Sunday, June 9, 2019

Annotated Map of our Cruise Route

Thanks to the skill of Rob Gowan, we have an amazing map of our cruise route, with green dots representing our eBird checklists, and a few notes of special occurrences.  Enjoy!

Group Species List

As a group, we saw 235 species of birds.  So far.  Photos are still being scanned, and it is possible that there are birds that were missed for this list.  You will also see that there are a good number of rarities that have popped up on this list.  These were often seen by only one person, and where photographs were obtained, they have been added (or will be added) to the eBird checklists.  Thank goodness for the patience of eBird reviewers who have been helping us correctly identify a few species that we photographed but misidentified!  This list will be adjusted as we confirm (or refute) sightings.

Greater White-fronted Goose
Lesser White-fronted Goose
Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Mute Swan
Tundra Swan
Whooper Swan
Northern Shoveler
Falcated Duck
Eurasian Wigeon
American Wigeon
Eastern Spot-billed Duck
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal (Eurasian)
Green-winged Teal (American)
Common Pochard
Tufted Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Harlequin Duck
Surf Scoter
White-winged Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Barrow's Goldeneye
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Ring-necked Pheasant (Green)
Little Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Great Crested Grebe
Eared Grebe
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)
Oriental Turtle-Dove
White-bellied Pigeon
Rufous Hummingbird
House Swift
Eurasian Moorhen
Eurasian Coot
Ruddy-breasted Crake
Sandhill Crane
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Black Oystercatcher
Black-bellied Plover
Pacific Golden-plover
Semipalmated Plover
Gray-headed Lapwing
Lesser Sand-plover
Greater Sand-plover
Kentish Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Bristle-thighed Curlew
Eurasian Curlew
Ruddy Turnstone
Black Turnstone
Red-necked Stint
Least Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher
Common Snipe
Terek Sandpiper
Red-necked Phalarope
Red Phalarope
Common Sandpiper
Gray-tailed Tattler
Common Greenshank
Greater Yellowlegs
South Polar Skua
Pomarine Jaeger
Parasitic Jaeger
Long-tailed Jaeger
Common Murre
Thick-billed Murre
Pigeon Guillemot
Marbled Murrelet
Long-billed Murrelet 
Kittlitz's Murrelet
Ancient Murrelet
Japanese Murrelet
Parakeet Auklet
Least Auklet
Crested Auklet
Rhinoceros Auklet
Horned Puffin
Tufted Puffin
Black-legged Kittiwake
Sabine's Gull
Bonaparte's Gull
Black-headed Gull
Black-tailed Gull
Mew Gull
Herring Gull
Herring Gull (Vega)
Slaty-backed Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
Glaucous Gull
Little Tern
Common Tern
Arctic Tern
Arctic Loon
Pacific Loon
Common Loon
Yellow-billed Loon
Laysan Albatross
Black-footed Albatross
Short-tailed Albatross
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
Leach's Storm-Petrel
Tristam's Storm-Petrel
Least Storm-Petrel
Northern Fulmar
Stejneger's Petrel
Mottled Petrel
Bonin Petrel
Providence Petrel
Streaked Shearwater
Pink-footed Shearwater
Flesh-footed Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Short-tailed Shearwater
Brandt's Cormorant
Red-faced Cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Japanese Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Gray Heron
Great Egret
Intermediate Egret
Little Egret
Cattle Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Eastern Buzzard
Japanese Sparrowhawk
Black Kite
Bald Eagle
Steller's Sea-Eagle
Common Kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher
Ural Owl
Pygmy Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Japanese Woodpecker
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Northern Flicker
Peregrine Falcon
Ashy Minivet
Bull-headed Shrike
Eurasian Jay
Azure-winged Magpie
Oriental Magpie
Eurasian Magpie (Kamchatkan)
Black-billed Magpie
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher
Steller's Jay
Northwestern Crow
Carrion Crow
Large-billed Crow
Common Raven
Eurasian Skylark
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Barn Swallow
Asian House-Martin
Coal Tit
Varied Tit
Willow Tit
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Japanese Tit
Long-tailed Tit
Eurasian Nuthatch
Eurasian Wren
Pacific Wren
Brown Dipper
American Dipper
Brown-eared Bulbul
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Asian Stubtail
Japanese Bush Warbler
Eastern Crowned Warbler
Oriental Reed Warbler
Japanese White-eye
Red-billed Leiothrix
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Blue-and-white Flycatcher
Japanese Robin
Siberian Blue Robin
Narcissus Flycatcher
Blue Rock-Thrush
Brown-headed Thrush
Pale Thrush
Varied Thrush
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Japanese Thrush
Dusky Thrush
European Starling
Chestnut-cheeked Starling
White-cheeked Starling
Gray Wagtail
Japanese Wagtail
White Wagtail
Japanese Grosbeak
Oriental Greenfinch
Eurasian Siskin
Japanese Grosbeak
Lapland Longspur
Meadow Bunting
Rustic Bunting
Gray Bunting
Black-faced Bunting
Fox Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon)
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Pine Siskin
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Townsend's Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Crossing the North Pacific: Puk-uk vs. Norwegian Jewel

