09 October 2015

Kingfisher Crop...INDONESIA (Aug-Sept.)

In August-September 2015, I led a bird tour to the islands of Sulawesi and Halmahera in far eastern Indonesia, which happens to be one of the epicentres of kingfisher diversity. On this trip, (and we even missed a couple), we got 13 species of kingfisher, between the two islands visited. Many of which, of course, were endemic to the region/island, as this is one of global centres of bird endemism. Of all the sites visited, Tangkoko-Batuangus Dua Saudara (better known simply as "Tangkoko"); is the one famed for its kingfishers the most. This reserve sits at the eastern apex of the Minahassa Peninsula, the northernmost tentacle of the island of Sulawesi. We only stayed there for three nights, and in no small part due to the assistance of our excellent local guide Samuel, notched up literally dozens of kingfishers; 24 individual kingfishers were seen there of 7 different species, with 7 species featuring in a single day there! And, we did not see every kingfisher possible in the reserve, which boasts an extraordinary 10 species within its borders.
On our first morning in the reserve we stumbled upon half a dozen different Green-backed Kingfishers, and likewise another six of Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher too, both impressive endemic species to the island of Sulawesi. The next day we racked up all seven species seen by is there, within the Tangkoko forests and mangroves, adding Sulawesi Dwarf, Common, Great-billed, Collared, and Ruddy to those species too.
Moving on to Dumoga-Bone park, well to the west on the same tentacle-like peninsula of Sulawesi we did not add any new ones, but got another Sulawesi Dwarf-Kingfisher and Green-backed Kingfisher, before we birded the flanks of the Mahawu Mountain, near the northern city of Manado, where an epic effort led us, eventually, to a superb young Scaly-breasted Kingfisher, that quite literally just sat there while we ogled it from under 30 feet away!
Lastly, we moved over to the Spice Island of Halmahera, which strangely looks rather like a miniature version of Sulawesi, being tentacled and starfish-shaped too. However, in spite of the short distance from Sulawesi to Halmahera, the birds are very different; here we added 3 more kingfishers to our list, the bleach-headed Beach KingfisherBlue-and-white Kingfisher, and the subdued Sombre Kingfisher.

All of this got me thinking about where in the World is the best tour for kingfishers? This got me thinking back to a few years back in Papua New Guinea where a combined trip between the mainland and New Britain yielded 18 species of kingfisher for us, and we missed a few, meaning you could very likely get a 20-species trip there!

21 September 2015

The Land of Owls...SULAWESI (21st-22nd Aug.)

