Saturday, October 25, 2014

Non-Seabird Species Observed From a Cruise Ship

Blackpoll Warbler image by R. Rodriquez Mojica

(All images were downladed from the CD that accompanies Mark Oberle's book "Puerto Rico's Birds in Photographs", Third Edition, 2010)

Considerable debate occurs among birders over whether or not a species occurrence in an area was human-assisted.  The most angst seems to revolve around whether the bird was released from a cage (welcome to Miami!) or if it arrived at its location because of being ship-assisted.  The theory behind the latter is - is it legitimate to count a speices as a "wild" bird after it traveled all or a portion of of their journey on a ship.  

The entire concept of human-assistance in a birds presence and your ability to observe it is actually a moot point. Viewed logically, the only bird whose observation wasn't human assisted in some way is the one you see in natural habitats of its range that are viewed with your bare eye.  A flock of Snow Geese foraging in a North Dakota wheat field are on that field because human’s plowed up the prairie and converted it to wheat that the Snow Goose eats.  Were it not for that human assistance the geese wouldn’t be where they are.  Seeing a Black-capped Chickadee in your backyard while it forages at a bird feeder is also a human-assisted bird.  It likely wouldn’t be in your backyard had it not been for the bird feeder.  Water birds in my development that forage on fishes and amphibians in the large wetland here are all human-assisted because the wetland wouldn’t be there unless human’s constructed the wetland.  Lastly, a migrating Hooded Warbler seen on Lido Key when it was fifty feet up in a tree and you observed it through binoculars is also human-assisted because humans built the binoculars through which you are viewing the bird.  

Were it not for the human-made binoculars through which you are looking (not to mention the human planted Australian pine that the bird was in) you’d likely never see the bird or be able to identify it.  In short, unless you see the bird hatch from its egg, and then track it for the remainder of its life, you really don’t know it its presence in front of you was human-assisted or not.

Finding non-seabirds on the ocean is logical given that so many species migrate over the open ocean to reach their winter habitats.  Fall migration of the Blackpoll Warbler is an interesting example.  This species nests in boreal forest across central and northern Canada and into Alaska as far as the Seward Peninsula north of Nome.  In fall the birds fly east and congregate on the coast of Atlantic Canada before pitching out over the ocean toward Venezuela.  It is estimated that most Blackpoll Warblers make a 4-5 day long non-stop flight after leaving solid ground.   Recently a group from the US Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologists affixed a satellite transmitter to the back of a Bar-tailed Godwit and tracked its south bound migration from Alaska to New Zealand.  To the amazement of everyone involved the Godwit made the 7,000 mile migration nonstop.

The first non-seabird I ever saw on the ocean was from a seabird watching trip from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in September 1984.  We were aboard a boat called the Crystal Dawn on a trip organized by Bob Ake and Paul DuMont, when we found a Clapper Rail swimming around in the Gulf Stream current some 40 miles from land.  Since that time I’ve seen several flocks of Blue-winged Teal headed south over open ocean along with flocks of sandpipers (of various species).  In October 2013, on a cruise from Miami to Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos Islands I observed an exhausted adult Peregrine Falcon come aboard the ship while we were 100 miles east of Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas.  Later a presumed juvenile Osprey was observed circling the ship and briefly came onboard on several occasions.  Both the Osprey and the Peregrine Falcon stayed briefly enough to catch their breath before continuing their journey south. 

Both of those birds were human-assisted or ship-assisted but had I not been onboard the ship, nobody would ever know if they were ship-assisted.  They were ship-assisted at one point in their migration but by the time they came ashore there would likely be no ship around so how can you tell the difference?

The American Birding Association held a forum in one of its journal issues where “experts” debated the validity of birds, the probability of them being human assisted, and the resultant countability of that bird for your various lists. Their findings and recommendations were very restrictive.  The British Ornithological Union takes a more liberal approach and almost without exception accepts a bird’s identification regardless if it’s ship-assisted or otherwise human-assisted when it was seen. 

On a recent transatlantic cruise I conducted up to 6 one-hour long transects each day of birds observed on the ocean as we crossed the Atlantic from Copenhagen, Denmark via Ponta Delgada, Azores and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to Miami. Between Copenhagen and St. Thomas I saw several interesting seabirds but no non-seabird species.  That changed as we steamed west and north along the coast of Hispaniola and Cuba on October 18 and October 19, as the ship approached south Florida and the harbor in Miami.

Over those two days at sea I observed 8 different non-seabird species while on the ocean.  Another person onboard saw an additional species (Great Egret) that I missed.  Our luck in finding non-seabirds was enhanced because mid-October is at or slightly past the peak of southbound migration for many bird species.  Below is an account of the eight non-seabird species I observed on that trip along with some commentary and speculation about each occurrence.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) – At about 8:00 a.m. local time on October 18, and at a point about 15 miles north of the Samana Peninsula of the Dominican Republic, I observed three Great Blue Herons briefly land on the helipad at the rear of the Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Norwegian Star.”  The birds remained standing on the pad until humans frightened them back into flight.

Digital Image by M. Morel

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula).  At about 9:20 a.m. local time on October 18 and at a point about 20 miles from the Samana Peninsula of the Dominican Republic a group of three obvious Snowy Egrets flew over the ship headed south.  They likely could see the coast of the Dominican Republic (I could so why couldn’t they?) and kept flying in its direction.

Digital Image by M. Morel

Zenaida Dove (Zenaida aurita) -  Shortly after sunrise on October 19 and at a point about 20 miles off the northeast coast of Cuba, a Zenaida Dove passed in front of me as I was attempting to count seabirds.  To my knowledge that bird did not land on the ship however I have no way of knowing if that is entirely true.  At the point where it was observed we were about equidistance between the Cuban coast and Great Inagua Island in the Bahamas.  The bird’s flight direction was northeastward so I assume it was headed toward Great Inagua or one of the other islands nearby.

