Monday, April 23, 2018

Canebreak Groundcreeper and Marsh Things

A Weekend in Southern Brazil

Saturday, March 17 - Santa Catarina State

An odd weekend to pick up some star birds in a couple of Southern Brazilian states.  Saturday started with a long, twisting drive across a low mountain range (Dramamine please!) before a lunch stop at the best restaurant in Itapoá in Santa Catarina State.  The restaurant was good, largely filled with little old ladies, but close to a beautiful beach full of attractive Brazilian surfers.  Birding trips aren't always dull ...

Beautiful Itapoá
Just before lunch we'd made a stop for a seriously good bird and spent an hour along a side road in short, scrubby looking, forest looking for KAEMPFER'S TODY-TYRANT a seriously 'must get' bird with a very limited range.  The tody-tyrant actually cooperated and came in right away to tape but circled us quickly defeating my photographic abilities (many photos of branches where the bird had just been) and was gone.  The area was super productive though, giving me 4 life birds with Restinga Tyrannulet, Three-striped Flycatcher and Black-backed Tanager all being new for me.  Then lunch ... on the beach ... no complaints.

Restinga Tyrannulet
After lunch, we had a serious goal ... mop up a bunch of specialty birds in the Itapoá area.  If we succeeded then we could leave early next morning and have time to bird in Paraná State, and if we didn't succeed, then we'd bird in the same area the next morning.

First up was PARANÁ ANTWREN, a super-range-restricted species that had previously been recorded in a trashy-looking marsh area in the port district.  We heard them quickly but it took quite a while to coax one out into view and the sound of trucks thundering by on the road didn't help much.  The habitat here seems so vulnerable but it doesn't look like it's protected in any way, things may be bleak for this species.  While we were working the antwrens we got two bonus prizes, the locally common Azure Jay dropped by, then a big flock of BROWN-BACKED PARROTLETS flew over.  The big flock, 50+, was a huge surprise and this super-range-restricted (tiny spot on the map) and rarely seen species wasn't really one I'd held any hope of actually encountering.  Eduardo played a recording to try to get them to turn, but too late, and they carried on flying over.  Still, a nice piece of luck and nice add for the trip.

Paraná Antwren
Nest, on to Volta Vehla reserve, a beautiful little private reserve with nice forest trails, good accommodation, but perhaps a few too many mosquitoes.  The must get bird here was SCALED CHACHALACA and they obligingly showed up along the entrance road as we drove it.  That allowed us a leisurely evening of birding along the trails which added such goodies as Gray-breasted Crake and Black-capped Foliage-gleaner ... and another dinner at the fancy restaurant ... the clientele was the same but the fresh local fish was really good.

Scaled Chachalaca and Striped Cuckoo

Sunday, March 18 - Paraná State

With our targets cleaned up, we got up super early and headed back to the city of Curitiba where first stop surprisingly was an urban park.  Park Barigui was a great piece of habitat with several fairly large areas of native forest, but it is an urban park with lots of people and at the first stop a whole bunch of drunk teenagers finishing a long night of drinking.  Still, we were intrepid birders and so pressed on, entering "the forest" and playing for my target bird here, the CANEBRAKE GROUNDCREEPER a very cool Southern Brazilian specialty with a very evocative name.  The Groundcreepers popped up on request and we worked our way though the "forest" adding a few more lifers for me, namely Olive Spinetail and Gray-throated Warbling-Finch.  In a way I felt quite at home ... joggers, shady characters of various types, drunk teens, and older cruising gay men all reminded my of Central Park.   Birding sure does take you to interesting places.

And so out last stop was an area of marshes, woodland and fields near the airport where we added a few more goodies like Chestnut-backed Tanager and made a heroic effort to see the recently described MARSH TAPACULO.  I know this species as the Tall-Grass Wetland Tapaculo and had read about it's discovery (in 1997) and really wanted to see one.  Eduardo's (my guide) heart visibly sank though when I mentioned it, clearly this was not an easy bird to see.  We spent a couple of hours at the Estrada do Curralinho marsh, a known hotspot for the species, and positioned ourselves around an area where other birders had cut a path through the impenetrably dense marsh vegetation to see the bird.  Dense actually doesn't even begin to describe this habitat ... the chest-high grass was so tightly woven together that walking through it was quite impossible and yet, this little bird loves the stuff and scrambles around completely safe from predators in the almost solid mass of tangled vegetation.  We heard the bird ... it responded readily to tape ... but it did not come to the edge of the grass.  Still it was a memorable experience to encounter a bird I'd read so much about and eventually I released Eduardo from his torment and said that "heard only" was just fine.

Burrowing Owl
Then time for lunch ... an amazing meat banquet at a local rodizio restaurant ... and a flight to Saõ Paulo then on to New York.  Until next time Brazil ...

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Plovercrests and Spadebills

A Quick Two Day Visit to Intervales State Park in Saõ Paulo State

I go to Saõ Paulo (the city) for business quite often and have done quite a lot of birding in Eastern Brazil over the years.  People often asked me if I'd been in Intervales State Park though, and even though it's only 4 hours drive from the city, up until this year I never had.

This March trip to Saõ Paulo started out as a dinner plan, then a few days in the office got added, then a weekend with friends, and having morphed dinner into a 4-day trip already I decided to stay the whole week and add 5 days of birding to the itinerary too.

Wednesday, March 14th - Saõ Paulo to Intervales

Up bright and early to meet Eduardo Patrial at Congonhas Airport to pick up a rental car.  The night before had been long and full of amazing food and wine so I wasn't exactly at my most perky, and of course the rental car process was infuriatingly long and inefficient, but eventually we got on our way and drive out of the city heading South.  There really wasn't much to see on the drive down, just fields and cows, but after a quick lunch stop we pulled off the paved road and headed up into the forest for two and a half days of nothing but birding.  Deep breath ... fresh air ... smile ...

Squamate Antbird and Rufous Gnateater

The first afternoon was for getting oriented so we checked out a number of the best spots and areas where some good birds had been habituated through feeding (none of those birds were present).  We did take the opportunity though to check out the lek of PURPLE-CROWNED PLOVERCRESTS, truly spiffy hummingbirds where the males sit still in dense cover and 'sing' to attract females to them.  When we got to the lek area we could hear two males singing and saw a female.  I wanted to see the male though to bushwhacked into the dense vegetation, and after 20 minutes of carefully searching for a bird we could hear close to us but just could not see, a slight change of angle added the plovercrest to my life list.

Purple-crowned Plovercrest
Then it started to rain a little so we headed back to the car and realized that that dense undergrowth had been perfect habitat for ticks which had transferred to us nice warm mammals while we were looking for the birds.  Then it started to rain A LOT ... the type of tropical deluge that dumps several inches of rain in the space of minutes.  So we gave up birding for the day, went to the guest house, ate chicken, rice and beans (our staple for the trip) and hoped that it would stop raining before the morning.  At that point I wondered if it was ever going to stop raining ... the sort of biblical downpour that has you wondering how to build an ark.

Thursday, March 15th - Intervales

No rain, and a full day of birding with Eduardo and an excellent local guide added a lot of life birds for me, perhaps 20 in all.  We saw the usually skulking SOLITARY TINAMOU and SPOT-WINGED WOOD-QUAIL up close and personal.  The forest had a nice selection of antbirds, antvireos, antwrens, antthrushes, antpittas, antshrikes (collectively I call then 'ant-things') plus lots of woodcreepers, foliage-gleaners, treehunters, leaftossers ... the list goes on.   We took the time to track down a White-breasted Tapaculo (I love tapaculos) and lucked out with a Royal Flycatcher, and that was all before lunch.

Spot-winged Wood-Quail and Green-backed Trogon

In the afternoon we took a quick side-trip outside the park to find HALF-COLLARED SPARROW, a really attractive sparrow that seems to like the second-growth and bamboo habitat along the park entrance road.  Then after failing to see Long-trained Nightjar at a stake-out we ended the day on a high note with LONG-TUFTED SCREECH OWL nearby.

Long-tufted Screech Owl
Friday, March 16th - Intervales

Another full day in the forest with a specific goal for the morning.  We hiked a long way down a relatively steep trail into a valley.  All the way down I was of course thinking of having to walk back up but the birds and plenty of Brazilian Tapir and even Ocelot tracks kept me in a good mood as we got closer to our target.  I was still getting life birds and added Black-cheeked Gnateater and Blue-bellied Parrot before we even got to the main event.  Intervales seems to be The Place to see RUSSET-WINGED SPADEBILL and today the bird didn't disappoint, popping up promptly when we got down to it's territory (note to self though - have to get in better shape before the Horned Guan hike in August).

Russet-winged Spadebill - rarer than it is pretty .... and local guide hard
at work finding it for me ...

Other good birds later that day included RED-AND-WHITE CRAKE which finally came out to it's feeding station (we'd tried 5 times previously) and an ORANGE-BREASTED THORNBIRD at the same spot.  Nice birds and we still had owling ahead of us ...

The owling started out really well with a close view of a RUSTY-BARRED OWL followed by a long but ultimately successful hunt for BLACK-CAPPED SCREECH OWL.  Overall in two nights at Intervales we had 5 species of owl and 2 nightjars ... that's about as good as it gets.

Rusty-barred Owl and Black-capped Screech-Owl

We also had a nice reminder that we were in a wild place ... we'd been stumbling around in the dark looking for owls for hours when we bumped into a Bothrops jararaca, a large and very venomous snake out hunting along the same trails.  Luckily our paths didn't cross too closely and it was a very pretty serpent, but makes you think ....

Really, don't step on this ....

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Lark Loop

A Visit to the Highveld Grasslands of Mpumalanga, South Africa

Over the years, you see a lot of habitats and a lot of wildlife on nature shows on TV.  A lot of the shows on Africa look a lot like the last post, Lions and Elephants in thorn scrub habitat, but there are some places that look very different, and one in particular I'd always wanted to visit.  The Highveld habitat is a special place.  Higher altitude grasslands, scattered with small Afrikaner farming communities, and filled with interesting and different birds.  It's hard to think of anything quite like it, so three days based in Wakkerstroom exploring this habitat was a trip I had been looking forward to for some time.

Sunday, January 7th / Monday, January 8th ... Wakkerstroom Area

We were staying at a lovely little guest house on the outskirts of Wakkerstroom.  South Africa prompts an odd series of emotions and Wakkerstroom, a pretty little Afrikaner farm town with neat little houses and beautiful gardens, prompted more than a few.  Outside of town, the "africans" (as the locals call them) still lived in a densely packed, and somewhat basic township with cinder block and corrugated iron 'houses'.  It may not have been surrounded by a fence any more but the contrast between the housing there, and the beautiful manicured grounds and accommodation at the place we were staying was quite jarring.  At dawn on day one, we drove over to the 'african' neighborhood to pick up our local guide for the day, the famous and talented Lucky.  Then off for a full day of birding the local hotspots.

White-bellied Bustard
Southern Bald Ibis
First stop was a location for WHITE-BELLIED BUSTARD and we quickly picked one up while driving across the short grass area where they breed.  Bustards were very much a key theme of the grasslands and not long afterwards we found ourselves searching for DENHAM'S BUSTARD and getting some distant scope views.  The third bustard species, BLUE BUSTARD had to wait until the next day but hey, any place with three bustard species is hardly horrible.

Mammals weren't really a target up here but we did see Meerkats, Yellow Mongoose, Scrub Hare, Springbok, Blesbok, Common Duiker, an Oribi, Mountain Reedbuck and a SERVAL, only the second one I'd ever seen.  Not a bad haul for a place not famous for it's mammals.

The bird I most wanted to see in the grasslands though was the BLUE CRANE the odd-looking, but strangely beautiful grassland crane of Southern Africa.  We saw a couple in the extreme distance while looking for bustards but I had to wait a while before we bumped into a pair with a young chick closer to the road.  The birds didn't panic when we stopped to take photos but they did walk away quite quickly so all I got was photos from the back.  Such an amazing species though, still my Facebook cover photo three months later.

Blue Crane family
Wakkerstroom is famous in birding circles not for these amazing big birds though, but for a series of small cryptic songbirds that spend their days hiding in the grass.  A half dozen species of lark can be found here but two of them RUDD'S LARK and BOTHA'S LARK are very rare and very hard to see anywhere else.  So generations of birders have come here to look for larks and with expert guide Lucky along for the ride, we planned to as well.

The spot for Rudd's Lark was an huge area of grassland with a few cows and couple of small building, and after stopping at a small farm to pay a fee, and stopping to flush an African Snipe from a small wetland, we got down to the serious business of lark-hunting.  Lucky clearly knew where a pair or larks preferred to be, so stopped in an area of grassland and had us form a line (of three birders) and walk through a specific area looking for find the larks.  45 minutes, and many passes later, no larks.  So we gave up on that pair and started working more broadly across acres of seemingly identical grasslands.  We saw Spike-heeled Larks, Red-capped Lark, various cisticolas and African Pipits (all similar-looking small brown birds) but no Rudd's Lark.  The only excitement came after about an hour and a half when we flushed a HOTTENTOT BUTTONQUAIL a very special and unexpected species.  Finally though, we were forced to admit defeat, deciding to try one more time at the original spot before moving one ... and of course there was a RUDD's LARK right where we'd started two hours before.

Rudd's Lark 
Scrub Hare, looking terrified ...
Botha's Lark
By contrast, the search for BOTHA'S LARK was straightforward.  We went to the site, got out, formed a line and walked no more than 30 yards before we found a pair on the nest.  Still a very good bird though.

Jackal Buzzard and Ground Woodpecker 

With the larks in the bag, and many other grassland species besides, we had time to look for a couple of species I really wanted to see at the Waakerstroom Wetlands.  My Rockjumper guide, Selwyn Rautenbach had done some important work on the super-rare and near mythical White-winged Flufftail, the rarest member of a family I'd seen precisely none of to date.  While we were talking about it he mentioned that Red-chested Flufftail lived in the local marsh ... did I want to see it?  Duh!  Of course I did.

So we spent a fair amount of time at the marsh seeing a good selection of water birds and even a big Nile Monitor lizard.   Gray Crowned-Cranes were here as were African Rails and African Marsh-Harriers, a truly birdy spot.  Playing tape for the flufftail I kept my fingers crossed then saw just hint of movement in the grass ... and there it was ... a female RED-CHESTED FLUFFTAIL, my first flufftail.  Hopefully not the last ...

Red-chested Flufftail ... well I was excited.
The night wasn't over though and we ended the birding by calling in an AFRICAN MARSH OWL.  When I was a kid I looked at the species in the Peterson Field Guide to the birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (they just get into Morocco) and had always wanted to see one.  Magical way to end the day.  And who knew, there was even a decent restaurant in Waakerstroom ... so some cocktails and a delicious meal to end the visit ... who could ask for more?

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Photospot: Mammals of the Kruger National Park

Some Mammal Photos from my January Trip to South Africa

Spent part of four days in the Kruger National Park.  Lots of birds (to follow) but here are some of the mammals we saw.  Some of these need no labels ....

On the first few days we saw no Rhino and I was worried that the poachers (who have apparently been very active, even in the park) had killed them all off.  On the last few days though we saw a total of 7 White Rhino.

Every guide wants to get you "The Big Five" and with Elephant and Rhino, we needed Lion, Buffalo and Leopard.

And then there were other critters ... Steenbok, Klipspringer, Dwarf Mongoose, Spotted Hyena.

