Category Archives: Birding “Away”

Intriguing Apparent Hybrid Gull at Niagara Falls.

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

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

The next day (Thursday, 3/9) it was quite a bit colder, but the winds were “only” 15-25mph. It was far from pleasant, but it was most definitely bird-able! And the birding was very good!
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Despite the relatively late date for the peak of “winter” gulling here (despite what it felt like), we sorted through the many thousands of gulls (predominately Herring and Ring-billed, with a small number of Great Black-backed) and conservatively estimated at least 31 Iceland Gulls, 23 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and 8 Glaucous Gulls in and around Goat Island alone.
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Third-cycle “Kumlien’s Iceland Gull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Redheads

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

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

The Galapagos (Part II)

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

6/23: Santa Cruz Island.
Albatross_monument

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

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

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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!
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MAFR

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Reunited with the group, we all walked across town – including a stop at the fish pier, working the occasional finch flock. It was really good to see the finches proliferating in urban and developed areas, but it did take a little of their mystique away – if you know what I mean.
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Common Cactus-Finch not on a cactus.

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A large Medium or a small Large?

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

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Probable Large Ground-Finch?

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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.
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“Saddleback” tortoise

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sunset

6/24: Santa Cruz Island.

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

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

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King Angelfish

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Female Magnificent Frigatebird

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Roosting “Galapagos” Short-eared Owl

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

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

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

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Santa Cruz Land Iguana

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Galapagos Flycatcher

The highlight for many, however, were the Galapagos Sea-Lions that greeted us on our arrival on one beach, and others, escorting us away from the departure beach. Inquisitive pups came up to inspect us, with one even exploring Jeannette’s leg with its soft but yet somehow prickly whiskers. It also took a liking to one of her boots.
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Pelagic birding on the way northward off of the east side of Santa Cruz yielded more Galapagos Petrels, Swallow-tailed Gulls commuting offshore to feed after the sun went down (and squid come up to the surface), scattered Band-rumped, Wedge-rumped, and Elliot’s Storm-Petrels. But the massive boil of thousands of Galapagos Shearwaters encountered near a couple of sea stacks was simply astounding.
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6/25: Bartolome Island.
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Desolate, bleak, and vulcan: this is how I pictured more of the Galapagos Islands. But the older islands we have been visiting were softened around the edges by time. Soil built up, and endemic plant communities flourished.

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

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

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Male Santiago Lava Lizard

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

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

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

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

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

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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).
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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!).
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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.

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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.
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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.
IMG_8689_WAAV_edited-1

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

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Nazca Booby.

Red-billedTropicbird
Red-billed Tropicbirds

SuarezPoint

Swallow-tailedGull
Swallow-tailed Gull

usWavedAlbatross

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

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

6/22: Floreana Island.

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

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

displayingBFBO

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

AmericanFlamingo

Flamingo1_edited-1Flamingo2_edited-1
phone-scoped American Flamingos

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

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

AsilodelePaz-view

captiveTortoises

MediumTreeFinch
Medium Tree-Finch

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

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

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

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Galapagos Petrel

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

sunset

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

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

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St. Lucia Parrot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2a_edited-2Caribbean Elaenia

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Barbados Bullfinch.

2c_edited-2Green-throated Carib.

2d_edited-2Carib Grackle

3_edited-1View of Kingstown from Grenadine Hotel.

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

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

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

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

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

6_edited-2St. Vincent Bananaquit.

6a_edited-2Gray Kingbird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15_edited-1 Villa Beach

16_edited-117_edited-1Kingstown BBQ

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

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

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

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

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

19_edited-219a_edited-2Black-faced Grassquit

19b_edited-2Grenada Flycatcher.

20_edited-1Best fried chicken ever!

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

23_edited-1Our bedroom Sun Spider.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23b_edited-2St. Lucia Parrot pair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27b_edited-2St. Lucia Warbler.

27c_edited-2White-breasted Thrasher

27d_edited-2Lesser Antillean Flycatcher

28_edited-2Adams and Vision.

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

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

30b_edited-2Green Heron.

