27 October 2013

Rain Stops Play?...PNG (2nd Oct.)

Departing in darkness we made it to a steep hillside, which we did not exactly fly up, but with the promise of one of the World's best birds, Blue Bird-of-paradise, possibly waiting near the end our pace was a little quicker than it might have been! After a nail-biting wait a full streamered male flew in and brought gasps all around. All were in agreement; it IS one of the world's best birds. 

In the afternoon we planned to visit the large mountain garden our local guide, who offered such delectable birds as Sooty Melidectes, Crested Satinbird (formerly Crested Bird-of-paradise), Dusky Woodcock and Crested Berrypecker. I mean, how could we resist with such an illustrious set of birds on offer?! We lunched at Kumul Lodge, with regular bird table companions such as Belford's Melidectes, Brehm's Tiger-Parrots for company. The orange blooms alongside shook with the visit of a scarlet and jet black male Red-collared Myzomela too, while a young White-winged Robin regularly launched attacks on insects from the legs of the bird table.
After lunch we departed for the mountain garden, which comprised of a large area of crops and natural grassland, surrounded by thick, mountain forest. Unfortunately, as we made our way to the area with our guide, Max, the heavens opened, and heavy rain began to fall. Undeterred, we continued to the site, arrived at the clearing, but quickly needed to take shelter under the eaves of Max's traditional hut. The rain was heavy and the clouds so low we could barely make out the trees at the edge of the clearing. Unsurprisingly, some of the group, feeling the chill and seeing little to promise of a change in the weather, headed back to the lodge for the remainder of the afternoon. Foolishly, it appeared, Chris and myself decided, with no further afternoons available to visit this spot, to stick it out until late afternoon and hope for a change in circumstances. Several hours passed, and then finally, the clouds lifted and the trees became visible once more, even if light rain continued to fall. We left the shelter of the hut, and made our way across the clearing to a large dense fruiting tree, where a movement led us to the first of our targets: Crested Berrypecker, which looks rather like a strange waxwing, but daubed in blue-and-white! We were pumped. Several hours in the cold, relentless rain had paid off after all. But the best was yet to come. Another rustle in the trees led us to a female Crested Satinbird. It may have been only the dowdy female version, but we had the bird for the first time on the trip and we were happy. Then Max alerted us to the first of three Sooty Melidectes which visited some blooms of white flowers in the clearing. Amazingly, this species has only recently been discovered in the area, with regular sightings only coming from this spot during this year only. We got some great scope looks as the rain began to finally let up. We shook off our umbrellas and soon after heard the calls of a MALE Crested Satinbird emanating from near the fruiting tree that had hosted both the Crested Berrypeckers and the female of this species. Incredibly, and dramatically a large fiery orange bird appeared in the tree. We had barely clapped eyes on this jet black and orange male Crested Satinbird, when it jumped up and landed on the crown of the tree, as if to say "have you got me now!!!" We could not have dared to dream of a better outcome to the afternoon which begun oh so poorly, with rain lashing down, and near zero visibility. Chris and I were flushed with our success and were beaming, and thankful that our long, and cold, wait in the rain had been very worthwhile. We decided to wait until dusk, and see if the hoped for Dusky Woodcock (a lifer for myself even on my 7th tour of PNG), would rode over the clearing. Amazingly, a short time after light had begun to fade, the distinctive calls of a woodcock drifted across the clearing to our ears, and moments later the woodcock was seen as it flew across a large gap in the forest. Life was chipper after a truly amazing afternoon, which will live long in my memory for sure! Once again it was proved to me that mountain weather is completely unpredictable from what your eyes see, and that the birds that live there are equally unpredictable. Something that makes birding so exciting.
More from PNG to come...

25 October 2013

A Flash of Lightning...PNG (1st-2nd Oct.)

