Sunday, August 26, 2018

Volcanoes and Pink-headed Warblers

August 2018: A Short Trip to the Volcanic Highlands of Guatemala

Tuesday, August 14 - Guatemala City to Tecpan

Some trips are just a little random.  Earlier this year, while chatting on-line with a friend (future birding star Jacob Drucker) we got to talking about Southern Mexico and from that conversation my mind drifted to some of the Central American Highland birds I really have long wanted to see.  Before too long I had arranged a short trip to Guatemala as a tag-on to my Birthday Foodie trip to Mexico City.  Why Guatemala and not Chiapas?  No good answer there really, I would like to go to Chiapas but settled on Guatemala, perhaps blaming that pesky eBird World Map that gives you such endorphins for filling in new countries in shades of yellow, orange or red.  Anyway, plans were made with Cayaya Birding and I threw the invitation open to some friends resulting in Michael Duffy, Carlos Sanchez, and Brent Bomkamp signing up to join me.

Having survived a bit of a rough landing, the Aero Mexico pilot aborted the landing twice before sticking it on the third attempt, I made it to Guatemala City and promptly passed out exhausted.  Brent ended up dropping out due to a family medical emergency but on Tuesday morning Michael, Carlos and I met with local bird expert and tour leader/fixer extraordinaire Knut Eisermann and headed off to explore the birds of the Guatemalan highlands.

First stop was a small park not far from the city center that preserved a small valley with native vegetation.  Highlight here was BUFFY-CROWNED WOOD-PARTRIDGE  a lifer for me and part of a nice selection of birds that fortified us for the long road trip to the highlands and our main birding target.  By lunch-time we'd arrived at an odd Swiss-chalet-style restaurant that specialized in crepes, but with lunch done we hiked up into the pine-oak forest behind the restaurant and were smack in the middle of our target birds.

Highlights here included BLUE-THROATED MOTMOT which we heard a lot before we finally got a good look at it.  That stunning confection of a bird, the PINK-HEADED WARBLER was also here and gave good views, and bad photos, at the top of the trail along with a supporting cast of lifers including Hooded Grosbeak, Black-capped Swallow, Guatemalan Tyrannulet and Blue-and-white Mockingbird.  A couple of hours truly well spent and a few of our key target birds locked down on the first morning made for a very good start.  And it was still only mid-afternoon on Day 1 ... what was next?

Pink-headed Warbler and Blue-throted Motmot
(Two of the star endemics of the Guatemalan Highlands)

"Next" turned out to be the Tecpan area and a site for another nemesis bird of mine, the UNSPOTTED SAW-WHET OWL.   This was a bird I've looked for twice unsuccessfully, both times in Costa Rica, and so another chance was most welcome.  The exact site had to be withheld at Knut's request and the arrival of two local guys with shotguns who escorted us into and out of the area was a definite reminder that we were off the beaten track here.  The site, more beautiful mixed forest quickly provided more lifers for me with Black-throated Jay and Rufous-collared Robin joining the life list.  As the light fell, we also had quite a night-bird treat with Mexican Whip-poor-wills, Whiskered Screech-Owls and Northern (Guatemalan) Pygmy-Owl all calling their hearts out around us and allowing themselves to be seen.  Then the Saw-Whet Owl also called and for the next hour or so we played a game of cat and mouse with it ... we would move, play the tape ... and the owl would fly over to a nearby tree and call back ... but never showed itself .... nothing more than hints of movement in the shadows.  But at least I heard it this time ... one day I will see one.

Wednesday, August 15 - Tecpan to Santiago Atitlán

After another morning in the Tecpan area we headed out towards the famous, and stupidly scenic Lake Atitlán for a two night stay.  The site of a sad extinction story where the Atitlán Grebe slipped away into oblivion as a result of human stupidity (the introduction of Large-mouth Bass for sport fishing) and a natural disaster (an earthquake that lowered the lake and eliminated feeding and breeding areas) I'd long wanted to see this place.  That a species survived here at all on such a tiny and fragile lake was a wonder in and of itself.  Still, I wish I'd been here earlier to see it, although it was gone before I started world-birding.

While our first views of the lake were scenic and high up, our first birding was at a place called IMAP where I added my life SLENDER SHEARTAIL and White-faced Ground-Sparrows.  Then a very pleasant evening ensconced at the comfortable Hotel Bambú with good food, decent wine and great views of the lake.