30c_edited-2Cattle Egrets.
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Day 8, 2/16.
Jeannette out did herself finding this place, as it was a real birder’s paradise (without trying). A St. Lucia Oriole surprised us on a pre-breakfast walk, and at breakfast, we were joined by dining Lesser Antillean Bullfinches. Two bold pairs not only picked up scraps, but they also foraged on the table while we were eating. One even landed on Jeannette’s water glass and took a sip!

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

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

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

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

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

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

30e_edited-2Scaly-breasted Pigeon.

34_edited-1Castries.

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

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

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

Our last night of vacation, it was time for our splurge dinner, and so we headed over to Boucan Resort – “the chocolate hotel” – where everything on the menu of their fine restaurant had cacao incorporated in it some way. Sometimes themes like this come across as gimmicky and forced, but that was most definitely not the case here. From the cocktails to the amuse bouche to each entrée – and of course, dessert! – were incredibly well-conceived and perfectly executed. In fact, when all was said and done, Jeannette and I both agreed it was one of the top 3 or 5 meals we have ever had. Anywhere.  So yeah, good way to finish a trip!
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39_edited-139a_edited-2Antillean Crested Hummingbird

39b_edited-2St. Lucia Pewee.

39c_edited-2Antillean Crested Hummingbird

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

41a_edited-2Purple-throated Carib

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

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

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

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

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

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

45a_edited-2Green-throated Carib

45b_edited-2Purple-throated Carib.

Trip/Island List (* life bird).

Barbados:

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

St. Vincent:

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

St. Lucia:

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

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

Vancouver to LA – Birding and Cruising.

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

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

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

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

Frequent flier miles delivered me to Vancouver a day before Adam’s arrival, so I took a train to our hotel, settled in, and took a walk. Of course, I began to experience the culinary delights of this fantastic foodie city, as well as sample some of the birdlife in a few small urban parks. I started to get familiar with how dark the local Song Sparrows were, and reacquaint myself with the snappy call note of “Oregon” Dark-eyed Juncos. I also refreshed my memory about how impossible it is to identify large gulls in the Pacific Northwest, although at least a few adults looked identifiable. My dinner at a Ramen bar was a perfect end to the day, and a good way to ring in my trip to this cultural city.
Day1-Vancouver L1030354_SOSP,Day2-2_edited-1
I could enjoy these dark Song Sparrows all day!

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

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

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

Adam arrived in the early afternoon, and after lunch at a Frites Granville (deep fried poutine, need I say more…but the kimchi and Korean beef-topped fries was much better), we spent a pleasant few hours, including a little bit of sunshine at Stanley Park. Adding a few more species to the triplist, including “Sooty” Fox Sparrow, we mostly spent the time taking advantage of the nice light to photograph Barrow’s Goldeneyes and Mew Gulls, among others.
Am in Stanley Park.
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Korean-Belgian-Canadian fusion!
Day2-Lunch

Pm…back in Stanley Park.
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Day2-pm-in-Stanley2

River Otter devouring flounder.
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So many Barrow’s Goldeneyes!
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Day 3, 11/6: Vancouver.
Light rain and drizzle returned by dawn, as Adam and I headed for the hills. Rain continued, steady at times, as we hiked around Cypress Provincial Park looking for forest denizens, especially Sooty Grouse. While we didn’t see much – the conditions were not very bird- or birder- friendly, seeing scattered Varied Thrush was a real treat, along with a Red-breasted Sapsucker, several small flocks of Red Crossbills, and other resident species.

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

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

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

Am in Cypress Provincial Park.
Day3_CypressDay3-Cypress2 Day3-Cypress3

Boundary Bay.
Day3-BoundaryBay1 (phone-scoped panorama)Day3-BoundaryBay2 Day3-BoundaryBay3

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

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

And then Adam found a Sooty Grouse!

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

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

With rain still falling, wind and fog as bad as ever, we packed it in, dripping our way into the tram, and back down the hill. Unfortunately, conditions were even worse at Cypress Provincial Park, and although the donair stop for lunch was great and hit the spot, the rain finally defeated us all on a near-birdless walk at the park. It was time to retreat.
Day4-GrouseMountain
It might be raining a little…but Sooty Grouse!

