31 December 2011

Happy New Year from the UK...

And what better thing to celebrate with than Barn Owls, from the best bird family on Earth! These were the result of some sterling work from Steve Blain down the country lanes of Bedfordshire in Middle England. Ironically, Tawny Owls are the commonest one in the area, and what I had planned to get. However, I am not complaining at this result at all - photos of two different Barn Owls. A very enjoyable, and late, night. We rolled in to bed at nearly 2 in the morning! Well worth it.

I have not forgotten the Galapagos and will continue with updates from there, just got distracted that's all!

27 December 2011

To Santa Cruz....GALAPAGOS (20 Nov)

We traveled the short distance from North Seymour to northern Santa Cruz in the early hours of the morning, so that we ready to depart shortly after dawn. Our destination for the morning was the highlands of Santa Cruz, a haven for endemic birds, and especially finches. Shortly after getting to Media Luna we added finches to our list with a Green Warbler-Finch that posed in the open. Small Tree-Finch was also a new bird for us in the area. We were really here though for the shy, skulking and often difficult Galapagos Rail. It took some time, indeed we walked up and down the track, picked up the endemic Galapagos Flycatcher in the meantime, and finally found our rail, right where we had looked first!

Having got the rail (but failed on photos sadly), we moved on to another area of the highlands for some reptiles and endemic birds...

26 December 2011

Land of Reptiles...GALAPAGOS (19 Nov)

This Land Iguana was found slumbering on North Seymour island on our first afternoon of our Galapagos cruise. This is an endemic species to the Galapagos, and one that is not too widespread these days. Like many Galapagos species it has undergone decline due to introduced pests by human habitation of the islands, (namely goats, dogs, and cats in the case of the iguana that predate the young especially). The nature of this decline can be fully understood when you look back at a quote from Charles Darwin himself:

"I cannot give a more forcible proof of their numbers, than by stating that when we were at James Island, we could not for some time find a spot free from their burrows on which to pitch our single tent.”
(Darwin 1845)

We only saw two wild ones in our whole time on the islands by comparison, although having said all of that the re-introduction programs are going well. Don't forget to look for them on North Seymour or Baltra if you visit, as these may be the only chances you get to find them!

On to the island of Santa Cruz next...

25 December 2011

Magnificent End...GALAPAGOS (19 Nov)

Our first day in the Galapagos, ended on our second island, North Seymour, with a flaming orange sunset, just after walking among displaying Magnificent Frigatebirds, and strolling past several multicolored Land Iguanas. The Land Iguanas have an interesting tale on these islands. They were extinct at one time on North Seymour, and so they re-introduced there from the "healthy" population on Baltra. However, after some years with a military base on Baltra, the Land Iguanas became extinct there around 1954. Subsequently, they have been re-introduced onto Baltra from North Seymour! A strange and rare situation indeed!

More to come from the Enchanted Islands soon...

24 December 2011

Enchantment to Enchanted...GALAPAGOS (19 Nov)

Well I left the so-called "Land of Enchantment" (New Mexico), and returned to Ecuador for a tour of the "Enchanted Islands" (Galapagos Islands). So after a day to get almost nothing done before the tour, I was off again. I met the group in Quito and we were soon flying over the Andes and into the tiny island of BALTRA, in the centre of the Galapagos Islands, some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, in the Pacfic Ocean. Although this tiny island was merely a stopping off point to board our ship - the superb Reina Silvia - we still jump-started our endemic list before we had even left Baltra Airport, with several Small and Medium Ground-Finches seen hopping around the terminal!

We soon boarded our vessel, ate lunch, and headed north to another islet, North Seymour, where it was not just the endemics that were friendly (like EVERYTHING on the Galapagos). While finches followed us around we sidestepped one of the biggest celebrities in the islands, Blue-footed Boobies, and proved the art of pishing is not dead with finches and Yellow Warblers particular fans, coming in extraordinarily close...

Much. much more from the Galapagos Islands to come...

