21 March 2015

The Music of the Night....COSTA RICA (26th Feb.)

This day was spent at the classic lowland rainforest site of La Selva, which offers some of the easiest jungle birding outside of northeast Queensland (Australia). The day was packed with goodies like Broad-billed and Rufous Motmots, an Ariel white Snowy Cotinga, Collared Aracari, Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, White-collared Manakin, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, and loads more besides. Although I will remember this more for the "creatures of the night". Smarting after shooting blanks the night before, as it were, in regards to finding owls, on this day we crossed the Stone Bridge, and set out into the primary forest for owls. We had a hot tip from one of the local guides and so hurried to the spot, and I shuffled to the call of Vermiculated Screech-Owl on my trusty I-pod. 

Five minutes passed, and it seemed no one was home, but then a soft, muffled version of the call came from the jungle. A further five minutes passed and it was clear that the bird was remaining sat close, but out of sight of the trail. I walked in a little and found the birding sitting completely in the open, where it remained, and even called in full view of us. With our good fortune we decided to look around the area for any other owls, and quickly (within 5 mins) heard another, gruffer owl call...a Mottled Owl. Just 5 minutes post-screech-owl, this considerably larger owl was locked in our bins too! Due to a fortuitous encounter with Guy Dutson earlier that evening, as we headed back across the Stone Bridge we found "his" roosting Great Tinamou, and on the way back to the cabins stopped in/twitched a Central American Fer-de-Lance sat beside the trail, looking every bit as dangerous as it is!

It was a memorable night in Costa Rica's jungles....

19 March 2015

Waiting for Snow...COSTA RICA (25th Feb.)

...Now that is not something that many can claim on the eastern seaboard of the United States this year! But, more of that later.

Having bagged 7 Fiery-billed Aracaris and a Spot-breasted Oriole pre-breakfast, post-breakfast we drove into the Caribbean foothills, and Braulio Carrillo National Park. With our delayed departure from the Central Valley, delayed because of an exciting onslaught of birds, we did not roll into Braulio until the "poor birding time" of nearly 11am. I was not that hopeful of a bumper crop, with our late arrival, but decided that John and I would walk the famous Las Palmas trail. While John and I walked the trail, Pablo, my co-guide and bird photography fiend, went with John's wife, Irene, to enjoy the El Tapir Hummingbird Garden, just a few kilometers away.

As John and I entered the trail a Buff-rumped Warbler flitted on and off the trail, but the most noteworthy thing was the sheer lack of bird sounds; it felt like the birds had already left the building. The trail is only 1.6km long, so we figured, worst-come-the-worst, we would reach the other end in no time. John and I entered the trails without our cameras, a little laziness, and ominous clouds overhead leading us to this decision; a decision we were to regret dearly. Not only did we get no rain, but we got lots of birds, some very photogenic indeed. The first sign that things were going to work out was a Dull-mantled Antbird that showed very well on our first leg of the trail, then we hit several feeding flocks that created excitement with what they held within; the first of these held a Brown-billed Scythebill, a male White-throated Shrike-Tanager that sat at eye level for 5 whole minutes, several Carmiol's (Olive) Tanager, and Streak-crowned Antvireo and Checker-throated Antwren within the understorey component of the same flock. A little off trail work was required to locate a softly-spoken Song Wren too. Continuing on around the trail we walked into my nemesis bird, and a wonderful lifer right around lunchtime: a pair of Lattice-tailed Trogons, which could have been well photographed, were it not for my foolish lack of camera! On the way out we also walked up to a Crested Guan that glared down at us as it wolfed down fruits, and saw three Stripe-breasted Wrens too.

With our late arrival, and late lunchtime, we ate lunch and then returned to El Tapir, so that John and I could see some of what Irene and Pablo had seen during the morning. The unnerving news was that they had NOT seen a Snowcap, a hummingbird for which our visit there was crucial. However, we returned in the hope that it might pop up on one of the flowering Verbenas while we were there. While we waited for the arrival of snow, John and I set about catching up on some of the birds that were seen there during the morning: Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer flew in (photo immediately above), revealed its bright red feet and left; Green Thorntails flitted in and out of the verbenas, all the while being chased off by the aggressive resident Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds; the male Black-crested Coquette, perhaps as it is so tiny and so sneaky, flew in several times and avoided the usual vicious attacks. In the trees overhead we racked up Passerini's Tanagers, and better still, Black-and-yellow Tanager, Black-faced Grosbeak, and (for me at least), a male Tawny-capped Euphonia. The afternoon though was wearing on, and we still were without snow, and we still had to make our way another hour down into La Selva before the day was out. Tensions were high when the sun began to ail around 4:30PM, and even I was thinking that we might have to leave this bird behind, when Pablo shouted "S-N-O-W-C-A-P", and before we knew it there it was, a tiny hummingbird daubed in deep purple, and capped with a crisp white "Snowcap"! This bird is not only desirable for its rarity and endemic status (it is a regional endemic found from Honduras to west Panama, but is most gettable in Costa Rica), it just looks, and sounds good.

