending a night out at Seal is to get up and listen for Leach’s Storm-Petrels returning to the island from foraging trips in the middle of the night. While clear skies and a light westerly wind reduced the cacophony, the eerie, sinister chuckling of the petrels rang through the night.

And if a sunrise over Seal isn’t enough…
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…there was what seemed to be the entire tern colony in the air…
22. L1020673_Seal_terns,7-23_edited-1

… more puffins, a couple of dozen Razorbills and 1 Common Murre, Great Cormorants, and more Black Guillemots than you could count.
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Migrant shorebirds included a Whimbrel, a flock of small shorebirds that totaled 20 Semipalmated and 2 Least Sandpipers along with 4 Semipalmated Plovers, and unexpectedly, a fly-by Wood Duck! Not to mention another view of the Red-billed Tropicbird!

If your head wasn’t already on a swivel from looking at all of that, looking down offered a mesmerizing ballet of traveling jellies, both Moon and White-cross Jellies(here)…
24. L1020663_Moon_Jelly,7-23_edited-1

…and painful Lion’s Mane Jellies.
25. L1020677_LionsManeJelly,7-23_edited-1

For me, it is always too soon to depart, but we had other fish to fry, or to be exact, lobsters to boil. So we set a course towards Stonington, keeping our eyes open along the way. Two male Razorbills with their chick in tow were nice to see, as was a Minke Whale. A handful of Northern Gannets and about 10 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels were our only other seabirds, however.

As we entered nearshore waters, we kept an eye out on islands, both big and small. You never know what you might see, and while I am on the lookout for something “mega” like a Brown Booby, we did spot a Great Cormorant on tiny Saddleback Ledge.
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27. L1020696_GRCO,SaddlebackLedge,7-23_edited-1

Back in the usual domain of the Schooner fleet, we passed The Heritage…
28. L1020702_The_Heritage,7-23_edited-1

…and while the water boiled on Russ Island, the Angelique cruised passed us.
29. L1020706_FrenchandAngelique,Russ_Island,7-23_edited-1

A little bird, plant, and ecology walk further swelled our appetites. Which was good, because we had a few lobsters to eat tonight. Swainson’s Thrushes offered the evening’s musical performance.
30. L1020712_Lobster_Bake,Russ_Island,7-23_edited-1

A Sharp-shinned Hawk carrying breakfast over Russ Island was another addition to my Schooner List, and our morning walk around Stonington added several new species to our triplist.
31. L1020717_Stonington,7-24_edited-1

Rounding North Haven Island, we kept tallying Wilson’s Storm-Petrels (we don’t always see these birds inshore on this tour), spotted a few small groups of southbound swallows and a few shorebirds, and watched the storm clouds build.
32. L1020727_Storm1,7-24_edited-1

Um, should we have been worried?
33. L1020730_Storm2,7-24_edited-1

Nah, this crew has got it covered!
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Although we had some good sailing winds ahead of the storm, and some moderate rain during the storm, the skies looked much worse than what we weathered. In fact, by the time we motored into Gilkey Harbor on Islesboro, the rain was ending and the skies showed a few hints of blue. And once again, we ate. Ate real well.
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It’s amazing how fast a week aboard the Schooner French flies by – even without the birds – but it was now time to crank the anchor one last time. A Greater Yellowlegs sounded off and Ospreys circled overhead as we departed the quiet harbor for the bustle of Camden.

Crossing West Penobscot Bay, we encountered yet more Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and surprisingly (for this far up the bay) another Razorbill father and kid.

Chimney Swifts twittering over Camden were our 79th and final species of the tour – two over our average. Emails were exchanged, bunks were cleared, and one last photo-op capped off yet another stellar “Birding By Schooner” tour.
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Here’s the complete, annotated checklist for this year’s trip, in order of appearance:

