From the Field
Rich Hoyer from the mid-way point on his tour of Southeastern Peru
The first half of our Manu Biosphere Reserve tour has been so full of amazing bird sightings it was like a tour all in its own. In the past six days we’ve descended the moist slope of the Andes from Acjanaco Pass to Villa Carmen Biological Station (with some light rain just part of one morning, much less than expected) and are soon heading out by boat down the Madre de Dios River to the lowlands where the diversity is supposed to increase. But that’s hard to believe. We’ve already seen over 350 species of birds in less than a week.
At the highest elevations a couple of tanager flocks finally appeared with gorgeous Grass-green, Golden-collared, and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers showing well, as well as a very cooperative Black-throated Tody-Tyrant.
Close fly-bys of two female Swallow-tailed Nightjars, a tantalizingly close calling Rufous-banded Owl, and roosting Chestnut-collared Swifts were highlights from a short evening walk. My attempts to rile hummingbirds with Yungas Pygmy-Owl imitations resulted in a the real thing responding and flying it. But instead of keeping hidden in a tree high above our heads as they often do, this one landed amongst the lichens, bromeliads, and orchids in the trees below eye level on the down slope side of the road where we had excellent views.
We had a good experience watching some very active Andean Cock-of-the-rocks on their lek, one bird being particularly bold by performing his head-bowing display on a branch right in front of us.
The feeders at our mid-elevation lodges of San Pedro had nice Booted Racket-tails, Many-spotted Hummingbirds, and Violet-fronted Brilliants, but it was a resident Wedge-billed Hummingbird that fed from the pink Heliconia flowers in the garden that stole the show.
Other birds in the garden were gorgeous Silver-beaked Tanager in rich light and a pair of bold Andean Motmots (two of several that we saw) that came to feed on bananas.
Perhaps the most astonishing and thrilling sighting from the mid-elevations was a juvenile Black-and-chestnut Eagle that our van flushed from a low log on the side of the road. The monster flapped slowly in front of us as we came to a sudden stop, and it perched not 10 yards from the road. A passing car threatened to flush it before we got photos, but the bird remained nonplussed, proceeded to preen, and the driver of the passing car even paused to point his camera phone out the window.
Watching the Black-and-chestnut Eagle
Juvenile Black-and-chestnut Eagle
On our way to the lower Kosñipata Valley we saw yet more great birds. Cinnamon-faced Tyrannulets foraged at eye-level, a pair of Wattled Guans surprised us in trees next to the road, and a stationary Lanceolated Monklet perched in the open but far from obvious was brilliantly spotted by one of the participants. The butterflies were out of this world. Some of the showier and more colorful were the clear-winged metalmark Chorinea sylphina and the shocking Superb Leafwing, wings spread below a bridge over a small stream.
The birds of the bamboo thickets here at Villa Carmen Biological Station were amazingly cooperative. While standing in one spot just a ten-minute walk from our rooms we saw Bamboo Antshrike and Yellow-breasted Warbling-, Goeldi’s, White-lined, and Manu Antbirds. White-cheeked Tody-Flycatcher was in another bamboo thicket as well, and we ended that first day with over 130 species. Even closer to our rooms was a family group of the most unlikely of the world’s birds, the Hoatzin, and at the same marsh we enjoyed a tail-wagging, head-bowing, and sac-inflating performance from a pair of Black-capped Donacobius. The overnight thunderstorm and yesterday morning’s continuing sprinkles produced a termite emergence that resulted in an explosion of bird activity such as a flock of a dozen flycatching Purple Honeycreepers and three male Plum-throated Cotingas perched in some treetops. We then watched a non-swarming column of army ants with a kleptoparasitic silverfish living amongst them, followed immediately by a cooperative Rusty-belted Tapaculo that everyone got to see very well. Later in the afternoon a great surprise and first local record was an Upland Sandpiper in a newly planted field in the agricultural plots that are part of the station’s involvement in helping the communities of the region develop sustainable farming methods. We missed seeing the adult Common Potoo that had been on a nest, but in its place instead was the most adorable half-grown chick roosting on its own, trying its best to look like a tree trunk.
