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From the Home/From the Field

February 6:

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

In just six days we traversed 1,030 miles of cactus-studded landscapes tallying an amazing 157 species of birds. At the beginning of the tour the city of Chicago’s wind chill was -53°F, so we were all thrilled about daytime highs reaching 75° with nothing but sunshine predicted all week long. It was really hard to beat our first day’s excursion to one of the most famous birding areas in southeast Arizona. In the tree-studded Madera Canyon birds were gathering at some of the ripe hackberries. We sat in amazement as a White-throated Thrush, Arizona’s long-staying first state record, lit in one of the trees and gorged on fruit.

 

Arizona’s first state record White-throated Thrush photographed well by all

It was hard to pull ourselves away from all the excitement but we caught rumor a male Elegant Trogon was being seen upcanyon and coming in to a reliable food source. It wasn’t hard to spot all the birders lined up along the road revealing the correct place to look. As luck would have it he flew in for an extended photo session plucking berries in a flurry. It’s worth mentioning that across the street from this scene a Red-naped Sapsucker distracted us while digging wells, but more surprising was the male Painted Redstart that joined in checking the sticky traps.

 

Crowds amass for a male Elegant Trogon

 

Male Elegant Trogon is always a highlight of the tour

Later this same day the group was treated to a once in a lifetime opportunity when we watched a pair of Great Horned Owls emerge early and do their best making more owls. Just after copulating a family of Harris’s Hawks weren’t impressed and decided to attack the owls, forcing them to the ground with dust flying and talons entwined. This raptor wrestle match only ended when the outnumbered owls ducked into someone’s front porch and crawled in between the flower pots.

 

A Great Horned Owl, pre tussle

The Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count tallies the highest number of wintering Vermilion Flycatchers in the country, of which we saw several. There is nothing like seeing these birds sit atop a perch and turn anything into a flaming candle.

 

A male Vermilion Flycatcher lights up a fence post

We visited many canyons throughout the week including Box, Carr, and perhaps the most scenic of all Cave Creek Canyon. The Cave Creek Ranch feeders were ripe with birds this year with barely any room at the feeders for the excess. Blue-throated Hummingbirds drank from feeders, Golden-crowned and ‘Red’ Fox sparrow fed in the dirt, and an optimistic Sharp-shinned Hawk eventually flew in to steal the show. The only sound left was the cascading sound of the Canyon Wren’s song echoing off the rock walls nearby.

 

Our group excited to explore scenic Cave Creek Canyon

 

Birds scatter when a Sharp-shinned Hawk arrives

 

We watched as the Canyon Wren belted out its unforgettable song

In some years eastern warblers are encountered and this year was no exception. The best views one could ask of a wintering Louisiana Waterthrush along the San Pedro River was a highlight for many on the tour, including those whose nemesis bird this was from the east coast.

 

This Louisiana Waterthrush was a lifer for most

No tour would be complete without a stroll around the famed Sweetwater Wetlands. This complex is perfectly placed along the Santa Cruz River and attracts lots of birds including some of the rarer marsh species. It didn’t take long for us to find a perfectly still American Bittern blending in perfectly with the vertical dead reeds. Even more of a surprise was the Least Bittern that MaryAnn somehow spotted near the top of the vegetation secretly surveying the scene.

 

 A tiny Least Bittern crept into view for 5 minutes

January 16:

Steve Howell on his just-completed tour, Mexico: San Blas

Steve Howell reports from the conclusion of another wonderful week in San Blas where the birds kept them busy, but in a relaxed way based at a very comfortable hotel with excellent food and hospitality, plus warm and sunny weather all week. Ahh, Mexico…


The first morning, this pair of Lineated Woodpeckers posed on a pole right outside our hotel!


Followed within a block by this stunning male Streak-backed Oriole.


The next morning this tiny female Golden-crowned Emerald sat on her nest right beside a dirt road.


Always popular, Northern Potoos showed exceptionally well on our nocturnal boat ride.


