Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ecuador Republic of the Equator

A very common question as of late has been "where in the world is Chris?"  Well, 24 hours from now, I will be in a hotel in downtown Quito, Ecuador.   What will I be doing?  I have a position as a birding volunteer at Tandayapa Bird Lodge in the Upper Tandayapa Valley about an hour's drive north of Quito.  For the next two months, I will be living and working at Tandayapa Bird Lodge. My job is to assist the staff with whatever they require, help guests with finding and identifying the local bird life, and pretty much just go birding all day every day and find as many of the local endemics as I can!

How many species is that?  The lodge checklist is approx 300 species long. 250 of which are fairly regular around the lodge.  200 of which I will likely see.  Considering it's spring, there won't be any boreal migrants around and almost all 200 species will be lifers. The only exceptions being the ones that I saw in Costa Rica at the beginning of the month.

Did I expect to be flying to the tropics twice in the same month? nope! Even two weeks ago I couldn't have told you I was leaving in just a few hours.  Just another surprise trip for me. Just like the Costa Rica trip.

Anywho, I will update this as often as possible with photos and tales of my adventures in the tropics, so stay tuned!!

Til next time, as always:
Happy Birding!!!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Aerial Tram and Savegre Lodge

Yes, that is a Resplendent Quetzal.  One of the most sought after birds of the Tropics, possibly in the world.  They are endemic to Central America, ranging from southern Mexico into central Panama.  A bird of the highlands, their range is usually restricted to above 7000ft in elevation, but sticking to the deep valleys rather than the mountaintops.  
With their deep, blood red chest,  iridescent blue head and shimmering blue-green back, they are widely regarded as the most beautiful bird in the world.  
The twin "feathery" feathers extending past the tail are one of the signature field marks of this species.  Not really tail feathers, the two feathers are actually the extended central two upper tail covert feathers. 
We saw a total of about 8 Quetzals during our 2 day stay at Savegre Lodge.  Not bad eh? :D

Our last day at La Selva Research Station brought rain, a few lifers, and a sighting of a bird that we would see only once. Mimi picked out a Laughing Falcon sitting on a dead snag half a mile away through the rain.  Not a bad find considering how tricky these birds can be!

Our drive to Savegre Lodge was marked by an early start, a stop at the Aerial Tram and Butterfly Garden and a rather long day.

The stop at the Butterfly Gardens was a productive stop considering that we saw only a couple species of Hummers. Violet-headed made up most of the birds we saw. Rufous-tailed made up the rest.
The lack of Hummers was more than made up for by the flight of raptors that went through.  It started with a flyover Double-toothed Kite that some of us managed to get onto before it vanished over the trees.  Then, while waiting for a Lattice-tailed Trogon to come out, someone happened to look up and spotted this huge, black and white bird cruising slowly over, far above us.  The call went up within a matter of seconds. KING VULTURE!!!  In all, 6 of these awesome birds floated over, high above us.
Then a few people (including me) spotted a large, buteo-like raptor with broad wings and after much discussion, decided it was a Great Black-hawk.

A flock of Tanagers flew through. Mostly Olive, but also containing Golden-hooded among others. A Scarlet-thighed Dacnis gave quick views and our thousandth Chestnut-sided Warbler was seen (well, somewhere up there anyway...)
After deciding that we had plundered all the goodies from that section of forest, we moved on to Savegre Lodge.

Savegre Lodge turned out to be nestled at the very bottom of one of the most beautiful valleys I have ever seen.  The greenery was a welcome change from the drab brown I'd been seeing all winter here in the upper midwest.  The entire valley was a glittering shade of green.

Panorama stitching is courtesy of my friend Andrea over at the Earthbirds Blog

 The buildings blended well with the surroundings and the blue sky overhead was a welcome change from the grey clouds we had been seeing all week.

Even as we hopped off the bus, the birding began in earnest. This was a completely different group of species than the lowland rainforest birds we had been getting used to.  This Black-capped Flycatcher posed quite nicely for the camera.

