Tuesday, 3 March 2015

February 10-11, 2015 - hotel birding in the Viñales Valley

The hotel we were residing in during our time in the Viñales Valley was tucked away in the countryside. As a result, the surrounding fields, scrubby areas and forests were only a short walk away. Since it was my first visit to Cuba and the potential for new species was quite high, I made an effort to walk down the road leading away from the hotel whenever I had an hour or two of free time.

This ended up being very productive and I observed close to 40 species on these brief excursions. The hotel itself consisted of manicured lawns with the occasional garden or shade tree so the avifauna was not overly diverse, but species like Cuban Blackbird, Antillean Palm Swift, Cuban Emerald and Loggerhead Kingbird were still new and exciting for me.

Horizontes la Ermita hotel - Viñales Valley

Horizontes la Ermita hotel - Viñales Valley

On most mornings during the trip, Glenn and I led a pre-breakfast bird walk wherever we were staying. We were limited by only having 30-45 minutes between sunrise and breakfast, but several interesting species were found each morning as birds are most active at this time of day. On our inaugural morning in the Viñales Valley we came across a few noteworthy species, including our first migrant wood warblers that just may end up in Ontario in a few months' time - Tennessee, American Redstart, and Palm, as well as the first Cuban Vireo, an endemic bird to Cuba. I returned by myself after breakfast to the same abandoned lot where we had seen the above species and was surprised to hear a loud "toc-toc-toc-toc" in a rapid series. Cuban Tody!!

It did not take long before I found the culprit, sitting quietly on a branch no more than three meters away. What a spectacular bird!

Cuban Tody - Viñales Valley

While this species would prove to be quite common in most wooded or semi-wooded habitats throughout our trip, nothing compared to the excitement of seeing the first. Coming in at 4.25 inches from the tip of the bill to the tip of the tail and colored with hues of green, yellow, red, pink, blue and white, the Cuban Tody certainly won the category of "cutest bird of the trip" for me. It turns out that they can be quite territorial as well if a bit of playback was used - a lesson I quickly learned!


Cuban Tody - Viñales Valley

That evening after our daily activities I found myself with almost two hours free. With the extra time I was able to cover a slightly larger area, following a relatively quiet dirt road through some farmland.


At one point I came across this interesting Northern Parula. It had an abnormally large amount of white in the secondaries of each wing; something I had never observed with this species before. Interesting!

aberrant Northern Parula - Viñales Valley

Right around dusk I noticed a distant raptor flying towards me. It was an Accipiter of some sort and as it approached I could tell that it was no Sharp-shinned Hawk. Indeed it was a Gundlach's Hawk!! I was quite excited to cross paths with this scarce endemic and fired off a dozen or so photos of the distant, backlit bird while it continued on past me. Gundlach's Hawks closely resemble Cooper's Hawks (which are absent from Cuba), and it is theorized that they are derived from Cooper's Hawks in a process referred to as "migration dosing". Migration dosing refers to misdirected migration, stranding individuals of a species in a new location. These isolated individuals end up staying and reproducing, over time evolving to become a population genetically distinct from the "donor" species (Greenberg and Parra, 2005).

Gundlach's Hawk - Viñales Valley

Gundlach's Hawks are endemic to Cuba and listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. According to birdlife.org, the population is estimated to contain around 400 individuals, though these numbers were based on data from 1994. The species is thought by some to be declining, owing to habitat loss and persecution by farmers. Apparently raptors of all sorts, and particularly Gundlach's Hawks, are killed by some farmers as they have a penchant for dining on poultry.  Garrido and Kirkconnell (2000) regarded it as Vulnerable, and some Cuban ornithologists consider it more common and in no immediate danger of extinction (per http://globalraptors.org/grin/SpeciesResults.asp?specID=8005). Regardless of its status I felt privileged to cross paths with one!

I paused to photograph this Guinea Pig along the side of the road at some point. Not sure what it was doing here!

Guinea Pig - Viñales Valley

The excitement for the evening was not finished quite yet. As the road passed through a grove of introduced pines I heard some odd call notes that I could not place. Eventually the skulkers became known - a little group of Yellow-headed Warblers. This species is only found in the western half of Cuba and is the sister species to the Oriente Warbler found in eastern Cuba. In the dull post-sunset light the yellow really shone on these birds! I boosted my camera's ISO and managed to snag a couple of record shots.



