31 March 2012

At the beach...TEXAS 31 March

We (Scott Watson and I) began our day checking the Houston Audubon Society's Boy Scout Woods for any migrants that may have come in late the day before. With little inclement weather to encourage them to come down to the coastal mottes we held little real hope. However, we still managed to pull some quality migrant fare out of the fire as it were, with the help of some locals checking out the bushes a short time before we did (thanks Dave and Tom!): Yellow-throated Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo and Northern Parula being the clear highlights with the lack of competition in the woods.

However, a bad-middling warbler day at this time can be compensated for by a run down to the coast, which sure enough paid dividends...We mixed it up with a visit to Rollover Pass, followed by a run down to HAS Bolivar Flats, which combined produced a mass of shorebirds and coastal birds. Favorites (for me anyway) at Rollover included several confiding, enormous-beaked Long-billed Curlews, a smattering of American Avocets, all rusted-up for spring, and the usual dancing antics from the local Reddish Egrets that included both the traditional red forms, and scarcer white morphs too.

Down at the flats healthy numbers of Western Sandpipers were present, sporting the chestnut-tones of summer, particularly evident when buried in a flock of pallid Sanderlings there! Other highlights included half a dozen portly Piping Plovers, which seemed to stand by the car and shout "shoot me", which of course, I duly did!

On top of all of that Happy brought us a rather large, and much welcomed cake, and Julia turned up bearing brisket. So we will fatten up while we wait for the inevitable wave of migrants to come! Thanks

More from High Island imminently...

30 March 2012

The Harbinger of spring...TEXAS (30 March)

What was meant to be a shorebird trip got a little sidetracked when this classic "American" bird appeared by the car. They say that pink is not a color but an attitude, and this quote seems so appropriate for this bird, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. One of the classic early spring birds, that I am all too happy to see while I wait for the "warbler rush" that happens later in the spring...

More from the Upper Texas Coast to come soon. Our walks at High Island start tomorrow, so here's hoping for some quality early spring movers, and some spectacular shorebird scenes to come...

Texas Gold....TEXAS 29 March

Went on an afternoon scouting shorebird sites around the Bolivar Peninsula with David Swaim, Scott Watson and Iain Campbell. After a stop for tacos we dodged rain showers and picked up a bunch of shorebirds, many of which were dappled with rain drops, but non-plussed by this of course, and busily fed away. We had some great birds, and great photo opps, though these were somewhat limited by the gray skies, and wet conditions, which left us marooned to the car. A stop at Rollover Pass yielded an ever so plump Piping Plover, the usual mass of Black Slimmers, and a mob of Marbled Godwits. Heading to Bob Road we were entertained by this absurdly confiding American Golden Plover, which had Wilson's Plovers and Least Sandpipers for company. Our final stop, as the rain lashed down was arguably the best, as sandpipers galore fed constantly along the side of Rettilon Road, the access road to the beach at Houston Audubon's Bolivar Flats sanctuary. Best among them was this sporting Pectoral Sandpiper, which was not going to let a car full of eager birders deter it from feeding in a ditch right by the road! Good numbers of Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers were also seen there.

More from Texas real soon...

29 March 2012

We move in, they move out...TEXAS 29 March

Well our first proper moving in day was today back at the High Island house, and this meant unboarding the gazebo among other chores. Every year we do this we find various creatures that have moved in. This years squatters were this delightful pair: American Tree Frogs, who looked a little put out that we moved their favored boards, and soon disappeared into the brush somewhere.

The afternoon was spent scouring the coastline of the Bolivar Peninsula, dodging rain showers, and checking for the latest shorebird hotspots. We certainly found a few and these will be detailed next...

Back in Texas...28 March

In the wee, wee hours of the morning I traveled out of the Andes of Ecuador, and into the flatlands of Texas. Iain Campbell and I met up with Scott Watson, who was coming on from South Africa. Finally, in late afternoon we reached the legendary migration hot spot of High Island, where I will be based until early May. We wasted little time in checking out the new set ups at Houston Audubon's Smith Oaks sanctuary, where the staff had been busy in the off season constructing new, two-tier, viewing photography platforms that overlook the rookery there. This should avoid the problems we have seen in the past where photographers and birders clash, and obstruct each others views. Now photographers and birders can enjoy this annual spectacle without any trouble to each other. Good job! Of course while there we could not help but be absorbed by the breeding activity of the local herons, egrets, and spoonbills that are captivating each and every time. Cormorants croaked, egrets called in the guttural fashion that constitutes their song, and birds came and went bearing sticks and laying claim to precious areas of "turf" as their own on their vital nesting island on Claybottom Pond. All the while waterbirds like ibis, herons and others streamed in overhead to come in to roost, while we swatted away mosquitoes.

