06 September 2010

Lago Calima

For the budget traveler, there is really only one way to get around in South America: public transportation. Luckily, the public transport systems are well set up, and it is near impossible to not get a cab while in even the most modest sized towns. However, for the long hauls across mountain ranges and between towns, the best option by far is to go by bus. I had heard the legends of the Latin American bus rides, but suddenly I was faced by my first one. We were traveling from Bogota to Cali, which, looking at a map, didn't seem all that far to me. In fact, I would've been surprised if it was more than five hours.

It turns out I was five hours short on my estimate.

An entire day was swallowed up by the unending mountain ridges and expansive river valleys of central Colombia. Some of the most incredible canyons I have ever seen carved through razorback ridges on their ways to Colombia's major rivers. The tropical lowlands amazed me, and I saw such cool birds as Striated Heron and Squirrel Cuckoo from the buses windows. This bus turned out to be the nicest of the whole trip - large windows, sleeper seats, and the occasional bad fighting movie. However, by days' end we were finally into Cali, and after a short night's sleep were off on our next bus, this one to the north of Cali, to a small town called Darien. This bus, thankfully, was much shorter and proved to contain a few more life birds for me, such as Saffron Finch and Cocoi Heron. We then arrived at Darien with time for a short walk along the lake to see what was out and about and specifically to look for a new taxon of hummingbird that was recently described. As we walked out, the life birds stacked up and overwhelmed me. Flame-rumped Tanagers flew through the trees, a Crested Bobwhite called nearby and Grassland Yellow-Finches were flushed left and right. We soon found a nice copse of trees, and began our vigil for the hummingbird. The trees were abuzz with Western Emeralds and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and we soon spotted our target bird briefly: the Black-capped Woodnymph. A paper recently published describes this distinctive hummer only found around Lago Calima, essentially identical to a Green-crowned with a black cap. What exactly will happen to it taxonomically is yet to be determined.

Darien, Valle de Cauca, Colombia: The view from our hotel room.

The next morning we went to check out some other woods, and I saw my first ever woodcreeper (a Montane) and my first ever antbird (Bar-crested Antshrike). Everywhere I turned, I was overwhelmed with the awesomeness that is neotropical birding. Blue-black Grassquit, Spectacled Parrotlet, and Crimson-backed Tanager all put in excellent appearances. A few of our familiar North American birds also showed themselves, including the resident Colombian subspecies of Acorn Woodpecker and the interesting South American subspecies of Black Phoebe. However, at this point during my travels, I began to feel sick, and slowly wandered down to the hotel. That afternoon, as I relaxed and hoped for the best health wise, we took a bus back to Cali and began plotting our next ornithological move in Colombia.

02 September 2010

El Parque La Florida

As I type this, I am recovering from a long and arduous weekend. What was meant to be a college kid run for delicious burritos just off campus ended eight hours later after our car was in a wreck and we had to deal with everything associated therein. Luckily, all of the members of both cars were fine, and I am nothing but a little sore. Of course, the anxiety and stress that always accompanies these events is getting to me now, but when I close my eyes I can think back to my my first day in South America, and think back to another time in which I was in shock and disbelief, but for much better reasons.

It all started when Andrew and I headed to one of the nearby squares for breakfast. I quickly saw my first South American species of bird: the Rufous-collared Sparrow. This ubiquitous bird was utterly fascinating to me, the lone member of its genus found south of the Mexico. Even though they were by many standards 'trash birds,' I never tired of watching these cool little sparrows hopping about the streets and yards.

Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis), El Parque La Florida, Bogota, Colombia

As we continued onward towards our destination, every bird that crossed our path was a life bird! A flock of Brown-bellied Swallows cruising overhead, a Great Thrush darting through the trees, and a dumpy Eared Dove sitting on the wire. Andrew and I soon decided to head out to one of the city parks to bird for a bit: El Parque La Florida.

After an extremely long taxi ride across the city, we finally arrived at the wastewater reclamation area and city park known as La Florida. This place seemed amazingly mediocre to me, just like a North American city park to me at first, but the birdlife did not disappoint. American Coots and Spot-flanked Gallinules cruised the lake, while Common Moorhens, Eared Doves, and Rufous-collared Sparrows made themselves known. As we walked along the marsh grasses unsuccessfully trying to find a close Apolinar's Wren I spotted my first ever neotropical tanager - a Rufous-browed Conebill, a near endemic bird to Colombia! Even Andrew got a life bird (spotted by yours truly) that day - a Subtropical Doradito skulking in the bullrush. However, my most wanted bird of the day did not appear until the very end: the rare, endangered, and localized Bogota Rail. As we walked out of the park (having only heard the rail), we found one last patch of rush to try for the rail. Yellow-hooded Blackbird and Spot-flanked Gallinule quickly vacated the area, and not long after out came a Bogota Rail!

Bogota Rail (Rallus semiplumbeus), El Parque La Florida, Bogota, Colombia.

Overall, it was an amazing introduction to the neotropics, and an excellent start at that! In fact, I never saw another rail on the entire trip. Now, armed with my very first neotropical bird experiences, I began to gear up for the rest of my Colombian adventure, and wondered just what lay ahead of me.

30 August 2010

A Night to Remember

The first thing I noticed was the cold. After being in Orlando, it was almost stark. The crisp, cool mountain air flooded my senses as I stepped out of the door. Slowly, my eyes began to adjust to the lights outside. The sounds of engines surrounded us, and somewhere nearby I could hear shouting in Spanish. As I glanced down before me, I slowly began to move with the crowd. Security personnel with machine guns watched us exiting the plane, and ushered us onto the soon to be overcrowded bus nearby. I hustled aboard, following those that I had confidence knew what was going on. The bus soon began to accelerate, weaving beneath other planes, showing us tempting glances of the city lights beyond. After a few bumps and quick curves, we were ushered back out of the van, and a long and mostly barren corridor lay before me, crowded with people waiting for the magic stamp. I slowly jostled and maneuvered my way through the crowd, until finally, after what seemed (and possibly was ) hours, walked up to a lady in a DAS uniform. After some language difficulties, I answered her questions as best I could, and my brand new passport received its first stamp ever: one for the Republica de Colombia. I could not believe it. The day I had been waiting for longer than I could remember had finally come. I was in South America, and Colombia no less. I slowly walked out, retrieving my backpack and waiting for my friend Andrew Spencer to rejoin me. We checked out through security, took out some Colombian pesos, and briskly paced into the bustling horde of people and taxis, and soon got an unmarked one for our hotel. My first ever taxi ride sped by (quite literally, as anyone who has driven in Latin America can attest to) under the lights of Bogota. We soon arrived at our little hotel on the other side of the city, and I quickly began to fall asleep. It was the night of 17 June 2010, and ahead of me lay almost two months of South American birding. I had no idea what to expect, armed only with the drawings of birds I had never seen, memories of specimens I had carefully studied and what I imagined those birds to look like in my head. And as I fell asleep that night, I glanced out at the lowly lit rooftops and wondered and pondered about what my first ever South American bird would be...

Over the next several posts, I will talk about this amazing trip I had, my first South American trip ever. Over the months I did things I did not think were possible for me to do, saw birds the likes of which I had never imagined, and made friends that I will have for the rest of my life. I will try to post up at least once a week to cover the entire trip, along with additional posts from what is going on now. Until then, good birding!

15 June 2010

A Busy Busy Summer

Northern Arizona is a wild and rugged place. One of the most remote localities in the lower 48 states, the Arizona strip is an awesome place to bird. Unfortunately, that means internet is few and far between as well. I will try to post up stuff as soon as I can, but that will also prove to be difficult, as I have no idea how prevalent internet is in South America either...

Hope you all have a great summer, and I will post by August at the latest. In the mean time, go out and have fun! Have a good summer.

07 May 2010

An American Jungle

The Sunday after we got back from Texas, Michael, his roommate Jesse, and I went out to the Atchafalaya basin. As the steamy summer weather sinks in, birds have started to become as thick as the foliage. Wood Thrush, Hooded Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, and Yellow-eyed Vireo were just some of the highlights as we wandered back in the woods. The tall trees with the thick carpet of brush and ferns is the closest thing I have ever seen to the jungle. Birds crawled along the branches singing, and we walked through the shady depths of the woods. One of the highlights of this walk, at least for me, was a lifer I had been hoping for since I came to Louisiana, the elusive Swainson's Warbler. Luckily, we had about five birds singing and we actually got halfway decent looks at one:

Swainson's Warbler, Sherburne WMA, Louisiana

As I write this, I am now entering finals week here at LSU. Summer is almost upon us! Until then, take care and good birding!

