18 December 2014

Better Trains than British Rail!...ECUADOR (1st Nov.)

I had only been away for a short time, but had managed to miss a Mourning Warbler slinking around the Quito Botanic Gardens. I headed down there full of enthusiasm as to what else may have dropped in for my arrival back in Ecuador's capital. Unfortunately, during an afternoon visit, migrants were not too plentiful, with the best I could muster being 4 Eastern Kingbirds wolfing down berries by the entrance; a single Snowy-throated Kingbird;  a handful of Swainson's Thrushes; and a male Summer Tanager, which gave itself away with its incredibly distinctive "chituk" call.

So, the star performers turned out to be not the migrants that I had headed down there for, but a resident species, which gave me its best ever showing. Each and every visit to these wonderful gardens is punctuated with sightings of the resident Black-tailed Trainbearers; a stunning hummingbird, the males of which exhibit a barely believable long tail (the "train" of the name), that trails behind them. However, they are invariably high in the trees, doing dazzling display flights up high and out of camera range. However, on this day I bumped into a resting male, which unlike most hummingbirds, rested for a solid five minutes allowing me to reel off a series of photos. The same area held a marvellous, boisterous, punk-haired, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet too; another resident of the area.

Thus, the migrants may have let me down, but the resident Andean birds stepped up to the plate, and gave me yet more great photographic memories of the park to look back on.

Next up, I was returning to another "patch" of mine, the Tandayapa Valley for a day trip out of Quito, which was packed with some of the best birds in the area...

14 December 2014

Australia in the Rear View Mirror...AUSTRALIA (25-27th Oct.)

During my years working for Tropical Birding Tours, I have had some crazy schedules in my time, hopping from one country, or even continent, to another, in rapid succession. However, my October agenda was the strangest one yet. I flew all the way from my adopted home, Quito, deep in the Andes of Ecuador in South America; all the way over to Sydney for the inaugural "Australasian Birdfair". This involved lots, and lots of travel time, for a mere 2 nights in Australia, before I was whisked back to South America, with a heavy dose of jetlag added, just days later! The jetlag was duly added, but I did have a brilliant, if brief, time in Australia, a country, and continent, which I love dearly.

The reason for stepping on to Antipodean soil, was to see the birdfair, man a stand there, and also help with the launch of a recent Australian field guide to birds that I played a small part in, as the principal author, Iain Campbell, was unavailable to do so.

Even though I had the briefest of weekends in the country, I saw an opening, and an opportunity, to see an Australian bird that has eluded me ever since my only sighting of the species, way too far back, in 2006. A Powerful Owl had been seen in Sydney's beautiful botanic gardens, and two Tropical Birding guides, Nick Leseberg and Scott Watson, met me off my flight in Sydney so that we could go and see it. Nick had seen it the previous week, knew the precise Black Bean tree where it had chosen to sleep of late, and so we headed straight there...the tree was quite attractive, but would have been a lot more interesting had the owl been siting in it! Once again, this Powerfully Elusive Owl had managed to slip through the net again for me, (an almost annual event, during my Australian visits). 

However, the fair was a lot of fun, and after meeting Chris Gladwin, at the fair, who convinced me the owl has been super reliable; (I even met a birder at the fair, with a photo of the owl, in the very same Black Bean tree, taken on the Friday before my Saturday arrival!), I decided to try again in the short time I had on the Monday before my long journey back to South America was to begin. Chris's directions were pinpoint, and I soon found myself again standing under that same, and similarly owl-LESS, Black Bean tree. I decided, with such a short time in Australia I should enjoy my final few hours on the continent and spend time with a number of their common, comical, and completely Australian species in the park, and try to photograph some of these to salvage my birding time. I really enjoyed this; after all I am only in Australia for short periods, and so when I am, I fully appreciate even their most familiar species.

