20 December 2014

Into the Valley...ECUADOR (2 Nov.)

Having spent some time doing "patchwork" in Quito, I returned to my "other patch", one I can call that, as is almost a second home to me: the Tandayapa Valley. With a big conference on biodiversity occurring the following week in Ecuador's capital, a couple of attendees had decided on taking a day out of their pre-conference schedule to go and see what the Tandayapa Valley has to offer. On person, based in Norway, came in the night before, so after picking him up, we headed straight for the airport to meet a passenger coming in all the way from South Africa. Once we were all in the car we pointed westwards, towards the Tandayapa Valley. We packed a lot in to a small space on this day. Rather than racing to the hummingbird feeders at the lodge, an almost unavoidable urge, we instead, headed right up to the upper reaches of the valley, where the bromeliad-laden cloudforest offered us offered us one particularly special bird: Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan. One of the participants had staked her claim for this bird, and so I did not want them to leave without it. Thankfully, we had great activity, which included at least 2 different Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans with it, not to mention a certain Grass-green Tanager too. While up there too, we also picked up a confiding Yellow-breasted Brush-Finch, Green-and-black Fruiteater and Red-crested Cotinga, before we retreated to the lodge for lunch. 
After lunch it was only natural to take in the swarm of hummingbirds at the famous feeders there, which led us to such avian gems as Western Emerald, Violet-tailed Sylph, and Booted Racket-tail, among many others. The hummingbird feeders were not the only feeders that were active though, and a Rufous Motmot and Crimson-rumped Toucanet also put in an appearance or two at the "papaya feeder". The former bird was particularly interesting, as it was a patch "tick" for me, having only recently been recorded on the lodge property.
The big gaping scarlet hole on our list though was a certain Andean Cock-of-the-rock, a bird that many wish not to leave the country without, and one look at this thrilling bird, it is easy ti understand why. It is the quintessential Andean bird in some ways. This did mean we would not touch down in Quito until a little later than planned, and with jetlag kicking in for some, I outlined this option, which was duly snapped up. Apparently cock-of-the-rock outweighed jetlag in its importance! So we slowly drifted down the Old Nono-Mindo Road, a site of a cock-of-the-rock lek (display area); but were stopped in our tracks by a clipped, crisp call from the roadside. We quickly jumped out of the vehicle, and soon after clapped eyes on the culprit, a beautiful, Beautiful Jay, a very unexpected bonus for the day. This scarce navy blue jay is an endemic to the region, and one you can iss during a dedicated search over several days, let alone on a day trip with so much other birds to look for on the agenda, a search had not even been planned! The final "stanza" of the day was played out by Andean Cock-of-the-rocks, several gaudy vermilion males of which danced in the telescope to the delight of the group. That was supposed to be the final show of the day, but a fruiting tree in the area led to yet more quality birds; holding another Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, and also at least 3 Crested Quetzals to boot; a Technicolor end to the day if ever there was one!

One day; 2 Grass-green Tanagers, 2 Beautiful Jays, 3 Crested Quetzals, 3 Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans, at least 4 Andean Cock-of-the-rocks, and 2 Rufous Motmots; enough for any day!

Next stop was Ecuador again, although this time down south, where a couple of Asian photographers had arrived to take pictures of the most impressive birds of the region...

18 December 2014

Better Trains than British Rail!...ECUADOR (1st Nov.)

I had only been away for a short time, but had managed to miss a Mourning Warbler slinking around the Quito Botanic Gardens. I headed down there full of enthusiasm as to what else may have dropped in for my arrival back in Ecuador's capital. Unfortunately, during an afternoon visit, migrants were not too plentiful, with the best I could muster being 4 Eastern Kingbirds wolfing down berries by the entrance; a single Snowy-throated Kingbird;  a handful of Swainson's Thrushes; and a male Summer Tanager, which gave itself away with its incredibly distinctive "chituk" call.

So, the star performers turned out to be not the migrants that I had headed down there for, but a resident species, which gave me its best ever showing. Each and every visit to these wonderful gardens is punctuated with sightings of the resident Black-tailed Trainbearers; a stunning hummingbird, the males of which exhibit a barely believable long tail (the "train" of the name), that trails behind them. However, they are invariably high in the trees, doing dazzling display flights up high and out of camera range. However, on this day I bumped into a resting male, which unlike most hummingbirds, rested for a solid five minutes allowing me to reel off a series of photos. The same area held a marvellous, boisterous, punk-haired, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet too; another resident of the area.

