Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Some Recent Spring Birds

Finally I am seeing some migrants. On Saterday, I went on the NYS Young Birders Club trip to Stockport Flats, where I saw my FOY (First of Year) Eastern Pheobes, Tree Swallows, and Wood Ducks. There were actually a lot of tree swallows- at least 20 over the river. We also saw a few Ravens, two migrant harriers, and 3 eagles, one with a fish.

On Sunday I spotted a Great Egret and a Snow Goose at a golf course near my house, and this afternoon there was a Fish Crow across the street.

Spring is here, April starts tomorrow, and the warblers shouldn't be too far behind.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Costa Rica, Day 6- Macaws in Carara

With our somewhat distant look at a macaw the previous night, we wanted better looks this morning, so we got up at 5:15 or so to try again. While we were waiting at the bridge, I found two flocks of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, a lifer and, taxonomically, the first bird on my list; a collared plovers and its chicks, a pair of Jacanas, some least sandpipers, more stilts, more waders, more oropendolas, more crocodiles, and, eventually, more macaws.

A pair of macaws flew in towards the National Park, followed few minutes later by another one, and another. Still distant looks, but much better than the previous night. As we headed to breakfast, two more (the same pair?) flew over our heads going the opposite direction. Macaws in flight, apart from their coloration, look nothing like I expected them to- their tails are very long, and they look more like kites or huge terns than parrots.

A Yellow-headed Caracara flew over, and I spotted a "Mangrove" Yellow Warbler, a White-tipped Dove, some more Groove-billed Anis, and an iguana.

After breakfast, we headed to Carara National Park, following the route Adrian had suggested when we discussed it in Monteverde. First we headed to the longer trail in the park, along the Rio Tarcoles. The first birds we saw were a group of Dot-winged Antwrens, apparently quite common in the park. I soon spotted a Royal Flycatcher- Carara has to be one of the best places in the world to see these. They almost never raise their spectaular crest, but even lowered the long feathers give it a weird head shape.

There were a lot of guided tours, so if they were looking at something we would stop and look in the same direction, and often see something good. In this way we came across an awesome Violaceous Trogon on its nest. I got a quick glimpse at another a ways down the path. Continuing in the flycatcher theme, I found a Northern Bentbill, which does, indeed, have a bent bill, and two tiny flycatchers- Slate-headed and Common Tody-Flycatchers.

At one point, the trail reaches a lagoon, and there is a colony of Boat-billed Herons, a bizzare cousin of our Black-crowned Night-Heron.

Also there was an Anhinga, and lots of lizards- multiple iguanas, and some basilisk lizards. A few of the smaller basilisk lizards ran a couple feet across the water, which they are known for.

A Prothonotary Warbler was also present at the lagoon, as was an adult Bare-throated Tiger-Heron.

Carara is really a tropical rainforest- hot and extremely humid, so after seeing a Black-hooded Antshrike and a Cherrie's Tanager, we headed back, seeing a White-shouldered Tanager and our first monkeys of the trip, a trio of White-faced Caphucins.

When we got back to the parking lot, we decided that we wanted to see another macaw. We talked to one of the guides, who offered a $20 per person 2 hour tour, but 3/4th of my family (I would be the other fourth) had had enough of birding and wanted to get to the beach. So we reached a deal with the guide, Antonio- he would take us to see a macaw for 10 dollars a person. If we didn't see any, it was free. It seemed like a good deal at the time.

After maybe 10 minutes of walking, where we saw 3 doves species (White-tipped, White-winged, Ruddy Ground) and a Streak-headed Woodcreeper, we arrived at a clearing. Antonio pointed out a cavity in a tree where a macaw was sticking its head out. Yes!

A second later, the macaw vanished back into the nest hole. It stayed inside for another 20 minutes while we waited, but it eventually stuck its head out, giving great looks.

On the way back to the car, now satisfied with our macaw sightings, we spotted some leafcutter ants and a Rose-throated Becard. At the hotel, I found a Cinnamon Hummingbird, before we left our hotel to get to Manuel Antonio, our next stop. Before that, though, we stopped for lunch at the Hotel Carara. It would turn out to be the best lunch of the trip- not because of the food, which actually wasn't that great, but because of the wildlife.

First off, it's right on the beach, and there were pelicans, frigatebirds, gulls, and a caracara all flying around. But the best part was when two macaws fly by and perched in a nearby tree. We got incredible looks at them eating and flying around- the forty dollars we had spent to see just one did not seem like such a good deal anymore. My life Neotropic Cormerant was completely overshadowed by the macaws when it fly by.