21 December 2011

Farewell New Mexico...(16 - 17 Nov)

Well, it had been a flying visit to the so-called "Land of Enchantment". I had sampled the much touted chilli (both red and green, although not yet "Christmas", a mixture of both), and been more than happy, and been to Bosque del Apache, and been ecstatic at the extraordinary scenes that greeted me. On top of that I dropped in to see (one at least) of the Rosy-finches at Sandia Crest. In short, this amazing state, which seems vastly under birded, under appreciated, and overshadowed by its neighbor, Arizona, had quite the effect on me. I am sure this will not be my last time in this well named land! I cannot resist throwing a few more photos up there from this flying visit from Bosque. I just missed the real festival of cranes, although it felt like I experienced it! Furthermore, rumors of easy "Flamms" (i.e. Flammulated Owl) may just bring me back here, as I have score to settle with that one!

Next up, back to Ecuador, and on board, for a cruise around the Galapagos Islands...

18 December 2011

Nuthatches at the Double...NEW MEXICO (16 Nov)

The feeders at Sandia Crest, not far from Albuquerque, are famous for attracting rosy-finches, (all three species at the height of winter usually). On this day only the rarest, and in my view the best, species turned up, Black Rosy-Finch. I was happy enough with that though, believe me. Although just a single, small, bird table, this feeder attracted quite a variety, and number, of birds. This is one thing that stuns me in the US is how great the smallest of feeders can be. It was a photographers dream with Hairy Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee, and two species of nuthatches dropping in at close quarters, time and again. The nuthatches are always an impressive group to me, there is not a bad one on the planet. Nuthatches were named sitta for their woodpecker-like habits by the ancient Greeks. White-breasted Nuthatch was impressive enough, and I was thrilled to see it. Although I have to say the showstopper for me was an immaculate Red-breasted Nuthatch, with its striking head pattern and more colorful plumage, a real breathtaking species.

The latter brought back memories to me of my very first one: at Holkham Pines in Norfolk, England in 1989, when a very lost stray turned up and caused chaotic scenes in that famous birding spot. I managed to get my boss to let me leave work immediately on the Saturday that it was found, so that I could race straight up there (with a group of birders from my home county Surrey), the moment the electrifying news broke. This seemed like the perfect plan as we would get there within hours of the original sighting, and thought we could be home safely and with the bird checked on our list by Saturday night. Wrong. As it turned out though, the bird went to ground and could not be found later that day. So what had seemed like the perfect plan, went awry. In the end we decided to sleep over in the reserve car park, (we were all birders on a tight budget). This entailed sleeping in a cold part of the country in a cold part of the year, (fall/autumn). The problem was we had not come at all prepared for this, as we simply dropped everything and drove straight up there when the news broke. Needless to say then, in the absence of a sleeping bag or blanket to keep warm, we endured (and suffered), a very cold night indeed. So cold in fact, that we could not get any sleep, and simply spent lots of time running up and down the car park to keep warm. I have never been a fan of jogging and doing this on an icy cold autumn night in Norfolk did not convert me! Eventually, and painfully slowly, dawn came around and we could once more go on the trail of our quarry, the Red-breasted Nuthatch. We were feeling positive and upbeat...Until we discovered that what seemed like the entire British birding community had descended on Holkham for this mega birding event! (i.e. literally thousands of birders) The upshot of this was that the moment this tiny blue-and-red bird appeared pandemonium ensued, and the bird would run for its life from the marauding pack of birders. So, I spent the day "chasing shadows", not seeing this striking bird until late in the afternoon, more than 24 hours after I had first set foot in the woods! Let's just say, I think now I preferred this bird that dropped in to the feeders regularly at Sandia Crest, and let me ogle every fine detail of its exquisite plumage over and over again with just a handful of gathered birders! Still Holkham had been a lot of fun!

I am not done with New Mexico just yet...

17 December 2011

Rosy Mountains...NEW MEXICO (16 Nov)

With precious little time to explore this vastly underbirded state, Iain Campbell and I decided to head up into the mountains near Albuquerque. We rose out of the flat cool desert plains, and up into the frigid mountains, and the scenic Sandia Crest (10,678 feet/3,255 m). Famous for its scenery among non-birders, but famous for its feeders among birders. The brutal chill of a New Mexico winter hit us as we got out of the car, so we warmed ourselves inside with a hot bowl of red chilli, and welcome cup of tea. Once warmed we ventured onto their small ice-covered deck, and watched their feeders for any action. Activity was constant, with Mountain Chickadees, and Hairy Woodpecker coming in regularly. Then a nasal call gave away the presence of Sandia's real celebrity bird. And before we knew it we were eyeballing several Black Rosy-Finches hopping around the deck. Superb. Much to the relief of another visiting birder who had flown in from New Jersey for this bird, which was his 700th on his ABA list. A great landmark bird if ever there was one.

