Friday, April 17, 2015

Here Be Albatrosses: Our First Pacific Pelagic

Ah, the Pacific Ocean. Our longing eyes have scanned your vast and mighty waters endlessly, searching, without hope, for glimpses of Captains Nemo, Hornblower, Ahab, or Wolf Larsen. Somewhere out there are are Blue Whales, Mola mola, and Giant Squid. More to the point, there are albatrosses. That there are albatrosses off the Oregon coast is something that my brain has only barely managed to register as fact, and yet we were certain to see some once we got out on the open sea for our first ever pelagic on the Pacific.

Yaquina Bay Bridge at sunrise

This would be the inaugural voyage for a new company, Oregon Pelagic Tours, setting out from Yaquina Bay around 7:30a. This was in mid-February, and the earliest molting Red-necked Grebes were starting to take on a cleaner, more dapper look. Large numbers of Surf Scoters and Western Gulls combined with lesser numbers of assorted cormorants, loons, and diving ducks close to the rock jetty. As we made our way out of the harbor, we started seeing more and more alcids: Common Murres, Marbled and Ancient Murrelets, Rhinoceros Auklets.

Red-necked Grebe looking handsome

One of the first good birds seen on the trip was a Parakeet Auklet, which both Maureen and I were able to see, but only poorly. It was certainly an auklet -- we can swear to that much -- although we wouldn't have been able to say which kind, since it stayed relatively distant, and the waves insisted on keeping it hidden 80% of the time. Oh well, it'll have to be a lifer for another day.

But soon, the main attraction was upon us. Our expected albatross for the day was Laysan, with hopes of maybe (fingers crossed) finding a Short-tailed or two. What was not expected was that we'd be swamped by roughly two dozen Black-footed Albatrosses over the course of the day, outnumbering Laysans by a comfortable margin. Seeing an albatross at all was one of the pinnacles of our birding careers, especially out west, and here we had absolute beauties from two different species. 

Black-footed Albatross

Just a ridiculous number of Black-footed Albatrosses. Six in this photo alone.
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner's hollo!
Laysan Albatross

Joining them in good numbers were Northern Fulmars, dwarfed by the albatrosses, and with almost half the wingspan. For us, these were nearly as exciting. They were always a remote possibility during the pelagics we've taken out of Florida, but they'd always eluded us. I hadn't imagined that we would find them in such abundance once we got out on the Pacific, but it was fantastic watching them zip every which way, threading the space between the other pelagic species.

Northern Fulmar

Black-footed Albatrosses come in for a landing, while the indefatigable fulmar threads the air on the left side of the photo

Laysan Albatross and Northern Fulmar

The other bird that we were practically guaranteed during the trip, and that we were no less excited about for it's local abundance, was Black-legged Kittiwake. It's a really striking gull, and an awesome compliment to the menageries that gathered in the chum slicks. Unfortunately, I can't help but feel that we short-changed them attention-wise, since they had to compete with the most perfect gliding machines ever to grace the skies. 

Black-legged Kittiwake

Black-footed Albatrosses and Black-legged Kittiwake

Before we left Savannah, we were warned that even if we never got seasick on the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific would surely do us in. Precautions were taken, but they proved inadequate for one of us, putting our principle photographer out of commission for some stretches of time (unfortunately, only one of us saw a Pink-footed Shearwater). On top of that, we missed some species that were seen briefly, or by only a few (neither of us saw a Parasitic Jaeger or Thayer's Gull). I casually heard one of the spotters mentioned that he'd seen a Mola mola earlier… well, thanks a lot, buddy.

Still, this trip completely lived up to our expectations. We didn't see a huge number of new species, but we did see the expected ones. They were new, and they were magnificent. Albatrosses are no longer merely the stuff of dreams (particularly laudanum-induced ones; see Coleridge, above), but are no less the stuff of legend for their being real and present. As the boat made it's way back into the harbor, we checked the jetty for Rock Sandpipers, which never turned up. We did get one last lifer for the day, though: out on one of the buoys was a solitary Steller's sea lion, clearly much more blonde than the California sea lions that laze on the docks all winter long. Soon afterward we disembarked, partly reminiscing about an amazing day, and partly fantasizing about what we'd see next time.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Exploring St. Maarten

A couple of months ago, I was fortunate enough to have a business trip to St. Maarten, a small island in the Caribbean. It was formerly split into two territories, the Dutch side and the French side, but it’s now one nation. However, it still retains some of this division culturally. I so very much wanted Nick to come along so we could enjoy the island together, but we just couldn’t make it work (especially since we have a big trip planned in June). I had told him I would put my “bird blinders” on so that I wouldn’t be tempted to set my eyes upon the cool birds there without him. Nick of course said no way and that I should have fun and take advantage of this great opportunity, which meant enjoying the birds, too. I just wouldn’t count any new birds on my official life list since we don’t count a life bird until we both see it.

