Monday, March 29, 2010

Introduction to Birding in Guyana

Monday, March 29, 2010
A couple of years ago I was invited on a familiarization tour of Guyana. I was unable to go, but knew several of the people who DID go, including my wife Julie Zickefoose, and my British birding pal, and co-founder of The British Bird Fair, Tim Appleton. I'd heard plenty of stories about the birding, the climate, the vast expanses of rain forest, and the people of Guyana, so I eagerly agreed to be part of a trip in spring of 2010.

Guyana. Here in the United States the name Guyana does not generate immediate recognition. People ask where it is. "Is that in Africa or South America?" It's confused with its similarly named neighbors French Guiana and Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana). If Americans do recognize the name Guyana, it's probably the country's association with Jim Jones and his cult of followers who committed mass suicide in 1978 by drinking poison-laced juice.

Guyana is located along the northern edge of South America. Map © Wikipedia.

Guyana would like to change all that. It is home to some of the largest expanses of virgin rain forest in the world and it is using this natural wealth to its advantage. Rather than timber and mine its way to prosperity, Guyana and its government are hoping to take a different path. By preserving the forest and other natural resources intact, Guyana hopes to generate revenue from ecotourism. On a larger scale, Guyana is hoping to become a sort of "bank" of lush, green, oxygen-producing rain forest, where the country would be being paid by already developed nations to help offset the effects of industrialization which contribute to global climate change.

I'll get more deeply into this aspect of the Guyana story as I go along. Over the next two months I hope to share some of my experiences from the Guyana trip. In the July/August 2010 issue of Bird Watcher's Digest a "Far Afield" article by Julie Zickefoose will recount her experiences in Guyana on a trip similar to mine. I hope to have some additional images, videos, and perhaps a podcast from Guyana to share...

For now, let me share the very start of my trip with you.

Our flight left JFK Airport in New York City just after midnight and flew south-southeast to the northern rim of South America. The dark and orange image above is dawn's early light over the Atlantic Ocean not too long before we landed.

Once on the ground, as we walked across the tarmac to the Cheddi Jagan International Airport outside of Georgetown, the heat was palpable—even at 7:30 am. Inside, while waiting for the luggage to arrive, I noticed signs that Guyana was already aware of its status as a bird-watching destination.

An advertisement aimed at birders in the Jagan Airport baggage claim area.

An advert for a cellular phone company featured the harpy eagle! And identified it properly! Bonus points!

Moments later we met our leaders: Michael McCrystal from Wilderness Explorers and Kirk Smock from Carana Corporation, two companies that work with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Guyana Tourism Authority (GTA) to coordinate Guyana's tourism promotion. They whisked us onto the mini-bus and off to our hotel for breakfast and a welcome briefing.

Michael grabbed my camera and snapped a photo of our first morning's breakfast. It was the best we'd look for the next two weeks.

Since it had been a mostly sleepless night on the airplane, the bright sunshine, heavy heat and humid air made things seem quite dreamlike. As I dragged my far-too-heavy bags up to my room, the urge to collapse onto the bed was hard to resist. Instead, I grabbed my binocs and scanned the ocean from my window: black and turkey vulture, magnificent frigatebird, great egret, some sort of large raptor on the sandflats (later ID'd as a rufous crab hawk), osprey, great kiskadee, tropical mockingbird... not too bad for a three-minute scan.

Breakfast and buckets of coffee helped me shake the trance a bit. Little did I know that the sleep deprivation would only get worse over the next 12 days as we got up early morning after morning to beat the heat and get out birding. I think I'm still catching up on sleep a week later...

After breakfast we got back on the mini-bus and headed out for a boat ride on the Mahaica River. This trip, done in the late afternoon heat, had plenty of birds, but most of them we flushed as we drove along with the motors roaring. So the looks were a bit fleeting and the photography frustrating. Still, this was our first taste of Guyana's birds (second if you count the eggs we'd had for brekky) and it whetted our appetites.

Next post: Mahaica River highlights and Chinese Food.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Spring Arrivals in Two Waves

Friday, March 26, 2010
Man, you go away for a fortnight, and while you're gone, all the spring birds start arriving! Just in at the farm this week: fox sparrow, chipping sparrow, tree swallow...

