Our Brand New Website!

When we opened our store TWELVE (really, it has been that long!) years ago, our website was cutting-edge. In case you noticed, technology and the internet have changed a little since then.

While our website, freeportwildbirdsupply.com has served us well over the years, it was clearly time for a little update. So without any further ado, we are excited to introduce the brand-spanking-new, completely renovated, www.freeportwildbirdsupply.com!

Features:
1) Easy to use, navigate, and chock full of photos!
2) Mobile-optimized: Now looks great and is easy to use on your smartphone!
3) A cleaner, easier-to-browse “News” page.
4) Enhanced Tours page:
A) On-line registration for all tours
B) Sign up for our Birds on Tap – Roadtrip! outings and pay with a credit card.
C) New tours coming soon!
5) All of the informative features that have always been part of our website, just nicer!
6) More Birding News:
A) a window to our Facebook page where you can see our most current news and bird reports, photos, etc.
B) BirdTrax: a convenient and easy-to-read, organized (by date) display of rare birds submitted to eBird (note: we do not participate in eBird, so our sightings are not included here).
C) Direct link to the Maine Birds Google Group archives on the American Birding Association’s webpage.

Check it out, and we hope you will enjoy it, and find it of value. And we welcome your feedback!

2016 Washington County Weekend Tour

I simply love birding Washington County, and my biennial “Washington County Weekend” van tour is little more than an excuse for me to bird the area. Of course, in doing so, I get to share the avian, scenic, and culinary glories of Downeast.  So everybody wins!

We set out from Freeport on Friday, 8/26. Not wanting to squander the entire morning just driving, we break up the trip by birding our way north. Corrina Marsh was our first stop this year, yielding Wood Ducks, side-by-side comparisons of Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in the jewelweed, and a Northern Harrier coursing low over the marsh.

Nearby Alder Stream held multitudes of Wood and Ring-necked Ducks, along with a couple of Pied-billed Grebes. More Wood Ducks were at Plymouth Pond, along with Common Loons, but we didn’t find the Sandhill Cranes that we had hoped for.

After lunch at the flagship Dysart’s (no Maine roadtrip is complete for me without at least one grilled cheese from a Dysart’s), we strolled Essex Woods and marsh in Bangor. Four rare-so-far-inland Snowy Egrets were joined by a single Great, and we enjoyed superior views of Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs for comparison, along with more Solitary Sandpipers for comparison.

Our entrance into Washington County via The Airline was met with a bang: our first birds in the county were a migrant flock of 18 Common Nighthawks bounding overhead. Dinner, and of course, pie, from Helen’s in Machias (not to mention the blueberry sangrias!) was a sure sign we had arrived.
1. view from hotel

2. blueberry sangria

Without a doubt one of the best reasons for visiting this area in August is the massive congregation of gulls and seabirds, along with whales, that occurs in Head Harbor Passage, off of Eastport.  Therefore, one of the highlights of this tour is our private charter on the “Pier Pressure” for whale- and bird-watching. And this trip most definitely did not disappoint.

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Sorting through 5,000-7,000 Bonparte’s Gulls finally yielded a Sabine’s Gull, a stunning adult, and one of the most sought-after species on the trip. It was nearly the end of the boat ride, my eyes were shot from combing through so many Bonies, and then I spotted it on the water, a short distance away.  It took off and joined some commuting Bonies, and we tried to follow it, but despite Captain Butch’s best efforts, we unfortunately could not keep up with it as it headed towards Maine waters, and lost it as it mingled with a large flock of Bonies. But my goodness, what a stunning species it is!
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300-400 Black-legged Kittiwakes was likely a ridiculously low guesstimate, as is the goodly 200+ Razorbills. Although Razorbills are regular in the passage in most summers, the numbers this year have been exceptional. Scattered Great Cormorants among the multitudes of Double-cresteds, plenty of Black Guillemots, about a dozen tarrying Common Terns, and a total of 15+ Bald Eagles added to the show. A total at of 5 Lesser Black-backed Gulls of various ages were detected, but I admit to not sifting through every large gull – it was the rare “hooded” gulls that we were on the lookout for!
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Adult Great Cormorant.

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Juvenile and adult Black-legged Kittiwakes with Bonaparte’s Gulls. 

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Lots and Lots of Bonaparte’s Gulls (and Black-legged Kittiwakes).

