Monday, 13 April 2020

Cape Horn & Straits of Magellan Pelagic Cruise - Seabird Bonanza!!

This is what it's all about! We are going to be sea-watching from a stable, comfortable fully working cruise ship where all the food and beverages are included and we'll be staying in comfortable cabins for 14 nights. And your non-birding partners can come along and only pay for the cost of the cabin (there's no Zoothera fee for non-birding partners). And currently it only costs a £50 deposit per person to secure your cabin and there's a sale so inside cabins are approx £1300 per person - and that includes meals and some drinks such as tea, coffee, water, lemonade etc.

But back to the birds. Just look at this mouth-watering list of potential species and i've got some photos from a while ago when I was lucky enough to be on a ship crossing the Drake Passage between Ushuaia and the Antarctic Peninsula..........

Northern Royal Albatross
Southern Royal Albatross
Yellow-nosed Albatross
Black-browed Albatross
Light-mantled Albatross (rare)
Wandering (Snowy) Albatross
Wandering (Antipodes) Albatross
Chatham Albatross
Salvin’s Albatross
Buller's Albatross
Grey-headed Albatross
Southern Fulmar
Cape Petrel
Northern Giant Petrel
Southern Giant Petrel
Soft-plumaged Petrel
Cape Petrel
Masatierra Petel
Juan Fernandez Petrel
Stejneger’s Petrel
Kerguelen Petrel (rare)
Slender-billed Prion
Westland Petrel
White-chinned Petrel
Subantarctic Little Shearwater
Cape Verde Shearwater
Pink-footed Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Great Shearwater
Grey-backed Storm-Petrel
Black-bellied Storm-Petrel
White-faced Storm-Petrel
Fuegian (Wilson's) Storm-Petrel
Pincoya Storm-Petrel
Magellanic Diving-Petrel
Common Diving-Petrel
Peruvian Diving-Petrel
Brown Skua
Chilean Skua
Long-tailed Skua

It's a great list of possibilities and hard to imagine seeing thousand upon thousand of Sooty Shearwaters and sailing past an island where 90% of the world population of Pink-footed Shearwaters breed, or seeing hundreds of albatross every day!

See the day-by-day itinerary here - Cruise Daily Itinerary
See the Princess Cruises tour info - Coral Princess Info

Black-browed Albatross is common

Black-browed Albatross

A Giant Petrel sp with a backdrop of snow-covered mountains in the Beagle Channel

South American Tern

There's fabulous scenery as well

Cape Petrel

Gentoo Penguins can be seen at Volunteer Point nr Port Stanley

A number of cetaceans are possible. This is Humpback Whale but Sei Whale is also possible.

A Light-mantled Albatross being photo-bombed by a Black-browed Albatross

We will count ourselves very fortunate to see a Light-mantled Albatross

A flurry of South American Terns in the Beagle Channel

Southern Giant Petrel

More impressive scenery around Tierra del Fuego

This is what we want... Wandering Albatross

Northern Giant Petrel

Southern Giant Petrel

Southern Royal Albatross

Snowy (Wandering) Albatross

All photos copyright Nick Bray/Zoothera Birding unless otherwise stated.

If you have any questions or need clarification on this tour please email the Zoothera Birding office on: 

We currently have 5 spaces left, but at present you don't need to pay a deposit to Zoothera, just register your interest with the Zoothera office.

Let's go birding!

Cape Horn & Straits of Magellan Pelagic Cruise - Info

So we have set up this tour, to join the Coral Princess cruise ship sailing out of Santiago, Chile on 4th February 2021 and ending up in Buenos Aires where the tour finishes on Thursday 18th February. Yes, this is a full, working cruise ship that can house 2,000 guests, has 1,000 cabins and has 16 decks. All meals are included along with an assortment of beverages. And I know what you are thinking, that this sounds horrible and i'd rather go on one of the Russian research vessels that house only 50 people and are purely for wildlife watching. If you think that, then you probably shouldn't read on as this is not the tour for you. But just look at the cost.... 

My philosophy for this tour is that the tour leaders will be available 'on deck' from sunrise to sunset (approx 5.30am-9pm) and that members of the group can join in for as much as they want. We can set our scopes up as the ship is so stable and we'll be about 200 feet above the ocean with a great view. 

