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After the Zoothera Birding trip to Yunnan, I flew to Shenzhen on February 2 to visit with my son Dave and his girlfriend Rachel.  The timing was perfect as it allowed me to join Rachel’s family for the celebration of Chinese New Year, the quintessential food and family holiday.  Many stores and businesses close for the week-long holiday, commonly called Spring Festival in China, so that people can return to their home towns to celebrate with their families.  The holiday starts with a huge meal on New Year’s Eve.  Our table was overflowing with plain boiled chicken served with ginger-green onion dip, braised prawns, roasted goose, sautéed Chinese cabbage with vermicelli, steamed Turbot fish, stir-fry vegetables, fried oysters, and chicken soup.  Everything was delicious, but we could not eat it all.  I later learned that it’s part of the tradition to have leftovers so that there is plenty to eat without any cooking or other work on the first day of the new year.

Dazzling decorations in Shenzhen celebrate Spring Festival

Dazzling decorations in Shenzhen celebrate Spring Festival

When I was not spending time with Dave or Rachel, I was free to go birding in Shenzhen’s parks.  This was my fifth trip to China and I have become very comfortable going out by myself.  I don’t see a lot of species, but it’s very satisfying to find them myself.  And, I love those birds!  It’s like visiting old friends. (more…)

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I woke up on March 21 to find a text message from my birding pal Derek.  Two spots were available on the Field Guides grouse tour in April; would I like to go?  Well, yes, of course, I would like to go!  I know several people who have done the “chicken run” on their own, but I had no desire to find the best locations, make the arrangements, and then drive 2,500 miles getting to all the leks.  I had not planned to take another birding trip so soon after China, but this was too good to pass up.  I responded “Yes!” to Derek and a couple of hours later we were both officially signed up for the trip.

I had never been to Colorado and I was looking forward to seeing rugged landscapes like this.

I had never been to Colorado and I was looking forward to seeing rugged landscapes like this.

The focus of the trip would be viewing Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens and three additional species of grouse on their leks.  You might be wondering “What’s a lek?”  While a dictionary defines a lek simply as a “communal area in which two or more males of a species perform courtship displays,” they are far more.  Leks are hotbeds of social activity excitingly described in the Audubon article, What the Heck Is a Lek? The Quirkiest Mating Party on Earth.  In between the leks, we would search for several other uncommon species of birds that are highly-sought by birders.  Additionally, this trip usually provides interesting sightings of mammals.

Here’s a preview of the Greater Prairie-Chickens that we would soon be watching on a lek at a cattle ranch in Colorado.

Derek and I wanted to stay a couple of extra days in Colorado after the tour to look for any species that we might have missed or just get in a little more birding.  We spent two hours on the phone searching for flights from Baltimore for Derek and compatible flights from Greensboro for me.  We couldn’t seem to make it work, so we decided that I would just drive up to Baltimore and we’d fly to Denver together from there.

A Bald Eagle, our national bird, in our nation's capital

A Bald Eagle, our national bird, in our nation’s capital

I arrived in Maryland a day early, supposedly to take it easy and rest for the big trip.  But, of course, our birding obsessions would not allow any downtime.  I’m currently trying to get birds in all of the lower 48 states.  Derek assured me that the District of Columbia counts as a state-level entity, so we spent our first day there.  We had fun despite the intermittent rain and I got 43 species, not bad considering that the expected waterfowl were absent.  Derek even got two new D.C. birds, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Vesper Sparrow.

The next morning, April 13, we caught an early flight to Denver and rented a car so that we could do a little birding before officially starting the tour later that afternoon.  We checked out nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR where we had a nice transition to Western birds.  It was fun seeing Black-billed Magpie, Say’s Phoebe, and Western Meadowlark alongside many birds that we also see in the East like American Avocets.  We were also excited to see the first of three prairie dog species that we would encounter during the trip.

I had a close view of a Red-tailed Hawk on our first afternoon in Colorado. They were very common and we would see too many to count during the coming days.

I had a close view of a Red-tailed Hawk on our first afternoon in Colorado. They were very common and we would see too many to count during the coming days.

At 2:30 PM, we met the other eleven participants and our trip leaders, Cory Gregory and Doug Gochfeld. We piled into the two fifteen-passenger vans that would be home for the next 10 days and after quick introductions we were on our way towards Kansas.  I was happy that Cory was one of the leaders as I had met him in Alaska (Alaska 2015: “The Pit Stop is Cancelled”) and knew that he was a great guy in addition to an expert birder.  On our way to Pueblo, Colorado, where we spent the first night, we stopped to look for Western Screech-Owl in a driving rain that eventually turned to snow.  We joked about the weather throughout the trip, saying that we experienced everything except a tornado.  Sadly, we did not have any luck with the Screech-Owl; this was one of the few misses of the trip.

Curve-billed Thrasher in the early morning fog. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Curve-billed Thrasher in the early morning fog. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

On the first full day of the trip, we enjoyed many stops for birding as we continued to head east towards Kansas.  Our first stop was magical, almost spiritual, as we listened to a Curve-billed Thrasher singing in the early morning light.  No other vehicles were on our section of the gravel road and we heard no sounds of civilization; it was just us and the birds.

As the fog dissipated, we continued down the road, getting our first of many excellent views of Pronghorn, an iconic symbol of the West.  Suddenly Derek called out a bird that had been missed.  We backed up and saw a singing Scaled Quail on a cholla cactus on the side of the road.  In this awesome encounter, the bird stayed in that spot for a while, then hopped down, ran across the road, and perched up on a barbed-wire fence where he continued to sing.  We were all thrilled with close looks at this gorgeous bird, which was later voted one of the group favorites for the trip.

Scaled Quail. Can you see why he’s sometimes called “cotton top”?

Scaled Quail. Can you see why he’s sometimes called “cotton top”?

Later that day, we picked up more classic Western species like Yellow-headed Blackbird, Clark’s Grebe, and Lewis’s Woodpecker.  The best part of the afternoon was birding at Neenoshe Reservoir, where we met Colorado birding legend Tony Leukering and Derek got life bird #1,000 – Long-billed Curlew.

Derek's photo of his 1,000th life bird, Long-billed Curlew at Neenoshe Reservoir.

Derek’s photo of his 1,000th life bird, Long-billed Curlew at Neenoshe Reservoir.

The following day, April 15, we visited our first lek, on a Nature Conservancy property in Kansas, to observe Lesser Prairie-Chickens.  We followed the usual protocol for lek viewing and arrived at the blind well before dawn.  We settled into our places on the bench in the metal blind and sat as quietly as possible for the next few hours.  We heard the chickens in the darkness before we saw them.  With the rising sun, silhouettes became visible.  Finally, we saw the entire drama play out before our eyes as the prairie-chickens danced the same dances and observed the same mating rituals as they have for thousands of years.

Female Lesser Prairie-Chickens

Female Lesser Prairie-Chickens

Sadly, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken has suffered huge population declines since the 1800’s.  The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) lists the species as “vulnerable” due to its restricted and patchy range.  In 2014, it was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, but that ruling was overturned the following year.  Legal battles to protect the Lesser Prairie-Chicken have continued since with a lawsuit to make a decision on listing the species as endangered or threatened likely to be filed soon.  Here is the most current information that I could find, which includes both a biological and legal history.  Regardless of legal status, the prairie-chickens are clearly losing ground due to habitat loss with global warming looming as another threat to their survival.  Cory mused that the Lesser Prairie-Chicken is the most likely bird in the lower 48 states to go extinct in our lifetimes.

Male Lesser Prairie-Chicken displaying on the lek. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Male Lesser Prairie-Chicken displaying on the lek. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

After viewing the Lesser Prairie-Chickens, we turned back West and birded along the way to Wray, Colorado, with a quick stop in Nebraska, which gave one participant her last state to be visited.  After checking into our hotel, we headed over to the Bledsoe Cattle Ranch for a warm welcome from Bob Bledsoe, a partner in the family-run business.  The ranch has won many awards, but we were also impressed by the Bledsoe’s good stewardship of the land which hosts about 100 Greater Prairie-Chicken leks on its 75,000 acres according to Bob’s estimate. Bob was a good representative for the fascinating Bledsoe family; we enjoyed Bob’s stories and our Q&A session.

On April 16, we arose in the wee hours again, this time to see Greater Prairie-Chickens on the Bledsoe ranch.  The routine was similar, arriving before dawn, but this time we watched the birds from the vans and two pick-up trucks.  Derek and I were lucky to get one truck to ourselves, a great help in getting photos.  As with the Lesser Prairie-Chickens, the birds displayed mere feet from us as we quietly watched.

Male Greater Prairie-Chickens challenge each other on the lek.

Male Greater Prairie-Chickens challenge each other on the lek.

Greater Prairie-Chickens are very similar to Lesser Prairie-Chickens, but slightly larger.  The most noticeable difference is that the gular air sac on the side of the neck is orange to yellow during the breeding season while the air sac of the male Lesser Prairie-Chicken is red.  Although numbers of Greater Prairie-Chickens have declined, they have a wider range and larger, more secure population than Lesser Prairie-Chickens.

A male Greater Prairie-Chicken booming on the lek.

A male Greater Prairie-Chicken booming on the lek.

This charismatic species was my favorite member of the grouse family.  Not only were they beautiful and interesting birds, but the males put on the best vocal show with their booming, cackling, and whooping while dancing and strutting.  Greater Prairie-Chickens are so well-known for their booming sounds that their leks are often referred to as “booming grounds.”

Male Greater Prairie-Chickens step up their game as they fight for the best territories on the lek. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Male Greater Prairie-Chickens step up their game as they fight for the best territories on the lek. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the bizarre lek mating system evolved.  Darwin’s theory of natural selection, commonly referred to as survival of the fittest, explains much about evolution, but it can’t explain how non-adaptive characteristics arise.  Features such as the peacock’s long tail actually harm survival by making it difficult to flee from predators.  Darwin realized this and developed his second theory, sexual selection, to explain the emergence of traits which do not aid and may even hinder survival, but give one individual an advantage over other individuals of the same species in obtaining mates.  Darwin suggested two mechanisms of sexual selection: mate choice and competition for mates.  Competition for mates (especially among males) is obvious and generally accepted by scientists as a function of sexual selection.  But mate selection is more complicated.  In his popular book, The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum passionately argues that it’s the female’s innate sense of beauty that explains mate choice, but other scientists disagree.  Many questions remain and grouse are frequently studied in ongoing research on sexual selection.  During the ten days of the grouse tour, we would simply thrill in the displays of the males strutting their stuff and the discerning females making their choices.

Two female Lesser Prairie-Chickens evaluate their choices. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Two female Lesser Prairie-Chickens evaluate their choices. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We saw a few females at both prairie-chicken leks and several others in our group observed mating.  They reported that all the females choose the same male.  This is typical; the dominant couple of males in a given lek will likely mate with about 90% of the females.  The females then leave to build a nest, incubate their eggs, and raise the chicks on their own without any help from the male.

Great Horned Owl. Photo by Derek.

Great Horned Owl. Photo by Derek.

We continued to enjoy sightings of many other species as we drove back to Denver.  The group liked this Great Horned Owl on her nest that we stopped to observe on our way out of the Bledsoe ranch.  Highlights later that day were Mountain Plovers, Burrowing Owls, and a large flock of 150 McCown’s Longspurs at Pawnee National Grassland.  The longspurs were more distant than we would have liked, but, along with the Mountain Plovers, they were life birds for several in our group.

Next on this wonderful trip – grouse leks!  Stay tuned for more Colorado grouse tour adventures.

 

Driving through Pawnee National Grassland. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Driving through Pawnee National Grassland. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

 

 

 

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If I’d died and gone to birding heaven, it couldn’t have been much better than Baihualing.  If you have been to South America and seen antpittas and other shy forest birds come to worms when called, imagine that.  Except that it lasts all day rather than five minutes.  The bird blinds/feeding stations at Baihualing are amazing.  Each blind (or “hide” as the Brits say) is owned by a local who created and manages it.  A good location is identified and then the blind owner creates a stage for the birds with water features, logs and stumps that can be filled with suet or worms, places to perch, etc.  On one side is the hide – a narrow rectangular tent-like structure with either a long window or portholes for binoculars and cameras and little plastic stools for sitting.

Everyone needs a drink, even shy species like these Mountain Bamboo-Partridges.

Everyone needs a drink, even shy species like these Mountain Bamboo-Partridges.

I envision the creation process is much like that of a male bowerbird who looks at his stage from various perspectives.  Will the birds find it appealing and come?  Will the birders and photographers in the blind have good views?  Ongoing management consists of chauffeuring birders back and forth between the hotel and the blind, feeding the birds throughout the day, and collecting the modest fees that birders and photographers pay for the privilege of wonderful close looks at birds that would otherwise be very difficult to find and see well.  It’s a winning situation for everyone, including the birds.

We arrived at this wonderful place late in the afternoon of January 23th and spent nearly two hours in Blind #8.  Here are some of the gorgeous birds we saw that first day.

Red-billed Leiothrix. I missed this beautiful little bird on previous trips to China, so I was thrilled to finally get such a wonderful close look this time.

Red-billed Leiothrix. I missed this beautiful little bird on previous trips to China, so I was thrilled to finally get such a wonderful close look this time.

Red-tailed Laughingthrush. It's hard to believe, but these beauties were common at the blinds with half a dozen or so frequently in the feeding areas.

Red-tailed Laughingthrush. It’s hard to believe, but these beauties were common at the blinds with half a dozen or so frequently in the feeding areas.

Chestnut-headed Tesia. What a little charmer! This is a species that would have been difficult to see well "in the wild."

Chestnut-headed Tesia. What a little charmer! This is a species that would have been difficult to see well “in the wild.”

Rusty-capped Fulvettas. These little cuties were fun to watch.

Rusty-capped Fulvettas. These little cuties were fun to watch.

Space prohibits displaying all of my photos from that afternoon, so here is a link to my eBird checklist.

The next morning we walked a nearby trail for over six hours.  It was advertised as “flat,” but several of us thought it was a bit steep and I didn’t stay with the group the entire time.  I didn’t see many birds on the trail, but I did see a beautiful Black Giant Squirrel which was so big that I didn’t even realize it was a squirrel at first.

Black Giant Squirrel.  Photo by John Hopkins.

Black Giant Squirrel. Photo by John Hopkins.

Later that afternoon, I was happy to spend two hours in Blind #77.  In that short time, I got eight life birds!  Here are a few of my favorite photos from the afternoon.

Red-tailed Minla. Such a smart and sophisticated-looking bird. I can't help assigning human-like personalities to some of these exotic Asian birds.

Red-tailed Minla. Such a smart and sophisticated-looking bird. I can’t help assigning human-like personalities to some of these exotic Asian birds.

Black-streaked Scimitar-Babbler. I have been awed by scimitar-babblers ever since I first saw a Gray-sided Scimitar-Babbler in 2012. And, what a struggle it was to see that first one. Scimitar-Babblers are normally very shy birds.

Black-streaked Scimitar-Babbler. I have been awed by scimitar-babblers ever since I first saw a Gray-sided Scimitar-Babbler in 2012. And, what a struggle it was to see that first one. Scimitar-Babblers are normally very shy birds.

Yellow-cheeked Tit. Punk bird?

Yellow-cheeked Tit. Punk bird?

Scarlet-faced Liocichla. These gorgeous birds were fairly common and we frequently saw them with Red-tailed Laughingthrushes.

Scarlet-faced Liocichla. These gorgeous birds were fairly common and we frequently saw them with Red-tailed Laughingthrushes.

And, here is my eBird checklist from that session with more photos.

The next day, January 25, we spent the entire day in the blinds starting with #35 in the morning.  Some species seem to be constantly present at a blind and others come and go throughout the day.  Some of the shyer birds may only come once or twice a day – or skip a day entirely.  A few photos from that session:

Blue-winged Lauthingthrush. Gorgeous and a little scary looking. Very shy compared to Red-tailed Laughingthrushes.

Blue-winged Lauthingthrush. Gorgeous and a little scary looking. Very shy compared to Red-tailed Laughingthrushes.

Ashy Drongo. He came into the feeding area like he owned it, with grace and confidence, but no arrogance. Yep, I can't help those human comparisons. Drongos are common in China and the others didn't get excited over them, but I loved them, especially this species.

Ashy Drongo. He came into the feeding area like he owned it, with grace and confidence, but no arrogance. Yep, I can’t help those human comparisons. Drongos are common in China and the others didn’t get excited over them, but I loved them, especially this species.

Flavescent Bulbuls enjoying an apple.

Flavescent Bulbuls enjoying an apple.

Streaked Spiderhunter is a species that we enjoyed seeing from the blinds, but this is one that we also saw well several times “in the wild.” Presumably, these birds do feed on spiders and insects, but that long curved bill is adapted for obtaining nectar. National Geographic even includes them in its list of Top 25 Birds with a Sugar Rush.

Streaked Spiderhunter

Silver-eared Mesia. These beautiful little birds are currently doing well in the wild, however, the population is under pressure from trapping for the caged bird trade.

Silver-eared Mesia. These beautiful little birds are currently doing well in the wild, however, the population is under pressure from trapping for the caged bird trade.

Long-tailed Sibia. One of the many species that enjoyed the apples at the feeding stations.

Long-tailed Sibia. One of the many species that enjoyed the apples at the feeding stations.

Large Niltava. This individual is a female. I think that she is just as gorgeous as her mate.

Large Niltava. This individual is a female. I think that she is just as gorgeous as her mate.

Pallas's Squirrel. These and Northern Tree Shrew were common visitors to the feeding stations.

Pallas’s Squirrel. These and Northern Tree Shrew were common visitors to the feeding stations.

Here is my eBird checklist from the morning.

We spent the afternoon in Blind #11, at a little higher elevation than the others we had visited, which produced a few new species.  Each blind has its specialties.  At this one, new birds were Hill Partridge and Gray-sided Laughingthrush.  This blind was the only location where we saw either of these species.

Hill Partridge

Hill Partridge

Gray-sided Laughingthrush

Gray-sided Laughingthrush

Himalayan Bluetail. Amazingly, we saw many of these beautiful birds. This one is a male.

Himalayan Bluetail. Amazingly, we saw many of these beautiful birds. This one is a male.

My eBird checklist from Blind #11 has more photos.

On our final morning at Baihualing, we all had a choice – walk the trails to search for species that don’t come to the blinds or have another session at a blind.  You can guess which option I choose.  It turned out to be a good decision as the others dipped again on their second try for Gould’s Shortwing, a difficult species to find.  Additionally, our little group in the blind had wonderful looks at eight Mountain Bamboo-Partridges, the only good sighting of this species during the trip.

Mountain Bamboo-Partridge (male)

Mountain Bamboo-Partridge (male)

That last morning, we also had excellent looks at many species seen during the previous few days.  A few of my favorites were the birds below.

Large Niltava (male)

Large Niltava (male)

Great Barbet

Great Barbet

Mr. Orange-bellied Leafbird. I had seen these gorgeous birds on previous trips, but I was thrilled to get much closer looks this time.

Mr. Orange-bellied Leafbird. I had seen these gorgeous birds on previous trips, but I was thrilled to get much closer looks this time.

Mrs. Orange-bellied Leafbird

Mrs. Orange-bellied Leafbird

Here is my last eBird checklist from Baihualing, but there are six more days in the Zoothera Birding trip and then a week in Shenzhen, so I’ll be back with more stories.

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My son Dave visited Yunnan shortly after he moved to China in 2008.  For years, he has urged me to see this province of China that is often considered the most beautiful.  So, when Nick Bray, who led my birding trip in 2012, posted on Facebook that he was planning Zoothera Birding‘s first trip to Yunnan, I immediately signed up.

Common Kingfishers are widespread in Asia and I have seen them on every trip, this time in both Yunnan and later in Shenzhen.

Common Kingfishers are widespread in Asia and I have seen them on every trip, this time in both Yunnan and later in Shenzhen.

