20 December 2009

Tanager Finch The Threequel...(Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador): December 19, 2009

For our final and fifth day we were in the Tandayapa Valley on a mission for Ecuador's glamor species, and cover bird: Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan that had thus far avoided us in the few gloomy, sodden afternoons we had tried for it. Before we climbed up the valley to its core range we made a brief visit to the Tandayapa Lodge blind a short time after dawn. On walking in we were greeted with the sight of a tail-pumping male Immaculate Antbird (later to be joined by a rusty female), and a pair of White-throated Quail-Doves that returned time and again to rummage in the compost pile. Also seen from there was a Narino Tapaculo bouncing around on the forest floor, a Uniform Antshrike, and a Chestnut-capped Brush-finch, whose clean "Ariel" white throat simply glowed from the dark forest floor.

When we arrived for our toucan mission in the Upper Tandayapa Valley where we quickly failed when we saw one shoot off in the diatnce from the crown of a tree. We persisted though and later ran into a dapper pair of Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans that brought smiles all round. We had barely recovered from the thrill of this technicolored toucan when yet another Tanager Finch popped up beside us, our third one in five days (see photo)! I felt that David and June may not beleive me now when I had told them it was a very rare and local species! We also met with a frantic feeding flock loaded with tanagers, flycatchers, woodcreepers and others, but more importantly a pristine pair of Plushcaps. A fine end to our five day custom tour, that felt like it should have been called the Tanager Finch special!

Rio Silanche...(NW Ecuador): December 18, 2009

For our penultimate day we "enjoyed" an ungodly hour to start our journey (well before dawn), as we needed to cover some miles to get down into the Choco lowlands. Here we were in pursuit especially of some of the cool flocks that roam the area that correspondingly hold some very cool Choco specials. We left Tandayapa Lodge with rain hammering down on the van, and me praying that once we descended into the lowlands we would be rid of this hinderance. We arrived at the start of the 7km long entrance road with rain crashing down on us heavier than ever, and a worried frown on my face. We attempted valiantly to bird the road into the reserve, trying to jump out when the rain was marginally weaker and did get some rewards for our efforts: a pair of Barred Puffbirds at one spot, and from the very same spot an almost unrecognisable, sodden, wet Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and a dazzling Yellow-tailed Oriole a little further on down the road. Apart from a misty Grey Hawk en-route the birding was challenging in wet, wet conditions and we opted to retreat to the Rio Silanche reserve canopy tower. As we sheltered from the rain there and watched Purple-chested Hummingbird buzzing around the flowers at the base I contemplated the desperateness of our situation: we had a bunch of birds to see, the rain was preventing us from doing this, and all I could see in all directions was a thick blanket of impenetrable cloud! Remarkably though the rain suddenly stopped an hour or so later, the birds immediately picked up, and we ended up racking up more than 120 species by the end of the day. Who would have thought it when we first arrived in the gloom. Taking a forray onto the tower on and off through the day brought us a brilliant Blue-whiskered Tanager, and a calling Dusky Pigeon both slap bang by the observation platform, and both regional endemics. A short walk before lunch saw us run into THE flock, when one cecropia tree played host to some specials, including another Blue-whiskered Tanager, a trio of Grey-and-gold Tanagers, and a pair of Orange-fronted Barbets. While a neighbouring tree held a pair of the fantastic Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, another endemic. On the trails a couple of Broad-billed Motmots showed up, and along the road a male Western White-tailed Trogon brought our tally for the trogon family on the trip to four species, plus two quetzals in our four days. Another (or was it the same one, just a different angle?!), feeding flock held a Black-striped Woodcreeper demolishing large bugs on the side of a rainforest treetrunk, an Emerald Tanager, and a calling female Spot-crowned Antvireo. After a lunch with Pale-mandibled Aracaris and little else on the tower, we walked around the reserve once more, picking up a "firecracking" displaying male White-bearded Manakin to start with (see photo). Later we added Scarlet-browed Tanager, Yellow-tufted Dacnis and Griscom's Antwrens in yet another flock, in addition to a very popular Red-billed Scythebill clasped to a trunk in the same frantic feeding flock. Finally we had to "check out" of the reserve and return to Tandayapa, although I could not resist some further stops on the way out from the reserve, first for a Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, then a Choco Toucan, and finally a pair of frisky Chestnut-mandibled Toucans showing distinct signs of breeding very, very soon.

