The itinerary of our Caribbean cruise on the Norwegian Spirit called for a day at sea on December 31, 2015. A group of 12 Brown Boobies followed the ship for a while and we watched them hunt flying fish and loaf on the water between feeding. A lifer for us.
The first day of 2016 found us on Norwegian Cruise Line’s private Bahamas island, Great Stirrup Cay. We walked the hiking trail a few times and found some birds and other creatures on the way. We added three lifers here: Bahama Woodstar (hummingbird); Bahama Swallow; and Black-faced Grassquit. There were gulls and terns loafing around the beaches and we even found a few overwintering songbirds: Gray Catbirds; Palm Warblers; Yellow-rumped Warblers; and an American Redstart.
Black Witch moth
unidentified little friend
unidentified little friend
The hiking trail was overgrown in places and became hard to follow a few times. It’s really nice to have a nature trail to follow and we wish NCL would take better care of it.
Hiking Trail on Great Stirrup Cay
We brought along our own snorkeling gear and did a bit of underwater exploring as well.
The island can be crowded at the main beach but we found lots of places where we could relax in peace. It was a great, relaxing start to 2016.
Seas were extremely calm, which unfortunately meant that few birds were on the wing. The easygoing, relaxed ride made it simple for me to check our location every half hour or so. The dock (start/end point) is somewhere northwest of point A in the inlet. When calculating distance between points, I used a straight line. At our farthest we were just about 50 miles offshore and we traveled a total of somewhere around 150 miles. I added a table to the end of this post showing where we were at what time.
From about 8:45 to about 11:30 we saw zero birds. Two Audubon’s Shearwaters in the early afternoon and a pair of jaegers (one Pomarine and one Parasitic) as we approached land on the way back were the most exciting birds. Northern Gannets were in relative abundance closer to shore and we could study their plumage cycles. In total I recorded 28 species, most of which were found in the inlet at the start and end of the day. I entered six eBird checklists; see the links at the end of this post.
Northern Gannet, 1st cycle
Four washback sea turtles were released near beds of Sargassum. Two of the youngsters were from the Marine Science Center and two were from Sea World. There were three Greens and one Loggerhead.
Michael Brothers holds baby sea turtles prior to release. Green on the left; Loggerhead on the right
We did see 6 to 8 adult Loggerhead Sea Turtles throughout the day. We also came across pods of Common Bottlenose (in the inlet) and Atlantic Spotted Dolphins during the journey. Twice we were lucky to have some spotteds join us as we clipped along at speed. They were a ton of fun to watch. Look for the baby in the below video.
Species list, January 27 2014 pelagic:
Black Scoter – Melanitta americana
Common Loon – Gavia immer
Audubon’s Shearwater – Puffinus lherminieri
Northern Gannet – Morus bassanus
Double-crested Cormorant – Phalacrocorax auritus
Brown Pelican – Pelecanus occidentalis
Great Blue Heron – Ardea herodias
Little Blue Heron – Egretta caerulea
Green Heron – Butorides virescens
Black-crowned Night-Heron – Nycticorax nycticorax
White Ibis – Eudocimus albus
Osprey – Pandion haliaetus
American Oystercatcher – Haematopus palliatus
Ruddy Turnstone – Arenaria interpres
Purple Sandpiper – Calidris maritima
Pomarine Jaeger – Stercorarius pomarinus
Parasitic Jaeger – Stercorarius parasiticus
Bonaparte’s Gull – Chroicocephalus philadelphia
Laughing Gull – Leucophaeus atricilla
Ring-billed Gull – Larus delawarensis
Herring Gull – Larus argentatus
Lesser Black-backed Gull – Larus fuscus
Great Black-backed Gull – Larus marinus
Royal Tern – Thalasseus maximus
Sandwich Tern – Thalasseus sandvicensis
Black Skimmer – Rynchops niger
Mourning Dove – Zenaida macroura
Boat-tailed Grackle – Quiscalus major
Shortly after we left the inlet, the boat slowed down and we heard over the loudspeaker that there was a possible Razorbill being seen at 3 o’clock (the opposite side of the boat from where I stood). I stumbled over, but the bird never resurfaced and we moved on. I had missed the bird but at least I heard and understood the announcement.
For the rest of the trip I swear I couldn’t understand anything coming out of the loudspeaker! Sometimes other birders would call out so the rest of us could get on a bird. At one point I honestly think I heard it announced that there was an “Audubon’s Bridled Phalarope at 3 o’clock.” WTH!?
Shrimp boat with no gull groupies
I missed seeing a Brown Booby that was spotted from the opposite side of the boat. I ran over but the bird was gone by the time I got word. And during a comfort break I missed seeing a Bridled Tern perched on a buoy which was apparently giving crippling views. I had seen a distant but clear Bridled Tern earlier in the trip so this miss didn’t sting too bad — even though it was a lifer. The Booby would’ve been, too. Bummer. But really, I have to save some good looks and lifers for the next pelagic, don’t I?
Chopping up fish for chum
Mates prepared chunks of fish to use for chum (pelagic standard operating procedure). For most of the trip, a disgusting slop was tossed out behind the boat to attract birds.
Gulls attracted to the chum
Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring, and both Black-backed Gulls followed us several miles out.
Great Black-backed Gull
Northern Gannets joined them, and we had the opportunity to study these large seabirds in their various plumages. The previous link goes to a slideshow of fabulous gannet photos taken by Laura Erickson, who was also on the pelagic trip. I was glad to have the pleasure to visit with Laura, albeit very briefly, before we reached port at the end of the day.
We were also treated to nice views of Royal Terns as they soared behind and beside the boat.
When we were at about 40 miles out, but on our way back in, we slowed to release a very young Loggerhead Sea Turtle. The turtle had been in the care of the Marine Science Center for the past several weeks and Arthur had the chance to look after it during some of his volunteer shifts. The youngster was released among some clusters of sea grass.
baby Loggerhead Sea Turtle
The rest of the trip back in was rather uneventful, bird-wise. People got to chatting and I moved around the boat, talking with some of the nicest birders I’ve ever met. Bruce Anderson brought out a small collection of study skins and gave an impromptu lecture on the identification of birds like kittiwakes, phalaropes, and the like. He even had a specimen of a young Razorbill, a casualty from the recent Florida invasion.
Ponce Inlet Lighthouse
All in all, it was a fun day out on the water. I got sunburned (will I ever learn?). I got one lifer. I got a bunch of new county birds (number one on eBird, baby!). I got to talk to some of the best of the best in Florida birding. Oh, and I got to meet and bird with Greg Miller. Yes, theGreg Miller.
THE Greg Miller & me
Yes, it was a great pelagic trip that will be hard to beat! Until next time! Haha!
I wanted to try to track the trip on a map, so I looked into how to use the GPS on my iPhone without having network connection. I learned that if the area to be visited is cached in the iPhone’s native Maps app, the GPS will be able to find the present location on the map. (I am still on IOS 5.1.1 so I was using the iPhone Maps app powered by Google maps.) The day before the pelagic, I spent a few minutes zooming in and out of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Volusia and Brevard counties on my iPhone to get as much information into the cache as possible.
There are applications that can use cached maps in coordination with GPS to make a line that tracks a journey, but I figured this might be a battery drain. So instead, I planned to drop pins on the map as we went. However, I learned just a bit too late (on the boat, at sea!!) that the app won’t hold more than one pin. I could have saved locations as bookmarks, but that seemed cumbersome.
So, plan B. I checked our location every hour or so using the Maps app. It takes a few moments for the phone to fix a location using just GPS, so I had to be patient. Once I knew that our location was found, I went to the native Compass app and took a screenshot. At the end of the day I had a list of coordinates that I plugged into a Google map when I got home.
This map shows how we went. We actually started at Ponce Inlet which is by point N, but I didn’t start taking coordinates until we turned out to sea. For the first part of the trip we hugged the coast (so from N to A).
This may be a very roundabout way of tracking the trip, but it worked great and I was pleased to see for myself how we went. Trip leaders often give out a very general idea of how the boat will travel, or the final mileage and approximate distance from the shore, but I think it’s neat to see more precisely how we traveled. The total journey from port to port was about 123 miles; at our furthest point we were about 48 miles offshore. And of course I was most pleased to see that we did not travel into Brevard waters, as was first indicated! 😀
On Sunday, February 5th, Arthur and I joined 25 other birders on a last-minute pelagic trip put together by Michael Brothers of the Marine Science Center. The trip was arranged after a Georgia whale survey reported seeing large numbers of Razorbills and other seabirds, along with impressive numbers of Right Whales, the week prior.
The trip left out of Mayport, near Jacksonville, at about 8AM, which meant that we had to leave our home in DeBary at o’dark thirty for the 2+ hour drive north.
Our boat was the Mayport Princess, a fishing charter
The seas were relatively calm, the skies overcast. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to see any Razorbills or Right Whales at all. We did find some good birds, though. We had good looks at Red Phalaropes, and saw tons of Bonaparte’s Gulls, up to 17 Manx Shearwaters (an impressive number for a Florida pelagic), and many Common Loons, some in loose flocks on the water. Manx Shearwater and Red Phalarope were both lifers for me.
Tons of Bonaparte’s Gulls
A Bonaparte’s Gull in flight
The trip was a short one; we arrived back in Mayport before 3PM. Some birders surely headed straight home to watch the Superbowl, but Arthur and I stopped at Lake Woodruff NWR for a short walk, where I was happy to hear a new year / Florida / Volusia County bird: Eastern Screech Owl.
Last Sunday, September 18th, I joined a pelagic birding trip on the Pastime Princess out of Ponce de Leon Inlet, Florida. The trip was sponsored by the Marine Science Center; there were 43 birders aboard.
There’s no turning back now!
We departed at about 5am and before we got out of the harbor a downpour drove everyone on the upper deck downstairs. I got soaked but dried off fairly quickly after the rain (the first shower of several throughout the day) stopped. As soon as we were out of the harbor the water got quite rough – well, more rough than I had expected anyway. The ship was rocking and rolling and I held onto my seat, scared to get up. The seas were pretty rough throughout the whole day, but I got used to it eventually and could walk around the ship once it was daylight. I saw at least seven different people get sick but luckily my one Dramamine and my laser-focus on the horizon throughout most of the journey kept my stomach settled. I also ate like a bird, and I’m sure that helped too. 🙂 The video below gives an idea of how the trip was – during a relatively calm part of the journey.
Rain in the distance. It reached us, eventually.
After the first rough patch of seas, the sun began to rise. My photos don’t begin to capture the beauty of the sunrise, but I remember thinking at the time that even if we didn’t see any birds, the trip was already worth it.
One of the guides brought along a bunch of study skins of birds we hoped to see during the pelagic trip. These were really interesting to see and we got a nice explanation and close-up look at the skins during the last part of the trip.
Study skins of pelagic birds
I got six lifers on the trip. Remarkably, I didn’t have too much trouble picking up the birds in my binoculars. Taking photos of the birds, however, was a comedy of errors. Everything is on the move so just finding something in my viewfinder was a challenge. I only got shots of a few birds, all lousy. A couple of photographer birders on the trip got excellent shots of some birds, and I’ve linked to them in this list (my lifers): Black-capped Petrel; Cory’s Shearwater; Great Shearwater; Audubon’s Shearwater; Sabine’s Gull; Sooty Tern. I also saw potential lifers Wilson’s Storm-petrel and Red-necked Phalarope, but they were so tiny I can’t count them on my list. Incidentally, we ended up seeing a large number of Black-capped Petrels throughout the day for a conservative total of 45 birds – a one-day Florida record.
Cory’s Shearwaters resting on the water
Cory’s Shearwater shearing
Sabine’s Gull between the waves
Something really sad to see was a Black-throated Blue Warbler about 50 miles out from shore. This tiny bird circled the boat for a while and everyone was quietly rooting for it to land somewhere on the ship to take rest. At one point the bird even flew inside the main cabin, but it eventually left the ship. I read on the trip leader’s report later that at least two other warblers were seen during the day.
Besides the birders and guides, an employee from the turtle hospital at the Marine Science Center was aboard. She brought along some baby sea turtles to be released during our voyage. Baby turtles!! In the photos below, the ones with the light outline are Green Sea Turtles and the brownish ones are Loggerhead Sea Turtles. The babies were in the care of the Center for a variety of reasons, and were aged between three and four weeks.
Two Loggerheads and five Greens
We tried to find a large bed of sargassum for the release, but all we could find were long strings of the sea grass. Finally we found a suitable spot and the turtles were released. A baby turtle or two was placed into a net and they were lowered to the water. They all swam off immediately. This was very, very cool to see!
One Green to go!
Two Loggerheads overboard!
Birds were the focus of the trip, but we were also treated to several sightings of Atlantic Spotted Dolphin pods. I captured just a few pictures, but we saw dolphins on several different occasions and we were treated to many, many full breaches.
Always a treat to see dolphins!
Another non-bird sighting was a huge adult Loggerhead Sea Turtle, again very cool to see! The boat also scared up a lot of flying fish. I hadn’t seen these before and their quick flights made me giggle.
While most birders were either glued to a seat or hanging on to the railings during our time at sea, most everyone stood up during the leisurely sail back into port. We picked up quite a few day birds on the way in, including 60+ Brown Pelicans, Ruddy Turnstones and Caspian Terns.
The Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse
I had a lot of fun on my first pelagic trip, although I was sad to go alone; Arthur wasn’t feeling well and decided to stay home. With the rough seas I am sure he made the right decision. I’m already looking forward to my next pelagic birding experience. 🙂