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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Cruise: Santiago to Los Angeles

2016 Narrative

The whole group met onboard Star Princess for a first hour of seabirding as we left the Valparaiso (Chile) harbor. Part of the group had just participated to the WINGS cruise between Buenos Aires and Valparaiso, and were continuing that amazing trip on to Los Angeles, while the others had just arrived to Chile and were discovering the impressive cruise ship that would be our home for the next two weeks. We saw several elegant Red-legged Cormorant swimming in the Valparaiso harbor, while a few Peruvian Boobies and Peruvian Pelicans flew close to the ship. A group of immature Magellanic Penguins was a nice surprise, and once in more open water we saw our first Sooty Shearwaters and White-chinned Petrels. We also had a large group of Salvin’s Albatross following a fishing boat—our first albatrosses in less than one hour of sailing. After this short introduction to seabirding from a big cruise ship we had our formal introductory meeting followed by a nice dinner.

The next morning while checking the exterior decks before breakfast, we found 3 Masatierra Petrels, a Buller’s Shearwater and a White-bellied Storm-petrel on the deck (attracted by the ship lights during the night). The White-bellied Storm-petrel was an amazing find, as it is the southernmost record for the species, and only the second record from the Chilean coast. An amazing start to the day!

After disembarking in Coquimbo (Chile) and meeting Rodrigo and Aurelio, our local guides/drivers, we went first to Punta Teatinos wetlands. This was a great place, full of waterbirds such as Red-gartered and Red-fronted Coots, Chiloé Wigeon, Lake Duck, American and Blackish Oystercatchers, and Whimbrels, and we even found a male of the rare Black-headed Duck. A few Band-tailed Sierra-finches, Common Diuca-finches, Gray-flanked Cinclodes, and even a Seaside Cinclodes were attracted by the fresh water of the lagoon for a drink or a bath. And in the reeds we found the sublime Many-colored Rush-tyrant as well as the less colorful but attractive Wren-like Rushbird. A cooperative Plumbeous Rail also came into the open.

We left the wetlands for drier and shrubby habitat, where without much walking we quickly had great views of several Chilean endemics: White-throated Tapaculo was common, the charismatic Moustached Turca showed well atop some large boulders, a Dusky Tapaculo came to the tape and gave us a great show, as did a few Dusky-tailed Canasteros, while Chilean Mockingbirds sang from the top of dry puya. In addition to these endemics species, we also had great views of several Green-backed Firecrowns, Plain-mantled Tit-spinetails, Tufted Tit-tyrant, Fire-eyed Diucons, and the colorful Gray-hooded Sierra-finch. An Austral Pygmy-owl also gave us a great show when singing from the top of a Eucalyptus tree.

After a wonderful birding morning we had a great picnic lunch at a local place. Hilda, the wife of the owner, even prepared fresh bread (“pan amasado”) for us and we enjoyed some local grown products such olives, raisins, peaches, and papayas. On the way back to the ship we made a stop at the Culebron estuary, where in addition to great numbers of White-backed (Black-necked) Stilt, Whimbrel, and Kelp Gull, we found a few Black-crowned Night-Herons, a Cocoi Heron, three White-faced Ibis, and an immature Belcher’s Gull. And during our last stop at the fishing harbor, we had stunning views of the superb Inca Tern (reincarnation of Salvador Dali!), and enjoyed the spectacle given by some fishermen feeding fish heads to the huge South American Sea-lions.

After reboarding the ship and a having a short rest we did a last hour birding from the bow, finding several Peruvian Diving-petrel and Salvin’s Albatross, as well as a few Pink-footed Shearwater and even a Parasitic Jaeger pursuing an Inca Tern. A few groups of Risso’s Dolphin were also seen briefly. What a wonderful introduction to Chile, and an excellent first day birding.

We then had two days sailing far offshore, in warm waters (26ºC/ 79ºF) west of the Humboldt Current. The first day was great, with 250+ Juan Fernandez Petrels and 150+ De Filippi’s (Masatierra) Petrels, as well as a dozen Kermadec Petrels, great numbers of Makham’s and Wedge-rumped Storm-petrels, and even a few Red-billed Tropicbirds. The most amazing finds of the day, however, were probably a total of 11 White-bellied Storm-petrel (previously known from only one coastal sighting in Chile), 4 White-faced Storm-petrels (first sightings in continental Chile; the species is considered a vagrant around the Juan Fernandez Archipelago), and 6 Masked Boobies (previously known from only a few sightings in coastal Chile). Really an amazing day!

