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Northern Waters - Isles of Scotland 20th - 28th of June 2019
All images are subject to copyright of the photographer and taken during the tour. Click images to enlarge.
On the 20th June, I joined one of my favourite ships, Fred Olsen’s ‘Black Watch’ for their ‘Isles of Scotland’ tour, accompanied by my good friend and fellow naturalist, Clare Gower. I’d invited Clare along for a specific reason, she had never seen a whale and I guaranteed her that we would break her whale ‘duck’. No pressure then.
We set off from Liverpool, with just time for the first photograph of a Kittiwake before the entertainments team meeting. The route to the northern waters would take us out past the Calf of Man, and this is where we would find our first cetaceans of the trip, as dusk approached we located 2 Harbour Porpoise and 2 Risso’s Dolphin.
Bird-wise the theme for the week would be set by Northern Gannets, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Arctic Tern and that tough, medium-sized, tubenose Manx Shearwaters. It seemed wholly appropriate that this latter bird would be watched careening over the waves in sight of the Islands from which they take their name.
Early on the 21st we docked in Greenock. I’d never been to this location before, so we took a taxi to explore an area called Parklea, along the coast adjacent to Newark Castle. Our taxi driver was a local, he was apparently speaking English, I caught about one word in ten, Clare looked utterly baffled.
The wintering waders had long departed, but there was still plenty of interest with Red-breasted Merganser and Eider Duck present in the Clyde estuary. Black Guillemot were nesting in part of the sea-wall. I spent some time attempting a flight-shot, an exercise marked by more failure than success. To compensate for the general lack of birds we focused our attention on some of the interesting plants, including Sea Radish and also Broad-leaved Helleborine.
Before long we were headed back to our ship. Just as an aside we understood every single syllable of speech from our returning taxi driver, he was a charming Dutch guy! We set off in glorious sunshine out of the Clyde on route to Mull. Before long we were finding more Harbour Porpoise and were soon into the seabirds as we approached and then passed the impressive hulk of Ailsa Craig. Common Guillemots were the most abundant species alongside Northern Gannets. We also spied our first European Storm-petrel’s of the trip as the skittered over the wavelets in front of the ship. Despite the good conditions we failed to find a whale.
Tobermory on Mull is a delightful location in a stunning setting. It also happens to be home to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, so a visit to their centre on the dockside is always on my itinerary. I also gazed into the habourside's clear waters and thier spied 3 species of Jellyfish, Lion's Mane, Barrel and Moon Jellyfish.
After a short shore side walk I escorted a Sea Life Surveys tour to view the local wildlife. We cruised out of Tobermory and scoured the shore for one of the UK’s greatest predators. It wasn’t long before it hove into view; two ironing boards strapped together by a horn-yellow butchers hook, sailed through a blue sky. The adult White-tailed put on a bravura performance, before being eventually heckled off stage by an irate Herring Gull. This had been one of Clare’s main targets. She was beaming like a Cheshire Cat!
Soon after we were watching a sleepy Harbour Seal on rocks close to the shore before searching for Minke Whales. Sadly, we found none of the latter before our return to the port and Black Watch. Never mind surely the scenic cruising past Duart Castle would bring us this mini baleen whale. In between I delivered my first lecture on the Whales and Dolphins of Scottish Waters. Anticipation built we headed for Deck 10 forward to search for cetaceans. By the time we descended for our evening meal we had seen 9 Harbour Porpoise and 3 Grey Seal. Still no Whale! Surely tomorrow would bring a change of fortune.
23rd of June would be a ‘sea day’ as we headed for Shetland. I was delighted to find that the Captain and Navigation Officer had accommodated up my idea of taking a route North that would bring us within 3 miles of Tiumpan Head, off the isle of Lewis. We would begin our transit at 9.00am and Clare and I were there to lead a Whale Watch accompanied by a good number of passengers. All we needed now were the whales and dolphins.
The phrase “I love it when a plan comes together” had never been more apt. immediately we started the watch two Harbour porpoise did their characteristic ‘rotating wheel’ breathing routine and moments later pod after pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphin appeared, many heading in to play on Black Watch’s bow, this was immediately followed by our first Minke Whale braking the surface on our Port side, agonisingly Clare couldn’t see it properly due to the mass of people joining us at the bow. To compensate a small pod of Risso’s Dolphin on the starboard side had a young calf with them.
A passenger spotted another whale, dead ahead of the ship. It resurfaced and I shouted. “It’s a big whale”. I was then amazed to see this gigantic animal roll to reveal the characteristic big sloping dorsal of a Fin Whale. It’s route would bring it very close to the ship and as it surfaced on our port side I fired off a series of images, showing it’s blow and fin as it powered along in shallow swimming transit fashion. I was cock-a-hoop, my first ever Fin Whale in UK waters! Clare decided she was counting this as her first ever whale. We were joyous and the fun wasn’t over, several more Minke Whales hove into view and in final act of cetacean fireworks a pod of powering White-beaked Dolphins danced through the waves ahead of Black Watch’s bow. In less than an hour and half we had observed 6 species of cetacean and at least 122 individual animals. It was magical and one of my best cetacean events ever in UK waters.
