Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Cruise: Santiago to Los Angeles

2024 Narrative

Our 2024 Princess trans-equatorial cruise from Chile to California transited over 5000 miles through the waters of 12 countries, with landings in four of them, and produced a superb selection of oceanic species alternated with a great sampling of landbirds. Some 33 species of tubenoses (ranging from 5 albatrosses to a remarkable 12 storm-petrels) topped the pelagic bill, although up-close Blue Whales several times, plus Sperm Whales and fancy Striped Dolphins weren’t too shabby either! From thousands of birds everywhere in the famously food-rich, upwellling Humboldt Current to Nazca Boobies hunting flyingfish in deep blue equatorial desert waters we really got to appreciate the diversity of marine habitats. From De Filippi’s Petrels and Hornby’s Storm-Petrels right under the bow to remarkable numbers of Peruvian Terns, to Cook’s Petrels as far as the eye could see, each and every sea day had its moments. Our land days were also diverse, from a trio of Chilean Tinamous in beautiful still desert to snappy little Orange-collared Manakins in shady rainforest; from small boat trips to see stunning Inca Terns and dapper Humboldt Penguins to Belding’s Yellowthroats skulking in reedbeds and Xantus’s Hummingbirds darting in desert scrub; from multi-colored Burrowing Parakeets and in-the-open tapaculos to cryptic Least Seedsnipe and colorful red-breasted meadowlarks; from phenomenal numbers of Black Skimmers, a vagrant Bar-tailed Godwit, and potent pisco sours to eye-burningly bright Orange-breasted Buntings and margaritas it was a trip to truly celebrate diversity.

Day 1. Everyone arrived and boarded safely with time to settle in before an intro meeting at the bow, as Kelp Gulls sailed around along with the occasional Inca Tern. Unfortunately, for reasons that were never entirely clear, our departure was delayed an hour so that we missed our best chance for some cooler Humboldt Current species, although in the failing light we did manage our only Westland Petrel and Fuegian Storm Petrel of the trip, along with bonus Humboldt Penguins and, after a so-so green-flash sunset, a truly spectacular raft of thousands upon thousands of Sooty Shearwaters that scattered ahead of the ship. We were on our way!

Day 2. Coquimbo, Chile. The hour delay from yesterday carried over and was compounded this morning, but the birding more than made up for the Princess SNAFUs. We started north of town at a small river mouth where point-blank views of three coot species were notable, as were side-by-side Seaside and Gray-flanked Cinclodes. Heading inland up the Elqui Valley we stopped to watch noisy flocks of rainbow-colored Burrowing Parakeets (née Parrots) before heading to a beautiful quiet spot for lunch. Amazingly, within an hour or so we found six of Chile’s nine mainland endemic birds—starting with Moustached Turca and White-throated Tapaculo and ending with Chilean Tinamou and Crag Chilia—wow! A Tropical Turkey Vulture was also notable, distinct from the Austral Turkey Vultures that live along the coast. After stopping for more photo ops of the parakeets we checked a coastal wetland for waterbirds before returning to the ship for a well-earned rest before the bird list and dinner.

Day 3. Our first day of seabirding, heading north-northwest off the coast of northern Chile, and a really great start to the pelagic component of this trip—it’s not every day you see eight species of storm petrels! We began at the outer edge of the Humboldt Current but soon entered warmer blue waters of the deep pelagic realm. Species compositions changed accordingly, from Buller’s Albatross and Sooty Shearwater to Sooty Tern and White-faced Storm Petrel. Birds were in view for much of the day, dominated by De Filippi’s (aka Masatierra) and Juan Fernandez Petrels and Markham’s Storm Petrels. Also notable were our first Kermadec Petrels, Hornby’s (aka Ringed) Storm Petrels, and Swallow-tailed Gulls, plus rarities such as White-bellied, Black, and Leach’s Storm Petrel, the last species being a new record for Chile! A few groups of beaked whales (involving three presumed species) tantalized with distant views, but a group of Short-finned Pilot Whales showed well in late afternoon.

