February 28th, 2011

Caribbean Cruise, Part 2: Antigua

Part 1

December 14, 2010

Antigua was the one port-of-call on our cruise where there wasn’t anything that my wife and I really wanted to do. This island is known for its beaches, but we aren’t really “beach people”. And for me, there were no birds that couldn’t be found elsewhere. So we decided to check what excursions the cruise line offered. We decided on one that would take us kayaking among mangroves and then snorkeling off of Great Bird Island. Great Bird Island sounded promising!

On the bus ride from the cruise ship pier to the kayak docks it was obvious that little native vegetation is left on the island, at least in the interior. But I still spotted a couple birds, including my first Carib Grackles. Birds weren’t that plentiful in the mangroves, either. The only ones I saw were an Osprey and White-crowned Pigeon (though it would be the only one seen on the trip).

After kayaking for a little while, some motorboats took us offshore to Great Bird Island, where we could snorkel the coral reef. But before jumping in the water, we took a short (but steep!) trail up to the top of the island. What a view!

Great Bird Island, Antigua

Great Bird Island, Antigua

The view got infinitely better when I spotted two white birds cavorting over the far end of the island – a pair of Red-billed Tropicbirds! These two, my first tropicbirds, were utterly magnificent and worth coming all this way to see.

Singing Yellow Warblers made me wonder if they were the local breeding “Golden” Warblers, or wintering birds. But the only look I got was one in flight. Otherwise, the only birds on this small island were a Brown Pelican, and the ever-present Gray Kingbird, and Bananaquit. The snorkeling, however, was pretty good. There wasn’t the variety of coral as Buck Island, but more fish.

Bananaquit nest

While loading up the bus for the return trip, we noticed a Bananaquit building a nest right next to us. I also got a brief look at a small, plain brown bird with some red highlights on the wings. Not immediately recognizing it, I passed it off as an exotic. But while looking through the field guide later that night, I realized it was a female Lesser Antillean Bullfinch – very much a native, and a lifer to boot.

It was a good day, overall. The tropicbirds alone made up for the otherwise relative dearth of birds. And while the interior of the island doesn’t look all that appealing, the mangroves and offshore islands were very nice.

Coming up next is the Caribbean’s “Nature Island”, Dominica…

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February 20th, 2011

Caribbean Cruise, Part 1: US Virgin Islands

My wife and I boarded our cruise ship on the last day of our pre-cruise trip to Puerto Rico. Our first two ports were in the US Virgin Islands.

St. John’s – December 12, 2010

Our cruise’s first port of call was the island of St. Thomas, of the U.S. Virgin Islands. But we pretty much skipped it, and took the ferry to the neighboring St. John’s. St. John’s is relatively undeveloped since the majority of the island is protected in the Virgin Islands National Park. The plan was to do some snorkeling along the coral reefs, with just a little birding.

You can do a good bit here without a car, but since there were some out of the way places I wanted to go and we were on a strict schedule, we rented a car for the day. The only cars available are four wheel drive Jeeps. After just a few minutes of driving I could see why. These were the steepest, craziest roads I had ever driven. I think a 4×4 high clearance vehicle was necessary to make it up some of the hills!

The first stop was the Cinnamon Bay loop trail for a token shot at Bridled Quail-dove. This is a short loop through the forest. It’s probably not the best place on the island for the dove, but it was the most convenient for us. It was not very birdy at all; I only recorded a couple Pearly-eyed Thrashers and Bananaquits.

The rest of the day was spent driving around exploring the island and some snorkeling at world-famous Trunk Bay. This is considered one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, and you can see why.

Trunk Bay beach on St. John's, USVI

The snorkeling was fine, given the number of people around. There were a good many fish, and some coral. But it was a good thing we did this first, as it paled in comparison to the snorkeling later in the trip. The highlight for me was my lifer of the day – Brown Booby. Three of them were perched on the rocks above the snorkeling area.

The only other birds seen on St. John’s were Brown Pelican, Red-tailed Hawk, Zenaida Dove, Common Ground-dove, and Gray Kingbird.

St. Croix – December 13, 2010

Day two saw us in St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The plan was much the same as the day before – snorkeling and a little exploring and shopping in town. Any birding would be incidental.

