Tag Archives: vacations

Vancouver to LA – Birding and Cruising.

The trip was really supposed to be in celebration of the completion of a writing project. But when I booked the trip, I knew that if said project was not completed, the trip would be a much-needed break – a welcome respite – from a project that has, well, been quite a project! Unfortunately, it’s the latter, and even worse – I’m working on the project on the plane, in the hotel, and on the boat (OK, so working on the boat didn’t actually happen). But the birding has been amazing, and the break has been very welcome, and downright therapeutic.

Boarding my flight in Portland dark and early on Wednesday the 4th, a long-awaited birding adventure was in store. But yeah, I was leaving Maine at the peak of rarity season! Of course, when I landed to – barely – grab my connection in Chicago, I see the report of a Townsend’s Solitaire at Schoodic Point and the reappearance of a Franklin’s Gull at Sebasticook Lake (and so it begins!). But it was of little consequence; life birds awaited!

For a couple of years, I’ve been wanting to join Paul Lehman and company on a West Coast “repositioning cruise.” This is when those massive cruise ships move from one port to another, mostly to switch from the starting point of one season’s itinerary to the other. Sailing predominately well offshore, passengers come aboard for a short getaway, or just a long weekend escape. And these trips are a helluva deal! For birders, the passage through deep, open water from a large, stable platform that even allows you to use a spotting scope to study passing seabirds – it’s low-cost, multi-day, deep water pelagic.

Good friends Adam Byrne and Brad Murphy from Michigan were joining me, as we joined Paul, Barbara Carlson, and several other birders for a sail from Vancouver, British Columbia to LA. But Adam, Brad, and I were meeting up early to do some Pacific Northwest birding. None of us had been to British Columbia before, so we had a few life birds each to seek, and more importantly, since we had to fly all of the way to Vancouver – we might as well get our money’s worth, right?

Frequent flier miles delivered me to Vancouver a day before Adam’s arrival, so I took a train to our hotel, settled in, and took a walk. Of course, I began to experience the culinary delights of this fantastic foodie city, as well as sample some of the birdlife in a few small urban parks. I started to get familiar with how dark the local Song Sparrows were, and reacquaint myself with the snappy call note of “Oregon” Dark-eyed Juncos. I also refreshed my memory about how impossible it is to identify large gulls in the Pacific Northwest, although at least a few adults looked identifiable. My dinner at a Ramen bar was a perfect end to the day, and a good way to ring in my trip to this cultural city.
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I could enjoy these dark Song Sparrows all day!

Day 2, 11/5: Vancouver.
I covered over 10 miles this morning, walking from my downtown hotel to Stanley Park, and around the entirety of its perimeter. Passerines weren’t in large supply, but it’s been far too long since I have seen the likes of Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Anna’s Hummingbirds. An American Dipper at the bay’s edge was a welcome surprise.

And the birding along the shoreline was spectacular. I very well may have seen more Barrow’s Goldeneyes this morning than I have seen in sum throughout the East; there was one raft of over 150! A couple of Eurasian Wigeons joined big groups of American Wigeons, a few Cackling, one Snow, and one Greater White-fronted Goose were in lawn-feeding groups of Canada Geese, and Surf Scoters were plentiful. Mew and Ring-billed Gulls, a few Thayer’s Gulls, and a mess of large gulls that were mostly – in quantity and presumably genetically – Glaucous-winged.

More of these dark Song Sparrows and lots of “Oregon” Juncos, several Bald Eagles, and impressive cityscapes – not bad for a morning walk!

Adam arrived in the early afternoon, and after lunch at a Frites Granville (deep fried poutine, need I say more…but the kimchi and Korean beef-topped fries was much better), we spent a pleasant few hours, including a little bit of sunshine at Stanley Park. Adding a few more species to the triplist, including “Sooty” Fox Sparrow, we mostly spent the time taking advantage of the nice light to photograph Barrow’s Goldeneyes and Mew Gulls, among others.
Am in Stanley Park.
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Korean-Belgian-Canadian fusion!
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Pm…back in Stanley Park.
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River Otter devouring flounder.
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So many Barrow’s Goldeneyes!
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Day 3, 11/6: Vancouver.
Light rain and drizzle returned by dawn, as Adam and I headed for the hills. Rain continued, steady at times, as we hiked around Cypress Provincial Park looking for forest denizens, especially Sooty Grouse. While we didn’t see much – the conditions were not very bird- or birder- friendly, seeing scattered Varied Thrush was a real treat, along with a Red-breasted Sapsucker, several small flocks of Red Crossbills, and other resident species.

