Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Plovercrest Quest

Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Above the clouds on the Picos das Agulhas Negras road.

Up we went, along a rough mountain road, bouncing over rocks and ruts, some of us regretting that extra cup of coffee and the effect it was having on our jostled bladders. But we were after birds in these mountains and we were willing to put up with some discomfort for the chance to see them.

Along shaded portions of the roadside, impatiens in various shades from pale pink to purple, grew wild, like a ground cover. I thought about how many hanging baskets I'd bought featuring these same flowers. Farther along the road we saw two workers weed-whacking the impatiens to keep the roadside clear.

At certain points in the road, the forest fell down the mountainside and we noticed clouds below us.

Paulo, Chuck, Pete, Terry at an overlook.

Among our quest birds was a Brazilian specialty known as the plovercrest. The plovercrest is a tiny hummingbird found in southeastern Brazil (and parts of Paraguay and Argentina) whose primary field mark is—you guessed it—a plover-like crest. In Brazil, this bird is known by the name beija flor de topete (tufted flower kisser).

Paulo first located the birds by hearing a singing male. This species forms loose leks where males gather to sing and flash their gorgets, hoping to attract a female. After hearing two or three males from the edge of the forest along the road, Paulo got us out of the bus and began scanning for the birds. He soon found the tiny singer and we all took turns standing in the exact place where you could see it through a hole in the thick vegetation. This was how the first bird looked (to my camera):
My very first plovercrest.

I was determined to try to get a photo of this bird, which I'd never heard of before I began prepping for this birding trip to Brazil. So I stepped softly into the shadows and began stalking another singing male. I could hear their chattery squeaks sounding so close, yet the tiny green birds were unbelievably hard to spot.

Spot of sun on a male plovercrest.

I found a single male and got a single frame of him before he split. I plunged deeper into the woods, heading in the direction of more calling plovercrests. For all I knew they might just be forest furies luring me to my death. This did not stop me. In a few years, some campesino would hack down a vine with his machete and reveal some bleached bones, thick dark glasses frames, a pair of Keen sandals, and a really nice pair of Leica 10x binoculars.

I heard human shouting.

Stretching plovercrest.

From back out on the road, Paulo was shouting my name, saying he had a plovercrest that was just dying to have its photograph taken. I stumbled out into sunlight.

Terry Moore waved me over to the spotting scope. There he was. Out in indirect sunlight, stretching, singing, yawning, pooping, then singing some more.

I soaked him in with my eyes, then stepped a few feet closer to take a dozen quick digital frames before he buzzed away.

Our plovercrest quest was a big success. I looked at my watch. It was 8:45 am. We had a LOT of birding yet to go.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Brazil Day 2: Morning

Monday, July 28, 2008
Mountain view along Picos das Agulhas Negras road.

Our second day in Brazil was the first one where getting off an airplane was not a part of the morning ritual (nor was having flown all night from the USA). We'd spent the previous night at the Hotel Ypé in Itatiaia National Park, our home for the next four days.

And the night had been surprisingly chilly. This was why we had small fireplaces set with logs and kindling in our rooms. It took me most of an hour, two sections of The New York Times and half of my copy of Paste Magazine before the damp logs caught and the fire hissed into action.

It would be hard to top Day 1. I'd scored 37 life birds and taken what would be some of my best bird images of the entire trip.

I was up five minutes before my alarm for the start of Day 2. I dressed quickly and stepped out onto my veranda for a check of the ambient temperature: chilly and damp, but no wind. I was wearing every warm bit of clothing I'd brought. So much for the balmy tropics! The stars were twinkling high above, but in odd configurations from this southern hemisphere perspective. From the edge of the forest the tawny-browed owl was quavering his call—perhaps saying goodnight to his friends and foes.

As would be the case for most mornings on the trip, I was the first one to reach the breakfast area. And each morning at the Hotel Ypé the small Brazilian man who was up to serve the breakfast tried to make conversation with me. Despite my complete lack of Portuguese and his complete lack of English, we did OK—sometimes using Spanish as a common medium. We talked about the cold air, the rain in the night, the bird feeders, the wondrous array of fruits and breads laid out for our consumption. There is something refreshing about being in a part of the world where you cannot speak the local language. It resets one's brain I think.
BOTB waiting for Breakfast of the Birders.

Paulo and the rest of our group soon strolled into the breakfast area and we began loading up on strong coffee, eggs, and fruit. The small bananas and papaya halves were much sweeter than those we can get in the U.S. Knowing we'd be out for an entire day, we ate big, grabbed our bag lunches, and headed out into the still dark morning for the bus.
How do you say "carbs" in Portuguese?

