Sunday, August 20, 2017

Colombia (Part 2 - Caldas Province)

A day trip to PNN Los Nevados and a few days at Reserva Ecológico Río Blanco

Monday, July 17 - PNN Los Nevados

After leaving Risalda Province for the first time we drove up to the city of Manizales, perched precariously along a ridge with steep drops, and roads, on either side.  After a night in a hotel and the national coffee growers trade association headquarters (hot water!) we headed up for a full day in PNN Los Nevados.  The weather initially looked worrying, and while the morning was freezing cold, and dogged by drifting fog and low clouds, we did manage to get some serious birding in nevertheless.

The drive up looked promising and indeed we made several very productive stops for Paramo Seedeater, Paramo Tapaculo and Golden-breasted Puffleg.

Visibility came and went but we still saw some good birds like
Golden-breasted Puffleg.

We had a specific target bird in mind through so pushed up past the tree-line and soon were in the Paramo habitat proper (when we could see it between the drifting clouds that blotted out all visibility on regular intervals).  The birds here changed too, with Stout-billed Cinclodes, Many-striped Canastero and Tawny Antpittas joining the mix.

Many-striped Canastero
By the time we reached the park HQ, a small cluster of buildings high in the treeless Paramo habitat, it was quite cold, and very cloudy.  Visibility was pretty much limited to 20-30 feet around us, and sensing that this would make it hard to see our target, we went indoors and enjoyed a restorative local hot sugar cane drink ... not sure what it was called, but it was really good on a cold day.  Fortified by all the hot sugar we set up on the back deck of the HQ, and about twenty minutes later, just as we were starting to shiver again, our target, the BUFFY HELMETCREST zipped into view.  This is one of a group of closely related and recently split hummingbirds, all of which have tiny ranges in high mountain areas.  Definitely the star bird of the day.

Buffy Helmetcrest
The excitement wasn't over though as Daniel wanted to make another stop on the way down, to follow up on a recent report of a bird that would be very rare for Caldas Province.  As we birded along a road, Daniel suddenly locked on to a bird, and shouted at me to "take photos of that bird while I go and get my camera"!  The bird in question was a BLACK-THROATED FLOWERPIERCER, the first record for Caldas Province and a significant range expansion for the species.  I did get some bad photos before Daniel, who is a professional photographer brough his (very superior) camera and lenses from the car and got much better ones.  Quite a moment of excitement though.

Black-throated Flowerpiercer
The rest of the day was more mellow; a nice lunch of trout at a hotel with natural hot springs and very good hummingbird feeders, then a slow birdy drive down a forested valley and back to Manizales.  Definitely a nice day trip to the mountains though.

Shining Sunbeam and Rainbow-beared Thornbill

July 18 - 19Reserva Ecológico Río Blanco

Another famous reserve that I'd really been looking forward to visiting and with two full days, and a bunch of target (life) birds to chase, so good birding was hopefully ahead of us as we arrived on Tuesday morning.

Rio Blanco is famous for Antpittas, not just any old antpittas though, but rather several rare species of antpitta that have been painstakingly habituated to come to 'feeding stations' to eat worms placed out by the lodge staff.  Within minutes of arriving, we were joined by a local guide/volunteer and accompanied her on the daily routine of feeding the antpittas.  First up, the near endemic Bicolored Antpitta  which eventually appeared in a shady clearing under a tree after a good five minutes of whistling and quietly waiting.  These birds didn't just pop up for their lunch, they remained mostly cautious and quite wild.  The Slate-crowned Antpitta and the endemic Brown-banded Antpitta were similarly cautious, but the more common Chestnut-crowned Antpittas were positively tame and hopped around our feet while waiting for their worms, one even allowing me to feed it by hand (!).  I gather this method of habituating birds has its critics .... I'm not really going to comment on it, but I did have a lot of fun seeing very close antpittas ....