We fetched Brad at the airport; or triumvirate now complete. Real Chinese food (noodles with roasted chicken, broth, veggies, etc.) stuck to the bones – which was needed for the damp and chilly visit to Delta’s Boundary Bay. Adam needed Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, so we thought we would just spend a couple of hours trying to get lucky.

We were a little unprepared for what a task finding one specific shorebird would be. I’ll let the photos explain.

There were easily several hundreds of thousands of birds, 90-95% or so were Dunlin and Northern Pintail. Healthy amounts of American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal were supplemented by Black-bellied Plovers, 10+ Eurasian Wigeons, groups of gulls – mostly Glaucous-winged and Glaucous-winged intergrades, some Sanderlings, a couple of Western Sandpipers, and one particularly interesting, short-billed peep. Perhaps the one that got away!

Am in Cypress Provincial Park.
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Boundary Bay.
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Day 4, 11/7: Vancouver.
Rain was falling in earnest as we departed the city, once again heading for the hills. Thanks to a tip from a local birder, the suggestively-named Grouse Mountain ski resort was our destination. The rain continued, and got heavier and visibility dropped to near nothing as we gained a little elevation.

But the place was busy, and the Skyride tram was running, and for a price, we were whisked uphill. It was still raining…hard. Was this worth it? What self-respecting bird would be out in this?

And then Adam found a Sooty Grouse!

The only non-pelagic lifer for all three of us expected on the trip, this was a most-welcome development. For a moment, we forgot how soaked to the bone we were. And this was no dumb grouse! He would come out to feed in a little weedy garden, and then return to a shed/small livestock pen to preen. After a bit, it was back out into the rain.

We too finally went inside, the triumvirate triumphant, had some coffee and/or hot chocolate, and then went back out for another visit with the grouse, and some quality time with Black-tailed Deer and Gray-crowned Rosy-finches.

With rain still falling, wind and fog as bad as ever, we packed it in, dripping our way into the tram, and back down the hill. Unfortunately, conditions were even worse at Cypress Provincial Park, and although the donair stop for lunch was great and hit the spot, the rain finally defeated us all on a near-birdless walk at the park. It was time to retreat.
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It might be raining a little…but Sooty Grouse!

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Day 5, 11/8: Vancouver.
Stanley Park was the destination again today, wanting to spend more time looking at birds – any birds – than driving to more distant sites. I added a few more species to my trip list, including some good studies of Pacific Wren. But the tame Chestnut-backed Chickadees, joining Black-caps in looking for handouts stole the show.

Making our way towards the airport, we spent our last hour of birding in Vancouver at Sea and Iona Islands. More huge flocks of Dunlin were impressive, and several additions to the list ranged from Pied-billed Grebe to Long-billed Dowitcher to Trumpeter Swan.

But before we knew it, it was time to return our rental car, hop on the train, and make our way to Canada Place and the Star Princess – our floating-city home for the next three days, and our big, steady platform for pelagic birding. In other words, the real reason for this trip was only now about to begin!

Another morning in Wonderful Stanley Park.
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“Do you think the Chesnut-backed Chickadees get fed here?”
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I will always stop to photograph Wood Ducks!
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Anna’s Hummingbird.

Setting Sail.
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Day 6, 11/8: Victoria.
As the sun came up, we were docking in Victoria, only a short trip across from the city of Vancouver. While Brad and Adam set off in search of Skylarks and Red-breasted Sapsuckers, I joined the rest of the group of birders in walking to Beacon Hill Park. The triplist grew with the likes of Barred Owl, Bewick’s Wren, and Ancient Murrelets.

I lingered too long at one thicket, lost the group, but spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering around this lovely park. Oregon Junco, Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Spotted Towhees were everywhere, with the ponds chock full of Mallards and American Wigeon. Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Anna’s Hummingbirds were plentiful, as were “more bona fide” Northwestern Crows (if there is truly such a thing). Feral Common Peafowl added a splash of color, and a “Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco was on the rare side of things. I passed through a couple of waves of Bushtits, adding a dose of frantic and noisy excitement to the walk.

I took a spin through a sliver of downtown, finding a single “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler in a small city pocket park, along with several Bewick’s and Pacific Wrens, and a bunch of Oregon Juncos. Rhinoceros Auklets in the inner harbor were a very pleasant surprise.

