Saturday, February 28, 2009

All hail Stuart

I've birded the last 2 days in Arizona with Stuart Healy, one of the more experienced guides in SE Arizona. I've never used a guide in the U.S. before so it's definitely been an interesting experience. The bottom line is that if you want to find that last 5-10% of the birds in an area, you either need a lot of time, or specialized knowledge. Lacking much time, I decided to invest, and was not disappointed.

We started this morning near Patagonia attempting to hear the long-staying Sinaloa Wren. We'd heard that yesterday it sang loudly for the first time in quite a while in the pre-dawn. Unfortunately it was much quieter today, it apparently gave one half-snippet of song which a cardinal walked all over and I didn't come close to hearing. We gave up after a little over an hour and headed about an hour and a half north and west to Florida Canyon in the Santa Ritas where rufous-capped warblers have been seen. When we arrived about a dozen birders were spread out along the section of trail where they'd been seen. We waited maybe 15 minutes before Stuart heard the bird singing from the far slope, the only one of the assembled to pick up on it. The bird popped up and I had good views through the scope of this distinctive chat-like bird. On our way down we ran into black-capped gnatcatchers, a species I had hoped we could find since I don't know that I could comfortably separate a female black-capped from the very similar female blue-gray. As it was there was a pair which made it much easier, though I had scope views of both birds. Since we'd saved ourselves from having to go back to Patagonia for more reliable black-cappeds, we headed back to the Huachucas to Scheelite Canyon to look for these:
As you can see, it helps to know what you're looking for. If you havn't found the bird yet look dead center and on the dark branch angling across the center is (at least the lower parts of) a spotted owl. Stuart has (over 900 or so visits) a 93% success rate in finding these birds that have a knack for eluding less experienced birders. As it was we had to move out of the Lower Roosting Area, a half mile or so up from the trailhead, where he finds about 80% of his owls and ascend another quarter mile or so to the much more spread out Upper Roosting Area. The birds roost in some species of small-leaved oak providing them cover and cool during the day. Here's my best pic of the bird; there was no way to get a clear shot at the entire bird due to all the branches, thickety undergrowth, and mobility limited by the canyon walls.

Back at the motel this verdin was in the planted trees. This was almost a nice portrait, right up to the point that the bird looked away.

Lesser goldfinches were also present, though I managed to crop off the tail as it was really close...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Belize part 7 - Las Milpas

The evening of day 4 saw us arrive at Las Milpas, a conservation district directly abutting the (large) territory of Chan Chich lodge. Chan Chich was in the neighborhood of $400 a night so my hope was that this would be similar birds at a MUCH more reasonable price.

Here's Ginger on the porch of our hut (again, errrrr cabana). I watched short-tailed hawks and king vultures fly over from the hammocks.

Monctezuma oropendolos displayed from a tree at the entrance drive where they were nesting colonially in massive pendulous nests. Vaguely related to orioles they were the size of small crows and as they made their display lunge (grainy video below) they would give a call which I could only describe as being intermediate between a house finch's song and a turkey gobble (my camera wasn't advanced enough to record sounds).

A rufous-tailed hummingbird, the most common hummingbird we found in Belize, came in to a feeder that I hung from the porch of the cabana (I think that feeder has about 10 species on its "lifelist" between trips to S Texas, Arizona, and Belize. Unfortunately I've lost the list). This bird must be fairly closely related to the buff-bellied hummingbirds that a person can see in south Texas.
I walked along the road in nice evening light and watched this white-lored parrot eat a peapod looking tree seed of some sort. The parrots in Belize overall were very skittish, and typically would remain once seen only if fairly well -screened by branches. I don't know if this is true everywhere or not.