  1. American Crow
  2. House Sparrow
  3. Rock Pigeon
  4. Canada Goose (a couple of family groups in Camden Harbor)
  5. Mallard
  6. Song Sparrow
  7. Double-crested Cormorant
  8. Laughing Gull (common; all days)
  9. Osprey (common, just about every day)
  10. House Finch
  11. Herring Gull
  12. Great Black-backed Gull
  13. Cedar Waxwing
  14. Northern Cardinal
  15. Mourning Dove (all of the above from the boat within Camden Harbor)
  16. Wilson’s Storm-Petrel (daily; high day count of 450+ on 7/22, with 400+ between Little Green Island and Seal Island. Unusually common within Penobscot Bay).
  17. Black Guillemot (Abundant daily; several hundred on multiple days).
  18. Common Eider (very common; all days)
  19. Common Tern (abundant, including thousands at Eastern Egg Rock and Seal Island, but also scattered throughout inshore waters)
  20. Bald Eagle (common and seen daily; high count of 7 on 7/20).
  21. Bonaparte’s Gull (scattered few)
  22. Common Loon (scattered few on several days)
  23. Great Blue Heron
  24. Northern Parula
  25. European Starling
  26. Black-capped Chickadee
  27. Common Grackle
  28. American Robin
  29. Common Yellowthroat
  30. Black-throated Green Warbler
  31. Purple Finch
  32. Common Raven
  33. White-throated Sparrow
  34. Blue Jay
  35. Greater Yellowlegs (scattered singletons)
  36. Least Sandpiper (scattered few)
  37. Northern Flicker
  38. Gray Catbird
  39. Semipalmated Sandpiper (scattered small groups; high of 30 at Seal Island on 7/23)
  40. White-rumped Sandpiper (1 each at Eastern Egg Rock, 7/22 and Seal Island, 7/22)
  41. Spotted Sandpiper
  42. ATLANTIC PUFFIN (100+ at Eastern Egg Rock, 7/22 and hundreds at Seal Island 7/22-23)
  43. ROSEATE TERN (dozens at Eastern Egg Rock, 7/22)
  44. ARCTIC TERN (many hundreds at Eastern Egg Rock, 7/22 and Seal Island, 7/22-23)
  45. Northern Gannet (1 between Eastern Egg and Seal, 7/22; 5 between Seal and Stonington, 7/23)
  46. Tree Swallow (several southbound groups seen offshore and around islands)
  47. Brown-headed Cowbird
  48. Red-winged Blackbird
  49. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  50. Winter Wren
  51. Black-throated Green Warbler
  52. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  53. Barn Swallow (scattered small numbers, many southbound over water)
  54. Blue-headed Vireo
  55. Killdeer
  56. AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER (pair at Little Green Island, 7/22)
  57. RED PHALAROPE (6 between Little Green Island and Seal Island, 7/22, plus 20 unidentified phalaropes)
  58. GREAT CORMORANT (35+ including juveniles at Seal Island, 7/22-23, plus 1 at Saddleback Ledge light, 7/23).
  59. RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD (Troppy! Seal Island, 7/22-23).
  60. RAZORBILL (20+ Seal Island, 7/22-23)
  61. Bank Swallow (6 off of Seal Island, 7/22)
  62. COMMON MURRE (1 at Seal Island, 7/22)
  63. LEACH’S STORM-PETREL (many heard overnight at Seal Island, 7/22-23)
  64. Savannah Sparrow
  65. Whimbrel (one at Seal Island, 7/23)
  66. WOOD DUCK (one unexpected fly-by at Seal Island, 7/23)
  67. Semipalmated Plover (4 at Seal Island, 7/23 and 4 off North Haven, 7/24)
  68. Turkey Vulture
  69. Dark-eyed Junco
  70. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  71. Golden-crowned Kinglet
  72. Sharp-shinned Hawk
  73. Chipping Sparrow
  74. Black-and-white Warbler
  75. Yellow Warbler
  76. Hermit Thrush
  77. Belted Kingfisher
  78. Ring-billed Gull (just a few in and around Camden Harbor)
  79. Chimney Swift

Since every trip is unique, here are links to the trip reports from the previous two tours.

August, 2014.
And July 2013.

And in the not-so-distant future, we’ll be posting dates and information for our 2016 adventure. This trip fills up fast, so don’t dally…sign up soon and we’ll see you aboard next year!

Birding By Schooner 2014!

There are no promises when you lead birding trips by sailboats, but the 2014 Birding By Schooner Aboard the Lewis R. French Tour once again delivered!  This is a very unique trip – not just unique in terms of the tours I lead, but unique for Maine, and as far as we know, everywhere else.

While last week found us plagued by beautiful weather – yup, plagued, we need wind! – great birding, great food, and good company were thoroughly enjoyed.  While our total trip list of 78 species of birds (plus 5 mammals: Harbor Porpoise, Harbor Seal, Gray Seal, Minke Whale, Red Squirrel, one amphibian: Red-backed Salamander, several dragonflies, and 6 species of butterflies) was below our average, we had a few real treats…one in particular.

The wind direction and intensity (or, as in this week, lack there of) dictates where we can and cannot go over the course of our 6 days at sea. Luckily, the first day found conditions acceptable for heading to our number one goal: Seal Island.  Departing Camden Harbor, we set sail directly to this remote seabird island.

IMG_2142_Heading to Seal, 8-4-14_edited-1

Perhaps our only true “schedule” of the week, our goal was to arrive at a very specific time, for a very specific bird. Captain Garth Wells adeptly navigated our way to arrive about 10 minutes before show time.

“Troppy,” the famous Red-billed Tropicbird that has called Seal Island and vicinity its home for the past 10 summers arrived right on queue. I first spotted it flying around the island in the distance.

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Then, he made a sharp turn towards us…

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…and proceeded to circle our boat several times at an increasingly close proximity…

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…Before turning away and heading back to the island, often escorted by Arctic Terns.

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Oh yeah, there were several hundred Atlantic Puffins in the water too, and later, as we hosted the Seal Island biologist crew aboard for dinner and conversation, a Parasitic Jaeger.