The boat departed at 2:24 – next stop: LA! While we only had a couple of hours of daylight left, we made the most of it, as birds were plentiful. Masses of Mew Gulls, rafts of Common Murres, and later, scattered Northern Fulmar – our first tubenose of the trip – were encountered, while my last additions to my Canada List were ticked off – Brandt’s Cormorant, Black Brant, and Heerman’s Gull. Our first two Pomarine Jaegers, a single Red Phalarope, and two White-winged Scoters were added to the trip list as well.

The sun was setting, as the productive waters at the mouth of the Straight of Juan de Fuca off Flattery Point, Washington were just coming into view.

I bet you can tell which day the sun finally came out!
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Barred Owl.

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Golden-crowned Sparrow.

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1st winter Glaucous-winged Gull (presumed close enough to pure).

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“Sooty” Fox Sparrow. Worst-placed bread-bag clip litter.

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Spotted Towhee.

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Brown Creeper.

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March of the Mallards.

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..and American Wigeon.

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Anna’s Hummingbird.

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Common (Feral) Peafowl.

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Hen  Eurasian Wigeon (note nearly concolorous head, neck, and body and lack of black gape spot. Underwings, especially the axillaries, were gray, clinching the ID.

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“Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco.

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Rhinocerous Auklet in the harbor.

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The Olympic Mountains.
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There were a few Mew Gulls on the water.
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11/10, Day 7: Off Oregon.

Whoo-ee!

Passing through Washington waters overnight, we awoke in Oregon, about 40 miles off the north-central coast. As soon as there was just enough twilight to see, birds began to appear. And other than about an hour in early afternoon, it did not stop until it was dark. And the most dedicated of us had to drag ourselves, exhausted, achy, and hungry, off the bow.

It was amazing.

Birds all day. Marine Mammals were constant. At one point a dozen Humpback Whale spouts, a hundred or so Pacific White-sided Dolphins, and perhaps thousands of birds were in view. Northern Fulmars were the most abundant tubenose through early afternoon, when Sooty Shearwaters began to take over. I picked up two life birds, Buller’s Shearwater (well over 30) and Flesh-footed Shearwater (after frustratingly missing one earlier, I found one in the big evening feeding frenzy and saw the third of the day). Unfortunately, I also missed the “bird of the day,” an early morning Mottled Petrel. I wasn’t the only one, and unlike most everyone else on the trip, that was the one Pterodroma that wasn’t a lifer for me, so if I had to miss one great bird on the trip, that’s the one I would be least disappointed about. But still.

My lifer Northern Right Whale Dolphins joined Dall’s Porpoise, a Fin Whale, a Minke Whale, Northern Fur Seals, Elephant Seals, and California Sea Lions on the day’s mammal list, while additional avian highlights included Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, Black-legged Kittwakes, Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets, a single early Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, a few Pomarine Jaegers, a couple of Pacific Loons, Common Murres, and plenty of gulls, including the first Western and California Gulls of the trip.

One of my other highlights, and just possibly my “highlight of the day” were several “nursery groups” of Mola Mola. Young molas, in groups of 4-7 or so, were moving south or lounging at the surface, usually with a gull or few in attendance. I’m not quite sure why I was so smitten with these, but I kinda wanted to hug one. I know, very scientific of me.

It truly was an amazing day, and as dusk was falling, the boat passed through a massive aggregation of dolphins, gulls, Sooty Shearwaters, and plenty of Pink-footed and Buller’s Shearwaters. This was the group that contained my lifer Flesh-footed Shearwaters, so it was a stupendous finish to an absolutely fantastic day on the water! And yes, with near constant activity from dawn to dusk, we are all exhausted, and frankly, I am unsure of how I am even seeing a computer screen right now.

I think I will sleep well tonight, although the anticipation of what tomorrow might bring will no doubt impact a needed full night of rest!
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Off the Oregon Coast.

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Northern Fulmar.

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Black-footed Albatross

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Laysan Albatross

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Buller’s Shearwaters.

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Black-footed Albatross.

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Pacific White-sided Dolphins.

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Mola Mola.

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Buller’s Shearwater.

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11/11, Day 8: Off Northern California.