More from Sandia Crest to come...

16 December 2011

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...NEW MEXICO (16 Nov)

Well, after the last of the Sandhill Cranes had lifted off from the pools along the main highway into Bosque del Apache, there was nothing more to do but go looking for a white haze. It did not take much finding. The thing is with monstrous gatherings of Snow Geese is they are quite noisy, and very, very white. On top of that, they draw quite a crowd in these parts. In short, they were almost impossible to miss. A large flock of them sailed around a large field, creating quite racket in the process. Then finally they settled down, and at such close quarters. There they mixed with the local Sandhill Cranes that were also after the grain. Most of the mass were your bog standard white geese, although here and there a sore thumb could be found in the form of several "blue geese", my first such encounter with them. I am not exaggerating to say this incredible scene of thousands of Snow Geese creating a din from their calls, intermixed with stately Sandhill Cranes that majestically walked among them was a true natural wonder, which had me literally shaking my head in disbelief. I hear rumours that bigger gatherings can be found in Nebraska in spring. I am not sure my head could take much more. The scene left you confused as to which way to turn and which way to shoot. It was bewildering, exhilarating, and something I want to repeat again soon....

More from New Mexico on its way...

15 December 2011

Lift off...NEW MEXICO (16 Nov)

Well, having experienced Sandhill Cranes bathed in peach hues of the late afternoon sun the evening before, there was nothing more to do than return to Bosque del Apache there the next morning for the lift off. Large spectacular birds like cranes with the absorbing early morning light hitting them, with a backdrop of mountains, you might understand why this has become almost a "Mecca" for photographers. Thanks to Ashli and others for putting this place in my head!

More to come from both Bosque and another mountain site in New Mexico...

14 December 2011

Crane Time...NEW MEXICO (16 Nov)

Well aside from thousands of Snow Geese to photograph, there is one very tall other reason to visit Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge: Cranes. Nearly twenty thousand cranes regularly winter in this scenic refuge, which manages the land for them, and provides a stunning setting in which to shoot them... I arrived late afternoon and got ready for the spectacle of thousands of Sandhill Cranes dropping in, while a peachy sun drops down behind them, creating remarkable scenes for photography. My few days on site (due to guiding commitments elsewhere) was nowhere near enough time to find all the best angles and photograph them. But here were some of my first attempts anyway...I MUST go back!

More to come from Bosque, where the most spectacular scenes were yet to come...

13 December 2011

Welcome to New Mexico!...NEW MEXICO (15 Nov)

Arriving late the night before and connecting with fellow Tropical Birder, Iain Campbell, we made our way in the dark of night to the town of Socorro, famed hangout for birders/photographers wishing to get a good dose of chilli, and be in spitting distance of the famous Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Thus we awoke a little late for the fly out of cranes, but checked out the refuge anyway, which was far from wasted time. Gambel's Quail scurried tantalizingly around the desert garden behind the visitor center, and a Roadrunner (one of my favorite North American birds) welcomed us to the refuge by scampering along a road as they should do. However, it was this scene, and white haze of Snow Geese that caught my eye during my short visit to this legendary refuge...

More to come from down New Mexico way...

12 December 2011

Farewell to Texas...TEXAS (14 Nov)

Well with the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival finished (with a wild party I must add the evening before), there was nothing left to do but get in some final birding in south Texas before my afternoon flight out to New Mexico. Although very excited at the prospect of seeing New Mexico for the first time, and the prospect of checking out Bosque del Apache drawing me there, it is always with sadness I leave the Great State of Texas. It has been good to me over the last five years, and I am sure will continue to be. So I joined Michael Retter and Matt Hale in their quest for Hook-billed Kite at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. We also met Chip Close on the "hawk tower" who gave a classic tale of you should have been here half an hour ago. Well a late night party delayed us slightly and in the process costs us the Hook-billed Kite. However, I was not fussed, this was my first sight of the legendary Santa Ana, and frankly I was just happy to absorb the scenes at the feeders there, where Plain Chachalacas tried to fight off all comers (and pretty successful they were too). Besides these bruisers the feeders were attended by Green Jays, gaudy Altamira Orioles, and of course, House Sparrows! Hopefully I will get back to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas again soon and give it the time it really deserves....

