Sunday, April 27, 2014

Into the Second Century

Since the March 5th Red-necked Grebes, my Wake County list was stuck at a tantalizing 199 species of birds.  It seemed like nothing I could do would get me to break this arbitrary barrier, sending me into my second century of county listing.  I knew just filling in one of the big "holes" in my list could get me there - by nailing down a Blue-headed Vireo, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Chuck-will's-widow, or an Eastern Whip-poor-will.  None can be considered "common" in the area, though Blue-headed Vireo is fairly regular.  With migration finally coming into stride, it was only a matter of time.

I arose at 5:15 AM Saturday morning to finally find one of these birds - the nocturnal Eastern Whip-poor-will.  The game lands around Harris Lake seem like prime habitat, I just had to be there at the right time.  By the time I finally got to the area around 5:45, however, light was beginning to appear on the horizon.  I probably had a 10-minute window to find the bird before the morning chorus of diurnal species started up.  I sat on the hood of my car, looking at the moon, and listening to a few early-rising Eastern Towhees and Common Yellowthroats.  I was about to give up on the Whip when I heard its classic call coming from a patch of trees a hundred yards away - "whip-po-or-WILL! whip-po-or-WILL! whip-po-or-WILL!"  I instinctively jumped into my car and drove down the road to where it was singing.  To my surprise, the little nightjar flushed right in front of me.  It looked like a big brown moth, with a short tail and oversized, floppy wings.  Eastern Whip-poor-will - county bird #200.  I like the sound of that.
Looking back at the patch of trees the Eastern Whip-poor-will was calling from.
I had a solid two hours until the bird walk I was leading over at the county park started, so I wandered around the patchwork of habitats that make up the Harris Lake game lands.  Prairie Warblers were incredibly numerous in the early successional habitats, and I counted over two dozen birds.  Hooded Warblers and Ovenbirds called from the forest.  I watched a Great Egret, another new arrival, fly along the far shore of the lake, as a Bald Eagle and an Osprey hunted for fish.  I also managed to find a few Yellow-breasted Chats, those noisy warbler-ish, blackbird-ish misfits.  Just as I was leaving, I heard my first-of-year Eastern Wood-Pewees and a reclusive little Worm-eating Warbler.  51 species of birds in just two hours - one of my best solo lists to date.  But the weekend was just getting started.
Even though they are beyond-abundant down at Harris, Prairie Warblers are one of my favorite local breeders.  I mean look at him - he's spectacular.
Yellow-breasted Chat 
The bird walk I led went great, and we saw some good birds - at least 5 Summer Tanagers, a Yellow-throated Vireo, and a drake Wood Duck.  The real highlight (for me at least) was a Merlin that decided to fly over our party, just 30 or so feet above the ground.  It was my 150th bird at Harris!

Sunday morning, Sam and I decided to do a little birding at Lake Crabtree then head over to Schenck Forest.  Crabtree was decent - we picked up both yellowlegs, two flyby Blue-winged Teal, a heard-only Black-throated Blue Warbler, and a few heard-only Scarlet Tanagers - but other than that it was fairly uneventful.  We hoped Schenck Forest would be better.

After a few minutes, it didn't seem like it would.  All the usual suspects were there, but none of the migrants we were after seemed to show themselves.  We started wandering deeper into the forest.  Sam stopped suddenly, and said "Thrush".  I stopped too.  The bird flew down out of sight, and we waited.  And waited.  A little Ovenbird walked slowly along the forest floor, and I joked with Sam that he had just misidentified the Ovenbird as a thrush.  Sam was convinced it wasn't - that it was actually a Gray-cheeked Thrush.  I played the song off my phone just to see what would happen (my policy on playback is not to use it on breeding birds - but since GCTHs don't breed here, I thought I was safe to use it briefly).  Sure enough, the bird flitted up and landed just a few yards away.  Everything about it pointed to Gray-cheeked Thrush, an uncommon-to-rare migrant in these parts.