The second of these two sailing days was even more productive. Now in Peruvian waters, we had a great day for Pterodroma petrels, with 1000+ Masatierra Petrels, among which we found at least 5 Cook’s Petrels, plus 5 Kermadec Petrels and 20 Galapagos Petrels. But the most impressive were the numbers of storm-petrels seen that day! We had no less than 600 Hornby’s (Ringed) Storm-petrel, a species rarely seen from coastal pelagic trips, and whose breeding ground still remain unknown. We also had what is probably the highest number of this species seen in a single day by a birding group. We also had 350+ White-faced Storm-petrel, 40 Wedge-rumped Storm-petrel, and 75 Markham’s Storm-petrel! Listening to Steve Howell saying that was one of his best “storm-petrel days” ever gave us an idea how amazing our day was. Other great birds of the day included a few Red-billed Tropicbirds, seven Swallow-tailed Gulls, 17 Sooty Terns, and 160+ Long-tailed Jaegers.

After arriving at the San Martin dock about 20 km south of Pisco (Peru), we drove to the fishing village of Paracas to take a small boat for a trip to the Ballestas Islands. We stopped on the way to photograph the “Candelabra”, a 600 feet tall prehistoric geoglyph (200 BC) representing a huge cactus, and admire the coast of the Sechura desert. At the Ballestas Islands we were all impressed by the amazing number of seabirds breeding there. Thousands of Peruvian Boobies and Inca Terns flying in all directions, and tens of thousands of Guanay Cormorants covering part of the top of one of the islands. And what about the smell of the guano deposited by these tens (hundreds?) of thousands of birds mixed together with the smell of hundreds of South American Sea Lions breeding on the beaches? The guano (actually a quechua word) was a very precious resource up to the first quarter of the last century, as it was a source of phosphate, indispensable to produce fertilizer and explosives. In April 1864, Spain even tried to take possession of these islands, and Peru had to make an alliance with Chile to engage in a war against Spain (again) to keep these precious Islands (at that time, the guano production represented 60% of the income of Peru). But in 1909, Fritz Haber discovered the way to artificially produce ammoniac, and the exploitation of guano collapsed—luckily for the birds! Nowadays, the guano is still exploited (even in the Paracas National Reserve) for organic fertilizer (and users of that guano probably don’t know their impact on these seabirds). On these islands we also had a fantastic encounter with a group of 17 Humboldt Penguin, first seen on the top of one of the islands, then walking down to the shore, and finally jumping into the sea and porpoising just a few meters from our boat. Show of the day!

After that great trip to the islands, we made a short stop at the Paracas mudflats where we found a large group of Chilean Flamingoes, and huge numbers of migrants including at least 30,000 Franklin’s Gulls (on their way to the U.S. and Canada) and 5,000 Black Skimmers (on their way to the Amazon Basin). After lunch at a coastal restaurant in Paracas we explored some agricultural fields near Pisco (well known for the Peruvian brandy) where, without moving from our shady spot, we found Croaking Ground-dove, Groove-billed Ani, Vermilion Flycatcher, Chestnut-throated and Parrot-billed Seedeaters, Hooded Siskin, Pacific Parrotlet, Long-tailed Mockingbird, and the superb Amazilia Hummingbird. On the way back to the ship, Steve even spotted a group of three Peruvian Thick-knees, resting in the shade of a palm tree. What a nice way to top a great day around Pisco.