...Continuing our time at Kumul Lodge in Papua New Guinea's highlands, we enjoyed the bird table as all who visit do. They are the sole lodge in the world that can boast birds-of-paradise at the table. In addition to the aforementioned Brown Sicklebills, were a regular flow of Ribbon-tailed Astrapias, which after the performances they gave at Kumul Lodge, were justifiably included in the top five birds of the trip, and shone through many more recent memories at the trip end to beat many other great birds seen later on the trip into that hollowed position. Astrapia means flash of lightning, and you cannot help think that they named the group after the male Ribbon-tailed with his lightning rod tail?! Several individual astrapias were seen with the white-tailed male creating a stir on each appearance, even appearing to "stalk" one of the group, Shannon, when she stayed back at the lodge one afternoon. I cannot think of a better afternoon companion!
Other great birds at Kumul Lodge included a visit to Tonga downslope, where the reverse signal calls of a male Blue Bird-of-paradise pricked our ears, and the sight of a male flying into a tree beside us will be burnt in our retinas forever. Quite simply one of the world's greatest birds. There are many choices which would need some thought; this one is an automatic, no quandary-inducing entry into any top ten list! A calling male Superb Bird-of-paradise almost felt like an afterthought in hindsight once the blistering male Blue had come in and stole the show in such an all consuming, absolute manner.
Our time at Kumul Lodge continued with another contender for a top ten birds in the world list (only in PNG can you have two entries into this list in two consecutive days)! 

22 October 2013

The Land of the Unexpected...PNG (29th-30th Sept.)

We landed in the so-called "Land of the Unexpected", Papua New Guinea, the day before and soon set about picking up some easy birds right in Port Moresby. The city of notorious as one of the least attractive cities on the planet and I agree. However, the well-manicured grounds of the Pacific Adventist's University (PAU) provide a haven from the usual squalor and hustle and bustle of the capital. We enjoyed the usual haul of good birds there, which come with a distinctive Australian feel, many of them also occurring in the far reaches of northeast Oz. Highlights included a pair of bark-like Papuan Frogmouths hiding well within a massive Rain Tree on campus; equally inconspicuous Spotted Whistling-Ducks roosting within the trees around a hidden pond; a gorgeous Orange-fronted Fruit-Dove with its orange "headlamp" turned on full; and a veritable flurry of Fawn-breasted Bowerbirds which as common as I have ever seen them here (this was my 7th visit). Visting this late in the season also brought some surprises like Latham's Snipe and Pacific Golden Plover foraging on the lawns, and the newly established population of both Hardheads (White-eyed Ducks) and Plumed Whistling-Ducks were also of considerable interest to me.

On this day though our plan was to see our first of the very family which draws people in from all over the globe: BIRDS-OF-PARADISE. We had hatched a good plan for this: a three-night stay in Kumul Lodge in PNG's "BOP"-rich highlands. The only thing we needed to navigate was Port Moresby chaotic airport and even

more chaotic airlines. However, on this day our flight to Mount Hagen left pretty much on time and before we knew we were at the lodge with binoculars (if needed) focused firmly on the lodge's unique centrepiece: a long-established bird table (so long-established it is is coated in a deep layer of wet moss) which plays host to birds-of-paradise. This is the only lodge on Earth that can boast such a thing. Before long, the first of these dropped in and mouths dropped open, while cameras snapped into action. Brown Sicklebills came in over our few days there, with both several bar-breasted females and a super immature male which is daubed in way more colours than the brown of its name...

More from PNG's Kumul Lodge to come, including one of the contenders for bird-of-the-trip...

16 October 2013

Superb Birding...AUSTRALIA (16 Oct)

I returned from Papua New Guinea in the morning, having caught the "red eye" from PNG's infamous capital, Port Moresby. I had a great tour of PNG, with some 23 birds-of-paradise and even a couple of lifers, but enough of that for now, back to that later...
I landed in Brisbane and set about a plan for some final Aussie birding before I head back to my Andean home in Ecuador for a while. I decided to check out the Minnippi Parklands, as my great birding mate Stuart Pickering has this as his home patch. He was not around unfortunately, and all I had as an objective was to shoot some birds, no matter how common they are, they were appealing to me and my lens. Arriving at the lake the usual throng of waterbirds were around: Purple Swamphens, squabbling with Pacific Black Ducks and Noisy Miners (and later Crested Pigeons) for scraps laid out for them. 
The middle of the lake had some mud which had attracted both Red-kneed and Black-fronted Dotterels, as well as a Comb-crested Jacana family. A couple of Australian Pelicans loafed, rather conspicuously, too offshore. On the island a Latham's Snipe scuttled around the muddy edges, probing deep in the mud with his well-adapted weapon, his long, long bill.
Working around the pond I heard the far from musical sound of a Rufous-tailed Bush-hen, a bird which I had not seen in Australia (only in Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia), and set about trying to see it, which proved typically futile. The bird likes the bush, as it name suggests, and that's where it remained; in a dense dark, impenetrable, bush! Still the habitat around the edges of the lake led me to two of my favourite Aussie birds; first Superb Fairywren, and then a trio (including two powder blue-headed males) of Variegated Fairywrens

Tawny Grassbird also popped up to make sure he made it on to my memory card too. Moving on, I admired both the sound and the size of a pair of Laughing Kookaburras, laughing at me from a eucalyptus tree, and then tried snapping a Sacred Kingfisher which alerted me to its presence through it's harsh yelps. 