Day 4. Day 2 of seabirding proved slightly different as we continued north-northwest off the coast of southern Peru, moving from deep blue offshore waters back towards the outer reaches of the Humboldt Current in late afternoon. Although early to mid-afternoon was relatively quiet, most of the day was excitingly active, at times too frenetic to keep up with as we passed through mixed-species feeding swarms and resting flocks of De Filippi’s Petrels (plus a few Cook’s Petrels), and Hornby’s, Markham’s, Wedge-rumped, and White-faced Storm Petrels, plus good numbers of Juan Fernandez Petrels (farther north than usual), two (!) Chatham Albatrosses, both Masked and Nazca Boobies chasing scattering scads of flyingfish, and sundry other species ranging from cooler-water White-chinned Petrels to warmer-water Sooty Terns. Oh, and then there were some stunning Swallow-tailed Gulls, a few Red-billed Tropicbirds, and those huge schools of leaping Common Dolphins. We also appreciated in-hand views of single De Filippi’s Petrel and Markham’s Storm Petrel that had come aboard the previous night, attracted like moths to a candle but fortunately found and released back into their element.

Day 5. Pisco, Peru. An amazing day ashore to appreciate the contrast between a virtually lifeless moonscape desert versus a coastline teeming with dizzying blizzards of waterbirds—predominantly tens of thousands of Franklin’s Gulls and Black Skimmers along the shoreline and hundreds of Elegant Terns and thousands of Inca Terns over the ocean, but with a good diversity when we looked more closely. Chilean Flamingos alongside Peruvian Pelicans was a nice geographic juxtaposition, while some twenty-four species of shorebird was a very respectable total, headlined by a vagrant Bar-tailed Godwit amid a small group of Hudsonian Godwits, which interrupted our study of a confiding Coastal Miner! Hundreds of smaller sandpipers were feeding in preparation for their pending northward migration to the tundra and wetlands of the North, mainly Semipalmated Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Wilson’s Phalaropes, among which we found a few Western Sandpipers, Red Knot, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Stilt Sandpipers. Other shorebird highlights included a few American Golden Plovers and the bizarre local Peruvian Thick-knee.

Penguins and Inca Terns (above)and stunning Red-legged Shags (below), but also for the bonus Surf Cinclodes and Bryde’s Whale. Most sobering was the absence of Guanay Shags (or Cormorants), usually present in the tens or even hundreds of thousands but decimated recently by poultry flu and also hit with El Niño—their populations are adapted to withstand the latter, but throw in a human-induced complication and things can get precarious. Another highlight of the day was a fine Peruvian lunch, complete with the national drink—pisco sours. When in pisco… Following lunch we visited some wetlands and added a few new species such as Puna Ibis and Plumbeous Rail before heading back to the mothership for a welcome respite from the desert sun before bird list, drinks, and dinner. What a day!

Days 6–7. Our two days based out of Lima (technically the port of Callao) allowed us to sample coastal habitats both north and south of the city. The first day we started at the Villa marshes with flitting Many-colored Rush-Tyrants, a close-up Great Grebe, and a cryptic Little Bittern. The coastal lagoon held a good selection of waterbirds, stirred up periodically by a Peregrine Falcon, and with some looking we found a Puna Teal, plus a White-faced Whistling-Duck of uncertain provenance. After a seaside picnic lunch in the picturesque fishing town of Pucusana we took a short boat trip around the island there, enjoying even more Inca Terns and even more garish Sally Lightfoot Crabs (below), plus Surf Cinclodes, numerous Belcher’s Gulls with newly fledging young, a few Humboldt Penguins, and a stunning up-close Guanay Shag in the harbor. En route back to Lima a short stop along a rushing river produced a selection of landbirds including a great little Peruvian Pygmy-Owl and some Chestnut-collared Swallows.

An early start the next day took us north to Lomas de Lachay and some nearby agricultural areas, where we found a veritable cornucopia of landbirds given the dramatically bleak desert surroundings. Flowering hedges held Peruvian Sheartails and Amazilia Hummingbirds, and Croaking (Flatulent?) Ground-Doves were seemingly everywhere. Cute little Pacific Parrotlets, a perky Short-tailed Field-Tyrant, a handsome Peruvian Meadowlark, and various tanagers filled out the list. The true desert produced Coastal Miners, numerous Peruvian Thick-knees, a couple of Burrowing Owls, and—finally—good views of the rather local Least Seedsnipe. A coastal wetland on our way back to the ship was full of birds, including our only Yellow-crowned Night-Herons of the trip.