02 May 2010

A Plateau Named Edward

It was go time. I briskly walked from my class to the small, cell-like living space I call home. I scrambled to get my gear together, knowing that Kevin was not far away. I choked down a cheeseburger and some fries, grabbed my binoculars, camera and other gear and headed out the door. Kevin Morgan was ready and waiting, and we quickly grabbed Michael Hilferty and started heading west to the Ashe-Juniper Oak wonderland known as the Edward's Plateau.

On our way out, we stopped at many notable Louisiana locations to check for breeding birds and migrants. We briefly walked around Sherburne around noon and were regaled by Painted Buntings and the unending racous songs of Yellow-breasted Chats. We then headed further west and came upon Cameron Parish. We quickly diverted off the road, careful not too spend too much time at any one location due to our tight schedule. A brief drive through Cameron Prairie yielded the best looks I have ever had of a Sora and numerous shorebirds. We then continued on towards Peveto Woods, where we quickly scrambled through the brush after migrants. Though activity was down, many species were still present. A (presumed) Yellow-bellied Flycatcher flitted by, a couple Rose-breasted Grosbeaks hid in the woods, showy orioles bounded through the trees, and many other birds skulked in the woods. Michael was on fire in the woods, being able to find his lifer Ovenbird in the chenier scrub and locating his (and Kevin's) lifer Olive-sided Flycatcher. We soon piled back into the car again though and continued the impossibly long haul to Austin, Texas.

The next morning, we met Rebekah Rylander just outside of Austin to see the two birds our entire trip revolved around: the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. Unfortunately, we had a few lock problems at first and had to walk in to get the combo and then retrace our steps to let the cars into the preserve. This unintentional walk became some of the best birding of the weekend though! As soon as we arrived at an open area, I spotted my first lifer of the trip: a singing Grasshopper Sparrow! We then began to walk around the house, and the lifers started to stack up. Kevin's first ever Clay-colored Sparrow rummaged through the low grass in Michael's lifer Lark Sparrow flock, and a Ladder-backed Woodpecker flew over us. As soon as Rebekah got the codes for the locks, I jogged back to the cars with her and began pulling in. A brief pause on the drive in granted me a surprise though: a Golden-cheeked Warbler! I watched the bird for a few seconds, and then continued on to meet the group. There were more further in, and it would be more fun to see these birds as a group.

We all piled into Rebekah's car and headed further into the woods. Spring migrants filled the junipers, with a flock of at least 50 Mississippi Kites streaming by, dozens of Chipping Sparrows flushing from the brush and a few Black-throated Green Warblers singing in the oaks. After searching unsuccessfully in the brush for Black-capped Vireos we decided to try a known Golden-cheeked spot that was disturbingly quiet. We all split up to cover more ground, and as I walked back by myself, I heard the distinctive buzzy song of our target bird. I quickly called Michael, and began to track the bird down. Little did I know that it was right on top of me! Amazingly, it came out in the open, and just by luck I snapped off a nice clear shot:

Golden-cheeked Warbler, Austin, Texas

Michael soon came crashing out of the brush from chasing Black-crested Titmice around, and I got him on the bird and ran back to grab Kevin. Unfortunately, when we returned it had moved off-trail and was a heard only bird for Kevin. By now it was about 11 o'clock and Rebekah needed to get going, so we began to drive out of the reserve. I had my window rolled down, and heard a slight buzzy note over the crunch of the car. "Black-capped Vireo!" We pulled over, and Rebekah asked me if I was sure, as this was not one of the staked out spots. In the brush a vireo gave a few chatter notes like a White-eyed, and then finally gave a distinctive Black-capped wheeze. We moved in slowly when suddenly, about fifty yards off, a male Black-capped Vireo hopped out in the open for a second! Victory was ours. We all managed to get equally quick looks at the bird and soon headed out of the park and southward towards Pedernales State Park.

At the state park, we continued to rack up western birds. (Woodhouse's) Western Scrub-Jay, Painted Buntings and other cool birds abounded, and we found three more Golden-cheeked Warblers (one of which Kevin got to see). It was after this that we began the long drive home, happy and tired from the amazing day of central Texas birding.

27 April 2010

April

Well, once again I let myself go for too long without doing a post. And, once again, the stuff to report has really piled up! In early April I went to New England for spring break and met up with Andrew Spencer and Ian Davies, and briefly with Brendan Fogarty and Luke Seitz. It was a great week packed with birds that had yet to go north for the winter, and some early migrants just trickling into the northeast. In all, I got twelve life birds over the break: Monk Parakeet, Common Eider, American Black Duck, Black Scoter, King Eider (my 600th world bird!), Harlequin Duck, Snowy Owl, American Woodcock, Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, Manx Shearwater, and Saltmarsh Sparrow. I will try to post some more about some specific encounters in the future, after my schedule opens up a little after finals.

Yesterday, however, I took a quick break from studying with my friend Michael Hilferty to check out the Mississippi River Levee at LSU. Amazingly, there were virtually no migrants in the woods, but we did get to see two Prothonotary Warblers in a territorial dispute. As we were leaving, though, Michael spotted two Western Kingbirds on a fence - a state bird for me and a lifer for him! As we continued down the levee, we found a group of Solitary Sandpipers and soon had another group of shorebirds fly in giving calls I had never heard before. At first I assumed that they were also Solitaries, but upon further inspection was amazed to see five Buff-breasted Sandpipers! This was a lifer for both of us, and a darn good bird to boot!

I will post more in the near future. As soon as finals let up I will have some more time. Until then, good birding!

15 April 2010

I though it was spring?

DATE: 28 March 2010

The morning and early afternoon had proved productive. The amoeba-like mass of birders to which I belonged had amorphously wandered through most of the woods and field of Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish, and had turned up many good birds. Northern Parulas were singing in people's yards, a surprise Swallow-tailed Kite arced above a wooded lot, and a flock of warblers sat above a termite nest, feasting on the emerging queens. The bright colors of the freshly molted warblers was nice; the buff breast of the Worm-eating Warbler, the flash of the Swamp Canary (Prothonotary Warbler) in the brush, the dapper Black-and-white and several Palm Warblers flitted in the oaks. However, our greatest surprise on the day was on the coast a little while later. We were all but finished for the day, having scoured almost every patch of barrier island dirt, when the lingering winter migrants began to show. The increasing numbers of shorebirds were overlooked as we gazed to see at the line of 60+ Northern Gannets cruising through the near-shore waters. As we all stood there exhausted, we prepared to leave when Kevin Morgan suggested that we check one more spot. I sighed tiredly, and we began to venture out towards the other end of Elmer's Island.

I believe we all had thoughts of just going home at this point. We had birded Grand Isle, and we had a great day. But then, we spied a last group of gulls, and certain words inappropriate for younger audiences dribbled from my lips: in the back of the group was a gigantic white gull. There was no mistaking it. It was a second-cycle Glaucous Gull! We excitedly began to get out of the car to document this amazing bird. The best bird of our spring migration day turned out to be a lingering winterer from the far north. This large gull reminded to always expect the unexpected.

2nd Cycle Glaucous Gull, Grand Isle, Louisiana

22 March 2010

Colorado Trip Revisited

Unfortunately, I have been busy with school (just finished midterms), but David Bell just put up a trip report from January in Colorado. I'll start posting here again soon; Yellow-throated Warblers and Parulas have started showing up in mass, along with a few Swallow-tailed Kites!

24 February 2010

Ruff

I had never been so happy to hear blaring indie rock before. The whining synthesizer of my ringtone annoyingly announced the joyous news. I scrambled for my phone, and was horrified when the call was dropped. Kevin Morgan stared out into the flooded rice fields, waiting for the news. In the distance, we could see another birding car starting to speed away. Call back: answering machine. I quickly re-dialed: answering machine. I swore under my breath, and tried one more time. "Hello?" the crackly voice asked. "ERIK - what's up? You get it?" "Ya, I -t it, 'bout - mile west -of in--section..." Barely enough information had made it through, but it was enough. We hastily made our way back out to the highway and began coasting along the flooded rice fields. Long-billed Dowitchers covered the fields, interspersed with Greater Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plovers, Killdeer and the occasional peep. It was here in this flooded back-country of Louisiana near Thornwell that Steve Cardiff, Donna Dittman, and Paul Conover found a winter male Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) the day before. We coasted by the previously reported location, and I glanced out at the small flooded field through the bitter wind. Erik was already there, with a scope pointed towards the rarest bird within a hundred miles. I walked over to the scope and slowly eased my eyes to the eyepiece, and there it was.

Ruff, Thornwell, Louisiana

Ruffs are normally Eurasian birds, but every year a few of them stray into the United States. This bird has been recorded in almost every state now, but remains sporadic and unpredictable most of the time. I consider myself lucky to have been able to see this amazing vagrant.

16 February 2010

Ammodramus Adventures

Over the past few weekends, I have done several Louisiana birding trips with one group of birds as the main target: the grassland birds. Being from the intermountain west, the 'grassland birds' always seemed out of reach, going through the center of the continent and hardly ever crossing the Rocky Mountains. So when I came here to Louisiana, I was hoping to pick up on these grassland birds that winter at forest fringes or reach the eastern edge of their range in this swampy state.

And so, two weekends ago, Jerry (cannot remember his last name, sorry), Jeff Harris, Kevin Morgan and I headed out into the pine-savannah of St. Tammany Parish. On the north shore of Lake Pontchartrian near the Mississippi border, this parish helps make the toe of Louisiana's 'boot' on a map. We arrived at about 8 o'clock in the morning to rondezvous with some New Orleans birders to find the elusive bird of the thick grasses: Henslow's Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii).

When the entire group had assembled, we headed into the marshy grasses. Jeff explained to me that this area was actually a pitcher plant bog, one of a few in the state. Indeed, the first thing of interest we found in the entire area was a dead pitcher plant. These amazing plants entice insects to fly inside their leaves and digest them for additional nutrients in their nutrient-deprived environment. We continued on over these interesting plants, scaring up numerous Sedge Wrens (Cistothorus platensis)along the way. It was fun seeing these birds in their natural habitat, after only having seen the lone Western Colorado individual found by Ron Lambeth in the past.

After about an hour of scouring the field, we finally flushed up the bird we all desired. Unfortunately, the only views we had were of the Heslow's Sparrow flying quickly as it darted out of the way, but I was able to glimpse the diagnostic green face and darkish back on this amazing eastern Sparrow.

The next weekend, Kevin, Jeff and I decided to head north to Caddo Parish to try our luck with grassland species. We were not disappointed, finding a group of about six Lapland Longspurs in a field north of Shreveport. While there, we also had a small group of longspurs that I believe to be Chestnut-collareds as well! This is a review bird for Louisiana though, so we will have to see if it gets accepted. (Note to self: submit record.)

Later, we joined Terry Davis at the Shreveport Regional Airport:

Shreveport Regional Airport, Louisiana

Our goal bird was Smith's Longspur, possibly the hardest longspur to get in the world. Though we did not find them, we did have lots of other cool grassland birds, the most notable of which was a Sprague's Pipit! I got one other lifer there as well: Le Conte's Sparrow.

Two days later, I did some winter bird atlasing with Jeff and Jacob Saucier in Avoyelles Parish in an area known as big bend. This was some of the best lowland swamp forest I have ever seen, and we had a great time. Though species diversity was fairly low, we had a lot of cool birds, such as Pileated Woodpecker checking out a nest hole, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, and Blue-headed Vireo.

Jacob Saucier in Big Bend

Until next time, good birding!

02 February 2010

The Creature from the Flooded Woods

The Louisiana Ornithological Society (LOS) field trip stared into the tangled, fallen mass of trunks. A chatter call erupted from the flooded timber, announcing the presence of an impossibly small bird for such a loud sound. Soon, the bird became visible to us all: an Eastern Winter Wren, a lifer for me and Kevin Morgan! The bird scurried up a trunk, checking out the loose bark and branch tangles for food. The bird was noticeably paler than the two other Winter Wrens I had seen in the United States before, confirming its Eastern identity.

