17 December 2017

Birding Cozumel

It's safe to say that 2017 has been a busy one for me.  I've probably seen more species this year than I have in any other year (after all, this was my first full calendar year of guiding full-time).  Along with that comes a lot of new birding locations, naturally.  One such new location came just last month when I co-lead a tour to Cozumel and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.  Although I had ventured south to Mexico in February this year, that tour was to Oaxaca.  Different place, different habitats, and mostly different birds.  Anyway, this post is devoted to just the first couple of days of our tour, the time we spent on the island of Cozumel.

If you're not familiar with where Cozumel is, here's a screen-cap with a pin on the island of Cozumel:
Once on the ground and birding, new birds came pretty quickly.  In fact, at one point in the first day I realized that two of my newest lifers had the word "Yucatan" in them, two more had the word "Caribbean" in them, and another two had the word "Cozumel" in it.  Yep, all hints to where I was.

Perhaps the easiest-to-see Yucatan specialty on Cozumel is the BLACK CATBIRD and it so happens that this was one of my most-wanted.  Why?  I have no clue... just the thought of a glossy, black catbird... I love it, it's not something we have in the States.  Here are two pics of this regional specialty:
Being down in the tropics, it's no major surprise that BANANAQUITS were common as well.  Here's one from our first day:
You'll notice above that these BANANAQUITS have bright white throats.  It turns out that the subspecies present on Cozumel (Coereba flaveola caboti) is essentially endemic to the island (meaning it's not found anywhere else).  Here's another shot of one showing the white throat:
That theme, actually, is fairly common on this 184-square-mile island; it hosts subspecies (and species for that matter) that are found nowhere else.

Another example is with this bird, the YUCATAN WOODPECKER:
On the surface, it looks like all the other YUCATAN WOODPECKERS (and all of those kind of look like a Red-bellied/Golden-fronted type).  However, the subspecies found on Cozumel has darker upperparts and a darker face.  Here's another shot of this regional specialty:
Sometimes it's not just the subspecies that's endemic, sometimes it's the actual species.  Birders that travel to Cozumel are probably even more keen to see those!  One such endemic species is the COZUMEL VIREO, a gorgeously-colored skulker.  Here's one that poked its head out into the sunlight a bit:
This next vireo isn't endemic to Cozumel (or Mexico for that matter) but I was still happy to spend time with them.  This large-billed brute is a YUCATAN VIREO:
You can see it's more of the Red-eyed/Yellow-green ilk.  Here's another shot of the same species (but different bird):
The forests on Cozumel host a variety of flycatchers too including NORTHERN BEARDLESS-TYRANNULETS, a tiny species with a name longer than the bird.  Here's one:
Another fairly common player in the island birding scene is this somewhat-drab flycatcher:
It's a CARIBBEAN ELAENIA.  I doubt it was anyone's favorite bird from the island, though.  Just a hunch.

In truth, there aren't many species of hummingbirds on Cozumel.  BUT, there is one pretty important species.  It's the COZUMEL EMERALD, an island-endemic species:
Actually, it wasn't split off from the mainland counterpart (Canivet's Emerald) THAT long ago... they're very similar.  Either way, I'll take it.  It's a nice-looking bird too.  Here's another view of a male with that forked tail and red bill:
One of my favorite bird sightings from Cozumel came in the form of this beauty:
It's a male WESTERN SPINDALIS.  This species is mostly Caribbean but it has colonized Cozumel (and has probably been there for quite a while).  You see, it's another one of these species with an island-endemic subspecies.  In this case, it's Spindalis zena benedicti.  If you're into subspecies, this is one to get!

Ooh, another major goal of mine was to see this Piranga tanager.  I think there are about 9 species in this genus and, so far, I haven't met a Piranga I haven't liked.  Here it is, the ROSE-THROATED TANAGER:
Ok, well, this is a female so it's rather lacking in the rosy throat department!  This species IS endemic to the Yucatan Peninsula though so it was an awesome bird to see.

