From the Field
Jon Feenstra reports from his recently completed Southern Ecuador tour.
After birding mostly the eastern slope (Amazon watershed) of southern Ecuador, we’re now in the dry forest of the lowland west. The changes in habitats have been incredible as we’ve gone from above treeline to the low rainforest foothills, back into the highlands, crossing rain shadow valleys and zigzagging the continental divide. The birds have been equally diverse and the highlights many. Some of the favorites have been: Pale-headed Brushfinch (one of the rarest birds in the world) eating bread, the ancient look of the Gray Tinamou, Fiery-throated Fruiteater, and, of course, the Jocotoco Antpitta.
The gang watching a Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant from the roadside near Reserva Tapichalaca
The Gray Tinamou creeps out of the forest too close for long lenses.
Sometimes we need to share the road with llamas.
Pale-headed Brushfinch slums it with the bread-eating crowd.
Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager in Podocarpus National Park
Steve Howell reports from our Chile tour
Fabrice Schmitt and Steve Howell report from the mid-point of the Chile tour, following some great birding in windswept Patagonia and the towering temperate rainforests of the Lake District, where we successfully sought all of the notoriously skulking tapaculos,
even an Ochre-flanked Tapaculo, which eventually hopped into the open.
The growing King Penguin colony on Tierra del Fuego included big ‘wooly’ youngsters for the first time,
and was celebrated by endemic Patagonian beer.
Other highlights have included the stunning White-bridled (née Black-throated) Finch,
a beautiful female Magellanic Woodpecker that flew in right above us,
point-blank Austral Parakeets feeding outside the bus window,
the understated and highly endangered Ruddy-headed Goose,
and the endearing little White-throated Treerunner.
Now in central Chile and getting ready for our Humboldt Current pelagic.
Gavin on his recently completed Australia Queensland and New South Wales tour
Our 2016 Eastern Australia Tour that covers Queensland and coastal New South Wales kicked off with a very nice week around Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands. From a surprisingly cooperative Azure Kingfisher that allowed close approach by our boat on the Daintree River to a fantastic experience with a pair of Southern Cassowaries in the rainforests near Kuranda, there was a wealth of birds at every turn.
On our first afternoon we enjoyed close views of the oddly plumaged Rajah Shelduck at the Cairns Botanical Gardens.
Radjah Shelduck: photo by Tim Dolby
Our time up in the rainforest patches on the Atherton Tableland was spectacular, with very cooperative Victoria’s Riflebirds and Spotted Catbird among our best finds.
Spotted Catbird: photo by Tim Dolby
A special mention must go to the areas many species of mammals, especially this day-active Lumholtz’s Tree-Kangaroo, and the very extroverted Platypus that we found near Yungaburra.
Platypus: photo by Tim Dolby
The dry forests on the north side of the tablelands provided a great contrast to the humid rainforests, and produced excellent views of our hoped for Australian Bustards.
Australian Bustards: Photo by Tim Dolby
After nearly a week inland from Cairns we then returned to the coast… Once back on the coast we spent a great day out on the Great Barrier Reef where we found courting pairs of Brown Boobies and thousands of Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies, as well as a surprising immature Red-footed Booby and great views of Bridled Tern.
Brown Booby: photo by Tim Dolby
Torresian Imperial-Pigeon: photo by Tim Dolby
The next day we bade farewell to the tropical north and its gaudy Torresian Imperial Pigeons and flew south to Brisbane and the famous O’Reilly’s Lodge.
The birds around O’Reilly’s are almost tame, with forest birds often coming to investigate your shoelaces. Even normally very shy birds like Eastern Whipbird can be easy to spot here, and more bold birds like the perky Eastern Yellow Robin can be positively pushy.
Eastern Yellow Robin
The gorgeous Regent Bowerbirds are common visitors around the lodge, with some even hand-tame.
Our scheduled pelagic trip out of Sydney was a no-go this year due to high winds and swell, but our backup visit to Barren Grounds National Park gave us superlative views of Eastern Bristlebird. Royal National Park was a great and scenic backdrop for our final day and a half, with Superb Lyrebird showing well. We finished the Eastern Tour with 281 species, and an amazing 411 species for the two tours combined. It is always with a touch of sadness that I board the plane to leave this amazing continent, and I very much look forward to next year’s duo of tours! (Photos by Gavin Bieber unless otherwise listed)
Gavin Bieber on his recently completed Australia: Victoria & Tasmania tour.
Our inaugural 17-day tour of Southeastern Australia encompassed an amazing variety of landscapes and over 270 species of birds. We started around the cosmopolitan city of Melbourne, where we spent a productive day along the coastal wetlands which held a wealth of waterfowl like this Australian Wood Duck and local leaders helped us track down birds like Powerful Owl and nesting Tawny Frogmouths.
Australian Wood Duck
Then we headed north through the Great Dividing Range where we enjoyed a Superb Lyrebird stomping through the tree-fern clad temperate rainforests.
Around Chiltern we found conditions to be extremely wet, but these Sugar Gliders seemed warm and snug in their nest box.
The wet and unseasonably cold weather persisted throughout the entire spring of 2016, but at Deniliquin we were able to access the right paddocks to locate this beautiful female Plains-Wanderer despite the conditions.
We then headed west towards the more wild Northwest corner of Victoria and its large Mallee and desert parks, stopping to admire gems like this striking White-winged Fairy-Wren and this stunning Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo along the way.
Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo
We found NW Victoria still locked in the grips of an extended winter, with repeated cold fronts dropping unprecedented rains and high winds across much of the region. The birds were still around though, and many seemed to be in full breeding mode, such as this handsome Malleefowl.
Reaching the Victoria coastline, truly one of the most scenic parts of the country, we sought out birds like this skulking Rufous Bristlebird in the heathland, and enjoyed repeated views of the surprisingly common Rainbow Lorikeet.
The tour wrapped up with a short but excellent trip to Tasmania, where we located all of the Tasmanian endemics such as this Green Rosella, enjoyed intimate views of the ethereally white form of Gray Goshawk, and scoured the beautiful coastline for shorebirds like Black-faced Cormorant (our 5th species of Cormorant for the tour) and the menacing Pacific Gull.
Although we were admittedly hampered a bit by the highly unusual weather it was a fantastic trip, with 272 species of birds and 18 mammals including Koala, Echidna and Greater Glider and one that I am very much looking forward to repeating in 2018.
Jake Mohlmann on his just-completed tour Argentina: The North - High Andes, the Chaco and Iguazu Falls
We just completed the 2016 northern Argentina tour tallying 409 species of birds and 16 species of mammals. Somehow the weather ended up being perfect throughout with cool nights for sleeping, and mild days for birding. Our expert drivers and local guides knew this route well and the abundance of wildlife encountered shows just that.
The group at Calilegua
In the Northwest part of the country we drove 2,188 km through several distinct ecological regions including the Yungas cloud forests, pre-Puna, Altiplano, and dry Chaco Woodland.
A brief hike before our picnic lunch on the Bishop's Slope
The Yungas harbored a quick trio of lifers we’ll never forget. Just before sunset we discovered a Rufous-throated Dipper, Torrent Ducks, and Red-faced Guan all utilizing the same stretch of river giving us all ample opportunities for extensive picture taking.
Rufous-throated Dipper surveying for supper.
Altiplano birding in Argentina is very rewarding with great looks at many different birds rarely encountered. At Pozuelos we walked right up to the water’s edge to view Andean, Chilean, and James’ Flamingoes as well as Puna Plovers, Andean Negritos, and Giant Coots.
A Puna Plover shoots by at close range,
In Yavi we finished our ground dove sweep after getting great views of Golden-spotted, Black-winged, Bare-faced, and the endemic Bare-eyed. A male Wedge-tailed Hillstar stood alone above town, where this species' range barely enters the country, and a huge flock of Citron-headed Yellowfinches fed in a barren pasture.
A Bare-eyed Ground Dove near nest.
Ending the tour with three days at Iguazu National Park was a welcome change from the driving. We had lengthy strolls around rainforest paths, walkways on the edge of the falls, and many lifebirds for all. A pair of Robust Woodpeckers escorted us down the Obera Road beyond Black-throated and Surucua Trogons, singing Spot-backed Antshrikes, and displaying Swallow-tailed Manakin. Black-fronted Piping Guan showed well near the famed falls and we eventually ran into a range-restricted Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher. Seeing breeding Great Dusky Swifts plummet into the raging waterfalls to tend to their needy young is one of the highlights of this remarkable tour.
Great Dusky Swifts nest behind the roaring Iguazu Falls.
Iguazu Falls raging full volume.
Susan Myers on her recently-completed tour, Borneo
I’ve just returned from another fabulous tour in Sabah, on the island of Borneo. As always, our birding and general naturalizing was thoroughly enjoyable, successful and full of adventure! We started on the Tambunan Pass, our only mid montane site on the tour. First some dapper Bornean Bulbuls showed up, apparently attending a nest, followed by great views of two endemic barbets – Mountain and Bornean, with a fabulous finale in the form of the elusive Whitehead’s Spiderhunter, which was greeted with much excitement.
We passed the next few days exploring superb upper montane forests of the Mount Kinabalu National Park. With the remarkable mountain as our backdrop, we strolled the roads and trails in search of mixed feeding flocks and ground birds. Some standout sightings included bizarre Bare-headed Laughingthrushes, an ultra cute Bornean Stubtail, a pair of noisy Mountain Wren-Babblers, and a remarkable Whiteheads Pygmy Squirrel.
On the Kinabatangan River, Sabah’s longest, we spent a few days exploring the river and its tributaries by boat. Here we found Scarlet-rumped Trogons, gem-like Blue-eared Kingfishers, brighter than bright Hooded Pittas, and confiding, not to mention spectacular, Crested Firebacks. On the more expansive parts of the river we saw flocks of gorgeous Blue-throated Bee-eater, many raptors including Grey-headed Fish-Eagle and Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle, the rare Storm’s Stork, and a remarkable six species of hornbill – Oriental Pied, Black, Bushy-crested, Wrinkled, the usually elusive White-crowned and Rhinoceros. Primates were a feature, too – Long-tailed Macaques patrol the river banks, while Red Leaf-Monkeys perch high in the trees and Proboscis Monkeys with their beautiful pelage and comical noses feed quietly.
The jewel in the crown of Borneo is Danum Valley. This large reserve is just overflowing with a mind-boggling array of plants and animals. Amongst the many highlights were a fantastic pair of Helmeted Hornbills (which along with sightings of Wreathed rounded out our list to include all the possible hornbills on Borneo), stunning Diard’s and Red-naped Trogons, a bevy of broadbills and a bagful of babblers as well as a number of neat woodpeckers, spiderhunters, and many less glamorous bulbuls. The bird that I am probably most often asked about when it comes to Borneo is the strange Bornean Bristlehead. Sightings of this super interesting bird are by no means a certainty so it was both a relief and a joy to find a small group of them high in the canopy.
Jake Mohlmann on his recently completed tour, Arizona and Utah: Fall Migration in the Canyonlands
We just wrapped up another journey through the amazing Colorado Plateau. Many scenic wonderlands were explored including colorful Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, water etched Antelope and Salt River Canyons, and of course world-famous favorites Monument Valley and Grand Canyon.
Sunset view of Monument Valleys Mittens
We had some amazing views of raptors this year with several close encounters with Golden Eagles at eye-level, very good looks at four species of falcon including both Prairie and Peregrine, as well as a score of other hunters like Swainson’s, Sharp-shinned, and Zone-tailed Hawks.
A Zone-tailed Hawk passes overhead
Every year we try hard to find the majestic California Condor and we were successful on two days; it was hard to decide whether the full grown adult soaring over the bright red Vermilion Cliffs or the full-sized chick at a cave entrance in Zion’s towering cliffs was the more exciting experience.
Not to be outdone by the larger birds the passerine show was also exciting. Warblers were in high demand and many of them showed up for the elated group. One specific migrant flock in the expansive pine forests of central Arizona contained Grace’s, Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, and an amazing five Olive Warblers. Painted Redstarts definitely added a color flare to the flock and the diminutive Hutton’s Vireos sang repetitively. A pair of Hepatic Tanagers here stopped us in our tracks while we observed them feeding in an oak tree.
A Townsend’s Warbler searching for insects
Even a couple rarities stuck around for us to add them to the overall tour list including point-blank views of two different White-eyed Vireos and a young Tricolored Heron that decided to make Phoenix it’s winter home.
