30 September 2014

Bloody Marvellous!...PERU (8 Sept.)

Northern Peru is a land of contrasts, where you can begin the day in one environment, and by the end of the day find yourself somewhere entirely new and different. On this day we began by birding the scrub and remnant humid forest close to the city of Jaen. This area was visited for its discrete set of Maranon birds. Like many spots in this habitat within this region though, it is not super diverse. It is a low diversity area, but with high numbers of regional endemics. Thus our morning was not about racking up big lists, but checking off the handful of specialties in the area. We opened with a marvellous Maranon Crescentchest creeping about below the bushes. I missed the best viewing for the others in the group, but held back and had the bird to myself for a choice time too. The same spot also had several Red-crested Finches too. While I got greedy with the crescentchest, the others went in search of Maranon Spinetail, which I then missed due to my thorough approach to what I take for acceptable views. Never mind though, I had at least seen that species in southern Ecuador eons ago.

Our next stop was an area called Huembo. The area may look unremarkable from the highway, but a mural on the walls soon alerts you to the fact this place is far from unremarkable, for it is the main home of one of the World's most dazzling hummingbirds, the Marvelous Spatuletail. Gone are the days of descending down a slope and hoping to see one of these amazing creatures zip by; as now a set of feeders lures them in each and every day. I guess the suspense has been lost, as a sighting has become expected, but when you've paid this much money to come all the way to deepest darkest Peru to get one, I for one, will take it! (Photo by Nick Athanas). The same site held numerous White-bellied Hummingbirds, and a teeny, tiny Little Woodstar too.

By the end of the day we had arrived in the forest cloaked Andean foothills (at Waqanki Lodge), with the bird diversity once again through the roof in stark contrast to the morning's site. We had precious little time to bird the area on arrival and so hastened to the hummingbird feeders, where a perched male Rufous-crested Coquette soon got the blood rushing. The same feeders came with Golden-tailed Sapphire, a male White-chinned Sapphire, Black-throated Hermit, Gray-breasted Sabrewing, Blue-tailed and Sapphire-spangled Emeralds, and Long-billed Starthroat. A lot to take in, during a frantic thirty minute spell, before the light began to fade. That night we quickly learned of the quality of nightbirding on site. Hearing a gruff sounding owl calling just as the tropical day switched to tropical night (for it is so quick it feels like a light switching off), Mark and I moved into the forest, where we soon tracked down this Band-bellied Owl staring down at us (gruff owl located; check!) After dinner we went out again, listing three different nightjars in doing so: Common Pauraque, a lifer Rufous Nightjar, and a wonderful Spot-tailed Nightjar that glided around within a meter of us.

We retired at 10PM, with much excitement at what this site may bring on the next day; we had barely got there and had netted more than a few high end species already!

27 September 2014

Piura Class...PERU (7 Sept.)

The second day of our Northern Peru circuit, we headed up into the montane scrub and remnant forest patches at Abra Porculla, at an elevation of 2145m/7040ft. This was where we started to see some of the magnificent scenery that Northern Peru has to offer. By the end of the tour, I was well aware that this region of Peru is perhaps unfairly overlooked for the Manu region of the southeast; the numbers of birds, the quality of birds, and the landscapes in this part of Peru were every bit as good as that more visited region. Our reason for visiting here was a range of Tumbesian birds, many of which I was very familiar with, from leading a goodly number of tours in Southern Ecuador, although it's star resident, the Piura Chat-Tyrant, is a highly local Peruvian endemic, and offered me my most likely lifebird of the morning. Our focus was to find this bird, for it was the key specialty in the area, and soon after breakfast we had one in the bag, which flitted off so quickly, that only a few of us got onto it. Later that morning, and after a swathe of other regional specialties, we saw a much more obliging bird, which at least allowed me record shots. 