The air and seas were warmer as we found ourselves due west of Point Reyes shortly after sunrise. A nice following breeze – strong enough for seabirds to be flying, but in just the right direction to keep us warm and comfy at the bow – raised expectations, especially after the stellar day yesterday,

A Black-footed Albatross at first light also stoked the excitement, but as the day went on, and the lack of seabirds continued, many were left to reminisce about yesterday. Red Phalaropes were the most abundant bird of the day, by far, with a fair number of Northern Fulmars. Ashy Storm-Petrels started to show in 1’s and 3’s, including one that was grounded on the ship and was trying to hide in a corner. No doubt disoriented by the ship’s lights during the night, this “wrecked” bird could have had a long day were it not for two alert walkers who let us know. We raced over, identified it, inspected it, and then let it go off the stern – none of us had ever seen a storm-petrel fly as fast and direct as it booked it away from this floating island full of two-legged predators.

A Peregrine Falcon likely rode with us for a while today, and later in the afternoon, the regular appearance of a Brandt’s Cormorant – far from its nearshore environs – suggested a bird that was also resting on the boat now and again. The flock of 34 European Starlings, nearly 60km offshore, was a little harder to explain, however!

The long, tiring day of scanning the waters only produced a few new species for the trip, including a few Leach’s Storm-Petrels and a couple of Red-necked Phalaropes. But other than a scattered few Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, several Pomarine Jaegers, a couple of Buller’s Shearwaters, and early Laysan and a handful of Black-footed Albatrosses, it was a slow day on the water. Very slow.

A few pods of Common Dolphins, several Humpback Whales, and a loafing Blue Whale were mammalian highlights…until dusk, when four Orcas steamed towards the ship, breaching and tail-slapping as they went by. While today was not the epic seabird and mammal day that yesterday was, the few of us still hanging on to the bitter end were rewarded with an Orca show. I for one was not complaining. Because breaching Orcas.

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Off Big Sur, California.

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Wrecked Ashy Storm-Petrel.

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11/12, Day 9: Los Angeles.
Docked in the busy port of Los Angeles well before sunrise, I stepped outside to take in the crisp, dry air, and take a gander at some Western Gulls and a flycatching Black Phoebe. Adam, Brad, and I were anxious to disembark, ready to pack in a full day of twitching LA-are specialties.

Three thousand plus people trying to jam through customs is never quick, but apparently today was particularly nightmarish. Two and a half hours later, we were finally off the boat, picking up our rental car, and finally on our way.

The first stop was Huntingdon Beach Central Park, in pursuit of now-countable Scaly-breasted Munias. It didn’t take long, and although introduced, these really are festive little birds, and an ABA-Area bird for all three of us (we had all seen them elsewhere around the world). A few White-faced Ibis, Black and Say’s Phoebes, and other common urban park denizens were also noted.

It took us longer to find our quarry at Legg Lake Park, but after covering the entire park without any luck, Brad’s lifer Tricolored Blackbirds were right at the parking lot where we began – exactly where my friend Catherine Hamilton told us they would be. Luckily, we had some other fun birds in the meantime, including single Townsend’s Warbler, Hutton’s Vireo, Lesser Goldfinch, and a pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls. The trip list grew by 14 species.

The time to find the blackbirds and some traffic en route put us way behind schedule as we entered Compton and headed for Colonel Leo H. Washington Park – the last “stronghold” of the once-common, established exotic, the Spotted Dove. I have a confession to make: this was a bird that only I needed. Yes, I was chasing an exotic. But honestly, it was such an interesting place to head to for a new bird (for the ABA-area), that there was a little bit of allure added. Readers of this blog know how much I love urban birding – and it doesn’t get anymore urban birding than this!

Unfortunately, despite quite a bit of searching, the Spotted Dove remained unseen. With so few left, they can be tough to find, and although Catherine promised they have been reliable here of late, she also cautioned that they are easily missed. We talked to a few residents who seemed to be used to random birders showing up in an otherwise less-than-touristy neighborhood and one guy playing soccer stopped to tell me about the Cooper’s Hawk that was catching rats in the alley behind his house; a short while later, a Coop flew overhead. Several other conversations helped prove that many inner-city residents do have a connection and appreciation for nature, as described by a recent study on urban residents’ recognition and valuation of birds in cities. I often sing the praises of the value of urban greenspaces to migratory birds, but these places are even more valuable to residents packed tightly into a confined space, desperate for the connection to fresh air and recreation of all kinds.