And finally, Vervet Monkey and Warthog.

Other mammals in the Kruger included some night drive mammals - Lesser Galago, Thick-tailed Galago, White-tailed Mongoose, Red Tree-Rat, Scrub Hare, African Civet and Large-spotted Genet.  We also had Blue Wildebeest, Giraffe, Hippopotamus, Slender Mongoose, Banded Mongoose, Black-backed Jackal, Burchel's Zebra, Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Chacma Baboon, Lichtenstein's Hartebeest, Impala, Kudu, and Tree Squirrel.

Away from the Kruger we also added Black Wildebeest, Common Duiker, Eland, Mountain Reedbuck, Meerkat, Nyala, Oribi, Rock Hyrax, Serval, Springbok, Tseessebe, Blesbok, and Yellow Mongoose.

Total of 46 species of mammal ... better than some birding trips I've been on.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

November Magic in New York

Fall Migrants and Vagrants in New York, including an *Mega* Rarity

October was a terrible birding month.  After the excitement of the Lark Bunting and the Brown Booby in September, I basically saw nothing very interesting in October.  Not that I didn't go out; I spent three weekends birding on Long Island and saw, well very little of note.  So on to November, the traditional time for rarities and surprises .... and I was feeling that I could really use a couple of both ....

Saturday, November 4th - Suffolk / Bronx Counties

Friday night, and after the boredom of October birding on Long Island I was looking for something else to do.  Should I spend Saturday hoping that the New Jersey Common Greenshank was still around, even though it hadn't been seen for a few days?  Should I do a ludicrous 15-hour round-trip drive to Niagara Falls for a recently reported Sabine's Gull (a New York State bird for me)?  In the end, I got up late (6am) and made do with another trip to Long Island.  This time though, at least there were some birds.

First stop was Heckscher State Park, where a nice range of late migrant shorebirds had been reported during the week.  My main target was Hudsonian Godwit, a Suffolk County bird for me and sure enough I pulled up to the puddles in the parking lot and immediately saw three of them feeding there along with a nice selection of other shorebirds and ducks.  

Hudsonian Godwits and Northern Pintail

Wondering what to do next, I decided to push further East and ended up birding for a couple of hours along Dune Road in Hampton Bays.  Nothing too amazing here but lots of birds ... Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, returning Common Eiders, Sharp-tailed Sparrows, the change of seasons was very obvious and the weather was clean, bright and autumnally crisp.  A very refreshing place to spend the middle of the day, in fact I was really liking this birding thing again.  I was having so much fun in fact that I though about going on the East Hampton to stay the night and bird Sunday Out East as well.  In the end though, the lure of the Sabine's Gull got the better of me and I doubled back to the City, stopping at Seatuck Creek (and finding a Eurasian Wigeon) and at Orchard Beach in the Bronx for a Black-headed Gull.

Peregrine Falcon (above) and Merlin (below) 

Black-headed Gull, my first for Bronx County
Sunday, November 5th - Niagara Falls

When I got home on Saturday night I saw that the Sabine's Gull at Niagara Falls had been seen again during the day, and so decided to give in and follow my instincts and try to see it.  I ordered the car for 3am, texted Greg Lawrence for advice and then, when he said he wanted to tag along, made plans to meet him near Rochester the next morning.

By 3:15am I was on the road.  I picked up Greg at around 9:30am near Rochester and we arrived at Niagara Falls by 10:45am .... easy!  I had good directions for local expert Willie D'Anna, who's partner Betsy Potter has found the bird a few day earlier, so we went straight to Goat Island then walked down the steps to the Luna Island observation platform perched right on top of the American Falls.  Here we took our place among the tourist but while they were all taking selfies with the falls in the background, we were staring straight down into the churn of water, foam, mist and shattered rocks at the bottom of the falls, the place where the gulls feed.