Slender Sheartail
Thursday, August 16 - Santiago Atitlán Area

Today I had a choice ... attempt a death march up the volcano with Knut, Michael and Carlos for Horned Guan, a bird I desperately wanted to see, or take it easier and bird some local cloud forest for a bunch of life birds.  A recent surgery made the volcano climb inadvisable and, as much as I wanted to try it, I knew I'd just slow the others down, so ended up going for the softer option.

The cloud forest option turned out to be perfectly great and I ended up adding 8 life birds with Rolando Torres on the trails at Rey Tepepul.  The adds included 3 life hummingbirds - Wine-throated Hummingbird, Green-throated Mountain-Gem and Emerald-chinned Hummingbird - plus Azure-rumped Tanager, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, and Black Thrush.  The last two were the, always hard to see, White-faced Quail Dove and the long-wanted Spotted Nightingale-Thrush, a bird I've salivated over in field guides for twenty years and never connected with.  A very nice day.

Wine-throated Hummingbird and Guatemalan Tyrannulet

After my birding morning, I ordered a nice lunch and a margarita, took a nap and was reading by the pool when I heard the sound of sobbing and shuffling on the path to the room.  Michael and Carlos had triumphed and seen the Horned Guan but at great physical cost it would seem as they limped back to the hotel in search of a hot tub or alcohol or both.  Physically I clearly made the right choice ... but maybe there are some Horned Guans closer to the road somewhere?

Friday, August 17 and Saturday, August 18 - Los Tarrales

A quick stop for the last major target bird of the trip, the BELTED FLYCATCHER, which despite Knut's pessimistic expectation management showed itself easily at Finca Santa Victoria.

Rusty Sparrow
Then the long drive to Los Tarrales was made longer by a defective van that couldn't break without an ominous wobbling and shuddering sensation and so the driver stayed stubbornly in second gear the whole way.  Once we arrived though, and sent the driver back to get a replacement van, we settled in to great food, nice rooms, and an afternoon/evening that alternated between birding around the lodge and drinking wine and reading bird books in the library.  Sure the rain was torrential but the settings were scenic and we still managed to whittle out some good life birds (White-breasted Chachalaca and Yellow-naped Parrot) and the lodge itself with it's faded affluence, bird art collection and welcoming staff made for a very pleasant experience.

The rain, mercifully had stopped in time for our last morning of birding where a Mottled Owl called to us as we climbed into a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the climb up to the higher altitude forests on the preserve.  I tried scoping the cloud forest for a Horned Guan (technically possible I suppose) but most of the day was spent slowly descending through the forest and we did encounter a good mix of species.  Highlights for me were lifer Blue-tailed Hummingbird, Ruddy Woodcreeper, and a BLUE SEEDEATER, a bird I really had not expected to see.  Carlos and Michael also got to catch up on some of the species I'd seen two days before and in total we rounded off a very nice list for a short trip.

Food was overshadowed by the Mexico trip but here a traditional Mayan
Fish Stew
Then back to Guatemala City, a delayed flight and a bouncy red-eye back to New York.  Overall a very nice trip and I definitely left wishing I had another week this time.  I think I'll be back, and not just for that pesky Honed Guan.

Ancient Moles and Rare Sparrows

August 2018: A Foodie Trip to Mexico City with a few Sparrows Thrown In

Friday, August 10 - Sunday, August 12 - Mexico City

This was most definitely not a birding trip, just making this clear.  We went to Mexico City to eat and to celebrate my birthday.  Besides my bird list, the other passion that drives my travel (and certainly drains my bank account) is my fondness for the World's Fifty Best Restaurants.  Two of these restaurants, QUINTONIL and the legendary PUJOL are located in Mexico City and I'd made reservations at both for a blow-out foodies weekend.

Sea Urchin 'Pozole' at Quintonil
Even though I did end up getting a new bird for my Mexico list while I was in the City (Mexican Duck was split on eBird that weekend and we saw some in a city park), we spent the weekend eating, drinking, and working our way through a small sample of Mexico City's amazing museums.  The city is huge, but surprisingly navigable and generally feels safe and friendly.  The food of course was simply out of this world.

Corn (with a sauce made from Ants) and a 1,000-day-old Mole
at Pujol

Monday, August 13

With a free morning but needing to be in Guatemala City in the afternoon, I'd reached out to local birders to see if I could squeeze in a few Mexican birds before I had to leave.  Rafa Calderon, a local biologist and passionate birder had taken up the challenge so at 5:30am I left the very fancy Four Seasons Hotel (dressed a little scruffier than the doormen would have liked) and headed off for a precious few hours with the birds of the Mexico City area.

After an hour or so driving to get out of the City, we climbed up into the surrounding volcanic highlands and found our way to our first birding spot.  Park Las Maravillas was a picnic area, a bunch of tussock grass and some trail-heads that led up into some mixed Pine-Oak forest on the volcanoes above the city.  When we arrived it was also dark, cloudy and damp but, negotiating our way in through the gate, we pulled over near the tussock grass and waited for it to get light enough to bird.

Striped Sparrow
Our target here was a rare and restricted range bird that I had long wanted to see, the SIERRA MADRE SPARROW.  The sparrow lives in the tussock grass, a habitat all too easily converted to agriculture, and sings from the top of the grass stalks but is shy and drops down quickly upon approach.  As it got lighter we got out of the van and started our search, avoiding the tussocks in part because it's a fragile habitat and in part because of the high density of rattlesnakes (!).  STRIPED SPARROWS (a lifer) and Canyon Towhees were abundant and obvious around the picnic area but we had to walk a little way before we heard our target and searched the exposed grass tops for a while before seeing a bird that looked like a small reddish Song Sparrow but with a very distinctive song.  Success!  We ended up getting some good view although they always managed to drop down before I got close enough for a photo.  Still, the memory of the bird and the place is solidly imprinted on my mind ... sparrow, volcanoes, drifting clouds, giant sprawl of Mexico City laid out below us ... it was memorable.

With the two life sparrows in the bag we headed off up the trail, soon adding a third lifer when we bumped into some STRICKLAND'S WOODPECKERS (a bird I used to have on my list before the Strickland's/Arizona Woodpecker split some years back).  The rest of the birds on the trail had a very Western US kind of feel, many would be familiar to US birders from Arizona - Western Bluebird, Olive Warbler, Steller's Jay, Mexican Chickadee, Yellow-eyed Junco, etc.  but there were also some great Mexican specialties like Long-tailed Wood-Partridge and Red Warbler.  All-in-all a very pleasant way to spend the morning.

Strickland's Woodpecker
With a few hours left before I had to head to the airport, a quick scan of my bird-needs-list revealed only one realistic life bird possibility, the BLACK-BACKED ORIOLE.  My guides didn't think that would be a hard bird to see but it ended up leading us on a merry chase before we finally got one several hours later.  First we stopped at the very birdy Bosque del Tlalpan, a large urban park with decent forest patches,  before finally tracking down our target at the very well laid out Jardín Botánico.

Mexico City does seem to have some great places to bird, especially some decent little urban migrant traps, and also a growing birding community.  In the end we had 64 species and I had 4 lifers.  Not a bad outcome for a spare morning in a large urban area.  Will definitely come back for the food, but there are also a few more birds that I'd love to chase next time I'm here.  Mexico is also just a wonderful place to visit and full of the warmest, most genuine people you'll meet anywhere.  The US Media loves to give a very one-sided picture of Mexico, don't believe the hype, go see it for yourself.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Special Birds of the Brazilian (Eastern) Amazon

July 2018: A Week at a Remote Birding Site near Paragominas, Pará

Sunday, July 1 2018 - Belém

I really wanted to get to the (proper) Amazon this year and had a surprisingly hard time doing it.  The first plan fell through when flight schedules changed, the second never really settled, so by the time I left Sao Paulo on my way to Belém I was hoping that my third attempt was going to pan out.  This trip was organized by Brazil birding veteran Andy Whitaker, who had arranged for me to meet with local birding expert Pablo Vieira Cerqueira and to head off to a remote logging camp in a private reserve about nine hours South of Belém near Paragominas.  He promised basic conditions, high humidity, but also great birds so I was excited to get going and, after a few pampered days in Sao Paulo, I felt ready to get out there into the forest.

With time to spare after my afternoon flight arrival, and suspecting that I'd be itching to bird, Pablo took us directly to Park Estadual do Utinga, a suburban forest patch/park that with concrete biking trails and the like.  It actually produced a few lifers with the spiffy Red-necked Aracari and the tricky Green-tailed Goldenthroat joining the list before a very pleasant dinner at Belém's newly redeveloped dockland area.   Not a bad start ...

Red-necked Aracari
Monday, July 2 - Saturday, July 7 - Fazenda Cauaxi, Paragominas

OK, so Andy Whitaker was right ... the drive was very long, the accommodations were basic, the humidity was high and the food was monotonous.  We were staying in a logging camp, the huts were hot and stuffy, the spiders and cockroaches were large, and the facilities were basic.  BUT, the welcome was warm, the locals were friendly, and the birds .... well yes, they were good.

Accommodations and Greater Yellow-headed Vulture
(they were always looking for hand-outs at camp)

The highlight of the drive down was watching Brazil beat Mexico in a World Cup Football match at a roadside restaurant on the way ... we later skipped the Belgium match and were glad we did.  With little internet though, our connection to the outside world was tenuous and that left little to do but do birding.  So we basically went birding from before dawn until siesta time, then from late afternoon until well after dark every day.  In six days we racked up around 250 species and while it's hard to capture all of those things, here are some of the highlights:

An evening stake-out for GOLDEN PARAKEETS, that most Brazilian of birds, proudly sporting the national green-and-gold colors, and the bird I most wanted to see on this trip  We waited for them to return to their roost site, in fact we waited several hours.  Then, just before dusk, a group flew in and shot straight into the roost hole without waiting for me to get get good photos or savor the scene ... not quite the plan ... but at least we saw others in flight several other times.

Golden Parakeets at their roost site
A GUIANAN RED COTINGA in a mixed flock and GOULD'S TOUCANETS in the canopy at dawn.  Two very colorful and charismatic rarities that were high on my list and exciting to see.

Gould's Toucanet (I love anything with the world Gould in it ...
John Gould is a bit of a personal hero)
A successful search for the very range-restricted RED-AND-BLACK GROSBEAK and even a few bad photos to show for it.

Red-and-black Grosbeak ... it's hard to photograph birds in the dark
of the deep forest.

A magical dawn encounter with a pair of WHITE-WINGED POTOOS (a form sure to be split from the Atlantic Coast birds I saw last year).  A quick whistle and the birds called back and then went hunting, flying overheard and silhouetted against the lightening sky and the leaves and vines of the canopy.  We also had Long-tailed Potoo, Common Potoo and a good selection of nightjars and owls on this trip, but then we did spend a fair amount of time out at night.

Quirky Amazonian Parrots like VULTURINE PARROT, Dusky Parrot and Red-fan Parrot.

Getting to grips with the birds we worked really hard for like Guianan Gnatcatcher (the future Pará Gnatcatcher), Hooded Gnateater, the local Amazonian Barred-Woodcreeper (the future Todd's Woodcreeper), Cryptic Forest-Falcon, and Snethlage's Antpitta.

My first trumpeters, and them being the very restricted and hard to see Black-backed form of the DARK-WINGED TRUMPETER (another future split).  Trumpeters are really the soul of the Amazon and it took me way too long to finally see one.  I seem to have specialized in the edges of the Amazon so definitely need to spend more time in the deep forest for species like this.

White Hawk and Pearly Parakeets

And even two species that at the time didn't even have 'official' names.  A currently un-described megascops presently sitting in Tawny-bellied Screech Owl (Andean) but clearly a different species, and what eBird currently has listed as the Maranhao-Piaui Pygmy-Tyrant (un-described form).

I'd also hoped for some mammals.  From Andy's descriptions he was constantly being stalked by Pumas and Jaguars here and had to chase Tapirs off the trail at every turn.  Alas the mammals didn't show for us, or at least nothing scarier than South American Coati, some monkeys, a glimpse of a Jaguarundi, and a Crab-eating Fox.  One day I will see Jaguar and Tapir in Brazil ... it just wasn't to be in this trip.

South American Coati
Soon enough though, our time was over and I warned Pablo that our last dinner, back in Belém would NOT have rice and beans (and certainly no mystery meat gristle), but would rather feature fish and caipirinhas ... luckily he knew just the place and we feasted in local seafood with local açaí and cocktails made of local fruit (and all after hot showers at the hotel).

Sunday, July 8 - Belém

There was time for one more star bird before my flight the next day though.  The BLACK-CHESTED TYRANT is a very local bird with a poorly known range.  It's also a stunner so I was keen to see one given the chance and so, before my flight back to Sao Paulo, we birded some lowland forest along the river just outside Belém.  The flycatcher it turned out was easy to hear at a known site, harder to see and even harder to photograph ... in the end I managed only slight out-of-focus shots but I'll include them anyway because it's such a special bird.

The super special Black-chested Tyrant
Then back to the world.  But, even after my second birding trip to Brazil this year (and the third in the last two years) I'll definitely be back to this amazing country.  So many places I want to go and things I want to see.