10 March 2018

Santa Marta Escape

As I write this here in Missouri, and as I continue to prep for an upcoming Oaxaca tour, a few signs of spring migration are front-and-center these days.  Although the forests continue to be shrouded in shades of brown and the grasses a pale yellow, there ARE signs; the woodcocks are back and displaying in our yard every evening and more and more blackbirds, grackles, and robins continue to line countryside ditches, yards, and trees.

I have to enjoy these subtle signs of spring.  My schedule has me jumping from place to place and, although some people people probably see these tropical destinations and drool a little, I often look forward to being home to see the signs of the changing seasons.

Despite this rambling, I AM here to pass on a few pictures from the last tour I was on.  I joined Richard Webster (on his second-to-last tour) in Colombia where we ran the Santa Marta Escape tour that he generated many years ago.  In 2019, I'll be leading this 9-day tour and so it was great to return again this year to better learn the ropes.  As always, you can find more info about this tour here on our webpage.

This tour starts and ends in the city of Barranquilla which is a short 2-3 hour flight from Miami.  Our first morning out, we visited a scrubby area nearby to see the CHESTNUT-WINGED CHACHALACA, a Colombian endemic:
We moved up the road a bit to Isla Salamanca, a well-known birding locale with lots to offer.  Each of the last two years I've been there, we've turned up a PIED PUFFBIRD:
The most common woodcreeper in this area is the STRAIGHT-BILLED WOODCREEPER with its distinctively pale, dagger-shaped bill:
Marshy areas nearby host a great number of SNAIL KITES including this one flying off with lunch:
We eventually end up in Camarones, an oceanside town where we enjoy a great number of shorebirds, herons, and terns as well as superb sunsets:
The next day we birded the dry and scrubby areas of the Guajira Peninsula.  Although it's not a lush paradise that one might expect, the habitat in this part of the world is rather special.  It's shared with neighboring Venezuela and, because not many birders are visiting that country right now, this part of Colombia is rich with potential for visiting birders.  One of the more range restricted species we try for is the sneaky TOCUYO SPARROW.  An improvement over last year, this time we actually SAW one.  This picture was the best I could do with the secretive dude:
This dry country also hosts some stunners.  You might recognize this as a cardinal... and you'd be right.  This is the VERMILION CARDINAL which is only found in a sliver of Colombia and some in Venezuela:
Ok, so maybe this next one isn't as colorful... but it's still fascinating.  It's a PILEATED FINCH, another specialty of the dry habitat:
The scrub around Camarones plays host to a variety of flycatchers that we snagged such as NORTHERN SCRUB-FLYCATCHER, SLENDER-BILLED TYRANNULET, MOUSE-COLORED TYRANNULET, and this PEARLY-VENTED TODY-TYRANT:
It's also wise to watch out for small green parrots too.  This is the GREEN-RUMPED PARROTLET and it's another regional specialty:
Look carefully at the cargo:
Bike on bike.

Anyway, we eventually move uphill into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a main focus for this tour.  As we started the climb, we birded around Minca where this GRAYISH SALTATOR was in full song:
The SWALLOW TANAGERS are beautiful, common, and always a fan favorite:
With a big bill for big insects, this STREAKED FLYCATCHER sat quietly allowing us to get great looks:
Higher yet, we reached the RNA El Dorado Lodge, our home for 4 nights.  It sits at 6000' and has a completely different makeup of birds compared to the lowlands.  It's on this climb up that we started to see species that are found no where else on earth.  For example, we reached the elevation range of WHITE-LORED WARBLER, a species endemic to these mountains:
Although not endemic, this RUFOUS-AND-WHITE WREN popped out giving me the best looks I've had of this sneaky species:
We found a cooperative CINNAMON FLYCATCHER or two.  Given what they look like, it's hardly a surprise that they were named that:
You might hear the high and piercing song of a GOLDEN-BREASTED FRUITEATER in these mountains as well.  We tracked one down and were rewarded with stunning looks:
But honestly, once you reach the lodge, it's hard to pull yourself away from the feeders.  This eco-lodge hosts a variety of stunning hummingbirds and, generally, this tour is good for hummingbird diversity.  Here are a couple of shots from this tour, all without flash:

The lodge also puts out fruit for a variety of other species like this BLACK-CAPPED TANAGER:
Meanwhile, the cracked corn feeders attracted BLACK-CHESTED JAYS:
... and BAND-TAILED GUANS.  Here's one that was content watching me watching it:
If you can actually pull yourself away from the feeders, you might walk the road to find more goodies.  After all, MASKED TROGONS are fairly common in the forest around the lodge: 
One of the prized targets for birders is the WHITE-TIPPED QUETZAL.  Yes, there are quetzals on the lodge grounds!  Here's one we found nearby:
Probably the main attraction though is making the 4x4 crawl up to the top of the Cuchilla de San Lorenzo.  This ridge, sitting at 8400', is home to a host of endemic birds that aren't seen anywhere else.  We ventured up twice and, when you have to leave at the early hour of 4:30 AM, we had time to look for some owls on the way up.  We encountered the "SANTA MARTA" SCREECH-OWL (a species that doesn't even have a common name yet!) and this MOTTLED OWL:
At the top of the ridge, as the day breaks, we have a quick picnic breakfast while standing around our 4x4 vehicles:
... and then we get birding!  The birds, just where we park, are often special.  Here's a SANTA MARTA WARBLER near the vehicles:
This endemic is often found only at this one spot on tour, if at all.  It has been missed before by some groups.

This year the ridge was quite reliable for the endemic SANTA MARTA PARAKEETS:
With a population of only a couple of thousand, it was a treat to see and study these.

Also on the ridge was a cooperative SANTA MARTA BUSH-TYRANT, another tough species that can be missed:
Just down the road from the ridge is a station where they've taught a few SANTA MARTA ANTPITTAS to come in for food.  We stopped by and, sure enough, they popped out of the thick undergrowth to wow us birders:
Our group really enjoyed an encounter with this CRIMSON-CRESTED WOODPECKER on the ridge as well.  This female posed quite nicely!
When you're up on the ridge seeing lifers left and right, it's hard not to be happy!  Here's our group, with a couple of our 4x4 drivers, smiling for a photo:
Last but not least, equal to the birds up on the ridge, is the view.  With the tallest peaks in Colombia on the horizon... it's just breathtaking.  I'll leave you with the view to enjoy:

20 February 2018

Edges of Costa Rica!

Wow, it looks like I've been rather silent here on SYAS as of late!  Unfortunately, I've had enough stuff going on that I just haven't gotten around to updating all two of you.

However, here's a quick rundown from my last travels... Costa Rica!  I joined Tom Johnson and our Field Guides tours ventured to the southern edge of Costa Rica and then along the northern edge.  Without boring you with the details, I'll just summarize by saying it was a lot of fun, we had a great bunch of birders, and we managed to tally 472 species!  Of course, if you'd like to learn more about this tour, click here to visit our Field Guides website.

Given that I took thousands of photos... I'm only posting a fraction of them here and now (52 pics, to be exact).  Enjoy.

Let's start out with raptors, shall we?  It's hard to go wrong with the abundant (but attractive) ROADSIDE HAWK:
While we're talking raptors, I'll throw in a pic of this beauty.  It's a BLACK-COLLARED HAWK from the northern edge of the country.  This species actually has little spines on the undersides of their feet to help them grasp fish (like Osprey, this species specializes in catching fish):
This following raptor was a treat to see perched.  It's a DOUBLE-TOOTHED KITE and it's the first one I've EVER seen sitting in one place; these guys are usually WAY high up, soaring around.  You gotta love that red eye:
Woah, what is THIS thing?!
Well, this is called a SUNGREBE and it's the sole member of the Finfoot family in the Americas.  If you get a chance, Google this species and check out what the feet look like... you won't regret it.

We chanced into some rather large birds in Costa Rica but this one might have had the largest wingspan of all... and it's in the stork family of all things.  This giant has a wingspan that can top 9 feet across.  Think about that!  It's known as the JABIRU:
(Look at that bill... just hope the Jabiru doesn't jab at you)

This next series of photos was one of the tropical highlights of my entire life.  No, I'm not even kidding.  We got to watch as this SUNBITTERN foraged in a creek, called, and then started opening its wings!  This is one of the most-classic and well-known tropical displays and we got to watch it point-blank.  I'll leave you with the series of 8 photos: 

Ok, not quite as exciting as watching a Sunbittern displaying... we still enjoyed watching this RUSSET-NAPED WOOD-RAIL as we boated up right alongside it:
Of course, being the tropics, there were plenty of parakeets, parrots, and macaws to fill our days with gaudy colors.  Here are the always-popular SCARLET MACAWS:
The nightbirding can be a lot of fun and our tours make an effort to see what we can find.  Tom and I have had great luck the last couple of years tracking down some owls on our night drives.  Here's a STRIPED OWL which has to be one of the more nicely-patterned owl species around:
This TROPICAL SCREECH-OWL was looking fine too one evening:
Here, for comparison, is a PACIFIC SCREECH-OWL that we had at a different spot.  See how the dark half-moon marks bordering the face are paler on this species?
However, larger than the screech-owls is this massive night bird.  It stands 2 feet tall... it sounds frightening... and it looks rather eerie too, perched up on snags in the dark.  It's the GREAT POTOO and we had awesome looks at this one:
We had a successful trip in tracking down woodpeckers as well.  We tallied a dozen species including this LINEATED WOODPECKER that was working at excavating something gross:
Just a few feet away from the above woodpecker, we had awesome studies of this sooty-colored thing... it's a SLATY SPINETAIL, a member of the ovenbird family:
Hummingbirds are surely one of the gems of the American tropics.  No other continents have them, just North and South America.  Our tours did well with this fun family, especially given the relatively small size of the country of Costa Rica.  Of the 36 different kinds of hummingbirds we saw, it's almost impossible to choose favorites... but here are some photos of some.  First up, LESSER VIOLETEAR:
As you might know, Magnificent Hummingbird has been split.  If you've seen this species in the USA... that species is now known as Rivoli's Hummingbird.  And if you've seen Magnificent Hummingbird in Costa Rica, that's now known as TALAMANCA HUMMINGBIRD.  Here's one:
Need a close up of that head coloration?  Ok... here's a different one!
Although we don't have any representatives from the toucan family here in the States, once you head south, you'll find them!  We enjoyed several species including this stunner... the YELLOW-THROATED TOUCAN which, confusingly, has gone through a number of name-changes:
The northern part of the country hosts this little guy... the COLLARED ARACARI:
Now take a look at this one below... see anything different?  Check out the color of the upper mandible... yep, this next one is a FIERY-BILLED ARACARI from the southern portions of the country:
Ooh, if you see a roadside sign that says this....
... be on the lookout for this!
Yes indeed, our group had killer looks at multiple RESPLENDENT QUETZALS which, in my opinion, seems to be the most sought-after bird in Costa Rica.

Motmots are super fun too.  We enjoyed three species from this tropical family including this LESSON'S MOTMOT in the yard of our hotel (no joke).  Note the little tooth-like ridges to the bill.  No, birds don't have teeth but those ridges on the bill help them nab things and keep hold of them:
We also had killer looks at this BROAD-BILLED MOTMOT near Arenal:
... and a few feet away, this KEEL-BILLED MOTMOT:
... and yeah, that's kinda weird.  These motmots have been together for several years and most assume it's a mixed pair (though nobody has seen hybrid young, that I'm aware of).