IMG_2146_dinner_with_biologists,8-4-14

As the sun set, fog rolled in, and by 10:30, we began to hear the cackles and chatters of Leach’s Storm-Petrels as they commuted to and from the island in the cover of darkness. Several of us awoke in the middle of the night to listen, and we were rewarded with a constant cacophony of this intriguing, and a bit disconcerting, sound. Since we have the luxury of anchoring off of Seal – weather permitting of course – we not only have a great success rate with Troppy, but we also have the rare opportunity to listen to the nocturnal chorus of this pelagic specialty.

Come sunrise…

Seal Island Sunrise,8-5-14

…we enjoyed countless puffins, Black Guillemots, and Arctic Terns, along with at least a dozen Great Cormorants from the local breeding colony, a couple of re-orienting migrant Yellow Warblers at dawn, and several singing Song and Savannah Sparrows.  Surprisingly, we tallied 9 species of shorebirds (plus Sanderling the day before): the locally-breeding Spotted Sandpipers, but also 40+ Semipalmated Sandpipers (plus another 50 unidentified peeps), 9 Ruddy Turnstones, 9 Short-billed Dowitchers,  3 Black-bellied Plovers, 3 Semipalmated Plovers, 3 Lesser Yellowlegs, 2 Least Sandpipers, and my first White-rumped Sandpiper of the fall (and a pretty good bird out here).  A single Red-winged Blackbird dropped in from high above, and we spotted another Parasitic Jaeger.

Shorebirds – a continued theme throughout the trip – were one of the benefits of conducting this tour two weeks later than usual. We also had high hopes for pelagic shearwaters, but our doldrums had set in. Little wind was present as we traveled from Seal to Matinicus Island, and therefore any shearwaters in the vicinity were likely sitting tight, conserving their energy. Two unidentified jaegers, 5 Red Phalaropes, and 28 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, along with several more Atlantic Puffins and a few Northern Gannets kept our interest however.

Arriving at Matinicus Rock…

IMG_2158_Matinicus_Rock,8-5-14

…we saw plenty of puffins and more Arctic and Common Terns, but our late departure date cost us: Common Murres and Razorbills were nowhere to be found (don’t worry; we resume our usual third week of July itinerary next year!). But, we did have a treat with a single cooperative Manx Shearwater!

As we made a pass around Matinicus Rock, it was time to read the winds (or once again, the lack there of) and make a choice. We had hoped to turn towards Monhegan Island for birds (and the brewery!), but that would have been a very long, perhaps even uncomfortable slog. So instead, we turned inland, and set a course of Port Clyde.

We traveled through some relatively deep and open waters, but shearwaters were nowhere to be found. Another Parasitic Jaeger, 100+ Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, 21 Northern Gannets, 4 migrant Short-billed Dowitchers, a Minke Whale, and two Mola Molas were enjoyed, as were the numerous Harbor Porpoise that were constant companions throughout the tour, easily seen in the often glass-calm waters.

Rounding Metinic Green and passed Marshall Point Light, we dropped anchor in the quintessential mid-coast harbor of Port Clyde.  In the morning, we hopped ashore, and took a bird/plant/sightseeing walk to the lighthouse, slowly but steadily building our trip list. A Broad-winged Hawk being mobbed by a half-dozen or so American Robins was the avian highlight.

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Once again, our goal was Monhegan, but once again, barely a puff of breeze was available. Even if we pushed our way out there with our yawl boat, we would have had a hard time making it back the next day – no wind was forecasted, and we only carry so much fuel!  We also have to plan one step in advance, and set ourselves up for where we needed to be the next day. Mutiny was considered, but the difficult decision to turn east was made.

Heading towards North Haven, another 16 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels were added to the tally, but our chumming attempt in these inshore waters was expectedly futile (but we had to try as we had picked up bait in the morning.  Unfortunately, the deepest water that we were to pass through was traversed in the middle of a rather heavy thunderstorm, which we were not able to outrun sailing at a mere 3 knots (well, until the storm itself was upon us!).

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We entered the Fox Island Thoroughfare and dropped anchor in a little bay off of Amesbury Point on North Haven Island. Another delectable dinner was then served by Chef Scott – who is not your average schooner cook!

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The storm clouds cleared by dusk…

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…and we heard several shorebirds calling from up the bay, and two Snowy Egrets passed by overhead.  Therefore, we decided to mix things up a little with a pre-breakfast row to check things out.

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I took the helm, and somehow guided us successfully to and from the boat.

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I was just happy to not run into anything, but a nice mix of shorebirds included 8 Least and 2 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 2 Spotted Sandpipers, and one each of Killdeer and Greater Yellowlegs.

A short sail (again, little wind) through the Thoroughfare yielded the first Bonaparte’s Gulls of the trip, some Common Loons, and plentiful Ospreys.  Dropping anchor off of the Calderwood Island Preserve, much of the boat hit the water, including our Captain.

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Then, it was time to row ashore for one of everyone’s trip highlights: the lobster bake!  While things got cooking, I led a walk around the preserve, adding a few landbirds to the list. Song Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats were especially conspicuous, but I couldn’t help but wonder what migrants the extensive raspberry-gooseberry-juniper thickets that covered much of the island would hold…and rarities?