In between the performance of the Puira Chat-Tyrants, I enjoyed seeing some familiar faces from Southern Ecuador, many of which were new for Mark, who was undertaking his first foray in the Tumbesian biogeographic realm (which encompasses southwest Ecuador and northwest Peru). These included the butch Black-cowled Saltator, with its powerful, hefty orange bill, in contrast to its otherwise dull colors; several Line-cheeked Spinetails, working their way through the scrub below us; a handful of Chapman's Antshrikes; several shy Gray-and-gold Warblers that left most of us hoping for more of them; a small party of Bay-crowned Brush-Finches proving much easier to see than they can be in Southern Ecuador (where they typically give me the run around!); and a spritely pair of Three-banded Warblers, which seemed determined to not only be noticed above their more high profile neighbours, but also be photographed (which I duly obliged them to do). 

The area was also alive with calling male Purple-collared Woodstars, with their gleaming metallic blue-green throats, and oddly un-hummingbird like display calls. As we descended the road, with activity falling with the ever more powerful sun hitting the slopes, some light, but persistent, tapping led us to discover an Ecuadorian Piculet working a slender tree limb above us. While the Piura Chat-Tyrant was the must-see bird of the morning, it was not the most popular; that fell to the splendid Elegant Crescentchest, which gave Mark an entirely new family (the Crescentchests/Melanopareiidae), and me a buzz, as it is a smashing looking bird.

A fairly long drive lay ahead, and so with the sun now beating down, we loaded back into the vehicle and headed northeastwards, in the direction of the city of Jaen, our destination for the night, and the home of many Marañón specialties. During the hottest part of the day, we pulled off the side of the highway, and Nick persistently tried to pull something out of an unlikely situation. Barely a bird moved in the extreme heat of the day, but Nick did finally pick up a very subtle, quiet, note from a bird that he hoped would be just what he had hoped for. Then with a little playback Nick, lured up several Little Inca-Finches into the top of the low scrub. An upslope scramble was needed for us all to get views, but it was worth it for our first Inca-Finches of our lives, and one of the trickier ones on this itinerary (which offered 3 of the 5 species). The same scrub also bright us further Collared Antshrikes, but a softly calling Marañón Crescentchest, would not oblige us by showing us a second crescentchest of the day, and we hoped we would get a second crack at the species the following day.

In the afternoon we birded some dense scrub near Jaen, in search of yet more Marañón species, and quickly picked up Northern Slaty-Antshrike, of the distinctive form leucogaster, which is confined to the Marañón drainage, may yet be recognised as a distinct species in its own right (people sometimes refer to it as "Marañón Slaty-Antshrike". We'd hoped to find the rare and secretive Marañón Spinetail in the same area, although significant habitat modification in the area left us leaving empty-handed as regards this species, and wondering if the development had yielded its decline there. Our time was not wasted though as we added Yellow-cheeked Becard (currently regarded as a form of Green-backed Becard), Spot-throated Hummingbird, a lucky flyover Bicolored Hawk, a Short-tailed Hawk gliding over us, several Speckled-breasted Wrens, and another Pearl Kite for the trip. The large stick nests of Rufous-fronted Thornbirds littered the area, and we soon also saw several of these unremarkable birds (in relation to their remarkable nests). The day closed, as we headed for the city of Jaen for the night, with a score of Lesser Nighthawks hawking low over the roadside paddies.

We had further work to do, bird-wise, in the Jaen area; so over a fantastic chicken dinner in a traditional Peruvian restaurant, we plotted another morning search for the spinetail and other near Jaen....

25 September 2014

Birds & Boats in Coastal Peru...6 Sept.

After our bumper crop of Tumbesian birds at Bosque de Pomac, we headed back towards Peru's fourth largest city, Chiclayo, and the coast. We were rudely interrupted by some birds along the way though, with Nick spotting a Baird's Flycatcher, rather skillfully, from our speeding vehicle, which caused us to flea the vehicle at pace, (the bird was found sitting unremarkably shortly after). Nick too, noticed a camera-shy Pearl Kite, sitting on roadside wires, which hot-footed it away as soon as our cameras were in sight of it. As we got close to the coast our eyes were directed skywards, for any small flocks of hirundines (i.e. swallows), as this is the realm of the scarce Chestnut-collared Swallow, several small parties of which were seen, with persistence.

Finally, we arrived by a small pool in off the sea at Puerto Eten, where Nick (the official guide for the trip), was ready to target a small songbird within the low rushes at the edges. As we bundled out of the car, a couple of stately shorebirds rose suddenly out of the shrubbery, and revealed themselves to be a pair of Peruvian Thick-knees, which posed, in exemplary fashion, for our raised cameras. The pool revealed the hoped-for Wren-like Rushbird, appropriately in the low rushes around the edges. The pond also hosted numerous waterbirds, including Gray-hooded GullsLeast and Baird's Sandpipers, Black-necked Stilts, and the first, of literally hundreds, of Wilson's Phalaropes. In the grassy edges of the pool we flushed up a couple of Yellowish Pipits, which later showed much better with aid of our 'scopes.

The final stop of the day was on the coast at Santa Rosa. Again, a pool was the centre of our attention, although the edges of this one were matted with tall reeds and rushes, much more suitable for the main target bird of the afternoon, a strange and colourful reed-dwelling flycatcher, which defies the very idea that flycatchers are all dull and boring. A quick burst of playback brought three Many-colored Rush-Tyrants into view, sporting their lemon-yellow chests and beautiful blue sides to the head. Magnificent, this bird seemed to get a better rise than the plantcutter did earlier that day! 

We finished off on the nearby beach, which was carpeted with gulls, with numerous adult and juvenile Gray Gulls dominating the pack, while massive Peruvian Pelicans cruised regularly overhead. We also got to admire the traditional reed fishing boats dotted along the beach. The near city of Chiclayo may be a modern bustling city of some 700,000 people, but here on the coast, traditional practices, at least to some degree, were still alive and well. 

Next up Abra Porculla...

22 September 2014

Lost in PERU...6 Sept.

Having been sidelined for the last few months in Quito, Ecuador, while recuperating from a hip operation, this was to be my first major foray into the field since the op, and I was chomping at the bit. I joined a small group of two people for a Northern Peru custom tour led by Nick Athanas of Tropical Birding. This served two primary purposes for me: to have a fine birding holiday, where I had not yet been, and also to learn an area which I would sincerely love to guide some time in the future. Having arrived the evening before in Lima, Nick and I connected with Mark Gawn and later, Richard Goldfarb, the two participants on the tour, and quickly boarded a flight to Peru's fourth largest city, Chiclayo, in the north. 

No sooner had we landed but we were on the road heading east to the deciduous forest of Bosque de Pomac, most famous among birders as the hangout for the endemic Peruvian Plantcutter. Soon after arriving in the area, we started picking up "Tumbesian" birds, which are found within this endemic-rich Tumbesian region, (found within Northwest Peru and Southwest Ecuador). This included a typically boisterous group of Fasciated Wrens greeting us on arrival; and soon after we started to walk the "plantcutter trail". We saw the first of many Grey-and-white Tyrannulets, sporting their characteristic, elaenia-like crests. However, the star flycatchers were lemon yellow Tumbes Tyrants (my first lifer of the trip just minutes in), and the endemic Rufous Flycatcher, which was conspicuous throughout our time there. However, the kazoo-like calls, and Union Jack-colored body, of Peruvian Plantcutters were conspicuously absent. About every turn we came upon the ever-present Vermilion Flycatcher, which in spite of its abundance, is a stunning bird in its own right.

However, we were all here to see specialties and endemics, and so with the plantcutter failing to perform, we set off for another, moving into a particularly arid part of the reserve, where the trees gave way to low scrub, and sand was felt underfoot. Flying low over the trees in this area was another of our targets, the white-rumped Tumbes Swallow, swooping low over the scrub, and onto our life lists. Meanwhile, a diminutive Peruvian Pygmy-Owl stared back at us with those typically angry-looking eyes that only owls seem to bear, from the scrub below. While the forest at this site is not bursting with diversity, like that of some forests on the wetter Andean slopes, it is home to numerous specialties and localized endemics, the plantcutter being the A-list one in this area. While we worked the area again for this much-wanted bird, we enjoyed other specialties like the stout-billed Cinereous Finch, the dashing White-tailed Jay and several Collared Antshrikes. As morning turned to lunchtime, and the heat of the day reached its peak, things were looking increasingly grim in our quest for the plantcutter. We emerged from the trail that bears its name, and worked the road, feeling somewhat deflated. Then, just when Rick thought he was eyeballing yet another mockingbird, up popped a red, white and blue bird; a stunning male Peruvian Plantcutter!!! Thanks to Rick for saving us from the tricky decision of whether to ditch the afternoon's coastal birding for yet more time scouring the forest for this endemic cotinga. We enjoyed great views and could soon after head back towards the coast with our consciouses clear, all of our targets in the bag. 