Day 8. Back at sea heading northwest off northern Peru, and ending off the Piura Peninsula where the Humboldt Current is deflected offshore and mixes with warmer waters. The first hour was very active but then suddenly it slowed down for no obvious reason. Things went from lots of Galapagos (aka Waved) Albatrosses, streams of Pomarine Jaegers and Sabine’s Gulls, shearwaters and storm petrels everywhere… to much quieter for the rest of the morning, emphasizing the variable and varying nature of marine habitats. Things started to pick up again in the afternoon, however, and before long there were too many birds to keep track of, right through to sunset when we retired exhausted from a truly spectacular show. Hundreds and hundreds of the poorly-known Peruvian Tern were noteworthy, plus hundreds of Sabine’s Gulls, tens of jaegers (all three species) and storm-petrels, hundreds of shearwaters (including 3 single Manx Shearwaters—a real rarity here, or at least it’s supposed to be!), scatterings of Galapagos Albatrosses, Blue-footed Boobies, a couple of Red-billed Tropicbirds, mixed flocks of Parkinson’s and White-chinned Petrels to practice our ID skills, a few Swallow-tailed Gulls, and even single Guanay and Neotropic Cormorants oddly far offshore. Oh, and then there were thousands of Common Dolphins, an amazingly close Blue Whale right off the bow (below), some oddly finned Fin Whales, and—finally—a couple of Galapagos Petrels. Whew!

To counterbalance our euphoria, in mid-afternoon the captain announced that our landing in Manta, Ecuador, would be cancelled for “safety reasons,” and so we would now be spending two days transiting more slowly north to Costa Rica. Very disappointing, but out of our hands, and we’ll have to see what the coming sea days bring…

Days 9–10. Out of the Humboldt Current with a bang, we awoke the first morning to calm and strikingly birdless waters, which continued throughout the first day as we headed north-northwest 100 miles or so off the coast of Ecuador. From 4000+ birds of 30 pelagic species yesterday we dropped to 40+ birds of 10 species! A fabulous showing of 4 Sperm Whales (above) and a Bryde’s Whale made the day for the lucky few present during that brief morning window, and other highlights were a close Galapagos Petrel in the morning and our first Galapagos Shearwater in late afternoon. The water never really got blue, however, and flyingfish were also very few and far between. That all changed on the second day, where we awoke to much warmer air (and sea) and found ourselves in cobalt-blue deep offshore waters. Before long we were surrounded by tens of boobies of four species, all vying to snatch flyingfish that our ship flushed up. This was also a good day to appreciate the subtleties of storm-petrel ID, from the more local Band-rumped and Wedge-rumped to the wintering migrant Leach’s and Townsend’s, including perhaps the first documented Townsend’s Storm Petrel for Costa Rica! Scattered pods of dolphins, including some stunning Striped Dolphins rounded out the day.

Day 11. Costa Rica. Early morning approach into the Gulf of Nicoya under brooding and rainy skies was a good opportunity to see Least and Black Storm Petrels, along with hundreds of wintering Black Terns and numerous rays, some jumping. Our brief sortie ashore was a little marred by Easter, whereby each year the world is held hostage by Christian mythology; by the relatively high standard of living in this small Central American country, which means more cars than elsewhere; and by the sheer unthinking stupidity of the human species—simply because of rubber-necking tourons slowing slightly as they drove across the Tarcoles River bridge, traffic backed up for 12 km and it took two hours versus usually less than one hour to reach Carara National Park. On the plus side, the stop/start traffic meant we could identify hummingbirds and warblers in the roadside trees (!), but this was mostly frustrating and little compensation for the crawling jam of vehicles. (On our return, the traffic was backed up for 15+ km—but thankfully we were going in the opposite direction.) Birding from 11 am to 3 pm is not peak time in a tropical lowland forest, but at least this year the heat and humidity were greater than usual… Despite this we did find some birds, including a perched Double-toothed Kite, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, confiding Black-hooded Antshrikes, Gartered (née Violaceous) Trogon, stunning Yellow-throated (née Chestnut-mandibled) Toucans, an amazingly cryptic red-morph Pauraque roosting in leaf litter beside the trail (below), and of course those snappy little Orange-collared Manakins (right). Superb views of jumping Spotted Eagle Rays and foraging Sandwich Terns from the pier were also notable. Easter highway traffic led to an hour or so delay for the ship’s departure, but after dark we finally bid adios to Costa Rica.

Days 12–14. Heading west-northwest off Central America and Mexico. Our appreciation of marine habitats continued as we transited deep blue and profoundly deep (often greater than 3500m) warm waters that are rarely birded. The first day we passed through Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, and finally Guatemalan waters—new countries for many of us, and it was interesting to ponder that most of El Salvador’s territorial surface area is ocean—not land! Storm-petrel diversity included numerous wintering dark-morph Leach’s Storm Petrels (aka Chapman’s), as well as white-rumped birds and several Townsend’s Storm Petrels (left), including the first documented record for Nicaragua of this recently split and poorly known taxon (plus the first documented Markham’s Storm Petrel for that country!). Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Tahiti Petrels put in regular appearances throughout the day, and boobies (three species)came and went in search of flyingfish. Another first country record came in the (ghostly) form of an adult Swallow-tailed Gull feeding at night in the ship’s wake off Guatemala—when an Upland Sandpiper also called while migrating overhead!

