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...

St. Lucia Part 2: Mammals…(KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa): October 11, 2009

St. Lucia also proved an impressive park for game with nearly twenty species seen during this one day alone (just under a third of all the mammals seen on the trip were recorded during this one magic day!). Best of all happened much as the birds did, before breakfast. Checking the grasslands for longclaws and pipits we came upon a pair of beastly White Rhinoceros (see photo) grazing the roadside verge. They were so close to our vehicle we hear them noisily chomping away on the grass! Also quite impressive was cross-eyed Buffalo (see photo) that looked all the more menacing for it. Out in the grasslands we also found a gangly-legged Common (Southern) Reedbuck (see photo), a number of Kudu sporting impressive “horns”, the now usual Impalas and many others. One parking lot proved a good stakeout for the scarce Samango Monkey that rather let its rare status down by begging for scraps around the camp! The same camp also held (along with the Brown Scrub-Robin photographed below), a rather tame Red Duiker that felt a little like a camp pet, and massive mob of Banded Mongoose roamed the lot, numbering some 40 animals (see photo)! We also encountered a pair of frisky Burchell's Zebras in a car park, that were getting so "fresh" with each other we felt compelled to look the other way (see photo)!

In the afternoon after this truly absorbing day that was packed with game and loaded with birds, we headed south to Eshowe for the night in readiness for our exploration of that rich area the following day...

St. Lucia Part 1: Birds…(KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa): October 11, 2009

The Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park is an extremely diverse area of varied habitats, that contains a mosaic of woodlands, coastal forests, grasslands, and nationally important wetland areas. This diversity in habitats leads to an interesting mix of birds and animals too, and we experienced a great day dipping in and out of the various habitats picking up birds and game as we went. First for the birds though…We began our day, pre-breakfast, in coastal forest looking for particular specialties of this zone. Luckily they were not too hard to find, and we got some real “stonkers” even before our first meal of the day. This included the lime-green, punk-haired Livingstone’s Turaco sharing the same grove of trees with a male Woodward’s Batis. Also before our hearty cooked breakfast back in town was one of the raptor finds of the trip, and a lifebird for all, a Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, using a power line on the edge of some woodland as a lookout (see photo). In the grasslands we found a few glowing Yellow-throated Longclaws weaving their way in and out of the stands of tall grass (see photo), along with Pale-crowned Cisticola, another “confusing” pipit, this time Buffy Pipit, and a small party of Senegal Lapwings in a recently burnt area. Checking the wetlands and coastal areas we came upon humongous Goliath Herons, White-fronted Plovers, and several Collared Pratincoles, and one of the reed beds held a few Southern Brown-throated Weavers. Later in the day we checked some parking lots bordered with more coastal forest that held the endemic Brown Scrub-Robin (see photo) that was remarkably easy when seen competing with Forest Weavers and Yellow-bellied Greenbuls for food scraps scattered around the lots!

Mkhuze Game Reserve…(South Africa): October 10, 2009

After our roadwork-plagued drive down here from Johannesburg the afternoon and evening before, a short drive into Mkhuze was just what we needed. This has been described as a “Mecca for southern African birders” and we soon learned why. We bumped into just one other family while in the reserve this day, but for the most part we felt as if we had the birds and game all to ourselves. Game was abundant and the now very familiar species like Burchell’s Zebras, Impalas, hippos, Giraffes, and Warthogs were all seen once more along with a few striking Nyala too. The birding was fantastic too, and despite a drizzly morning that had us sheltering in some of their well-placed hides for cover, the rain did not dampen our spirits and the birds behaved as if they were oblivious to these “spring showers”. As we drove into the heart of the reserve a less than gorgeous call led us to an absolutely gorgeous bird, called rightly enough, the Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, a bird that eluded my camera, and that sports a vibrant vermilion-red throat patch bordered in black. The rain continued to spit on us, although a number of Pink-throated Twinspots (see photos) both within the main reserve and along the entrance track showed no signs of being affected by the regular downpours. While we sheltered from a particularly heavy shower in one of the blinds set in amongst sand forest, we found Bearded Scrub-Robin, and best of all watched on as the rare Neergard’s Sunbird sang from the treetops, and frequently visited some blooming flowers beside the blind. This is a localized sand forest specialist and one we had really hoped to find. A respite from the rain had us out walking in the sand forest where more twinspots were always welcome and we also eventually tracked down one of several calling Eastern Nicators, a few Grey waxbills, and the localized Rudd’s Apalis that was extremely obliging. We then slowly made our way back towards the entrance, stopping for some inquisitive and distinctly funky-looking Crested Guineafowl (see photo). A little further on down the road came one of the highlights of our three-week jaunt around this fascinating country, when we noticed a flurry of bird activity, that we soon realized was caused by an emergence of termites from a small mound. While various swallows, swifts and bee-eaters swooped on the wing overhead to take advantage of the harvest a Lizzard Buzzard (see photo) dropped down on the ground and greedily munched on termites from the place they emerged. This all got very ridiculous when a huge Trumpeter Hornbill even started to hunt them on the wing overhead, very unexpected as this is not usually an aerial hunter. Everywhere you looked there were birds desperate to get in on the act. A very exciting end to our day before the heavens opened once more and we “set sail” for St. Lucia