Digital image by R. Rodriquez Mojica

Bicknell’s Thrush (Catharus bicknellii) – At about 4:00 p.m. local time on October 18, and at a point about 20 miles due north of Cap Haitien, Haiti, a Catharus thrush of some species flew along the side of our ship before eventually landing on the rail of the balcony of our stateroom. Whether it saw me or not is unknown but the bird remained on our balcony rail for 5 or 6 minutes before departing.  Later in the day toward sunset I found the bird roosting on a wire suspended from the top of Deck 14 of the ship that passed over the pool and hot tub area. I do not know if it remained on board overnight.  Bicknell’s Thrush has one of the most restricted breeding and wintering ranges of any North American songbird. Almost without exception they winter in the mountains of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.  A bird in the cloud forest of the Dominican Republic not far from the border with Haiti in March 1985 (before the species was split from Gray-cheeked Thrush) was the first one I ever saw.  Subsequent trips to that mountain range in winter have revealed more Bicknell’s Thrushes but never in large numbers. 

Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) – At about 2:15 p.m. local time on October 18, and at a location about 30 miles north of Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic, a Gray Catbird made a brief appearance as it flew alongside (toward the west) our ship.  It landed briefly on the balcony of a nearby stateroom but I do not know how long it remained or its final destiny.

Digital image by Giff Beaton

Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia) – On October 18 at about 10:15 a.m. and at a location about 14 miles northeast of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, an exhausted juvenile Magnolia Warbler came aboard the ship along the Promenade on Deck 7.  There it rested briefly and then took flight.  After it left the ship it continued to circle the vessel as we steamed north and west away from that point and farther from land.

Digital image by Giff Beaton

Blackpoll Warbler (Dendroica striata) -  On October 18 at about 10:30, just minutes after the Magnolia Warbler arrived, a juvenile Blackpoll Warbler came aboard the ship on Deck 7.  It stayed briefly, foraged on some insects that were buzzing around the ship, then took up a position on the gunwale on the port side of the ship where it remained until at least 12:00 noon. I’m assuming it departed the ship but just as easily it could have flown to another deck and remained there for some time.

Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens) – At about 8:15 a.m. on October 18, at a point about 16 miles north of the Samana Peninsula of the Dominican Republic (and well within sight range of the island) an adult (I think) female Black-throated Blue Warbler came aboard the ship and stayed briefly.  After its departure I continued to see and hear the bird as it circled the ship as the ship continued to move slowly northwest and away from the coast of the Dominican Republic.
Digital image by Giff Beaton 

Are You Ever Really Certain of a Species’ Origin?

Songbirds are very well known to be nocturnal migrants but while migrating over open oceans they don’t have the luxury or opportunity to stop and catch their breath.  I’ve often wondered when passing through large forests of Sargassum or past sticks and other flotsam floating around in the ocean, if songbirds don’t occasionally stop on them for a rest.  Tropical seabirds like Sooty Tern and Brown Noddy are well known for resting on whatever they can find in the middle of the ocean so why not songbirds also?  That topic would make an excellent research question for some enterprising Master’s or PhD candidate to study.

One of the most ironic aspects of these observations is that with the exception of the Zenaida Dove, the other passerines and the Great Blue Heron each was within sight of land.  If you assume a 30 mile per hour migration speed, those birds were less than 30 minutes from reaching dry land where they would likely be spending the winter.  Each of these species, with the exception of the Snowy Egret and Zenaida Dove that never came onboard (to my knowledge), was close to the island where they would likely spend the winter.  However because of the need to rest they were transported further from the island and unless they found food onboard like the Blackpoll Warbler did, they each had to expend additional fat reserves to fuel the remainder of their migration. 

Six of the eight species observed were, in the strictest interpretation of the discussion, ship-assisted. However how could any observer in Cuba, the Dominican Republic or Haiti actually know that unless they were on the ship observing the birds as they passed over the ocean?  I can understand the angst generated by birders if someone opened a cage and out flew a Scarlet Macaw in downtown New Orleans.  However what about a Purple Martin migrating over the Gulf of Mexico that stops off on an oil production platform to catch its breath.  Technically it was human-assisted just like the herons and songbirds I observed come aboard a ship.  In the long run nobody ever knows and also in the long run unless the bird can be shown to have been released from a cage does it really matter?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Finding Azores Bullfinch

Photo of Azores Bullfinch by Pedro Monterio

On the side of a mountain in Oaxaca, Mexico, in late November 1987, long-time friend Bob Ake posited what I now refer to as “Ake’s Rule” which states, simply, “Always go for the endemics.”

An endemic is an organism that occurs nowhere else on the planet except in a certain well defined area (usually a country or an island).  Endemism is especially evident in organisms like plants or insects or in small mammals – all of which are not particularly mobile and cannot intermingle with similar species outside of their range.  Despite the inherent ability of birds to move long distances, many species have evolved in an area, exploited the available niche, and through the march of time have become restricted to an area. 

The list of birds observed in Mexico now stands at 1,080 species.  Among them, and in spite of the nation’s substantial size, 83 species or 7.6 percent of the avifauna are endemic to Mexico.  Despite its even larger size the mainland United States and Canada support fewer species than Mexico (982 species) and among them 32 or 3.8 percent are endemic to that huge region.  A summary of the top ten nations/regions worldwide for endemic bird species follows:
New Guinea
Solomon Islands

The theory behind Ake’s Rule is that if you are in an area with endemics focus your efforts on finding them.  While you are searching for the endemics the other species, all of which can be found somewhere else, will likely be observed over time.  Thus when we were searching for Oaxaca Sparrow that long ago morning in southern Mexico our focus was on it (and we found it) and in the process we saw several other species that were also new. The “prize” however was the one that could only be found there.