Thus, the migrants may have let me down, but the resident Andean birds stepped up to the plate, and gave me yet more great photographic memories of the park to look back on.

Next up, I was returning to another "patch" of mine, the Tandayapa Valley for a day trip out of Quito, which was packed with some of the best birds in the area...

14 December 2014

Australia in the Rear View Mirror...AUSTRALIA (25-27th Oct.)

During my years working for Tropical Birding Tours, I have had some crazy schedules in my time, hopping from one country, or even continent, to another, in rapid succession. However, my October agenda was the strangest one yet. I flew all the way from my adopted home, Quito, deep in the Andes of Ecuador in South America; all the way over to Sydney for the inaugural "Australasian Birdfair". This involved lots, and lots of travel time, for a mere 2 nights in Australia, before I was whisked back to South America, with a heavy dose of jetlag added, just days later! The jetlag was duly added, but I did have a brilliant, if brief, time in Australia, a country, and continent, which I love dearly.

The reason for stepping on to Antipodean soil, was to see the birdfair, man a stand there, and also help with the launch of a recent Australian field guide to birds that I played a small part in, as the principal author, Iain Campbell, was unavailable to do so.

Even though I had the briefest of weekends in the country, I saw an opening, and an opportunity, to see an Australian bird that has eluded me ever since my only sighting of the species, way too far back, in 2006. A Powerful Owl had been seen in Sydney's beautiful botanic gardens, and two Tropical Birding guides, Nick Leseberg and Scott Watson, met me off my flight in Sydney so that we could go and see it. Nick had seen it the previous week, knew the precise Black Bean tree where it had chosen to sleep of late, and so we headed straight there...the tree was quite attractive, but would have been a lot more interesting had the owl been siting in it! Once again, this Powerfully Elusive Owl had managed to slip through the net again for me, (an almost annual event, during my Australian visits). 

However, the fair was a lot of fun, and after meeting Chris Gladwin, at the fair, who convinced me the owl has been super reliable; (I even met a birder at the fair, with a photo of the owl, in the very same Black Bean tree, taken on the Friday before my Saturday arrival!), I decided to try again in the short time I had on the Monday before my long journey back to South America was to begin. Chris's directions were pinpoint, and I soon found myself again standing under that same, and similarly owl-LESS, Black Bean tree. I decided, with such a short time in Australia I should enjoy my final few hours on the continent and spend time with a number of their common, comical, and completely Australian species in the park, and try to photograph some of these to salvage my birding time. I really enjoyed this; after all I am only in Australia for short periods, and so when I am, I fully appreciate even their most familiar species.

Walking around this wonderful city park, with the famed Harbour Bridge in view beyond, I stalked Masked Lapwings as they foraged on the well-manicured lawns; noticed a pair of enormous Channel-billed Cuckooswhich the local Pied Currawongs were trying their best to eject from the park (this, the world's largest cuckoo, parasitises the nests of this species); watched on as the super common, and super colourful, Rainbow Lorikeet went about prospecting potential nest sites in a local gum tree; looked on as a Magpie Lark drank from one of the ornate fountains in the gardens; noticed an Eastern Water Dragon frozen still in the shade; and I also appreciated how bizarre this continent is, when one of its most abundant birds is the cartoonish Sulphur-crested Cockatoo.
While Australians may scoff at my appreciation of all of these, exceedingly abundant, birds, this is exactly what makes Australia different; even their most common species are special, and so unlike the majority of common birds on the rest of the planet. A quick glance around a park such as this in Sydney leaves you in no doubt, from examining the local birdlife, which continent you are standing in!!! With regret, I boarded my plane out , hoping that fate would bring me back to the "wide brown land" again next year; and I soon left Australia disappearing in my rear view mirror...
As I landed back in South America, and Quito, I wondered what had changed since I had been gone? With migration south from the boreal north now well under way, what new migrants were in town, and which species had already made it to their tropical wintering grounds...

