Monday, March 23, 2015

Yeah, Mon... Jamaican Birds

Jamaica doesn't have much of a reputation as a birding destination, which is a real shame, since the lush Caribbean island is home to 30 endemics (depending on how you split them and/or declare them extinct).

Red-billed (morph?) of the Streamertail (a.k.a "Doctorbird," Jamaica's National Bird), Blue Mountains

With round-trip flights to Kingston for $350, Natalia and I simply couldn't afford not to head to Jamaica for some spring break birding.

Jamaican Woodpecker, Blue Mountains

We started in the Blue Mountains, famous for coffee.  Areas suitable for coffee production (wet, mountainous, second growth) are always good for birding and the Blue Mountains were no exception.

Jamaican Tody, Blue Mountains

We spotted 15 endemic species (half!) in the first fantastic couple hours.  We were elated, and then began to worry that we had made a mistake in hiring a guide.

Jamaican Euphonia, Blue Mountains


It turns out that birding Jamaica is really, really easy...especially compared to the neighboring island of Hispaniola, where a third of the endemics are nocturnal, hyper-local, endangered and/or undergrowth skulkers.

Jamaican Oriole, Blue Mountains

Lyndon Johnson's (our guide, not the former US president) laconic attitude reflected the low-difficulty birding.  He arrived 15 minutes late to meet us, and then by 10 am when we had exhausted our opportunities for lifers in the Blue Mountains showed no interest in joining us for additional birding at a more distant location that afternoon.

Jamaican Pewee, Blue Mountains

So we continued on our own down the north slope of the Blue Mountains to the seaside town of Port Antonio.

Jamaican Vireo, Blue Mountains

Lyndon met us again the next morning to lead us to Jamaica's #1 birding site: Ecclesdown Road.

View from Ecclesdown Road

This narrow road follows a hill slope giving views off one side into tree tops and valley as it winds through wet foothill forest.  The topography is ideal for excellent viewing of forest birds, which are everywhere.  Fully 100% of the non-extinct endemic species can be found at this site alone and we managed to score all the ones we needed in just a few hours (those pictured and discussed below, plus: Jamaican Crow, Yellow-billed Parrot and Black-billed Parrot). 

Once again, by noon we seemed to be out of birds to see.  We asked Lyndon about White-tailed Tropicbirds, but rather than show us the spot, he gave us vague directions and went on his way.  When we tried to follow up on his tropicbird tip a couple days later we ended up lost and asking a lot of strange bird questions to bemused rural Jamaicans, who probably didn't know the difference between a tropicbird and a pelican.

Oh well.

The exception to the EasyEndemics rule in Jamaica are Crested Quail-Dove, Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, Jamaican Blackbird and Jamaican Owl.

The Quail-Dove was the only one of the four that we might not have seen without Lyndon's help.  He showed us a trail off the road in the Blue Mountains where a couple can be seen foraging in the leaf litter. We got great looks at these and then after returning to the road flushed a third up into a branch where it sat dumbly for a solid minute.


The Jamaican Blackbird is supposed to be one of the hardest birds, but we saw a few each of the three days we spent birding in appropriate (wet forest) habitat.  Don't be fooled by it's mundane appearance, this is a bad-ass bird that has evolved to fill the empty niche left by the lack of foliage-gleaners and woodcreepers in Jamaica.  It can be seen gleaning the moss-covered branches or heard thrashing around inside large bromeliads.

Jamaican Blackbird, Ecclesdown Road

The Jamaican-Lizard Cuckoo eluded us until we saw 4 at Ecclesdown Road.

Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo (family-friendly view), Ecclesdown Road


Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo (cloaca view), Ecclesdown Road

The final endemic we ticked was the Jamaican Owl, which roosts in a tree at Frenchman's Cove just up the road from Port Antonio.  Lyndon had no backup plans for this species, so we were relieved to see it in its usual spot on our second try.

Jamaican Owlinator (you have been owlinated), Frenchman's Cove

Halfway through day three and we had all the endemics in the bag, so we rewarded ourselves with a couple relaxing beach days at the paradise of Frenchman's Cove.  This place is a gem. The body surfing might possibly be the best in the world.

To top it off we saw a beautiful White-tailed Tropicbird flying around outside the mouth of the cove.  Awesome!  Goes to show that sometimes its best to let the birds come rather than go chase. This is especially true in Jamaica.

After a couple days in paradise we reluctantly pried ourselves away to return to the Kingston area and bird the inauspiciously-named Hellshire Hills.  The desert scrub here hosts a completely different bird community, including our target, the Bahama Mockingbird.

Bahama Mockingbird, Hellshire

The mockingbirds were mercifully easy and we were able to leave the hills before the hellish heat got too bad.

Bahama Mockingbirds, Hellshire
Yes, while all the birds that begin with "Jamaican" are endemic to Jamaica, it turns out Bahama Mockingbird can be found outside the Bahamas...

We got our final lifer of the trip in Hope Gardens in Kingston.  Ricardo Miller, the owner of Arrowhead Tours, who set us up with Lyndon, gave us some tips on where he had recently found a couple Northern Potoos roosting here.

Northern Potoo, Hope Gardens


Tada!

In the end we probably could have seen all the endemics without guidance.  Possible exceptions were the Crested Quail-Dove, the Jamaican Becard and Jamaican Elaenia.  The Becard and Elaenia we only encountered once each and were able to see because Lyndon recognized their respective calls and pointed them out. 

Lyndon also showed us a pair of Caribbean Doves at the Crested Quail-Dove spot.  The doves aren't endemic, but have a small range and are shy and uncommon in Jamaica, so this was a nice bonus.

Speaking of doves, you may as well call Jamaica the 'island of the doves," because it hosts such an abundance and diversity of Columbids.  We saw 9 species of pigeony-dove-type-things.

White-crowned Pigeons clamored around in the treetops of urban Port Antonio

White-crowned Pigeon, Hope Gardens

And the endemic Ring-tailed Pigeons were practically raining from the sky along Ecclesdown Road.

Ring-tailed Pigeons (Jamaica endemic), Blue Mountains


We had to be careful not to trip over Zenaida Doves in Hope Gardens.

Zenaida Dove, Hope Gardens

We also saw a couple Ruddy Quail-Doves at Ecclesdown Road, but we dipped on Mourning Dove--an unbearable tragedy.

Spring migrants are starting to show up in North Carolina now, but there were plenty of warblers still laying about in the Caribbean (we got 12 species) where they compliment their endemic cousin, the Arrowhead Warbler.

Arrowhead Warbler (Jamaica endemic), Blue Mountains

So that's Jamaica.  Go there for the easy endemics, but do yourself a favor: embrace the island rhythms and save some time to relax on the beach.  Who knows, a tropicbird may just pay you a visit.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Hellshire

92 species seen; 32 lifers; other endemics not previously mentioned: Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Jamaican Spindalis, Sad Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Orangequit, Jamaican Mango, White-chinned Thrush, White-eyed Thrush, Yellow-shouldered Grassquit and the likely-to-be-split "Jamaican" Olive-throated Parakeet.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Birds in a Changing World: Water Quality Consequences for Mattamuskeet Mega-flocks

Waterfowl surveys found ~198,000 ducks, geese and swans this year down from ~350,000 a year ago.  Read my Bird in a Changing World blog to find out why: Water Quality Consequences for Mattamuskeet Mega-flocks

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Birds in Changing World: Want to Help Birds? Be a Citizen Scientist

I actually posted this back in December, but forgot to post the link over to the Duke Blog.

Have a look.

Want to Help Birds? Be a Citizen Scientist

Monday, January 26, 2015

Rough-legged Hawk in the North Carolina Mountains

Rough-legged Hawks aren't all that exceptionally rare in North Carolina if you believe the reports, it just isn't that often that they stick around long enough for many people to go see them and they rarely pose for photographs.

Natalia and I made the trip up to the Boone area last weekend to see one that had been reportedly been prowling around a Christmas tree farm.
Allegany County, NC

Rough-legged Hawks breed on the tundra and are a species of wide open spaces, the open Christmas-treed landscape with snow flurries falling seemed like a fitting place for one to appear.

Rough-legged Hawk
Apparently these get confused with Red-tailed Hawks somehow.  More obvious than the plumage differences is the way this thing flies. 

It was a windy day, but the Rough-legged Hawk seemed to be to totally at ease with the conditions, banking around, twisting wings one way and swiveling its long tail at completely different angle.

 And of course it did some hovering, for which this species is famous.

Whelp these photos aren't mind blowing, but I guess there aren't too many out there of this or any Rough-legged Hawk in NC, so I though I ought to share them.

Enjoy!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Birding the Dominican Republic with the Carolina Bird Club



Natalia Ocampo-Penuela and I led a group of 10 brave birders from the Carolina Bird Club from the rugged mountains to the beautiful beaches of the Dominican Republic on a quest to see as many as possible of the 31 Hispaniola endemics in a jam-packed six-day tour.

Our first morning we birded the Santo Domingo Botanical Garden, which makes for fantastic birding because 30% of it consists of old growth forest, and it’s just a short taxi ride from the city’s colonial zone.  We had our first endemic species here including the ubiquitous and abundant Palm Chat.  This bird, the only member of Dulidae, is, like Sunbittern and Hoatzin, highly sought after by world bird family listers (yes, they exist).  But many a birder has been disillusioned by how quickly they are found and then become tiresome—a trash bird!

The ever-present Palm Chat (endemic), Santo Domingo

While sifting through Palm Chat flocks we picked up 9 wintering warbler species and a few more endemics: the handsome Hispaniolan Woodpecker, the maniacal Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo, and the Black-crowned Palm-Tanager, though I prefer its local name, ‘Cuatro Ojos’ (four eyes—easier for those, like Keith, who get confuse this long name with odd permutations of the many other palm-named endemic birds).  

Hispaniolan Woodpecker, photo by David Smith
The important targets at the gardens were the threatened West-Indian Whistling Duck and the endemic Hispaniolan Parakeet, which while widespread, is most easily seen in more urban areas where it doesn’t disappear into the foliage.  The ducks were right where they were supposed to be along the stream and the parakeets welcomed us to the garden by flying raucous circles over our heads while we ate our picnic breakfast outside the gate.   

Hispaniolan Parakeets, Santo Domingo
Check and check!

West-Indian Whistling-Duck (threatened Caribbean endemic), Santo Domingo

After a lunch stop for traditional food, we headed west to the Sierra de Bahoruco, the gold mine for Hispaniolan endemics.   

our intrepid group
Our timing was perfect as we were to arrive the day after the local Christmas Bird Count and so would have fresh intelligence on precise locations for key species.  We were happily waylaid in the town of Puerto Escondido where James managed to spot a Hispaniolan Oriole perched on a street corner tree from the car (yes, while it was moving!).  This endemic species isn’t endangered, but wanders widely and is difficult to target.  I had missed this species on my last trip to the DR and despite diligent searching, parties missed this bird on the Cristmas Bird Count, so not only did we knock out an important endemic, but also contributed a count week bird!  

Hispaniolan Oriole (endemic), Puerto Escondido


We made it to Villa Barrancoli just before dusk, right on time to try for the near-threatened and endemic Least Pauraque (or ‘Least Poorwill’).  Ivan, the local guide who accompanied us for the whole tour, had a spot where one would reliably come in to tape.  As if trained, it fluttered in over heads like a very large moth.  Unfortunately it lit on a tree branch out of view and then eventually flew off without us getting a good view of it sitting.  The next night it would prove to be more cooperative.  One nocturnal endemic down, two to go!

The next morning we set off at 4 am in order to get in some high elevation night birding and reach a crucial spot in the Zapoten Sector of the national park by dawn.  On the way up we had great luck with Hispaniolan Nightjars (nocturnal endemic #2 in the bag!), but the Ashy-faced Owl just called once and then zipped past.  I managed to shine my light at the silhouette, but after it had passed I began to wonder if it hadn’t been a figment of my imagination.  Chandra meanwhile had wandered down the road looking for some privacy and happened to glance up at an Ashy-faced Owl, illuminated by flashlight, looming above her.  Pro tip: for difficult birds, pants around the ankles always brings good luck.  For the rest of us, however this was cause for some concern.  A recent storm had washed out the road to Ivan’s most reliable owl spot that we had hoped to visit later in the tour.  The first two nocturnal endemics came so easily, but missing the owl in Zapoten meant we would have to come up with a new plan for this bird later on.  

In the meantime we had lots of other endemics to find on the mountain.  We made it to La Selle corner with plenty of time to spare before dawn after a tortuous 2 hours of rough driving over a steep boulder-strewn road.  In the twilight I could see a large dark thrush feeding in the road—a La Selle Thrush!  I motioned the group to come over and get into position and then doubled back down the road to the vehicles to collect my scope.  As I walked back up, scope in hand I realized I was flushing a bird up the road ahead of me.  Another thrush!  I carefully set my scope down to have a look. Amazingly, the La Selle Thrush turned around and began walking up to me.  The light was still too dim for photos but I followed the bird until it filled my scope field—a crippling view.  This endangered and endemic species is highly local with this spot representing the only opportunity to see it on the tour.   After it backed off I thought to try to walk it back towards the rest of the group, but rather than round the bend, it flew up into a shrub in order to double back around me.  Natalia emerged in its place exasperated that I had just missed a Bicknell’s Thrush wander up to within kicking distance of the group.  When I mentioned my run-in with the La Selle, her exasperation deepened.  The dark bird I had first spotted had materialized into a Red-legged Thrush, a nice Caribbean endemic, but not the one we needed here.   Luckily after re-positioning the group the La Selle returned to feed on the road near the vehicles.  Crisis averted!  I would never have made it home alive if I had been the only one to see this bird.  

The rest of the morning in Zapoten went swimmingly as we ticked endemics of our lists like Einstein taking a multiple choice algebra test.  Hispaniolan Spindalis, Antillean Piculet, Green-tailed Warbler (or better “Green-tailed Ground-Tanager” according to recent genetic evidence), Hispaniolan Trogon, Hispaniolan Pewee, Narrow-billed Tody, Antillean Siskin, Hispaniolan Emerald and even the vulnerable Golden Swallow (missed on the Christmas Bird Count) all cooperated nicely.   

Narrow-billed Tody, photo by David Smith
looking for endemics in the Zapoten Sector of Sierra de Bahoruco
The vulnerable White-winged Warbler (or “Hispaniolan Highland-Tanager”) took a little bit more work, but our patience was tested most by the Western Chat-Tanager a vulnerable skulker that eventually popped up long enough to give most satisfactory views.  

White-winged Warbler (threatened Hispaniolan endemic), Zapoten

On our way down the mountain we caught up with a noisy flock of Hispaniolan Parrots (another endemic!) with some Olive-throated Parakeets mixed in.  We also found a friendly Loggerhead Kingbird (Caribbean endemic; endemic subspecies).  

Loggerhead Kingbird (Hispaniolan endemic subspecies), Sierra de Bahoruco
By the time we made it back to camp it was nearly 7 pm and I got a tongue-lashing from our host from Tody Tours, Kate Wallace, for “making” the group bird too hard and too long.  It had been a 15-hour day and I began to feel a bit guilty…but then I looked around and saw everybody marching into the woods with Ivan eager for another crack at the Least Pauraque.  What a hardcore group!

The next morning we were up early to stalk the endemic and endangered White-fronted Quail-Dove.  Normally this bird, like most quail-doves, is next-to-impossible to target, especially with a large group.  But we had an ace-in-the-hole: Maria-Isabel, a local field biologist had stumbled upon two (2!) very close to camp on the Christmas Bird Count.  She led us down the Rabo de Gato trail and we stalked as quietly as a herd of hominids can be.  People began glimpsing Quail-Doves through the underbrush and everybody clamored to try to get views.  But these all proved to be Key West Quail-Doves—not a bad false alarm! When we reached the lagoon other bird life began to steal our attention: Least Grebes, Lousiana Waterthrushes and Scaly-naped Pigeons.   

Juvie Least Grebe

Then Natalia spotted a Quail-Dove with a white forehead  on the path just ahead of the group.  This was the bird!  We managed to get scopes oriented and all got great views…except for poor Jeff (and an attendant Ann), who was sick in bed.  

As we returned from a smashingly successful Quail-Dove hunt, picking up the endemic and vulnerable White-necked Crow, the endemic Broad-billed Tody and near-threatened, Caribbean-endemic Plain Pigeon, I began to worry about Jeff.  What if he had Chikungunya?  This mosquito-borne disease had recently reached the Caribbean from Africa and spread like wildfire, with some half a million confirmed cases in the DR alone.  Fear of Chikungunya had nearly scuttled the trip entirely before it began, but I had convinced everyone that by January the disease would have reached host-saturation and become a non-issue.  Only after legal counsel, extra release forms and an almost-complete roster turnover was the trip allowed to proceed. Now poor Jeff might be suffering because of my hubris.  All were much relieved when we returned to find he had made a complete recovery. Another crisis averted and Chikungunya became the running joke of the trip.  

“Let’s stay away from that putrid ditch, it looks like good Chikunguny habitat.”   

“Yeah of course you can borrow some bug spray, but only if you thank me later from saving you from Chikungunya.”

And there were extensive debates on proper pronunciation; I don’t think any two people said it the same way.  

We spent the rest of our morning (and then some) searching for the elusive Bay-breasted Cuckoo, an endangered endemic prized for the alleged magical properties of its meat (akin to shark fin, sea cucumber, rhino horn, etc.).  Where it persists it is terribly elusive and wary of people, blending into the dense canopy and remaining silent.  We were told of birders who spent 3 days searching unsuccessfully and researchers who lived for months in appropriate habitat without finding one.  We spent a solid 3 hours searching diligently through the dry forest territories of two known pairs.  At one point Ron shouted “there it is!”  But nobody else was able to get a view of the cuckoo he had seen.  And given that Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoos are also in the area we couldn’t confidently add this bird to the trip list.  There’s always one that gets away and this proved to be our big miss of the tour.  We were consoled by cooperative endemic Flat-billed Vireos and a steady dose of Stolid Flycatchers, an endemic subspecies, but otherwise an unremarkable Myiarchus. 
Another spot of consoling news came from Ivan who had gleaned some intelligence from a colleague of another site on our route to try for not only the Ashy-faced Owl, but also Stygian Owl, a very rare and hard to find endemic subspecies to Hispaniola.  We juggled the itinerary a bit to accommodate some nocturnal birding in the vicinity of Pedernales and set off for our beachside hotel in Barahona.  

We woke up early again the following morning to visit a beautiful cloud forest above Barahona called Cachote.  Here we found Eastern Chat-Tanagers to be mercifully common and conspicuous.  Rufous-throated Solitaires were calling everywhere, but again they were tough to get eyes on.  Some of the group were getting glimpses of one through dense canopy.  When I finally got it in my binoculars out came the plea for a laser pointer to help others locate the bird.  I shot the laser into the general area of where I thought the bird was, but inadvertently scored a headshot and it exploded into a million pieces never to be seen again.  The perils of laser pointer use!  

Black-faced Grassquit (no laser pointer required), Cachote
Eventually we had to give up on getting better views of solitaires and Greater Antillean Elaenias to start the long drive to Pedernales in the southwestern corner of the DR.  At our hotel we encountered bad news: there was no sign of Ivan’s local contact, Nicolas, who we were hoping would show us the owls that night.  But we had little time to worry with crossbills and crows to track down in the pine forests of on the southern side of Sierra de Bahoruco.  

The endangered and endemic Hispaniolan Crossbills turned out to be pleasantly easy.  A water drip maintained by the local park warden had reportedly attracted a mega flock of several dozen earlier in the day.  What a sight that would have been given that the total population of the species is estimated at 400 to 2300! 

Hispaniolan Crossbills (endangered endemic), Sierra de Bahoruco
We were happy to gaze at the confiding group of 8 that came to drink shortly after our arrival.   

The near-threatened Hispaniolan Palm Crows required a bit more patience.  We had caught glimpses of them flying across the road as we drove up to the national park kiosk and had heard them calling, but by the time the crossbill afterglow had subsided there was no sign of crows at all.  We waited and waited and waited.  Flocks of Hispaniolan Parakeets and Hispaniolan Parrots flew around raucously and haphazardly.  We amused ourselves by studying the few warblers in the area, including a Black-throated Green and a Yellow-rumped Warbler, our 15th and final North American warbler species of the trip (counting resident Pine and Yellow Warbler subspecies).   

Things got a bit silly while waiting for the Palm Crows to show
We waited some more.  Finally at 6:30, when the sun had dropped below the horizon and we were telling bird stories to take the edge off the collective nervousness, I heard something promising.  

“SHH!  Listen!”

Distant caws grew louder and louder and louder and the Palm Crow flock came right over us.  They hopped through the trees and strutted around the shelter we had just moments before had been sitting under.  Second endemic crow species down!  At this point we had reached 28 Hispaniola endemics; more than enough to go home happy.

But then more good news arrived: Ivan had finally made contact with Nicolas, who had been waylaid by some sort of emergency involving the solenodons (endemic, endangered, giant shrew-like mammals) he studies.  While we waited for Nicolas to make his way up the mountain to meet us we were treated to some of the most phenomenal stargazing we’ve ever experienced.  

Within 10-minutes of Nicolas’ arrival we had a Stygian Owl posing in a spotlight for us.  

Stygian Owl (Hispaniolan endemic subspecies), Sierra de Bahoruco

What a bonus bird!

We continued down the mountain trying a few places for the Ashy-faced Owl.  We were able to call in a pair which circled over our heads repeatedly, but we were under strict instructions not to shine lights until a bird perched.  But they just wouldn’t land!  We watched them fly by again and again tantalizingly close and full-moon-lit, but after every pass they would drift out of sight.  We hadn’t eaten dinner yet and after a couple hours of frustration it was 10 pm we simply had to call it a night in order to eat and sleep.  

The seafood was delicious, but we were delirious with exhaustion after what ended up being a 19 hour day.  We took it easy the next morning to give ourselves a chance to recover before a long day of driving all the way back to Santo Domingo.  

We broke up the drive with a few stops at coastal wetlands along the route to give the trip list a boost.  Highlights were Least Bitterns, Clapper Rails and a Roseate Spoonbill at the Cabo Rojo Wetlands; and  distant American Flamingos at Laguna de Oviedo.   

Greater Yellowlegs, Cabo Rojo Wetland
We were all surprised to see flocks of uncountable hundreds of distant American Wigeon; I had no idea they migrated this far south in such numbers.  

A traffic jam outside Santo Domingo delayed our arrival and nearly scuttled our last dinner of the trip.  Fortunately we were able to persuade the kitchen staff to stay late and feed us.

Our final morning was reserved for chasing the critically-endangered and endemic Ridgway’s Hawk.  This was meant to be the cherry on top of the trip’s excellent birding.  During the breeding season this bird is essentially a slam dunk since locals know where it nests, but apparently Ridgway’s Hawks don’t breed in January, so we had some work to do.  Timoteo, a local guide, led us to several spots where they can be seen, but we weren’t having any luck.  The sky here seemed to be filled with Turkey Vultures and White-necked Crows that caused the occasional false alarm and a perched Red-tailed Hawk nearly gave have the group coronary infarctions.  We soldiered on, accumulating auxiliary guides as we wound our way through rural communities of perplexed residents.  Eventually we left the cars and scrambled up a treacherous limestone outcrop to a possible nesting area.  Chandra and Ann had mid-afternoon flights and we reached the point where we had to send them off with a driver toward the airport.  The rest of the group would soon be in a similar predicament and we were running out of time.   

Then there were some shouts amount the locals and Natalia finally spotted one chasing a vulture overhead.  Three more appeared among a growing vulture kettle.  The hawks circled above us calling and then one swooped around and perched in a distant palm giving us great scope views of both sides.  Success!  

group scoping a distant Ridgway's Hawk
for some reason I left my digiscoping camera in the car; Ridway's Hawk (critically endangered endemic), Los Limones
Fortunately news reached Chandra and Ann before they loaded into the car and they were able to spot one of the hawks overhead (thankfully I had delayed their departure by having the key to locked car filled with their luggage in my pocket).

Thus, magically, endemic number 30 had appeared at the buzzer. 

We finished with 121 species including an additional 18 endemic subspecies and 16 species endemic to the West Indies but findable on other islands.  

What a trip and what a group!  Birding Hispaniola is no easy task.  There’s lots of driving involved, much of it through anarchic traffic or up brutally rough roads.  Yet everybody maintained positive attitudes and found enjoyment in each meal and moment of birding.  Missing the Cua leaves a sting.  And everybody would have preferred to get a better look at the Ashy-faced Owl. But given the number of logistical things that can go wrong and the number of challenging, erratic, skulking, scarce and/or nocturnal species on the target list, 30 endemics is a far better outcome than I had expected.

The one downside of cleaning up targets so nicely is that it gives little reason to return to such a beautiful country filled with friendly helpful people.  Perhaps the local races of Short-eared Owl and Grasshopper Sparrow will get split out one day and give us an excuse to return.  

I cannot say enough nice things about Ivan, who must be the best bird guide the country has to offer.

Sadly the spillover of deforestation from Haiti has only gotten worse since my visit three years ago.  Apparently niche bird tourism isn’t making a big enough economic impact to attract any political attention to the plight of forests in the Sierra de Bahoruco, but that’s a story for another time.  

Additional notes:
Where there used to be simply a “Chat Tanager” on Hispaniola, the AOU currently recognizes Eastern and Western species. The existence of two additional subspecies further muddies this binary classification. 

Limpkins are everywhere in the DR.  We saw one fraternizing with gallinules along a stream bank, another stalking through the grass after a cow like a cattle egret, and most bizarrely, while trying for Ashy-faced Owl, we heard one calling its head off in transitional mountain forest at roughly 2000 meters elevation. 
Limpkin; photo by David Smith




Tuesday, November 18, 2014

In whose hands lies the future for birds?



Last month Nate Swick, Natalia Ocampo-Penuela and I led the inaugural "Introduction to birding for young birders" trip for the Wings Over Water National Wildlife Refuge. 

south dike of North Pond, Pea Island NWR, photo by Natalia Ocampo-Penuela
We had an enthusiastic group of 7 local area grade school students, most of whom had very little experience with binoculars.

Observation tower at the north pond of Pea Island NWR, photo by Natalia Ocampo-Penuela

Pea Island, with its abundant large and conspicuous birds, is the ideal location for getting youngsters interested in birds.

birding the beach and ocean across from Pea Island NWR visitors center

 Including seabirds spotted on the far side of NC-12 the kids were each able to see at least 50 species.

group shot, photo by mom
A fun morning!

After birding so much in North Carolina, it gets harder and harder to see new birds; with a NC list of 360, I've definitely gone beyond the point of diminishing returns.  Showing birds to younger folks is an opportunity to re-experience the novelty of birding and the excitement of each newly encountered species. 

Besides the future of these birds lies in these kids' hands, right? Let us hope that some among them may become advocates for birds and their habitats. 

Birds in a Changing World: Birding 101

If you every struggle to explain your birding lifestyle--why you have the urge to drop a local green-way during migration or a local pond in the dead of winter, then my latest Birds in a Changing World post, "Birding 101," may be of use.

It's specifically targeted at Duke graduate students, but could be useful reading for any muggle (non-birder) in your life. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Birds in a Changing World: Birding in North Carolina

Up now on my Nicholas School of the Environment blog: Birds in a Changing World is a post called: "Birding in North Carolina."

It is a primer on the bird diversity of NC written for the uninitiated, but birders of all levels should find it enjoyable.  Check it out!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Birds in a Changing World

This fall I applied and was accepted to a spot on the Duke Environment 'blogging team.' Hooray!


Overenthusiastic team photo

No longer am I a lone wolf (err... lone bird), but now have co-conspirators and an institutional platform from which to spout my bird-brained thoughts.

Don't fear--this does not mark the end of Birds on the Brain; I will continue to post birding stories here. 

But I invite you to check out my new blog, 'Birds in a Changing World,' where I have already begun experimenting with some new narrative angles. Come take a look: my first post, Will our Love for Birds Help Them Survive Environmental Catastrophe, is a manifesto of sorts. 

I hope to put more emphasis on science and hopefully reduce the use of obscure birder jargon, like "passerine," or "Thayer's Gull," or "cloaca" to appeal to a more muggle readership. If you have been enjoying my writing here over the past four years, I'm sure you'll have lots to look forward to in my shiny new (second) home.

I'll be sure to cross-link future posts here as well.  Click them early and often and leave comments (unless you're my mom; Google analytics filters those out) so I don't get cut from the team!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Birds of Colombia: Secretive Skulkers


The feeder birds are as easy in Colombia as anywhere else.  But maybe you came for the tough birds--the 'birder's birds.' 

Well if you read the previous post, then you’ve already seen examples from one of the most notorious of mossy undergrowth skulkers, the Antpittas.  

Unless you go someplace where they’ve been conditioned Pavlov-style to associate humans with free worms they’re near impossible to get a good look at, even when blasting obnoxious amounts of playback.  We found one exception to this rule in the paramo where Tawny Antpittas apparently sit up on fence posts to sing!

Tawny Antpitta, Los Nevados National park
Oddly, the normally invisible Sedge Wren (though this flavor will almost certainly be split out eventually), exhibits similar behavior in this area.

Sedge Wren, Los Nevados National Park

In addition to the aforementioned antpittas, other birds that come to feeders have relatives who do not and can be really tough to see.  Even the bright and in-your-face tanager family contains some timid undergrowth species.   

Black-backed Bush Tanager, Los Nevados National Park
This Black-backed Bush Tanager (aka Black-backed Bush Finch, the only member of the genus Urothraupis) was unusually cooperative. Usually they stay hidden.
 
And hummingbirds, when they aren't after nectar, hide ocassionally as well…

Greenish Puffleg nest, Tatama National Park

…like when they’re sitting on eggs!

But the point of this point is introduce some of the tougher brownish and blackish birds that exist only in the neotropics and often get outshown by the colorful and conspicuous.  Two large groups comprise the bulk of the diversity: 1) the thamnophilids, popularly known as Antbirds (or “ant-things,” as Will likes to call them since they include antbirds, antwrens and antshrikes); and 2) the Furnariids, sometimes called “ovenbirds,” despite the fact that only one small subgroup actually constructs ovens.  

We saw 13 species of Antbirds, but unfortunately the most cooperative one was also the most boring, the well-named Uniform Antshrike.

Uniform Antshrike, Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve
The rest stayed true to form and avoided camera lenses and sunshine.

Summing all our woodcreepers, spinetails, foliage-gleaners, treerunners, et al. yields 29 furnariid species for the trip.  The foliage-gleaners usually aren’t much higher than eye level, but this Buff-fronted sat out in the sub-canopy where it went to work on some sort of insect larva. 


Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaner, Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve

Spinetails are generally hard to see at all, but we got a few great looks at these Azara’s.

Azara's Spinetails, Valle de Cauca

Once again up at 3500 meters altitude in the paramo where the vegetation gets sparse some of these birds get a lot easier.  

Stout-billed Cinclodes, Los Nevados National Park
This Stout-billed Cinclodes didn’t seem to care about much of anything but sitting on this fence post. 

Another difficult group familiar to us northerners are, of course, the owls.  Normally I have terrible luck with tropical owls, but on this trip we had some of the best owling I’ve ever experiences anywhere. 
As a group we saw (yes, with our eyes!)  five owl species: Tropical Screech-owl, White-throated Screech-Owl, Colombian Screech-Owl…

Stygian Owl, Chetnut-capped Piha Reserve


…and this Stygian Owl, which was among our favorite encounters of the trip.  

The Stygian Owl was right outside the lodge at the Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve, unfortunately Mark was sequestered away laundering his socks.  We couldn’t find him and so he missed it—tragic, given his love for owls, as demonstrated by his owl conservation work in North Carolina for New Hope Audubon Society. 

Not 15 minutes after getting over Stygian Owl euphoria, we stumbled upon this Mottled Owl…

Mottled Owl, Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve

…which I was thrilled to be able to remove from my ‘heard-only’ list.

We’ll end this post and this Colombia series with a bird group that in the modal human consciousness is probably most-associated with the tropics: parrots!

“But wait!” you’re thinking. “Parrots are brightly colored and don’t skulk and hide.”   Yes, but they’re brightly colored green.  It isn’t an accident that green is also the color of leaves!  So they are either: 1) surprisingly well camouflaged in the canopy, or 2) silhouettes screeching and flying high overhead identifiable only to genus level unless you can sort out their screech notes.  While we recorded perhaps a dozen psittacid species, the number that gave soul-satisfying views could almost fit on one hand.  
 
We were lucky in that among the handful that cooperated were some real gems:

Golden-Plumed Parakeet, Vulnerable Colombian endemic, Rio Blanco Reserve
Golden-plumed Parakeets are notoriously difficult and this was a lifer even for Natalia who has spent extensive time in appropriate Andean habitat. 

Another parrot, the Rufous-fronted Parakeet, a Vulnerable Colombian endemic, was one of our primary targets for our trip to the paramo of Los Nevados.  After an unsuccessful morning of searching we were ready to call it a miss. Fortunately Jacob had gotten into the habit of skipping lunch to beat for the bush for extra birds and in this instance his fast paid off for the whole group. When he came sprinted up the road screaming about parrots everybody ditched their cafĂ© y huevos con pancito and tore after him.  


Rufous-fronted Parakeet, Los Nevados National Park
It was well worth letting breakfast and coffee get cold to see a flock of nine of these odd, cute parakeets!

This will be my last Colombia post until the next trip (in case you missed the last two: part 1 and part 2) and I’ve still just scratched the surface, really.

So many awesome things had to be left out, like the Black-billed Mountain-Toucan; or the vagrant Near-Threatened Orinoco Goose that we found at the Sonso wetland two Andean cordilleras west of its expected range; or this awesome skulking Tody Motmot that Jacob finally found for us after an hour of unsuccessful searching for the source of the vocalization.  

Tody Motmot, Antioquia

Well I guess that last one made it in!  

 It’s been a few weeks now, but I’m still feeling the effects of withdrawal.  Hopefully some fall migrants this weekend can shake off the post-neotropical birding funk.