30 September 2011

Following in the footsteps of Fraser...MALAYSIA (29 Sept.)

We spent an incredible day birding the upper slopes of Fraser's Hill and in the afternoon down at the base around The Gap. Fraser's Hill first though. After an unsuccessful attempt to find the elusive Malayan Whistling-Thrush (but picking up a fine pair of Large Niltavas), we started on Bishop's Trail (named after Reverend Bishop of Singapore, C. J Ferguson-Davie, who explored this area in search of the missing adventurer Fraser after whom the hill or "Bukit" in Malay was named). Things were quiet for a while before a Streaked Wren-Babbler relented and hopped around within a meter of us with a little encouragement from my I-Pod. A Red-headed Trogon sat motionless while on the hunt for any passing bugs, and a pair of Pygmy Blue-Flycatchers flitted around nervously. Then the biggest shock of all: a Rusty-naped Pitta was taped in (albeit briefly) and visible from the trail!

Moving out into the town we ran into an aggressive Mountain Leaf-Warbler that very nearly took my knee out when I played the tape. Quite scary for a bird of a mere ten centimeters long!

In the afternoon I decided to mix it up and cover the lower slopes and The Gap for a very different mix of birds...

29 September 2011

Bukit Owling...MALAYSIA (28-29 Sept.)

Have been in Peninsular Malaysia for a little while now guiding a private group. Taman Negara was as exciting as ever: Large and Gould's Frogmouth, and Sunda Scops-Owls were seen at night, while the day brought a swathe of cool birds of the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia including Banded and Garnet Pittas, Rail-Babbler (which was watched calling spectacularly as it dipped it's head low and inflated its neck sacs!), Green, Black-and-red, Black-and-yellow and Banded Broadbills, Crested Fireback, and lots of trogons (including Cinnamon-rumped).

We have now moved in to the foothills, or more precisely Bukit Fraser, one of Southeast Asia's best birding sites and one of my favorite hangouts. We started last night with this Brown Wood-Owl, which sat calmly by the quaint town of Fraser's Hill, ignoring the hub-ub and our spotlight. The owl theme continued today with this angry looking little owl, the Collared Owlet which literally looks like it has eyes in the back of its head...

More updates to come from Malaysia, where Beef Rendang and quality birds are a daily fixture!

15 September 2011

Giant Start to the day...ECUADOR (11 Sept)

Our second day along the La Guatamala Trail in Ecuador started inauspiciously enough. The car battery was dead and we simply could not get it jump-started. Desperate to get back out in the field, Andrew Spencer found someone at 05.30a.m. in the morning willing to help (for all I know Andrew simply grappled him out of his truck in desperation!) We were on our way, only for Andrew to realize as we arrived on site (a 40 minute drive), he had left his I-pod (a vital part of a guide's make-up) back at the hotel. So I wandered down the trail alone, and a frustrated Andrew drove back to Banos. Things were quiet along the trail when suddenly a massive shape hopped up on to a near log. I lifted my bins and they landed on a conspicuous Giant Antpitta! I was shocked and in disbelief of what was patently in front of my eyes, so I moved in for better views-who was gonna believe I had the rare eastern race at down near 1200m (when they are normally known from 2000m upwards, and rarely seen at all)?! I felt I needed a photo at least. I played a tape as I saw it scurrying back into the undergrowth and feared hopes of photos were fading fast, and at the same time scrambled down the slope. While scrambling I had not registered that the bird had suddenly leapt up into an open tree in front of me. I looked up and was faced with this bird, which appeared to be a juvenile bird courtesy of barring on the coverts and mantle feathers. When the bird wandered off so did I, further up the trail, wondering whether Andrew would believe me.

A few hours later Andrew comes up the trail and asked him what he had seen, to which he replied "Giant Antpitta". My need for a photo had waned, but I was oh so glad I got one, as it is rarely photoed on the east slope. Bird of the weekend!

14 September 2011

The perfect puffbird...ECUADOR (10 Sept)

Our afternoon along Ecuador's La Guatamala trail was superb. One person (aside from Andrew) was seen all day long, and plenty of birds were around. Hitting various flocks we picked up Fulvous-breasted Flatbill (a belated lifer for me), and Blue-browed Tanagers brightened the flocks too, along with a variety of flycatchers that were in attendance including a number of Ecuadorian Tyrannulets. Also amongst the flocking birds were several Equatorial Graytails, and on one occasion a Gray-mantled Wren for direct comparison too. Sadly the hoped for Spectacled Prickletail was just glimpsed and heard. A lifer, but one that will creep onto my list under cover of darkness in shame at the poor views that led to this!

