27 September 2009

Walking with Penguins...(Simonstown, South Africa): September 27, 2009

Our afternoon activity was to check out the famous Simonstown penguin colony. This colony at Boulders Beach is one of just a few on mainland Africa, but what a colony it is. A gentle boardwalk led us down to the beach where Jackass (African) Penguins lounged around under, next to, and almost on top of the boardwalk for all to see. A crowd of onlookers took in the "penguin parade" but the birds themselves seemed completely unmoved by all the fuss: they have been "performing" here for decades after all. While we all buzzed excitedly around them (just a few feet away), they just dozed in the afternoon sun, or scratched one another (known as allopreening), in a seeming state of oblivion to the surrounding horde. Many of them were going through various advanced stages of moult, leaving many looking bedraggled, and far from at their best, unsightly bits of fluff hanging off their normally immaculate "dinner suit" plumages from various places. All-in-all, a must visit spot if you ever find yourself "stranded" in Capetown!

Rockjumpin' on the Cape Coast...(South Africa): September 27, 2009

A more relaxed day around the Western Cape again today, although with some big, big highlights. A visit to Rooi Els (see photo) was our starting point. Spectacular rocky outcrops, dusted with burnt orange lichens, form the edge of the Hottentot Mountains here, that plunge down dramatically into the Atlantic Ocean in the sheltered cove of False Bay.

Our main goal here, was to get one of the most highly desired of all the Cape specialties: the striking Cape Rockjumper. Scrambling around rocks is one way to get this one, although we opted for an easier course, walking the flat, rocky coastal track, and scanning up towards the cliffs on the landward side of the trail. A chilly, windy day greeted us, making life a little hard, although a pair of eye-catching
Verreaux's Eagles skirting the cliffs above was a more than welcome distraction. After an hour or so, we picked up some movement on the lichen-covered ashy-grey rocks uplsope, and after training our 'scopes, came upon the rich chestnut underside, soooty black chin, and gleaming white moustache of a beautiful male Cape Rockjumper (see photos), looking sprightly and alert on a small outcrop. This wonderful bird is one of two members of the rockjumper family, that is endemic to Africa. A White-chinned Petrel trying to slip by just off the headland was a surprise bonus, although a male Cape Rock Thrush (steadfastly refusing to perch in good, photographable light) was more expected in this area. In the afternoon, after stopping in at a local sewage farm (birders are drawn to such great places!), we headed out to Simonstown for some penguin action...see next post.

26 September 2009

More Cape Birding...(South Africa): September 24-26, 2009

Just a few more shots from our time birding around the western Cape over the past few days...Kittlitz's Plover at West Coast NP, Hadeda Ibis on the Tropical Birding Capetown office lawn, and Cape Francolin at Paarl Mountain.

25 September 2009

Wildlife Bonanza on the Western Cape...(South Africa): September 25, 2009

If you're after animals in South Africa then the Western Cape is not ordinarily the place that you would pick to go. However, on this day at least we jammed into a few animal "crackers". Our first wildlife surprise came in the form of a Cape Grysbok sneeking off into the brush at Koeberg Nature Reserve, shortly after a Common Duiker had also been in the same area. Then just after we started rumbling down the Darling Wildflower Route (where the flowers themselves were an immediate distraction from the blooms and birds), a shuffling awkward looking lump of hair scrambling off the road got our attention: a Cape Dune Mole-rat (family spalacinae) , a strange, blind and ungainly looking mammal, that by all rights should have been well below ground at the time. The things went up a whole 'nother notch when we tried to negotiate our way around a car that had seemingly rather annoyingly randonly stopped in the middle of the road at West Coast NP. Cursing their bad driving and angling our way around them we were immediately hit with the object of their distraction (and hence unpredictable driving behavior), a deep chestnut coated animal was humkering down in the grass playing with some unseen prey below. It took a few moments to click but once this slick cat raised its head, revealing its distinctive pointy ear tufts we were in no doubt that we were coming face to face with the scarce Caracal, a rare sight indeed in broad daylight. Having revelled in this as quickly given it the title of "bird of the day" we headed out to the rocky shores of Yzerfontein where African Black Oystercatchers could not distract us from a massive Southern Right Whale lingering at the surface off shore, while a number of playful Rock Hyraxes jumped aroundon the rocks beside us. A smart end to a day with over 100 bird species seen, that were undoubtedly overshadowed at times by the wildlife on offer.