Since I've been lucky enough to do it both ways, some of my friends have asked for a "compare and contrast".  I travelled to Attu in May 2017.  Those adventures are also available for your perusal on this blog site. The Norwegian Jewel trip crossed from east to west in 2019. 


Norwegian Jewel

Okay, let's be honest.  Comparing the vessels is the greatest case of apples and oranges I've come across.  The Puk-uk carried 13 of us in 2017; the Norwegian Jewel, about 3000, but the group I was travelling with was just a little larger than aboard the Puk-uk at 16 people.

Norwegian Jewel wins for comfort, not just from a sea-sickness level, but in terms of accommodation.  On both vessels, my room did not have a functioning window, but the beds on the Jewel were amazing.  If I had been seasick on this latest crossing, I would have been able to do it in style with a bathroom in my cabin.
Shot taken from my bunk on the Puk-uk.  Four of us in this cabin.  Those cubbies were our only storage, and there was only enough room for two people to stand in the cabin at once.
Norwegian Jewel inside cabin. Not much room for hanging out, but we didn't spend much time there.  Room was cleaned daily with new towels and bedding as requested.  Our space was in the middle, low in the ship. Perfect for dealing with seasickness, but it didn't happen.

Bathroom with full shower.  
To be fair, it didn't seem that we had weather as rough as we did on the Puk-uk.  It's not clear to me how much of that was due to the size of the seas and how much due to the size of the vessel.

The Jewel traveled at about 20 knots.  We were happy when the Puk-uk hit 6 knots, and would slow down or hang out in an area if we wanted more time with the birds.  The Jewel just kept going regardless of how much we might have wanted another chance with a bird.

The Food: The meals on the Puk-uk were lovingly prepared by cook extraordinaire, Nicole. It was unbelievable how well she was able to do on the bobbing cork.  There were usually a couple of selections, and always enough for everyone.  There were many more choices on the Jewel, and a lot more food, more than any of us probably needed.  I didn't try out the fancier restaurants, but was always able to find something for my tastes.  
Nicole working her magic in the Puk-uk galley.
The seating was more spacious, and the menu more varied, but at times it was tough to find enough table space for those of us who wanted to eat together.

The Guides: There was no naturalist on board the Jewel, and we didn't have an experienced seabirder with us on the cruise.  Aboard the Puk-uk, we had the amazing skill and experience of John Puschock and Neil Hayward, as well as that of several of the participants. They were able to spot rarities, like Red-legged Kittiwake, Mottled Petrel, and others, while most odd birds were not detected by us aboard the Jewel. Whether on shore or at sea, the Puk-uk wins this aspect hands down.
John Puschock spotting birds for us on one of our calmest days on the Puk-uk.

Neil Hayward scouting Attu.
 The Birds:  I was surprised at some of the differences between the two trips, especially for the seabirds. Perhaps because the Puk-uk is a repurposed fishing boat, the birds literally came to us. While we saw Short-tailed Shearwaters from both vessels, they sat on the water near the Puk-uk, which stopped so we could enjoy them, while they were fly-bys on the Norwegian Jewel.
Albatrosses from the Puk-uk

Short-tailed Albatross from the Norwegian Jewel

The routes were quite different, and with the Puk-uk, we got to do it twice--once in each direction.  The Puk-uk was usually within sight of the Aleutians, while sight of land was uncommon from the Jewel. This put the Puk-uk in position for several birding spectacles, especially of the small alcids, while we saw most of them from a great distance, and struggled to identify them, from the Jewel. Gulls were common around the Puk-uk, but only around the Jewel when we were close to port. The species that overlapped the most was Northern Fulmar, which were abundant on both trips.
Whiskered Auklets from the Puk-uk, by Neil Hayward

We also had wonderful spectacles from the Jewel, the likes of which I may never see again, but the areas where they occurred did not overlap with the area covered by the Puk-uk.
Short-tailed Shearwaters from the Norwegian Jewel

