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...  

20 November 2014

Ending on a High...PERU (17th Sept.)

This was our final day in Peru, and after an extraordinarily successful trip, it was fitting that the last day was arguably the best day of all. It ended on a high for a variety of reasons; not only were the birds that peppered the last day of the highest quality, we also reached the highest elevations at which I have ever birded, well over 4600m.
We started at an ungodly hour, leaving our base well before dawn, so that we could return to the same patch of polylepis we had visited the day before. Our reason for the return was simple: White-cheeked Cotinga; which is usually more easily found in the morning. However, after sitting and waiting for its appearance for several hours with the sun having hit the trees much earlier, our hopes were waning. We had agreed to give it until 8:30am, and then head up higher for some other massive avian targets. The longer we waited, the more nervous we got that we were eating into the precious time we needed higher up the valley. With us remaining cotinga-less at 8:30am, and having had smashing looks at a Stripe-headed Antpitta while we waited, we began to push our time there later, in the hope the cotinga was having a lie in. Then, at 09:00am, with mere minutes left of our time there, a shape appeared on a low polylepis tree: WHITE-CHEEKED COTINGA! There was barely time for relief, before we headed downslope, got back in our vehicle and pointed ourselves upwards. On our way up we stopped for some obliging and photogenic Andean Geese, and a pair of Black Siskins, a handsome high Andean bird if ever there was one.
We worked our way up with the scenery taking ever more dramatic turns around each bend; a few large lumps in a lake proved to be Giant Coots, then, finally, we reached a high Andean grassland, where as we were pulling in, up sat our main target bird sitting proudly on top of a rock: White-bellied Cinclodes. This bird was my main motivation for adding these days, and the bird did not disappoint, giving us cracking looks as we watched it foraging in a bog that also held Andean Flickers and Cinereous Ground-Tyrants among others.
We then moved from one boggy area to another, at similarly lofty elevations. We had expected to suffer from the elevation, but the birds and the crisp air made it a joy to be there. The next bog stop was delayed when a pair of Vicunas walked into the road! Arriving at our next designated spot, we were sidetracked from our main quarry, by a showy Streak-throated Canastero
As I moved in closer to snap a few shots of that bird, a pair of stout birds took off from my feet and landed in front of us: Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe (the main bird we were visiting this bog for). Shortly after the birds landed, another bird scythed through the air towards them, darting right at one of the pair, and only narrowly missing, an Aplomado Falcon, had clearly had them in its sights!
The next major stop was, you guessed it, another bog. Here we were hoping for the champion of South American shorebirds: Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. The bog was small, so we quickly swept it with no "DSP" to show for it. A loose group of 16 Andean Geese eyed us warily as we did so. Refusing to believe we could have missed it in our thorough sweep, I took a wider birth, and soon realised the bog had a more extensive reach than it originally to have. As I continued my search, I lost sight of Mark, and lost sight of almost everything as hale and snow fell around me. This might sound miserable, but I was loving it; this was extreme birding at its best. As I walked around, I did find a lifer, in the form of a very confiding Puna Snipe sitting among the hale. Then, a sound I heard made me start back the way I came: the sound of a car horn could only mean one thing...couldn't it?! I hurried back to the car to find Mark beaming; he had found not only a pair of DSPs, but also Olivaceous Thornbill walking around on the bunch grass, as this strange hummingbird is want to do. Soon after a shout went up from Mark as we searched for the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (re-finding the thornbill soon after), as one of these oddball waders flew in and landed in front of us. We watched this smashing shorebird for some time, before we had to head back downhill, picking up a lifer Junin Canastero as we did so.
The next day we awoke early, added a final bird to the trip list, in the form of a Rusty Flowerpiercer frolicking around the hotel garden, and headed back to Lima for our flights out. It was sad to leave Peru, but I was glad to leave with some 70 or so new birds, more than I had expected by some way. Good fortune had come our way! I look forward to returning to the land of Incas again some day soon...

16 November 2014

The Other Comet Landing...PERU (17th Sept.)

Mark and I were now alone to explore a completely new area for the both of us; the spectacular Santa Eulalia Valley, east of Lima. We had two days in which to target numerous lifers for us both, using this first day to explore the lower reaches, and also dip into a remnant patch of polylepis woodland higher up too.
My reason for staying on for this was the chance to find the rare and beautiful White-bellied Cinclodes, while Mark was particularly focused on Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, as he had not previously seen that one. However, both those birds would not be looked for until the next day, when we were set to drive up to the lofty heights of 4,600m, where those birds can be found.
Unlike the main tour, where I was along to learn from the "master", Nick Athanas, who was our guide for the trip, we were on our own here. Although, that was not entirely true, as we were armed with a driver with ten years of experience of taking birders into this area. His experience was evident from the word go; he knew the spots, and knew the English names of the birds at them, we simply needed to find them! Luckily, we found nearly everything we wanted over the two days, missing very little indeed.
While the driver was clearly experienced, his car clearly was too, perhaps a little experienced, as a muffler dropped off the car before we had reached our first stop! The road into the valley is a true challenge for any car, and it quickly took its toll on ours. Never mind though; the car was a little louder, but bearable, and we survived the two days unscathed thereafter. Our first stop was for a fourth Inca-Finch to add to the three we had seen on the main tour. The driver knew the spot, and so did the bird, which responded well, and sung in the open in front of us: Great Inca-Finch. Driving just a little further we moved into the valley bottom, where Pied-crested Tit-Tyrants quickly showed themselves, as did the first of two Bronze-tailed Comets for the day, and the first of many Rusty-bellied Brush-Finches; all three lifebirds for us both. Working our way higher, we checked a spot for the rare Rufous-breasted Warbling-Finch, and eventually dug out two of them, after getting cracking looks at several Canyon Canasteros in the same area. The supporting cast in the lower areas included Mourning Sierra-Finches, half a dozen Peruvian Sheartails, a number of Giant Hummingbirds too, and. finally, my first Andean Swift, (a group of 6 or so were seen really well later that day). 
We rounded out a great day, by visiting a patch of polylepis woodland, a known hang out for the rare endemic White-cheeked Cotinga. As expected, we had not sign of that bird, as it known to be easier in the morning, but we did track down a super Stripe-headed Antpitta, (my 5th new antpitta on this Peru trip), a few Andean Condors, a perched Variable Hawk, a single d'Orbigny's Chat-Tyrant, both Plain-breasted and Striated Earthcreepers, and another pair of Rusty-crowned Tit-Spinetails to add to the ones seen on the main tour.
It had been a whirlwind day, with 7 lifers for me, and numerous great birds, and generally plentiful birds around. However, the next day was to be the true landmark day of this short extension, which brought some classic birds at lofty elevations decorated with dramatic high Andean scenery too...

15 November 2014

The End of Days?; Not Quite...PERU (16th Sept.)

This was to be the final day of the main tour, with a site called San Marcos with our name on it.What made that site so necessary? One, great, bird. This is the stronghold of a rare and local Peruvian endemic, the Great Spinetail. Before we had even smelt the morning coffee (which we had with us for the field), the birds were in the bag, a walk of some thirty metres from the car being all that was required. The same area held Masked Yellowthroat, and repeat Black-necked Woodpecker and Buff-bridled Inca-Finch, but, sadly, no White-winged Black-Tyrant. With this miss, Nick opted to check another site, where we spread out and set to scan the area. I was just lifting my bins to my eyes for my very first scan of the area, when Mark promptly announced he had one! It was not meant to be that easy, but, as you may have realised from the previous blog posts, it was just that kind of trip. In the afternoon, after our final lunch together, and immediately before our return flight to Lima, we returned to the comet site at Rio Chonta, which for me at least provided a last stab at another possible lifer, Andean Swift. However, the skies proved to be free of swifts of any kind, although we did see Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant, Andean Flicker, Rusty-crowned Tit-Spinetail, Golden-billed Saltator, and White-winged Cinclodes among others to close out the main tour.
We departed for Lima, and Mark and I bid farewell to Rick who was Houston-bound, and Nick, who was Argentina-bound, while we went off shopping for supplies for our next day in Central Peru, when we were set to visit the Santa Eulalia Valley, east of Lima, where yet another Inca-Finch was in our crosshairs... 

04 November 2014

Third Wave of the Incas...PERU (15th Sept.)

After our late dip (i.e. miss) of the Yellow-faced Parrotlet the afternoon before, we had no choice but to backtrack towards Balsas and try again for this increasingly rare, but beautiful endemic. All credit for our parrotlets must go to Nick Athanas, who picked out their far off calls with the hearing of an owl, and then found them with eagle-like eyesight. They were far from easy, but once Nick had pinned them down we enjoyed some choice scope looks at this handsome little parrot.

Working our way back up the Maranon Valley, back in the direction of Celendin, we stopped in on our third inca-finch of the trip, this time Gray-winged Inca-Finch, which showed up just where Nick had planned it to be! Not much further up our final major target in the area fell too, with Chestnut-backed Thornbird also. Then it was time to leave the Maranon Valley behind and begin our long journey between Celendin and Cajamarca. Although the journey had barely got underway, when we picked up a Jelski's Chat-Tyrant lurking in the undergrowth. The same area also yielded great looks at another Baron's Spinetail, another Peruvian endemic.

Much of the day was spent making our way between these two cities, and in spite of much having been written of the devastation of habitat along this route, a fantastic, and very birdy afternoon ensued. First to fall was a White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant feeding in some highland fields; this was quickly followed by several successive Rufous-webbed Bush-Tyrants. One particular scrub stop proved especially productive. We quickly found our main target, Striated Earthcreeper, which was followed soon after by Rusty-crowned Tit-Spinetail, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, and Peruvian Sierra-Finch. An area of remnant forest (barely any forest being accessible from the road now), was sad to see, but still worth the stop for Golden-billed Saltator, Black-crested Tit-Tyrant, White-browed Chat-Tyrant and our first Black Metaltail.

Driving ever higher we emerged onto rocky highland fields and slopes, where a Slender-billed Miner was seen in display flight. Finally, we arrived, a little earlier than planned on the outskirts of the city of Cajamarca, and so headed straight to Rio Chonta, close to the city. This has become known as the site to find the rare Gray-bellied Comet, which Rick found, with remarkable ease, right while I was taking a toilet stop. I could hear the excitement, and had to rush to finish, and charge over to where I gathered they had the bird, only for me to arrive just as the comet vanished into orbit. There was a tense five minutes, with much consoling language from everyone else in the group directed at me. Never had a piss seemed so devastating to me, until Rick, finally put me out of my misery, spotting this rare hummingbird feeding in a non-native eucalyptus tree of all things. Relief came to me, and we followed this up with a confiding White-winged Cinclodes hopping upon the rocks of the river that gives the site its name.

We had but one day to go for the main tour in the area, before Mark and I added on two extra days out of Lima....

03 November 2014

In the Shadow of the Incas...PERU (14th Sept)

This was to be another day of extremes; we started the day at "Black Mud Pass", which sounds much more interesting in Spanish (Abra Barra Negra), an area of remnant forest and grassland right on the treeline. In other chilly, windy and wet; at least it was for us on our visit. However, this pass, with its location on the lip of the MaraƱon Valley, allowed us to drop right down into the bottom of the canyon by the afternoon, where we needed to strip layers off, as we ended by birding in arid, cactus strewn slopes, with the sun beating down on us with considerable strength. Thus, from the start of the day to the end we crossed from one side to the other of this impressive valley, which also offered up some of the best scenery moments of this fascinating tour.

Our visit to Abra Barra Negra was haunted by strong winds, and cool temperatures, which gave us our most challenging birding of the trip. We had been largely trouble free with the weather on this trip until this point, but the morning was far from that. In spite of this, we forced out some early lifers: Coppery Metaltail, another endemic hummingbird for the trip, and a vocally distinct "form" of Rufous Antpitta that is likely to be recognised as a full species in its own right in time. Other high Andean birds sprinkled the farm fields up there, like Mountain Carara and Andean Lapwing

I had dearly hoped to "grip-back" a Russet-mantled Softtail, which I had missed while I was gorging on Pale-billed Antpitta a few days before. I had reasoned at the time that I got the better of the deal, I would prefer to have got, than missed, the antpitta. However, like any greedy birder worth his salt, I was also keen to settle scores with that bird, but try as I might I could not find it. I tried standing outside the bamboo that they love, I tried standing inside the bamboo that they love, all to no avail. Much as I wanted the bird, the bird did not want me! Still, we saw some great stuff, including my fourth new owl of the trip, and the 11th seen on it for me! A Yungas Pygmy-Owl just sat there and let us stare at it, which I did, at length! Other finds, while fighting the wind and rain, were Andean Flicker, a woodpecker that seems, at times, to care little for trees at all; Drab Hemispingus, White-chinned Thistletail (of the peruviana form, which may be split), and Mountain Cacique. After failing to find a constantly calling Neblina Tapaculo in blustery conditions, which one of us saw briefly, we finally decided to call it a day and head down to less balmy conditions. 

On our descent of the valley side we picked up Rufous-capped Antshrike and Baron's Spinetail, and took in some of the most impressive scenes of the trip, before we reached the hot and sweaty area of Balsas at the bottom of this impressive canyon. The base of the canyon was key to our hopes of finding another endemic, Peruvian Pigeon. A few flight views were had, before we walked along the road and found a tree full of them; find the fruit, find the pigeon! This species is listed for southern Ecuador, although there are many who now think that it may not occur there, and the sightings may have been mis-ids, thus designating this as a declining and scarce Peruvian endemic.

We were being baked near the valley bottom (in shocking contrast to our morning's feelings), when we located another major target, which behaved as if for our specific viewing pleasure: Buff-bridled Inca-Finch, arguably the best looking of the five Inca-Finches. This distinctive group of finches are all endemic to Peru, and are therefore highly sought after by people like me. I was keen on getting my first Inca-Finch on this trip, and knew I had a shot at four. The Little Inca-Finch seen on our second day was my first, but underwhelmed me, as it stayed distant, and did not allow me to snap a shot of it. Thus, this bird felt like my first true Inca-Finch, and it lived up to every bit of the hype, providing some of the best photos of the tour...

Next day we had a date with a parrotlet, and a long journey to the city of Cajamarca to undertake...