Tanager Finch The Sequel...(Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador): December 17, 2009

Having finished up in the foothills around Milpe by early afternoon, we headed back to the Tandayapa Valley, climbing back into the subtropics as we did so. Our mission was to find a Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan that on this day, (with heavy cloud hanging over the higher sections of the valley, interspersed with heavy downpours), failed completely. However, the afternoon was very far from a failure. In one part of the valley we chanced upon our second Tanager Finch in as many days, a different bird from the day before, singing its heart out in the rain while raindrops shimmered on its back (see photo). We then braved the rain and came up with a fine Grass-green Tanager for our efforts which was popular among all. As if that was not enough we then very nearly ran into a White-throated Quail-Dove casually walking down the road in front of our van (see photo), that we stalked for a while before we had to gently bump it off the road to get by! A final late afternoon stop was made at Bellavista Lodge where the endemic Gorgeted Sunangel slipped in among the more common hummers at the feeders on several occasions. We also got a tip off to check the compost heap that came up trumps with our second White-throated Quail-Dove of the afternoon, and better still a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta lurking in the shadows.

Foothill Mornings...(NW Ecuador): December 17, 2009

This was a day of contrasts. We began down at the lowly elevations of 1100m, in an area of foothill forest and then returned back to the subtropics (2300m elevation), by the afternoon. It was a wet day again, and it was soon clear the rainy season has arrived in earnest and the long-standing drought in Ecuador has finally broken. A whole crowd of new birds awaited us at Milpe, as it was our first time in the foothills. We were greeted along the entrance track by a pair of the endemic Choco Toucan, and just after we entered the forest a male Choco Trogon (aka White-eyed Trogon) broke the initial silence we experienced and provided a nice opener. Not long after another splash of color was provided by a superb male Golden-headed Quetzal in virtually the next tree along. The two reserves in the area visited bought us flock after flock: Rufous-throated Tanagers passed through overhead in one flock that also held a striking Slate-colored Grosbeak, and chubby Ochre-breasted Tanagers came through in the understorey within another, while Choco Warblers were conspicuous in all these parties. Soft hooting calls left us to an endemic pigeon, Pallid Dove, that was singing near the parking lot, and a Little Cuckoo was found not too far off there either. Indeed the parking lot was a veritable hot spot, as a male Guayaquil Woodpecker was heard calling from there before he was pinned down on a near truck, showing off his bright red head and a well-marked V on his back. Toucans were prominent today as the recently lumped Pale-mandibled Aracari (or should we now call it merely a Collared Aracari?!) was also added later in the day. A surprise find was a furry number rummaging around on a forest trail, an as yet unidentified species of Agouti, a rare sighting in the northwest where animals are at a premium (see photo). This small private reserve also bought us a Collared Trogon, one of four from this family encountered on this day alone (along with the quetzal, the Choco Trogon at Milpe, and Masked Trogon later at Tandayapa).