We then sailed to Lima (Peru) by night and after arriving at the busy harbor of Callao and meeting our driver José, we drove to the Pantanos de Villa wetlands south of Lima. In the reeds by the Reserve entrance, we had great views of the lovely Many-colored Rush-tyrant (not as bright as the nominate subspecies seen in Chile), Wren-like Rushbird, and Striated Heron, but a Least Bittern and a young Plumbeous Rail only pleased part of the group before too quickly disappearing into the dense vegetation.  At the coastal lagoon, we were again impressed by the thousands of Franklin’s Gull and hundreds of Black Skimmers. We also had small numbers of Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, two Least Sandpipers, and a few Spotted Sandpiper. Amongst the resident species we had a few Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night-heron, Andean Coot, Great Grebe, Cinnamon Teal, White-cheeked Pintail, Little Blue Heron, Gray-hooded Gull, nesting American Oystercatcher with young chicks, a pair of Peruvian Thick-knee also with a young chick, and the fancy Yellow-hooded Blackbird. But the sight of the day was probably that impressive flock of 3,000 Sanderling flying together above the beach. What an amazing show to see that cloud of birds, flying and changing direction at the same time, and passing from white to dark according to the birds’ angle. Stunning! After a great picnic lunch made mostly from local products, we made a last stop in some agricultural fields near the village of Lurin, just below the ruins of Pachacamac. There we found the cute Southern Beardless-tyrannulet, Rufescent (Bran-colored) Flycatcher, a few Vermilion Flycatchers, and a lonely Band-tailed Seedeater.

During our second day around Lima we visited the Lomas de Lachay Reserve, protecting the highly endangered fog vegetation found in the Sechura desert. It’s amazing that in the driest desert in the world, the condensation of the dense fog permits not only the growth of some cacti, but also some developed plants including several species of flowers and even trees. During our visit, at the end of the dry season, most of the vegetation was completely dry and burned by the strong sun, but some pretty orange flowers welcomed us at the entrance of the reserve. The bird activity was linked to the vegetation stage, and we mostly saw non-breeding birds. In the very short vegetation at the bottom of the reserve, we saw two groups of Least Seedsnipe, a very particular shorebirds similar in its ecology to sandgrouse, and several Coastal Miners, a Peruvian endemic common in that very arid ecosystem. We were all impressed by the high density of Burrowing Owls, and found no less than 30 different individuals along the two kilometers of the access road. Farther up, in taller vegetation, we found a few flocks of Peruvian Meadowlarks, an elusive Peruvian (Yellowish) Pipit that fortunately perched in a dead tree, and impressive numbers of Eared Doves. A few dozen Black-chested Buzzard-eagles and a Peregrine Falcon were soaring above the reserve, probably in search of one of these doves. In that dense vegetation we also had amazing views of several Andean Tinamous, some of them to less than 5 meters from us. Best views ever of a tinamou! Part of the group did a walk in that peculiar place, enjoying the scenery and the unique vegetation, and also finding Band-tailed Sierra-finch, Streaked Tit-spinetail, and Croaking Ground-doves.

After a full morning at Lomas de Lachay, we drove back towards Lima following the coast and seeing thousands of Franklin’s and Gray Gulls on the shoreline, while thousands of Guanay Cormorants were feeding at sea… another example of the high productivity of the Humboldt Current. Making a last stop at the Ventanillas wetlands North of Lima, we had stunning views of groups of shorebirds, finding together Wilson’s Phalarope, Least, Stilt, and Spotted Sandpipers, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, and even a Hudsonian Godwit. A good way to study these shorebirds, sometimes tricky to identify. At a coastal lagoon, we found at least 5,000 Franklin’s Gull, ready for their departure towards their breeding grounds, and we wondered if we would see some of them during our three forthcoming days sailing towards Costa-Rica.Because of an incident at the Cusco airport, some passengers of the cruise doing an excursion at Machu Picchu had been delayed and missed the ship in Callao. To pick these passengers up in Manta (Ecuador), our itinerary between Callao and Puntarenas (Costa-Rica) changed and we spent our first day at sea following (roughly) the Peruvian coast. We spent the all day in quite warm waters (around 26ºC/79ºF), just beyond the coastal cold Humboldt Current. It was another amazing day for storm-petrels, and we saw at least 3,000 Wedge-rumped and 2,500 Hornby’s (Ringed) Storm-petrels. Now, we have no doubt that we saw the highest number of the enigmatic Hornby’s Storm-petrel seen in a single day by a group of birders. Amongst these two species, we also had 150 Black, 40 Markham’s, and 15 Elliot’s Storm-petrels. We also enjoyed numerous views of the splendid Waved (Galapagos) Albatross, learned how to separate Parkinson’s from White-chinned Petrel as they were usually seen together, saw a few Galapagos Petrels, and counted no less than 19 Swallow-tailed Gulls and 10 Sabine’s Gulls. Blue-footed Boobies were quite numerous, and we reached a total of 400 birds at the end of the day, and even found our first Nazca Booby. This fantastic seabirding day was also stunning for mammals, as we counted at least 1,500 Short-beaked Common Dolphin and 100 Pelagic Bottlenose Dolphin.