Then I turned and was startled to come face-to-face with a low sitting Channel-billed Cuckoo; my best views and photos ever of this species. That was my highlight, the up close views of the world's largest cuckoo (it is considerably bigger than the fearsome Great Horned Owl), and yet more intimate encounters with that most lovely of Australian birds, the fittingly named, Superb Fairywren. Farewell to beloved Australia, a place I love coming back to. The birds are friendly, and the people too.

 Soon I will relay the best of my trip into deepest, darkest PNG, where birds-of-paradise loomed large...

29 September 2013

Into the Valley...AUSTRALIA (27th Sept)

I think if you put this day together with the one before you'll get a pretty good idea of what a cracking city Brisbane must be, to be based as a birder. This was illustrated to me well, first by Nick Leseberg, who generously showed me around D'Aguilar National Park and Mount Glorious; and then this "tour of Brisbane Hotspots" continued with my old London mate (now an Aussie resident) Stuart Pickering with a visit to the Lockyer Valley. 
Stuart had arranged to meet Plaxy Barrett and Dan Mantle (hope I got those names right-sorry guys if not!), as they had recently seen a Red-chested Buttonquail in the area. After admiring many platelets (circular grooves in the groundmade by feeding buttonquails) we left with no buttonquails, although the area was superb, with some low, and lovely, Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters, and a single Black-chinned Honeyeater being the standout sightings from this wooded area. 
Although, the showoff Variegated Fairywren would have to get a "perfect 10" for performance alongside and provided the photo shoot of the morning! As we moved on to another area, a group of 11 Red-rumped Parrots proved once again, from their showy show that indeed Australia truly is the "land of parrots".
Checking out some lagoons nearby, we hoped for rarities, although I was well happy catching up with old favourites like Pink-eared DucksPlumed Whistling-Ducks, and a large flock of some 210+ Red-necked Avocets on 7 Mile Lagoon. The latter spot brought the sighting of the day, when a Black Falcon was found soaring above it, causing some major stress to the avocets below!

It was another very enjoyable day, aided by the help of local knowledge and some damn fine friends!

27 September 2013

Tropical Birders in Brisbane...AUSTRALIA (26 Sept)

I landed the previous night from Indonesia, fresh from my recent tour of Sulawesi & Halmahera (more on that later), with several days to spare between that tour, and my next: Papua New Guinea. So what to do with myself? The answer to that was simple. All you have to ask yourself is what do bird guides do on their days off? Go birding, of course! A fellow Tropical Birding guide (or fellow Tropical Birder if you like), Nick Leseberg, just so happens to be based in Brisbane, and had some time free too before his next working venture into the field (a Top End and Eastern Australia tour for Tropical Birding). So we got together for a days birding and an evening of spotlighting on the outskirts of Brisbane.
I had e-mailed Nick to set this up before, and had merely mentioned, casually, and in passing of course, with no loaded agenda at all; my desire to catch up with Spotted Quail-Thrush to Nick. Like any bird guide though worth his salt, this merely set wheels in motion. After all, we love showing people birds they want to see, that is why we do, what we do. So, after a brief stop at a wetland, where my lifer Lewin's Rail, showed no signs of walking on to my lifelist, and admiring some Red-necked Avocets loafing on the lagoon, and some spritely male Red-backed Fairywrens twittering excitedly in the grass, we were on our way to D'Aguilar National Park.