Next up was an action-packed close to the day birding the dunes, and pools along the coast near Chiclayo...

17 May 2014

Elegant Nibbler...(Costa Rica late Feb.)

Andrew Spencer, Cameron Cox, and I spent a couple of days in the dry tropical forest of Santa Rosa National Park in the Pacific Northwest. It was my first visit to this site, and I was very impressed with it. Santa Rosa is Costa Rica's oldest national park, established in the year I was born, 1971. This is the biggest stand of tropical dry forest I had been in within Costa Rica. 

We had come here as we were keen to see, and photograph, the Elegant Trogon Trogon elegans in particular, which many, like me, have seen previously in Arizona in the US. However, the form that occurs in Santa Rosa (which is the southernmost population of the species) differs in the colour of the uppertail, which lacks the coppery coloration they they show in North America. The evening before when we arrived at the park, we had not a sniff of an Elegant Trogon, but how different a few dawns on site proved to be, with half a dozen or more seen and heard. As well as Elegant Trogons, which were a joy to see all over again, other trogons were in evidence too; arguably the easiest of all 9 trogon species in Costa Rica: Black-headed Trogon Trogon melanocephalus. While writing this blog I thought enough was enough, and I should finally din out what "TROGON" means, and it turns out it means to gnaw or nibble.

After picking up our first handful of Elegants on our first morning, a lifebird decided to walk out on to the road in front of the car: THICKET TINAMOU Crypturellus cinnamomeus, and by the end of a couple of days there we had bagged a trio of these handsome tinamous. A number of other local Costa Rican species also occur at Santa Rosa, and we were keen to track these down too; Banded Wren Thryophilus pleurostictus was less abundant than we expected, but some great views were had during the cooler post-dawn hours of the day. Indeed, it was so hot while we were there that activity was very concentrated, with the best in the precious few post-dawn hours, when birds like Banded Wrens were only encountered during this time. So if you were planning to go to this fantastic park in Guanacaste, I would make sure you plan your main birding sessions from dawn, as if you searched for some species like Elegant Trogon and Banded Wren any later than that you may feel they are extremely difficult, which is not the case in these key hours only. Another local species which we managed to track down was the Ivory-billed Woodcreeper Xiphorhynchus flavigaster, which was hanging around another pair of Elegant Trogons

Aside from these birds we saw a number of species typical of this Pacific-slope woodland in northern Costa Rica: Cinnamon Hummingbird Amazilia rutila, Plain-capped Starthroat Heliomaster constantii, Stripe-headed Sparrow Peucaea ruficauda, White-lored Gnatcatcher Polioptila albiloris, Scrub Euphonia Euphonia affinis, and Yellow-naped Parrot Amazona auropalliata and White-fronted Parrots Amazona albifrons. Of course no visit to this habitat would be complete without an encounter with one of the most conspicuous birds of this region, the comical White-throated Magpie-Jay Calocitta formosa. We saw plenty of these birds, which roam the woods in small parties and often genuinely seem to curious, often flying straight up to check us out, with absolutely no encouragement from us. 

One of my favourite birds of this habitat was saved until last when I finally managed to hear, and track down a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo Morococcyx erythropygus
, complete with it's splendid bright blue "eyeshadow". My attempts to photograph this bird were thwarted though by the burning late afternoon sun doing its best to burn out all of my efforts. Little did I know though, this minor frustration was to be rectified just the next day, when we visited Rincon de Vieja...

