Monday, 25 May 2015

Point Pelee and Blenheim lagoons - May 10, 2015

The park was relatively slow this morning, though Dan Riley and I had an American Bittern fly over us heading north up the main park road at dawn. That's one of the cool things about migration - you end up seeing birds in weird locations sometimes!

I stood around at the tip for a while, but not much of anything was flying around. Most of the ducks had now vacated the park, with only a few scaup and Red-breasted Mergansers remaining. We hung around and watched the moderate reverse migration for a while, but it was very slow in comparison to previous days. Eventually I headed north with a few others to bird some trails.

A strange phenomena occurs during the spring at Pelee. Since most birders visit during the first 2-3 weeks of May, common species that migrate either earlier or later than that become highly desirable for some, especially those who keep annual lists for their spring Pelee visits.. This is why something like a Mourning Warbler, one of the more common warbler species found in regenerating habitat in central Ontario, can draw a crowd like this! It is a later migrant with most pushing through in late May.

Mourning Warbler madness - Point Pelee National Park

Dan Riley, Jeremy Bensette and I eventually walked up the west beach footpath. We did not see much of note, although there were a few warblers here and there, a Ruddy Duck offshore and a dead Canvasback along the beach. A Kirtland's Warbler was found along the footpath several hours after we had walked it, but we sure didn't see it!

Veery - Point Pelee National Park

It just wasn't my lucky day, as not only did I miss the Kirtland's (I was on my way home when it was reported), but I also missed Fish Crow and Mississippi Kite that were found by others later that day. You win some, you lose some!

A brief stop at the Blenheim lagoons was certainly productive due to the abundance of shorebird habitat in the sprinkler cells. Around 400 Dunlin were in and I came up with an exact-ish count of 83 Least Sandpipers. Both a male and female Wilson's Phalarope were strutting around the lagoons, and a handful of sharp Short-billed Dowitchers were also probing the mud with their distinctive "sewing machine" feeding style. While Wilson's Phalaropes breed in very small numbers in southern Ontario and these individuals may even stick around to breed, the dowitchers were just making a stopover on the way to their summer grounds in the prairies and taiga of northern Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and southern Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Wilson's Phalarope - Blenheim sewage lagoons 

Wilson's Phalarope - Blenheim sewage lagoons
Short-billed Dowitcher - Blenheim sewage lagoons 

Short-billed Dowitchers - Blenheim sewage lagoons 

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Point Pelee and area- May 9, 2015

It has been a while since my last post due to a combination of work (its getting to be that busy time of year for us biologists!) as well as the fact that it is the month of May and I've been birding during every spare opportunity. This past weekend I was in the Point Pelee area for four full days during one of the best rarity weekends of the year so far, so needless to say I have a few photos and stories that will come out of that at some point. But for now, I'm going to try to keep things going chronologically and so will post the rest of the photos from the weekend before, also spent at Pelee of course.

The morning dawned clear with a light south wind, prompting a moderate reverse migration to take place at the tip. I stationed myself there with the group of regulars to watch the flight. Indigo Buntings made up a good percentage of the birds, while oriole numbers were down (they had dominated the previous day's flight). Tanagers were making a good showing and I eventually spotted this Summer Tanager going over. Some of the key ID features which separate this individual from a female Scarlet Tanager include the overall body colouration (Scarlet often appears more lemon-yellow, even in the warm morning light), only moderate contrast in colour between the body and wings, olive/yellow underside to the tail (vs gray in Scarlet Tanager), larger bill size, and hint of an eye-line.

female Summer Tanager - Point Pelee National Park

A few other interesting birds were seen around the tip, including an Olive-sided Flycatcher that Bill Lamond and I watched circle out over the lake twice.  This Northern Mockingbird also vacated the tip several times, returning back to the mainland after flying out over the lake for several hundred meters. This was surprisingly my first mockingbird in Ontario so far this year! For some reason they can be somewhat hard to come by in the Point Pelee area, and it is a bird that I rarely see within the boundaries of the national park. Northern Mockingbirds are not abundant anywhere in Ontario, though they are frequently encountered in the Niagara-Hamilton-Toronto corridor.

Northern Mockingbird - Point Pelee National Park

No mid-May visit to the tip of Point Pelee is complete without a few sightings of Red-headed Woodpeckers flying around. Despite multiple sightings of these striking birds it is likely that only two or three individuals were involved. Red-headed Woodpecker is another species that seems to frequently take part in this faux reverse migration, continually flying out over the lake and looping back. It is not entirely known why some birds do this.

I ended up birding for most of the day with Daniel Riley, David Szmyr and Josh Mandell. It was a beautiful day to be out which made the hiking quite enjoyable. The birding however was a bit slow, but I'll take a slow day in May over a great day in February any time! We had to work hard for warblers, but by the end of the day we had tallied 18 species, most in ones and twos. Our best warbler was a Kentucky that Marianne Balkwill had discovered near The Dunes picnic area, which after some time gave reasonable views as it skulked in the undergrowth. We also found a nice male Hooded Warbler along the seasonal trail to the beach just north of here, a bird which even serenaded us with a few renditions of its loud, clear song.

birding near The Tip

Philadelphia Vireo is one species that seems to regularly elude my camera lens; likely due to their tendency to often perch fairly high in the treetops. This one however was fairly low, and we enjoyed great views as it flitted around, catching insects just above the trail.

While Point Pelee can often be extremely busy with other birders during May, one side benefit is that even on slow days someone usually finds something rare. Today it was Adam Pinch's turn, and during that mid afternoon lull he discovered a Pacific Loon offshore, just north of Northwest Beach. We stopped by to check out the bird, and while it was too far for photos, it was close enough for a great look. This is the best I could muster with my 300mm lens, a lens that is great with close birds but not exactly suited to photographing a loon half a km away. I need to get my hands on one of those superzoom point and shoot cameras for that one of these days. Regardless, it was a fantastic bird to finish off a pretty good day at Pelee!

Monday, 11 May 2015

Point Pelee - Friday, May 8

Thursday evening saw warm weather and moderate south winds throughout Ontario, causing a large amount of migrant songbirds to steadily push northward. I had arrived for another weekend at Pelee, and by dawn on Friday I was stationed at the tip along with David Szmyr, Josh Mandell, Daniel Riley and many other birders, anticipating a great morning of birding.

As expected, a steady "reverse migration" was underway, dominated by Baltimore Orioles but with good numbers of other migrant songbirds such as Orchard Orioles, Indigo Buntings, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and various warblers. Bobolinks put in a good showing with around 30 individuals seen - a decent amount for the date.

Bobolink - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

Large groups of Blue Jays would appear overhead and fly out several hundred meters over the lake before looping back and landing north of the tip area. Occasionally one would fly close enough for good photos. Compared to a lot of the smaller songbirds, Blue Jays are much easier to photograph in flight as they present a larger, slower, less erratic target.

Blue Jay - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

While Mourning Doves race by at fast speeds, they also are a large target that moves in a consistent manner, meaning they too are not too difficult to photograph, as long as you get on the bird as soon as it appears over the trees.

Mourning Dove - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

Without a doubt the highlight of the morning (and the weekend) came around 7:00 AM. As we were standing there, a small pale sparrow flew over which about a dozen of us managed to see. Brandon Holden happened to be ready with his camera and fired away a series of photos of the suspicious songbird. It was a Eurasian Tree Sparrow! We were all surprised to say the least, but his photos held the proof. The bird had circled out over the water and eventually returned, landing somewhere north of the tip. A minute later it suddenly appeared at the top of a nearby tree, allowing decent looks for most of the 50 or so birders that were in the area. The sounds of camera shutters clicked from all around before the sparrow disappeared from view once more.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

Eurasian Tree Sparrows were introduced from Eurasia to parts of the midwest United States, and currently form a stable population in Iowa, Missouri and Illinois, primarily. Vagrant birds have shown up in Ontario before, and this sighting represents a potential 9th provincial record, and third Point Pelee record. One of these previous Ontario records came last year as a bird regularly attended a feeder in Niagara-on-the-Lake for parts of the late autumn and winter. The potential for some of these birds to have been released/escaped cage birds always should be considered, and the fact that five of these nine records have been in the last 13 months is a bit strange. It will be interesting to see how the OBRC votes on this and other recent records, as Eurasian Tree Sparrow has never been rejected on basis of origin yet (I have yet to see the results of the 2014 voting however).

The rest of the morning provided a few more nice birds, though nothing could really top the sparrow as far as I was concerned! I spotted a Prothonotary Warbler overhead, while a Clay-colored Sparrow lingered at the tip for a few seconds as well.

Prothonotary Warbler - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

At one point Brandon called out a 1st summer Little Gull as it whipped around the point with a flock of Bonaparte's. This Merlin also made a couple of brief appearance; always a nice bird to see in the spring at Pelee.

Merlin - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

Dave, Josh, Daniel and I eventually left the tip area, choosing to walk north through Loop Woods and Post Woods back to the Visitor's Centre. Birding was pretty good along the entire route and we saw a Mourning Warbler pointed out to us in Loop Woods and a Hooded Warbler near the Botham Trail, singing its heart out. We also stopped to photograph this Rose-breasted Grosbeak, perched low down in the vegetation with a nice backdrop, providing decent eye-level photos.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

We ended up birding in the park for most of the day, coming up with 109 species in the park including 23 warblers - not a bad day at Pelee.  It was great to finally have a day where a decent number and variety of songbirds were found on most trails, and many first-of-year species were seen. Some of the later migrants were in such as Red-eyed and Philadelphia Vireo, Traill's Flycatcher, Swainson's Thrush, and Canada, Mourning, and Wilson's Warblers, mixed in with some earlier ones, such as Pine Siskin, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-throated Sparrow and Blue-headed Vireo.

In the evening, Jeremy Bensette and Emma Buck relocated the female Prairie Warbler that the Rileys had found earlier in the day, so I stopped by to check it out. Dave and Josh arrived around dusk and we finished the day by watching an American Woodcock peenting and displaying at Northwest Beach.

American Woodcock - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

Thursday, 7 May 2015

May 1, 2015 - Kentucky Warbler photoshoot

Last weekend I visited Point Pelee once again, making the long drive into the banana belt of Ontario on Friday afternoon. Due to my early afternoon departure I arrived in the southwest of the province with time to spare, and I checked out the Blenheim lagoons and Wheatley harbour before making my way into Point Pelee National Park.

Earlier in the day Mike Bouman had discovered a male Kentucky Warbler along Ander's footpath, linking the Chinquapin Oak Trail to De Laurier. The bird had been reported in the same general area throughout the day, and I headed straight for DeLaurier hoping to come across this scarce, but annual southern overshoot in southwestern Ontario.

Luckily a couple from Quebec who I run into frequently at Pelee were on the bird as I approached and they were more than happy to point it out as it foraged in the undergrowth. This was a typical view for us - a large yellow and olive warbler with a black mustache walking on the ground and searching under dead leaves for invertebrates.

Kentucky Warbler - Point Pelee National Park (May 1, 2015)

Eventually the warbler foraged a bit closer, and was unconcerned with our presence as it continued to search for little morsels. I stayed with it for twenty minutes, filling my memory cards in the rapidly failing light. I think this is my favorite of the bunch, as it maneuvered across a log in the undergrowth. I think the twigs in the foreground do not detract to this image as is usually the case, as it provides a sense of the habitat that Kentucky Warblers utilize.

Kentucky Warbler - Point Pelee National Park (May 1, 2015)

Occasionally it would pop up onto a rare unobstructed perch, providing a great clean look; rarely seen when the vegetation is taller. This early spring had delayed the emergence of most herbaceous species, providing great looks at skulkers such as this Kentucky Warbler.

Kentucky Warbler - Point Pelee National Park (May 1, 2015)

This was my fifth Ontario Kentucky Warbler, all of which have been from Point Pelee. My first was in early May 2010 and I have seen exactly one in each subsequent year. This was by far my best looks at one, and the first time that I have photograhed one.

Kentucky Warbler - Point Pelee National Park (May 1, 2015)

The last few days have been excellent at Point Pelee, making it very difficult for me to stay focused on proposal writing and other office work during the last few days. Luckily I have also been busy this week with evening amphibian surveys to provide me with a nature fix, but I'm itching to get back down to Pelee! The forecast this weekend looks hot with southerly winds and a few bouts of precipitation. We are in the peak of migration now and these conditions could provide a healthy dose of migrants, with hopefully several good rarities mixed in. Check out Brandon's weather blog for more details on this weekend's weather and potential for rare birds. Just in the last few days in Ontario there have been 2 possibly legit Barnacle Geese near Ottawa (potential 2nd provincial record?), Great Cormorant at Prince Edward Point and Presquile, Western Tanager near Thunder Bay, Spotted Towhee in Marathon, a Northern Gannet at Holiday Beach, 36 species of warblers in southern Ontario (all the annual ones minus Kirland's), and a smattering of American Avocets and Willets among other great birds.   I'll be driving down tonight for a long weekend of birding - should be fun!

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

February 16, 2015 - Trinidad and Ancon Peninsula

We awoke for the last time at our hotel in Playa Larga and after a morning bird hike, began the long drive east to the city of Trinidad. The morning walk produced much of the same birds, including some good ones in Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Crow, a calling Great Lizard-Cuckoo and a flyby Zenaida Dove. It was a beautiful morning to be out, as the unseasonably cool overnight temperatures gave way as the sun rose higher in the sky. A light breeze began to blow in off the ocean, and by the time we reached our first destination in the town of Cienfuegos, the day was hot and windy. Cienfuegos was a quick washroom stop, but I checked out the waterfront with a few of the birders in the tour. Laughing Gulls patrolled the shorelines, while our first Double-crested Cormorants of the tour were winged by. Additionally, some terns were resting on some offshore pilings, including our first Sandwich Terns of the trip alongside a Royal.

We continued on, driving for another half hour until we reached Jardin Botanico de Cienfuegos where we had a planned guided tour of the gardens. During the walk we noticed a few species of anoles, though almost too quick to catch by hand in the late morning heat. The local guide pointed out this species of palm, one of a select few species of palms that the Antillean Palm-Swift will nest in. Standing underneath the tree it was possible to see nests attached to the sides of the fronds, while several birds called unseen from the depths of the tree.

A huge highlight of the walk was when our local guide, Acosta, spotted a Cuban Pygmy-Owl roosting quietly in the lower branches of a large tree. This certainly provided a good opportunity for photographs, as the previous Pygmy-Owl was near the top of a backlit tree. I really wished that I hadn't left my camera in the bus for this walk...

We finished the second half of the long drive to Trinidad, arriving in time for a 2:00 PM lunch. En route several of the clients spotted Crested Caracaras, while I noticed a White-throated Swift circling with some Antillean Palm Swifts and Cuban Martins over the road. White-throated Swifts are somewhat rare and localized in western Cuba, though they can be found in the nearby Escambray mountains.

We spent several hours touring Trinidad after lunch, visiting the Museo Romantico, a cathedral, and the busy marketplaces.

Exploring the streets of Trinidad....

That evening we checked into the Trinidad del Mar, an all-inclusive resort located south of Trinidad on the Ancon Peninsula. We were in for a bit of added luxury! I had never been to an all-inclusive resort before, nor had any desire to, but I must say that it was great for a couple of nights. As a bonus, the grounds were surprisingly great for birding, as other than a few resorts there was not much development on the peninsula. Salt marshes and mangroves covered much of the peninsula, while a row of coastal shrub lined the beaches.Waterbirds were common while a good number of wintering warblers moved up and down the coast of the peninsula.

Trinidad del Mar - Ancon Peinsula, Cuba

The following day's activities consisted of exploring the city of Trinidad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), visiting a pottery studio, museum, cathedral, and tower. Due to the day's schedule there was not much wildlife seen, though we did watch a bright green Alice's Anole on the wall of our lunch restaurant, and a small flock of Cuban Crows were seen from the Bell Tower overlooking the city.

view of Trinidad from the Bell Tower

I made a friend at the pottery studio...
We arrived back at the hotel by mid afternoon and so I took advantage of the extra daylight hours to bird down the coast. I lucked into a little flock of warblers that contained two Prairies, a Northern Waterthrush, several Prairie Warblers and American Redstarts, and best of all - a Worm-eating.

A small group of us returned several hours later, and while we couldn't turn up the Worm-eating we enjoyed a pleasant evening on the coast, watching small groups of warblers in the shrubs on the north side of the road, and observing the Royal Terns fishing just offshore, meters away to the south.

Royal Tern - Ancon Peninsula, Cuba

Royal Tern - Ancon Peninsula, Cuba
Palm Warbler - Ancon Peninsula, Cuba

Prairie Warbler - Ancon Peninsula, Cuba
 It had been a relatively successful few days in the Trinidad area, especially considering that our wildlife-watching time was somewhat limited. On the itinerary for the following day, February 17, was a day spent exploring the Escambray Mountains just outside of Trinidad. We would end up finding the rarest bird of the trip during our time here, which I will detail in the next post.

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.