08 December 2014

Fork in the Road...ECUADOR (17-18th Oct)

Feet still firmly planted in the city of Quito; I continued to check in on Quito's Jardín Botánico, hoping for new migrant arrivals from the north. I stopped in twice over the weekend, and enjoyed some migrant watching in the shadow of the Andes, visible in the near distance behind the park. This is presumably, where much of these birds will end up, on the forested slopes of the Andes.
Swainson's Thrushes had clearly come in en-masse, with their constant liquid calls resounding around this small park. Some half a dozen or more birds were present, taking full advantage of the fruiting trees around the park entrance, which were associating with the "mystery" elaenias in the same tree (Lesser or White-crested Elaenias being the likely contenders). While scratching my head over the elaenias, something every visiting guide there has done this year, a larger bird dropped suddenly into the same tree, quickly plundered the berry crop and left. Thankfully, on this occasion I got a clear and undeniable view of the bird, and my lifebird finally fell to me after three visits to look for it: Large Elaenia. Unfortunately, I was so stunned that it had finally graced me with a clinchable view, I forgot to raise my camera!
Other migrants over the weekend were at least 5 Eastern Kingbirds (one here is photographed with the Andes visible in the backdrop), a few Snowy-throated Kingbirds, 2 Fork-tailed Flycatchers, 1 Scarlet and 1 Summer Tanager, and several Western Wood-Pewees. Overhead a party of 3 White-collared Swifts screamed past.
For boreal migrants, that was about that, although a large bird causing havoc among the local Great Thrushes, turned out to be a remarkably confiding immature White-rumped Hawk, and the first time I had managed to get a decent look at this plumage, or indeed this hawk so close up. This bird had surpised all by turning up in Quito a week or more earlier and had been hanging around, perhaps in the knowledge a crop for migrant birds were there for the taking?!

With a trip Down Under beckoning, I was relieved to finally get a proper sight of the Large Elaenia, in the full expectation the bird would have moved on by the time of my return to Quito (which it was)!

07 December 2014

City Siskins...ECUADOR (14th Oct.)

A repeat visit to Quito's Jardín Botánico was needed, pre-office work, in order to try and track down that elusive Large Elaenia. Unfortunately though, that bird, once again, eluded me, in spite of recent sightings confirming its continuing presence. Migrants were thin on the ground on this day, although I did get several Swainson's Thrushes, some Eastern Kingbirds for my efforts, and an unphotogenic Fork-tailed Flycatcher. A number of confusing smaller elaenias were also present in the park, which have had all visiting birders scratching their heads; an educated guess says they should be White-crested Elaenias, although they completely lack white in their crests, and so Lesser Elaenia has been touted too. Unfortunately, the birds (at least three have been present), have remained silent, and largely unpresponsive to playback of all elaenia recordings! The same immature White-rumped Hawk that had been around for a while this autumn circled low above the park. 
My best efforts on this day, were though rewarded with some nice shots of a local group of Hooded Siskins (a resident bird in this part of the Andes), which made the trip very worthwhile all the same.

Next up, was a final return to the gardens before a trip to a whistlestop trip to Australia curtailed my Andean birding for a short time...

06 December 2014

Urban Birding (in the tropics)...ECUADOR (12th Oct.)