The thrush was all we needed to get the migrant ball rolling.  Soon we spotted a stunning male Black-throated Blue Warbler singing his heart out.  Two Louisiana Waterthrushes sang their piercing songs from the creek bed.  We continued downhill, and I heard the distinctive song of the Black-throated Green Warbler, a bird common in the mountains but uncommon this far east.  Sam and I jumped across the creek to track down the noisy little bird, and we looked back to see Edward running down the trail to meet us.  I signaled for him to come up quietly.  The BT Green popped into view after a few minutes, giving us all one of the best views we could ask for.  Soon a flock of three Black-and-white Warblers and a singing Prothonotary Warbler moved in to join him.  We ended up with 11 species of warblers at Schenck, a pretty good number for this area.  Just as we were heading into the parking lot, we spotted four little blackbirds in one of the pastures.  They were my first-of-year Bobolinks, a great way to close out my weekend birding.  One lifer, one state bird, and a slew of new migrants.  Let's hope my big day next weekend goes this well.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Birding Tortuguero

Tortuguero National Park lies in the northeast corner of Costa Rica, a vast swath of dense rainforest penetrated by only a few caños, which are slow-moving backwaters (what we in NC would just call "creeks").  Its limited access makes Tortuguero a haven for an incredible, diverse array of wildlife unlike anything I've ever seen.

Spider Monkey, one of the most conspicuous animals in the area.
The first thing most visitors notice in Tortuguero are the monkeys - Spider, Howler, and Capuchin Monkeys can be found all over the park.  Even though they're not birds, I have to admit that they were pretty cool.  Also present were massive crocodiles that made jumping in the water to cool off suddenly seem like a bad idea.  Blue Morpho butterflies (one of the few insects I can safely ID) flew lazily around the rivers and canals.

But I wasn't focused on sighting these non-avian animals.  I wanted birds.  Montezuma Oropendolas, the golden-tailed brethren of the Orioles, are common in the area, and thus were the first birds I saw that morning.  The males pick a tall palm tree to perch in, then start singing and swinging around upside down, which apparently impresses the females.  It was quite a sight, and reminded me of the crazy Arfak Astrapia video I saw at the Birds of Paradise exhibit back in Raleigh.

We spent the morning exploring the park from a small john boat, led by our expert guide Angelo.  He was glad to have guests who were just as enthusiastic about birds as he was, and he stopped at every little mixed flock along the banks of the canals.  My first lifer of the day was found this way - a Northern Waterthrush, beginning its long journey northward.  Northern Waterthrush is a transient warbler that passes through NC every year in decent numbers, but I've never been able to track one down.  Fortunately, this guy was very cooperative.  Also in this flock was a Red-eyed Vireo and two Olive-backed Euphonias.  A Green Kingfisher flushed from along the bank - the first of 5(!) kingfisher species we would see that day.  Also very common in Tortuguero are Little Blue Herons and Bare-throated Tiger-Herons - birds that never seem to get old.

Bare-throated Tiger Heron
The next lifer of the day was another pesky North American species that had always eluded me - Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.  We spotted one sunning in the bank of a small island, on which a few Anhingas were also drying their wings.  Soon after, we spotted a Common Black-Hawk soaring in a kettle with some vultures and two Magnificent Frigatebirds, both lifers.  We veered off from the main canal and entered the national park.  Tortuguero is exactly what I envisioned a tropical forest to look like - huge palms lined the shores of the caños, with the impenetrable lushness of the forest stretching out behind.  I was amazed.  And I was excited - I knew great birds were out there waiting.

Northern Jaçana, a noisy sandpiper relative.
We rode past dozens of colorful Northern Jaçanas, a shorebird with a preference for the weedy margins of swamps and marshes.  We rounded the corner and began hearing a snappy, energetic call coming from the river's margins.  These were male Red-capped Manakins displaying in hidden lek sites.  A lek is a place where males gather to impress the females - usually by dancing or displaying.  Angelo steered the boat right up to the shore, and I caught a glimpse of two of these spectacular little birds.  These two particular Red-capped Manakins were jumping around and dancing on different branches in a small "arena" to impress hidden females.  Red-capped Manakin is possibly my favorite bird I've ever seen, and watching these crimson-capped fellas dance around will be seared into my memory for quite a while.

Red-capped Manakins displaying at their lek site.

We continued  to work our way through the park's waterways.  A large raptor was perched above the river, and we cruised in slowly to investigate.  To our surprise, it was a spectacular Ornate Hawk-Eagle, the second eBird record for the area and the first one Angelo had ever seen.  It sat still, focusing on a basilisk lizard crawling along the shore.  It was definitely the coolest raptor I've ever seen.

Ornate Hawk-Eagle, a pretty menacing bird.
Next, I spotted two King Vultures soaring up high with the familiar Turkey Vultures.  King Vultures are actually beautiful (yes, actually), with their white underwings and colorful head.  A population may have once existed in Florida, but this has never been confirmed.  We also had excellent views of a Ringed Kingfisher, which is essentially a larger version of the Belted Kingfisher that lives in eastern North America.
King Vulture soaring above the rainforest.
Ringed Kingfisher, with its comically-large head.
That afternoon, we went out for a few hours to go kayaking along Caño Mora, a narrow creek that winds its way deep into the jungle.  Unfortunately, I did not feel comfortable bringing all of my camera gear onto the open kayak, so I don't have any photos of the birds I'm about to describe - you'll just have to take my word for it.  While we were watching a mixed flock... er... I mean mixed troop... of Capuchin and Howler Monkeys working their way through the forest, I spotted an immature Barred Forest-Falcon perched on an open branch.  We heard some raucous calls coming from the forest, and Angelo called out "Great Green Macaw" just as three of these beautiful (and endangered) parrots flew overhead.  Great Green Macaws use their massive bills to crack seeds that we would need heavy machinery to break open.  Habitat loss from deforestation has been a major factor in their decline, but luckily they are recovering in the remote corners of Costa Rica.

Next, Angelo spotted two trogons for us - first a female Black-headed followed shortly by a beautiful Slaty-tailed Trogon.  Both were lifers, and were spectacular.  Trogons are one of the most beautiful families of birds - and though these are no Resplendent Quetzals (as you will see soon enough), they are still quite a sight.  Surrounded by the vast, steamy quiet of the rainforest, these sightings were even more memorable.

Angelo really wanted to show me an American Pygmy Kingfisher, which we unfortunately failed to turn up on the paddle.  So, he took us out in the main boat to try and find one.  First he spotted a Boat-billed Heron in its usual roost, a alien-looking relative of the Night-Herons.

Boat-billed Heron - if you look hard enough, you might see it...
But still no Kingfisher.  We had already seen Amazon, Green, Belted, and Ringed Kingfishers that day... why not go for five?  Six are known to live in the park, and the two that evaded us were the smallest: American Pygmy and Green-and-rufous.  These two species prefer narrow, shaded creeks away from the main channels, so we had to go deep into the rainforest to try and find them.  Just as we were turning around to return for the evening, Angelo stopped the boat.  We heard chattering coming from a small slough off to the side.  We all peered in to see a stunning Green-and-rufous Kingfisher just a few yards away, seemingly oblivious to our presence.  Click on the link above - you have to check this one out!

I can't believe how long this post was for just one day of birding, but it was an incredible one.  It was one of my top two (yes, the other one happened later in Costa Rica) days of birding, and will probably forever remain in the forefront of my memory.  Having the opportunity to see such a diverse and rich ecosystem was amazing!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Lumber River Important Bird Area - Landhingas in Chatitat