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Storm clouds built up once again…

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…But the lobster bake went off without a hitch…

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…perhaps with the exception of Nihls, who bit off a little more than he could chew.

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Returning to the boat, we adjusted our position for the night, and scoped a small rocky islet that as the tide rolled in, amassed 64 Bonaparte’s Gulls and several families of Common Terns – adults were commuting to and from the island with fish for their hungry fledglings.

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It was clear and calm once again at sunrise (we joined the Mary Day at anchorage last night), but a Winter Wren serenaded us from the island. We rounded the southeast corner of North Haven Island, and headed for Islesboro.

The waters of Penobscot Bay are not overly birdy at this time of year – other than plentiful Black Guillemots, Ospreys, Bald Eagles, gulls (mostly Herring and Great Black-backed with smaller numbers of Laughing, Bonaparte’s, and scattered Ring-billed), Common Eiders, scattered Common Loons, Double-crested Cormorants, and so on. But as we passed various little islands, our triplist slowly grew with the likes of a migrant group of Tree Swallows, a single Barn Swallow, a hunting American Kestrel, and plenty of Harbor Seals. Ruddy Turnstones were also scattered about.

But once again, the day’s calm conditions gave way to building thunderstorms…

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…but we managed to make it to the shelter of Gilkey Harbor off Islesboro before things got too hairy today.

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And as it had for the last three days, the storms cleared for lovely sunsets…

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…more delectable food, and evening entertainment from the crew.

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Several flight calls early in the night overhead suggested that the front had finally cleared, and fall migrants were once again on the move.

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Another lovely morning greeted us on our final day aboard the French, but not before we raced ashore for one last birdwalk. This time, we checked out Warren Island State Park.

We added several species to our list in one single Paper Birch just off the pier (Brown Creeper, Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Black-and-white Warbler) while a delightfully birdy stroll added Hermit Thrush and Gray Catbird, plus great views of a variety of other species as we also spent time looking at plants and discussing the ecology of the Maine islands once again (and ranting about invasive plants).

But alas, all good Birding By Schooner tours must come to an end, so sails were set and we headed for home.

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Turkey Vultures over the Camden Hills and Chimney Swifts over the harbor were our final 77th and 78th species of the journey and we pulled into the dock. Goodbyes were said, belongings were gathered, and Captain Garth and I immediately began to plot for next year’s trip.

A special thanks go to Jenny and Garth Wells, and the crew of the Schooner Lewis R. French for making this special trip a reality, and as always, making it a resounding success.  I hope you will consider joining us next year.  For more information, check out The “Tours, Events, Workshops, and Programs” page of our website, or visit the the Lewis R. French

Here’s our birdlist of 79 species from this year’s tour, listed in order of appearance:
Mallard
Canada Goose
House Sparrow
Herring Gull
American Crow
Rock Pigeon
Song Sparrow
Cedar Waxwing
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Osprey
Great Blue Heron
Black Guillemot
Double-crested Cormorant
Common Eider
Ring-billed Gull
Laughing Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Northern Gannet
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel
Atlantic Puffin
Arctic Tern
Common Tern
RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD
Savannah Sparrow
GREAT CORMORANT
Spotted Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
Short-billed Dowitcher
Sanderling
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Semipalmated Plover
PARASITIC JAEGER
LEACH’S STORM-PETREL
Yellow Warbler
Black-bellied Plover
White-rumped Sandpiper
Lesser Yellowlegs
Red-winged Blackbird
RED PHALAROPE
MANX SHEARWATER
American Goldfinch
Bald Eagle
Mourning Dove
American Black Duck
Blue Jay
European Starling
Black-capped Chickadee
Common Yellowthroat
Gray Catbird
American Robin
Chipping Sparrow
Hairy Woodpecker
Black-throated Green Warbler
Broad-winged Hawk
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Cardinal
Dark-eyed Junco
White-throated Sparrow
Greater Yellowlegs
House Finch
Killdeer
Snowy Egret
Swainson’s Thrush
Northern Flicker
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Bonaparte’s Gull
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Winter Wren
American Kestrel
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Brown Creeper
Northern Parula
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Hermit Thrush
Gray Catbird
Turkey Vulture
Chimney Swift

Birding (and eating) in Hawai’i!

Ever since I returned to the mainland after working on the Big Island of Hawai’i in 1999 – my first seasonal field job out of college – I have been ready to go back to our 50th State.  And Kaua’i has been tops on my agenda.

Meanwhile, with a life-listing goal of all of the island endemic landbirds in the Western Hemisphere, and the increasing rarity of what remains of the native birds of Hawai’i, the time was now.  And Jeannette was making here first visit here.  Lifers awaited.

The native landbirds of Hawai’i are almost all in imminent danger.  The loss of native vegetation, development, drought, introduced mammals (especially cats, rats, and mongooses), and introduced avian diseases transported by introduced mosquitoes…there’s a litany of threats, and it is therefore no surprise that almost all of the endemic birds are declining, and some of them are declining rapidly.