Seabirds were a similar mix to previous days but with Gannet’s being far and away the dominant species with well over 2000 observed. The oddity of the day was undoubtedly a Collared Dove which joined us well out to sea off Cape Wrath.
On the 24th we were up early for the sail into Lerwick, Shetland and it was immediately obvious that Bonxie’s (AKA Great Skua’s would be a main feature of the day). Sadly, it was just a shortened day ashore. Sheltand really deserves an overnight stay there is so much to see and do here.
Clare and I opted to hire a car and bomb down to Sumburgh Head. The birds were, as ever, fabulous with so much activity on the cliffs, masses of guillemots, lots of Puffins though far fewer than I remember here. What was noticeable was the tiny size of the Sandeels the Puffins were bringing back to their burrows. It was fascinating watching the Bonxies harrying the seabirds and more, or less terrorising the Puffins, I gave Clare one of my cameras to practice with and we took hundreds of images of the Bonxies in action. In contrast to the Bonxies, Arctic Skuas were in shockingly low numbers.
Sumburgh is famous for attracting Orca, but on this occasion they failed to show in the limited time at our disposal. Though the Atlantic Grey and Harbour Seals were probably mightily relieved.
Far too soon we were back on board and cruising toward Torshaven in the Faroe Islands and the only cetacean we encountered before dark were 9 Harbour Porpoise.
Considering this cruise was titled Isles of Scotland, it was a curiosity that we found ourselves in the Faroe Islands, there are loads of amazing Scottish islands to visit, not least St. Kilda. I wish Fred Olsen would cruise there sometimes.
I have a real issue with the Faroe Islands because of their continued slaughter of Long-finned Pilot Whales and Atlantic White-sided Dolphins. They continue to play the indigenous whaling card to support the local impoverished community with much needed meat. This off course is total nonsense. The Faroese are a very modern western European nation and they are wealthy. It is pure male testosterone fuelled bloodlust that maintains this hideous ‘tradition’. Just look at this poster, I photographed outside a very up-market establishment, of the ‘blood soaked’ owner. I have a simple philosophy when I visit the Faroe Islands. I contribute not a single krona to their economy. I know many of the passengers on the ship feel the same way as I do.
Clare and I were up very early for the cruise into Torshaven. Strangely we saw not a single Pilot Whale, or Atlantic White-sided Dolphin in perfect viewing conditions!
We went for a walk in the local park, one of the few places with substantial numbers of trees, just to while away a little time, here we would find hooded Crows, Common Redpolls and somewhat surprisingly, Blackcap, Willow warbler, Chiffchaff and Lesser Whitethroat. The small river that flows through the park held Arctic Char which were readily photographed and the acid heath grasslands were also diverting with Milkwort and also Heath spotted Orchid in flower.
We strolled back towards the harbour and here I was delighted to find an incredibly confiding 1st summer Black Guillemot. The water’s clarity meant you could follow it’s every move as it ‘flew’ underwater (see video). A short time later a drake Eider entering eclipse came equally close. Just as were about to return to the ship a Herring Gull snatched a Long-spined Sea Scorpion from the water and proceeded to manipulate the hapless fish to enable it to eat its spiky finned victim.
All images are taken on the tour. Copyright Jeff Clarke Ecology Ltd unless otherwise stated. Click on images to enlarge.
I count myself very lucky to have the opportunity to join cruise ships as a guest speaker, it means I visit amazing places and encounter extraordinary wildlife. My latest trip was no different, this time accompanied by my wife Adele, aboard Saga Sapphire for an Atlantic crossing trip to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Quebec. Normally I’m assisting the passengers to spot the cetaceans and seabirds on my own, but this time I would have the company of Orca Surveyors, Cassie, Lorraine, Paul and Tony. We made a great complimentary team and the additional eyes made a real difference to our observing potential. The more eyes looking, the more will be found.
We departed Dover on the late afternoon of 13th May and we would make a six day transit across ‘the pond’ before reaching our first port, St. John in Newfoundland. Large stretches of deep ocean are mostly unproductive for seabirds and cetaceans as there is limited food. However, it was migration season and this meant increased opportunities.
Storm tracks across the Northern Atlantic meant a somewhat dog-legged route was taken to miss the worst of the weather. Even so we had mixed conditions from almost flat calm to Force 9 at various times.
Thankfully our hopes regarding migrant seabirds proved correct, and we were passed by large numbers of Skuas heading north, by far the most commonly encountered species being Long-tailed Skua.
On the European side of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge we had moderate numbers of Manx Shearwaters, Fulmars and Gannets, the migration season being noticeably more advanced, Once we reached the ridge the numbers and variety of species steadily increased. Huge numbers of Fulmars crossed the Sapphire’s bow and once we encountered the cold-water Labrador current the ‘Blue Phase’ Fulmar became increasingly common.