Oh, by the way this is a perfect tour to bring a non-birding partner as the cabins are wonderful, and there's shopping, an art gallery, swimming pool, hot tub, casino, room service, music, dancing and various forms of entertainment, and food is available 24/7....

King Penguin copyright Tracey Barber
Snowy Sheathbill copyright Nick Bray

Dolphin Gulls copyright Nick Bray

The scenery at Tierra del Fuego is stunning. 
I took this photo on my last visit to Ushuaia.

Back to the birding. There are 7 land-based excursions that we have made arrangements for as follows:

Puerto Montt for species such as Flightless Steamer-Duck, Black-throated Huet-Huet, Chucao Tapaculo, Des Mur's Wiretail etc

Punta Arenas - Magellanic Plover, Imperial Cormorant, Tawny-throated and Rufous-chested Dotterels, Band-tailed Earthcreeper, Black-throated Finch

Ushuaia - Great Grebe, Dolphin Gull, Magellanic Woodpecker, White-throated Caracara, Dark-bellied Cinclodes.

Falkland Islands - King, Gentoo & Magellanic Penguins, Falklands Steamer-Duck, White-Bridled Finch.

Puerto Madryn/Valdes Peninsula - Lesser Rhea, Snowy Sheathbill, Elegant Crested Tinamou, Patagonian Canastero

Montevideo - Giant Wood-Rail, Rufous-sided Crake, Spot-flanked Gallinule, White-spotted Woodpecker, Black-and-rufous Warbling-Finch

Buenos Aires/Costanero Sur - Coscoroba Swan, Rosy-billed Pochard, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Lake Duck, Freckle-breasted Thornbird, Yellow-billed Cardinal, Golden-billed Saltator

Obviously that's just a small selection of the potential species. 

For a full description please go to our website to view further details: Cape Horn Pelagic 
For more info from the Princes Cruises website about this cruise, amenities, cabins pricing etc just follow this link: Cruising

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover copyright Rodrigo Tapia

Oh and there is also a pre-cruise extension to various birding sites around Santiago with the ultimate prize of Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. But there's a number of Chilean endemics and localised specialities also to find such as Chilean Tinamou, Stripe-backed Bittern, Chilean Flicker, Dusky-tailed Canastero, Crag Chilia, Moustached Turca, Creamy-rumped Miner, Chilean Mockingbird and much more. 

A post-tour extension once the cruise is over will take us to the steppe north of Buenos Aires to Ceibas just to add some more new land-based lifers such as Lark-like Brushrunner, White-naped Xenopsaris, Black-capped Warbling-Finch and many others. We will add further details on the post-tour extension very soon.

In the next blog post we can take a look at what we've really come for - the seabirds.

Antipodean (Wandering) Albatross copyright Nick Bray

Cape Horn & Straits of Magellan Pelagic Cruise - Introduction

Being at home and self-isolating has given me plenty of time for reflection, and remaining positive has been of the utmost importance. Adding a few species to the garden lockdown list has been interesting with Willow Tit only showing once in the previous 3 weeks, but new additions have been 3 Garganey flying across the fields below our house, a pair of Mandarins have taken up residence in the brook and regularly fly over the house, and we even caught up with the night migration of Common Scoters that were such a big thing last week as they were noted all across central Britain on their migration north. 

So our attention has turned to adding some new tours. I've been looking through a book I picked up at the Birdfair last year (and still gutted this year's event is cancelled) - Oceanic Birds of the World's by Steve Howell & Kirk Zufelt. What a great book, jam-packed with i.d pointers and info. I was thinking, "when am I going to use this?", and this reminded me of a conversation I had with someone recently about how they love seabirds, but the thought of going on a small boat pelagic like the ones off South Africa, California, or Chile etc are a definite non-starter as they would be seasick and its not worth putting their body through that. After all, birding is meant to be fun right? 