Our second day at sea between Peru and Costa Rica was shortened, because we had to wait for the delayed participants of the Machu Picchu excursion during all afternoon at Manta (Ecuador). However, the morning proved really good for storm-petrels, and we found 250 Wedge-rumped, 35 Black, 2 Least, and 7 Elliot’s Storm-petrels! Arriving close to the Ecuadorian coast, our ship also attracted a large group of Magnificent Frigatebird, amongst which was hidden a Great Frigatebird. It was also a great morning for boobies, with no less than 5 different species (Blue-footed, Masked, Nazca, Red-footed and Brown). The morning was also exciting for mammals, as we continuously found new groups of cetaceans. We estimated a total of 400 Short-beaked Common Dolphin, 110 Bottlenose Dolphins, and 165 Rissos’s Dolphins, two Bryde’s/Sei Whales, 5 Sperm Whales, 4 Killer Whales, and 70 Short-finned Pilot Whales, with the best find of the day being a Pygmy Beaked Whale.

During our sailing day between Ecuador and Costa Rica, we crossed the “dead zone”, a very deep and unproductive tropical water area. Birding was slow, with sometime long period without any birds at all, but very interesting because of the challenge in identifying the storm-petrels seen that day. Amongst the regular Wedge-rumped, Band-rumped and “white-rumped” Leach’s Storm-Petrels, Steve taught us how to spot and identify a few Chapman Storm-Petrel (a “dark-rumped” subspecies of Leach’s) as well as a few possible Townsend’s Storm-petrels, a different (sub)species of Leach’s Storm-Petrel breeding in summer on Guadalupe Island (but with different vocalization form Leach’s, so a split is expected). And occasionally, just to break the long wait, some different species such as Tahiti Petrel, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Galapagos Shearwater, and White Tern appeared to please the persistent ones still seabirding on the exterior deck.

Arriving in the bay at Puntarenas (Costa Rica) we saw an immense concentration of 5,000+ Black Terns, all of them molting into their breeding plumage, as well as a few Brown Pelicans and Laughing Gulls. Unfortunately, some delay at the arrival and a massive Easter traffic jam meant we reached Carara National Park relatively late in the morning. Even if the temperature was already high when we began birding, we rapidly found some great birds such Black-hooded Antshrike, Rufous-naped and Rufous-breasted Wren, Crested Guan, Gartered Trogon, Bay-headed Tanager, Orange-billed Sparrow, Black-crowned Tityra, and Golden-crowned Spadebill. Debbie even found a pair of Central American Spider Monkey sleeping in the shade. We had a nice lunch of typical Costa Rican food near the Tarcoles River, known for its large population of American Crocodile. The garden of our restaurant was quite birdy, and we found Turquoise-browed Motmot, Streak-headed Woodcreeper and Cinnamon Hummingbird almost from our lunch table. Back to the trails at Carara National Park after lunch, we saw Short-billed Pigeon, Grey-headed Tanager, a minuscule Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, a few White-shouldered and Golden-hooded Tanager, and a secretive Ruddy Quail-dove. A group of White-headed Capuchin also got our attention when they came to harvest the ripe fruits of a banana tree just a few meters from our trail. But the ones who got most of our attention were these two lovely males of Orange-collared Manakin displaying at their lek. What a stunning and most wanted bird! We ended our birding day at Carara with a White-whiskered Puffbird (well spotted Kent!) perched in the understory of the forest, and a superb look on a roosting Northern Ghost Bat, “bird of the day” for some of us.