This blog is a trip report, but no story about birding in Hawai’i is complete without an overview of the conservation issues that are affecting these birds.  For many species – especially those, like the gorgeous I’iwi, who are not showing signs of developing resistance to Avian Malaria – we are running out of time to save and yes, enjoy, these amazing birds.  The amazing adaptation and speciation of Hawaiian Honeycreepers puts even the famous “Darwin’s finches” of the Galapagos to shame.

Unfortunately, the American Bird Conservancy sums it up this way:

“Since human colonization, 71 bird species have become extinct on Hawai’i; 48 prior to the arrival of Europeans, and 23 since Captain James Cook’s “discovery” of the islands in 1778. Of the 42 remaining endemic taxa, 33 (31 species and 2 sub-species) are federally listed under the Endangered Species Act. Ten of those species have not been observed in 40 years and their status is unknown, though they are likely extinct. Today, Hawai’i supports 157 regularly occurring bird species, only 91 of which (57%) are native. Hawai’i is the global epicenter for imminent extinctions.”

To learn more about many of the species that I will mention here, and what you can do to help save them, please visit ABC’s Hawai’i Program, and make sure to take a look at the special Hawaiian Birds edition of Bird Conservation magazine (link at the end): http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/oceansandislands/hawaii/index.html

But for now, we’ll get back to the task at hand: recounting our fantastic trip, from the birds to the beaches to the food (as always, local food is a big part of our travel experience).  And there is the chance that you’ll soon see us offering a Hawai’i birding tour with WINGS in the coming years, so stay tuned!

We arrived in Honolulu after a long and exhausting plane journey that was only tempered by a visit with a friend in Seattle for a few hours.  We arrived late on the 7th of August, and on our first morning in Waikiki on the island of Oahu, we awoke to the sounds of our first bird of the trip: Rock Pigeon.

Native landbirds are non-existent in the lowlands of Hawai’i, and not surprisingly urban areas are not an exception.  In fact, there aren’t even many native plants at low elevations anymore.  In places like Waikiki, almost everything you see is introduced, from grass to trees to birds.  One of the exceptions, however, was Jeannette’s first lifer of the trip (on her first visit to the islands) – the simply stunning White Terns over Kapiolani Park and the Honolulu Zoo.  In fact, the first ones we spotted were while we were eating breakfast on the veranda of Lulu’s.  After breakfast, we walked through Kapiolani Park, where Jeannette was introduced to quite a few life birds, and introduced to the worldwide avian smorgasbord that has been brought here: House Finches from the US mainland, dapper Red-crested Cardinals from South America, Java Sparrows from Indonesia, Japanese White-eyes (by some estimates the most abundant landbird in the islands), and so on.
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Zebra Dove and Red-crested Cardinal.

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Common Mynas and Kapiolani Park, Waikiki.

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Diamond Head from Kapiolani Park and Java Sparrows.

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A Great Frigatebird soaring over Diamond Head – another obligatory stop for first timers – was my first lifer of the trip, and dinner at Town, featuring locally-sourced fine food was our “splurge” meal of the trip (the cocktails in particular were worth the visit).  It was a splendid way to spend our first day in Hawai’i.
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The view from Diamond Head.

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On Day 2, it was time to get to work.  We met up with our friend Lance Tanino, who we got to know when he was working as the hawkcounter at New Hampshire’s Pack Monadnock hawkwatch, but now lives back in his native state leading tours and doing bird surveys through his business Manu Conservation (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Manu-Conservation/352241041463887) . We headed for the interior of the island, where Oahu’s remaining native forests, and therefore its remaining native birds, can be found.

A hike uphill at the Keaiwa State Recreation Area quickly got us into native forest, and in a fairly short amount of time, we located one of our two real targets: Oahu ’Amakihi.  After seeing one darting about in silhouette, we ended up running into multiple small family units.  Although there are no mountains that are above the mosquito line in Oahu, ’amakihis are doing reasonably well here; a very good sign that some birds are resistant, or at least able to tolerate the introduced diseases.  We also spotted one Mariana Swiftlet, a relatively rare and hard to find introduced bird that, based on its native SouthPacificIslands range, is a bird we may not see elsewhere.

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Oahu Amakihi and Red-crowned Parrot.

Oahu ’Elepaio eluded us here, so we moved on. After we had essentially resigned ourselves to failure at the Kuliouou Valley Trail and began to trudge back to the car, Lance heard a single phrase and soon we tracked down the other Oahu endemic.  Celebratory lunch of Loco Moco (a lifer for Jeannette, too!) and Saimin for myself soon followed.

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SOahu Elepaio.

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We then birded along the southern and western shore of the island, yielding lifer Red-tailed Tropicbirds (including a nest mere yards away) and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters for the both of us, and two more for Jeannette: Hawaiian Coot and Black Noddy.
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U VJuvenile “Hawaiian” Black-crowned Night-Heron and Green Sea Turtle.

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“Hawaiian” Black-necked Stilt and Hawaiian Coot.

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Adult “Hawaiian Black-crowned Night-Heron and Ruddy Turnstone.