Ake’s Rule has guided me to the point of obsession and whenever I am in a new area I focus my attention on the endemics and enjoy the fruits of the labors when other species are also found.  This became especially true with the West Indies and the Europe/Western Palearctic avifaunal regions.  According to the Clements Checklist of Birds of the World there are 153 species endemic to the West Indies.  Included in that total are species endemic to a single island or island nation (Jamaica with 28 leads all nations in the West Indies) and those that occur on multiple islands but nowhere other than the West Indies faunal region (Great Lizard-Cuckoo and West Indian Woodpecker are two fine examples).  While living in and working in the West Indies I long ago made it a goal to see every endemic species that occurs on individual islands and in the faunal area.  As of today I’m missing two of them – Zapata Rail on Cuba and Semper’s Warbler on St. Lucia.  There is considerable evidence to suggest that Semper’s Warbler is now extinct so for all practical purposes I’m one species short of having seen them all.  Once it’s legal to use an American credit card to rent a car in Cuba I’m going to be on the next plane south trying for the second time to find that elusive rail in the crocodile-soaked waters of the Cienega de Zapata.

Among the 1,034 species that have been recorded in Europe and the Western Palearctic (which includes Europe and areas of the Middle East, northern Africa and Atlantic islands where most birds are of European affinity) only 38 (3.6 percent) of them are endemic to that gigantic region.  When I first visited Europe I applied Ake’s Rule to the journey’s and after 27 previous separate trips across the Atlantic to bird in Europe, I had seen 32 of the 38 endemics.  The missing endemics included Caucasian Snowcock (Azerbaijan, Georgia, and European Russia), Zino’s Petrel (Maderia), Monterio’s Storm-Petrel (Azores), Algerian Nuthatch (Algeria), Krueper’s Nuthatch (Greece, Turkey, Georgia, Russia) and Azores Bullfinch (Azores).

I need to learn to speak some Russian and be willing to fill out a 16-page visa application if I ever want to see a Caucasian Snowcock.  A trip several years ago to Maderia for Trocaz Pigeon and Zino’s Petrel was only 50 percent successful.  Monterio’s Storm-Petrel occurs as a nesting species on two small islands in the western reaches of the Azores.  Algerian Nuthatch will remain on my want list until I learn to speak Arabic more fluently and Algeria becomes less volatile.  I was in Greece once but didn’t see Krueper’s Nuthatch; I have yet to travel to Turkey (it’s probably next) and will try for it there.  Last but not least was the recently split Azores Bullfinch, a stunning songbird endemic to only a small area of laurel forest at the eastern tip of Sao Miguel Island in the Azores. 
Location of the Azores in relation to Europe, Africa and North America.  As Jimmy Buffett would say "Its a mighty long airplane ride."

Being fascinated with the Azores since childhood because of their location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, seeing the two endemics there became my highest priority for Western Palearctic birding. Getting to the Azores isn’t that difficult and can be accomplished on a once-a-day nonstop on SATA Airlines from Boston (4.5 hours in flight) or by connecting with either SATA or TAP Air Portugal in Lisboa and flying west for a couple hours to the island.  I flew TAP Air Portugal to Maderia several years ago, and SATA from Maderia back to Lisboa - both provided the superb service you expect from European airlines.

Another more appealing option, especially when a seabird is involved, is to arrive there by ship or boat.  Luckily Norwegian Cruise Line had the answer to my logistical dilemma.  The Norwegian Star, a 965 foot long 91,000 ton behemoth was used by Norwegian during the summer for cruises in the Baltic and in the North Atlantic.  In the fall the cruise line brought the ship from its summer base in Copenhagen to Los Angeles where it would ply the Mexican Riviera during the winter months.  Known as a repositioning cruise, the Star would begin its journey in Copenhagen, stop off for a day in Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island in the Azores before trundling along to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands and eventually making landfall in Miami at the end of a 2-week passage.  Although its stop on San Miguel was great for seeking the Azores Bullfinch, its arrival under cover of darkness in the morning and its sunset departure in the afternoon precluded any chance to see the endemic Storm-Petrel.

Each year for my birthday (Halloween) I take myself somewhere new and have been doing this for many years.  Birthday jaunts have taken me to the Canary Islands where I turned 50, to Samoa in the South Pacific, to Ushuaia Argentina the southernmost city in the world, to the Amazon of Ecuador, to Australia for 5 great weeks, Thailand for 5 weeks, South Africa for 5 weeks, to French Guiana and Suriname on the Atlantic coast of South America, and to Vietnam among other places.  The Norwegian Star’s departure from Copenhagen on October 6 brought it to the Azores on October 11 and back to Miami on October 20.  Despite its itinerary not fitting exactly over my birthday it was close enough and I booked the cruise in January 2014.

African Bird Club map of the islands of the Azores


The Azores are a territory of Portugal akin to how Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States.  I had once before traveled to Portugal and that experience taught me that the wildest, craziest drivers anywhere in Europe live in Portugal!  One week of driving in Portugal was enough to convince me that driving on Portuguese roads was not for the weak of heart.  I assumed (incorrectly it turns out) that Azorean drivers would be daredevils like their mainland breathern so I opted for an alternative mode of transportation.
This was the first time I ever went birding in a Mercedes Benz.  I couldn't help co-opting the famous Janis Joplin song and sang "Oh lord won't you take me birding in a Mercedes Benz..." as we drove to the laurel forests.

Not long after the trip was booked I did a search on “taxi service, Sao Miguel Island” and the name of a company called “Amazing Tours” popped up first on the list.  Because I had found Amazing Tours by doing a Google search on taxi service’s I assumed (incorrectly it turned out) that Amazing Tours was a local taxi company.  I contacted Amazing Tours and confirmed a time to be driven to the laurel forests at the east end of the island where I planned to search for the bird while the taxi driver waited.  Through emails we agreed on a price (very reasonable) and confirmed the time when I would be met at the cruise terminal by a driver.