Fox sparrow. We had three under the deck feeder yesterday morning.

The chippies got in this morning, according to my sources at Indigo Hill. Eating suet dough they were.

Red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, and brown-headed cowbirds all got in a week or so ago. With these first two waves of arrivals, I'm left to wonder: can the blue-gray gnatsnatchers be far behind?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Pondering My Life List

Monday, March 22, 2010
Masked duck was one of my most recent life list additions.

I need some input from you, the readers of this blog. I just updated my life list and found that I now have 674 species on it, after recently adding masked duck in Florida and several pelagic species off the coast of California. While I've never been much of a lister—I sometimes go years without updating my life list—I DO enjoy the thrill and challenge of adding a new bird to it.
Adding a new species to your life list can be a task of Bunyanlike proportions.

This number, 674, puts me within reasonable striking distance of 700, which is a pretty decent milestone for which to shoot. I have some big holes on my list, too: Bohemian waxwing, gyrfalcon, greater prairie chicken, spruce grouse, short-tailed hawk, yellow-billed magpie, Bicknell's thrush, Smith's longspur, ivory gull, California condor, plus a bunch of pelagics, Hawaii's endemics, some birds in central Alaska, and a mix of semi-regular vagrants. Oh, and ivory-billed woodpecker, Bachman's warbler, Eskimo curlew, passenger pigeon, great auk, Labrador duck, and Carolina parakeet.

My question is this: Should I try to get to 700? Or should I merely wait for life to bring me these life birds? I have made attempts at several of the "hole" birds listed above, but I've rarely chased a vagrant merely to add it to my list. Most of my recent life birds have come as a result of being in the right place at the right time coincidentally in the course of my travels to birding festivals and such.
Celebrating life birds is awesome. In this case, we were celebrating a Swainson's warbler in West Virginia.

So what do you think? I must confess I am on the fence about it. Time and money are limiting factors, obviously. If I DO decide to try to get to 700, I'm going to need some help in finding out where these birds are.

Several years ago I finally added a nemesis bird to my life list when I saw a Connecticut warbler in Minnesota. I'd missed that bird at least a dozen times before. I think my next most annoying miss may be the Bohemian waxwing. So maybe that's where I should start, if this quest is to happen.

Your thoughts, my birding peeps?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Beautiful Gull

Friday, March 19, 2010

On the pelagic trip I joined out of San Diego, California, in early March, I got a chance to take a few images of what just might be North America's most beautiful gull. Note that I said "gull" not "girl." And I suppose this is where, by law, I am required to insert the joke "I wish they all could be California gulls."

We did see Cali gulls on the trip, as well as western, ring-billed, Bonaparte's, and glaucous-winged. But the most beautiful, in my Humboldt (Current) opinion is the Heermann's gull. Breeding adults are sooty-gray above, white below, with a white head and bright red bill. They just appear elegant mixed in with the other, often larger, gulls.Like most pelagic trips, our was a chum fest. Bag after bag of bright orange popcorn kept the gulls glued to our stern. They were mostly westerns, but the Heermann's were the next most populous. Above you can see San Diego in the background as we leave the harbor.

Heermann's gull adult.

Hard as it was to get a decent shot of a flying bird while standing on a rolling boat deck, I managed one or two keepers.

Heermann's gull adult.

I'll post more about this trip in the near future. After all, I've just gotta share the experience of getting a handful of lifers.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Clean as a Rail

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I believe I have discovered the secret of how the light-footed clapper rail keeps its feet so clean. After all, if you made your living striding around in the marsh mud, do you think you could live up to the name "light-footed?"

This sub-species of the clapper rail is found along the Pacific Coast of southern California, south of Los Angeles. It is critically endangered due to a number of factors: habitat loss, increased predation, rising ocean levels, and the effects of pesticides. Efforts to help the species to recover have been fairly successful where there is enough appropriate habitat.

