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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Cruise: Santiago to Los Angeles

2018 Narrative

IN BRIEF: This was the second time we had organized a birding cruise in the Eastern Pacific, from San Antonio (Chile) to Los Angeles, and once again it was a wonderful trip! Without changing cabin we birded in five countries, visited habitats ranging from desert scrub to humid tropical forest, and found birds as diverse as Moustached Turca in Chile, Peruvian Thick-knee near Pisco (Peru), Orange-collared Manakin in the forests of Costa Rica, Turquoise-browed Motmot in the Nicaraguan coffee plantations, and the beautiful Black-throated Magpie-Jay in Mexico! We also learned that the ocean is far from being a uniform mass of water, and each of our sailing stretches was very different both in diversity and quantity of seabirds. After seeing hundreds of resident Hornby’s and Markham’s Storm-Petrel and tens of thousands of migrating Franklin’s Gull, we realized how productive the Humboldt current is and how important for bird conservation. We also realized how challenging it can be to bird in warm tropical waters, where some “desert specialists” such as Tahiti Petrel and Leach’s Storm-Petrel live in low densities.

The voted ’10 best birds’ of the trip give an idea of diversity on this tour: the 350+ Galapagos Albatross took first place, followed by the elegant Hornby’s Storm-Petrel and a surprise Chatham Albatross, a pair of the cryptic Peruvian Thick-knee and two displaying male Long-tailed Manakins, then Leach’s Storm-Petrel, the colorful Red-capped Manakin, Laysan Albatross (last of six albatross species seen on the trip), the stunning Inca Tern, and the colorful Orange-breasted Bunting. Besides birds we also had amazing views of almost 20 species of cetaceans, including thousands of Short-beaked Common Dolphins, hundreds of Pantropical Spotted and Spinner Dolphins, along with Blue and Bryde’s Whales, the rare Blainville’s and Pygmy Beaked Whales, and even a group of False Killer Whales! We also saw hundreds of sea turtles, and beautiful flying fish such Pied-tailed Necromancer and Rosy-winged Clearwing. A unique trip, and definitely the most comfortable way to travel through this part of the planet.

IN DETAIL: Our group met onboard Emerald Princess as we left the San Antonio (Chile) harbor. Some of us had just participated in the WINGS cruise between Buenos Aires and San Antonio, and were continuing from that amazing trip on to Los Angeles, while the others had just arrived in Chile and were discovering the impressive cruise ship that would be our home for the next two weeks!

Our first morning, after disembarking in Coquimbo (Chile) and meeting our local guides/drivers Rodrigo and Aurelio, we went first to Punta Teatinos wetlands. This was a great place, full of waterbirds such as Red-gartered and Red-fronted Coots, American and Blackish Oystercatchers, and Whimbrels, and we even found a male of the beautiful Cinereous Harrier. A few Band-tailed Sierra-finches, Common Diuca-finches, Gray-flanked Cinclodes, and even three Seaside Cinclodes were attracted for a drink or bath by the fresh water of the lagoon. We left the wetlands for a drier and shrubby habitat, where without much walking we soon had great views of several Chilean endemics: White-throated Tapaculo was common, the charismatic Moustached Turca showed well atop some large boulders, a Dusky-tailed Canastero came to the tape and gave us a great show, as did a stunning Crag Chilia, while Chilean Mockingbirds sang from the top of dry puya! Besides these endemics we also saw several Green-backed Firecrowns, Plain-mantled Tit-spinetails, Tufted Tit-tyrants, and the colorful Gray-hooded Sierra-finch.

Our birding morning was followed by a great picnic lunch at the house of the owner of that gorgeous place, and included some local grown products such as olives, raisins, peaches, and papayas. On our way back to the ship we stopped at the Culebron estuary, where besides numbers of White-backed (Black-necked) Stilt, Whimbrel, and Kelp Gulls we found a few Black-crowned Night-Herons, a Cocoi Heron, a White-faced Ibis, and a few Yellow-billed Pintail and Chiloé Wigeon. 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 of some fishermen feeding fish heads to the huge South American Sea Lions. After a rest back on board we spent a last hour birding from the bow as the ship headed back to sea, finding several Peruvian Diving-Petrels, as well as a few Salvin’s Albatross and close views of a few Red-legged Cormorants. What a wonderful introduction to Chile and an excellent first day birding!