The Bird

The following summary is taken verbatim from the Azores Bird Club webpage.  It explains almost everything you need to know about the species.  

The Azores bullfinch is one of Europe's most endangered birds. It is only found in the east of the island of São Miguel, in just a few square kilometres of wood in Serra da Tronqueira. The finch was a locally abundant pest of fruit orchards in the nineteenth century but became rare after 1920. Changes to the native vegetation of the Azores have destroyed the species' natural habitat and led to a decline in numbers to just 120 pairs. The population today is around 1000 individuals. Breeding occurs from mid-June to late August. Birds feed on seeds of herbaceous plants in summer, seeds of fleshy fruits in autumn, tree seeds and fern sporangia in winter and flower buds in spring. A mosaic of vegetation types is therefore necessary, and due to periodically shortage of food, there are today a number of feeding stations. There is also a management plan which aim to "manage the habitats of the Special Protection Area Pico da Vara / Ribeira do Guilherme in a manner that is compatible with a sustainable future, guaranteeing the conservation of Priolo". This means in practice to save and enlarge the areas with native vegetation. You can read more about the Priolo project here.

  The most striking feature that distinguishes the Azores bullfinch from its mainland counterpart is that males and females look the same, most like the female and lacking the red of the male Common Bullfinch.

   The most visited area to see the Azores Bullfinch is along the first part of the small dirt road towards Nordeste which sets off from the main road about 7 km northeast of Povoação. If you want more areas to search for the birds, or see more of its habitats, you can use the following tips from Thijs Valkenburg who has been involved in the Priolo Project:

   "The Priolo´s distribution coincides roughly with the Pico da Vara/ Ribeira do Guilherme SPA (special protection area) perimeter. Any road inside this area crossing a suitable habitat can be a potential spot to find this critically endangered bird. Although, there are three easy-finding places where you can get a good approach to the native laurel forest and consequently to the Priolo:
   1. Tronqueira's viewpoint situated in the middle of the dirt road from Povoação to Nordeste. From this viewpoint you can take a good look at the biggest patch of native vegetation in the Azores. This is where the LIFE/Priolo Project fieldwork actions are going on. Waiting a while on this place you have good chances to listen the melancholic whistle of the Priolo, if you follow the sound you can have a change observe the bird in its most typical habitat. Best in May-September.
    2. Near the ending of the one way road towards Pico Bartolomeu (south-eastern part of Serra da Tronqueira), there is a probability to see the bird when feeding in the road edges. Best in July-August.
   3. Salto de Cavalo's viewpoint (northeast of Furnas) is one of the most western places where you can find this exclusive bird. The asphalt road from this viewpoint to Povoação goes around native vegetation. Any place where you can take a broad look at this forest is a potential place to see the bird. Best in July-August."

This superbly done video (now four years old) does an excellent job of explaining the issues facing Azores Bullfinch and efforts underway to ensure that it does not go extinct. Birdlife International has some excellent information at this link including a map showing the entire (albeit tiny) range of this bird.

Finding the Bird

Less than two minutes after disembarking in the Ponta Delgada harbor I met Jose Francisco Melo, an Azores resident who was born on Sao Miguel Island and who served as my guide for the morning.  Jose had worked for Amazing Tours for several years after returning from living in Vancouver, British Columbia for a very long time.  Almost immediately after meeting Jose I discovered that Amazing Tours is a top notch ecotourism company and Jose is a top notch guide.  His passion for the Azores, for San Miguel Island, and especially the Azores Bullfinch were infectious and even before we left the edge of Ponta Delgada, Jose had me wishing I was staying much, much longer.

A not-so-great camera shot of the Sao Miguel Island map showing the general location where we searched for the Bullfinch

We traveled to the north side of the island (about 10 minutes from Ponta Delgada on the south shore) where we took the newly built autopista east to the picturesque village of Nordeste. There we turned off the EN 1 highway onto a much smaller road that turned from asphalt to dirt.  We followed this winding road for several kilometers and passed through swarms of Common Chaffinch, Island Canary, and Gray Wagtails on the way. At a point just 0.5 kilometers from the edge of the laurel forest we flushed an adult Azores Bullfinch that gave brief but very convincing views before it disappeared into some patches of shrubs.  It was species number 6,075 on my world life list.

These laurel-draped slopes in eastern Sao Miguel Island are the only home on the planet for the Azores Bullfinch

Jose’s goal was to take me to a place he called “The Lookout” where we parked and walked around a bit looking for and listening for Azores Bullfinch.  Its voice to me sounds like a House Finch and I kept listening for that song while Jose mimicked its call note.  Eventually three birds passed over giving that call note but their movement was too fast for identification.  Meanwhile we soaked in the exquisite scenery of a largely untouched and untrammeled primordial forest.  I soon found myself not wanting to leave.

The thick laurel forest at the Lookout was a treat to walk through.  Its structure reminded me of rainforest in the Pacific Northwest of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia

Unfortunately we had to leave and as we drove slowly back along this road we found several Goldcrest of the Azores race, Azores race of the Common Wood-Pigeon, and the Azores race of Common Chaffinch.  Eventually we found a single adult Bullfinch along the roadside laurel forest and at one place located a group of six adults and juveniles foraging along the road’s edge.  With a total population now estimated at 1,000 birds, our sighting of 0.8 percent of the world population was exciting and sobering at the same time.  Despite finding so many Bullfinches, Jose kept apologizing that he hadn’t shown me enough birds.  One is all it takes and any more than that is a complete bonus!