Shearwater variety increased too with Sooty and latterly Great Shearwaters (many in heavy moult), joining the Manxies. One of the commonest birds encountered was the Leach’s Storm-petrel (see video below). It’s hard to get low enough on Sapphire to photograph seabirds but I did get a sequence of moderately reasonable shots and some film footage of this tiny ocean denizen, in gale lashed seas.
There was always the expectation that a few landbirds and waders may use the ship as a temporary refuge and so it proved. In the outer English Channel and the Western Approaches this included a Northern Wheatear and two Turtle Doves and a Ringed Plover landed on the bow.
The following day a superb sub-adult Hobby came aboard and I managed to get a nice sequence of images of it. It stayed most of the day, hopefully successfully re-orientating towards the safety of Ireland or the UK.
We didn’t acquire any more landbirds until we were adjacent to the Newfoundland landmass in the Labrador current and the Gulf of St Lawrence, when we were joined by Northern Waterthrush, Ruby crowned Kinglet and White-throated Sparrow. Sadly, after a time the Northern Waterthrush perished due to a lack of insect food. The White-throated Sparrow fared better as we kept it supplied with muesli, another White-throated Sparrow also came aboard and I had to rescue it from the Verandah dining room. It soon departed along with a Dark-eyed Junco. Latterly a Pine Siskin spent a day with the, now muesli-addicted, White-throated Sparrow.
Conditions early in the journey across the Atlantic were initially moderate at best and so it was no surprise that cetaceans were hard to come by. It wasn’t until the 15th that I recorded my first Short-beaked Common Dolphins. The weather and sightings improved considerably as we approached the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, more Short-beaks were joined by Sperm Whale, a pod of Cuvier’s Beaked Whales, 3 Bottlenose Dolphin plus unidentified Whale blows. As usual I often missed cetaceans when I was giving my talks. Luckily Orca were on board to tell me what I’d missed. Here’s a typical example; I went to give a talk and Paul Soulby from the Orca team captured the moment when a White-beak actually spy-hopped. Staying on deck whilst I give a talk is a guaranteed way of seeing something amazing.
Some good fortune did come my way as I picked up Risso’s Dolphin after the ridge soon followed by 40+ Long-finned Pilot Whale in four pods. I also racked up as a new species for me in the form of Atlantic White-sided Dolphin, long overdue considering where I have travelled in the past.
Once we reached the Labrador current and began to zero in on our first port of St. John’s the air temperature became decidedly frigid and the sea temperature dropped to -1oC. This brought a sudden spike in big whale sightings, the Humpbacks and Fin whales were entirely expected, however we were delighted to find 4 Blue Whales including 1 individual that surfaced right next to the ship. The massive splashguard contrasting with the tiny dorsal fin. And the distinctive blue-grey mottled skin visible without the need for binoculars.
St. Johns is a thriving mini-city set amid a wild Newfoundland landscape. I walked out to a suburban location called Mundy Pond. It had a reputation for interesting birds, but I found it a bit disappointing. A small number of American Black Duck were present alongside a pair of Greater Scaup and 2 drake Ring-necked Ducks. A mewing call had me thinking Mew Gull, but closer inspection showed the birds to be Ring-billed Gulls, associating with American Herring gulls. Passerines were in limited supply, a few Dark-eyed Juncos, Song Sparrows and an unexpected 1st summer male Purple Finch.
Later Adele and I took a taxi to Pippy Park. This location had a great deal more to offer. First up being a splendid Great Northern Diver in summer plumage.
The woodland here was pretty dense but some ‘pishing’, pulled out newly arrived Myrtle Warbler, Yellow-shafted Flicker, a ‘trumpet-tooting’ Red-breasted Nuthatch and a pair of confiding Black-capped Chickadee. American Robins were present in most areas but proved somewhat shy of the camera except for a single bird near the Fluvarium, alongside a Dark-eyed Junco. Sadly, I totally messed up the Bald Eagle moment by having my camera on the wrong focus setting, all the best stuff was blurred. Doh!
MV Balmoral - Barbados to San Diego - 31st January to 19th February
Central American Pacific to San Diego
All images are taken on the tour. Copyright Jeff Clarke Ecology Ltd unless otherwise stated. Click on images to enlarge.
9th - 12th January – steaming toward Puerta Vallarta
Back out at sea heading up the pacific coast of Central America. We once again gathered a horde of Boobys around the ship, with most again concentrating their feeding efforts on the starboard side of the ship. Much of the time this involved several species, though the composition would change subtly as we steamed northward toward Mexico.
Brown Boobys were by far the most abundant species, but they were periodically joined by Red-footed Booby’s, including one individual in pseudo Blue-footed morph, Masked Boobys were almost ever present when we were well offshore, but picking out the Nazca Boobys proved a challenge and I didn’t take enough confirmatory photographs to positively ID most of them.