Islands are great places to be for fans of owls, as they often boast a few species of their own. The large Indonesian island of Sulawesi is an endemic hotspot, claiming more than 80 bird species all of its own, with some pretty spectacular ones among them. This impressive number of birds found nowhere else includes no less than SIX owls; fantastic for someone like me. Earlier on the tour, in Lore Lindu, we had seen the Cinnabar Boobook, an undiscovered owl until 1999, when a dusty specimen was examined more closely, but curiously now rather straightforward to find. We had also seen, if only poorly another owl endemic to this starfish-shaped island, the Speckled Boobook. However we had hopelessly failed in our attempts to find the powerfully built Sulawesi Masked Owl, a relative of the widespread Barn Owl. After our time in Lore Lindu in Central Sulawesi, we travelled north to the Minahassa Peninsula of North Sulawesi, and arguably one of Asia's finest reserves for birding, Tangkoko. I was looking forward to this greatly, as the combination of open forests, and an excellent local guide, who I admire greatly, by the name of Samuel, usually yield impressive bird lists. On top of that there are a few quirky endemic mammals to find there too, and for whatever reason, it is also an extraordinary place for kingfishers, boasting an incredible 10 species within its borders!
We arrived late in the afternoon, on a windy afternoon that prevented us from seeing too much, but still saw a Sulawesi Scops-Owl (YES, another endemic species!) at close range in our lodge garden before we slept that night. The next day was one of my best day's birding in Asia ever, and that is not an exaggeration. I will mention more on the other birds of that day later, but first to owls...
After stumbling into a Red-backed Thrush early on and walking our way through the forest from one kingfisher (first Green-backed Kingfisher) to another (then Lilac-cheeked), both of which followed a Ruddy Kingfisher in the garden of the lodge at dawn; we were interrupted by the sound of Samuel's mobile phone. Normally I might be offended by such urban sounds in the jungle, but I knew better than to be offended. I knew, more often than not, a ringing phone meant birds at the other end of the line. For in Tangkoko, often guides work in tandem, and you regularly do not realise another guide is working hard for you, until you are led to them standing by an extraordinary find.  The news at the end of the line was that our fellow guide, hidden somewhere else in the jungle, and unbeknown to us where, had walked into a day roosting Sulawesi Masked Owl! This was great news and we changed our course in the direction of this other guide that at least Samuel knew where he was! As we walked with our minds on a large owl waiting for us deeper into the forest, one of the group voiced a thought that I had daren't mention out loud. Dave remarked "Is he sure it is not a Minahassa Masked Owl?!" To explain there are 2 species of Barn Owl-like owls on Sulawesi, the aforementioned, and reasonably widespread Sulawesi Masked Owl (typically found outside deep forest), and the much rarer, tawny-coloured, and smaller, Minahassa Masked Owl. At this point, I confessed to Dave that this thought had indeed crossed my mind, and that I merely did not state it for fear of jinxing this or raising the bar on our expectations. Samuel, intriguingly, admitted that the junior guide waiting with the owl may well not be familiar of the subtle differences between these two closely related species. I think that it is quite possible that our pace quickened with this new found knowledge. Finally, after sweating our way up and down hills, and being made all the more nervous as we approached by Samuel's admission that birds like this found roosting can easily be unintentionally disturbed, so could flea the scene before our arrival -  - Panic!
As we approached this "junior" guide, who of course seemed anything but "junior" following this magnificent find, he casually pointed towards a tawny, exposed owl sitting almost at eye level! Having never seen one before, I was slow to say it, but Samuel was quick to confirm my incredulous thoughts: "Minahassa, Minahassa!" he exclaimed excitedly. Shockingly, we were face-to-face with a daytime Minahassa Masked-Owl and it was a simply wonderful view. The great view, the rarity of seeing one, let alone during the day, led this to be a popular entry into the TOP FIVE BIRDS OF THE TOUR. For me anyway, being an unashamed "owlaphile", this was the BIRD OF THE TRIP standing head and shoulders above all else, including the Geomalia, which I thought could not possibly be beaten. However, I had not counted in seeing this species at all! We closed the morning with another, thought more regular and predictable, day roosting owl (Ochre-bellied Boobook), and then in the evening, following a surprise flyover from a Sulawesi Masked-Owl lit up by the torch, could not resist another look at our local Sulawesi Scops-Owl at the lodge again. Through the day and night we had actually seen SIX different owls (1 Minhassa Masked Owl in the day, 3 different day roosting Ochre-bellied Boobooks, 1 Sulawesi Masked Owl in the evening, and a Sulawesi Scops-Owl). Thus, I find myself referring to Sulawesi as "The Land of the Owls", and who could argue after a day like that!

19 September 2015

The Lonely Geomalia...SULAWESI (18th August)