This informational billboard at The Lookout gives visitors a quick overview of the conservation challenges facing recovery of the Azores Bullfinch

It took us about 45 minutes from the time we left the cruise terminal until we arrived in Nordeste and entered suitable habitat.  We stayed in the laurel forest for about 1 ½ hours and then began the trek back to Ponta Delgada.  Before leaving however, Jose took me to the Priolo (local name for the Azores Bullfinch) Environmental Learning Center.  It didn’t open until noon and we were there about 11:00 a.m. still it was nice to see an entire education center dedicated to one bird and to educating the public about the irreplaceable natural resource it’s their responsibility to conserve.

Our return to the cruise terminal was swift and it gave Jose more time to provide me with an abundance of facts and figures and stories about the Azores and Azorean people.  As we drove along it dawned on me that what few drivers we saw weren’t as crazed and dare devilish as those on mainland Portugal. After asking Jose about this I concluded that just like in the West Indies, people in the Azores live and drive on island time.

If you want to lend some financial support to the efforts on Sao Miguel to help conserve the Azores Bullfinch you can do so at this link.  Efforts to restore degraded Bullfinch habitat are described at this link.

Would I Do It Again?

The Azores bird checklist is made up of at least 331 species and it seems more are added each year.  Among that total at least 68 species (20.5 percent) are North American nesting birds that took a left turn out over the Atlantic and pitched in here when they finally found dry land.  That includes at least 12 species of North American nesting warblers (Northern Parula was added to the list in 2012). Summer Tanager, Bobolink, Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and many others are among the migrants that have turned up there.  Accordingly for people interested in building a large Western Palearctic bird list the Azores are an essential place to visit.  In fact while we were in the Azores Jose informed me that there were no hotel or bed and breakfast rooms available anywhere on the island of Corvo (westernmost island in the chain and closest to North America) because birders were all over the island looking for out-of-range birds from North America.

In addition to the North American avifauna there is also a nice selection of Old World species that can be found here including absolute boat loads of Eurasian Blackbird (the one the Beatles sang about in their famous song) and numerous other species that would be of interest to North American’s wanting an easy introduction to European birds.  Quite surprisingly while we were in the Azores a Snowy Owl was on one of the islands near Sao Miguel.  I knew of this sighting before leaving Copenhagen and as we moved south over open ocean for 3 days before reaching the Azores I kept looking in amazement at the endless ocean and wondered how that Snowy Owl oriented himself to finding that speck of land more than 2,000 miles from the nearest suitable Snowy Owl habitat.  The Azores Bird Club (of which I am about to become a member - you should also) has a wealth of information available about the birding potential of these unique islands.  

Given the variety of habitats, the great birds to be seen, and the high probability of finding some stray North American birds for my Western Palearctic list, it’s a safe assumption that I would love to go back to the Azores sometime very soon.  Cathy went SCUBA diving while I was in the mountains and she returned from that jaunt with all sorts of superlatives about what she saw under the water. Knowing that makes it easier to plan a trip there – I can look for birds while she chases fish around in the ocean. 

There is still one endemic bird that occurs in the Azores that I’ve not seen (Monterio’s Storm-Petrel) and if I am to adhere to Ake’s Rule I need to go back to try for it another time.  Plus my Europe/Western Palearctic bird list now stands at 593 species observed and I know it will bother me no end until I have at least 600 species on that list so a return trip is definitely in order.  Next time we will fly there so we have more time and flexibility and can set up visits to several of the other islands.  SATA Airlines has a great internal air system and there are several ferries that ply the Azorean waters that will make it easier to search for seabirds.

Knowledge of the Portuguese language is not essential but it would be desirable especially on outlying islands.  Unlike highly xenophobic America where some people belittle those who can't speak English, in Europe almost everyone I've ever met speaks their language, several others from nearby countries AND English.  Still to avoid the sterotype of the Ugly American I'd recommend learning at least some phrases in Portuguese.  Plus knowledge of Portuguese (it's fairly easy to learn if you can already speak Spanish) is essential if you are going to spend much time away from major tourist centers when you go to Brazil.

One thing I know for certain after my short time on the island is that if you go there on your own looking for Azores Bullfinch you should contact Amazing Tours beforehand and ask that Jose be your guide.  I can’t guarantee you will see the bird (however I bet you will) but you will come away very well informed and with a case of Azores island fever that will make you want to come back to this little oasis in the middle of the ocean over and over again.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Five Great Skua in One Day!

Great Skua photo by Jill Pakanham

Great Skua is a large, aggressive and fairly obnoxious predatory seabird that nests primarily in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Shetland Islands and coastal Norway.  Like most birds it departs its nesting area in fall and winters in more hospitable climates. Almost without exception Great Skua spends its winters over open-ocean waters along the coasts of Europe and North America.  One record a few years ago of a Great Skua in central North Dakota remains one of those ornithological mysteries that will never be figured out.

Finding Great Skua for your life list or your American Birding Association area (48 US States, Alaska, Canada) can be a considerable challenge.  Because the bird is in our waters in winter and because winters can produce nasty storms, those who have seen Great Skua away from nesting areas are the lucky few.

 Generalized view of the range of Great Skua

My first Great Skua was harassing Dovekies, Herring Gulls and anything else with feathers as the ship I was on traversed the Cabot Strait between North Sydney, Nova Scotia and Port-aux-Basque, Newfoundland, on December 7, 1988.  I stood on the deck in a howling gale looking for skuas.  Luckily the staff was understanding and lashed me to a pole on the bow of the ship so I couldn’t be blown overboard.  The Great Skua appeared from within some gigantic waves, flew around the bow of the ship harassing other birds and then quietly and quickly disappeared among the swells.