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IMG_6678_Day4-GrouseMountain-bear-totem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Golden-crowned Sparrow.

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

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

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Spotted Towhee.

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Brown Creeper.

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March of the Mallards.

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..and American Wigeon.

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Anna’s Hummingbird.

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Common (Feral) Peafowl.

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

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“Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco.

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Rhinocerous Auklet in the harbor.

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

Whoo-ee!

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

It was amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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Northern Fulmar.

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Black-footed Albatross

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Laysan Albatross

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Buller’s Shearwaters.

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Black-footed Albatross.

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Pacific White-sided Dolphins.

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Mola Mola.

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Buller’s Shearwater.

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11/11, Day 8: Off Northern California.

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

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

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

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

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

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Off Big Sur, California.

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Wrecked Ashy Storm-Petrel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Legg Lake Park.

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Brewer’s Blackbird.

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

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

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

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

The Bahamas!

Bahama Warbler

Bahama Warbler

Jeannette and I traveled with our friends Paul Doiron and Kristen Lindquist for a 10-day escape from winter’s grip. While the 5 endemics (species found nowhere else on Earth) of the Bahamas (not including the “new” hummingbird on the Inaguas that was split after we planned this trip) were our primary targets, these were, in all reality, the excuse to visit, not the sole reason.

Like all of our journeys, Jeannette and I use species of interest as a guide, getting us to interesting places, seeing great birds, eating great food, and perhaps even resulting in a little rest and relaxation. When most people think of the Bahamas, they think of resorts with expansive landscapes of concrete pools and golf courses, or casinos. Yeah, we didn’t visit any of those. Instead, we prefer the periphery of where the hoards of tourists flock (sorry for the pun, I couldn’t help it). In other words, we flock to where the birds are.

We arrived in Nassau on the heavily-developed island of New Providence less than three hours after departing from Boston. That short trip resulted in a welcome gain of over 70-degrees. I was soon hot.

We had a relaxed afternoon, mostly being “regular” tourists around town, including a visit to the John Waitling rum distillery where the opening scene of Casino Royale was filmed, and where some fine rums are made.
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Wintering migrants such as Yellow-throated and Prairie Warblers foraged in gardens and street trees, and Jeannette scored her lifer White-crowned Pigeon as it came into roost in a tree just outside our downtown hotel. Eurasian Collared-Doves were ubiquitous, but it was interesting to see them here. Besides the surprising “dark morph” birds in the city, there is a fair amount of ornithological history with these birds: it was here in Nassau that they were released in 1974 and from here, rapidly colonized the North American continent, now breeding all of the way to southern Alaska!

The next morning (2/27), we were already back at the airport, this time for the short 30-minute jump over to Abaco. Now it was time to really go birding!

Poking our way from the airport to Marsh Harbor, as Paul adeptly navigated the “wrong side” of the road for the first time, we soon found just how outdated the Birder’s Guide to the Bahamas was. Nonetheless, we still found the first lifer for all four of us – LaSagra’s Flycatcher. Shortly after arriving at our quiet little cabin rental at The Lofty Fig (much more our speed than a loud and bustling downtown hotel!), the first of the five endemics we were after flew overhead – 4 Bahama Swallows!

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LaSagra’s Flycatcher

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Black-faced Grassquit

A short walk over to the Abaco Beach Resort yielded lifer Greater Antillean Bullfinches and Thick-billed Vireo, and lifer Western Spindalis for Jeannette in the neighborhood nearby. The spiffy, white-bellied resident race of American Kestrel was exciting to see and we became familiar with the common cast of migrant warblers that would appear at almost every “pish:” Prairie, Cape May, Yellow-throated, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Black-and-white, and especially Palm, and of course one of our favorite birds, the Bananaquit.
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Thick-billed Vireo

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American Kestrel

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Western Spindalis

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Saw-scaled Curlytail.

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The 28th was our most important birding day, with three endemics and several other regional specialties on the agenda as we birded the south end of the island. Following breakfast in a little shop in Sandy Point (lifer Guava Duff!), we immersed ourselves in the pine forests of Abaco National Park.
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Homemade next door, hand-delivered with extra sauce.