Late Afternoon Tanager Finch...(Old Nono-Mindo Road, NW Ecuador): December 16, 2009

After the flurry of antpittas and the gobsmacking Orange-breasted Fruiteater at Paz de las Aves I opted to head up the Old Nono-Mindo Road. Gloomy weather overhead did not bring the promise of much. Black clouds gathered, and seemed to drop down to eye level making the viewing conditions challenging to say the least. Of course these subtropical Andean birds love this kind of weather and the activity was good all the way along the road with a number of varied feeding flocks encountered, before we reached our final spot, an area of thick brush and chusquea bamboo along one of the higher stretches of subtropical forest. Huge mossy trees loom overhead here, heavy with the burden of many dark red bromeliads that scatter their thick limbs. However, we were not interested in the impressive trees above, for the rare Tanager Finch lurks in the bamboo understorey. During this damp late afternoon we watched as one of these rare Choco brush-finches emerged out of the underbrush and sung from within the dark shadows, a precursor of a very strange few days where we ran into this rare bird time and again in different spots in the Tandayapa Valley. This photo is of this very first one seen during that wet, and gray late afternoon.

Fruits of the Forest...(Paz de las Aves, NW Ecuador): December 16, 2009

The second day of the tour involved a visit to the magical Refugio Paz de las Aves, world famous as an "antpitta paradise", as the local farmers have habituated a number of species and individuals there. Any talk of this place inevitably focuses on these, and sure enough we ended up seeing 3 Giant, and 2 Moustached Antpittas, as well as 1 Yellow-breasted Antpitta in just a few crazy hours on site. And all almost got under our feet. However, the place is also rich in other species, and especially frugivorous birds that come to feed within the many fruiting trees that scatter this small, private reserve. Before the antpitta frenzy (and just after we had been shown an inconspicuously roosting Rufous-bellied Nighthawk-photo), we stood guard at one of these and watched on as a pair of Toucan Barbets, a single male Golden-headed Quetzal, an Olivaceous Piha, and several Crimson-rumped Toucanets came in to feast in a tree loaded with small green fruits. We then returned to join the rest of the expectant crowd for antpittas, although were delayed a little to watch a Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl sitting quietly in a tiny window high in the trees.

After the antpittas we enjoyed a heavy brunch of local bolones and empanadas, and were distracted by the visit of another spectacular fruit-eating bird, this one a gorgeous male Orange-breasted Fruiteater that popped in to feed on cecropia catkins right beside the cafe where we were brunching, for unstoppable views of this scarce and beautiful endemic cotinga...(top photo)

On the Flanks of Pichincha Once more...(NW Ecuador): December 15, 2009

Began a quick 5 day trip with friends from Texas around the NW Ecuador. Our whistle stop tour began as many do by exploring a highland site near to Ecuador's long thin capital, Quito. The site, Yanacocha, rests on the flanks of the Pichincha volcano that can be viewed from the capital, and is especially good for tanagers and hummingbirds. Mixed flocks along the "Inca Trail" produced some of the most spectacular of these, with both the striking Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, and scarce Black-chested Mountain-Tanager both putting in an appearance, along with the absurdly named Supercilaried Hemispingus (another distinctive highland tanager). However, before we got into them a bonus at the trail head was a very cooperative Rufous Antpitta that hopped in to check out my intrusive i-pod recording of its bouncing "falling ping-pong ball" song. At the feeders the action was constant and absorbing, never more so than when the peculiar Sword-billed Hummingbird made a "royal" entrance, displaying its remarkably long upswept bill. It also had a swathe of other highland hummers for company, including Golden-breasted and Sapphire-vented Pufflegs, Buff-winged Starfrontlets, and Tyrian Metaltails. The afternoon was spent birding our way along the forested Old Nono-Mindo Road, where we found a sprightly Black-crested Warbler (see photo), a perched on a spray-drenched boulder in the Alambi River, and the "riparian" White-capped DipperSlaty-backed Chat-Tyrant giving its high-pitched song from the streamside. Highlight along there though had to be our late afternoon visit to an Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek site. We waicted for a time until the pig-like squeals and ugly squawks that floated across the valley towards us indicated the lek had sprung into action, and a little while later one of thee vermillion males flew onto an open branch where he remained in our scope, and indelliably printed in our memory for some time. At the end of the day we checked into Tandayapa Lodge where we hurriedly added 14 species of hummingbirds before the light failed and the hummers suddenly vanished for the night.