My next Great Skua was seen on February 8, 1995, from a pelagic birding boat about 50 miles east of Virginia Beach, Virginia.  This magnificent bird was harassing anything in sight at the edge of the Gulf Stream on a day with moderate winds and 4 to 7 foot seas.  We enjoyed the bird for several minutes and pursued it as it flew further east.  However just like the bird in Cabot Strait, it suddenly disappeared.

Despite being offshore numerous times in subsequent years including a trip offshore from Iceland in March, I had seen only those two Great Skuas in my entire lifetime.  That string of bad luck changed on October 8, 2014.

We were aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line ship the Norwegian Star on a repositioning cruise from Copenhagen, Denmark to Miami.  On October 8 we transited the English Channel largely in English waters for most of the day.  Earlier, on October 7 as we passed through the North Sea, gale force winds whipped up waves and swells to 30 feet but on October 8 that system had passed further east.  Now in the English Channel winds were 45 miles per hour and seas only up to 16 feet. 

I sighted the first bird at about 1230 GMT at 50 degrees 01 minutes north latitude and 2 degrees 51 minutes west longitude.  The skua was busily harassing Black-legged Kittiwakes as they tried to forage unmolested over the open waters.  Later at about 1315 GMT and at 49 degrees 54 minutes North and 3 degrees and 30 minutes West, I found a pair of Great Skua sitting on the water less than 100 feet from the ship’s path.  There being no other seabirds around this pair squabbled between themselves over some scrap of food they had found.

Later at 1430 hours GMT and at 49 degrees 48 minutes North, 4 degrees 01 minutes West I found two more Great Skuas that were near the edge of the continental shelf break and in the Celtic Sea.  This pair was first seen gliding over the waves very close to the ship.  They seemed to be keeping abreast of the ship as it moved west and stayed in my field of view for more than 10 minutes before they simply disappeared.

Long-time friend and colleague Chris Haney, who conducted the research for his PhD on seabirds, has never seen a Great Skua.  Likewise long-time friend and colleague Jon Andrew has only seen this species once.  Likewise, fellow tropical traveler Mark Oberle, in all the times he has been offshore, has seen Great Skua only once - on a winter trip out of Ocean City, Maryland long ago.  Bill Murphy’s only observation has been a bird in the Caribbean not far from Trinidad.  Needless to say they are very difficult to find despite their enormous size and their tendency to make their presence known by harassing everything in sight.

In 1979, Jim Vardamann was attempting to become the first person to see 700 species of birds in North America in a single calendar year (he saw 699 species).  Out of frustration in late December he chartered a plane and flew low over the waters of the Stellwagen Banks off the Massachusetts coast looking for Great Skua.  He never saw one.

I consider myself very lucky to have seen five of them in one day – 2.5 times as many as I had previously seen in my entire lifetime.  Days with that sort of luck while bird watching don’t happen very often.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Flying on LOT Polish Airlines

Long ago during a North Dakota blizzard, colleague John Sidle and I were debating who had flown into our out of the most airports.  Reverting to the techniques of a fifth grader we got into a “bet you have” and “bet you haven’t” squabble that continued until we made a list of the airports we had been in.  John had been in more than me.

Later in the same conversation the topic turned to who had flown on the most airlines worldwide. Again using fifth grade techniques of “bet you have, bet you haven’t” we continued to squabble until we counted the airlines.  Again, John had bested me.  By the conclusion of that long ago afternoon in Jamestown, North Dakota, John and I had created the North American Airport and Airline Listing Association or NAAALA.  Its name and its purpose were each a parody of the fanaticism of listing by bird watchers and of the American Birding Association.  We developed rules for which airlines could be counted and which airports were legitimate and even developed a list verification committee (John and me) to resolve any outstanding issues among membership over what was countable and what was not.  Having been in existence more than 30 years the rules are still hard and fast:

Rules of the North American Airport and Airline Listing Association

The North American Airport and Airline Listing Association (NAAALA) was founded in 1983 to provide information and competition in the avocation of airline and airport listing.  The growing nationwide interest in keeping track of the airlines one has traveled on, and the airports one has landed at or taken off from gave birth to the NAAALA.  The NAAALA is the only organization that can certify a U.S. or foreign national as a national or international traveler and the level of his or her travel experience. 

To qualify for the official airport list, the airport, seaplane base, or heliport must now have, or have had in the past, scheduled passenger service amd it must have an official three-letter designator code as outlined in the Official Airline Guide (OAG). The purpose of this rule is to delete from the competition any military airports, or any obscure landing strips out in the middle of nowhere.  This eliminates the ability of those with access to military bases to gain an unfair advantage over non-military people in their pursuit of countable airports.  NAAALA encourages airport enthusiasts interested in military bases to count those airports on their own.  However they are excluded from the official tallies based on fairness.  You can land or take off from the airport, seaplane base, or heliport in a private, charter, or scheduled aircraft.  For example, you can count the Jamestown, North Dakota airport (formerly served by Northwest Airlines) if you land or take off there in a private aircraft.  You cannot, however, count the landing strip at Central City, Nebraska, if you land or take off there because the landing strip does not have scheduled passenger service, now or in the past. 

Seaplane bases and heliports that meet the above requirement can be counted separate from a nearby major airport if the seaplane or heliport base is currently listed, or has been listed in the past, in the Official Airline Guide (OAG) and has a three-letter designator code.  For instance, the downtown seaplane base in Miami, Florida (formerly served by Chalk's International Airlines) is countable, but the seaplane base at Lake Hood, Alaska, adjacent to the Anchorage International Airport, is not countable because it is not listed in the OAG, now or in the past.  If in the future an airline begins service to an airport that does not meet the current criteria that airport can be counted when the criteria are met even if you landed at or took off from the airport before it was officially countable.  Any challenge to these rules will be reviewed by the NAAALA list verification committee.