The second day was notably slower, off southern Mexico, but still in deep blue waters with more stunning booby shows—small squadrons of Nazca Boobies at times passed by within arm’s length before breaking off like fighter pilots to pursue flyingfish, mainly Pied-tailed Necromancers (right). A spectacularly close Blue Whale, copulating sea turtles, and a couple of Guadalupe Furseals well south of where they “should” be were also notable, while groups of Common and Spinner Dolphins added variety. Our third day dawned notably cooler—easily down into the 70os (!) with the wind chill from a freshening northwest wind—and the water was obviously greener. More Guadalupe Furseals, sea turtles, dolphins, and puzzling storm-petrels kept us entertained, along with thousands of migrating phalaropes, passing Sabine’s Gulls, occasional Red-billed Tropicbirds, and our first Bridled Terns of the trip. 

Day 15. Our dawn arrival in Puerto Vallarta meant we were off the ship relatively early and away to a quiet dirt road where the variety of colorful and noisy birds was almost overwhelming after three days at sea. Mexican (aka Yellow-winged) Caciques, San Blas Jays, Golden-cheeked Woodpeckers, Streak-backed Orioles, Elegant Quail in the road, confiding Rufous-bellied Chachalacas, and frame-filling scope views of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl introduced us to the sheer birdiness of Mexico. Our second stop produced good views of male Orange-breasted (above) and Painted Buntings feeding alongside each other, a dapper male Masked Tityra, retiring Happy and Sinaloa Wrens, Citreoline Trogon, Orange-fronted Parakeets, and sundry other species before a picnic lunch with margaritas and return to the ship. Heading out into the sunset we were treated to breaching Humpback Whales along with Brown and Blue-footed Boobies and our only Brown Noddies of the trip. All in all a very bird-filled day!

Day 16. Another day ashore in Mexico, this time at the tip of the Baja California Peninsula. Early morning on the bow produced Black and Least Storm Petrels, Pink-footed Shearwaters, and a surprise American Oystercatcher well offshore. After the ship dropped anchor slightly ahead of schedule, we smoothly negotiated our only landing with tenders and were soon heading inland to the foothills and the village of Miraflores. We found the handsome endemic Xantus’s Hummingbird (right) even before tripod legs could be extended (!), and soon after the endemic Gray Thrasher. A short walk produced Hooded Orioles, a satiny male Phainopepla, cute little Verdins, and distinctive Cape endemic subspecies of California Scrub Jay, California Towhee, Cactus Wren, and Northern Cardinal. After a pleasant shady picnic lunch we headed to a coastal wetland where, after a little work, we enjoyed good views of our third Baja endemic, Belding’s Yellowthroat, along with a variety of waterbirds new for the trip—including American Coot, meaning we had seen half of the world’s ten species of coot on the cruise! The day ended as we sailed out into the wind and sun, with blowing and breaching Humpback Whales before a fine green flash sunset.

Days 17–18. Our two final days at sea exposed us to yet another habitat—the relatively cool waters at the southern end of the California Current. The first day dawned to an unexpected abundance of Cook’s Petrels—hundreds and hundreds for 360 degrees of view, gleaming like white boomerangs and covering the ocean like so many snowflakes. But then, within an hour or so numbers dropped to a handful per hour, another graphic illustration of marine habitats and the unpredictably patchy nature of food distribution. We also encountered our first northern albatrosses, with several Black-footed and a single Laysan, plus a good showing of Blue and Humpback Whales. Things slowed down appreciably in the afternoon, although the die-hards were rewarded with a few Guadalupe Murrelets before a penultimate bird list and very enjoyable group dinner. The last full day at sea dawned gray, blustery, and relatively cool—an appropriate North Pacific scenario with which to end our extended pelagic sojourn. As expected, the day was rather quiet for marine life—although a few Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses rewarded those who put the time in—and it was a good way to wind down and do some packing before a final bird list and a sharing of memories from our remarkable voyage.

Day 19. Our pre-dawn arrival in Los Angeles was followed by disembarkation and transfers on to homeward flights. Thanks to all for making this such a memorable and bird-filled adventure across a third of the planet’s latitude, with over 5000 miles traveled by sea through the waters of 12 countries.

— Steve Howell



Created: 11 April 2024