Darling Wildflower (& Bishops) Route...(Western Cape, South Africa): September 25, 2009

Back out on the Western Cape today covering some of the same birding, bloomin' and wildlife sites from yesterday (Koeberg Nature Reserve, come Nuclear Power Station, West Coast National Park, Darling Wildflower Route), in addition to a couple of new ones: and YzerfonteinVelddrif. Some of the same from yesterday, (Cape Penduline Tits at Koeberg, Southern Black Korhaans at Darling-this time in impressive display flights, perched up Karoo Lark at West Coast NP-not a regular occurrence!, Cloud Cisticolas strangely up in the clouds along the Darling route), as well as a few different birds, and most notably, animals.

The Darling Wildflower Route was of course alive with flowers and vibrant blooms at this time (see photos), and again the reedbeds were a living construction site as they were once more loaded with Cape Weavers bustling around their newly built nests, and fiery red glows emanating from the rushes proved to be a number of male Red Bishops pumped up and ready to breed (see photo).

The different birds came in the form of
Chestnut-banded Plover "slacking" on the edge of a harsh, dry salt pan in Velddrif, and a bold Spotted Eagle-Owl perched brazenly, and I might say a little menacingly, in the daylight also near Velddrif, and two Cape Clapper Larks in regular display flights near Koeberg.

24 September 2009

More Birds from the Western Cape...(South Africa):September 24, 2009

Just a few more photos from my fascinating first day on the Western Cape...Ostrich, Hartlaub's Gull, Cape Bulbul, and Cape Grassbird included here.

Birds and Blooms on the Cape...(Western Cape, South Africa): September 24, 2009

After a 24 hour delay left me stranded in Atlanta for while (due to the considerable flooding there), I finally landed in Capetown last night and today went on a full-on recce of the territory with Josh Engel. Too much to mention in a great days birding full of Cape endemics galore and just great birds all round. Nipped in and out of many spots around the western Cape, including Paarl Bird Sanctuary, Koeberg Nature Reserve, the Darling Wildflower Route and the West Coast National Park in a truly action-packed days birding. Three new families were more than I could have hoped for out of a first day on the Cape, that included Cape Sugarbirds that fought the drizzle and fed out on the bright blooming proteas on Paarl Mountain (along with a lone bedraggled and sodden Orange-breasted Sunbird), Ostriches strutted unafraid in the heathy surrounds of West Coast NP, and Secretarybird flew onto my list overhead on the Darling Wildflower Route, while a pair of Blue Cranes fed quietly below.

Other highlights included a superb Southern Black Korhaan (see photo) that boldly called from a mound of earth on the Darling Route, a family of African Black Ducks (see photo) and Fiscal Flycatchers (see photo) at Paarl (see photo), (where Cape Shovelers and Maccoa Ducks also put in an appearance), Cape Penduline Tits at Koeberg, African Black Oysterctahers, Bokmakieries, and singing Karoo Larks at West Coast. A profusion of new species like Cape Bulbul, Cape Robin-chat and Karoo Scrub-robin abounded around the western Cape. Birds of the day though were several Black Harriers that ghosted across the heath-like strandveld vegetation, one of Africa's rarest (under 1000 birds in the world, TOTAL), and most striking raptors (and it does have more than a few!)

Aside from these choice moments blooming proteas were just as noteworthy, the fine colors of the Paarl proteas drawing in many a sunbird and sugarbird to check them out (see photos).

21 September 2009

Rollercoaster Birding...(Magee Marsh, Ohio, USA): September 20, 2009

Having just finished at the Midwest Birding Symposium in leafy Lakeside in Ohio I could not resist to check out one of my (recently-acquired) favorite spring time haunts: Magee Marsh Wildlife Area near Toledo in Ohio to check if any migrants were around. (After all, while I had been marooned on the TB stand at the symposium people had been wandering in with tales of a showy Kirtland's Warbler just down the road). At first it was kind of weird being in these woods at this generally more quiet time after the hurly burly of spring migration back in May. Few birders were walking the woods, and seemingly few birds too initially. Then we ran into others spilling over from the recently finished Symposium, and not long after that we hot a little corner with a flurry of migrant activity and memories of the glories of spring at Magee were soon revived. A "pocket" of more than ten species of warblers contained Northern Parula, Wilson's Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, American Redstart (see photo), Bay-breasted Warbler, a number of Maggies (Magnolia Warbler), Nashville Warbler, a strangely located Ovenbird perched above us in a tree, Black-throated Green Warbler, along with a few Philadelphia Vireos, a single Blue-headed Vireo (see photo), and a few Warbling and Red-eyed Vireos, along with several local Black-capped Chickadees chattering away beside them (see photo).