With my next tour leading job some time away, I found myself marooned in the city (Quito) for a while. However, the month of October is a month of migration, even in a city like Quito, nestled in the Andes of South America. In this season birds from the boreal north move south for the winter, with some of them ending up in Ecuador.
In recent years local ex-pat birders like Roger Ahlman, and Ecuadorian birders have proved the worth of a small park in Quito, as a notable migrant hotspot. While it does not compare with the legendary migrant traps of North America like High Island and Cape May, as there is really only a trickle of birds coming through here, it has still managed to turn up plenty of birds, with Roger at least, having recorded in excess of an impressive 120 species in the Quito Botanic Gardens over the past few years. Thus, when I found myself, "tied to the city for a while", I thought I would get involved and check out what was happening there. The park provides a kind of oasis in the central, Inter-Andean Valley, which Quito is largely located within. In general, relative to the rest of the country (which is mega-diverse, boasting 1600 species or so), the dry and semi-arid central valley is depauperate for birds, in comparison to the wet west and east facing slopes of the Andes. Therefore, in terms of species diversity, Quito, is relatively low, with the following species making up a very predictable standard day list in the city, Eared Dove, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Great Thrush, Sparkling Violet-ear, Black Flowerpiercer, and Black-tailed Trainbearer. All of these birds were in evidence within the gardens that day, but I was hoping for something less predictable, and I got it...
Earlier in the week, another local birder (Dusan Brinkhuizen), along with Roger had found a major rarity in the gardens, Large Elaenia. This fuelled by reason for visiting, for this would be a lifebird too, just minutes from my apartment in the city. Having looked earlier in the week to no avail (and bumped into Robert Ridgely no less in doing so), I opted to return, although on this occasion, more typically, I found myself birding the gardens alone. The sky was threatening to unload a heavy downpour, and I enjoyed a fantastic afternoon's city birding. After a brief brush with a large and burly Elaenia, presumably the Large Elaenia, which I was not satisfied enough to count on that view, other migrants trickled their way on to my Quito list. An adult male American Redstart, presumably on his way to the foothills of the Andes, flitted around the trees; then a flycatcher dropped into view, which I was sure was not regular here, a Streaked/Sulphur-bellied type. On snapping off a reel of shots and checking the literature when I got home, along with a few nervous phone calls to Nick Athanas who was at home, I nailed it as a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, a good bird for Quito. (When birding migrant traps with limited history like this one, all bets are off and all possiblities must be considered to be on the safe side!)
As I got off the phone to Nick, immediately another flycatcher landed in front of me. Noting with the naked eye that it was from the extremely troublesome myiarchus group, I groaned inside, at the prospect of another identification conundrum. However, on clapping my bins on it, I was relieved to see it was a Great Crested Flycatcher, almost the only distinctive one in the group that I could have expected here, and another good find! While not a migrant, the suddenly vigilant nature of the normally placid Great Thrushes on site prepared me for an immature White-rumped Hawk that came whipping through the park, but left empty-handed, probably due to the keen eyesight of the resident thrushes more than anything. All the other migrants seen that day of note were also flycatchers, with a Snowy-throated Kingbird, several Western Wood-Pewees (identified on call), and an unidentified Empidonax flycatcher, which zipped off before giving me a clear look, and also remained silent, leaving me wanting more. The final drop in, was a super Fork-tailed Flycatcher to complete a fascinating few hours dominated by migrant flycatchers. 

However, while migrant watching, I was "photobombed" by a hulking male Golden-bellied Grosbeak (a resident Andean bird), and I was only too please to shoot it, before the rain came crashing down and I abandoned ship!

A few more runs of Urban Migrants was followed by the briefest of trips Down Under, all to come very soon....

27 November 2014

Well Spotted! ... ECUADOR (5th Oct.)

It may have been a Sunday but there was no time for lying in; we had a Pinnated Bittern to find, and so we were back at La Segua again (no great hardship there). And just to show that birding has its downs as well as ups, we completely failed on finding a Pinnated Bittern. Chastening to my ego, and ensuring I will be back! Still, La Segua is a great birding site and we had a fun morning there all the same, again taking a boat trip out on the lake, which ensured we left with memory cards burgeoning with BirdSnaps. The star performer of the day was Spotted Rail. We got our lifer the day before (Andres, Paola and I), but no good photos (they were so awful they were quickly deleted never to see the light of day on the Internet!) However, shortly after arrival I noticed a bold individual prowling around in the open. I approached closer, and just when I raised my camera, it skitted off into the reeds! But just moments later it paraded around in the open again, making me feel like I was getting my lifer all over again. The day's before bird was quickly forgotten; this was the way to see a Spotted Rail! 
Wattled Jacanas were also confiding both out on the lake, and around the marsh en-route to the dock too. The same bird fodder that had been around the day before was still in evidence on the lake: plentiful Cocoi Herons, Snail Kites perched proudly and photogenically, a Grey-headed Gull and some Gull-billed Terns loafed in the muddy areas. 

In the bushes around the observation tower Pacific Parrotlets were again present, and particularly showy, affording some great snaps. Again, we also found several roosting Lesser Nighthawks, which were photographed in a variety of poses, before we left La Segua behind and headed back to the Big Smoke, Quito, to commence real life once more...

Next up, a series of Urban Birding sessions in Quito, on the track of North American and Austral migrants....