I look forward to much, much more of this, plus warblers and shorebirds besides. It is very good to be back in my second home!

27 March 2012

March Madness...ECUADOR (March 1)

After the phenomenal feeders of the day before we could not have hoped for better the day after. Although it has to be said the feeders at Mirador Rio Blanco in Los Bancos ran them very close indeed. After a morning in the Milpe reserve (owned by the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation), where Laura and I got close ups of Club-winged Manakin in the throws of their "harmonica" displays, and Betty got intimate with Green-crowned Woodnymphs, White-whiskered Hermits and Green Thorntails at the feeders, we headed for a jar of juice and a tanager or two at the Mirador. In came the regular mob of Blue-gray Tanagers, interspersed with a visit from a Buff-rumped Warbler bounding across the floor below the feeder, while an Ecuadorian Thrush could not resist a fallen banana that some messy tanager had mislaid. Up on the feeder itself the scene was dominated by tanagers, with Silver-throated Tanager dropping in regularly, but outclassed by the Blackburnian-esque Flame-faced Tanager, and the final drop in of the afternoon by a Crimson-rumped Toucanet that lingered for an age just daring any other birds to even look at his precious banana!

Goatsuckers in the Andes...ECUADOR (29 Feb.)

A hot tip-off had Laura and I heading out with storm clouds gathering, from Tandayapa, to the entrance track to Paz de Aves, where earlier that day someone had seen the regular roosting male Lyre-tailed Nightjar. With a tail bringing the total body length to near a meter, it was well worth getting a little wet for! Luckily another Tropical Birding groupd led by Andres Vasquez were just ahead of us and confirmed it was still present, and helpfully laid vegetation in the shape of an arrow pointing at the well-hidden bird, making my life very easy! Thanks Andres.

More from Ecuador to come...

23 March 2012

Feeding frenzies...ECUADOR (29 Feb.)

After admiring even more tanagers dropping into the feeders in Mindo, like this immaculate male Lemon-rumped Tanager, we returned to our comfortable lodging, Tandayapa Bird Lodge.

Over lunch, and often from the lunch table it was evident the banana feeders there too were big news among the local bird population, which barely stayed away all afternoon. Among the visitors were this Golden-naped Tanager, and this stunning male Red-headed Barbet.

The hummer feeders, which Tandayapa is world famous for, were of course also on fire with Violet-tailed Sylphs and Booted Racket-tails regular among a horde of others.

Late in the afternoon, Laura and I headed out to check out a spot for a spectacular roosting nightbird after a hot tip-off...

22 March 2012

More from Mindo...ECUADOR (29 Feb.)

Here are some more shots of the myriad of birds dropping into the feeders that day at Mindo: Betty was overwhelmed with hummers (like this gorgeous Purple-bibbed Whitetip- a species confined to this Choco bioregion), and Laura and I were overwhelmed with tanagers. And of course, there was this Pale-mandibled Aracari, and the odd Toucan Barbet too, to keep everyone happy, and memory cards jam-packed with memories!

More from Ecuador on its way...

21 March 2012

Toucans and Tanagers...ECUADOR (29 Feb.)

After our day in the chilly, and often misty temperate zone we enjoyed a warmer day down in the subtropics, near a famous birding town called Mindo.
With tanagers a high priority for Laura and hummers a continuing priority for Betty (who was now eyeing a remarkable species total for the trip!), we killed two birds with one stone: visited a magical feeder set up where hummingbirds of seemingly infinite colors and varieties buzzed around them, while bananas were too juicy to resist for the local tanager horde.

In these rich cloudforests hummingbirds reach their highest diversity on this side of the Andes, and this is where the best feeders are. Tanager diversity is also impressive: as we got out of the car we noticed bright shapes flitting in and out of the feeders: first Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers tucked into a banana, then seconds later it was replaced by a cerulean blue male Black-capped Tanager, (bottom photo) before a Golden Tanager replaced it on the very same perch (middle photo). Cameras were swung this way and that to record these colorful "models".

Betty got edgy about the hummers though and so we walked behind the building to take in another extraordinary scene, where Violet-tailed Sylphs battled with Empress Brilliants and Velvet-purple Coronets for a place at the sugar water! In between all of this scintillating action a bold toucan dropped in to the feeders, in the form of a Pale-mandibled Aracari, (top) that was not going to let a human stand between it and the ripe bananas!

A wonderful morning, jam-packed with photo opportunities and quality birds...

20 March 2012

The fight for Sugar...ECUADOR (28 Feb.)