Macaw food-

While we were watching the macaws, a local woman whose house was next to the restaurant managed to tell us that there was a monkey in her yard and that we should come see it (by saying "mano" and pointing at her child's stuffed monkey toy until we caught on). Sure enough, there was a Howler Monkey there, which, along with the macaws, made for a pretty good group of animals to see over lunch.

We drove south down the coast to the Manuel Antonio National Park area, and checked into our hotel, Costa Verde, the nicest hotel of the trip. From the balcony, you could see the ocean and the national park, and a lot of birds. I saw frigatebirds, pelicans, Blue-Gray, Palm, and Cherrie's tanagers, Red-legged Honeycreepers, Costa Rican Swifts, Kiskadees, Tropical Kingbirds, and my life Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Red-crowned Woodpecker, and Tropical Gnatcatcher, all from the balcony of our room.

The view from our hotel room (click to see the whole panorama):

The pool area was no less bird-rich. I ended up getting a "pool lifer" when a stunning Golden-hooded Tanager perched a few feet away while I was swimming, and a Long-billed Starthroat, apparently a fairly good bird for the area, buzzed by. Add Palm, Blue-Gray, Summer, and Cherrie's Tanagers to the Golden-hooded Tanagers, and you have a 5-tanager pool.

I saw Costa Rican Swifts return to their roosts, and one nightjar flew over, but I did not get an identifiable look. Still, the number of birds boded well for the next day, and a quick tally revealed that I was at 398 birds for my life list- just 2 more for 400.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Costa Rica, Day 5- Cloud Forest to the Coast

The morning was not particularly birdy, but it was really fun- we went ziplining through the cloud forest. It was really awesome. The longest cable was a quarter mile long and 100 feet up. Afterwards, we did a tarzan swing, where you are strapped to a rope, tossed off a 30 foot platform, and then swing out. That was much scarier than the zipline. Birds seen included Black-faced Solitaire, Common Bush-Tanager, and Violet Sabrewing.

Back at the hotel, a quick birdwalk produced Blue-and-White Swallows, Yellow-faced Grassquits, a Wood Thrush, 2 White-eared Ground-Sparrows, and a pair of lifers- Gray-breasted Martin and Paltry Tyrannulet.

Unfortunately, then we had to leave the highlands. The upside, however, is that we were going to the beach, and that our next target were Scarlet Macaws, the ultimate parrot, and the bird most people think of when they hear "rainforest."

Looking back towards Monteverde, we had a great view of the cloud forest and the valley below it.

As we decended towards Carara National Park on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, we were passing through dry cattle pastures, and we saw two denizens of this habitat- Groove-billed Ani and the remarkable long-tailed, sky blue White-throated Magpie-Jay. Another very cool bird that we saw while driving by fast was a Turquoise-browed Motmot. In NY you see pigeons and starlings by the side of the highway. In Costa Rica you see Magpie-Jays and Motmots. 
We wanted to get the the Tarcoles River Bridge by dusk to see the Macaws, but we did have time for a quick stop- in the town square of Orotina, home of what has to be the most famous Black-and-White Owl in the world. 
So me, my sister, and my dad, the only Americans in the town, were walking around with binoculars and cameras looking up trees. The ice cream vendor there must be used to that kind of thing, and he approched us, saying, "Black-and-White Owl?" It turned out that was the only English he knew. 
But sure enough, he knew right where the bird was, and pointed it out. Of course, we had to buy his ice cream too. 

We arrived in Tarcoles, checked into our hotel, saw a Turquoise-browed Motmot and some more Anis,  and headed to the bridge.

Sillouette of the motmot (look at the tail!)

When we arrived, I began finding some of the common coastal birds that one might see in Florida or the SE United States- Great, Snowy, and Cattle Egrets, Little Blue, Great Blue, and Tricolored Herons, Laughing Gull, Black-necked Stilt, and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. 

Also interesting were the dozens of gigantic crocodiles in the Tarcoles River.

A Wood Stork flew past, as did some Montezuma Oropendolas. I spotted two lifers, a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and a Northern Jacana, the latter with yellow wing feathers and very long toes. 

Around this time, a bird flew towards us from the direction of the forest. It called once, and flew on. Originally puzzled by the bird's shape, I suddenly caught a glimpse of the color on its wings- Red, Yellow, Blue. Scarlet Macaw!! It was a brief and somewhat distance look, but still a great bird. It got darker, and it became clear that that was the only one we would see for the night. 

Still on alert for another macaw, I watched a different spectacle. When we had arrived, in broad daylight, there were huge amounts of swallows, mostly barn but with some mangrove swallow mixed in, catching insects over the river. As it got later, these birds began to move out, racing under the bridge and away towards their roosts, all in the same direction, alone or in small groups. At the same time, single Costa Rica Swifts were flying in the opposite direction under the bridge, to forage in the same spot that the swallows were before. When it grew even darker, the swifts, like the swallows had done earlier, began to move out. This time there was not as clear of a migration in, but suddenly there was a Lesser Nighthawk above me. The numbers grew until there were dozens of them, erratically chasing insects. They were the first of their family that I had seen, and they immediately became one of my favorite birds. The three groups of birds with similar food and foraging habits all used the same spot- swallows in day, swifts at dusk, and nighthawks at night, and I was there to watch their daily procession as the sun set.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Costa Rica, Day 4- The Hummingbird Gallery

After we finished our walk in Monteverde, we headed up to the Hummingbird Gallery, at the entrance to the park. We had incredible looks at the hummingbirds, some as close as 6 inches away. There was literally no break in the activity- there were at least 12 feeders, and between them there was never less than 20 hummingbirds in view. Adrian said that we could see up to 8 species, and we saw all 8, so that was good. I also photographed all of them, some (Green Violetear, Violet Sabrewing) better than others (Magenta-throated Woodstar). In decending size order they were:

The incredible Violet Sabrewing, 

The more common but still really cool Green-crowned Brilliant, which dwarf all but the hermits and the sabrewing:

The Green Hermit was the least common, and the last one we found. There were 2-4 individuals:

A male (with 1/3rd of a GC Brilliant):
And a female (with a Coppery-headed Emerald):

The Green Violetear, the current banner of my blog:

The Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, common but brilliant and also endemic (to CR and Nicaragua):

This photo is pretty bad (taken from a video) but it shows the iridescent color a bit better:
The females look entirely different (the other bird in this shot is a Coppery-headed Emerald):

Another mid-sized hummingbird was the Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, all green with distinctive rufous wing feathers and white tail feathers:

The Coppery-headed Emerald has, for me, two claims to fame- It was my 300th bird, and the only bird endemic solely to Costa Rica that we saw. 

And last, and actually least (size-wise), the Magenta-throated Woodstar, a tiny, bee-like hummingbird that moved to quickly to get good photos:

There were also Bananaquits, another Incertae Sedis bird related to the tanagers. Like hummingbirds, they drink nectar, so they visit the feeders as well:

Many of these photos were actually taken with the macro/close-up mode on my camera, because otherwise they were too close to focus on. 

After a while at the Hummingbird Gallery, we said goodbye to Adrian, and had lunch. A quick walk to a waterfall produced a Smoky-brown Woodpecker and a Black Guan, and there was a Silvery-throated Tanager with the Common Bush-Tanagers in the parking lot. This Coatimundi joined us for lunch:

We left Monteverde, and stopped at a spot Adrian had recommended. It was supposed to be a good spot for Golden-browed Chlorophonia, a brightly colored highland endemic. 

My dad and I walked a little ways down the road- my mom and sister stayed back with the car. I spotted a Dusky-capped Flycatcher, and we found a really cool bird that had eluded us in Monteverde- a pair of Emerald Toucanets. There were also a Plain Wren and a Lesser Greenlet. 4 lifers in 10 minutes, but no Chlorophonia. When we were just about back at the car, my dad spotted a Blue Morpho butterfly, which was very large, and, as the name would imply, very blue. My mom and sister came out of the car to look, and while this was going on, someone was hit by a falling berry or fruit. I looked up, and there were 15-20 birds in the huge tree above us. They were the chlorophonias, and I got okay looks, though the birds were distant and only their undersides were visible (Think warbler neck, then make the tree 50 feet taller and you have chlorophonia-neck)

Back at the hotel, I took a walk around the grounds, finding a mixed flock of White-eared Ground-Sparrows, House Wrens, a Plain Wren, and a Rufous-and-white Wren, the latter being a life bird. However, the highlight was when I got lost and found myself off the trail in the orchard with a pair of green, yellow, and blue Chlorophonia 10 feet away at eye level. Unlike the other looks I had, these could not have been better. A Yellow-throated Euphonia was a nice bird, and an Elaenia species a frustrating ID challenge. 

At dusk, we went on a guided night walk. The highlights of that were lots of coatis, a few agoutis, a porcupine, a glimpse of an olingo, some leafcutter ants, and a red-kneed tarantula. Birds were scarce (it was dark), but I did hear a Mottled Owl and saw a sleeping Black-and-White Warbler on a twig. 