14 December 2009

Tanager Teasers...(NW Ecuador)

One of the unquestionable appeals of birding the Andes is getting good numbers of certain marquee groups of birds. Two of these groups that impress time and again are the hummingbirds-see my PBase site for proof of the variety and gorgeousness of many of these Andean gems, and the tanagers. The MOUNTAIN-TANAGERS are an Andean spin off from this family that are much larger than other species, and typically very brightly adorned. There are few better experiences than coming across one of the crazy feeding flocks in the Andes where literally dozens of birds swarm in the trees around, and then up pops one of these beauties. Classic Andean birding.

The two pictured here were not in a flock but more photogenically at a fruit feeder in Mindo. The top bird is a regional endemic to the Choco region of W Colombia and NW Ecuador,
Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, and the lower bird is a common and daily feature of feeding flocks within the places like the Tandayapa Valley, the Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager.
On a recent Introtour we managed a tanager total of 50 species in 6 days, and on a longer NW Ecuador tour just before that we pushed this up to 55 species! No wonder people call South America "the bird continent".

Blue is the Color...(Mashpi, NW Ecuador): December 2009

Cannot resist posting a photo of my latest lifebird. Having spent the best part of four years working in Ecuador, and most of it in the northwest, they do not come along too often. Although, on visiting this "new" site-Mashpi-for the second I struck indigo, with this Indigo Flowerpiercer. This deep-blue bird is confined to the wet Choco region of SW Colombia and NW Ecuador, and certainly in Pichincha province where this was taken is an extrenely rare and local bird. I was please as punch to pick this up on our recent Introtour out of Tandayapa Lodge. Also seen at Mashpi on this day were a host of other Choco specials, including the jewel-like Glistening-green Tanager, in addition to Moss-backed Tanager, Pacific Tuftedcheek, a dapper Black Solitaire, several chunky Black-chinned Mountain-Tanagers, many Toucan Barbets, and a gorgeous Orange-breasted Fruiteater. Highlight of the day though may have been showing the male fruiteater to some local kids, and the boys reaction said it all. He jumped up and down with joy and shouted reapeatedly "Que bonita, que bonita". Que Bonita indeed. I look forward to persuading my next group to succumb to the temptations of Mashpi!

Strangely named Woodpeckers in the foothills...(Milpe, NW Ecuador): November 2009

This is a photo taken of a female Guayaquil Woodpecker on a recent tour of NW Ecuador. This shot was taken in the foothill reserve of Milpe, a small 62ha sanctuary near the town of San Miguel de Los Bancos in Pichincha province. Guayaquil Woodpecker occurs only on the western side of the Andes, from SW Colmbia through Ecuador to NW Peru. It is currently listed as near-threatened, although is thought to be delicining due to habitat fragmentation. The bird occurs at Milpe with another very similar conspecific species, Lineated Woodpecker. However, the female Guayaquil has a much broader white stripe on the side of the head, and the white mantle braces meet on a Guayaquil, forming a distinct V shape (on a Lineated they do not meet to make a point). This was one of a pair, although the male managed to avoid my camera!

Other birds recorded that day at Milpe included croaking Choco Toucans, a pair of Choco Trogons, Lanceolated Monklet, a butch Brown-billed Scythebill hugging a mossy rainforest trunk, a newly recognized species: Choco Tyrannulet, (split from Golden-faced last year), a marvellous male Scaled Fruiteater which gave its strange, raptor like call, multiple Choco Warblers, a breathtaking male Yellow-tufted Dacnis, and several of the endemic Rufous-throated Tanager, to name but a few seen in a day of more than 100 species.