This is the story of one of the most strangest birds in all of Asia; the oddly-named Geomalia. The words "mysterious" and "enigmatic" have frequently been used in reference to this species; famed ornithologist, and frequent editor of all things bird-based, Guy Kirwan, once referred to this bird "...is generally considered to be one of the most enigmatic birds in Asia...". So a little background first, what is a Geomalia exactly? And herein lies the problem. The bird's very name is veiled in mystery, as it is said to be in reference to another bird that, like it, is confined to the highlands of the same Indonesian island of Sulawesi, the Malia Malia grata. However, if you look towards that species for any clues as to what exactly is a Geomalia, you may be left more confused. For Malia, is another Sulawesi species that has been confounding taxonomists since its discovery; some have listed it among the babbler family (Timalidae), while others have disagreed and grouped it instead with the very different bulbuls (Pycnonotidae). 
The lonely Geomalia is known to inhabit the forest floor, where it is only ever seen on its own, and hops along with long, gangly legs, and a long, somewhat floppy tail. It is rarely seen off the ground, but In complete contrast, the mysterious Malia, is never seen on the ground at all, often seen in pairs creeping along large trunks and branches as they move within mixed feeding flocks. Which leaves those looking for clues from the Malia for getting to crux of the Geo-Malia, no less clear as to what it is at all! And there lies the background to what has made the Geomalia, which is not the brightest bird amongst a myriad bright species in Sulawesi, prominent in visiting birder's minds. On top of the fascinating fact that no one could quite agree what it was; it also seems to appear rare, and remains little known in other respects, with no recordings of its call ever made, and many experienced Sulawesi ornithologists claiming the call remains unknown even now, in the knowledge rich, Internet-driven age we live in, in 2015. 
And then, to add to its outstanding allure, it occurs in mountain forests, which usually involve a hell of a hike to get into. With the call remaining curiously elusive to ornithologists; how then does one see a Geomalia? Well, in short you hike a steep, arduous track, and pray that the bird hops onto the track in front of you; which often feels a rather dim and distant hope. Many have gone in pursuit, and many have left wanting, with nether the merest glimpse of this avian wraith. Where to find one, is perhaps the least mysterious aspect in the story of a Geomalia; everyone knows the pace to find one is the infamous Anaso Track in Lore Lindu National Park, within Central Sulawesi. What makes this all the more troublesome is that this track for the much of the last decade has become impassable to all vehicles (due to a substantial landslide), save for madcap motorbike drivers, taking their lives in their hands as they bump their way up this jagged, steep, and rocky mountain track. So, a search for the Geomalia in this famed birding venue, means a hike, and a serious one at that; some 10 km+ round trip is needed in order to reach the remote parts of the track, where, just occasionally, this odd bird appears, and emerges out into the open from the dense cover of the surrounding forest. The mystery that has surrounded its position taxonomically have led many to assume that it may represent that most hallowed of birds; a monotypic (or single species) bird family. Birders feed off this kind of thing; birds like KaguSapayoaShoebill and Przevalski's Rosefinch have ridden the wave of interest in such unique bird families, and have lured many birdwatchers to their haunts in pursuit of them. Unlike all other examples of bewitching monotypic bird families (and species), the Geomalia is most often missed when searched for; all the others from this elite group are usually readily found in the right place. This, of course, only adds to its allure, knowing that in all probability any short search for it is likely to be an empty one. For this reason some hardy birders took no chances; while most tour groups and birders head up the Anaso Track for a day or two from their relatively comfortable guesthouse in nearby Wuasa, some distance away, others decided to spend days, or even weeks, searching right where the bird occurs, by camping on site. In spite of such Herculean efforts, some unfortunate birding souls, still left without it, despite long days and nights spent under canvas, in the very heart of the bird's range. Such tales have found their place in birding folk lore, and in their infamy have haunted later birders who headed there in pursuit of this strangest of Oriental birds. For many years all that was around to guide birders to it, were only blurry photos, and odd pictures in field guides that seemed to little resemble the few poor photos that existed.  In recent years, with the advent and rampant advance of digital photography, further photos have appeared, revealing it in more detail, only making it appear within reach, only for people to continue to go after the Geomalia, and to continue to leave without the Geomalia, with those hallowed images forever imprinted in their memories. It is fair to say that such pictures of the species have genuinely troubled some people, and haunted them in their own avian nightmares! Thus, any search for the mysterious Geomalia will definitely involve some sweat, maybe some blood, and perhaps some tears too. 
In 2013 I finally made the journey to Sulawesi, an island I had admired from afar for some time, and an island's birdlife that I had long admired too. Top on my target list sat, of course, the fabled Geomalia. On my two trips to Sulawesi in that year, I spent many hours walking that blasted Anaso Track; and, I too, chose to take a shortcut to seeing it, by camping in the forests right where it hops. I tried every possible technique; we laid out rice along the trail, in the hope that the bird would quickly adopt to a new food; we tried standing quietly and watching the track from various directions; and we tried walking up and down relentlessly, and exhaustingly, all morning and afternoon long. Days passed, but the track remained entirely empty of birds, save for a solitary, and brief, Great Shortwing, which sent pulses racing when it first appeared, only for disappointment to set in once we realised it's obvious small size was a bad fit for Geomalia!
I should mention too that just before my 2013 tours it was revealed, through genetic work carried out by highly respected Swedish ornithologists Olssen and Alstrom that the mysterious Geomalia was not quite as mysterious as expected, and actually was a type of zoothera thrush after all! Many rued this loss, and feared its enigmatic status was lost forever. Indeed, the two family listers I was with on one tour in 2013 were happy to head down the Anaso Track without this bird, once this research had come to light. I knew well that had its mysterious status still been firmly in tact, we'd have spent a lot longer roaming the Anaso Track. However, in spite of this respected research published in 2013, in 2015 HBW Alive's website still holds two curious and enticing  statements about the Geomalia: 1) "Current placement extremely tentative", and 2) "perhaps better treated as monotypic". For me anyway, the Geomalia remained mysterious, enigmatic, and my most wanted bird in Asia.
In 2015 I finally returned to Sulawesi, and, once again, Geomalia was right at the forefront of my thoughts. We were to be visiting the infamous Anaso Track for at least one day, and it was to be right near the start of the trip. Thus I thought, I could get the near inevitable dip (or miss) of Geomalia, out of the way early on, and then I could simply move on with the tour, and the rest of my "Geomalia-less" birding life. And so the day came when we were to climb the track. The group had been forewarned of the rigors involved, but in spite of the dire picture I painted, only one of eight people dropped out; the rest of us starting our walk up at 4:30am, well before the first rays of sunshine and the first birds of dawn, began to call. The hike was strenuous, and it was not long before we were well strung out along the track. After our first Satanic Nightjars (see earlier post), a few further people dropped out, and the group dwindled to just five. Knowing the alleged best time for the "bird on the track" was between 9am and 11am, I pushed on up, hoping beyond hope that we would make it to the unremarkable (but hallowed) stretch of trail in time for the bird still to be active. As I walked up I mused that the long period of dry weather (nearing a drought situation) in Sulawesi at the time of this visit surely could not be favourable for our quarry; typically ground feeding birds prefer feeding along damp tracks and trails, (I thought of Everett's Thrush in Borneo for example, and zoothera thrushes in general, now apparent relatives of the Geomalia following that unpopular 2013 research). Our local guide, Idris, however, seemed surprisingly upbeat about our chances and was firmly focused on the forest track. He led the group, being fit as a fiddle compared with the rest of us, who do not spend their lives walking this arduous mountain track. He walked slowly, and deliberately, with eyes fixed on the narrow, winding track ahead of us. He announced to all when we had reached the lowest point where it was known to occur, and revealed to us, that at any point above there we would be walking within the habitat of this revered species. Our attentions were heightened, and everyone was visibly tense, Idris included. Not long after we begun our "Geomalia walk", now with all present in a nervy single line, Idris looked particularly focused and quickly went shooting after something he had glimpsed by the side of the trail; I stood back to give him space, in fear of scaring whatever captivated his stare. The words "Geomalia!" were whispered, but in spite of me being just feet away from Idris, neither I, nor anyone else, saw a single feather of it, which scarpered into the forest before its name had even been completely uttered. A further scouring of the area saw us glimpse something racing across the trail at high speed, which was surely our bird, but no one was showing any kind of satisfaction at the sighting; if anything it was more frustrating than having not seen it at all. Many people had come and failed to see one Geomalia, but few (and perhaps none) had come and seen more than one in a single day. Thus, our single fleeting sighting of the day, a view that was nothing short of painful, was most likely to be all we were going to get. In my downtrodden mood, I revealed such thoughts to the group, who thankfully, like me, were not throwing in the towel just yet. Furthermore, Idris, the man with the most experience with Geomalias on the planet, seemed unperturbed too. This gave me hope, though I daren't voice this for superstitious fear that it may jinx us all! We continued on, under the advice of Idris who intriguingly revealed we were yet to reach the best area of the Anaso Track for the species. We ploughed on; with sweat pouring over us as we ascended further; but as yet no blood nor tears were in evidence. Some kilometre or more higher up, (and several Satanic Nightjars later), Idris froze once more, and incredibly mouthed the word "Geomalia!" again. I was mere paces away, and caught up with him in seconds, only to see an empty track in front of us. There was a corner though just ahead and so we moved very carefully forward, when, there, suddenly, on the track stood a thrush-like bird! I raised my binoculars in full expectation that I would be eyeballing the mysterious Geomalia with my optics for the very first time, only to realise the bird within my Swarovskis was not mysterious at all, but was indeed a certain thrush, a Sulawesi Thrush! On any other day, I would have been only to happy to look at a Sulawesi Thrush, but it's timing, and the situation, led me, and others in the group to view this particular individual rather unfavourably. I announced to the group that it was "only" a Sulawesi Thrush (a sin that I am ashamed of), but this left Idris exasperated, and he quickly insisted that he had not seen a Sulawesi Thrush, but a Geomalia. Confusion settled over the group, and we slowly walked forward, peeking around the next bend just ahead of us, when Idris stated for the third time that morning, (and more forcefully than ever) "G-E-O-M-A-L-I-A!". This time when I, and others, raised our binoculars, we were all ecstatic, as a bold leggy bird with a long, droopy tail stood conspicuously on the side of the trail. For once, the two bird theory was not a mere excuse for indiscretions, but an unquestionable reality. We revelled in this most mysterious of birds for a maximum of five minutes, before it disappeared to its most frequent haunt, the dark impenetrable depths of the mountain forest from whence it came.
A joyful group headed up the track, with little other avian distractions, save for a few White-eared Myzas (a highland honeyeater species); but no one caring for it was abundantly clear nothing, but nothing was going to stand in the way of our Geomalia for highlight of the day, or indeed the entire trip (and it was only day three, of twenty-one!) However, no one had banked on, another Geomalia, to show up. As we were reunited with Idris later that morning he informed us that one of the locals who had generously carried our lunch up the track, had walked right into a very tame Geomalia, but intriguingly from the description, it sounded much further up the track than both of the ones we had already seen. Intriguing indeed. As we needed to descend some to reach our lunch, we headed down anyway, and likewise walked into a very tame Geomalia, one that simply did not want to leave the track at all. By this time it was near noon; (and yes, well after the advertised best time for the bird). Photographers and birders alike lapped up the exceptional, long views of this bird, as it foraged in the open among darker stretches of the track, and even emerged out into the sunlight on brief occasions too. After every possible photo was taken, and it was seen from every possible angle, we were ready for lunch; trouble was the bird was barring our way to lunch. Eventually, after about an hour of walking behind it, and the bird hopping happily along ahead of us, we needed to make some progress, and had to shoo it off the track as we made our way to a pot of steaming rice and "ayam", or chicken. As it turned out, by the time we reached our lunch, having steadily walked behind the bird as it hopped ever lower down the track, we realised our food was not far from where the bird had last been seen hopping into the darkness. So, after taking some sustenance, a few of us went back up to investigate and see whether at 2PM in the afternoon, of all times, the bird had reappeared. Remarkably, it was back and happily feeding just a stone's throw from our lunch spot, where, after a time, we had to force ourselves to leave and head back down for home! A ridiculous experience with one of the most wanted of all Asian birds. I felt truly privileged. After this amazing viewing, one who had been unable to come with us on this day, returned with me and another person the following day, in the hope of a repeat performance. Our hope, what with this appearing to be a young bird, and oh so tame, and so willing to feed on the track, it was likely to be there again the next day. However, after a 10km round trip we encountered not a sniff of a Geomalia, which returned to being a mystery all over again! A footnote to all of this should be made that on examination of the photos, the distinctive worn tail of the last bird seen was noted to be different from photos of our second encounter, confirming to us that, incredibly, we had actually seen three different Geomalias in one barely believable morning!
 More to come from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi soon...