The island was actually pretty productive for wintering warblers.  We managed 18 species in the two days there.  One of my favorite encounters was when this PRAIRIE WARBLER came down to take a closer look:
Even back at the hotel, the "warblering" was rather productive.  The YELLOW-THROATED WARBLERS were rather tame; they would come down and land on the chairs in the courtyard.  Here's one that perched momentarily:
Maybe one of the most-encountered species of warbler for us was MAGNOLIA WARBLER.  Here's one at our hotel:
Then there were warblers that weren't common.  Here's a CAPE MAY WARBLER that I photographed from my hotel bathroom window (yes, yes, odd mental image):
The courtyard was full of warblers, catbirds, doves, grackles, etc.  Also included were several BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS.  Take a look:
You might notice how dark that bird is compared to other BGGNs.  Again, it turns out that the resident subspecies of BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER is endemic to Cozumel.  It's Polioptila caerulea cozumelae, to be exact.  The word Cozumel is even in the name.

The hotel was cool though; MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS soared overhead, YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUITS poked around in the grass, YUCATAN WOODPECKERS and RUDDY GROUND-DOVES flew through from time to time, and twittering swarms of VAUX'S SWIFTS curled overhead.  If you walked across the street, you'd have this view:
Offshore were BROWN PELICANS, LAUGHING GULLS, and a few SANDWICH TERNS.  Poking through the beachside rocks and veg, GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES were commonplace:
We birded the north end of the island one morning which got us into some different habitats (and therefore different species).  For one, we saw the PYGMY RACCOONS!
That's right, the critter that's sitting next to some trash.  In terms of mammals though, this was pretty cool to see.  This species is critically endangered and some experts estimate that there are fewer than 250 of these left on earth.  Yes, they're endemic to Cozumel as well... you won't see them anywhere else.  Oh, and no, they're not wary!
We saw more trip birds up north too including "GOLDEN" YELLOW WARBLERS, RUDDY CRAKE, and this GREAT KISKADEE:
Cozumel, I should mention, is a pretty popular tourist destination.  The scuba offshore is supposed to be top notch and the beaches are lovely.  Here's our group at one of our beachside lunch spots:
And the sunsets weren't bad either.. except when clouds kinda got in the way!
But before long, it was time to pack up and head towards the ferry that would take us over to mainland.  Roll roll roll your bag... gently down the street!
Our ride to the mainland?  This:
It was a 45 minute ride over and, no, I didn't get sick.  :-)  I thought about it though.

We arrived in the city of Playa del Carmen on the mainland.  Not a bad place to be at work.  :-)
... and then... well, to be continued!

16 November 2017

A new tour... Oregon!

It's exciting business.  I've been generating a fall tour to Oregon that Field Guides will start running in 2018 (more details here).  Actually, they had an Oregon tour years ago but I've been reviving it.  So far, it looks to be quite popular!

So fast forward to this fall when I was recently on the ground there in Oregon doing some scouting and planning.  I came back with lots of ideas, some fun bird sightings, and a whole lot of pictures to share... so bear with me.

I started out of Eugene and straight away did some birding around Fern Ridge Reservoir which was hosting a variety of raptors like RED-SHOULDERED HAWK, PEREGRINE FALCON, and this NORTHERN HARRIER:
There were also plenty of shorebirds and ducks to keep me busy.  At one point, some sprigs zoomed by (Sprig = nickname for NORTHERN PINTAIL):
Then it was up to Mary's Peak to the northwest.  Along the way I found some GRAY JAYS and RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES:
... and of special interest, I had good looks at a couple of MOUNTAIN QUAIL (a tough bird to find when you want to):
The view from the road to the top was not bad!
I made my way west to Newport which I'll be using as a hub for several days on tour.  While there, I ventured up to Boiler Bay to do some seawatching:
But, as you can see, the weather was lovely which probably hurt the birding.  Still, I saw hundreds of birds such as PACIFIC LOONS, SURF SCOTERS, MARBLED MURRELETS, and much more.  Meanwhile, BLACK OYSTERCATCHERS surveyed the rocks:
The morning light really lit up birds though including this BREWER'S BLACKBIRD:
This species of blackbird is truly abundant out there and it would be hard to miss.

