Sunday, February 12, 2017

Great Gray Owls in New York ... Finally!

One of My Most Wanted State Birds Finally Shows Up ....

Saturday, February 11 - Massena, New York

There are two Robert Moses State Parks in New York.  One is an hour os from my house on Long Island, the other is 7 hours from Manhattan (and 9 hours from East Hampton).  So for me to go to the latter one, means there is a seriously good bird there.

For the past week or so there have been rumors of Great Gray Owls in the very North of New York State.  That in and of itself if not unusual; most years there are rumors of Great Gray Owls but they almost never seem to turn into real birds.  There were birds in the 70s and 90s and a bird in 2013 (that for some reason I didn't chase, probably burned out after my big year) but I haven't really had an opportunity to see this species in New York. This year though, the omens were good with a massive invasion of owls into neighboring Quebec, a handful of New York sightings reported to local newspapers, and then, the moment I'd been waiting 20 years for .... a specific Great Gray Owl record from New York, with detailed location, and photos, when  I was available and interested in chasing it!  Game on!

So at 5am on Saturday I was on my way North, heading for that other Robert Moses State Park, this one near Massena on the St. Lawrence River, North of the Adirondack Mountains at the very Northern tip of New York State.  It took me almost 7 hours to get there, and I pointedly avoided checking the list serve emails on the way up (it's not like I was going to turn back).   As I pulled into the park though I allowed myself a peak at the email and the news was good ... 2 GREAT GRAY OWLS were being seen along one of the roads in the park.  Not ten minutes later I pulled up to a bunch of parked cars and a group of (albeit freeing cold) birders watching the owls.  Oh, why can't they all be this easy - after my horrible year of long-distance dips in 2016 - this was an amazing site.

There were two owls in view and they pretty much did everything you want owls to do.  They did some perch hunting, flew around a bit, changed perches a lot and came close to the road, and one even did some awesome hovering thing over the (hopefully) vole-infested grass.  Quite a show and a very, very cool to add to my state list (NYS #393).

There weren't really all that many other birds present, a few chickadees, crows, ravens, etc.  and a single Rough-legged Hawk.  I did a quick detour to look for a previously reported Barred Owl (no luck) but bumped into a birder who gave me directions to a NORTHERN SHRIKE which was definitely another great add for the state year list.

Northern Shrike - another backlit photo, sorry ...
So onward.  Super happy with my owls, I headed further North with a  plan to add a few more.  I crossed the US-Canadian border near Cornwall Ontario and headed NorthEast toward Montreal, stopping at a small suburban preserve and adding Great Gray Owl to my Quebec list too (joining previous sightings in Ontario and Minnesota).  Nice day ... but cold ... and I had dinner plans in Montreal.  Plans at perhaps my favorite restaurant in North America ... Joe Beef.

Two very old school dishes at Joe Beef - Flanc de Cerf, Dauphin et Foie Gras
and Gateau Marjelain 

Sunday, February 12 - Adirondacks, New York

Up shocking early after Saturday night's excesses and off to the Adirondacks.  I knew I didn't have much time given a forecast snow storm but figured I'd at least have the morning to bird.  The day started really well when, not long after dawn I crossed the U.S. border and had a Barred Owl hunting by the side of the road somewhere in Clinton County.  So on to the Adirondacks to see if I could clean up the available boreal specialties in a single morning.  Well I can dream can't I?

A quick stop at Oregon Plains Road added a BOREAL CHICKADEE  among the more common locals.  Then on to Tupper Lake where I added EVENING GROSBEAK and to Sabatis Bog which gave me Ruffed Grouse and GRAY JAY.  While I was in Brazil a few weeks ago a ROSS'S GULL showed up at Tupper Lake - it arrived just after I left ... and left just before I got back, allowing every serious birder in NY to see it except me (and Corey Finger who was apparently in Austria).  That's a bird I really want to see in New York, in fact I've never seen one in North America.  So driving through Tupper Lake had a certain bitter-sweet element to it, and I did scan the lake, just in case .... but no dream gull.
Birding cars aren't meant to be neat and clean ....
The snow also started to come down hard at that point though and I reluctantly decided to start heading South.  That unfortunately took me into the storm and the next 7 hours were a pretty stressful drive through heavy snow (almost a white-out blizzard at some points), bad roads, traffic jams, car accidents, and other wintery travel fun.  There was a brief highlight when I saw two BOHEMIAN WAXINGS in Indian Pond, but otherwise the ride South to the City was long and stressful.