14 September 2015

Satan's Folly...SULAWESI (15-18 August)

In the middle of August I flew in to Sulawesi in Indonesia to lead a tour for Tropical Birding to there and neighboring Halmahera island. I had first visited these islands on two occasions in 2013, and had been gagging to return. In a nutshell this part of Asia and Australasia (for Halmahera may be best thought of as part of that region, with Sulawesi considered part of Asia), has some of the very best in all of the region.
The tour began in the southern city of Makassar in Sulawesi, where some short trips out of the city produced the very local Black-ringed White-eye, our first Sulawesi Dwarf-Hornbill, and Javan Plovers and Savanna Nightjars around the city itself. After that we flew north into the province of Central Sulawesi and headed to Lore Lindu National Park. Our arrival in the park was greeted with the sighting of what we were told was a nesting "Small Sparrowhawk". However, under closer inspection, it was found to be the rarer Vinous-breasted Sparrowhawk, with Small Sparrowhawk seen in the park the next day too! We were off and running. After a day in the lower reaches of the park, (that opened with the recently described Cinnabar Boobook in the spotlight), punctuated with sightings like Sulawesi Serpent-Eagle perched, the gorgeous blue-and-red Sulawesi Blue Flycatcher, and Sulawesi Cicadabird, we were ready (kind of) for the infamous Anaso Track, a hard slog from 1700m elevation up to 2300m elevation, and a round trip of some 10km+...
I am sure, when we left the hotel at the ungodly hour of 4am many in the group were questioning their own sanity. After several hours uphill hike though, a bird nestled against the rock face lifted everyone's spirits...the first of 4 Satanic Nightjars seen at day roosts that day. The bird has received bad treatment from scientists, some referring to it as "Satanic" Nightjar; its alternative name is not much more pleasant either: Diabolical Nightjar. The reason for this satanic moniker is that it was historically considered a symbol of evil and the devil, so much so that local people would pluck the eyes out of the bird if they encountered it. This was a splendid justification for our steady and energy sapping climb. However, the best on this climb was yet to come...
More from the Anaso Track, Lore Lindu soon...

11 September 2015

PITTASOMA...Ecuador (11th September)

OK, so I have been a bit slack on the blog lately, and I apologise for that. I have had plenty to blog about, what with recent (July-September) tours for Tropical Birding in Costa Rica and Sulawesi and Halmahera, all of which will follow soon. However...