Checking the exterior decks at dawn, Bob and Dan found a De Filippi’s (Masatierra) Petrel attracted by the ship lights, and after a few pictures we released it safely. We then had two days sailing offshore in warm waters (17-23°C; 63-73°F) west of the Humboldt Current. The first day was amazing, with 800+ Juan Fernandez Petrels and 500+ De Filippi’s Petrels, plus a dozen Kermadec Petrels, large numbers of Makham’s and Wedge-rumped Storm-petrels, and even a few Hornby’s and White-bellied Storm-petrels. We also found a few Buller’s and Salvin’s Albatrosses, Red-billed Tropicbirds, and Buller’s Shearwaters, although the best find was probably a Chatham Albatross, one of the rarest albatrosses in the world. The second sailing day was also very interesting. Now in Peruvian waters, we had smaller numbers of De Filippi’s Petrels than the day before, but we also found at least 12 Cook’s Petrels, a Kermadec Petrel, and 3 Galapagos Petrels. Most impressive were the numbers of storm-petrels: no fewer than 250 Hornby’s (Ringed) Storm-petrel, a species rarely seen from coastal pelagic trips, and whose breeding ground have only just been discovered! We also had 100 Markham’s Storm-petrels, 15 White-faced Storm-petrels, and 15 Wedge-rumped Storm-petrels! Other good birds of the day included a Brown Booby, two close Swallow-tailed Gulls, a Sooty Tern, a few Long-tailed Jaegers, and a subadult male Great Frigatebird, with Dan’s photos being perhaps the first ones of this species for Peru!

After arriving at the San Martin dock, about 20 km south of Pisco (Peru), we drove to the fishing village of Paracas where we learned that the harbor was closed for bad weather, sadly canceling our trip to the Ballestas Islands. We changed plan and decided to explore the Paracas surroundings, quickly finding three Coastal Miners, an endemic species to Peru, and a stunning pair of Peruvian Thick-knees. Good start! We then scanned the mudflats and found 500+ Chilean Flamingoes and huge numbers of migrants including at least 10,000 Franklin’s Gulls (on their way to the U.S. and Canada), Elegant Terns (on their way to Mexico’s Gulf of California) and 5,000 Black Skimmers (on their way to the Amazon Basin). We also explored some agricultural fields near Pisco (for which the Peruvian brandy is named) where a sewage plant attracted plenty of waterbirds including Gray-hooded Gulls, Puna Ibis, Least and Pectoral Sandpipers, and Black-necked Stilts. A few Chestnut-collared and Cliff Swallows also came to the pond to drink. In the nearby fields we found a few Croaking Ground-Doves, Groove-billed Anis, Vermilion Flycatchers, a singing Parrot-billed Seedeater, Long-tailed Mockingbirds, and even a Short-tailed Field-Tyrant. We enjoyed a great lunch in Paracas, having a chance to try the succulent Peruvian ceviche and the national cocktail, pisco sour—a nice way to top a great day. Leaving Paracas in the evening we were able to photograph the “Candelabra,” a 600-foot tall prehistoric geoglyph (200 BC) representing a huge cactus, and to admire the coast of the Sechura Desert. We sailed close enough to the Ballestas Islands to see a dark layer of Guanay Cormorants covering part of the top of one of the islands, and even smelt the guano deposited by these tens (hundreds?) of thousands of birds mixed with the smell of hundreds of South American Sea Lions breeding on the beaches!

We sailed to Lima (Peru) by night and after arriving at the busy harbor of Callao met our driver and headed to Pantanos de Villa, south of Lima. In the reeds by the reserve entrance we had great views of the lovely Many-colored Rush-tyrant, plus Wren-like Rushbird and Plumbeous Rail. A Least Bittern only pleased part of the group before disappearing into the dense vegetation. At the coastal lagoon, we were again impressed by the thousands of Franklin’s Gull and Black Skimmers, and also found small numbers of migrant northern shorebirds, including Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Pectoral, Stilt, Spotted, and Least Sandpipers, plus a few American Golden Plovers. It was also interesting to study the group of terns, finding together Sandwich, Elegant, and Common Terns. Among the resident species we had a few Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night-Herons, Andean Coots, Great Grebes, Cinnamon Teal, White-cheeked Pintail, Gray-hooded Gulls, American Oystercatchers, a pair of Peruvian Thick-knees with a large chick, and the fancy Yellow-hooded Blackbird. After a picnic lunch in the fishing village of Pucusana we found the endemic Surf Cinclodes along with numerous Inca Terns and the stunning Red-legged Cormorant. On our way back to Lima 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 Western (Southern) Beardless-Tyrannulet, Rufescent (Bran-colored) Flycatcher, a few Vermilion Flycatchers, and had brief views of an Amazilia Hummingbird.