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Bahama Swallow

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Atala

Olive-capped Warblers and Cuban Emeralds were abundant, Cuban Pewees were scattered about, and we teased out two skulking Bahama Yellowthroats – endemic #2. We finally picked up a couple of Bahama Warblers – their long, decurved bill and yellow bellies rapidly separating them from Yellow-throated.
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Cuban Emerald

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Cuban Pewee

When you think of mockingbirds, you think of bold and conspicuous, but apparently not so for the Bahama Mockingbird in the middle of winter. We only saw one bird on our trip, and it was a skulker. After a bit of gentle squeaking, however, it popped out and offered a short but satisfying moment. Apparently, we were lucky to see one at all at this time of year.
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While looking for it to give a second good view, a female Bahama Woodstar zipped by and landed on a nearby bush – our third endemic of walk!
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We wandered around a little bit before arriving in the afternoon at the Bahama Palm Shores to look for the endemic subspecies of the Cuban Parrot. It took us all of about 10 minutes before we heard parrots, and a handful of yards further down the road, we found ourselves surrounded by a confiding flock of 20 or so feeding on fruit.
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Having cleaned up on our first full birding day, the agenda was more relaxed on our second full day on the island. We worked our way north to Treasure Cay, stopping at a roadside coppice which yielded more migrants, another Bahama Warbler, and more Thick-billed Vireos than we could look at.

Thanks to two mutual friends, we hooked up with local birding expert Woody Bracey. Woody generously offered to show us around his part of the island. Mentioning we hadn’t yet seen our life White-cheeked Pintails, Woody took us to a local golf course pond, where 48 pintails were present. What a gorgeous bird; here’s one where the field guides definitely don’t do them justice! Cute and elegant, dapper and colorful all at once, these great little ducks were a great way to start our birding day together.
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Cool “gray-morph” or somewhat leucistic pintail.

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“Please take MY picture! Or, give me bread.”

Interestingly enough, the rarest bird in the pond was a vagrant Canada Goose, which arrived here in November – a great bird for the islands. Three Mallards, if indeed genuine vagrants, would be a close second for their rarity. The Blue-winged Teals and Pied-billed Grebes, however, were common and expected.

Further exploration yielded our lifer Loggerhead Kingbirds, and much improved views of both Bahama Yellowthroat and Bahama Warbler.
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As luck would have it, after working hard for West Indian Woodpecker to no avail, we heard one call right behind our Marsh Harbor lodging on the morning of the 2nd. However, in about an hour, it only yielded two glimpses as it darted between tall ficus trees. Four Loggerhead Kingbirds were more conspicuous however, and a small thicket of trees held a nice mixed species foraging flock of overwintering warblers, included a Black-throated Blue and a Worm-eating.

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I’m a fan of fried chicken, and the fried chicken was darn good down here, such as at the little “Just Chicken” shack that Jeannette and I ate at tonight.

Today we took the short ferry ride to Hope Town on Elbow Cay. Wandering through the village – which reminded us all a little of Monhegan Island (but with palm trees) – we did the touristy thing before heading out of town and walking the edges of coppice habitat outside of town all of the way to White Sound. And guess what we saw – West Indian Woodpeckers! Two, about 20 feet away foraging on a roadside tree for over 10 minutes. Isn’t that always how it works out? No Key West-Quail Doves as we hoped for, however.
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Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls from our lunch stop.

Early in the morning on March 3rd, we departed Abaco, and arrived back on New Providence. With 6 hours until our next flight, we splurged on a car rental and checked out some birding sites on New Providence. The Harold and Wilson Ponds National Park was the most productive of the destinations. Our trip list grew with Snowy Egret, Neotropic Cormorant, Tricolored Heron, Virginia Rail, and Sora, plus 6 more White-cheeked Pintails. Another female Bahama Woodstar entertained us at the Clifton Heritage National Park, which unfortunately, we ran out of time to explore.
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Following the shortest flight of our lives, we arrived on Andros Island a mere 15 minutes after takeoff. We even took off early, which resulted in our arrival time being our scheduled departure time!
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Jeannette did the planning for this trip, and once again, she had us in prime position for our target bird. This time, it was the rarest bird of our trip (and therefore my “most-wanted” species), the critically endangered Bahama Oriole. We checked into the Lighthouse Yacht Club Marina motel, a place that’s glory days are long since past. While its history was fascinating, it was a tired place, but we weren’t here for the ambience – or thankfully, the “pool.” Instead, we were here for orioles.
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And within about 10 minutes of stepping outside into the front “yard,” an oriole sounded off. We hustled down the entrance road, and Paul spotted the bird teed up on a dead snag. It turned out that a pair was present, and they afforded good views. Now, with the last of the island endemics checked off, we could finally relax a little!
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There wasn’t much of a town here in Fresh Creek, but Hank’s Place – the only restaurant open in the area – was not just a great meal, but had the local color, character, and ambiance that one misses staying at gated resorts. Bahama Swallows were on the wires as we crossed the bridge, but unfortunately, we didn’t rediscover any extinct three-foot-tall Barn Owls on the walk home.

The next morning, White Ibis were out on the front lawn of the Lighthouse Yacht Club, and then spent some more quality time with the orioles – at least three were in the area, including two males counter-singing.
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Soon thereafter, we took a cab for a short ride over to our final destination of the trip, the Small Hope Bay Lodge to end our vacation in style. Wandering around the grounds and some of the trails yielded more quality time with Thick-billed Vireos, Cuban Emeralds, Bananaquits, Greater Antillean Bullfinches, Black-faced Grassquits, and pockets of North American migrants. Vocal Clapper Rails were added to our trip list.
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Paul finally gets into his element.

Jeannette and I took a bike ride (5 miles on old bikes and mostly rough dirt roads, so this might have been slightly more effort than we had anticipated!), through pine forest that was alive with the songs of resident Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, to the most impressive of the local “blue holes.” Circular sinkholes into the limestone, blue holes are famous for their relaxing swimming. In we went.
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The next morning, one of the resident guides, Tarran Simms, took us on a van tour two three blue holes, taught us about traditional medicinal plants, and brought us to one of the more productive coppices for two of our last “target birds.” Although the notoriously challenging-to-see Key West Quail-Dove was heard twice, it was not surprising that we couldn’t track it down through the impenetrable forest. However, although we heard at least two different Great Lizard-Cuckoos, we weren’t able to spot one of those either. We couldn’t complain, though, as these were our only to “misses” of the trip.

And Paul finally got to go fishing, and reel in a bunch of Bonefish. A “Fisherman’s Lifer.”
Pauls Bonefish

Two Least Grebes were at the Rainbow Blue Hole, along with a chance to dip your feet in for a little fish-exfoliation treatment. A Merlin was new for our trip near Cousteau’s Blue Hole, where Tarran also pointed out an old Barn Owl nest. It’s certainly not where I would have expected to see a Barn Owl nest, but without any barns around, clearly they make do. No one was home at this season, but several pellets below proved they have been eating rats nearby.
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After lunch, Jeannette, Kristen, and I rode into “town” to check out the Androsian batik (fabric) factory and store, passing a small pond that hosted a few waterbirds. An Osprey, of the regional subspecies “ridgewayi” with a nearly all-white head flew over, our first (surprisingly) Osprey of the trip.

On our last morning on Andros, Jeannette and I briefly spotted a Bahama Oriole in a Coconut Palm as we left our cabin. We then took a longer trail through the property, hoping for quail-doves or lizard-cuckoos. We didn’t hear or see either, but we did get an unexpected lifer: Swainson’s Warbler. One of the few eastern North American birds neither of us have seen, we’ve never been in the right place at the right time to look for one, so it was exciting to first see the bird in its “wintering” grounds – the place where it spends almost 8 months of each given year. A really good look at a Red-legged Thrush was nice, as well.