28 November 2009

Cartoon Hummers and Highland Tanagers...(Yanacocha, NW Ecuador): November 2009

The first day of our Tropical Birding whirlwind tour around NW Ecuador hunting especially the regional endemics of the Choco, included a visit to Yanacocha a temperate reserve on the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador's long, thin capital city. The reserve is famous for its hummingbirds, and particularly for the very rare Black-breasted Puffleg that all too rarely puts in an appearance there. We did not see that one (it has now been four barren years since my last sighting!), but we did pick up many, many other highland hummers, including the frankly ridiculous Sword-billed Hummingbird (see top photo), and Buff-winged Starfrontlet (see middle photo), in addition to many Sapphire-vented Pufflegs (see bottom photo), a few Golden-breasted Pufflegs, and a lone Mountain Velvetbreast. On the way to the reserve we also picked up the well-endowed Black-tailed Trainbearer, with its own impossinbly long appendage (this one being its tail). Away from the hummers Yanacocha brought us a bevy of colorful tanagers, with the Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager being the most numerous in the highland flocks that also produced both Hooded & Black-chested Mountain-Tanagers too.

For our usual late afternoon finale en-route to
Tandayapa Lodge we made some stops along the scenic Alambi Valley, where the rushing Andean river was home to several White-capped Dippers, and the riverside bamboo also held a fine Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant. They were all good of course, but it was not until the late afternoon, when we found two of the most stunning birds in the region, with firstly up to four bright scarlet male Andean Cock-of-the-rocks in the throws of their cllumsy displays across the other side of the valley. The finishing flurry was provided though by our first Choco endemic of the trip, when we made an emergency stop for a party of noisy, navy-blue Beautiful Jays. A beautiful end to a beautiful day, when we had seen some spectacular Andean vistas, superb hummers and much, much more besides. I hope for more of the same on my next tour to the area starting tomorrow...

Andean "Angel"...(Mindo, NW Ecuador): October 2009

Over the same short tour in Pichincha we spent a bit of time watching hummers coming and going at various feeders (with cameras unsheathed at the ready), including this Gorgeted Sunangel, a hummer that is restricted in range to the wet Choco region of NW Ecuador and SW Colombia.

22 November 2009

Gems of the Andes...(Mindo/Tandayapa, NW Ecuador): October/November 2009

Just a few shots from one of Ecuador's marquee groups, the hummingbirds or "colibris". These three are all specialties of the region, only found in NW Ecuador and western Colombia. They are Velvet-purple Coronet (the purple one), Western Emerald (the shimmering green one), and Violet-tailed Sylph (the one with the long, long tail). These birds were photographed in the bromeliad-laden, Andean cloudforests of Tandayapa and Mindo, frankly one of the best areas for hummers on Earth (no lie).

07 November 2009

Operation Blackcap…(Xumeni Forest, South Africa): October 15, 2009

For our last hurrah in South Africa on our final morning of the tour before out afternoon departures we had planned a visit to Xumeni Forest in particular for Orange-headed Ground-Thrush and Cape Parrot. Although, having seen them a few days earlier we could avoid the incredibly early start usually required for seeing the thrush and enjoy a more leisurely visit. However, there was still one conspicuous gap on our list from Xumeni, and so after checking again on the Wattled Cranes, which were now in better light for us (along with a number of dancing Grey-crowned Cranes too-see photo) we returned there. The gaping hole was from Bush Blackcap, a fascinating bird with a mysterious taxonomic background currently assigned to the babblers (although much more handsome than some others in that often dowdy family). We had already pursued this species three times on the tour, in the highlands of Wakkerstroom, and at the base of Sani Pass where the blackcaps come to breed each year, although are only migrants to these areas and perhaps had not yet arrived for the season. Xumeni though is a place where they are said to be present all year round, and so our hopes should have been a little higher, were it not for the fact we had not got a sniff out of one there just a few days before! Ken and I were both keen to give it a try though all the same. Our first attempts fell on deaf ears, then suddenly a soft warbling was heard-could it really be? A quick burst from the I-pod, and then there it was, just a metre or so away from us, now belting out its rich song at full volume, after which we simply could not get rid of it, (not that we wanted to!) See photos.

