Shearwater Journeys Pelagic Birding Trip on Monterey Bay

I stood along the railing of a large fishing boat, a strong, cold wind blowing on my face.  The water of Monterey Bay was choppy and dark beneath a cloudy sky.  Thousands of sooty shearwaters flew by both sides of the boat in long lines, flapping hard and fast low over the ocean and then soaring up above the horizon in arcing, stiff-winged glides.  Two common murres flushed off the water in front of our boat, flying straight away from us over the waves.

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Sooty Shearwater taking off.

Going on a Shearwater Journeys pelagic birding trip in Monterey Bay had been a dream of mine ever since my dad read The Big Year by Mark Obmascik out loud to my brother and I a few years ago.  The Big Year is a goofy book that follows three birders competing in a North American Birding Big Year.  One of the characters in The Big Year, a very competitive and stubborn birder named Sandy Komito, decided to do a pelagic birding trip with Debbi Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys.  Sandy Komito enjoyed the trip until he realized that the boat was “wasting” valuable birding time looking at whales when he could’ve been adding birds to his year list.  He went to the trips leader, Debbi Shearwater, and demanded that they keep moving.  She denied him.  He then went around the boat and asked every person whether they were there to see birds or whales.  He confronted Debi again, informing her that 47 out of the 50 people on the boat were there to see birds, not whales.  Debi — who did not move the boat for him — disliked his rude behavior so much that she gave a free trip to one of Sandy’s big year opponents.  My brother and I laughed our heads off at this exchange.

Although pelagic birds could theoretically be found almost anywhere over the ocean, they concentrate around spots with lots of food, like Monterey Bay.  Under the water of the Bay lies a huge submarine canyon which brings cold, nutrient rich water close to shore that forms the base of the Bay’s rich food web.  Tens of thousands of migratory seabirds use the bay as a staging location during their long migrations, and some species like tufted puffin and ashy storm-petrel breed on nearby islands.

So there we were, four years after I’d first heard about the wonders of Monterey’s seabirds, on a boat with Debi Shearwater herself.

After exiting the harbor we traveled along the edge of a kelp forest.  Flocks of elegant terns flew over, their rattling calls filling the foggy air.  Great egrets and great blue herons hunted from atop the kelp mats.  A peregrine falcon alighted on a tall cell tower just barely visible through the fog.  Parasitic jaegers harassed gulls into giving up their meals, periodically flying over the boat.

As we turned away from the kelp beds and headed out into open water, someone spotted a gigantic ocean sunfish drifting near the surface of the ocean.  The sunfish was bizarrely shaped, seemingly nothing but a large chunk of fish flesh with a weird fin that was feebly moving back and fourth above it.  The ocean sunfish or mola mola is the heaviest bony fish in the world, sometimes weighing more than a ton.  This one was several feet thick.  The boat pulled up for a closer look, and we saw that the sunfish was actually being torn apart by sea lions and western gulls.  The sea lions dove at the sunfish in a swirl of motion and emerged with their mouths full of chunks of bloody meat.  The western gulls picked off the bits and pieces that fell out of the sea lions’ mouths.  It was sad to see such an awesome creature being eaten — especially when it was apparently still alive — but it was fascinating to see all the feeding activity around it.  We soon saw a few more, much smaller but healthy sunfish.

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Western Gull with Pelagic Red Crab.  Photo by Theo Staengl.

Suddenly I heard Debi yelling something in an excited voice.  I looked around, worried that I was missing a bird.  She repeated herself, and I realized she was talking about the pelagic red crabs that a couple of western gulls were happily munching on.  One of the guides standing next to us remarked that “Debi can be a little excitable.”  Debi was saying that it was unusual to see such large numbers of the red crabs in the bay except during years with unusually warm water, when they move up the California coast.  I remembered seeing swarms of similar looking red crabs in the Channel Islands National Park near Los Angeles two years earlier, so this was interesting information.

A leader began throwing pieces of anchovies out of the boat, which soon attracted a hungry swarm of western gulls.  Northern fulmars flew past the boat, occasionally dropping into the wake for a piece of anchovy.  Someone yelled “pink footed shearwater!”  I ran to the back of the boat and looked behind us at a large, slow-flapping shearwater with a white belly speeding towards us on bowed wings.  At least one pink-footed shearwater followed the boat for the rest of the day, sometimes dropping so far behind us as to be barely visible, and then with a few flaps and subtle adjustments of its wings speeding up the wake to right behind the boat.

