22 September 2014

Lost in PERU...6 Sept.

Having been sidelined for the last few months in Quito, Ecuador, while recuperating from a hip operation, this was to be my first major foray into the field since the op, and I was chomping at the bit. I joined a small group of two people for a Northern Peru custom tour led by Nick Athanas of Tropical Birding. This served two primary purposes for me: to have a fine birding holiday, where I had not yet been, and also to learn an area which I would sincerely love to guide some time in the future. Having arrived the evening before in Lima, Nick and I connected with Mark Gawn and later, Richard Goldfarb, the two participants on the tour, and quickly boarded a flight to Peru's fourth largest city, Chiclayo, in the north. 

No sooner had we landed but we were on the road heading east to the deciduous forest of Bosque de Pomac, most famous among birders as the hangout for the endemic Peruvian Plantcutter. Soon after arriving in the area, we started picking up "Tumbesian" birds, which are found within this endemic-rich Tumbesian region, (found within Northwest Peru and Southwest Ecuador). This included a typically boisterous group of Fasciated Wrens greeting us on arrival; and soon after we started to walk the "plantcutter trail". We saw the first of many Grey-and-white Tyrannulets, sporting their characteristic, elaenia-like crests. However, the star flycatchers were lemon yellow Tumbes Tyrants (my first lifer of the trip just minutes in), and the endemic Rufous Flycatcher, which was conspicuous throughout our time there. However, the kazoo-like calls, and Union Jack-colored body, of Peruvian Plantcutters were conspicuously absent. About every turn we came upon the ever-present Vermilion Flycatcher, which in spite of its abundance, is a stunning bird in its own right.

However, we were all here to see specialties and endemics, and so with the plantcutter failing to perform, we set off for another, moving into a particularly arid part of the reserve, where the trees gave way to low scrub, and sand was felt underfoot. Flying low over the trees in this area was another of our targets, the white-rumped Tumbes Swallow, swooping low over the scrub, and onto our life lists. Meanwhile, a diminutive Peruvian Pygmy-Owl stared back at us with those typically angry-looking eyes that only owls seem to bear, from the scrub below. While the forest at this site is not bursting with diversity, like that of some forests on the wetter Andean slopes, it is home to numerous specialties and localized endemics, the plantcutter being the A-list one in this area. While we worked the area again for this much-wanted bird, we enjoyed other specialties like the stout-billed Cinereous Finch, the dashing White-tailed Jay and several Collared Antshrikes. As morning turned to lunchtime, and the heat of the day reached its peak, things were looking increasingly grim in our quest for the plantcutter. We emerged from the trail that bears its name, and worked the road, feeling somewhat deflated. Then, just when Rick thought he was eyeballing yet another mockingbird, up popped a red, white and blue bird; a stunning male Peruvian Plantcutter!!! Thanks to Rick for saving us from the tricky decision of whether to ditch the afternoon's coastal birding for yet more time scouring the forest for this endemic cotinga. We enjoyed great views and could soon after head back towards the coast with our consciouses clear, all of our targets in the bag. 

Next up was an action-packed close to the day birding the dunes, and pools along the coast near Chiclayo...

17 May 2014

Elegant Nibbler...(Costa Rica late Feb.)

Andrew Spencer, Cameron Cox, and I spent a couple of days in the dry tropical forest of Santa Rosa National Park in the Pacific Northwest. It was my first visit to this site, and I was very impressed with it. Santa Rosa is Costa Rica's oldest national park, established in the year I was born, 1971. This is the biggest stand of tropical dry forest I had been in within Costa Rica. 

We had come here as we were keen to see, and photograph, the Elegant Trogon Trogon elegans in particular, which many, like me, have seen previously in Arizona in the US. However, the form that occurs in Santa Rosa (which is the southernmost population of the species) differs in the colour of the uppertail, which lacks the coppery coloration they they show in North America. The evening before when we arrived at the park, we had not a sniff of an Elegant Trogon, but how different a few dawns on site proved to be, with half a dozen or more seen and heard. As well as Elegant Trogons, which were a joy to see all over again, other trogons were in evidence too; arguably the easiest of all 9 trogon species in Costa Rica: Black-headed Trogon Trogon melanocephalus. While writing this blog I thought enough was enough, and I should finally din out what "TROGON" means, and it turns out it means to gnaw or nibble.