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August 10th was our tourist day, so fueled by a bento box from Zippy’s (rice, eggs, Portuguese Sausage, and the local “favorite” Spam!) we spent the morning at Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial.  A foggy, dreary day actually seemed appropriate at this somber, but exceedingly well-done memorial to one of the most significant events in modern US history.

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Afterwards, we found a perfectly-Hawaiian hole-in-the-wall “plate lunch” joint where I savored Hawaiian-style short ribs and Lau Lau Pork (pork cooked in taro leaves), and then made our way to the airport – with a brief visit to downtown Honolulu and Ala Moana Park which hosted a few more recently-returned migrants shorebirds: 5 ’Akekeke (Ruddy Turnstones) and 4 Kolea (Pacific Golden-Plovers).

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ZL_edited-1 Drainage channel-feeding “Hawaiian” Black-crowned Night-Heron.

Soon after we exited the Lihue airport in Kaua’i, I ticked Red Junglefowl for my state list.  Although by sunrise of the following morning we would have our fill of this introduced – and I would say not-always-beloved – bird (brought here by the original Polynesian colonists), it was actually a very good sign.  The ubiquity of the chickens is evidence of the lack of Mongooses on the island. Somehow they never made it here. Legend has it that a cage of them that were going to be introduced was swept off of a pier and into the sea, and that has allowed Kaua’i to retain a substantial population of breeding seabirds and waterbirds that Mongooses have obliterated on so many other islands.

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The 11th was our relaxation day on the island, and casually birding our way along the coast, we picked up a migrant Sanderling, enjoyed plenty of “Hawaiian” Black-necked Stilts, and other native waterbirds such as the endemic subspecies of Black-crowned Night-Heron and Common Gallinule.  We also visited Polihale State Park, the westernmost park in the US, and home of extensive –and not crowded! – beaches, with White-tailed Tropicbirds (another lifer for Jeannette) wheeling overhead.
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Great Frigatebirds oversaw our afternoon swim at Salt Pond County Park before we enjoyed food and brews at the Kaua’i Brewing Company, the “world’s westernmost brewery!”

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Our second full day on Kaua’i was a big one, and what would turn out to be an exhausting and somewhat painful one.  We met David Kuhn (www.soundshawaiian.com – be sure to check out some of his recordings!) near sunrise for a trek into the famous Alaka’i Swamp in pursuit of Kauai’s endemics. Perhaps his question the day before of “do you have shoes for the water?” should have suggested we might be dealing with a little more than puddles and mud. But, since this is the wettest place in the islands – and by some estimates at least, one of the wettest places on Earth – we figured we would have to deal with some standing water.  But in fact, we were pretty much always standing in the water, as David took us off-trail and up rocky mountain streams in pursuit of Puaiohi and the endemic honeycreepers.

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’Apapanes were abundant, and in fairly short order we enjoyed Kaua’i ’Amakihi, Kaua’i ’Elepaio, and glimpsed some I’iwis.  With patience, the very-Yellow-Warbler-like ’Anianiau showed itself well, and then a surprise that clearly got even our guide rather fired up – a single ’Akikiki creeping along the trunk of a big ol’ ’Ohia.  This is the rarest of the Kaua’i endemics, and one that our guide did not even have particularly high hopes for.

ZVJuvenile Kauai Elepaio.

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Webasked in the glow of the ’Akikiki for a spell, but then it was back into the creek, where Jeannette and (especially) I, proceeded to stumble, slip, and bumble our way up and down tributaries in search of the elusive – and in August, rather secretive, Kaua’i thrush.  Despite plenty of effort, some bumps, bruises, and quite a few scrapes, Puaiohi was not to be found today.  While we also missed ’Akeke’e, that was a bird we could hope for on our own, but dipping on the Puaiohi hurt a little – or perhaps it was just the throbbing pain from the shin I banged open on a rock during one of my three spills.  Perhaps I really do need to lead a WINGS tour here so I have a chance to come back and try again!

Admittedly, Jeannette and I struggled to motivate to head back uphill, but David implored we take advantage of the crystal clear skies to savor the view from the overlook at Koke’e State Park. And I am sure glad we did!

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I am not sure if the ribs at the little BBQ joint in Waimea were anything special or not, but they sure tasted like the best ribs I’ve ever had after our tiring day.  I thought this was supposed to be a vacation?  But as usual, we get back from our birding-intensive trips in serious need of a vacation!

ZZA_edited-1 Just behind our cottage in Waimea.

Lance flew out to join us for our last two days on Kaua’i, for some more birding and food-ing.  Residing in the arid south shore, it was a nice change to see the island’s lush, windward north side.  And Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge not only lived up to preconceived expectations, but greatly exceeded it.

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Nenes on the lawn, Great Frigatebirds overhead, many hundreds of Red-footed Boobies nesting on the cliffs…Red-tailed and White-tailed Tropicbirds, including many red-tails engaging in their unique backwards-wheeling display flights.  But at this time of year, the real highlight here are the nesting Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.  Some are nesting a mere inches from the walkways.  Occasionally we would see an adult darting to or from the sea, but most of the birds were tucked away in their burrows – some of which were decidedly more sheltered and secure than others (and some were merely a scrape under a bush!).  Seeing adorable, fuzzy tubenose chicks at arm’s length is not a regular occurrence for us.

