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From the Field

July 10:

Gavin Bieber on his just-completed tours to the Pribilof Islands and Point Barrow, Alaska

Gavin Bieber reports from tour Alaska: Majesty of the North:

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.  

July 10:

Gavin Bieber and Evan Obercian on their just-completed tour, Alaska: Majesty of the North

Gavin Bieber reports from 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.

June 9:

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

June 8:

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. 


European Bee-eater


European Roller


Hard at work...


Lesser Purple Emperor


Sand Lizard

May 4:

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


Hooded Warbler


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.


Smooth-billed Ani

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!

April 22:

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.


Yellow-breasted Crake

White-throated Crake was also seen easily on our short boat ride on the channel through the wetlands.

 
White-throated Crake

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.

 
Least Bittern

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.

 
Sungrebe

We also improved our views of Gray-necked Wood-Rail, even though we had seen it on the main tour.

 
Gray-necked Wood-Rail

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.

 
Common Potoo

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.


Striped Owl

It was a fabulous finale to some excellent birding.

April 18:

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,


Green Jay

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.


White-tipped Dove


Scissor-tailed Flycatcher


Green Parakeet


Clay-colored Thrush

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.


Cerulean Warbler

Waders like Stilt Sandpipers were in fine feather as they headed north towards their breeding grounds in the high arctic. 


Stilt Sandpiper

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!


Least Bittern

April 14:

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.


Arenal volcano

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.


Common Tody-Flycatcher

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.


Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

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.


Lattice-tailed Trogon

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.


Pinnated Bittern

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.

April 10:

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.


Blue Cotinga


Shining Honeycreeper


White-whiskered Puffbird


White-tailed Trogon


"Day" Night Monkey


Cinnamon Woodpecker

April 7:

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


Heading home...


Blue-headed and Mealy Parrots at a "clay lick"


View from the canopy tower

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