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From the Field

March 20:

Gavin Bieber reports from our Panama in Spring tour

Our visit to the justifiably famous Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge was a few weeks earlier than usual this year. This made for a different array of migrant bird species than we usually see, with a passage of American Swallow-tailed Kites being (over 50 in one group!) being especially well received. It is always a pleasure to return to these fantastic and unique lodges, surrounded by an excellent mix of habitats and a great diversity of birds. The local birds put on their customary show, with a wide array of species being selected at our final dinner as “Bird of the Trip”. Some of my favorite sightings included:

the very cooperative Cinnamon Woodpecker from atop the tower,

dazzlingly bright Shining Honeycreepers at Cerro Azul,

a close female Blue Cotinga in Gamboa,

Blue-throated Toucanets and

Orange-bellied Trogons at Altos del Maria on the extension.

We even had excellent views of Panamanian Night Monkeys along the tower road. In all we tallied 360 species of birds, along with 19 mammals including a day-active Northern Tamandua and two Rothschild’s Porcupines!  This tour continues to impress me, as the diversity and richness of the region, paired with ease of access and the comforts of the lodge make for a truly wonderful experience.

March 10:

Rich Hoyer on his recently completed tour, Peru: The Cloud Forests of the Rio Mayo and Abra Patricia

Our tour to northern Peru’s cloud forests of Abra Patricia and the Alto Mayo Valley was full of exciting and beautiful birds. We saw over 350 species in nine days, many of them with exceedingly small world ranges and drenched with colors. It helped that there are now eight hummingbird feeding stations on our route, and we tallied at least 45 species of these jewels, including such scarce and little known species as Koepcke’s Hermit, Blue-fronted Lancebill, Greenish Puffleg, and Rufous-vented Whitetip. One of our main targets was the unbelievable (even when you actually see it) Marvelous Spatuletail, which was already at the feeders when we walked up to them.

 

 The big bully and most abundant hummingbird at a couple of the stations, including at our lodging at Abra Patricia, was the nonetheless stunningly attractive Chestnut-breasted Coronet.

 One of the feeding stations also has a brilliantly engineered blind with a hopper that delivers grain, and we were the lucky group one day to witness the arrival of a covey of Rufous-breasted Wood-Quail.

 One of the most attractive birds with a limited range in Peru is the Yellow-scarfed Tanager, never a guarantee, and we were lucky to have a few on one day, including one on our hotel grounds.

 

 The much more widespread and common Paradise Tanager never ceases to attract attention.

 

 We heard a couple Golden-headed Quetzals before one came into view for a most memorable encounter.

 P

 Even drab birds were part of the tour’s experience, such as a Sulphur-bellied Tyrant-Manakin on a nest, perhaps still undescribed.

 

 The odd Oilbird is always a highlight of this tour, given that we view them from a small bridge on the main highway, perhaps the most accessible breeding colony in the world.

 We were awash with blooming orchids, many of them fragrant, and the huge, recently described Phragmipedium kovachii was simply spectacular, described as the most important orchid discovery in the past 100 years.

 The lights at the owlet lodge drew our attention every evening and early morning with a bewildering diversity of moths, beetles, and other invertebrates; this Rothschildia aricia silk moth was by far the most spectacular.

March 8:

Jon Feenstra on his recently concluded tour, Ecuador: The Amazon Lowlands

We’re back from a week in the Ecuadorian Amazon based at Sani Lodge. That was a week of no cars or roads or city noise or really anything but the big woods and great wildlife. We saw a fine selection of classical rainforest species like White-throated Toucan, Scarlet Macaw, Dot-backed Antbird, and even both Crested and Harpy Eagles!

The group returns to the boat after a few hours of birding one of the Rio Napo Islands. Such species as Olive-spotted Hummingbird, White-bellied Spinetail, and River Tyrannulet occur on these islands, but no where on the shore!

A Scarlet Macaw comes down for a drink at a “parrot lick”, a water hole site where various parrot species get minerals to neutralize the acids and toxins of their fruit and seed diet.

The group takes a paddle down one of the forest streams near the lodge. Birding from the water is really the best way to see some of those tricky forest birds.

A Yellow-crowned Elaenia is a scarce and obscure little flycatcher living in flooded forest.

Less scarce, but perhaps equally obscure, at least taxonomically, is Hoatzin. Watching these bizarre birds is like winding back the clock to the time of the dinosaurs.

March 4:

Fabrice Schmitt and Steve Howell on the second part of their just-concluded round Cape Horn sea and land cruise, Valparaiso to Buenos Aires

All in all this was a remarkable trip. Where else can you bird comfortably from an open deck in 40-knots winds! The primary focus of this trip is, of course, the true seabirds, and this year we found a record 36 species of tubenoses and 4 penguins.

 

As we headed into the South Atlantic, seabirds changed subtly from those in the Pacific, first with Great Shearwaters, and later with numbers of the handsome Yellow-nosed Albatross, here an adult.

 

Many Manx Shearwaters were fattening up ready for their spring migration, often in feeding groups alongside Magellanic Penguins!

 

Our last day at sea produced a new species for the tour—the poorly known Cape Verde Shearwater, which winters mainly off Brazil but sometimes reaches northern Argentina.

 

Landings along this section of our route included the Falkland Islands,

 

Where we had excellent views of migrant White-rumped Sandpipers on the beach (foreground, along with some larger species in the background...).

 

A more conventional picture of the ever-popular King Penguin, commuting from the colony.

 

As well as great birds we encountered a good selection of marine mammals, including some very acrobatic Peale’s Dolphins.

 

This image epitomizes well the seabird diversity on our cruise—can you identify the eight tubenose species present? A Southern Royal Albatross is holding its own against Salvin’s, Buller’s, and Black-browed Albatrosses, with a Pink-footed Shearwater coming in from the left, a Fuegian [Wilson’s] Storm-Petrel behind, and a wave-obscured Sooty Shearwater and a Stejneger’s Petrel off to the right!

And just to prove it wasn’t all shades of gray seabirds, here’s a trio of Chilean Flamingos we found at a windswept Patagonian lake.

March 1:

Fabrice Schmitt and Steve Howell from their ongoing cruise, Valparaiso to Buenos Aires

The primary focus of this trip is, of course, the true seabirds, and our first day out from Valparaiso produced great looks at Stejneger’s Petrel (here), along with Juan Fernandez and De Filippi’s Petrels, plus a surprise Cook’s Petrel.

 

Even more surprising that day were White-faced Storm-Petrel (here) and White-bellied Storm-Petrel, both somewhat south of their usual (or at least known) ranges.

 

The commonest albatross, which we’ve seen every day at sea, is the beautiful Black-browed, here an immature (top left) and an adult.

 

We’ve also seen good numbers of the ‘great albatrosses,’ such as this Southern Royal...

And this confiding Snowy Wandering Albatross.

 

One afternoon we saw numbers of the recently described and enigmatic Pincoya Storm-Petrel

 

Stops on shore have produced birds ranging from rheas to tapaculos, plus the subject of our attention here in Patagonia...

...this adult and spangle-backed juvenile Magellanic Plover, along with an Austral Negrito (a tiny terrestrial tyrant-flycatcher).

 

In Tierra del Fuego we enjoyed a sunny picnic lunch overlooking the Beagle Channel...

Followed by walk-away views of the stunning Magellanic Woodpecker, here a male. 

 

Viewing conditions have been generally excellent (from a stable and comfortable cruise ship!), with the worst weather being as we rounded Cape Horn Island, where of course we saw the famous albatross monument. And now into the Atlantic...  

 

February 25:

Jake Mohlmann on his and Evan Obercian's just-completed tour, Texas: The Rio Grande Valley

We just wrapped up an exciting week in south Texas encountering 196 species of birds while covering over 1,147 miles of pavement, dirt, rivers, lakes, and border wall. At the east end of the lower valley, South Padre Island sits as a barrier between the ocean and mainland. Whimbrels, Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Curlews, and Willets all foraged while Reddish Egrets, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons all stood in wait.

Our group excited to see what South Padre Island has in store.

Further up valley several famous birding destinations were explored including Santa Ana and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuges, and both Estero Llano Grande and Bentsen State Parks. Here we were met by a bevy of Lower Rio Grande specialties including raucous Plain Chachalacas, vibrant Green Jays, and hooting White-tipped Doves. At Estero we managed to eventually find a very rare and exciting bird when we received word it was being seen at the moment we arrived. A male Rose-throated Becard flew in above our heads and sallied for insects as we stood in awe watching this vagrant in the morning mist. While leaving this park one day a keen-eyed observer spotted a Green Kingfisher sitting above its swampy domain staring intently for unsuspecting fish. This was one of three species of kingfisher seen well this week.

A Green Kingfisher sits silently over a forested stream.

The western edge of the valley turns into the eastern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert with species reminiscent of areas further afield like intricately patterned Cactus Wrens, active Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, and speedy Greater Roadrunners. Standing on the banks of the mighty Rio Bravo here is always exciting. A seemingly endless supply of birds fly up and down the river including some early Red-billed Pigeons seen two days. Osprey, Gray Hawk, and Zone-tailed Hawks all flew by overhead and smaller denizens like miniscule White-collared Seedeater, bold Verdins, and tail-bobbing Black Phoebes worked the edges. A certain feeder setup here won for best of the trip as we watched several Altamira Orioles sharing their space with at least 3 Audubon’s Orioles, all coming in to orange slices.

Audubon’s Orioles were seen extremely well.

Standing in the Rio Grande on rocks is a great way to see raptors.

Our extension to Corpus Christi was a huge success. Our boat trip through Aransas National Wildlife Refuge produced at least 14 endangered Whooping Cranes, some extremely close. These colossal predators spend the winter here devouring as many blue crabs as they can before heading to the far north to breed.

A Blue Crab hangs on for dear life as a Whooping Crane meets its match.

Nearby a rare-for-Texas Broad-billed Hummingbird was a complete surprise as we watched it coming repeatedly to a stake-out feeder. This immature male was stunningly beautiful and voted best bird for some of the participants. A bit further inland the group had the good fortune of coming across our fourth owl species of the trip when a Barred Owl was spotted in a huge oak tree. Much to our surprise there were 2 of these hooting wonders and we got to experience them duet in the last rays of sunshine for the day. What a trip!

A Barred Owl sits motionless awaiting nightfall.

February 25:

Jon Feenstra on his just-completed tour, Ecuador: The East Slope of the Andes

We just got back from the Amazon slope of the Andes in northern Ecuador east of Quito. This was a pretty short tour, five nights and six days, but we covered nearly 10,000 feet of elevation change between the high paramo above the town of Papallacta all the way down to the foothill rainforest on the south slope of the Sumaco volcano. 

On one rainy day at Wildsumaco lodge we spent much of the day watching hummingbirds from the back porch. We ended up with 22 species of hummer that day including this flashy Gould’s Jewelfront. 

 

This atlas moth outside of Cabanas San Isidro was one of the non-bird highlights of the trip. It was also a highlight for a Green Jay that found it shortly after sunrise. 

While watching a raging mountain stream from a suspension bridge, a male Torrent Duck navigated the frothy waters right below us. 

It took us two tries to find Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe in the high paramo (above 14000 feet el. Finally after an hour of hiking around our driver found it right by the parking lot where we started!

February 16:

Frank Nicoletti on his recently-completed tour, Minnesota in Winter.

The expansive bog lands, boreal forests, and Lake Superior shorelines of Duluth, MN and environs offer an opportunity to see specialty birds of the northern climes in winter.  Rather than undergoing predictable migrations, these northern species are erratic, wandering the expanse of the boreal forest and settling where food is most abundant or, in some years, not moving at all.  The cyclical crops of spruce and fir cones and the fluctuating populations of voles, for example, determine to a large extent the numbers or even the presence of winter finches and northern owls. 

Even in a year that could be said to be “off” for some of these northern nomads, we nevertheless had memorable encounters with many of the birds that make winter in the north so enticing to birders: Black-backed Woodpecker, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, Bohemian Waxwing, Great Gray, Snowy and Northern Hawk Owl, and Spruce and Sharp-tailed Grouse, just to name a few.

Our January travels through northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin could only be called balmy with temperatures often in the mid 30’s and once reaching 40 degrees!


