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.



Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Birds of Colombia: the joy of tropical bird feeding

This is another post about birds I recently saw in Colombia.  For the first, most important installment, click here.

Here birdie, birdie, birdie!

Where would birding be without backyard feeders?  Birder or not, most people in the US become familiar with birds as the cute little feathered things that eat seeds out of a tray in the backyard.  

Bird feeding is not as ubiquitous in the tropics as it is in the states,  but where it happens, the results are often spectacular.   

Blue-necked Tanager, Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve

Safflower and thistle won’t get you far here; it’s all about the bananas!


Silver-throated Tanager, Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve


Bay-headed Tanager, Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve


Every elevation offers a slightly different assemblage of tanagers.

Golden Tanager, Tatama National Park
Colombian Chachalaca, Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve

What?! Get out of here you chachalaca!  These bananas aren’t for you.  

Of course not all the tanagers go for bananas.  This young Multicolored Tanager (Vulnerable Colombian endemic) seemed to prefer the worms offered up by its parent.

immature Multicolored Tanager begging mom for food, Otun Quimbaya National Park
Yum!
And then there’s the nectar-feeders.  Yeah, a few lucky folks in southern Arizona might enjoy a regular hummingbird spectacle, but the diversity down here is off the charts.  We saw a whopping 50 species, including some real stunners: 

young Violet-tailed Sylph, Tatama National Park
Black-thighed Puffleg, Los Nevados National Park - Near-threatened
Blue-headed Sapphire, Valle de Cauca - Colombian endemic

Imagine if people in the US could see this array from the kitchen window.  I reckon the outlook for Neotropical birds would be much rosier.

Sadly, habitat loss threatens far too many Colombian bird species.  About 5% of the species we saw are listed as threatened (or "near-threatened") by the IUCN, including the critically endangered Munchique Wood-Wren, which is known from just one mountain ridge in Tatama National Park. 

In addition to the Cauca Guan and Chestnut-capped Piha shown in the last post, I also got decent photos of these threatened species:

Gold-ringed Tanager, Tatama National Park - Vulnerable Colombian endemic


Buffy Helmetcrest, Los Nevados National Park - Vulnerable Colombian endemic


White-mantled Barbet, Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve - Vulnerable Colombian endemic


In some places you can even feed the endangered species.  Antpitta feeding was invented by Angel Paz in Ecuador, but it has been emulated since by other reserves throughout the Andes.  At Rio Blanco reserve our antpitta whisperer, Alvero, drew four species to us with worms.  Including the beautiful, but not endangered Chestnut-capped Antpitta...

Chestnut-capped Antpitta, Rio Blaco Reserve


...and the less-beautiful, but vulnerable and Colombian endemic Brown-banded Antpitta.   
 
Brown-banded Antpitta, Rio Blanco Reserve - Vulnerable Colombian endemic
Also seen was the Vulnerable Bicolored Antpitta and Slaty-crowned Antpitta.

There’s no shame in feeder watching in Colombia where there are endemic and threatened birds to see!
In some places all you have to do is throw the compost out the back door and you’ll have rails running up to your feet.  

Blackish Rail, Tatama National Park
The previous Colombia post caused some people to reevaluate their lives and birding lifestyles.  I sure hope this one didn't ruin your enjoyment of cardinals and chickadees!

Next time we will peer through undergrowth and darkness in search of skulking species.  Hope to see you there (unlike most of the tapaculos).

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Welcome to Colombia, Birdiest Country on Earth


My retinas are still scorched from gaudy tanagers and glittering hummingbirds; my ears still ringing from exuberant antshrike and tapaculo songs; and my brain still trying to comprehend how this guan, once overhunted in dwindling forest fragments to the point of presumed extinction, sat in a tree in front of me to be photographed.

Cauca Guan, Otun Quimbaya National Park - Endangered Colombian endemic, less than 1000 mature individuals remain

This wasn’t my first time around the block in South America, but I’m not sure I’ve sustained such a fast and hard birding pace over so many days before anywhere.  Natalia Ocampo-Penuela assembled a dream team of eight natural scientist friends, planned an optimal route from Cali to Medellin, and collectively we managed to log nearly 500 of Colombia's 1900+ bird species (making it #1 in the world) in just 12 days in the Colombian Andes.  



the Dream Team atop a peak in Tatama National Park

 
To put that in perspective, I’m still waiting to tick my 500th species for the United States, the country where I’ve lived and birded for over a decade.  