There Nick had his perfect plan lined up, see a Spotted Quail-Thrush, as requested. Within an hour of meeting Nick, there it was, perched up atypically high in a tree calling relentlessly, for literally the best views ever! Thanks Nick. After admiring this exquisite male quail-thrush, and a pair of photogenic, prospecting, Scaly-breasted Lorikeets, we moved on up the road onto Mount Glorious, where the open woodland gave way to rainforest reminiscent of the decidedly more famous spot of Lamington National Park
While this spot does not have the vast variety of that park, it does share many of the same rainforest birds, which I was eager to see, having been away from them for the better part of two years. One after another, some of the rainforest's most familiar, and eclectic birds emerged into view. It did not take long for one of the rainforest's most friendly inhabitants to jump onto a trunk beside me: Eastern Yellow Robin
The suitably noisy calls of Noisy Pitta reverberated from the forest deep below, and walking further into the forest we admired a photo-shy male Golden Whistler sitting next to his rather drab partner.  A Short-beaked Echidna, Australia's decidedly odd version of the hedgehog, was found shuffling through the leaf litter, before it went into defensive mode, tucking its snout sway, pulling in its limbs, and digging into the earth, to become an impenetrable ball of spines. A large glossy blue bird turned, showing his ivory-coloured bill, and revealing himself to be a male Satin Bowerbird, one of three species of bowerbird seen during the morning.  The next one was a "heartstopper": a flash of gold in its wings led us to a marvellous male Regent Bowerbird which had sailed in and landed, dramatically, next to the trail. Our final bowerbird of the morning was squealing noticeably all morning, the baby-like cries of Green Catbirds leading us to one of these rotund bowerbirds creeping through a vine tangle too. 
However, pride of place for the morning (for the rainforest anyway, if you forget the quail-thrush just for a minute!), was a large glossy black bird with a powerful downswept bill, which was seen chiselling away at the forest bark, occasionally revealing deep green iridescence underneath, when the light caught it just right: Paradise Riflebird, one of three birds-of-paradise in Australia.
 A late morning search for a roosting Powerful Owl was largely forgettable, until Nick found the bark-like form of a Tawny Frogmouth roosting, cryptically in the trees instead. That night we returned to the rainforest with a spotlight for company, and heard some great birds: Marbled Frogmouth, Southern Boobook, Sooty Owl, and Australian Owlet-Nightjar. However, we only managed to actually see one of them, the Southern Boobook, with a Mountain Brushtail thrown in for further compensation. Fantastic day, thanks Nick!

One more post to come from Australia very soon....

22 August 2013

The Spanish Inquisition...SPAIN (22 Aug)

Today I left before the extreme Spanish heat picked up, and might dissuade me from birding. I spent the morning with local guide Mick Richardson of Granada Wildlife, an expert on all things natural history, whether it be the birds, the bees, or dragonflies or butterflies for that matter. Armed with his intimate knowledge of the area, but both well aware that we were out at arguably the worst time of year, we set about seeing what we could see. That might sound like there was no definite plan, but that was not the case. Mick knew that I had not seen many classic Spanish birds in many a year, and so had a plan hatched in his head for putting that record straight. We headed for the Cacin Valley, an area that I had never birded before, but is a favourite stomping ground of Mick’s, being near his home, close to the town of Loja in the province of Granada, (within the region of Andalucia).
The morning kicked off nicely with a butch Calandra Lark hiding in an agricultural field, and with the first of several Hoopoes foraging along the track, inevitably taking off all too soon, and bounding away on broad, black-and-white wings, flicking their crests up with nervous energy on landing. However, Mick was hoping for more. His eyes were fixed on the surrounding stubble fields, where he hoped to find a very special quarry indeed. The first few fields drew a blank, before we both locked onto some suspicious, sandy-looking shapes in a more distant field. Manoeuvring the car closer, we soon confirmed our suspicions; a party of three Black-bellied Sandgrouse was hunkered down in the field. This was the scarce target that Mick had been hoping for, and I was equally pleased to see them. Many other species that I had not seen for way too long followed, like Southern Grey and Woodchat Shrikes; a Peregrine powered over clutching a large prey item (Turtle Dove?) in its talons; a female Black-eared Wheatear flitted from field to field; both Crested and Thekla Larks provided the ID conundrum of the morning; and a pair of Little Owls standing sentry like Meerkats did their best impression of the American Burrowing Owl in doing so. In between all this bird fare we even had time for the odd insect, with this Bath White perched beside us. We continued to search fields, which paid off when Mick spied a distant Little Bustard beyond the almond groves, which morphed into three bustards on closer inspection. One of the wonderfully surprising things of birding in this area was the abundance of Turtle Doves, which recent reports have shown to have undergone a 93% decline in the UK in very recent times.
Moving on to a wooded river, we soon picked up the churring sounds of Sardinian Warblers, and watched a handful of Spotted Flycatchers hawking for insects conspicuously on the wing. A migrant, female-type Pied Flycatcher was far less conspicuous, preferring the shady cover of the trees, rather than landing on the open perches. European Bee-eaters were out in force-never a bad thing-with one flock holding 40+ birds, and seemed to adorn every available wire. Moving on to “Raptor Road” as Mick called it, it quickly lived up to the billing (which I understand is even better during winter), which produced flights of Booted EaglesMontagu’s Harrier and several Short-toed Eagles to justify its nickname, even in the supposed slow raptor season.