Perdiodically storm-petrels would join the party, including Black, Leach’s and Wedge-rumped. None of the stormies came close enough to photograph properly, thankfully the shearwaters were a bit more obliging. As we travelled further north we did pick up Townsends Shearwaters and latterly Black-vented Shearwaters as well as the rather ubiquitous Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. Frustratingly only the Wedgies close enough for satisfactory images.
Probably the most numerous type of bird we encountered as we cruised north were Phalaropes, mostly Grey phalaropes. On some days we would see 3-400. We did see Red-necked Phalarope as well but most of the time they were too far off the ship for certain identification.
Cetaceans were somewhat more noticeable on the Pacific side of the isthmus, but as usual activity was confined to the early morning and late evening periods. We were also hampered by choppy and at times, rough seas, even so we did get some good if mostly distant sightings. I was surprised by how infrequently many of the dolphins came in to bow ride, in fact on several occasions we observed pods seemingly avoiding the ship, thankfully at least a few of the Common Bottlenose Dolphins did make an effort to bow and wake-ride. But we had to be content with more distant views of the Pan-tropical Spotted and Central-American Spinner Dolphins. Our closest large cetacean encounter came after sunset on the 12th, I’d only seconds before put away my camera when a Fin Whale surfaced within metres of the ship on the starboard side. Typical!
On calmer days, it was often possible to spot Marine turtles, it was one thing spotting them but putting a name to them as more difficult. Eventually we managed identify 3 different species, Green, Olive Ridley and Hawksbill Sea Turtles. Only on the calmer days were they readily spotted any distance from the ship, mostly we were only picking them up as they passed close by the ship.
As we headed north the ship picked up a fishing net. A small coastal fishing vessel had laid a net across our path but hadn’t flagged it. We didn’t know it at that point, but this would radically alter our scheduled departure from the ship.
13th Puerta Vallarta, Mexico
The fishing net had damaged one of the ship’s propeller shafts. As a consequence, we were later into port than originally intended, and the decision was taken to tender the passengers ashore. Today we would be joining a small vessel to go whale watching, principally for Humpbacks. As it was, we had good views of several Humpies as we cruised into the bay. All the passengers were wowed by a mother and calf Humpback close into the shore at the port. Later we would have a magical close encounter with this duo.
I was the escort for the trip and pretty soon we had joined the Zodiac Whale Watching boats. Within minutes we connected the mother and calf and a an intimate few minutes in their close company. They were calm in the water. It was good to see the boat operating ethically and not harassing the whales.
We progressed a little further out and had great views of a whale in active mode, giving us a very adjacent encounter and a chance to get the classic fluke shot. We then had quite a long gap without a whale sighting. We were just thinking “is that it?” When boom!! We struck gold and became witnesses to one of the thrilling spectacles of Humpback life ‘The Heat Run’!
At least 7 males vied for the right to mate with the female. As she put them through their paces they barged and belly flopped on one another, one whale trying to prevent another from taking a breath. All very dramatic. We followed the action for over half an hour, the whales moving on an erratic course. It was ongoing as we left. Our time was up.
On returning to the ship it was a surprise to discover that the damage to the propeller shaft was so great that we would be having a complete change of itinerary. No more Mexico, the ship would need to head direct to San Diego, only thing being I was due to get off in Mexico two days hence and now I’d be on board an additional 4 days! Eek, some urgent emailing helped sort out my business commitments. I had to hope there would be some compensation for missing out on some of my Mexico plans. I need not have worried!
We crossed the mouth of the Sea of Cortez and began to track up the West coast of Baja California. That morning I’d alerted passengers as to the whale and dolphin possibilities. Some Pantropical Spotted Dolphins and a pod of Spinners whetted the appetite. One particular passenger, Jackie, had really caught the bug and spotted a huge blow. The whale had sounded ahead of the ship on the starboard side. We waited in anticipation for its next surfacing. Boom! A mighty blast of water vapour and snot erupted close on the starboard side. A turquoise shape moved under the water, rose to the surface and blew again. We already suspected its identity and then it rolled and sounded, I heard myself exclaiming "IT'S A BLUE!" Heaving its body higher, the grey mottled skin, tiny stub of a dorsal fin and up come the flukes. A mighty Blue Whale. Jackie was moved to tears. That is the emotional high you get when you see your first Blue Whale! This was the start of a remarkable day. Within just a few hours we had recorded 10 Blue Whales on the starboard side and another was observed on the port side. This included the biggest whale I’ve ever seen, an enormous female with a calf. She was a minimum of 90ft in length, just colossal!
Rough seas returned on the 16th and 17th limiting cetacean sightings, but the bonus was being able to add another Albatross to my growing life list of sighted species. Laysan Albatross became my 11th confirmed species. Half-way to my ambition of seeing all the world’s albatross species. During this same period we were also seeing Black-footed Albatross. By the end of the 17th I’d seen seven of each.
The 18th, our last day at sea, finally brought calmer seas and some great sightings, most notably my 39th species of cetacean, in the form of Grey Whale. By the time we reached San Diego at least 11 had blown and shown by the ship. Including animals well inside San Diego Bay itself. Offshore of San Diego were thousands of Black-vented Shearwaters, but I’d accidentally altered my camera settings and my images were terrible.
