23 September 2012

Ecuador Interlude: BANDED GROUND-CUCKOO (22 Sept.)

I had been back in Ecuador, after our Kenya holiday, for only a short while, and had not really given a thought to going birding just yet, with a trip to Peru looming, and much to catch up on. Then on Thursday I happened to glance at the Surfbirds website, and my eyes quickly locked on to Roger Ahlman's amazing shots of a Banded Ground-Cuckoo, and wheels were rapidly set in motion. This species is extremely rare, like all ground-cuckoos, and is confined to the Choco region of Ecuador and Colombia, and is extremely rarely seen in the province of Pichincha, with most records coming from the more northern province of Esmeraldas which borders Colombia. Most people who encounter them do so when they bump into a good antswarm of army ants where they occur, but even then they are often notably shy and difficult to see, let alone photograph. I had been lucky enough to see one, and see one well, in 2006 at Manga Loma, with no small thanks to Jose Illanes in locating it that day. For a long time after this sighting I frequently stated this as my "best bird in the world", which was only really knocked off its perch this year in China and Borneo, due to outrageous showings from Lady Amherst´s Pheasant and  Blue-banded Pitta respectively that made me rethink this "world order". 

Shortly after seeing Roger's photo, a plan was hatched with Iain Campbell, who was currently ground-cuckoo-less, even after a dozen years living in Ecuador, (although this is no surprise, and no shame, as many Ecuadorian-based birders still lack this bird). A few frantic e-mails later between myself and Roger, and Nicole Buttner, who runs the biological station at Un Poco del Choco private reserve, and we were soon booked in for Friday night, with the plan to look for the bird on Saturday morning. The news was clear: an antswarm had arrived at the biological station around a week before and so had at least two Banded Ground-Cuckoos, which were reported to be insanely confiding, far from their usual retiring nature, at times during a week of near continual sightings. However, glum news reached us on Friday: it had NOT been seen all that day, and the ants, considered vital to its continuing presence, had not been seen since Wednesday. I have to admit I wobbled and almost decided not to go. However, after some name-calling, and comments regarding backbones, Iain persuaded me to go. Thank goodness.

We awoke on Saturday morning and walked the near trail (just meters from the station where we slept), to no avail; no sight nor sound of the cuckoo. Having heard that the swarm was also attended by Immaculate Antbirds we kept our ears open for calls of them too, hoping this may lead us to a swarm. A few of these birds called downslope, (down a precariously steep slope), and I discussed the idea with Iain that I might go off-trail and try and relocate the swarm in the direction of those sounds. Iain went off to check another trail, and I lingered around the area on the trail the cuckoo had been seen before. Our time was not completely wasted though as we got some cracking looks at a Spotted Nightingale-Thrush in the area, and disturbed a typically noisy Crested Guan too. I was alone, and was feeling very pessimistic about our chances, with not an ant in evidence. I continued to muse on the idea of heading down that ominous looking slope, when a loud rustle of leaves reached my ears, and I caught a large movement out of the corner of my eye. I just knew, in my blood, this had to be the cuckoo, so I crept very slowly forward and was hit with the distinctive crested head shape of a superb Banded Ground-Cuckoo. Forgetting to snap a photo in the heat of the moment, I simply ran in the direction of where I had last seen Iain. He was quickly back on the scene, and the cuckoo quickly evacuated the scene, and was typically furtive in a brief showing. I left to try and find it elsewhere, and Iain was then gifted rare opportunities to photograph it at close quarters, while he was all alone. On returning to this news I concentrated once more in the same area, glimpsing it a few times before I too had a private moment with this uncharacteristically confiding ground-cuckoo. Over the next hours or so we had repeated views of one bird (Rudy Gellis, also there managed to see two), which gave extraordinary views and led me to these photographs; photographs of a bird I never expected I would ever have the chance to photograph in my life. A magical moment. I sincerely hope it stays around for everyone to get the thrills out of seeing it that I did. And maybe, I could even return to see it again one day!?

If you need updates on the bird, or would like to visit Un Poco del Choco, contact Nicole Buttner at unpocodelchoco@gmail.com

Thanks to Nicole for hosting us so well, and of course for hosting the cuckoo, and to Roger Ahlman for his help in getting us to the bird.

07 September 2012

Camp Birders...KENYA (4-5 Sept.)

Lake Baringo was more though than just about the healthy batch of nightbirds expected these days by visiting birders (due to the extraordinary quality of the local "Baringo Bird Boys"), and the camp we stayed was simply brimming with birds, by virtue of the fact is perched (precariously this year with the high water levels it seems) on the edge of the lake, and is quality wooded country simply loved by birds. Oh, and they also have a popular bird table, which can be viewed over breakfast. The biggest problem is getting time to have breakfast, as being a keen photographer it was hard to ignore the procession of cool and colorful birds...Golden-backed Weaver quickly impressed on arrival, and was joined at the feeding frenzy by White-billed Buffalo Weaver, Brown Babbler, and on the odd occasion, the local and rareish Northern Masked Weaver (good to get a lifer while scoffing one's face after all!). The bushes around the camp rustled with Spotted Mourning-Thrushes, Rufous Chatterers, and the like, while it was necessary to guard our food, as a mob of attractive, though mischievous, Superb Starlings were always waiting, and ready to pounce. An abandoned egg was no challenge for this mob and it soon walked off the table! Meanwhile Jackson's Hornbills hanging around the car mirrors, attacking their own reflection. And I should also mention their rather tame Marabou Stork, which redefines the word ugly. Great spot for birding this, and one of the my favorite places in all of Kenya so far...