Robeson County is one of the most under-birded counties in the state.  It's only large town, Lumberton, isn't exactly filled with birders, and it lies far from the places with higher birder concentrations (like Raleigh-Durham, the Triad, Charlotte, and Wilmington).  And if any birder is going to drive two hours, it'll be to somewhere like Lake Mattamuskeet, Fort Fisher, or any other mildly-famous hotspot - not to the Lumber River.  Which is a shame - these under-birded areas need more eBird data, and they are usually choc-full of great birds.  With this in mind, Sam and I headed down there early this morning, to do bird surveys in the Lumber River Important Bird Area (IBA) for Wake Audubon.  There are dozens of sites scattered across the county for us to do counts, most of them right along the roadside.  At each stop, we follow a certain protocol - to see/hear as many species as possible within a ten-minute time frame - then head to the next location.  
Driving to one of our survey spots
Our route today took us across the southern half of Robeson County, just a few miles from the South Carolina border.  First on the list is a boat ramp abutting a cypress-lined blackwater creek, next to a large retention pond.  It was a nice stop - my first Barn Swallows of the year were swarming under the bridge.  Another year bird, a Great Crested Flycatcher, was flying from treetop to treetop as usual.  Just as our ten minutes was coming to a close, we looked up to see a completely random Caspian Tern flying overhead - definitely not something I was expecting to see this far from any large bodies of water.  At the next stop we found a whole herd of Cattle Egrets foraging in the lawn of a concrete mansion, 14 in all.  Cattle Egrets can be hit-or-miss, so these were definitely a nice find.  

The spring migrants were out in full force today - we saw and heard copious amounts of Northern Parulas and Prothonotary Warblers singing along the banks of the swamps.  I picked up my FOY Hooded Warbler along the way too.  Hooded Warblers are one of the first warblers to show up each spring - and one of the most beautiful.  
Hooded Warbler - not my best shot of this species, but still a nice bird.
Not too far from that singing Hoodie was a striking male American Redstart, which was flagged on eBird for being just a little early.  The scrubby pine forest - grass mix looked like great Yellow-breasted Chat habitat (something Sam and I quickly christened chatitat), so I did my harsh ch-ch-ch-ing imitation.  If Chats are present, they always respond to this call, but we had no such luck today - it is still a bit early for these warblerish blackbirds (or blackbirdish warblers?)  To go along with our random Caspian Tern flyover, Sam spotted a distant bird soaring in circles above the chatitat.  Closer inspection revealed this to be an Anhinga, uncommon this far inland.  
Soaring Landhinga over chatitat
We continued this cycle for several hours - stopping at a site, then hopping back in the car, listening to our usual Shins-laden playlist, then stopping at another site.  We found many more expected birds this time of year - Eastern Kingbird, Prairie Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and a stunning male Black-and-white Warbler.  We also found some birds we didn't expect to see, like a northbound Broad-winged Hawk (which made it a three-Buteo day), a flyby Little Blue Heron, and "nocturnal" Barred Owls out at noon.  The biggest surprise, however, was at site #31, a roadside swamp.  First up was a flock of 11 more Anhingas, soaring up high with a few vultures.  It looked completely ridiculous - I've never seen that many Anhingas in one place before, and definitely not in the air.  Our favorite phrase, "Like, what the actual hell!?", certainly rang true here.  Then, to our amazement, we heard a rare-at-best Swainson's Warbler, a denizen of southern swamps and canebrakes.  Swainson's Warblers have one of my favorite songs of any bird, though they are often too reclusive to show themselves.  

Things pretty much slowed down after that, but we could definitely leave this remote corner of the state happy.  We saw 58 species total, 11 of which were warblers.  Spring has finally arrived.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Costa Rica - My First Taste of the Tropics

I just got back from my 9-day spring break trip to Costa Rica, and I must say it exceeded my expectations.  Not only was the birding extraordinary (172 species total), the food was excellent, and the ticos showed us incredible hospitality.  It was so birdy, I have no choice but to split the trip up into several posts - mostly because no one wants to read a blog post a mile and a half long.  So here it goes... ¡Pura Vida!