Yanacocha's hummer feeders were buzzing, with Buff-winged Starfrontlets and Sapphire-vented Pufflegs ever-presents. In between these birds though were others that darted in and out. Like this Golden-breasted Puffleg, and a male Tyrian Metaltail, with a throat that looked like it had had metallic green paint spilled across it, stood guard over one feeder, in an act of futility: all other species came and went as they pleased anyhow.

There were simply too many hummingbirds to keep at bay! It was not only the hummingbirds though that were fighting for the sugary water, as both Glossy Flowerpiercer and Masked Flowerpiercer also dropped in regularly too. Not only do these "nectar parasites" rob nectar from hummingbirds at wild flowers, but they also manage to do this rather well at feeders!

On the way back down the trail Betty and I enjoyed prolonged looks at a dashingly handsome pair of Golden-crowned Tanagers as the clouds rolled in and out. After a picnic lunch over looking Great Sapphirewings and others at the parking lot feeders, we descended and were on our way to Tandayapa for the final leg of our trip...

19 March 2012

Into the "Wild West"...ECUADOR (28 Feb.)

After an extended run on the east slope of the Ecuadorian Andes, Laura, Betty and I packed up our things, stopped off for a night in Quito, before heading into the western Andes, my most hallowed stomping ground.

Our first stop, as we moved out from the dry inter-Andean valley that Ecuador's capital is located within, climbing onto the wet western slope, was the Jocotoco Foundation's Yanacocha reserve, a favored stop on birding routes heading west. Betty was especially excited by the prospect of a healthy batch of new hummers awaiting in the west, and we didn't take long to start tucking to the them. Sapphire-vented Pufflegs and Buff-winged Starfrontlets dominated the feeder action at Yanacocha, although tanagers also featured too, with this Black-chested Mountain-Tanager posing for an age, and making me long for the days of digiscoping, as it was a sitter for the digiscopers of this world, although I felt distinctly challenged by the distance!

More hummers and tanagers to come from Yanacocha soon...

18 March 2012

Lifer Lancy...ECUADOR (25 Feb.)

After another hearty lunch at Wild Sumaco Lodge, and the exertions of the morning, we opted for a relaxed afternoon with Sumaco's hummers.

The feeders by the magnificent veranda there (glistening after a recent downpour) were alive with hummers, from Napo Sabrewings to White-tailed Hillstars to buff-booted Booted Racket-tails (they have buff rather than white boots on the east side of the Andes) there was never a dull moment. The best of the bunch was arguably this Blue-fronted Lancebill, a lifebird for me. The mass of Golden-tailed Sapphires were much appreciated too, the males impressive with their violaceous hoods, and bronzed tails.

A brief foray along the F.A.C.E trail alone in the late afternoon was generally quite aside from a wonderful Chestnut-crowned Gnateater picked up just before the sun began to sink below the horizon.

More from Sumaco to come...

16 March 2012

Easy Antpittas!...ECUADOR (25 Feb.)

We opened the batting at Sumaco that morning with a resplendent Golden-collared Toucanet watching croaking, and dipping, from the balcony of the lodge, and a Black-billed Treehunter hopping around the lodge driveway. Laura and I then waved Betty goodbye, who was by then rooted to the hummingbird feeders (and why not!?), and went off on our mission...A Scaled Pigeon posed above the trailhead and defied the idea that pigeons are dull and boring; this one is not. We then proceeded down the trail and got back on to our mission plan: Antpittas!

Antpittas used to be difficult birds that only the most hardened and dedicated birders could find, through persistence, a hell of a lot of patience, and a decent dose of luck. However, that has has all changed in recent years courtesy of an "outbreak" of antpitta feeding stations that have sprung up in Ecuador, and now neighboring Colombia too. And I for one am happy with this. Formerly dastardly species are now very gettable, like the Plain-backed Antpitta, formerly described by the great Robert Ridgely as the "hardest antpitta to actually see". Now Wild Sumaco have set up a feeding area in the forest, and a short, though slippery, stroll into the forest brought us up close and personal to this formerly elusive antpitta. A little further along the trail, and a good deal of slipping and sliding by Laura and myself, we were lined up for another antpitta. The local guide whistled, the rain fell, and the forest remained still with little sign of movement. Then suddenly, an Ochre-breasted Antpittapopped up and glared at us from its mossy perch. It was going to play after all! In the end a pair came in and gave us "walk away" views.

After all the antpitta action, and being rained on at regular intervals, we made our way back towards the lodge, picking up a Black-mandibled Toucan from a welcome bench, and lookout, near the end of the trail. Realizing that a handkerchief had fallen from Laura's possession and was lying forlorn on the trail somewhere, I backtracked, picked it up and turned around to see a Short-tailed Antthrush slowly creeping away from me-it was obviously not expecting me to return! A nice reward for returning. Once we finally dragged ourselves off the bench we found a pair of Collared Trogons on the way out.