The Hummingbirds proved to be easier to see and even a little more spectacular than the lowland Rufous-tails.  The star of the show turned out to be this White-throated Mountain-gem who appeared to be well versed in the art of posing:

Green Violetear was by far the most numerous Hummingbird and possibly the most numerous bird of the highlands. You could hear their fast, chipping call almost everywhere we went.

The best part about Savegre Lodge was the beautiful gardens on the grounds.  Words cannot fully describe them. Neither can photos, but here is my attempt at it:

I spent most of the last part of our first day at Savegre exploring the gardens with Dave, Mimi, and a few other people.  The actual number of species at the lodge wasn't even close to the diversity of the lowlands, but the quality made up for it. There were still some reminiscent species from the lowlands. The ever present Tropical Kingbird had perched himself high on a power line, and Clay-colored Thrushes still attempted to wake me up long before the designated time, but the higher-elevation, montane species took over from the rest. Flame-colored Tanagers were very vocal, Grey-breasted Wood-wren replaced it's White-breasted cousin, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers took over from Olive and Swallow-tailed Kite filled in the nearly absent spot that the Turkey Vultures once filled.
Perusing our way through the garden, a Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush captured our attention as it acted much like a Robin. Hopping around on the ground out in the open and giving excellent looks:

Here in the highlands, a few extra families reside that don't show up at all in the lowlands.
The ringing, echoing, bell-like tones of Black-faced Solitaire filtered down from above like sunlight filters through the leaves of a forest. We never saw the majority of them, but fortunately, a few did give us excellent looks and one was nice enough to pose just long enough to have his portrait taken:

Hunting deeper through the gardens, someone eventually spotted one of the far cuter birds of the area.

I had taken a break and gone rock hopping down the creek, but managed to get back just in time to see and photograph this Collared Redstart. Unfortunately, he didn't pose long, but did stay long enough for everyone to get excellent looks at this awesome bird.

Back at the lodge that evening, several of us took advantage of the hummingbird feeders (something non-existent in the humid lowlands due to the extra-high maintenance they require down there)
The hummingbirds proved to be very much used to people and would let us walk right up to them without even blinking.

White-throated Mountain-gems are totally awesome aren't they? :D

Just as a comparison to how close they'd let us get, I took the following photo with my little Point & Shoot rather than my big DSLR.  Crazy eh?

Our first and only full day of birding at Savegre Lodge involved a run to the very top of the nearby Cerro de La Muerte. As one goes up in elevation in the tropics, the species diversity decreases with every 1000ft of elevation gain. Only about half a dozen species live at the top of Cerro de La Muerte. Several of them are Endemic to the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama.

Sooty Thrush is one of the simplest birds to ID in the Costa Rican highlands. Simply because it is bigger and darker than anything else that can be found at the top of Cerro de La Muerte.  Although, even when seen further down the mountain, it is still unmistakeable.

Our trip to the top of the mountain targeted only a couple species because they could be found nowhere else.  Our primary search was for Volcano Junco. A bird that is restricted to a few mountain-tops in Costa Rica and Panama.  Fortunately, the search proved easy as we saw 3 within the first 15 minutes of getting off the bus. This particular individual posed quite nicely:

After some searching, we eventually found Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Large-footed Finch, Volcano Hummingbird and Timberline Wren.  Having filled out our list, we headed back to the lodge for the evening.

Our final morning at Savegre, we started with one of the most productive hikes I've ever been on.
We made excellent use of the Lodge's 4X4 vehicles as we headed to the top of the mountain in preparation to hike down.  On the way up, several of us in the first vehicle heard a Rufous-browed Peppershrike. A hidden testament to the fact that there were more birds here than we could possibly see in the alloted time.  Arriving at the top of the trail, we checked out a staked out Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl nest. Despite our repeated attempts to coerce one into showing itself, we gave up and started inspecting the other local birds. Here, at 8500ft in elevation, Golden-bellied Flycatcher replaced the Kiskadees of the lowlands.  While the group headed off chasing one of these admittedly awesome birds, I stuck it out for the Pygmy-owl.  Reverting to my 4 months of experience looking for cavity-nesting owls in Arizona, I decided to try a classic trick. I walked up and scratched the tree. Having proved it working on every cavity-nesting owl I had tried it on so far, I had high hopes for it working this time. Sure enough, curiosity got the best of the little owl and he poked his head out just long enough for me to take his portrait:

Unfortunately, even though I called to the group the moment he stuck his head out, they arrived just as he poked his head back in and, not to be outsmarted again, refused to come out. Despite all further attempts at convincing him to appear.

As we were about to head down the trail, Dave's sharp ears picked out the sound of a Silvery-throated Jay calling from somewhere nearby. Using playback with great effectiveness, Dave lured the Jay closer so we could see it. Highly intellegent, like most corvids, the jay was not easily convinced and kept his distance. Just close enough for us to see. Just barely. Eventually, he flew into the tree directly above us where we lost him. While looking for the jay, I spotted a movement at the top of a 100ft Oak.  The white belly combined with long, spotted tail and black and yellow bill left little doubt as to the family but the exact ID was a tad harder in figuring out. The weirdness of the location left me guessing for a second before it hit me.  I called to Dave "Dave, I've got a Cuckoo"  Dave just gave me a look that said "a what???" He called back "A Cuckoo???" "Yea, I've got a Cuckoo" I replied.  He came running over and we both studied the bird. After photographing and examining both the photos and the highly cooperative bird through the scope, we both reached the same conclusion. The pattern of the tail and the rather buffy coloring underneath left no doubt. It was a Mangrove Cuckoo.

It was definitely one of the rarer birds that we found during the trip. It is also my understanding that this was not only a new bird for the tour's all time list, but also a new bird for the Savegre Lodge list.
Seeing a bird that I connect with the lowland swampy forests of southern Florida so far from it's regular habitat at the top of an oak halfway up a mountain was, while wacky, pretty awesome!  It was the last new bird for the trip that we actually saw (we heard Buffy Tuftedcheek on the way down).

In all, it was a completely awesome 8 days in Costa Rica with an awesome group and awesome guides!
Many thanks to Dave and Mimi for putting up with my nearly constant questions!

The rest of my photos from the trip can be found at:

Would I go back? of course! In a second!!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

La Selva and the area around

I discovered very quickly that Green Honeycreepers are excellent at posing for photos. This female gave great views and posed quite nicely.   It was a start to an awesome day. 

Male Green Honeycreepers, as I found out, aren't all that inclined to pose. They prefer finding Bananas to eat........

They sure do light up though. Like an iridescent fluorescent light bulb. 

After breakfast, we hopped on the bus to La Selva. This time, we stopped only a couple times on the entrance road. Once, long enough to find and photograph this Slaty-tailed Trogon: 

While waiting for our guide, I found out that Blue-black Grosbeaks don't like to pose either. This one stayed for only a second long enough to snap this shot: 

Black-striped Sparrows are open-country birds and we found them only when we left La Selva and headed toward the foothills.  This cooperative individual posed quite nicely: 

The research station did have a few species that we couldn't do without and couldn't find elsewhere.
This Crested Guan was one of a group of 6 Guans that came to the feeders at the station. 
They're pretty awesome birds and nothing like anything else I've ever seen.
Kind of a cross between a Chicken and a Turkey.........
Very cool to see. 

Many species in the rainforest are easy to see. They have bright colors, they're gaudy, they sit out in the open, etc.  But some species can be very difficult to see. Tinamous are a family of birds that has roots that go back to the first bird-like creatures.  They have no other living relatives and are in a family to themselves.  Looking a bit like big chickens almost, they are very seclusive birds and very difficult to find at all, much less see.  Our luck turned out to hold for the good as Dave spotted this bird sitting right beside the path.  I was surprised it came out so sharp since I was using manual focus practically in the dark when I took this: 

The other species we couldn't go without was another Guan-like bird. 
This time, a special bird of the lowland rainforest of Costa Rica, Panama.
Great Currasow is perhaps the most striking of these birds and deserves it's place here at the bottom as the last bird mentioned and a prominent one.
It was definitely a highlight species of the trip as this was our only chance to see one: 

Sorry for the clipped post, but I wanted to get some photos out there. I have a couple more posts about Costa Rica coming soon and hopefully, I'll include more story-telling. 