With the day wearing on, and snowcap bagged, we headed straight for La Selva, getting there with very little time to bird by the time of our late afternoon arrival. However, that did not stop is from adding Rufous-tailed Jacamar and Collared Aracari before darkness took over.

17 March 2015

Fire in the Valley...COSTA RICA (24-25 Feb.)

Costa Rica is a country where it feels like it is bursting at the seams with birding sites. Thus, on this short visit I squeezed in some new ones to me, and expanded my arsenal of Costa Rican birding experience in the process! I had found out about a hotel near the airport, and wished to check it out for future tours there-Hotel Robledal (Hotel Robledal) . This could not have gone better; I knew there were some birds to be seen on the grounds, but that was about it. I arrived in the country with Pablo Cervantes Daza, and over my first dinner there discovered they even had a bird guide on their reception (Emmanuel Guzman). So we hired his fantastic services for several hours at the start of our tour. 
Generally speaking, we have not traditionally done a whole lot of birding in the Central Valley (where the airport, and this nearby hotel are located) on the tours I have been part of, as we either have not had time, or are covering some of the birds in other areas later on the tour (if, for example, visiting the dry North Pacific, many of the birds can be found there), However, on this tour we found ourselves with some hours to spare, and, as we were not visiting the North Pacific, knew that this may provide an ample boost to our bird list. We were not wrong; we enjoyed a splendid time birding in and around our hotel. The start finds within the confines of these small hotel grounds were no less than 2 species of owl;  1 by day (Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl), 1 by night (Tropical Screech-Owl). 

Amazingly, during our first few hours there, in a single afternoon/evening, we had a total of THREE owl species; these two on the grounds, and a fluffy young Striped Owl on a finca (or farm) nearby. Also on that first afternoon, around the same finca, were a showy Striped Cuckoo, a few Stripe-headed Sparrows, a single "striped-up" female Green-breasted Mango, a few spritely Gray-crowned Yellowthroats, and even a covey of Crested Bobwhite (which flushed before I could really count them on my lifelist), among the more common fare like Great Kiskadees and wintering boreal birds like Baltimore Orioles and Tennessee Warblers.
It was a stunning opener, but if anything, the next morning's hour and half in and near the hotel was better yet; it opened with a jaffa-orange Spot-breasted Oriole singing in the hotel garden; we then moved on to a lake with Northern Jacanas and Purple Gallinules plowed the edges, while in the woodland alongside we found a male Gartered Trogon, Masked Tityra, Plain-capped Starthroat, and Steely-vented Hummingbird. We moved a little away from the wetland into the dry wooded hills, and things really went crazy, with bird activity at fever pitch. A flurry of activity included lots of birds in and around the same trees, perhaps goaded by a calling Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (our second in 24 hours) in the area: male Rose-throated Becard appeared with its crest raised; Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet did the same, two species of vireo then appeared (Yellow-throated and Philadelphia); then a male Streak-backed Oriole popped up too to complete a fine brace of orioles for the morning; then a Blue Grosbeak appeared, hot on the heels of a Summer Tanager, before a troop of toucans made us drop everything, and literally, run full pelt towards them. 
There in an open tree above us a group of 7 Fiery-billed Aracaris plundered the fruit crop, while other birds continued to swirl all around. Before we had to head back the hotel for breakfast we notched up more Stripe-headed Sparrows and a pair of roadside Blue-crowned Motmots....

The day was only a few hours old and we had racked up quite the list; before the end of the day we were to climb into the foothills of the Caribbean slope, to visit Braulio Carrillo National Park and El Tapir hummingbird gardens, and then move further down into the steamy lowland jungle of La Selva...This packed in not only numerous sites, but numerous birds into our day...

16 March 2015

Nature's Pavilion....COSTA RICA (23rd Feb.)

My first of three tours this year in Costa Rica was due to start on 24th February; thus, I could not resist nipping over to Costa Rica early and checking out some new spots. Costa Rica, and its myriad birding and photography possibilities are well documented, and that is one of the problems of going there. On each and every visit, in this "sanctuary country" for so many species (Costa Rica has around 28% land area which is under strict protection for conservation purposes, the largest percentage of any country on Earth), you find out about new places to go and bird or photograph birds. One of Costa Rica's pleasurable conundrums is, where to bird? (There are just so many great sites to choose from). And so, on this trip I decided, before the tour began, to check out a "photo site" called Nature's Pavilion (website here: Nature's Pavilion), run by a father son combo.

