Sunday, March 11, 2018

South America, Day 3 - 19 Feb 2018

At Sea in the Humboldt Current – 19 Feb 2018

Today we are at sea all day, sailing north from Coquimbo to Arica along the western coast of Chile. At 7 am skies were overcast and seas were calm. I'm excited about the prospects of birding the Humboldt Current and the rich sea and bird life it attracts. Birds were already being seen flying low over the water as we ate breakfast at the Garden Café. And, by days end we would see plenty of jumping Chilean Dolphins, flying fish, and sea lions! By 11 am we would still be south of Baja Moreno and only ½ the distance to Arica. By the map we are in the vicinity of Antofagasta, CL.

Chilean Dolphins and Buller's Shearwater

Sea Lion
Birding from a cruise ship is mixed bag. Its great in that such ships are so large and stable that you can set up a tripod and even digiscope videos of birds. They are also extremely comfortable, and if you have a balcony you can even bird from your own cabin. The down side is that you are far from the water, and typically even farther from the birds that generally keep their distance from such ships. The added downside is that the ships generally cruise in waters generally void of birds. The old adage, "The ocean is a desert with its life underground" literally rings true. But, today we are in the rich waters of the Humboldt and I am seeing birds!

I fully expected today to be an exercise in frustration. With birds flying so far from the boat they appear as black or gray silhouettes, insufficient for identification. However, I would be pleasantly surprised. With breakfast over, and Robin wanting to relax, I took the scope and camera down to Mid-ship and planted myself on the rails to start scoping petrels and shearwaters. Having the Nikon D500 and 300/2.8 VRII+1.4TCII I had to opportunity to capture enough images of distant birds to make some positive (albeit difficult) ID's.

I watched one gray petrel dart in close to the ship as if it were a nighthawk; strong wing beats and darting motion that were quite distinctive. No idea on a species, though. I would later suspect that it may have been a De Filippi's ( or formerly Masatierra) Petrel*. Bird 1 Scope 0.

IOC World Bird List v 8.1

Things looked up when I was able to ID the first of several Markham’s Storm Petrels. They are the only storm petrels in these parts that have dark brown heads and underside and a dark rump. The light-tan wing stripes helped to differentiate them from the larger White-chinned Petrels that I would see later. One success.

Markham's Storm Petrel (composite)

Markham's Storm Petrel (composite)

 De Filippi's Petrel (composite)
Several more birds started drifting in close enough that I could fire off frames with my Nikon rig. One gray petrel showed brown wing stripes from behind, pale gray head with a distinct gray cowl, and white underwings with only black-tipped primaries; De Filippi's Petrel. The cowl projected well onto the neck whereas the gray cowl on the similar-looking Cook’s Petrel is level with the eyes. Otherwise the two appear identical. Luckily, De Filippi's is the most common here while Cook's are much less so. Another success!

De Filippi's Petrel (composite) - digiscoped!

De Filippi's Petrel (composite)
Stejneger's Petrel is another similar-looking bird that was a possibility on this trip, but it appears to have a dark cap that projects into the black eye patch. Otherwise it is easily confused with the De Filippi's Petrel (or Masatierra Petrel).

Just a plug at this point for Alvaro Jaramillo and his Birds of Chile (Princeton Field Guides). Outstanding bird guide that made and saved this trip. For anyone traveling to South America / Chile this is must-have field guide. Also kudos to eBird for their lists of these regions that helped narrow down possible species identifications.

Far out over the water a Red-billed Tropicbird could be seen through the scope. The all-white bird with gray on the back and black feathers on the outermost primaries of the wings and dark bill were all I could make out. 

As I sat in the Garden Café deleting frames from the camera I began to see small flocks of Buller’s Shearwaters off the back of the ship. They were flying in groups of 3 – 12 and could be ID’d by their black-and-white (almost calico) feathering on their gray backs, white underwings, and a dark cap that extends above the eye onto the shoulders. These birds were significantly larger and less erratic in flight compared to the petrels. I likened them to molting Willets in flight...

Buller's Shearwater

Buller's Shearwater

Buller's Shearwater

Buller's Shearwater
I returned to the cabin to write up notes when I began to see birds flying just off our balcony. An "all-dark" noddy-like bird appeared flying almost at eye-level and screaming its head off while several large pods of dolphins porpoised through the water. No sooner did it disappear when an adult Sooty Tern appeared in its place. I could also hear its calls from the balcony, as well. After reviewing pics the dark noddy turned out to be a  juvenile Sooty Tern that was probably calling to its adult parent (put a white forehead on a juvenile Sooty Tern and you have a Black Noddy!). Luckily, I had plenty of images of its light-colored undersides to differentiate from a Black Noddy.

Dozens more Buller’s Shearwaters and Markham’s Storm Petrels would appear off the front of the ship and fly by in the early afternoon sunlight, providing nice looks through the scope. Calm seas made spotting them easier today.

A Grey Gull made an appearance and dove for a fish just as several Sea Lions surfaced in the same location. The gull was lucky not to have become a meal for a sea lion that actually came out of the water after it! I just missed the shot...

Grey Gull and surfacing Sea Lion
Hornby's Storm Petrel (left) and Masatierra Petrel (right); composites

One last group of Pteradroma petrels flew by, but then I saw a small storm-petrel among them that had a whitish belly and gray rump. I was guessing either Hornby’s Storm Petrel or Polynesian Storm Petrels, with Hornby's being more obvious in this region. Both birds sport a thick necklace much like a Semipalmated Plover with the Polynesian Storm Petrel having a thicker necklace and distinct white arm pits. I almost ID'd the bird as a White-bellied Storm-Petrel (based on the all-white underparts), which is rare for this region, until I noticed that it lacked the dark head. I believe this bird to be a Hornby's Storm Petrel.

With the sun coming around to our side of the ship it was time to close the curtains and call it a birding day. The cabin would get quite warm by evening’s end, even with the A/C going. But, we’d be cool enough to sleep by 9 pm.

Tomorrow, we port in Arica and head off for a 3-day trip to Machu Piccu!

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