The rushing Rio Zunag hosted a fine pair of Torrent Ducks, and a bounty of bright pink flowers along the trail drew in hummingbirds, from Long-tailed Sylphs to Greenish Pufflegs and Green-fronted Lancebills. However, the best bird of the afternoon for me was this fierce looking Black-streaked Puffbird that hissed at us as only a puffbird can!

Another day on the trail the following day yielded a giant surprise...

13 September 2011

Day of the Finch...ECUADOR (10 Sept..)

The last trip Andrew and I did just a week or so ago, we were stunned by the high numbers of White-rimmed Brush-Finches we racked up in a day. On this day (La Guatamala Trail, eastern Ecuador) the "bumper bird" turned out to be Olive Finch. While not as rare as the brush-finches, it is still a scarce bird and one you do not think of as a double figure species. However, by early afternoon we had managed to see ten different Olive Finches, many of which posed time and again for photos...Here are some of the "perfect ten" for you to admire...

Lots more to come from our weekend in the foothills of the Andes...

12 September 2011

In the shadow of volcanoes...ECUADOR (10 Sept.)

Andrew Spencer and I once again left the smog of the city behind and headed into the fresh air of forests in the Andes, though this time we headed south out of Quito to the town of Banos, in the shadow of the often smouldering Tungurahua volcano. However, unlike most tourists we were not here for the views of this splendid natural phenomenon but were here to investigate the forest trails nearby and take in their avian residents. This was my first time on the trail, known as La Guatamala Trail, that passes through an area of rich foothill forest, while the scenic Rio Zunag cuts through the valley bottom. Andrew had been here before and highly recommended the site. Seeing as the very first bird of the day turned out to be a new Ecuador bird for me, Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, I concurred very quickly! This odd bird is like a stream-loving leaftosser, having the same charismatic habits of bounding around on the ground and often seen tossing leaves around in the fashion of those birds. We saw three different birds including one that appeared to be a young bird.

Soon after our attentions were turned to another bird that favors the wet banks of forest streams and rivers, and one that was to feature prominently that day...

08 September 2011

End game: Back to Quito...ECUADOR (2 September)

After a fantastic mornings birding in the eastern foothills and subtropics along the La Sofia Road (even if a little wet) we reluctantly returned to Quito, and dreamed of getting back to this wonderfully quiet road (we had seen just one motorcycle all morning) on a drier day! Despite our time constraints (we had promised to return someone their car and were a little afraid of their wife's reaction if we turned it in late!), we could not resist stopping for this Cliff Flycatcher, perched of course, on a cliff on the way.

And later on as we drove over a high Andean spot we ran into an unusually high Red-breasted Blackbird, a species more often associated with lowland sweaty Amazonian areas, rather than where we saw it, at a chilly 1815 meters altitude near the Andean town of Baeza!

07 September 2011

Hints of Colombia...ECUADOR (2 September)

The following day Andrew Spencer and I were dismayed to find yet more clouds and yet more rain dogging our day's birding again. However, with just a little time to explore the exciting "new" La Sofia Road (in Succumbios province) we were not going to be put off by a little (actually quite a lot of) moisture. We arrived shortly after dawn at "the spot" for the newly discovered Yellow-throated Brush-Finch. This bird was only recently discovered in Ecuador and we could not resist to try to add it on our own personal Ecuador lists. Despite the gloom and the damp the birds were in full song and pretty soon the dawn chorus revealed an unfamiliar brush-finch song. We quickly recorded it, played it back, and were soon admiring a fine Yellow-throated Brush-Finch! We were keen though to see what else this road had to offer, and it turned out quite a lot. Soon after the excitement of a new Ecuador bird for us, we were eyeballing an "old", familiar one...Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia a gorgeous green-and-yellow tanager-like bird that posed well for us and sang continually from a low canopy, (which pleased sound recordist Andrew no end!) In between heavy downpours we found a deep purple-blue Black-collared Jay (another new Ecuador bird for us both), an Olive Finch tucked in by a noisy Andean river (as is their way), and best of all a fantastic flock of 7 White-capped Tanagers. These large, boisterous tanagers behave and sound more like jays (indeed their affinities with them have been the subject of debate over the years). A noisy flock of them was perched in a roadside palm as we were trying to leave the site, and were stopped in our tracks by their piercing Turquoise Jay like calls, and we paused to enjoy my best ever views of the species.

Reluctantly, with the tanagers taking flight with a flurry of noisy calls, we pointed the car towards Quito and headed home...