The super tame Chestnut-crowned Antpitta and the somewhat shyer
Slate-crowned Antpitta

The endemic Brown-banded Antpitta
With the antpitta show done, we turned our attention to the mixed flocks along the road and enjoyed a good range of species, interspersed with several target birds like the endemic Golden-plumed Parakeet, White-capped TanagerBlack-billed Mountain-Toucan, Buff-breasted Mountain-TanagerOcellated Tapaculo, and a quick visit from the spectacular, local and very rare MASKED SALTATOR.

Not a perfect photo, but my first ever photo of Ocellated Tapaculo.
Hummingbirds were also very much a thing at Rio Blanco with at least a dozen species at the two sets of feeders.  A vigil at the lower gate was rewarded with good views of a Wedge-billed Hummingbird and at other times just sitting by the lodge feeders produced a busy mix of hundreds of individual birds.  Long-tailed Sylphs, Bronzy and Collared Incas, Lesser and Sparkling Violetears, Tourmaline Sunangels, Buff-tailed Coronets, Fawn-breasted Brilliants, White-bellied Woodstars, Speckled Hummingbirds, all condensed into a small area and fury of activity.  As I write this I'm watching my own feeder in New York and - I have one species of hummingbird, Ruby-throated, and perhaps four individual birds visiting - and feeling very nostalgic of the tropics.

We also did a little night-birding one day, but had nothing terribly rare to report - just White-throated Screech-Owls and Rufous-banded Owls.  Later we made a quick one-night stop at Hotel Tinamou, adding a few additional species to make the total for Caldas Province a very respectable 262 species for a few days of birding.

Bronzy Inca and White-bellied Woodstar

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Colombia (Part 1 - Risaralda Province)

Some birding at Otún Quimbaya and Montezuma / PNN Tatamá

July 14-16 - Otún Quimbaya

On Friday, July 14th I flew to Bogota and then on to Pereira in the Colombia Andes where I was met by Daniel Uribe for a week of private guided birding around some of Colombia's best birding spots.  Daniel is a very well known guide and has an eBird map for Colombia that made me very jealous, having seen 1,363 species in the country.  Before this trip, with one brief stop in Bogota to my name, long before the days of eBird, I had zero species for Colombia (!), but I was pretty sure that was going to change during the week.

Our first stop for the week was Otún Quimbaya, where we pulled up to the lodge not long before dusk.  Still, we did have a few moments for birding and the endemic CAUCA GUANS (a species once thought to be extinct before being rediscovered here a few years ago) performed nicely for us, getting my Colombia list and adventure underway in style.

Cauca Guan
The next two days followed similar patterns, birding along the main road which, while pretty rough in places, allowed us to follow the river valley up into the park through a mix of old plantations and native forest.  The undisputed target bird here is HOODED ANTPITTA (a bird reliably found only here and at one site in Venezuela) which we managed to see in the second day after a long search.  While working the road though, we also saw dozens of other species that ranged from common to endemic and provided me with a good introduction to the Colombia Andes, and a bunch of life birds.

Red-ruffed Fruitcrow - another specialty bird, perhaps easier here that anywhere
else in the World, and needless to say, a life bird for me.
Among other highlights were the endemic Grayish Piculet and Whiskered Wrens around the lodge.  The near-endemic Bar-crested Antshrike called constantly from the slopes around us, while we also heard multiple calling Moustached Antpittas, a bird I'd encountered as a rarity in Ecuador some 20 years ago.  Chestnut Wood-Quails were another treat, calling like crazy then rushing across the road in front of us, and of course there were great mixed flocks with some very nice treats including Rusty-winged Barbtail and Streak-capped Treehunter mixed in with more common species.

The first night there we went out to try for Colombian Screech-Owl but came up short so, we ended up trying again.  That second evening started off much better with a pair of calling  Rufous-bellied Nighthawks hawking over us at dusk.  The Screech-Owl also popped up into a nearby giving us some decent, if brief, views before vanishing into the night.

