From the Field
Fabrice Schmitt on the first known photographs of the Colombian Speckled Tree-rat taken on the 2015 Colombia: The Santa Marta Mountains tour
The Santa Marta tour is obviously a fantastic tour for birding, but like any trip in the tropics, one encounters other wonderful wildlife: amazing butterflies, riveting reptiles and great mammals such as Cotton-top Tamarin or Colombian Red Howler.
During our 2015 tour we stopped at Isla Salamanca National Park, and when the local rangers realized we were interested in all living creatures, they found for us a pair of rodents. We had great views of these two little mammals, standing in a tree only 2 meters overhead. Thanks to the fantastic Louise Emmons book ‘Neotropical Rainforest Mammals’, they were rapidly identified as Colombian Speckled Tree-rat.
Colombian Speckled Tree-rat
Back home, I posted a few pictures on my Flickr account, between pictures of Black-cheeked Mountain-tanager, Russet-throated Puffbird, Golden-breasted Fruiteater and many more birds seen during that tour.
That was supposed to be the end of the story, but luckily, Louise Emmons saw these pictures and advised me that they are probably the only pictures of living Colombian Speckled Tree-rat! Actually, it is a rare mammals in collections too; only 10 specimens exist in museums!
What a surprise: the ‘drab long-tailed arboreal rat’ suddenly became the ‘first photograph ever of a Colombian Speckled Tree-rat’!
I doubt our rat encounter will make many people jealous, but the story illustrate how little we know about the wildlife in South America. Any trip in the Neotropics can bring a few discoveries, and that is one of the reasons I love so much coming here! I cannot wait to return.
Gavin Bieber on his just-completed tour, Alaska: The Pribilofs in Fall.
The fall tour to the Pribilofs took place during a week of warm and sunny weather.
A warm and sunny Pribilofs
Among seven species of Asian shorebirds were hordes of attractive juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and one lingering Marsh Sandpiper.
A handsome juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
The lingering Marsh Sandpiper
The Salt Lagoon hosted hundreds of shorebirds, including migrant groups of Pacific Golden-Plovers, and two Red-necked Stints. Flocks of Long-billed Dowitchers and Red Phalaropes popped up on the islands in many lakes. Our highlight passerine was undoubtedly a Pechora Pipit that we found as it walked along a muddy pond edge. Lapland Longspurs were beginning to flock up in preparation for their departure in late September, and often offered us excellent studies of their surprisingly intricate plumage.
Lapland Longspurs in a wide assortment of plumages were everywhere
Repeated checks of the Crab Pots eventually revealed a perky Boreal Owl that remained for our full stay, likely eating Snow Buntings and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches in the nearby Quarry.
Needless to say, we didn't expect a Boreal Owl in a crab trap
The sunrises over the tundra here were often spectacular, with golden light setting the grass heads alight. All in all a great week in the Bering Sea!
A Pribilofs Sunrise
Jon Dunn on his recently concluded tour, Arizona: Second Spring
The summer monsoon rains arrived in earnest during our tour; the creeks and rivers filled from the Santa Cruz in the west to Cave Creek in the east, and almost immediately everything greened up. Happily, and despite the downpours all around, our time in the field wasn’t for the most part compromised.
The afternoon light on Montana Peak in the Pajarito Mountains against the backdrop of a distant thunderstorm
There was much birdsong in the lowlands, particularly from the sparrows with Botteri’s, Cassin’s, Rufous-winged and Five-striped all in song. There were many early August migrants too with Lark Sparrows seemingly everywhere, often in large flocks and even from small mountain clearings. Other migrants included single Dusky and Willow Flycatchers, Lazuli Bunting, Chipping Sparrows and small numbers of Hermit Warblers.
We found nearly all of the expected species that occur in southeast Arizona at this time of the year including all of the southwest warblers like Red-faced, Virginia’s, Olive (now in its own family), Lucy’s, and Grace’s, Bendire’s and Crissal (scope views) Thrashers, six species of owls, including roosting Spotted and daytime views of a roosting Whiskered-Screech (in addition Elf Owl was heard), five species of nightjars, including perched visuals with the help of a light of Buff-collared Nightjar, a flock of four Elegant Trogons in the Huachucas, and roadside encounters with three separate pairs of Montezuma Quail.
A curious male Montezuma Quail
Various rarities were present this summer, many of which we managed to locate including a Plain-capped Starthroat, a Tufted Flycatcher (had nested in upper Ramsey Canyon earlier this summer), Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Rufous-capped Warbler, and an adult male Flame-colored Tanager. An adult Common Black Hawk in California Gulch was out of place; to my knowledge they aren’t known in summer from this part of southeastern Arizona.
Plain-capped Starthroat makes a visit to a Madera Canyon feeder.
Hummingbirds of eleven species were recorded; they were particularly numerous in the Chiricahua Mountains where at one set of feeders we estimated some dozen southbound Calliopes, many of which were adult males. A female Lucifer Hummingbird was seen here too although we had seen an adult male Lucifer previously at Mary Jo’s feeders in Ash Canyon (Huachucas). Blue-throated Hummingbirds were numerous in the Chiricahuas, especially at the feeders of the Southwest Research Station, but we saw none elsewhere.
Non avian highlights included both Greater Short-horned and Regal Horned Lizards, a Black-tailed Rattlesnake a rare Green Ratsnake in Madera Canyon, and the aways memorable Antlope Jackrabbit.
The remarkable Antelope Jackrabbit
Fabrice Schmitt from his recently concluded tour, Colombia
Another fantastic tour to Colombia!
The group at Nevado del Ruiz
Visiting the three cordilleras, crossing both the Magdalena and Cauca valleys, birding from sea level to 15,000 feet elevation, and even adding a few days in the isolated Santa Marta Mountains and Guajira Peninsula, we had an amazing overview of the Colombian avifauna!
The recently discovered Chestnut-capped Piha
It was hard to pick the best birds of the trip amongst hundreds of wonderful species, but here are some of the best as voted by the group: Hooded and Ochre-breasted Antpitta (two little ones who gave us amazing views), a male Santa Marta Woodstar displaying and showing well his pink-purple gorget, the most wanted Northern Screamer, a stunning Santa Marta Antpitta giving a wonderful show after we hid in the bamboo, and the superb Crested Ant-tanager.
The elusive Santa Marta Antpitta
We visited more than 10 different hummingbirds feeding stations and saw more than 60 species of these fascinating birds! We even hand feed Rainbow-bearded Thornbill and Golden-breasted Puffleg!
Obviously, beside the incredible birds, we were amazed by the variety of flowers, orchids, grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, etc.
Opaon varicolor, endemic to the Choco
Colombia is definitely the country of biodiversity.
Rich Hoyer on his just-completed tour, Brazil: Marvelous Mato Grosso
Flawless weather and a nearly continuous parade of birds and animals on this year’s Mato Grosso tour resulted in a treasure of memories and photos. Even without the easy-to-obtain photos, no one will ever forget the intensely blue and immense Hyacinth Macaws in the Pantanal, voted favorite bird by an overwhelming margin.
A distant second favorite but equally unforgettable was the Collared Crescentchest at Chapada dos Guimarães that crept around like a mouse under the clumps of grass right at our feet, eventually working its way up a bush to sing just a few feet away.
It was hard to choose other favorites among the 460 species of birds we saw, but those with impressive color combinations and fantastic bills seemed to draw the most attention, with White Woodpecker, Spangled and Pompadour Cotingas, Rusty-backed Antwren, Golden-green Woodpecker, and Helmeted Manakin in the first category and Red-billed Scythebill and Fiery-tailed Awlbill clearly in the second.
Not especially colorful but favorited for their high cuteness quotient were Burrowing Owl and Snow-capped Manakin.
There were fewer non-birds to choose favorites from, but how could our outstanding views of three different jaguars not top any list? But several South American Tapirs, Giant Anteater, Southern Tamandua, and a most exciting Yellow Anaconda helped make this a tour of epic proportions.
Fabrice Schmitt and Luke Seitz on their just-completed tour, Peru - The Northwest: Chiclayo to Cajamarca.
This has to be one of the most scenic tours in South America. We traveled every day through amazing scenery: dry woodlands with hundred year-old trees, the impressive canyons of the Utcubamba and Marañon Valleys, majestic forests covered by lichen and bromeliads, and picturesque Andean villages with their inhabitants still living in their traditional way amazed us every day.
One of our field breakfasts, this one at 10,000 feet with a dominating view of the Marañon Valley.
The bottom of the Marañon Valley near Balsas.
However, fabulous scenery and we must say great lodges and stunning food.....
One of our lodges...
...with great views of the Gocta Waterfall from our rooms.
Some succulent Peruvian ceviche to offset the field meals
.....were just side dishes of our tour! We had amazing birding too! Marvelous Spatuletail, Peruvian Plantcutter, Rufous Antpitta, Peruvian Thick-knee, Torrent Duck and Streaked Tuftedcheek, each voted as best bird of the tour at least by one participant, all gave us amazing views.
The marvelous Marvelous Spatuletail
Rufous Antpitta gave us stunning views
We also found many restricted-range species such as Buff-bridled Inca-finch, Tumbes Tyrant, Rufous Flycatcher, Marañon Thrush, Chestnut-backed Thornbird, Tumbes Hummingbird, Marañon Crescentchest, Short-tailed Woodstar, Peruvian Pigeon, Koepcke’s Screech-owl, Necklaced Spinetail, and we haven't mentioned the colorful ones such as Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanager, Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, White-tailed Jay, Grass-green Tanager, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Many-colored Rush-tyrant or Chestnut-breasted Coronet.
The handsome Buff-bridled Inca-finch
Charming Tumbes Tyrants and...
...the well-named Elegant Crescentchest were found just a few hundred yards from one of our lodges..
James Lidster on his recently concluded tour, Mongolia
Had anyone told me that we would see two male Black-billed Capercaillies, next to the road, mid afternoon, I would have told them they were crazy! In fact, when one of our amazing ground crew said that we had a chance I think I might have started laughing... And then a few days later he mentioned it again, in fact he even told the group - it became the big joke of the tour - when we see the GUARANTEED Black-billed Capercaillies… After a while searching we were casually walking back to the bus when Paul mentioned those magic words ‘I’ve got a capercaillie!’ Less than 50 metres in front of us was a male Black-billed Capercaillie, completely frozen to the spot! It’s ability to look like a burnt tree branch was uncanny, and it eyed us up before slinking away. A little further away there was a second male...absolutely amazing!
We were on a high, a high that didn’t end there and within a few hours we had seen a Ural Owl with chicks, Siberian Rubythroat, Red-throated Thrush, Oriental Cuckoo and a Black Woodpecker!
That magic afternoon pretty much summed up the whole trip, brilliant birds in stunning scenery.
In the Altai mountains we scanned the high ridges and were rewarded with Altai Snowcock, as well as the endemic Kozlow’s Accentor closer by.
Watching Altai Snowcock
The endemic if drab Koslow's Accentor
Around the famous Gobi dunes we saw Saxaul Sparrows, displaying Oriental Plovers, Mongolian Ground Jays and Pallas’s Sandgrouse and at a large lake in the steppes we saw the enigmatic Relict Gull, a nomadic species whose breeding locations are rarely found.
The enigmatic Relict Gull
Elsewhere there were other specialties such as Asian Dowitchers, White-naped and Demoiselle Cranes, Wallcreepers, Pallas’s Gulls, Swan and Bar-headed Geese, Lammergeier and Pallas’s Fish Eagles, not to mention the warblers and flycatchers making their way to Siberian breeding grounds.
This was our 10th tour to Mongolia and we use the same ground crew every year for good reason. The new tents are great, tall enough to walk around in, sturdy in the toughest of conditions, beds and bedding are all supplied as well.
One of our tents in stunning surroundings
The dining tent gets more elaborate each year, tables and benches, great food and all washed down with red wine or local beers. Our crew also set up a proper camp toilet and shower, meaning that our Mongolian adventure is as comfortable as it can be!
We now camp for not more than 5 nights, and the rest of our time we are in tourist Ger camps, some of which can be very nicely decorated inside, and if it’s cold outside then what better than a morning fire to start the day? (lit by someone else to save you getting out of bed!)
A wonderful Ger camp
Gavin Bieber on his recently completed tour, Arizona: Owls and Warblers
Our tour coincided with a period of unseasonably cool weather, with frequent overcast and even some (highly unusual) May rainfall. We very much enjoyed birding in seventy degree temperatures while observing an impressive 214 species. Since it is an owls and warbler trip our highlights often come from those groups. Among the nine species of owls detected the cooperative Spotted Owl and an inquisitive Whiskered Screech-Owl were particular delights.
As always, the warbler show was excellent, with our favorite local species like Red-faced Warbler.
We were lucky as well with rare species like Slate-throated Redstart and Rufous-capped Warbler.
Border specialties like these Five-striped Sparrow, Buff-collared Nightjar and Elegant Trogon preformed well, and we had an exceptional tour for Montezuma Quail, seeing them on half the days in the field.
When you can combine such a wide array of spectacular birds with the marvelous desertscapes, it's no surprise that Southern Arizona is a fabulous place for a bird tour.
James Lidster on his recently concluded tour, Estonia in Spring: Migration along the Baltic Sea
The thought of watching Arctic migration while wearing a t-shirt and sunglasses wasn’t one that crossed my mind prior to this tour, but that’s exactly what we did! In fact with almost everything we did we were treated to beautiful blue skies and windless days.
And if we were concerned that the nice weather might be too nice for seawatching we needn’t have been….as on our first morning we saw over 1000 loons migrating. Loose groups above and below the horizon and sometimes right above our heads, absolutely brilliant.
At the same time we could hear displaying Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters, had to duck when the Mute Swans flew past and also saw Tundra Swans, hundreds of Barnacle Geese and a great selection of migrants including Eurasian Hobby (that caught a Reed Bunting over the sea), Bohemian Waxwings, European Serin, Wood Sandpipers and Eurasian Whimbrel. And that all before lunch on the first day!
With such a multitude of prey on offer we weren't disappointed with our raptor sightings either, ranging from White-tailed and Lesser Spotted Eagles to Montagu's Harrier and this Northern Goshawk.
On the final morning we explored a local marsh where both Thrush Nightingale and Penduline Tits were not only plentiful but also very obliging.
The migration theme continued throughout the tour and our final totals of Barnacle, Eurasian White-fronted and Tundra Bean Geese all numbered in the thousands (if not tens of thousands). The goose highlight of the tour was undoubtedly the adult Red-breasted Goose among thousands of Barnacles, although the sight of a flock of White-fronted Geese migrating over Tallinn during our last day sight-seeing walk seemed to sum up the whole trip.
We had a few early starts to get out into the forest on time, essential if we wanted to see Western Capercaillie and Black Grouse, and neither disappointed with a great encounter with a group of displaying ‘Capers’, with the males running at each other and splaying their tails.
Nearby we watched and listened to bubbling Black Grouse, while Whooper Swans bugled and the sky was full of the sound of displaying Northern Lapwing and Eurasian Skylarks, just magical! Elsewhere in the forest pride of place went to two different Ural Owls we saw.
Woodpeckers were well represented with Black, Grey-headed, Middle spotted (below) and White-backed all being seen very well, as well as several encounters with Eurasian Wryneck.
The nice weather meant we also got to enjoy an evening boat trip to the south of Matsalu Bay, complete with homemade Estonian stew, local liqueur, hot coffee and best of all an incredibly obliging Eurasian Elk (Moose) and several European Beavers.
Gavin Bieber on his just-completed tours to the Pribilof Islands and Point Barrow, Alaska
The 2016 Alaska Majesty Tour extensions to both the Pribiofs and Barrow were incredible. We arrived in the Pribilofs to full sun and remarkably warm temperatures. The Bering Sea was flat calm for our entire visit and the tundra wildflowers were out in a riot of color (a show that normally would be in place during mid-July). The local breeders like Red-legged Kittiwake, Red-faced Cormorant, Rock Sandpiper and Crested Auklet all posed nicely for our cameras this year.
Despite the nearly perfectly calm weather we even managed to spot a few rarities, with a passing fishing ship dragging hundreds of Northern Fulmar and a Laysan Albatross, and a fly-by Gray Wagtail that flew right over our parked van! Our post tour extension to Barrow was superlative, with repeated views of all four species of Eider in excellent plumage including the dazzling Steller’s and Spectacled, several Snowy Owls, displaying Pectoral Sandpipers, a pair of Yellow-billed Loons and even a vagrant Barn Swallow, likely of the white-bellied Asian subspecies.
These two outposts act as a perfect complement to the mainland tour, offering excellent views of some of the hardest to find breeding species on the continent, and truly unique scenery.