But yeah, all of this musing was really displacement behavior for my 1) decision to actually look for Spotted Dove instead of heading to straight to a park that would have had a lot of good birds, perhaps including my nemesis, Williamson’s Sapsucker, and 2) our failure to see it! We also checked Salt Lake Park – perhaps no longer hosting the dove, but at least that park had a few more birds, including some treats for us Easterners – Acorn Woodpeckers and Cassin’s Kingbird in particular. But alas, no Spotted Doves. Two residents, taking a break from chatting, pointed out a Peregrine Falcon on a transmission tower high overhead. Perhaps it knew where to find the doves.

By the time we took our first spin through Washington Park, we realized that with traffic building there was no chance to hit another site, so we just used up the remainder of daylight not seeing Spotted Doves. But, there’s little doubt I would never have seen Compton or Huntingdon Park were it not for searching for these birds, so there’s that. I guess.

As the sun set, Adam and Brad dropped me off at a hotel near the airport (“conveniently” located directly under landing planes) as they headed off to catch their red-eye flights. Thwarted by traffic and our dip on the dove, our afternoon of birding with Catherine turned into a dinner and beers. We caught up and reflected on Spotted Doves, or lack there of, and the meaning of life and listing. Or perhaps we talked more about the flavor composition of the beers we enjoyed.

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Legg Lake Park.

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Brewer’s Blackbird.

11/13, Day 10: Los Angeles.
A Cassin’s Kingbird was calling on the roof of my hotel to usher in the dawn, as I boarded my airport shuttle for the quick trip to the final leg of my journey. I have little doubt that I will be on another “Repositioning Cruise” sometime soon – I might be hooked. It sure was more comfortable than rolling around on a dedicated pelagic – and with unlimited food (but yeah, “bland” was my most used descriptor…I used a lot of hot sauce!) and several bars, this was pelagic birding in style!

Although I only ended up with three life birds (Sooty Grouse, Buller’s Shearwater, and Flesh-footed Shearwater), one ABA-area bird (Scaly-breasted Munia), three California birds (Buller’s, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, and munia), and a boatload of Canada birds (I had not birded west of Ontario before), I would deem this trip an utmost success. In fact, I had a great time, enjoyed birding with good friends – old and new – and experienced a completely different avifauna. And no “Megas” were missed here in Maine!