The highlight of the visit also occurred at night, although more specifically as we drove out along the road before dawn.  We had seen a couple of Crab-eating Foxes driving along the road the night before and saw another one that day.  Then another set of 'eye-shine' appeared down the road before us, but flipping the headlights to bright revealed not another fox, but a cat!  The cat in question, a small spotted cat native to the cloud forests called an ONCILLA, dropped down low on it's belly and slunk off into the forest looking a bit sheepish about being spotted.  I never see cats, I have terrible cat karma and had seen only Jaguarundis in South America before (no Jaguar, no Puma, no Ocelot, no Margay, etc.) so I was thrilled and buzzed for hours afterwards.  A very, very cool moment.

Red Howler-Monkey and Rufous-bellied Nighthawk

The lodge itself at Otún Quimbaya was very serviceable even though I couldn't work out how to get a hot shower - cold showers are character-building I suppose.  I also got an introduction to Colombian food, which tends to be a protein and three 'carbs' (plantain, rice and potatoes for dinner) and the inevitable 'aripa' (a corn pancake) for breakfast.  Aripas I learned are much better with butter and salt on them, I think I ate one each day for breakfast 9 days in a row.  Good hearty food if you've been out in the field all day, or are about to go out all day.

All to soon though it was time to move on, and we spent the next 5 days in Caldas Province before returning to Riseralda.

Fawn-breasted Tanager and Chestnut-breasted Wren

July 20-22 - Montezuma / PNN Tatamá

After a couple of sites in Caldas Province (another blog post) we came back to Risaralda for our final stop, the legendary Montezuma Lodge in Tatamá National Park.  I'd heard a lot about this place and over the next 2+ days I got to see at least some of it in the company of Daniel and the owner/manager of the Montezuma lodge, the wonderful and impressive Michelle.

With two full days here we opted to drive up to the higher altitudes (a rough road but passable with a four-wheel-drive vehicle) on the first day, then bird the mid and low altitudes the second.  Two days couldn't possibly do justice to this place but we focussed on the specialities and determined to bird pretty hard while we had the chance.

Tawny-breasted Tinamou ready for it's close-up
and the endemic Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer

Our targets at high altitude were the endemic Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer and Munchique Wood-Wren which we saw relatively easily with a little effort.  The star bird at the top though turned out to be something else entirely.  Michelle got us on to a Tawny-breasted Tinamou, that most secretive and rarely seen of birds which, while trying to sneak quietly away from us unseen, had gotten itself trapped on a steep bank ... it couldn't go up, and wouldn't come down as that meant walking towards us.  So for five minutes we had a captive tinamou in the open for a photo op .... this just doesn't happen often, a rare treat.

The joy of Tatamá though is the range and quality of it's mixed flocks and during our birding day there we saw a huge variety of very cool birds.  Tanagers, Barbets, Flycatchers, Antshrikes, Warblers, Wrens, Jays, Woodcreepers, Fruiteaters, etc. just super high quality birding.  Among the birds that stood out, the endemic Gold-ringed Tanager, Purplish-mantled Tanager, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, Yellow-breasted Antpitta, Bicolored Antvireo, Fulvous-dotted Treerunner, and many many more.

Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia and the very local Olive Finch

Bicolored Antvireo and the endemic Crested Ant-Tanager

There were also good birds away from the flocks, a lek of Club-winged Manikins was a treat, as was a brooding Cloud Forest Pygmy-Owl.  A small group of Beautiful Jays, found just up hill from us by a bunch of Australian birders resulted in a quick scramble, but also a broad agreement that yes, this indeed a beautiful jay.

The endemic Gold-ringed Tanager and the Beautiful Jay 

Club-winged Manikin and the common but photogenic Cinnamon Flycater

Hummingbirds were also a abundant and spectacular, with feeders at the lodge, and at several places along the trail bringing in such superstars are Empress Brilliant, Velvet-Purple Coronet, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, along with more common but spectacular Violet-tailed Sylphs and Andean Emeralds.

White-tailed Hillstar and Purple-bibbed Whitetip 

All in all, just a spectacular two days of birding with 233 species seen in Risaralda province just in these few days at two sites.  Definitely want to go back ... who knows what we'll see next time ....

Friday, July 7, 2017

July 4th in the Hamptons

Some Local Birding from my Home in East Hampton

Planned to spend the long July 4th Holiday weekend out at the house in NorthWest Harbor, and with only a few house guests I was able to grab three blocks of time to do some local birding.

Saturday, July 1 - Cupsogue and Mecox

Up bright and early and off in search of a recently reported Sandwich Tern at Cupsogue.  Made a quick stop at Mecox, which was pretty quiet, especially after a Bald Eagle passed over flushing the few birds that there were on the sand bank, then off to Hampton Bays.  This was my fourth trip to Cupsogue this 'tern season' and the first one where I wasn't likely to be the only birder present, indeed the report of a Sandwich Tern the day before (scarce but annual in New York State) looked likely to bring out a crowd.  Menachin Goldstein had posted that the bird was roosting on 'mussel beds' and, not sure where they might be, I took my usual route out towards the flats.

I usually come to Cuposgue close to the top of the rising tide, which concentrates the terns and shorebirds in a place easier to see them up close.  Today though the tide was low and, as I walked in I saw some mussel beds that I don't usually see or scan.  It felt like a good idea to do a quick scan there and sure enough, the Sandwich Tern was one of the first birds I saw, standing out from the Common Terns mostly by being so much obviously whiter, even at a distance.

Bad, distant 'digi-phone' image of a Sandwich Tern.
I put the tern sighting on the New York State rare bird ListServe and soon enough other birders came by to see it.  I then spent the next three hours birding in the area, seeing nothing terribly unusual to be honest, but mostly catching up with other local birders and generally being social.  Standing around chatting on a mud-flat in the middle of a salt marsh is the sort of the birder equivalent of social time, or brunch I guess.

Sunday, July 2 - Whale Watching Boat out of Montauk

After the June pelagic trip got cancelled, I'd been thinking of ways to get to see some of the shearwaters I was still missing for the year.  Sea-watching wasn't coming up with much so I decided to take the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI) / Viking Fleet Whale-watching boat out of Montauk.  For $75, the boat (a big fishing boat) gets you offshore for 5-6 hours and, while it doesn't get out to the canyons or true pelagic waters, it does get you 30-40 miles out to feeding areas where there are (hopefully) whales and sea birds.

Ocean Sunfish or Mola Mola
The ride out was pretty quiet for a while but as we got further from shore I started to pick up a few shearwaters and storm-petrels.  All of a sudden though we found ourselves among the whales and spent and hour or so with multiple baleen-whales - eight Fin Whales and a Minke Whale - pretty much constantly in view.

Fin Whale
Whatever the whales were eating was also good for the sea birds and there were lots of them in the same area.  My estimated counts included 120 Wilson's Storm-Petrels, 80 Cory's Shearwaters (including a Scopoli's Shearwater), 40 Great Shearwaters, 25 Sooty Shearwaters and 4 Manx Shearwaters.  Pretty much all the sea birds I'd been missing for the year .... except for one ....

Cory's Shearwater (above) and Great Shearwater (below)

Mixed Shearwater flock including some Sooty Shearwaters
Manx Shearwater
Then something unexpected happened.  I was looking at a distant flock of shearwaters sitting on the surface when a bird took off and showed huge white wind flashes .... Skua!  Well it turns out that when you shout "Skua!" on a boat full on non-birdwatching tourists out looking for whales, you get some odd looks.  I think I probably scared a few people and no-one rushed over to see what a Skua was.  The bird itself was flying away from us and I was scrambling to get some photographs, so no-one other than me got to see it.  One of the tourists came over after the fact to ask what all the fuss was about, the rest I think just decided that I was a crazy person and kept their distance.

I was very happy though, SOUTH POLAR SKUA is a very good bird in New York State and the bird I was most hoping for on the June pelagic trips that have been canceled due to weather for the past two years.  It was also New York State Bird #396 for me (this was before they lumped Thayer's Gull so I guess I'm back to 395 now).  While I debated the ID for a while wanting to make sure I wasn't being fooled by a large, dark Pomarine Jaeger, I was VERY glad that I had my camera with me, and very happy that I took the boat that day ... great trip.

Two very bad, distant and heavily cropped shots of a South Polar Skua

Tuesday, July 4 - Local Spots in East Hampton

Less time for birding so decided to put some local eBird hours in and checked several spots close to the house, counting Piping Plover and Least Tern colonies, checking up on local breeding warbler sites, and visiting a few spots that don't get a lot of coverage.  I also moved a couple of Eastern Box Turtles away from the road .... lots of good karma built up for future birding adventures.

I ended up seeing 105 species over the weekend in The Hamptons - not bad for a crowded resort area on the busiest tourist weekend of the year.  Despite the crowds, there's still a lot of wildlife to be seen out there, and it is a spectacularly beautiful area.  Happy holidays indeed.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Birding the Beaches ....

Small Scraps of Birding Time on Long Island in June

Saturday, June 3 - Brooklyn and Queens Counties

The day actually didn't start in Brooklyn or Queens, but rather in Somerset County, New Jersey where I chased, and disastrously dipped a LESSER NIGHTHAWK.  I don't often leave New York State when I'm birding locally but if I do it's usually because a bird catches my interest and sticks in my mind.  This bird did just that, originally identified as a Common Nighthawk and posted on-line, then re-identified as (New Jersey's Second ever record of) a Lesser Nighthawk by Ben Barkley, the bird was subsequently found to have been picked-up and re-habbed locally a few days earlier, before being released nearby.  Once free though, it settled into a nice pattern of sitting on a rail fence or along a gravel path at Lord Sterling Park allowing lots and lots of local birders to see and photograph it during its week long stay.  I got there early on Saturday after a rough drive where the Land Rover's navigation system was totally overwhelmed by the road-spaghetti that is Northern New Jersey, sending me the wrong way several times and even directing down a one-way street the wrong way at one point.  Oh and it was raining when I got there, and oh, the bird seemed to have departed during the night never to be seen again.  Not a good start to the day.

Nelson's Sparrow
So back to New York where my first stop, Plumb Beach in Brooklyn, improved my day immeasurably.  There had been reports of a very unseasonal NELSON'S SPARROW singing in the marsh here (not unusual in the Fall, but rare in the Spring) and as soon as I hiked out to the East end of the beach I could hear it singing loudly and see it sitting up in plain view.  This tiny marsh also had Seaside Sparrow and Clapper Rail (both King's County birds for me) so I felt that returning to New York was clearly the right strategy and pushed on to Jamaica Bay in Queens.

As I pulled into the reserve parking lot I picked up and email saying that Tim Healy had just had a Least Bittern at Big John's Pond, so off I went, hoping for the Bittern and perhaps a glimpse of the resident Barn Owls ... I saw neither.  Back to the West Pond where my spirits picked up when two year birds - a Gull-billed Tern and a Tricolored Heron flew into view within minutes of each other.  Back to being in a good mood and, after checking some other local coastal spots, I called it a day.

Tricolored Heron
Sunday, June 4 - New York County

The long anticipated Pelagic Trip out to the Hudson Canyon was cancelled due to weather.  No South Polar Skua for my New York list this year.

Saturday, June 10 - Suffolk County

Cupsogue again at dawn and I opted to take the shorter, calf-deep stinky mud route out to the flats .... just as gross as I remembered it.  The morning did produce a nice clutch of year birds though with Black Tern, Royal Tern, and Seaside Sparrow all joining the year list.

I also checked Mecox Inlet twice that day, hoping for a recently seen Black-necked Stilt.  While that bird was a no show, I did see four Lesser Black-backed Gulls, more Royal Terns and a nice mix of terns and shorebirds.

Common Tern, one of 7 species of terns seen over the weekend and the only
one close enough for a decent photo ...
Sunday, June 11 - Suffolk County

Back at Cupsogue again for the early tide but this time a quick sea-watch proved productive with four Wilson's Storm-Petrels close to shore (I know, Brian Patterson had a Swinhoe's Storm-Petrel in North Carolina this weekend, but I was still happy to see any Storm-Petrel given that our boat trip got cancelled).  The flats were also lively with more Royal Terns, Roseate Terns and some nice scope views of an adult Arctic Tern.  When I first moved to New York, Arctic Terns were almost never reported from the state other than on pelagic trips; now they are seen annually at various tern loafing spots along Long Island.  This doesn't seem to be a case of a change of distribution as much as a case of more observers being better at picking them up - better birders, better optics.  This bird was of course the reason I went to Cupsogue three times, so I was glad to finally get one.  Now the focus shifts to finding a Sandwich Tern!

Great and Snowy Egrets at Three-Mile Harbor in East Hampton
In addition to Cupsogue, I also hit Mecox a few more times and checked out a bunch of the local sites like Three-Mile Harbor, etc.  Nothing amazing there - a Saltmarsh Sparrow was the best bird at Sammy's Beach - but a nice local mix of breeding birds.  A very nice weekend of local birding.

Thursday, June 15 - Nassau County

There had been two Black-necked Stilts at Jones Beach for the previous two weeks ... a bit of a rarity in New York and a county bird (and state year bird) for me.  I was there at 6:00am, just in time to see a helicopter spray the area for mosquitos and flush every bird for miles around, and again at 3:00pm.  Not a stilt to be seen ....  hopefully not slipping back into a dipping phase ....

Saturday, June 17 - Western New York State

And while I was out of town, a BROWN BOOBY was found at Nickerson Beach in Nassau County .... argh!  This species is now a good candidate for my official New York State nemesis bird given the number of times I've missed it in the state (it's either this species or Mew Gull).  I was 450 miles to the West when it was found and briefly considered driving back overnight to be there at dawn to see it.  In the end I was just too tired to do that safely so gave up, and was glad I did as the bird was found dead the next morning.  To drive eight hours to see a dead Booby would not have been a fun thing.....

The reason I was out of town was a good thing though.  One of my goals this year was to have a life list in each of New York's 62 counties.  I was close to this goal, but given a quiet, free weekend, decided to finish it off with a 1,000 mile drive through the West of New York State, filling in the last of the counties.  The birds weren't very exciting, but the birding was pleasant and I got to see some new places and bird some new habitats.  A nice outdoorsy, if very introverted, weekend ... sometimes us introverts need quiet time.

All done.  Now I just have to keep adding to the lists.
Saturday, June 24 - Suffolk County (The Hamptons)

Started the day with a sea-watch from Amagansett and royally messed up.  I had a lot of stuff to schlepp out to the house on Friday so I opted to leave my camera behind .... NEVER leave your camera behind!  As soon as I walked on to the beach I saw two birds that I would really have liked to photograph ... big, dark skua/jaeger types of the sort that could have been big, dark, (rare) Pomarine Jaegers or (much rarer) South Polar Skuas.  In sea-watching you don't get a lot of time as birds hurtle past so, if I'd had my camera, I could have taken a few shots to study later at leisure and work on the ID.  So in the end I had to report these birds as Skua/Jaeger sp. a real lost opportunity.

The day did get better though when I had some friends from the city, some local fishing friends and some of the local hotshot young Long Island birders over for dinner.  Cooked Paella and made Olive Oil Cake ... yes, I can cook ... a very pleasant evening.

My Paella - my giant Paella Pan is one of my prize possessions ....
Sunday, June 25 - (local) East Hampton Spots

Hit a half dozen local spots.  Saw nothing remarkable, but felt good about putting in some local coverage time.

Overall a good June.  Saw a lot of birds, none terribly rare, but I did feel like I spent time with New York's breeding birds for the first time in a few years.  And so on to more adventures in July ....