I visited with one of Tropical Birding's Photo Journey tour leaders, Ecuadorian Pablo Cervantes, a good friend of mine. On arrival we met with one of the owners (i.e. the father in the partnership), Dave Lando Sr., who showed us his wonderful property. We made 2 short visits there, when our eyes were glued to our cameras, as a parade of excellent tropical birds came in and out at the feeders. 19 species were recorded at their fruit feeders alone, with another 6 species at their hummer feeders. 

Among the common visitors were the "usual crowd" of Blue-gray and Palm Tanagers, as well as Costa Rica's poorly-selected national bird, Clay-colored Robin (Thrush). I say, "poorly selected" only because in a country packed with the exotic and tropical, it is a shame, they did not pick something more representative of what draws birders to this top notch birding destination. Among the other visitors during our visits were Olive-backed Euphonia, Black-cowled Oriole, Montezuma Oropendola, Baltimore Oriole, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Grayish and Buff-throated Saltators, Bananaquit, Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers, Crimson-collared, and Golden-hooded TanagersTennessee Warbler, Great KiskadeeGrey-headed Chachalaca, and Black-cheeked Woodpecker! 

The 6 hummingbirds seen in less than an hour at those feeders (which, while only a 30 second walk away from the fruit feeders, we limited our visits to only because we were drowning in photo opps alongside the bird-filled fruit feeders!);  were White-necked jacobin, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Green-breasted Mango, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and Stripe-throated Hermit!

Simply put, this is a must do site for bird photographers, and, at only 20 minutes drive from the birding Mecca of La Selva, easy to slip in between birding sessions in the jungle! I am sure this will not be the last time I see the place, as I have two july tours in Costa Rica to come. Cannot wait to return...Away from the feeders themselves, we had a Black-and-green Poison Frog hop below the feeders, and a male Gartered Trogon call loudly until we could ignore it no more and trained our cameras on it too!

More to come from the land of PURA VIDA....

01 January 2015

1 Morning, 3 Antpittas....ECUADOR (10th Nov.)

Having already dipped into a variety of habitats, and locations, already on this sojourn in southern Ecuador, we continued on the same tack, moving to a new elevation (around 2600m in the wet cloudforest of the temperate zone), and site: Tapichalaca. This corner of southern Ecuador was known to pioneer of Ecuadorian birding, but really hit the headlines in 1997, when an esteemed team of birders (that included Robert Ridgely among them), heard something they did not recognize, calling from a bamboo thicket on a steep slope...
They did, what only they could do in this situation; they searched for the bird, but the thicket, was, well, thick. So they moved to the only other option available to them, they made a recording of the bird, in the hope that playback would bring the bird into the open, so that they may know what had been calling. In doing this, they caused one of the greatest ornithological discoveries of the 20th Century to occur. They played the call of the bird back at the sound, and watched, with mouths agape, as a large antpitta jumped into view, and one that was clearly "new", sporting a black-and-white face pattern, unlike any others in the family, not only in Ecuador, but anywhere! Rightly, this news spread fast, hitting the news in a number of international newspapers even, and thus began an exodus of birders to see this new bird; now known as the Jocotoco Antpitta
Resulting field work proved that the bird was undetected, as it was, indeed, rare, as well as being extremely secretive, and prone to long periods of silence, while it hid away in thickets of bamboo on precipitous slopes of the Andes, making finding them, to say the least, challenging. With all this as a backdrop, we set off to the reserve, which was formed to protect the habitat of this bird, Tapichalaca. With photographers in toe, you would think this would be daunting, the idea of photographing a bird of an elusive character, in troublesome terrain and habitat. However, a rash of antpitta feeding stations have been set up, first in Ecuador, and later spreading into Colombia, Peru and Brazil. This ultimately led to the rangers in the reserve following suit, and managing to habituate a pair of these hulking antpittas, and they have subsequently become one of the easiest antpittas to see in Ecuador, in spite of its rare status. Few days go by, in this reserve, without one or two of these handsome forest birds showing up. So, I arrived confident we would be able to photograph this species, but was not expecting to have a further 2 species if antpitta at an antpitta feeding station set up behind the lodge, just weeks before our arrival. This was, to understate things, a nice surprise to find out when we rolled in to the lodge on our first evening!
Thus, we began our day, just after dawn, (and breakfast), watching a Chestnut-naped Antpitta bouncing around in the open just behind the lodge, while one of the lodge rangers tossed worms in its direction. This peaked the interest of a shyer, Undulated Antpitta, which was wary, until the larger Chestnut-naped Antpitta hopped back into the forest, when this species descended too, and picked up what that species had left behind. All of this happened down to within just ten meters of us! With two antpittas bagged we took a short drive, and an uphill walk, to another feeding station deeper within the forest, where the, now "expected", Jocotoco Antpitta, hopped around in front of us with little car for our raised cameras or our raised voices in the excitement of it all! One morning, 3 antpittas, there were no complaints coming from us, after this. Actually, the first two species appeared, again, behind the lodge, in the afternoon, when they gave me my best shots, in much improved light from the early morning gloom. While the antpittas were the clear standouts of the day, we were also wooed by a Spectacled Whitestart encountered as we returned from our third antpitta too...
Our last stop on this whistlestop photo tour of southern Ecuador's best birding/photo sites, we dropped in to one of the most highly regarded lodges in the region, Copalinga Lodge, perched on the edge of Podocarpus National Park...