...But for now, New Mexico, and hordes of waterbirds were calling...

10 December 2011

Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival...TEXAS (13 Nov)

The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival continued, and on this morning I decided to check out Estero Llano Grande State Park. The buzz at the time was about a Rose-throated Becard, a species I had seen in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, but never across the border in the US. Amazingly, just after our arrival we walked straight into the becard (or more precisely a birder loudly announcing the presence of the becard). However, I was not here purely for this Mexican "invader" but to check out a range of "Mexican" species that make it across the border there. This included some leaf-like Common Pauraques roosting in the leaf litter and doing a great job of looking inconspicuous. The feeders were abuzz with birds coming in to feed on oranges and grain. The Green Jays, surely the star of the valley with their outrageously bright and vivid colors, and Black-crested Titmice preferred the grain tables, while Orange-crowned Warblers and orioles flocked in to feast on the oranges. A colorful few hours in the valley, before I returned to Harlingen to man the Tropical Birding booth at the festival.

More to come from the great state of Texas...

08 December 2011

Pandemonium in Harlingen...TEXAS (14 Nov)

So the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival rolled on in spectacular fashion, and birding conversations drifted my way, the names of lifers floating on the air within them. Turned out that right in Harlingen, just a few miles from the Tropical Birding booth, a daily gathering of birds held among them a lifebird for me. And so it was that my TB colleague Cristina Cervantes and I found ourselves in a Baptist Church parking lot as sunset approached. This may have felt a little odd, were it not for a considerable mob of other birders with similar intentions standing closeby. Meanwhile, several of the festival vans led by various leaders such as Michael Retter, Ashli Gorbet and others, also combed the local neighborhoods for our quarry, regularly passing by with that instantly recognizable look of disappointment that only a missing bird can bring. As dusk threatened ever more closely, birders became edgy and nervous in the parking lot (well I did anyway), as not a sight nor sound of our target was to be found. Then suddenly, and undeniably dramatically, a large flock of green birds came streaming in and alighted on the roadside telephone cables. Of course, parrots being parrots, this could not be done quietly, and there was quite a din to be associated with their arrival, (almost as if the parrots wanted to make absolutely sure we had seen them!) Indeed, it was easy to understand, watching this rowdy mob of Red-crowned Parrots, why the "official" term for a flock of parrots is a "Pandemonium"! Not sure if this is countable lifer or not as debate rages over whether they arrived in the US from their native Mexico on their own steam, or rather this population became established from local escapees. I guess the fact that I am of loose morality these days with lifebirds means the decision was not too tough!

07 December 2011

On to the Lone Star State...TEXAS (13 Nov)

And so after a good night of curry and beer in Brisbane with good friends Stuart and Kirsten Pickering, I was off to the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival in Harlingen. This was my first time at the festival, and I was very excited by the prospect, as every birder who has ever attended, simply raves about it. And for good reason. It is a very well-organized festival, set in the heart of some of Texas's best birding sites. Hot off the press for me was news of a Fox Sparrow in the area, a lifer I had not been expecting from there - this was just the 2nd valley record after all. So my first morning saw me returning to the South Padre Convention Center that I had visited for the first time during April this year. Walking up to the first birder with bins raised I soon realized he was glassing the Fox Sparrow. So my first bird on site was the very bird that had brought me here. If only all lifebirds could be so easy! Then I was quickly informed by Kevin Karlson, leading a trip on site, that there was a Long-eared Owl in the shrubbery. Soon enough I was fixed in its considerable glare, another scarce bird in these parts.

I then took a stroll along the wonderful boardwalk (and bumping into Tamie Bulow in the process) looking down on shorebirds like Least Sandpipers and waterbirds like Redheads and Northern Pintail. What a fine start to my time in Texas. I have had a soft spot for Texas ever since my first season in High Island, four years ago, and the valley was doing nothing to dent this!

More to come from the Rio Grande Valley...