After picking up our first handful of Elegants on our first morning, a lifebird decided to walk out on to the road in front of the car: THICKET TINAMOU Crypturellus cinnamomeus, and by the end of a couple of days there we had bagged a trio of these handsome tinamous. A number of other local Costa Rican species also occur at Santa Rosa, and we were keen to track these down too; Banded Wren Thryophilus pleurostictus was less abundant than we expected, but some great views were had during the cooler post-dawn hours of the day. Indeed, it was so hot while we were there that activity was very concentrated, with the best in the precious few post-dawn hours, when birds like Banded Wrens were only encountered during this time. So if you were planning to go to this fantastic park in Guanacaste, I would make sure you plan your main birding sessions from dawn, as if you searched for some species like Elegant Trogon and Banded Wren any later than that you may feel they are extremely difficult, which is not the case in these key hours only. Another local species which we managed to track down was the Ivory-billed Woodcreeper Xiphorhynchus flavigaster, which was hanging around another pair of Elegant Trogons

Aside from these birds we saw a number of species typical of this Pacific-slope woodland in northern Costa Rica: Cinnamon Hummingbird Amazilia rutila, Plain-capped Starthroat Heliomaster constantii, Stripe-headed Sparrow Peucaea ruficauda, White-lored Gnatcatcher Polioptila albiloris, Scrub Euphonia Euphonia affinis, and Yellow-naped Parrot Amazona auropalliata and White-fronted Parrots Amazona albifrons. Of course no visit to this habitat would be complete without an encounter with one of the most conspicuous birds of this region, the comical White-throated Magpie-Jay Calocitta formosa. We saw plenty of these birds, which roam the woods in small parties and often genuinely seem to curious, often flying straight up to check us out, with absolutely no encouragement from us. 

One of my favourite birds of this habitat was saved until last when I finally managed to hear, and track down a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo Morococcyx erythropygus
, complete with it's splendid bright blue "eyeshadow". My attempts to photograph this bird were thwarted though by the burning late afternoon sun doing its best to burn out all of my efforts. Little did I know though, this minor frustration was to be rectified just the next day, when we visited Rincon de Vieja...

15 May 2014

BIG Foot & BIG Bird...(Costa Rica late Feb.)

I have been remiss and forgot to insert some of the highlights from earlier in the day around Cano Negro. So I am going to post them here, before we move on back to Santa Rosa...
As we sidled along gently in our boat within Cano Negro National Wildlife Refuge, in sluggish waters, the wake of a bird swimming through the water caught our eye, and led us to a stunning female Sungrebe, a bird which normally hides in the shadows of overhanging vegetation, but on this occasion shocked us by brazenly swimming right out into the sunlit open water.
On the muddy banks a young Northern Jacana showed off its trademark feet, or more precisely, its absurdly long toes ("BIG Foot").

After the boat trip we ventured onto a dry dusty road where a giant tree held a BIG bird; indeed the bird is so big that it's name, Jabiru, literally means VERY BIG  bird!

At the end of the day, on arriving in Santa Rosa National Park, an apricot-coloured bird in a leafless tree turned out to be our first Streak-backed Oriole; then at night, post-Pacific Screech-Owl we kept nearly tripping over Common Pauraques which were ridiculously close right outside our room on site in the national park. It may not have had a Striped Owl as its headline, but it was a fantastic day, and I seriously hope to return for birding or guiding in Cano Negro again one day...

Next up Santa Rosa...

14 May 2014

Pacific Heights...(Costa Rica late Feb.)

At the end of our day around Cano Negro we headed from the northern Caribbean to the north Pacific, and Santa Rosa National Park. We arrived in the late afternoon, with no sleeping arrangements planned. Luckily we seemed to have arrived just in time, with the National Park employees being very accommodating and allowing us to stay and eat there, in spite of our late arrival with no reservations. We only had a short time to bird a little around the accommodations but still squeezed in a gaudy "Jaffa" orange Streak-backed Oriole, and admired the powerful-looking Pale-billed Woodpecker shinning up a tree, before dusk fell. 

At night, for the second consecutive night, we went on the hunt of another owl lifer (for me and Cameron anyway): Pacific Screech-Owl. Soon after dusk fell its distinctive "chuckling trill" was heard right outside our room, and the game was on. Having spent many nights tracking down screech-owls in the Americas and scops-owls in the Orient, I knew that a bird in the midst of calling constantly can often be approached and seen with ease, when it is thoroughly engrossed in proclaiming its territory during the early part of the evening. And so I went in, and that's when I discovered a well-named tree called the Ant Acacia Acacia collinsii. I did very well the avoid its substantial thorns as I groped around in the dark for a grip on something, but did not avoid its colony of ants which attacked me with full force, and justified their later learned reputation for a fierce sting. Pretty soon after I retreated, red-faced, from my failed owl quest, while Cameron and Andrew just chastised me for my foolishness, which, after my significant cries from the ant onslaught, had caused the owl to, unsurprisingly, fall completely silent! Interestingly (although not so much at the time of the stinging attack), a form of mutualism occurs between the ants and the acacia, where one species of Pseudomyrmex ants occupies the tree (often sheltering within the trees considerable thorns), and the ants forage on sugary secretions from the plant (from the leaf stalks), and also receive proteins which are found in the leaflets. For this, the plant receives protection when anything, like a hapless, and rather clueless human groping around under darkness for the sight of an owl!

