Thursday, April 17, 2014

Island Hopping (Part 4) - Feb 1, 2014 (Barbados incl. Little Egrets)

Feb 1 - Barbados
On this day we reached our furthest point from the United States - Barbados. Not the birdiest nor the lushest of islands, Barbados still provided some really interesting species for us to see.

The island does have an endemic, the BARBADOS BULLFINCH, which we got as soon as we stepped off the cruise ship! That was easy!

Barbados Bullfinch (endemic)

Our first official stop was at a private pond that held a flock of BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING-DUCKS and a very cooperative SCALY-NAPED PIGEON. Subsequent stops yielded ANTILLEAN CRESTED HUMMINGBIRDS, GREEN-THROATED CARIBS, SHINY COWBIRDS and a smattering of shorebirds. A cliff at the north side of the island, meant to be a bathroom stop, briefly had a CARIBBEAN MARTIN fly by, a species just starting to trickle into the Lesser Antilles in very small numbers as northbound migrants. One of the small lily-covered ponds known for harboring MASKED DUCKS came through with two males and two females - a life bird for me actually.

Zenaida Dove

Carib Grackle

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Scaly-naped Pigeon

Green-throated Carib

Antillean Crested Hummingbird

drake Masked Duck

hen Masked Ducks


yours truly at the site of his life Caribbean Martin

Our last couple stops of the day focused on the island's fascinating population of LITTLE EGRETS. Little Egret, the Old World counterpart to our Snowy Egret, was first recorded in the New World on Barbados in 1954. Little Egrets continued to arrive from across the Atlantic in small numbers, to the point where breeding actually began in 1994.

Our stop at the Chancery Lane marsh rewarded us with distant scope views of two LITTLE EGRETS (and six Snowy Egrets, for good comparison). Later, our stop at the rookery at Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary, the site of that original 1994 colony, yielded up to five breeding LITTLE EGRETS among many Cattle Egrets and a few Snowies. We were quite a ways from the colony, so I just did the best I could with photos.

Note here a high-breeding adult Snowy Egret with reddish lores at top left, a Little Egret sticking its neck out from behind the bush at center left, and an unidentified Snowy vs. Little Egret at bottom right...more on this bird later.

Left to right: Julian Moore, John Webster, Eddie Massiah (our guides) and trip participant Roberta Gowing, all enjoying the Graeme Hall Swamp. Roberta is scoping the area where the Little Egrets are breeding.
Regarding that egret at the bottom-right of the photo above...this interesting bird was paired with a typical Little Egret. Eddie Massiah believed this bird to likely be a Little Egret, but if so, it would be one of the more Snowy-like birds I have seen anywhere.

Here the obvious Little Egret has returned to the nest. It shows gray lores and two long head plumes.

The other bird shows yellow lores (to my eyes), a smaller bill, and lacks long head plumes.

Head shape in this photo and the one below may suggest Little Egret...a bit wedge shaped with peak towards the rear crown, but that peak may be exaggerated by the wind which was blowing right-to-left.

Here the obvious Little Egret has again returned to the nest, with a twig.
So what's going on here? I'm not sure the photos are good enough to tell. Is that bird a Little Egret, Snowy Egret, or even a hybrid? I really wish I had been in a better position to get photos. Interesting stuff though. Thoughts are welcome, as always.

 - Nick

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Island Hopping (Part 3) - Jan 31, 2014 (Dominica incl. Fraser's Dolphins)

Jan 31 - Dominica
Today featured my most anticipated port - Dominica. I had heard only amazing things about this island, which is often described as unspoiled and ruggedly beautiful. Turns out people were right.

Our stay on the island was book-ended by two awesome pelagic experiences.  Our morning arrival was not due until 10am thanks to the super long distance from yesterday's port, St. Thomas. This was unfortunate because we would have an especially short stay on perhaps the birdiest island of our tour. However our late arrival gave us a couple hours of seawatching as we steamed in from the west-northwest. We soon picked up a subadult MASKED BOOBY, followed by a second one, both of which proceeded to hunt flying fish off the port side of the ship for several minutes. The birds would fly at high altitude (often at or above our position on the 10th deck) until the ship kicked up flying fish below, at which point they would drop in altitude and plunge-dive after the fish. The birds seemed to know exactly what they were doing, so perhaps this is a common foraging behavior by boobies in these parts where cruise ships are common. We were fascinated to watch them do this over and over again. So cool.

subadult Masked Booby waiting for flying fish to flee the ship

After a while the Masked Boobies were joined by a first year BROWN BOOBY that began doing the same thing, only in different style. In contrast to the Masked Boobies which dove from height into the water after the flying fish had completed their "flight," the Brown Booby stayed at much lower heights and attempted to snag the fish in mid-air by pursuing them from behind. Sometimes the fish would run out of air, splash into the water, only to have the Brown Booby follow right behind them on the same exact trajectory. This was really fun to watch and kept us entertained for quite some time.

Brown Booby chasing after flying fish


nailed it

After the booby show (he, he) we disembarked the ship onto the island and began birding with our terrific guide, Bertrand Baptiste. Knowing we only had a very limited amount of time, Bertrand perfectly paced our group and focused on the island's (and region's) endemic birds. Dominica is home to two endemics: Red-necked Parrot and Imperial Parrot. But there were also several Lesser Antillean endemics to look for too.

At the Layou River mouth we had what was probably our least expected bird of the day, an adult LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL. Increasing but supposedly just annual at best on Dominica? Bertrand was pleased with this one. Also here we had a pair of RINGED KINGFISHER, ANTILLEAN CRESTED HUMMINGBIRDS, and our first of many LESSER ANTILLEAN BULLFINCHES.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

As we worked our way north towards the parrot stronghold, Bertrand took us down a couple side roads and showed us PLUMBEOUS WARBLER, RED-LEGGED THRUSH, LESSER ANTILLEAN FLYCATCHER, BROWN TREMBLER, LESSER ANTILLEAN SWIFT, and LESSER ANTILLEAN SALTATOR - all highly sought-after birds.

Plumbeous Warbler

Lesser Antillean Flycatcher (the only Myiarchus around!)

Red-legged Thrush

Lesser Antillean Saltator

As we approached the Syndicate Trail of the Northern Forest Reserve, where both endemic parrots are possible, we had PURPLE-THROATED and GREEN-THROATED CARIBS (hummingbirds), a stunning BLUE-HEADED HUMMINGBIRD, LESSER ANTILLEAN PEWEE, and our first couple of RED-NECKED PARROTS.

Red-necked Parrots in a distant treetop

Purple-throated Carib

Blue-headed Hummingbird

Lesser Antillean Pewee

Green-throated Carib

We would spend the last part of our tour along the Syndicate Trail on vigil for Imperial Parrot. We had several more Red-necked Parrots here, and finally an IMPERIAL PARROT was heard calling from across the valley. The bird did take flight once, glimpsed by only me and Bertrand, and sadly was never seen again.

birding on Dominica

view from the Syndicate Trail - Imperial Parrot habitat

Our day on Dominica was awesome but ended all too quickly. Back to the ship for 5pm departure.

Roseau, the capital

As we were cruising away from Dominica this evening, we had one last great sighting for the day. We spotted a pod of several dozen dolphins that were creating quite a bit of white water ahead of the ship. I quickly realized that this species was foreign to me. I snapped off whatever photos I could. A few of the animals approached the ship and rode alongside us for a brief time. After consulting the one marine mammal reference I had brought with me, I tentatively identified them as Fraser's Dolphins, which has since been confirmed thanks to expert review of the photos.

Fraser's Dolphins have an interesting history. The species was first known by a single carcass found in Malaysia in 1895, but it was not scientifically described until 1956 and not seen alive in the wild until the early 1970s! Since then, sightings have increased to the point where they are believed to have a pantropical distribution with a stock as close to us as the Gulf of Mexico. So they are certainly not as rare as once thought. However, at-sea sightings are scarce, so we considered ourselves very lucky to have found them. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip and a great way to end an awesome day in the field.

Fraser's Dolphins

Fraser's Dolphins

 - Nick