Before we leave the whole motmot idea behind us... here's yet another look at a BROAD-BILLED MOTMOT, this time with prey:
Actually at the same spot as the above motmot gallery... we witnessed something truly amazing.  And I mean it when I say "truly amazing".  And no, it didn't even have to do with a bird... it was the monkeys.  A troop of Central American Spider Monkeys were traveling through the treetops when they came to the large gap in trees above the road.  The monkeys could barely leap across the gap and make it to the other side.  One monkey, after making the leap, swayed back and caught a branch from the OTHER side of the gap.  It had bridged the gap with... itself.  It grasped on to branches from both sides while the rest of the troop of monkeys easily scrambled over the monkey and to the other side!  The monkey stayed like that until they had all passed over... all except one, a youngster.  The youngster was too nervous to cross the "bridge monkey" and so the bridge monkey had to let go of one side, go gather up the youngster, and make the leap on her own.  So cool to watch... I'll never forget this scene:  
You might not guess that one of the highlights for me was seeing a dove, right?  Well, this is no ordinary dove... it's a CHIRIQUI QUAIL-DOVE and it's usually tougher than snot to lay eyes on.  This one was foraging out in the open at one of our lodges.  What a good look at a world lifer!
On one of the boat trips we took near the Nicaragua border, this GREEN KINGFISHER stayed put long enough for me to catch a frame or two of it:
The same boat trip yielded another good photo op, this time of a GREAT KISKADEE which is, of course, a kind of flycatcher:
Another flycatcher we saw exceptionally well at higher altitudes was the YELLOWISH FLYCATCHER, a species belonging to the Empid genus that we all love (and hate) here in the States:
Antbirds!  Not named because they eat ants, no, they FOLLOW the ants around and eat what the ants flush up from the forest floor.  Here's a BICOLORED ANTBIRD sitting pretty:
Swallows.  Gotta love em.  There were manageable numbers of six species including this MANGROVE SWALLOW:
You know, we didn't see a single crow.  In fact, there aren't a ton of large corvids in Costa Rica.  Jays... they do have jays though (same family).  Here's the large and inquisitive WHITE-THROATED MAGPIE-JAY that probably would have flown into the van if it meant it could have all the peanuts.  Note the couple of feathers sprouting from the forehead... kind of a cute fieldmark, right?
Costa Rica does have mad diversity of wrens though!  Almost maddening, to be honest.  Here in the states... you rarely have more than a few different kinds at any one place... but in Costa Rica, well, we tallied 20 different species!  Here's a RIVERSIDE WREN from the southern portions of the country:
Another species of wren we targeted was the TIMBERLINE WREN.  Although I didn't manage a decent picture of that guy this time around, I did happen to get a picture of the group LOOKING for the Timberline Wren.  That's almost as good, right?  Here they are, at nearly 9,000 ft in elevation, looking for the range-restricted skulker:
The diversity of thrushes in Costa Rica is tremendous as well given the small size of the country.  We tallied a dozen species including some that are very range-restricted.  Here's a BLACK-BILLED NIGHTINGALE-THRUSH that posed ridiculously close during our time in the highlands:
The tanagers, like the hummingbirds, is a colorful family that just screams "tropics".  We saw a fun diversity (topping 20 species) including this SILVER-THROATED TANAGER:
This male THICK-BILLED SEED-FINCH was looking really sharp too.  This species is in the Thraupidae family alongside the other tanagers:
We had lots of warblers to work through on tour as well; I think we ended up tallying nearly 30 species.  The SLATE-THROATED REDSTART was a common species at mid-upper elevations:
So, probably not very many people think to travel to Costa Rica for the wintering sparrows, right?  It wasn't on our radar at first but we caught wind of a rare sparrow... well, rare for Costa Rica.  We actually saw it too... this WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW:
Here's the rub... this bird was the first EVER of its kind to be seen in Costa Rica.  It was a first country record!  Of course, this is a common species around here in Missouri (we have one at the feeders as I type) but birding is all about context... what's common here might be rare there.  And vice versa.

Brushfinches and the like.  Costa Rica has some pretty remarkable species including the YELLOW-THIGHED FINCH.  Does this look like a match to you?
Although in last place (taxonomically, at least), this SPOT-CROWNED EUPHONIA was vivid as ever.  Just something about that bright yellow next to that deep blue/purple!
You might not have expected a snake pic but here you go... it's an EYELASH VIPER.  It was a TINY thing, probably smaller than a pencil.  It was wrapped up and waiting for a tiny bug or frog to stumble by:
I'll leave you with a scenery shot.  Our tour to Costa Rica really was a lot of fun and I know Tom and I enjoyed it.  Here's our group watching swifts streaming by at dusk at the Talari Mountain Lodge: