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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Pelagic Trip on Holland America Cuise Ship


          I was browsing the internet one day and happened upon the "Vacations to Go" website which I occasionally look at for deals. Well, I saw a deal for a five day repositioning cruise from San Diego to Vancouver for only $299/person on Holland America's Noordam. So I appealed to Sharon's adventerous side and asked what she thought of the idea of a pelagic trip on a cruise ship. She liked the idea so we booked the cruise. Since the price was a bargain we decided to upgrade to a balcony suite in case the weather turned bad and the birding was limited.  We would still be able to observe the ocean and find some birds. Since the cruise would spend four full days at sea, May 5th to 9th, I was using the ship as my personal pelagic trip. After doing some research as to the possible birds to be found, I was hoping to get four life birds on the ocean and one in Vancouver.
         We flew into San Diego the day before the cruise and spent some time walking around the waterfront. We visited the USS Midway aircraft carrier which was docked there as a museum. We also found the Bob Hope Memorial and the statue of the famous kiss in time square of the sailor and the woman.
USS Midway

Bob Hope doing his act for the troops
          The next afternoon we boarded the ship and were having an afternoon snack before the ship set sail. I was sitting at the table and Sharon was in line getting her salad when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up and it took a few seconds for me to realize it was Jim and Linda Waldie, members of BCDC, who now live in Cape May. What a surprise! They were here as part of a group of birders looking for seabirds, the same as I was doing. Jim invited me to join the group led by Paul Lehman and I didn't hesitate to take him up on the offer. 
Jim and Linda Waldie
          We then set sail around 4 PM and quickly the birders took over the front of the promenade deck and set up their scopes. We weren't even out of the harbor and there were a few Brown Boobies flying around and landing on nearby buoys. Just to clarify things ahead of time, none of these bird photos are mine. My little point and shoot camera would never get photos like these. But all species shown were seen by me.
Brown Booby
           We birded until dusk and identified the following species. Black-footed Albatross (several), Pink-footed Shearwaters, Sooty Shearwaters, Black-vented Shearwater, Northern Fulmars, Black Storm-Petrel, and Scripp's Murrelets.
Pink-footed Shearwater

Northern Fulmar

Sooty Shearwater

Black-vented Shearwater
Scripp's Murrelet
           None of these species were life birds for me but it was certainly fun to see them again. We called it a day and headed to bed to get up on deck before sunrise. During the night the winds picked up to 40 knots. The next morning I walked out onto the deck and was blasted by the 40 knot wind coming right at the bow of the ship plus the cruising speed of the ship was 18 knots so the head winds amounted to 58 knots. It was quite chilly to say the least. To add to that, the ocean now had 15 foot swells. Fortunately the ship was very large and handled the sea well. We were still able to use our scopes without to much vibration. 
           Because of the rough seas, the captain of the ship closed off the promenade deck, the deck passengers use to jog or walk around the ship. So it was suggested the day before that if this happened just go out on the deck anyway and no one will bother you. So for the next two days we had the deck to ourselves and didn't have to contend with the fellow passengers. Sharon wasn't happy with the closure because she enjoys walking the deck but she entertained herself by taking culinary arts and computer classes.        
           With the rough seas and high winds Paul said that this would be a good day for Pterodroma Petrels. It turned out to be just that. I arrived on deck about 6am, before sunrise, and birds were already flying. We were seeing a lot of the same birds we saw the previous day. Around 8am people were split between the port and starboard sides of the ship. Fortunately I was on the starboard side when the call went out of a Laysan Albatross. When I searched the area I saw a light colored bird and watched it and thought to myself "This doesn't look right for an albatross". It turned out to be an intermediate phase Northern Fulmer but fortunately the Laysan flew right into my field of view and I was able to see the massive size difference and the stark brown and white appearance of the albatross. I was hoping that this would be the first lifer of the trip as this was my 700th ABA area life bird.
Laysan Albatross
Lifer # 700 for the ABA Area
           As the morning proceeded the birds came at a quick pace. After watching all the Sooty Shearwaters someone yelled "Murphy's Petrel".  
 Murphy's Petrel on rough seas.
          It took me a while to find and follow the bird because it would go in and out of the swells and would be hidden for some time. But I was finally able to see the wings that were bent at the wrist versus the straighter wings of the Sooty, plus the small silvery primary patches and the whitish chin patch which was very difficult to see. My second life bird, #701.
           Flocks of Sabine's Gulls were seen frequently and one flock had as many as 100 gulls. I love the look of these gulls and they are easy to identify at quite a distance due to the tri-colored upper wing pattern.
Sabine's Gulls
           My next life bird, #702, was a little easier to find but still a challenge to follow through the swells. The Cook's Petrel was more conspicuous then the darker shearwaters and petrels. The light gray body and wings stood out a little more against the darker background of the ocean. Although rather far away I could make out the details of the bird and later I would see more Cook's, in closer to  the ship. 

Cook's Petrel - light color with gray hood
       The cook's was an overall light gray on the upper parts and white underparts and a black eye patch. The black outline on the underwings was very thin versus the Hawaiian Petrel pictured below.

Hawaiian Petrel
           Later in the day, I was treated to a bird that I didn't really expect to see on this trip, a Hawaiian Petrel. This appeared to be a larger bird than the Cook's Petrel and the outstanding feature to me was the snow white underparts that just made this bird stand out among the crowd. The white underparts contrasted drastically with the dark brown upperparts. The bird also displayed long thin wings and a long tapered tail. This was my final life bird, #703, on this cruise but I achieved 100% success with the lifers that I predicted that I could find. 

