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From the Field

February 15:

Frank Nicoletti on his just completed tour, Minnesota in Winter

The expansive bog lands, boreal forests, and Lake Superior shorelines of Duluth, MN, and environs offer a uniquely accessible opportunity to see specialty birds of the northern climes in winter. Our group bundled up appropriately for the weather, and we enjoyed memorable encounters with many of the birds that make winter in the north so enticing to birders. Black-backed Woodpecker and Three-toed Woodpecker were found among the branches. We were able to study the plumages and calls of Pine Grosbeak and Evening Grosbeak while watching them through the spotting scope in their natural habitat; always a treat! The spectacle of Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls hunting voles was exciting and we spent quite a bit of time watching them hunt and eat. A Boreal Owl was found warming up in the sun, and a Snowy Owl spotted with a freshly caught muskrat. A few Sharp-tailed Grouse were spotted, too! In all, we encountered 45 species of birds and 6 species of mammals on our travels through Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin.


Our bundled group


Black-backed Woodpecker


American Three-toed Woodpecker


A Great Gray Owl hoping to catch a ride to Duluth


Even Boreal Owls will take advantage of the sun on cold winter days


Snowy Owl


Sharp-tailed Grouse

February 14:

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

Birding for ten days in Northern Peru during the rainy season was delightful – and it barely rained. Walking through tunnels of moss-, lichen-, fern-, and orchid-laden trees in a stunning landscape of forest-covered ridges elicited wonder during our birding outings even when we weren’t busy looking for one amazing bird after the next. We finally had a few hours of morning showers on our next-to-last day, but other than that we had to force ourselves to take time off from trail birding to sit and watch the hummingbird feeders. We saw and heard nearly 400 species of birds, over 11% of which were hummingbirds.


No one ever tired of seeing the delightful Booted Racket-tails.


Never a guarantee on the tour, the drop-dead gorgeous Royal Sunangel was surprisingly common at the Fundo Alto Nieva feeders this year.

Among the birds voted favorite were many wrens, and this is perhaps the best place to hear an amazing variety of some of the most beautiful songs in the family. Gray-breasted and Bar-winged Wood-Wrens, Chestnut-breasted, and Sharpe’s Wrens serenaded us nearly every day, while on our last morning a Scaly-breasted Wren topped the list. You can listen to the songs of Chestnut-breasted and Sharpe's Wrens here and here. and Also making the short list of favorites were a Fiery-throated Fruiteater on our last morning and a pair of rare (but increasing) Southern Lapwings, hidden in a flock of Comb Ducks and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks  on our very last birding stop.


Other birds voted favorites included this Spectacled Redstart which made the rounds by all our rooms at the Owlet Lodge every day, singing his accelerating song and fighting his reflection in our bedroom windows just inches away.


One of the most range-limited and charismatic birds of the tour is the Johnson's Tody-Tyrant, never failing to make it to the list of favorites.


Nightbirds seen during the day were especially memorable. A quick stop at a gas station in the middle of a small town resulted in the surprising discovery of a roost of Sand-colored Nighthawks a good half mile from the river islands where they would have been more expected.


A Long-tailed Potoo on a day roost was a great find by Hilder at the Koepcke’s Hermit feeding station. It has about four favorite roosts, but this morning he found it in a new place, surprisingly difficult to see.


On the night we finally connected with a Long-whiskered Owlet, we were surprised by this Common Potoo on a feeding perch right next to the trail – at the uppermost limit of its elevational range, having us wishfully thinking Andean Potoo at first.


The mammals, insects, and plants were also outstanding, an unexpected highlight for some. One request to see a Starry Night Cracker was fulfilled before lunch on our first day.

 
The most amazing butterfly, if not fanciest or the most colorful, was the enigmatic Styx infernalis, placed its very own tribe and very rarely seen, this one for the first time on any WINGS tour.


The moths at the Owlet Lodge got better each evening, the diversity of species, forms, and shapes mind-boggling, and some quite lovely. This Pityeja histrionaria caught everyone’s eye.

 
Other insects made the tour very memorable, such as the truly enormous elephant beetle Megasoma actaeon that flew into the lamps at one early morning breakfast and landed with a huge whack in the middle of the table.

 
This mossy stick insect exemplifies the amazing adaption so many insects have to the cool, mossy forests of the higher elevations.