Til next time, Happy Birding! 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Costa Rica 2010: La Quinta de Sarapiqui and La Selva Research Station

The sudden song of a Robin singing just outside my window jolted me awake.  It took me a second to realize that I wasn't at home and that the Robin singing outside was not a Robin at all but a Clay-colored Thrush. Glancing at the clock, I saw the time. 3:45am.  Cursing the vociferous, mud-colored bird, I dropped back against the pillow, attempting to savor what little sleep I had left before my alarm went off 15 minutes later. When the alarm finally did go off, I hauled myself up and out of bed, grabbed my binoculars and stumbled out the door.  It wasn't even fully light yet. Though, whether the sun had just come up or was still below the horizon was impossible to tell due to the heavy layer of clouds that blanketed the forest as far as I could see. hovering just above the trees, they provided an effective barrier to any hopeful rays of light that tried to sneak through.  Somewhere overhead, a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan confirmed that I was no longer in Kansas.  I listened, inquisitively as Collared Aracaris called, Tanagers chipped and Honeycreepers made their presence known.  It was all so different!  Different from anything I had ever seen or heard before.

After breakfast, roughly an hour and a half later, we grabbed our gear and boarded the bus to the world famous La Selva Reasearch Station.  The station owns land on the lowland outskirts of Braulio Carillo National Park.  The park land extends clear up to the top of Volcan Irazul making the stretch of land from La Selva to the crater's edge one of the largest tracts of un-interrupted old-growth forest that stretches from the high mountain oak forest to the lowland rainforest below.

Our arrival at La Selva was greeted by the quintessential ingredient of lowland tropical forest. Rain.
Nonetheless deterred, we walked down the entrance road determined to get our first real lowland birding in.  A flock of Tanagers stopped us cold in our tracks barely 50ft from the bus.  The ever-present and gaudy Golden-hooded Tanagers reined over this flock.

A White-necked Jacobin perched high in a tree above us and a Slaty-tailed Trogon called from somewhere up ahead.  Suddenly, a large, dark bird flashed by just over our heads. I caught the yellow in the tail as it vanished through the trees. Our leader, Dave Wolf, confirmed my suspicions by identifying the bird as a Montezuma Oropendola. Lifer!!!!!
It was one of the several birds that would go from lifer to "trash bird" in about 15 minutes.

As we walked farther down the road, the Trogon gave us excellent looks and photo ops. More Tanagers abounded all around us and Toucans and Oropendolas flew overhead.  A singing Bright-rumped Attila (pictured above) gave us most excellent looks

Further down the road, Dave managed to locate a Great Antshrike.  Finding the typical skulker wasn't easy, but with a bit of playback and some coaxing, he finally made an appearance:

It took about 3 hours, but we finally made it down to the station itself.  It was there that we picked up the most species.  Golden-hooded Tanagers, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, Masked Tityra, 3 species of Puffbird, Grey-crowned Flycatcher, Rufous-winged Woodpecker and many others.
The big one was a highly cooperative Broad-billed Motmot:

By my calculations, this was my 700th world lifer.   I had seen my 600th lifer only 3 days before when a Rufous-naped Wren woke me up at the hotel in San Jose on day 1.

The local guide at La Selva took us back onto one of the trails.  Here, the birds of the open edges left us and the birds of the interior rainforest took over. It was much quieter with far less activity.  A calling Rufous Motmot held our attention for a time, but refused to come close enough to the trail to actually see.
Finally, a stunning Chestnut-colored Woodpecker perched on a conspicuous branch and gave spectacular views to all:

Returning to La Quinta, we had a special treat in store for us. The Red-legged Honeycreepers had finally come in to the bananas offered by the staff.

I don't know what it is about Bananas, but everyone likes them. Even the local birds! :)  

The end of a long day of birding came quickly. Darkness set in fast and before I knew it, it was time for sleep.  We all crashed after the long day. No idea what lifers were in store for us the next day.

As I fell asleep, the repetitive call of a Paraque echoed in the background.
Keeping alive the darkened forest and lulling me to slumbers and dreams of what amazing birds were to come.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tropical travels: a new twist to birding

I found myself seated across the aisle from two girls.  They appeared to be roughly my age.  Casting my eyes further up the aisle, I took in the rest of the occupants of the Boeing 767-400. The average age was about 40-50 but with many younger people scattered throughout.  Many were locals, on their way home. The majority were Americans, like the two girls next to me, on spring break and wanting to get away from the icy fingers of winter that had been gripping most of the lower 48 states.  The two girls next to me (I never did get their names) were spending a week going backpacking, zip-lining, camping and just having a totally awesome time during their first trip out of the country.   Looking at myself, I wasn't much different. Sure, my idea of a fun time differed slightly from theirs, but we were still going for very much the same reasons.

As the plane neared our destination,  we puzzled over the customs forms. What was this? and what did they want to know that for?  It took a while, but we managed to figure it out in the end.

The last hour of the flight seemed to drag out forever. At that point, we had been in the air for nearly 6 hours. Even with the layover in Miami, it still wore on us and seemed to tease us in a never ending battle of tensions.

Finally, after what seemed to be much longer than an hour, we landed, without mishap. Arriving at the terminal, I waved goodbye to my two traveling companions, wishing them a good week ahead. Would I ever see them again? probably not.

It was late at night, so passing through Customs and collecting my bags was a breeze.  While collecting my bags, I met two of the 13 other people I would be spending the week with.  They seemed to be a very pleasant pair.  After collecting our bags, we met our ride and hopped it straight to the hotel for some shut-eye.  Our hotel was the Hilton in downtown San Jose, Costa Rica.  Arriving, I dumped my bags, grabbed my laptop and set out to explore the darkened lobby area while trying to find the best internet signal.  I was far too excited to sleep just yet.  It's not every day that one finds oneself in the middle of a capital city in a foreign country with an amazing week of birding ahead!  

I finally dropped off to sleep around 1am. The 5:30 alarm came much too early.  But, excitement and anticipation hauled me out of bed and down to the restaurant for breakfast. There, I met the rest of the group of birders I would be spending the week with and our two intrepid leaders.
Dave and Mimi Wolf have been leading tours for Victor Emmanuel Nature Tours (VENT) since day one.  They had been leading the Short Costa Rica trip for nearly 30 years. It was definitely an amazing intro to birding in the tropics.  

You're probably asking yourself right now "how did he get to go on a VENT tour to Costa Rica??"
All I can say is a lot of patience, careful vigilance, and a LOT of luck.
I was sitting at the kitchen counter one day nearly a month ago when I caught the note, posted to the Iowa bird listserve. Apparently, Linda had booked the trip, already paid for it, and couldn't go. So rather than have the money go to waste, she asked for someone else to go in her place. First come, first served. All expenses paid.

Without further ado, I called Greg at the VENT office and booked the trip.   Less than a week later, I found myself where you found me. Sitting on a plane to Costa Rica, not even fully believing where I was.

Dave and Mimi were awesome trip leaders! Very efficient, highly knowledgeable and very patient with my endless shower of questions.  I could not recommend them more if you ever wanted to take a trip to Costa Rica.

Surprisingly, the trip participants were also all very nice people and for the most part, good birders.  It was a very good group and took the pace of the trip quite well.

Over the course of the week, I learned more about more species than I had ever learned about less than half that number in 10 years time.  If you want an introduction to birding the Tropics, I highly recommend going on the VENT short Costa Rica tour. It is well worth the cost even if it's only a week long.  

Ok, I know, you want me to get to the juicy parts. The actual birds we saw during the trip.
Very well, let me go get my checklist. It's impossible to remember all of the 260 some species we saw during the trip y'know..........