Collared Forest-Falcon usually shows itself somewhere during the week, this time on the last morning—but what a view!


Among many other highlights, these diminutive Mexican Parrotlets posed for photos, but all too soon the week was gone.

January 14:

Rich Hoyer on his recently completed tour, Brazil: The Southeast Atlantic Rainforest

So many endemic birds – either stunningly beautiful or with fascinating and evocative vocalizations – made our tour of the Atlantic rainforests of Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo states memorable and fun. Ridiculously colorful tanagers and sparkling hummingbirds vied for our attention, skulking antbirds and gnateaters teased us, and feeders made for some easy birding. The sounds of several Bare-throated Bellbirds echoing across the hillsides with Hooded Berryeater and White-browed Warbler ringing through the forest provided for a sensation that isn’t repeated anywhere else in South America. We tallied an impressive 350 species of birds seen and another 20 heard, as well as many interesting plants, insects, reptiles, and other critters. Such a big list means we also worked on teasing out the many obscure tyrannulets, and SE Brazil is full of them. A Pavonine Cuckoo at arm’s length on our next-to-last day was voted tour favorite, fantastic to watch it utter its soft song of six whistled notes. Other species getting top votes included a pair of giant Robust Woodpeckers, an exciting flock of Scarlet Ibises, very attractive Bay-chested Warbling-Finches, and a ridiculously cooperative Red-and-white Crake.

At our first birding area north of Rio de Janeiro we snagged the very local Three-toed Jacamar and Gray-winged Cotinga with a great deal of luck, despite fog and a sudden shower. The weather was unusually cool, so insect activity was rather subdued, but we did marvel at the beauty of this cicada, Carineta diardi.

 

At our birding stop at REGUA, a Chestnut-backed Antshrike pair was feeding a recent fledgling at the close-focus limit of our binoculars.

 

A day and a half of rain at Itatiaia National Park “forced” us to spend more time watching the feeders on the hotel balcony where Green-headed Tanager showed off its colors.

Red-breasted Toucan also appeared a few times to sample the fruit put out by the restaurant workers.

 

The coastal lowlands and foothills of São Paulo were very productive, with antbirds, gnateaters, and many hummingbirds. On one birdy morning walk we took advantage of a break in the bird activity to admire this gorgeous orchid, Gongora bufonia.

 

We finished the tour at the amazing Intervales State Park, and our local guide Renato was a fantastic help with his super sharp ear and local knowledge of recent sightings. This Common Potoo was on a roost it had been using for a few days.

 

We visited a double lek of Dusky-throated Hermits and Purple-crowned Plovercrests (below), both of which cooperated nicely for us.

 

A feeding station hidden on a narrow forest trail hosted an acclimated family of the rarely seen Spot-winged Wood-Quail, and we had superb looks at these elusive birds.

December 19:

Gavin Bieber on his recently concluded tour, Panama: Darién Lowlands

The vast and sparsely populated Darien Province in the far east of the country contains some of the most remote and wild lowland and montane wilderness remaining in Central America.  Our base for the week was the newly constructed and very comfortable Canopy Camp


The Canopy Camp commons area

We spent several days exploring the camp trails and various spots along the end of the Pan-American highway, where patches of forest and more open fields revealed widespread birds such as King Vulture, and more localized ones such as the impressive Barred Puffbird, the attractive Spot-breasted Woodpecker and the globally scarce Black Oropendola. 


A splendid King Vulture


Barred Puffbird


Spot-breasted Woodpecker


A range-restricted Black Oropendola

A few stray non-birds crossed our path too, such as this placid Craugastor sp. Frog and an impressively large tarantula. 


An imperturbable frog>


A glossily handsome and large tarantula

Taking dugout canoes out into Embera territory past the end of the road allowed us to visit a known nest site of the incomparable Harpy Eagle, surely the highlight species of the trip for most. 


A magnificent Harpy

Over the course of the week we encountered 262 species of birds including 16 species of antbirds, an impressive 14 species of herons and 34 species of everyone’s favorite bird family; the new world flycatchers!  These areas in the Darien are little explored and I am sure that the creation of a comfortable lodge here will produce a lot of new discoveries.  I very much look forward to returning next fall!

