Sunday, August 20, 2017

A birdy wedding

Dear readers,

Apologies for the radio silence, but it has been a busy couple months.

June was mostly consumed by a wedding (featuring myself as the groom and Natalia as the bride) and associated family travel in Colombia. And then much of July was spent in Mexico, my first trip south of that ever increasingly controversial border.

More on Mexican pajaros will come later. For now, at the risk of coming off as vain, I want to take some blog space to cover a rare example of a birder wedding. Not only was this a wedding between two birders, but also everything was bird themed.

origami bird backdrop to the wedding

Bird cake.

Cake toppers; Jabiru and Maguari Stork

Birds in the bride’s hair.

Bird on the groom’s lapel.

looks like a N. Cardinal!

Being an outdoor wedding, birds were invited, though naturally only synanthropic species were able to attend, such as Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Saffron Finch, Tropical Kingbird, Ruddy Ground-Dove, etc.

Each table had a bird mascot, and thus all guests were required to do some bird identification to match their name cards with the table sign-posts.

the coveted Blue Jay table

Identify the bird or you don't get to eat dinner

But let's get to some live action birds before everybody gets confused about what kind of blog this is.

Post-wedding we took my visiting immediate family (parents, two brothers, their wives, 3 nieces and two nephews (ages 10 months through 11 years) on a two-week tour of Colombia. We split our time between the coffee-growing region and the Caribbean coast. Both these regions are known for their birdwatching potential (indeed there isn’t really a place in Colombia without tons of bird diversity), but given the range of interests and abilities among our party of 13, bird sightings were mostly incidental to more family-friendly activities.

Nevertheless, when in the tropics even with minimal effort, some astonishing bird things just always seem to happen. Before we even left Cali, we made sure to hit up Finca Alejandria, where birding is made completely effortless thanks to the 30 hummingbird feeders and trays of bananas.

Long-tailed Sylph, Finca Alejandria at km 18

Golden Tanager looking for some bananas

Banana feeders are great because they attract a wide range of frugivores. Here's a Red-headed Barbet chowing down.
We made two trips to Alejandria. Once for a pre-wedding photo-shoot and then again a couple days later with the fam. Both times the highly-desired Multicolored Tanager (Endangered and endemic to Colombia) put in an appearance.

Multicolored Tanager

Multicolored Tanager

After the end of the official festivities, we travelled by bus to coffee-growing region north of Cali. From a vacation farmstead near Armenia we made forays to various local attractions including: Parque el Café (kind of a coffee-themed version of a Busch Gardens amusement park); Panaca (a farm-animal themed park, which unlike Parque del Café, has stuck a bit more to its core theme and not built tons of roller coasters and other conventional crowd-pleasers); Salento and the scenic Cocora Valley; and birdiest of all, the Quindio Botanic Garden.

Southern Lapwing in a pasture in the Cocora Valley
Natalia has a way of attracting news cameras and as soon as we arrived at the botanic garden, the film crew that just so happened to be shooting a piece on bird watching, immediately wanted to interview the both of us with our binoculars and cameras in hand. Within the hour we were on national news talking about the value of the site for conservation and its attractiveness for birdwatchers.

Shall we review?

The place has a bunch of hummingbird and tanager feeders (check and check).

Messy looking adolescent male Flame-rumped Tanager transitioning into adult plumage, Jardin Botanico de Quindio

It’s also got a canopy tower, a rare commodity in Colombia.

The birdwatching feature that impressed me most was the forest bird blind. Instead of the usual small open windows to peer through, the entire wildlife-facing front was a giant panel of polarized glass. This allowed birdlife (and mammal life, there was an agouti present) to approach well within excellent bare-eye viewing range without being startled. It also could accommodate large groups without people obstructing each other’s views.  I had never seen a blind like this before. With feeding stations bringing in a steady parade of birds and with the darkness of the fully enclosed shelter and the largeness of the polarized viewing pane, it felt like sitting in some kind of live-action wildlife movie theatre.

As evidence of the effectiveness of the polarized glass at the Jardin Botanico de Quindio blind, I present this Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, a normally skittish bird that sat out in the open a few meters from a less than silent group of 25 or so casual observers. This photo taken through the glass turned out pretty well too.

The one disadvantage of this site is that it is a relatively small fragment of forest, isolated from protected areas in a sea of degraded agricultural and pastureland. It lacks the hyper diversity and specialty species would make it a worthwhile stop for high-level birders. For the Neotropical novice, however, it is not to be missed.

The last leg of the family tour was spent along the Caribbean Coast, most notably, at Tayrona National Park, home of the Lance-tailed Manakin and Cotton-top Tamarin, among other creatures.

The critically endangered Cotton top Tamarin. endemic to northern Colombia. These guys are not difficult to see in Tayrona NP.

Tayrona brought back some fond memories from my first trip to Colombia back in 2010.

Crested Caracara with prey on the beach at Tayrona National Park

After the obligatory stop through Cartagena we newly-weds skedaddled off to Mexico City. What kinds of fascinating birds would Mexico bring for us? Stay tuned to find out.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Spring Migration in Switzerland (and Sicily)

Central Europe may not be everybody's idea of the place to spend spring migration, but since it's our home, for now, Natalia and I made sure to get out to spot some migrants and returning breeders when weather and schedules cooperated.

Around Zurich most of the best birding spots are associated with small lakes and their fringing wetlands and forest patches. Two typical examples are Flachsee and Klingnauer Stausee, both easily reachable in roughly an hour by public transport.

This wasn't my first Wryneck, but the first to let me take it's picture. At Flachsee

Song Thrushes are back singing away. Flachsee

White Storks are common, even in relatively urban areas. This one at Flachsee wasn't shy at all.
Another local birding option is Greifensee, which Natalia and I can bike to in a little over an hour.

The most interesting Greifensee bird so far has been a pair of Eurasian Hobbies. eBird threw up a flag on this one, so I guess they're relatively uncommon on migration. We watched them hawk dragonflies, showing off their orange underpants each time they ate one on the wing

A lot of the migrant diversity in Europe comes in the form of the Little Brown Job. Old world warblers can be just as fidgety and skulky as new world warblers, but lack the flashy looks and useful field marks. I'm starting to get the hang of their songs, but the super common (and therefore boring) Blackcaps sing variably and use mimicry (the bastards).

Eurasian Reed-warblers can be heard singing from nearly any bit of reeds in Switzerland and an extensive patch like this one at Flachsee will host several. These are not to be confused with the nearly identical Marsh Warbler, which is mostly identified by voice and habitat.
Savi's Warbler acts like a reed warbler, but is in a different genus and thankfully sings differently, giving this odd insect-like-trill. There were several of these at Klingnauer Stausee back in April.
These warblers are tough to photograph, but you're not missing out on much anyway.  Trust me.

I've managed to spot: Sedge, Marsh, Great Reed, Chiffchaff, Willow, Wood, Western Bonelli's and Whitethroat. Garden and Grasshopper have eluded me so far.

Combing the reeds for skulking warblers sometime turns up other interesting skulking birds, like this Spotted Crake at Klingnauer Stausee
 In reality Zurich isn't the best area to catch migrants (you may notice that most of the species above are local breeders rather than migrants). With a new Swiss birding friend, Benedikt, as our guide, we ventured out to the other side of Bern to the 'best' migrant trap, a place well-named in my German-illiterate brain: 'The Funnel.' The fields and lakes in this areas sandwiched between the Alps and Jura mountains seem to attract a lot of migrants and the most dedicated of Swiss vagrant hunters as well.

Our 'best' bird here was a Red-throated Pipit. We also spotted a Little Owl using a nest box, a rare breeder in Switzerland.

The Swiss provide government housing for needy people and birds alike. This Eurasian Kestrel welfare queen lives in 'The Funnel'
But our favorite Swiss birding area and the one that produced the most interesting birds for us this spring was in Ticino. Lying on southern slope of the Alps, this area concentrates refueling migrants before they make transit through an Alpine pass. As a bonus the Ticinans speak Italian and the food is great.
We had a banner day for Red-footed Falcons, with 15 roosting together and then this lone female sitting in a field. Bolle di Magadino
Squacco Heron is a nice bird to find in migration in Switzerland, especially when it's hanging out with a breeding plumage Spotted Redshank and some Common Greenshanks
 One of the benefits of having four scopes and five birders is that there's always a pair of eyes not peering down into a tube.  While we were scoping the Squacco, Natalia spotted a female Little Crake lurking along the boardwalk behind our blind.  She managed to get our attention just in time for it to hop up onto the boardwalk and scurry across into the reeds!

The crake was only bested by our birder friend Tim's spotting of an odd wagtail flocking with a field full of standard Whites following a plow.

The wagtail turned out to be a Pied Wagtail, also known as 'British White Wagtail' following the serial split/lump saga that characterizes the White Wagtail superspecies. The Swiss bird police want documentation for this subspecies and this composite is the image I sent in with my report. Hope it gets accepted!
 We also did some birding down in Sicily this spring while visiting a Sicilian friend of Natalia's.  This Italian island (note: not a part of Switzerland) is famous for its raptor migration, but the winds were wrong, so we opted to spend our limited time searching for mountain and wetland birds.

We dipped on the 'Sicilian' Rock Partridge, allegedly an endemic subspecies, but this Subalpine Warbler consoled us with a territorial show. Sicily

After a lot of misses in Switzerland, we finally saw our first Corn Bunting (and what a drab brown beauty it was). Sicily
Even by land-locked country standards, Switzerland is remarkably depauperate in shorebird habitat. Yeah, you can find some Common Sandpipers and Little Ringed Plovers gleaning the gravel bars along rivers and Eurasian Whimbrels are conspicuous enough in the bare farm fields, but there just aren't any mud or sand flats to serve up that buffet of abundant and diverse waders that a coastal birder craves.

The Vendicari wetland in Sicily more than made up for all the shorebird-less Swiss birding days.

Always nice to spend some quality time with Little Stints. These probably occur regularly as vagrants in North Carolina, but they are just so damn tricky to separate from American peeps...

In short order we had amassed a list of 15 shorebird species, besting our total for all of Switzerland, at one site in just a couple hours. Even Natalia, a self-proclaimed shorebird skeptic, admitted that birding Vendicari was a special experience.

Can you find the Wood Sandpiper lurking among the female Ruffs ('Reeves')? (hint: it looks super scared that you'll notice it)

Natalia and I are off to the 'New World' for a couple months.When we return to Europe in August we will find plenty of low-hanging lifers to find out there in Switzerland and beyond.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Birding Iguazu Falls and Misiones

Unlike Asuncion, you, dear reader, are reasonably likely to wind up one day in Argentina’s northernmost province of Misiones. Puerto Iguazu is the jumping off point for the National Park that offers spectacular views of the world’s greatest waterfall and it's also the richest birding region of Argentina.

I know we're here for birds, but some quick thoughts on the waterfall are in order. In reality, Iguazu is a sprawling complex of more than 100 individual cascades. Extensive networks of boardwalks on both Argentinian and Brazilian sides give visitors terrifyingly close views of so many gushing torrents. So much water vapor hangs in the air that every view is inevitably embellished by a perfect rainbow adding to the overall sense of magic to the place.

It's hard to do this place justice with photos, but here's a small part of Iguazu Falls
The magic is somewhat dampened by the crush of crowds. We happened to visit during an Argentinian holiday, so families with noisy and unruly children were especially dense. We were able to circumvent the worst of the frustrations by queuing up at the entrance prior to opening.  And despite the throngs, the park was actually rather birdy.

Eared Pygmy-Tyrant, Iguazu Falls

Plush-crested Jays are trash birds at Iguazu. Literally. They stand on the railings hoping the tourists will feed them trash.

One bird highlight are the Great Dusky Swifts which are endemic to the area.

Great Dusky Swifts nest at Garganta del Diablo (the Devil's Throat), the most intense part of the falls, accessible from the Argentinian side via a long elevated boardwalk. Obsessive birders justify visiting the waterfall by the opportunity to tick this unremarkable birder's bird.

But for some more serious birding we knew we would have to get off the beaten track a bit. After suffering with no guide in Bolivia and an inept guide in Paraguay, we were keen to make the most of our time in the Atlantic Forest of Misiones and coughed up some serious cash for a 5-day tour with Ornithologist and renowned bird guide, Guy Cox.

Our 5-day route with Guy Cox, starting in Puerto Iguazu (A), birding the Iguazu National Park (B), camping at Parque Provincial Urugua'i (C), a cushy stay at Reserva Karadya (D), then backtracking north to lovely Surucua Lodge (E), then a long haul south to Guy's place in San Pedro (F) for birding in Parque Provincial Araucaria just behind his house and nearby Cruce Caballero (G). After we left Guy we stayed a night at the inferior San Sebastian across the road from Karadya (D) before crossing into Brazil back at Puerto Iguazu (A). 

Guy, his doggie, us and his unreliable van

A quick aside about the Argentinian economy: the nation is still suffering (or at least was in July 2016) from the latest in what seems to be a never-ending series of economic/financial crises. I had always heard about how these tend to make things cheap for anybody possessing a much-coveted stable foreign currency, but the situation appeared to be the opposite, with everybody charging based on what they anticipate to be the diminished value of the peso 3 months down the road. Basically most things cost about the same as the would in North Carolina, except that the largest denomination note, the 100 peso bill, is worth about $7. So one must carry around absurd wads of cash. 21st century hyperinflation!

After getting a handle on the actual cost of Argentinian goods and services, we realized Guy wasn’t completely ripping us off (as I had wondered when he first sent the quote). And for birds, he’s certainly the real deal. Guy has decades of experience with ornithological work in Peru and Bolivia, rubbing elbows with the late great Ted Parker. He’s somebody whose identifications can been trusted.

We asked Guy for the cheapest tour possible, which meant we cut quite a few corners in terms of food and accommodation. We signed up to stay one night camping and one night sleeping on the floor of Guy’s house.  The two other nights were spent at rather luxurious eco-lodges, so the contrasts were rather stark. Guy’s strengths certainly lie with birds and not hospitality, so I’d certainly recommend you weigh your wallet and options carefully before making the arrangement we did.

Before the tour began, we visited the Jardin de los Picaflores—a can’t miss, for the birder or photographer. 

Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, the coolest and rarest of the eight regular hummers present at Jardin de Los Picaflores in winter

Guy picked us up at our aptly named ‘Swift Hotel’ in his boxy green van to bird along the old Iguazu park entrance road. This is ideal for birding as the road gets little traffic and offers great views of the forest edge and canopy. But just an hour into our tour the wheels literally fell off the wagon. While navigating a three-point-turn, Guy announced a problem and jumped out to investigate. His gentle English lilt didn’t break, but when he sputtered his third consecutive “Oh dear…” we knew there was a serious problem.

Guy's van, even while at peak performance isn't exactly a dream boat. The inside reeks of diesel and burnt oil and the cacophony from the motor make conversations difficult, which is a shame because Guy's an interesting guy to talk to.  He told us he's looking to unload this box and get a new bird-mobile (we wish him luck with that!!)

So we left Guy to sort out his broken axel strut and continued birding along the road on foot. Thankfully it was pretty birdy, so we didn’t have to roll our eyes at each other to entertain ourselves. Incredibly, Guy managed to get a taxi into town for the replacement part, make it back to the vehicle and get it mended in about 3 hours, so we were back on track without too much of a loss. Give him some credit for resourcefulness.

This Rusty-breasted Nunlet tried to keep us entertained by sitting completely still (as nun/puff-things are want to do)

This Streaked Xenops was a bit livelier, giving us some nest excavation action. 

With the van mended, we headed for Urugua'i, an important area for some targets that like  dense bamboo thickets. This site has some sort of weird microclimate going which reminded us that we were no longer properly in the tropics. It was cold and foggy, so terrible conditions for photos, but the birds were interesting. We had a Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper working a concrete edge just by the highway overpass and saw Rufous Gnateater along the trail loop.

We weren’t well-prepared for camping in near-freezing conditions and so had a rough night huddled together under filthy blankets in the back of Guy’s van (he stayed in a tent). This was after an uninspired dinner of canned sardines. Guy’s a far better birder than he is a chef. Thankfully Natalia had anticipated this problem and bought some crackers and soup earlier (she hates canned fish).

In the morning we were treated to some sunshine and a beautiful pair of Blond-crested Woodpeckers made a happy interruption to our breakfast. After birding the trails at Urugua'i and getting some targets, like the Blackish-blue Seedeater and White-eyed Foliage-Gleaner (both regional endemics and bamboo specialists) we continued onward.

At Bio Reserva Karadya the manager and resident birder, Julian, rolled out the red carpet for us. He served us a delicious lunch and then showed us to our tower room, which has a roof deck serving as a canopy tower.  The moment we arrived, a mixed species flock happened to be working the area.

The VIP canopy tower penthouse at Karadya. Highly recommended.
Instead of American Robins there are Rufous-bellied Thrushes in Misiones.
We didn't score a ton of specialist/target birds at Karadya for whatever reason, but the food was so good we didn't care. This Variable Antshrike put in a special effort to make us happy and that can go a long way.

It turns out Julian is an ornithologist himself, and in between serving up insanely delicious meals would lead us to spots for tricky target species, like Planalto Tapaculo or White-shouldered Fire-eye. While we ate he would tell us about the Harpy Eagle nest he used to monitor—the last known breeding record for Argentina. Sadly the nesting site has since been abandoned.  He also showed us a frozen carcass of a Violacious Quail-Dove, which crashed into one of the lodge’s windows. Once accepted by the authorities it will be Argentina’s first official record of the species.

Argentina's first record of Violacious Quail-Dove. More proof that inanimate objects are better field biologists that people.

We would have gladly stayed several days with Julian, but we had other sites to see, so no time to delay.  Luckily we found our top target in the gardens behind the lodge at the last minute: a flock of Saffron Toucanets.

This Saffron Toucanet showed up with a flock in the gardens at Karadya, the only ones we saw on the tour.

Our next stop was the Surucua Lodge, named for the Surucua Trogon.  

On the road to Surucua there were some fruiting trees loaded with Toco Toucans (at least 20), so we stopped for the obligatory picture of this common but iconic bird.

The male Surucua Trogon for which Surucua Lodge is named.

Female Surucua. Trogons are just as easy to photograph in Argentina as they are in the rest of the Americas.

This lodge is gorgeous and boasts an extensive network of trails through pristine forest abutting the Iguazu River as the trogon flies, not too far upstream from Iguazu Falls. The food was exquisite, rivaling that of Karadya and the couple who own/manage the place bent over backwards to make sure our every need was met. Laura did the cooking and Adrian came out with us birding. It always helps to have a local birder on hand to help with targeting and we knocked off many of the species that had eluded us in previous days.

Bertoni's Antbirds never stop moving, so it took a good bit of effort to catch one in frame without stick-face

This Gray-hooded Flycatcher decided to come sit on a branch within 5 meters of us, so I was able to catch a decent shot despite the poor light.

Band-tailed Manakin is arguably one of Misiones' prettiest birds. Thankfully, they're fairly common.

A puddle next to the Surucua Lodge has an attendant Rufescent Tiger-Heron (juvie)

Large-headed Flatbill... maybe it's the angle of the photo, but the head didn't seem to be especially large. One of those names an uninspired  taxonomist with calipers came up with.

Best of all was the Spot-billed Toucanet, which I finally managed to spot in the canopy after we had been frantically trying to locate an unseen calling bird overhead.

Spot-billed Toucanet way up in the canopy at Surucua

Surucua Lodge was another spot where we would have been glad to linger for several days, but on we went to Guy’s House in the ramshackle town of San Pedro. The trash-strewn dirt street haunted by stray dogs gives the area a bit of an un-enticing appearance. The aesthetic of Guy’s house matches that of the surrounding town. As he attempted to make order of the chaos inside and meet the demands of his wife and two children he advised us to find something to cook ourselves for dinner. His guest quarters are a mattress on the floor with dirty blankets and he struggled to find us towels so we could shower.

I’ve certainly done my time living in squalor and wouldn’t begrudge Guy for helping us save money by letting us stay at his place, but the conditions were a bit of a shock following on the heels of the pampering we had received at Karadya and Surucua.

The reward for enduring a stay at Guy’s place is that his backyard is, literally the entrance to Parque Provincial Araucaria, one of the few remnant patches of Dr. Suess-like Araucaria trees. Long favored by loggers for their tall, straight and branchless trunks, these trees have been all but driven to extinction (97% loss). A few obligate bird species cling to existence in the remnants, such as the Vinaceous-breasted Parrot, an endangered bird that exists almost exclusively behind Guy’s house.

Araucaria angustifolia or 'Candalabra Pine,' a critically endangered tree
The park behind Guy’s house also contains a few rare patches of cane, where, if you can dodge the truant children, loose dogs and mentally ill bums, you might be able to glimpse the Canebrake Groundcreeper. After some persistence and playback we were able to get decent looks at one.

The only place we had Red-breasted Toucan, the last toucan we needed in Argentina, was in Guy's yard.
Red-breasted Toucan were flocking to the planted fruit trees near Guy's house

San Pedro is just down the road from another important remnant of Araucaria trees at Parque Provincial Cruce Caballero. We birded here on our final morning with Guy and were disappointed to find the trails dead silent.  Where were all the birds?  Of course when we returned to the parking lot, the activity was manic, proving one of Natalia's favorite birding axioms: the best birds are always in the parking lot to reward the lazy.

Our third Rusty-breasted Nunlet of the trip.  We couldn't seem to avoid these things.

Here we had the most special of specialists, the Araucaria Tit-Spinetail.

Araucaria Tit-Spinetail is completely dependent on the critically endangered Candalabra Pine, and yet the bird is only listed as Near-threatened... c;mon IUCN; what the hell.

We also scored a pair of Pavonine Cuckoo thanks to Guy's keen ear.

Singing Pavonine Cuckoo through the tangle

After one more swing through the Araucaria our tour with Guy ended, inconveniently enough with us stranded in San Pedro. Guy was nice enough to give us a small refund for the delay on the first morning, which ended up being just enough to buy us a taxi ride part way back north toward Puerto Iguazu. We had an extra day to bird, so we stopped at San Sebastian de la Selva, the across the street competition to Karadya. 

The food at San Sebastian has nothing on Karadya or Surucua, but bird-wise it filled some important niches that the other sites had left empty. The layout is totally different than other places we had visited, with the gardens surrounding the cabins and lodge mostly open with a network of ponds of various sizes teaming with Capybara. Rounding a bend you would hear a terrifying splash only to realize it was just one of the gigantic pig-rats plunging into a pond.  

Anyway, the water and surrounded shrubs attracted different types of scrub and edge birds (not lifers, but new for the trip) and then the feeders outside the dining area were very well-managed, providing some excellent photographic opportunities while waiting for lunch.  

Blue-and-yellow Tanager, a feeder bird at San Sebastian
Chalk-browed Mockingbird, another feeder bird

Green-headed Tanager, gem of the San Sebastian feeders

The good forest with important bamboo patches takes a bit of hiking uphill to reach, but if you arrange with the resident guide, Nene, he'll drive you up in his 4x4. Nene is clearly used to taking out hard core birders, as he knows how to tape out the specialist species. He showed us Variegated Antpitta and the Ocellated Bamboo-Wren (we dipped on the Speckled-breasted Antpitta, though).  But Nene's a bit unpolished as far as guides go. His speaker system was belching out skull-splitting static, so he ended up using our iPod/speaker setup to call birds (lucky we had it!). But far worse was when he left us waiting shivering in the pre-dawn cold for him to emerge to take us birding. Why set a meeting time you aren't capable of making? When he did finally show up he didn't even seem to realize he was late or that being late was a problem.

Generally, the experience one has staying at San Sebastian is one of irrelevance. Nene and his wife seemed completely ambivalent about our presence or happiness.  I guess that's what happens when the owners of a place are absentee and leave others behind to manage. The price certainly doesn't reflect that this place is several notches below the other local lodges. Nevertheless, we still picked up six lifers here in 24 hours after five days of birding the region and it's got the best feeder setup.

We were able to catch a bus back to Puerto Iguazu and make our way into Brazil for a series of flights back to the US.

This concludes our post-graduation tour of South America. I hope you've enjoyed the arm chair ride!