Saturday, 23 April 2016

From Spain, to Turkey, to Canada, back to Spain again, and spring migration in Ontario

I am thinking that I should change the name of this blog as I seem to be posting more stuff from outside of the province than inside. I will however be back in Ontario soon enough and can't wait to go birding and herping locally, during (nearly) everyone's favorite time of year - May!

Laura at Parque Natural Els Ports, Cataluña, Spain

Laura and I had an excellent adventure in northeast Spain, flying in and out of Barcelona and renting a car to traverse the countryside for the days in between. Spring was just heating up, as was the birding and herping. I'll get into more detail about the trip at some later date, but needless to say we had a blast. The food and wine was amazing, we hiked daily and often in places with stunning vistas, we found a nice variety of herps (Laura has quite the knack for spotting snakes; I think she found each of the three we encountered), and we came across nearly every target bird species.

My uncle and his partner live in Barcelona, and our visit happened to coincide with a visit that my maternal grandparents were having to Spain as well. My brother was visiting his girlfriend in England at the time, so they flew down too, as did my mom's cousin. We all stayed at a house in a town in the Pyrenees for a few days and it was great to have a bit of a family reunion in this beautiful country.

hiking in the Pyrenees, Aragon, Spain

In no particular order, here are some of my nature highlights from the trip:

-finding a male Wallcreeper with Laura after an all-day search- a difficult, iconic and unique species that was my most wanted bird for Europe;

-a surprise Alpine Accentor that Laura spotted in El Parque Natural Els Ports;

-encountering a Viperine Snake, flock of Whiskered Terns, Wood Sandpiper, Slender-billed Gull and an early Purple Heron at the Ebro Delta, among the thousands of Greater Flamingos and other wading birds;

-Spanish Ibex!!!

-great looks and photos of Dupont's Larks, a Near-Threatened species that is one of the most range-restricted birds found in Spain;

-Lammergeiers flying right over our heads...what incredible birds;

-finding and identifying many lizard species;

-digiscoping Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse in a field, followed shortly by a Little Owl;

-hiking in the incredibly scenic Spanish Pyrenees, while Egyptian Vultures wheeled above us in the sky;

-catching up with a few nemesis birds of mine: Jack Snipe, Lesser Short-toed Lark, Citril Finch, Eurasian Penduline-Tit, etc;

-the excitement of finding a neonate Montpellier Snake with Laura.

Laura with a Montpellier Snake - Belchite, Aragon, Spain

male Wallcreeper!! - Alquezar, Aragon, Spain

The trip was over much too quickly (aren't they always), but I had arranged a 20 hour layover in Istanbul before returning home to Toronto. I hooked up with local birder extaordinaire Kerem Ali Boyla from and we squeezed out as many birds as we could in my short time there - I was happy to pick up an even 10 life birds. I highly recommend Kerem if you happen to be in Istanbul. He picked me up from/dropped me off at the airport, and knows the area probably better than anyone. Migration in the area north of Istanbul can be absolutely spectacular and it is well worth it to add in a day or two layover here if you happen to be flying to Europe anytime soon.

I was home for about a week when an opportunity came about to travel to Spain with Worldwide Quest. They were in need of an emergency replacement guide for the tour leaving in one week's time - it was an offer too good to refuse and so I started to madly prepare for a return to Spain. I am currently in Trujilla, Spain, after a highly successful first week in Andalucia and Extremedura provinces in the southwest of the country. I have been blessed with a fantastic group of ten people to lead around Spain and the weather has largely cooperated, allowing us to find a wide variety of birds and wildlife.

Today we explored the steppe areas west of Trujillo, currently awash with the reds, yellows, and purples of spring wildflowers. We found displaying Little and Great Bustards, both species of sandgrouse, European Rollers and Bee-eaters, and a wide variety of raptors including a nice surprise in a Spanish Eagle! We have had many other highlights so far including Northern Bald Ibis (reintroduced into Spain in 2003 after an absence of over 500 years), Iberian Chiffchaff, and my favorite find so far - a Western False Smooth Snake. I am happy to have seen most of my remaining target bird species found in Western Europe - most of these I had not yet found because they are later migrants and all of my visits to Europe have been in February or March.