 
We were incredibly lucky to stumble into a small troop of the highly endangered Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey on one afternoon hike, and we spent many minutes watching them eat leaves, fruits, and lap up copious amounts of nectar from a showy blooming tree with chalice-like flowers.


The orchids weren’t as abundant as in some years, perhaps because of the drier weather, but this Sobralia caloglossa hanging over the road (where we had just seen a pair of soaring Black-and-chestnut Eagles) was a show-stopper.

 
We kept adding very special birds up to the last minute. At Waqanki we saw the rare Sooty-headed Tyrannulet, followed by pair of this Mishana Tyrannulet right by the hummingbird feeders.

 
Finally, at our last stop, we paused on our way to the Tarapoto airport to admire this gorgeous Oriole Blackbird.

February 11:

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

We just finished a week of wet season birding on the Pacific slope of the Andes around Mindo. We didn’t have a lot of blue skies, but we did see a lot of blue birds… and yellow ones, and red ones, and green ones, and various combinations of those colors and more. We found nearly three hundred species including 35 species of hummingbirds and 33 species with “tanager” in their names. Pretty orchids, colorful lizards, and great big beetles all added to the good time.


The insanely proportioned Sword-billed Hummingbird was one of the regulars at the high elevation reserve of Yanacocha. It perches with its bill held vertical perhaps to avoid tipping over.


This rhinoceros beetle was bigger than many of the birds we saw.


With new highways, the old and disused mountain roads made getting into the thick forest hardly a problem.


We saw multiple multi-colored Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans in the expansive cloud forest reserves around Mindo.

February 6:

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


Our group at the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon

We just wrapped up another Winter Week in Arizona tour filled with beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife. This year 156 species of birds were encountered, as well as 10 mammal species. Every day of our tour explored a unique area of southeast Arizona, each worthy of day’s exploration. The Santa Cruz River Valley with its lush riparian zone and flowing surface water yielded Sage Thrasher, Mountain Bluebird, Red-naped Sapsuckers and perhaps most surprising of all a very rare Sinaloa Wren.


The graceful, lovely Mountain Bluebird

 
A Sinaloa Wren was the great surprise

The vast grasslands of Las Cienegas National Conservation area produced several highly sought after specialties such as Baird’s Sparrow, dozens of Chestnut-collared Longspurs and even a rare McCown’s Longspur.

 
The sought after Baird's Sparrow

Over 12,000 Sandhill Cranes were seen as they came in to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Management Area in waves. Several other species of interest were in the wetlands here including Swamp Sparrow, Marsh Wren, and an initially reluctant Virginia’s Rail. The bushy side roads of this region also hosted Sagebrush Sparrow for some, and the regional Bendire’s Thrasher for all. The Sulphur Springs Valley’s raptor show did not disappoint and we were excited to find both Ferruginous and Harris’s Hawks in close succession.


Thousands of Sandhill Cranes roost in the Sulphur Springs Valley

A curious Bendire's Thrasher perched up nicely

Portal is a must-see for anyone visiting this region of Arizona and can be quite productive any time of year. This year scope views of Crissal Thrasher and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay were relished. The hummingbird show was top notch and we got to enjoy both male and female Rivoli’s and Blue-throated Hummingbirds coming to feeders. Cassin’s Finches were present in higher numbers than usual. In the upper reaches of the Chiricahua Mountains we were successful in tracking down a few Mexican Chickadees, this being he only location to see them north of the Mexican border!


The tough Magnificent Hummingbird winters in small numbers at feeders in the the cold canyons

 
It was a good winter for Cassin's Finches, here with a Pine Siskin escort

January 30:

Susan Myers on her recently completed tour, Japan in Winter

We started off with a quick trip to a small park near Narita where we found a lovely gathering of the incomparable Mandarin Duck - a truly remarkable bird and a great way to kick off our birding. 

We then moved on to the forests of the Japan Alps where we took a brief break from our birding to visit the so-called 'Snow Monkeys,' aka Japanese Macaque, which love to take to the thermal hot springs of the Jigokudani area. Jigokudani translates to Hell Valley thanks to the many steaming volcanic vents dotted throughout the area.

Continuing our journey over the Alps to the Japan Sea we next visited the Katano area south of Kanazawa where our main target, the increasingly rare Baikal Teal loves to spend the winter. This area is particularly rich in avian life and we found many great birds including a fabulous Green Pheasant, Grey-headed Lapwings, Japanese Cormorant and many others. 


Green Pheasant


Grey-headed Lapwing

Flying south, we next spent a couple of days in the Arasaki/Izumi area to take in the amazing spectacle of over 14,000 cranes of four species, although the numbers are very much dominated by White-naped and Hooded Cranes. We picked out a single Sandhill and three Common Cranes from the many thousands of others, which was quite fun! We had a great day exploring the whole area with two particularly outstanding sightings, amongst many, being a collection of the very rare Black-faced Spoonbills and a small flock of the often elusive and cute Chinese Penduline-Tit.


White-naped Crane

 
Black-faced Spoonbill


Chinese Penduline Tit

Despite some inclement weather on the coast, our birding in Hokkaido was fun and productive - even if a little on the cold side. Spectacled Guillemots, with their startling red legs, showed well but the rough seas ruled out a photograph. However, the Big Three; Steller’s Sea-Eagle, Red-crowned Crane and Blakiston’s Fish Owl were, well, stellar! Without doubt the Northern Island is the highlight of this journey around Japan and not only did the birds not disappoint, but the scenery, food and friendly people made for some great memories.


The imposing Blakiston's Fish Owl - Image: Steve Hayashi


Red-crowned Crane


Hokkaido scene with Steller's Sea-Eagle...


...whose extraordinary character is more apparent on close view

January 21:

Steve Howell on his just-completed tour to San Blas on Mexico's west coast

Our tour to San Blas was wonderful; the birding was great, and the weather warm and sunny. As usual, this 'winter getaway' tour produced over 250 species in a relaxed week of birding based at a single hotel with amazing food and fabulous hospitality. The variety of habitats near town produced birds ranging from Boat-billed Heron to Rosy Thrush-Tanager, from Colima Pygmy-Owl to Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, and from Green Kingfisher to Citreoline Trogon. Plus delightful quiet backroads, empty beaches, a great group, and friendly people wherever we went. It couldn’t have been better.


Boat-billed Heron 


Rosy Thrush-Tanager


Colima Pygmy-Owl


Golden-cheeked Woodpecker


Green Kingfisher


Citreoline Trogon


Late afternoon birding on a San Blas beach

December 13:

Gavin Bieber on his recently completed tour, Panama: The Darien Lowlands.

The vast and sparsely populated Darien Province in the far eastern part of Panama 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 comfortable Canopy Camp.

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 Great Potoo, here on a roadside day roost,

and more localized ones such as the impressive Barred Puffbird, the beautiful Spot-breasted Woodpecker, and globally scarce Black Oropendola. 

Taking dugout canoes into Embera territory past the end of the road allowed us to find a cooperative pair of Dusky-backed Jacamar, another globally range-restricted species and a wealth of kingfishers including Amazon and American Pygmy. 

Over the course of the week we encountered 280 species of birds including 19 species of antbirds and 31 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 bring more ornithologists and birders to the region resulting in a lot of new discoveries.  I very much look forward to being a part of the discovery process. 

December 12:

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

It’s surely a testament to the diversity of habitats and of birds that exist in this relatively small area of Western Panama that over the course of eight birding days we detected 337 species including a whopping 31 species of hummingbird.  We began in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, where the semi-aquatic town of Bocas served as our access point to the idyllic Tranquilo Bay Ecolodge.

Traveling by small boat from Tranquilo Bay we ventured out to other islands and the adjacent forested lowlands where we found birds as varied as Golden-collared Manakin, Black-crowned Tityra (from Traquilo Bay's canopy tower) and the ethereal Red-billed Tropicbird. 

The second half of the trip visited the cool and heavily forested highlands around the impressive 11400 foot Baru Volcano  where new birds like Resplendent Quetzal and Violet Sabrewing awaited at every turn. 

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.

November 27:

Rich Hoyer on his recently-completed tour, Peru: Rainforest Lodges of the Madre de Dios

We had some marvelous experiences on our short tour visiting just two lodges in the rainforests of Peru's Madre de Dios department. At the wonderfully welcoming Los Amigos Biological Station, daily companions included a trio of Undulated Tinamous foraging on the open lawn, often right around our cabins. Nearby, sticking closer to the forest edge was an immature Rufescent Tiger-Heron as well, a very unusual occurrence in that habitat.

We rarely had to venture far from our rooms before stumbling into some really fun bird activity – either a mixed flock or a mob looking for an owl to harass, but some of our better finds were when things seemed very quiet at first – such as the covey of Starred Wood-Quail that nearly attacked us in response to an imitation whistle of a chick in distress. Or a nightjar flushed off the side of the trail, later determined to have been a rare Silky-tailed Nightjar. One of the favorite birds of the tour happened just like this when a lone Chestnut-capped Puffbird flew past the leader and landed just off the trail halfway past the group.

A totally different habitat was offered during our boat rides on the Madre de Dios and Tambopata rivers as we traveled to and from the lodges. One particularly memorable sighting was the sudden appearance of well over a hundred Sand-colored Nighthawks feeding over the river. On another day we had spectacular views of a pair of Horned Screamers very close on the shore.

We had two different boat rides on old oxbow lakes, both providing some of the most delightful and peaceful birding on the trip. A Sungrebe and multiple kingfishers were highlights at one, and a Western Striolated-Puffbird (the Obama-bird, we called it, as it was only recently described and named after him) was very cooperative on the other lake. At both, however, we were treated to many views of the most bizarre but beautiful Hoatzin.

We had one early morning at a parrot lick, and while macaws didn't visit this morning, we still saw several species of parrots at close range, including a noisy mob of Dusky-headed Parakeets.

At Explorer's Inn, we kept seeing new birds and wonderful mammals every time we wandered down the trails. On our very first outing, a ridiculously cooperative Black-faced Antbird found a low perch we could all see well and sang from it for at least 10 minutes.

On our last day we passed by a stretch of trail not far from our cabins for the umpteenth time, but we obviously still hadn't seen everything, as suddenly there was a pair of fabulous Pavonine Quetzals right over the trail that hadn't been there on any other pass. They stayed long enough for those who had hung back at the lodge to return and see them in their resplendent beauty.

November 27:

Rich Hoyer on his just-completed tour, Peru: Machu Picchu and the Manu-Kosñipata Road

Breathtaking views of Machu Picchu were just the beginning of this year’s highlights of the tour to the department of Cusco, Peru. We had a full morning’s tour at the ruins with a delightful local guide who didn’t mind our interruptions to see Inca Wren and scan the skies for swifts.

After our tour of the ruins, a walk along the Urubamba River resulted in many great birds, such as Andean Motmot, White-tipped Swift, and Collared Inca, with a pair of Torrent Ducks particularly memorable.

Then began our drive over the mountains and down the Kosñipata Valley, darting in and out of the boundary of Manu National Park – and thence began a daily barrage of lovely scenery and some truly memorable bird experiences. At Wayqecha Biological Station some new hummingbird feeders were already starting to attract customers, and the most common species was the exquisite Amethyst-throated Sunangel.

Mixed flocks at these higher elevations contained many colorful birds such as Golden-collared Tanager and the favorite Grass-green Tanager, which we each saw just once. But the equally stunning Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager was in nearly every flock, often posing for great views and photos.

At our mid-elevation stop, mentionable highlights were two Solitary Eagles – one flying by quickly over us and another soaring at length below – and the Buff-tailed Sicklebill that appeared at staked-out clump of pendant Heliconia flowers (something which you always try but rarely succeed at). A big surprise was a Rufous-breasted Antthrush that had been singing below the road behind a curtain of impenetrable foliage. But a lucky hole and a well-pitched whistle made it pop up where we could even put the spotting scope on it.

One of the main attractions at our mid-elevation lodge is the Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek, and we paid an early morning visit and experienced one of the world’s most amazing products of evolution.

Our stay at Villa Carmen was a treat with the very comfortable rooms and great food. Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing we witnessed there was the Pheasant Cuckoo that flew towards us over a hundred yards across the Piñi Piñi River at Los Amigos, landing in a bamboo thicket just a few yards away from our astonished faces. No one expected that to happen! We added a huge number of species from the garden, the main road, and the trails passing through bamboo and other types of forest. A quietly calling trogon with an odd voice teased us for several minutes before we discovered a motionless fledgling Blue-crowned Trogon just a few feet right over our heads.

The butterflies were out of this world, for example the Panacea prola (Red Flasher) that landed on most of the participants as we paused on one of the trails.

Another fun surprise find was a Black Hawk-Eagle on our last day as we began the drive back to Cusco. It was perched at eye-level just a few yards off the road, and it sat there rather indignantly as we tried to get perfect photos between the passings of noisy motorbikes and local taxis that drove between our parked bus and the bird.

It was a particularly fun group of participants, and our wonderful driver Eliazar did a great job of keeping the bus clean and working and us safe and on time.

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