Walking around this wonderful city park, with the famed Harbour Bridge in view beyond, I stalked Masked Lapwings as they foraged on the well-manicured lawns; noticed a pair of enormous Channel-billed Cuckooswhich the local Pied Currawongs were trying their best to eject from the park (this, the world's largest cuckoo, parasitises the nests of this species); watched on as the super common, and super colourful, Rainbow Lorikeet went about prospecting potential nest sites in a local gum tree; looked on as a Magpie Lark drank from one of the ornate fountains in the gardens; noticed an Eastern Water Dragon frozen still in the shade; and I also appreciated how bizarre this continent is, when one of its most abundant birds is the cartoonish Sulphur-crested Cockatoo.
While Australians may scoff at my appreciation of all of these, exceedingly abundant, birds, this is exactly what makes Australia different; even their most common species are special, and so unlike the majority of common birds on the rest of the planet. A quick glance around a park such as this in Sydney leaves you in no doubt, from examining the local birdlife, which continent you are standing in!!! With regret, I boarded my plane out , hoping that fate would bring me back to the "wide brown land" again next year; and I soon left Australia disappearing in my rear view mirror...
As I landed back in South America, and Quito, I wondered what had changed since I had been gone? With migration south from the boreal north now well under way, what new migrants were in town, and which species had already made it to their tropical wintering grounds...

08 December 2014

Fork in the Road...ECUADOR (17-18th Oct)

Feet still firmly planted in the city of Quito; I continued to check in on Quito's Jardín Botánico, hoping for new migrant arrivals from the north. I stopped in twice over the weekend, and enjoyed some migrant watching in the shadow of the Andes, visible in the near distance behind the park. This is presumably, where much of these birds will end up, on the forested slopes of the Andes.
Swainson's Thrushes had clearly come in en-masse, with their constant liquid calls resounding around this small park. Some half a dozen or more birds were present, taking full advantage of the fruiting trees around the park entrance, which were associating with the "mystery" elaenias in the same tree (Lesser or White-crested Elaenias being the likely contenders). While scratching my head over the elaenias, something every visiting guide there has done this year, a larger bird dropped suddenly into the same tree, quickly plundered the berry crop and left. Thankfully, on this occasion I got a clear and undeniable view of the bird, and my lifebird finally fell to me after three visits to look for it: Large Elaenia. Unfortunately, I was so stunned that it had finally graced me with a clinchable view, I forgot to raise my camera!
Other migrants over the weekend were at least 5 Eastern Kingbirds (one here is photographed with the Andes visible in the backdrop), a few Snowy-throated Kingbirds, 2 Fork-tailed Flycatchers, 1 Scarlet and 1 Summer Tanager, and several Western Wood-Pewees. Overhead a party of 3 White-collared Swifts screamed past.
For boreal migrants, that was about that, although a large bird causing havoc among the local Great Thrushes, turned out to be a remarkably confiding immature White-rumped Hawk, and the first time I had managed to get a decent look at this plumage, or indeed this hawk so close up. This bird had surpised all by turning up in Quito a week or more earlier and had been hanging around, perhaps in the knowledge a crop for migrant birds were there for the taking?!

With a trip Down Under beckoning, I was relieved to finally get a proper sight of the Large Elaenia, in the full expectation the bird would have moved on by the time of my return to Quito (which it was)!

07 December 2014

City Siskins...ECUADOR (14th Oct.)

A repeat visit to Quito's Jardín Botánico was needed, pre-office work, in order to try and track down that elusive Large Elaenia. Unfortunately though, that bird, once again, eluded me, in spite of recent sightings confirming its continuing presence. Migrants were thin on the ground on this day, although I did get several Swainson's Thrushes, some Eastern Kingbirds for my efforts, and an unphotogenic Fork-tailed Flycatcher. A number of confusing smaller elaenias were also present in the park, which have had all visiting birders scratching their heads; an educated guess says they should be White-crested Elaenias, although they completely lack white in their crests, and so Lesser Elaenia has been touted too. Unfortunately, the birds (at least three have been present), have remained silent, and largely unpresponsive to playback of all elaenia recordings! The same immature White-rumped Hawk that had been around for a while this autumn circled low above the park. 
My best efforts on this day, were though rewarded with some nice shots of a local group of Hooded Siskins (a resident bird in this part of the Andes), which made the trip very worthwhile all the same.

Next up, was a final return to the gardens before a trip to a whistlestop trip to Australia curtailed my Andean birding for a short time...

06 December 2014

Urban Birding (in the tropics)...ECUADOR (12th Oct.)