December 16:

Steve Howell on his recently completed tour, Mexico: The Yucatan and Cozumel

It was another wonderful Mexico tour to The Yucatan and Cozumel, and a week of hot sunny weather filled with birds, great food, and friendly people.

We saw basically all of the regional endemics, including the very local Yucatan Wren...

 

And the dazzling Cozumel Emerald, endemic to the island of the same name.

 

Birding on a quiet road along a green tunnel through the forest...

 

We found the enigmatic Gray-throated Chat, formerly a warbler, now treated as a Cardinalid ‘grosbeak’!

 

As well as the handsome Gray-headed Tanager (still a tanager!)

 

A sun-drenched Turquoise-browed Motmot outshone the ruins at Chichen Itza,

 

And we even ended the trip with a real rarity, a Pine Warbler on Cozumel!

December 14:

Gavin Bieber on his recently completed tour, Panama: Bocas del Toro and the Western Highlands

It’s testament to the diversity of habitats and birds that exist in this relatively small geographic area that over the course of eight birding days we detected 330 species between the Caribbean lowlands and Pacific-slope Highlands.  We started out in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, where the semi-aquatic town of Bocas served as our access point to the idyllic Tranquillo Bay Ecolodge. 

Traveling largely by boat (we ventured out to other islands and the adjacent forested lowlands where we were introduced to a wealth of birds and other animals (like this handsome Strawberry Dart Frog) amid the picturesque archipelago and humid Caribbean foothills. 

Perhaps the highlight birds of the first few days this year were the ethereal Red-billed Tropicbirds that we witnessed doing display flights at a small offshore colony. 

The second half of the trip visited the cool and heavily forested highlands around the impressive 11,400 foot Baru Volcano where new birds like Resplendent Quetzal, Volcano Hummingbird and the impressive Violet Sabrewing awaited. 

Our last day was down in the pacific lowlands where we eventually caught a return flight to Panama City from the town of David, but not before finding a flock of Fiery-billed Aracaris!

I very much look forward to returning to this dynamic and bird-rich region.

December 12:

Gavin Bieber on his recently completed tour, Panama: Fall at the Canopy Tower

Our fall 2018 trip was packed with birds and several charismatic mammals. On our first afternoon we spotted a distant male Blue Cotinga glowing from the canopy, later in the trip we had this handsome male much closer near the top of Cerro Azul.

Around the tower we located well over two hundred species of birds, including this sleeping Black-and-White Owl and this inquisitive White-whiskered Puffbird. 

Trips a bit further afield allowed us to really delve into flycatcher id, with Rusty-margined Flycatcher performing particularly well and to admire birds like these gaudy Collared Aracaris and an array of hummingbirds including the stunning Crowned Woodnymph. 

 

As is always the case in the mammal-rich canal area (where hunting is virtually non-existent) we found a nice array of mammals, including this posing Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth.

 

This tour continues to impress me, as the diversity and richness of the region, paired with ease of access and the comforts and uniqueness of the tower make for a truly wonderful experience.

November 28:

Luke Seitz on the second part of his and Fabrice Schmitt's tour, Chile: Tierra del Fuego to the Atacama desert

After adjusting to stable dry land once again, we continued our Chilean adventure by driving high into the Andes – quite a change of scenery from the Humboldt Current! Here, with beautiful snow-capped peaks towering above us and shrubby slopes extending below, we enjoyed the oversized feet of Moustached Turcas running around in plain view…


Moustached Turca, the real Big Foot

 …and higher up, a simply astonishing show with at least a dozen Andean Condors soaring at eye-level and perching on various hotel rooftops!