With the owl silent and the stings over my torso still very real, we walked around in the hope of hearing another calling owl, which failed completely. We did, however, come up trumps with this Milk Frog Phynophyas venulosa sheltering in one of the camp toilets, which also comes equipped with a rather unpleasant armoury; its skin excretes a milky-like  substance when threatened, which contains skin toxins that can cause a burning sensation (something which I already was experiencing, post-ants), and also induce sneezing in some even without direct contact. Luckily, after my ant attack I was more wary of touching anything and remained at a safe distance!

On returning to the original owl spot, we heard again the same Pacific Screech-Owl, Megascops cooperi, used a little playback, rather than going in blindly, and Cameron watched the bird land just above us, where it blinked back impressively in the spotlight; job done!

The next day we spent more time around Santa Rosa National Park, with a handful of lifers available and whole new area to explore...

13 May 2014

Snap-Grackle-pop! (Costa Rica) late Feb.

After the thrilling middle of the night owl lifer the evening before, it was bound to be a bit of a come down the following day, although a local lifebird was on the cards for us all. We had come to Cano Negro, partly because none of us had seen Nicaraguan Grackle, which in males looks rather like a small Great-tailed, though has a very distinct call. The females however stand out more with their clear pale eyebrow/supercilium. Knowing trying to get a boat out into the refuge may not be possible at dawn, we spent a few hours working the road in. One of Costa Rica's more local species, the Spot-breasted Wren is also found in this area, and we soon heard and saw one of these birds, which represented a new Costa Rica bird for us all. The road in also produced a beautiful male Black-headed Trogon, and a showy Black-striped Sparrow, as well as this calling Roadside Hawk.

Once we got to town and hung about the dock for a bit, we were soon approached by a boatman keen to take us out-a perfectly worked plan. Within twenty minutes of arriving we were getting on the boat, and just a few minutes later the boatman took us to see some Nicaraguan Grackles, which he had heard giving their distinctive cries. 

With the lifebird dealt with early on, we enjoyed a relaxing boat ride, seeing dozens of kingfishers-including this alert looking Green Kingfisher ready to pounce. We also had great looks at the local Black-collared Hawk circling overhead and perched close to a series of Spectacled Caiman.

We were on the lookout too for the mighty Jabiru, which has a small population in the area. Our first tries for this turned up blank, although we enjoyed LimpkinsAnhingas with stunted wings looking more like Flightless Cormorants of the Galapagos, and Green Ibis all the same. At the end of the boat ride the sun was beating down strong, although we did not let this put us off twitching a Jabiru nest closeby, and finding a Lesser Nighthawk roosting nearby too.

After a fantastic, and very relaxing morning we moved south into the Pacific North, and Santa Rosa National Park, another site which was new to myself and Cameron, although Andrew had visited many years before...

01 May 2014

S-T-R-I-P-E-D O-W-L!!! (Costa Rica) Late Feb.

On my second day on my return to Costa Rica, Andrew Spencer and I returned to pick up fellow Tropical Birder Cameron Cox, coming for his first visit to the country. His arrival in "paradise" did not go so well. He arrived fine, minus his luggage, from Ecuador (where he had been leading tours). So after a quick stop at Walmart (yes, Walmart exists in Costa Rica!) to stock up on cheap t-shirts, and make sure he did not wear the same undergarments for the next 5 days, we were on our way up to the Caribbean Northwest. Our destination was to be Cano Negro, a vast wetland area. As Cameron did not touch down until late afternoon, we had no hope of making it there for that day, but decided to push on as far as we could before one of us literally fell over from driving fatigue. As it happened, Andrew is a bit of a demon when driving, and pushed on all the way to near midnight, when we rocked up at a hotel near the town of Los Chiles, very close to the refuge at Cano Negro. 

Anyway, you might be wondering wear the birds are going to fit in? Well, in truth there was to be little time for birding en-route as we aimed solidly for our destination. However, I knew we were entering into the heart of STRIPED OWL country. I had yearned for this bird for years, as I am an absolute owl fanatic, and this one looked a bit special in the field guides. I also knew that the method for finding them was a bit odd; they frequently perch on roadside wires in the open at the edge of clearings and plantations, and I knew we would be driving for a steady period in darkness through just the right kind of places we might find one. So, and once Cameron was soundly asleep, Andrew had to suffer me waving a spotlight around while we were blasting along at high speed along deserted roads in the remote far northwest. The high speed was challenging, my eyes were watering, and despite being in the tropics, my hand was chilled to the bone. However, we pushed on, and I could feel that I was pretty much the only one interested in finding this damned owl, (Cameron's snoring from the back was evidence enough of that). As we neared Los Chiles, with hopes waning, suddenly I noticed a massive brown lump sitting on the wire. At the speed we were going, we were soon beyond the lump, so Andrew excitedly turned the car around. And there, in the spotlight sat a splendid Striped Owl, completely unconcerned at the spotlight focused right on it. It must have felt like an A-list celebrity over the next five minutes as Andrew and I took a stream of flash photos, as we revelled in this mega moment. I had always remembered a phrase written about Northern Hawk Owls, being "Fearless of Man". This Striped Owl had clearly taken a leaf out of that owl's book. It had no fear, but was full of splendour. We spent the night in a strange, run down, castle-themed hotel near Los Chiles, finely poised for our visit to Cano Negro the following day...

