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From the Home/From the Field

February 20:

Rich Hoyer on his recently completed tour, Mexico: Oaxaca at Christmastime

This year’s Oaxaca at Christmastime tour was delightful. One day of blustery winds didn’t deter us from having great views of one of our main targets, the handsome Dwarf Jay. But then the rest of the tour had picture-perfect weather, and even in the Valle Nacional cloud forest, skies were so clear we saw Pico de Orizaba’s 18,491 foot peak from 113 miles away. We tallied a respectable 280 species, 17 of which were heard only, and there were some wonderful highlights. The bird with the most favorite votes was the Sumichrast’s Wren, and this was only the second time this tour has seen this rare, restricted, and elusive endemic. But a surprise Russet-crowned Motmot on our last morning was nearly as popular, as this gorgeous bird has the charisma thing down pat. Fulvous Owl cooperated nicely for those who came along for the picnic dinner at La Cumbre, while the pine-oak forests there were also fantastic for huge numbers of Gray Silky-flycatchers and a Gray-breasted Wood-Wren that hopped out in the open with no playback necessary. Our side trip to Tuxtepec added a huge number of species, and favorites from there included a very confiding Barred Antshrike at our breakfast spot in the foothills, a pair of stunning Crimson-collared Tanagers on the limestone forest trail, and a boldly perched Laughing Falcon that called as we watched it on our afternoon outing to the reservoir. In addition to the birds we saw several interesting lizards and plants, including some lovely orchids, and we were able to take in several ruins, visit markets, and enjoy a wonderful variety of delicious local foods in the ambience of a culture that really knows how to celebrate.


One of the most unusual cultural events we witnessed was the Noche de Rábanos, or the Night of the Radishes, a contest for the most artistic creation made solely from radishes, some of them fanciful and amazingly creative. Image: Rich Hoyer


From our five mornings of birding based out of Oaxaca City, this handsome Russet-crowned Motmot received the most votes for favorite bird; this was only the second time in 16 years that we’ve seen this species. Image: Rich Hoyer


But a close second would have been this Fulvous Owl, a species unknown this side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec until just 9 years ago. Image: Benny Baeton

Another highlight in the higher, drier parts of Oaxaca was an Ocellated Thrasher that perched up close and sang at length. Image: Benny Baeton


In the verdant cloud forests on the way to Tuxtepec we lucked into a pair of White-naped Brushfinches by the roadside. Image: Benny Baeton


Another roadside bird spotted by our driver Rafael was this Laughing Falcon, waiting for a hapless snake to pass by. Image: Rich Hoyer


But the most exciting bird of the tour, was this Sumichrast's Wren, one of the most range-restricted species endemic to Mexico. Image: Benny Baeton

February 18:

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

We're just back in Quito from a wonderful trip to the Mindo area of northwest Ecuador. We spent the week taking day trips from our forest lodge to the various elevations of cloud forest and totaled nearly 300 bird species (including 35 species of hummingbirds). The highlights were many, but here are a few that photographed well...

Moss-backed Tanager is a very local specialty of northwest Ecuador. We saw a few while birding the roadside in the Mashpi Conservation Area, then we saw a few more eating bananas at the Amagusa Reserve. A few of them were quite close!

A few Rose-faced Parrots were flying around us one day, and one confidingly perched in a tree right above our heads.

No visit to the Mindo area is complete with a visit to Reserva Paz de las Aves. This tiny Ochre-breasted Antpitta, nick-named "Shakira", was one of four species of antpitta we saw there that day.


The spectacular Proboscis Anole is only known from the Mindo valley and was a real treat on the grounds of our hotel.

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

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