Our "Birds Along the Border" field trip at the San Diego Bird Festival encountered this bird in the salt marshes in a park along San Diego Bay. A handful of us lingered to watch this bird after the rest of the group headed back to the bus and we were rewarded with a nice long view of the rail taking a bath.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Uncountable Alien

Monday, March 15, 2010

I've gotta give another BOTB shout-out to the most amazing bird I've seen in the United States thus far this year: the black-throated magpie jay. There's a small number of this species that lives along the San Diego/Tijuana, Mexico border. They are probably there as a result of some bird smuggling gone awry or as escaped cage birds. They are native to west-central Mexico, but have begun breeding in southern California. They are not countable now for North American bird lists, but methinks it only a matter of time....

Countable or not, this bird can make even the most jaded birder go "Wow!"

Thursday, March 11, 2010

BWD 1978

Thursday, March 11, 2010
While visiting a park (ahown above) along the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, California, I happened to look down and there, in the concrete right next to where I had parked, was this inscription carved 30+ years ago.
Now 1978 is the year my family started Bird Watcher's Digest in our living room, and we had a surprising amount of support from the birding community right from the start, but I'm not sure we were impressive enough to inspire someone to carve our initials in the wet cement of a California coastal town (which by the way, is pronounced La Hoy-ya—not La Jah-la—I discovered).

Pretty funny what you end up seeing when you take the time to look around.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Some Birds Along the Border

Monday, March 8, 2010
Anna's hummingbird, male, at Dairy Mart Ponds.

Digiscoped images from my Friday all-day birding field trip along the US/Mexican border. We saw some great birds, including—but not limited to—these.

Looking for the nesting night herons near the sports park ball fields.

A male hepatic tanager in the trees near the ball fields. This guy has been hanging around this coral tree for months.

A peregrine falcon has been roosting on the lights at the ball fields. I wondered if he'd was watching the hepatic tanager, just 50 yards away.

Black-throated magpie-jays are established exotics along the San Diego/Tijuana border. Not countable (yet) but stunners to see.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sleeping Godwits

Saturday, March 6, 2010
Along the Pacific coast, near San Diego, my birding group ran across this flock of sleeping shorebirds. The flock was mostly marbled godwits with a few dowitchers and a willet thrown in.

Our group tallied 100 species in our Birds Along the Border field trip. If you've never attended the San Diego Bird Festival, take it from me, it's a good one! It's amazing how many birds you can find when you've got ocean, freshwater sloughs, mountains, desert, and lush spring vegetation all in abundance.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Caption Contest #12 Winners!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010
At that very moment Bill realized brown would have been a much better color choice for the Bird Boxers.

Congratulations to Erik for his winning caption. Erik, please drop me a note with your mailing address and to whom you'd like the Bird Watching For Dummies book inscribed.

Some other really funny entries:
Unhinged Pastor - Lee Hoy said...Unfortunately for Larry, the greased Rhino contest did not go as planned.

Seabrooke said... As Bob lowered the camera, he had time to think exactly 1.5 words, which were "Oh sh-". (For those of you who were curious, the rest of the sentence he didn't have time to think was "oot, the battery just died.")

Avimor Birder said...
"Nice to meet you Bill. I'll be performing your colonoscopy today."

tobybeauregard said... "Hakuna Matata...means no worries.

I was kind of surprised that no one built onto Avimor Birder's entry and invoked the word rhinoplasty (or rhinoplaster), but then maybe it's only my sick mind that drifts in that direction.

All the entries were great—thanks for playing!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Along the Scioto River

Monday, March 1, 2010
Yesterday a handful of intrepid souls gathered along the Scioto River on the Whittier Peninsula in Columbus, Ohio to look for waterfowl. Nearly everything we saw was fairly distant and most of the river was frozen, which limited the numbers and variety of birds. We did spook a small flock of hooded mergansers, however, and I was reminded anew how stunning the males are.

Of course I was armed only with my ancient digiscoping rig and the light was pretty poor. I did manage to get a shot of one male along the far riverbank, and upon downloading it to my computer, I could see that its value as a bird photo was minimal. Its value as a seasonal snapshot however is fairly solid. The male hooded merganser with his crest up, the snowy bank behind him, the choppy water, and the bare tree branches all say "later winter/early spring" to me.

It's been such a rough winter weather-wise that it seems many of us are grasping and squinting for any small sign that spring will, in fact, come again. On a freezing cold day along the Scioto, I got a good sign of spring's promise from this lone male merganser.