For hardcore listers, that’s the magic of birding the neotropics—one can see in 12 days the avian diversity that it might take 12 years to experience in the temperate zone.   For the more aesthetically-minded, it offers the chance to see some of the most bizarre and beautiful creatures on the planet while wandering through primeval landscapes. 
Golden-crowned Tanager, Los Nevados National Park

And birds are just the tip of an iceberg for the entemologically-(or botanically)-inclined.

Will (our team lepidopterist) making the most of a midday bird lull


Our trip took us from the Pacific lowland rainforests of San Cipriano, where we rode Brujitas (“little witches” is a literal translation for the name of the motorbike-powered rail platforms used there for transport) up to the open Paramo of Los Nevados National Park. And we covered the breadth of cloud forest elevations between all over the Western and Central Andes. 


Trip Route


We saw so many birds and bird families, but I always get asked, “which was your favorite?” So let’s start there.

I struggle with favorites, especially with so many to choose from, but one of them has to be the Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, a hawk-sized monster in the cotinga family and one of New World’s largest passerines.    

Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Otun Quimbaya National Park
Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Otun Quimbaya National Park


We did well on cotingas on the trip, spotting 8 members of this diverse family including one that rivals the Cauca Guan in terms of absolute rarity, the Chestnut-capped Piha.
Chestnut-capped Piha (look at that cap!), Chesnut-capped Piha Reserve - Endangered Colombian endemic

An estimated 750 to 1250 Chestnut-capped Pihas remain in existence.  Not surprisingly the species is endemic to Colombia and is listed as endangered.  We saw ours in the well-named “Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve,” essentially the only place they are known to persist.

Also included with the Cotingas were three fruiteater species we saw, the most common and cooperative of which was the Green-and-black Fruiteater.  
Green-and-Black Fruiteater male, Tatama National Park
Green-and-black Fruiteater female, Tatama National Park

Natalia’s favorite bird of the trip was also a cotinga, this Black-tipped Cotinga of which we saw several in San Cipriano.  While most tropical birds are either colorful or camouflaged, this bird is one of the few in the forest that is almost entirely white.  

Black-tipped Cotinga, San Cipriano - totally blown out white in this photo

At the other end of the size spectrum from the fruitcrow lies the Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, which is the world’s smallest passerine species.

Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, San Cipriano - world's smallest passerine




This cute guy belongs to the much maligned tyrant flycatcher family, the most diverse bird family in both Colombia and South America.  Birders like to hate on tyrant flycatchers because “they all look the same.”  While that’s true of some groups (I’m looking at you elaenia!), we stumbled upon several of the more distinctive and attractive examples among more than 50 flycatcher species encountered on the trip.  
Fork-tailed Flycatcher is a bird that if it should appear in North Carolina might inspire psychotic birders to drive hours in chase, whereas in Colombia it’s kind of a ho-hum yard bird.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, near Cali

Same goes for the most brilliant of all tyrannids, the Vermillion Flycatcher.
Vermillion Flycatcher, near Cali

Cinnamon Flycatchers, as cute as they look, are “trash birds” of the cloud forest.  Even the birders that scream “eagle!” at every passing Black Vulture quickly learn to ignore this ubiquitous tyrant.

Cinnamon Flycatcher, Montezuma


Unfortunately my photo of one of the cutest flycatchers of all, the Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher came out blurry…

Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher, Rio Blanco Reserve


…so take this Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher instead.

Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Antioquia
Let's take an interlude here for a quick, old-fashioned, near-death-experience story:

About halfway into the trip I learned about one of the risks that comes with birding in the tropics.  At night at the Montezuma Lodge in Tatama National Park, thousands of moths and other nocturnal insects would swarm at the lights over our dinner table.  A kaleidoscope of unimaginably ornate, delicate things crashing into the walls, lighting on shirt sleeves.  As I stooped to examine some sort of behemoth rhinoceros beetle that had just bounced off the ceiling when I felt a sharp pain in my neck.  Ouch!