Great Gray Owl - image: Duane Morse


Gray Jay - image: Duane Morse


Ruffed grouse - image: Duane Morse


Spruce Grouse - image: Duane Morse

February 12:

Jon Feenstra on his just- completed tour, Ecuador: Mindo and the Northwest Andes

We just got back into civilization after a week of birding the Mindo area of northwest Ecuador. We sampled a variety of forest habitats from elfin woodland below treeline to lowland rainforest, but mostly stayed within the pleasant, always birdy, and almost uncharacteristically sunny cloud forest. We ended up with 299 total bird species including 37 species of hummingbird. 

 

A pair of Giant Antpittas at Reserva Paz de las Aves. The ingenuity and hard work of Angel Paz, the Andean farmer turned antpitta savant, allowed us to see four species of antpitta that day (as well as other shy forest birds like Dark-backed Wood-Qual and Rufous-breasted Antthrush). 

 

An Orange-breasted Fruiteater eyes us from the canopy. This scarce and local bird is almost common at Reserva Amagusa in the super humid, moss-caked cloud forest near the town of La Delicia.

 

Toucan Barbet, one of the local specialties of the Choco cloud forest. We had decent looks at this bizarre thing on four separate days of the tour. Always a crowd-pleaser.

 

A big spiky caterpillar that is much bigger than George Washington’s head. Maybe it was some kind of lost sea-creature, but we carefully moved this thing off the floor and back into the forest.

 

The group watches some tanagers in the driveway of our lodge. We had more than 80 bird species our first morning just around our lodge outside of Mindo.

Beryl-spangled Tanager was probably the most common bird that morning.

February 9:

Jake Mohlmann on his just-completed tour, Arizona: A Winter Week in the Southeast

Another wonderful week in the desert southwest as our Winter Week tour comes to a close. Just over 1,000 miles of wonderful scenery were traversed and just under 140 species of birds were seen. Our home base at Casa de San Pedro provided an extremely comfortable spot for us to return to daily, and look forward even more to the divine breakfasts awaiting us in the mornings.


Our group high above Cave Creek Canyon.

The Patagonia Lake area was hopping with birdlife and we were met by Swamp and Lincoln’s Sparrows, Bewick’s and rare Winter Wrens, and empidonax flycatchers such as Hammond’s and Gray Flycatchers. Our patience was awarded when we all watched a Virginia Rail creep out from the brush along the lakeshore and award us with amazing views of this normally shy denizen.

 
A normally shy Virginia Rail out and about.

The Huachuca Mountains provided a perfect backdrop for daily sunsets and the canyons here produced two avian highlights of the tour. On a short walk up Hunter Canyon my owl imitations invoked a spontaneous response from the bird itself when a “Mountain” Pygmy Owl was eventually tracked down. In a large oak tree this tiny bird hunter broadcasted its presence to us for at least 15 minutes as we watched, and took pictures, through the scope. In the nearby Carr Canyon we were about to come around a bend when a male Montezuma Quail was spotted sitting right in the middle of the road. Our group watched as at least 4 vehicles nearly hit this stunning bird but eventually it worked its way off the road. We cautiously went over to get a closer look, were stumped not to see it anywhere, and were shocked when at least 7 of these burst right out of the grass at our feet nearly giving us all heart attacks.


Monotonous tooting alerted us to this tiny Northern Pygmy Owl.

The Sulphur Springs Valley was ripe with avian highlights including residents like Bendire’s Thrasher perched next to the van and wintering rarities like Eurasian Wigeon in Willcox. A stately Ferruginous Hawk vied for our attention as we enjoyed one of several Greater Roadrunners seen on the tour. The showstopper in this area continues to be the Sandhill Crane show however. We stood in awe as wave after wave of these gray monstrosities came pouring into the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Management Area. Seeing a sea of thousands of these birds is something one never forgets.

 
A rare resident Bendire’s Thrasher posing just outside the window.

 
Thousands of Sandhill Cranes poured in as we ate our picnic lunch.

In the famed Chiricahua Mountains we spent a day exploring Cave Creek Canyon with its pockmarked sheer pink walls and abundance of birds. In the flats a Streak-backed Oriole won as rarest bird seen on the trip, and close by a pair of Crissal Thrashers sat up for scope views.

 
The only known Streak-backed Oriole north of Mexico seen well in Portal.

Our week was filled with perfect weather unabated by any snow or rain. We were overjoyed to soak in the daily sunshine, lots of lifebirds, and endless scenery this tour has to offer. What a week!

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