Common Potoo chick
Gavin Bieber and Susan Myers on their recently concluded tour to Queensland and New South Wales, Australia
Our tour covering Queensland and coastal New South Wales kicked off with a fine week around Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands. From a surprisingly bold Noisy Pitta striding around the grounds at Kingfisher Lodge to an unexpectedly difficult but very much appreciated Southern Cassowary in the rainforests near Kuranda there was a wealth of birds.
Noisy Pitta Photo: Ade Buckel
The bird diversity in the northern reaches of the tableland was higher than normal, benefitting from the record droughts to the west. Larger than usual numbers of Australian Bustards and Squatter Pigeons and a few truly irregular species to the area such as Diamond Dove made for excellent birding.
Australia has more than a few beautiful species of pigeons, and we were happy to see gaudy Topknot Pigeons perched in the canopy and large numbers of the elegant Torresian Imperial Pigeons along the coast.
Torresian Imperial Pigeon
Our day on the Great Barrier Reef was complicated by some boat issues, but the birds were plentiful, with 11 species of terns seen over the course of the day (Here is a mixed flock with Black-naped, Common, Roseate, and Lesser Crested Terns). We must give special mention to the area’s many species of mammals, especially this sleeping Lumholtz’s Tree-Kangaroo (and the very cooperative Platypus) that we found south of Yungaburra, our pleasant base on the tablelands.
Black-naped, Common, Roseate, and Lesser Crested Terns on a Great Barrier Reef beach
Our second week centered around the famous O’Reilly’s Lodge SW of Brisbane and Royal National Park on the southern outskirts of Sydney. The birds around O’Reilly’s are astoundingly tame. Forest birds often investigate your shoelaces and even normally very shy birds like Eastern Whipbird can be easy to spot. Bolder birds like Rufous Fantail can be positively pushy.
The gorgeous Regent and Satin Bowerbirds are common visitors around the lodge, where Eastern Spinebills frequent the flowering shrubs, and Australian King Parrots look over (or from) your shoulder for any dropped tidbits.
Our scheduled pelagic trip out of Sydney was cancelled 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, and dazzlingly blue Azure Kingfishers lining the creek.
We finished the Eastern Tour with 283 species, and an amazing 444 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 tours!
Gavin Bieber on his just-completed tour of Western Australia and Northern Territory
We spent the first week of our new Western Australia Tour birding around the southwest corner of the country. A wetland in central Perth provided our first waterbirds, including these fine courting Black Swans.
Forests around Dryandra and the Stirling Ranges were very productive, with repeated views of Carnaby’s (Short-billed) Black-Cockatoos, the aptly named Splendid Fairy-Wren, the western form of Crested Shriketit (surely an excellent candidate for species status) and Rufous Treecreeper. The gorgeous coastline near Cheyne’s Beach was our backdrop for several days, where we had especially good views of Western Whipbird (as well as the other two skulky heathland endemics; the Noisy Scrubbird and Western Bristlebird) and several beautiful Southern Emu-wrens.
Southwest Australia coastline
Our second week covered the red center of the country around Alice Springs, the tropical north of the 'Top End' around Darwin, and two days around the outpost town of Kununurra, near the east end of the Kimberley Mountains. Around Alice Springs we found some confiding Spinifex Pigeons, marveled at the shiny purple nape patch of Western Bowerbird and were lucky to find a nesting pair of the generally scarce Black-breasted Buzzards.
Western Bowerbird - Photo: Ade Buckel
The humid and comparatively lush lands surrounding Darwin seemed stuffed with new birds at every turn. Hulking Blue-winged Kookaburras and a very cooperative pair of Rufous Owls were especially nice.
Kununurra has the feel of a real outback town, with isolated and very beautiful grottos, and almost comically swollen Baobab Trees dotting the savannahs. Although it was very dry this year, we still found 10 of 11 species of finches possible in the area (including the beautiful Gouldian and scarce Yellow-rumped Mannikin), and the day trip out to Lake Argyle was superb with dozens of Yellow Chats, flocks of Magpie Geese, and tame Short-eared Rock Wallabys. We wrapped up the 17 day itinerary back in Darwin, with an amazing 323 bird species seen!
Northern Territory Baobab
Short-eared Rock Wallaby
Rich Hoyer on his recently completed tour to Bolivia
The Chaco region was as interesting as ever, this year providing abundant Black-legged Seriemas as well as Crested Hornero, Many-colored Chaco-Finch, Chaco Earthcreeper, Lark-liked Brushrunners and many other regional specialties. A Crested Gallito that perched up for photos was perhaps the star of this part of the trip.
Our time in the enchanting valley of Refugio Los Volcanes was superb despite the persistent winds – Bolivian Recurvebill, Bolivian Tapaculo, Slaty Gnateater, and this most confiding of Subtropical Pygmy-Owls.
Refugio Los Volcanes scene
We had the good fortune of seeing a flock of Red-fronted Macaws fly right over us in our first afternoon in the Comarapa area, followed the next day by Bolivian Earthcreeper and Bolivian Blackbird. Productive birding up in the Siberia included seeing Trilling and Diademed Tapaculos but most amazing was a Hooded Mountain-Toucan in a small patch of cloud forest where we did not expect one, let alone to have one perch up so nicely.
On our way to Cochabamba we had the delightful conundrum of deciding whether to look at the two Andean Condors soaring at eye-level only a couple hundred yards away or at the stunning male Red-tailed Comet perched just 15 yards away. Fortunately both remained visible for several minutes and we got fabulous views.
Our final days in the Cochabamba area were also delightful, and a five-canastero day up at Cerro Tunari, along with Short-tailed Finch and several other high-elevation specialties was especially fun.
It was wonderful to be in bird-filled Bolivia again, and I look forward to returning as soon as I can fit it into my schedule – look for a repeat of this itinerary in 2017, with perhaps an extension to some additional far-flung corner.
Mercado San Antonio
Picnic lunchs were brilliant thanks to Benita
Jon Dunn on his just-concluded tour of Southern California
Our southern California tour experienced warmer temperatures than normal, especially at the Salton Sea where it approached 110 degrees but we did find nearly all of the mainly resident chaparral (or coastal sage) and oak woodland species, most of which are largely endemic to California. These include California Quail, Allen’s Hummingbird (including adult males), Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, California Gnatcatcher, California Thrasher, California Towhee, and Lawrence’s Goldfinch (some 25 birds noted at Green Valley Campground in the Cuyamaca Mountains).
Other highlights included all of the rocky shorebird species, numerous Yellow-footed Gulls at the south end of the Salton Sea and Le Conte’s Thrasher, numerous Bell’s Sparrows (canescens subspecies), and two Long-eared Owls in the Mojave Desert.
Le Conte's Thrasher
There were as always a few rarities: Lesser Black-backed Gull and a Painted Bunting (juvenile) at the Salton Sea, a Virginia’s Warbler in Orange County, two American Redstarts (Orange County and Galileo Hill), and an immature female Broad-billed Hummingbird at Chiraco Summit in the Colorado Desert.
Perhaps our best day was the trip to Santa Cruz Island where we had great studies of the endemic Island Scrub-Jay and prolonged views of an Island Fox, but the big surprise came just before we arrived when a full adult Red-billed Tropicbird flushed in front of the boat. Fortunately it landed again and everyone on the boat, even the mostly non-birders, had fabulous views. Although this species is regular far offshore in late summer and early fall, it was unusual to see one in the Santa Barbara Channel only 3.5 miles off Scorpion Cove, Santa Cruz Island.
Gavin Bieber on his recently concluded tour to the Pribilof Islands, Alaska
These beautiful islands, so verdant in the fall, showed off to great effect this year, with many a picturesque rainbow, and a really rich green color pallet.
Although we were were largely under the influence of North and Northeast winds with frequent (and unseasonable) rain we were happy to see numbers of beautiful Sharp-tailed Sandpipers daily, with at least three Wood Sandpipers and a truly rare Solitary Sandpiper providing an excellent supporting cast.
Handsome juvenile Sharp-tailed Sanpipers
A Pribilofs rarity - Solitary Sandpiper
The cliffs were quiet compared to the full swing of summer, but provided good opportunities for Tufted (and Horned) Puffin photograph, and with a bit of luck, even a chance at Northern Fulmars in flight. The cute and globally very rare Red-legged Kittiwakes were still present in numbers, often with their rangier Black-legged cousins along for comparison.
The elegant Tufted Puffin
A Bering Sea specialty, Red-legged Kittiwakes
Although we failed to locate any asian passerines this trip - the winds were from exactly the wrong direction for much of our stay - a first for the Pribilof Islands (301st species here!) in the form of a Purple Finch provided some consolation, and the numbers of mainland North American migrants were impressive.
A Pribilofs first - Purple Finch
Any trip to the Pribs in fall also features mammalian subjects, and the hundreds of thousands of Northern Fur Seal pups playing in the shallow waters of sheltered bays never fails to impress. Can’t wait to see what next years trip brings in!
Young Northern Fur Seals at play
Gavin Bieber from his recently completed tour, Alaska: Fall Migration at Gambell
Our fall tour to Gambell, with a one-day extension to Nome, just wrapped up and was as always unpredictable (and exciting). The day in Nome included a suprising female Spectacled Eider and extremely photogenic family of Red Foxes, along with throngs of staging Whimbrel and Cackling Geese, and an active Arctic Loon.
A surprise female Spectacled Eider in Nome
A beguiling Red Fox
Once on Saint Lawrence Island we (especially those who had visited the town in spring) marveled at the lush vegetation in the boneyards. Trans-Beringian migrants such as Red-throated Pipit, Arctic Warbler, and Bluethroat abounded in the patches of Arctic Wormwood.
The very lush "Boneyards..."
...in which we found Arctic Warblers
A still downy young Snowy Owl was found along the side of the mountain, and the seawatches allowed us to watch thousands of passing alcids and Short-tailed Shearwaters, often at ridiculously close range.
A very young Snowy Owl
Seawatching from the northwest tip of St Lawrence Island
The fall tour often highlights Asian passerines, perhaps more likely here than anywhere else in the accessible United States. This year we found Common Rosefinch, Siberian Chiffchaff, and Little Bunting, as well as the locally breeding White Wagtails.
...and Little Bunting
With the generally calm and often even warm(ish) conditions it was even possible to see clear across the Bering strait to the Russian mountains of the Chukotka Peninsula!
(Thanks to Gil Ewing for the images of the Siberian Chiffchaff and Little Bunting.)
Jake Mohmann on his just-completed tour to Arizona and Utah
Another journey through the vast and mind-bending reaches of the "Canyonland" has ended and we are catching up on sleep after all the beautiful birds and stunning scenery. Highlights were many, but sunrise at the Grand Canyon got the most votes for ‘site of the trip’.
A Grand Sunrise is usually the highlight of the tour
While crossing the Kaibab Plateau we also encountered the bird(s) of the trip. Suddenly we spotted a couple of very large birds perched by the road sitting next to "tiny" ravens. A group of California Condors was inspecting a recently dead animal waiting for the right moment to head to the ground and gorge themselves. With only around 425 of these majestic birds left in the world we felt fortunate to be in their presence.
A curious sub-adult California Condor posed for close inspection
Southwestern Utah and the Navajo Reservation both provided spectacular scenery and interesting birds like American Dipper, Northern Goshawk, and eventually good views of MacGillivray’s Warbler. Still one would be forgiven for remembering most clearly the fabulous Monument Valley.
Monument Valley mittens at sunset.
Non-avian sightings are sometimes as if not more exciting than birds, especially when we're close to such beasts as the range restricted Kaibab Squirrel and this ‘Desert’ Bighorn Sheep.
Desert Bighorn Sheep
The White Mountains of central Arizona were cool, calm, and relaxing. This peaceful setting was punctuated this year with lots of woodpeckers including great looks at two different American Three-toeds and a showy pink Lewis’s perched in the early morning sun.
American Three-toed Woodpecker
Everyone agreed that the combination of bountiful birds and amazing scenery made the tour something very special.
Happy leader and group
Rich Hoyer and Fabrice Schmitt on their just-concluded tour to Brazil: Marvelous Mato Grosso.
Harpy Eagle!! Run to the boat!! No need for long explanations, and the group vanished from the dining room and their cabins to gather at Cristallino’s Jungle Lodge floating deck, jumping into Sebastião’s boat. In minutes all were watching the massive Harpy Eagle perched in a tree just over a mile downriver from the lodge. This was perhaps the most exciting and unforgettable moment of our just-concluded tour to Mato Grosso – one of the “Big Three” top predators we saw.
Cristalino lunchtime surprise, a Harpy Eagle
The sight of an adult Yellow Anaconda, crossing the road in front of our bus and welcoming us into the Pantanal was a great moment of excitement too, as one must be very lucky to cross paths with that rarely seen and beautiful snake.
But the peak of adrenaline may have been reached during one of our boat rides in the Pantanal, when we suddenly encountered a superb Jaguar on the bank of the Cuiaba River, the first of three jaguar sightings (two different individuals) all on the same day!
A Pantanal Jaguar
This complex tour cannot not be merely summarized by just these three encounters. We traveled through completely different ecosystems – the Cerrado, the Amazonian Rainforest and the Pantanal, discovering over 500 of birds species (Hyacinth Macaw, Bare-eyed Antbird, Snow-capped Manakin, Amazonian Umbrellabird, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Bare-necked Fruitcrow, Crested Owl, and Musician Wren were among those elected by the group as favorite birds of the trip).
Sartorial Hyacinth Macaws
American Pygmy Kingfisher
But a huge part of the experience was also due to the amazing butterflies, moths, mammals (Giant and Neotropical River Otter, White-nosed Saki, Brazilian Porcupine, White-lipped Peccaries, and Southern Two-toed Sloth), reptiles, spectacular fishes, and even tailless-whipscorpions! It was a fantastic trip through the impressive Brazilian diversity.
Starry Night Cracker - a luminous butterfly
A beach party of Capybaras watching offshore mammals.
Jon Dunn on the conclusion of his tour, Maryland and West Virginia: Birding the Civil War
Our tour this year encountered plenty of wet weather, but much of it fell in the evening, so apart from a crimp in our night birding, we were blessed with good weather on the battlefields during the day and for the most part while birding.
Our historical days were spent at Gettysburg, Antietam, Harpers Ferry and environs, and for an hour at Droop Mountain south of Hillsboro, West Virginia. We spent our first full day at Gettysburg, the site of the deadliest of all battles of the American Civil War. We covered the entire battlefield and attended well-delivered hour long Ranger talks that covered the events of each day. Much of the second day we were at Antietam, the site of the deadliest single day of the Civil War. Lee was very fortunate to avoid the destruction of his Army of Northern Virginia here, a failure as much due to McClellan’s dithering as to Lee’s skill. Our visit of the battlefield basically went from north to south, much as the action had ranged on 17 September 1862. The next morning we birded around Harpers Ferry and spent a few hours in the old historical district. Here at Harpers Ferry John Brown holed up in the Armory for several days in October of 1859. Col. Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Federal troops, eventually stormed the structure and captured him. He was hanged just a few weeks later. Here too, just prior to the battle of Anteitam, Stonewall Jackson shelled the federal garrison from the heights above, eventually resulting in the surrender of 12,500 troops, the largest single surrender of U.S. troops until Bataan in early 1942.
After leaving Harpers Ferry and heading west, most of our time was spent birding. Of course, even on the battlefields we had our binoculars and the birding at all four sites visited was good. At Gettysburg we noted Red-headed Woodpecker at Culps Hill and nearby compared Turkey and Black Vultures at Little Round Top, at Antietam we compared Field and Vesper Sparrows, and near Harpers Ferry we had a lovely singing adult male Blue Grosbeak (scarce in West Virginia) along with a scarce (for eastern West Virginia) pair of Bobolinks and a family group of Grasshopper Sparrows. Matt Orsie’s careful scouting just in advance of our tour greatly helped in finding a number of the scarcer and local species during the tour including 28 species of wood warblers, missing only (of the breeders) Nashville which is a very rare and local breeder in West Virginia. These included Blue-winged and the much scarcer Golden-winged, Mourning, Swainson’s and Cerulean. Other highlights included side-by-side Willow and Alder Flycatchers, Olive-sided Flycatcher (a rare apparent southernmost breeding outpost at Cranberry Glades), Henslow’s Sparrow, and Red Crossbill and Purple Finch. The butterflies were excellent too and we tallied some two dozen species including Pink-edged Sulphur and the beautiful Baltimore Checkerspot and Diana Fritillary.
Monument to Robert E Lee at Seminary Ridge, Gettysburg
The famed Cyclorama, the painting that captures Robert E Lee's high water mark on day 3 (Pickett's Charge)of the Gettyburg Battle.
A male Diana Fritillary