Iberian Magpie - Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalucia, Spain

Spring migration is well underway and perhaps even winding down here in Spain, but back across the pond the crazy season is just picking up steam. I am excited to return to Ontario by the end of the month to partake in the festivities of May birding - it is always an awesome time! Hopefully whatever rarities the intrepid birders in Ontario find over the next little stay put until next weekend ;)

Friday, 8 April 2016

Colombia - Day 3 (January 19, 2015): Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, El Dorado

For the second straight morning, we awoke early and were chauffeured back to the Cuchilla de San Lorenzo in Pedro's 4x4. After our success yesterday along the ridge there were not many endemic bird targets remaining - only the Santa Marta Blossomcrown and Santa Marta Antbird remained to be found, along with three distinct subspecies that were likely future splits (Masked Trogon, Rufous Antpitta, Slaty-backed Nightengale-Thrush). Neither the blossomcrown nor the antbird are regular along the ridge.We also had several species marked down as heard-only (Brown-rumped Tapaculo, Santa Marta Antpitta) which we wanted to improve on.

A few mammals and birds punctuated the darkness during the long, bumpy pre-dawn drive. Several Andean Foxes made appearances, and we encountered a Stygian Owl perched on a horizontal branch above the path. This was my first sighting of a Stygian, a widespread tropical species that is generally uncommon and infrequently seen. A Spectacled Owl was also observed briefly in the headlight beams. In the pre-dawn glow, several thrushes flushed from off of the road, including a Slaty-backed Nightengale-Thrush along with several Yellow-legged Thrushes. Shortly after, we were surprised to see the distinct shape of an antpitta perching quietly on the road - it was a Santa Marta Antpitta, our first looks at one. We saw a second one further up, though my photos aren't worth posting here. Just like that we had seen two of our targets and two bonus owls, and we still had a full morning of birding on the ridge.

view from la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

It was a beautiful day of birding once again, and the views were just as spectacular as the previous day. Now that we were more accustomed to the common birds of the ridge and learning their vocalizations (Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant, Tyrian Metalmark, Mountain Elaenia, Black-cheeked Mountain-Tanager, White-throated Tyrannulet, etc) it was easier to pick out additional species.

As we walked, a small flock of Santa Marta Parakeets winged over, eventually settling into some fruiting trees along the path. While some flushed, we were able to watch the remaining birds feeding in the trees. It was still pretty early at this point with not much light, but my photos came out ok. 

Santa Marta Parakeet - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Santa Marta Parakeet - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

We encountered two new woodcreeper species on the ridge - a Plain-Brown Woodcreeper and an impressive Strong-billed Woodcreeper. 

Strong-billed Woodcreeper - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

A small group of parrots were calling in the trees above us along the ridge, revealing themselves to be Scaly-naped Parrots. The lighting was sufficient so we were able to come away with decent photos. 

Scaly-naped Parrot - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Scaly-naped Parrot - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Scaly-naped Parrot - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Scaly-naped Parrot - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Some distant vocalizations were investigated and before long we had a Rufous Antpitta calling away from somewhere down the slope below us. The birds in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta prefer bamboo thickets in the elfin forests, and are distinct morphologically and vocally from the other subspecies - a likely split. Unfortunately we weren't able to view this individual but we were hoping that more would be encountered.

Returning back to the vehicle, the Santa Marta Brushfinches were amicable to our offerings once again, and we shared breakfast with them.

breakfast with Santa Marta Brushfinches - Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

There really wasn't much left for us to see at this elevation - the Blossomcrown, Antbird, Masked Trogon and Screech-Owl could all be found in the forests or scrubby areas further down the mountain. The Brown-rumped Tapaculos had stopped singing, putting to rest the idea that we would actually see one. Oh well, if you are going to have a bird as a heard-only, it might as well be a non-descript tapaculo that is mostly identified by voice!

We decided to drive back down the mountain, stopping in productive-looking areas. We would be birding here during the mid morning, as opposed to the afternoon lull of yesterday. Coming around a bend, we spotted a lump perched quietly on a branch off the side of the path. It was a White-tipped Quetzal, a species limited to the mountains of Santa Marta and Perija in Colombia, as well as parts of northern Venezuela. A pair of these beautiful birds were perched here, likely nesting nearby. 

female White-tipped Quetzal - Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Magdalena Province, Colombia

male White-tipped Quetzal - Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Magdalena Province, Colombia

A Masked Trogon was found perched as we drove by, yet another bird that may have its Santa Marta population relegated to species status.

