Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Feb 03 2015

In The Corvid Niche

Pearly-eyed thrasher (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
As I mentioned yesterday, there are no corvids in the Virgin Islands.  In fact there are no crows, jays or ravens in Puerto Rico and the Lesser Antilles but there is a bird who fills their niche.

The pearly-eyed thrasher is the size and shape of a normal thrasher but he’s not a skulker like the brown and Crissal thrashers of North America.  Instead he acts like a blue jay: bold, brash, adaptable and inquisitive.  Conspicuous in flight, he lands with a thud and hop-turns on his perch.  He calls in public and his youngsters beg loudly.

Like corvids, the pearly-eyed thrasher is omnivorous and opportunistic.  He eats fruit, insects and vertebrates including eggs, nestlings, lizards, land crabs and tree frogs.  He’s even earned a reputation for “stealing” because he’s willing to wait and swoop in when humans turn their backs at meal times.  The thrasher below was photographed at a restaurant in the British Virgin Islands “just waiting for the waitress to leave the area so he could enjoy the remains of breakfast left on the tables.”

Pearly-eyed thrasher (from Wikimedia Commons)

And like any corvid, he’s willing to peck an animal he thinks he can kill.

Last Friday during the Francis Bay bird walk our National Park Service guide, Laurel, looked around a corner and suddenly called, “Thrashie! Thrashie! He’s pecking a baby iguana!”  She rushed to the iguana’s rescue and the thrasher flew up to watch his prey.

Laurel showed us the green iguana which was about the same size as the thrasher.

Baby iguana just rescued from a pearly-eyed thrasher attack (photo by Kate St. John)

Here the iguana is a blur as it tries to get out of her hand.

Baby iguana, moving in hand (photo by Kate St. John)

Laurel hid the iguana among green leaves and we moved on to watch the black-necked stilts, leaving the pearly-eyed thrasher behind.

Who knows what happened next.

 

(Pearly-eyed thraser photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.
Iguana photos by Kate St. John
)

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Feb 02 2015

A Very Different Place

Published by under Travel

Dawn at Concordia, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

Dawn at Concordia, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

When I visited St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands with Keystone Trails Association last week, I expected it to be different from Pittsburgh but I was surprised at how different it is from North America’s Atlantic coast.

The Virgin Islands are mountainous like Acadia National Park or the Canadian Maritimes, but they’re steeper and their peaks are sharp because they were never scraped by glaciers.

The view from Drunk Bay, a rocky beach atSt. John, USVI (photo by Kate St. John)

The view from Drunk Bay, a rocky beach at St. John, USVI (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s how steep it was: I climbed 135 steps from our Concordia Eco-Resort cabin to the upper parking area where this photo was taken. By Day Two the drivers in our group always fetched the cars and picked us up at the flat end of the boardwalk below.  Whew!

Steps at Concordia Eco Resort above Drunk Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

Steps at Concordia Eco Resort above Drunk Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

The climate is both dry and humid with a daily high of 81 degrees F in late January.  The tops of the mountains are moist and forested.  The lower elevations resemble southern California with cacti and succulent plants.  Here’s a view at Salt Pond where the water is saltier than the ocean.

Salt Pond Trail, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

At Salt Pond Trail, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

81 degrees F sounds comfortable but the dewpoint is always 70+ degrees so it felt hot as soon as the sun came up.  Because I don’t like heat, my favorite time of day was dawn and my favorite things were:

  • The wind.  Unlike North America’s prevailing west wind, the Virgin Islands have a strong east wind — the Trade Winds that brought Europeans to the West Indies.
  • The sound of the breakers at Drunk Bay.  Our cabin was perched high above boulder-strewn Drunk Bay where the sound of the breakers lulled me to sleep.
  • The views.  The islands are spectacularly beautiful with steep green mountain peaks and turquoise water.  My photos don’t do it justice.

And there are beautiful white sand beaches.  Trunk Bay, below, is rated one of the top 10 beaches in the world.

Turquoise water at Trunk Bay beach, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

Turquoise water at Trunk Bay beach, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

Most amazing of all were these differences in bird life. At St. John I found …

  • No flying flocks.  I was amazed not to see any flocks in flight.
  • No gulls at all.  According to a local birder, the laughing gulls return in April but that’s about it.
  • Few fishing birds.  Magnificent frigatebirds were most numerous (I saw five at once, soaring up from their roost), followed by royal terns (three) and brown pelicans (two).
  • Few shorebirds. Except for resident black-necked stilts at Francis Bay there were only single shorebirds at most locations.
  • No corvids.  No ravens, no crows, no jays.
  • No vultures.  They sorely needed vultures but this niche seemed to be filled by rats, feral cats and mongooses all of whom were imported to the island.
  • Few birds of prey.  I saw one red-tailed hawk and a few American kestrels.

Eventually this all made sense.  The lack of fishing birds matched the lack of fishing boats.  I suppose there are few catchable fish at St. John. Perhaps the coral reefs protect them.