The birds of Japan were beautiful, and while not as abundant as I might have hoped, relatively easy to see. The birds of Attu were much more challenging, save for a couple of species.  When  you got your eyes on something special, you really felt like you'd earned it. And if it is the sort of thing that matters to you, all of the birds seen from the Puk-uk and on the Aleutians were in the ABA area.
Siberian Blue Robin in Karuizawa, Japan

Gray-crowned Rosy Finch on Adak

The People: Living with the same 12 others 24/7 for two weeks about a  72 ft boat brought many of us closer, and we've stayed in contact since Attu, but also made disagreements and friction especially difficult. Most of us did not know each other before the trip, although a few people had met before.  There was no escape or alone time for most of us.  It was a lot of fun to be a part of Yve Morrell's very successful Big Year.
The gang hiking Gilbert Ridge on Attu

Aboard the Jewel, it was possible to not see some of our group of 16 for a couple of days. Everyone had their own schedule for getting up, dining, birding, doing cruise ship stuff, and going to bed.  Our paths crossed frequently, and there was a decided preference for eating and birding as a group, but if anyone wanted some space, there was plenty to be had. I knew all but one in our group at least a little when we started, but we definitely all got to know each other a lot better over the duration of the trip. Not as personally as with those on the Puk-uk, though.
Birding was considerably less energetic aboard the Norwegian Jewel.

Even the hiking was more "civilized".
The Costs: The Norwegian Jewel trip was a repositioning cruise, and was ridiculously inexpensive. It was possible to do the cruise portion for well under $100 a day. Of course, you could spend more, if you wanted to upgrade.  Add to the cruise costs additional expenses to get to the departure port (Yokohama) and home from the arrival port (Vancouver, BC), and you may well double your price, especially if you want to spend some time in Japan before you get on the ship.

Attu isn't cheap, and again you have additional costs for travel to and from Adak, Alaska.  Demand for this trip varies by year, and sometimes it's fully booked well in advance. Alaska Airlines points can cut the travel costs, so sign up for an account now if you are even thinking of doing this. If you have flexibility to go on short notice and there is a late cancellation or two, deals may be available. There is some urgency, though, as there is no guarantee that these trips will continue indefinitely.

The Adventure: The Jewel trip took me to Asia for the first time, and exposed me to culture I had never experienced. Dealing with unfamiliar transportation systems, language barriers, and foreign etiquette posed challenges for me. However, the time on the ship and at many of the ports was decidedly North American and therefore quite comfortably familiar.  In fact, I'd say that comfort was the biggest thing that separated the two trips.

Attu was hard, but incredibly satisfying.  Whether it was hiking, biking, looking for birds, or travelling the seas, nothing could be described as easy. We all pushed ourselves to our limits, (well, maybe not the fittest of the group, Greg and Monica), but that left us feeling good about what we'd been able to do.  We all felt the connection with Attu birders that had gone before us, and we had a great appreciation for the opportunity to be a part of the unique history of this place.

The Upshot:  If you want comfort, are okay with crowds and lineups, don't mind viewing your seabirds mostly at a distance, and don't get incredibly frustrated by not being able to identify all the birds you get your eyes on, you would probably prefer the cruise.  If you like options like restaurant dining, shopping, and entertainment, you'll definitely be happier on a cruise. You may still get seasick, so go prepared. We had exceptional weather, but there were still some who felt queasy.

If you want to get up-close and personal with the seabirds, to take the time necessary to get good looks and maybe good photos, and to do something that thousands of others are not, there is nothing like a trip to Attu. If the expertise of experienced guides is a plus for you, and you'd rather be with a small group than a city-full of people on a big ship, the Puk-uk or another expedition-type trip would be more up your alley.  Don't even think about it, though, if you aren't in reasonable shape and aren't prepared to spend almost all daylight hours actually out birding.

I fully enjoyed both these trips, and could definitely have my arm twisted ($$$ permitting) to do either of them again!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Last Day at Sea and Home for a Rest!

May 19 Last day at sea  

When we started this trip, we had no idea what to expect.  With the exception of a decade old trip report from some British guides, and very few eBird reports, it was all pretty much a crap shoot.  We didn’t know if we’d get spectacles or spectacularly slow days.  It turns out we got a bit of both.  As mentioned earlier, the seas have been remarkably calm and today was another glassy ocean.  We started too early, as for the third time this trip, the ship’s newsletter got sunrise wrong.  Note to future travelers: check sunrise times yourself!  We had to put the clocks ahead one last time, so getting up an hour early was a special kind of slap in the face.