28 April 2014

Back to Costa Rica...late Feb.

Ever since visiting Costa Rica for the first time, rather belatedly (in my world birding career), I have been captivated by so many aspects of this unique country. It boasts a heady 25% of its land area as protected, an enviable statistic compared to most other countries on Earth, which has led many to label this country as one of the "greenest" in the world. I was gripped by their wonderful network of reserves, and just how many people seemed to be connected to the natural world, something I yearn for in so many other places where nature is simply not given the importance I feel it should be. This is a country that makes it feel normal and natural to speak of the natural world and the environment, rather than be viewed with sideward glances as some kind of militant crackpot.

I had enjoyed a fantastic trip there last year, getting nearly one hundred lifers, despite a long history of traveling in the Neotropics, and having lived in Ecuador (which has at least some overlap), for some eight years previous. Last year my focus had been, to some degree of course, to tuck into the myriad endemics available to me for the first time, mostly in Costa Rica's highlands. This time though, with few lifers on offer, and a trip with a group of friends from Texas looming, I was happy to just be there again, and soak in some new sites before the main tour. 

I spent just under a week before my tour there with fellow Tropical Birding guides Andrew Spencer and "Costa Rica" virgin, Cameron Cox. We decided to spend some time in the far northwest Pacific, dry country which offers many exciting species, coupled with extraordinary blooms of flowers in the dry season of our visit. Before Cameron arrived though, Andrew and I spent a day visiting a few sites in the mountains not too far north of San Jose, before we could head off the Pacific slope, once we had collected Cameron. We selected a couple of sites that hold productive feeders, which regularly attract a beautiful selection of birds... 

The feeders at Cinchona were devastated by an earthquake in 2009, but have since been re-built and the birds have quickly found a way back to the tropical fruits and sugar water set out for them. I re-aquainted myself with some traditional Costa Rican cooking while there, (a plate of "Casado" what else? a tasty mix of black beans, rice, salad, and, on this occasion, chicken). As we tucked in heartily to the casado we kept our itchy, "trigger" fingers never far from the shutter button on our cameras, as the birds were not forgiving; they were not going to stop eating, just because we were! The hummer feeders, of course were ever reliable, bringing in a constant stream of stunning species, which included the Costa Rican endemic, Coppery-headed Emerald, as well as the local White-bellied Mountain-Gem (photo above), and a rather camera-shy Violet Sabrewing

However, it was the spread of papaya that captured my attention most....Along with Costa Rica's undeservedly dowdy national bird (considering what other spectacular alternatives exist out there), the ubiquitous Clay-colored Thrush, (photo above), there were other more colourful species in attendance too...The most surprising was a bright male Prothonotary Warbler, every bit as happy, here on its wintering grounds, to feast on fruit, as they are to feast on flies and other bugs when summer comes around in North America (photo below). I was, however, most pleased with the visit of a Prong-billed Barbet, (photo top), which happily sat on the papaya, as we marvelled in the unrivalled photo opps. with this species. These were my very first photos of this charismatic species, and I was overwhelmed with excitement at this opportunity, which had passed me by during last year's visit to the country. Just a week earlier, in Ecuador (where I now live), I had seen the only other member of this family (known as the "Toucan-Barbets"), the Toucan-Barbet, which like this species has the strange anatomical feature of a tooth-like projection on its bill.
After several enjoyable hours and a casado at Cinchona, we headed to another near reserve, Catarata del Toro, where more feeders awaited. The hummingbird horde was much the same as we had experienced at Cinchona. The hoped-for Black-bellied Hummingbird (usually regular there) was, however, absent. But the grain on the floor did attract something very worthwhile for our cameras, a super Sooty-faced Finch, (photo below), which made me plot plans for the tour soon after. At the end of a relaxed day, with shutters active, and birds filling our camera screens, we returned back to San Jose, picked up Cameron from his flight (minus his bags unfortunately), and pointed the car north, and headed to the Pacific Northwest, for some very different birds, and birding experiences indeed...