We then made our way back to Durban, where a flash of crimson wings along the way proved to be a gorgeous Purple-crested Turaco gliding over the main highway, a nice parting shot to end an extremely enjoyable time spent in South Africa. It is a beautiful country filled with spectacular landscapes, pretty flowers, bold game, and wonderful birds. I long to return there soon…

Back to South Africa …(Sani Pass, South Africa): October 14, 2009 PART III

The South Africa flag greeted us as we came back into the country once more (see photo) and bumped our way down the deep valley cutting through the Drakensbergs. That was not all that greeted us as a rather obliging Barratt’s Warbler, a dull brown endemic bush-warbler famous for its skulking nature, threw in the towel and gave us great looks from the seats of our vehicle! We had little more to look for but one particular earlier miss in the morning we were smarting at: Gurney’s Sugarbird. A bird that is normally straightforward, IF you can find their beloved proteas in flower. Something we had not managed to do that morning. We returned with renewed vigor and watching, hawk-like for signs of any flowers in bloom. Having had a local tip off of some possible proteas in the right condition we made a stop at a particular spot and scanned around but found no immediate signs of flowers anywhere. However, as we scoured the horizon I noticed a bird sitting atop a very distant protea, sporting a long tail and down-curved beak, it just had to be our latest quarry: Gurney’s Sugarbird (see photos). We raced down there and found it remaining standing sentry in the glorious afternoon sun, and the camera shutters burst into action! Having found one (after the considerable initial panic of finding none at all during our ascent of the pass), of course we then could not stop bumping into them on the way down!

Also during our descent we found a Broad-tailed Warbler, a truly odd and distinctive warbler by virtue of its strange oversized tail that seems completely at odds with the rest of the bird and with the whole warbler “image” in general! A flock of Southern Bald Ibis was also found feeding in fields below the pass. Having realized we were dangerously close to getting an incredible 60 species of mammal for the trip (the ice rat being number 59) we than went on a mad pre-dinner chase for Oribi hoping to make that the magic 6-0. Amazingly (after a spot on local tip off) we checked the banks of a tranquil river in the later afternoon and found an Oribi standing there just as planned, our sixtieth mammal for the trip! That was not all though because this tip off led to an even great discovery: a group of three Wattled Cranes, a globally threatened species, was found feeding in a field that rounded out a spectacular day perfectly. The group included a duller younger bird among them and presumably was a family party that had recently bred in the area? A superb game pie in Underberg tasted all the sweeter after this very special day birding in two different countries.

Lesotho Pub Gallery...(Sani Pass, Lesotho): October 14, 2009

Just a few shots of the pub just over the border from South Africa in Lesotho, where Sentinel Rock-Thrushes can be seen perched on the roofs, Drakensberg Siskins on the rocks and Drakensberg Rock-jumpers feeding in the meadows. A very special place to sup a local beer (and of course toast the rock-jumper), taste the local trout, and watch the wildlife right from the pub veranda...

Into Lesotho…(Sani Pass, Lesotho): October 14, 2009 PART II

After taking in our first of many cracking pairs of rock-jumpers we crossed over into Lesotho, that felt immediately a lot poorer. Round stone buildings dotted the hillsides, and just on building stood out as different and modern. Not the immigration building (see photo) funnily enough but the pub, the Sani Top Chalet and allegedly the highest in all of Africa (if their sign is correct!) There was nothing more to do but go into the building for a pub lunch on their veranda with a dramatic vista looking back down the Sani Pass into South Africa. As we sat there enjoying a superb trout lunch, washed down with a local Lesotho beer, Maluti, we watched probably the same pair of Drakensberg Rock-jumpers foraging in the alpine meadow below. We were also entertained by a strange mammal: the Slogget’s Ice Rat (see photo), that was hanging out behind the pub, along with the odd Sentinel Rock-Thrush, and a Drakensberg Siskin dropped onto some near rocks by the cafĂ© to afford us markedly better views than on our way up the pass (see photo). All of that was great, but our main target was something much duller, difficult and challenging to identify: Mountain Pipit, a poorly known species that only comes to Lesotho to breed, and then promptly vanishes for the winter to whereabouts no one knows. A bird of mystery, and our first mystery to solve was whether indeed they had yet returned to breed, as we were right at the time when they may have arrived, although recent local reports suggested otherwise. All the same not long up the road we glanced up to find a pipit displaying in the air and after much scrutiny nailed it both on the ground and singing in the air, and could confirm we had found our quarry, the rare Mountain Pipit. As time wore on we headed deeper into Lesotho picking up more rock-jumpers, siskins and rock-thrushes before we had to reluctantly return to South Africa, although not before we picked up a pair of Southern Grey Tits

not far off the border post. After a thoroughly enjoyable few hours in Lesotho we drew out our passports again, and prepared to descend back into the Sani Pass, and South Africa once more…

06 November 2009

Messing around on the Border…(Sani Pass, South Africa/Lesotho): October 14, 2009 PART I

The best was saved until last. Our last full day of the tour was a cracker. We spent the day birding up to and beyond the Sani Pass, set within the dramatic Drakensberg Mountains that criss-cross the borders of South Africa and Lesotho. This day was all about top birds in spectacular scenery, and the side attraction of birding in two countries in one day, and alos getting to drink at the highest pub in Africa. All in one very cool day. For this day we commandeered a 4 x 4 as not only is this one of the highest roads in southern Africa, but is also one of the roughest, and we bumped and jerked our way up to the Sani Pass. Along the way we found Buff-streaked Chats, got our first glimpse of Drakensberg Siskin and picked up Drakensberg Prinia too, that prefers the lower elevations in the area to its conspecific cousin the Karoo Prinia. A few Fairy Flycatchers flitted in the sparse scrub en-route and a search for the Gurney’s Sugarbird lest us empty-handed with no flowering protea flowers found at the time probably being the reason for the no show. Never mind we though we’ll check again on the way down from the pass. Raptors were on the wing as we climbed the bumpy dirt road, that included multiple Cape Vultures and finally a lone Lammergeier with its unique body shape. However, best of all came when we were in sight of the Sani Top Chalet, the self-proclaimed “highest Pub in Africa”, at 2874m. Just as we caught sight of the pub a spanking male Drakensberg Rock-jumper (see photo) homed into view hopping very appropriately around on rocks just down from the pub, and just inside South Africa, with Lesotho’s immigration building visible in the background. After three weeks in South Africa with complete overload from new and exciting mammals and birds I proclaimed right there and then this was the “bird of the trip”. Maybe it was all the excitement, although my mind remains firm on this one, it beat the Cape version “all to hell”!

We then proceeded towards the rather run down looking immigration building in order to enter into Lesotho...

Xumeni Forest…(KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa): October 13, 2009

From one remnant afromontane forest patch to another, this one much further west, and very, very different in terms of the birds that live there. We had just enough time to check the forest out in the late afternoon, with the option of returning on our final morning in a few days time if needed. A late afternoon visit was planned ideally as one of the forest’s star residents, and one of South Africa’s rarest endemics, the Cape Parrot use the forest as a roosting site. However, before we got to that we jumped out of the car on arrival and quickly heard a number of sneaky Barratt’s Warblers but could not initially entice them in, before we were justifiably distracted by the melodic song of an Orange Ground-Thrush (see photos). The warbler was soon forgotten as we enticed in this gorgeous thrush that led me to twist my knee in the process of trying to get these photos. If the photos were better it might just have been worth it, (the knee pain luckily cleared by the time we made our “assault” on Sani Pass the following day). The thrush was a thriller all the same, and one we had expected to try for at some ungodly early hour of the morning in a few days time, (an not rather lazily in the late afternoon sun). Much better this way! This was our second zoothera thrush in as many days. Once the thrush had slinked back into the forest we turned our attentions once again to the dull form of a Barratt’s Warbler, which as a Southern Africa endemic was important all the same. This time we had more luck pinning it down to a dark shadowy bush, where we got repeated looks. We ended the day looking skyward for the late afternoon arrival of the Cape Parrots. In typical parrot fashion the first few looks were of birds way up in the skies, looking pretty close to black dots. However, after several more groups cruised towards the forest we nailed one sitting out in a dead snag, where all the colors could be seen in their full glory.

Mission accomplished we completed our journey to Underberg, ate a fantastic meal at a local restaurant and began dreaming of all those Lesotho birds around Sani Pass the next day…

Ngoye Forest…(KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa): October 13, 2009

We birded the morning and afternoon in two separate, far apart, patches of Afromontane forest. Although both technically forest the birding in each was markedly different. In the morning, after being thwarted the day before to try and get to Ngoye Forest, (an unscheduled visit brought about by how well we had done for birds the day before freeing up some extra time for exploration), we tried another route to Ngoye. With rumors of a new and improved road to the forest we gingerly made our way there, with no problems at all, and no sign of the need for a 4 x 4 vehicle, (which we did not have as this was an unscheduled visit). The funny twits to all this was we then found a brand spanking new highway all the way back after, making this traditionally difficult to access site now a piece of cake to get to! Our reason for coming here was simple: the very, very localized Woodward’s Barbet, a bird with a checkered taxonomic history, that some now consider part of the more widespread Green Barbet. We were unphased by that as Green Barbet or not this is a rare and local species in southern Africa. On getting to the forest unscathed (with an African Goshawk perched along the way), we soon found a number of Yellow-streaked Greenbuls, before finally and rather distantly we made out the sound of our quarry calling within the forest. As luck would have it we spied a narrow trail heading straight for our bird, and not long after we had brief but close views of this rare barbet. Unsatisfied I continued my quest for better views along the road as more of them piped up and began calling a little later. A short time after a huge Crowned Eagle glided over the canopy, I finally got cracking low down looks at the barbet, that unfortunately always remained in poor light or at a bad angle for a photo throughout (see photo). Good to see all the same though!

In the late morning we departed for Underberg, our base for exploring the spectacular Sani Pass and Lesotho the following day, with just enough time for some later afternoon birding in nearby Xumeni Forest

Onto Eshowe…(KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa): October 12, 2009

This was another day where we popped in and out of a number of places, and habitats, now fine-tuning what we were targeting at this late stage of the tour. Our morning began as dawn brightened the skies, in Dhlinza Forest, a fragment of Afromontane forest, in the heart of Zululand. We began by birding a narrow forest trail that wormed its way through the forest to the centerpiece of the reserve: the so-called Aerial Walkway, otherwise known as a canopy walkway that leads to a 20-metre high canopy tower looking over the treetops. Before we got up in the trees though we walked into a Spotted Ground-Thrush tussling with a worm on the dark forest floor, in the middle of our chosen trail (see photo). We also got some far from satisfactory views of Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeons in the mist, although much better views of a party of White-eared Barbets. Once we got up on the tower we were hit with a short, but dramatic lightning storm, which led all but me (probably sensibly) to retreat below and off the metal structure. However, it soon passed and we scanned over the trees to find a much better pair of Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeons, a bunch of Trumpeter Hornbills and a glamorous African Emerald Cuckoo. In the afternoon we checked around Mtuzini, where we found our only Broad-billed Roller of the trip and picked up a pair of Palm-nut Vultures (see photo). We also bumped into a young Green Twinspot in the area, looking far from what the impressive adult would look like! (Rare and difficult to find all the same though).

After a lunch where we were greeted by Purple-crested Turacos and Black-collared Barbets in the garden we made our first and unsuccessful attempt to make it to Ngoye Forest but ran into a rather large swollen river blocking our way. We were forced to retreat to Eshowe for the night and re-think our plans...