Like yesterday, the birds were few, but now crossing Hecate Strait, they were also mostly distant.  In some ways, it felt like our first day where people were calling out “bird”, but had no confidence in offering an ID.  We saw our last Black-footed Albatross of the trip, then our last Tufted Puffins. Jim, Jeannie, Mary and I took the first shift, but after two hours, when others came to the deck, we headed inside for tea and an early breakfast. Soon, people were doing other things, enjoying the scenery, watching for whales and porpoises, but not counting birds anymore.
Black-footed Albatross
A few days ago, we offered the cruise director the opportunity to have us do a presentation on some of the birds that we’d seen along the way.  He suggested that he could put them up on the big screen in the atrium of the ship, where one of the most popular meeting spaces and guest services reside.  This morning, about 40 of our photos were on display for several hours.  This prompted a number of people to actually stop and talk to us while we were out not counting birds this morning.

As we approached the north end of Vancouver Island, I got my first view of the windmills near Cape Scott.  I bet there are a lot of people who are completely unaware that we even have windmills on the island.
Nahwitti Wind Farm

We thought as we got to the confines of the inside passage through the island between the mainland and Vancouver Island, things might pick up, but the glassy state of the water kept most birds on the surface and well away from our optics.  If I had given it some careful thought, I would have realized that a Vancouver Island spectacle was unlikely.  Most of our winter resident seabirds headed north long before we got there. A pilot joined us for the tricky route through Johnstone Strait and the Seymour Narrows.

One bright spot was a planned “rendezvous” with lightkeeper Ivan Dubinsky at Scarlett Point on Balaclava Island. Ivan tracks and photographs many of the fishing boats and cruise ships that pass by his station, and we were definitely on his radar.  As we approached, we could see him on the helipad, camera in hand, to capture us as we went by.  We waved, but he wasn’t able to see that in his binoculars.  (I had cell service for some of the passage, so we were texting.)  When he posted the photos on Facebook, you could see us if you look REALLY hard. We’re above the “wegion” in Norwegian Jewel.
Scarlett Point on Balaclava Island. You can see Ivan on the helipad if you look really closely.
And you can see us above "Norwegian" in this photo taken by Ivan.
I set out to get the blog writing done, but didn't want to miss the scenery.  I found a shady place on the sundeck that allowed me to appreciate the beauty of the islands and see some Dall's Porpoises hanging out along the side of the ship. 

Dall's Porpoises 


We live in such a beautiful place.  I am sure that the people who had never seen the coastal forests were blown away as we wound our way through the islands.  I wonder how they felt about the clearcut scars?

Then I found something I didn't expect. Late in the day, I’d gone up to the top deck to get a picture as we passed the Sayward area.  There, on the last day of the trip, I met a birder from Vancouver.  She’d been getting up early every morning, looking from birds from her balcony, and didn’t even realize our group existed. That was too bad, as she certainly would have been welcome to join us. If I do this again, I will definitely try to set up a birder meet and greet early in the trip.

Cape Mudge on Quadra Island

Mittlenatch Island
The group kind of ungrouped today.  With few birds to see, and the sea still glassy all day long, people set about doing last minute things onboard like last dip in the pool, last dessert with lunch, early dinner, late dinner, packing and of course, naps.  There were a few birds here and there, and maybe a list or two made, but I don’t think any of us are likely to be on the deck at dawn.  We disembark at 7:30 am or so, and should be on the 11 am ferry.  It’s been more fantastic than most of us imagined, but it will be good to be home.
Rob adopting a more relaxed way to bird the home stretch

Thanks to everyone who shared this amazing voyage.  eBird lists and some tips for future trips will be posted to close out this adventure.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Ketchikan - last port before Vancouver

May 18 Ketchikan
Mary getting all the birds!

It was another slow morning on the deck, but a little better than yesterday.  We got good looks at Pomerine Jaegers and a few other species, but we are definitely in the doldrums of the trip.  That said, we managed three checklists before breakfast. 

En route to Ketchikan

Boats on the shore suggest the seas aren't always quite as calm as they were for us.
As we passed the airport along the waterfront, the low tide allowed us to switch from birds to marine invertebrates, as Marilyn started calling out sea stars she was seeing among the rocks. We had a very rare sighting of birders on shore, who I have tentatively identified as Ben Limle (right) and Steve Heinl (left) thanks to the human field guides, eBird (for range) and Facebook (for photos).
Rare birder sighting!