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Black-legged Kittiwakes

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Black-legged Kittiwakes, Herring Gulls, and Double-crested Cormorants

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Razorbills.

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Razorbill father with juvenile (L).

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Snazzy juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake.

Harbor Seals and Harbor Porpoises were common, and we visited with some massive Gray Seals as well. We spotted a single Minke Whale, and then drifted with a massive Fin Whale for a little while.
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While we only has one fly-by unidentified phalarope and did not find a single tubenose (despite spending some time off of East Quoddy Head), the trip was an incredible success, because, well…Sabine’s Gull!

We fueled up on arguably the best lobster rolls in the state at the Quoddy Bay Lobster Company, before spending some time seawatching at the end of Clark St (hoping for the Sabine’s to reappear!). Close-up kittiwakes and Bonaparte’s Gulls were nice, as were a couple more Lesser Black-backed Gulls. However, it was the molting adult Black-headed Gull that was the welcomed consolation prize.
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We slowly worked our way up the peninsula, checking out various viewpoints, and seeing a smattering of shorebirds and lots of Black Guillemots in the process. Finally, at the Sipayik Trail at the ballfields at Pleasant Point, a nice mix of birds as always included a trio of out-of-place Sanderlings, a few Bobolinks, more Bonaparte’s Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes offshore, and 2 Nelson’s Sparrows in the marsh. Another close Northern Harrier coursing low over marsh stirred the pot, kicking up more Green-winged Teal and Least Sandpipers than we thought were present.

Dinner at the Hansom House in Dennysville left much of the group speechless. It is a very interesting, and very different place indeed!
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Day 3 found us making an even earlier start, but we were rewarded with our efforts with a dapper male Spruce Grouse doing its thing in the trail at Boot Head Preserve in Lubec.
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Following that success, some edge- and sky-watching at the bog there yielded fly-over Red Crossbills (2+), 3 Pine Siskins, and among the scattered warblers in small flocks working the edge, at least 6 Palm Warblers (local breeders).  We also began to truly get a sense for just how incredibly abundant Red-breasted Nuthatches are in the forests around here right now – undoubtedly portending a great finch winter to come!

Our Lubec-area day continued with a stroll at Quoddy State Park, where Red-breasted Nuthatches were once again downright deafening. At least 4 Red and 3+ White-winged Crossbills were detected, and we spotted a Philadelphia Vireo within one of the mixed flocks around the edge of the bog. There, we also took time to enjoy the plants of this fascinating habitat, including carnivorous Pitcher Plants and the two species of sundews.

Our busy and productive morning continued at the Lubec Bar and Flats, where a large number of shorebirds had aggregated. Although it has apparently been slow here recently, we found a rather decent number and diversity of shorebirds. I do wish we were arrived about a half hour earlier, and had about an hour more time here, however!  About 1500 Semipalmated Sandpipers and 250+ Least Sandpipers were joined by 75-100 Sanderlings (a surprisingly high count for here), 60-80 Black-bellied Plovers, a handful of Semipalmated Plovers, 1 Ruddy Turnstone, and 1 Whimbrel.

Lunch at Cohill’s was a hit. In fact, the Shepherd’s Pie turned out to be the favorite meal of the trip for two people, although I was quite over-satisfied with my “Drunken Potato” with Guinness gravy and cheese curds.

Following the obligate stop at Monica’s Chocolates – where we left with the cooler overflowing! – we headed back to Quoddy State Park for some relaxing sea-watching. In 1.5 hours, we tallied at least 14 Sooty Shearwaters (making up for the lack of them on our boat trip), counted 10 juvenile Laughing Gulls (they seemed unusually frequent up here this year, and of course, we tried to string each of them into a jaeger!), picked out a few Razorbills, and spotted two Northern Gannets, and excitingly, two Atlantic Puffins. A few more Great Cormorants and a dozen Black-legged Kittiwakes were noted, for those who hadn’t yet gotten their fill.
35. Quoddy SP

Scanning the flats again, but this time from the roadside, we finally picked up a single White-rumped Sandpiper, increased our tally to 6 Short-billed Dowitchers, and otherwise improved on our looks at the other species from earlier.
36. Lubec flats

While Pike’s Puddle was nearly dry and devoid of birds, the beach on the other side of the road yielded a juvenile Baird’s Sandpiper. That was cause for celebration enough, but the show was stolen when a Merlin came out of nowhere and nabbed an unsuspecting Semipalmated Plover. That’s a hearty meal for even a female Merlin, so after quickly dispatching it, she struggled to drag it across the rocky beach before finally taking off and disappearing into the trees to have her dinner.
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Phone-scoped documention of the Baird’s Sandpiper

As did we…and no Derek Lovitch tour is complete without a brewery, apparently, so our evening’s destination simply had to be the new Lubec Brewing Co!

