An Ecotourism Success Story: Refugio Paz de Las Aves

I first heard about the Refugio Paz de Las Aves — which translates as Birds of Peace Refuge — from Noah Strycker, an ornithological writer and big year birder at a talk he gave at the Biggest Week in American Birding Festival in Ohio in 2016.  He told the story of a man in north-west Ecuador who had trained rare, strange looking, tropical birds to come out when he called them.  It sounded amazing to me, but I had no idea that only two years later I would be going to the same place.

I watched the shadows of the predawn forest from a bamboo blind, eagerly waiting for my first views of an Andean cock-of-the-rock at the Refugio Paz de Las Aves lek.  Andean cock-of-the-rocks are one of the many species of birds that form communal displays, called leks, where multiple males gather to display for females.  In most species of birds that lek, the males don’t help with nesting or raising the young, but they sure do put on a show.

As the sky began to lighten, I heard faint croaking noises coming from the trees.  The sun rose, revealing five or six huge, striking, red birds with black and white wing patches in the trees in front of the blind.  They began to jump and flap their wings while making loud squawking calls.

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Andean Cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus)

Once the sun had completely risen the cock-of-the-rocks continued to display, although a little less vigorously.  Apparently, if a female were to show up, they would go crazy with their displays again.  We took a last look at them, and walked up the path out of the forest.  A brilliantly green bird with a red breast, a golden-headed quetzal, flew over us and landed in a tree.  As we emerged from the forest onto a dirt road, clouds drifted overhead.  I thought I caught a glimpse of a swift in the clouds several times, but it would always disappear before I could identify it.  The founders of Paz de las Aves, Angel and Rodrigo Paz, met us at the road, and than disappeared into the forest to look for the giant antpittas Angel had trained.

Antpittas are a very secretive family of large tropical birds that like to hop around in dense brush and eat worms.  The giant antpitta, especially, is a skilled hider, and on top of that, a very rare, range-restricted Choco endemic.   Landowner Angel Paz didn’t know this information, though, when he first noticed a giant antpitta eating worms on a recently made trail years ago.  He had already discovered the cock-of-the-rock lek on his land, and begun showing it to tourists.  Angel spent the following days studying the bird, learning about its habits and what it ate.  He tried feeding it worms, but at first it wouldn’t accept them.  Finally, one day the bird ate the worms he offered.  He named her Maria, and trained her to come out whenever he called in exchange for worms.  When he realized that there were other species of antpittas on his property, such as chestnut-crowned, yellow-breasted, ochre-breasted and mustached, he worked on training those as well.  Now birders travel from all over the world to see Maria and the other antpittas, and he makes a much better living from conserving the forest and all the species that depend on it than he ever did logging it, as he once did.

We stood in the road listening to the loud low whistles of Angel’s imitations of the giant antpitta’s call.  Our guide said that the antpittas were not as reliable in the rainy season, because it was easier for them to get worms on their own.  Despite his pessimism, I began to hear a whistled response to Angel’s imitations.  Sometimes the antpitta’s call was just barely audible above the chorus of frog noises, and sometimes it seemed like the bird might hop out into the path at any moment.  Just when the bird began to sound particularly close, a motorbike roared by, and it didn’t respond again for several minutes.  Finally, after almost an hour of tense waiting, a large bird with a rufous belly barred with black, and a big, thick, bill hopped out onto the path where Angel had set down worms.

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Giant Antpitta (Grallaria gigantea)  Angel told us this bird was Maria’s mate.

I watched with fascination as the giant antpitta ate, thinking about how so many birders, including Noah Strycker, had seen this bird or his mate before me.  Eventually, he finished his worms, looked up at us for the last time, and hopped back into the forest.

We continued up the road, where Angel had once again disappeared into the woods.  When we arrived at the end of a dirt trail off the road, Angel and Rodrigo were waiting with a family of dark-backed wood quail eating a banana.  Dark-backed wood quail are another secretive endemic that was nearly impossible to see with any certainty until Angel trained them to come out.

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Dark-backed Wood Quail (Odontophorus melanonotus)  This is a link to a video I took of the wood quail family on youtube: https://youtu.be/AvA-ufjqlxA

The wood quail and their chicks ate the banana voraciously within three or four feet of us before slowly wandering down the slope.

The next stop, on a steep, densely wooded hillside, was to see the yellow-breasted antpitta.  Angel called for it, and threw worms into a clear space amid a tangle of branches and roots below us.   It wasn’t long before a small, brown-backed, yellow-breasted bird emerged from the brush, and started gobbling down the worms.