If ever a town was geared to the cruise ship business, it is Ketchikan.  There is room for at least two ships, and we were the second to arrive on Saturday.  Apparently, they can handle up to six ships a day during the season! Every business along the first few streets is tourist-oriented, and the prices on some of the clothing items were temptingly reasonable.  You couldn’t walk more than a few feet without another offering of goods or services aimed smack-dab at the cruise ship passengers.  It’s also a favourite stop for the crew, and many were flooding out of the ship at the first opportunity to head to Wal-mart for some more reasonably priced snacks and personal items.  Of course, we never saw Wal-mart or really much of the “real” community in Ketchikan.  As with some of the other cruise ship ports, the tourist area is kept well away from the residential community.  It’s kind of like the circus coming to town, except the infrastructure is all there and it’s only the customers that move from place to place.

Tourist strip

Cherry blossoms in Ketchikan

Mosaic Octopus

Mosaic Gooseneck Barnacles

There’s a nice place to stroll along a small river that runs through the town.  It looked perfect for a dipper as I caught up with Jim and Jeannie after returning to the ship for an extra camera battery.  Sure enough, they had one in sight.  A little farther along, I found a recently fledged American Dipper begging for food from a nearby parent, who delivered many mouthfuls of chubby grubs. (i have hundreds more pictures of these birds if these don't satisfy you.)

Adult American Dipper.  Is that a nest?
Begging baby dipper

It worked!

I managed to get back on the ship without buying anything, and tended to blog writing and a few other things that may or may not have included a nap in the afternoon. After dinner, we got together for a bit of dessert and a photo.
Happy travellers!

A few days before our arrival, there had been a terrible accident involving the mid-air crash of two planes carrying tourists from a Princess cruise ship. Six people had died, including a local pilot.  Miraculously, 10 survived, although some are still hospitalized. As we left Ketchikan, the flightseeing community and other pilots did a flypast of the community to honour their lost friend.  On the water below, a Humpback whale paralleled our ship, breaching at least five times before disappearing out of sight.  In the air and on the water, it seemed a fitting tribute.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Icy Strait Point

May 17 Hoonah!  Icy Strait Point

On a map, it’s a pretty short trip between Juneau and Icy Strait Point, but on a cruise ship, it takes a lot longer. Instead of going the shortest route, the ship headed south, puttered around an island and arrived at the dock after daybreak. I suppose there may be nautical reasons that's necessary, but it seemed like the ship was just biding its time.  Unlike the entry to Juneau, the early morning birding was very light with the first hour yielding just one Marbled Murrelet and two gull “spuh”.  Mary and I were the troopers, but even we didn’t bother to do a second hour.  I headed for tea, and Mary went for a pre-breakfast nap, creating a whole new concept for the day.   Rob showed up just as we were about to give up, and said he’d put in 20 minutes or so to see if things had changed.  The hadn’t. At least the scenery was beautiful.

Early morning en route to Icy Strait Point

We have been incredibly lucky with the weather on this trip.  There has been very little wind or rain, and the seas have been from glass calm to mild all the way across from Russia.  As any pelagic birder will tell you, though, calm seas can make for boring birding, and we were there today.

Onshore, things were a little more interesting.  Icy Strait Point is a small First Nations community of about 800 people.  They have formed a corporation that works with the cruise ship to bring what looks like a pretty lucrative suite of businesses to the area.  In addition to the numerous gift shops and food outlets at the dock site, there were zip line rides, whale watching tours, fishing trips and a paid shuttle to town. Most of us decided to just putter around a bit.  I can imagine the impact of 3000 people in town on cruise ship days!
The dock at Icy Strait Point was one of the nicest we came across on this trip.

Dock crew tying up the ship

Shoreline walkway. Nice, but a long way to town!
The birding community is a wonderful thing. In this tiny community in the middle of nowhere, Alaska, I had a contact that I had met through birding festivals.  I sent Erin a text and within minutes, I had some suggestions for those of us who had not signed up for formal tours.  There was a light drizzle, but nothing that would keep Vancouver Island birders inside. We wandered towards the town along a seaside walkway where we’d earlier seen a humpback lolling around.  Along the way were Varied Thrushes, Wilson’s Warblers, and a handful of other species.  A highlight was watching a Belted Kingfisher building a nest cavity in a cliff face high above the road.  There were a few Pigeon Guillemots calling from the water, and Bald Eagles putting in the obligatory appearance. By the time we got halfway to town, though, we all realized that we didn’t really want to walk all the way in and back to the dock again, so we sauntered back to the dock area/visitor center.  There was a short nature trail, where we added a few more species to the day list, including a singing Hermit Thrush.

An early departure had us back on the route to Ketchikan, our last land stop before Vancouver.
I think the west coast of North America is turning out to be a bit of an anticlimactic end to the trip.  None of us are expecting to see new species, but we are kind of hoping for another spectacle.  There are possibilities ahead.