Listing an airline simply involves counting any commercially flown airline including charter airlines and charter helicopter companies.  If you are new to airline listing, you will be happy to know that the NAAALA does not lump merged airlines.  If you have flown the airline before the merger date, the airline is countable (this is a significant departure from bird listing where participants worry continuously about the next round of lumps and splits).  For example, Delta Airlines is a conglomeration of Northwest Airlines, Northwest Orient, Republic Airlines, Hughes Airwest, Western Airlines,  National Airlines, Pan Am, Southern Airlines, and North Central Airlines.  If, prior to the merger, you flew Hughes Airwest, you can count it as well as Delta Airlines if the latter has been flown since the merger date.  A verification committee exists to resolve conflicts with countable airports and airlines.

Although we still maintain the NAAALA and its rules I’m really the only “member” actually pursuing new airlines and airports for my many lists.  I continue to do so today and still look at the probability of adding new airports or airlines or both whenever travel allows.  NAAALA and the quest for more were in the forefront of my mind in January 2014 when I booked a transatlantic cruise from Copenhagen, Denmark to Miami.  Flying to Copenhagen to begin the cruise would give me a new country (#112) and a new airport (# 543). The trip also allowed time for a little exploration and perhaps an additional airport or airline since I was in the neighborhood.

For some time I have tried to find an excuse and cheap airfare to fly to Poland. Some family heritage lies in that country as well as some very well documented history of human abuses.  Trips elsewhere brought me close to Poland but I never had the opportunity to go there. 

That was until this cruise and my flight to Copenhagen.  LOT Polish Airlines has 2 or 3 daily nonstops from Copenhagen to Warsaw and I decided as part of my Danish trip to make a day trip to Poland.  I chose Saturday October 4, 2014 for the trip.

The Plane

LOT Polish Airlines’ fleet appears now to be made up of Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s used on long-haul flights to Chicago, New York, Tel Aviv and other distant locations.  The remainder of its fleet is made up of ultra-efficient and very comfortable Embraer 195 aircraft that are used for more regional flights and that was the craft of choice today.

LOT offered two classes of service; Business Class and Coach.  I was tempted to fly in Business Class just to add another airline to my list of those flown in Business/First Class.  However it really wasn’t worth the added expense to sit up front for a 75 minute flight so I remained in coach.

The Flight

For the trip to Warsaw (life airport # 544) I chose LOT Polish Airlines (life airline # 206) flight 461 departing Copenhagen at 9:25 local time arriving in Warsaw at 10:40.  A late afternoon return would give me a bit of time to explore a museum or two in Warsaw and still be back in Copenhagen in time for dinner.

I booked my flight in March 2014 using   I wanted to use the LOT website but their site flatly refused to accept the phone number I gave it so the reservation could never be completed. Orbitz didn’t seem to care about my phone number so I went with them.

Our flight left the gate in Terminal 3 a few minutes early.  The departure lounge was comfortable and announcements were made in Polish, Danish, and English so there were no misunderstandings.  I was seated in a port window forward of the wing which afforded excellent views of the terrain over which we flew.  Departing the gate we made a quick taxi to the runway and were quickly airborne. 

Once at a safe cruising altitude the inflight crew came through with breakfast sandwiches, coffee, tea, and pop.  All of which were high quality and the sandwich was quite tasty.  Beer and wine were also available and despite it always being 5 o’clock somewhere I decided not to imbibe.  After our meal the flight crew quickly collected the containers and bottles then gave us all a mint and let us return to what we were doing.

The comfortable interior of the EMB 195 makes it a pleasure to fly in

The flight was nearly full and being a Saturday it had more than its share of screaming kids and harried parents trying to keep them under control.  My leather seat was very comfortable and with it was more than adequate legroom.  My seatmate, a zoned out 20-something who was likely under the influence of something illegal kept to himself and said very little.  Lighting in the plane was excellent for reading and the large window provided superb views of the terrain below.

Our route of flight took us east over Malmo, Sweden, then out over the Baltic Sea to some German islands and then quickly to the border of Poland.  The pilot was one of those I enjoy flying with – he seemed to be as interested in geography as me and kept us informed of our location as we sped east.

I sat glued to the window as we passed over Polish countryside south of Gdansk.  My maternal grandmother’s father and mother immigrated to the United States from Flatow, Germany.  After one or two World Wars the boundaries changed and Flatow is now Flatow, Poland.  Before departing the Copenhagen airport I asked the co-pilot if we would be flying anywhere near Flatow.  Unfortunately he had never heard of the town and I didn’t have my Polish highway map with me so I will never know.  What I saw of Poland was extensive areas of heavy forest intermixed with large areas of agricultural land. From the air it appeared to be land that was begging to be explored and one of these days my daughter Jennifer and I want to make a pilgrimage there to find out where our genes originated.


The 75 minute geography lesson provided by LOT went by very quickly and we were soon on approach to Fredric Chopin International Airport in Warsaw.  Poland became the 113th country I have visited in my lifetime.  Our vectoring took us over much of the metropolitan area and ultimately we landed to the north.  Taxi to the terminal was smooth and we were off the plane and out of the terminal 10 minutes after arrival at the gate.

Reading departure signs in the Warsaw airport- is certain to contribute to your incurable tendencies for wanderlust


All in all this was an excellent albeit quick flight and introduction to LOT Polish Airlines.  The plane was immaculately clean inside and out, the inflight service was better than on almost any airline in the United States, and the pilot seemed to go out of his way to keep us informed of every nuance of the flight.

Would I ever fly LOT Polish Airlines again?  Certainly – in a heartbeat, and I look forward to the day I can do so.