I reflexively reached for the pain and felt nothing but a rapidly forming welt.  As my companions sitting around the table recounted the day’s dozen hummingbirds, I felt my head grow hot as if swelling.  My lips began to inflate and face grew tight.  My body itched everywhere.  Was I being bitten by bugs?  No.  I was going into anaphylactic shock!

Our team doctor, Mr. Mark K. (not an actual doctor) administered antihistamine, which may or may not have saved my life.  I spent the next couple hours wheezing, trying to will my throat not to seal itself shut.  The closest hospital was at least 6 hours away on rough roads, so a medical evacuation was never even worth considering.

This condition presented a novel conundrum for me: I figured I should try to come up with some profound and choice last words, but at the same time I didn't want to waste any breath on speech.   

Anyway, since you’re reading this, I obviously made it through.  In fact I was out birding the first thing the next morning.  But sometimes there’s a balance between chasing lifers and staying alive.

---
 
So where were we?  Right, we covered a couple of the perch-and-sally-types, the Cotingas and Flycatchers.  Let’s talk about the ducks for a hot second and call it a day!

Ducks in the tropics?  Indeed.

During our morning at the Sonso wetland down in the Cauca valley between the central and western cordilleras, we spotted Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Cinnamon and early migrating Blue-winged Teal; and in Los Nevados we spotted four Andean Teal and an Andean Ruddy Duck.  

But the best duck of the trip (if not of all time!) came at a random roadside stop on the way to Otun.

Torrent Duck family, Risaralda

I had seen Torrent Ducks before, but never a whole family all together battling the rapids!

Enjoy the video.  



In the next post we will explore the joy of tropical bird feeding (expect colorful Tanagers and Hummingbirds!).

Stay tuned and stay safe!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks have been showing up all over the place recently, with brief appearances in each of North Carolina's three physiographic regions: mountains, piedmont and coastal plain, as well as northern outliers turning up Massachusetts and New Brunswick all in the last several weeks.  So on the one hand, a record of this species at Mattamuskeet is probably long over due.  Yet prior to 2013 there were only two formally confirmed North Carolina occurrences, so the pair I stumbled upon on Monday is certainly worth some excited documentation. 

It all began innocently enough. With the recent discovery of White-faced Ibises hanging around the refuge (see this post and this post) I have been giving any Glossy Ibises I see a second look if I get the chance. The long days of late June meant that after 13 hours of field work there was still plenty of daylight and I somehow had the energy to scrutinize some distant ibises.  

I picked out a couple young of the year glossies showing some odd white markings on the neck and crown, which I've never before seen in photos of field guides.


freshly fledged Glossy Ibis, Mattamuskeet NWR
Glossy Ibis, Mattamuskeet NWR
I stopped as I was driving out and hopped out of my car planning to scope some distant ibis when I noticed this cute pair of ducks right in front of me. 

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge
The provenance question always comes up with vagrant duck species.  This pair shuffled away from me, but didn't take immediate flight, which gave me some decent photographic opportunities.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Mattamuskeet NWR
They dabbled among the marsh plants (looks like the invasive Alligator Weed) a bit.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks Mattamuskeet, NWR
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Mattamuskeet NWR
They seemed to be quite at home among the other impoundment denizens. 
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks with Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis, White Ibis
They eventually began to preen.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Mattamuskeet NWR
I'm not sure what to make of this 'dance.'


After about 30 minutes the Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks abruptly picked up.  I followed them with binoculars and then switched to my scope until they became just wiggling dots against the sky that disappeared below the horizon to the south-southeast.  I thought that perhaps they might have resettled in one of the refuge impoundments in that direction, but a half-hearted search the following day failed to turn any up.   It seems like these ducks do not frequently linger after being found. 

In between shots of the Whistling-Ducks, I noticed a male Northern Pintail that had foregone the standard northern migration. He was keeping company with what appears to be a female Mottled Duck, another southern duck species with a complicated local history of anthropogenic introduction and showing a trend of northward expansion.


female Mottled Duck (right) with Northern Pintail, Mattamuskeet NWR
All at once I've got two species of duck that could possibly be considered first records for Hyde County if the authorities can stomach provenance concerns.

What will turn up at Mattamuskeet next?  Perhaps a Purple Gallinule?  There have been plenty of those turning up in NC lately, but it would take a good bit of luck to discover one among the sprawl of habitat available on the refuge. 

Until next time...