With my next tour leading job some time away, I found myself marooned in the city (Quito) for a while. However, the month of October is a month of migration, even in a city like Quito, nestled in the Andes of South America. In this season birds from the boreal north move south for the winter, with some of them ending up in Ecuador.
In recent years local ex-pat birders like Roger Ahlman, and Ecuadorian birders have proved the worth of a small park in Quito, as a notable migrant hotspot. While it does not compare with the legendary migrant traps of North America like High Island and Cape May, as there is really only a trickle of birds coming through here, it has still managed to turn up plenty of birds, with Roger at least, having recorded in excess of an impressive 120 species in the Quito Botanic Gardens over the past few years. Thus, when I found myself, "tied to the city for a while", I thought I would get involved and check out what was happening there. The park provides a kind of oasis in the central, Inter-Andean Valley, which Quito is largely located within. In general, relative to the rest of the country (which is mega-diverse, boasting 1600 species or so), the dry and semi-arid central valley is depauperate for birds, in comparison to the wet west and east facing slopes of the Andes. Therefore, in terms of species diversity, Quito, is relatively low, with the following species making up a very predictable standard day list in the city, Eared Dove, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Great Thrush, Sparkling Violet-ear, Black Flowerpiercer, and Black-tailed Trainbearer. All of these birds were in evidence within the gardens that day, but I was hoping for something less predictable, and I got it...
Earlier in the week, another local birder (Dusan Brinkhuizen), along with Roger had found a major rarity in the gardens, Large Elaenia. This fuelled by reason for visiting, for this would be a lifebird too, just minutes from my apartment in the city. Having looked earlier in the week to no avail (and bumped into Robert Ridgely no less in doing so), I opted to return, although on this occasion, more typically, I found myself birding the gardens alone. The sky was threatening to unload a heavy downpour, and I enjoyed a fantastic afternoon's city birding. After a brief brush with a large and burly Elaenia, presumably the Large Elaenia, which I was not satisfied enough to count on that view, other migrants trickled their way on to my Quito list. An adult male American Redstart, presumably on his way to the foothills of the Andes, flitted around the trees; then a flycatcher dropped into view, which I was sure was not regular here, a Streaked/Sulphur-bellied type. On snapping off a reel of shots and checking the literature when I got home, along with a few nervous phone calls to Nick Athanas who was at home, I nailed it as a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, a good bird for Quito. (When birding migrant traps with limited history like this one, all bets are off and all possiblities must be considered to be on the safe side!)
As I got off the phone to Nick, immediately another flycatcher landed in front of me. Noting with the naked eye that it was from the extremely troublesome myiarchus group, I groaned inside, at the prospect of another identification conundrum. However, on clapping my bins on it, I was relieved to see it was a Great Crested Flycatcher, almost the only distinctive one in the group that I could have expected here, and another good find! While not a migrant, the suddenly vigilant nature of the normally placid Great Thrushes on site prepared me for an immature White-rumped Hawk that came whipping through the park, but left empty-handed, probably due to the keen eyesight of the resident thrushes more than anything. All the other migrants seen that day of note were also flycatchers, with a Snowy-throated Kingbird, several Western Wood-Pewees (identified on call), and an unidentified Empidonax flycatcher, which zipped off before giving me a clear look, and also remained silent, leaving me wanting more. The final drop in, was a super Fork-tailed Flycatcher to complete a fascinating few hours dominated by migrant flycatchers. 

However, while migrant watching, I was "photobombed" by a hulking male Golden-bellied Grosbeak (a resident Andean bird), and I was only too please to shoot it, before the rain came crashing down and I abandoned ship!

A few more runs of Urban Migrants was followed by the briefest of trips Down Under, all to come very soon....

27 November 2014

Well Spotted! ... ECUADOR (5th Oct.)

It may have been a Sunday but there was no time for lying in; we had a Pinnated Bittern to find, and so we were back at La Segua again (no great hardship there). And just to show that birding has its downs as well as ups, we completely failed on finding a Pinnated Bittern. Chastening to my ego, and ensuring I will be back! Still, La Segua is a great birding site and we had a fun morning there all the same, again taking a boat trip out on the lake, which ensured we left with memory cards burgeoning with BirdSnaps. The star performer of the day was Spotted Rail. We got our lifer the day before (Andres, Paola and I), but no good photos (they were so awful they were quickly deleted never to see the light of day on the Internet!) However, shortly after arrival I noticed a bold individual prowling around in the open. I approached closer, and just when I raised my camera, it skitted off into the reeds! But just moments later it paraded around in the open again, making me feel like I was getting my lifer all over again. The day's before bird was quickly forgotten; this was the way to see a Spotted Rail! 
Wattled Jacanas were also confiding both out on the lake, and around the marsh en-route to the dock too. The same bird fodder that had been around the day before was still in evidence on the lake: plentiful Cocoi Herons, Snail Kites perched proudly and photogenically, a Grey-headed Gull and some Gull-billed Terns loafed in the muddy areas. 