05 September 2011

There's another one (or 3)!...ECUADOR (1 September)

.. We continued our exploration of the north with a late afternoon drive down a "new" road to the town of La Sofia, where the roadsides are cloaked in beautiful forest. The appeal of this place was very few birders have yet to visit it, and we were happy to be part of this meager handful of people. The site was put on the map when the first birder to go there, Jonas Nilsson, found a new bird for Ecuador Yellow-throated Brush-Finch. No such luck for us on a restricted afternoon, limited by heavy rains. However, brush-finches did again steal the headlines though as we found another three more territories of White-rimmed Brush-Finches, which once again posed admirably for more photos. Sorry (actually I am not sorry!) to keep posting photos of these birds, but I loved them, and got to see them repeatedly, which for a rare bird if too often, a rare thing! More to come from this exciting new road as we tried there again the following day...

04 September 2011

Bicolored Antpitta: AT LAST! ECUADOR (1 September)

After yesterday's draining weather conditions: high winds and rain, at odds with our location in the tropics, we were relieved to awake in calmer conditions. We returned to the White-rimmed Brush-Finch area. I (as always) was looking for better photos, and Andrew Spencer (as ever) was looking for better sound recordings. We were greeted by not only the original pair from the day before, but also 4 other calling birds. I managed to see 4 different birds on this morning alone!

They hopped around us and gave crippling views before we decided to try again for the elusive Bicolored Antpitta that had not only eluded me the day before, but also on a trip to the area a few years before. We trudged through the mud to the spot and Andrew let rip with his recording from the day before. As then, the bird quickly responded and slowly but surely sounded louder as it moved in closer to investigate our call. Then for just a brief moment I managed to get this rusty bird in my bins before it melted back into the gloomy understorey once more. Was that to be it, I thought? All that pain for just cursory looks!?

We tried the playback again and this time we were stunned by its remarkable (and exemplary) reaction. It seemed to abandon its normally shy habits and hopped up on to exposed branches around us, glared at us several times, gave stunning views, and then hopped off back into the gloom where it had come from. Fantastic, now THAT was worth waiting for...

In the afternoon we left the La Bonita Road behind and headed to an exciting new site nearby...

03 September 2011

Rare "rims" indeed...ECUADOR (31 August)

After returning from my native Britain, and spending a little time in Quito, I was desperate to get back in the field, birding in the Andes. A generously lent car to use (thanks Iain), and another birder desperate to get back in the field, Andrew Spencer, led to a plan hatched to return to the La Bonita Road that skirts the Colombian border. Since I last went there a few exciting new discoveries had been made in the area: the very rarely seen White-rimmed Brush-Finch had been discovered there, and a "new" road to la Sofia had been "discovered" and yielded a first for Ecuador, Yellow-throated Brush-Finch for the discoverer. Clearly there was much on offer up there near the frontier with Colombia. Fruthermore, there was a grudge I needed to settle with the local Bicolored Antpitta. This largely Colombian species just creeps over the border into Ecuador there (Colombia can actually be seen looming just across the valley from the road), and I had tried unsuccessfully two years ago to see it there . So desperation to get back in the field, a car to ensure we can, exciting new discoveries to chase after, and old scores to settle...plenty of reasons to visit the province of Succumbios in Ecuador.

Andrew and I spent a night in Santa Barbara and awoke to strong winds and heavy rain, not the usual weather pattern one associates with the tropics, even up here in the temperate zone of the Andes. We set out anyhow, searching "the spot" where the brush-finch had been seen a year previously and chasing unsuccessfully after calling Bicolored Antpittas, which would quickly turn mute thereafter! Indeed, the birding was so bad it was hard to believe we were in one of the World's megadiverse countries, and one that boasts one of the highest bird lists in on Earth. In fact, it got so bad that we even contemplated abandoning this area for another far, far away. However, after a hearty soup to warm the bones and rejuvenate us, we returned to the La Bonita Road where an unusual brush-finch call attracted our attention, and changed our fortune in an instant. A quick play of one of the few recordings of White-rimmed Brush-Finch available brought a pair of these beautiful, bespectacled birds right out in the open. Described as "rare and inconspicuous" and "shy", when they soon disappeared we thought that was that, a brief but nice view but who could expect more from a species with this reputation. However, we moved in closer, Andrew played a burst of playback, and these timid brush-finches defied their reputations, responding explosively, and regular came with in just a few feet of us, and often posed unashamedly in the open. Their devilish reputation was looking shakier all the time. Our decision to stay on for another night in Santa Barbara was looking better all the time!

Great views, of a great lifer...