Later, I tallied off the day's birds, and found that I had seen 32 lifers, and with such amazing ones as Violet Sabrewing, Emerald Toucanet, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Replendant Quetzal, and can say that it was easily the best birding of my life, at least so far. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Costa Rica, Day 4- Quetzals in Monteverde

This was expected to be the best birding day of the trip. We hired a guide for a 4 hour hike in Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. On the way to breakfast, in a clump of trees with berries that had been good for tanagers and Clay-colored Robins, I spotted a Masked Tityra, a pale gray bird with a black tail, wing patch, and black surrounding bright red facial skin. It is also a taxonomically interesting bird, in a group of birds, along with other Tityras and Becards, that have been placed with Cotingas, Flycatchers, and in their own family at different times. Now they are placed as Incertae Sedis, Latin for "we have no idea where to put them." It would be the first of many cool life birds that day.

At breakfast we met our guide, Adrian, who outlined his plans for the morning. We left our hotel and the paved roads of Santa Elena, us in our car an Adrian on his motorbike, which seemed to be the preferred mode of transportation for most people living there. It did better on the dirt roads than us, though it would probably be tricky to drive 2 hours on mostly unpaved roads while carrying a spotting scope and tripod, which he was going to do the next day. 

After pulling into the parking lot, Adrian quickly found two good birds, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, an endemic that looks like a Kiskadee with a malar stripe, and Mountain Robin, a slightly darker version of the Clay-colored Robins, with a diagnostic black, not yellow, bill. Those two demonstrated how useful it was to have a good guide along. Without Adrian, I could have overlooked the flycatchers and passed the Mountain Robins off as Clay-colored Robins. 

We started down one of the trails, and quickly found birds. Adrian would hear a bird ahead of us on the trail, then find it as we got to that spot. In this was we quickly picked up Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Plain Antvireo, Yellowish Flycatcher, Common Bush-Tanager, and Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, a tiny flycatcher with a long name that Adrian was very happy about seeing- apparently it is uncommon in Monteverde. 

The Gray-brested Wood-Wrens were the loudest and had the most distinctive songs. Adrian said that they were often called "R2D2 birds," and hearing them, we could tell why. They sound exactly like the droid from Star Wars. See if you agree:

I spotted a Slate-throated Redstart, and Adrian heard and then found a Black-faced Solitaire. Adrian had a good description for its song too- It sounds like the sound made when you run your finger along the edge of a wineglass. For the whole time we were in the cloud forest, you could almost always hear them or the wood-wren, and often both. Two more birds that we heard, but did not see, were the Silvery-fronted Tapaculo and Prong-billed Barbet.

A little futher along the trail, we came to a group of people, with a guide, looking at something to the left of the trail. We soon saw what- a male Resplendent Quetzal at a nest hole in a dead tree. After a couple minutes of watching in awe, it flew closer so that it was facing us. A female flew to where the male had been, then joined him on the branch nearer to us. It was incredible. We took a ton of photos, some digiscoped and some not, and, though it was very foggy, some came out pretty well. Us and 30 other people all were watching the quetzals, and when we left, they were still perched there. 

Adrian and I looking at the quetzals (Note the huge crowd of birders on the right side of the photo):

After the quetzals, we contined birding, obviously. A Black-and-White Warbler, which would be up in NY in the summer, was spending its winter with the quetzals. Soon we found what looked like a black turkey, but high in a tree. It was the endemic Black Guan, all black with blue facial skin, red legs, and a loud, "machine gun" wing  rattle when it flapped. Mammal-wise, we found a Three-toed Sloth and a Mexican Porcupine. 

Adrian found a mixed flock composed primarily of Three-striped Warblers and Common Bush-Tanager, which also contained a Golden-crowned Warbler and an endemic Ruddy Treerunner. From a suspension bridge high in the forest, we could see epiphytes, a Yellowish Flycatcher, and Collared (endemic) and Slate-throated Redstarts. A Stripe-tailed Hummingbird buzzed by, and a secreative Ochraceous Wren (also endemic) was seen. A vocalizing Spotted Woodcreeper was my first woodcreeper, and my 350th bird. 

Another really cool bird was a Violet Sabrewing, a giant, brilliant purple hummingbird. Though we would see many at close range later, this one seemed like more of a wild bird than the ones at the hummingbird feeders. 

Another flock of Three-striped Warblers was accompanied this time by a Red-faced Spinetail. There was also a Slate-throated Redstart foraging a couple feet above the ground, giving great looks. 

After that we returned to the parking lot, got great looks at Yellowish Flycatcher,  and went up to the Hummingbird Gallery, an incredible collection of hummingbird feeders that produced 8 species and the best photos of the trip. That will get its own post later, but here's one shot for now- Purple-throated Mountain-Gem: