From the Field
Gavin Bieber and Evan Obercian on their just-completed tour, Alaska: Majesty of the North
The 2016 Alaska Majesty Tour found above average temperatures and sunshine virtually everywhere on the itinerary. The very mild winter of ’15-’16 seemed to shift a lot of bird breeding activity to earlier in May. Great birds and sweeping landscapes were found at every turn. On the main tour this year we started around Denali National Park, where the mountain was a near constant companion.
Here too were iconic mammals of the north, such as Grizzly Bear and Moose.
Nome was, as ever, amazing, with point blank views of birds like Willow Ptarmigan, and remarkably good views of Bristle-thighed Curlews, even for those who did not make the hike!
The beautiful Resurrection Bay and Seward were under full sun this year, with Humpback Whales and Bald Eagles really putting on a show, and good sightings of Kittlitz’s Murrelets.
The richness of the environment here was highlighted by the incredible number of Common Murres that we encountered near the head of the bay.
The variety and abundance of birdlife and wildlands that we see on this tour is staggering, and contribute to making western Alaska one of the best birding tour destinations in the North America.
Evan Obercian and Steve Howell from their ongoing Minnesota and North Dakota tour
Wonderful scope views of singing Henslow’s Sparrow and Connecticut Warbler have been among highlights of the first two days, exemplifying the varied habitats this tour visits. Our first morning we appreciated ‘grassland’ microhabitat differences between Henslow’s Sparrow (dead grass mats from the previous year) versus Dickcissel (lush fields with clover), as well as sampling some of the more southern warblers on our route, such as Blue-winged and Hooded. Moving up to the bogs and boreal forest we found a very obliging Connecticut Warbler shouting his song from the canopy, and also enjoyed sundry warblers, including the stunning Golden-winged, Canada, and Bay-breasted, plus a showy Black-backed Woodpecker. Another morning of boreal forest and then into the prairies...
Henslow’s Sparrow in habitat, versus...
Dickcissel in habitat
About the ‘easiest’ Connecticut Warbler ever...
Watched through the scope for many minutes
The ever-popular male Bay-breasted Warbler, ...
And a handsome male Black-backed Woodpecker
Stuart Elsom on his about-to-be completed photographic tour, Hungary
We are coming to the end of our first tour. What a fabulous place, with hundreds of Bee-eaters coming and going, numerous Rollers, Hoopoes, and both Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes, Corn Buntings and Whinchats and Tree Sparrows on the farmland. A blind overlooking a small drinking pool proved to be an excellent location to photograph a number of species, including Hawfinch, while the putza was awash with wild flowers – giving us great opportunities to capture images of a variety of insects such as Queen of Spain Fritillary and Lesser Purple Emperor. The reptiles, such as Sand Lizard, were pretty photogenic as well.
Hard at work...
Lesser Purple Emperor
Gavin Bieber and Evan Obercian on their just-completed tour Florida: The South, the Keys and the Dry Tortugas
We just wrapped up a fun week exploring from Fort Myers to Key West. We started with a day in the dry pine forests and upland scrub of the central peninsula with fantastic views of two pairs of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and a very attractive Yellow Ratsnake.
A well-studied Red-cockaded Woodpecker
Inspected by a Yellow Rat Snake
The sandy beaches along Florida’s West coast supported some nice flocks of shorebirds which allowed for an impromptu wader workshop.
Short-billed Dowitchers and Dunlin...did I miss anything?
Waterbird rookeries in the Everglades gave us excellent views of birds like Great Egret, quite a sight in their full breeding regalia.
Great Egret festooned with plumes
A day trip out to the unique Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas was sunny and hot (unlike last year) but still produced 15 species of warblers (like this male Hooded Warbler) and fine views of Masked and Brown Boobies.
Fort Jefferson, a part of Everglades National Park
One of maybe 60 Masked Boobies
Once back on the mainland we were happy to find a pair of Smooth-billed Ani, after a several year absence, and enjoyed the full sweep of Flordia’s countable exotic avifauna.
I look forward to this tour every year, as it combines great eastern migration birding with Florida's highlight species, and a wealth of reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and even fish!
Rich Hoyer on his just-completed private tour in Costa Rica
One of the participants from the regular Costa Rica in Spring tour requested an extra three days of birding to look for owls and rails, and we had an amazingly productive trip north to the Caño Negro region.