The following morning I took the group back down this road to see if we could relocated the warblers, or perhaps get lucky with another flyby Gundlach's. The Yellow-headed Warblers were still around, calling from in the brushy vegetation near the pines, but they refused to show for all but one or two of us. Walking back along the road, the hedgerow on the north side (as seen in the photo below, which I actually took the previous evening) held many songbirds including seven or eight warbler species and a pair of Cuban Vireos.

self portrait - Viñales Valley

At one point, a warbler flew to the ground at the base of a shrub and I instinctively put my binoculars up. I was shocked to see it was a Swainson's Warbler, a bird that was near the top of my "most wanted" list back in North America. It stayed in view for close to a full minute as I frantically called the rest of the group over. About half of us were treated to awesome views of the bird before it flew back into thicker vegetation. The other half of the group, still waiting for Yellow-headed Warblers further down the road, did not arrive in time, unfortunately. This was one morning where I really wished that I had brought my camera with me! Swainson's Warbler, the only species in the genus Limnothlypis, is one of the most secretive and least observed of North American wood-warblers, skulking in canebrakes and swamps in the American southeast. They have a certain "holy grail" aura to me and I've long wanted to visit their breeding grounds during spring or early summer in hopes of catching a glimpse of one. While Swainson's Warblers winter in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean/Central America I did not realistically think we would observe one on this trip due to their secretive tendencies. At least in the American southeast their loud ringing song is easy to notice. Wintering birds, however, are mostly silent.

This was certainly an excellent way of wrapping up our time in the Viñales Valley. That morning we left for our next destination - the Sierra del Rosario mountains where we were staying for two nights.



References

Garrido, O. H. and Kirkconnell, A. 2000. Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Greenberg, R. and Marra, P.P. 2005. Birds of Two Worlds: The Ecology and Evolution of Migration. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

February 10-11, 2015 - Viñales Valley, Cuba

Our Best of Cuba tour began with a day and a half in the Viñales Valley, located several hours to the west of Havana. The valley contains soils fertile enough that tobacco farming by traditional techniques constitutes a major land use. However, there are some natural areas left, particularly in the Sierra de los Organos mountains which encircle the valley. Tree covered mogotes - karst hills composed of limestone - rise sharply from the valley floor and provide a stunning backdrop.

Viñales Valley

Viñales Valley

A morning hike through the valley on February 11, where the above photos were taken, proved to be a great introduction to some of Cuba's common birds. Turkey Vultures soared in the skies by the dozens, Cattle Egrets strutted in many of the fields, all the while the emphatic, sputtery calls of Loggerhead Kingbirds provided a near constant soundtrack.

Loggerhead Kingbird - Viñales Valley

A perched American Kestrel of the Cuban race provided a dash of excitement. Cuban Kestrels come in two color morphs - red-breasted and white-breasted, and lack the dark breast-streaking of their American counterparts.

"Cuban" American Kestrel - Viñales Valley

The mogotes are home to several endemic birds to Cuba, including the relatively localized Cuban Solitaire. This species can be very difficult to see, but its ethereal voice occasionally rose up from a distant mogote during our walk. We did end up spotting one, its drab gray coloration providing confirmation that this is a bird whose song is more appreciated than its looks. I took a distant "record shot" of it anyways.

Cuban Solitaire - Viñales Valley

Certainly one of the most striking of Cuba's avifauna, the Western Spindalis proved to be a common enough bird in woodland edges and scrubby areas. Formerly known as the Stripe-headed Tanager, this species is found throughout Cuba, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands, and the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Occasionally a small flock would pass through, pausing to eat fruits and berries, and providing excellent photographic opportunities.

male Western Spindalis - Viñales Valley

Cuba is home to four species of flycatchers which are year-round residents. The aforementioned Loggerhead Kingbird is one, as is the La Sagra's Flycatcher (a relatively small, plain Myiarchus) and the Cuban Pewee. The fourth, the Giant Kingbird, is rare, endemic and declining and only reliable in a handful of select spots, one of which we visited later in the trip. Cuban Pewees were common in the Viñales Valley, and this individual allowed my close approach for photos.

Cuban Pewee - Viñales Valley

Several other endemic birds were easily seen in our time in the valley. The Cuban Trogon, Cuba's national bird made its first appearance, though I will discuss that species in a later post. The ubiquitous Cuban Blackbird was nearly a constant sight in any semi-natural area as well.