We walked through the Paz de las Aves lodge and past signs saying “ochre-breasted  and mustached antpittas that way” and onto a trail that followed the top of a bluff into the forest.  We followed the trail down the steep, muddy slope of the hill.  Monkeys hooted and climbed in the huge palms in the distance.  Eventually the trail leveled out, and we stopped to call for the ochre-breasted antpittas.  We soon saw three of these tiny, adorable antpittas eating worms and hopping on the sticks in front of us.

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I believe this individual Ochre-breasted Antpitta (Grallaricula flavirostris) was named Chiquira.

As the ochre-breasted antpittas began to retreat into the forest, Angel began throwing nuts he had picked up earlier onto the ground.  Apparently, the mustached antpitta that he had trained, named Jose, was attracted by the noise of the nuts hitting the ground.  Jose soon appeared, hopping with much more dignity than the tiny ochre-breasted antpittas, who backed up to let him pass.

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Jose the Mustached Antpitta (Grallaria alleni)

We took our final looks at the antpittas and walked back toward the lodge, where we had a delicious breakfast of mashed and fried green bananas filled with cheese and empanadas.  While we ate, we watched toucan barbets and blue-winged mountain-tanagers eat at a banana feeder.  Violet-tailed sylphs, velvet purple coronets, and fawn-breasted brilliants buzzed and swooped around the hummingbird feeders.

Paz de las Aves shows how effective ecotourism can be as a conservation tool.  Now, instead of logging patches of forest, planting crops, and then moving on to the next forest — while there is still forest left to clear– Angel and his brother can conserve the area just by being able to show a couple of birds to visitors.  Not only is Paz de Las Aves financially important for the Paz family, but it’s one of the main attractions in the wider Mindo region, where visiting birders and other tourists spend money on numerous goods and services.

 

Searching for the Choco Vireo at Amagusa Reserve

I woke up at 4:00 AM on January 17th, excited for our trip to Amagusa Reserve, one of the only places in the world where the recently discovered Choco vireo can be seen.  I sat up suddenly in bed, and my eyes rolled.  I felt horribly nauseous and dizzy.  This was not a good thing on one of the days I was most excited about, but I got dressed as fast as I could, grabbed my birding stuff, and shoved my feet into my stiff, damp boots.  I staggered down the dark, wet stairway outside, towards the road.  Upon entering the van, my stomach lurched again, and I collapsed on a whole row of seats with my head in the corner.  For some reason, the only thing I could think about on the long, painfully twisty, dark drive to Amagusa was the potatoes I had eaten last night.  They hadn’t tasted that bad then, just a little strange, but now, even the thought of them was revolting.  I settled back into a restless half-sleep, my dreams infested with rancid potatoes.

Luckily, by the time we arrived at the beginning of the Mashpi entrance road two hours later — one of the most important places near Amagusa Reserve — I was feeling well enough to bird.  We walked to the edge of a cliff, looking down at the lush tops of the trees below.  A yellow-bellied siskin and a swallow tanager sat on top of the tree in front of us, while an energetic purple-crowned fairy flashed around the tree’s flowers.  We spotted a female orange-breasted fruiteater, an interesting looking green bird with an orange bill.  We began to walk slowly down the road, stopping periodically to scan mixed flocks.

Looking out over the misty valley, I saw three rose-faced parrots climbing around in a tree in the distance.  I had heard of the rose-faced parrot, but I hadn’t expected to actually see this beautiful bird, so this was a special treat.

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Rose-faced parrot (Pyrilia pulchra)

We came to a heavily wooded bend in the road, where a steep hill rose up on one side and dropped away into the valley on the other side.  Our guide told us this was a good spot for indigo flowerpiercers, a particularly uncommon Choco endemic.  Maroon-tailed parakeets flew around in the dense foliage, always just behind or under something.  The quiet, multi-toned whistle of a black solitaire cut through the air, coming from trees further up on the slope.  Forgetting about our failed attempt at an indigo flowerpiercer, I looked up at the slope where the whistle had came from.  I could just make out the form of several all black thrushes with white cheek patches, heavily obscured by brush.  Then one hopped into the open, and I could see its red iris and white shoulder feathers.  

As we walked toward the next bend in the road the sounds of a mixed flock grew louder and louder until chattering birds were all around us.  Birds flew from the cliff above us to the tops of the trees below us on the other side of the road.  Suddenly, Sergio, an owner of Amagusa Reserve, tensed and said something in Spanish to our guide ending with “Choco vireo.”  It turned out he had recognized it by its call, and we soon located two Choco vireos foraging in the top of a broad-leafed tree on the slope below us.