If you like heat and sun and warm Caribbean water you will love St. John, USVI.  It’s a very different place from Pennsylvania.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Feb 01 2015

A Saltwater Pintail

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

White-cheeked pintail at St. Thomas, USVI (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike their northern cousins, white-cheeked pintails (Anas bahamensis) prefer to feed in salty or brackish water.

They live in the West Indies, South America and the Galapagos and they don’t migrate. The pintails I’ve seen at St. John are year-round residents.

Why leave when you live in a saltwater paradise?

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Jan 31 2015

Not A Mourning Dove

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Zenaida Dove (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

Zenaida doves (Zenaida aurita) are near matches for mourning doves except they’re slightly smaller and darker, have shorter more rounded tails, and white trailing edges on their wings.  They live on Caribbean islands, including Cuba.  They are very rare in Florida (*).

These field marks would make for a subtle and complicated identification except that mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) don’t live at St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands — at least not in the southeast corner where I’m staying.

Interestingly, they sound just like morning doves so you could be fooled by their song.

 

(photo by Dick Daniels on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

(*) See Vincent Lucas’ comment below on Zenaida doves in Florida.

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Jan 30 2015

Colorfast

Published by under Travel

Green-throated Carib (photo by Marc AuMarc via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Green-throated Carib (photo by Marc AuMarc via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

This bird is colorful and he is fast.

Compared to ruby-throated hummingbirds the green-throated Carib (Eulampis holosericeus) is a surprise at St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.

He’s larger than any ruby-throat and has a bulky build (for a hummingbird), a long broad tail, and a long decurved bill.  Females have even longer, more decurved bills but duller plumage.

As his name suggests the “Carib” lives in the Caribbean, never leaving the arc of islands from eastern Puerto Rico to Grenada.  Fortunately his preferred habitat includes heavily degraded former forest, gardens and urban parks, all of which are easy to find in the Lesser Antilles, especially at the vacation resorts.

I didn’t see this hummer while he waited on his perch but when he zoomed in to sip some nectar … like this …

… he was fast!

Beautiful and quick, the green-throated Carib’s colors are fast (the colors don’t run).

 

 

(photo by Marc AuMarc via Flickr, Creative Commons license.  Click on the image to see the original photo and Marc AuMarc’s Flickr site)

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Jan 29 2015

Finch Or Tanager?

Published by under Travel

Lesser Antillean bullfinch at St John, USVI (photo by Dick Daniels from Wikimedia Commons)

When English-speaking settlers first saw the North American robin they named it for a bird they knew in Europe.  This happened despite the fact that the two robins are unrelated.  The European robin is an Old World flycatcher (Muscicapidae).  The American robin is a Thrush (Turdidae).

A similar confusion occurred with the Lesser Antillean bullfinch (Loxigilla noctis).

Native to the arc of islands from Puerto Rico to South America, the beak on this bird resembles that of the Eurasian bullfinch and so he was named.  But the Eurasian bullfinch is a True Finch (Fringillidae).  The Lesser Antillean bullfinch is a Tanager (Thraupidae).

And now the Tanager family is in flux.  Our familiar tanagers (scarlet, summer and western) have been moved to the Cardinal family (Cardinalidae) while euphonias and chlorophonias left Tanagers to become True Finches.

This bird remains a Tanager but he was joined by a very famous set of birds: Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos.

I’ve already seen and heard this bird at St. John and guess what… His song resembles a northern cardinal’s.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons taken at St. John, US Virgin Islands by Dick Daniels. Click on the image to see the original)

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Jan 28 2015

Incredible Site Fidelity

Published by under Migration,Travel

Whimbrel ready for release in migration tracking study (photo by Barry Truitt, courtesy Center for Conservation Biology via William&Mary news)

Whimbrel ready about to be released for migration tracking study (photo by Barry Truitt, courtesy the Center for Conservation Biology)

The U.S. Virgin Islands are so beautiful it’s no wonder people come here every winter, year after year.  Some birds do too, and they show incredible site fidelity even in their choice of rest stops along the way.

Whimbrels are large shorebirds with long decurved bills who breed on the marshy tundra of Alaska, Northwest Canada and Hudson Bay.(*)  Their breeding season is short so they make 14,000 mile annual migrations to spend most of the year in Brazil or the Caribbean.  On migration they often use the same favored stopovers on the U.S. coast.  That’s how one particular whimbrel nicknamed Hope encountered biologists from William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) in May 2009.

Since 2007 CCB had been tracking shorebird migration by fitting whimbrels with satellite backpacks at their staging areas on the Delmarva peninsula.  The satellite data, mapped by CCB and The Nature Conservancy, provided astonishing results.  For instance, from 2009 to 2011 Hope traveled faithfully from the Mackenzie River Delta to Great Pond at St.Croix, nearly always stopping at Delmarva along the way.