15 May 2014

BIG Foot & BIG Bird...(Costa Rica late Feb.)

I have been remiss and forgot to insert some of the highlights from earlier in the day around Cano Negro. So I am going to post them here, before we move on back to Santa Rosa...
As we sidled along gently in our boat within Cano Negro National Wildlife Refuge, in sluggish waters, the wake of a bird swimming through the water caught our eye, and led us to a stunning female Sungrebe, a bird which normally hides in the shadows of overhanging vegetation, but on this occasion shocked us by brazenly swimming right out into the sunlit open water.
On the muddy banks a young Northern Jacana showed off its trademark feet, or more precisely, its absurdly long toes ("BIG Foot").

After the boat trip we ventured onto a dry dusty road where a giant tree held a BIG bird; indeed the bird is so big that it's name, Jabiru, literally means VERY BIG  bird!

At the end of the day, on arriving in Santa Rosa National Park, an apricot-coloured bird in a leafless tree turned out to be our first Streak-backed Oriole; then at night, post-Pacific Screech-Owl we kept nearly tripping over Common Pauraques which were ridiculously close right outside our room on site in the national park. It may not have had a Striped Owl as its headline, but it was a fantastic day, and I seriously hope to return for birding or guiding in Cano Negro again one day...

Next up Santa Rosa...

14 May 2014

Pacific Heights...(Costa Rica late Feb.)

At the end of our day around Cano Negro we headed from the northern Caribbean to the north Pacific, and Santa Rosa National Park. We arrived in the late afternoon, with no sleeping arrangements planned. Luckily we seemed to have arrived just in time, with the National Park employees being very accommodating and allowing us to stay and eat there, in spite of our late arrival with no reservations. We only had a short time to bird a little around the accommodations but still squeezed in a gaudy "Jaffa" orange Streak-backed Oriole, and admired the powerful-looking Pale-billed Woodpecker shinning up a tree, before dusk fell. 

At night, for the second consecutive night, we went on the hunt of another owl lifer (for me and Cameron anyway): Pacific Screech-Owl. Soon after dusk fell its distinctive "chuckling trill" was heard right outside our room, and the game was on. Having spent many nights tracking down screech-owls in the Americas and scops-owls in the Orient, I knew that a bird in the midst of calling constantly can often be approached and seen with ease, when it is thoroughly engrossed in proclaiming its territory during the early part of the evening. And so I went in, and that's when I discovered a well-named tree called the Ant Acacia Acacia collinsii. I did very well the avoid its substantial thorns as I groped around in the dark for a grip on something, but did not avoid its colony of ants which attacked me with full force, and justified their later learned reputation for a fierce sting. Pretty soon after I retreated, red-faced, from my failed owl quest, while Cameron and Andrew just chastised me for my foolishness, which, after my significant cries from the ant onslaught, had caused the owl to, unsurprisingly, fall completely silent! Interestingly (although not so much at the time of the stinging attack), a form of mutualism occurs between the ants and the acacia, where one species of Pseudomyrmex ants occupies the tree (often sheltering within the trees considerable thorns), and the ants forage on sugary secretions from the plant (from the leaf stalks), and also receive proteins which are found in the leaflets. For this, the plant receives protection when anything, like a hapless, and rather clueless human groping around under darkness for the sight of an owl!

With the owl silent and the stings over my torso still very real, we walked around in the hope of hearing another calling owl, which failed completely. We did, however, come up trumps with this Milk Frog Phynophyas venulosa sheltering in one of the camp toilets, which also comes equipped with a rather unpleasant armoury; its skin excretes a milky-like  substance when threatened, which contains skin toxins that can cause a burning sensation (something which I already was experiencing, post-ants), and also induce sneezing in some even without direct contact. Luckily, after my ant attack I was more wary of touching anything and remained at a safe distance!

On returning to the original owl spot, we heard again the same Pacific Screech-Owl, Megascops cooperi, used a little playback, rather than going in blindly, and Cameron watched the bird land just above us, where it blinked back impressively in the spotlight; job done!

The next day we spent more time around Santa Rosa National Park, with a handful of lifers available and whole new area to explore...