Lot of Bonaparte's Gulls... thousands of Bonaparte's Gulls ... then a Little Gull .... then after a half hour of scanning the Bonaparte's Gulls, Greg picked out the SABINE'S GULL (NYS #399).  What a beautiful bird, and a New York State life bird.  Not an easy bird to find in New York, they migrate through in small numbers but rarely stick around, so a bird that could be chased was a rare thing indeed.  That was in part why this particular bird had haunted me all week, and even though it was far away in terms of hours driven, I was glad that I went to see it.

Sabine's Gull (above) and with Bonaparte's Gulls (below)

So I felt pretty good, and even though we failed in an attempt to add a Franklin's Gull in Buffalo later,  and even though I had to drive for 7+ hours to get home (and it rained all the way), I came home happy and feeling accomplished.  How could I possible top that, even though Greg had said something that stuck in my mind ... "November is when all the weird rarities show up" he said ... so may be there was a chance of another new bird.  But what could top a Sabine's Gull?

Tuesday, November 7th - Suffolk County

I felt like crap all morning.  I was sick with something and not feeling at all well, even throwing up a couple of times at the office.  By noon I decided to take the afternoon off and headed toward the apartment only to check messages on the subway and see one from Anders Peltomaa asking for a ride to the Corn Crake if I was going .... CORN CRAKE!!!!! What the hell ...

I jumped across into the birding listserves and sure enough, Ken Feustel had found a Corn Crake in Suffolk County (my home county) that morning.  As unwell as I felt, I knew I was going to go for it so I ran home, went up to the apartment, made a bathroom stop, grabbed the camera, made another bathroom stop, jumped in the car and headed out.

There has not been a chaseable Corn Crake in North America .... ever!  The last record from New York State was 60 (!) years ago, and the one before that was 75 years earlier.  The two recent records in Eastern North American were of a bird killed by a cat, and a bird mis-identified and only correctly re-identified from photographs several years later.  This is now a rare bird in Europe where they normally live, and there were basically only two living North American birders who had it on their US list ... until today ....

The drive out was short (in reality) and endless (in my head), not helped by my feeling terrible and coughing and spluttering all the way there.   When I finally reached the spot, parked and rushed over to the gathered birders, Isaac Grant told me that the bird has been visible but had been spooked by a car and vanished into the undergrowth ..... argh!!!!

So the next 10-15 minutes were, shall we say, tense .... there's nothing quite like standing with  group of birders who've seen a rare bird and are chatting away about how wonderful it was, when you haven't yet seen the bird (!).  But my luck help up and before long, the bird nonchalantly wandered back out onto the grass verge and unleashed a storm of shutter sounds from the gathered birding paparazzi.  CORN CRAKE .... NYS (#400) .... amazing.  Then I drove home and passed out, seriously worried that I might have pneumonia ... I was gone for only a couple of hours ... but I now have Corn Crake on my New York State list, so if I die, I'll die happy!

Corn Crake

And we're still only in the second week of November ....  and we weren't done yet ...

Monday, November 27th - Central Park

After spending the Thanksgiving Weekend in Montreal, I got back to New York on Sunday night to hear chatter about a potential Hammond's Flycatcher in Central Park, incredibly right in the same area that had hosted a Pacific-Slope Flycatcher a few years earlier.  So up at dawn and into the park where I joined a small group of birders and got but a fleeting glimpse of a bird that looked good but didn't stick around for photos, before I had to go to head to the office for work.  Luckily though I had a light schedule so planned a long lunch and headed back to the park where a large crowd of birders had now gathered and I got much better views of another New York State bird for my list ... HAMMOND'S FLYCATCHER (#401).

Hammond's Flycatcher - Photo: Nathan Goldberg (used with permission)
Luckily Hammond's Flycatcher are a great deal easier to identify than Pacific-Slope / Cordilleran Flycatchers so the ID was quickly established.  This was only the 3rd record of the species for New York State though, so a great bird, and one has to wonder what we miss every year in areas that get a lot less birding attention than Central Park.  November really had produced some good birds, including a trio of New York State birds for me, and so on to December with thoughts starting to turn to new adventures in 2018.