Like most visitors to Costa Rica, we arrived in San Jose, the capital and largest city.  Our hotel there had extensive gardens, which gave me a small sample of the incredible avian diversity of this small Central American nation sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama.  I was surrounded by alien bird calls - wonky-sounding robins (which I found to be the national bird, the Clay-colored Thrush), new doves cooing, and the weezy voice of the stunning Blue-gray Tanager - all birds that would become familiar friends by the end of the week.  Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds buzzed around, and the North American-breeding Orchard and Baltimore Orioles filled the gardens with a potent dose of naranja.  I spotted a Grayish Saltator in the brush, and while pursuing it a Blue-crowned Motmot flew right over my head.  Motmots were one of my "must-see" species on this trip (more on motmots, including photos, to come later...) To think - all these birds were in the garden behind the Hotel Bougainvillea!  What was out there waiting in the rainforest?
Blue-gray Tanager - Even though it's UNC blue, I still love this bird.
That night at the hotel, I heard a few Common Pauraques singing outside the open window.  I decided that I will not count heard-onlys outside of the ABA area because I'm less familiar with the vocalizations.  So Common Pauraque will still evade my life list, as would countless other birds on this trip (Prong-billed Barbet and Great Tinamou were the most painful).  

The next day was primarily a transportation day, driving east from the Central Valley to the Caribbean Coast, and Tortuguero National Park.  En route, we stopped at La Selva Biological Station, located on the humid Caribbean Slope just below the cordillera.  It was a bizarre new world.  My binoculars and camera fogged up as soon as I stepped out of the car, which was a shame - a jaw-dropping male Passerini's Tanager was perched just feet away.  Luckily, I got a second shot at the bird an hour or so later.
Passerini's Tanager - a common sight in the Caribbean lowlands.
La Selva seemed like a birding wonderland (although it would pale in comparison to my experiences at Tortuguero and Monteverde later in the week.). Lifers were all around me.  Almost immediately, a Gartered Trogon and a nesting Black-cheeked Woodpecker came into view.  A Buff-rumped Warbler dashed along the trail as a massive turkey-like Crested Guan foraged in the treetops.  The guan's cousin, the Great Curassow, was displaying on the forest floor, sending out a deep, resonating "mmmpphh" that seemed to shake the earth.  We also found a beautiful Rufous Motmot, a bird that digs mud out of embankments to construct it's nest.  From the the main suspension bridge we spotted the aptly-named Bright-rumped Attila, as well as a male Sungrebe foraging in the river next to a Caiman (dangerous?).  Other non-avian animals crawled along as well, including Peccaries and bright red Poison Dart Frogs.
Black-cheeked Woodpecker 
Gartered (formerly Violaceous, before a split) Trogon
Rufous Motmot
We said goodbye to La Selva and continued our journey east.  It wasn't long before the pavement ended and we were on a bumpy gravel road headed to Tortuguero.  Every tico we met told us this road cutting through banana plantations was just a "free massage", but it wasn't exactly enjoyable (or relaxing).  There were a good number of birds in the fields, including an amazing Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, as well as flocks of Groove-billed Anis, the cuckoo's grackle-like cousin.  There was also a Two-toed Sloth just chillin' on a barbed wire fence - not exactly comfortable, but sloths are strange I guess.
I don't even know what to say here.  Perezosos, mae.
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron foraging in the fields - another one of those four-word Neotropical bird names.
Not long after, we finally arrived at the end of the road.  For the next three days, our transportation would be by boat only.  Tortuguero is crisscrossed by a series of caños (a slough or a swampy creek), canals, and rivers, making boats the best way to access the park's diverse wildlife.  It was a two-hour ride up to our destination, Tortuga Lodge - including frequent stops along the way.  Northern Jaçanas, Purple Gallinules, and Black-necked Stilts foraged along the shore, and an Amazon Kingfisher sat on a power line staring into the water for prey.  Our boat driver Luis spotted several Green Ibis roosting high in a snag - my 400th life bird!  We also saw a troop of Spider Monkeys and a female Great Curassow from the canal.
Purple Gallinule - a really pretty coot.
A slightly-menacing Great Curassow
A no-good photo of the Green Ibis - lifer #400
As we pulled up to the lodge at last, we spotted two toucans - one Keel-billed, the other Black-mandibled - perched in a tree.  It was nice to see these two stunning species side-by-side - the last birds of the day.  The next few days in the park would exceed all expectations, but for now I could be happy with the 50 or so lifers I had gotten in just two short days in this tropical paradise.

Keel-billed (top) and Black-mandibled (bottom) Toucans.