Some keen-eyed members of the group spotted our next new endemic - a pair of Cuban Orioles sitting quietly in the depths of a hedgerow. We would later see a few more pairs, including some individuals out in the open (see the photo below). Formerly known as Black-cowled Oriole which ranged throughout Central America and parts of the Caribbean, it was "split" in 1999, of which the birds in the Greater Antilles became the Greater Antillean Oriole while the birds on mainland Central America retained the name of Black-cowled Oriole. Greater Antillean Oriole was further split into four new species in 2010 - one of which is the endemic Cuban Oriole. Got to love taxonomy!

Cuban Oriole - Viñales Valley

I was excited to spot the first Cuban Bullfinches of the trip after several kilometers of hiking through the valley. Cuban Bullfinch is a species that has been hit hard by the caged bird trade in Cuba. Despite the reduction in numbers they still remain reasonably common in scrubby areas. I wish the same could be said for another caged bird trade casualty, the Cuban Grassquit, which is absent in many areas it formerly occupied.

Cuban Bullfinch - Viñales Valley

A big highlight for our group was coming across this male Anolis luteogularis (Western Giant Anole) while having a tour of the Caridad Tropical Garden in the town of Viñales. This species is endemic to western Cuba and one of the larger anole species that I have been fortunate to see. Anoles are the most diverse group of lizards in Cuba and at least 64 species can be found in the country; most of which are endemic.

Anolis luteogularis -  - town of Viñales

I'll finish this post with an image of a West Indian Woodpecker that entertained several of us as we arrived at a restaurant for a late lunch following the hike through the valley. West Indian Woodpeckers remind me somewhat of Red-bellied Woodpeckers from eastern North America; however, they are noticeably larger with a black streak above the eye.

West Indian Woodpecker - Viñales Valley

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Return from Cuba!

Yesterday I returned from an awesome trip through Worldwide Quest Nature Tours where I co-guided (along with Glenn Barrett) a group of 15 people to beautiful Cuba. The trip was an absolute success with many great sightings of birds and other wildlife throughout the two weeks. Without a doubt I miss the place already, especially after stepping out into -15 weather to start my car this morning...ughh....(Hey, at least it is not -30 anymore! Right?).

At some point I will make more detailed posts complete with lots of photos, but for now I will list a few of the highlights. While the trip was not a dedicated birding trip, and our focus was on all sorts of wildlife and plants, my main personal goal was to see as many of Cuba's unique bird species as possible. We managed to see 18 country endemics (out of 28 total), including some difficult ones in Fernandina's Flicker, Gray-fronted Quail-Dove, Cuban Grassquit and of course the world's smallest bird - Bee Hummingbird.

I was happy to finally lay eyes on my first Cuban Tody - a new bird family for me. These tiny fellas are somewhat related to kingfishers, jacamars and motmots, yet come in at approximately 4.25 inches in size. Their cuteness and bold colours more than make up for their small stature!


No birding trip to Cuba is complete without a healthy dose of Tocororos, or Cuban Trogons, the national bird whose colours are the same as the flag. Their call of "toco-roro-roco-roro" is what inspires their local name in Cuba.


The Caribbean islands are a major wintering ground for a large number of North American songbirds, and Cuba is the stronghold for quite a few species. I was happy to have spectacular views of some tough to find species in Ontario - namely Louisiana Waterthrush, Prairie Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, and best of all - Swainson's Warbler! I was happy to get this extremely poor photo of one, as it was quite possibly one of my most wanted North American birds. In one spot we had three individuals foraging at relatively close range in the dark understorey of deciduous woods in the Zapata Peninsula.


The rarest bird of the trip was no doubt the Townsend's Warbler that we found about two-thirds of the way through the trip in the Escambray Mountains. As far as I am aware this is a first record for Cuba and one of only a small handful for the Caribbean region. A spankin' adult male too!


The reptiles of Cuba are a huge attraction as well. Our visit was in the dry season, which, coupled with unseasonably cool temperatures at times, put a damper on reptile activity. That being said we observed about 10 species of lizards, Cuban Sliders, and a few Cuban Racers. This one here is a Curly-tailed Lizard (Leicocephalus carinatus).


Lots more to come - stay tuned!

Saturday, 7 February 2015

From Colombia to Cuba

My five day layover in Toronto is almost complete, and on Monday I will be heading to the airport to make my first visit to the beautiful island of Cuba. Last year I was invited by Worldwide Quest Nature Tours  to co-lead a 16 day tour of Cuba - an offer I couldn't refuse. I will be working with Glenn Barrett, a keen naturalist and photographer who resides in the Hamilton area.

Cuba has always been on the list of places I would love to go as it has the most diverse birdlife of the Greater Antilles. Twenty-four living species of birds can only be found in Cuba. Many other species are found on Cuba and only one or two neighbouring islands, such as Grand Cayman or Hispaniola. Cuba is home to the world's smallest bird, the Bee Hummingbird, as well as other iconic species such as Cuban Tody (a tiny, colorful bird related to jacamars and kingfishers), Cuban Trogon, Bare-legged Owl, and the strikingly beautiful Blue-headed Quail-Dove.

But the birds are not the only attraction in Cuba for a naturalist like me...nearly 200 species of endemic reptiles and amphibians can be found on the islands! The endemic species include 60+ anoles, 14 dwarf boas, 10 blindsnakes, and 50+ rain frogs. The only downside is that no venomous snakes are found on Cuba!

It should be a lot of fun and I'm excited to explore the island with the group.


----------------------------------------------

I've finally begun the long and arduous process of sorting, deleting, and editing the 60 gigabytes of photos from the Colombia trip. Here are a couple of early edits from the first day in northern Colombia!


Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Steely-vented Hummingbird

Savage's Salamander - Bolitoglossa savagei

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

(Almost) home from Colombia

After a whirlwind 17 days my time in Colombia is over. I'm currently sitting in an airport in Houston, TX with a few hours to spare so I thought I would provide a brief update from my phone.

My last update covered the week that Dan Riley, Steve Pike, Dan Wylie and I enjoyed in the north of Colombia, such as the Guajira Peninsula and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. 

On January 24 the four of us flew to Bogota to begin the next section of the trip, through the Andes. David Bell arrived late that night and Adam Timpf met us the following morning as we birded elfin forest in the mountains of Chingaza, just an hour outside of Bogota. Despite being so close to the city, Chingaza felt like a whole other world! We managed to cross paths with the endemic Brown-breasted Parakeet and Pale-bellied Tapaculo as well as our first few mixed flocks, many which were dominated by strikingly beautiful Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers.




Dan Wylie left for the airport the next morning, while Dan Riley, David Bell, Steve Pike and I began our nine day loop of all three Cordilleras of the Andes in Colombia. Adam also met up with us on numerous occasions as well throughout the trip - a pretty good group!




The Andes were absolutely stunning and the birding can be some of the best in the world. The loop we had planned was quite ambitious, and at times it meant much more time spent in the vehicle than out birding. That being said, because we covered so much ground we were able to find quite a few species found in the different cordilleras and valleys. Perhaps one of the biggest highlights for me was birding the famous Montezuma Road in the rainy west slope of the west Andes, where we stayed for two nights. The lodge is only accessible with a 4x4 with high clearance. Our driver's 4x4 was sufficient to get us to the lodge, though we had to hire a local driver from the town of Pueblo Rico to bring us to the top of the mountain. From which we made the 17 km trek back to the lodge, covering a wide range of elevations and habitats. We had one full day at Montezuma and an additional morning. In that time we found 8 Colombian endemics as well as 21 near endemic species. Some of the highlights included great looks at both Andean and Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owls, the Endangered Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer, the Critically Endangered Munchique Wood-wren, spectacular looks at both endemic Bangsia tanagers (Gold-ringed and Black-and-gold), three species of fruiteaters, and 17 species of hummingbirds including the spectacular Violet-tailed Sylph, Velvet-purple Coronet and Booted Racquet-Tail. We finally tracked down the endemic Parker's Antbird with minutes to spare on our last morning, and were then delayed for four hours as we were leaving since a large truck carrying a load of bricks had gotten stuck and broke its drive shaft on the narrow mountain road leading to the lodge. At least the delay gave us a bonus Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle! Unfortunately the delay also meant that we would miss the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek in Jardin that evening, which was a bit of a disappointment. I guess you could say that we were cock-blocked!


Rio Blanco in the central Andes was also a huge highlight near the end of the trip as it may be the best place in the world to see antpittas, a secretive group of birds which are sometimes heard but almost never seen. The guides at the lodges had "trained" up to 5 species to come in to take worms twice a day. We were treated to awesome views of Chestnut-crowned, Slate-headed, Bicolored and the endemic Brown-banded Antpittas, while also hearing Chestnut-naped (though it remained out of sight). Just spectacular! Here are a couple of iphone shots I took of the back of my camera...





We spent one night in Jardin, famous for the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek and as a reliable spot to see the Endangered and endemic Yellow-eared Parrot of which an estimated 212 mature individuals are left in the wild. Fortunately their numbers have been increasing through conservation efforts. This was our view at dawn. We ended up seeing 16 of them fly over, including two at very close range!


One other highlight occurred yesterday as the five of us (Dave, Dan, Adam, Steve and I) visited the high elevation paramo in Parque Nacional Natural de Los Nevados in the central Andes. It was 3 degrees Celcius when we arrived and the temperature did not improve much throughout the morning! I was excited to see my first active volcano. At times up to four volcanoes can be seen from one location if the conditions are clear. 



Several bird species have evolved to survive in these relatively harsh conditions including the Buffy Helmetcrest, a hummingbird that is a Colombian endemic and that was high on our "most wanted" lists prior to the trip. Luckily we were entertained by several of them as they fed on tiny yellow flowers during the early morning hours. What a stunning bird!



This post is getting a little long so I'll leave it at that for now. Eventually I will be posting day-by-day recaps, though that may wait a little as I have another trip to plan for. I'm still waiting on one more checklist that Dave is going to share with me but I suspect the final species tally will be around 586 species, including 48 Colombian endemics (out of around 87). 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Update from Colombia

I have now been in northern Colombia for a little over a week, and type this from a hotel in Bogota as we wait to begin the Andean portion of the trip. Without a doubt the trip has been everything I could have asked for and more - the vistas are stunning, the birding is some of the best I have ever done, the people are very friendly and I've even picked up a little Spanish!

After arriving in Barranquilla on the north coast last Friday, I took a cab to the hotel where the other guys (Dan Riley, Dan Wylie, and Steve Pike)  were staying, slept for 4 hours and began the trip by birding the mangroves and nabbing all our target birds including near endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalacas and the endemic Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird at Isla del Salamanca. We made the long drive to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta; a mountain range isolated from the Andes and chock full of endemic species and subspecies. We spent four nights at the El Dorado lodge and managed to see every single one of our target species including all the "gettable" endemics and near endemics! We took a long, bumpy 4x4 ride to the higher elevations on two mornings -one of the most stunning views I have ever laid eyes upon. 



Some of the highlight birds in the mountains for me included great looks at Santa Marta Warbler, Plushcap, Black-backed Thornbill, Black-and-Chestnut Eagles, White-tipped Quetzals, 4 species of owl including Stygian (and of course the not yet described Santa Marta Screech -owl), Santa Marta Antpitta, and at least 20 species of frogs. The Band-tailed Guans around the lodge were quite approachable and one took a liking to me, following me around frequently, even to inside the lodge! 


Finally seeing an endemic Blossomcrown after quite a bit of searching (and on our last morning) will certainly go down as one of the most satisfying birds! A lowlight involved falling into a creek while night hiking and completely submerging my camera along with macro lens and external flash. Fortunately after two days of careful drying the camera and lens are functional, though I wish I could say the same about the flash.

 
After leaving the mountains we spent two days elsewhere along the coast including a day in the desert scrub near Riohacha. This place was a huge contrast from Santa Marta not only with the climate, vegetation and birdlife but also with how far off the beaten path it seemed. We were the only foreigners there and received quite a few stares during our time there! The desert scrub is a fascinating habitat for me and I had a lot of fun wandering about. Along with our local Wayuu guide Jose, we turned up nearly all of our target birds, near endemics that are only found in the Guajira Peninsula in Colombis and parts of neighbouring Venezuela. Our only miss was Rufous-vented Chachalaca which is much easier on the island of Tobago and parts of Venezuela. Certainly a highlight was having spectacular views of the near-endemic Tocuyo Sparrow; a very difficult species missed by most birding tours to the area. Some other highlights for me here included White-whiskered Spinetail, face-melting views of displaying Buffy Hummingbirds, Vermillion Cardinals, Green-rumped Parrotlets, Orinocan Saltators and a vagrant Kelp Gull. 


Our last night in the north was spent in the scenic Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, an area of dry to humid lowland forest right on the coast. While I only added one lifer here as there is a lot of crossover with birds in Panama, it was still really cool to have great views of displaying Lance-tailed Manakins while listening to White-bellied Anthirds everywhere! It is a stunningly beautiful park that is popular with backpackers. We ended up staying in a room only meters from the beach. 



After a quick domestic flight we are now in Bogota, having already seen 294 species of birds in the last week. I'm excited to see what the more diverse Andes will have in store for us! 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Colombia 2015 - it's on!

It is that time of year again - the days are short, the bitter wind howls, the ice-crusted snow lies heavy on the ground and the temperature hasn't risen above zero degrees for quite some time. While there certainly is a suble beauty to be found in the frosted landscape of Ontario this time of year, I usually try to migrate to warmer climes for a brief period each winter. Last year, I joined two other intrepid birders - Steve Pike and David Bell - to an excursion to the forests of central and eastern Panama (Which reminds me - I still need to finish making the day-by-day blog posts about that trip!). This year I am venturing a little further south - Colombia.

By this time tomorrow I will have hopefully landed at the Barranquilla airport in northern Colombia; a short distance from the world renowned Santa Marta mountains - famous with birders due to its high number of endemic species. I will be meeting up with three other fine gents - Steve Pike, Dan Riley, and Dan Wiley. Steve Pike I have known for years, as he is based out of Windsor, ON and visits Point Pelee as often as he can. Visiting Panama with him last year was a riot and we had a ton of awesome birds, herps, insects, mammals and adventures on that trip. There is never a dull moment with him around, that's for sure! Dan Riley has been a good friend of mine for close to a decade. I met him back in 2005 when I was getting into the "herp scene" in Ontario, and Dan and I attended university together at Guelph. He was one of the first to get me interested in birds. I still remember how surprised I was when he told me that it was possible to see over 30(!) species of warblers at Point Pelee each spring. In contrast, Ontario has only 15 species of snakes. Dan and I have talked about doing an international trip together for some time but have never made it happen until now. Dan Wiley, not to be confused with Dan Riley, grew up in the Hamilton area but now lives in Illinois and does work with snakes, I believe. I don't personally know him well but am looking forward to getting to know him and finding some awesome herps and birds with him!

The other three guys have been in Colombia for over a week already and just finished up a week in Mitu, located in the Amazon. Here is a recent photo of them with their guide in Mitu that I stole from Steve's Facebook page. Someone tell Steve he doesn't have enough gear with him...


After about a week in the Santa Marta region, we'll hop on a flight to the capital, Bogota, where we will meet up with David Bell and bid adios to Dan Wiley. I've known David since our early days at the University of Guelph and have birded throughout Ontario with him. Last year he joined Steve and I in Panama and was a big reason why we saw as many birds as we did - he's as sharp as any birder I've met! We'll spend around ten days traveling across the three ranges of the Andes in central Colombia, hopefully coming across a ton of range-restricted species, endemics, and generally just awesome looking birds and other wildlife.

It should be a blast and I'm excited to get down there and join the guys! If internet permits I may post occasional updates to the blog throughout the trip from my phone, though I imagine that posts will be sporadic at best. In such a biodiverse country as Colombia we will likely be maximizing every waking minute to finding the spectacular wildlife that calls it home!

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Netitishi Days 13 and 14

October 8, 2014
Weather: between 6 and 8 degrees C, wind SW (light), picking up to N 25 km/h by afternoon, sun and cloud with brief periods of light rain
68 species
eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S20221873

It may have taken a full nine days since our last bout of north winds, but finally, on our last full day on the coast, we were given some late morning and afternoon north winds. As a result quite a few birds were moving and we even added four new trip birds! But before I get to that, we had a really interesting experience with a particular owl early in the morning.

I arrived at the coast bright and early, eager to begin our last day on the coast with some seawatching, even though the winds were light out of the southwest. Kory and Jeremy had arrived a few minutes earlier and were watching an interesting bird in their scopes. I sat down at the shelter, set up my scope and scanned over the mudflats, visible at low tide, until the birds in question passed through my line of sight. There were two Bald Eagles and a Common Raven standing on the mud, at a distance of a kilometer or more, which were focused on a smaller bird flopping around on the mudflats. The eagles and raven kept an eye on the other bird, occasionally giving it a half-hearted peck. Due to the distance it was hard to get a good read on what the smaller bird was. It looked somewhat owl-like to me (I was thinking maybe Short-eared Owl), though Jeremy thought it looked more Peregrine Falcon-like because at times it appeared to have a grayish head with a lot of contrast. Our of curiosity we decided to go out on the mudflats and try to figure out what this bird was!



Shortly after we began the long trek, the eagles and raven went their separate ways. Our landmark was gone, and we had a very difficult time finding the exact spot where the birds were. Your perspective certainly changes when compared to looking at a compressed image at 60x power through a spotting scope. Despite a lot of walking around, we could not find the injured bird. Eventually we had to give up and walk back to the shoreline as the tide began coming in.

Not long afterwards, as we sat in the shelter watching the tide continue to advance, I spotted a dead bird floating in the water towards us. It looked very similar to the bird earlier so Kory and I walked towards it to salvage the body. Kory ended up getting soaked for his efforts, but did successfully retrieve the bird - a Northern Hawk Owl!

In hindsight this identification certainly makes sense given our thoughts earlier when we were first observing the bird. At a distance the facial pattern/colour of a tundrius Peregrine Falcon could appear quite similar to a Northern Hawk Owl. The proportions of the bird were certainly owl-like, and Short-eared seemed like a decent fit. A Northern Hawk Owl sort of looks like a hybrid between a Peregrine Falcon and a Short-eared Owl, especially given very poor, distant views!

Here are a few photos of the bird in question, after Jeremy had taken it upon himself to clean and dry the bird's plumage. Other than a broken wing and a few small cuts, the owl was in pretty good physical condition. Trust me, the bird is actually dead...



That was certainly a very cool experience - it is not every day that one can study a Northern Hawk Owl at such close range.

I'm not sure what the Northern Hawk Owl was doing out on the flats, as this species is much more at home deep in the boreal forest along the edge of a spruce bog. This species is generally non-migratory, though some birds will move away from their territories during food shortages some winters, and I'm sure young birds have some sort of post-breeding dispersal. Perhaps it was a "migrating" bird that somehow ended up over the flats, and was hit by a Peregrine Falcon or something (hence the broken wing), and the eagles/raven were just curious? Who knows.

The rest of the day was quite eventful. Kory, Jeremy and I decided that we were going to try to do a mini "big day" and work to turn up as many species as possible, given that it was our last full day on the coast. Luckily the winds cooperated and we ended up with our highest daily total of the trip - 68 species!

Around mid-morning as all four of us were sitting in the shelter, watching the tide come in, that we felt the first hint of a north wind. Throughout the rest of the morning it picked up in intensity, and just like if a switch had been turned, waterfowl and shorebirds began migrating. Brant and Northern Pintails made up the bulk of the birds and our first few flocks of Long-tailed Ducks were seen. These become much more common late in October. Several American Wigeons and all three scoter species rounded out the duck highlights. Shorebirds remained diverse with ten species seen on the day. It seemed like the Hudsonian Godwits picked today to migrate and large flocks would pass by occasionally, fairly high in the sky. By the end of the day we had tallied around 1200! New for the trip was a flock of 65 Red Knots that winged by with a group of Hudsonian Godwits.

At one point as I was sea-watching a familiar sound echoed in the distance. I initially couldn't place it until the bird came cruising very close along the shoreline (the tide was in fully at this point). It was a Caspian Tern, scanning back and forth looking for fish and as it continued on by. It called several more times before disappearing to the east. While Caspian Terns breed on James Bay (a recent colonizer), this was certainly a very late record for the region.

Lots of other good birds were seen before the day was out. Two American Three-toed Woodpeckers and a Black-backed Woodpecker near the cabins were a treat, and the first (and last) Northern Shrike of the trip was discovered by Kory and Jeremy. Sparrow diversity remained good with seven species including a Lincoln's, and a Hermit Thrush and Winter Wren were hanging out around the cabins. We were pretty surprised at the end of the day when we tallied up the species seen and came up with 68. Our previous best was 58 on September 29! Without a doubt this was one of the more memorable days of the trip, and a great way to close out the 2014 expedition.

The following morning involved packing up, burning the remaining garbage and waiting for the helicopter to arrive. I don't recall seeing any interesting birds that day and a neglected to make a checklist, so these closing photos will have to do!


Group photo courtesy of Jeremy Bensette. This was taken at the start of the trip - it was considerably colder and snowier at the end!

left to right: Jeremy Bensette, Josh Vandermeulen, Kory Renaud, Alan Wormington