Here’s my total triplist, in order of appearance:
Vancouver:
1. Rock Pigeon
2. Mallard
3. “Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco
4. Song Sparrow
5. European Starling
6. House Sparrow
7. Northwestern Crow (with “better” birds later in Victoria?)
8. Glaucous-winged Gull
9. White-crowned Sparrow
10. American Robin
11. Black-capped Chickadee
12. House Finch
13. Lincoln’s Sparrow
14. Canada Goose
15. Cackling Goose
16. Ring-billed Gull
17. Red-breasted Merganser
18. Great Blue Heron
19. Double-crested Cormorant
20. Barrow’s Goldeneye
21. Golden-crowned Kinglet
22. Horned Grebe
23. Thayer’s Gull
24. Northern “Red-shafted” Flicker
25. Surf Scoter
26. American Wigeon
27. Pine Siskin
28. Common Merganser
29. Bufflehead
30. Belted Kingfisher
31. Spotted Towhee
32. Mew Gull
33. Pelagic Cormorant
34. Bald Eagle
35. Bonaparte’s Gull
36. Common Goldeneye
37. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
38. Anna’s Hummingbird
39. American Dipper
40. Eurasian Wigeon
41. Greater White-fronted Goose
42. Brown Creeper
43. Downy Woodpecker
44. Snow Goose
45. Chestnut-backed Chickadee
46. Red-breasted Nuthatch
47. Hooded Merganser
48. American Coot
49. Red-winged Blackbird
50. Golden-crowned Sparrow
51. Fox Sparrow
52. Common Raven
53. Lesser Scaup
54. Red-necked Grebe
55. Red-breasted Sapsucker
56. Varied Thrush
57. Red Crossbill
58. Hermit Thrush
59. Northern Harrier
60. Eurasian Collared-Dove
61. Brewer’s Blackbird
62. Northern Shoveler
63. Northern Pintail
64. Green-winged Teal
65. Dunlin
66. Black-bellied Plover
67. Sanderling
68. Western Sandpiper
69. Herring Gull
70. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
71. SOOTY GROUSE
72. Stellar’s Jay
73. Pacific Wren
74. White-breasted Nuthatch
75. Wood Duck
76. Western Meadowlark
77. Gadwall
78. American Goldfinch
79. Pied-billed Grebe
80. Peregrine Falcon
81. Long-billed Dowitcher
82. Sharp-shinned Hawk
83. Trumpeter Swan
84. Red-tailed Hawk
Victoria
85. Black Turnstone
86. Harlequin Duck
87. Barred Owl
88. Bewick’s Wren
89. Ancient Murrelet
90. Common Loon
91. Purple Finch
— Common Peafowl
— “Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco
92. Bushtit
93. “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler
94. Rhinoceros Auklet
95. Common Murre
Cruisin’
96. Pigeon Guillemot
97. Pacific Loon
98. Brandt’s Cormorant
99. White-winged Scoter
100. Red-throated Loon
101. Northern Fulmar
102. Heerman’s Gull
103. “Black” Brant
104. Pomarine Jaeger
105. Red Phalarope
106. Pink-footed Shearwater
107. Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
108. Sooty Shearwater
109. Cassin’s Auklet
110. Black-footed Albatross
111. California Gull
112. Black-legged Kittiwake
113. Laysan Albatross
114. BULLER’S SHEARWATER
115. Short-tailed Shearwater
116. FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER
117. Ashy Storm-Petrel
118. Leach’s Storm-Petrel
119. Red-necked Phalarope
Los Angeles
120. Black Phoebe
121. American Kestrel
122. Great Egret
123. Snowy Egret
124. White-faced Ibis
125. American Coot
126. Green Heron
127. Greater Yellowlegs
128. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
129. SCALY-BREASTED MUNIA
130. Say’s Phoebe
131. Osprey
132. Turkey Vulture
133. American White Pelican
134. Ruddy Duck
135. Lesser Goldfinch
136. Hutton’s Vireo
137. Townsend’s Warbler
138. Orange-crowned Warbler
139. Western Grebe
140. Northern Mockingbird
141. Black-crowned Night-Heron
142. Cooper’s Hawk
143. Mourning Dove
144. Common Yellowthroat.
— Red-whiskered Bulbul
145. Great-tailed Grackle
146. Tricolored Blackbird
147. Allen’s Hummingbird
— Yellow-chevroned Parakeet
148. Acorn Woodpecker
149. Cassin’s Kingbird

Mammals:
1. Eastern Gray Squirrel
2. Douglas Squirrel
3. Harbor Seal
4. River Otter
5. Black-tailed Deer
6. Dall’s Porpoise
7. Humpback Whale
8. Elephant Seal
9. Fin Whale
10. Northern Fur Seal
11. Pacific White-sided Dolphin
12. Minke Whale
13. California Sea Lion
14. Short-beaked Common Dolphin
15. NORTHERN RIGHT WHALE DOLPHIN
16. Blue Whale
17. Orca
18. Fox Squirrel

Trinidad and Tobago!

Ten years ago, Jeannette and I traveled to Trinidad   and Tobago, our first international trip together.  In fact, it was our honeymoon!

We first went to T&T because it offers a wealth of birding opportunities.  English-speaking, with a good infrastructure, reasonable costs, and with a couple of places that really cater to birders, T&T is a rather easy tropical birding destination.  Geologically part of South America, its avifauna is more closely related to “The Bird Continent” than the rest of the West Indies.  While it has representatives of many South American bird families, it has fewer representatives of each, making it a great introduction to the avifauna of the Neotropics.

With so many places to visit on this planet, it’s hard for us to go back to somewhere for the second time, but we had some “unfinished birding business” in T&T. For one, we were on a tight budget, so could not spend enough time at the famous Asa Wright Nature Center on Trinidad.  And, while we were there, we were limited in how many field trips we could take; there were a lot more places and birds for us to see on the island.  On Tobago, we just rented a beachside cottage, which was great, but we went a day without food when we found everything in the village closed for the day and had limited time for birding.

On one of the field trips that we did take while staying at Asa Wright was the legendary trip to CaroniSwamp to see the evening flight of Scarlet Ibis.  Unfortunately, we ended up on the boat with some wahoos were more interested in being obnoxious drunks than enjoying a natural spectacle – definitely needed to do that one again!  And finally, we wanted to see the endemic Trinidad Piping-guan, a bird that takes a very early start and a lot of driving to see (we decided it was too costly too take the trip the last time for one target bird).