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This is my atrocious picture of the Choco vireo, but because of the bird’s rarity, I decided to include it anyway.

Paul Salaman and Gary Stiles discovered the Choco vireo in the 1990’s, surprisingly recently for an entirely new species of bird.  They had the brilliant idea of auctioning the rights to the bird’s name to raise money for habitat conservation.  The Choco vireo’s scientific name became Vireo masteri, after Dr. Bernard Master, whose donation went toward establishing and maintaining a reserve where the species was first discovered in Columbia.

I was thrilled to see this drab bird because I had barely hoped we’d see one because it is so rare.  Once the vireos left, we continued scanning the flock, finding a moss-backed tanager and a barred becard.

A half-hour later, we arrived at the Amagusa Reserve feeders.  We sat at a table eating breakfast while we watched logs where bananas had been put out for tanagers.  Soon, ten tanager species were coming to the bananas, the colors in their plumages glistening and gleaming like gems.

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Flame-faced Tanager (Tangara parzudakii)

Cinnamon, black-and-white, and one-colored becards hunted behind the feeders, while a black-billed peppershrike called from a distant bush.  Several of the tanager species present at the feeders were Choco endemics, such as glistening-green and rufous-throated tanagers.

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Rufous-throated tanagers (Ixothraupis rufigula)

Even though we had already seen most of these tanager species in Ecuador, seeing them so close was an amazing experience.  Every little detail of their plumage was visible, from the black scales on the breast of the rufous-throated tanager to the brilliant yellow bodies of the golden tanagers.  I was able to get great photos of many species that are usually only glimpsed at the tops of trees.  My stomach also felt completely normal for the first time that day, and the strange dizziness did not come back.

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Glistening Green Tanager (Chlorochrysa phoenicotis)

 

Bellavista Cloud Forest

One of the great things about birding Mindo, aside from the fact that the town itself has fabulous birds, is that it serves as a convenient central location for trips farther afield.  One such location that we visited was the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, located at 7200 feet above sea level, where we saw many high elevation specialties not present in Mindo itself.

As the sky began to lighten, I looked outside the van’s windows at a landscape of endless tall, forest-covered mountains bathed in clouds.  We had been driving in the pre-dawn darkness up a bumpy, winding, gravel road into the mountains for the last half hour.  A large bird with an unusual upright posture hopped out into the road in front of our van, turning its chunky bill to look straight at us.  It had a chestnut colored head and its white breast was finely streaked with black.  A chestnut-crowned antpitta, we realized, one of the most easily seen of the notoriously shy and difficult to see antpitta family, but still a very nice bird.

The Bellavista Lodge had put out moth traps the night before, and as the sun rose, birds came to feast on the torpid moths.  It started slowly in the gray light, with strong-billed and montane woodcreepers stalking up the trees, and russet-crowned warblers foraging in the bushes near the parking lot.  Soon, however, we were spotting new birds at such a rate that it was hard to keep up.  White-winged brushfinches, masked flowerpiercers, brown-capped vireos, white-tailed tyrannulets, golden-crowned flycatchers, smoke-colored pewees, plain-tailed wrens, and gray-breasted wood-wrens flew about, eating moths in a frenzied blur of activity.  Pairs of small, cute, reddish cinnamon flycatchers hunted from exposed twigs.

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Cinnamon Flycatcher (Pyrrhomyias cinnamomeus)

Suddenly, a brilliant-blue bird flew down out of the canopy onto a banana feeder and materialized into a turquoise jay, one of the most stunning birds I have ever seen.  The jay was soon joined by a group of toucan barbets, ridiculously colorful birds with black crowns, white ear tufts, slate gray throats, red breasts, yellow bellies, and olive-green wings.  I spotted a male masked trogon sitting on a light post on the lodge, but I was distracted from photographing it by a powerful woodpecker flying onto a tree trunk.  As the morning burst of activity finally began to die down with the sun fully up, we noticed an Azara’s spinetail hoping slowly through a tangle of dense brush near the ground, and a streaked tufted-cheek hopping on a stump.

At Bellavista Lodge’s hummingbird feeders, we watched the tiny but energetic booted racket-tail vie for its position on the feeder with other much larger hummingbird species such as buff-tailed coronet, collared inca, and fawn-breasted and empress brilliants.

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A booted racket-tail watches other hummers drink at the feeder.

We walked back to our van for a breakfast of fruit, muffins and hard-boiled eggs before continuing our search.

We walked up the long, winding entrance road that we had driven in on earlier that morning, looking and listening for birds.  A loud, carrying whistle came repeatedly from the dense brush near a small, rocky cascade of water off to our right.  We tried for some time to locate it, but eventually we had to give up, and be satisfied with our heard-only ocellated tapaculo.  We picked through flocks, finding endemics such as Choco brushfinch, and dusky chlorospingus, along with blackburnian, black-and-white, and russet-crowned warblers.  We began to hear a repeated, faint screeching noise rising out of the valley below us, but I paid little attention to it until a large chunky bird with a humungous bill flew into a tree across the road from us.  The plate-billed mountain-toucan’s face was very striking, with a large blue, red, and yellow bill, and yellow and blue facial skin above its eye.  Plate-billed mountain toucans live only in the mountains of north-west Ecuador and the very south-western province of Columbia.  They are listed as near-threatened, their primary conservation concerns being habitat loss from deforestation, and illegal capture for the pet trade.

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Plate-billed Mountain-toucan (Andigena laminirostris), Photo by Theo Staengl

Soon after the toucan flew off, we turned off the main road onto a small dirt trail that followed the top of a ridge to an overlook.  The loud trill of a Spillmann’s tapaculo sounded from a clump of roots.  We emerged from the trees, into the diffused light of an overcast day.  Mountains stretched into the distance as far as we could see, their tops shrouded in mist.

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Bellavista Cloudforest, Photo by Theo Staengl

Reluctantly, we left the beautiful scenery and got back into the van for the bumpy ride to our next stop.

At the Quinde Luna Cloudforest Reserve, we sat on a patio looking out toward five or six hummingbird feeders.  More than fifty hummingbirds of thirteen different species swarmed around us at barely comprehensible speeds, living their lives at an insane pace.  In the span of seconds, two hummingbirds would go from drinking peaceably next to each other on a feeder to intense, high speed, aerial combat, finally falling, shrieking and chattering to the ground.  I couldn’t help wondering how they avoided collisions at such speeds, and despite their obvious ability to navigate, I felt an irrational impulse to cover my eyes whenever they came whirring by.  The hummingbirds’ array of colors and shapes mesmerized and entertained me long past the point where we had identified and photographed all the species present.  Seemingly every part of the hummingbirds was colorful and unique, from their bills and tails to their body plumage and fantastically iridescent gorgets.  The booted racket-tail has two big clumps of white feathers over its legs, which look like little furry white boots.  The violet-tailed sylph has a long, dazzling iridescent blue tail and a stunning greenish crown stripe.  Velvet-purple coronets are a rich, flashy purple color, with black highlights.

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Violet-tailed Sylph (Aglaiocercus coelestis)

Almost all the thirteen hummingbird species were new for me, and many of them were Choco region endemics as well.  We walked around the hummingbird garden between the feeders, watching the hummingbirds go about their frantic business.  One of my favorite endemic species, the purple-bibbed white-tip perched on a branch right in front of me.

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Purple-bibbed Whitetip (Urosticte benjamini)

Birding Mindo

I woke at 6:00 AM on my first day in Mindo, Ecuador to the sound of hundreds of unfamiliar birds chattering and singing.  My brother Theo and I got out of bed, and together we walked out onto our deck, peering through the half light at the backlit forms of singing birds.  The large elegant shape of a motmot caught our eyes sitting in a fruit laden tree in front of us, but it was still too dark to make out enough color to identify it.  As the sky lightened, we began to notice tanagers foraging in the flowers of the same tree.  We identified flame-rumped, blue necked, bay-headed, and golden tanagers, which were all lifers.  I noticed a tiny, richly patterned hummingbird, reminiscent of a bumblebee, buzzing on some purple flowers and I called Theo’s attention to it.  We later learned that it was a purple-throated woodstar. Other common hummingbirds that we saw that first day included rufous-tailed hummingbirds, western emeralds, and the green crowned brilliant.

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Western Emerald (Chlorostilbon melanorhynchus)

After breakfast, we decided to bird the popular waterfall trail, a road leading up into the mountains above the town of Mindo.  We had heard that white-capped dippers and torrent ducks could be seen in the white-water and waterfalls accessed along the road.  Fifty foot tall dirt banks loomed over us as we walked up the road, their sides adorned with lush, dripping vegetation.  Mosses carpeted everything, from the huge trees and tree ferns to the occasional well lit patch of forest floor.  The forest was so dense it was hard to see beyond a few feet from the road.  As the road climbed onto ridges, we were able to look down at the canopy on either side of us. Here we encountered our first large tropical foraging flock.  We came around a bend, and suddenly birds were everywhere — tanagers of all descriptions, wood-creepers, spinetails, flycatchers, and warblers.  Some warblers familiar from home like blackburnian and Canada warblers, and tropical parulas, were joined by new species like slate-throated red-starts and three-striped warblers.

After several more exciting flocks, we turned off the road onto a small dirt trail that descended swiftly down into a heavily wooded valley.  The trail was slippery and muddy, cut into a steep cliff with metal railings on one side.  A small flock exploded in the trees over our heads.  The brilliant, golden orange faces of flame-faced tanagers stood out in the dark leaves.  Soon we saw our first white-winged tanagers and blue-winged mountain-tanagers of the trip.  As we descended into the valley, the air grew noticeably warmer and more humid.  An agouti, a large, rabbit-like rodent, ran across the path in front of us as we entered a clearing.

We crossed a rickety metal bridge with rotting bamboo hand-rails at the first river crossing.  The water churned beneath us, rushing over rocks in white clouds and crashing back into the river-bed.  Despite the rough water, we could not see a dipper. We came to a place where cement had been lain on the banks of the river, changing and channeling the water into a deeper slower spot.  An incredibly steep-looking water slide made of crumbling cement was positioned on one of the nearly vertical banks of the river.  We continued until the trail ended just past another river crossing, and turned around.  As we began climbing the slope away from the river, I looked back and saw a white blob on one of the rocks in the turbulent stream below. I raised my binoculars, and saw it was a white dipper with a black mask. We had found a white-capped dipper after all.

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White-capped Dipper (Cinclus leucocephalus)

During our visit to Mindo, we had many opportunities to bird the grounds of Las Terrazas de Dana Lodge, where we were staying.  We found that in the early mornings and late afternoons the birding was often good in the trees around the edges of the cabins, with larger and more frequent tanager flocks there.  All the common tanagers, thick-billed euphonias, yellow-tailed orioles, green-crowned brilliants, and red-headed barbets also fed at the lodge’s banana and hummingbird feeders in the late afternoon.  When we tasted the Ecuadorian bananas, it became apparent why the birds appreciated them so much.  They were the sweetest, creamiest bananas I’ve ever had, and they were never hard and green or brown and rotting.  We asked the lodge for some to put on the platform banana feeder directly behind our cabin, and we soon had all the brilliantly colored tanagers and barbets visible from our private deck.

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Red-headed Barbet (Eubucco bourcierii)

On several occasions we walked out of the entrance of the lodge and went right on the road, away from the town of Mindo, and the turnoff for the waterfall trail.  We twice encountered a scarlet-backed woodpecker on this road, as well as an olivaceous piculet, which is an exciting little tropical mini-woodpecker of sorts. Southern lapwings flew about in the field across the road from the lodge, and roadside hawks were also often present.  One day we made the trip down this road while it was raining, and we lucked upon a torrent tyrannulet hunting over a little trickle.  We also saw a striated heron, variable and yellow-bellied seedeaters, and a cooperative pale-legged horneo.

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Pale-legged Horneo (Furnarius leucopus)

Another location in Mindo that we birded multiple times was the Yellow House Trails, a 494 acre reserve of secondary and primary cloud forest.  From the Yellow House Lodge at the beginning of the trail, we climbed up over cow pastures and scattered guava trees towards the top of the mountain, where the forest started.  From the exposed vantage point the slope gave us, we could look out on raptors flying in the valley below.  We saw roadside hawks, hook-billed kites, and even a rare snail kite.  Once we reached the rainforest, smaller trails numbered one through five branched off the main trail.  These trails wound right through the heart of the cloud forest, giving a close up view of it.  Huge trees towered over a dense understory of bushes and vines, which were carpeted in mosses and epiphytes.  The forest was so dense that it was often hard to see far enough to spot birds, but despite this challenge, the trails were still very productive.  Pale-mandibilled aracaris and yellow-throated toucans squawked and flew about in the canopy.  On the way back towards Mindo via the main trail, we saw a crested guan slowly walking about in the top of a tree.

In the first mixed flock we encountered on the Yellow House trails, we spotted a cerulean warbler, a beautiful and endangered songbird that breeds in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States.  Seeing one so far from where I’ve experienced them in the summer in Virginia highlighted for me the importance of such far flung places as habitat, even for a songbird as representative of the southern Appalachians as the cerulean.  It also helped to complete my picture of the species, adding a memory of it foraging in the cloud forest canopy with species like fawn-breasted, golden and blue necked tanagers to visions of cool early spring mornings when t he buds are just opening and the trees are full of bird song back home.

Mindo is located in the Choco-Darien moist forest ecoregion, a biodiversity and endemism hotspot that ranges from southern Panama through north-western Ecuador.  Almost 70 species of birds that live no where else in the world can be found in Mindo and the surrounding mountains.  When I first became interested in going to South America a couple of years ago, I wasn’t sure whether I would rather travel to Peru or Ecuador.  In the end, Mindo’s incredible birding and ease of access – its only 2 hours from Quito international airport by car – won the case for us.  After more than a week in the Mindo area, I definitely felt that we made a good choice.  If you have any questions about Mindo or the region, or information to share, feel free to email me or leave a comment.

 

Birding Coastal Virginia: Fleeing from the Snowstorm

Four homeschooling birder friends, my brother and I woke up at the crack of dawn on January third in Virginia Beach, having driven in late the day before.  Over our hotel breakfast we learned that up to eight inches of snow was forecasted to start around 7 PM, centering around the Cape Charles area, with only about two inches in Virginia Beach and Chincoteague.  Our plan had been to bird Virginia Beach that day and then head over the bridge into Northampton County the next day, but now the snow might make it impossible to get there.  We decided to skip VA Beach and bird Northampton County immediately instead, and spend the night in Chincoteague, so if we got stuck, at least we could walk into the National Wildlife Refuge there.

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Map of coastal VA.   The marker is Cape Charles.

It was just getting light as we drove across the 23 mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT).  We spotted large rafts of surf and black scoters from our car, as well as two year birds, great cormorant and peregrine falcon.  Soon after crossing the CBBT, we came to Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve, our first stop.  The leaves of the wax myrtles and grasses were frozen, with tiny ice shards coating them, creating a silvery glitter wherever I looked.  Yellow-rumped warblers flitted about everywhere, no doubt trying desperately to eat enough myrtle berries to keep them alive in the frigid weather.  As we turned a sharp corner in the path, an American woodcock exploded out of the brush by our feet, its wings whistling.  The trail continued into an old pine woodland, where we heard brown-headed nuthatches, before opening into expansive salt marshes lining Jones Cove.  We worked our way along the edge of the water, listening for salt marsh or Nelson’s sparrows and scanning all the waterfowl we could find.  I got on a flying female common goldeneye, but I couldn’t get anyone else on it before it disappeared.  A flock of fifteen common mergansers flew over us, more than double the previous county high-count for the species.  As we continued our search for sparrows other than swamp or song, a cacophony of geese honking filled the air, and nearly five-hundred Canada geese descended from the sky.  Mixed in with the geese were a few duck flocks, with northern pintail and American black duck.  Despite continued searching, the only marsh birds we could find were a sedge wren and an orange-crowned warbler.

Our next location was Cheriton Landfill, the site of Virginia’s first state record of Lucy’s warbler, which we saw last year.  Fifteen hundred Canada geese swam in the little pond next to the landfill, but there wasn’t one single rare goose among them.  Mixed in with the geese, however, were twelve species of ducks, including redhead, green-winged teal, American wigeon, and northern shoveler.  We walked down the road behind the landfill, seeing song and savannah sparrows, but not much else.  As we walked back toward the car, over fifty black vultures circled above our heads, catching the morning thermals.

As we were driving to the Cape Charles harbor, we got an update on the weather.  They were now calling for over a foot of snow, and up to eight inches in Chincoteague.  We also learned that our hotel in Chincoteague did not have a generator.  With much regret we decided it would be better to abandon the coast at the end of the day, and spend the rest of our trip in Northern Virginia.

As we walked through the dunes to the harbor, two pale white sparrows flew up onto a sign.  We quickly saw they were “Ipswitch” savannah sparrows, a range restricted coastal subspecies that was new for most of us.  Forty American oystercatchers rested on a long rock jetty projecting in to Cape Charles harbor, and purple sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, and sanderling fed around their feet.

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American oystercatchers and purple sandpiper.  Photo credit: Theo Staengl

We watched bufflehead, surf scoters, greater scaup, and ruddy ducks fly around, and practiced getting flight shots of them.

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Bufflehead flight shot

As we were leaving, two flocks totaling 13 common mergansers flew over us, leaving us to wonder why there were so many of them in Northampton that day when they are usually fairly rare.

Our final coastal location before we had to head inland was the Kiptopeke State Park Fishing Pier, where two snow buntings had been hanging out.  The fishing pier is a rather dreary place, a large artificial projection into the bay with an inch of dead yellow grass on top.  From it, you can see a chain of ancient naval vessels out on the water, stripped of any useful material and left to rot.  Finding the white snow buntings in a flock of savannah sparrows and yellow-rumped warblers was not hard, and we observed these cute birds for a long time.

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Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) Photo by: Theo Staengl

Snow buntings breed in the high arctic tundra, and according to wikipedia have the farthest north distribution of any passerine.  In the winter they migrate down into boreal Canada and New England, and a few overshoot and end up in places like Virginia.

We were disappointed that we wouldn’t be going to Chincoteague, but our coastal birding had still been productive, and with any luck birding Northern Virginia would be too.

Loudoun County Piedmont Diabase Barren: A Rare Ecosystem Faces Threats from Development

I have been fascinated by plants and the natural world for as long as I can remember. Since I was a toddler, my mom would take my little brother and me to a nearby park almost every day to play in the woods, fields, and creeks.  These days, a fellow plant-loving friend and I meticulously research and plan trips all around the state to look for new plants and plant communities.  More than a year in advance, we planned a trip to the amphibolite outcrops of Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve to see hundreds of blazing star plants in bloom.  That trip was soon followed by an exciting late May trip to Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve to see the diverse southern piedmont prairie and search for rare tall Barbara’s buttons (which we found!)  Piney Grove Preserve, Chub Sandhill Natural Area Preserve, Shenandoah National Park, George Washington National Forest, and Grayson Highlands State Park are some of the other preserves and natural areas that I have visited this year looking for plants.  

One reason I like plants so much is because they form the basic, tangible foundation for nature.  Native plants create and define different ecological communities, which host all the other life forms, which have co-evolved with the plant species in the community.  Witnessing the seemingly never-ending diversity of plants and the rich multi-species relationships of native plant communities is a source of great joy and mystery for me.  There are few things I find more rewarding than researching and planning a trip to find a rare plant and then successfully discovering it growing where I thought it would.  I also love the challenge of learning and identifying the huge number of plants native to our state.  

I recently learned that Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors is voting on January 18th on a proposal to raze a Piedmont Mafic Barren growing on a diabase formation on the banks of Goose Creek, in order to build a 750,000 square-foot data center.  These barrens consist of two small separated outcroppings of diabase bedrock.  Around the two barrens grows a stunted forest of eastern redcedar, white ash, eastern redbud, and fragrant sumac.  The outcrops themselves are covered in dense patches of mosses and lichens, and sparse herbaceous plants such as Appalachian phacelia, awned flatsedge, and the state rare Central Appalachian endemic, Kate’s mountain clover.  

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Kates Mountain Clover (Trifolium virginicum) © Lonnie Murray

I was greatly disturbed by this news, as there are only 10 documented occurrences of Piedmont Mafic Barrens in the world, all of them in the Piedmont of Virginia.  The Goose Creek site has the additional distinction of being the most northern example of this plant community, defining its range.  The Piedmont Mafic Barren plant community is ranked by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation as G1/S1, which means that it is critically imperiled globally.

Virginia is broadly divided into five physiographic provinces.  From east to west, these are the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Allegheny Plateau provinces.  The landform, geology, and plant community types define the character of each of these regions in much the same way that historic buildings and architectural districts define the distinct character of cities and towns.  Loudoun County, of course, is in the Piedmont province.  Destroying the plant communities that make the Piedmont unique, such as the Piedmont Mafic Barren in Loudoun, degrades the essence and character of the Piedmont province.

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The Loudoun County Piedmont Mafic Barren, © DCR-DNH, Gary P. Fleming.

I hope the Loudoun Board of Supervisors will deny the rezoning application and do all they can to protect the Piedmont Mafic Barren area.  Whether I ever have the opportunity to visit it or not, its existence enriches my sense of place and offers an open invitation for exploration and discovery.  While I’m interested in all plants, the ones that grow where I live are the most important to me.  Knowing the plant communities of the piedmont makes me feel at home and helps give me a sense of belonging to the natural world.  It heightens my appreciation of my surroundings every time I go outside.

I think if more people had the chance to experience the natural beauty of the Piedmont they would appreciate it more, and work harder to protect it.  While we don’t know all the contributions any particular species or community makes to the ecosystem services we all depend on, we do know that each piece of the puzzle is valuable to the functioning of the whole.  I hope that the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors won’t take away the opportunity to experience and learn from the Piedmont Mafic Barren from present and future generations.