So what got me back blogging again; it needed something special to wrench me out of my social media slumber, and boy was it something special. I have resided in Quito, Ecuador, in the Andes of South America for the past ten years. In that time I have built a healthy, though not outstanding Ecuador list of around 1300 species (I do not keep a strict count on it to be honest, unlike some other manic birders in the country-you know who you are Dusan, Roger, Jonas etc. !!!) I am not an avid Ecuador bird lister, but always enjoy seeing something new in this "dream birding" home that I find myself in. There are few countries like Ecuador, where lifers still creep in this many years after moving in, but that is what happens when you live in the north Andean countries of the "Bird Continent" of South America; the diversity is so high, it is barely fathomable. There are simply too many birds tucked away in this country to pick up in a short time, it takes a lifetime, as people like Robert Ridgely and others would attest to, that have spent the best part of their lives here.

Back to today then; for some years there have been a number of "Holy Grail Birds" in Ecuador that have been spoken of in hushed tones for years, and mean envious glances have been thrown towards the birders who could claim to have seen them. I am thinking of birds like Giant Antpitta, Jocotoco Antpitta, Peruvian Antpitta and Banded Ground-Cuckoo especially, which could rightly claim "grail status", but have in recent years been "humbled", with feeding sites bringing them into the the realms of the possible for surprisingly many birders. And I sincerely applaud those that have put the effort into achieving this, and have made these birds remarkably available to many birders - people like Angel Paz (with Giant Antpitta near Mindo), Nicole Buttner (with the ground-cuckoo at the wonderful Un Poco del Choco reserve), the staff at Tapichalaca reserve for the amazing Jocotoco Antpitta, and Cabanas San Isidro for the Peruvian number. I fully support the feeding of birds, which makes them suddenly available and loved by more people; that can only be good for the spread of the joy of birding, and the ultimate conservation objectives for the species, with heightened interest in them.
So it appeared to some from afar anyway, perhaps that all the most wanted Ecuadorian birds had been "unblocked", and become shockingly gettable after years in the proverbial wilderness, with few being able to claim them on their own life lists. However, those who dwell in Ecuador could see one species that had escaped the spate of feeding that has slowly spread through the country (and beyond into Colombia, Peru, and even Brazil now), to the delight of world birders and photographers alike. This bird has been known to many Ecuador-based birders for years, but few can claim many or any encounters with the species, even after years of roaming the Andes in search of birds. Rumors abound about this bird; it sings in the dry season, sings in the wet season but only late in the morning, when everything else is quiet; it is best on sunny days, when activity generally is slow for everything else; it hardly ever calls; it is best looked for at antswarms, though few could have claimed to back this up with personal sightings, and so on. In short, sightings were few enough that few birders can claim expertise with the species; the sample size was simply too small. With the "discovery" and development of Mashpi as a relatively "new" birding destination in the last decade increased the contact with this species, these rich, humid forests, which were relatively poorly known (compared with say, nearby Mindo that is), until fairly recently. Since then, the influx of birders and ornithologists, eagerly lapping up the chances to see good numbers of scarce species like Glistening-green Tanager and Moss-backed Tanager, and the rare Choco Vireo, among others; led to further sightings of this avian pimpernel, and people like me started to believe a day would come, where maybe, just maybe, I might be able to catch site of one. Of course, I had tried at other places for the bird, for example in the dense, difficult to bird jungles of Playa de Oro, in Esmeraldas province of Ecuador, which until now, could arguably have represented the best site for the species. However, in spite of many visits there, by many birders, few among them walked away with an encounter with this bird. To add to its mystery and allure, the species was originally thought of as an antpitta, a shy, elusive family of ground-dwelling birds that hold special appeal among birders chasing a big world or South American list, The family has kudos, and to have a rare beast among them, with few sightings just gave this bird even more appeal. Then, recently, genetic evidence suggested the two species within this genus (the other being a rarer, though more regularly seen species in Central America), were, in fact, NOT antpittas after all, but may be Gnateaters instead. This might appear to have made the bird less appealing, but far from it, this just added an air of mystery to it, and oddity that birders like me eat up in spades. Of course, the bird I am talking about is the "Pittasoma" of Ecuador and Colombia (where it only seems to dwell within areas that are still considered too dangerous to travel to), the Rufous-crowned Antpitta. In spite of its recently changed status to a Gnateater, and not an antpitta, the bird's name remains "Rufous-crowned Antpitta" with many in the birding community supporting a name change to "Rufous-crowned Gnatpitta"  that has not yet been adopted, but is widely spoken among birders who have seen it, or have not but can still bare to speak of it.

During a prolonged period of guiding recently in Costa Rica and Indonesia, dating back to July, news reached me that Ecuadorian based birder, conservationist and ornithologist, Alejandro Solano, had managed to track one of these special birds down, and had done the unbelievable; he'd managed to habituate one to come in an feed on worms, much in the manner of the other species spoken of earlier. This was great news, had it not been that I was in the midst of a 12-week guiding period, where I personally, could do nothing about it, but look on with envy! Of course, I had amazing times guiding on all three of those tours; BUT, I always had one idea on what was happening back in my adopted country, with a certain denizen of the forest floor. On reaching back home last week, my attentions, once again, turned to the pittasoma, which yesterday we found out was still around, at least for 85% of the time (a pretty impressive percentage for a bird so rare!) And so, today, I traveled to the site to meet Alejandro, and hope to meet his increasingly famous bird, with fellow Tropical Birding guides Andres Vasquez, Iain Campbell and Nick Athanas. We ALL wanted this bird bad.

On arriving at the site Alejandro seemed calm, and so did we; however underneath the surface, Ia m sure some, if not all, among the Tropical Birders were anything but. We walked through the Cocoa plantations for which the site is growingly famous for (it produces high-end, Artesanal chocolate on site), and entered the pleasant shade, and welcoming gloom, for that is both our regular home, as Tropical Birding guides, and the realm of the pittasoma. We climbed up the trail, and reached the site apparently a little early, according to Alejandro (before 4PM). Within the hour Iain glimpsed an antpitta-like bird fleetingly, which saw tensions visibly raised among the group; Nick, in particular, and perhaps me too, became nervy and instantly focused, our eyes flocking this way and that across the forest floor, in the hope of our quarry. Alejandro worked tirelessly to find the bird that he had so shockingly befriended; then, suddenly his low whistles were answered by some low whistles from the real thing! It was painfully quiet though, and it was not clear if it was "whispering" closeby, or was indeed, frustratingly distant. It answered again, then silence returned to the forest, save for the sounds overhead of fruitcrows and caciques foraging noisily in the canopy. After some time with no further reply, it appeared that it may not be close, or, worse still, the bird had slipped away from us, just when it had appeared so close. And so we walked deeper into the forest, walking offtrail and downslope, hoping, though not knowing that we may be moving closer to our avian quarry. We stood on a steep valley side, while Alejandro tried whistling and calling to the bird again; when suddenly a flurry from Andres stated the bird had appeared dramatically just 15 feet away, but was frustratingly hidden from me behind a large buttress, and it was clear Andres was filling his boots with it, as it sat in full glorious view. I wanted impatiently, and then suddenly, the bird darted, lightning like through the undergrowth, hopping swiftly from one side of us to the other, only lingering in the sunlight for brief moments, when this photo was taken. Then, it calmed down, and sat on a log in the deep shadows of the forest, and preened for five whole minutes, when, with backs to the forest floor, and necks twisted this way and that, we were able to soak in every striking feature, from the boldly barred belly that appears to suggest it was a male, the rich, red-brown cap, and broad black stripe running through the eye, and prominent bill protruding from the front end, lending it a somewhat evil expression. Then, suddenly after five minutes of calm, stopped preening, took a quick glance around, then melted back into the background, and was gone! I for one hope this becomes a regular routine, and hope to return. Thanks to Alejandro, for finding the bird, and working to protect the local forest, which is so very, very needed, as it is home to some birds that really need protection, as birds like this and others are confined to this fragile Choco biogeographic region, which has thus far undergone more than enough devastating habitat fragmentation. I encourage everyone to go there (the details of the place are here: Choco Mashpi), buy their excellent chocolate (we sampled this on site); and, of course, take the chance to see this rarely seen bird...for me and a few others anyway right now, a myth no more!