This AMERICAN CROW also posed in nice light long enough for me to grab a couple of frames of it:
Yaquina Head Lighthouse:
Down closer to the jetty in Newport, this COMMON LOON was also looking pretty sharp even though it was transitioning from breeding to nonbreeding colors:
This LAPLAND LONGSPUR popped up out of the rocks too which was a nice surprise.  This species breeds in the arctic and only makes it this far south in the winter:
Once I walked out beyond the dune grass a bit, I was met with this beautiful view:
I only had time for a few more coastal stops but Bandon provided a beautiful spot to study some rock-loving shorebirds.  First up is BLACK TURNSTONE, a West Coast specialty:
 ... add to that this SURFBIRD:
I'm already really looking forward to revisiting those spots and seeing some of these fun shorebird species again.  What can I say... we don't have many Surfbirds in Missouri.  :-)

From there, the tour will turn inland which is what I did during my scouting.  I made my way towards Crater Lake but stopped along the way to take in the view and grab some fresh air:
The mountain air was cool and crisp up at that elevation... and there were some GOLDEN-MANTLED GROUND SQUIRRELS running about my feet:
In my opinion, the view of Crater Lake, which we'll enjoy on tour as well, is easily one of my favorite scenic views in the US.  It's breathtaking to walk to the edge and be face-to-face with this:
Nearby, I enjoyed montane species like CLARK'S NUTCRACKER and this GRAY JAY:
I eventually dropped in elevation a bit as I drove north to the Bend area.  I ventured up to Sisters for some scouting and enjoyed some PINYON JAYS, CLARK'S NUTCRACKERS, and lots of singing TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRES.  I also pulled off to watch some MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS at this sage-filled landscape:
The common jay at feeders around Bend was the STELLER'S JAY, a nice swap to the Blue Jays back home:
At one of my stops, there was a family of TRUMPETER SWANS that seemed content to stand near one of the paths.  Here's a shot showing the bill structure of an adult:
I was surprised to find this WHITE-THROATED SPARROW mixed with WHITE-CROWNED and FOX SPARROWS at some feeders.  It's not a mega rarity but unusual enough to warrant a photo for eBird:
We'll visit recent burns on tour, like this one, hoping for some fun woodpeckers like LEWIS'S, BLACK-BACKED, and WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER:
While poking around in that burned area, I chanced upon this little dude foraging:
Woah, it's a PALM WARBLER!  Although common in much of the eastern US, it's a fairly uncommon vagrant out in those parts.  I hurriedly managed a photo for proof.

Before long, it was time to head farther east towards Malheur NWR where we'll spend several days birding on tour.  En route, I stopped at the Chickahominy Reservoir to make sure there weren't any Sabine's Gulls out on the water.  It was another gorgeous vista:
My scouting gave me several days to check out Malheur NWR and I have to say, that's some fantastic birding!  Right away, at The Narrows, it was clear why this is a hotspot: gulls, terns, shorebirds, and ducks were all packed in right next to the road.  Included was this CASPIAN TERN:
GREATER YELLOWLEGS were present in good numbers too, at least 40 were packed in.  I watched as one caught a rather sizable fish.  It stood there, not really knowing what to do with it:
If you have a chance to stand back and look at the scenery around you at Malheur, you'll be greeted by a lot of sky.  It's a lovely landscape, in my opinion:
At one of the many hotspots at Malheur, I found this LEWIS'S WOODPECKER which will be another target for tour:
By this point of the fall, which was rather late, many of the passerines had moved on.  Still, I enjoyed some close encounters with "AUDUBON'S" YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS including this one:
While near Malheur, I also ventured up Steens Mountain to look for BLACK ROSY-FINCHES, a local breeder at the tip top.  However, on the way up, I noticed things were definitely cooling off... especially when it started snowing!  The bushes were soon coated in snow and ice:
Some of the views as you ascend are top notch though!

As I huddled over the lip of the ridge (out of the howling wind, you see), I was eventually rewarded with a magical BLACK ROSY-FINCH that came out of no where and perched point-blank in front of me.  I'm glad my nearly-frozen fingers remembered how to use the camera:
After the finch flew off (along with 20 others), I looked around and realized the weather was just getting worse.  A fair bit of snow had fallen by that point (and it was COLD):
... and so it was time for me to get off the mountain.  I did so but I can assure you it took a while for my fingers to warm back up!

My last morning of scouting took me north to Malheur National Forest.  I birded some of the campgrounds there which were rather mystical-looking with frost clinging to the giant conifers.  I was treated to a NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL along with this BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER: 
However, it was time for me to get back to Eugene and so I made the haul back to the west.  That night, my final one in Oregon, I visited a chimney where many hundreds of VAUX'S SWIFTS were roosting at night.  Although this picture shows just a couple of swifts (and a sneaky Sharp-shinned Hawk), the spectacle of them all flying down the chimney at dusk was eye-opening!
And so with that, my scouting was complete.  I'm already looking forward to returning in 2018 to run the tour!  Feel free to check out this link to learn more about openings and such.  Cheers!