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.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Another Nemesis Bird Vanquished

Finally Seeing Brown Booby in New York State

Friday, September 29th - Suffolk County, NY

How do you decide what your nemesis bird is?  Is it the most common bird you haven't seen in a particular area?  If that were true, then my New York State nemesis bird would have been Mew Gull, which occurs annually and which I've searched for and missed often.  Or is it the bird you've missed, where the misses hurt the most?  I think I tend toward the latter, so after I finally caught up with Black Guillemot in New York this Winter, I decided that Brown Booby was going to be my new nemesis bird for New York State.

Why Brown Booby?  A long drive and a painful miss last Fall was still fresh in my mind.  Plus a bird that I could have seen but for a random change of plan a few years earlier and thus missed on my big year.  And of course,they're cool, in a goofy kind of way ... and I really wanted to see one in New York.

So of course when one showed up in New York, quite close to the City, this Spring .... I happened to be about 450 miles away at the other end of the state.  The bird arrived, and spent all day sitting at, the tern colony at Nickerson Beach giving almost every New York City and Long Island birder great views.  For a while I toyed with driving back overnight to be there in the morning, but the bird did not look well (being covered in tern poop is never a good sign) and sure enough it was found dead in the morning.  Another miss, but at least I hadn't driven all night to miss it.

I didn't think I'd get another chance this year, but fast forward to September and a Brown Booby was found in Montauk Harbor (30 minutes from my house, but unfortunately I was stuck in London then in New York City).  Then another potential state bird showed up nearby when Brent Bomkamp found a LARK SPARROW at Robert Moses State Park.  Two State Birds on Long Island and I was stuck in the City all week!

I decided that, as a grown up, I could keep perspective and wait until the weekend to chase these birds ... but this grown up resolve lasted until only about 10am on Friday, when my will-power evaporated and I jumped in the car and headed out in search of state birds.

Lark Bunting - Photo by Tom Reichert (used with permission)
Stop number one was Robert Moses State Park where the Lark Bunting had apparently been elusive and hard to find near the Volleyball Courts in Field 2.  I found the site easily enough and when I arrived expert local bird photographer Tom Reichert was on site and had just had the bird (!).  A few minutes later it popped up again and I got great views, and what turned out to be terrible out-of-focus photographs .... birders call them "Record Shots" while photographers are much more patient.  So LARK BUNTING joined the New York State list (#397) and I was off again in search of number 398.

Just for contrast, here's my best effort of a shot of the Lark Bunting ... note
how perfectly in focus the pine cones in the background are (!)
So on to Montauk, and the real target of the day.  About an hour later I pulled up onto Star Island Road on Lake Montauk and, following directions from the bird alerts, looked out to the mast of a nearby Yacht .... and there was a suspicious brown lump on top of it .... BROWN BOOBY!

The bird actually flew off fairly quickly and, figuring it would be better seen from South Lake Drive I drove down and sure enough the bird was sitting on another yacht mast, this one much closer to shore.

Brown Booby, Montauk

So two New York State birds in one day, and a little closer to my goal for 400 species in New York State.  The rest of the weekend, and indeed the next few week were anticlimactic after these two star birds, but this at least was a great birding day on Long Island.

American Golden Plover on Long Island

Monday, September 25, 2017

Rock Partridges, Rock Nuthatches and Ancient (stone) Temples

A Weekend Birding in Greece

So what to do when you find yourself with a free weekend on a business trip to Europe?  Not the most productive continent for potential life birds for me but it gave me a chance to go somewhere interesting, and if I could add a few life birds while I was there, so much the better.  After considering several possible countries - Spain? Portugal? Tunisia? - I settled on Greece, and flew down to Athens for two days of birding with Lefteris Stavrakas a local hot-shot birder who'd arranged a quick hit trip for me focussing on a handful of possible life birds.

Friday, September 22 - Sounio, Messolonghi and Kleisoura Gorge

We started the trip at dawn on day one birding near the Temple of Poseidon on rocky slope overlooking the Agean Sea .... how perfect a start to a Greek birding trip was that?  Our target here wasn't very exciting, but we soon managed to find a family group of Chukars (Life bird number 4,030) and duly added it to my life list.  Chukar is a widely introduced game bird (for shooting) and can be found across Europe and the American West ... I'd just never managed to bump into one.  These Chukars were introduced too, but common and established breeders (they occur in their native range on the near-by Greek islands and were introduced to the mainland when the native Rock Partridges got scarce due to hunting pressure) but I had to count one for the list at some point so I chose to take these for my life birds.  I felt a little dirty, but got over it and moved on fairly quickly, after all, I'll never have to life list Chukar again..

Next stop, after a longish drive, was the lagoon complex at Messolonghi which was simply stuffed with birds.  Shorebird migration was in full swing and we saw 22 species of shorebirds, including Broad-billed Sandpiper, and a wide range of waterbirds of various sorts.  My target bird here was Dalmatian Pelican (4,031) and we quickly saw four of these giant waterbirds along with a lot of ducks, terns, gulls, flamingos and a good scattering of migrant passerines.  A very birdy spot indeed.

Dalmatian Pelican (above) and Greater Flamingo

I also got my third life bird of the trip here when we tracked down some Western Rock Nuthatches (4,032) near the fascinating mud nest they'd presumably used this year.  This species was common and very vocal here, indeed we saw or heard a lot over the weekend, but seeing them around their amazing mud nest was a great way to add a species.  A very cool bird.

Western Rock Nuthatch and Western Rock Nuthatch nest

Black-Eared Wheatear
Last stop of the day was a stake-out (I haven't been doing well at stake-outs recently) where a Cinereous Vulture had been roosting with some Eurasian Griffons (Vultures) on the cliffs at a gorge.  We gave the bird a lot of time, enjoyed great views of the Griffons, increasingly rare given the global vulture collapse, and saw a good range of other raptors.  Our target bird however, did not show up, maintaining a tradition of me not seeing this species in places (Spain, China, etc.) where I could have done so. Ho hum ....

Saturday, September 23 - Nafpaktos, Kopaida, Athens

After spending the night in the grandly named, but rather basic, Hotel Aphrodite in Nafpaktos (not that I cared, I could have slept anywhere at that point I was so tired), we got up early and headed East along the coast road hoping for two more of my target birds.  We stopped at a small village and started birding the rocky cliffs and olive groves around it hoping for one target but quickly lucked out with another one when a very vocal Sombre Tit (4,033) popped up in an olive tree.

Bad record shot of a Sombre Tit
Pushing uphill we played recordings of what we though might be the most challenging target bird of the trip - scarce, heavily hunted and therefore very shy - and were rewarded (and a bit shocked) not long after when a Rock Partridge (4,034) called back.   Now all we had to do was see the bird .... somewhere up on a vast rocky slope above us.  In the end, persistence paid off and I caught a glimpse of movement well up the hill-side and was able to train the scope on a clearing in time to see a family group of partridges scuttle through it.  I was thrilled at the sighting, but mostly relieved that I didn't have to climb that slope to look for the birds.  Definitely the highlight of the weekend for me.

Can you see the Rock Partridge in this photo?
The Rock Partridges turned out to be the last lifer of the trip.  We spent a lot of time at the Plain of Kopaida looking for, and not seeing Long-legged Buzzard (although we saw a lot of other birds) and hit some coastal and woodland spots in search of year birds for me.  In all we saw 112 species, 5 life birds and 76 year birds, not bad for a weekend.

Red-footed Falcon at the Plain of Kopaida
By the time I got the Athens airport I was exhausted.  Two full days of birding on not a lot of sleep and a long flight back to New York ahead of me.  I guess I'm not as young as I used to be, but was it worth it?  Yep, it certainly was ....

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Hunt for the Royal Cinclodes

Five Days Chasing Endemics in Cuzco, Peru

Sunday, August 6th - (near) Cuzco

This was a bit of a spontaneous trip.  It actually started with a restaurant reservation of all things.  Like many birders I keep lists, and one of my most obsessive is the World's Fifty Best Restaurants list (I'm a bit of a foodie too).  So when I scored a reservation at Central Restaurant in Lima (currently #5 in the World / #1 in Latin America) I started to put together a Peru trip.  Dinner in Lima morphed into a foodie weekend in Lima, adding meals at Maido (#8 in the World) and Astrid y Gaston (#33 in the World).  Then, seeing as I was coming all this way, why not add in some birding too?  So I reached out to Barry Walker of Manu Expeditions and fast forward a few weeks I was waiting in the lobby of the Palacio del Inka Hotel in Cuzco for Gustavo Bautista (a very talented hot-shot young Peruvian birder) who was going to be my guide for a few days chasing endemic birds in the Andes around Cuzco.  It's not tough to be me, what can I say ...

The birding part of the trip actually started with a fairly "dudie" (easy, not terribly serious) kind of trip to Mirador del Condor which provided a chance to get used to the altitude (3,000 - 4,000 meters) and to get some of the local birds.   While the birding was low key, I did add some local endemic life birds; Rusty-fronted Canastero, Creamy-crested Spinetail, and Apurimac Brushfinch were all endemics, while some surprise Andean Parakeets were also a lifer for me.  Oh, and yes, we saw some Andean Condors, but then again, we also saw them on each of the next three days.

Two juvenile Andean Condors at the overlook, we subsequently saw another
five condors on the next three days for a total of seven individuals.
Accommodation that night was a strange little yoga hotel/lodge tucked in the middle of nowhere, and run by an interesting German lady who served us surprisingly good vegetarian food, all of which was grown on the property.  I am NOT a vegetarian, but I had to admit that the food was good, and the Peruvian Pygmy-Owl and Koepke's Screech-Owls we had on the property before and after dinner made it a memorable experience.

Koepke's Screech-Owls
Monday, August 7th - Soraypampa

A bit of a travel day but with some very high quality birding on the road up to Soraypampa .... a winding, often scary, unpaved switchback road that went through great habitat but frayed my nerves somewhat.  To be fair, we only had to get out and push the van once (with the help some strapping local octogenarian farmers who frankly were a lot stronger than me) but I definitely felt like I needed some dramamine and really tried hard not to look out of the windows as we wound our way up and down the road.  Having said that, the birding was great and birds on the way up included Andean Tinamou in the road, Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch, Undulated Antpitta and Red-crested Cotinga.  It also provided a major milestone for me when APURIMAC SPINETAIL became my 4,000th species in eBird!  My life-list is a mess, and I've been trying to reconstruct it in eBird based on old paper trip lists.  I know I don't have everything in (missing multiple trips to India and Africa) but this year I decided just to give up and start again with what I had in the eBird database.  So my fist major milestone of my new listing era .... feels worryingly good .....

Red-crested Cotinga and Apurimac Spinetail

At the top of the road we also made a stop for Vilcabamba Tapaculo - I have a huge soft spot for Scytalopus Tapaculos, especially ones that allow themselves to be seen and photographed.  For a travel day, we had good birds, and ended up in a nice tourist hotel in Ollantaytambo which offered good Alpaca Steaks, decent Peruvian red wine, and a surprise meeting with Jesse Fagan and the Field Guides Machu Pichu & Abra Malaga Tour ... definitely not slumming it on this trip.

Vilcabamba Tapaculo poking it's head out of a crevice in the mossy rocks.
August 8th / 9th - Abra Malaga

So this was the real focus of the trip.  Abra Malaga, a high pass with access to some very high altitude Paramo and Polylepis habitat (>4,000m) and some endemic-rich forests at lower elevations.  During our two days here we racked up a whole bunch of life birds for me, mostly Peruvian endemics, including Blue-mantled Thornbill, Stripe-headed Antpitta, White-browed Tit-Spinetail, Line-fronted, Junin and Streak-Throated Canasteros, Ash-breasted and Unstreaked Tit-Tyrants, Marcapata Spinetail, Inca Wren, Puna Thistletail, and Cuzco Brushfinch.

Northern Viscacha and Striped-headed Antpitta

The one bird I most wanted to see here though was the ultra-rare (less than 250 individuals left in the world) ROYAL CINCLODES, and even though I knew we'd have to do some serious hiking up and down steep trails at altitude to have a chance of getting it, we made it the main focus of our stay.  First we hiked (and literally crawled at one point) up into some promising looking polylepis forest at the pass .... nada.  Next we hiked down (knowing we had to hike back up) to some rock-jumbles where a friend of Gustavo has seen the bird that year before ... nada.  So then we hiked up into the 'Royal Cinclodes' reserve which involved climbing up a ridge, working down a very steep hill in polylepis forest, hiking up a steep valley, then walking down and out at the bottom .... 6 hours of leg exercise that would make the most sadistic gym-trainer proud, and ..... nada.

Unfortunately the Royal Cinclodes did not hang out under this sign.  This was the hike up to
the top of the valley that we had to descend into to look for the bird.  And this was the valley we
hiked down into, up, across, back out of, etc....

Seemed like the Royal Cinclodes were simply not on their traditional territories yet, but undeterred, we did it all again the next day and ..... nada.  Some birds are not meant to happen I guess, but in this case, at least not for lack of trying.  This species is very rare and, even though this location is probably the best and most reliable/accessible site for the species, there is perhaps only a single pair (maybe two) present seasonally.  We were probably there just a week or two too early for the birds to be back on territory.  Frustrating, but that's life chasing rare birds. Gustavo worked his ass off trying to get me the bird, and put up with my wheezing and grumbling up and down trails while he bounded ahead gazelle-like to scout extra Polylepis patches for cinclodes.  In the end though, we had to save this bird for another trip.

Thursday, August 10th - Laguna Huarcarpay

A morning of 'filler' adding a lot of birds to my Peru list and my (World) Year list but only one life bird - Bearded Mountaineer.  Still, my year list is actually pretty respectable this year ....

After that the tip changed pace and tone and let's just say I added a lot of things to my life food list.  Wonderful dining experiences and some nice cultural things.  Overall, a great trip, and the birding had been good too, with 28 life bids, most very local endemics.  Still plenty of things to see in Peru though, and who knows .... maybe I'll be back for another crack at that Cinclodes .....

Hard to capture an amazing foodie weekend in one photo ....