More from Kenya to come...

06 September 2012

Nightbirding by day...KENYA (4 - 5 Sept.)

We arrived in Lake Baringo after a seriously early start, but were ready for action straight off. We checked in to Robert's Camp, which had just avoided the serious flooding of its illustrious neighbor, the local country club, and picked up a batch of new weavers, and the odd Jackson's Hornbill feasting at their feeder. Then we met up with one of the famous "Baringo Bird Boys", Francis, and went out for some nightbirding...at 8 in the morning! That is the typical Baringo experience. First off, a local garden brought us two roosting African Scops-Owls. Then it was off to an area of acacia scrub, where up to four roosting Slender-tailed Nightjars were found. Next up was a cliff that played host to a pair of roosting Spotted Eagle-Owls. Then the piece-de-resistance was my most wanted bird of the whole trip, the nocturnal Three-banded Courser roosting by day under a shady acacia. They quickly lept into first place in the bird-of-the-trip runnings for me. Finally, in late morning, just prior to lunch we saw a pair of roosting Northern White-faced Scops-Owls, looking distinctly more slender and lithe than they do at night. Just for good measure as a final curtain call pre-lunch we took in our second Pearl-spotted Owlet of the trip! "Nightbirding" had never been so easy!

05 September 2012

OUT of The Ark...KENYA (1 Sept.)

Finally, and reluctantly (it's a bit expensive for my budget after all!), we had to leave The Ark, and the Aberdares National Park, behind, as the Rift Valley lakes beckoned. However, before we had even breakfasted we stumbled on to this Leopard lounging in the first rays of sunlight of the day by the road. We had it to ourselves, and the animal was absolutely fearless the whole time. We stayed firmly within the vehicle, and putting our cameras through their paces, the whole time! Rouhg roads took us out of the park, and brought us multiple encounters with the friendly Jackson's Fracolin, and the cryptic Aberdare Cisticola, a dull bird with importance as a regional specialty of the area (so I of course lapped it up!) However, there was no doubting what was the star of the day, which nothing could ever live up to-a close-up encounter with a pristine feline can never be beaten, and may well turn out to be the overall highlight of the trip. Although, we do still have the world famous Maasai Mara to go...

More from Kenya soon...

03 September 2012

Into The Ark...KENYA (30 Aug.)

After several days around Mount Kenya, when we finally got a brief view of this towering peak (Africa's second highest I think?), as we were leaving, as it just broke through the cloud, we moved to another area of the Central Highlands: Aberdares National Park. After finally topping up our Safari Card which would allow us to enter the park (which confusingly meant going a fair way from the park to top this up), we entered the Aberdares, and instantly our attentions turned to things feline; we had come here for its enviable reputation as one of the best Leopard parks in Kenya. Our scouring on the way to our luxurious lodge produced nothing, although this was soon forgotten when we checked into the remarkable lodge, The Ark. The lodge overlooks a massive waterhole that draws in animals daily in good numbers. It took us no time to start partaking in the wildlife photo opps as we watched and photographed Cape Buffalo, African Elephant, Bushbuck (with attendant oxpeckers being regularly swatted away), Common Warthog, and the unenviably ugly Giant Forest Hog right from the lodge "bunker" come photo blind. What an opener. Of course steaming hot and milky tea was readily available, and readily taken in by me at least. The day closed with a visit from a genet that came to take scraps from just outside the bar, and the regular sounds of elephants, crickets, and the occasional Montane Nightjar could be heard from our room as we drifted into a deep and satisfying sleep.

02 September 2012

Into the highlands...KENYA (28 Aug.)

And so, after connecting with Iain Campbell in the dark of night in Nairobi, Nick, myself and Iain were soon on our way into Kenya's central highlands. We arrived at Castle Forest Lodge to be greeted with a steaming hot, milky, English-style "builders" tea (very good for me!), and a deluge of highland birds in a bumper day for our holiday. The entrance road to the lodge was rarely quiet with one bird popping up after another. Flocks held active Black-throated Apalis, the "nuthatching" Brown-capped Weaver creeping along limbs, and Broad-ringed White-eyes. Noisy, trilling, Chestnut-throated Apalis seemed ever-present in the forest canopy. A pair of Bar-tailed Trogon sat quietly in the understorey, and the flowers around our cabins rustled with the ever-present, and ever-dashing, Tacazze Sunbird. However, one of the ultimate prizes was the Hartlaub's Turaco, spectacularly decorated with fancy "eye make-up". At the end of the day starlings provided the headlines, with first the understated, though much-wanted, Kenrick's Starling, followed by the rare and striking Abbot's Starling to finish our daytime birding. However, as dusk descended, and the sun dropped out of sight, a noisy Montane Nightjar serenaded us, and landed on the cabin roof! A great intro to the highlands, if ever there was one.