31 December 2014

Birding with the Stars....ECUADOR (9th Nov.)

I guess we've all heard of "Dancing with the Stars", and so why not Birding with the Stars!?

Anyway, after leaving the dry, Kapok-studded, deciduous woodland of Jorupe behind, we climbed up higher in the Andes to the reserve of Utuana, tucked away out of sight of most passers by. The reason for our visit was abundantly clear; hummingbirds, and 2 very special ones indeed, which are specialties of the south of Ecuador and northern Peru...Luckily, they are both straightforward to find at the feeders within the forest, a thirty minute walk in from the main road. However, that is all that is straightforward about these birds; they are far from ordinary looking, both dazzlingly beautiful, especially the Rainbow Starfrontlet, which has been known to make grown men weep! Here are a few snaps of what we enjoyed over a very exciting lunch deep within the reserve, with not another tourist sole around....Their "dowdy" companion (for nest to that species, anything looks under-dressed), was a handful of Purple-throated Sunangels.
 Next up, we were on the trail of one of Ecuador's most famous birds, the Jocotoco Antpitta, a bird completely unknown to science until 1997, when a certain Robert Ridgely spotted one, and the path of Ecuadorian bird tourism and conservation was changed irreparably...

29 December 2014

Flirting with Peru...ECUADOR (8th-9th Nov.)

After finishing up with the "parakeets of gold" in Buenaventura (i.e. El Oro Parakeets), we were soon on our way heading south, in the direction of Peru. We stopped just short of entering Peru, but could see the Peruvian hills lurking in the distance, as we stopped in at another wonderful reserve of the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation: Jorupe. I have been going to Jorupe since 2005, before the foundation built their fantastic lodge, Urraca Lodge, or "Jay Lodge" (when translated), named after one of its most prominent resident, the steely blue and Ariel white, White-tailed Jay. While we had been in wet, humid evergreen forest in the foothills of the Andes just before, we moved away and into a remarkably different habitat; we now stood among largely leafless deciduous woodland, dotted with giant gnarly Kapok trees. While the ground underfoot had been positively damp in Buenaventura, here in Jorupe it was parched; it had not rained in more than 2 months! This is a joy of southern Ecuador; remarkably different habitats in close geographic proximity.
In reality the birding, in general, within Jorupe, was relatively slow, compared to previous visits. However, the feeders, were magnetic, with action all day long. Some 13 different bird species visited during our time there, some of which were species that never visit feeders anywhere else in the world, giving us great photo opps. of some local species. 
First off, I really need to show the flagship bird of the reserve, the beautiful, and bold, White-tailed Jay, a species confined to the dry Tumbesian biogeographic region that covers southwest Ecuador and northern Peru...
Another near constant at Jorupe's brilliant feeders, was the Whooping Motmot, named for its, well, whooping, calls...
I had been secretly hoping that one of the lodge's rarer birds was attending the feeders at the time; Pale-browed Tinamou, a usually extremely secretive bird (again, an endemic species, only known from this region of southern Ecuador and northern Peru). However, on talking to the lodge's knowledgeable local guide, Leo, it became clear it had not been around for a matter of weeks, and so the feeders were looking to be forlorn of this bird. Therefore, imagine my surprise when this individual ignored local advice, and sauntered out into the open...
As well as grain and fruit attracting birds at the main feeders, the lodge also has a series of hummingbird feeders. However, do not be fooled into thinking that these are for hummingbirds; nope, while we were there there was not a single hummingbird in sight within sight of the feeders. However, we were not complaining about this, as instead of hummers, the visitors involved two gaudy species if orioles: Yellow-tailed and White-edged Orioles...
We took a ride into the frontier town of Macara, where people were walking the airport, as it has been out of action for years; in between the town's people out for a walk though, a young male Peruvian Meadowlark roamed the edges, and Pacific Parrotlets dotted the roadside wires...
Away from the feeders, it was oppressively hot, so much so that little was active after a few hours after dawn; all I saw away from there was a single uncooperative Watkins's Antpitta, while at night the tiny Peruvian Screech-Owl emerged to perched aside the lodge, below eye level...
Next stop was Utuana, back up in the mountains among montane forest, which came equipped with extremely colurful hummingbirds...