Dusky-headed guans were now calling up the sun and our first glimpse of a gray-necked wood-rail occurred before we'd gone 50 yards. I felt a tinge of regret at not spending the morning photographing and watching the birds at the hotel's feeders, but Paulo assured me that we'd have time for that before we left Itatiaia.

Our destination today was to be the high mountains along Agulhas Negras (Black Needles) Road, so named for the long, vertical, black spires of stone on the tallest peaks. We'd be up at 8,000 feet at the highest point, and along the way, we'd be looking for some of the rarer endemics of southeastern Brazil.

Along the main highway, we stopped to scan a flock of curl-crested jays—a large blue, white, and black jay, with an Elvis Presley "D-A" curl on its head. We got good looks but were not close enough for photos.

Our morning coffee stop.

A few miles farther along we stopped for a bathroom and coffee break at a roadside rest with an adjacent bar/restaurant/convenience store. The tiny cups of coffee offered by the old man operating the store were just what was needed to fight the morning chill and clear the travel fog from our brains. Standing in the dark shop, drinking the coffee, my eyes settled on a package of toilet paper in the counter display case. It was SNOB brand toilet paper. The shopkeeper obliged when we asked Paulo to ask him to bring it out so we could photograph it. But I'm not sure he understood why we thought it was so funny—or worth photographing.

Back outside we scored a few more birds, including good looks at rufous-collared sparrow, which defines the word ubiquitous. Diademed tanager was our next new and exciting bird, but we'd see them even better later in the day.
Rufous-collared sparrow.

A mile or so later we left the paved highway behind and turned right, onto a long, straight road that sloped ever upward. The forest towered on both sides, often closing in like a roof overhead. This was the road to Picos das Agulhas Negras: Black Needles Peaks. Cesar, our driver, let us out into the still-cool air and we began seeing and hearing birds. Swallow-tailed tanager, a white-barred piculet, several birds with "ant" as part of their name called out but were not seen. As the sun heated up the earth and air, the birds were becoming more active. We re-boarded the bus.

It would not be long before we were driving above the clouds.

On Sirius Radio Today

Subadult male ruby-throated hummingbird.

If you are a Sirius Satellite Radio subscriber you can tune in to Channel 112 for Martha Stewart's "Living Today" radio show hosted by Mario Bosquez today at 3 pm. Mario and I will be talking about the backyard birds of summer.

Sorry for the short notice.

More Brazil posts here on BOTB starting tomorrow.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Tawny-browed Owl

Friday, July 25, 2008
At the very end of our first day in Itatiaia National Park in Brazil, we added a new species for the trip as we stepped out of the bus upon returning to our hotel.

We heard it calling in the trees in the hotel garden. It was easy to spot this bird. It was a large owl, called a tawny-browed owl. To my North American ears and eyes the tawny-browed owl looked like a barred owl had been stuffed into the skin of a juvenile saw-whet owl, but the bird sounded like a hoarse eastern screech-owl.

We spent about ten minutes watching the owl. I snapped a few images and took this short video, too.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Happy Birthday to Zick!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Happy Birthday to the Science Chimp of Indigo Hill!
Wishing you many more!

B (otb)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Thrilled about the Frilled Coquette

Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Female blue dacnis. I think she's more beautiful than her mate.

Itatiaia National Park in Brazil's Atlantic Forest is located in the southeastern part of the country. When the park was created in the late 1930s, it was thought that people should live inside of it, too. So there are a few private homes inside the park as well as a number of modest hotels and eco-lodges. We were spending a hour or so in the yard of one of these inside-the-park houses, owned by a bird lover named Norma.

Waiting in Norma's yard, our guide Paulo Boute told us about some of the park's history and gave us a bit more information about our quest bird, a Brazilian endemic: the frilled coquette.

Though the frilled coquette is not typically a feeder visitor, it regularly appeared at Norma's feeders. Our guess was that the thick cover nearby to her feeder set-up made the coquette feel safer here.
Bananaquits were regulars at Norma's feeders.

The definition of the word "coquette" is: A woman who makes teasing sexual or romantic overtures; a flirt.

This species had been sought by other bird watchers and photographers, right here in this very place. In some cases days had gone past with no sightings. Was this bird going to live up to its name and tease us by not appearing?

We had a few close calls. Five pairs of binocs would shoot up to five pairs of eyes when any small hummer flew into view. Each time we were disappointed. Then, like a microscopic apparition, the coquette was there, perching on a tiny vine near Norma's porch roof.
Frilled coquette male at the feeder.

Note the male's tiny red bill.