Not a bad haul of birds though.  A New York State bird, 9 NYS year birds, and a smattering of new county birds on both sides of the border.  By no means did I do a boreal clean-up though - couldn't find a Black-backed Woodpecker, and came up short on Winter Finches other than the grosbeak.  Also, when I got back to New York, I found out that Joan Collins had had two male (!) Pine Grosbeaks sitting out on the road at Sabatis Bog just after I left.   So while I got a lot of stuff on my quick swing through the Adirondacks, I clearly would have seen a lot more had I birded it properly.  Still, always happy to have a reason to go back to the Adirondacks (or Montreal for that matter) so I'm sure I'll find a time to head back up there again.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

White-winged Potoos and 2 Days at Porto Seguro

Bahia, Brazil (Part 2)

After leaving Boa Nova we settled in for another long day of driving, this one without benefit of target birds so pretty much just a long slog down to the coast.  Out destination with the picturesque seaside town of Porto Segura (which is essentially where Brazil was founded around 1500) a sleepy place with long beaches, lots of palm trees and and lots of mellow old world character.  After a long day of driving, the charms of the Best Western Shalimar Beach Hotel, which included a pool, abundant caipirinhas and some good Brazilian seafood, outweighed any chortles about the very 1970s name.  A few good bottles of Brazilian Cabernet later, we were all wiped out, ready for sleep, and excited to explore new habitat in the morning.

Tuesday, January 31 - Estação Veracel, Porto Seguro

Our birding destination for the next two days was the famous Estação Veracel reserve and some adjoining areas.  Targets included some hummingbirds, cotingas, and a star nightbird.  So at first light we were off and walking the roads, scanning tree-tops and checking out flowering bushes with high hopes.  WHITE-WINGED COTINGA turned out to be fairly easy to see and we picked up five of them over the two days, although most were distant as cotingas tend to be and we were never able to come up with the rarer Banded Cotinga despite some serious searching.

White-winged Cotinga - Male (above) and Female (below)
Difficult birds to photograph at long range int he tops of trees. 

The area was very birdy though and yielded such goodies as HOOK-BILLED HERMIT, Red-browed Parrot, Bare-throated Bellbird, and the distinct local forms of Turquoise Tanager and Ringed Woodpecker.  We also had an up close and personal experience with a couple of Barred Forest-Falcons, and a really nice mix of forest species overall.

King Vulture and Turquoise Tanager (the White-bellied Atlantic Forest form)

The target bird for this part of the trip was indisputably the local, rare, and hard to see WHITE-WINGED POTOO.  While the species ranges widely across the Amazon, it's not common or reliable anywhere, and there just simply aren't that many places where you can have a good shot at seeing one.

Estação Veracel is one of those places though as Brett Whitney had found a bird here several years ago and that same bird (or it's descendants) has been regularly seen by birders year after year.  So just before dark we drove up to "the snag" where the bird is usually seen and, after it got dark Brett whistled the potoo song and we waited to see if the bird would give us an audience too.  There was some tension as the group had missed the bird the previous year, but I was optimistic, it just felt good.

The forest at night is usually quite loud, although most of the noise comes from cicadas, crickets and frogs, not birds or large mammals.  There were a couple of Common Pauraques calling away though and a single Short-tailed Nighthawk called a few times nearby but remained unseen.  After a good 15 minutes of listening, I heard what I though was a response and raised a hand as a silent signal to Brett.  Moments later, he stopped whistling and whispered to the group that the bird was nearby and just behind us.  From there on in, we all had to stay still, silent, and stay focussed on the snag, the tension eventually breaking when two Potoos sailed over us, silhouetted agains the starry sky, and came into the trees infront os us calling and singing, occasionally sitting up in the spot lights and giving us excellent views of this most wanted species.

My best shot of the White-winged Potoo - you can sort of see what it is ....

Wednesday, February 1 - Estação Veracel, Porto Seguro

After the excitement of the Potoos, a few too many Caipirinhas and some good Brazilian wine, we dragged ourselves up again for another crack at some of the birds we still needed at Veracel.  We never did get the Banded Cotinga or the Racquet-tailed Coquette, but we did get great perched views of a HOOK-BILLED HERMIT, and more decent views of several other local specialties.  One of the local park employees told us he'd seen Harpy Eagle within the last year - perched, and eating a sloth! - so the this piece of habitat is still clearly in decent shape and very important.

