I got one more day of birding in Ecuador than we had originally planned because it didn’t take an entire day in Quito for a Covid test. Xavier had been able to find a doctor near San Isidro who was willing to do the test for us. We met him on the side of the road, I spit in a cup and gave him $65.00, and the next day I had my admission ticket for the plane home – an email with my negative Covid test.

We left San Isidro early on Monday, May 3. Xavier headed back to Quito to prepare for his next tour. Francisco and I also headed towards Quito, but we stopped at Antisana Ecological Reserve, about 60 miles from Quito, for my last day of birding. Antisana volcano is the fourth highest in Ecuador at 18,875 feet. It is surrounded by the ecological reserve which was created in 1993 to protect the unique and fragile flora and fauna. The habitats of the reserve range from mountain forests to grasslands. Below is a photo of Antisana that I took a couple of days earlier from San Isidro.

Officially, Francisco was our driver for the trip, but he was actually so much more. He had done countless things to make the trip easier for me from providing tech support for all my camera questions and problems to helping me get my rubber boots on and off. Francisco was warm, kind, smart, and a good birder, so I was happy to spend the day with him.

We got our first target, Red-crested Cotinga, right away (photo above). Next we went to Restaurante Tambo Condor for a cup of hot tea and hummingbirds. We would return a bit later for a delicious lunch. This is a wonderful place to see the hummingbird with the best name ever, Shining Sunbeam.

We continued on to higher elevations and found more new birds starting with a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, a life bird for me.

A couple of pretty Black-winged Ground Doves gave me another bird for my life list.

There were quite a few small birds in some areas. Sometimes I got confused, but I just tried to take as many photos as possible. Weeks later, I had a delightful surprise when I was processing my photos and discovered the Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant below. It was not on my eBird checklist for that day’s birding, but, obviously I had seen the bird, so it was fair to add it to my life list.

Stout-billed Cinclodes (below) was a common bird at Antisana. My lifer had been on my earlier trip in 2013 at Papallacta Pass which has some similar habitat.

This is the bird that surprised me the most by how beautiful it is – Carunculated Caracara. We saw several individuals walking around in the grass close to the road. This raptor of the high Andes occurs only in Ecuador and southern Colombia. The individual in my photo below is an immature bird.

Our last bird of the day was Andean Gull. I really like gulls so I was happy to see several of these beautiful birds in the road ahead. They were shy, though, and we were not able to get very close. The photo below is highly cropped. We had wanted to continue on to the lagoon where several more potential life birds awaited, but the road was closed a few miles before the lagoon.

On our way back down the mountains, we saw this White-tailed Deer. Yep, Odocoileus virginianus, the same species that we have here in North Carolina. Its native range is throughout much of North America, through Central America, and south to Bolivia.

We arrived at Puembo Birding Garden (PBG) mid-afternoon just in time for me to watch a few more birds in Mercedes’ lovely garden and rest a bit for my trip home the following day.

During my 15 days in Ecuador, I saw a total of 246 species. I thought that was good considering that this was an easy trip with no hiking on strenuous mountain trails. This number includes 150 species that were new for Ecuador bringing my Ecuador total to 356. And, most importantly, I got 108 life birds.

Below is one of the last birds that I saw in Ecuador, a Scrub Tanager, which I did not see anywhere other than the PBG garden.

My trip was amazing and I can’t wait to go back. I’ve already told Xavier that I intend to return next year. I can’t think of anything that Xavier or Francisco could have done to make this experience more fun. I highly recommend Neblina Forest for Ecuador and other South American nature trips. You won’t be disappointed. Below, a pretty Blue-gray Tanager, a bird that I guarantee you will see in Ecuador.

We arrived at Cabañas San Isidro on the evening of April 29 in time for a wonderful dinner, our first of the fantastic meals served there. Our rooms were large and beautiful; mine had floor-to-ceiling glass walls on one side providing a view of the surrounding forest. The restaurant and deck area was lovely, too, with birds nearly always in the nearby trees.

We spent all day April 30 birding around the lodge and on the entrance road. Above is an Inca Jay or Inca subspecies of Green Jay, depending upon which taxonomic authority you follow. If you have seen Green Jays in South Texas, you will think that this bird looks quite different. And, if you enjoy taxonomic discussions, check out Why is the Inca Jay not a Green Jay?

A few of the other birds that I saw right from the deck are shown below. A lovely little Pale-edged Flycatcher was a regular in the trees by the deck.

Earlier, when we observed Russet-backed Oropendolas nest building at Limoncocha, Xavier promised me that I would get good close looks later in the trip. As promised, I saw them every day while we were at San Isidro.

Another regular in the deck area was Scarlet-rumped Cacique. Every morning, I found one in the exact same spot on the deck rail above the moth sheet.

The most intriguing bird at the lodge is the mystery owl. It is in the genus Ciccaba, but otherwise no one can determine what it is! It looks similar to the other Ciccaba species found in Ecuador, Black-and-white Owl and Black-banded Owl, but neither of those are found at an elevation this high. This owl has been found only in a small area near the San Isidro lodge. There are also some minor plumage differences between this owl and the other Ciccaba species. People like to categorize birds, but more importantly birders need to report them. So, eBird created a taxon just for this owl, the “San Isidro Owl (undescribed form).” This beautiful creature was heard calling during our dinner every night.

We started May 1, our second day at San Isidro, by birding around the lodge again. A nice feature of the lodge is the moth sheet below the deck. The area around the sheet is like a typical yard, much more open than the moth blind at WildSumaco. The birds that come to feast on the moths are not particularly skulky otherwise, but it’s nice to get such good looks at them. Below, a pretty Cinnamon Flycatcher enjoys a moth for breakfast.

I liked the moth sheet for more than the bird food it provided. Because the sheet was in the open, I could walk right up to it and view the amazing moths. I photographed several dozen species and I am still trying to identify them, a harder task than I expected. Below is a small sample of the moth bounty. Look closely, especially at the second one, and note that all of the following moths are head up.

After watching hummingbirds, other birds, and moths for a short time, we made our second attempt to see an antpitta, which had not cooperated the first day. It was slower to come for worms than any that we had seen previously, but it was worth the wait. I think that this White-bellied Antpitta was the prettiest of the seven that we saw during the trip.

In the afternoon we went to La Brisa hummingbird feeders where Gorgeted Woodstar (top left photo below) was a life bird. The Collared Inca (top right) was one of my favorites at the lodge at San Isidro. The Chestnut-breasted Coronet (bottom left) did not like it as much as I did, though, as they were very possessive of the feeders. They seemed to particularly dislike the Collared Inca and spent an inordinate amount of time chasing it away. We saw Chestnut-breasted Coronets and Fawn-breasted Brilliants (bottom right) at both La Brisa and our lodge.

One of the most beautiful hummingbirds on the east side of the Andes is Long-tailed Sylph. Watch for it in the slow-motion video below that I took at Cabañas San Isidro.

On May 2, we started the day by heading out to the nearby countryside. It was a beautiful morning as you can see in the photo below. I enjoyed the scenery almost as much as the birds.

On Borja Road, we found a small group of Red-breasted Meadowlarks. It was very exciting to see these beautiful birds.

Our attention switched back to the landscape when we saw gas, steam, and ash plumes rising from Reventador, one of Ecuador’s most active volcanoes. Xavier had only seen this once before, so I felt privileged to share this beautiful and impressive sight.

Next we headed to Concierto de Aves to see some special birds. After watching hummingbirds around Victor and Nilda’s home, we walked down a country road that paralleled a little creek. The Fasciated Tiger-Heron in the creek was a very welcome surprise.

Below, Xavier and me on the road which led to the larger stream. We left the road to walk a trail through the forest that weaved in and out of the stream. Victor and Nilda helped me on the steep parts of the path and through the water. I could not have done it without them!

Our reward at the end of the trail – a female Andean Cock-of-the-rock on her nest. You might be wondering why she is orange instead of red. That’s because we are on the east side of the Andes and this is a different subspecies than the one in northwest Ecuador. There are actually four subspecies; two are red and two are orange.

We were able to see this gorgeous bird so well because once again Xavier had carried a scope on the trail through the forest and creek. Her nest is actually quite well hidden on the side of the mountain by the waterfall. The walk to see the Cock-of-the-rock was one of the most beautiful and amazing adventures of the entire trip.

Nilda and I walked back along the road together and although she does not speak English and I don’t speak Spanish (a deficit that I really need to remedy), we managed to communicate. Nilda saw me photograph a flower, so she took me to see these beauties.

And, all too soon our time at San Isidro was over. This fabulous day was my last with Xavier, but I would have one more day of birding on the way back to Quito with Francisco. Stay tuned for my last post on this wonderful trip to Ecuador with Neblina Forest.

Limoncocha was different; really different. Many of the birds were strange and bizarre. It was quiet and peaceful, wonderful, almost magical. I had never heard of Limoncocha before the trip, but Xavier suggested it because of a Harpy Eagle nest. And who would say no to that? There would be much more than the eagle, though. eBirders have reported 520 species in the Limoncocha Biological Reserve.

The reserve is on the Napo River, about 230 miles east of Quito, near the little town of Limoncocha. It is one of the most bio-diverse areas on the planet, but its flora and fauna have been continually threatened by nearby oil activity since 1975.

After the drive from WildSumaco, we arrived at the headquarters of the Limoncocha Biological Reserve in the early afternoon. We left our car there and were transported to our lodge on the edge of the Limoncocha lagoon, inside the protected area of the reserve, via a motorized canoe.

After putting our things in our cabins, we immediately left to see the eagle nest. It was a 20-minute boat ride back to the reserve headquarters and then a short drive. Next was what was described as a “20 minute boat ride followed by an easy 20-minute walk along a flat trail.” Apparently, that was true when the trail was dry, but there had been rain the previous few days and the trail was flooded. Our local guide, Wymper, told Xavier that I would not be able to walk the trail and that they were going to carry me! I protested that I didn’t need to be treated like a princess, but Wymper insisted. Obviously, they had done this before as they were prepared with a stretcher that I sat upon while they carried me the last third of the trail. There were tree roots and other unseen obstacles under the water making it very difficult to walk, especially while carrying me.

I was impressed by the efforts of these men getting us to the eagle nest and by the wonderful covered platform they had built there, a respectful distance from the nest tree. And, Xavier had walked the flooded trail carrying a scope so that we would have good views. We did not see either adult as one of them had made a food drop a few hours earlier, but at only 4-1/2 months old, this baby already looks like a Harpy Eagle.

The massive Harpy Eagle is a “holy grail” bird for serious birders. Adults have a six to seven foot wingspan, talons the size of grizzly bear claws, and they weigh 9 to 20 pounds (females are larger than males). Compare that to a Bald Eagle, not a small bird, that tops out at 14 pounds. These apex predators hunt mainly in the canopy and consume a variety of prey, but they have a propensity for small monkeys and sloths. Their large range extends from Central America throughout most of South America, but they are rare everywhere. Sadly, the population is believed to be declining due to habitat loss and direct persecution. Harpy Eagle is classified by BirdLife International as Near Threatened.

After we spent an hour or so watching the eaglet, we retraced our route back to the lodge in time for a simple but tasty dinner. Limoncocha Ecolodge never had hot water and had electricity for only a couple of hours each day, but it was clean, safe, and comfortable.

We started the next day, April 28, on the lagoon at 5:39 am. Hoatzin could be the poster bird for Limoncocha. There were many of them around the lagoon, including a female on a nest right by the dock for the lodge.

We saw a Limpkin, a very familiar bird from all my trips to Florida, but it looked quite different from the Limpkins I knew. Later, I learned that there are several subspecies and the Limpkins in South America are “brown-backed.” Below, the Limpkin at Limoncocha on the left and a Limpkin from Florida on the right.

We also saw an Azure Gallinule that morning. My photos are not as good as I’d like, but most were taken from a boat and we were never as close to the birds as we’d been when feeder watching.

We returned to the lodge shortly after 8:00 am for breakfast and then we drove to the town of Limoncocha for a little birding there. That’s after a boat ride to get back to the car. The lodge is accessible only by boat. We didn’t see as much as we’d hoped for, but I enjoyed watching a small colony of Russet-backed Oropendolas building their nests.

On the boat trip through the lagoon, as we headed back to the lodge, we saw a beautiful Cocoi Heron.

And, a family of Red-capped Cardinals.

After lunch and a little rest, we spent more time on the lagoon. It was nice seeing many Snail Kites, one of the few familiar birds there. This immature bird was especially cooperative.

One of my biggest surprises was a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl that we first heard, and then saw, in the top of a tree on the far side of the lagoon. This was the bird that I missed in Texas a few years ago, so it was especially sweet to get it on my life list.

Limoncocha lagoon teems with all kinds of wildlife. We saw mostly birds, but I was thrilled to also see these Proboscis Bats roosting on a tree.

Black-capped Donacobius had caught my eye when I was preparing for the trip by reviewing photos of birds seen in the Amazon basin. We saw them earlier, but Xavier and Wymper worked that afternoon to find these shy birds again so that I could have a better look and get photos.

Just before dark, Wymper found our last target, perhaps the most bizarre bird of all the Amazon, a Horned Screamer. This delightful blog post, Screaming Unicorns, includes a video link. This National Geographic article describes the sharpened bone spurs on the wings of these unusual birds. Even a Harpy Eagle wouldn’t mess with these huge birds!

In a day and a half, I had 18 life birds. But, wait, there’s more! After our final boat trip back to the reserve headquarters on our last morning, we had one more bird to see. Antpitta #6 of the trip was White-lored Antpitta, trained to come for worms by a local birder.

When I think back on these two days and nights at Limoncocha, it truly feels magical – the lemon-green lagoon, fantastic birds, fishing bats, glow worms. Striated Herons so thick they jumped out of the way by the dozen when we powered the boat through shallow areas. Common pauraque calling in the wee hours of morning.

Limoncocha is more accessible and much more affordable than the fancier lodges two hours farther down the Napo River. If you are interested in a trip like this, I recommend Xavier Munoz of Neblina Forest.

The main road that leads from Quito to the east side of the Andes takes you over Papallacta Pass at about 13,500 feet. The view from the pass is spectacular with the snow-covered Antisana volcano in the distance. I was excited that I would be seeing a new part of this beautiful country and many new birds.

Our first stop was Guango Lodge, the only place that I had visited on this side of the Andes during my earlier trip in 2013. I didn’t get any life birds this time, but I did get my first photos of some these beautiful birds, including the Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Speckled Hummingbird, and Tourlamine Sunangel below.

We walked to the river, often one of the easiest places to see White-capped Dipper, but we had no luck with it. We did see a Torrent Duck, however, a beautiful male resting on a rock in the middle of the river.

We continued east to our destination for the next four days, WildSumaco Lodge, and arrived in time to enjoy the hummingbird feeders before a delicious dinner.

My favorite feature at WildSumaco is the moth sheet which attracts birds early in the morning. We started each of our four mornings here at 6:00 AM. It’s really just a sheet on the side of a steep little hill with lights positioned at the top. In the photos below you can see birders standing above the sheet watching the activity in the little clearing below. The black plastic is just protecting the lights. We only saw a few species here, but they were shy birds that we would not have seen at all without the moths to draw them in.

The most reliable bird at the moth blind was a male White-backed Fire-eye who showed up every day. He was so cooperative that Xavier began saying “Your friend is here” to me each morning. In spite of the overall ease of seeing the bird, I saw the white spot on his back only on the second morning.

When planning the trip, I had told Xavier that I wanted an “easy” trip, so we did road birding rather than hiking the steep, difficult trails. On our first day, on the road to the lodge, we saw this impressive Great Black Hawk.

After lunch, we saw more special birds. Here is antpitta #5 for the trip, Plain-backed Antpitta. We also saw another Ochre-breasted Antpitta (the first one was at Angel Paz’s place on the second day of the trip). A White-crowned Tapaculo also came for worms, but it declined the photo op.

Later that afternoon back at the lodge, we watched more hummingbirds. New birds for the trip and my life list were Many-spotted Hummingbird, Napo Saphirewing, and Golden-tailed Sapphire.

We were at the moth blinds again early our second morning and this time I knew what to expect a bit better. Those shy birds were always going to be challenging to photograph in the low light, but I was thrilled to get the shot below of a White-chested Puffbird.

Another highlight that morning was good looks at a cute little Peruvian Warbling-Antbird.

The most difficult bird to photograph was the Black-billed Treehunter, but I was able to get a shot by leaning over the edge as he came up to nab a moth from the sheet.

After breakfast, we took boxed lunches and set off for Reserva Narupa, one of the 15 reserves established by Fundación de Conservación Jocotoco. My wonderful guide for this trip, Xavier Munoz, and I share a passion for conservation. Xavier was a founding member of the Jocotoco Foundation and he remains involved as a board member. An organization that I support, the American Bird Conservancy, is a partner of the foundation. Both organizations are dedicated to protecting birds and the critical habitat they need to survive, especially endangered and limited range species. So, for many reasons, I was excited to visit the Narupa reserve which protects over 4,000 acres of low montane forest.

Signs along the trail feature birds that depend upon the reserve. It is an important wintering site for Neotropical migrants such as Cerulean Warbler.

A year-round resident of the Narupa reserve and one of our main targets this day was Coppery-chested Jacamar. This bird exists only in a restricted elevational and geographic range mostly in Ecuador. It’s global conservation status is vulnerable. And, as you can see in the photo below, it’s a cool bird!

We also saw lots of hummingbirds; four were new birds for the trip and life birds for me, including the Green-backed Hillstar and Violet-fronted Brilliant below.

The next morning back at the lodge, I was happy to get photos of a couple more visitors to the moth sheet including this Plain Antvireo.

The Black-faced Antbird was much more cooperative that he had been on previous days. Here he is just before grabbing a moth.

I missed the banana feeders that were everywhere in the area northwest of Quito. They attracted tanagers and other birds, but there were no fruit feeders in the Andes’ eastern foothills. The reason seemed to be that the birds here did not come to them enough to make it worth the trouble. Magpie and Silver-beaked Tanager were life birds for me in this part of the trip, but I didn’t get close enough for good photos of either species. However, Xavier kindly carried a scope on all our walks so I did have good views of most of the birds we saw while walking along the road.

To be honest, I was disappointed in the deck at WildSumaco Lodge. It was large and beautiful, but other than hummingbirds coming to the feeders, I think the only bird we saw from the deck was a Bananaquit. I loved the moth blind, though, and we saw some pretty amazing birds during our stay. The rooms were lovely with the best hot showers of the trip and the food was fantastic. I wouldn’t hesitate at all to return for another visit.

Our four days at WildSumaco went quickly; on the morning of April 27, we left for the short drive to Limoncocha.

“Baby?” I was talking to the Moss-backed Tanager and he hopped onto the banana that I was holding in my hand. I didn’t realize it happened like that until I watched the video. But, I wasn’t surprised because I frequently talk to birds. It was my third morning in Ecuador on my Neblina Forest birding tour with Xavier Munoz and we were at Reserva Amagusa, about as close to heaven as a birder can get. The bird on my hand at the beginning of the video is a Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager.

There are not enough superlatives to adequately describe this place. We never even made it to the trails because the feeders were amazing and I was having so much fun. We saw species here that we did not see anywhere else, including #1 on my most-wanted list, Glistening-green Tanager. I would have been happy with one of these gorgeous birds, but we got an entire family and even watched the parents feed their babies.

The pretty little Rufous-throated Tanagers, another species that we did not see anywhere else, quickly became a favorite.

Have I mentioned that I love tanagers? Here are a few more beauties we enjoyed seeing at Amagusa – Golden, Golden-naped, and Flame-faced Tanagers. A Flame-faced Tanager ate from my hand in addition to the birds featured in the video.

I was also happy to see Toucan Barbets again. I wondered if this was a pair, but they look alike. The male and female Red-headed Barbet look quite different. These musings sent me on another quest for information and I learned some fascinating things about this iconic bird of the cloud forest. First, Red-headed Barbet is a member of the New World barbet family (Capitonidae), but the Toucan Barbet belongs to a different family (Semnornithidae) that may be more closely related to toucans. The sexes are the same except that the male has an “erectile black tuft on the nape.” Yeah, I didn’t notice that detail or lack thereof on either bird. These barbets may start their day singing a duet between the male and female before foraging for 12 hours. Also fascinating is that Toucan Barbets are cooperative nesters with offspring from previous years sticking around to help the parents care for their younger siblings. This does not occur in other neotropical barbets.

We spent a little time birding along quiet roads in the afternoons. I enjoyed seeing the beautiful Ecuadorian landscape.

The roadsides were filled with lush vegetation like this.

One afternoon, we had a very special treat. Xavier has friends everywhere and one alerted him to this magnificent bird, a Lyre-tailed Nightar, roosting in a steep wooded hill by the side of the road in a nearby small town. The spectacular white-tipped tail feathers of the male are over two feet long! He is well-camouflaged, though, and it would have been hard to spot the bird from the road without the white tips to the tail. This is not a common bird, so we were lucky to see it.

Each of our three nights at Sachatamia, we got back to the lodge early enough for some time at the feeders. I have seen Collared Aracari many times, but they are a cool bird and always fun to see.

Watching the many hummingbirds was fun, too, although I found most of them challenging to photograph. I was happy if I just got something interesting like this Fawn-breasted Brilliant trying to protect its feeder from a Brown Violetear.

Just like at home, squirrels loved the bird feeders, but the Red-tailed Squirrels did not seem as aggressive as our Eastern Gray Squirrels. A little research on these two species indicated that my impression was right. Red-tailed Squirrels are solitary and quiet; Eastern Gray Squirrels are described as aggressive and active.

I was a little sad when our stay at Sachatamia came to an end early on the morning of April 23. I loved the beautiful lodge with the wonderful feeders, good food including my favorite drinks and desserts of the trip, and the kind people who worked there. On one occasion it was raining when we returned to the lodge and a guy ran out to the car with an umbrella to greet me.

More adventures awaited on the other side of the Andes, but first we had one more stop in the area northwest of Quito. The Birdwatcher’s House is aptly named. It is a beautiful little lodge created by a birder for birders. Visitors may also visit the blinds and gardens during the day. It was here that I had my first experience with what I call moth blinds. The blind here is a traditional structure with a narrow window along the length and plastic chairs inside. Two large white sheets are placed at right angles to the blind about 40-50 feet apart. In between the sheets is a natural area with logs and low vegetation. Lights directed towards the sheets are left on all night. At dawn, this creates magic for birders when normally shy birds can be observed as they come for a breakfast of yummy moths. Below, a Strong-billed Woodcreeper plucks a month from the sheet. We also observed several species that are normally very difficult to see including Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Uniform Antshrike, and Streak-capped Treehunter.

After the “Moths for Breakfast” show, we spent some time watching the hummingbird and banana feeders. In addition to the five life birds that I got at the moth blinds, I also got my lifer Blue-capped Tanager. I love its cute yellow “pants.”

My favorite bird of the morning was another lifer, a spectacular Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan. eBird summarizes it as “Extraordinary and iconic toucan of Andean cloud forest in northwestern Ecuador, just barely reaching southwestern Colombia.” The Birdwatcher’s House is probably the best location to see this bird so well. The photo below was taken with my camera, but I also have cell phone photos that are nearly as good.

It was the perfect way to say goodbye to the Chocó cloud forest. We left The Birdwatcher’s House and started driving east towards Papallacta Pass.

Going to Ecuador was an impulsive decision, but that’s how most of my trips start. For a year, I knew that I wouldn’t travel until I was vaccinated for Covid-19 and I didn’t make any plans. But, then after I was fully vaccinated, the travel bug suddenly hit me hard. The next thing I knew I was planning a private trip with Xavier Munoz of Neblina Forest Birding Tours. After exchanging a few email messages, we had an itinerary and I bought plane tickets.

My flights went smoothly and after a very long day, I arrived in Quito at 9:30 pm on April 19. Xavier and his son, Francisco, who would be our driver for the trip, met me at the airport and whisked me off to Puembo Birding Garden (PBG), a lovely little hotel surrounded by a natural garden, where I would stay on my first night. After a few hours sleep, I had coffee and breakfast and got ready to leave. I was relieved that Xavier was a bit late so that I had time for some birding. I started the day with two life birds, Saffron Finch and Scrub Tanager (pictured below), in the lovely PBG garden. Later I learned that Xavier wasn’t late at all; my phone had not adjusted to the local time as I’d expected and it was an hour ahead.

Life bird #3 appeared immediately after we left PBG, three Croaking Ground Doves near the road. We stopped the car to get out for a good look and I even heard one croaking!  

Xavier had known that I would be tired and planned the perfect first day with stops at multiple locations with feeders as we worked our way northwest towards Sachatamia Lodge. The day was filled with hummingbirds and tanagers. I had seen most of these species on my trip to Ecuador in 2013, but I didn’t have many photos from that trip, so a lot of birds felt like lifers. I frequently joke that when you have a bad memory, every time is like the first time. I found that I just didn’t remember the birds that I had not photographed on my earlier trip like this gorgeous Blue-necked Tanager; it felt like a life bird.

I especially enjoyed our visit to Mindoloma Bird Lodge where we were so close to a Crimson-rumped Toucanet that I got good photos and a video with my cell phone.

The male and female Red-headed Barbets at Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge were also nice to see.

A hummingbird that we saw frequently in the area west of the Andes was the pretty Andean Emerald.

We arrived at Sachatamia Lodge in time for some late afternoon birding. I loved Sachatamia because they had hummingbird feeders AND banana feeders. In Panama and Costa Rica they feed various fruits, but in Ecuador I saw only bananas and only on the west side of the Andes. A few of the birds enjoying bananas that afternoon at Sachatamia were the Flame-faced, White-lined, and Flame-rumped Tanagers and Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager below.

A couple of Agoutis also came to forage under the feeders. I have always enjoyed all wildlife, but since I created an iNaturalist account last year (username shelleydee), I’m learning more. Agoutis are common in middle America and I thought they was a species of rodent, but nope. The name agouti refers to about a dozen species of rodents of the genus Dasyprocta, separated mainly by geographic range. All of those that I have seen are Central American Agouti, which ranges from southern Mexico to northwest Ecuador.

At dinner the first night, we realized that although I had been to Refugio Paz de las Aves on my 2013 trip, Angel currently had several cooperative antpittas that I had not seen. Xavier quickly arranged a visit for the next morning and we arrived a little after 7:00 AM.

Antpitta #1 was the famous Maria (probably the 6th generation since the original Maria), the Giant Antpitta that started Angel Paz on the way to worldwide fame among birders. Prior to 2005, Angel was logging the cloud forest on family property and hunting birds on the land for food. A Cock-of-the-Rock lek was discovered on the property and Angel began charging birders to see the birds. One day a normally secretive and elusive Giant Antpitta was spied eating worms on the path before it quickly disappeared into the forest. A friend suggested that birders would pay even more to see the antpitta. With tremendous patience, Angel was finally able to get the bird to take worms from him and even come when called. Since then, thousands of birders have been delighted to hear Angel call out “Maria! Maria! Venga venga venga!” It’s a major ecotourism success story with wins for everyone. Angel and his family have enough income for a decent life, the birds and their habitat are protected, and birders are thrilled to see these special birds. Noah Strycker visited Angel Paz during his world big year in 2015 and tells the story in more detail here Day 72: Birding With a Local Legend.

The previous day’s vacation from physical exertion was over. We climbed moderately strenuous trails into the rainforest to see the antpittas. The second one of the morning, a Yellow-breasted Antpitta, was even more shy than Maria. I was told that she had babies to feed since she was gathering worms rather than gobbling them up on the spot.

We had a little break at the banana feeders where I got another life bird, Toucan Barbet, one of over 50 endemic bird species of the Chocó bioregion of western Colombia and Ecuador. The Chocó bioregion is one of the most species rich areas on earth, supporting a total of over 900 species of birds.

Next we went in search of Ochre-breasted Antpitta, the only one of the day’s antpittas that I had seen in 2013. Angel names all of the birds that he feeds and he calls this one Shakira because it does a little dance, which was quite adorable.

The last antpitta of the morning was Moustached Antpitta. This one did not come when called. Finally, Angel’s brother found the female on the nest and set up a scope a respectful distance away. The half dozen birders took turns quietly walking up the hill to the scope, which was 30 feet or so off the path in the forest, to take a quick peek at the bird. I was last and just before it was my turn, Xavier saw another Moustached Antpitta on the other side of the trail giving us all a much better view.

These fantastic birds were enough to make this a wonderful morning, but they were not all it included. Snacks were served after viewing the antpittas, including the most delicious empanadas I’ve ever eaten. We had snacks at many of the places we visited; those at Refugio Paz de las Aves were the best.

There were a few butterflies in the garden and I was surprised to see a Monarch. Once again, submitting a sighting to iNaturalist sent me on a quest to learn more. Virtually everyone in eastern North America is familiar with “our” Monarch, a migratory butterfly that winters in Mexico. But, I had no idea that these migration super powers have led to the spread of the same Monarch species, Danaus plexippus, to Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Five non-migratory subspecies occur in the neotropical region with the nigrippus subspecies occurring on both sides of the Andes. No wonder the Monarch is the best-known and well-loved butterfly in the world! Xavier Munoz took the photograph below at Refugio Paz de las Aves on the day we visited.

Stay tuned, friends, for much more to come. This covers only the first two days of 14 full days of birding.

NC Rare Bird Alert

North Carolina is best known in the birding world for its mid-Atlantic pelagic species. The past couple of weeks, though, NC has been in the national spotlight for a different reason – an astounding number of rare birds. The most notable of these are NC’s fifth Varied Thrush, fourth MacGillivray’s Warbler, and seventh Vermilion Flycatcher. Not quite as rare, but still notable, are a Bullock’s Oriole, two Black-chinned Hummingbirds, two Rough-legged Hawks, and reports of Evening Grosbeaks all over the state. Evening Grosbeaks haven’t been seen in such numbers in North Carolina for nearly 40 years. That’s not all, but I can’t keep up, so I’ll just share my personal experiences with a few of these fascinating visitors.

On December 5, I made a day trip to Cary to see the gorgeous Varied Thrush. Well over a hundred birders have now seen this beautiful bird and no one tells its story better than Maria de Bruyn. See her lovely story, Serendipity in a stressful year, to learn more about the species, this particular individual, and his generous and welcoming hosts.

Varied Thrush in Cary, NC. The normal range of this species is the Pacific Northwest.

Varied Thrush in Cary, NC. The normal range of this species is the Pacific Northwest.

I’ve had only one overnight trip since February and I’ve been itching for a little get-away. I decided that I’d go to North Carolina’s Outer Banks for a few days and do some county birding on the way out and back. I had to work around appointments and was able to start my little trip on December 9. Amazingly, the MacGillivray’s Warbler that was found on December 3 at the Duck Park Boardwalk was still there. Also, the day before I left, a Vermilion Flycatcher showed up in Martin County, conveniently located between my home and the Outer Banks. My county birding plans were quickly scrapped to allow more time to chase these rare birds.

Information about whether birders were welcome at the farm where the Vermilion Flycatcher had appeared was not yet available when I left on Wednesday morning, so I drove straight to the coast. I had just enough time to stop at Alligator River NWR to look for the Rough-legged Hawk that had been there for several weeks. Despite an hour and a half of searching, I was unable to find the hawk and went on to my hotel in Nags Head.

Ash-throated Flycatcher at the Duck Park Boardwalk. Another western species that is rare in NC, but occasionally appears here in winter.

Ash-throated Flycatcher at the Duck Park Boardwalk. Another western species that is rare in NC, but occasionally appears here in winter.

On Thursday morning, I met my friend Kerry Eckhardt at the Duck boardwalk. There were reports of the MacGillivray’s Warbler being seen at all times of the day, so we didn’t rush and got there after 9:00 AM. The park was very birdy, but we couldn’t find the warbler. However, we did quickly find the Ash-throated Flycatcher which had not been seen since December 4. I was thrilled to see this pretty bird because I needed it for my North Carolina list. It was especially satisfying that we found it on our own. After four and a half hours, we gave up looking for the warbler and went to Bodie Island lighthouse to see if we would have better luck with a White-winged Dove, another rare bird for NC, which had been seen recently.

I wasn't fast enough to get a photo of the Bodie Island White-winged Dove. I photographed this bird in Texas where they are much more common.

I wasn’t fast enough to get a photo of the Bodie Island White-winged Dove. I photographed this bird in Texas where they are much more common.

Just as we were about to give up on the dove, a couple of other birders found us and said, “We’ve been looking for you. We have the dove.” And, then they showed us the White-Winged Dove on the side of the entrance road. This helpfulness was typical for the entire trip.  I may be biased, but I think that birders are the nicest people in the world.

I was determined to see the MacGillivray’s Warbler, so while Kerry went to Pea Island to enjoy the spectacle of Tundra Swans and ducks on Friday, I went back to Duck. I wasn’t able to get there at 7:00 AM as Jeff Blalock had told me that I must do, but I did get there before 8:00 AM this time. I joined a nice group of birders and it wasn’t long before someone found our target bird. He doesn’t make it easy to get a good look, but I got lucky and even got a photo. Did the nearly six hours of searching make finally seeing the warbler sweeter? Birding can be an emotional roller-coaster with despair quickly followed by unbridled joy. Can you have the latter without the former? I don’t know, but I guess not.

MacGillivray's Warbler, yet another western species. Only the 4th NC record.

MacGillivray’s Warbler, yet another western species. Only the 4th NC record.

After seeing the MacGillivray’s Warbler, I joined Kerry for a little birding at Pea Island and then we went to Alligator River to look for the Rough-legged Hawk. Another hour and a half of searching produced no sighting of the hawk, although we did enjoy the Northern Harriers cruising low over the fields and a few other raptors.

On Saturday morning, Kerry headed home and I returned to Alligator River for the third time to look for the hawk. In nearly four hours of searching, I still could not find the bird. My check engine light came on and my car shuddered like it was on its last breath every time I started the engine. Sadly, I decided that I couldn’t put off getting the car checked out any longer and I left. On my way out, I ran into Dwayne Martin and a friend and we chatted a bit. Five minutes later, I was several miles down State Road 64 when Dwayne called me. “We’ve got the hawk.” I did a u-turn in the middle of 64 and raced back. They still had the Rough-legged Hawk in their scope. I got it in my scope and had distant, but diagnostic, views of the bird and even saw it hover a few times, a characteristic behavior of Rough-legged Hawks. This bird had required even more effort than the MacGillivray’s Warbler – seven hours on this trip plus several hours a couple of weeks ago with my friend Derek looking for the other Rough-legged Hawk at Pond Mountain. Again, I was elated.

My only photo of a Rough-legged Hawk, one seen in Colorado. The Alligator River bird was much too far for a photo. Note that the feathers on the leg go all the way to the foot, which gives this bird its name.

My only photo of a Rough-legged Hawk, one seen in Colorado. The Alligator River bird was much too far for a photo. Note that the feathers on the leg go all the way to the foot, which gives this bird its name.

I went to Advance Auto Parts and got the codes read and cleared on my car. Fortunately, the shaking stopped and the check engine light has not come back on. After dealing with that, I had just a bit of daylight left, so I stopped at Jennette’s Pier and didn’t see much but did enjoy the two young male Common Eiders.

A young male Common Eider at Jennette's Pier, Nags Head

A young male Common Eider at Jennette’s Pier, Nags Head

And just like that my three full days at the Outer Banks were gone. On Sunday, I left for home, but had one more bird to see on the way – the Vermilion Flycatcher. Many birders had seen this beautiful bird while I was at the coast and the owner of the farm had been very welcoming to birders. The flycatcher moved up the hill to the farm next door and these folks, too, seemed pleased to host this gorgeous bird and welcomed birders.

The friendly folks who put up this sign also had a guestbook for birders to sign.

The friendly folks who put up this sign also had a guestbook for birders to sign.

I pulled up behind the other cars and was greeted with “He’s right there.” And indeed the Vermilion Flycatcher was perched on a post in the horse pasture. Even though I saw the bird right away, I stayed nearly two hours because it was a beautiful day and it was fun to watch the flycatcher and visit with the other birders. I could not have asked for a more pleasant end to my trip.

The Vermilion Flycatcher was right at home with the horses.

The Vermilion Flycatcher was right at home with the horses.


Vermilion Flycatcher in Martin County, NC's 7th record of this species.

Vermilion Flycatcher in Martin County, NC’s 7th record of this species.

Now I’m home waiting for Evening Grosbeaks to show up. It would be thrilling to see these beauties in my yard.

An Evening Grosbeak that I photographed in Colorado last year

An Evening Grosbeak that I photographed in Colorado last year

Early October is usually good for migration here in Forsyth County, North Carolina, and this year was no exception. The third 3-week stretch of the fall Yard Squad Challenge went from October 5 to 25.  I am happy that I found 14 new birds during that time.  The first day started with one of my favorite migrants right on my deck – Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

A few days later, I found a bird that made me even happier.  It was one of those days that I didn’t get out until after 2:00 PM, so I headed to the Walnut Bottoms trail which is short, flat, and easy.  I wandered along the fence row and saw a pretty Cape May Warbler.  Next, I headed to the back corner where I found both male and female Black-throated Blue Warblers, a new bird for my team, Yardbirds Remastered.  Surprisingly, I did not see any of these lovely birds in my yard this fall as I usually do.

A Cape May Warbler in the late afternoon light at Walnut Bottoms

A Cape May Warbler in the late afternoon light at Walnut Bottoms

I intended a short walk, but something kept calling me to stay.  After I had already been there for three hours, I started following a big flock of Common Grackles in hopes of getting a good photo of one.  Yes, I know that sounds crazy, but I’m inspired by a local birder who was photographing American Robins in her yard a few years ago when she found a Henslow’s Sparrow.  The grackles led me through the woods and back out into one of the fields where I spotted a flycatcher on a power pole guy-wire.  I’m the opposite of those birders who turn common birds into rarities.  When I see a small flycatcher, I usually figure it’s an Eastern Wood-Pewee or at best an Acadian Flycatcher.  This day something told me to get a photo of the bird.  So, in the last light of the day, I worked hard to get the photo below which was good enough to confirm this bird as a Least Flycatcher.  They are not common birds here, yet every serious birder in the county except me had managed to see one.  I was thrilled to finally add it to my Forsyth County list and especially proud of finding it myself.

Least Flycatcher at Walnut Bottoms - a new county bird for me!

Least Flycatcher at Walnut Bottoms – a new county bird for me!

The next day, October 9, was the best day of fall in my yard.  I enjoyed sitting on my deck and watching the action in the Devil’s Walking Sticks which were loaded with berries.  In less than an hour, I observed four Cardinals, a Parula, a Scarlet Tanager, and two Swainson’s Thrushes feasting on the berries.

A Swainson's Thrush in the Aralia spinosa, Devil's Walking Stick

A Swainson’s Thrush in the Aralia spinosa, Devil’s Walking Stick

This Scarlet Tanager was also eating Aralia spinosa berries, but it popped out in the open for a photo.

This Scarlet Tanager was also eating Aralia spinosa berries, but it popped out in the open for a photo.

I continued to find nice birds for my Yard Squad circle, but nothing new for the Yardbirds.  With two other team members in the East (Ohio and Florida), we had a lot of overlap in species.  At Long Creek Park, I found my first Pine Siskins on October 16.  It’s an irruption year that some are calling the invasion of the Siskins.  A few days after I took this photo, birders around the state started reporting dozens of these birds at their feeders.  A couple of people reported hundreds of Siskins.  People are joking about second mortgages and 401K withdrawals to finance enough bird seed to keep these greedy little things happy.  If you are not familiar with avian irruptions, you can read about the phenomenon here.  See the Winter Finch Forecast for current predictions.

A Pine Siskin at Long Creek Park

A Pine Siskin at Long Creek Park

Swamp Sparrow at Long Creek Park

Swamp Sparrow at Long Creek Park

I also found a really interesting thrush at Long Creek Park on October 17th.  I am calling it a Hermit Thrush, but it was a difficult ID even for the expert birders who advised me.  It alternately looked like a Gray-cheeked Thrush, a Swainson’s Thrush, and a Hermit Thrush depending upon the light.  Adding to the difficulty of the ID was the timing; migrating Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrushes were still around and Hermit Thrushes were just arriving for the winter.

A newly-arrived Hermit Thrush enjoying wild grapes at Long Creek Park

A newly-arrived Hermit Thrush enjoying wild grapes at Long Creek Park

Here’s a bird that can’t be mistaken for anything else, an Eastern Bluebird.

Eastern Bluebird at Long Creek Park

Eastern Bluebird at Long Creek Park

My heart has a soft spot for Hairy Woodpeckers, so I was thrilled to see this female come to my yard for a visit.  I was sitting at the kitchen table when I took this photo – across the kitchen, through two panes of glass, and on far side of the deck.

Hairy Woodpecker on my deck

Hairy Woodpecker on my deck

As we headed into the last week of the competition, there were three birds that I needed to find for my team – Blue-headed Vireo, Winter Wren, and Purple Finch.  Winter Wren was the only one of these that I was sure I could find.  Several other birders had seen Blue-headed Vireos at Long Creek Park, but I tried three days before I could find one.  But, what great luck I finally had!  Blue-headed Vireos seem curious and sweet; they are my favorite vireo.  None of the other vireos come close to check you out and then go about their business of foraging just over your head.

Blue-headed Vireo at Long Creek Park

Blue-headed Vireo at Long Creek Park

The next morning, I headed to Walnut Bottoms where I was hoping to find a Winter Wren.  I walked a short way down the trail to Muddy Creek and played the call.  Like a shot, a wren flew up from the creek bed and landed ten feet in front of me.  Success!  I watched it for a few minutes and then continued on the trail to the first open field where I quickly found a Purple Finch feeding in the weeds.

Purple Finch at Walnut Bottoms. This is likely a female, but it's nearly impossible to distinguish the females from first year males.

Purple Finch at Walnut Bottoms. This is likely a female, but it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the females from first year males.

Now I could relax!  I had successfully found my targets and could just enjoy birding for the last few days of the challenge.  The Purple Finch was the 100th bird that I observed during the fall Yard Squad Challenge in my 1-mile circle.  Forty-one of those birds added to the tally for my team, Yardbirds Remastered.  We ended with an impressive 479 species, but the competition was fierce so that put us in position 5 of 7 teams.

Eastern Box Turtle at Walnut Bottoms

Eastern Box Turtle at Walnut Bottoms

For the iNaturalist part of the competition we came in right in the middle of the pack at 4th place with 446 species of non-avian observations.  With 151 species, I was the iNat leader for my team.  The iNat competition renewed my interest in moths.  I found about a dozen species that I’d never seen before.  I also found that I enjoyed butterflies and found two “lifers”, Dun Skipper and Little Yellow.  Some of the other insects were interesting, too.  Did you know that there really is a living thing called a conehead?  Yep, and I found two different species of them at my moth lights.

Here are a few of the “leps” (lepidoptera – butterflies and moths) from the last stretch that I especially liked.

Fiery Skipper

Fiery Skipper

American Lady

American Lady

Common Checkered-Skipper

Common Checkered-Skipper

Long-tailed Skipper

Long-tailed Skipper

And, that’s a wrap for the fall Yard Squad Challenge.  Credit goes to Matt Smith for creating, hosting, and managing the game.  And, thanks to Joost Brandsma for leading the Yardbirds Remastered.  It was great fun and my obsession with the game gave me an excuse to put off cleaning and decluttering my house for two more months.  You can find more of my photos on eBird (contributor Shelley Rutkin) or iNaturalist (user shelleydee).


The middle stretch of the fall Yard Squad Challenge was similar to the middle weeks of the spring challenge.  Other birders always seemed to find the migrants before I did.  With a larger patch to bird, though, it was easier to catch up.  I missed a few birds that I would like to have seen, but I found 16 new species in this three-week period.  That put my total number of birds for the challenge at 86, exactly what Matt’s magic formula predicted that I should be able to find.  Every new species now added to my list will be “above par”, so I’m happy.

So, what were those 16 new birds?  This isn’t one of the them because I first saw it on September 8 (this middle stretch started on September 14), but this sweet little bird stayed for over a week.  I was able to see it again on the 15th and even get a photo.  Kentucky Warbler is not a common species for my county, so it was a real thrill to see this lovely bird twice.

Kentucky Warbler at Bethania's Walnut Bottoms

Kentucky Warbler at Bethania’s Walnut Bottoms

New birds that I did see included Red-tailed Hawk and Song Sparrow.  What?  Those are common birds.  I’m learning that even species that are present year-round can be much easier to find some weeks than others.  Song Sparrows breed in my county, but they are quiet during the summer.  Species like the sparrow and Brown Thrashers are much easier to find once they start foraging in fall when abundant natural food is everywhere.

A Wood Thrush on the path at Walnut Bottoms was a welcome sight and a new species for the Yardbirds.  I had feared that I wouldn’t be able to find one without hearing their beautiful song.

I was also happy to see Osprey and Great Egret and add them to the growing list for my circle.  Neither were new for the Yardbirds, but they add to our total ticks.  The egret was a real surprise as this is another species that isn’t common in my county.  We usually have a few somewhere, but this was only the third time that I’ve seen one at this pond.

Great Egret at Lake Hills Pond & Marsh

Great Egret at Lake Hills Pond & Marsh

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have been more common this fall than they were in the spring.  The males aren’t sporting their snazzy black, white, and rose attire now, but I think they are beautiful birds irregardless.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male) at Lake Hills Pond & Marsh

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male) at Lake Hills Pond & Marsh

I continued to enjoy the non-avian iNaturalist part of the challenge and added an Eastern Chipmunk.  I remember feeling excited about living in a part of the county that has chipmunks when I moved to North Carolina.  I didn’t realize how quickly I would get tired of the evil little things who eat all the bird food and just laugh at me.  See if you learn anything new about chipmunks in this story, NOT Alvin and the Chipmunks: 10 Facts You May Not Know about the Real Rodents.  Did you note the part about eating bird eggs and nestlings?  Yep, I hate these little monsters.  It’s hard to deny that they are cute, though.

Eastern Chipmunk on my deck

Eastern Chipmunk on my deck

Here are a few more of my iNat observations during this period.  If you want to see my other sightings, you can find me on iNat with username shelleydee.

This was a new moth for my yard and one of my favorites, Orange-shouldered Sherbet Moth.  Its wings were translucent and a photo can't really capture its delicate beauty.

This was a new moth for my yard and one of my favorites, Orange-shouldered Sherbet Moth.  Its wings were translucent and a photo can’t really capture its delicate beauty.


I didn't get any more life butterflies, but this Variegated Fritillary was a new iNat observation for me.

I didn’t get any more life butterflies, but this Variegated Fritillary was a new iNat observation for me.


An American Toad surprised us when I was birding with friends at Walnut Bottoms. They are difficult to distinguish from the similar Fowler's Toad which also occurs here. Experts in a Facebook group helped with the ID.

An American Toad surprised us when I was birding with friends at Walnut Bottoms. They are difficult to distinguish from the similar Fowler’s Toad which also occurs here. Experts in a Facebook group helped with the ID.

Participating in iNat led to more than wildlife sightings; it also gave me a new friend.  Linda saw some of my observations and contacted me.  We discovered that we had much in common and went for a walk together at Long Creek Park.  We had a great time and spent over four hours surveying the park for interesting flora and fauna.  Linda is a better nature watcher than I am and her sharp eye caught this skink.

Common Five-lined Skink or Southeastern Five-lined Skink? I don't think it's possible to determine from this photo.

Common Five-lined Skink or Southeastern Five-lined Skink? I don’t think it’s possible to determine from this photo.

Another of my favorite sightings with Linda was a small clump of ferns.  I was surprised that in September they still looked fresh and perfect.

Broad beech fern at Long Creek Park

Broad beech fern at Long Creek Park

I still love birds best and even the young Northern Cardinals on my deck made me happy.  I’ve watched these two girls and a young male nearly every day.

Immature female Northern Cardinals

Immature female Northern Cardinals

This Yellow-billed Cuckoo also made me very happy.  It’s always fun to watch them successfully forage for caterpillars.  I watched this one while birding with friends at Walnut Bottoms.  Like its name implies, this is a spot with many black walnut trees which seem to host a lot of caterpillars.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo with an unidentified caterpillar

Yellow-billed Cuckoo with an unidentified caterpillar

During the last three days of this stretch I was able to find a new bird for my team every day.  On October 2, a sweet little group of at least three Tennessee Warblers foraged in the weeds at the edge of a large field at Long Creek Park.

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

A Hooded Warbler at Walnut Bottoms was new on October 3.  And, finally, on the last day of this stretch of the Yard Squad Challenge, October 4, I found nothing new in my 3-1/2 hours of birding in the morning.  As I sat on my deck that afternoon, a Cape May Warbler came by and spent a few minutes checking out the seeds on the deck rail and the suet in a little cup.  I had foolishly not taken my camera on the deck, so here is a photo of another Cape May Warbler that stopped by for a bath a few years ago.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

There are not many new birds that I can find in the last stretch of the challenge, but I do expect to see a Black-throated Blue Warbler.  Follow along with me and see if I’m successful.

Fall is rapidly approaching, but sadly the Coronavirus is not retreating.  Many people are still social-distancing and staying near home.  So, what does that mean?  It means that the amazing Matt Smith has brought back the Yard Squad Challenge for a Fall Edition.  It’s similar to the spring competition in that we have teams of players from around the globe – seven teams of ten players each.  But instead of limiting each player to their neighborhood patch, each of us were allowed to define a circle with a radius up to five miles.  Instead of the snake draft, Matt queried eBird data and threw it all in the Magic Hat which created teams each having the same number of potential species (470).  Bonus points will be earned with iNaturalist observations of everything except birds.

Butterflies provided some easy iNat bonus points. Great Spangled Fritillary on Ironweed.

Butterflies provided some easy iNat bonus points. Great Spangled Fritillary on Ironweed.

I am on Joost Brandsma’s team again, Yardbirds Remastered.  We have two players in England, one in Alaska, and seven of us scattered around the lower 48 states.  I choose the smallest possible circle with only a one-mile radius, but it includes my two favorite birding hotspots in addition to my neighborhood.  I figured that a larger circle would simply increase my “par” list without significantly increasing my chances of finding additional birds.  My list of potential birds has 86 species, which seems achievable since I found 83 species in the spring competition without even leaving my neighborhood.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Even though my circle is rather small, it doesn’t have the patch feel of the spring competition.  As much fun as that was, I’m happy to have a little more variety.  We started on August 24 and this first stretch (of three total) ended on September 13.  I have birded every day, sometimes more than once.  I also created my brand new iNaturalist account a couple of days before the start of the Yard Squad Challenge.  I had been resisting the urge to “moth” again this year because of the time suck, but now I had to do it for the iNat bonus points.  I enjoyed it as much as ever and was pleasantly surprised that I found several new species of moths.  In my post Summer Nights a few years ago, I described the wonderful peaceful feeling of nighttime on my deck.

A lovely Showy Urola moth with wings that look like satin.

A lovely Showy Urola moth with wings that look like satin.

I haven’t seen a single rare or unexpected bird yet, but with close observation, I find that I am always learning something new.  I was pleased to get a clear image of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, but didn’t realize how patchy her feathers were until I looked at the photo.  I mistakenly assumed that it was either a juvenile or sick bird, so I posted the photo to my state birding group on Facebook to learn more.  An expert hummingbird bander told me that it was an adult female in molt and that most of the females they band at this time of year look like this!  I hope she grows new feathers quickly to be in peak condition for her migration south in a few weeks.

Adult female Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Adult female Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I’d like to think that I always pay attention to flora and fauna, but iNat certainly heightened my alertness.  An interesting find was this lichen in the woods near my house.

How had I never noticed this before? Tentatively identified as Gray Reindeer Lichen.

How had I never noticed this before? Tentatively identified as Gray Reindeer Lichen.

And, just as in this post, my attention quickly shifted between plants, birds, butterflies, and other insects as interesting things constantly caught my eye during  my outings.  Birding has been a bit slower than usual this fall, but I never got bored and always came home with a new iNat observation even when I didn’t find a new avian species for the Yard Squad Challenge.  Here are a few of my sightings.

A beautiful Monarch is always nice to see.

A beautiful Monarch is always nice to see.


This Dun Skipper was a "lifer" for me.

This Dun Skipper was a “lifer” for me.


Eastern Towhees are common birds in my circle.  This female was accommodating and came to my pishing for a photo.

Eastern Towhees are common birds in my circle.  This female was accommodating and came to my pishing for a photo.


White-eyed Vireos have been more numerous than ever this year.  And, they are still singing which makes them easy to find them.

White-eyed Vireos have been more numerous than ever this year.  And, they are still singing which makes them easy to find them.


Widow Skimmers are a common dragonfly in my area.

Widow Skimmers are a common dragonfly in my area.


As a young girl, I played with grasshoppers and I still like them. This one is a Differential Grasshopper, identified by the black chevrons on its "thighs."

As a young girl, I played with grasshoppers and I still like them. This one is a Differential Grasshopper, identified by the black chevrons on its “thighs.”


Cicadas, however, are on the short list of insects that I do not like.  I’ve been told that they don’t bite or sting, but they still look evil and freak me out.  

Cicadas, however, are on the short list of insects that I do not like.  I’ve been told that they don’t bite or sting, but they still look evil and freak me out.


I'll end with this sweet little fawn that I saw on a misty gray day. White-tailed Deer.

I’ll end with this sweet little fawn that I saw on a misty gray day. White-tailed Deer.

I found 70 species of birds in the first three-week stretch of the Yard Squad Challenge.  The height of migration for my area will be the next three weeks, so I should find new species.  There are several large clumps of Devil’s Walking Stick berries in my backyard that are nearly ripe.  They are always a favorite of tanagers and warblers.  Who will make is easy by just appearing on my deck?