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Pink-footed Shearwater

We continued our progress out into the bay, carefully scanning the sooty shearwaters for other shearwater species.  We found a black-vented shearwater, slightly early in Monterey Bay.  This was one of the few pelagic birds I had already seen, as they were the abundant shearwater in the Channel Islands when I visited.  A Buller’s shearwater made a brief appearance in the in the chum slick, and I barely saw the bird’s bright white underside.  Unfortunately it was the only one we saw all day, so I never got a better look. Our boat flushed common murres and rhinoceros and Cassin’s auklets every so often, as well as small flocks of red-necked and a few red phalaropes.

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Black-footed Albatross

I began to wonder if we would see albatrosses on the trip.  I was pretty sure they were still supposed to be reliable in early September, but I was getting worried since we hadn’t seen one yet.  I needn’t have feared.  A few minutes later, a large, dark seabird appeared on the horizon and began moving towards us.  The black-footed albatrosses flight was graceful and even seemingly effortless.  When one landed in the wake right behind the boat, we got a good size comparison with western gulls.  The black-footed albatross looked double the size, and many times the weight.  And they’re supposed to be a small species of albatross!

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Black-footed Albatross

We arrived back at the harbor around 3:00 pm, exhausted from the wind and motion of the boat but thrilled with the birding experience.  I got 12 life birds, which hasn’t happened in the United States for a long time.  I also learned a ton about west coast pelagic birds and their identification, and got to see some amazing birds like the black-footed albatross.  Debi Shearwater is retiring next year, so I would highly recommend anybody who’s interested to sign up for a trip with her while you still can.

 

 

The Blackbirds of Moonglow Dairy

We drove into Moonglow Dairy on a dusty dirt road, scanning for blackbird flocks.   We passed muddy cattle pens with little grass or other vegetation and looming heaps of compost.  Even the leaves of the distant eucalyptus grove were brown with dust.  Completing the picture, black phoebes hunted from the tops of leafless bushes.  When we stepped out of the car, our faces contorted as we smelled hundreds of cows at close range.  Cows stood in lines behind their food troughs, eating through piles and piles of slimy vegetables — which did not smell so great either.  Flies swarmed in thick clouds around the cows and their rotting food, doing nothing to improve the atmosphere.

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Cattle Pens at Moonglow Dairy.  Photo by Theo Staengl

We were at this stinky cow farm to see a bird, specifically the tricolored blackbird.  They have a fairly small range, mostly in California — making them an attractive target for birders from the east coast — although they also have scattered breeding colonies in Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Baja California.  Tricolored blackbirds breed in large communal colonies in fresh water cattail marshes, but they seem to gravitate to more artificial habitats for foraging, such as fields and cattle pens in their range.

Tricolored blackbirds look very similar to a much more widespread species, red-winged blackbirds. Males of both species are medium sized, glossy black and have a red patch on the shoulder bordered by a light-colored stripe.  Females are streaked brown and white.  The only field mark our field guide gave to separate males of the two species was that on tricolored blackbirds, the light line was supposed to be white, while on red-winged blackbirds it was supposed to be yellow.  The book did warn that the shoulder patches of freshly molted or molting male tricolored blackbirds could look more yellowish though.  Not much to go off, as we soon realized.

We got our birding stuff and braved the foul air and flies, walking slowly up the road.  We saw a few blackbirds, but they were mostly hidden from view by small hills.  Most of the ones we could see clearly were Brewer’s, although there were some with thick yellow stripes on their shoulders.  As far as we knew, tricolored blackbirds should have white next to the red on their shoulders, so we decided that the birds we saw with the thick, yellow stripe must be red-winged rather than tricolored.  Even so, I was pretty sure I had never seen a red-winged blackbird with this much yellow on the wing and so little red.  Could it be a plumage I didn’t see often, such as that of an immature male? Just as we were coming to this conclusion, a huge mass of blackbirds lifted off from behind a distant barn and descended into the cattle pen in front of us, totally swamping the few birds we had been struggling to see before.  Of the hundreds of birds now present, almost all had the thick yellow stripe, while a few had a massive red patch and almost no lighter color at all. Surely all these birds couldn’t be immature male redwings.  We decided that the tricolored and red-winged blackbirds must be distinguishable from each other based on the relative whiteness of the “yellow” stripe rather than on a clear categorical difference.

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A tiny portion of the huge flock of blackbirds.  Photo by Theo Staengl

At that point our search became farcical.  My brother Theo started pointing out birds with light colored stripes that he thought were whiter than those on the birds surrounding them.   Unfortunately, I could see no decisive difference between the birds he claimed were tricolored and the birds that looked exactly the same to me, that we agreed were red-wings, sitting right next to them.   He pointed out bird after bird with supposedly whiter wing stripes.  Even the act of finding his birds amidst the mass of feeding blackbirds was a struggle.  He would zoom our scope in to its maximum distance and attempt to convey the location of the bird he wanted me to look at with land marks as unpredictable as which way the fattest pigeon in the scope view was facing. Inevitably, just as I thought I had found the right bird, the entire scope field would be taken up by the curious head of a cow.

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Tricolored blackbirds, European starlings and rock pigeons feeding under a cow.  Photo by Theo Staengl

Theo grew impatient with my inability to see the birds with obviously whiter stripes and I grew more and more frustrated.  To make matters worse, my parents, who sometimes still cannot identify a bird as striking as a pelican in flight, chimed in that they too saw birds with whiter stripes than others.  What the heck was going on?  Was I suddenly color blind?  I didn’t think so, but it was hard to rule out the possibility.  I know it’s silly, but I particularly can’t stand my little brother getting a bird that I miss.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it hurts.  He saw a bananaquit in Florida, for instance, while I was scanning the wrong bush for it.  The bird spent half a second in the bush Theo was watching, and then disappeared, never to return.

We continued our search for the now seemingly mythical white stripe blackbirds for about three hours before we gave up and walked dejectedly down onto the trail that went around the nearby pond next to Elkhorn Slough.  A pectoral sandpiper and several semipalmated plovers foraged in what I thought looked suspiciously like watery decomposing cow manure.  A cinnamon teal flew by.

We ran into an older English birder who said he had been coming to Moonglow for years.  He said the tricolored blackbirds were molting, which was why the feathers looked yellow instead of white.  All the red-winged blackbirds he had seen at Moonglow had been of the California bicolored group, so they had almost no color other than red on their wings.  Therefore, they were even easier to distinguish from the tricolored blackbirds than the more eastern group of red-winged blackbirds would be.

The heavens opened and I heard the angelic chorus sing.

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Tricolored blackbird in a relaxed posture.  When these birds were feeding I hardly ever saw any red on the shoulder.

We got our life bird tricolored blackbird, but more importantly, I was able to leave feeling that I had learned and now understood the identification of North American Agelaius blackbirds at a deeper level.  Clearly, size of the light color on the shoulder is a much better field mark for separating male red-winged and tricolored blackbirds than color.  Even if the red-winged blackbirds at that particular location had been of the more eastern “tricolored” group, they still wouldn’t have had as thick a light stripe as the tricolored blackbirds did.  We did not escape Moonglow unscathed, however, our rental car — newly christened the Mobile Cow Pie — smelled like a dairy for the rest of our vacation, and when we returned it at the airport it was the dirtiest car in the garage by a large margin.  Oh well, some things are worth a little dirt.

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 the 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 the Upper Rio Grande Valley

We drove into the parking lot of the Harlingen Convention Center at 4:30 AM.  The huge fifty plus person bus that would take take us west along the Rio Grande Valley into Starr County idled at the curb.  We grabbed the lunches the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF) had prepared for us, and hurried to join our friends on the bus.  We were very excited about this festival field trip to the “Upper Rio Grande Valley” because that area hosts some rare specialties that can’t be found closer to Harlingen.  Particularly, we were hoping to see white-collared seedeaters, red-billed pigeon, and wild muscovy ducks.  Despite these birds being very rare and local Rio Grande specialties, we figured we would get at least one.  In addition, Starr County has large stretches of desert, which host an assortment of southwestern desert species, such as greater roadrunner, black-chinned sparrow, cactus wren, and pyrrhuloxia.

The overcast sky began to brighten as we neared our first birding location, a preserve along the Rio Grande called Salineño.  We walked down an old, cracked road, through thick, green vegetation.  The cool morning mists drifted off the ground, obscuring the old buildings and trees that lined the road.  Our guides told us that we would have to split up into groups to seek the seedeater, because too many of us would scare it.  As another group branched off, we continued down toward the river to watch for red-billed pigeons.  We came to a small boat launch, where we set up our scopes and waited.  Mist rose off the muddy waters of the Rio Grande in front of us.  Audubon’s and altamira orioles called from the feeding station behind us.

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Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis)

Green jays constantly flew over the river in front of us.  Double-crested and neotropic cormorants flew overhead.  We saw northern pintail, gadwall, blue-winged teal, lesser scaup, and the “Mexican” subspecies of the mallard on the river.  We waited patiently for the seedeater group to come back, without seeing a pigeon.  When the first person from their group wandered into view, we asked them if they’d seen the seedeater.  They nonchalantly replied that they had.  We asked our guide if our group could go and look for the seedeater.  He said he didn’t personally have much interest in it, but eventually led the way.  We walked up a trail over sandy bluffs overlooking the river, scanning the cane patches where our guide said the seedeaters liked to hang out.  As we worked our way upriver, we encountered a mixed flock, mostly blue-gray gnatcatchers and orange-crowned warblers, but we also found a Nashville warbler, a Bewick’s wren, and a verdin.  We stared down into the thick cane for hours, not daring to move for fear of scaring off the supposedly super timid seedeaters.  Every few minutes someone would raise their binoculars, and invariably they would mutter “common yellow-throat” as the bird slid back out of sight.  At noon our guide announced we had to return to Harlingen.