Therefore, some years ago, it was decided that we would celebrate our Tenth Anniversary with a return trip.  I have no plans of leading a tour here, so this was pure vacation.  I didn’t even take that many notes.  Even with a relaxed pace – including Tobago afternoons spent on the beach – we tallied 182 species, including 20 lifers for each of us (surpassing our expectations).  And we did take plenty of photos (neither of us owned a good camera ten years ago, so photos – especially of birds – were more than a little lacking, another reason to return).

Instead of my usual detailed trip reporting, I’ll keep up the relaxed nature of our journey by simply sharing a little bit about each day, especially the highlights, and a “Photo of the Day” award.

Day 1, 1/11.
After landing at 5:30am, we made our way through customs and immigration, and after a little stressful waiting, retrieved our bags.  We were whisked off to Asa Wright and arrived just in time for breakfast.  After a hearty meal and a short guided orientation walk, we finally took a seat at the veranda, overlooking the lush valley and surrounded bay swarms of hummingbirds, honeycreepers, and tanagers at the Centre’s world famous feeding station.

It was hard to not call a return (after 10 years) to the veranda the highlight of the day, but we’ll give them first award to the great show of Red-bellied Macaws at the Waller airfield – our first lifer of the trip, and only our first stop on the “Night Tour” that culminated with Common Paraques, White-tailed Nightjars, Barn Owls, and a Common Potoo.
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Day 2, 1/12:
Getting back late the first night only to have to have a 3:30 am departure the next morning was not our choice, but thanks to Stupid United’s itinerary change, our first couple of days was condensed into one sleep-deprived blur.  When that alarm went off at 3, this did not seem like a good idea, but a few hours later we were rewarded with our #1 target species of the trip.  12 of them, in fact.

On the Birdlife International Critically Endangered list, with a population estimated at only — individuals, the Trinidad Piping-Guan has become much rarer over the last ten years, primarily due to hunting.  It was no guarantee; even with this long, dedicated trip too look for them, so the pre-sunrise silhouette of one bird was actually satisfactory.  Then, the sun came out, at the guans decided to do some tree-top sun bathing.  And here, where they are apparently protected by the locals, they were not as shy and were quite active in trees around us.  Yeah, this was definitely worth the trip.
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Day 3, 1/13:
The day began with a trip to the famous Oilbird cave on the property.  “The Devil Birds” were unusually active today, with lots of calling and flying around. The world’s only nocturnal frugivorous bird, this awesome and unique creature is about as easy to see here at Asa Wright as anywhere else, and seeing them is a highlight of any trip to Trinidad.  However, Jeannette left her short lens in the room, and my point-and-shoot performed terribly, so we don’t have a great photo to share.

And speaking of highlights of any visit to Trinidad, our tour today was the evening boat trip into Caroni Swamp for the roosting Scarlet Ibis.  Each night, over 3,000 brilliant Scarlet Ibis, many hundreds of Snowy Egrets and Tricolored Herons, and plenty of Little Blue Herons, Neotropic Cormorants, and Great Egrets come into roost, and boats take tourists of all sorts out to see them.

On our last trip, our Caroni Swamp experience was less than stellar.  We were put on a boat with general tourists from another hotel, who were most definitely not birders.  Two were loud, obnoxious drunks.  The boat operator did not point out other birds, and as truly amazing as the Scarlet Ibis flight was, our experience was a little disappointing.  This time, we were with our two new friends John and Gill from England whom we have been touring with these past two days, and an outstanding, exceptionally bird-knowledgeable boatsman.

The ibis arrive as dusk approaches, and with cloudy skies (somehow, despite all of the rain of the day, we only had to deal with a couple of brief showers while on the boat trip), lighting conditions were a little tough for Jeannette to score top-notch shots of the ibis.  Therefore, today’s Photo of the Day will capture the essences of the Asa Wright birding experience.  Great birds…and rum punch at 6:00pm, no matter where you are!  Also, Jeannette’s smile suggests that we were having a much more enjoyable experience this time.
J-Mo in Caroni

Day 4, 1/14:
Our full-day tour to the Nariva Swamp area produced quite a few new birds for the trip, and even a half-dozen lifers.  An Aplomado Falcon was a treat, as was a really good show of Savannah Hawks.  Roti for lunch, and a night walk including Chevron Tarantulas and land crabs were other highlights of the day.

