Sunday, June 29, 2014

A year in review

I haven't posted in a while - my regular readers probably know why. Overall, I've been keeping busy.

But I took the time to summarize 2013 - which included 4 different field projects over 6 months, a week long vacation in Canada, and a visit from family. So, take a gander at my video below...

2013 - a year in pictures and video

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Where do I begin?!?!

I mean seriously, where do I begin with these new adventures in Ecuador?
The spectacular mountain landscapes as seen from downtown Quito? The fabulous diversity of birds I saw on my first day, including two species of antpitta, a barbet, numerous mixed flocks, the numerous new hummingbirds, migrants from home? Or how about the Booted Racket-tails coming to the bird feeders at my housing? Or the wonderful, colorful barbets and trogons I see on trails at my new home? How about the antpitta hopping over my colleagues legs at a photo stop? Or the numerous Choco region endemics I've seen, like the Choco Warbler, Moss-backed Tanager, Black Solitaire, Black-chinned Mountain-tanager, Indigo Flowerpiercer, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, and Esmeraldas Antbird, among others? Or the day we left really early to see Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks on their display grounds (a bird on my must-see world list), along with yet ANOTHER species of antpitta, and a new species of wood-quail? Or how about the fact that I blazed past bird number 1.400 for the world, and that my Ecuador life list for birds is probably going to pass all my other country lists, and probably somewhat quickly at that?
I mean, seriously, what do I start with? I even got numerous photos of oh-my-gosh type birds, like a Lyre-tailed Nightjar male, with tail feathers three times as long as its body. As well as photos of birds at hummingbird feeders here at home and elsewhere, with wonderful names like Velvet-purple Coronet, Violet-tailed Sylph, Empress Brilliant, Booted Racket-tail, and White-tailed Hillstar.
Or the wonderful lodge and personnel here at my new home away from home?
I guess we'll take it one thing at a time.
I find myself now among the Andes of South America, in northern Ecuador. I am working as a guide for Mindo Bird Tours, where my primary duty is to be the "resident guide" of the lodge at Las Grallarias. We have numerous trails here at the lodge, for all levels of fitness. We are situated at 2.000 m of elevation, but the reserve ranges from as low as 1.700 m (or so) up to 2.300 m (or so). We are at the edge of the Choco region of northwest Ecuador and southwestern Colombia. Home to numerous endemic species (meaning, species found only in this area, nowhere else in the world). One of the wettest bioregions on earth, yearly rainfall AVERAGES 18 meters. Meaning, a daily average rainfall would be nearly 5 cm. For us, it is not a matter of IF it will rain each day, but WHEN it will rain each day. Daily temperatures peak at about 16 degrees C each day, and drop to maybe 10 C at night.
I have explored most of our numerous trails so far, though a few are still iffy with the wetter-than-normal conditions we have right now. I am learning my common (well, at least most vocal) local species here, which includes some hard to see species. Yellow-breasted Antpitta (Grallaria flavotincta) would be considered a rare bird (it is a Choco region endemic), but here we hear them quite frequently. At our hummingbird feeders by the lodge, our common species are Velvet-purple Coronets (Boissonneaua jardini), Fawn-breasted Brilliants (Heliodoxa rubinoides), Booted Racket-tails (Ocreatus underwoodii), and Violet-tailed Sylphs (Aglaiocercus coelestis). Other less common species come to the feeders, but the Velvet-purple Coronets seem to like to defend a feeder all to themselves. Endless hours of amusement can be had watching the feeders, which is good since we've had some rainier than usual days here that doing a bird walk won't produce much.
My first days here were spent learning the ropes by joining another guide with his guest, and I got to visit many other nearby regions. Day to day highlights:
Day one: 12 January 2012
We left the hotel in Quito fairly early, and headed to the nearby Yanacocha Reserve, which is run by the same group I volunteered for in 2007, Fundacion Jocotoco. It is a private reserve to protect habitat of the Black-breasted Puffleg, one of the most endangered bird species on the planet. Though it hasn't been seen at the reserve in two years, other species find protection in the reserve, since it consists of high altitude (3.300 m above sea level) habitat. On the way to the reserve we saw a Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) beside the road, that afforded great photo opportunities. Though common in North America, this is a rare bird find in Ecuador. Our day began on a good note! From there, we entered the reserve, where we got great looks at the following specialty birds of the reserve: Tawny (Grallaria quitensis) and Rufous (G. rufula) Antpittas, Rainbow-bearded Thornbill (Chalcostigma herrani), Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera), and Golden-breasted Puffleg (Eriocnemis mosquera).
We left the reserve after having lunch, and stopped as opportunities presented themselves to birdwatch during the 3 hour drive to the lodge. Finding various mixed flocks in places, highlights included seeing many of my North American friends (migrants) on their winter grounds, as well as Red-headed Barbet (Eubucco bourcierii), White-capped Dipper (Cinclus leucocephalus), Barred Becard (Pachyramphus versicolor), White-winged Brush-finch (Atlapetes leucopterus), and Black-and-chestnut Eagle (Oroaetus isidori). This latter bird is know as "the Harpy Eagle of the highlands," being the apex bird predator of the mountain regions, while the Harpy Eagle is found at the lower elevations.
Total new species for me: 22 species for the world list, and 29 new species for Ecuador, putting the lists at 1.381 for the world, and 232 for Ecuador.
Day two: 13 January 2012
We spent the day at Las Grallarias. Our guest was a photographer, and since the rain was being persistent that day, we decided to focus on the hummingbird feeders for the morning, from the shelter of a roof, until the rain ceased for a little while. After the rain finally paused, we walked our main loop trail, and enjoyed great looks at Toucan Barbet (Semnornis ramphastinus), and Rusty-winged Barbtail (Premnornis guttuligera). And returned and enjoyed more looks at our wonderful hummingbirds. The weather was very rainy that day, and the trend has been to have very rainy afternoons right now.
I got 10 new species for the world, and 11 new species for Ecuador, putting my totals at 1.391 for the world, and 243 for Ecuador.
Day three: 14 January 2012
An AWESOME bird day! We awoke very early to get to Paz de los Aves in time. For those unfamiliar with this place, a few years ago a local Ecuadorian began feeding worm to antpittas from fixed locations, and eventually "tamed" them enough that they became used to humans (and the weird objects they hold, namely cameras), and a miniature booming bird business was born. Antpittas - the primary focus of this trip - are VERY hard to see well, meaning getting good long looks at. So this is a great opportunity for birders and photographers to get good looks at the birds. To start the morning, however, we headed way down to the trail to an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (Rupicolo peruvianus) lek, and watched them for an hour. WOW! It was awesome! I knew I would probably see this bird during this trip to Ecuador, but had no idea it would be so soon! The light was poor, so it was difficult to get a good picture. After watching the lek to about 7 AM, we (there were two other groups) headed up slope to begin looking for antpittas.
With the recent rains, many birds have begun their nesting cycle, so we missed 2 of the 3 antpittas. However, we did get good looks at the Ochre-breasted Antpitta (Grallaricula flavirostris) (nickname is "Shakira"), Dark-backed Wood-quail (Odontophorus melanonotus), Olivaceous Piha (Snowornis cryptolophus), Andean Solitaire (Myadestes ralloides), and Bran-colored Flycatcher (Myiophobus fasciatus). We had a Toucan Barbet come to a banana feeder while we were waiting for an antpitta, and most of us got a decent photograph.
After missing the antpittas, we got what may have been the bird of the day for some. After having a light breakfast/lunch, we headed up the hill to some private land, for a bird they have just introduced to the feeding method. After getting all of us situated, we waiting patiently for the bird to show up. After a few minutes, it took those courageous steps into the open, and we all got a fantastic look at an Ocellated Tapaculo (Acropternis orthonyx), a VERY difficult bird to see well (though often responds to playback, but just never seems to come into good view).
Our day was not nearly over! It was only just noon, and we had some birding to do on the way back home! Heading home on a roundabout route, we stopped in one spot where the other guide had repeatedly stopped before, based on a tip from other guides. And, for the first time in 20 tries, he saw the bird we were looking for: a male LYRE-TAILED NIGHTJAR (Uropsalis lyra)! Right beside the road! Very awesome photo opportunities were had by us, and one other small group that stopped to see what in the world we were looking at! This was the bird of the day for me. I think I'm partial to nocturnal birds. Oh, and that was number 1.400 for the world. A VERY cool bird for that landmark!
Further on our drive that day, I saw yet another species of toucan for me, the Plate-billed Mountain-toucan (Andigena laminorostris), another Choco endemic. Yay for me! Especially since I was the one who spotted it first! And later that day, I saw another of my favorite "group" of hummingbirds, the Gorgeted Sunangel (Heliangelus strophianus).
Quality, not quantity, was the order of this day. Eleven new species for the world, and fourteen new ones for Ecuador, bringing the totals to 1.402 for the world, and 257 for Ecuador.
Day four: 15 January 2012
This was the Choco endemic day! We left somewhat early in the morning, heading to Mashpi, where the road has been recently discovered to offer fantastic birdwatching opportunities for the endemics. Lifer after lifer was seen, with great looks at nearly all of them. Tanagers galore in the flocks, like Glistening-green (Chlorochrysa phoenicotis), Swallow (Tersina viridis), Moss-backed (Bangsia edwardsi), and Rufous-throated (Tangara rufigula) Tanagers, as well as Black-chinned Mountain-tanager (Anisognathus notabilis). Also seen was the Yellow-vented Woodpecker (Veniliornis dignus), Orange-breasted (Pipreola jucunda) and Scaled (Ampeliodes tschudii) Fruiteaters, and Orange-fronted Barbet (Capito squamatus). We also found a mini antswarm, which gave us Pale-vented Thrush (Turdus obsoletus) and Esmeraldas Antbird (Myrmeciza nigricauda), as well as a friend from home, a Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus). We rounded out the trip with a Black-tipped Cotinga (Carpodectes hopkei) as the rain began to fall in earnest, giving us the cue to head home.
I got seventeen new birds for the world that day, and twenty-one new species for Ecuador, bringing my totals to 1.423 for the world, and 278 for Ecuador.
After the 15th, I stayed around Las Grallarias to help with the tasks that needed to be done at the lodge while the other guide took the guest to other parts of the Choco region. I have used the time here to learn my trails, and become familiar with my local bird life for when I begin to lead tours on my own. Some of my life bird highlights here have been the Yellow-breasted Antpitta, Beautiful Jay (Cyanolyca pulchra), Golden-headed Quetzal (Pharomachrus auriceps) and Pacific Tufted-cheek (Pseudocolaptes johnsoni). Since I have been staying in one location, and the rain and fog and mist are making afternoons difficult for bird walks, I have not added many new birds to my list. Though I am learning my local songs and calls very well.
As of today, 21 January 2012, my world life list is up to 1.425, and my Ecuador life list is up to 285. I have seen 66 new species (world) since my arrival.

Most Wanted: FOUND

I had been keeping my eyes on the Rare Bird Alerts for the Rochester, New
York area, for any birds that I might have the opportunity to see during
my brief trip home during the holidays. I was committed to staying in
Texas until the 20th of December, and I would have some limited free time
in Rochester to go searching for any birds that I could add to my life

Lo and behold, in November, early for the winter birds, two birds
appeared on my radar. Both were hanging out near the Charlotte and
Summerville Piers in Irondequoit, and so I kept tabs on the reports, to
see if the birds were still being seen regularly. And they were.

Finally, on the 22nd of December, I had some free time to do some leisure
birding. Oh boy!

The weather on the 22nd was unseasonable. The temperature was around 45
degrees F (8 Centigrade), and there was very little wind. Though rain had
been off and on the previous few days, none was falling that day. It was
good birding weather, especially for the lakeshore. After running a quick
errand in the morning, I packed my birding gear (binoculars and my
camera!) and headed to the bay.

I first arrived on the "wrong side," meaning the west side of the bay, at
the Charlotte Pier. No matter - there were still birds in the inlet, as
well as on the lake. I grabbed my gear, and walked to the pier from the
parking lot. In the inlet, I could see some Long-tailed Ducks, which I
had not seen in years. That was a nice sight! Among them were some
mallards as well. Since all the reports said that the bird I was looking
for was on the Summerville Pier, or on the apartments nearby, I decided
to glass the area from my side, and see what I could see.

Nothing on the pier, though I didn't have high hopes. I glanced at the
roof of the buildings, and tried to figure out which apartments were the
ones I was supposed to look at. And then I spied something white on one
of them. I brought my binoculars up, and...

There it was! Number 1.356 for the world, and number 444 for North
America: SNOWY OWL! I laughed out loud. It was much easier find the bird
than I expected it would be - but I guess having numerous birders regular
post about the bird on the web meant most of the legwork was done for me.

My day was not done, though. Other bird reports had other species on the
lake that I might find interesting. Though I did not have a telescope
with me, I could hope for some birds to be relatively close to shore that
I could readily identify. I drove to the other side of the bay, parked
near the apartments, and walked to the pier.
The first thing I did, of course, was get better looks at the owl, as
well as take photos. What a magnificent bird! Definitely one that will
stick with me forever. From there, I headed out along the Summerville
Pier, to see what I could see on the lake. The Long-tailed Ducks were
still about, but very shy, so they didn't offer a good photo opportunity.
From the pier near the shoreline, I could tell there were birds on the
water further out, so I walked to the end of the pier. And there, out on
the lake was number 1.357 for the world, and 445 for North America:
RED-NECKED GREBE! Also on my North America most wanted list, but only so
that I could "round up" the last of the grebes for North America. Hooray
for me! From Horned Grebe (Long Island, New York in 1996) to Pied-billed
Grebe (New Mexico, 1997) to Eared Grebe (Colorado, 1997) to Western Grebe
(Colorado, 1997) to Clark's Grebe (again Colorado, again 1997) to Least
Grebe (Texas, 2006) to Red-necked Grebe, I got them all! Of course, I
still have to work on the other worldwide species...
And I STILL wasn't done at the lake! There were numerous birds around,
and I continued to scan the flocks. There were some White-winged Scoters
around (a type of duck), and some distant waterfowl that I couldn't
identify. Nothing very close allowing good photographs. Then I glanced to
the northwest and saw a loose flock of birds flying towards the pier. I
glued my eyes to them, and took notes of the features I could see.
Gull-like, but at the same time, tern-like. Very dainty looking for a
gull, but too heavy for a tern. Faint patches of dark feathers behind the
"ears" on the head. Underwing pattern was very distinct. I had left my
field guide in my car (to keep it dry), so I took note of all the
features I could. I took one last look over the water (there were other
places I planned on birding that day), and went back to my vehicle. After
perusing the guidebook, I determined it was bird number 1.358 for the
world, and number 446 for North America: BONAPARTE'S GULL. One of those
birds that was always like, how do I NOT have that one yet? Well, no
more!!! Not a most wanted bird, but a new bird nonetheless.
This was a great way to begin to wrap up the year 2011. Three new birds
in one day, in North America, is something that does not happen much
anymore. So I was very thrilled. And then, on to more adventures...