A very uncommon White-eyed Vireo
Everywhere we went we found flocks of birds. Whether it was dozens of Pinyon Jays soaring by in their raucous clouds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds swirling around the sky before plummeting into the marsh for the night, countless ducks like Ruddy, Cinnamon and Blue-winged Teal, or Western and Clark’s Grebes comparing facial patterns. Sentinel species often announced the presence of a tempting flock for us to invesigate. Anytime we heard Mountain Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches, or even Juniper Titmouse we knew there was excitement ahead.
A Juniper Titmouse sounds the alarm
Mammals were also well represented with 19 species seen, with the major highlight when we approached a huge bull Elk downwind and managed to get within 50 meters before he noticed the onlookers.
An enormous bull Elk, the mammal highlight of the tour!
Our group’s good sprits (and remarkable hiking ability) made this a particularly delighful tour. We covered an unusual amount of ground without rushing, finding as a consequence 202 species of birds, and all the while enjoying perfect weather.
Our excellent group overlooking the Grand Canyon
Susan Myers on the Rail-babbler Extension to her tour, Borneo.
An early start saw us on the road through the unusually quiet streets of Singapore as we made our way on a holiday weekend to the border with Malaysia, just a short bridge hop over the Johor Strait. The process of going through immigration at the border was painless but nevertheless a bit of an adventure in itself. We were happy not to be traveling the other direction as we could see thousands of Malaysians making their daily trip into Singapore for work! Hard to imagine what it must be like on a normal work day…
Accompanied by Con Foley, the man whose name is synonymous with the reserve, we headed straight to Panti, an ever diminishing patch of lowland rainforest that still protects Tiger, Elephant, White-handed Gibbons that serenaded us upon arrival and a multitude of birds including our quarry – the shy and elusive Rail-babbler, as well as a plethora of other fabulous forest creatures. We met with early success in our search with brief sightings of a furtive bird as it hopped over logs and scuttled through tiny, sunlit patches of forest. But it proved too speedy for some and we all hoped for better views, but we would have to be patient.
Over the next couple of days as we explored this rich area our persistence paid off with never a dull moment. It helps that everywhere one looks there is some new little discovery to be made. We found mysterious insects, stunning butterflies, bizarre plants and fungi, and some very fancy mammals all while amassing a terrific bird list. Our favourite mammal sightings were the charismatic gibbons and a terrific Leopard Cat that crossed our path in the daylight. Dana was even lucky enough to see a Small-clawed Otter. Panti is an exceptional place for those Asian favourites, the babblers and we did very well with them on this visit. Notably we connected with Black-throated Babbler, White-necked Babbler and a very special bird, the very rare Grey-breasted Babbler.
But we still hoped for better looks at the incredible Rail-babbler, now the proud owner of its own family, the Eupetidae. As we birded we were constantly alert to its almost indiscernible high-pitched single note call. We heard it a few times but never quite close enough until late in the afternoon of our second day one called close by in the dense roadside vegetation. With just a little bit of encouragement a bird peaked out of the vegetation, then came right out in the open to forage. As we joyfully watched another one joined and we watched them rapturously before, incredibly, they both flew across the road. Our hopes for a BVD were more than fulfilled. In fact, I’m not sure it would be possible to have better views!
Note: The above image, courtesy of our co-leader, Con Foley, was not taken on our tour but our views were almost as good...
Rich Hoyer on his recent completed tour, Oregon in Late Summer
Oregon proved itself to yet another very happy WINGS group as a place of great physical beauty and amazing natural variety. We started with a pelagic trip out of Newport where highlights were numbers of confiding Sabine’s Gulls and some close Black-footed Albatrosses, as well as sightings of a school of young Ocean Sunfish and a Blue Shark. Then in the Coast Range we spent time with the world’s most cooperative Northern Pygmy-Owl and caught up with a single Sooty Grouse on our second drive up and down Marys Peak. Shorebirds were scarce this year on the coast, but we did find Wandering Tattler, had close enounters with Wrentit, and had superb views of a close Gray Whale. The roost of over 1500 Vaux’s Swifts spiraling down a Corvallis chimney was an amazing and unforgettable sight. In the wide open steppes east of the Cascades, Prairie Falcons and a stunning Ferruginous Hawk were right at home, and the enchanting coniferous forests provided us with memorable sightings of Clark’s Nutcracker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, White-headed Woodpecker, and abundant Sage Thrashers. We went owling on four nights, seeing several species, but particularly memorable were a Common Poorwill in flight over our heads and an amazingly confiding Flammulated Owl, perched low in a pine tree only a few yards away.
Steve Rooke on his just-completed tour, South Africa: The Kalahari to the Cape
Starting in the Kalahari Desert, the ‘sandgrouse show’ was as good as ever with large numbers of Burchell’s Sandgrouse joining the Namaqua Sandgrouse – a constant nervous coming and going, especially when a lone Lanner Falcon buzzed the place then sat in a nearby tree preening. We had some superb close encounters with Secretary Birds, which appear to be thriving in this Park, and a few Kori Bustards were also seen.
Burchell's and Namaqua Sandgrouse
Birding on the Orange River gave us African Fish Eagle, nesting South African Cliff Swallows, Pale-winged Starlings, Orange River White-eyes, and some Red-faced Mousebirds. The open countryside surrounding the remote town of Pofadder was where we got to grips with some of the region's larks. The sought-after Sclater’s Lark performed beautifully with a pair performing some courtship display. Along with more Fawn-coloured and Sabota Larks we also found Spike-heeled, Karoo Long-billed, and Large-billed Larks, before spending some time with the fabled Red Lark which eventually showed really well. Several Karoo Korhaan’s were some distraction from all the larks!
The coastal fynbos at Lambert's Bay gave us displaying Cape Clapper Larks, along with many other typical fynbos birds such as Cape Francolin, Bokmakarie, Karoo Scrub Robin, Grey-backed Cisticola, Karoo Prinia, and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, to be followed by the spectacle of Bird Island and the nesting Cape Gannets. Heading south from here we found a variety of birds from the mighty Goliath Heron to Black Harrier, Chestnut-banded Plovers, and Maccoa Ducks.
Out in the vast open space of the Karoo we were treated to fantastic views of Cinnamon-breasted Warbler with a pair feeding well-grown young, and other birds here included a majestic Verreaux's Eagle, Karoo Eremomela, Namaqa Warbler, Fairy Flycatcher, Pririt Batis, Rufous-eared Warbler, Red-capped and Karoo Larks, and Tractrac Chats. A wander around Bontebok National Park gave us some good views of the eponymous antelope, as well as several Stanley's Bustards (including one in full display just after leaving the reserve), Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Pearl-breasted Swallow, Cape Longclaw, Cape Grassbird, Cape Batis, African Stonechat, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, lots of Fiscal Flycatchers, and Southern Boubou.
Displaying Stanley's Bustard
The drive south from there took us through acres of large open fields, some of which were favored by flocks of Blue Cranes and we had totalled an incredible 159 by the end of the day...and the spring flowers while average for the region were eye-popping for anyone not previously exposed.
We ended with four days in and around Cape Town. Our pelagic took us some 30 miles past Cape Point in search of seabirds - and we were not to be disappointed as we joined literally thousands of seabirds behind a trawler as it pulled in its nets. Shy and Black-browed Albatrosses were there in profusion, and we had good views of up to 3 Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses. These were in amongst thousands of White-chinned Petrels, and Cape Gannets, with lesser numbers of Pintado Petrels, Subantartic Skuas, Great and Sooty Shearwaters, and a lone Wilson's Storm Petrel joining the throng. There were also lots of Cape Fur Seals and one pod of up to 100 Common Dolphins.
Shy Albatross and White-chinned Petrel
We then spent a few days exploring the Cape. We watched Water Thick-knees and Cape Rock Thrush at Klienmond, African Penguins and Bank Cormorants at Stony Point, Cape Rockjumpers jumping around the rocks at Roiels, and Cape Siskins feeding on the ground at Harold Porter Gardens. We braved the rain to tour Strandfontein Sewage Farm and were treated to hundreds of bright pink Greater Flamingos, flocks of Southern Pochard, Cape Teal, Cape Shovelers, and a pair of Hottentot Teal.
Our final morning was spent amidst the splendor of Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens where, as well as a profusion of flowers, we had wonderfully close views of Cape Sugarbirds, Orange-breasted Sunbirds, Forest Canary, Cape Batis, and Sombre Greenbul. Overhead there was Forest Buzzard and Black Sparrowhawk and the weather improved to make this last morning a fitting end to the tour.