St. Maarten airport is known for having a very short runway, and tourists enjoy watching the planes coming in close, as well as feeling the blast from the planes when taking off. 

So with Nick’s “blessing” and my binoculars and camera, I decided that I would try to look at as many birds as I could within the constraints of the trip. Most of my days would be in meetings, but any free time I had early in the morning and in the late afternoon, I would check out the birds around the hotel. I figured that the island being small, there was bound to be plenty of birds everywhere, and I was right! The hotel grounds were full of Bananquits and Carib Grackles (“lifer”). The grackles were EVERYWHERE I went on the island, and constantly singing and trilling all day long. There would be no way that bird blinders would have worked with these guys. And like any grackle, they relished in the scraps that would fall from the tables of the outdoor restaurants at the hotel.

The Bananaquits were also very vocal. These guys are so cute and spunky. We had seen them when we visited Puerto Rico a few years ago, so it was not a new species, but so cool to see them again. I love the pop of bright yellow of their underparts, and I got good looks at their red gapes as they sang. I also stumbled upon a couple of what I surmise were Bananaquit nests woven into some flower bushes around the hotel.

Another bird staple around the hotel were Ruddy Turnstones. These were definitely not new birds for
me, but it was so nice to see them again. Having moved from the east coast to the west coast, we swapped these birds for their darker cousins, Black Turnstones. The Ruddy Turnstones seemed to be residents to the hotel, very comfortable with people being very nearby. This was great for me to allow me to get some really great shots of them.

A nice look at the ruddy feathers starting to come in

The turnstones would often hang out at the rocks on the shore just in front of the hotel. I was happy to see that they were also often accompanied by lovely Sally Lightfoot Crabs (what a fun name!). They had a common purpose in picking off yummy tidbits off of the rocks.

I was totally stoked about seeing Brown Boobies on this trip. The Brown Booby was again not new, but it was a recent addition to our life list. I could not have asked for better views of this amazing bird! The day I came into town was a free day to allow for travel, so the first thing I did after my 15 hour redeye flight was head to the shore, and lo and behold, there was an immature Brown Booby flying within yards of me! I would see one every day of the trip, including a nice adult. I couldn’t believe how close he was swooping by swimmers in the water, gliding just within a few feet of them.

Other familiar faces that popped up on the hotel grounds were Eurasian Collared Doves and Zenaida Doves (another bird we saw in Puerto Rico). Even the EUCDs seemed lovelier on St. Maarten. Maybe it was all the sunshine. They seemed to be embracing the relaxed island life just fine.

Zenaida Dove

Luckily, I wasn’t just confined to the hotel and meeting rooms. On our last full day of the trip, we were treated with a bus tour of the island and then had some free time. One stop was in Marigot, on the French side, and a group of us hiked up to the fort there. I had great views of the island as well as views of a group of some Magnificent Frigatebirds, one of my favorites and most missed birds of our Florida days! I’m glad to know that the island loves them as well – there was a statue with some Mag Frigs by the waterfront. 

I call this my "Les Miserables" photo

The glorious silhouette of a Magnificent Frigatebird looking like a funky spaceship

On this free day, I also had some time to explore some other critters on the island, including the Anguilla Bank Anole (life lizard), Vitellius Skipper (life butterfly), and Cassius Blue. Oh, and I can’t forget the critter that I heard every night but couldn’t see – the sweet little Coqui Antillano frog. They make such a delightful sound at night and could just sing me to sleep.

My absolute most favorite bird and animal of the trip was the Antillean Crested Hummingbird. This is one badass bird, rocking a punk mowhawk. He was such a quick little guy like most hummers, so I never got great shots of him, but I’m just happy I got any photos!

I’m so glad I was able to take this trip and soak in the sun, sand, and all of the beautiful flora and fauna that a Caribbean island offers. I really wished Nick could have been there with me. I guess we’ll just have to go to the Caribbean together another time so we can check off those new island birds I saw.