Nine hours and fifty minutes at sea in a small (washroomless) boat – just me and the guys, twelve guys, including the “captain”. What could be more fun than that?
It was all the result of self-indulgence, really. I always want more.
My friend and I had booked a one-week trip to the Azores hoping to take in the scenery and the wildlife of that beautiful, mid-Atlantic archipelago. I was not satisfied with that and decided to book another week on my own.
I turned to Google, typed in “Azores Birding Tour” along with the dates of the week preceding the tour I had already booked. Hey! Presto! Up popped “Archipelago Choice: Pelagic Birds of the Azores”. That sounded good.
All right, so I had to look up “pelagic”. It means “sea”.
Okay, I like boats. I booked the trip.
I arrived in Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel lsland on a Saturday in late August and spent the day wandering through the town and along the harbour taking pictures of a House Sparrow (of course) as well as Common Terns, Black-headed Gulls and Azorean Atlantic Yellow-legged Gulls.
At 7:30 the next morning I met two of my fellow travelers in the lobby of the hotel as well as a singularly energetic and experienced birding guide named Gerby. Gerby was leading us for just the first day. He drove us up into the spectacular volcanic hills at the east end of Sao Miguel. We were on a quest to see the rare and endangered Azores Bullfinch or Priolo, a bird that exists only in this one area of the world and which attracts birders from every country.
Along the way we encountered an Azorean Buzzard, a Grey Heron, a Eurasian Curlew and an Azorean Goldcrest and were dazzled by the beauty of the feathery forests of Japanese Balsam, yellow Ginger Lilies and Blue Hydrangeas.
We stopped and hiked along a narrow dirt road and then we were rewarded by the sight of a juvenile Priolo and, shortly after that, the adult bird. Wow! A successful first day.
Day two began with an early morning flight to the island of Terceira where my two companions (excellent birders) and I met the other nine people booked on our trip: all men, all friends, all younger than l, all highly educated, all able to speak from two to five languages, all top-ranked birders of the Western Palearctic ecozone, all armed with very expensive binoculars and cameras the size of canons, and all staring at me.
lntroductions over, it wasn’t long before a number of the men began asking: “How was it that you came to sign up for this trip?” Funnily enough, I was asking myself the same question. I also asked one of them whether it wasn’t strange that no women were included in their birding trips. The answer was, “Not at all.”
We got into a van and drove to a large sea marsh and all the tripods and scopes went up. The men started naming the many species of wading birds that were immediately in their sights.
It was all a blur to me, but I sensed very quickly that I couldn’t keep asking what they saw and where they saw it. This was a serious business for them. I kept quiet and took what pictures I could of the distant birds with my woefully inadequate camera, hoping to identify the species later.
At the end of the day, we took a ferry to the island of Graciosa, the main focus of the trip. The itinerary that I had received said there would be seven sea outings of about 3 and 1/2 hours each over the next 3 and 1/2 days. My companions were having none of that. We were to go 34 km out to sea to a relatively shallow area called Fortune Bank where Storm Petrels and Shearwaters were to be found. lf we had to go out and back twice each day, that would waste hours of precious viewing time; therefore we would stay out all day.
Right ! I now had the measure of these men. Self-reliance and self-denial were called for.
This was a challenge I had to meet and the rules I set for myself were clear:
1) Don’t be late for anything,
2! Don’t ask too many questions,
3) Don’t expect help getting into or out of the boat,
4) Don’t expect anyone to handle your gear,
5) Don’t get seasick,
5) Don’t drink anything between 9 pm one day and 5 pm the next.
And off we went on three consecutive hot, sunny days – nine-hour plus days. We saw whales and dolphins and, oh yes, birds, birds that were lured to us by the fishy smell of “chum”, a revolting mixture of fish guts, cod liver oil and bread,, ladled onto the sea by the most dedicated of our number. There were Cory’s Shearwaters by the thousands, occasional great Shearwaters, a rare Longtailed Skua and Storm Petrels, lots and lots of Storm Petrels. Little did I know that the small dark Storm Petrels are divided into many different species and it was the mission of my companions to seek the rarest of them. The gentlemen could spot these tiny birds a quarter of a mile away and could name the exact species by the location of the smallest of white markings or the forking of the tail feathers. Their skill was totally amazing. On the two occasions when they spotted a very rare species they were overjoyed. High fives all-around.
The fourth day at sea, a half day, was cancelled due to very high waves and my companions were much put out about it. They almost had to be forced to spend the time taking a tour of the beautiful island with its calderas, look-out points and pretty villages. I managed to enjoy myself despite their gloom. I had completed my challenge. I had triumphed.
We said our goodbyes that afternoon at the Graciosa airport and I flew back to Sao Miguel to join my friend on a wonderful but completely orthodox holiday filled with whales, dolphins and very ordinary recognizable and lovely land birds.