Flying on Icelandair

Not long after booking a one-way repositioning cruse on Norwegian Cruise Line from Copenhagen Denmark to Miami, it occurred to me that I needed to first get to Copenhagen or the cruise would leave without me.  Cranking up I requested a one-way fare from Sarasota, Florida to Copenhagen on October 2, 2014.  I wanted to arrive a few days before the cruise departed so I had time to readjust to the time zones and so I could explore a bit of Denmark.  

When I hit the “search” icon on Orbitz it gurgled and grunted and then spit out a completely unreasonable fare of $3,000 one-way using United Airlines to Chicago and SAS Airlines from Chicago nonstop to Copenhagen. Long ago I was a 100,000 mile per year flier on United Airlines but no more.  I will swim or walk to any country before I will ever step foot on another United plane and the massive rip off they proposed for a fare only reinforced my resolve.  There had to be a better way.

I searched flights from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando and the cheapest I could find was using Aeroflot Russian Airlines from Miami to Moscow and then connecting to Copenhagen.  Checking with the Russian Embassy I discovered that to make a connecting flight through Moscow would require the purchase of a single-entry visa for $160.  Adding to the fee was the 16-page visa application form that wanted to know, among a million other irrelevant things, my former wife’s current status and if she had any traffic violations.  Not having spoken to her in 31 years I wasn’t going to begin now and certainly not to satisfy the voyeuristic fantasies of some mid-level official in the Russian intelligence agency.

Other options included Lufthansa via Frankfurt and Air Berlin via Berlin, Turkish Airlines via Istanbul, Alitalia via Rome, British Airways via London Heathrow, and Air France (the best way to travel to any part of Europe) via Paris.  However each of these options, plus the cost of driving a rental car one-way to the airport was making all of them way too expensive for my needs.  There simply had to be a better way.

As I pondered other options I remembered a long-ago trip from Baltimore to Reykjavik, Iceland on Icelandair.  Once dubbed the “hippie airline to Europe,” Icelandair remains a low-cost option across the pond.  Through route expansion Icelandair now flies from about 15 North American airports through Keflevik Airport and then on to northern Europe and Russia.  They have a flight from Orlando-Sanford but only a couple of times a week and the schedule did not conform to our needs.  

However Icelandair offers two flights a day from New York’s JFK airport.  I checked those fares and discovered that Icelandair would take us one way from JFK to Copenhagen via Iceland for $350 per person.  A quick look at the Jet Blue website (the only nonstop from Sarasota to Kennedy is on Jet Blue) and found a $125 one way fare to make the connection with Icelandair.

Flights were quickly booked, seats selected, and considerable money saved.  Using Jet Blue and Icelandair we were now paying $475 one way across the pond or 85 percent less than the ridiculous $3,000 that United wanted to charge.

Jet Blue First

After all of the mergers in the United States only two airlines remain who still understand the concept of customer service.  One of them is venerable old Alaska Airlines and the other is Jet Blue.  Rather than dealing with considerable angst when flying Allegiant or Delta or US Airways or that cattle car known as Southwest, it’s a real joy and pleasure to be on Jet Blue.  Their people actually like having you onboard AND they don’t charge for coffee, pop, or snacks!

We departed Sarasota at mid-day on Jet Blue’s Embraer 190 aircraft for the 2 hour 20 minute flight to Kennedy arriving there on time if not a little early.  Through their relationship with Icelandair we were able to check in ourselves and our luggage with Jet Blue in Sarasota and they transferred it to Icelandair for us.  One less thing to have to lug around in that airport.

What a treat it is to fly on Jet Blue Airlines.  They actually enjoy having you on their planes!

Icelandair Next

Icelandair flies a fleet of mostly long-range (winglet) 757’s and that is what we boarded that evening in New York.  Because it is a low-cost carrier you have to purchase everything except the oxygen you breathe while flying Icelandair.  That seems unheard of for an international carrier. Even Delta gives you a meal for “free” on its international flights but not so Icelandair.

One of the long-range Boeing 757's in Icelandair's fleet

Cathy and I were seated in window seats in rows 35 and 36 for the quick 5 hour 30 minute flight north to Reykjavik.  My seat was comfortable, there was adequate leg room and the passengers in the two seats next to me were quiet and not obnoxious. I dropped a 10 mg tablet of Ambien an hour before the flight and honestly don’t remember even backing away from the gate in Kennedy or hearing the engines roar on our departure.  All I remember was waking up 5 hours later on final approach to Reykjavik.

The inside of Reykjavik's hyper-efficient Keflevik airport

When I first flew Icelandair in 1996 the Keflevik airport (50 km from downtown Reykjavik) was made up of only 6 gates.  Now that it is ranked the 8th best airport in the world, there are 15 gates that are used almost exclusively by Icelandair at this important hub of theirs.  We landed at Gate 13 and had 1 hour 30 minutes to catch our departing flight out of Gate 14.  It left on time with the sun just beginning to rise in the eastern sky and we followed a southerly course to the Iceland coast not far from Reykjavik.  Our course took us along the south coast and over the spectacular ice fields and volcano fields of eastern Iceland, then over the North Atlantic passing over the Faroe Islands then hugging the coast of the fatherland (Norway) before plunking us down almost on time in Copenhagen 3 hours later.

Again because of its low cost status Icelandair charges coach passengers for breakfast and by now I was famished so I shelled out $1900 Icelandic Krona ($15.75 US) for a breakfast sandwich of ham and cheese and then welcomed myself to the high prices of travel in Scandinavia.


Overall we were satisfied with Icelandair.  We paid them to transport us from New York to Copenhagen and they did that mostly on time and definitely quite safely.  I miss having meals on Icelandair because 18 years ago they prepared and presented very filling and satisfying Scandinavian meals on their flights.  Those days are now gone apparently.  At least Icelandair isn’t charging for the use of the restroom like Ryanair does.  At least not yet.

Would we fly Icelandair again? Certainly - I just don’t know when that will happen again.