 It had been a fruitful morning, and I look forward to birding with Mick, in his Spanish backyard, again someday!

21 August 2013

Iberian Diversion...SPAIN (21 Aug)

I will get back to my Indonesia adventure in Sulawesi and Halmahera shortly, but for now, here is something completely different. I am currently visiting my mother in Andalucia in Spain, and snuck in several hours of birding in the early, cooler hours today. I took a walk along the Rio Genil in Loja, and enjoyed a great couple of hours birding. The songs of Cetti's Warblers exploded from the banks of the river; and Blackcaps were out in conspicuous numbers, shuffling through the creeping hillside vegetation; while several parties of European Bee-eaters "prewked" softly overhead, making acrobatic aerial displays in pursuit of insects on the wing. I saw my first Spotted Flycatchers for years, several of which were haunting the riverside snags. 
At one point a roost of Night-Herons must have been disturbed as five or six birds took to the air, and nearby a Common Sandpiper took a low flight on typically bowed wings, as it disappeared downstream. In the underbrush Eurasian Serins foraged along with European Goldfinch. In the skies above several Red-rumped Swallows were significantly outnumbered by the more common Barn Swallows. The surrounding hills were alive with the songs of Crested Larks, regularly given in flight, as they made short ground to air forays. Other birds in the near sierras included a couple of Hoopoes bouncing along in flight on conspicuous pied wings, while small marauding troops of Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies moved through the olive groves, which held a fair number of churring Sardinian Warblers, giving their staccato calls at regular intervals.
Another half day of birding beckons tomorrow in Andalucia...

10 August 2013

Dollarbirding...INDONESIA (27th July)

Our birding adventure in the Spice Island of Halmahera continued, as we made our way south towards a fancy diving resort (quite the relief after several days in squalor in Sidangoli). As we journeyed towards our next destination the cloves for which this island is famous for were seen being dried out along the roadsides. After admiring our new surroundings at check-in, we were out in the field again, this time checking the first dead snags we saw for our main quarry, the endemic Purple Dollarbird, which remarkably was found on this first snag-check! A beautiful bird of the deepest purple, in contrast to its most striking feature: a bright carrot orange bill. Dollarbirds are named as such for their wings have markings within them that are said to resemble a dollar shape (although you might require a lot of faith and some significant imagination for this!). With the dollarbird in the bag we continued finding two Oriental Dollarbirds too, and a further Purple Dollarbird also, as well as our first Goliath Coucals feeding, rather clumsily, in a large palm, and with their immense size making us feel a little David-like below! Other notable finds were Moluccan (Spectacled) Imperial-Pigeon and (yet) another Sombre Kingfisher.

More spectacular finds to come from Halmahera yet…

08 August 2013

Creatures of the Night…(Indonesia) 26th July

Any participants on a trip to this Wallacean part of Indonesia naturally suffer from sleep deprivation; after all some 10% of the endemic birds are nightbirds! And so our trip was taking this turn with late nights and early mornings in pursuit of these. In an ideal world we would have found all three of Halmahera’s specialty nightbirds in one sitting the night before, but alas no. So before the first cock had crowed we were back in the field, in hot pursuit of Halmahera’s most odd “creature-of-the-night”, the Moluccan Owlet-Nightjar. Although one of its calls is described intriguingly as a “blood curdling scream”, we did not hear this one unfortunately, but heard some of its ore regular, and less dramatic calls. It toyed with us for a while and required a scramble in to the forest to see it, but it was well worth it. The bird was quickly elevated to “Bird-of-the-trip” status by virtue of the showing and this particularly wonderfully marked individual.

Our daytime birding adventures were no less dramatic though with first a Common Paradise-Kingfisher showing well (nothing common or ordinary about this one though!), several of the endemic Blue-and-white Kingfisher decorating the wires along the highway.

And then the ultimate “quest bird” of the trip seen, as it sang back at us from the forest canopy – the stunning Ivory-breasted Pitta, the so-called “Pitta maxima”, which lives up to its name; it’s big, very big and spectacular with its clean “Persil” white breast, deep crimson vent, dark upperside and electric blue shoulder epaulets.  The rest of our day on Halmahera may have been fairly quiet, but after this haul we were not complaining. Day of the trip…so far!

More to come from deepest, darkest Halmahera soon…