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Breeding Red-footed Boobies.
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Red-footed Boobies.

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Great Frigatebirds.

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Nene

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Wedge-tailed Shearwater chick and adults at burrows.

ZZM_edited-1 Wedge-tailed Shearwater “runways.”

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More adult Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.

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Displaying Red-tailed Tropicbirds.

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ZZPA_edited-1Quite possibly the best piece of fruit I have ever eaten.

I certainly could have spent all day here, but there were other places to go. The flooded taro fields of Hanalei NWR produced bona-fide (not likely to have introduced Mallard genes) Koloa Maoli – the Hawaiian Duck.  Lots of Nenes, and even more Hawaiian Coots, “Hawaiian” Common Gallinules, “Hawaiian” Black-necked Stilts, and plenty of Pacific Golden-Plovers were present as well.

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Taro fields and “Hawaiian” Common Gallinule.

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Hawaiian Ducks and “Hawaiian” Black-crowned Night Heron, adult.

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In the small-world department, lunch was at the Kilauea Bakery and Pizza shop, where our cook from our tours aboard the Schooner French here in Maine spends her winters, and then we worked our way up the north coast road, casually birding and seawatching.

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There were a lot of seabirds – mostly Wedge-tailed Shearwaters – off of Lyndgate State Park, but the masses were just too far to sort through.  So we elected for an early dinner, and Jeannette used her trusty Urbanspoon App to dig up Caffe Coco.

This may have been the meal of the trip.  I had coconut and macadamia nut-crusted tofu with coconut sauce, while Jeannette had local Ono fish with a similar preparation.   Lance had a pile of food.  I believe he called them “onolicious grinds” in the Hawaiian vernacular.  I agree, but Jeannette and I stuck with “wicked good.”

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Unfortunately, slow service had us a bit worried.  We had a sunset date with Hawaiian Petrels!  Perhaps I should have been more specific with our sense of urgency, but as we arrived at WailuaRiverState Park, our concern subsided.  We were not too late.  In fact, an absolute boatload of birds was offshore.  Although arriving a little earlier may have allowed us to comb through the masses of commuting Wedge-tailed Shearwaters a little more thoroughly – light was just getting too low – we did begin to pick out a few Hawaiian Petrels, our primary quarry for the evening.

Hawaiian Petrels actually breed high in the mountains of Kaua’i, and under the cover of darkness, commute to and from the sea (presumably to avoid being kleptoparasitzed by frigatebirds).  Yes “kleptoparasitize:” one species stealing food from another.  Good trivia word; impress your friends.  David had suggested we stand here at dusk to catch a glimpse of some of the early birds overhead.

While I was expecting high specks in withering light, the first bird came inland only a few tree-heights-high and with plenty of light to see all of the field marks of this striking, Endangered seabird.  The first bird came by at 7:06, and over the next hour – until there was no light at all – we tallied 26 birds, some high, some low, but all overhead, and all overland – an incredible way to see a Pterodroma petrel!  This experience was without a doubt one of, if not THE, avian highlight of the trip.

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We celebrated with my favorite dessert in the world: mango sticky rice at a Thai restaurant in Lihue.   The mangos are a little bit better here than at our favorite Thai place in Portland, no offense of course.

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Fruit salad for breakfast, foraged at a local farmers market, to fuel the birding day.

I had two more life birds to find on the 14th, our last full day on the islands.  I don’t think Lance was planning on us making him hike back into the Alakai, but we “needed” an ’Akeke’e!  There was little to no chance of us even trying for Puaihoi, however…next time.  Working the Phiea Trail to the Alakai Trail in the Na’Pali Kona Forest Preserve, the “2nd wettest place on Earth” proved itself, as a light to moderate shower fell all morning (it was dry and clear on our day here with David, well, at least when we were not falling in the water).  Birding more slowly, with a much shorter distance to cover (and no 1.5 miles up and down streams where you had to spend the time watching every step and not looking for birds), we saw a lot of birds: countless ’Apapane, 15 Kaua’i ’Elepaio, 9 Kaua’i ’Amakihi, 3 ’Anianiau, and at least 6 I’iwi.  A lifer for Jeannette, and one of the most beautiful birds in the world, we were really hoping for better looks at I’iwi, and one pair with a juvenile were particularly obliging.  Well, not as obliging as the curious and ridiculously-cute (scientifically speaking of course) juvenile ’Elepaios that occasionally checked us out.

Savoring that family unit led us into a small mixed-native-species foraging flock that including another ’Anianinau and progressively better view of the ’Amakihi. But once again, as with the Oahu ’Elepaio, we had all but given up hope of finding our quarry when – would you believe it? – I spotted a pudgy honeycreeper with a stouter bill and a black mask.  ’Akeke’e!  We did it.  We were elated.  And hungry.

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ZZZE Japanese White-eye.

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Kalua Pork (BBQ pulled pork) could not have tasted better as we dined at the convenient restaurant at Koke’e State Park, where we enjoyed the antics of lots of junglefowl.