Having led numerous trips across the Bay of Biscay onboard the Brittany Ferries cruise ships that were such a success, I began looking for other options around the world. And then on my last tour to Yunnan, one of my group said he'd done exactly that on a cruise around Cape Horn in South America. So I began researching the potential species and logistics around this. And now i'm in a position to present a brand new tour for Zoothera Birding in conjunction with Princess Cruises..... I know cruises are probably not at the forefront of everyone's mind during this Covid-19 crisis but eventually life will return to normal and we will all want to get out there and see new birds again.

So what better way to see some of the southern ocean's most amazing seabirds than setting your scope up 'on deck' of a full, working cruise ship and heading out into what is arguably the most bird-rich waters anywhere in the world? 

More information to follow in the next blog post.

Here's the link to the Zoothera Itinerary - Cape Horn Pelagic

Sunday, 5 April 2020

El Yunque

                              *******This blog post relates to the 17th March******

And yes, I have suffered some criticism about being irresponsible for being here, but my visit occurred just before everything began to get really serious. Throughout my time here I was constantly checking flights back to the UK and funnily enough I didn't fancy paying over £3,000 for a flight that normally costs circa £600! Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I followed the Foreign Office advice as best I could. So please go ahead and judge me but I could not have done anything differently at the time.....

Much quieter this morning and feeling a little tired I didn’t venture out until 8.30am. The only new birds were Shiny Cowbird and a Mangrove Cuckoo and there was very little else apart from the common Grey Kingbird so I returned to our cabin for a quick breakfast. I was mulling over whether I should have gone out after the curfew and tried for Puerto Rican Screech-Owl last night but at the time I decided it wasn’t great habitat for it and questioned how serious the curfew was and did I want to be snitched on to the local police by an overzealous local? Well, the answer was no! So will have to try the owl elsewhere…. 

Anyway, we have been mulling over our options and maybe we should fly to somewhere more hospitable in the Lesser Antilles like Dominica that haven’t got any restrictions at present or should we just hunker down and see out our time here in Puerto Rico. Our flight to the Dominican Republic in a few days has been cancelled and I will have to go there another time, and I’m also afraid to post anything on social media for fear of recriminations about travelling during this pandemic. I can just hear the comments like “well, do you think you should have gone..?” etc. Well, it was ok when we left the UK! 

Anyway, we mess around at Walmart getting provisions as the next hotel emailed me to say they weren’t doing dinner ffs! The road heading to the next lodge is a tricky winding route through small villages at the rear of El Yunque and then becomes dirt road and very steep and slippery, but we arrive at El Hotelito around 3pm, check-in and I’m straight off down the approach track and checking out the steep, muddy trail. A singing Eastern Red-legged Thrush is the first lifer, and what a bird this is! And it turns out to be the only new one on my exploration but I do see yet another Puerto Rican Lizard CuckooBlack-whiskered Vireo, another Puerto Rican OrioleMangrove Cuckoo and the ubiquitous Bananaquit

Puerto Rican Oriole

Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo

I was fortunate to have the hotels 2 giant German Shepherd dogs following me and scaring a lot of the birds away! You just couldn’t write this shit! My dog experience grows even worse at dusk when the dumb dog chases a calling Puerto Rican Screech-Owl away not once but twice. WTAF?! After pushing the bloody dog into the restaurant area I return to the path and then find 2 different individual owls and manage to get a few shots of each. Result!

Puerto Rican Screech Owl

With further dire Corona Virus news tonight and things looking bleak as it seems we cannot fly anywhere and are stuck with the curfew being enforced apparently through the day and this hotel closing down tomorrow, we just don’t know what to do and it’s a rather miserable pair falling asleep to the loudest crescendo and chorus of Tree Frogs I’ve ever experienced.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Lockdown Birding in Puerto Rico

Woke this morning not knowing what to do. Should we try and fly home? No flights to UK! So as we had a booking for tonight at the airport hotel from my original itinerary - should we just wait it out or get the hell out of Dodge? The decision was to get our planned rental car a day early and go. Lynzi found a decent place to stay tonight near the birding hotspot of El Yunque so off we went in our shiny new Mitsubishi SUV. A detour to Walmart for provisions was necessary before driving up the winding road into El Yunque National Park, where the Visitor Centre was closed. In another 24 hours Walmart would close off all non-essential sections and the queues would be really long to gain access. Anyway, it was totally the wrong time of day to get much activity but the forest was ringing to the sound of Black-whiskered Vireos. There were a lot of people here today and the top car park was full – making a mockery of the ‘no public gathering mantra’. Anyway, I was more interested in my first Puerto Rican endemic – Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo. Oh yes! In fact I saw 3 along the road and managed further rubbish photos but I didn’t care. I was just happy to get the ball rolling. 

Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo

Oh and this island has a much better feel to it than Jamaica. Everything there felt awkward, the roads were poor and the food was the same. Here on Puerto Rico its like you are in the states, great infrastructure, all the trappings of a fast food society, big supermarkets etc etc. 

We headed to our cabins just a 20 minute drive from El Yunque with superb views of the mountain and the clear blue Caribbean waters way below us. 

The view from our cabin

A nice location but the surrounding habitat was fragmented and didn’t initially look promising. But on further exploration there were pockets of good habitat and in an hour’s walk I saw some great birds. Firstly, a Pearly-eyed Thrasher sang away from a tree overhanging the road, giving much better views than the pair we saw approaching the cabins earlier. 

Pearly-eyed Thrasher

Then I got some decent photos of the common Grey Kingbird perched nearby, and as I turned away from this I happened to glance skywards and saw what took me a few seconds to realise was a Cuban Martin – a bird I never expected to see at this time of year. 

Grey Kingbird

Amongst the throngs of Greater Antillean Grackles playing around in the trees overhead I noticed something different, and raising my bins I saw a Puerto Rican Oriole. Result! This can sometimes be a tricky species to find so I was pleased to nail it early on in my stay on this great island. Next up was a Myiarchus flycatcher perched nearby – Puerto Rican Flycatcher. Result! A few Scaly-naped Pigeons were around, along with Zenaida Dove and Common Ground Dove, whilst a fine Northern Parula was also present. 

Puerto Rican Woodpecker - cracker!

Walking back to the cabins a Puerto Rican Woodpecker flew in and landed on a wooden telegraph post before moving uphill to some palm trees where I crept up and got really close views and some decent shots. This was my bird of the day, and an incredible woodpecker that I did not realise from the field guide was such a good looking bird.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Jamaica to Puerto Rico

Well neither of us expected this. Awake at 7am I couldn’t shift out of bed so trawled the internet and read about the doom and gloom surrounding the Corona Virus outbreak and it became startlingly clear that we had to leave Jamaica early as per the Foreign office advice. Combine that with President Trump stating people from the UK were not going to be admitted into the USA from midnight tomorrow and we realised a hasty retreat was necessary. So a 3.5 hour drive to Montego Bay followed (passing Olive-throated (Jamaican) Parakeets along the way) and once in the airport things really kicked off. It seemed that being UK nationals made us ‘persona non grata’ and unwelcome, but the kind American Airlines lady got us onto the next flight out of Jamaica as we were not allowed to fly as scheduled tomorrow to Puerto Rico. There was not much dialogue between us and to be honest neither of us new really what happening and in hindsight maybe we should have been a bit more insistent about exactly where we were flying to? Hindsight is a wonderful thing (and it's really easy to criticise) but please remember that at the time things weren't as bad as they are right now.....

So, the only thing was the next flight to Miami was in an hour and I had to run back to the rental car to get our luggage, run back in with them and then return to the car and drop it off at the rental station just around the corner. I was sweating when I got back to Lynzi and we rushed through security and to the gate, just in time to board the plane. Believe me, being British and sweating in an airport doesn’t win you any friends! Anyway, the flight to Miami was uneventful and it only took 45 minutes to pass through immigration, security and get our luggage passed onto the next conveyor belt – I think this must be a record! And we were on the connecting flight to San Juan in Puerto Rico before the travel ban for Brits into USA territory began and a short flight got us in at around 11pm where we holed up in the airport hotel. A beer in the bar was very welcome tonight. During the flight we learned from the pilot that the president of Puerto Rico had imposed a curfew from 9pm to 5am every night and most shops, restaurants, hotels etc were to be closed for the rest of the month. Speaking to  the bar staff we learned that although you couldn’t eat in the restaurants you could order a takeout and that supermarkets were open during the day before the curfew began at night. Add to this a few of the hotels I had pre-arranged emailed to cancel and we were really up against it. Oh and there’s only 5 cases of the virus on Puerto Rico at the moment!

Friday, 27 March 2020

Ecclesdown Road

Back on track this morning, rattling off another 8 endemics in a cracking 3 hour session on Ecclesdown Road, leaving me just Jamaican EuphoniaJamaican Mango and Olive-throated Parakeet (not endemic) to find. So the day began a little after 6.15am with groups of Jamaican Crows flying across the valley with one individual perched out on a prominent dead tree calling for several minutes. A calling Jamaican Becard only showed briefly but I needn’t have worried as just a short distance up the road I heard another one singing and jumped out of the car to find a female attending a nest. 

Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo

The first of 3 Jamaican Lizard Cuckoos was then seen and they all showed really well but in the gloomy weather (it was drizzling on and off for an hour this morning and very overcast) I failed spectacularly to get a good photo! A cracking Crested Quail-Dove walking along the road in front of my car was superb, and I saw another one doing the same thing on my return later. 

Crested Quail-Dove

Next up was a Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo skulking beside the road, whilst more endemics followed in the shape of numerous Black-billed Streamertails, Orangequits, Jamaican Woodpecker, Jamaican Vireo, 2 Arrowhead Warblers and a few Jamaican Tody’s, plus Greater Antillean Bullfinch

Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo

By now it was 8.45am and I was getting concerned that none of the distantly calling amazons were coming closer. But I needn’t have worried as all of a sudden I saw some movement in a roadside tree and there were 3 Black-billed Amazons sitting quietly. They flew off but only for 50 metres or so and joined a few more in a bare tree, where I managed to fire off a few record shots. 

Black-billed Amazon

Shortly after a couple Yellow-billed Amazons flew over and I had a couple more flight views later in the morning in much better light. Walking back to the car I was just about to get in when a bird flew into some tall bamboo next to me. Getting my binoculars on it, I was blown away when it proved to be a Yellow-shouldered Grassquit – a bird I was expecting to dip on to be honest. And that was me done for the day, with some more business stuff to do and people to meet. Oh and another siesta! Dinner tonight was at the strange Italian restaurant in Port Antonio.....

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Jamaica Still........

I'd like to point out that these Caribbean blog posts began way before the worldwide Coronavirus issues began to affect all walks of our life and countries began locking down and restricting travel. It's not meant to be a frivolous story-telling on how good we did, but a factual account of what we saw and the events surrounding our visit. In fact, things were about to get very tricky in a day or so.......

I was up and out at dawn, walking down the road from the hotel to the lush, subtropical forest that envelopes the hillsides here. To be honest I found it quite tough going in the humid conditions, especially as the forest is so thick here and it really was dark and gloomy until the sun appeared over the hills but that wasn’t until I was walking back! 

San San Forest Road

However, I did get great looks at both Rufous-tailed and a pair of Sad Flycatchers, as well as several Caribbean Doves at a fruiting tree, and a nice couple of Ruddy Quail-Doves were walking along the leaf-strewn road in front of me! 

Caribbean Dove
Sad Flycatcher

I also saw a pair of Arrowhead Warblers this morning, along with Loggerhead Kingbird, Jamaican Woodpecker, Jamaican Tody, Black-billed Streamertail, White-eyed and White-chinned Thrushes, Jamaican Spindalis, numerous White-crowned Pigeons and Louisiana Waterthrush.

Arrowhead Warbler

White-chinned Thrush

After breakfast we drove over to Ecclesdown Road and checked out the site, at completely the wrong time of day. The highlights weren’t many but better views of Black-billed Streamertail, a nice Black-whiskered Vireo, Worm-eating Warbler and a few Yellow-faced Grassquits were the pick of the bunch. Feeling a little deflated we headed off to visit some other places and enjoy a bit of a late afternoon siesta. 

Jamaican birding style...

My mood was lifted considerably when I managed to call in a Jamaican Owl after dinner and had decent views but was too enthralled with the beast to take a photo!