In the bushes around the observation tower Pacific Parrotlets were again present, and particularly showy, affording some great snaps. Again, we also found several roosting Lesser Nighthawks, which were photographed in a variety of poses, before we left La Segua behind and headed back to the Big Smoke, Quito, to commence real life once more...

Next up, a series of Urban Birding sessions in Quito, on the track of North American and Austral migrants....

23 November 2014

Rail Quest...ECUADOR (4th Oct.)

Professional bird guides like me and others in Tropical Birding (the company I work for), quickly get itchy feet, when stranded in a city for too long; the lure of the field/jungle is so strong, we simply have to give in to it. And so when fellow Tropical Birder Andres Vasquez and I discovered that we had a weekend at the same time, we started hatching a plan to go after some lifers. I had not one, but two rails in my crosshairs, as well as a bittern too. A potential three-lifer weekend was enough to get me planning and packing, and Andres's wife, Paola was keen too. So on the Friday, we set out from the city of Quito and headed west into Manabi province, spending two nights in a hotel in the city of Chone, in order to visit the nearby wetland of La Segua.

We arrived and soon set about seeing our main target, Spotted Rail, a short walk from the makeshift visitor centre. Nothing was heard from the bird initially, and after playing for a while in an area we had been tipped off for it, Paola declared she had it. Nervous minutes followed before a boldly spotted shape with red legs attached revealed itself to be the Spotted Rail lurking in a shadowy hole in the reeds. No photos, sadly, but it was now firmly on our lists, and we were very happy with this start. We took a guided boat trip around this huge wetland, and enjoyed a fantastic ride, which turned out to be especially good for photos; Snail Kites were abundant and just sat daring us to photograph them, which we did, over, and over, again. Truth be told, another, third, rail was also possible at this site; Yellow-breasted Crake, the sole Ecuadorian record of which came from floating vegetation on this lake. 

However, all we saw amongst the floating vegetation and muddy edges were Wattled Jacanas, Cocoi Herons, Black-necked Stilts, Least Sandpipers, a couple of Buff-breasted Sandpipers (a rarity in this part of Ecuador), Wood Storks, Yellow-crowned Night-HeronsGreen and Ringed Kingfishers, White and Glossy Ibises and Anhingas, among others. 

We also got some cracking looks at several roosting Lesser Nighthawks around the edges of the lake, as well as Baird's Flycatcher (a regional endemic), a party of delightful Pacific Parrotlets, both Ecuadorian and Croaking Ground-Doves, and Masked Water-Tyrants. We were not surprised to not find the Yellow-breasted Crake, as we were following a short list of others who had also tried and failed here!

In the afternoon we headed along the coast, taking in a smashing fish lunch on the coast, while several Peruvian Boobies (a lifer for Andres and a new Ecuador bird for me), coasted by offshore. We watched in amusement when one particularly persistent booby, after continuing to harass a small fisherman in the channel by constantly landing within easy reach of his boat (and presumably his catch), finally got it's comeuppance, when the beleaguered angler turned around and promptly whacked it on the head. At this point, the booby got the message and took to the air! In between lunch and another boat trip Andres made an emergency stop, when he spotted a Burrowing Owl sitting out in the open (and clearly having recently had a gory meal), which just begged to be photographed...
We finished off with another boat ride along the mangroves bordering the shore of the coast that faces Isla Corazon, where we hoped we might find a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, which would be new for me. We had barely been going five minutes when a large, long-legged, hunched orange bird crept on to the mud and proceeded to walk along the edge of the mangroves, making sure we all got cracking looks at this handsome wood-rail; job done!

Having failed to find our other main target, Pinnated Bittern, for which La Segua is touted as one of the best sites in Ecuador, we vowed to use our following day to return and nail that species...