Thursday, April 29, 2010

Why I Always Go Back to the New

Thursday, April 29, 2010
Briefly, because I know we all have better things to be doing, I wanted to share a couple of images with you showing why I come to the New River Birding & Nature Festival every single year.

Male cerulean warbler.

Two words having to do with warblers: Cerulean and Swainson's.

Both of these birds were digiscoped today on my trip down Sugar Creek Road to the Gauley River. And I only took the images AFTER we'd shown every participant views of these species through my Leica spotting scope.
Male Swainson's warbler.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Part 3 Birding Guyana: Flying to the Interior

Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Buff-necked ibis.

I like to start off my BOTB blog posts with a bird photograph if at all possible. So I am inserting this image of a buff-necked ibis here, even though it is out of order in the time line of this post. I believe the buff-necked ibis might be the second most beautiful ibis in the New World, right behind the scarlet ibis. Good thing there is not a Scarlett Johannson ibis, or that might take the crown. Now, where were we...

Oh yes! Guyana.

After a lovely (too short) morning of birding in the botanical gardens in Georgetown, we were herded to the small, in-town airport for a flight to the interior of Guyana. Because we were taking a small 12-seat plane on this flight, weight was an important factor. We had been warned about this in advance by our hosts and leaders, but that didn't stop us—well it didn't stop me—from bringing far too much stuff. We were weighed by our trip leaders at the hotel. Then weighed again at the airport. I won the avoirdupois prize as the heaviest traveler. Fully one-third of my things—mostly stuff I would not need immediately—was sent by bus overland, along with extras from my fellow travelers.

We were all caught between the pull of wanting to have all of our camera and birding gear with us, along with the proper clothing and footwear, and the necessity of packing the absolute minimum. We also had to send one of our leaders on the land bus. That alone saved us more than 300 pounds of humanity (sorry, just kidding Michael).

Negotiating the payload for our flight. Michael (black backpack, no hair) drew the short straw and had to ride the overnight chicken bus to Iwokrama.

Onto the plane we went and in moments we were in the air flying away from Georgetown. Below us stretched miles of housing, then the houses were replaced by a ring of cane fields.
Some of the cane fields were being burned off and we could see and smell the smoke rising from the earth.
Then we were away from all signs of human habitation and civilization. Below us lay unbroken rain forest, a vast carpet of green. It was a sight that did the heart some good. This is why we were here—to experience what is perhaps the last vast expanse of undisturbed rain forest in South America.
The Guyana rain forest from the air.

Our destination, the Annai landing strip, hove into sight. While flying we'd seen a few birds—turkey and black vultures mostly, with two distant king vultures for added spice. I strained my eyes hoping to catch sight of a harpy eagle perched on one of the emergent snags jutting above the forest canopy, but was unsuccessful.
The Annai landing strip is a dirt road next to Rock View Lodge, one of the largest eco-lodges in Guyana. Stepping from the plane we felt our knees buckle in the mid-day heat. Soon cold drinks and a nice lunch at Rock View Lodge helped revive us.

Dr. Steve Banner struggles to find just the right angle for a photo of the welcome sign while leader Kirk Smock looks on in wonder.

The plane! The plane! The plane we came in on.

After lunch we began birding the grounds. Palm and blue-gray tanagers were common. A white-necked thrush was building a nest under the thatched canopy of a benab. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a burnish-buff tanager in a fruiting tree. A horse corral held a number of southern lapwings and the aforementioned buff-necked ibis. I had the feeling that this place would be much birdier early in the morning.

Leon gives us the run-down at Rock View Lodge.

Leon, a guide at Rock View Lodge, gave us a tour of the grounds and facilities, which included very nice guest rooms, a bar and general store, a huge vegetable garden, and the stony promontory from which the lodge derives its name. I would have been content to stay right on that overlook for the rest of the day, conducting a Big Sit, perhaps with a run to the store for some munchies and a frosty cold beer, but our leaders needed to get us on the move. This would become a theme of the trip.

We boarded several 4x4 trucks and headed down a long, straight, red-clay road. Destination Iwokrama, a field station and eco-lodge owned and operated by the Makushi people in the heart of the vast Iwokrama Forest. If one were to drive directly, I suspect this trip would have taken about two hours. We birders found so much to look at that we stretched the drive until well after dark. Arriving at Iwokrama, we hauled our luggage to our rooms, splashed our faces with water and reconvened at the main building for a late dinner. By the time we finished eating and had a brief orientation meeting, I was so tired my eyes were crossing.

Everyone hurried back to their cabins to get ready for bed before the generator was switched off. This was our first night sleeping without air-conditioning under the very necessary mosquito netting. I tried to recall the life birds I'd seen that day but did not get far before dropping into slumberland.

At each stop we made, new tropical delights were discovered.

In my next post, I'll share some of the special sightings from the road to Iwokrama.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My Digiscoped Bird of the Day

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I flew into Phoenix, Arizona today and took this photo of a male Gambel's quail in a northern suburb of that fair town. The light was weak and it was drizzling—very un-Arizona-like conditions, actually. Plus it was chilly! But I could not resist trying to capture an image of this dude while he was singing.

I'm out here to give the keynote talk at the Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary here in Cottonwood, AZ. I'm hoping tomorrow's field trip to Page Springs yields another chance to digiscope Gambel's quail.

And I have not forgotten about Guyana—we'll head back there soon.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Finding a Pileated Woodpecker Nest

Monday, April 19, 2010

Let's take a short break from our Guyana adventure and enjoy a bird species that's closer to home—at least for those of us in North America.

Two weeks ago I was walking in the old orchard on our farm and I heard the tell-tale sounds of a woodpecker excavating a nest cavity. I followed the sound until I was reasonably sure I knew which large, dead tree was going to be the nest site. However, the tree (a dead yellow poplar trunk) had at least a dozen large holes in it, several of which looked relatively new.

Two days later Julie and I heard the wood-chopping sound while checking the bluebird boxes in the orchard. She immediately thought "pileated" but I wasn't so sure since we have four other woodpecker species that nest on our place. We walked to the trunk and suddenly the head of a male pileated woodpecker poked out of one of the larger holes on the southwest side of the trunk. Not wanting to spook the bird from his work, we slowly backed away and left him in peace.

The following day I went out to scope the site from a distance, but before I could even set up, the male and his mate began drumming and calling to one another. The male swooped into the nest tree, glared at me for a minute, then swooped off into the woods. Now I was really paranoid that I was going to frighten the pileateds into abandoning the nest, which I assumed was still being excavated.

Later that afternoon I went out and listened for the tapping. I heard none and could see no activity in or around the nest hole. This was my chance. I ran back to the garage and grabbed my portable photo blind. Back out to the orchard I ran. I had the thing set up in three minutes. Unzipping the peephole facing the nest I saw that my activity had not gone undetected. The male was there in the nest glaring at me. Very calmly I stepped back out of the blind, zipped it closed and strolled away nonchalantly. The male resumed his excavation a few minutes later, the impacts of his bill sounding like someone using a hatched to split kindling.

I knew I wanted to digiscope the scene but not at the expense of disturbing the birds. Clearly there was no way to get in and out of the blind unnoticed. I decided to try anyway. I went back at 3:00 pm, knowing I had a bit more than an our before I'd have to go pick the kids up at the school bus stop. I carried my Leica digiscoping rig out to the blind and slipped inside. The sound of my footfalls, or perhaps the zippers on the blind, were enough to alert the nest occupant to my presence. When I opened the blind's peephole, there was the female looking out the hole directly at me.

I set up the scope, got good focus, dropped the Leica D-Lux 4 camera and adapter over the eyepiece and shot a dozen frames. The female resumed her work, bringing bill-fulls of chips and sawdust to the opening and dumping them out.
The female pileated (note her black moustache) glaring at me.

Then I flipped it over to video and got this:

I am completely over the moon about this nest and the opportunity to observe it over the next month or so, assuming all goes well with the excavation work, the egg laying, the incubation—you get the picture. And I hope I do, too!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Guyana Part 3: Botanical Gardens

Friday, April 16, 2010
Yellow-crowned (Amazon) parrot in the botanical gardens of Georgetown.

After a restful night's sleep in the air-conditioned comfort of the Hotel Pegasus in Georgetown, we staggered downstairs with all of our gear for our first full day of birding in Guyana.

And when I say "staggered downstairs" I mean it literally—at least for myself. The evening before I had gotten stuck in one of the hotel's two elevators for about 15 minutes, trying to descend from the fifth floor to the lobby. The doors closed, I pushed the L button and nothing happened. I pushed the button again—nada. I pushed the OPEN button. Nope. Within another three minutes I was trying to attract the attention of the hotel employee I'd seen cleaning the room opposite the elevators by pounding on the doors and screaming (politely) for help. She could not hear me. So I waited.

I figured someone would eventually notice that I was missing and would come looking. I purposely felt in my pocket for food, just in case. The granola bar I'd had with me since Ohio was some small comfort. After a period of minutes that seemed longer than it probably was, the elevator woke up and took me down to the lobby where exasperated looks from my fellow travelers greeted me.

Hence, on the following morning I (and all my gear) took the stairs.

Our morning destination was the Georgetown Botanical Gardens and Zoo, a place nearly everyone mentions when talking about birding in Guyana. The large trees of the gardens lure parrots, woodpeckers, toucans, and raptors while the various ponds and marshy areas host water birds. It's mostly open beneath the trees so it's easy to see the birds. And believe me there were birds in every direction we looked, including a distant peregrine falcon on a radio tower.