No visit, tour or otherwise, gives me enough time to bird this area. This four-day weekend is truly just a sample, and despite my interests in going back to the Lubec flats or the Eastport gulls, after two long days of jam-packed birding, we began our day (after a leisurely breakfast at Helen’s) simply by watching the shorebirds behind our motel.  606 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 41 Semipalmated Plovers, 20-30 Least Sandpipers, and another out-of-place-on-mud Sanderling surpassed expectations.

I like to slowly mosey back home, and I like to mix in a new site or two on each tour. Therefore, instead of racing east only to start the drive back west, I decided to do some exploring, beginning with the Mason Bay Conservation Area on the Jonesboro/Jonesport border.  More Red-breasted Nuthatches and a couple of mixed species foraging flocks were indication that this is a spot worth checking in the breeding season, and at the end of our stroll (which included some more botanizing, a few butterflies, and fun with Tent Caterpillars) another Red Crossbill passed overhead.

A typical stop for me when taking Route One back towards Ellsworth is Addison Marsh. Although we arrived at high tide and the productive mudflats and river edge were no longer visible, the salt pannes provided some entertainment. Although diversity was low, we could not have asked for more enjoyable views of a mixed flock of Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers. A couple of Solitary Sandpipers and a Greater Yellowlegs passed overhead, and a couple more Northern Harriers and Bald Eagles, along with three migrant Ospreys, stirred the pot.
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A great opportunity to compare Least and Semipalmated (center) Sandpipers.
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Exploring access points to scan Flat Bay in Harrington, we found some shorebirds here and there as the ride finally started to go out. As shorebirds were appearing off of Oak Point, I realized lunchtime was approaching, and I decided to get back into the van before I spent the next three hours making everyone (myself most definitely included) starve as I sorted through shorebirds. Besides, a rapidly increasing northwesterly wind was making it challenging to see any birds in the distance (our first experience with anything other than perfect weather all weekend!).

But to be honest, most of that exploring was just to put us in position for Vazquez Mexican Takeout in Millbridge for lunch (second only to Helen’s pie as sought-after “twitches” for this tour!). I ate too much, as usual. Actually, gluttony was a regular theme of this tour, as many of us were forced to roll out of many of our meals. Apparently, we were all single-handedly trying to jumpstart the region’s economy with our consumption!
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A quick check of Hog Bay was thwarted by the increasing winds, and that was a sign it was time to begrudgingly bring our birding to an end and make our way back home. From Sabine’s Gulls to Spruce Grouse, from thousands of Bonaparte’s Gulls to hundreds of Red-breasted Nuthatches, from blueberry pie to “tacos as good as in McAllen, Texas” (according to one of our transplanted participants), and from pitcher plants to Fin Whales, there is no doubt that I will be looking forward to my next tour to this awesome area!  In fact, one participant on this year’s tour has already signed up for 2018. That should tell you something!

The Two “Shorebirds and Beer” Birds on Tap – Roadtrips of 2016

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“Shorebirds and Beer” was our first-ever “Birds on Tap – Roadtrip!” in partnership with our friends at The Maine Brew Bus last August. Now our 6th trip together, combining casual yet instructive birding in some of the state’s best seasonal hotspots with visits to two of our fantastic local breweries, we planned a return to Scarborough Marsh – where it all began!

And by popular demand, we added a second date. So this year, we had two “Shorebirds and Beer” departures, on August 7th and again on August 14th.  Both visited Scarborough Marsh, focusing our efforts on migratory shorebirds, but combined pairs of very different breweries.