Blue Ridge Young Birders Winter Field Trip to Northern Virginia

We stood shivering in the 22 degree early morning air, looking out on the partly frozen Potomac River.  To our left, we could see the smokestacks and apartment buildings of the District of Columbia, while across the river to our right the thick forests of Maryland loomed.  A thin coating of snow lay on the ground, extending out onto the ice of the Potomac.  Far out on the unfrozen parts of the river, a few-hundred ducks huddled, periodically diving or dabbling.  Occasionally, a group of common mergansers flew overhead, their green or brown heads contrasting sharply with their white necks and bodies.  A sleek, camouflage covered boat drifted out onto the river, carrying two duck hunters towards the distant rafts of ducks.  Stirred to action despite the cold by the fear that the hunters would scare the ducks out of sight, we resumed scanning through our scopes.  Two lesser scaup and a few ruddy ducks dove up and down near the sides of a large group of over fifty canvasbacks.  Mallards made up most of the second, larger raft, with other dabbling ducks like American black duck and gadwall mixed in.  Behind these ducks, on the very horizon of what we could see clearly, more diving ducks drifted and dove.  Logan said that he had a long-tailed duck, one of the rare species we were looking for here, in his scope.  I looked in his scope and saw it, but before anyone else in our group had the chance, a gunshot sounded out on the river and all the diving ducks lifted off and flew far across the river into Maryland.

We walked down the road to the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, where we hoped to see more ducks and other birds.  To our left stretched acres of the last freshwater tidal marshes next to the Potomac, and to our right grew a beautiful mature swamp forest.  As we walked in, the thickets and clumps of vegetation along the path were hopping with song, white-throated, and fox sparrows.  Swamp sparrows flitted and chipped in the marshes.  The path eventually emerged out of the woods and onto a little peninsula that stuck out into the river.  We saw many more ducks from here, mostly diving ducks such as lesser scaup, ring-necked duck, canvasback, redhead, and common mergansers, and of course, the ever present mallard.  Baxter, Shea, and my brother Theo decided to walk across the peninsula on a boardwalk to check the other part of the river.  They soon called that they had a long-tailed duck.  The rest of us rushed over the boardwalk, heedless of the slippery snow that coated it.  There turned out to be two female long-tailed ducks, quietly swimming about on the other side of a small cove, barely ten yards away.

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Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis) are typically a coastal species during the winter, so seeing one inland on the Potomac River is certainly note-worthy.

The diffuse winter morning sun lit the ducks from behind us, creating a gorgeous medley of rich colors.  One of the ducks seemed to have a belly itch, because it kept turning upside down in the water and preening its belly in a rather comical fashion.  It would sit upright in the water, and use its feet to keep it from falling over, making it swim backwards in a vertical position.  Here is a video Theo got of this preening behavior.

 

 

On our walk out of Dyke Marsh, we counted 10 fox sparrows, which is the most I have ever seen at once.

Our next stop was the Laurel Hill Equestrian Area, to look for a clay-colored sparrow.  We followed the directions we had been given from the parking lot back down the road, past huge clumps and tangles of blackberry vines and grasses.  Soon we came to one such tangle, which happened to be the one the clay-colored sparrow favored.  As we walked around it, we saw a flock of white-crowned sparrows foraging next to the road.  The clay-colored sparrow was immediately apparent, as it was about half the size of the white-crowned sparrows.  Whenever the clay-colored sparrow got too close to a larger white-crowned sparrow, there would be a brief scuffle, followed by a flurry of snow, and the clay-colored sparrow would have to move further off.  Despite its low status in the flock, it behaved fairly well for us, and we all got great looks and photos.

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Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida), Photo by Theo Staengl

After a quick lunch, we headed over to Pohick Bay Regional Park, another place on the Potomac, where a Eurasian wigeon had recently been seen.  We walked out onto the river on a snow coated boat dock, set down our scopes, and began to scan.  Hundreds of gadwall formed the majority of the duck flock, with good numbers of American wigeon mixed in.  A humongous American coot flock swam a little bit further out.  Two horned grebes hunted behind the ducks.  We soon identified the Eurasian wigeon by its red head, and we all had descent scope views.

After a brief and uneventful stop at Occoquan Bay NWR, we drove to the Dulles International Airports parking garages, where we wanted to look for a continuing snowy owl and two rough-legged hawks.  From the top of the parking garage, we had an uninterrupted 360 degree view of the airport’s runways, but unfortunately this meant that there was no where to hide from the relentless wind.  Northern harriers and many short-eared owls hunted over the fields in the waning light.  Max soon found the snowy owl in his scope, perched on top of a distant airport terminal.  The 2017-2018 winter is shaping up to be a large snowy owl irruption, with birds already found in Franklin, Rockingham, Isle of Wight, Suffolk, King William, Accomack, and Loudon Counties this year.  It is very exciting to see these majestic northern owls so far from their home, using large farm fields and even airports as hunting grounds.  We stayed until the increasing darkness and the cold wind finally pushed us out, but despite seeing many red-tailed hawks, we could not find the rough-leggeds.  We got in the cars and started the long drive back to Charlottesville.