After lunch we were captivated by their hummingbird feeders once more, which even offered me a rather belated lifebird...

14 March 2012

Cartoon Bird...ECUADOR (25-26 Feb.)

Betty, Laura and I spent a lot of time over these days admiring the awesome hummingbird activity around the feeders at Wild Sumaco Lodge. They have several sets of feeders there, some buried deep in the forest, and others easily accessible right by their magnificent veranda.

When I last visited there a few years ago the undoubted champion feeders were the ones within the forest that were in the shade and offered little hope for photographers. However, times change and now the "veranda feeders" are amazing, with many species that were rare or absent there just a few years ago now regular and very photogenic indeed...

One such species was the thrilling Wire-crested Thorntail which you needed to hope would visit flowers in the garden before. However, it seems now these incredible hummers have found the feeders, and look set to never leave them. We enjoyed numerous males of these "cartoon birds" with their punky crests, ginger boots, and thorny tails. So as a tribute to this highly entertaining species I putting a special gallery here for them only. I am pretty confident that Betty shared my admiration for this bird, as she could not be torn away from the feeders!

More to come from Sumaco - including more hummers, of course, and the odd antpitta too...

13 March 2012

Jewels of the Andes...ECUADOR (25-26 Feb.)

We moved on to the newest lodge in Ecuador, Wild Sumaco famous for hummingbirds and many rare eastern birds. One of the major targets for this tour was to amass a healthy batch of hummingbirds and to this end Sumaco helped immensely. In a few days there the feeders yielded 23 species, including one lifer for me (to come later), and some rarely seen species, such as this Gould's Jewelfront, well-named indeed. The other photo is of the scenic Rio Hollin, near the site of a new Jocotoco Foundation reserve, which we passed en-route to Sumaco.

12 March 2012

NEW Ecuador Bird...ECUADOR (24 Feb.)

A final morning was spent in the cloudforest surrounding Cabanas San Isidro on the eastern slope of the Andes. Once again, we awoke to a hive of activity right around the lodge. As with yesterday some of the regulars were there, like the ever-boisterous Inca Jays, (top image) and the stolid Masked Trogon, (second image) along with both Pale-edged Flycatchers (fourth image) and Rufous-breasted Flycatcher, and Slate-throated Redstarts, always pictures of nervous energy (third image).

The now expected family mob of Crested Quetzals regularly appeared, and announced their presence loudly, and a movement in the grass brought me my first Mourning Warbler for Ecuador, a male no less (I had been tipped of of its presence, and was watchful for it if I am honest!).

We took a second shot at seeing the Peruvian Antpitta, (bottom image) and with rain holding off it came in faithfully to its log, where a large leaf laden with juicy worms was hard to resist.

In the afternoon we shed layers as we moved down into the foothills, and the wonderful Wild Sumaco Lodge, where our day closed with a post dinner date with a Band-bellied Owl that displayed its fierce countenance in the spotlight!

11 March 2012

Antpittas & Oilbirds...ECUADOR 23 Feb.

We enjoyed breakfast as the sun rose at San Isidro, and then walked out of the restaurant to take in the intense activity around the lodge shortly after dawn. Large lights draw in a myriad of moths during the night, creating a flurry of activity at daybreak as birds come in to pick off the hapless insects which have arrived overnight.

A pair of Masked Trogons were one of the first birds to show themselves, while Olive-backed and Montane Woodcreepers plucked moths from the same telephone pole. Vermilion-rumped Subtropical Caciques and giant Russet-backed Oropendolas were noisy and hard to miss, while more subtle were the Canada and Blackburnian Warblers flitting in the understorey. Many of these were looking pristine in newly gained spring plumage, indicating that it will soon be time for them to head north from the tropics to their boreal breeding grounds. The seemingly resident family "flock" of Crested Quetzals also soon appeared, and peaked at six birds at one time! Flocks in the area also held the dashing Saffron-crowned Tanager, and a very confiding Cinnamon Flycatcher (above) among others.

A special trip was taken to watch a pair of White-bellied Antpittas being fed in the forest behind the restaurant, although as rain fell heavily, the other antpitta we'd hoped for, Peruvian refused to show and we soon retreated for cover from the heavy downpour. Walks around San Isidro completed a brace of quetzals with a male Golden-headed Quetzal also found, a very cute Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher, (above) as well as this confiding Bluish Flowerpiercer (below).

At dusk we positioned ourselves along the road and enjoyed the spectacle of more than 20 Oilbirds passing over as the light faded, with the aid of a flashlight, and later in the evening the striking "San Isidro Mystery Owl" showed up again and glared fiercely back at us.

Next up was a hummingbird bonanza at Wild Sumaco Lodge...