Eastern Caribbean Cruise 3/27 – 4/6/15 Text


Puerto Rican Tanager in El Yunque National Park

Puerto Rican Tanager in El Yunque National Park

Eastern Caribbean Cruise
On 3/27/15, friends of mine and I took an Eastern Caribbean Cruise from New York to Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Maarten and British Tortola. The second day at sea was really uneventful. It was cold and rainy, (50 degrees) with high winds, very high waves (16-20 feet). At times the rain came down in buckets! The third day was much different. It was about 70 degrees, breezy, mostly sunny and much calmer seas. We sat on the sun deck for a good part of the afternoon, and had some interesting birds. First, my friends found a small passerine on the deck, hiding among the chairs. The bird took off before I arrived, but one friend thought it was a wren. Shortly thereafter, a Great Egret flew in, circled the ship for over an hour, attempting to land a couple of times, but seemingly scared off by the activity. After an hour we didn’t see the bird again. It could have landed somewhere else on the ship, or taken off. Either way, we were 500 miles east of Florida and 100 south of Bermuda, It doesn’t bode well for them. Next my friends alerted me (am I always going for the drinks?) that two birds had just flown in and taken off. I had only just sat down when they came back, the first was a Barn Swallow, the second was a BROWN BOOBY!! I thought it amazing both birds returned. The Barn Swallow took off again, not to be seen. The Brown Booby remained at the front of the ship cruising the bow, shooting down the side of the ship and then repeating it again and again. It gave me ample opportunities to get photos. Finally, we watched as a Flying Fish took off out of the water from our wake, flying away from the ship. I was able to get my friends on the fish immediately, they had never seen one before, and we were all surprised when the Brown Booby came out of nowhere and caught the fish right out of the air! Not bad pelagic birding.
3/30 It was a sunny warm day on ship, and everyone was on deck. Theresa alerted me to the fact that she had seen a white bird flying alongside the ship. I went to the starboard side and after ten minutes found what I believe to be a tropicbird. It was too distant to be sure. About ten minutes later, two tropicbirds flew past the ship. I was pretty certain from my visual that they were WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDS! Fortunately, I was able to get some distant shots that confirmed my ID. Though not the best shots, they are clearly White-tailed Tropicbirds. We also had several small passerines fly by today, very brown, but they went so quickly, I wasn’t able to ID them.
El Yunque National Park, Puerto Rico 3/31/15
This morning I was picked up by Hilda Morales of “Birding Puerto Rico” birding guides. She picked me up at 8 am at the entrance to the pier #4, Old San Juan. We drove approximately one hour to the El Yunque National Park in the mountains east of San Juan. As we gained elevation and neared the rain forest, it held true to its nature and began to rain. The rain was heavy for only about 15 minutes and then it cleared with an occasional sprinkle. When we entered the park at the main entrance, the bird sounds were everywhere. I was only able to identify a few. Immediately birds began to show. Red-legged Thrush, PEARLY-EYED THRASHER, Bananaquit, PUERTO RICAN ORIOLE and PUERTO RICAN SPINDALIS were all seen. At a staked out location, Hilda was sure we’d find a much sought after species, ELFIN-WOODS WARBLER. We were only out of the car a few minutes when the bird began to sing! I was the first one to get on it, but my views were not great, seeing only a clear warbler species. The bird began to sing from another spot just up the road, and we quickly went there. Again, only glimpses of the bird. The very distinct song was the main factor in the identification. Though I would have liked better looks, the ID was certain. During the morning, we heard two Puerto Rican Wood Peckers, but could not get any view of the birds. We continued upward, passing many birds as we went. Two PUERTO RICAN BULLFINCH put on a nice show in the pouring rain. A Black-whiskered Vireo showed well, not common for this species. We had great looks at ZENAIDA DOVE and SCALY-NAPED PIGEONS! A stop in a clearing produced the only PUERTO RICAN TANAGER of the day. He was very cooperative and I got some nice shots of the bird. Further up, we stopped to view some more Scaly-naped Pigeons when Hilda heard a PUERTORICAN TODY! It took some time, but we eventually got looks at three of the birds. What a beauty! Unfortunately, they remained in the dense trees and all my efforts at a photo were unsuccessful. We started heading back down the mountain. More of the same species were seen, some abundant. Additional birds for the area included: White-winged Dove, Gray Kingbird, Northern Parula and Loggerhead Kingbird. A Great Lizard Cuckoo nest that Hilda has been monitoring showed no activity this morning. It was pouring rain our entire time at the site, so that is the most likely explanation for the inactivity there. Hummingbirds? Well, I was hoping for a number of hummingbirds in Puerto Rico. And I had at least five! The problem is, they were totally uncooperative. Though we saw them, and we know the species that were most likely for the areas, looks were so fleeting that no positive ID could be made. We finally left the park, heading for lower elevations. Hilda was sure she could find me a couple of species we had missed higher up. We birded the town of Rio Grande, and it was a good destination for birding. Cattle Egrets, Gray Kingbirds, GREATER ANTILLEAN GRACKLE , Red-tailed Hawk, Magnificent Frigatebird, House Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird and several species of doves were all seen. Here we finally found one of my most desired species, PUERTO RICAN WOODPECKER!! In fact, we found three of them. The best views were of a recently fledged juvenile at a nest hole. Also in the area we had my first PUERTO RICAN FLYCATCHERS! A courting pair, building a nest. We also had our first Shiny Cowbirds and Cave Swallows in this area. We finally were running out of time and had to head back to San Juan. Hilda dropped me off at 3 pm, wow how that day flew by. In the area of the port, I had many nice birds to add to my Puerto Rican list. Brown Booby, Brown Pelican, Royal Tern and Monk Parakeets among the more common species. I ended my day in Puerto Rico with a modest 31 species, but it was a great day of birding indeed! Many thanks to Hilda Morales for going the extra mile to get me as many birds as possible.
St. Maarten, Netherland Antillies 4/1/15
We docked in port early this morning and were allowed off the boat immediately. I headed out for town on foot. I had checked into a birding guide for this island, completed the application, and never heard from them. I had studied the maps and knew the best birding spots were all around Philipsburg, so I felt I should be able to get to them on foot. Before I left the ship, I already had seen Brown Booby, Brown Pelican and Laughing Gulls. In the compound around the terminal I found many Zenaida Doves, Bananaquit and several Red Jungle Fowl. This established species is countable in the Caribbean and these were the first I’ve seen here. I have had them before in Hawaii. The walk into town produced my first CARIB GRACKLE! I’m amazed that how one family can have so many species and they superficially look the same, but there are many differences the make them a species. In this case the bird is smaller, the voice is again significantly different and the female is brown. As I continued on, I came across a nesting pair of American Kestrels. Further in to town, I had Rock Pigeons and Eurasian Collared Doves. I passed town and went right out to the Salt Pond. This is a huge pond that covers hundreds of acres. It is divided into two parts by a large island. I only birded the eastern portion of the pond. There was a nice assemblage of birds here. Almost immediately I spotted WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAILS! There were many waders, including Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Snowy Egret. Shore birds included Killdeer, Ruddy Turnstones, Spotted Sandpiper and dozens of Black-necked Stilts. Shortly thereafter, I spotted my first CARIBBEAN COOT! I saw a second one a while later and three very distant birds may have also been this species. Common Gallinule were exactly that. When I finally finished around the pond, I headed back into town. I eventually came to a small square with a memorial in it. There was a tree planted in the corner of the square that was about twenty feet tall and the same wide. I noticed a Bananaquit was feeding on the flowers and thought it might be good for hummingbirds. As I searched through the tree, I noticed another small bird. I moved to get a better look and it was a LESSER ANTILLEAN BULLFINCH!! There were actually a pair. As I was photographing them, a hummingbird flew in on the opposite side, fed, perched momentarily and flew out. I got on it for only a second, but was sure it had a crest. I decided to stake out the tree and see what happens. Ten minutes late it returned, and was a beautiful ANTILLEAN CRESTED HUMMINGBIRD!! Trying to photograph this bird was murder. It came and went several times and my shots were really poor. I decided to continue through town and see what else was around. I added a few more common species for the trip and decided to head back to the tree. The bird returned, followed shortly by a second ACHU. As is typical, they fought more than anything else, and I was glad when one departed. This is an active little hummer and it took a while, but I got an identifiable shot!
4/2/15 Charlotte Amalie , St. Thomas
This morning we docked in St. Thomas. I had booked an excursion to Coral World Ocean Park for this port. We caught the shuttle there right after breakfast. This is a quaint little park on the opposite side of the island from the port. There are many exhibits, including birds, seals, turtles, sharks and sting-rays. There are also many huge aquariums. The neatest part was the underwater observatory. You walk out a boardwalk to a round building over the water. Once inside, you take the stairs down two flights underwater and look out all around the foundation into the water of the bay. Corals, Sea Fans, Anemones, Lobsters, Sea Urchins, sea plants and more can be seen in the rocky reef. Besides all of this, thousands of fish swarm the reef. Parrotfish, Surgeonfish, Damselfish, Jacks, Baracuda etc. What a great place. Now to the birds. Pearly-eyed Thrasher and Bananaquit were everywhere. Zenaida Dove were common as were Gray Kingbird. I had one Antillean Crested Hummingbird at Coral World. This has got to be one of the hardest birds to photograph. They are constantly moving, and if they perch, its in the deep dark parts of the vegetation. I still managed to get identifiable shots today. Once our excursion was done, we came back to the ship for lunch. Immediately afterword, I headed out for more birding. I walked the residential areas of town looking for blooming trees and flowers. I found a blooming tree in a development. I knew immediately I hit pay-dirt when I saw several hummingbird chasing each other around the tree. First I saw an Antillean Crested Hummingbird, but I soon saw a much larger hummingbird. I was hoping this was my target species, and it was! I had many great looks at GREEN-THROATED CARIB!! Like the Antillean Crested, this bird was tough to photograph. I finally got shots that will have to do. I love all the hummingbird activity! Six hummingbirds in all today, 2 Green-throated Carib and four Antillean Crested Hummingbirds!

Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands 4/3/15
This morning we anchored in the bay at British Tortola. The pier here was damaged by another cruise ship and is still being repaired, so you have to tender in to port. We were not going ashore here, rather, going to the nearby Island of Virgin Gorda. We boarded another boat, and took the 45 minute ride to the island. We then boarded a bus to go to the National Park “Pirate Cove and Baths”. Before we got started, I had my first two White-crowned Pigeons of the trip right by the dock. On the rocky shore around the cove, we had 5 Laughing Gulls and a Brown Pelican. On the trail It was a 15 minute hike to the area, and we actually took longer so I could bird along the way. In the unique habitat here (dense cactus and scrub) a variety of birds can be found. I was glad we chose to reverse the walk, making us the first people going through the area. This area was good for doves. I had many Zenaida Doves and Common Ground Doves along the trails in the thick scrub. Also present in good numbers were Pearly Eyed Thrashers. Once we reached the Caves, we took the trails through them. Some are actual caves carved out of the huge boulders along the shore, others were paths under and between these huge boulders where they touch. Fascinating and beautiful area. Once you are through them you have reached one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been on. The huge boulders, many larger than a house surround this pristine turquoise bay. In the middle, there are no boulders, just a powdered sand beach. We swam using goggles (wish I had rented the snorkel). The bottom was sand on a substrate of rock, smoothed over by the ages. In the rock were holes, some only a couple of feet, others six or eight feet. Every hole had its community of fish. Blue Tangs, Beau Gregories, Dusky Damsels, Sargent Majors, Blue-headed Wrasse and Parrotfish. It was amazing! We had two and half hours before we had to head back for a Rum Punch and take the bus back to port. On the walk back someone found a huge (16 inch) Blue Skink! This was the largest skink I had ever seen. Back at the gathering area I found my first Black Faced Grassquit of the trip as well as some Bananaquits. Back at the dock, I had a Royal Tern and some Magnificent Frigate Birds as well as my first Little Blue Heron of the trip. The Schiff back to the ship where there were 12 Mag. Frigatebirds, 6 Brown Pelicans and a Brown Booby on the way out of the bay.
4/4/15 At Sea
Our first day at sea was beautiful, sunny and in the upper 70’s. It was however uneventful birdwise. I had only one bird the entire day, a GREAT SHEARWATER in an area where there was quite a bit of sargassum . The following day, 4/5/15 was even less productive, I had no birds. We arrive in port tomorrow morning.

Checklist of Birds: Eastern Caribbean Cruise 3/27/15 – 4/6/15
BOLD indicates life bird. # indicates the number of days seen
Locations seen : PR – Puerto Rico, ST – St. Thomas, VG – Virgin Gorda, SM – St. Maarten
HS – High Seas
1. Great Shearwater – HS 1
2. White-tailed Tropicbird – HS 1
3. Brown Pelican – PR, ST, VG, SM 4
4. Brown Booby – HS, PR, ST, VG, SM 5
5. Magnificent Frigatebird – PR, ST, VG, SM 4
6. Herring Gull – SM 1
7. Laughing Gull – ST, SM, VG 3
8. Royal Tern – ST, SM, VG 3
9. Snowy Egret – SM 1
10. Great Egret – HS, SM, ST 3
11. Great Blue Heron – SM 1
12. Little Blue Heron – VG 1
13. Green Heron – SM 1
14. Cattle Egret – PR, SM 2
15. Killdeer – PR, SM 2
16. Spotted Sandpiper – SM 1
17. Ruddy Turnstone – SM 1
18. Black-necked Stilt – SM, 1
20. Common Gallinule – SM 1
21. Pied-billed Grebe – SM 1
23. American Kestrel – SM 1
24. Red-tailed Hawk – PR 1
25. Red Jungle Fowl – PR, SM, ST, VG 4
27. White-crowned Pigeon – PR, SM, ST 3
28. Rock Pigeon – PR, SM, ST 3
29. White-winged Dove – PR, ST, SM 3
30. Eurasian Collared Dove – PR, SM 2
31. Common Ground Dove – SM, VG 2
33. Monk Parakeet – PR 1
39. Gray Kingbird – PR, SM, ST, VG 4
40. Loggerhead Kingbird – PR 1
41. Cave Swallow – PR 1
42. Northern Mockingbird – PR 1
44. Red-legged Thrush – PR 1
45. Black-whiskered Vireo – PR 1
47. Northern Parula – PR 1
48. Bananaquit – PR, SM, ST, VG 4
52. Shiny Cowbird – PR 1
55. Black-faced Grassquit – VG 1
56. House Sparrow – PR, ST 2

1. Green Anole
2. Brown Anole
3. Blue Skink
4. Iguana (at least two species to be determined)

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