As we entered the bay we were entertained by couple of small pods of Pacific White-sided Dolphins, that briefly came to the bow and also a few Short-beaked Common Dolphins surfaced but kept a low profile. There was also a large variety of birdlife immediately obvious including Western Grebes, Pelagic and Brandt’s Cormorants, Surf Scoter and waders along the shoreline included Marbled Godwits and Willets, alongside a flock of Black Brant.
Once ashore Adele and I decided to walk up to Balboa Park. It always amuses me when you talk to Americans, they think you have lost your mind if you suggest walking anywhere. It took us 40 mins to get there, but on the way the grim reality of the USA policy on social welfare came into stark relief, we lost count of the number of homeless people, including dozens rough-sleeping in the park itself. It was a shocking thing to see in the richest country in the world and a damning indictment of Trump’s America!
The park itself had many birds, but we only had a limited time to explore a relatively small part of it. A large party of Bush Tit’s (an almost direct replacement for Europe’s Long-tailed Tit) noisily explored the dense areas of shrubbery, whilst the occasional Anna’s Hummingbird fizzed about. The bird I spent most time photographing was the lovely Western Bluebird, it took a while, but I eventually got some pleasing portraits. As we headed back to the ship, we passed through Waterfront Park where a Song Sparrow sang, just begging to be photographed in the setting sunshine.
19th Feb 2019
Our last day, but we wouldn’t be catching the plane till the evening, so we had time to take a whale tour. We chose the company Flagship with Birch Aquarium at Scripps as we knew they would operate ethically. We jumped on board and headed out to enjoy some close encounters with the Grey Whales, a quietly operating young animal, benthic feeding in shallow water, was well inside the bay entrance. But we spent most time observing a small group of larger animals, probably a group of non-breeding age animals, a little to the north of the bay. There carbuncled skin, full of whale lice, was clearly in evidence at such close range. The ‘V’ blows were also clearly seen. As we cruised slowly back through the bay we got reasonable views of the loafing California Sea Lions
After a short refreshment break, we still had time for one last foray into the nearby Embercardero Marina Park North, given its rather urban setting and manicured look it was really quite productive. The marina itself held a variety of birds including Black-necked (eared) Grebe, American Coot and Red-breasted Merganser. By far the commonest bird in the park was Audubon’s Warbler, they seemed to be pretty much in every bush, that..
MV Balmoral - Barbados to San Diego - 31st January to 19th February
Panama to Costa Rica
All images are taken on the tour. Copyright Jeff Clarke Ecology Ltd unless otherwise stated. Click on images to enlarge.
On the morning of the 5th of February we arrived in Colon, Panama. We jumped ship as soon as we could, four of us, me, Hiro, plus two passengers, Paul and Hazel, negotiated a taxi and headed for the forested area of Soberanía National Park along Pipeline Road, close to the mid-point of the Panama Canal.
It was a tortuous journey to get out of Colon and it was already late morning by the time we reached our destination. As so often with tropical forest birding it was obvious there was plenty of birds about, but seeing them was another thing altogether. Hiro headed off in pursuit of butterflies while I attempted a bit of pishing and this brought immediate dividends in the form of Black-crowned Antshrike (also known as Western Slaty Ant-shrike).
Much to my frustration I’d always failed to find a Trogon on previous visits to suitable forests. Today was different. By the end of the day I’d seen 4 different species, Violaceous, Slaty-tailed, Black-throated and Baird’s Trogon.
We hadn’t travelled far into the forest when we came across the first of many Central American Agoutis and then a short while later a troop of Mantled Howler Monkeys. At dusk and dawn the latter’s blood-curdling roars echo through the forest. I imagine the first time that westerners encountered this sonic salutation they must have been scared out of their wits.
Birding was initially difficult, but as we approached late afternoon, things picked up pace. We found a cluster of birds, presumably near Army Ants, including Thrush-like Mourner, Dot-winged Antwren, Black-hooded Ant-thush and Spotted Antbird. Woodcreepers are a particular challenge, but we successfully identified three, namely Black striped, Plain Brown and Buff-throated Woodcreeper. There were many contenders for bird of the day, including Rufous Motmot, Blue crowned Manakin and Red-capped Manakin.
In the end it was a mammal that claimed top prize. The troop of White-faced Capuchins traversing the canopy thought they would be king, but as we walked back up the track, we encountered a family group of Coati-mundi, feeding on the fruits dislodged by the capuchins. The animals were amazingly confiding in the fading light, to the point where we had to walk through the group to get back to the taxi! To finish off, as we drove away from the site, we encountered a small number of Collared Peccary emerging from the forest.
