Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Pelee this weekend

This week has been a busy one so far for me. I worked long days on Monday and Tuesday, being up early and then out late completing amphibian surveys.

Tuesday came with an unexpected highlight. I had driven up to North Bay where I was conducting my monthly surface water monitoring program at a local quarry. Despite the lingering snow in the woods, spring felt like it had arrived in force. Dark-eyed Juncos, Song Sparrows and even Ruby-crowned Kinglets were singing, a pair of Sandhill Cranes called loudly before gliding by overhead, and a Ruffed Grouse drummed from deepwith in the forest. In late afternoon I was walking through an open area towards a creek north in the quarry when I noticed a falcon heading my way. As it approached my thoughts changed from "nice, I haven't seen a Peregrine in a while" to "holy s***, that's a dark morph Gyr!". The bird cruised for a few seconds then powered by with quick, smooth wingbeats, passing by probably 40 feet over my head. It was enough to see the dark streakings and faint mask, and was certainly the best look I have ever had at a dark morph. All the previous gyrfalcons I have seen have been at Netitishi Point in James Bay, including two really dark ones, some brownish ones and three immaculate white morphs. It was certainly a highlight during a cold blustery morning of work. April gyrs are sometimes seen throughout Ontario and it is thought that some of these are spring migrants returning to the north. Occasionally even hawkwatches see them during the spring. Given the duration of this past winter, and the somewhat higher than normal gyrfalcons reported in southern Ontario, I wouldn't be surprised if a few of them are passing through Ontario now. Another possibility is that this bird overwintered (or had been lingering) at the nearby airport, located about 200 m from the spot I saw the bird. Its a big open area and perhaps a productive hunting ground at times. Below is a photo of one of the white morphs from  Netitishi in 2013.

Gyrfalcon at Netitishi Point, October 10, 2013

 I was in the office today and will be again tomorrow, but if all goes well I will be on the road on my way to Pelee by the early afternoon. It is getting to be that "magic window" of spring birding in southern Ontario, roughly beginning in late April and ending in early June. Already some fantastic birds have been found in the province - a Tricolored Heron at Pelee and Holiday Beach, a Common Teal near Owen Sound, a Lark Sparrow in Kingston, a Cattle Egret at Holiday Beach, several Fish Crows, and Eared Grebes, Eurasian Wigeons and American Avocets all over it seems. The action certainly seems to be focused in Essex County however, with most of the above rarities being found there in recent days, along with a Yellow-throated Warbler, Henslow's Sparrow and Piping Plover. Add to that the nesting Eurasian Collared-Doves and the extremely rare for Point Pelee Pileated Woodpecker which has been frequenting the south half of the park for the last few days. Even with the poor weather forecast for the foreseeable future, the migrants are bound to come and many first of years will undoubtedly be found this weekend. Pelee certainly seems to be the place to be and I am excited to make my second visit of the year, the first being back in mid-March.


I am also excited to get back into the birding scene in Ontario a little bit more. This past winter was brutally cold and snowy with few good birds scattered around the province, making it hard to get motivated to go out. I was fortunate to be able to travel to Colombia, Cuba, Morocco and Scotland so naturally my focus has been on birds of further afield. It seems like forever since I've birded regularly in Ontario, so this weekend should be a good way to change that. Even if the rarities refuse to show, a good variety of newly arrived migrants and year birds will keep the days exciting - it really is hard to go wrong this time of year.

Scarlet Tanager

Black-throated Green Warbler

Swainson's Thrush

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

February 15, 2015 - Zapata Swamp

The morning dawned cool, but calm and with clear skies, allowing the air temperature to quickly become comfortable by the time we arrived at a trail that snaked through deciduous forest. This was to be the location for our morning hike with local guide Mario, a walk through the deciduous woodlands, open pastures and seasonally flooded woodlands. Among the target birds for the morning were two species of quail dove - Blue-headed and Gray-fronted - both endemic to Cuba and both difficult to find. The Gray-fronted prefers a relatively dense understorey in swampy woodland, while the Blue-headed prefers more open woodlands with a limestone substrate. 

Deciduous woodland - Soplillar area, Cuba

As we began our hike, some of the common birds of this habitat type began vocalizing, and we soon picked out Cuban Vireo, American Redstart, White-crowned Pigeon, Cuban Tody, La Sagra's Flycatcher and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. A Cuban Crow flew over once while a pair of Cuban Parrots perched in a palm tree, providing good looks for the clients who had yet to see wild ones well. A Great Lizard-Cuckoo watched us quietly from beside the trail, while several others called in the distance.

La Sagra's Flycatcher - Soplillar area, Cuba

It wasn't long before Mario and I detected some rustling in the undergrowth, and a pair of Gray-fronted Quail-Doves quietly moved deeper into the forest. With a bit of searching, slightly better looks were obtained of this endemic dove; strikingly beautiful when the light hit it just right. 

Right around this time, I paused to look at a warbler in the undergrowth just off the trail - it was a Swainson's! This also provided some excitement because most of the group hadn't been around when we found the first during a morning hike in the Vinales Valley. We ended up seeing four Swainson's Warblers over the course of the morning and I think its safe to say that everyone came away satisfied with their views of these skulky birds. Photographing them in the dark understorey, however, is a different matter entirely.

Swainson's Warbler - Soplillar area, Cuba
While people were enjoying the warblers and attempting to catch a glimpse of the quail-doves, Mario led me to an open area and pointed to a tree along the edge of the clearing. Bee Hummingbirds apparently frequent the small, white flowers on the tree. We were there for less than 30 seconds when Mario spotted a female fly in. He quickly got me on the bird and I enjoyed a good, long look at the world's smallest bird species. It really was incredible as the bird was not much larger than a large bee. 

Bee Hummingbird - Soplillar area, Cuba
We called the rest of the group over, and fortunately the hummingbird remained at the tree, feeding at eye-level for several minutes, then returned after a brief absence. For some of the clients this was the most wanted bird of the trip. Luckily Mario came through, and we all came away from the experience feeling satisfied and for me, a little relieved that we had locked onto this difficult endemic. 

Bee Hummingbird - Soplillar area, Cuba

We continued into an open area, used for cattle grazing during the summer that becomes flooded during the rainy season. The sun had climbed higher in the sky while Turkey Vultures soared in the distance. A small group of martins twisted and turned in the airspace above us, revealing themselves as Cuban Martins once we had a look at the diagnostic females (males cannot be reliably told apart from Purple Martins in the field). Nobody knows where Cuban Martins winter in South America, so for now Cuba is the only place in the world to see them. 

open palm pasture - Soplillar area, Cuba

One Turkey Vulture immediately caught my eye as it rose above the nearby woodland and into view. A quick look with my binoculars confirmed that the silvery appearance of the bird was not due to the glare from the sun, but from white feathers. I believe the bird is partially leucistic - the first Turkey Vulture I've personally seen that looked like this. Mario mentioned that he has seen this individual in the area before. 

partially leucistic Turkey Vulture - Soplillar area, Cuba

Mario led us to a small stand of palms where he had a surprise in store for us. After a bit of patience, Mario coaxed this sleepy-looking Bare-legged Owl to take a look outside its nest hole at us.

Bare-legged Owl - Soplillar area, Cuba


Bare-legged Owl - Soplillar area, Cuba


Bare-legged Owl - Soplillar area, Cuba

We left the owl to continue on with its day and wandered back towards the deciduous woodland. The cool shadows in the woodland were a nice relief from the direct sun in the open areas. Warbler activity was still high, and mixed flocks contained Prairie, Black-throated Green, Worm-eating Warblers and Louisiana Waterthrushes, among the regular American Restarts, Northern Parulas, Black-throated Blue and Palm Warblers.

We searched for quail-doves as we walked, rather unsuccessfully for the most part. But Mario had another surprise in store for us, and once we were in the right area he kept his eyes to the upper branches in the canopy. Finally he spotted his quarry - a day-roosting Stygian Owl.

Stygian Owl - Soplillar area, Cuba


This was our third owl species that Mario had found for us in less than 24 hours. Stygian Owls are distributed throughout the neotropics, but generally are secretive and in low enough densities that they are difficult to observe. This was only my second Stygian - the first was a bird seen roosting over the road at dawn in El Dorado in the Santa Marta Mountains, Colombia earlier in the year.

Stygian Owl - Soplillar area, Cuba


The Stygian Owl put a little spring in our step as slowly made our back out to the entrance. Another Gray-fronted Quail-Dove made an appearance, even pausing out in the open at the base of a tree for most of the group to observe. Several Yellow-headed Warblers and Cuban Trogons added to the count of endemic birds seen during the morning.

We finished with close to 50 species and headed to a nearby ocean-side cafe to enjoy a well-earned lunch.

After lunch we had the opportunity to take some free time and swim, snorkle, or enjoy the shoreline. I cooled off in the warm waters of the Caribbean for the first time all trip, then grabbed my camera and went off in search of lizards.

 I walked around with our local guide who was with us for the tour, Esmerido, and we found a few lizards, such as this species which I believe is Leiocephalus stictigaster.  They were fairly common in the open areas such as roadsides, ditches, and woodland edges.


Leiocephalus stictigaster - Cueva de Los Peces, Cuba

This dragonfly caught my eye...a darner of some sort.


And a small group of Yellow-headed Warblers moved quickly through the roadside woodland.

Yellow-headed Warbler - Cueva de Los Peces, Cuba

This Leiocephalus carinatus is a larger, more impressive looking version of the related L. sticticgaster we had seen earlier. Known as Curly-tailed Lizards, these have long tails that they often curl up, which can be raised above their back.
Leiocephalus carinatus - Cueva de Los Peces, Cuba
 
Leiocephalus carinatus - Cueva de Los Peces, Cuba

Leiocephalus carinatus - Cueva de Los Peces, Cuba
Our afternoon was spent driving down a long causeway that traversed mangroves, deciduous woodland and open salt pans which provide habitat to various species of shorebirds, terns, gulls, and wading birds. A Zenaida Dove crossed the road in front of the bus, but it wasn't until we arrived at the salt pans that activity really kick into high gear. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Wood Stork, American White Pelican and Reddish Egret were all new for the trip, while several dozen distant American Flamingos foraged in the shallows. All of the regular herons except for Black-crowned Night-Heron were accounted for and seven species of shorebirds included our first Black-necked Stilts, Short-billed Dowitchers and Black-bellied Plovers of the tour.

birding in Las Salinas, Cuba


Another new endemic was quickly discovered, as several Cuban Black-Hawks soared overhead and two perched close enough to enjoy scope views. Roosting Terns were also seen well in the scope and included our first Royals and quite a few Gull-billed. One memorable sight was the large group of Black Skimmers that took off simultaneously, the contrast of their black and white wings striking in the late afternoon light.

At one point, Mario was able to coax a Clapper Rail to respond and eventually wander into view along the edge of the mangroves. Having never seen one before, I was thrilled to watch the bird as it skulked among the vegetation (if only my camera wasn't in the bus at the time!). By the end of the day we had seen about 90 species, certainly the highest in one day so far.

That evening I walked around the grounds at Playa Larga once again, relaxing a little bit by watching the sunset at the end of a busy day.

Playa Larga, Cuba


Working off of a tip from a previous trip report from Cuba, I checked out an area at the edge of the hotel property and after some effort called in a Greater Antillean Nightjar. It flew by twice during the twilight of the evening, though it never vocalized.

The Zapata portion of our trip was certainly a success, and we happened to see most of the target species that we had a shot at, while also experiencing the snorkeling, herping, hiking, and dining of the area. Plus, there is reason for me to return, as I still would like to try for the remaining endemics including Zapata Wren, Zapata Rail and Red-shouldered Blackbird.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

February 14, 2015 - Soroa to Zapata

morning bird walk at Hotel Soroa
On our fifth morning in Cuba, we made the drive to the one location I was looking forward to the most on this trip - the Zapata Swamp (Cienega de Zapata). The swamp is over one million acres (4,000 square km) in size, representing the largest protected area, and the most important wetland in all of the Caribbean. The swamp consists of a wide range of habitat types, including coastal mangroves, freshwater marsh, deciduous woodland and swamp prairie. The swamp is important not only for the shorebirds and waterbirds that use it as a stopover site or wintering ground, but the extensive forests provide important habitat for a large number of wintering North American songbirds, particularly wood warblers. As well, close to 1000 plant species are found in the swamp, a number of which are endemic to Cuba. 

On our tour we would be visiting several areas on the eastern edge of the swamp, such as deciduous woodlands, mangroves, and flooded saltpans. Our first day however involved the 3-4 hour drive, though it was broken up with several stops. 
taxi seen during a mid-morning washroom stop

We had lunch at a little restaurant associated with a small zoo, after several hours of driving where we saw the outskirts of the bustling city of Havana give way to agriculture and eventually fields and prairies. 

One of the animals at the zoo was this hungry Hutia, too cute not to photograph. 


We continued on, eventually arriving at a breeding facility for the Cuban Parrot, a near threatened species found only in Cuba, Abaco and Grand Inagua in the Bahamas, and the Cayman Islands. The species is doing relatively well in the Zapata region of Cuba, in part due to the conservation work including the reintroduction of captive-born individuals and the installation of artificial nestboxes.  It was here that we met Mario who was to be our local guide for the next two days. Mario knows the birds of Zapata better than almost anyone and we were hoping to see quite a few of the Cuban endemic bird species during our time in Zapata. After all, 23 out of the 27 Cuban endemics can be found in the area.

captive Cuban Parrots

It didn't take long for one of the endemic bird species to make an appearance, as Mario coaxed into the open a Cuban Pygmy Owl. It remained in the same spot in the tree for quite a while, allowing everyone the opportunity to observe it well.

Cuban Pygmy-Owl


Mario immediately found another great bird for us in the vicinity, as a male Fernandina's Flicker called loudly and landed high up in a nearby tree. Fernandina's Flickers have a severely fragmented and rapidly declining population, confined only to certain areas of Cuba. The Zapata Swamp is one of the better areas to find Fernandina's Flickers as this species still occurs in reasonable numbers.

Fernandina's Flicker


I was a little worried that we wouldn't find this species, since it isn't easy even in the heart of its range in Zapata. What an awesome bird!

Fernandina's Flicker


Fortunately for us, the flicker continued to perch in the thorny branches, eyeing us over and occasionally calling. Certainly a fantastic beginning to our time in Zapata.

Fernandina's Flicker


Our next stop was a breeding facility for the endangered Cuban Crocodile, located near the shores of a small lake surrounded by seasonally flooded prairie, dry at this time of year.We birded the edges of the ponds and the surrounding shade trees and scrubby areas, finding quite a few warblers along with our first Anhinga of the trip, sitting on a log next to a Neotropic Cormorant. Our first Cuban Parrots flew over calling, followed by someone in our group locating a pair feeding in the nearby date palms. Right underneath the palm, this sharp Yellow-throated Warbler was busy picking insects out of the vegetation.

Yellow-throated Warbler - La Boca, Cuba

As we began the walk back to the bus, birding along the way, we heard the distant calls of a Cuban Crow. Fortunately several flew over and one was waiting for us in the parking lot by the bus. Despite its name, the Cuban Crow is not an endemic, also being found in the Turks and Caicos.

We arrived at our hotel in Playa Larga, located along the south coast of Cuba just east of the swamp. After checking everyone in to the hotel I had a few hours to spare, so I went for a walk around the grounds to see what I could find. A large group (33) of Cuban Parrots were busy squawking as they flew around, eventually moving to their roosting area. I had a fun challenge of photographing them in flight as they winged past. In every frame I have of this pair, their wings are perfectly in sync with each other.

Cuban Parrots - Playa Larga, Cuba

More Cuban Parrots...
Cuban Parrots - Playa Larga, Cuba

A Great Lizard-Cuckoo called loudly several times from the nearby woodland and a nice group of warblers included some Cape Mays. As the sun went down I made my way through some mangroves to the coast to watch the tranquil scene.



A small group of Ruddy Turnstones flew in and landed on the shoreline nearby as you can see in the top right of the image, if you look close...


The following day we would be focusing predominately on birds, and were planning a morning hike to search for quail-doves, owls, and the diminutive Bee Hummingbird. It should be fun!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

February 13, 2015 - Reserva Sierra del Rosaria, town of Las Terrazas

This morning, Glenn and I led a bird walk on the grounds of Hotel Soroa, seeing many of the same species from the evening before including a nice little flock of warblers and some Red-legged Honeycreepers. After several days of only having brief flyovers, we finally locked on to a perched White-crowned Pigeon, allowing great views for everyone in the group.  We left the hotel and by 9:30 AM we had arrived at a lake in the foothills of the Reserva Sierra del Rosaria, where we met up with a local guide and went hiking along some of the trails.

By scanning the shorelines and marshy areas, we were able to eventually turn up Snail Kite, Purple Gallinule, Common Gallinule, Green Heron, Great Blue Heron, and the highlight , spotted by Glenn - a Limpkin! The Limpkin, essentially an overgrown rail, is found throughout tropical regions of the Americas, from Florida all the way to Argentina. For some reason I had never crossed paths with one, so I was quite happy with Glenn spotting the bird!

 Reserva Sierra del Rosaria, Cuba

We enjoyed a great hike through woodlands and along quite roadsides, seeing a good number of the resident and overwintering birds while we were here. Olive-capped Warbler, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Yellow-headed Warbler and Cuban Tody all put on a great show for the Clients.

The sunny morning also kickstarted several butterfly species to take flight. I believe that this one is a Malachite.

Malachite - Reserva Sierra del Rosaria, Cuba
Skipper sp.

Skipper sp. - Reserva Sierra del Rosaria, Cuba
Atala Butterfly

Atala Butterfly - Reserva Sierra del Rosaria, Cuba

As we neared the end of the hike, I paused to photograph a typical classic American car as it drove past...


We arrived at our destination for lunch, the Cafetal Buenavista, which is located near the entrance to the restored ruins of Cuba's oldest coffee plantation. The birding happened to be quite good around the restaurant, and while we were milling about on the grounds I noticed Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak (tough to get in most of Cuba), and my lifer La Sagra's Flycatcher, the first of what should be many later in the trip.The lunch was typical Cuban fare - a salad with shredded cabbage, tomato, and cucumber (with olive oil and white vinegar), dried crusty bread and butter, big plates of a mixture of rice and black beans to pass around, and our main meal which consisted of either chicken, pork, or beef, as well as with another side. This was followed up by desert which usually consisted of fresh fruit, or a small piece of cake with icecream. Most meals were some iteration of that! And of course, a local band serenaded us throughout the meal, hoping to persuade some of us to purchase a CD (which almost inevitably happened at every meal!).

Lunch at Cafetal Buenavista, Cuba

A pair of Cuban Green Woodpecker had also taken up a nearby tree for a nesting cavity which we watched before and even during lunch as they landed in a nearby tree. Every 10 minutes or so, one individual would arrive at the nest cavity, wait for the other to depart, and then take hop inside for domestic duty. After lunch, I positioned myself where the lighting was the best and waited for the switchover. Unfortunately I never managed to get a decent photo of both birds, but this portrait turned out alright.


Cuban Green Woodpecker - Cafetal Buenavista, Cuba

That afternoon, we visited the artisans and shops in the town of Las Terrazas, situated around a lake that provided us with views of some Cuban Sliders and an Osprey. We visited the home of the late musician Polo MontaƱez, walked the streets, and even came across a group of 9 American Flamingos along the edge of a small waterbody in town. Apparently these flamingos were released here at one point, and have stuck in the area. I guess I would have to wait for a few days for us to see "real" American Flamingos in Zapata. 

That afternoon, being stopping back at the Hotel Soroa, we made a brief rendezvous to the base of a nearby waterfall. The heat from earlier in the day hadn't quite touched this area, and while the birdsong was quiet, a distant Cuban Solitaire and Cuban Trogon called occasionally. 

Down near the base of the waterfall a Louisiana Waterthrush was chipping loudly. Several of us watched it scale the slippery rock wall beside the waterfall, eventually perching on a 60 degree slope at the very top of the waterfall. Pretty incredible how this species has adapted to life around flowing streams and waterfalls. 


Salta de Soroa, Cuba
That evening, I went for a late dusk hike around the Hotel Soroa. I left around 5:30 and checked out a trail that meandered into the forest just down the road from the hotel.

Cattle Egret - Hotel Soroa, Cuba
 I came across one dead end, but eventually found my way along a track that cut into the woods for about half a km and towards an open area overlooking a forested hillside. Right around dusk I was approaching the opening in the woods when I heard some twigs snapping. A look with the bins caused a pair of Ruddy Qual-Doves to materialize as they walked away from me in the thick undergrowth. There are four species of quail-doves native to Cuba, including the two endemic species (Blue-headed and Gray-fronted) a near-endemic (Key West) and Ruddy, found through the tropics in the Americas. Ruddy is the only one of these species that I had seen before, so I was really hoping for any of the other ones. Regardless, it was an awesome sighting nonetheless, as quail-doves are one of my favorite groups of birds and can be difficult to observe. 

The first Cuban Pygmy-Owl of the trip called several times as well while I watched the sun set over the hills.  It turned into a pretty successful evening hike, a nice end to another great day in Cuba.

hills near Soroa, Cuba

Monday, 6 April 2015

Back from Scotland/Morocco

I'm currently on my way back to Canada from Glasgow, though a day later than planned. Sunday was just not my day. While stopping at Subway in Edinburgh to grab some food for my flight, the guy working there was extremely friendly, chatty and slow at making sandwiches. Combined with an influx of pedestrian traffic in the downtown area, Laura and I arrived at the bus station about 30 seconds after my bus left for Glasgow. Not to worry though – another bus was coming in 30 minutes and I should still make my flight. After loading my suitcase, I went to pay the driver the fare – turns out that it had increased from four pounds to seven pounds fifty for the month of April, and Laura and I did not have enough cash between us. Laura ran to the ATM while I waited by the bus, trying unsuccessfully to get the driver to open the side of the bus so I could retrieve my suitcase. We were a few seconds to late when Laura ran back with the cash and the bus took off with my suitcase in it. By the time I had taken the next bus, arrived in Glasgow, and finally found someone who could track down my suitcase, the clock was ticking and it wasn’t looking good for making my flight. I hopped on the airport shuttle and ran into the terminal as they were announcing the final boarding call for my flight. Unfortunately I was too late and they refused to check my bag or let me on the flight. 1100$ later I was re-booked on a flight leaving Monday morning. Needless to say the whole situation was a really terrible way of capping off what ended up being an otherwise awesome trip!


Anyways, enough with the negatives, as there were many more positives on the trip to outweigh them. I arrived in Edinburgh mid-day on Friday, March 27, and by the following morning Laura and I were off to Marrakech, located just north of the Atlas Mountains in central Morocco. We enjoyed two nights in the middle of the bustling Medina within Marrakesh, tasting the local cousine such as dates, cous-cous, olives, and mouth-watering tagines, and wandering through the winding streets and markets. I have to say though, it was a breath of fresh air when we left on Monday morning to pick up our rental car, with hopes of exploring places less crowded and less touristy further away from the cities. It is exhausting walking through the Medina where the shop-keepers and vendors are ruthless in hounding any tourist who pauses to look at something for even a second. Everything has to be bartered for, and the concept of “that’s ok, I’m just looking” doesn’t seem to pass as a suitable answer.

at the El Badi Palace - Marrakech, Morocco

Exploring the countryside with our rental car was a much better experience, and we visited habitats ranging from the dry, scrubby mountain foothills to the northern edge of the Sahara desert, ancient pine forests, the beautiful Atlantic coast, and snow-covered mountain tops. Laura and I both love the natural world and we had an absolute blast searching for the Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis (of which only a few hundred remain), catching lizards in the Sahara, and marveling at the unrivaled beauty in the Atlas Mountains.

Atlas Mountains foothills - near Argana, Morocco

Atlas Mountains - near Oukaimeden, Morocco

Bird wise, we ended up doing quite well on the trip. Several species of birds are endemic to the Atlas Mountains or the Maghreb area of North Africa, including Moussier’s Redstart, African Blue Tit, Tristram’s Warbler, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Black-crowned Tchagra, Barbary Partridge, and Atlas Pied Flycatcher, along with certain subspecies that may be split in the future (“Seebohm’s” Northern Wheatear, “Moroccan” White Wagtail, “African” Crimson-winged Finch, “Atlas” Horned Lark, “Maghreb” Crested Lark). We ended up finding all these species except for the flycatcher (it’s the wrong time of year for them). Not only that  but we observed a flock of 21 Northern Bald Ibis feeding in the open plains along the edge of the Sahara against a backdrop of massive sand dunes disappearing into the Atlantic. Visiting the desert gave us views of some additional target species – Greater Hoopoe-Lark, Lanner Falcon (killing a Spanish Sparrow, no less), Scrub Warbler, and 6 species of wheatears including an out-of-range Isabelline, despite less than optimal weather conditions.

Black Wheatear - Lakhssas, Morocco

Without a doubt, however, the highlight of my trip was not bird related at all... I proposed to Laura on our own private beach along the Atlantic coast at the north edge of the Sahara on a beautiful sunny day after a morning of stalking lizards and wheatears.  And she said yes! :)


Upon our return to Scotland, we “hired” another car (got to use the proper lingo) and explored the highlands for a few days, something we have both wanted to do for a while. Scotland was a lot of fun, though after being spoiled with the warm weather, cheap accomodations, delicious food and diversity of wildlife in Morocco, Scotland just didn’t quite compare. Nonetheless we completed some great hikes, ate some excellent food, drank a few fine ales, and even found a couple of the target bird species (Black Grouse, Rock Ptarmigan, Crested Tit) while missing a few others (Eurasian Capercaillie, Scottish Crossbills if they actually are a species etc).

male Red Grouse (Willow Ptarmigan) - Cairn Gorm mountain, Scotland

I will have further posts detailing our adventures at some point in the future, though that may be several months from now as I still have quite a few Cuba, Panama, and Colombia posts to create.