Swallow-winged Puffbird and White-crowned Manakin

Away from the birds, we did actually manage to see a few mammals on this last day.  For a Neotropical Trip, we didn't see much in the way of 'non-birds' during the week - a few Guianan Squirrels, a handful of Geoffrey's Tamarinds, two Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths and a (lifer for me on the last day) BAHIAN PORCUPINE were the only mammals we saw.

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth and
Bahian Porpupine (which stubbornly hid it's head from photographs)

All too soon though it was time to head to the airport, fly to Salvador, and later for me, fly to São Paulo where the Fazano Hotel, D.O.M. restaurant, and business meetings all waited.  A big change of pace from life in the forest, but I'm very glad I got the chance to sneak a week of birding into the schedule.  Big thanks for Field Guides and Brett Whitney for making it happen.  I've birded SouthEast Brazil several times before - this brought my Brazil list to 602 species - but I'm sure it won't be the last time I bird here.  Great country, awesome food, great people, beautiful scenery, and amazing birds .... oh, and don't forget the caipirinhas ....

Postscript:  I did finally get some Vatapá back in São Paulo where celebrity chef and Brazilian food icon Alex Atala added it to a Palmito dish as part of the 16-course "maximus' tasting menu at D.O.M. (along with his signature formiga/ant dish).

Wild Amazonian Ants that taste just like Lemongrass and
Palmetto with Varapá

Alex Atala - Brazilian Food Master and owner/chef at D.O.M., currently ranked
the number 12 restaurant in the world.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Pink-legged Graveteiros and 3 Days in Boa Nova

Bahia Brazil (Part 1)

This trip was a bit of a whim.  I'm a retired (recovering?) world lister which means I don't do stuff like this any more, but every now and then, a trip hits me as something fun to do.  I'd always wanted to go to Bahia, eat Vatapá (the real local stuff), and I have a real soft spot for the Brazilian SouthEastern Rain forest.  So when I got an email from Field Guides offering a one-week short trip, really just an extension to their NorthEast Brazil trip, with the legendary Brett Whitney as leader,  I went ahead and booked it, planning to combine it with some business, food, and personal things for a 10-day Brazil vacation.

So on January 25th I flew via São Paulo to Salvadore do Bahia, joined Brett and 5 other world birders, and got ready for a fun few days in some of the relic forests of central Bahia.

Salvadore do Bahia - a super intersting place.  Portuguese and African cultures,
baroque churches, Brazilian food, colonial architecture.  A rare photo of me in
the blue tee-shirt below ...

Friday, January 27 - from Salvadore to Boa Nova

This day was basically a travel day, and a long one.  We left the hotel in Salvadore at 4am to catch a ferry across Baía de Todos os Santos and then basically headed SouthWest all day along roads of mixed quality to end up in Boa Nova in the evening.  To keep us sane, Brett added a handful of birding stops.  Some Scarlet Ibis and shorebirds along the Rio Jaguaripe were a treat, as was a longer forest walk near Valença which gave us some nice birds, most notably the Eastern (and presumably soon to be split) form of STRIPED MANAKIN.

Bird of the day though was always going to be the unusual and recently described PINK-LEGGED GRAVETEIRO if we could find one.  A species described only in 1996 it clings on in remnant canopy trees left after the forest was cleared for cocoa plantation.  The farmers leave a few trees to shade the cocoa, and this seems to be just enough for the Graveteiros to hang on in what looks like farm country, despite the fact that it was once a forest bird.

By mid afternoon we were in the right habitat, a mixture of cattle fields and what looked like open forest, that is until you noticed that the entire understory of the forest was single species feeding the worlds insatiable need for chocolate.  Our first stop came up empty, but at the second stop Brett had a nest staked out and, after playing take for a few minutes, a pair of birds appeared up around their nest high in a forest-edge tree.

Pink-legged Graveteiro singing from just above it's nest.  Not the most
exciting bird to look at, but recently-described, local, and rare.
Happy with the Graveteiro, perhaps ironically my most wanted bid on this trip, I settled back into the long ride and shifted focus to Boa Nova which we eventually reached, checking into a very basic hotel and eating take-out pizza for dinner (the only non-Brazilian food we ate on the whole trip).

Saturday, January 28 - Boa Nova National Park

Brett once voted Boa Nova the most important, threatened place for birds in South America.  A new National Park, although with no park infrastructure that I could discern, the town sits at the border between wet forest, dry forest and caatinga and is incredibly rich in bird life, including chances to see several very range-restricted species.

We started the day a little outside the park in a patch of forest on top of a dry ridge.  The very last of the moisture from the trade winds that feed the Atlantic Rainforest just reaches these dry ridges and provides just enough liquid (in the form mostly of mist) for small strips of forest to survive in an otherwise dry scrubby area.  We came to this patch to follow up on recent rumors of a breeding pair of Rieser's Tyrannulets (a near mythical species seen only a handful of times) and saw the recently vacated nest, but unfortunately did not see the birds.   We did however manage to get great views of two very range restricted antbirds that were major targets for the trip, the SLENDER ANTBIRD and the NARROW-BILLED ANTWREN both of which put on great shows for the group.

Narrow-billed Antwren (above) and Caatinga Antwren (below)

In the afternoon we wandered a trail in the super birdy Wet Forest in the National Park, adding lots of species including Bahia Spinetail (I wanted to see birds with Bahia in the name seeing as I was in Bahia), Rio de Janeiro Antbird, Striated Softtail and Black-throated Grosbeak.
Rufous Gnateater (above) and Slender Antbird (below)

Then, as it got toward sunset, we drove a little further to a stake-out site for another one of the major trip targets, the never easy, but always impressive GIANT SNIPE (a bird at least twice the size of a Common or Wilson's Snipe).  As it got dark we started to walk down the hill towards some wet fields where Brett had seen the snipe in prior years.  We passed a Common Pauraque and a Scissor-tailed Nightjar on the way, but tonight was a Snipe-Hunt, no time for nightjars.  As we got to the spot we started to work our way under a barbed wire fence, expecting to play tape and try to lure in a snipe, but the first people under found a snipe waiting for us, right out in the open not 30 feet from the road.  Now if only these things were always this easy!  We all had amazing views, the Giant Snipe itself, while initially nervous and crouched ready to flush, eventually got over us and started to wander around feeding, pushing it's truly enormous bill into the wet grass looking for worms.  We all had amazing views, and got back to the hotel early enough for an extra Caiparinha before dinner ... what's not to like?

Giant Snipe, at this stage still ready to flush ....

Sunday, January 29 - Boa Nova National Park

The major target for today was another "Bahia" bird, the very restricted and hard to find BAHIA TYRANNULET.  This bird was much more typical of rare birds though in that it required us to walk steeply up hill on a bad trail all morning ... in the rain ... and when we got to the site, the bird was no-where to be seen.  Now that's more like the type of birding I remember!  Knowing that the bird was probably around somewhere - he'd seen it here in past years - Brett tried to toot up some action using Least Pygmy-Owl calls.  We were soon joined by a real Least Pygmy-Owl, a swarm of freaked-out hummingbirds and small passerines, but unfortunately, not by a Bahia Tyrannulet.  Until, then there it was, not joining in the mobbing, but skulking quietly through canopy foliage overhead.  It took a while for us all to get good views, and I never got even the crappiest record shot, but the bird was seen well.  Mission accomplished, allowing us a more leisurely descent on the trail and the addition of yet more antbird species to the list.

Least Pygmy-Owl, getting them agitated is a good way to attract rare tyrannulets.
After a pleasant afternoon exploring some of the drier habitats near town, dinner proved to be another highlight of the trip. Boa Nova is a pretty basic place, certainly not known for it's fine restaurants, but in years past Brett had made the acquaintance of a local lady who sometimes cooked for visitors in her home. Tonight she had agreed to cook for us, and she put out a table groaning under the weight of amazing home-cooked local specialties.   A fabulous meal, and a great experience ... did I mention how much I love Brazilian food?

A home cooked meal in Boa Nova, Bahia.

Monday, January 30 - Boa Nova Area

Last morning in Boa Nova and, hoping to pad our Bahia lists, and get Masked Duck for a group member who really wanted one, we headed to a local fazenda which had a nice wetland area "stuffed with birds".  Unfortunately the historic local dry-spell had dried up the marsh but we spend a very pleasant few hours with dry-country birds before slogging 500 kilometers to the East to Porto Seguro, our base for the next part of the trip.

Suiriri Flycatcher, Spot-backed Puffbird and Silvery-cheeked Antshrike