However, today’s Photo of the Day credit will go my White-necked Jacobin photos on the veranda of Asa Wright.  Jeannette’s excellent Savannah Hawks and a Striped Cuckoo were contenders, but this photo represents the trip a little better.  Taken with my phone and nothing more, it’s hard to beat the proximity of the activity at the veranda.
Jacobin

Day 5, 1/15:
There’s no question as to today’s selection.  Ten years ago, Tufted Coquette was our most-wanted bird, so getting a photo was of high priority for Jeannette on this trip.  After a couple of days of chasing the stunning and gaudy male around, Jeannette scored this busy male feeding on their favored verbena flowers.
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Day 6, 1/16:
We arrived on Tobago yesterday evening, and this morning we took the boat trip over to Little Tobago Island to view breeding seabirds.  Not unlike our visit to Caroni Swamp ten years ago, this tour was not as memorable for the right reasons as it should have been, so we most definitely wanted to do it again.  This time, a better guide and a very small group produced a much better experience.  One-half of the pair of White-tailed Tropicbirds that nest here made an appearance, as did a Scaly-naped Pigeon – a species that may have only colonized here after Hurricane Ivan smacked Grenada in 2005.

While “the” Red-billed Tropicbird on Seal Island in Maine is simply astounding, so is the view of dozens upon dozens wheeling around the sky, avoiding marauding Magnificent Frigatebirds as they head to and from the island.  Jeannette and I agreed that we tied for Photo of the Day honors today. First is her photo of a Red-billed Tropicbird chick, and second is my iPhone photo of an adult on the nest – far too close for Jeannette’s telephoto.
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RBTR-adult

Day 7, 1/17:
Today was our primary birding day on Tobago, but let’s just say we did not choose our plan well.  We did make it up into the rainforest, and saw some good birds on the Gilpin Trail, including White-tailed Sabrewings and our lifer Yellow-legged Thrushes.  Jeannette also picked up Purple Honeycreeper, but only heard two other targets: Venezuelan Flycatcher and Olivaceous Woodcreeper.  We spent less time in the forest and saw fewer birds that we wanted – and spent more money than we expected doing so – but hey, this was our only “mistake day” of the trip, and so we couldn’t complain too much.

And besides, while having lunch (the local restaurants were a third the price and 10x better than the Inn, as is often the case) in Speyside, a Great Black-Hawk (one of our dips in our forest visit) came diving down from high elevation to take a run at a teed-up White-tipped Dove.  It was then joined by a second bird as they rapidly rose in altitude back up into the hills.

The dark forest precluded much photography, and our walk down the roadside edge was shorter than we expected, so we’ll head back to the grounds of the Blue Waters for the photo of the day: This Trinidad Motmot that was regularly stationed at the start of the short trail on the property.
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Day 8, 1/18:
Preparing to depart back to Trinidad in the afternoon, we stayed close to the Inn, including a photo session with the locals that we have been thoroughly enjoying over the past few days here.  Hand-feeding Ruddy Turnstones was only topped by this photo session with Rufous-vented Chacalacas.
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Day 9, 1/19:
Arriving after dark last night to our hotel near the airport, we took their shuttle to the mall for dinner (it was either that or take-out from the likes of KFC and Pizza Slut), which was actually rather interesting.  The “largest mall in the English-speaking Caribbean” provided two food courts of eating options…of course, no matter where in the world you are, mall food is pretty much mall food.  However, while waiting for the shuttle to pick us up, we did have a Barn Owl flying around the lights of the parking lot.

We departed for the airport before sunrise, but had a chance to walk outside for a handful of minutes at the airport:  Palm Tanager, Great Kiskadee, Carib Grackle, Tropical Mockingbird, Gray-breasted Martin, and Cattle Egret (and Great Egret from the runway) were our last birds for the trip.  Interestingly, if you include this morning there were only three species that we saw every day of this trip (9 if you exclude this morning): Palm Tanager, the mockingbird, and the grackle.

As anyone who has visited the Caribbean region, Bananaquits are one of the constant features of birding.  On islands such as Trinidad and Tobago, they are everywhere, in every habitat and at every elevation, and at least here, it is considered the most abundant bird on the island.  They are vocal, inquisitive, and full of character.  I absolutely love Richard ffrench’s (the author of the Trinidad   and Tobago field guide) evocative description: “the energetic busy-body.”  While we didn’t have one at the airport in our short walk, we did see it on the other 8 days of the trip, and this bird that sang just off of our porch at the Blue Waters Inn seemed like a fitting final “Photo of the Day.”
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