For a chance at seeing some seabirds, Jeannette had booked us on the ferry from Fresh Creek back to Nassau, instead of flying back. The boat left from near the Lighthouse Marina, and as we departed, a Bahama Oriole was singing away, teeing up for one last look as Bahama Swallows zipped around the creek.

It was a nice boat ride, and seeing 6 flying fish was pretty neat, but we only had one distant seabird in the three-hour journey: an unidentified shearwater that was really far away, but presumably an Audubon’s (which would have been a lifer for Jeannette). A few Laughing Gulls were finally around as we approached Nassau, and once in the harbor, we added Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls to our trip list.
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Jeannette and I like to splurge at least once on a trip, if possible, and we went all out on this one: dinner the Greycliff in Nassau. And it was fantastic…and amazingly expensive. But you only live once, right? Besides, while waiting to be seated, we strolled the impressive gardens as dusk approached. A Louisiana Waterthrush wandered around the edge of the tile-lined pool, and a Red-legged Thrush foraged in the garden. White-crowned Pigeons and Eurasian Collared-Doves were arriving to roost in the palms and other trees around the property. And the refined guava duff (no Styrofoam clam-shell here!) was exquisite.
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March 7th was our last day of vacation, so Jeannette and I wanted to make the most of it. Paul joined us for a walk around the tourist Mecca/hell of Paradise Island. It was not our cup of tea, but thickets of vegetation, especially around a couple of stagnant but very productive ponds, were surprisingly birdy. Especially around the ponds, there were White-crowned Pigeons and Bananaquits in the trees, all of the now-expected wintering migrants at every pish, and several really good looks at Red-legged Thrushes. Mourning Dove was new for our trip.
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Phone-binned Red-legged Thrush

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Great Egret with begging fish and turtles.

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Paul peeled off, and Jeannette and I set out on two missions. One, was my now-desperate attempt to find a place that had invasive Lionfish on the menu (I’ve heard it tastes great, and with the damage it is doing to the reefs of the region, I was hoping to single-handily increase demand for it!). No luck there. Our other mission was to find the introduced Cuban Grassquits.

We walked towards a well-known place to see them, finding a great little café (Le Petit Gourmet) for lunch, before we arrived at the Bahama Art Handicraft Gift Shop on Shirley St. We soon spotted some feeders, and within seconds, Cuban Grassquits started arriving. There were at least twenty of these darling little birds…and a rather gorgeous one at that; the field guides didn’t really do it justice. House Sparrows, Rock Pigeons, and a single Common Ground-Dove were the only other visitors to this feeder, but the grassquits were yet another life bird that offered stellar views and solid “life bird moments.”
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“We’re going to see a life bird here?”

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Phone-binned photos of the Cuban Grassquits

It was a long, hot walk back to our hotel, making a couple of stops in pursuit of leads on Lionfish, but finding another grassquit at Betty Cole Park near the waterfront. Then, the four of us rendezvoused back at our downtown Towne Hotel, and took the bittersweet cab ride back to the airport. It was time to head home: back to winter, back to work, but back to Sasha and the climate I am more comfortable in!
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This is our triplist, in order of first appearance. Birds marked with an (*) were lifer birds for me and Jeannette, and two (**) were the two species that were new for just Jeannette. Endemics or regional specialties are in all caps.
New Providence Island:
1. House Sparrow
2. Northern Mockingbird
3. Killdeer
4. Laughing Gull
5. Eurasian Collared-Dove
6. Rock Pigeon
7. Yellow-throated Warbler
8. Prairie Warbler
9. Black-and-white Warbler
10. American Kestrel (endemic subspecies)
11. WHITE-CROWNED PIGEON**
12. Cape May Warbler
13. Smooth-billed Ani
14. Common Gallinule
15. American Coot
16. Great Egret
17. Belted Kingfisher

Abaco:
18. Common Ground-Dove
19. Bananaquit
20. Black-faced Grassquit
21. LASAGRA’S FLYCATCHER*
22. Ring-billed Gull
23. Magnificent Frigatebird
24. BAHAMA SWALLOW*
25. Little Blue Heron
26. Red-tailed Hawk (resident subspecies)
27. Tree Swallow (actually, a pretty good rarity)
28. American Redstart
29. Northern Parula
30. Greater Antillean Bullfinch
31. Red-legged Thrush
32. Palm Warbler
33. Yellow-throated Vireo
34. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
35. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
36. THICK-BILLED VIREO*
37. Red-winged Blackbird
38. European Starling
39. American Oystercatcher
40. Indigo Bunting
41. WESTERN SPINDALIS**
42. Turkey Vulture
43. Limpkin
44. Pine Warbler
45. “GOLDEN” YELLOW WARBLER
46. Northern Waterthrush
47. CUBAN EMERALD*
48. OLIVE-CAPPED WARBLER*
49. CUBAN PEWEE*
50. Great Blue Heron
51. BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT*
52. BAHAMA WARBLER*
53. BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRD*
54. BAHAMA WOODSTAR*
55. Hairy Woodpecker (endemic subspecies)
56. Ruddy Turnstone
57. Royal Tern
58. Double-crested Cormorant
59. CUBAN (BAHAMA) PARROT
60. Reddish Egret
61. Common Yellowthroat
62. Worm-eating Warbler
63. Yellow-rumped Warbler
64. WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAIL*
65. Blue-winged Teal
66. Pied-billed Grebe
67. Canada Goose (mega-rarity!)
68. Mallard (very rare)
69. Forster’s Tern
70. Gadwall
71. LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD*
72. Peregrine Falcon
73. Spotted Sandpiper
74. White-eyed Vireo
75. WEST INDIAN WOODPECKER*
76. Black-throated Blue Warbler
77. Ovenbird
78. Willet

New Providence:
79. Snowy Egret
80. Neotropical Cormorant
81. Tricolored Heron
82. Virginia Rail
83. Sora

Andros Island:
84. BAHAMA ORIOLE*
85. Magnolia Warbler
86. White Ibis
87. Green Heron
88. Clapper Rail
89. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
90. Least Grebe
91. Merlin
92. Osprey (ssp. Ridgewayi)
93. Swainson’s Warbler*

New Providence Island:
94. Lesser Black-backed Gull
95. Herring Gull
96. Louisiana Waterthrush
97. Mourning Dove
98. CUBAN GRASSQUIT*

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The Deal With Alpha Codes, and some Florida Pics.

This week, my blogging was hosted by the American Birding Association. A synthesis of the results of a query that I put out to the Maine-birds listserve regarding why the use of “four-letter (or “alpha” or “banding”) codes on listserves elicits such strong responses is featured in “Open Mic: The Deal With Alpha Codes.” I hope you’ll check it out, and I hope you’ll enjoy (or at least be thought-provoked by it).

Part 1 is here.

And Part 2 is here.

Please consider joining in on the discussion in the comments field of the ABA blog.

Meanwhile, Jeannette and I escaped the ice for a quick four-day trip to Florida for a wedding, a day with family, and an all-too-short day and a half of birding. I’m not sure if I will get a chance to write much of a blog about it, so let me quickly summarize the highlights:
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Florida Scrub-Jay was a life bird for Jeannette.  I think this is a “countable” view!
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Jeannette’s first ABA-Area Limpkins were among a lovely diversity of birds at the Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland, one of which posed nicely.
Limpkin on snag,Circle B Bar Reserve,FL, 12-8-14

And while our mutual-lifer Nanday Parakeets were serendipitously spotted as we stepped out of breakfast at a Waffle House (itself a successful “twitch”), a stop in Gulfport for another look (also successful), presented an unexpected photo session with some, let’s say, very cooperative Wood Storks.
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As for local birds, I was happy to see the Townsend’s Solitaire was still at Florida Lake Park in Freeport this morning as I took Sasha for a stroll. I spent about 25 minutes with it today, as it alternated feeding on Winterberry and Multiflora Rose, and in classic solitaire-style, perching up on the tallest trees around. That was a nice welcome home.

Finally today, I wanted to steer you over to the Tri-Town Weekly (Freeport-Pownal-Durham) which ran this nice little feature on our store’s 6th Annual Snowbird(er) Contest for our Saturday Morning Birdwalks.