During our day in Nicaragua, we birded a private reserve at the base of the Mombacho Volcano. In the shade-grown coffee plantation we found a few migrant Yellow, Black-and-white, and Tennessee Warblers, Yellow-throated Vireo, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Swainson’s Thrush, and Summer Tanager, together with resident Rufous-naped and Banded Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Hoffman’s Woodpecker, Cinnamon and Steely-vented Hummingbirds, and the superb Black-headed Trogon. But the masterpiece of the morning was a wonderful prolonged views of three stunning male Long-tailed Manakins trying to seduce two females. Fantastic birds! After our morning birding we drove to the picturesque and charming town of Granada for a lunch, where we crossed path with an Easter procession. After lunch we drove back to the harbor of San Juan del Sur, making a short stop on the shore of the huge Lake Nicaragua, where we found a few Lesser Scaup, a Tricolored Heron, and a large flock of migrating Barn Swallows.

We had three days’ sailing between Nicaragua and Cabo San Lucas (Mexico) in warm tropical waters. The number of seabirds was very different from one day to the next, with an impressive number of shearwaters the first day, thousands of phalaropes (hundreds of Red and Red-necked up close and thousands more distant ones unidentified to species level) the second day, and a very slow third day. During these three days, we had some impressive flocks of shearwaters, totaling 3,000+ Wedge-tailed and 10,000+ Galapagos Shearwaters, as well as a few Pink-footed, two Christmas, and even a Black-vented Shearwater. The identification of the storm-petrels was still challenging, but we had some nice views of Least, Wedge-rumped, Black, Leach’s (Chapman’s), and Leach’s (white-rumped) storm-petrels. There was also a great selection of non-tubenoses, with 1,000+ Black Tern, amongst which we spotted a few Common, Least, Bridled, Elegant, and Royal Tern, as well as a few Brown Noddies and Sabine’s Gulls.

In addition to seabirds, these days were very interesting for other marine wildlife. We saw great numbers of dolphins, including several hundreds of Pantropical Spotted Dolphin, and up to 1,250 Spinner Dolphin counted in one single day. We also had several groups of Bottlenose Dolphin (pelagic group/species) jumping near the ship, and good views on a few Bryde’s Whales. We also had several hundreds of marine turtles, all the identified ones being Olive Ridley, and all kind of fishes including hundreds of flyingfish (Pied-tailed Necromancer being the most common), jumping Sailfish and rays, Hammerhead Shark, and more.

After three days at sea we were delighted to do some land birding near Cabo San Lucas (Mexico). We visited an estuary bordered by scrubland, were we found two most wanted endemics of “Baja California”, a pair of lovely Gray Trasher and a few Belding’s Yellowthroats. In addition to these local celebrities, the bushes were full of migrants such Clay-colored Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting, Black-headed Grosbeak, Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers, as well as numerous local species including Gila Woodpecker, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Phainopepla, and Scott’s Oriole. The estuary also attracted lots of waterbirds, and we had great views of Blue-winged Teal, a female Ring-necked Duck, Belted Kingfisher, Ruddy Duck, Tricolored Heron, White-faced Ibis, as well as a small group of Long-billed Dowitcher and Least and Solitary Sandpiper almost in full breeding plumage. Leaving Cabo San Lucas in the early afternoon, we were hoping to see a few whales on their way north, but actually found a few Craveri’s Murrelets!

Our last day at sea we sailed north off the central Pacific coast of the Baja California Peninsula, the longest peninsula in the Americas, within sight of Natividad Island (home to most of the world’s Black-vented Shearwaters) and the San Benito Islands (where all three of Scripps’s, Guadalupe, and Craveri’s Murrelets breed), but sadly these birds were not breeding at this time of the year so we only saw two Black-vented Shearwaters and two Guadalupe Murrelets. Fortunately, we ended our cruise with great views of both Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses and Northern Fulmar, as well as thousands of migrating Red Phalaropes. With these last birds, the participants who began the tour in Buenos Aires reached the amazing number of 57 species of tubenoses (more than a third of the world’s species) seen in just a month! It was now time to end a fabulous cruise in the Eastern Pacific with a great farewell dinner just before arriving Los Angeles.

                                                                                                                                                                             - Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 14 April 2016