Part of our group being monitored by an Andean Condor

Our time in Central Chile was nearly over, but not without a search for the much-desired Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. The bogs in the Yeso Valley high above Santiago provide perfect habitat for this special shorebird, and it didn’t take us long to find an incubating male that we enjoyed at close range. Surely one of the highlight birds of the trip, with a spectacular backdrop to boot…


Diademed Sandpiper-Plover


Magnificent Andes scenery

A flight north over the Atacama Desert brought us to Arica, ready for a new suite of birds in very different habitat. The drive from Arica to Putre through dry, lifeless desert was interesting more for geology than birds, but perhaps most incredible was the speed at which our bus traveled uphill – I could have made it to Putre faster by handstand-walking with my eyes closed. Upon arrival, however, we settled in to a surprisingly comfy hotel surrounded by flocks of Mourning Sierra-Finches, skulky White-throated Earthcreepers and Canyon Canasteros, and stealthy Ornate Tinamous running through the nearby fields. The following days of high-elevation birding held a great number of highlights, including a trio of Puna Tinamou, over a dozen Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, great views of three species of flamingo (Andean, Chilean, and James’s), well-named Giant Coots, Andean Avocets…the list goes on and on.


Giant Coot

All too soon it was time to head back to the coast, but not without a final day of birding before the end of our tour. The critically endangered Chilean Woodstar was seen very well on our morning in the Camarones valley – who knows how much longer we’ll be able to find this species? We then visited the Lluta Estuary on our final afternoon, where we were treated to a breathtaking spectacle of 12,000+ Elegant Terns (a sizeable percentage of the world population!) and gobs of Gray Gulls, Franklin’s Gulls, and various migrant shorebirds. What a way to finish a great tour!


Gray Gull

November 26:

Jake Mohlmann on his recently completed tour, Northern Argentina: High Andes, the Chaco and Iguazú Falls

We recently completed another successful tour around Northern Argentina and ended up finding 462 species of birds as we travelled just over 2000 kilometers through the Yungas cloud forests, arid Altiplano, dry Chaco Woodlands, and wet lowland Rainforest. Birds, butterflies, and mammals abounded as we enjoyed near perfect weather with cool nights for sleeping and warm days for hiking.

 
Our group ready to tackle the Andes

It’s really no surprise why the Red-crested Cardinal, actually a tanager, graces the cover of Argentina’s most popular field guide. At Costanera Sur we all got great pictures as one sat and sang very close for several minutes as the light was slowly fading.

 
The striking Red-crested Cardinal

It's worth noting that we saw the entire family of Cariamidae, or the Seriemas. In the transition zone between the hot steamy Yungas forest and dense Chaco a group of four Red-legged Seriemas popped out of the trees right beside our van and we watched in amazement as they slowly stalked through the short grass looking for lizards. Nearby below the towering cliffs of scenic Juramento Canyon we ran into a Black-legged Seriema and watched as it repeatedly burst into treetop ‘song’ in territorial defense.

 
Red-legged Seriema searching for food

 
We got goose bumps hearing this Black-legged Seriema scream

Hummingbirds were one group that put on quite the show this year. An amazing 19 species were recorded including the small but bright Slender-tailed Woodstar, no less than five Giant Hummingbirds, and several gaudy male Red-tailed Comets. We even added the electric Blue-tufted Starthroat to the cumulative species list.


A brilliant male Slender-tailed Woodstar

We lucked into spotting a Black-and-chestnut Eagle nest high on a hillside and watched as the adult tended to the recently hatched young. Perhaps a young of last year from this very nest was the individual that kept us in awe as it soared overhead catching a thermal.

 
A Black-and-chestnut Eagle glides overhead.

As we gained elevation in the high Puna habitat we scoured several side canyons each with their own interesting species. A short stroll down a two-track on the Bishop’s Slope caused us to flush 30 Bare-eyed Ground-Doves that left in a flurry. Luckily one of them decided to check us out before leaving and posed on a rock wall long enough for all to see the vibrant orange facial skin of this Argentine endemic.

 
The endemic Bare-eyed Ground-Dove

At elevations exceeding 12,000 feet saline lakes harbored an abundance of birds that choose to breed in this remote location. Three species of Flamingos; Andean, Chilean, and James’s all fed shoulder to shoulder in the briny brew. Puna Teal, Puna Ibis, and Puna Plovers were only found here and a major highlight was a roadside Andean Avocet with drastically curved bill.

 
The amazing bill of an Andean Avocet.

Spending our last three days amidst the moist rainforests around Iguazu was a great way to end our trip. The flow rate of the Iguazu River was the highest I’ve seen and provided a dramatic setting as it poured over the hundreds of cascades. It always amazes me how the Great Dusky Swift manages to shoot in through the torrent and find their nest’s location every time.

 
Great Dusky Swifts cling to the rocks behind Iguazu Falls.

A slight change in itinerary this year gave us access to the hill-country east of the falls and ended up allowing us to add 10 new species to the cumulative list! Such delights here were Araucaria Tit-Spinetail, White Woodpecker, Planalto Tapaculo and surprisingly good looks at the secretive Riverside Warbler.

 
An unusually good look at a Riverside Warbler

November 16:

Gavin Bieber on his recently completed tour, Australia: Victoria and Tasmania

The first half of our tour involves taking a large loop around the state of Victoria (and a bit of New South Wales). For the inland portion of the tour we concentrated mainly on the giant mallee parks of Northwestern Victoria where we delightful and repeated views of Splendid and White-winged Fairywrens, as well as pairs of Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos prospecting for nesting sights, active Sand Goannas crossing the tracks in front of us, tame Emu and a few subtle but exquisitely colored Regent Parrots. 


Splendid Fairy-Wren   Image: Kent Andersen


White-winged Fairy-Wren


Major Mitchell Cockatoo


sanD Goanna    Image: Kent Andersen


Emu   Image: Kent Andersen


Regent Parrot   Image: Kent Andersen

On the arid Hay Plains of central New South Wales the historic drought was still in full swing.  Perhaps due to the incredibly dry conditions our hoped-for Plains-Wanderers had wandered off, but our time around Deniliquin was still well spent with an excellent sighting of Fat-tailed Dunnart and a very cooperative Inland Dotterel, as well as truly awesome desert sunsets. Before reaching the coastline we also spent a few days around Little Desert, where the beautiful Malleefowl performed well on its mound and a perky Scarlet Robin kept our cameras busy for quite some time.


Fat-tailed Dunnart


Inland Dotterel   Image: Kent Andersen


Inland sunset


Malleefowl


Scarlet Robin   Image: Kent Andersen

The second half of the tour concentrates on the remarkably scenic Victoria coastline, a wonderful mixture of weathered cliffs and sea stacks like the famous twelve apostles, white sand beaches like Killarney Beach, and around the city parks of Melbourne, repeatedly voted the most livable city in the world. 


Twelve Apostles


Killarney Beach

We began the tour around the city, with signature Australian birds like the gaudy and inquisitive Rainbow Lorikeet, and the tame Laughing Kookaburra.  As always, the varied mammals of the continent feature prominently, from the huge male Eastern Grey Kangaroo to camps of Grey-headed Flying Foxes along an urban creek. 


Rainbow Lorikeet


Laughing Kookaburra   Image: Kent Andersen


Eastern Grey Kangaroo   Image: Kent Andersen


Grey-headed Fying Fox   Image: Kent Andersen

Our final few days of the tour are spent in Tasmania, where we located all of the Tasmanian endemics, enjoyed intimate views of the critically endangered Swift Parrot, found our only Little Penguins of the trip and a nice array of waterbirds that included a vagrant Hudsonian Godwit, this handsome Black-faced Cormorant (our 5th species of Cormorant for the tour), the menacing Pacific Gull and this diurnally active and undeniably cute Echidna. 


Swift Parrot   Image: Kent Andersen


Black-faced Cormorant


Pacific Gull


Echidna   Image: Kent Andersen

We wrapped up the trip with an impressive 284 species of birds and 21 mammals, both records for the trip.  With the breadth of wildlife and scenery this tour never fails to deliver, and I very much look forward to returning to this corner of the country in 2020.

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