We began the August 7th visit to Scarborough Marsh at the Eastern Road Trail.  A nice variety of birds were observed, including a couple of very cooperative singing Nelson’s Sparrows. Unfortunately, we found our destination, the salt pannes on the northern side of the marsh to be completely bone-dry due to this year’s drought. Needless to say, the numbers of shorebirds were not what we were hoping for. In fact, other than a few small groups of Least Sandpipers popping in and out of the grass, the pannes – often the most productive place in the entire marsh at this season – were completely devoid of shorebirds!
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However, along the road, we had some good instructive lessons, including ultra-cooperative Least Sandpipers than began our introduction into shorebird identification. We learned how breaking shorebirds down into family by shape and size first narrows the choices, and allows you to focus on just a few species to identify. We even had a perfect example of this, when three members of the genus Tringa were standing side-by-side as a dainty Lesser Yellowlegs joined a couple of Greater Yellowlegs while a bulky Tringa-on-steroids, Willet (of the Eastern subspecies, for the record) looked on.

Heading over to Pine Point as the tide rapidly rolled in, various human disturbances in Jones Creek limited shorebird diversity, but we could not have asked for more cooperative Semipalmated Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers (about 200 and 100, respectively) that really allowed us to practice our plover vs. sandpiper feeding shape and style dichotomy.
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We then moved on to work on specific identification.
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The remainder of our birding time was spent scanning the last of the distance sandbars (adding Black-bellied Plover to the shorebird checklist), before one of the members of the group called me over to check out an odd bird she found in her scope. It was an American Avocet!

While distance and heat shimmer precluded documentation photos, everyone was treated to a look or two in the scope of this very rare-in-Maine bird that isn’t seen every year anywhere in the state. While the long, fine bill was barely discernable at the distance, the very long legs and overall tall size (compared to nearby gulls) coupled with the distinctive tri-colored appearance (buffy head and neck, white underparts, and black wing with a broad white stripe) looks like no other.

And then it was time for a celebratory beer!  After a celebratory hand-pie for lunch, of course.
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First up was Barreled Souls in Saco, the only brewery in the country that is producing 100% barrel fermented beer in their Burton-Union system. Producing a mere 400 barrels a year – yet still offering 10-12 brews on tap at all times! – this time-consuming process which included two stages of fermentation, allows for the creation of some very complex beers.

Our samples today began with Half-Shilling, a very-light-bodied and low-ABV Scotch Ale as an introduction. Rosalita followed, using agave nectar in the primary fermentation and then steeped with hibiscus flowers during secondary fermentation, making for a very floral and subtly-sweet brew.  Space Gose was next, a summer refresher made with Maine sea salt, lemon zest, and coriander. By request, we then did a complete beer-wise-180 and shifted over to a heavy Barrel-aged MCAM – a very unique breakfast porter made with cinnamon, French toast, and bacon!  The spice, sweet, and smokiness were evident, as were the hints of bourbon from the bourbon barrels it was aged in. It was a potent, and very tasty, beer and a good representation of Barreled Souls’ creativity.

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Kristi shows off her very-appropriate for a birding/beer tour tattoo.

Our final destination of the day was Lone Pine Brewing in Portland. We began with their flagship Portland Pale Ale, using 90% Aroostook County-grown malts. This is a really great pale, with lots of flavor but incredibly smooth and lacking bitterness. Pale ales are occasionally “boring” to those who like a lot of hops, but this exceedingly well-balanced beer could be a new go-to for quite a few of us on the tour.

Their new Brightside IPA was next on our agenda, and I would put this right up there with the best IPAs in the state. Bright and citrusy, yet without that overwhelming bitterness that often pervades stronger IPAs (this one clocks in at a potent 7% alcohol), it may be way too easy-drinking. It was also a very “accessible” IPA for the non-hopheads. One member of group in particular, who normally doesn’t like IPAs at all, was actually quite a fan of this also well-balanced beer. For me, a sign of a truly great beer is one that is so good is that it appeals to those who normally don’t like that particular style.
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The following weekend, we once again began our birding at Eastern Road. Despite some rain in the past few days, however, the salt pannes were still dry. But to and fro, we encountered a nice mix of shorebirds, including some unbelievable cooperative Least Sandpipers once again.
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This one was phone-binned (a photo taken with an iPhone through my binoculars)!

Three Spotted Sandpipers – our first shorebirds of the day, actually – were encountered as we began our walk, and a decent number of Semipalmated Sandpipers were in the dried pannes. Both Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs were seen together for instructive studies. A distant hunting Northern Harrier, more singing (but this week, not seen) Nelson’s Sparrows, and lots of Cedar Waxwings and Song Sparrows foraging in the trailside scrub were among the highlights. We also took the time to watch Common Wood-Nymph butterflies, Great and Snowy Egrets, and stopped to enjoy the magnificently beautiful color of the eyes of Double-crested Cormorants.
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Great Egret posing.

On the walk back, with the tide just starting to recede, we had the opportunity to check out a few Semipalmated Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and a Least Sandpiper all side-by-side, just about 20 feet away.
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A quick stop at the Pelreco marsh produced yet more Least Sandpipers, a better view of the details of Greater Yellowlegs, two spiffy adult Little Blue Herons, and most importantly: Patches! Arguably one of the rarest birds in the world, this Tricolored Heron x Snowy Egret hybrid that has been frequenting the marsh for the past 3 years put on quite a show for us. It could – hypothetically – be the only one of its kind!
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Thanks to a change in brewery itinerary for this second run of “Shorebirds and Beer,” I was able to stall at the marsh long enough to allow enough water to flow out that mud was rapidly being exposed at Pine Point. And with it, excellent numbers of all of the expected shorebirds began to appear: 400+ Semipalmated Sandpipers, 300+ Semipalmated Plovers, 150+ Black-bellied Plovers, 22 Short-billed Dowitchers, 8 “Eastern” Willets, 6 White-rumped Sandpipers, 4 Ruddy Turnstones, a few Least Sandpipers, and 2 Greater Yellowlegs.

No American Avocet though, but a hunting Peregrine Falcon zipped through, causing quite the ruckus.

And then it was once again beer o’clock, and today we began our beer-ing tour with a visit to South Portland’s Foulmouthed Brewing. Only open for 7 weeks, it was a new destination for everyone on today’s tour – myself included – and we learned all about the owners, the fledgling (see what I did there?) brewpub (yup, they opened a restaurant too), and their wide range of beers.  We even enjoyed a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time sample of their new “Blue Balls,” a Belgian dark, strong beer with blueberries. Still a week or two from being finished, it was a great introduction to their creative brewing side.
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Inside at the brewpub, we sat at the big kids’ table and sampled four of their current offerings. Beginning with Brat, a German-style session with its bright and clean Noble hop finish, we moved onto Half Wit, a “hybrid” (not of heron and egret, mind you) of a Belgian Wit and an American Pale. A favorite of many on today’s visit, it was smooth and accessible, with enough body and flavor to hold its own. Kaizen Saison was up next, with its rotating hops producing a different flavor and aroma profile with each batch. We finished up with Rhubarb de Garde, a strong amber aged on rhubarb. I found a little extra sweetness and especially just the hint of tart from the rhubarb complimented each other nicely.
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Our final beer stop of the day was a return trip to Lone Pine Brewing. Tom once again took us through their methods and philosophy, and shared with us their Portland Pale Ale and Brightside IPA. The more I drink the Portland Pale, the more I love this perfectly balanced beer.
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And Abby was dressed in our honor today.

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While Don, always attentive, looked like he had just spotted a Blue-footed Booby.

With our final sips of Brightside, the second installment of Shorebirds and Beer came to a close and it was time to head back home. Every day is different during the window of shorebird migration, and these two visits to Scarborough Marsh exemplified that. A wide range of shorebirds were studied, as we started to expand our identification – and appreciation – toolbox. And between Barreled Souls, Lone Pine, and Foulmouthed, we were exposed to a wide range of beer styles and methodologies.
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And both are the goals of our Birds on Tap – Roadtrip! series: exposure to some of our seasonal birding highlights and our vast array of fantastic local breweries. We hope you’ll join us for our next roadtrip, on October 9th, when we head to the deep south to visit Kittery’s Fort Foster and Seapoint Beach for our birding, and Tributary and Hidden Cove Brewing for our beering. Hope to see you then!

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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The crew.

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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.
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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
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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.
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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!

50. breakfast of champions_edited-1
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
66. RAZO8_edited-1
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75. RAZO38_edited-1
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. 
60. dinner line_edited-1\
61. last sunset_edited-1
62. last sunset3_edited-1
63. last piping_edited-1
64. cannon2_edited-1

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!