The only other times I have seen Winter Wren in the United States it has been the "Western (Pacific)" Wren, two migrant birds observed in different years in the vicinity of Connected Lakes State Park in Grand Junction, Colorado. These birds are told apart by being noticeably darker and possessing a different song from their Eastern cousins. Recent studies show that are probably different species, and in the coming years will probably be split into two separate species. It will be interesting to see how many species the "Winter Wren" becomes in the future. It is currently the only wren known from the Old World, and studies may prove that the population I saw in Ireland and other scattered European, Asian and North African populations are isolated species of their own.

Again, I apologize for the brief post, but school has been keeping me busy. I will try to post more things (and more interesting things) in the near future. Until then, good birding!

25 January 2010

All at once...

Again, I've been bad about keeping up with my blog. No excuses, I know. So instead of going into a twenty page monologue about everything, I'll just put up a few updates:

Winter with David Bell: We got 80 species in Colorado, with highlights being White-tailed Ptarmigan (heard only), TWO Northern Pygmy-Owls, and all three Rosy-Finches.

My last day of break here in Louisiana, I got my lifer Armadillo, plus Allen's Hummingbird, Broad-winged Hawk, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, and almost 80 other more common southern species.

School: I am now back at school, and trying to conquer my biggest nemesis: CHEMISTRY.

As you can imagine, Chemistry has been taking up most of my time. I hope to get out birding more soon though. Also, I encourage you to check out David Bell's blog: http://ssmbirding.blogspot.com/ . He has a lot of good photos and stories.

Take care!

06 January 2010

Farewell 2009

"...Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end..." - Closing Time by Semisonic

A high pitched twitter announced it's presence. The imposing sandstone walls echoed with call, as my friend David Bell and I walked through the snow of Arches National Park. Ahead of me, the shape of a sparrow darted out towards the Dark Angel Trail parking lot, disappearing into the thick fog that had fallen over the plateau. Shortly thereafter, the small sparrow reappeared, flying up onto an overhead ledge, revealing it's identity as an 'Oregon' Dark-eyed Junco. As I watched the bird fly against the dark sky I realized that it was probably my last bird of the year, and I was right. As we walked out of the labyrinth of stone we failed to find a single other bird, and so my birding year came to an end. What had started with the chip of a Rufous-winged Sparrow had come to a close 467 species later in Utah. All in all, it was an excellent year. Below are some of my favorite birds of the year:

Black-vented Shearwater: my first pelagic lifer of all time was seen off of Santa Cruz Island
Magnificent Frigatebird: my lifer flew almost directly overhead on Elmer's Island in front of a coming storm
Neotropic Cormorants: a flock of several hundred (dare I say, thousands) was in Cameron Parish on the telephone wires
Wood Stork: a flock of 400 made the sky white with birds along the Mississippi river one day
Whooper Swan: I was privileged enough to get excellent looks at this beautiful Eurasian swan in Hagerman, Idaho in January
California Condor: seeing over a dozen of these imposing birds was simply incredible
Common Black-Hawk: I finally caught up with this nemesis near Sunflower, AZ; thanks Tyler!
White-rumped Sandpiper: the largest flock of these ever in AZ was one of my SE AZ highlights
Pomarine Jaeger: my lifer jaeger was spotted on the boat to Santa Cruz
Elegant Tern: seeing two of these awesome terns in Tucson was very cool
Buff-collared Nightjar: excellent views of this bird are something I will not soon forget
Sinaloa Wren: My first lifer of the year was this incredible Mexican endemic, the first ABA record
Gnatcatchers: seeing all four in a week was awesome
Varied Thrush: finally got to see this majestic bird in Tumacacori, Arizona
Olive Warbler: a bird in full sun near Williams, Arizona was one of my summer highlights
Day of the Ammodrammus sparrows: birding along the LA coast, we had a flock of several dozen Seaside Sparrows and Nelson's [Sharp-tailed] Sparrows

At the end of the day, it is hard to say any bird or any birding trip was better than any other though. To all of you who birded with me in the past year: I wish you a great new year, and look forward to what the future brings!