A white-collared manakin appeared, a very striking bird boldly patterned in blocks of gleaming yellow, white and glossy black as did a few more barred antshrikes. A roadside hawk perched up nicely as well:

We took an night ride on the back of a haybale filled pick-up truck hoping to spotlight an owl, potoo, or even a jaguar, but had to be satisfied with a glimpse of what Ramon, our guide, described as a gibnot, a mammal I'd never heard of. After some discussion we determined that "gibnot" was the regional name of a largish long-legged rodent that I knew as a paca. Apparently in Belize the creature is a delicacy and was actually served to Queen Elizabeth many moons ago on an official state visit. The royal party was unaware that they were being served a rodent until after the meal; thereafter the animal was also nick-named the Royal Rat in Belize.

Ask not what the gibnot can give to you, ask what you can give to the gibnot.

Anyway, that night we got back to the hut and found 2 nearly hand-sized scorpions on the inner wall of the bathroom. It was a restless night. Believe when I tell you that no clothes, shoes, or anything else was left outside the suitcase. And of course this was the one place I had us slotted in for 2 nights. Ah well.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Belize part 6 - Lamanai ruins

On the afternoon of day 4 we drove to the Lamanai ruins in northern Belize. This remarkable area is one of the larger areas of excavated Mayan ruins. As per our experience at 1000 Foot Falls, the place was deserted by American standards. I also doubt that in America they would let you walk up to the top of the temple. I took the pic below using the timer setting with the camera on the tripod and then sprinting for our position on the temple.
I don't know the name of this flower but it's one I've always associated with the tropics:

Despite the heat of the day some large fruiting tree had attracted an amazing panoply of birds. I just called it the Wonderful Tree. All the rest of the photos were taken of birds in this tree alone.
A sulphur-bellied flycatcher (much more common in Belize than in SE Arizona):

A black-collared (citreoline) trogon:

I think euphonias are now lumped with finches rather than tanagers which is where they were placed when we were there. This, if memory serves, is a yellow-throated euphonia:

Finally a yellow-winged tanager, one of the few birds in nature that I've seen with true lavender.
Easily an entire day could have been spent at Lamanai going through far more of the ruins than we saw. A nice way to have done it would have been to have taken a boat trip from Crooked Tree to Lamanai on the river. There are also a couple lodges at Lamanai though they looked a little on the sketchy side (though this would have been a fun place to be in early morning). As it was we enjoyed our few hours there (where there was another cheeky gray fox and our first howler monkeys (which were indeed roaring from the trees - I had initial hopes for a jaguar but no such luck)).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Red, white and blue in February

You don't really expect that much in the way of bright color in mid-February, but today was the exception.

It started with Andre finding a (presumeably adult or near-adult female) hoary redpoll coming in to his feeders.  This bird is definitely a notch whiter than Tim's bird a few weeks ago.  It seemed to me to be just barely a size larger than the commons it was hanging out with.

Note the stub of a bill, whitish ground color and the very nicely whitening last scapulars:

The bird held its wings closed tightly and I honestly never had a terrific view of the rump end-on, this was my best view of it from the side.   It appears pretty white, I think that the streaking that's visible is pretty lateral.
Here's some views of the undertail coverts.  While on the ground we had to strain to see the very narrow central vein to the final feather.  On its single trip up to a thistle sock (when it landed atop the feeder it drew oohs and aahs it was so white) there's a subtle tint to the central vane of the feathers made invisible on the ground by the bloom of the flank feathers.

The redpoll wasn't the only bird attracted to the feeder set-ups.  A few pine siskins, a female purple finch, a calling red-shouldered hawk, and this very cooperative bluebird (whose initial song fragments my winter-rusted ears recognized as being something different and familiar but didn't click in until I actually saw the bird).

Finally some of the Sarett crew who twitched the redpoll brought news of a new (and fresh) crossbill spot so Tim and I headed over to Shawnee and Cleveland to pick them up for Baroda Twp.  They were pretty quiet, we didn't hear them on our first walk pass the line of conifers.
So, for the day I tallied a handful of Oronoko Twp birds, scored my best piccies of bluebird and WW crossbills, and saw my 4th-(give or take)-ever Hoary Redpoll.  Not bad for mid-February.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Belize part 5 - Crooked Tree Refuge

Day 3 we awakened to the chirping of gecko's from the curtains and corners of our room in the Crooked Tree Resort, definitely the least objectionable of the fauna we shared sleeping quarters with during the trip.  A yellow-throated warbler was flycatching bugs from a streetlight in the pre-dawn.

The water levels were very low due to it being the end of the dry season and we had to drive a couple miles to reach a spot where the lodge launched a boat trip from, seeing another jabiru as well as jacanas and a warmly-plumaged gray-necked wood-rail which sprinted across the plain into cover when we stopped.  We no sooner got out on the water when we came upon a young black-collared hawk and then a tiny but brilliant pygmy kingfisher (which I was about a quarter second away from digi-scoping (from the boat!)) when it flew.  A mangrove vireo shared the water's edge with this little crocodile:

We found boat-billed herons, a couple bare-throated tiger-herons, and ultimately this agami heron whose image I captured (poorly) with the digital camera held up to binoculars:
Apparently the next "easiest" place to see Agami heron is somewhere in Paraguay, a beautiful and rare bird.

A few spoonbills flew over in nice light, and we saw a few of the smaller birds perched up including pale-vented pigeon and this white-necked puffbird:
It was peaceful and warm, but our schedule dictated that we push on, so we drove into the northern part of the country to the Lamanai ruins over impressively pot-holed roads (the road commision was out, their job was basically to pour lime sand into the holes and move on).  We averaged about 25mph I think.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Belize part 4 - Mountain Pine Ridge

This is what we woke up to in our cabana (hut) in the Mountain Pine Ridge on Day 3, a traditional roof made of densely packed palm fronds draped over crossbars.  I have no idea what the life expectancy of such a roof would be.

Birding around the cabanas was quite productive in early morning light.  Melodious blackbirds, rusty sparrows (which were enormous), as well as birds I think of as SE Arizona birds like acorn woodpecker and hepatic tanager were all present.  Yellow-backed and yellow-tailed (below) orioles sang conspicuously:
 We walked a trail into a thicket area encountering an olivaceous woodcreeper as well as a female red-capped manakin (which was plain olive rather than the the stunning black, red, and yellow that a male presumably displays).  This olive-green woodpecker was also cooperative and was one of few birds that crossed over between the jungle habitats we'd previously experienced as well as this higher elevation piney area.

Here's what the terrain looks like.  They had a combination of some non-native beetle and (I think) fire that decimated much of the mature pine so it definitely has a Yellowstone feel with the forest of snags.

A red-lored parrot was more cooperative than the golden-hooded tanagers that appeared (they were an incredible iridescent blue-violet over a black ground color with a contrasting bobolink-like buffy hood):
In the afternoon we drove to the 1000 Foot falls (which actually is 1600 feet tall and is the tallest falls in Central (and North?) America.  Of course we stopped numerous times on the way for black-headed siskens, rufous-capped and Grace's warbler, fork-tailed flycatchers, scaled pigeon, and this laughing falcon.

The falls area (where I again just missed a shot of the above-mentioned tanagers) was utterly devoid of any other tourists.  In America there would have been a hundred people milling around.

Of course a birder wouldn't come here and not hope to see an orange-breasted falcon, perhaps seen more "easily" here than anywhere else in the world, as traditionally there is a nesting pair of these showy peregrine-sized birds.  This one was perched up on a snag on the other side of the gorge.  (The other traditional bird to look for in this area is Stygian owl which a formal tour would almost certainly have had teed up)

I had pipe dreams of heading 30 miles south to the ruins of Caracol which is farther south than we visited and reportedly very good to see raptors (and various canopy birds) from the tops of the pyramids ... definitely next time.  As it was, in the late afternoon we drove back down into the lowlands (seeing blue ground dove, blue-black grassquits, and lineated and pale-billed woodpeckers) to reach Crooked Tree Sanctuary.