We all got great looks—and what a stunner! It was a glorious male and as he scanned the activity around the feeders and flowers, he inadvertently showed off his crest, bright throat, and his spectacular namesake neck feathers.
Flashing his frills.

I began snapping photos, but the bird was so tiny and the light was failing so quickly that I had a hard time finding the bird when it perched in a shaded spot. My companions helped me out by calling to me when the saw the bird teed up in a good spot. So I should share the credit for these images with Paulo, Chuck, Terry, Pete, Cesar, and Norma for their patience and spotting skills.

I'm fairly certain this is the smallest bird I've ever seen, at less than 3 inches long. The male frilled coquette has a tiny, straight, reddish bill and striking tones of white, green, and rufous. After visiting the feeders several times, our bird settled down for a rest. This was when I took most of my photographs, twiddling between camera settings trying to get sharp images. I think I got a few keepers.
The coquette could raise and lower its crest depending on the situation and its mood.

Finally darkness forced us to take our leave from Norma and her coquette. We walked down the road in the dusk, exclaiming about the birds we'd seen and telling horrible jokes (I may have started this unfortunate activity, I cannot remember). Ah! What a day it had been!
Rear view of the frilled coquette. The dorsal band is a good field mark for this species and the festive coquette.

Doesn't it look like this bird's head is on fire?

Little did we know, we had one more new bird yet to encounter...

I am a male but I can behave coquettishly, too!

Close-up of the head of the male frilled coquette. What a frill it was to see him!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Monday, July 21, 2008
A guest watches the feeders at the Hotel Ypé.

We arrived at our hotel, Hotel Ypé, in Itatiaia National Park in the afternoon. On the long bumpy road up to the hotel we had glimpses of zipping hummingbirds and saw the lush jungle on all sides. The air got cooler and thinner as we ascended the mountains of the park. Clouds drifted past below us.

It felt great to climb out of the van at the hotel's main building and as we stretched our legs we noticed a whirlwind of activity at the feeders hanging over the building's veranda. Like moths to a flame, we wandered around the building for a better look. What we found was the most amazing tropical bird-feeding station I've ever seen. Six or seven hummingbird feeders attracted as many hummer species while three separate hanging dishes filled with cut fruit attracted tanagers, dacnises, bananaquits, caciques, and a super weird-looking woodpecker.
I had to keep reaching up to close my jaw.

I wanted to use my camera and my binocs at the same time...
Then it was time to go find our rooms. This was agonizing to have to leave the feeders, but I felt better once I saw my room. Why? Because this is the view I had from my room's balcony:

My room with a view.

Within minutes we were back looking at the feeders again, enjoying new life birds in quick succession, including Brazilian ruby, black jacobin, violet-crowned woodnymph, and scarlet-rumped cacique.

Feeders on the veranda at Hotel Ypé.

The birds that were most numerous at the fruit trays were the blue-naped chlorophonias. If there's a bird that does a better job of combining the colors of yellow, blue, and green in its plumage I have yet to see it. I probably snapped of 500 digital frames with my camera. The birds were so intent on feeding that we could approach within a few feet.
Male blue-naped chlorophonia.

Nearby was another colorful bird, the more earth-toned chestnut-bellied euphonia. Chlorophonias and euphonias are tanager relatives, but they are smaller than what we think of as tanagers—they look more like buntings to me.

Male chestnut-bellied euphonia.

The larger tanagers were more shy. Among the most numerous were the yellow-chevroned tanagers—sky blue with a dab of yellow near the shoulder.
Golden-chevroned tanager.

I could (and probably will) do complete posts just about the hummingbirds. There were so many individuals hovering and zipping and drinking and fighting around the feeders that it was difficult to watch any one individual for long. Any bird that stopped to drink was soon chased from the feeder by another hummer. Among the easily seen species were swallow-tailed hummingbird, Brazilian ruby, black jacobin, white-throated hummingbird, and violet-crowned woodnymph.

Male white-throated hummingbird.

Male violet-crowned woodnymph at the Hotel Ypé feeders

After lunch I wanted to camp by the feeders with my camera, but Paulo had an ambitious agenda so we loaded back in the van to drive to another nearby hotel. The Hotel Simon was visible from our hotel, not only because it stood up above the jungle canopy, but also because it was painted the color of Barbie's toenails. The large gardens in front of the hotel were busy with birds. We walked out to another veranda that had active bird feeders and, while we warmed ourselves in the afternoon sun, enjoyed looks at courting dacnises. Click-click-click went my camera.
The gardens at the Hotel Simon.

Male blue dacnis at Hotel Simon.

