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?

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.