         Other birds seen on the cruise were Leach's Storm-Petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, Red-necked Phalaropes, Arctic Terns, Common Murres and Rhinoceros Auklet. Interesting sightings that I really didn't expect to see were a flock of 44 Green-winged Teals passing the ship some 35 miles off the coast of Washington and two large flocks of Whimbrel also far off the coast.
        One final note. We spent the next week in and around Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia. While on Vancouver Island we made a special effort to get to the Victoria airport in search of Sky Lark. I was surprised at how easy we were able to find the bird. We arrived at dusk and planned to stay overnight at the Best Western. So we quickly shot over to the airport to scope out the situation. We could hear the Sky Lark performing their flight songs but couldn't find them due to the low light. The next morning we arrived early and heard the birds calling and were fortunate to see a few land right on the runway and offered excellent viewing. Lifer #704. 
             I would highly recommend this cruise to anyone. How often can you do a pelagic birding trip with three meals a day plus other snacks, have your own room, plus entertainment and a casino after dark. Repositioning cruises along this west coast usually occur the last week of April and the first two weeks of May. So if you are the type who want to see pelagic birds but tend to get seasick this might be an option to ponder.
             Some miscellaneous photos follow:
Lyn Canyon Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver

Olympic Torch in Vancouver

Common Murre in Washington Waters

Red-breasted Sapsucker near Whistler

Glaucous Gull on beach at Ocean Shores, Washington

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cuba: Endemics and More

Michael De Rosa
Cuba: Endemics and More
Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean and has the largest number of bird species. It has a varied mix of Caribbean, Central and South American birds, and migrants. At present, 24-species are recognized as being endemic to the island. I was fortunate enough to see half of them. I spent two days at Playa Larga. From there I went birding at the Cienaga de Zapata, the largest wetlands in the Caribbean.  I also did a day trip to Las Terrazas, an eco-village about an hour from Havana. 

Cuban Trogon: This common endemic is the national bird of Cuba. Known locally as the tocororo, after its song.  Not shy and frequently seen in the open.

Cuban Tody: Likes shady spots and is often heard before being spotted. Endemic

Cuban Green Woodpecker: Endemic


Cuban Oriole: Endemic recently split from the black-cowled oriole. It is in
a bottle-brush tree originally endemic to Australia, but now found all over in the tropics.

Zapata Wren: A “soft” image of the most restricted of Cuban endemics. Found reliably only in a small area of Zapata. A couple, our guides, and I spent over an hour playing its call to attract one of the wrens. It played hide and seek with us. At one point I found myself running, tripping, re-gaining my balance as my water bottle went flying for what turned out to be a false alarm. Then, there it was at our feet, so close that I could not focus my telephoto lens. I could feel and hear it as it flew by my face.

Zapata Sparrow: Only a little bit less restricted range than the wren. Shortly after I took its photo, a catbird landed in the same bush.

Fernandina’s Flicker: My guide knew exactly where there was a nest of this endemic. He tapped on the trunk of a palm tree, and the male checked us out. Later we saw it, and the female as they went looking for food.

Yellow-headed Warbler: This is one of two warblers endemic to Cuba. All told 32-species of warblers have been seen in Cuba.
Cuban Grassquit: This endemic is common if you know where to find them. We were given very precise directions-make a right turn and check out the yard of the first wooden house on the right. When we described the bird to the owner he said the tomeguins are usually around here. And sure enough a small flock landed on a bush.

Blue-Headed Quail Dove: This endemic is relatively easy to see in Zapata, but rare to see three at
time. My guide would find the gourds used to make maracas, break them open and leave then 
for quail-doves.
Cuban Parrot: This  sub-species is considered rare and vulnerable.
Also saw the Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Vireo, and the wings of the Cuban Screech-Owl as it broke from its nest hole..
Heard the Cuban Pygmy Owl, but he was not able to bring it in with its call. 
The following are some non-endemic Cuban birds.

Great Lizard-Cuckoo 
 American Kestrel-white morph

 West Indian woodpecker

West Indian Woodpecker in the same tree as the oriole.

 Grey-headed Quail Doves are rare  except in Zapata

Common Moorhens

Common Gallinule

Loggerhead Kingbird

Stripe-headed Tanager (spindalis)
 Stygian Owl: My guide knew the general location of where this one roosted-took awhile before he located it.

 La Sagra's Flycatcher

Emerald. The closest we got to the Bee Hummingbird was my guide hearing its
characteristic wing beats as it flew by.

Palm Warbler

Cape May Warbler
Red-legged Thrush

Every expedition has to have an expedition vehicle. Ours was a 48' Willys Jeep. The chassis is original,
no doors, seat belts, or air bag. It had a Toyota engine and transmission and ran on diesel.
The fuel gauge did not work—no worries it had a dip stick.

This psychedelic 51' Chevy was in the process of being restored. Each of the colors was from a previous paint job.
Under the hood,  a Russian Volgas engine.

Cuba is famous for its American cars of the 1950s, and even earlier years.  There is no convenient field guide to the cars of Cuba,
but there are field marks.

To see them, stop on any street, or visit any of the tourist spots.

You can rent these vintage cars for about $33 an hour, or you can ride the pedicycle for a bit less.

 A 59' Caddy—my favorite

Michael De Rosa, Ph. D.
Professor of Chemistry
Penn State Brandywine
25 Yearsley Mill road
Media, PA 19063
610-892-1416 (office)
610-892-1405 (FAX)