We left Lima to begin our trip towards Costa Rica in mid-morning, and the day at sea was absolutely amazing! After seeing the (now) usual coastal species such Red-legged Cormorant, Inca Tern, Peruvian Pelican, Peruvian Booby, and Belcher’s Gull, we quickly began to find more and more real pelagic species. We saw more than 1,000 Wedge-rumped Storm-petrels, most of them ‘Peruvian’ but also a few ‘Galapagos’ among them, permitting us to identify these two forthcoming splits. Among the Wedge-rumps we also saw hundreds of Markham’s and dozens of Elliot’s! We were also impressed by the quantity of migrant Sabine’s Gull, estimating more than 1,200, along with a dozen or so of the splendid Swallow-tailed Gull. We also enjoyed hundreds of phalaropes, mostly Reds but also a few Red-neckeds; hundreds of Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters; a continuous stream of jaegers (many unidentified, but all three species present); 50 Peruvian Terns, 40+ Black Terns, a few Blue-footed Boobies, and even a Galapagos Petrel. One of the most amazing memories of the day came in late afternoon, with one, two, ten, twenty, then dozens of Galapagos (Waved) Albatrosses—in just two hours we saw more than 350 of these beautiful albatrosses, along with a few Salvin’s Albatrosses. A fantastic way to end an incredible day at sea!

Our second day at sea, at about 40 miles off the coast of northern Peru, was very interesting. In the morning we were still in the Humboldt Current, surrounded by thousands of Franklin’s Gull and Red-necked Phalaropes migrating north. Among them we spotted a few Peruvian Terns, Sabine’s and Swallow-tailed Gulls, Elegant and Sandwich Terns, and even a few Laughing Gulls. For the true seabirds, we had rafts of Parkinson’s Petrels, and good views of several Black Storm-Petrels. Sadly, bird activity decreased at midday, and the afternoon was appreciably quieter. Fortunately, we found a few Least Storm-Petrels and Galapagos Petrels to give us some excitement, as well as some great cetaceans including groups of Short-beaked Common Dolphins, a large group of Risso’s Dolphins, a Bryde’s Whale, and a brief appearance of Pygmy Killer Whales!

During our third sailing day between Peru and Costa Rica we crossed the “dead zone,” a very deep and unproductive area of tropical “blue water.” Birding was slow, some long periods with few or no birds, but also interesting because of the challenge in identifying storm-petrels, which included Wedge-rumped, Band-rumped (apparently both hot- and cool-season Galapagos breeding populations, further potential splits!), and both white-rumped and dark-rumped Leach’s Storm-Petrels. A few different species, such as Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, and Brown Noddy made appearances, to please the persistent ones seabirding on the exterior deck. And a group of boobies (four Nazca, two Red-footed, one Brown) entertained us all afternoon, flying just a few meters from the bow and chasing flying fish flushed by the ship! It was also quiet for cetaceans, but we had some nice views of Striped Dolphins and a close group of Pygmy Beaked Whales.

The ship was accompanied by 100+ Magnificent Frigatebird and a few dozen Brown Pelicans as we arrived in the Puntarenas (Costa Rica) Bay. After disembarking, we met our local guide, Enrique, and drove towards Carara National Park, where we spent most of the day. Even though the temperature was already high when we began birding, we soon found some great birds such as the lovely Rufous-naped Wren, two colorful males of Orange-collared Manakin at their lek, Gartered and Black-throated Trogons, Dot-winged Antwren, and Bay-headed Tanager. We even spotted a superb White-whiskered Puffbird in the forest understory, perched just a few meters from the trail. 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 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks almost from our lunch table! Back to the trails at Carara National Park after lunch, we found a singing male Baird’s Trogon and a beautiful pair of the near-endemic Black-hooded Antshrike, while a Chestnut-backed Antbird was foraging in dead leaves on the ground. We found a few understory flocks containing Lesser Greenlets, White-shouldered Tanagers, Plain Xenops, and Chestnut-sided Warblers, sometimes joined by an Eye-ringed Flatbill, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, or Summer Tanager. On the forest floor we had stunning views of three (!) Great Tinamous, plus Gray-chested Dove and Ruddy Quail-Dove. We also enjoyed some great looks at a few mammals, including Central American Agouti, a Brown-throated three-toed Sloth high in a tree, and superb looks at two roosting Northern Ghost Bats, “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 Tennessee Warblers, Swainson’s Thrush, and Summer Tanager, together with resident Rufous-naped Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Hoffman’s Woodpecker, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-necked Puffbird, Cinnamon and Steely-vented Hummingbirds, and the superb Black-headed Trogon. But the masterpiece of the morning was a wonderful view of two stunning male Long-tailed Manakins displaying at their lek. Fantastic birds! After our morning birding we drove to the picturesque and charming colonial town of Granada for a succulent lunch. En route back to the harbor of San Juan del Sur we made a short stop on the shore of the huge Lake Nicaragua, enjoying views of the Concepción Volcano. Before sailing off towards Mexico we also saw at least three different Humpback Whales and a few Bottlenose Dolphins in the bay of San Juan del Sur.

We had two days sailing between Nicaragua and Puerto Vallarta (Mexico) in warm tropical waters. The total number of tubenoses was low, especially compared to the thousands of shearwaters we saw on this route in 2016. We were very happy, though, to see at least 30 Tahiti Petrels the first day (versus none here in 2016!), plus a few dozen Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, a single Galapagos Shearwater, and some Least and Black Storm-petrels. To enliven the first day we were accompanied by a squadron of 200+ Nazca Boobies, together with a few Red-footed, Masked, and Brown Boobies, continually entertaining us by catching flying fish flushed by the ship! Really stunning to have such good views of these four species of boobies! We also saw thousands of migrating Red-necked Phalaropes, plus small numbers of Red Phalaropes, Pomarine Jaegers, Black and Least Terns. These two days were also interesting for other marine wildlife, with great numbers of dolphins, including several hundreds of Pantropical Spotted, Spinner, and Short-beaked Common Dolphins. We also saw several groups of Bottlenose Dolphin (pelagic group/species) and a few Bryde’s Whales, including one breaching close to the ship! Rarer cetaceans included two Pygmy Beaked Whales, a Dwarf Sperm Whale, and a Blainville’s Beaked Whale. There were also hundreds of sea turtles, all those identified being Olive Ridley, and many kinds of fish including hundreds of flying fish (Pied-tailed Necromancer being the most common), jumping Sailfish, Devil Rays and more!

After two days at sea we were delighted to do some land birding near Puerto Vallarta (Mexico). We visited the edge of some ‘thorn forest,’ where we found a few Mexican endemics such as the beautiful Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, the stunning Orange-breasted Bunting, and even a group of Black-throated Magpie-Jay! In addition to these local celebrities the bushes were full of migrants, including a few Painted Buntings, Pacific-slope and Ash-throated Flycatchers, Black-capped, Warbling, and Bell’s Vireos, Summer and Western Tanagers, and Nashville and Orange-crowned Warblers. Other local species included Rose-throated Becard, the melodious Happy Wren, a handsome male Cinnamon-rumped (White-collared) Seedeater, groups of Yellow-winged (Mexican) Caciques, and even the uncommon Black-capped Gnatcatcher. After some refreshing drinks in the shade (including margaritas for some, the national drink) we headed back to the harbor via Boca de Tomates, where we found migrants such as American Redstart, Black-and-white Warbler, and flocks of Barn Swallows. But the birds that got most of our attention was a cute Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl attracted by our whistles and watched for a while in the dense mangroves.

For our last two days at sea we sailed north along the Pacific coast of the Baja California Peninsula, the longest peninsula in the Americas. We sailed close to Natividad Island (home to most of the world’s Black-vented Shearwaters) and the San Benito Islands (where Scripps’s, Guadalupe, and Craveri’s Murrelets all breed), but sadly most birds has not yet arrived for breeding, and we only saw about 40 Black-vented Shearwaters, one Scripp’s Murrelet, and three Cassin’s Auklets. We ended our cruise with nice views of both Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, and a few Northern Fulmars, as well as thousands of migrating Red Phalaropes. With these last birds, we reached the impressive total of 35 species of tubenoses seen in just two weeks. Beside birds we had great views of some fantastic cetaceans, including a wonderful Blue Whale, a few Humpback Whales, hundreds of Short-beaked Common Dolphins, and even a small group of False Killer Whales. All too soon it was time to end a fabulous cruise in the Eastern Pacific with a great farewell dinner, just before arriving in Los Angeles.

-          Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 17 April 2018