We started with a Uniform Crake, a skulky bird in wet forest understory thickets, which we eventually coaxed out to cross the trail. Then at the Medio Queso wetlands near the Nicaragua border we scored with our primary target, Yellow-breasted Crake. We saw three of them very well, one of them being particularly bold.
White-throated Crake was also seen easily on our short boat ride on the channel through the wetlands.
The only Least Bittern we saw flew in over our heads and landed fully exposed in a clump of giant reed, and it was hard to tear ourselves away.
We then spent an afternoon and full morning at Caño Negro, and on the boat ride there we connected with a single Sungrebe, actually now known to be very closely related to rails.
We also improved our views of Gray-necked Wood-Rail, even though we had seen it on the main tour.
Somehow the main tour missed out on all potoos, but we had two on our extension. On our second night of owling we watched a Great Potoo making foraging sallies from a very close post, and this Common Potoo was brooding a very young chick just a short walk from our hotel.
We had done extremely well with owls on the main tour, so our principle target here was just Striped Owl, which we finally found after hearing several Pacific Screech and Mottled Owls and seeing a Black-and-white Owl.
It was a fabulous finale to some excellent birding.
Gavin Bieber on his just-completed tour, Texas: The Rio Grande Valley in Spring
We just finished what was probably our best South Texas in Spring tour ever. With the valley specialties all showing well, a very strong showing of migrant passerines and virtually all of the possible shorebird species we saw a remarkable 255 species in eight days of birding. The stunning Green Jay was elected bird of the trip,
but other valley birds like this nesting White-tipped Dove, elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, chattering Green Parakeets and several singing Clay-colored Thrushes were appreciated too.
On the coast we encountered unsettled weather, with low numbers but excellent diversity of migrants including a few of the rarer species like this handsome Cerulean Warbler.
Waders like Stilt Sandpipers were in fine feather as they headed north towards their breeding grounds in the high arctic.
And who could forget the 10-minute encounter with this stunning Least Bittern as it crept across the marsh just feet from the group. South Texas certainly has a lot to offer the visiting naturalist!
Rich Hoyer on the conclusion of his tour, Costa Rica in March
Our final days on the Caribbean slope starting at Arenal volcano continued to be full of enriching experiences, fascinating and beautiful species, and spectacular scenery. We couldn’t have had better viewing conditions of the volcano from our rooms at Arenal Observatory Lodge, which was also very birdy.
The fruit feeders there were swarming with bold Montezuma Oropendolas and several tanagers, and the purple porterweed hedges hosted half a dozen hummingbirds including gorgeous White-necked Jacobins and shockingly red-footed Bronze-tailed Plumleteers. This Common Tody-Flycatcher was busy building a nest in a shrub next to the walkway immediately in front our rooms.
We then moved over to the Sarapiquí region, where we first spent most of a day at La Selva Biological Station. Among the birds, we were fortunate to see three Great Tinamous and even a Slaty-breasted Tinamou right beside the trail, teased in a pair of Black-headed Tody-Flycatchers, succeeded in discovering a day roost of a Vermiculated Screech-Owl, and had a wonderful time with a most cooperative pair of Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers.
La Selva is always full of amazing plants and critters, amongst which we saw Strawberry Poison Frogs, a huge, silver-backed Savigny’s Orb Weaver, a bullet ant, a stunning Glorious Blue Skipper, and a roost of Honduran White Bats in their leaf tent, looking like what our local guide called furry marshmallows.
Glorious Blue Skipper
Honduran White Bats
Our second day was divided between the lush foothill forest of Braulio Carrillo National park and the vibrant grounds of our lodge. The trail at Braulio was rather quiet for much of the morning, but we eventually stumbled into a terrific mixed flock with many tanagers and furnariids, found two elusive manakins – White-crowned (for the second time in 11 years) and White-ruffed, delighted in the incomparable song of Nightingale Wren, and got very lucky to find the scarce and easily overlooked Lattice-tailed Trogon, our seventh trogon of the tour.
Just before we left Braulio, Ricardo, our amazing driver and spotter of birds and wildlife showed us a Brown Vine Snake that had been hunting lizards on the park’s chain-link entry gate for an hour while we had been on the trail. We were lucky that it was still there.
Brown Vine Snake
On our hotel grounds of Sueño Azul, we took a couple strolls in different directions, seeing our only Sunbittern, both Bare-throated and Fasciated Tiger-Herons, a beautiful White Hawk, and a Gartered Trogon, our final and eighth (!) species, the most common and widespread of all that had surprisingly evaded us until now. Ricardo joined us for these walks, spotting one of the biggest surprises of the tour, a Pinnated Bittern sitting still in a clump of grass in one of the several ponds on the property.
We concluded the tour at La Paz Waterfall Gardens, where we were reacquainted with cloud forest birds such as Slate-throated Redstart, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, and the haunting songs of Black-faced Solitaire. The hummingbird feeders were also a hit, giving us excellent views of male and female Green Thorntails, a spritely hummingbird that comes to feeders in only a few places.
Female Green Thorntail
I’m already looking forward to next year’s tour from March 4-18.
Gavin Bieber from his recently completed tour, Panama: Spring at the Canopy Tower
We just wrapped up a great week at Panama's famous Canopy Tower, followed by a five-day extension to the Canopy Lodge. It is always a pleasure to return to this fantastic and unique lodge, surrounded by an excellent mix of habitats and a great diversity of birds. Some of the highlights would have to include our close views of a stunning male Blue Cotinga and several male Shining Honeycreepers from Cerro Azul, White-whiskered Puffbirds (one of 4 species of Puffbirds for the trip), White-tailed Trogon (one of 6 species for the tour) and a day active Night Monkey from the road below the tower, and the foraging Cinnamon Woodpeckers from the tower itself. As always the gorgeous array of gaudy hummingbirds (24 species), and tanagers (33 species) stole the show. We encountered a few surprises too, such as the Tody Motmot at Cerro Azul, a pair of Whistling Herons along the Pacific coast and the Blue-throated Goldentail at Altos del Maria above the Lodge. In all we tallied just shy of 390 species of birds, along with 18 mammals and 24 species of reptiles and amphibians in just 10 days in the field! This tour continues to impress me; the diversity and richness of the region, paired with ease of access and the comforts of the lodge make for a truly wonderful experience.
"Day" Night Monkey
Jon Feenstra on his recently completed tour, Ecuador: The Amazon Lowlands
A vast carpet of greenery stretched out before us as we descended on our flight from the lofty heights of Quito in Andean Ecuador to the steamy lowlands of the Amazon rainforest. Though flat and green it looked, it hid an astounding diversity from tiny little gray things easy to pass by like Dwarf Tyrant-Manakins to big showy Scarlet Macaws and White-throated Toucans. We had two days of birding in which we saw all five species of Ecuador’s kingfishers (Ringed, Amazon, Green, Green-and-rufous, and American Pygmy) and by the end of the trip and six full days in the rainforest we had also seen six species of cotinga and twenty-five species of antbird. All of that in front of a backdrop of a dark forest of giant trees draped with thick vines, quiet canoe trips through flooded forests, canopy towers that provided stunning rainforst overviews, “clay licks” full of parrots and parakeets, big caiman lurking in the calm waters, and monkeys launching themselves through the canopy. When we were done we sped up the swollen Rio Napo, steering around floating logs and stumps, on our way out of the jungle and back into the realm of civilization – probably back where we belong, but not always where we want to be.
American Pygmy Kingfisher
The spectacular Red-necked Woodpecker, one of 11 woodpecker species on the tour
Blue-headed and Mealy Parrots at a "clay lick"
View from the canopy tower
Rich Hoyer from his on-going tour, Costa Rica.
Thus far we've touched on several unbelievably birdy Pacific slope sites. Resplendent Quetzals showed well at the Cerro de la Muerte region, as did most of the regional endemics including Ochraceous Pewee, Timberline Wren, and this most confiding of Volcano Juncos.
We saw several Tufted Flycatchers at very close range in the lush Costa Rican Oak forests.
Our days on the Osa Peninsula were packed with birds, despite the area being unusually hot and dry, even for this time of year. A Fiery-billed Aracari that found a crab high in the mangroves as we arrived in the area was a memorable sighting.
A female Black-hooded Antshrike foraged at arm’s length for several minutes one morning, providing for quite a photographic opportunity.
The many Band-tailed Barbthroats chasing each other and feeding from the giant prayer plants blooming in every wet spot were also a favorite.
One morning a large troop of Central American Squirrel Monkeys made the rounds right by Bosque del Rio Tigre lodge.
It’s been a terrific tour for owls, with nine species already, including this Pacific Screech-Owl on its day perch at Ensenada Lodge.
We’ve just arrived on the Caribbean slope, and it’s hard to imagine there could be any birds left for us to see, but it’s a totally new habitat and ecoregion, known for its high diversity. Stay tuned for the final report.