About a month before our trip, I had booked a trip to Buck Island Reef National Monument (direct with Big Beard’s). We took a boat to the pristine offshore island where we snorkeled among a much larger and diverse coral reef. There were a few birds around, such as an Osprey, Brown Boobies, and several Magnificent Frigatebirds. While frigatebirds are very common in the Caribbean, I don’t think I could ever get tired of seeing them overhead. But the most exciting views were decidedly aquatic rather than aerial. I didn’t see any hoped-for sea turtles, but a sting ray, several Barracuda, and many kinds of coral were ample compensation.

Buck Island, St. Croix

We had lunch along the water’s edge in Christiansted. Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows were expected, but a small group of Ruddy Turnstones foraging near the tables was not. One of them was even banded. From what I could find online, the light green flag means that it was banded in Suriname. I reported the sighting, but haven’t heard anything back yet on the origin of the bird.

Ruddy Turnstone on St Croix

Banded Ruddy Turnstone on St. Croix, USVI

I got my lifer-of-the-day at the cruise ship pier at nearly the last minute. A hummingbird put in a brief appearance. From what I could see, along with the location, it had to be a Green-throated Carib.

Also at the pier I recorded both Caspian and Royal Terns. While Royal is to be expected, it seems that Caspian is regarded as a vagrant outside the Greater Antilles and Barbados. I remember the purported Caspians flying right overhead, and I didn’t have much doubt about them. But I’d be grateful if anyone knows the current status of any Caspians in the Virgin Islands.

Overall, it was a very pleasant two days. Not much in the way of birds, but some great snorkeling and I got to add several ticks to my national parks, not to mention bird, life list.

Continue to Part 2

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February 3rd, 2011

Puerto Rico, Day 4

December 11

Having seen two of my three most wanted Puerto Rican birds the day before (Elfin-woods Warbler and Yellow-shouldered Blackbird), I was feeling much better. I knew I no longer had a chance to get the nocturnal birds this trip, but there were several others that I had a good shot at this day.

Our cruise embarked around 5pm from San Juan, but we wanted to get on early so as to familiarize ourselves with our home for the next week. Even with the drive time to San Juan, that left several hours to fill. And I knew just the place…

We arrived at Guanica State Forest at 9, and proceeded to the main parking area. The visitor’s center was undergoing renovation, but there was a small temporary structure setup and manned by two gentlemen. After disclosing my interest in birds, I found out that one of them is in charge of the bird banding operation at the park. Given our limited time, he suggested that we walk the Granados trail, which looped around from the headquarters.

Guanica State Forest, Puerto Rico

Guanica State Forest
Is it just me, or does this look like something out of Middle Earth?

The first, and most common, birds were Adelaide’s Warblers. But it wasn’t too long before I heard some pewee-like sounds. I couldn’t find the bird, so I played the call a few times from my phone. It didn’t take long before a dark bird swooped in and perched right beside the trail, giving me a great look at my first Puerto Rican Pewee. It was a much richer color than I was expecting.

Further along, the same thing happened with a Puerto Rican Flycatcher. Even with playback, though, it didn’t cooperate as well as the pewee. Also in contrast to the pewee, this myiarchus flycatcher was much duller than those I’m used to in the U.S.

The other star had to have been a very cooperative Puerto Rican Tody. We were finally able to get some good pictures, including this one my wife took. These birds are scarcely larger than hummingbirds, and have to rank among the cutest birds I’ve ever seen.

Puerto Rican Tody

Other birds seen along the trail include: Puerto Rican Bullfinch, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Black-faced Grassquit, and Bananaquit. I heard another Puerto Rican Lizard-cuckoo, but it must have been very shy.

While driving out, a large-ish bird flew over the road and into a tree on the other side. The tail could only have been that of a cuckoo. Excited, I grabbed my binoculars expecting a lizard-cuckoo finally. Instead, I saw a bird with a black mask and cinnamon belly. The disappointment of it not being the endemic didn’t last long as this was my first Mangrove Cuckoo. Especially since it perched out in the open for me, and was still there as I reluctantly drove off. You know it’s a great birding spot when you get lifers when you’re trying to leave!

Mangrove Cuckoo

On the way back to San Juan, I took a detour through Comerio to try for Plain Pigeon. It’s not the most straight-forward route, and certainly not quick. With my smart phone I was able to limit misturns to just one, and arrived at the school ballfield at 1. According to the birdfinding guide and trip reports, this baseball field is the best place to see these birds, which are scare in Puerto Rico. I scanned the trees around the field for 15 minutes, but the target refused to show itself. There were plenty of other doves present, though, in the form of Rock Pigeons, Zenaida Doves, and a single White-winged Dove.

With that, my birding in Puerto Rico was concluded. I tallied 50 species, of which 19 were life birds. I saw 13 of the 18 endemics, and heard two others. Totally missed were the Puerto Rican Parrot, Screech-owl, and Oriole (from the recently split Greater Antillean Oriole complex). The Puerto Rican Nightjar and Lizard-cuckoo were heard only, which I don’t usually count for life birds. But I have included them in the list, for the sake of completeness.

The trip list (endemics in bold):

  • West Indian Whistling-duck
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Cattle Egret
  • Green Heron
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Sora – heard only
  • American Purple Gallinule
  • Common Moorhen
  • Caribbean Coot
  • Rock Pigeon
  • Eurasian Collared-dove
  • White-winged Dove
  • Zenaida Dove
  • Mourning Dove
  • Common Ground-dove
  • Mangrove Cuckoo
  • Puerto Rican Lizard-cuckoo – heard only
  • Smooth-billed Ani
  • Puerto Rican Nightjar – heard only
  • Green Mango
  • Puerto Rican Emerald
  • Puerto Rican Tody
  • Puerto Rican Woodpecker
  • Puerto Rican Pewee
  • Puerto Rican Flycatcher
  • Gray Kingbird
  • Puerto Rican Vireo
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Pearly-eyed Thrasher
  • European Starling
  • Cape May Warbler
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler
  • Adelaide’s Warbler
  • Elfin-woods Warbler
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Bananaquit
  • Puerto Rican Tanager
  • Puerto Rican Spindalis
  • Black-faced Grassquit
  • Puerto Rican Bullfinch
  • Yellow-shouldered Blackbird
  • Greater Antillean Grackle
  • Shiny Cowbird
  • House Sparrow
  • Bronze Mannikin

Continue on to the first stops on the cruise – the US Virgin Islands

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January 13th, 2011

Puerto Rico: Yellow-shouldered Blackbird

As mentioned in the recap of my third day in Puerto Rico, I left something out. I thought that a fantastic experience with a critically endangered bird deserved its own post.

There were still a handful of endemics that I hadn’t seen, but one loomed larger than the rest – Yellow-shouldered Blackbird. There may be no more than 3000, all in southwestern Puerto Rico and a few offshore islands. The best place to see them is the small town of Parguera. The traditional location is the Parador Villa Parguera, where the birds would come looking for food. But from what I’d read online, the best spot to see them currently was a small hardware store just down the street.

Continue west on PR 304 past the parador, keeping the water and mangroves on your left. In not very far, you’ll see a store on your right with a sign next to the road saying Ferreteria (hardware store). When you pull into the fairly large gravel parking lot, the store will be on your right, with a fence and tree to the left of the building. I knew I was in the right place as soon as I pulled into the parking lot; I could hear the distinctive calls of icterids. Lots of them.

Before I could even get out of the car, I saw some dark forms fly up into the tree right in front of us. Some of them were doing their best to hide their namesake field mark, but these were definitely Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds.

Yellow-shouldered Blackbird

A closer look revealed a water fountain behind the fence and many birds foraging on the ground where, presumably, seed had been scattered for them. The birds would alternatively feed, drink and bathe on the fountain, and fly up into the tree to preen.

Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds on fountain

There were dozens of birds there, and every few minutes more would fly in from the mangroves across the street. Male Red-winged Blackbirds in flight, with their red epaulets glowing, are a stunning sight. Their yellow-shouldered cousins are every bit as distinctive and beautiful on the wing. I tried to capture some in full flight, but they were too fast. I could only get some preparing to land.

Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds landing and foraging

But as wonderful as the blackbirds were, there were other species present at the feast as well. There were a few Greater Antillean Grackles, Common Ground-doves, House Sparrows, and my first Black-faced Grassquits. Unfortunately, there were also some Shiny Cowbirds. Well, fortunate for me since they were a lifer, but bad news for the blackbirds. In addition to habitat loss, the blackbirds are threatened by nest parasitism from the cowbirds. The Shiny Cowbird, like their Brown-headed cousins, will lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and leave the unwitting hosts to raise the cowbirds, often at the expense of their own young.

Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds and Shiny Cowbird on fountain

Female Shiny Cowbird and her unwilling hosts

I’ve got to admit, though, the male cowbirds are indeed shiny (in the literal sense, not in the sense Malcolm Reynolds would use the word). I could pick out a few in the mass of feeding birds, but couldn’t get any good pictures of them. This heavily cropped pic is the best I got.

male Shiny Cowbird

This may not have been the most natural place to see such great birds, but I can’t really complain about the great, close observations of an endangered species. It was very weird to consider that the 50+ Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds present represented a significant percentage of the world population.

On to my last day in Puerto Rico

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January 11th, 2011

Puerto Rico, Day 3

December 10

The failure to see an Elfin-woods Warbler at Maricao yesterday meant another trip there this day. Since we knew exactly where we were going, we made a little better timing and arrived to find that, while still windy, it was much less so than the day before. Optimistic, we went through the gate and passed the ruins, just as before. But this time, we took the trail branching off to the right, hoping it may be more open and sheltered from the wind. But the birds were still hard to come by.

We hadn’t gone too far when we decided to turn around; it seemed like a better play to hang around an open spot like the ruins and hope for a mixed flock to pass by. But on the way back, some Puerto Rican Tanagers could be heard calling. We eventually saw a few, along with a Puerto Rican Bullfinch and a female Black-throated Blue Warbler. But a different-sounding chip caught my attention. It took a little time and effort to find the bird making it, but when I did, I was face-to-face with a gorgeous Elfin-woods Warbler. Well, it was eye-level and less than ten feet away, but it was still fairly obstructed. But my wife was able to get some identifiable pictures.

Elfin-woods Warbler

Elfin-woods Warbler

Yes, I'm shy. Why do you think no one found me until 1968?

There was a little time before lunch, so I thought there would be time to stop at the Susua State Forest. The new Birdwatchers’ Guide to Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the Caymans claims it’s a good spot for Puerto Rican Pewees. But it also gives incorrect directions, which had us driving several miles down the wrong road. We finally got there, only to find the gate locked. We walked in a little ways, hoping that the trails mentioned in the guide would start shortly inside the gate, but no luck. There was very little shade from the bright noon sun, so we left to grab something to eat. The only birds were a Northern Mockingbird, Puerto Rican Spindalis, and a heard-only Adelaide’s Warbler.

Later on, I wanted to try for some waterbirds at Laguna Cartagena, a National Wildlife Refuge about 20 minutes from Parguera (and that long only because it’s off a dirt road that you don’t want to drive too fast on). The main parking area was found without a problem, but for some reason I had thought open water would have been visible from near the entrance. Nope. A calling Sora meant that there was some water nearby, but vegetation blocked all views. We walked down the trail, hoping for a good vantage point somewhere. Along the way, we were entertained by a couple of Puerto Rican Todies and some Smooth-billed Anis that sounded like something out of Space Invaders (as my wife put it).

Very shortly, we came across a very nice observation tower, complete with a birding couple from Ohio. They had been in Puerto Rico for a few days longer than we had, but until then hadn’t seen another birder. And they were the only ones I saw. Sad.

But we did see lots of birds, including Great and Cattle Egrets, Green and Great Blue Heron, lots of Common Moorhens, and a single Purple Gallinule. Ducks were represented by Ruddy, Ring-necked, and Blue-winged Teal, but not the hoped for White-cheeked Pintail. But I was very glad to see that the two visible coots didn’t have any red on their frontal shields, making them Caribbean Coots, and a lifer for me.

My wife and I bid adieu to the other couple and were walking away from the tower when they called down “West Indian Whistling-ducks!” I had seen them previously in the Caymans, but I wasn’t about to pass up another chance to see “one of the rarest ducks in the Americas” (Neotropical Birds). After a hurried ascent and look through the scope, there they were: two West Indian Whistling-ducks swimming out in the middle of the water.

I’ve skipped another stop that was made, but it deserves its own post

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