And then it was time to leave again. Slowly the idea dawned on me that we were going to see a lot of birds on this trip, but that sitting around enjoying them at length was not always going to be possible. Off we went back down the road to the house of a woman named Norma. Tucked into the side of a dark valley, like the house of a forest sprite was Norma's place. The feeders were immediately restocked by our hostess and the birds began flooding in. The first new bird for us was the burnished-buff tanager, looking (color-wise at least) like the interbred offspring of a bobolink and a tree swallow.

Male burnished-buff tanager.

We sat around on patio chairs while the birds chittered and flitted all around us. More woodnymphs, rubies, rufous-collared sparrows, euphonias and chlorophonias—peaceful and inspiring all at once.
Female Brazilian ruby.

Male Brazilian ruby.

Male violet-crowned woodnymph.

Chuck, Terry, and Pete scan the treetops in Norma's yard.

We were here to see one very special bird—a tiny hummingbird called a coquette. To be more specific, we were waiting for the frilled coquette to make an appearance. According to Norma the bird came in close to dusk for a final feeding each day. We waited and glassed each bird arriving at the feeders.

While waiting I noticed an stone chapel next to Norma's house, with an old bell hanging in its stone steeple. The bell was green with corrosion—the same color as the forest around us. I wondered when the bell had tolled last.

The old stone chapel.

Soon it was getting later and darker. In the tropics the sun is up from 6 to 6 each day then it beats a hasty retreat. As the light grew dimmer, my bird images became more and more blurred.
Blue dacnis in low light.

With night poised to pounce, we wondered if our coquette would show... I'll resume here tomorrow.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Brazil Day 1: Morning

Friday, July 18, 2008
On the road to Itatiaia National Park.

I left the Atlanta airport late on the night of Wednesday, July 8 on an overnight flight to São Paulo, Brazil. No I was not fleeing the country, I was heading way down south and east to sample the bird life of South America's largest country at the invite of Leica Sport Optics. Terry Moore, Leica's vice president for sport optics (and super avid birder) was our host for the trip. Also along for the adventure were two other well-known birder/friends, Chuck Hagner, editor of Birder's World magazine, and Pete Dunne, author, birding raconteur, and director of Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey.

We got on the Boeing 777, stowed our bags, and tried in our own ways to get some sleep on the 9 hour flight. I slept for exactly 13 minutes. These were the final 13 minutes before we touched down in Brazil, with my head and neck in the upright and locked position. During the flight I worked, glanced through the Brazil field guide, watched some horrible movies (none—thank the gods—starring my airplane movie nemesis, Matthew McConaughey), and enjoyed various amounts of snoring and drool from my fellow passengers (my own trip companions excluded).

Stepping off the airplane (and hoping the feeling would soon return to my lower extremities) the cool air of winter in the southern hemisphere greeted us. I wondered at that moment if I'd brought enough warm gear. It turned out I'd brought JUST enough.

There to meet us for our week of bird watching in Brazil was our guide (and one of Brazil's most accomplished field birders) Paolo Boute of Boute Expeditions. Into the Renault combi-van we went and in moments we were roaring through the crowded streets of São Paulo, headed toward the mountains of Itatiaia National Park (pronounced Eat-ta-CHY-ah). Along the way we made a stop at the house of a friend of Paulo's.

The house was shades of blue, green and yellow. The green walls enclosing the courtyard perfectly complemented the green bedsheets hung out to dry. Our hosts made us espresso coffee that was just the ticket for sleepyhead birders. It had the consistency of pancake batter. I was thereafter hooked on it and spent much of my time in Brazil trying to score just one more tiny cup of the beneficial brew.
Courtyard on the outskirts of São Paulo.

This is when the birds started appearing.

The sun was up and warming the trees along the roadway. My first Brazil bird (that was NOT a house sparrow, rock pigeon, or black vulture) was a blue-winged parrotlet. This was followed immediately by a strange hummingbird and a strange tanager. We would be seeing 17 additional hummingbird species and 21 additional tanager species in the ensuing 7 days, but these were our first ones and therefore, special.
Blue-winged parrotlets.

The first hummingbird was a swallow-tailed hummingbird and the tanager was a hooded tanager. Then some waxbills, and a white-barred piculet, and an unidentified hummer, and the ever-present great kiskadees. Oh, it was ON, bro!
Hooded tanager.

Birding in the São Paulo 'burbs.

We drove to the town of Itatiaia and stopped a few times along the way to scope birds. I was in a fog, but still managed looks at social flycatcher, Brazilian teal, and yellow-headed caracara.
As we left the main highway and headed up a narrow mountain road, we left the noise and unpleasantness of civilization behind us. Ahead were forests and shadowy trails where we'd meet many new birds in the next four days.