Migration journeys of Hope the Whimbrel, 2009 to 2011 (map from Center for Conservation Biology and The Nature Conservancy, courtesy Center for Conservation Biology)

Migration journeys of Hope the Whimbrel, 2009 to 2011 (map courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)

Her amazing migration made news at Audubon Magazine and EarthSky.org, and became a conservation story in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In 2012 shortly after returning to St. Croix, Hope’s satellite antenna broke, rendering the tracking unit useless.  Rather than replace the unit, CCB decided to remove it and put colorful tags on her legs so that local birders could recognize her.  Here, Fletcher Smith holds her one last time before releasing her at Great Pond.

Fletcher Smith about to release Hope in St. Croix after removing her damaged satellite backpack, 2012 (photo courtesy the Center for Conservation Biology)

Fletcher Smith about to release Hope in St. Croix after removing her damaged satellite backpack, 2012 (photo courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)

 

Hope retired from the tracking program but she didn’t stop her normal life.  True to her habits, she still makes her faithful journey. In August 2013 she was photographed at St. Croix having completed her first round trip to Canada without the backpack.  Here she is sporting her yellow and green leg tags at Great Pond.  She’s there this winter, too.

Hope returns to Great Pond at St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, August 2013 (photo from the Center for Conservation Biology)

Hope returns to Great Pond at St. Croix, August 2013 (photo courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)

We humans may visit the same places every year but for truly incredible site fidelity follow a whimbrel.

Read more about CCB’s Center for Conservation Biology shorebird tracking program and watch cool videos of the Mackenzie Delta and a whimbrel with chick here at the Center for Conservation Biology.

 

(photos and map courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)

And … two more messages:

1. Though I visited St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands I did not go to St. Croix to see “Hope.”  St. Croix is 43 miles south of St. John and there is no longer any ferry service. Like a whimbrel, you have to fly.

2. (*) These breeding and migration ranges refer to the Atlantic-migration whimbrels of North America.  Whimbrels have a worldwide distribution.

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Jan 27 2015

How Brown Is A Booby?

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Juvenile brown booby in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When a brown booby shows up in the northeastern U.S. it’s usually late in the year (August to December) and the bird is usually quite brown.  That’s because juvenile birds like this one are more prone to wandering from their tropical ocean homes than are their parents.

Having never seen a brown booby (Sula leucogaster) until this week at St. John, USVI my exposure was limited to a few photos of juvenile birds from Pennsylvania rare bird alerts.  For years I assumed that brown boobies were 100% brown.  Not!

Adults are crisp brown-and-white and even have white faces that acquire color in the breeding season.

Here’s a typical adult brown booby.  Quite a different-looking bird!

Adult brown booby in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Since I’m used to seabirds in Maine I think it’s very cool that brown boobies so closely resemble northern gannets (Morus bassanus) in size, shape, and plunge-dive feeding strategy.

Northern Gannet (photo by Chuck Tague)

Fortunately they’re brown enough that you don’t misidentify them as gannets when you see them on the northern ocean.

 

Note: Brown boobies are very common tropical ocean birds but their population is declining in the Caribbean because of encroachment and invasive mammals on their nesting islands.  They made the State Of The Birds Watch List in 2014 because they’ve declined so much.

(brown booby photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.  Northern gannet photo by Chuck Tague)

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Jan 26 2015

First Bird On The Agenda

Banaquits arguing in Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

The first bird on my St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands agenda is the bananaquit. For me, it’s a Life Bird so I’m excited to see one.  I fear it will soon become “ho hum,” though, because it’s so common on the island.

The bananaquit (Coereba flaveola) is a small, non-migratory bird — only the size of a black and white warbler — but it moves much faster than the warbler.  Can you say “hyper-active?”

Its beak is curved because it eats nectar for a living just like other tropical nectar-eaters: hummingbirds, sunbirds and honeycreepers.

Ornithologists have tentatively placed the bananaquit in the Tanager family but its family relations are often disputed.   Scientists argue about where to place this bird; these two argue about where to place themselves.

They were photographed at Campo Limpo Paulista, Brazil by Leon Bojarczuk.

 

(photo by Leon Bojarczuk via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Jan 25 2015

Visiting Warblers At Their Winter Home

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Black and white warbler (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Today I’m flying to a place that shares my name for a week of hiking with the Keystone Trails Association and Treks & Trails International.

When I heard about the trip last year I thought, How could I not visit St John in the U.S. Virgin Islands?  My husband wasn’t interested (he’d had obligations in Pittsburgh and now he can’t travel because of his concussion) but I knew this would be a great opportunity to visit warblers at their winter home.

Many warblers go to Central and South America for the winter but some stay in the Caribbean.  The most common ones at St. John are: yellow warbler, northern parula, blackpoll warbler, black and white warbler (above), American redstart and northern waterthrush.

I expect to see this bird in the coming week … and many birds I’ve never seen before.

Stay tuned.  :)

 

p.s. Internet access is spotty at St. John so I’ve written and pre-scheduled this week’s blogs ahead of time.  I might not post/respond to your comments this week but I’ll be very active online next weekend!

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

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