Sunday, January 16, 2011

Yellow Rail!

The new year has scarcely begun and I have already seen what will almost certainly be in my top ten birds of 2011. Like a feathered mouse, the Yellow Rail is widely regarded as being one of the hardest to see breeding birds in the United States.

A few people have emailed me asking for details/advice on seeing this elusive bird. For their sake, I've written a quick narrative about our find:

Expectations were low (and that always helps). After spending a couple hours sorting through Chipping Sparrows looking for an "easy" Lark Sparrow at the nearby North River Golf Course, Jacob Socolar, Robert and James Meehan and I were struggling to stay dry while fording a small tidal creek at North River Marsh.

Wet and mud-splattered, we proceeded to tie ropes anchored with water-filled juice bottles around our ankles. Thus manacled like convicts we combed through a vast Spartina prairie which Jacob assured us was John Fussell's most reliable spot for Yellow Rails.

After about two hours puzzling over fleeting glances of ammodramus sparrows and marsh wrens and the occasional misstep into a deep hollow hidden by Needle Rush or a patch of quick mud we were cold and filthy and nearly ready to admit defeat. Suddenly a small yellow-and-brown streaked bird popped up from near our rope. It fluttered away from us for about three seconds showing obvious white patches in its wings before settling back down and vanishing some 60 feet ahead.

I recorded our unsuccessful attempt to flush it again.

No, you won't see the bird in this clip, but it does show our setup and the sort of habitat in which we found it.

The sighting left us ecstatic and we were hardly bothered when we again were unable to find the Lark Sparrow. We finished our day at Fort Macon State Park where we found a few Common Eiders near the rock jetty.

Jacob, Robert and Jimmy had to drive back to Durham that night, but I stuck around Emerald Isle for the weekend. It would be a longer and birdier stay than I had planned!

The next day I went back to the golf course and found the Lark Sparrow almost immediately in the exact location we had spent hours searching the previous day.

That's birding for you I guess.

I spent the afternoon birding Harker's Island where the best bird was probably a wooden decoy of a Long-tailed Duck I found inside the museum.

On Sunday I braved the frigid temperature and kayaked out to the Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve, a shorebird paradise across a channel from Beaufort.

It was swarmed with Dunlin, Oystercatchers, Willets, Marbled Godwits and Short-billed Dowitchers.

Here's a dowitcher foraging in the classic "sewing-machine" style.

Bird highlights of the trip were Red Knot

and Piping Plover.

The next morning I woke up to blizzard conditions. I had never even seen snow at the beach before and I was staring out into a white-out at Emerald Isle!

The icy roads made my long weekend even longer. Madness!

The weather did turn the ocean into a lake, which made for excellent sea-watching conditions when visibility wasn't diminished by precipitation.

I received a lot of responses to my last post about my top ten birds of 2010. I'll go over those next post.


So far I have come up with 5 target birds for 2011:

1. Golden Eagle (if I were going to the neotropics this year I would replace "Golden" with "Harpy")
2. Black Rail (the Yellow Rail has me foolishly optimistic)
3. Gryphon Vulture (I missed this 4 years ago in Crete, hoping to see one in Croatia)
4. Roller
5. Eurasian Bee-eater

Help me add more!


Ali inspired me to try this bird-a-day silliness. It will be fun while it lasts, but I see no chance of making it past February.

Birds so far:

01/01/11 Red-breasted Nuthatch
01/02/11 Pine Siskin
01/03/11 Barred Owl
01/04/11 American Kestrel
01/05/11 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
01/06/11 Purple Finch
01/07/11 Yellow Rail
01/08/11 Lark Sparrow
01/09/11 Piping Plover
01/10/11 Red-throated Loon
01/11/11 White-winged Scoter
01/12/11 Red-tailed Hawk
01/13/11 Cedar Waxwing
01/14/11 Eastern Bluebird
01/15/11 Black Vulture
01/16/11 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Top 10 birds of 2010

Perhaps this is a bit of a cliche...
...but I just have to savor 2010 as it was such a great year bird-wise. I saw 935 bird species 644 of which I had never seen before. I also published and sold out the first printing of my book, Birds of the Tyler Place, and I launched this blog.
Making a top 10 list...
...of any kind is always a tricky exercise; it can be so tough not to leave something out that deserves to be included. In this case I tried to pick my birds based primarily on their rarity, conservation status and toughness to find, and secondarily on just how awesome/cool/unique they are. So phenomenal birds like Andean Cock-of-the-rock and Scarlet Macaw didn't make the list. But there were also trade-offs the other way: I left off the endangered Galapagos Penguin because it so closely resembles several other penguin species and I couldn't include every endangered species from the Galapagos (there are far too many).
Not surprisingly all 10 (err... 11) were South American birds and all are listed as a conservation concern by the IUCN and amazingly for 8 of them I have photos.
Here's the challenge:
Have you seen any of the birds on this list? Let me know how many and the reader with the most will earn some sort of recognition (my money is on Harry Legrand). I bet nobody has seen them all!
Hon. mention: Westland Petrel
So I failed at my own game and have listed 11 species. But I just have to include the Westland Petrel I saw on kolibri expeditions July 26th pelagic. Not only is this a vulnerable species, but it was also the first confirmed record of the bird for Lima, Peru (thanks to photos by Gunnar Engblom and some help from an expert).
I couldn't put it in the top ten because I had previously seen this bird in New Zealand in 2009 and it just isn't much of a looker compared to what else I've got here.
10. Toucan Barbet
Straddling the border between handsome and comical is the near-threatened and Choco endemic Toucan Barbet. The arrhythmic car horn group song was a commonly heard sound at higher more remote elevations of La Hesperia. I also saw these up close enjoying some bananas at the feeding station of Refugio Paz de las Aves.

While they can tolerate habitat fragmentation reasonably well, poaching for the pet trade has earned Toucan Barbet near-threatened status with the IUCN.

9. Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan

Seeing a toucan is always fun. I always get the impression that the heavy bill will tip the bird right off its perch. The Choco endemic and near-threatened Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan is special to me not only because of its limited range and conservation status, but because it is the only bird on this list that I found at La Hesperia Biological Station where I worked for six months. I found several noisy flocks with up to 8 birds around the summit of La Hesperia around 2100 meters elevation. This bird is also featured on the cover of Ridgley and Greenfield's Birds of Ecuador.
8. Coppery-chested Jacamar

A gorgeous bird in an awesome family is the vulnerable Coppery-chested Jacamar. I was able to see several jacamars this year, but the Coppery-chested is by far the most sought-after as its numbers are declining with habitat destruction. Bird Life International estimates that only 2,310-3,780 individuals remain.
I was fortunate to find a pair in the Bombascuro section of Parque Nacional Podocarpus in Ecuador. I had always thought of jacamars as butterfly specialists, but these two were adeptly decimating wasps. It made me wish for a better camera and better light.
7. Flightless Cormorant

Along with Darwin's Finches, the endangered Flightless Cormorant is a classic case study in natural selection at the birthplace of the theory of evolution, the Galapagos Islands. In the absence of land predators, the ability to fly no longer conferred any selective advantage for the fish-eating birds.

While snorkling off Isabella Island I had a pair of exuberant (and probably enamored) quacking Flightless Cormorants paddle straight into my mask!

The population fluctuates with El Nino cycles between about 400 and roughly 1800 mature individuals (Bird Life International).
6. Long-wattled Umbrellabird
The vulnerable and Choco endemic Long-Wattled Umbrellabird is one of the funniest-looking birds out there and I'm really sorry I never got a picture (images here). The one immature bird I saw up close seemed very curious about people. Unfortunately, this characteristic has made the species highly susceptible to hunting pressure and Jatun Sacha Bilsa in western Ecuador is one of the few places where they can be reliably seen.
I would love to see a group of lekking males, and if I had, then this bird would probably be up a couple spots in my top ten.
5. Andean Condor

The near-threatened Andean Condor is so famous it hardly needs any introduction. It is the national bird of Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Colombia. Ironically, it is nearly extirpated from Colombia, and Ecuador, where only about 65 individuals are estimated to remain (Bird Life International), is not far behind.
Incredibly, I saw three condors in Ecuador (or about 5% of the wild population!). The first was just after descending from the summit of Cotopaxi (yeah, that was an epic day) and the other two were in Parque Nacional Cajas near Cuenca.

4. Giant Antpitta
Like everybody else who has seen the Choco endemic and vulnerable Giant Antpitta, mine was the famous "Maria" of Refugio Paz de las Aves in Ecuador. It was the first antpitta I had ever laid eyes after being teased so thoroughly by singing but invisible antpittas elsewhere. Bird Life International estimates only 970-2,173 individuals remain.

3. Waved Albatross
Nearly all nesting of the critically endangered Waved Albatross is confined to Espanola Island in the Galapagos. I was fortunate to be there at the right time of year to see pairs "dancing" and adults incubating eggs. Seeing an albatross is always a thrill, especially for somebody who grew up on the albatross-less east coast of the US. But to see an endangered species up close going through nesting and courtship behaviors was absolutely priceless!

2. Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager

The endangered, Peru-endemic and beautiful Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager can only be found at essentially one remote location high in the elfin forest of Bosque Unchog in the Huanuco province of Peru. I found a flock of four here with the original guide, Reyes Rivera, who back in the 1970s had showed the bird to an ornithological expedition from LSU leading to its "discovery." Despite the finding, habitat degradation has continued and the population is estimated at 250 to 2500 individuals by Bird Life International.
1. Banded Ground-Cuckoo
Exceptionally rare, endangered and nearly impossible to see, the Choco endemic Banded Ground-Cuckoo is probably the only bird on this list I would NOT trade for seeing a Harpy Eagle (my biggest miss of 2010). It is opportunistically hunted for food and its habitat is rapidly disappearing to make way for African Oil Palm plantations. There are only 3 or 4 protected areas where it is known to occur. Bird Life International estimates a wild population of only 468-1,870 individuals.
I saw mine at Jatun Sacha Bilsa in western Ecuador where the first Banded Ground-Cuckoo was netted, tracked and filmed during nesting. For a great story about some hard-core birders twitching it at another location, see this account by Sam Woods. Images here.

Well, that's about as much congratulating myself as I can handle. Next time I reckon I should lay out a top ten wanted birds list for 2011. I will need some help though as I will be in the Greek Isles and the Western Balkans in late May and have no idea what's out there. If you have birded that part of the world or know somebody who has, then please let me know!