Halfway up the mountains to our hotel in Itatiaia NP. From left: Paulo Boute, Terry Moore, Pete Dunne, BOTB. Photo by Chuck Hagner.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Blue Dacnis

Thursday, July 17, 2008
Male blue dachnis displaying to a nearby female in Itatiaia National Park.

I have a confession to make. I've been in Brazil since July 9. I got home early on Wednesday morning after an all-night plane ride.

Brazil was incredible. I saw more than 225 species—most of which were life birds. There are many images and tales to share. Right now I am in re-entry mode. As soon as things settle down a bit, we'll head way down south for some Brazilian birds (and I DID see about a brazillion birds down there!).

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Down from Hidden Peak

Tuesday, July 15, 2008
The start of the hike down from Hidden Peak.

On the final day of The American Birding Association convention at the Snowbird Resort in Utah, Julie and I joined a trip going up on the tram to Hidden Peak. What I did not tell her was that there was a plan to hike the mountains from 11,000 feet back to the resort at 8,000 feet. Only some of the field trip participants were interested in doing this. I jumped at the chance for such an adventure, especially because it was being led by consummate birder/naturalist/photographer Bill Schmoker of Boulder, Colorado.
Bill Schmoker hugging a snow monster.

Bill is just enough of a mountain man to enjoy a rugged hike such as this one, but he's also incredibly knowledgeable and one heckuva nice bloke. Joining us for the hike were a temporarily reluctant Zick, Barbara from Borderland Tours, convention attendees Michael and Darlene, and Callan Cohen of South Africa with whom I had birded in The Karoo area of the African cape in 2002.
Julie Z at the edge of the snow field.

Our kids were worn out from the week of early risings, so they stayed at the resort in our room just chillin' out. Before you call Children's Services on us you should know that we were in constant phone contact with them, and we had friends checking on their well-being.

Before the start of the hike we relieved ourselves of all excess gear. Tami Bulow of the ABA kindly agreed to take it back down on the tram for us. This was key because little did we know but we'd be hiking (or resting) for the next five hours.
Ski runs halfway down.

The top of Hidden Peak was free of snow due to the effects of snow and wind. A few steps over the edge and we were in snow so deep it was still skiable. On went the sunscreen and sunglasses. According to The Schmokster the reflecting power of the snow gives you 85% of the UV rays that straight-on sun does. It was like being in a giant white tanning booth.
SnowCats had prepared the trail for us. I was looking for Scatman Crothers from The Shining.

As we started down the recently snow-catted trail, I made a short video asking all in our party for their parting wishes and statements, in case, like The Donner Party, we got lost in the snow.

A quarter-mile or down the switchback trail, El Schmokatollah, dropped onto his behind and butt-surfed downhill to the trail below. This, he revealed to us, was called glissading. We all did it. I had to put the legs back on my pants first. Out party reconvened at the bottom of the hill, frosty buns burning only slightly form the cold. I have to say this was mighty fun.

The rest of the hike was a naturalist's treat: wildflowers, butterflies, geology, and spectacular scenery. We found items dropped by skiers, including three skis and two ski poles. The birds were good, too. We had close looks at lazuli bunting, white-crowned sparrow, Clark's nutcracker, gray-headed (dark-eyed) junco, and others. The nutcrackers we saw and heard really got Callan going—it had been his most-wanted bird for this trip.
Mountain bluebird male.

In the heard-only category went the black rosy-finches. Try as we might we could not set eyes on them.

While Darlene and Barbara pressed on down the trial ahead of us, Julie and Callan dawdled behind looking at butterflies and trying to take photos of them. Everything at this altitude comes out in early June and goes crazy trying to grow/reproduce/spread during the few weeks of warm weather. Wildflowers come up flower first, leaves later. Birds come up high to breed as soon as the insects come out.
Below the snow.

We all fell down at least once. I drew blood on my left elbow when I slipped on loose rocks when we were nearly all the way down. My instinct was to roll sideways to save my camera from hitting first. It worked, though the elbow is still sore.
Dead spruce on Hidden Peak.

By mid afternoon the buildings of Snowbird were in sight. It was a tthis time thnat Phoebe called to say she could see us up on the mountain path. "You look like ants, Daddy. But I could tell you from the way you walk." Smart girl, already knows her old man's field marks.
Snowbird, viewed from above.

Tired and a little footsore we strode creakily into the parking lot. Congrats and hugs all 'round. Half an hour alter we were toasting with pale ales in the hot tub by the outdoor pool.