Transiting the Panama Canal is I’m sure on many people’s ‘I’d love to do that’ list, just for the sheer kudos and spectacle. It was also moderately diverting wildlife-wise. The locks are a marvel of engineering genius and also the most productive areas for the wildlife watchers on board. Just like us, the Magnificent Frigatebirds used the canal to transit between the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Ringed Kingfisher perched on posts at the locks and Yellow-headed Caracaras were also in evidence there. We also picked out a small handful of yellow-headed Vulture among the vast squadrons of Black and Turkey Vultures.
The first set of locks were tackled fairly early in the morning and this coincided with the foraging flights of Red-lored Amazon Parrots. Also a Common black Hawk perched close enough to ‘scope’ on the starboard side of the locks. As anticipated a variety of herons and egrets were noted along the journey including, juvenile Little Blue Heron and Coccoi Heron.
None-bird highlights included Mantled Howler Monkeys draped in the canopy tops, but for most on board the American Crocodiles were the most sought-after prize. The last set of locks were also a brimming with wildlife interest, with a few post-hopping Fork tailed flycatchers being a notable addition to our trip list and it was here that we also found a group of Capybara (the world’s largest rodent) utilising a small ‘stilted’ building to gain shelter from the heat of the day. As we passed Panama City we had swifts in the air that included Short-tailed and Grey-rumped Swift. We did find a few waders on route including Willet, Spotted Sandpiper and a small flock of Southern Lapwing near the last set of locks.
Once back out in the open ocean, we had large numbers of Brown Boobies and Brown Pelicans dive-bomb feeding ‘en masse’, so it was no surprise when we had a blow on the starboard side. Sadly the whale never showed well enough to put a definitive name to it, though it was almost certainly a Bryde’s whale, as it is by far the most likely rorqual to be tropical waters in that region at that time of year. A final surprise was our first Blue-footed Booby of the trip.
On the 7th were cruising north-west towards Costa Rica. Our frustrations with the cetaceans continued with very few dolphins approaching close to the ship. For most of the day we had to content ourselves with distant views most remained unidentified but at least couple of pods of Central American Spinner were close enough to put a name to. Several times during the day we were fooled by big splashes sometimes close to the ship. We eventually got good views of the culprits. They were Mobula Rays, also known as Devil Fish, leaping clear of the waves with flapping wings before belly-flopping back into the swell.
The many Brown Boobys associating with the ship were somewhat easier and to see and photograph as they chased down the flying fish disturbed by the ship. It’s fascinating that gannets and boobys always seem to congregate on one side of the ship when fishing, usually on the side away from the sun. There must be a visual reason for this in terms of improved hunting performance.
Just as the sun was setting, we finally had a pod of dolphins close to the ship, in this case they were Bottlenose Dolphins. By sundown we had actually recorded in excess of 225 dolphins but 150+ remained unidentified due to distance and the remarkable odds-defying frequency with which pods were on the wrong side of the ship in relation to the position of the sun.
The morning early of the 8th found us docking in Puntarenas , Costa Rica, I had high hopes for the day and I would not be disappointed.
Adele could finally go ashore as the Yellow Fever risk was much reduced and alongside Hiro, we again jumped in a taxi as soon as we could get off the ship and headed out to Carara National Park. Even the car park and ticket office area was alive with birds like Bouchard’s Wren, so we immediately felt optimistic about our chances of getting to grips with the forest denizens.
We opted to hire a guide for a couple of hours to give ourselves a good introduction to the site, this proved to be a very useful move. The forest was buzzing with birds, even so, spotting them and more to the point photographing them, was considerably more of a challenge, one of the first species to oblige was Streak-headed Woodcreeper, there are many species of woodcreeper and you need prolonged views of many of them to get them to species.
Shortly afterwards Adele and Hiro spotted a large pale bird flying in a gap high above the canopy, as soon as I ‘got on to it’ I felt like ‘punching the air’, it was a King Vulture, my first, a bird that had frustratingly eluded me during my Amazon trip aboard Braemar a year earlier. This bird has a remarkable ability to sniff out death and can nasally pinpoint animal carcasses on the forest floor with ease.
After a short diversion, to take in the first of the Scarlet Macaw, for which the reserve is famous, the guide led us to a trail being crossed by army ants. This is what we were looking for, as this would be a key location for their camp followers, the ‘antbirds’. We could hear leaves being tossed and the odd quiet call, but the gloom of the forest floor was akin to an ‘invisibility cloak’. Gradually our eyes adjusted and a Bicoloured Antbird resolved itself. We slowly found a few other birds and thankfully a couple did actually show well enough to photograph. The White-whiskered Puffbird proved..
MV Balmoral - Barbados to San Diego - 31st January to 19th February
Barbados to Cartegena
We left a snowy Britain behind (eventually – what with 5cm of snow having ground Manchester Airport to a halt!) As normal on a sectored speaker gig we arrived at our start point, this time Barbados and we were immediately ferried to our ship, on this occasion Fred. Olsen’s MV Balmoral that would, via the Panama Canal, take us eventually to our intended departure point of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. As it transpired our final stop would be San Diego, but more of that later. On route to the ship, via the taxi, I spied the usual suspects of Zenaida Doves and Carib Grackles. The regular formalities precluded any further wildlife searches before we set off westward later that evening.
The first full day would be a sea day and my first scheduled talk. I like to get a talk in early so that people can find me easily if they are interested in the wildlife. It didn’t take long to recognise a few familiar faces from previous cruises.
At one point the ship bisected a large group of terns, mostly Sooty Terns but the flock included a small number of Bridled Terns. They were escorted and harried by a number of Arctic Skuas, with one each of Pomarine, and Long tailed Skua for comparison. Magnificent Frigatebirds added further to the piratical menace.
We arrived at the Dutch Island of Bonaire early on the 2nd Feb. Adele and I went for a saunter locally prior to picking up a guided tour later that day.
Explorations of a scrubby area near some abandoned tennis club courts, yielded a variety of birds and lizards. Northern Scrub Flycatcher and Venezuelan Troupial were new to me, as were Bare–eyed Pigeon and White-tipped Dove.
Adele found a striking and confiding male Bonaire Whiptail lizard also known as a Blau-blau. It was dwarfed by the many Green Iguanas, most of which were basking, either on the shoreline rocks or, in the trees.
As we returned in the direction of the ship we spent some time enjoying the many ‘reef’ fish along the edge of the dock. These included Queen Parrotfish, Blue parrotfish, Trumpetfish, Scrawled File Fish and Palometa.
In the afternoon we took a tour with Susan Davis for a very enjoyable afternoon’s birding. We got superb views and photographs of many species. Green Herons, Reddish egrets and Tri-coloured Herons seemed common on the island along with a variety of waders, notably Semi-palmated Sandpipers and plovers and Lesser Yellowlegs. The Royal Terns were notably tolerant of close approach. A little judicious ‘pishing’ enticed the Brown-throated Parakeets to show as did the local race of the ‘Mangrove’ Yellow Warbler. The star attractions however were without doubt the 1000+ intensely pink, American Flamingos. There was a fair degree of display and body language on show despite the mid-afternoon lull. Susan knows her birds and is delightful company, she’s also a skilled photographer and understood just what’s required to get good images.
3rd of February was a sea day as we headed for Cartagena in Colombia. I was able to add a new tubenose to my ever-growing list in the form of Black-capped Petrel, with in excess of 25 recorded during the day. Audubon’s and Cory’s shearwater were also noted. Cetaceans wise is was something of a struggle, but late in the day we had a small pod of Sperm Whale blowing on the starboard side. We never actually saw their bodies as they were blissfully sleeping vertically in the water. I wonder if they do this to avoid getting sunburnt?
On the 4th Balmoral arrived in Cartagena and I joined forces with Hiroaki Takenouchi, an incredible pianist and mad keen butterfly specialist. Unfortunately Adele was confined to the ship as she can’t have a Yellow Fever inoculation. Hiro and I decided to hire a taxi for the day and head out to the Cartagena Botanical Garden "Guillermo Piñeres", even though we knew it was closed on Mondays, we also knew there was good habitat around it. This proved to be a very fortuitous decision. We found a lot of interesting birds including my first ever Rufous-tailed Jacamar - this is a bird akin to a cross between a Kingfisher and a Bee-eater.
We also found Bicoloured and Stripe-backed Wrens, Red-crowned Woodpecker and Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Boat-billed and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Crested Orependula, Black chested Jay and Cobalt-winged Parakeet.
We had the good fortune to run into the Director of the Botanical Garden, Santiago Madriñán, who not only served us delicious Lemonade in his own garden, but then arranged to give us access, for an hour or so, to the botanical garden itself. This good fortune brought us many rewards, Hiro barely moved from one small area heaving with butterflies, while I explored a portion of the grounds enjoying numerous birds like Streaked Saltator, Lance-tailed Manakin, Glaucous, Palm and Blue-Grey Tanagers. We also had some bonus mammals in the form of Red Howler Monkeys and Red-tailed Squirrel. Sadly, time is always the enemy on these days away from the ship and all too soon we had to get back in the taxi and return to the port. If ever you visit Cartagena then the Botanical Garden should be high on your list of sites to visit.
I'd like to thank the following organisations and people for enabling and enriching this experience. My agents at Peel Talent; Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines; the crew and staff of MV Balmoral, Susan Davis (Bonaire), Santiago Madriñán (Jardin Botanico Guillermo PiÑeres) , Hiroaki Takenouchi
All images used in this blog are genuinely from the tour. All copyright remains with the photographer. Click on images to enlarge to full size.
‘Spitsbergen’ – that name has played around in my mind since I was a youngster. The very idea of that frozen landscape captured my imagination and created a lifelong desire to go there. At the back end of June Adele and I were once again boarding the Fred. Olsen Black Watch, where I would be carrying out my job as Wildlife Speaker. This time we would be journeying 79 degrees North to the Svalbard archipelago.
As we steamed out of heatwave Liverpool the weather forecast looked perfect for our journey up through the Sea of Hebrides and the Minch.
I was up early to take in the delights of a flat calm sea. It wasn’t long before an explosion in the water declared the presence of a breaching Minke Whale. It was a fair distance from the ship but as it continued to breach I secured a sequence of images.
I then gave my first lecture on Whales and Dolphins and for once promised people that if they came up on deck I would show them a whale. I was true to my word.
More Minke Whales showed, as did a good variety of dolphins, including a mother and calf Risso’s Dolphin. However, the big moment would come as we approached the top end of the Sea of Hebrides just before the Isle of Skye. A disturbance ahead revealed a sizeable pod of dolphins and there, just beyond them, the Iconic dorsal fins of a pod of Orca.
The Short-beaked Common Dolphins, some 200 of them, were clearly agitated by the presence of the Orcas and were leaping and splashing everywhere. In contrast the Orcas appeared rather relaxed and spent considerable periods lazily at the surface. They were a group of 5. A mature bull and four females. My images suggest these Orcas may belong to the threatened ‘West Coast Community’ and the bull is known as Comet. Alternative opinions are welcome.
At times the waters of the Little Minch and the Minch itself were mirror calm. This aided our observations to such an extent that by the time the day was done we had recorded some 150+ Harbour Porpoise. A species easily hidden by even a slight sea, and I can’t recall ever seeing so many in a single day.
Early next morning I awoke to leaden skies, but the seas were still calm. We passed the northern tip of Shetland to our starboard side well before 7.00am and soon the birds like the auks, Kittiwakes and Bonxies began to thin out, leaving us once again with just the Fulmars and the Gannet’s for company. A mis-timed breakfast meant I missed the next Orca pod. This became something of a recurring theme as it happened again the following day whilst giving my second lecture.
We crossed the Arctic Circle close to 10pm on the evening of the 30th August and the following day we docked at Leknes on the Lofoten Islands. Adele and I strolled to the nearby village of Gravdal. As we approached the picturesque Church we were overflown by a White-tailed Eagle. An examination of the woods revealed a colony of Fieldfares some of whom were ‘poop’ bombing a nearby Magpie. The Wagtails here were ‘White’ with paler backs than their UK relatives.
That evening we continued our journey northward along the Norwegian fjord system heading for Tromso. Once again, we enjoyed sublime calm conditions this coincided well with a diversion into Trollsfjord. This narrow body of water was a great place for Black Guillemot and the waters were laden with jellyfish including the ‘Lion’s Mane’.
Under a clear sky at ‘midnight’ the sun bathed a golden glow across the still waters of the Norwegian fjord system and the mirror calm surface, disturbed only by the ripples of Black Watch’s bow, created a serene image.
The following morning we docked in Tromsø. We took the cable car at Fjellheisen to take in the Tromsø city viewpoint. It looked fabulous set among the lakes mountains and fjords on such a stunning day. It was here we recorded our only Ring ouzel of the trip. As I scanned over the city below I noticed a large lake ‘Prestvannet’ situated centrally. It looked interesting and I decided to pay it a visit. This proved to be a most profitable decision.
As I circumnavigated Prestvannet a encountered a superb selection of birds. Fieldfares and Common Redpolls were abundant in the surrounding woodlands, but it was the birds on the lake that really captured the attention. The dominant birds were the colony of Common Gulls. There were also tern colonies comprising both Arctic and Common Tern. The latter species at one if its most northerly outposts.
Ducks were present on the lake in good numbers, many broods of Mallard were present as was one brood of Tufted Duck, but I was particularly delighted to find several broods of Eurasian Wigeon being tended by their vigilant female parent. I also came across a drake of clear mixed genetic heritage, Mallard x Wigeon.
All this was very diverting but by far the outstanding feature of Pestvannet is the presence of 10+ pairs of Red Throated Diver. Resplendent in breeding garb and frequently yodelling their weird melancholic duets across the lakescape. It’s pretty difficult to get close to Red-throated Divers in the UK, especially in the breeding season, so it was a rare pleasure to spend so long in close company with them here in the centre of Tromsø. Without doubt one of the highlights of my trip and the light was fantastic for photography too.
We docked in Honningsvåg early next morning. The weather was again fabulous. so I decided to hike my way to the top of mount Storefjell that overlooks the town. On the edge of town I photographed a Redwing and on finding a route up the mountain immediately noticed Dewy Ringlets twirling across the low vegetation. Fresh Reindeer droppings gave me hope of finding them near the peak. My hope was misplaced but I could see a herd grazing atop a mountain across the bay. A strange weather phenomena then occurred, sea fog piled in with low cloud and an accompanying stiff wind picked up at low levels ruffling the sea to whitecaps down by the ship. I phoned Adele and persuaded her to stand on top of the ship so I could take a picture. I climbed down part way to find a good vantage point. There she was, persishingly cold, bundled up and multi-layered, whilst near the top I was in a T-Shirt, positively sweating. Weird weather indeed. The sea fog persisted throughout the rest of the day and largely obscured our view of North Cape as we steamed for Svalbard.