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Heading down the mountain, we stopped in at the Kawaiele Sand Mine Bird Sanctuary, a wetland restoration project to benefit the native waterbirds.  Jeannette and I spotted 11 Ruddy Turnstones and 1 Wandering Tattler here on our first visit three days ago, but the beginning of shorebird passage was more evident today with 16 turnstones, 14 golden-plovers, and 2 tattlers.

ZZZJ_edited-1Waimea Canyon, “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”

ZZZKPueo (“Hawaiian” Short-eared Owl).

Learning our rushed lesson from the night before, we took advantage of the ubiquitous Hawaiian “plate lunch” (so-called regardless of meal) to get some take out for our final seawatching stint of the trip at Poipu.

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Lots of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were offshore, much closer than during our previous efforts.  We picked up a few more Hawaiian Petrels as well.  A pod of Bottlenosed Dolphins was a surprise.  As the afternoon wore on, and our time wore short, the birds were slowly coming closer, and with a helping of last-minute urgent effort, Lance and I teased out at least 2 Newell’s Shearwaters – my 14th and final Life Bird of the journey.
ZZZMWhite-tailed Tropicbird.

Here’s another instance where I could have spent all day, but it was time to catch the short inter-island flight back to Oahu.

We finished where our trip began, on the veranda at Lulu’s overlooking WaikikiBeach and watching White Terns over the zoo.  I consumed one last meal of truly fresh tropical fruit, and following one last quick swim, we made our way to the airport for the long trip home.

Red-crested Cardinals in the open-air terminal of the HonoluluAirport were the last species we saw until we landed in Boston after a red-eye out of Seattle.  In between, thoughts of lifers seen, species missed, and the future of birds in Hawai’i was on our mind.  Often described as “paradise,” the islands are anything but for most of the native birds.  As cool as Red-crested Cardinals are, I’ll take an ’Apapane any day.  But it’s unlikely they will ever be in the HonoluluAirport.  Without these introduced birds, much of Hawai’i – and certainly the parts where most people live and visit – would be devoid of avian life.

The question is, as mosquitoes move up the mountainsides because of Global Warming and as the state continues to drag its feet or even avoid Federal mandates to protect Endangered Species, one has to wonder will the remaining native forest one day go silent from native birds?  Could the ultimate example of speciation and island biogeography become nothing more than a large outdoor aviary for exotic creatures from lands afar?  One big open-air flight cage and nothing more?  And will the throngs of tourists from around the world packing the beaches like Passenger Pigeons once packed the air of the Eastern United States even notice?  Or even care?  Do you?

Birding in Hawai’i brings about a whole range of superlatives.  There are not adjectives available to describe the beauty of an I’iwi. But birding beyond the list brings out another range of words: sobering, scary, tragic.  Please, I urge you, if you have not done so already, please check out the link to the ABC way back at the beginning.
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Trip bird list (#= lifer for me, * =lifer for Jeannette):

1)      Rock Pigeon

2)      House Finch

3)      House Sparrow

4)      Black-crowned Night-Heron

5)      Common Myna

6)      Zebra Dove

7)      Spotted Dove

8)      White Tern*

9)      Red-vented Bulbul*

10)  Yellow-fronted Canary*

11)  Java Sparrow

12)  Cattle Egret

13)  Common Waxbill*

14)  Japanese White-eye*

15)  Red-crested Cardinal*

16)  Rose-ringed Parakeet

17)  Great Frigatebird*#

18)  Chestnut Munia

19)  Red-whiskered Bulbul

20)  Red-crowned Parrot

21)  Red-billed Leothrix*

22)  White-rumped Shama

23)  Oahu ’Amakihi*#

24)  Mariana Swiftlet*#

25)  Nutmeg Manakin

26)  Pacific Golden-Plover

27)  Northern Cardinal

28)  Oahu ’Elepaio*#

29)  Red-tailed Tropicbird*#

30)  Wandering Tattler

31)  Brown Noddy

32)  Brown Booby

33)  Wedge-tailed Shearwater*#

34)  Masked Booby

35)  Hawaiian Coot*

36)  Common Gallinule

37)  Black-necked Stilt

38)  Mallard/Hawaiian Duck

39)  Black Noddy*

40)  Ruddy Turnstone

41)  Red Junglefowl

42)  Saffron Finch

43)  Sanderling

44)  Northern Mockingbird

45)  White-tailed Tropicbird*

46)  Short-eared Owl

47)  Hwamei (Melodious Laughing-Thrush)*

48)  Kauai ’Amakihi*#

49)  ’Apapane*

50)  I’iwi*

51)  Kauai ’Elepaio*#

52)  ’Anianiau*#

53)  ’Akikiki*#

54)  Erckel’s Francolin*

55)  Nene*

56)  Red-footed Booby

57)  Koloa Maoli (Hawaiian Duck)*#

58)  Hawaiian Petrel*#

59)  Gray Francolin*

60)  Black Francolin*

61)  ’Akeke’e*#

62)  Newell’s Shearwater#