At a couple of scenic overlooks we scanned for soaring raptors, coming up with not much other than vultures. We were all pretty hungry at this point, and with nothing potentially new to see in this area we drove back to the lodge.

Three surprises were waiting for us back at the lodge, as we took a couple hours off in the late morning. The first was a small hummingbird buzzing around some of the small orange flowers in the gardens - it was a female Santa Marta Woodstar. This diminutive endemic was a lifer for most of us - I had seen one during our first morning on the ridge, but the views were quick and far from satisfying. This one made frequent visits to the flowers, providing decent photo ops despite the harsh sun.

Santa Marta Woodstar - El Dorado Lodge, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Magdalena Province, Colombia

The second surprise came as Daniel Riley and I went for a walk on some of the trails below the lodge. Walking into a fairly open area, we saw the dark shapes of a pair of soaring raptors above us, quickly revealed to be Black-and-Chestnut Eagles. They circled above us several times, providing great looks if a bit obscured through the sparse trees. The two eagles continued on further up the mountainside after a few minutes, but the views were great!

Black-and-chestnut Eagle - El Dorado Lodge, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Returning to the lodge, we were met by a British birder who we had chatted with the night before. He had discovered a pair of roosting screech-owls, the local undescribed (for now) form found in the Santa Marta mountains. Steve joined Daniel and I to check out the owls, still exactly in the same spot.

undescribed screech-owl species - El Dorado Lodge, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Early in the afternoon the four of us (Daniel, Dan, Steve, and I) continued on foot down the road away from the lodge, hoping to see some species at the slightly lower elevation. Double-toothed Kite was a welcome addition to the trip list. About 500 m away from the lodge, we came across a single Sickle-winged Guan, while also finding both species of woodcreepers, Rusty-headed Spinetail, White-lored Warbler, Santa Marta Brushfinch, Golden-breasted Fruiteater, Slaty-backed Nightengale-Thrush and several other more common species. 

It was another great day in an amazing location, so we celebrated that evening by having a beer with Juan the Guan.

drinking buddies - El Dorado Lodge, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Magdalena Province, Colombia

view from  El Dorado Lodge, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Another nighthike was in order for that evening. We had noticed several small watercourses on our walk down the road from the lodge, so we returned in hopes of exploring these. Of course, inverts were in large supply and we observed several of the same tarantulas as well as a few large land snails.

Rothschild's Silk Moth on the lodge window

Some of the streams were too steep or with too much vegetation growing beside that we couldn't explore them, but other were large enough that we could scramble up the rocks for a ways. After successfully photographing a few frogs, I was on my way back down the creek towards the road when I slipped and fell, landing in a rather deep pool and completely submerging my camera, with attached macro lens and flash. I immediately pulled the camera out of the water and took out the battery without pressing any buttons, but I did not think the camera had much of a chance given the fact that it was completely submerged for two seconds. It put a damper on what was otherwise an excellent day in the Santa Marta mountains. Here are the last few photos I took that evening before the incident:

We had one full day remaining in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and had seen nearly every bird species that we hoped for. Still remaining were two endemics - Santa Marta Blossomcrown and Santa Marta Antwren - along with the local specialty of Groove-billed Toucanet. Our plan for the morning was to hike further down the road away from the lodge to get into the habitat for the remaining birds. I was hoping to also take the opportunity to dry my camera in the sun in the afternoon with hopes of a miracle.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Colombia -Day 2 (January 18, 2015): Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, El Dorado lodge

The Cuchilla de San Lorenzo is a mountain ridge located in the northwest slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, accessible via a boulder-strewn dirt road that slowly zig-zags its way up the side of the mountain. The elevation along the top of the ridge is approximately 2,800 m. In the grand scheme of things this is much lower than the highest, snow-capped peaks in these mountains, reaching over 5,700 m in elevation, but the vast majority of the endemic birds can be found along the San Lorenzo ridge.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, at least 22 endemic bird species are confined to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. When the screech owl gets described, and several subspecies are elevated to species status, there is the potential for at least six more. Two of the endemic species, the Santa Marta Wren and the recently re-discovered Blue-bearded Helmetcrest, are limited to the high elevation paramo and timberline edge (3,600 to 4,200 m), places that are practically inaccessible for birders. A third, the Santa Marta Sabrewing, is a near-mythical altitudinal migrant that breeds in the high paramo and winters in lower elevations, namely the southeast slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. It is extremely rare in the part of the mountains that we would be visiting, and is a species so rarely seen by birders that there are not any accepted eBird records yet.

No doubt many future splits will occur with subspecies found in the highest elevations; it is just so difficult for research to be conducted there at this time due to access issues. Eventually there could be over 30 "good" species recognized as being endemic to the area.

The other 19 or so currently recognized endemics can be found in lower elevations, in Santa Marta montane and cloud forest ecotypes. The San Lorenzo ridge is one of the only relatively easy way to visit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, providing access to cloud forests frequented by most of the endemics.

view from la Cuchilla San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Well before dawn, the four of us loaded into Pedro's 4x4 and we embarked on the long, bumpy road up the side of the ridge. The drive up was fairly uneventful and we arrived at our destination as the last vocalizations from Band-winged Nightjars and a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl were heard before daybreak.

view from la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

The morning started off slow, but one by one we added species. It was a completely new habitat for all of us and it took a bit of time to learn all the common species of the elevation, many of which were lifers. Eventually some of the specialty birds of the San Lorenzo ridge showed themselves - a small flock of Santa Marta Parakeets flying over, vocalizing Brown-rumped Tapaculos and "anachoreta" Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens, and our only Santa Marta Bush-Tyrants of the entire trip. Santa Marta Brushfinches proved to be quite common, and as it turns out, a couple of them were more than willing to partake in our breakfast with us...

Santa Marta Brushfinch - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Santa Marta Brushfinch - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Santa Marta Brushfinch - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

The views from the ridge were absolutely fantastic, and it was a bit of a sensory overload to take it all in as the sun crested distant mountain peaks while fog filled in the valleys. We were treated to gorgeous views from both sides of the ridge, but one couldn't stand mouth-agape at the scenery for too long as a few chip calls from nearby shrubbery would signal another potential new bird species or two, waiting to be seen.

view from la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

view from la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Several mixed-species flocks were productive and we had seen all three endemic warbler species, including great looks at a couple of Santa Marta Warblers, before mid-morning had set in. Hummingbirds were also highlights of the morning and I was fortunate to spot a female Santa Marta Woodstar, a species that can be somewhat difficult at times. A female White-tailed Starfrontlet was yet another endemic seen, but the phrase "better views desired" seemed appropriate following the sighting - fortunately this would be rectified later in the day. This Mountain Velvetbreast however provided great views.

Mountain Velvetbreast - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

The birding remained excellent all morning, and excitement levels were high with so many potential super-endemic species around every corner. Spinetails proved to be rather common, though certainly difficult to see at times. Both species we encountered along the ridge, Streak-capped and Rusty-headed, are endemic to the Santa Marta mountains. We noticed a nest under construction by a pair of Streak-capped Spinetails at one point.

Streak-capped Spinetail - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

My first White-rumped Hawk provided a jolt of adrenaline as it coursed right over our heads.

White-rumped Hawk - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Birding the mixed-species flocks along the ridge:

birding la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

While tanagers are not as diverse in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta when compared to the Andes, there are a few gems, including the endemic Black-cheeked Mountain-Tanager which we found a dozen of. As well, I was particularly pleased to spot a Plushcap, one of the most unique tanagers that until recently was considered the sole member of the family Caramblyrhynchidae.

What could be lurking within the depths of these bushes?

As anyone who has birded and tried to photograph birds in the tropics can tell you, photography can be quite difficult in the thick understorey due to low light levels, quick movements from the small songbirds, and tangles of branches getting in the way of a clean shot. I focused more on just trying to have a really good look at each species - sometimes you may only have 2-3 seconds in total of time to see a bird well before it darts back into thick cover or flies down the side of the mountain with part of its foraging flock, and it may be the only individual you find of that species. It can be tough to resist the urge to grab the camera sitting on my hip, but in the end I do not want to be fiddling with camera settings with the hope of taking a blurry, noisy, backlit photo of the bird as opposed to soaking in face-melting views through my binoculars, even if the views are for just a few seconds. After all, I do want to see these birds more than I want to photograph them, if only slightly more. I think I mostly succeeded with this venture and while I did not photograph many of the endemics, good views were had of most of them! Besides, we had another full day planned at the ridge tomorrow.

lunch break at  la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Dan Wylie (left) and Steve Pike (right) resting at la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

After a quick lunch break we came up with a game plan for the rest of the day. Instead of riding back down the mountain in Pedro's 4x4 we opted on walking back down to the El Dorado lodge.

It was hard to ignore the scores of butterflies along the road, appearing after the sun burned through several layers of clouds and fog.

Cinnamon Flycatchers also cemented their position as one of the most visible and easily photographable bird along the roadside. A common Neotropical bird perhaps, but an exciting lifer all the same!

Cinnamon Flycatcher - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

The walk down to El Dorado consisted of relatively birdless periods interspersed with brief flashes of activity. We added few new birds compared to the exciting morning, but I do recall my first Brown-capped Vireo, Black Flowerpiercer and Golden-breasted Fruiteater. I believe this is where we first encountered Black-fronted Wood-Quail, a range-restricted species that is found primarily in the Santa Marta and Perija ranges.

Back at the lodge, we ordered some beers and settled in to watch the excellent hummingbird setup. It really is quite the place; see for yourself...

El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Among the seven or so species of hummingbirds, the main highlight was a male Black-backed Thornbill, an Endangered species which visited the feeders frequently throughout the evening. This endemic species is often missed by visiting birders, as other than occasional sightings at the lodge's feeders there is no reliable spot to observe it during this time of year. It is an altitudinal migrant that usually does not leave its high-elevation paramo habitat until May or June.

Black-backed Thornbill - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

We were treated to incredible views of Tyrian Metaltail and Whte-tailed Starfrontlet as well - I was particularly impressed with the endemic starfrontlet. What a bird!

White-tailed Starfrontlet - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

White-tailed Starfrontlet - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Tyrian Metaltail - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

As if that wasn't enough colour for us, a small troupe of Blue-naped Chlorophonias were feeding on bananas set out on a tray feeder.

Blue-naped Chlorophonia - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Just birding around the lodge's hummingbird setup, compost pile and forest edges proved to be quite productive! The highlight at the compost heap was a Sierra Nevada Brushfinch, while Band-tailed Guans entertained us in the open areas around the lodge. They would follow us around, presumably hoping for handouts, but in general just getting in the way! It was pretty amusing and many (relatively) humorous videos were made of them. While several Band-tailed Guans had taken over the lodge at the moment, it can be a difficult species to find at other times and I know of several birding groups who have missed it in these mountains.

I am not sure if this is the one we nicknamed Juan the Guan, the individual that took a liking to me and followed me around occasionally (including into the indoor dining area at one time!).

Band-tailed Guan - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Several herps could easily be found around the lodge, and in addition to the Savage's Salamanders residing in the bromeliads, anoles were also frequently seen.

With an hour or two before sunset, I ventured off by myself on a trail down the hillside from the lodge, with a couple species on my mind. Several individuals of my first target, the Santa Marta Antpitta, were heard but I was never able to get a visual of this skulker. I also came across a few Emerald Toucanets of the local race. When the mess that is currently the Emerald Toucanet taxonomy gets sorted, this may be yet another endemic bird for the Santa Marta region. My evening hike finished off with a bonus Gray-throated Leaftosser, tossing away in the fading light of the understorey.

"Santa Marta" Emerald Toucanet - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

It was another long and tiring day, but absolutely exhilarating to find everything that we did. I ended up with 43 life birds for the day, and almost all of the endemics of the area we had discovered. Our night hike that evening was fairly abbreviated as we wanted to catch some sleep before another 4:00 AM wakeup call, to travel back to the San Lorenzo ridge for a second straight day.