The central road through the botanical gardens.

We spent a few hours (but clearly not long enough) birding along the central road through the botanical gardens.

Great kiskadees screamed and whined from everywhere as they tussled with one another and hawked insects over the ponds.

Cinereous becard, male.

One of the first true life birds for me was the cinereous becard, a small pale gray bird with a stout bill and a black cap. I got a good look and a decent digiscope shot of the male.

Immature snail kite.

Snail kites are so numerous are Georgetown that we began saying things like "Oh it's just another snail kite..." This struck me as weird since it took me three special trips in the early 1990s to add this species to my life list in Florida. Of course once I saw one, the species no longer vexed me. No such worries in Georgetown, where every single citizen could add this species to their yard list every day of the year. Bad place to be a snail.

Little cuckoo.

Just as the morning was beginning to get noticeably hot (which starts as soon as the sun rises above the trees) we had a run of great birds, starting with a very cooperative pair of little cuckoos in the brush along a wet ditch. Such neat little cinnamon birds with bright yellow bills! I struggled to find a vantage point for my scope so I could get a photo. And once I got the scope on the birds, I nearly missed the shot because my exclamation of "Holy mackerel!" formed an instant line of people behind me wanting a scope look. When that happens I cannot hog the scope to get my shots, so we all got good scope views, AND I got my shot of one of the cuckoos just before it jumped back into deep cover.

Lemon-chested greenlet, gray-breasted martin, southern house wren, tropical gnatcatcher, white-lined, blue-gray, and palm tanagers, yellow oriole, limpkin, spotted sandpiper, wattled ja├žana, ruddy ground dove, pale-vented pigeon, golden-winged parakeet, smooth-billed ani, green kingfisher, and yellow-chinned spinetail are just some of the birds I remember seeing that morning in the botanical gardens.

Striated heron.

The photographers among us got their first truly cooperative subject: a striated heron that walked calmly just a few feet away from a collection of whirring, beeping, clicking lenses.

Black-collared hawk.

I worked on my camera's settings for digiscoping on a black-collared hawk perched on the far side of a pond. What a handsome bird!

Yellow-crowned parrots.

Parrots, macaws, and their ilk filled the morning air with raucous cries. Flocks zoomed by overhead. Our guides called out IDs but I confess I did not get good looks at all of them. We did get great looks at several yellow-crowned parrots (called yellow-crowned amazon in the field guide)

A quartet of lineated woodpeckers was trying to work out territorial boundaries in the large trees of the gardens, which gave us thoroughly pleasing looks.

Aside from its great birding, the botanical gardens is also famous for its tame pod of manatees in the lake. Grab an handful of grass from the lawn and waggle it in the water and a manatee or two will come up to eat it from your hand. One of our leaders, Kirk, demonstrated this for us, but the water was a bit too shallow for the large aquatic mammal to get all the way to shore. For a breathless account of a more exciting manatee encounter from this spot, slip over to Julie Zickefoose's blog post from fall of 2008.

Toco toucan.

The final bit of birding excitement from out botanical garden adventure happened when one of our target birds, the toco toucan swooped across the blue sky and landed atop a palm tree. Kiskadees swarmed and swooped at the toucan (they are well-known nest robbers) but the giant-billed bird just sat there and looked around. So did we, except that our attention was focused solely on the toucan.

This moment of birding reverie was broken with the soon to be all-too-familiar cry of "OK folks, back on the bus! We've gotta move out!" I could have spent an entire day in this park, and at the end of our tour two of our most avid photographers did just that in order to take advantage of the photo ops offered by the acclimated birds.

For now we were off to the small airport to fly to the interior of Guyana where more wonders surely waited.

Next post: Puddle Jumper Over Rainforest.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Guyana Part 2: Shorebirds at Dusk

Monday, April 12, 2010
After getting back off the boats from the Mahaica River in the late afternoon, we enjoyed a few minutes of air-conditioned comfort on the bus as we drove to our next destination: a tidal area of mangroves and mudflats that was a good shorebird spot. This was a somewhat unexpected stop in that it was not on the itinerary, but our Georgetown-based birding guides wanted to show it to us, and we were glad they did.

In the tropics, near the Equator, the sun cycles of daylight and night are 6 to 6. Day ends and night comes on with a suddenness that is alarming. The sun sets and rises at the sixes: 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. As we stepped out of the bus at the shorebird spot, we were already losing light. Still there was time and light enough to climb up onto the sea wall to scan the mudflats. Oh my this place was birdy. Egrets and night-herons dotted the mud. Lines of shorebirds scampered back and forth. I got the sensation that anything could should up here, and the nagging thought that we'd only have a few minutes here now.

Clapper rail.

Several clapper rails called from the vegetation. Then one and another strode out into the open giving us all fine scope views.

Scanning from the sea wall.

Standing on the sea wall we could see over the mudflats and clumps of vegetation and mangroves. Picking through the shorebirds and wading birds was quite fun. We added numerous species to our growing trip list, including semipalmated sandpiper, willet, short-billed dowitcher, both greater and lesser yellowlegs, and whimbrel, plus osprey and black skimmer. According to a couple of our guides, there had been a possible sighting of an even more exciting shorebird here recently: an Eskimo curlew! No images were captured, but there will be extra attention paid to all large, brown shorebirds in the future during the regular surveys conducted at this site.

If you look closely, you can see a whimbrel and a willet in this image.

As the light faded and the colors receded, we took our last looks at a couple of scarlet ibises foraging with some yellow-crowned night-herons and a tricolored heron. It was a nice way to end our first afternoon of birding in Guyana.

Two of these seven birds are scarlet ibises.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Mahaica River Boat Trip

Friday, April 9, 2010
Mere hours after landing, bleary-eyed from an all-night flight at Cheddi Jagan International Airport in Georgetown, Guyana I found myself stepping gingerly over some rotted wooden dock boards into an aluminum (or "al-you-min-ee-yum" as my British fellow travelers would say) pair of boats for a short afternoon boat trip on the Mahaica River.

The sun beat down on everything—living, barely living, clearly not living—equally and I felt that sort of dizzy-in-the-head sensation that comes from too much of anything hitting your body all at once. Soon the boats (really, two skiffs lashed together) or boat complex was moving through the cocoa water, but the oppressive heat was barely reduced, but it was reduced some, and that counted for something. Then, just as I was feeling the urge to rid myself suddenly of the remaining airplane food in my stomach....birds.

Rising from the thick mangrove-lined banks, a blizzard of white—cattle and snowy egrets fled downstream and brought the day to life. They caught our collective attention and a half-dozen cameras swung into action to capture the spectacle.
What had I brought with me as preconceived notions about Guyana, packed tightly in my brain just as surely as the clothes in my suitcase? I'd brought the comments of my wife, Julie, who'd visited 18 months earlier, and of a handful of friends who'd been here. Hot as the hinges of hell was the dominant notion. Buggy. Birdy as anywhere in the world. Basic. Hot. Birdy.

Snowy egret (left) and a breeding-plumage cattle egret (right)

I could deal with all the rest, as long as things were birdy. But this cloud of white wading birds fleeing before our boats with their 15 horsepower motors–they were all snowy and cattle egrets. When would we start seeing some real South American species?

Just as that rather greedy thought crossed my burbling brain, I saw that there was a bright red bird in the midst of the snow-white flocks. It was a young scarlet ibis. Then, as if my eye were suddenly gifted with the ability to see thing s other than white, I spied several other, darker birds as our guides called them out.
Great black hawk, adult..

Pied water-tyrant, great black hawk, and the national bird of Guyana, the taxonomic anomaly known as the hoatzin (pronounced "wat-sin.").

What a freaky bird the hoatzin is!

I tried my level best to capture a few images with my big camera rig, but the rocking, moving boat and the huge contrast between the milky afternoons sky and the dark shadowy leaves of the mangroves made the task difficult.

Each time a hoatzin would be perched in the open, the lenses would swing up and the bird, with uncanny timing, would amble off its perch and into deep cover.
The hoatzins were difficult to capture on camera.

Tropical kingbird and kiskadees made themselves known by vocalizing. Snail kites and swallow-tailed kites notched the sky with their dark forms. We heard more birds call than we saw. And our guides called out more birds than we saw. But we had dipped out toes into the vast river of birding in Guyana—a river massively larger than the one upon which we were currently navigating.

Finally, a relatively decent photo of a hoatzin.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Blink and Whoosh!

Monday, April 5, 2010
Blue-gray gnatcatcher.

Dear Readers:

My sincere apologies for the sparse and irregular posts of late. After my first Guyana post last Monday I had the very best of intentions last week about sharing some more from that trip but then life revved up into krazy-train mode. I blinked and it's another Monday!

I will try to do better this week. I hope you'll stick with me (I do appreciate your patience).

In other news the blue-gray gnatcatchers got in this morning on the farm. I heard my first brown thrasher of the spring on Sunday, and the eastern meadowlarks were battling it out over the meadow this morning. We watched them from the tower where we'd run hoping to identify three mystery ducks that flew over the hills to the west of us. No joy on the ducks, but the woods showed us its flimsy spring garments—the tree buds and blossoms exhibiting the most wishful thinking possible. We'll see if leaping into spring so soon is warranted or even advisable. I fear winter may yet have a face slap or two in its arsenal.