This was all in sharp contrast to some afternoon non-birding activities, that I somehow got roped into. After the serenity and calm of the morning walk in Magee, an afternoon jaunt to the
Cedar Point theme park, that formerly boasted the highest rollercoaster on Earth. Thanks to this invite from some friendly Ottawa NWR staff I got to rediscover my very real fear of rollercoasters, and quickly realized that it is perhaps never a good idea for me to ride anything called "Millenium Force" ever again. Thankfully, my friend and collegue Iain bought the video of one of the more risquee roller rides, so there is little chance of me forgetting my rather pathetic reactions to all this in the near future!!! A good weekend all round though, after the event!

Looking forward now to returning to Magee Marsh next spring for THE BIGGEST WEEK IN AMERICAN BIRDING

15 September 2009

"Seedy" Goings on in Papallacta...(E Ecuador): September 13 & 14, 2009

Continuing on the same "British" tour of northern Ecuador we set out from the capital Quito, crossed the continental divide, and birded the wet paramo grasslands (like high altitude moorland) around Papallacta Pass (4000m). For one special bird we ventured even higher to the lofty heights of 4200m in search of an unusual, ptarmigan-like bird. Despite appearances the bird, a Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, is not a gamebird at all but sits within a strange family of grouse-like shorebirds, the seedsnipes (Thinocoridae). This largely Andean family (comprising 4 species) is an endemic family to South America, and so was of course a high target for our high Andean day. The problem with finding this bird lies not with the bird itself but with the frequently inclement weather associated with such high altitudes. However, on this day we were greeted with deep azure blue skies, and with it spectacular views of the surrounding volcanoes: Antisana (see photo), 5758m, and Cotopaxi, a large and active volcano (5897m). Despite our initial failings we eventually found a Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe feeding inconspicuously on the bright green cushion plants that add to the splendour of birding this high Andean site. Over our several days in the area we also logged several exquisite Ecuadorian Hillstars (a crazy hummer that manages to live at these extreme altitudes), Ecuador's national bird, the majestic Andean Condor, along with Black-backed Bush Tanagers and a bruising Masked Mountain-Tanager to name a few.

12 September 2009

Purple Patch at PVM…(NW Ecuador): September 11 & 12, 2009

I spent the last day and a half at the exciting Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary with a group of “hard core” British birders chasing down flocks, and scouring the gloomy understorey for skulkers. Rio Silanche, or PVM as it has been known (after the nearest town, Pedro Vicente Maldonado), is a tiny area of lowland forest in Pichincha that has been bought up and converted into a reserve (complete with canopy observation tower), by the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation. It is a great site for flocks, and therefore severe neck strain. We spent our time craning our necks skyward, sifting through flocks of tanagers and other gaudy South American birds trying to catch up with some of the specialties of the Chóco lowlands, as this small forest patch lies within this endemic rich bioregion.

The upshot of all this was we ran into some great birds, including a trio of scarce Euphonias: Fulvous-vented, White-vented (pictured here singing), and Orange-crowned Euphonias. These tanager-like birds were formerly grouped within the tanagers (Thraupidae), although were recently re-classified and subsequently moved out of the tanagers and into the siskin family (Fringillidae). Another star performer was this Purple-chested Hummingbird (see photo), which was vigorously defending its chosen patch of purple flowers. This hummer is another of the many endemics special to the bird rich Chóco region. As birds surged through the trees above the group worked tirelessly, fighting “tanager neck”, to pick out Scarlet-browed Tanagers flitting through the trees above that also had the odd Rufous-winged Tanager for company. Other standout moments from the past few days included a lift off of ten Swallow-tailed Kites (and another that glided gracefully over us, as we sweated from the humidity on the canopy tower). With a little work we finally ran into a pair of Chóco Trogons, that someone at least had earmarked in their quest to track down all the World’s trogons, (just some 40 odd species to get on that particular global adventure). A male Spot-crowned Antvireo posed and sang at us as we watched on just below. Also as we blundered after a fast moving flock in the area, a pair of Rufous-fronted Wood-Quails came crashing noisily out of the leaf litter and took us all by surprise, although we were not complaining one bit! A pair of Orange-fronted Barbets were found spitting sawdust as they excavated a new nest right by the road, a dinky pair of Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrants took some finding, although what would you expect from the World’s smallest passerine (just over 6cm); and a Scaly-throated Leaftosser had to be included on this list for the name alone, although the one of a pair that we found bounding around in the shady leaf litter was an undoubted highlight for both the rarity, and the “blinding” views. Despite all these crackers, amongst a horde of others, the top bird that was picked out by all from this area turned out to be the uninspiring sounding Black-striped Woodcreeper, although if you think woodcreepers are unimpressive this one may just make you change your mind. We finished with an antswarm by the car park as we finally had to leave this magical lowland reserve behind that drew in a Northern Barred Woodcreeper, and Bicolored and Immaculate Antbirds, that came in to feast on the various insects fleeing ahead of the swarm. A nice finish.

05 September 2009

London Calling…(Canvey Point, Essex, UK): August 2009

A quick break from the tropics took me back to the big smoke, London (to visit friends and family), where there was just enough time between the British Birdfair and other things to fit in a visit to Canvey Point in the Thames Estuary to look at shorebirds (waders) coming to the high tide roost there. I visited with a local avid patch watcher there and long time friend, Simon Buckell, along with Peter Alfrey, and we watched on as the tide moved in and stranded us on a tiny island of mud, which we shared with the local shorebirds. The pack of waders that dropped in and out nervously at various intervals in the tide cycle mostly involved a large mob of Ringed Plovers, mixed in with Dunlin, although we were treated to a Black-tailed Godwit that formed an odd couple with a single Red Knot that both sailed in together and landed amongst the Ringed Plover horde, from which they stood out considerably. Aside from that there were many terns floating over the River Thames, the lifeblood of England’s capital city. These mostly involved Common and Sandwich Terns, although one small group of 9 Black Terns emerged out of the heat haze hanging over this mighty river, and afforded us great looks as they “danced” in the wind just offshore beside us for some time, before they lifted up high over the river and were soon lost from view. Unfortunately though a White-winged Black Tern reported from further along the river on the day, did not drift our way!

04 September 2009

Paz’s Popular Piha….(Paz de las Aves, NW Ecuador): August 6, 2009

Another day at the so called “antpitta farm”. This day began with the usual Sickle-winged Guans muscling in on the fruit feast first before some of the more interesting birds came in to check out the fruit tables, with first a Toucan Barbet (that bizarrely appeared just as a bold Giant Antpitta came bounding down the steps to the blind and all but walked into the blind with us!) At one point you had to decide where to place your bins, on the colorful, chunky barbet wolfing down grapes, or the rufous-breasted form of the Giant Antpitta on the steps behind. What awful choices to have to make! While we were momentarily distracted by a Golden-headed Quetzal this subtle cotinga, the Olivaceous Piha (see top photo) sneaked into the now deserted fruit feeders, but not before we managed to reel off a couple of shots. The morning continued with this Yellow-breasted Antpitta (see bottom photo) that faithfully followed Rodrigo Paz to its designated feeding area, before we crammed in Velvet-purple Coronets, Empress Brilliants and others at the hummer feeders (that brought in 12 species on this day), a bolones brunch, and finally a male Orange-breasted Fruiteater to name just a few of the many birds that slipped onto our list on this fine day!

Silanche’s Stubby Show...(Rio Silanche, NW Ecuador): August 5, 2009

Later on during the Introtour we visited a rare patch of lowland forest in Pichincha province, at the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation Rio Silanché Bird Sanctuary that protects a small, but highly productive, patch near the town of Pedro Vicente Maldonado (much lowland forest has been cleared in the region for palm plantations and cow pasture). This has been a firm favorite site of mine for some time, despite its small size it maintains a rich, varied avifauna, and some real specialties of the region still “hang” there. This one deserved top billing on this day as we lined up and watched on as this male Stub-tailed Antbird (a scarce regional specialty to the Chóco region of NW Ecuador and W Colombia), jumped out into the open right in front of us where it remained obligingly for me to get this shoddy photo!

Tandayapa’s Tame Trogons…(Tandayapa Lodge, NW Ecuador): August 2 & 3, 2009

Checking into Tandayapa Lodge for our Introtour, we whiled away the time sifting through the “swarm” of hummingbirds at the feeders, and were soon distracted by a flash of crimson in the trees beside the lodge. This drew us to this female Masked Trogon, a regular visitor to the lodge garden these days. The next day we returned for some more “rapid-fire” hummer action there and once again bumped into this confiding trogon. Initially us “introtourers” trod carefully trying gingerly to work our way closer to this female trogon (males have a green back), until we all realized that the trogon really did not care too much about us, and sat rooted to the branch until we all surrounded her. A few days later than this, there she was again, in exactly the same spot showing no fear once again.

The Masked Trogon is one of an incredible 12 species found in Ecuador, many of which are confined to the lowlands, although the Masked is the highest ranging of all the Ecuadorian species, even being found in temperate forests above 3000m (10,000ft) on occasion.