I arrived in Kunming in the wee hours of January 16th, a full day before the others so that I wouldn’t be starting the trip with jet lag.  I planned to sleep late and then do a little birding on my first day.  I thought that I was so smart when I was preparing for the trip and found a little park not far from the hotel.  I printed the map so that I could show it to a taxi driver as no taxi drivers in China speak any English.  The hotel called a taxi for me and, as planned, I showed my little map to the driver.  I assumed that he would take me to the park, but after a few minutes he showed me his phone with a translation app.  It said “That park is old and depressed.  Why do you want to go there?  Guandu Forest Park is new and beautiful and it’s free.”  I tried to ask how far the suggested park was, but the translation app turned “How far is the park?” into profanity.  I vigorously shook my head “no” and gave up.  So, of course, the driver took me to the suggested park, 45 minutes away and $15.00 rather than 10 minutes and the $3.00 fare that I expected.  I was frustrated, but I should have known better.  After four previous trips to China, I have learned that communication is difficult and misunderstandings are frequent, even when simply trying to get from Point A to Point B.

Yellow-billed Grosbeak

Yellow-billed Grosbeak

The park was a typical Chinese city park – full of people, even a band playing – beautiful, but not conducive to productive birding.  But, I quickly relaxed and enjoyed the lovely afternoon for a couple of hours.  Even with all the activity, I found a little flock of Yellow-billed Grosbeaks, a species that the Zoothera group would not see at all.

Back at the hotel, I found a few birds on the edge of the parking area, including several White Wagtails.  I find Wagtails very interesting and always try to photograph them.  This was the first time that I saw an alboides subspecies and I thought that he was a rather snazzy looking bird, even in winter plumage.

White Wagtail, Motacilla alba alboides

White Wagtail, Motacilla alba alboides

That evening I enjoyed dinner with John Hopkins, another birder who had arrived early.  The next day we met up with the rest of the group at the airport – ten participants and three guides.  There was one other woman in the group, from Germany, and one man from Sweden.  The rest of the group consisted of males from the UK except for our two Chinese guides.  After a quick lunch, we were off on our adventure.  Our first destination was Zixishan, a mountain park near Chuxiong, about three hours from Kunming.  We arrived in time for a little birding before checking into our hotel and we found our two target birds right away – the endemic Yunnan Nuthatch and Giant Nuthatch.  The Yunnan Nuthatch posed quite nicely for us at a close distance, not typical behavior we were told.

Yunnan Nuthatch

Yunnan Nuthatch

The following day, we started birding at Zixishan before sunrise.  It was a nice morning and we saw a good number of birds.  This Chinese Thrush sat on the side of the road and never moved, even as we moved closer and closer for photos.  It was still sitting there when we left to look for other species.

Chinese Thrush

Chinese Thrush

The afternoon brought a 6-hour drive to Lijiang where we hoped to see Biet’s Laughingthrush, my most wanted bird of the trip.  But, alas, our good fortune at Zixishan did not continue at Lijiang.  Despite several hours of intensive searching in the areas where the laughingthrush has historically been seen, we neither heard nor saw one.  We learned that this rare bird is becoming increasingly difficult to find, perhaps in part due to illegal poaching for the caged bird trade.

The best birds at Lijiang were a pair of Rufous-tailed Babblers bouncing around the top of a big trash pile, singing almost constantly.  Several of us just sat in the grass a few yards away with our cameras and click-click-clicked as these normally shy birds put on a fantastic close-up show for us.

Rufous-tailed Babbler

Rufous-tailed Babbler

The others in our group had started teasing me about ducks almost as soon as our trip started.  Apparently I was the only waterfowl enthusiast, or maybe ducks were just too easy for the more serious birders with life lists of over 6,000 species.  I got my wish to see ducks on the morning that we left Lijiang with a quick stop at Lijiang Wetland Park.  I loved it!  There were hundreds of birds on the lake.  I got much better looks at beautiful Ferruginous Ducks than I’d had previously.  And, I even got three life birds.  Surprisingly, I had never seen a real wild Graylag Goose before.  Red-crested Pochard and Smew were also new.

Ferruginous Ducks

Ferruginous Ducks

It seemed that everyone enjoyed our short time at the wetland despite their earlier claims that they didn’t care about ducks.  I think that we could have stayed for hours and everyone would have been happy.  But, we had a long drive ahead, so we couldn’t savor the ducks and wetland birds for long.  Back in the van, the more experienced birders gave me a good lesson in separating Black-headed and Brown-headed Gulls.  With their expert knowledge and my photos, I quickly learned that it really was easy to differentiate these two species.

Brown-headed and Black-headed Gulls with Graylag Geese. Even in this rather poor photo, you can easily note the larger size of the Brown-headed Gulls, the dark wingtips, and huge mirrors in the outermost primaries.

Brown-headed and Black-headed Gulls with Graylag Geese. Even in this rather poor photo, you can easily note the larger size of the Brown-headed Gulls, the dark wingtips, and huge mirrors in the outermost primaries.

After leaving the Lijiang wetland, we drove 8 hours to Lushui.  The next morning we continued through part of Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve, over Pianma Pass (3,100 meters), and to the small town of Pianma near the Myanmar border where we would spend the next two nights.  The first morning in this area started with one of the most thrilling sightings of the entire trip – and it was not a bird.  It was a Red Panda sleeping in the sunshine in a bare tree!  This charismatic little mammal (about the size of a house cat) is fascinating.  It has thick fur on the soles of its feet.  It uses that fluffy 18-inch tail to wrap around itself for warmth.  The Smithsonian has more interesting facts about the Red Panda, a species classified as endangered with a population of less than 10,000 remaining in the wild.

The Red Panda as seen from the road.

The Red Panda as seen from the road.

A close-up of the adorable Red Panda. This is the view that we got through the scope. Photo by John Hopkins.

A close-up of the adorable Red Panda. This is the view that we got through the scope. Photo by John Hopkins.

After the panda sighting, things were pretty slow.  Actually, they were very slow and this was my least favorite part of the trip.  The hotel was awful, it was cold, and we didn’t find our main target birds.  For two full days, we traveled back and forth over Pianma Pass and birded along the road, which was always covered in a thin layer of ice except in sunny spots.  On the second day, several of the others found some good birds by climbing up the side of the mountain on rough rather steep trails.  I stayed on the road not wanting to wear myself out or trigger an asthma attack by too much activity at 3,100 meters.  OK, I was a little lazy.  But, my vision is so bad that I don’t think that I would have seen the birds anyway, even if I had scrambled up the mountainside.  Just like on my 2012 trip with Nick, most of the others were in better physical shape and were much more experienced and skillful birders than me.  But I didn’t miss one of the best birds of the day when late that afternoon we found this spectacular little bird, a Fire-tailed Myzornis.

Fire-tailed Myzornis. Photo by John Hopkins.

Fire-tailed Myzornis. Photo by John Hopkins.

The following morning, we left for Baihualing and it’s many bird blinds, where I would be in birding heaven.  Stay tuned.

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Florida always calls to me in winter.  Especially this year, as I really wanted a break from the unusually cold weather we are having in North Carolina.

The only prep I did for this year’s trip was to sign up for the Space Coast Birding Festival, so imagine my surprise when I checked eBird my first night on the road.  THREE Ruffs were currently being seen in Alachua County, Florida.  And, two of them were in the Home Depot retention pond that was not a mile from Liz’s house!  I took this as a sign that the birding gods would favor me on this trip.

The male Ruff in Gainesville. With the wind blowing his neck feathers up, you get a hint of what he will look like in breeding plumage.

The male Ruff in Gainesville. With the wind blowing his neck feathers up, you get a hint of what he will look like in breeding plumage.

For my non-birding friends, Ruffs are shorebirds.  You might even call them boring when they are not in breeding plumage (and we rarely see them in breeding plumage here in the US), but they are rare and birders love rare birds.  Previously, I had seen only one Ruff in 10 years of birding, which I wrote about in A Smooth Trip for a Ruff.

With the Ruffs waiting for me in Florida, I got on the road early the next morning.  I got to Gainesville around noon and went directly to Home Depot.  It could not have been easier.  I walked over to the pond and immediately found both Ruffs, a male and a female, and shot some photos.  Birding mission accomplished, I then went to visit with my step-daughter, Liz, and my two granddaughters, Quinn and Casey.

Next it was south to Dunedin for a couple of days with my friends, David and Val.  Another rare bird awaited me near their house, 10 of them actually.  For the last two years, Brown Boobies, seabirds of tropical waters, have wintered in the unusual location of upper Tampa Bay.  David and I went in search of the boobies and found 6 of them roosting on towers in the bay shortly before dark.

The boobies were too far out for good photos, but a pair of Greater Scaup swam close by the pier at Safety Harbor. This pretty bird is the female.

The boobies were too far out for good photos, but a pair of Greater Scaup swam close by the pier at Safety Harbor. This pretty bird is the female.

The next day we went to Possum Branch, one of our favorite local birding spots.  We heard lots of Yellow-rumped Warbler chips as usual, but suddenly one higher pitched chip stood out.  We stopped and looked hard for the little bird.  David finally found an olive-colored warbler with a grayish head that looked like it had been dipped in a a light wash of yellow.  I was never able to get my eyes on that bird, but the next morning my luck would change.  David headed to work and I left for my drive to the east coast.  But, first I went to Kapok Park, another of our favorite spots.  I heard the chips again and this time I saw several of the plain little birds, which I could now confirm as Orange-crowned Warblers.  I was very happy that I even got a photo.

Orange-crowned Warbler at Kapok Park

Orange-crowned Warbler at Kapok Park

My warbler story may sound boring, but I hope not.  For what is more important, not just in birding, but in life, than the little joys of new discoveries, the sweetness of finding unexpected beauty in plainness?  All made sweeter when shared with a friend.  Life birds are great, but these magic moments are what I live for.

My next four days were filled with gulls.  I had signed up for almost all the gull field trips and workshops that the festival offered.  That’s a lot of gulls even for a normal birder, but I wanted to learn all that I could.  On Wednesday, we started with a trip to the Cocoa Landfill.  After a short introduction to the workings of the landfill, we headed out to look for birds.  We saw Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring, Lesser Black-backed, and Bonaparte’s Gulls.

Amar Ayyash and me

Amar Ayyash and me

I was signed up for the “Gull Fly-In” at 3:30 that afternoon, but Amar Ayyash, one of the trip leaders, said that he was going early and that I was welcome to go with him.  We grabbed a quick drive-thru lunch and ate in the car as we headed to Frank Rendon Park at Daytona Beach Shores.  This particular stretch of beach is popular with wintering gulls.  It has been estimated that as many as 50,000 gulls sometimes roost on the beach.  They come in big numbers late in the afternoon for a few hours before heading offshore for the night, but at 1:00 PM, there were enough birds to keep us busy.  Amar quickly found all the expected species – everything we had seen at the landfill plus Great Black-backed Gull – as well as a couple of hybrid candidates.  I tried to soak in all the information that I could, but, as a beginner, I was overwhelmed.  I took as many photos as possible for later study.

This bird has a ring on its bill, so it's a Ring-billed Gull, right? Nope, it's a Herring Gull. Most of those common field marks only apply to adults. This bird is an "adult type," probably a 4th cycle bird.

This bird has a ring on its bill, so it’s a Ring-billed Gull, right? Nope, it’s a Herring Gull. Most common field marks only apply to adults. This bird is an “adult type,” probably a 4th cycle bird, but not yet fully mature.

 

Hmm. What's this bird with the dark tip to its bill? Yep, another "adult type" Herring Gull. The smaller bird to the left is an adult Ring-billed Gull.

Hmm. What’s this bird with the dark tip to its bill? Yep, another “adult type” Herring Gull. The smaller bird to the left is an adult Ring-billed Gull.

 

A 1st cycle Great Black-backed Gull. We saw quite a few of these beautiful birds. I love the clean, crisp pattern.

A 1st cycle Great Black-backed Gull. We saw quite a few of these beautiful birds. I love the clean, crisp pattern.

 

This big, beautiful young gull is probably a Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid, frequently called "Nelson's Gull."

This big, beautiful young gull is probably a Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid, frequently called “Nelson’s Gull.”

And, all of this was before the official festival field trip even began!  After we were joined by Michael Brothers, Florida’s leading gull expert, and the 30 to 40 festival participants, we continued walking on the beach, sometimes only about 20 feet from the birds, until 6:00 PM.  We saw literally thousands of Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls and good numbers of the other species, too.  We added Iceland Gull to our list with two individuals.  A few appear in Florida most winters, but they are unusual enough to be considered rare.

Iceland Gull at Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, January 24, 2018

Iceland Gull at Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, January 24, 2018

The next morning, it was back to the Cocoa Landfill.  I considered skipping a second trip to the same location, but I woke up early and decided that it would be a good chance to study the Lesser Black-backed Gulls that we had seen on the first day.  After the talk about the landfill, we went to the area where everything was covered with a black tarp and water had collected on top.  There was a little shallow pool at one end and the others walked down there to see the Bonaparte’s Gulls.  I had seen them the day before, so I stayed put, fiddling with my camera, when Chris Brown, one of our guides, came to get me.  “Shelley, I think you will want to see this.”  As I hurried to where the others had gathered, the bird with a red bill immediately caught my eye.  “OMG, it’s a Black-headed Gull,” I squealed, delighted to finally see this species in the US.  And, this was a beautiful bird, a healthy-looking adult, giving us a much closer view than I’d ever had in China.

Black-headed Gull, Cocoa Landfill, January 25, 2018

Black-headed Gull, Cocoa Landfill, January 25, 2018

I enjoyed the rest of the festival, especially Amar’s gull identification workshop.  Amar is a living encyclopedia of knowledge about gulls and my goal is to learn enough that I can follow his discussions on the Facebook group, “North American Gulls” and his blog Anything Larus.

The last field trip that I’d signed up for was to Jetty Park at Cape Canaveral on Saturday morning.  The trip leaders were Amar, Jeff Gordon, and Greg Miller, one of the birders featured in the book and movie “The Big Year.”  While waiting for everyone to arrive, Greg and I quickly discovered that we are distant cousins.  It was fun to meet Greg and I’m looking forward to future discussions about our shared ancestors.

Greg Miller and me at Jetty Park, Cape Canaveral

Greg Miller and me at Jetty Park, Cape Canaveral

Jeff Gordon reminded me that he was a birding guide before he was ABA President when I casually asked if we might see any Northern Gannets and a few minutes later he pulled in a gorgeous adult nice and close.  I had seen thousands of them in NC, but this was a new Florida bird.  I never get tired of watching these beautiful birds plunge headfirst into the water.

Our leaders that morning were alert to anything interesting and found this Portuguese Man o’ War washed up on the beach. They are not really jellyfish, but the closely-related siphonophore, a colony of individuals.

Portuguese Man o' War

Portuguese Man o’ War

Jetty Park was the end of the festival for me.  The time with Amar had significantly improved my gull knowledge and ID skills and I enjoyed seeing old friends and making new ones.  But, my time in Florida was not quite up yet.

What's a trip to Florida without a Loggerhead Shrike? I observed this bird at Viera Wetlands calling and singing almost continuously.

What’s a trip to Florida without a Loggerhead Shrike? I observed this bird at Viera Wetlands calling and singing almost continuously.

My friend Kerry was in Florida for the winter and we had made arrangements to go birding after the festival.  I had asked Kerry for her target list of birds that she wanted to see and she listed just one – Snail Kite.  I suggested that we go to Three Lakes WMA and then Joe Overstreet Road and the little marina on Lake Kissimmee.  The night before we would meet, I was getting tired and I began to worry.  What if we didn’t see anything at Three Lakes?  What if we missed the Snail Kite?  I thought about changing our plan to include more opportunities to find Snail Kite and I fell asleep worrying.

Perhaps I dreamed of eagles. Kerry and I would see five Bald Eagles the next day.

Perhaps I dreamed of eagles. Kerry and I would see five Bald Eagles the next day.

A night’s sleep must have refreshed me.  I awoke feeling much more optimistic and decided to stick with our plan.  It wasn’t long after our arrival at Three Lakes that we started seeing birds.  Shortly after we started down the main road, we both caught a glimpse of something light in a distant clump of trees.  I thought caracara and Kerry thought eagle.  A moment later we saw an eagle fly out.  And, then we saw something in the trees again – there WAS a caracara!  But, Kerry saw another bird, too.  We got out the scope and discovered an eagle perched about 10 feet from the caracara.  What was a young Crested Caracara doing with two adult Bald Eagles?  It was too far for a photo, but I’m sure we will both remember our fascinating raptor sighting.

We kept seeing more birds – Eastern Towhees so close that we could see their white eyes (our North Carolina towhees have dark eyes), oodles of beautiful Pine Warblers, an Orange-crowned Warbler, Purple Gallinules, and many more species.

My photo is poor, but our looks at the Snail Kite were great.

My photo is poor, but our looks at the Snail Kite were great.

We had such a great time birding at Three Lakes that it was after noon when we got to Joe Overstreet Road.  We slowly drove the five miles to the marina, parked the car, and walked to the little pier.  Kerry was ahead of me and before I caught up with her, I heard something like, “There’s the Snail Kite.  Oh, there are two of them.”  We enjoyed the show for about an hour, with great looks at the kites as they hunted for snails, occasionally flying just 20 feet in front of us.

I had not needed to worry.  We ended the day with 60 species, a life bird for Kerry, and memories of a beautiful day that neither of us will forget.

This gorgeous Eastern Meadowlark sat on a fence post outside our car window on Joe Overstreet Road and sang almost non-stop. He was still singing as we finally pulled away and continued down the road.

This gorgeous Eastern Meadowlark sat on a fence post outside our car window on Joe Overstreet Road and sang almost non-stop. He was still singing as we finally pulled away and continued down the road.

It was another great trip to Florida.  More photos will be posted to Flickr soon.  My photos of birds are also on eBird and can be seen here.

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After our wonderful adventures in Panama, Diane and I wanted to do another birding trip this year. Another international trip was not possible, so we decided that the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in November in Texas would be perfect. Diane would be able to see her first Green Jay and other amazing birds of South Texas. I would be sure to get photos of new species and maybe even a few lifers if I were lucky.

I drove to Texas in three days and got into Harlingen a full day before the festival began. I was greeted by thousands of Great-tailed Grackles on the power lines by the hotel. Although very common birds, the spectacle of the grackles and starlings loudly screeching and their intermittent murmurations as they flew and then resettled on the wires was exhilarating.

Gadwall is a common duck that I've seen many times, but never so close as at Estero Llano Grande.

Gadwall is a common duck that I’ve seen many times, but never so close as at Estero Llano Grande.

I started my first full day in South Texas at Estero Llano Grande State Park, which turned out to be one of my favorite locations in the valley. The pond in front of the Visitor Center draws many species of ducks, all very close. But, this park may be best known as an almost guaranteed place to see Common Pauraque. Park rangers share the daytime roosting locations with visitors; otherwise, it would be nearly impossible to find this bird nestled in the leaves.

Common Pauraque are nocturnal birds that roost in leaves and brush piles during the day. Their highly effective camouflage makes them difficult to find.

Common Pauraque are nocturnal birds that roost in leaves and brush piles during the day. Their highly effective camouflage makes them difficult to find.

It was a wonderful morning with Green Kingfishers, White-tailed Kites, and many more. But, it was hot! By noon, I was about to drop from the heat. I met another birder who was also interested in looking for Mountain Plovers, seen in the past just north of Harlingen. We joined forces and spent the afternoon in his air-conditioned car searching the fallow farm fields without success, but we did see raptors and other birds including a gorgeous Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Diane arrived on Tuesday evening and we went to bed early for our 4:15 AM wake-up on Wednesday.  Our first festival field trip was to Las Estrellas Preserve, a 415-acre Nature Conservancy property that was purchased to protect the federally endangered star cactus, a spineless succulent with yellow flowers which is known to grow only in Starr County, Texas, and a few places in Mexico. Because the cactus is vulnerable to poachers, the property is not open to the public.

Star cactus shrinks to the ground when stressed. It was not in bloom when we visited and it was difficult to find.

Star cactus shrinks to the ground when stressed. It was not in bloom when we visited and it was difficult to find.

Next it was on Rancho Lomitas for lunch and a visit with Benito Trevino, owner of the ranch and the leading ethnobotanist in South Texas. We were all fascinated by Benito’s knowledge of the history and uses of native plants.  Plants were the focus of this locale, but we had hoped to also see Audubon’s Oriole here.  Our guide did catch a glimpse of one, but the rest of us missed it. However, we were very happy with good looks at Scaled Quail, a Greater Roadrunner, many other birds, and Benito’s fascinating stories about plants.

A Greater Roadrunner played hide and seek in the courtyard, mostly hiding in the vegetation. Here he dashes across an open area.

A Greater Roadrunner played hide and seek in the courtyard, mostly hiding in the vegetation. Here he dashes across an open area.

 

Cochineal, an insect, growing on prickly pear cactus. We learned how the Indians used cochineal to make red dye.

Cochineal, an insect, growing on prickly pear cactus. We learned how the Indians used cochineal to make red dye.

For day two of the festival, Diane and I had chosen the Upper Rio Grande trip with visits to Roma Bluffs, Chapeño, and Salineño. There are famous feeders at Salineño, where we hoped for another chance to see Audubon’s Oriole, but we missed it again.  It was fun to meet Noah Strycker (one of our guides for the day) and we loved sitting at the Salineño feeders watching the Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Plain Chachalacas, Green Jays, Orange-crowned Warblers, and all the other birds that come for suet, seed, and nectar.

A gorgeous male Altamira Oriole at Salineño.

A gorgeous male Altamira Oriole at Salineño.

We got back to Harlingen in time for our late afternoon Parrot Trip. We could have found the parrots by ourselves, but quickly decided that this was $40 well-spent just for the fun of being driven around town madly searching for parrots. We were in one of three vans, all communicating by walkie-talkie. It was an efficient and fun way to quickly find the target birds. First, we saw Green Parakeets, which I had seen on my trip in April 2011. And, then one of the vans found the Red-crowned Parrots.  Finally – my first life bird at the festival.  Nothing is more fun than watching parrots with their loud, affectionate, and comical behavior.

Red-crowned Parrots in Harlingen. We learned that they not only mate for life; pairs are together constantly and can even be distinguished in a flock by their close proximity to each other even in flight.

Red-crowned Parrots in Harlingen. We learned that they not only mate for life; pairs are together constantly and can even be distinguished in a flock by their close proximity to each other even in flight.

The third festival day, Diane and I did different trips. I opted for Southmost Preserve, another Nature Conservancy property not normally open to the public. Both Tropical and Couch’s Kingbird are common in the valley, but they are nearly impossible to differentiate unless heard vocalizing. On this trip, we had several individuals of both species.  And, we heard one Couch’s Kingbird not just calling, but singing his full song. It was also interesting to see the kingbirds catching and eating Monarch butterflies.

Couch's Kingbird with a Monarch butterfly at Southmost Preserve.

Couch’s Kingbird with a Monarch butterfly at Southmost Preserve.

It was a great morning with many species ranging from ever-popular White-tailed Kites to a rather rare Warbling Vireo.

Friday evening was a festival highlight – Noah Strycker’s keynote address about his Global Big Year.  Off-stage, Noah is a very nice person, quiet and unassuming.  On-stage, he morphs into an animated and dynamic speaker.  The audience was totally awed by his fascinating stories.  Noah impressed me, not just with his spirit of adventure, physical fortitude, and calmness in challenging situations, but also with his kindness, humility and obvious love for the birds and people of the entire planet.

We listened to a lot of Great-tailed Grackles with Nathan Pieplow.

We listened to a lot of Great-tailed Grackles with Nathan Pieplow.

On Saturday, Diane and I did different trips again. She choose the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge tour which included parts of the refuge not normally open to the public, where they saw a much sought-after Texas bird, Aplomado Falcon. I choose Nathan Pieplow’s “Bird Sounds Decoded” field workshop. We had a small group and it was really fun to get an introduction to Nathan’s method of identifying birds by ear, a method that does not require memorization. I bought Nathan’s book Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds and can’t wait to study it and improve my ear birding skills.

Our leaders were always alert to interesting flora and fauna.  On this morning, Nathan discovered a Red-bordered Pixie, a beautiful butterfly never found north of the Rio Grande Valley.

A Red-bordered Pixie at The Inn at Chachalaca Bend.

A Red-bordered Pixie at The Inn at Chachalaca Bend.

It seems that a rare bird shows up in South Texas during the festival every year. This year, a couple of Tamaulipas Crow were discovered at South Padre Island a day or so before the festival started. These birds were formerly reliably found at the Brownsville Landfill, but none had been seen anywhere in Texas since 2010. A couple of days after the first sighting, the birds were at the Brownsville dump again and birders were flocking there to add Tamaulipas Crow to their life lists. I was no different. I hitched a ride with Nathan after his workshop and we had great looks at the crow. Life bird #2 for the trip!

We observed three Tamaulipas Crows at the Brownsville Landfill.

We observed three Tamaulipas Crows at the Brownsville Landfill.

Sunday, November 12, was the last day of the festival and Diane and I were scheduled for what we expected to be the most exciting field trip of the week – King Ranch. The target bird was Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, which was almost guaranteed to be seen.  It had never been missed during previous festivals. But, this year was different. The temperature had fallen quickly and dramatically to 20 or more degrees lower than normal. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is a tropical owl, just reaching its northern most range in South Texas. It had not been seen all week, presumably due to the cold weather. On Sunday, it had warmed up again, almost to normal, so we were hopeful. But, it was not to be. One of the King Ranch guides heard one in the distance, but none of the festival participants heard or saw the little owl.

We saw many great birds at the King Ranch Norias Division, including Harris's Hawk.

We saw many great birds at the King Ranch Norias Division, including Harris’s Hawk.

We were also told that we would have another chance to see Audubon’s Oriole at King Ranch, but we missed it, too.  Missing the owl and oriole were big disappointments, but there was one consolation. Near the end of the morning, we were looking for Sprague’s Pipits when a guide screamed “Zone-tailed Hawk!” It was not the close look that I wanted, but I did see the bird and even got a poor photo showing the “zone” tail. Life bird #3 of the trip.

Diane and I had scheduled three days to bird on our own after the festival and we knew the first place that we would head on Monday morning – the feeding station at Salineño.

A Long-billed Thrasher enjoying suet at the Salineño feeding area.

A Long-billed Thrasher enjoying suet at the Salineño feeding area.

The Audubon’s Orioles had been seen just before our arrival.  We sat there for three hours waiting for them to return, but we enjoyed the other avian activity at the feeders. Finally, my most-wanted bird showed up – first a male Audubon’s Oriole and then his mate, both close enough to get great looks and photographs. Life bird #4 and I was thrilled.

Male Audubon's Oriole at Salineño.

Male Audubon’s Oriole at Salineño.

We stopped at Estero Llano Grande on our way back to Harlingen. We didn’t have much time, but wanted to get a look at a Common Pauraque for Diane. The park was magical, so much cooler than when I had been there a week earlier and we almost had the park to ourselves. We found the Pauraque right away, and the nearby Eastern Screech-Owl, who seemed to sit looking out of its nest box all day every day.

“McCall’s” Eastern Screech-Owl ranges from south-central Texas to parts of northern Mexico. It may prove to be a separate species, as it is always gray and never gives the “whinny” call.

“McCall’s” Eastern Screech-Owl ranges from south-central Texas to parts of northern Mexico. It may prove to be a separate species, as it is always gray and never gives the “whinny” call.

As we left that area and walked by a pond, Diane heard what she was sure was a kingfisher. She tracked down this beautiful female Green Kingfisher in the ditch across the path from the pond. We had both seen this species before, most recently in Panama, but it was a treat to be so close and see it so clearly.

Female Green Kingfisher at Estero Llano Grande.

Female Green Kingfisher at Estero Llano Grande.

We spent much of our last two days looking for Aplomado Falcon, to no avail. We had both seen it previously, but we were hoping for a better look. We also went to Estero Llano Grande State Park one more time and again enjoyed the wonderful birds there.

White-tailed Kites at Estero Llano Grande.

White-tailed Kites at Estero Llano Grande.

As usual, our time was up too quickly. Diane flew home and I started the drive back to North Carolina, stopping the first night at the home of a new friend we met at the festival. Birders have to be the friendliest people on earth and making new friends is as good as seeing new birds.  It was a wonderful trip and I can’t wait to go back again.

More photos from this trip can be viewed in my Flickr album, RGV Texas – Nov 2017.

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Blue-headed Parrots feasted on fruits in the trees right outside our hotel room window.  Diane and I had arrived in Panama City late the previous night, April 19, and we were excited to have such a wonderful start to our two weeks in Panama.

Blue-headed parrot on the grounds of Country Inn & Suites, Panama Canal

Blue-headed parrot on the grounds of Country Inn & Suites, Panama Canal

We had just enough time for a scrumptious breakfast and a little more bird watching at the County Inn & Suites, Panama Canal, before a driver from Canopy Tower picked us up and whisked us off to the world-famous remodeled military radar station that we had been dreaming about for months.  Tatiana, Manager of the Tower, greeted us warmly and showed us around.  Next, it was time for lunch in the lovely dining room on the top floor of the tower with open windows all around the circular room.

Gartered Trogon

Gartered Trogon

After lunch, we were off on our first birding trip – to Summit Ponds.  It was a wonderful mix of seeing “old friends,” birds I had previously seen in Belize or Ecuador like the Gartered Trogon above, and nine life birds including Chestnut-headed Oropendolas working on their nests.

There was one more life bird for us after dinner, a surprise Black-breasted Puffbird that had come in through the open windows.  We could see the bird roosting in the top part of the tower above our heads while we ate dinner.  Alex, one of the bird guides, rescued the bird and gave us up-close looks the next morning before he released it.  The puffbird sat on the deck for a couple of minutes to recover, and then flew off, none the worse for its adventure.  Alex said that this was the first time a bird had flown into the tower.

Black-breasted Puffbird after its rescue from the top of the Tower.

Black-breasted Puffbird after its rescue from the top of the Tower.

On our first morning at the Tower, we awakened before 5:00 AM to the screams of about 40 Howler Monkeys, who sounded like they were all right outside our windows.  The tower is all metal causing sound to reverberate throughout the building and making the monkeys sound even louder.  We were thrilled to feel so close to nature in the jungle.  We expected to hear monkeys “talking” with that intensity every day, but subsequent mornings they were much more subdued.  A little later, we watched this adult and baby feeding in the trees.

Mantled Howler Monkeys

Mantled Howler Monkeys

Blue Cotinga

Blue Cotinga

Mornings at the Tower start with coffee on the observation deck at 6:30 AM.  The deck is on the roof of the tower and gives nature lovers a 360 degree view of the surrounding canopy and landscape beyond.  On our first morning, we saw a Blue Cotinga in the distant trees, one of the signature birds of the Tower and one we especially wanted to see since Diane and I were staying in the Blue Cotinga room.  A Keel-billed Toucan was another beauty seen from the observation deck.

Keel-billed Toucan seen from the Canopy Tower observation deck

Keel-billed Toucan seen from the Canopy Tower observation deck

Our first full day at the Tower was fabulous.  One of everyone’s favorites was this gorgeous White Hawk observed on Plantation Road.

White Hawk

White Hawk

I was happy to get the photo of the Broad-billed Motmot below.  When I was studying for the trip, I wondered how easy to would be to see the green chin on the Broad-billed Motmot which helps distinguish it from the larger, but similar, Rufous Motmot.

Broad-billed Motmot

Broad-billed Motmot

We quickly learned that the Canopy Tower guides have excellent digiscoping skills and they were very happy to take photos through the scopes with our iPhones for us.  Danilo Jr. digiscoped this beautiful pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds below with Diane’s phone.

White-whiskered Puffbird pair

White-whiskered Puffbird pair

Later that afternoon, we birded along the road to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort marina where I saw many familiar birds – Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, herons and egrets, and Common Gallinules.  But, there were new birds, too, including an American Pygmy Kingfisher who declined the photo op.  The Gray-cowled Wood-Rail was a life bird for me, too, and it did cooperate for a photo.  It was pretty bad, though, since it was on the other side of a lake and the light was failing.  Still, I was thrilled, not knowing that a few days later we would see them just a few feet away under the bird feeders at the Canopy Lodge.

A Gray-cowled Wood-Rail crosses the creek by Canopy Lodge on its way to eat bananas under the feeders.

A Gray-cowled Wood-Rail crosses the creek by Canopy Lodge on its way to eat bananas under the feeders.

That afternoon we also saw a Green-and-Black Poison-dart Frog, the only one of the trip.  My trip to Central America would not have felt complete without a poison frog.

Green-and-Black Poison-dart Frog

Green-and-Black Poison-dart Frog

On Saturday morning we birded the famous Pipeline Road.  During World War II, a pipeline through the Isthmus of Panama was built to transport fuel from one ocean to the other in the event that the canal was attacked.  Fortunately, the pipeline was never used.  Today, the road runs for 17.5 km through Soberanía National Park and provides access to undisturbed rainforest.  It is one of the premier birding destinations in Central America.

One highlight was quality time with a Great Tinamou shuffling around on the forest floor.  It sounded like the usual way of seeing a tinamou is for the guide to play the call and birders to catch a quick glimpse of the bird as it runs across the road.  We were pleased to leisurely observe this bird without disturbing it.

Great Tinamou

Great Tinamou

In that same spot, we also found this gorgeous Whooping Motmot on the forest floor.  Below is another fabulous digiscope by Danilo Jr.

Whooping Motmot

Whooping Motmot

We also saw a White-nosed Coati, first brief looks through the jungle vegetation on the side of the road, and then a clear view as it walked right out into the open!

White-nosed Coati

White-nosed Coati

White-nosed Coati

The sweetest sight that morning may have been a baby Great Potoo snuggled up close to one of its parents at the top of a tall snag.  Potoos are odd birds.  They have large eyes and huge mouths to facilitate night-time hunting of aerial insects such as beetles and locusts.  They swoop out from the top of a tree stump and return to the same stump after capturing their prey.  Their cryptic plumage provides the perfect camouflage which allows them to roost on tree stumps during the day, too, and not even be noticed.  Great Potoo is a big bird at 19-24 inches long and the largest potoo species.

Great Potoo

Great Potoo

This was just the beginning of our Panama adventure.  Stay tuned for part 2.

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