Anyone wishing to visit to contact Alejandro Solano, who is needed to guide you to the bird, who can be contacted through the website contacts for the Chocolate farm and forest reserve: Choco Mashpi

08 April 2015

In the Shadow of James Bond...JAMAICA (27th March)

Continuing our tour in Jamaica, we moved out of the coffee-plated highlands, and the Blue Mountains, and onto the lowlands of the north coast. We moved into Port Antonio in the parish of Portland. Ian Fleming was a fan of both Jamaica, and birds, so he "stole" his hero's name from a famous Caribbean ornithologist named "James Bond". The works of James Bond continued to "steal" from Jamaica, with a later film being titled after the name of a famous resort in Jamaica: Goldeneye (which is also, coincidentally a bird name too!)
Once we had reached the north coast our avian objectives were clear; we were missing only 3 of the 29 endemics on the island by this stage: Jamaican Crow (which, for a crow, seems remarkably picky; on an island lacking any other crow, it is confined to the north of the island); Black-billed Streamertail (which is separated from the Red-billed Streamertail by all of a two-minute bird flight across the Rio Grande River!); and Black-billed Parrot. On top of the endemic, we also had a rather graceful seabird to take sight of too, with White-tailed Tropicbirds known to breed along the north coast.
In the morning we took a drive out from Port Antonio; a city with a distinctly laid back Caribbean feel, feeling like a sleepy town, not a city as such, to the wonderfully named Happy Grove. However, on arriving at the site and seeing no large white shapes cruising the bay, we were anything but happy; where were the expected tropicbirds!? They were said to be better in the early mornings, and so here we were, but there were no signs of white birds in the bay. We split up and scanned a wider area, when suddenly they began to appear; first one White-tailed Tropicbird appeared, wraith-like, amd swept onto the cliff, where it tucked itself into a hole, a presumed nest spot. Scanning further produced up to 8 more birds, swirling around the bay, with several birds chasing each other, in an ancient, well-versed, courtship ritual. Relief was palpable. With that, and staggering views of these oceanic "ballet dancers" (they seem somehow more graceful and elegant than most other seafaring birds); we moved to one of Jamaica's most famous birding sites, the Ecclesdown Road. 
Within twenty minutes of our arrival some emerald green shapes in the treetops were lined up in our scope, and a second of our targets was achieved, good looks at Black-billed Parrots. Later that morning several Jamaican Crows set off an alarm for us, when they passed overhead giving off their stranges, quite un-crow-like calls as they did so. However, try as we might, a male Black-billed Streamertail simply refused to show. They are said to be common and conspicuous at this site, which made us feel nothing short of blind. Only momentary glimpses of a couple of non-streamered females were all we were rewarded for our focused efforts. Enough was enough, desperate times called for desperate measures; we went to a local hotel with feeders! Within seconds of our arrival we had a male Black-billed Streamertail in our bins, buzzing around reception, while a Jamaican Mango fed in the well-trimmed garden alongside! The Full Monty of Jamaican Endemics had been achieved, and we were free to return to our James Bond books and relax!

07 April 2015

Feeding time in Coffee Country...JAMAICA (25th March)

A full day was spent in "Coffee Country", AKA the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. The Blue Mountains are best known for some of the most expensive, and arguably best, coffee on the planet. However, we were not here for beans, but birds, and the area is brimming with these too. During the morning I got my lifer Caribbean Dove, while another in the group got his lifer Crested Quail-Dove (my fourth and final of this Jamaica trip); in addition to those birds we finally tracked down a Jamaican Blackbird, and also got jaw dropping looks at a male Yellow-shouldered Grassquit, another of the bevy of endemic birds to found on this Caribbean isle.
With most of our Blue Mountains targets bagged by lunchtime, we were free to have a siesta, and to relax around our wonderful mountain chalet over lunch. I often do hard core birding tour, with little time to relax, with the real risk of missing birds in doing so. Thus, it was nice for a change and a more relaxed birding style, that the Caribbean demands. While others slept, I put my camera to work, as the feeders at the Starlight Chalet are superb. Just two feeders offer brown sugar water to hummingbirds and others, but in spite of lowly numbers of feeders (compared with, say, some Ecuadorian or Peruvian lodges), they were nothing of not busy and active with a procession of hungry birds....
The most regular "feeder bird" was also Jamaica's national bird, the iconic Red-billed Streamertail. Following hot on its heels were plentiful Bananaquits, with the odd Orangequit (also known locally as Bluequit or Blue Badas) for good measure too. Every so often a male Yellow-faced Grassquit would pop in too, while a pair of Jamaican Orioles held centre stage when they arrived, in dramatic fashion, on and off over several hours glued to the chalet's balcony. Also on the agenda were warblers too, with Prairie Warbler and a female Black-throated Blue Warbler showing their faces several times. This was a great way to "relax" (i.e. getting stressed at the missed photo opportunities, when I missed a bird sneak in behind me!) The chalet garden proved fruitful too, that morning a super confiding Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, a real bruiser of a bird, loafed above the vegetable garden, while Sad Flycatchers picked insects off the chalet walls.

It was a great day, topped off with another encounter with the same young Jamaican Owl from a few days before, but also an adult too, for good measure...