 

A Weekend Adventure in Search of American Three-toed Woodpecker

I’ve been feeling the gravitational pull into the boreal forest recently. No longer able to resist, and finding a way to make another hole in my schedule, Evan Obercian and I made a rather impromptu trip north this weekend, heading to one of the most incredible areas of the state. It’s been way too long since I have visited Baxter State Park – the “crown jewel of Maine” – and the surrounding boreal-transition habitats.

We definitely had a target bird for this trip: American Three-toed Woodpecker. However, this was really just the excuse to spend a few days birding together, exploring an area Evan hasn’t been too, and enjoying the area that I don’t get to nearly enough. And camping.

We hit the road on Sunday morning, not exactly early, making it to Lincoln in time for the quintessential Maine road trip lunch: Dysart’s. Driving through rain, with more rain in the forecast, we wondered about whether or not this trip was really the best idea. But by the time we arrived at Harvester Road just before 3pm, it was mostly sunny, warm but breezy, but of course rather quiet: it was the afternoon in the middle of July after all.
1. Harvester Rd,7-17-16_edited-1

2. Evan_with_DeerFlies_edited-1
Mostly, we just heard Deer Flies.

We admittedly did only a modicum of research as to where three-toed woodpeckers had been reported from recently, so used that as a guide for our stops, if only for reconnaissance. Olive-sided Flycatchers were particularly vocal and conspicuous, and encountered one Fox Sparrow. Other “boreal specialties” included 3 Palm and 2 Wilson’s Warblers, and 2 each of Yellow-bellied Flycatchers.

In the heat of the afternoon, we looked at more “bugs” than birds, such as lots of Aphrodite Fritillaries…
3. Aphrodite_Frittilary,HarvesterRd,7-17-16_edited-1

…But at our last stop at a particular prime looking woodpecker spot, we did enjoy great views of a Black-backed Woodpecker – a very good sign.

A thunderstorm kindly missed our campsite…
4. approaching thunderstorm,7-17-16_edited-1

..and we stayed up way too late listening to Common Nighthawks and a lone American Woodcock give way to a chorus of 3-4 Eastern Whip-poor-wills.

Come dawn, dense fog and dueting Common Loons precluded the desire to get out of the sleeping bags. The vociferous “whip” at 4:00am didn’t help, either, as welcome as its song was. As we ate a leisurely breakfast, the fog lifted.
5. view from Campground,7-17-16_edited-1

Once again, however, we realized we were vacationing more than birding, and it was already 9:00 when we entered Baxter State Park. Making a bee-line for the Nesowadnahunk area, we took the Tote Road, and not stopping until we hit the best boreal-transition habitat in the stretch of road north of the Nesowadnahunk Field Campground.
6. ParkToteRoad,7-17-16_edited-1

A couple of Gray Jays made their presence known, we spotted a molting Bay-breasted Warbler or two, but possible woodpecker habitat was in short supply.
7. park_woodpecker_habitat,7-18-19-edited

We continued to explore, and the combination from the recommendations of a friend (thanks, Luke!) and an unrelated tip from a park ranger, led us to unmarked trail that lead us to Nesowadnahunk Lake and the adjacent campground.
8. Kahtadin_from_NesowadnehunkLake,7-17-16_edited-1

Besides the view, a few “trip birds” on the water, and a cold drink, we finally put together vague sightings reports to figure out that some of the summer’s American Three-toed Woodpecker reports were from this road to THIS campground. Of course, it was the mid-afternoon, and it was now the worst time of day at the worst time of the summer to find secretive boreal woodpeckers!

But we had a plan for the morning now, and although we hustled back to the car with an approaching thunderstorm, we had renewed optimism for our search.

We worked our way back south on the Tote Road, spending a couple of hours casually birding in the trails of the Tracey-Elbow-Grassy Pond area. A pair of Boreal Chickadees, a couple of family groups of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and plenty of Yellow-bellied Flycatchers were seen and heard, while Grassy Pond hosted 16 Ring-necked Ducks and 5 Common Goldeneyes.
9. Kahtadin_from_Grassy_Pond-edited

Mostly, however, we studied plants, insects, and other general nature observation. Stunning Ebony Jewelwings were everywhere…
10. matingEbony_Jewelwings_edited-1

…and we learned what a gorgeous damselfly the Variable Dancer was.
11. Variable_Dancer_edited-1

12. Boreal_or_NorthernBluet_edited-1
Boreal or Northern Bluet

Of course we continued to look for birds, and Evan tried creatively to get a closer look at a family group of Red-breasted Nuthatches…
13. Evan_closer_look_edited-1

…photographed a confiding Red Squirrel…
13a. Red_Squirrel_edited-1

…but perhaps this is why we haven’t been seeing many woodpeckers!
14. why_we_werent_finding_woodpeckers_edited-1

15. lichen_garden_edited-1

We offered advice to a hiker who was making the rather-tame bug situation much worse for herself, changed a tire from a tourist clearly out of her element, and gave a lift to two guys who might have been off a little more than they can chew on their day hike. As we left the park, we were feeling pretty good about having built up some good karma for the next day’s dedicated (and less lazy!) effort to see a three-toed woodpecker!  When the two guys tried to give us some money for the lift, we of course refused, as I said something like “return the favor someday.”  We had no idea how soon we would need such favors.

Back at our campsite at the Abol Bridge Campground (our last-minute trip precluded any chance of getting a site in the park, plus we wanted to stay between the park and the Telos Road area), we spent some time photographing the pair of loons in the river/pond behind our tent.
16. COLO_pair_edited-117. L1050464_COLO1_edited-118. L1050458_COLO2_edited-1

And then Evan prepared dinner…local (from Lincolnville) Belted Galloway steaks and wild-foraged chanterelles (earlier, Evan yelled for me to “stop” while we were driving. I thought he just saw a woodpecker, or a ghost. Nope, he saw mushrooms).
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20. dinner_served_edited-1

Although we were still sans American Three-toed Woodpecker(s), we had a great day, and the sunset was the icing on the cake!
22. sunset1,7-18-16_edited-1

On the morning of our last day, we some how struggled out of the campground before even coffee, focused on seeing the woodpecker. We decided to first try the spot along the entrance road to the Nesowadnahunk Campground (not to be confused with the Nesowadnahunk FIELD Campground in the park) via Telos Road.

Stomping around the edges of a clearcut and bog for a while, it was beginning to feel hopeless, and we decided to stop at the campground for a cup of coffee, before heading further up Telos Road to renew our search in the promising spot off Harvester Road.

However, I noticed a diffuse trail on an old skidder track; almost exactly at the posted milemarker 6 (which was the only specific location given in the handful of vague eBird reports). We walked all of about 30 yards when this happened:
23. L1050571_firstATTW_male,NesowadnahunkRd, 7-19-16_edited-1

I am fairly sure a second bird we saw briefly was a juvenile, being fed by the male. We followed the male for a while, taking hundreds of photos, while basking in the glory of our success (my 372nd bird in Maine and #1 for about the fourth year in a row on my Predictions List of my next personal State Birds) and in the glory that is the enigmatic American Three-toed Woodpecker.
24. L1050633_ATTW_male1,NesowadnahunkRd, 7-19-16_edited-125. L1050644_ATTW_male2,NesowadnahunkRd, 7-19-16_edited-126. L1050597_ATTW_male3,NesowadnahunkRd, 7-19-16_edited-127. L1050579_ATTW_male4,NesowadnahunkRd, 7-19-16_edited-128. L1050645_feedingATTW_male,NesowadnahunkRd, 7-19-16_edited-1

We then found the female, and watched and photographed her for a while.
29. L1050653_ATTW_female1,NesowadnahunkRoad,7-19-16_edited-130. L1050690_ATTW_female2,NesowadnahunkRoad,7-19-16_edited-1

One Red Crossbill – our only non-Purple finch of the trip – passed overhead, but we barely looked up.

Happy that we were successful in our search, we hatched a plan to casually bird and explore for the rest of the day, stopping to photograph bugs and abundant Snowshoe Hares.
31. L1050739_SnowshoeHare,TelosRd,7-19-16_edited-1

Then this happened:
“Ffffffhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh……tttttttsssssssssssssssss….”
32. tire

So….my car, like a lot of new cars, especially hybrids, comes with a pump and canister of fix-a-flat instead of a spare or a donut. Unfortunately, the canister of goo attached to the pump didn’t work.

The roads up here are notorious for shredding tires, thanks to the underlying flint bedrock that occasionally chips and breaks into upright daggers, aimed perfectly for taking on even the heaviest duty of truck tires.

A couple, heading down from the checkpoint, stopped, and offered a better plug than our impromptu creation, and a fresh can of Fix-a-Flat. The tire inflated, air was not heard, and we thought we were good to go.

We rolled about three feet, and the “giant Nelson’s Sparrow” sound returned.

“Ffffffhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh……tttttttsssssssssssssssss….”

Good thing we were about 15 miles from a phone (and yes, you can forget about cell service in these parts, as we knew).

Two loggers, their workday cut short by a broken part, happened by, and we hopped in. They generously took us in the opposite direction they were heading to deliver us back to the Abol Bridge Campground. A very insightful conversation about logging, the economy, and the possible National Park/Monument ensued.

“Umm, hi again. Can we use your phone?” I called Ford Roadside Assistance.

We waited for the tow truck confirmation. It didn’t come.

Not wanting to tie up the phone line incase that confirmation came through, I paid for the wifi and texted Jeannette. She called Ford. Apparently, the service was on hold.

I’ll make a long story short: Ford Roadside Assistance sucks. When we finally got a tow truck (thanks to a tip from our very helpful waitress and calls from Jeannette), it turned out that John – really the only option – told them what it would cost and they refused to pay it, even though I had already approved ANY cost overruns beyond their allocated $100 for towing. I knew $100 wasn’t going to get us very far. Of course, I would have liked to have known they refused it.

At least there was beer on tap – we needed it! – and a very good plate of poutine. More great conversation, with hikers just starting on the AT, and another just about finished, and the staff of the campground and restaurant passed the time.

Luckily, John was available, picked me up at the campground and we went up to the car (Ford told me to return to my car – in the middle of nowhere, without any kind of phone service – and wait for their tow truck which was still not arranged), loaded it up, and he entertained us with some really great stories on the long drive to Medway for the new tire.

A $110 tire, a $245 tow (yes, the complaint has already been filed with Ford), and 5 ½ hours later, we departed for the long drive home. It had just become a very expensive state bird!

To be honest, the “adventure” and the quality of the conversation (not to mention the beer and poutine), the clichéd but very real “kindness of strangers,” and the overall experience somehow turned into a highlight, rather than a lowlight.

That being said, as I mentioned to Evan as we stood there staring at the irreparable tire after the plug gave way “Good thing we actually saw the woodpecker!”

Note: All photos taken with a Leica V-Lux (typ 114)…Available at Freeport Wild Bird Supply!

The Galapagos (Part II)

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

6/23: Santa Cruz Island.
Albatross_monument

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

RanchoPrimicias1RanchoPrimicias2RanchoPrimicias3RanchoPrimicias4_edited-1

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

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

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

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

lava_tube

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

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

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

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

photographingLavaGull1

Lava_Gull

MAFR

PuertoAyora1PuertoAyora2PuertoAyora3

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

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

largeMedium
A large Medium or a small Large?

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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
GalapagosMockingbird
<img class=”alignnone size-full wp-image-2928″ src=”https://mebirdingfieldnotes.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/saddlebacktortoise.jpg&#8221; alt=”SaddlebackTortoise” width=”3264″ height=”2448″ />
“Saddleback” tortoise

grou_in_town

sunset

6/24: Santa Cruz Island.

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

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

King_Angelfish
King Angelfish

MAFR
Female Magnificent Frigatebird

Short-earedOwl
Roosting “Galapagos” Short-eared Owl

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

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petrifiedSeaLionpoop
Petrified sea-lion poop!

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

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

LandIguana
Santa Cruz Land Iguana

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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.
SeaLions1SeaLions2SeaLions3SeaLions4SeaLions5
SeaLions_J-Mo_edited-1

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

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

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

humpingPenguins

GalapagosPenguins

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

GalapagosSnake
Galapagos Snake

maleLava Lizard
Male Santiago Lava Lizard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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

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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.
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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.
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Marine Iguanas

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Nazca Booby.

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Red-billed Tropicbirds

SuarezPoint

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Swallow-tailed Gull

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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!).
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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!
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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

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

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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!
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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.
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AsilodelePaz-view

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Medium Tree-Finch

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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.
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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.
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Galapagos Shearwater

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Galapagos Petrel

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

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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!