04 November 2009

A Taste of the Kalahari...(South Africa): October 9, 2009

The one brave soul hanging on for our extension had expressed an interest in a number of "Kalahari birds" that we do not normally go for on this trip. However, this did not phase Ken (the main guide for the tour), and so we headed north from Johannesburg for an unscheduled trip into the southern edge of the Kalahari to get some of those choice birds the tour participant Jackie had looked at so longingly in the bird book. We birded a deserted road with scrub along the side that was brimming with birds and in just a few hours there we quickly added 24 birds to our trip list. We had only just turned onto this "Kalahari Highway" when we heard the raucous, and far from melodic sound of a Northern Black Korhaan, and quickly found one "singing" from the top of a small rise, one of at least four seen during the morning and our ninth and final bustard species for the trip. A little further down the scarlet belly of a Crimson-breasted Shrike glowed at us from the low roadside scrub, and a noisy mob of ghostly white Southern Pied Babblers (see photo) also popped up by the vehicle. Better was to come though when we had to make a stop for a flock of finches barring our way up the road, that held the exquisite Violet-eared Waxbill in their midst. A large and unique "finch" sporting a bright red bill, electric blue rump and violet cheeks. Another new finch was found in the roadside scrub with a few Black-faced Waxbills, and further on down the road where a couple of striking Black-chested Snake-Eagles were found standing sentry. We searched high and low for the localized Great Sparrow, to no avail although Jackie and I were well pleased with a showy Desert Cisticola (that completed our set of all 14 possible cistics for the trip-a group of birds that has an aquired taste). And so we decided to hit the road and leave the Kalahari Highway behind, and begind our long journey to Mkhuze, although literally just before we turned to join the highway we found our way blocked again by a bird feeding the road, which unbelievably turned out to be the Great Sparrow that we'd been hunting with zero success for the past hour! A magid end to the morning. Unfortunately after re-fuelling at the local Wimpy there was little to rwrite home about the afternoon as we were cursed with slow moving trucks, and never ending roadworks all the way to our destination. The spate of roadworks brought on by the development in place for upcoming 2010 Soccer World Cup blighting our journey somewhat! Thank heavens for the morning we had had that saved our day from being a non-starter altogether!

Farewell to Kruger...(South Africa): October 8, 2009

For our final day of the main tour in South Africa we wandered the Letaba Camp before heading out of the Kruger and back to Johannesburg. The camp was hopping with glossy-starlings, the plains out the back of the camp held Buffalos and Nyala, and over breakfast we watched a Red-headed Weaver from the breakfast table. As we tried to leave Kruger Cut-throat Finches stalled us by the gate, and we almost missed a Groundscraper Thrush (see photo) that was hopping around behind our backs on a lawn by the gate. On the way back to Jo'Burg we stopped off for one of Africa's rarest raptors, at a set of rich red cliffs behind some souvenir stalls in the middle of nowhere. There was no doubting we were in the right place though as a large rock held the large painted letters "Taita" splattered across them. We got out of our vehicle in the sweltering afternoon heat to find the official Taita Falcon guide who is normally resident at the stalls not in attendance, although no bother as one of the ladies on the stalls stood in for him (see photo) and led us to a large set of cliffs where she indiacetd a falcon was currently sitting on eggs. Sadly though this was in a dark crevice away from our prying eyes, so we waited, and waited and sweated heavily in the oppressive heat. Just as we were wilting our stand in guide indicated skywards and there above was a gliding Taita Falcon that circled above us and then dissappeared high above. At which point we all ran for the car and the cool relief that only air conditioning bring!