The next day, my friends and I decided to make the two hour drive back to Salineño one more time, in hopes of seeing the seedeater with a smaller group.  My friend Max also knew a place nearby where we could get scaled quail, and other desert birds that we had been hoping for on yesterday’s trip.  When we arrived at the boat launch, we were glad to find we were the only ones there.  We walked slowly up the path toward the cane stands, listening for unusual calls and watching for unaccounted movement.  As we stood staring intently at the largest patch of cane, my friend Ander said he thought he saw one.  We turned, and not twenty feet away, in a small mesquite bush, sat a tiny, cinnamon brown bird.  At long last, a white-collared seedeater!

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White-collared Seedeaters (Sporophila torqueola) have become increasingly hard to find in Texas, despite being reasonably common as recently as the 1940s.

Just as we all got on the bird, it flew out of the bush, flashing it’s white wing-bars and small tail.  We followed the bird away from the river, into a small, rocky gully, where we suddenly heard a whistled down-slurred “chew” call from the trees above us.  Looking up, we saw the White-collared seedeater perched in another tree.  No wonder we hadn’t found them the day before by looking in the cane stands.  At the sound of another “chew,” we looked down to see a second bird hoping on the rocks.  We watched the two birds forage and chatter for a while, before they flew off across the river.  It was amazing how much easier they were to find without a huge group of people.

As we drove toward our next stop, a nursery specializing in the plants of the south Texas desert called Rancho Lomitas, the landscape became increasingly desolate and arid.  Huge cacti and thorny bushes grew next to the road.  Black-throated sparrows perched on emergent vegetation.  When we stepped out of the cars onto a soil of hard-packed sand, we were greeted by a man named Jim, who told us about the Ranch and showed us to chairs in front of his trailer that looked out on a well-stocked feeding station.  He told us that if we waited long enough, we should be able to see cactus wrens, pyrrhuloxias, and scaled quail right there.  As soon as we sat down, green jays began swooping in five feet in front of us.  The incredibly close proximity allowed me really appreciate their intricate and gorgeous blue, black, and green patterning.

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Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas)

After about five minutes, a movement behind a large flower pot next to me caught my eye.  A cactus wren hopped out from behind the flower pot, and flew up to a platform hanging from a huge cactus, right in front of my face.  It was a life bird for many of my friends.  Suddenly, something moved in the dense brush behind the feeders.  Than a cute plumed face came out into view.  Before long, there were five scaled quail scratching on the ground right under the feeders.  When someone walked past, they would fly up into a tree above our heads, and slowly come back down.

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Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata)

We watched the birds at the feeder for a while longer, and than decided to bird the nearby roads to see if we could find a pyrrhuloxia.  Sure enough, just on the other side of the clearing from Jim’s trailer, we found the desert cardinal perching in the top of a dense, thorny bush.  Pyrrhuloxias are mostly a waxy gray color, with a bright yellow bill and a red crest and face, and red flight feathers.  As we continued down the road, we heard a Bewick’s wren chattering in the grass.  As we paused to watch it, I saw another bird fly across the road.  As it flew, it flashed white edges of its tail.  When it landed, we saw it was a female lark bunting, a lifer that I had not expected on this trip.

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Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys)

When the lark bunting finally disappeared back into the grass, we turned and saw a great horned owl perched on the power line farther down.  We approached as much as we could without bothering it, and photographed it.  What a great end to a great day of birding.

Birding Big Day in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Thick mist rolled off the spiny limbs of unfamiliar tropical vegetation as strange calls pierced the stillness of the early morning.  We crossed over a small channel of water, watching for green kingfishers, and then walked into the woods on the other side.  Large oak branches draped in Spanish moss hung over the trail.

We were at the famous Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, located in the very southern tip of Texas.  Birding at Santa Ana and other locations in southern Texas had been a long awaited dream for me, and it felt unreal that it was finally happening. My friends and I were participating in the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF), and had scheduled this day to be a “big day,” an attempt to see as many species as possible in 24 hours.  We had all agreed in advance that we would be extremely relaxed about the pace, as we wanted to have as much time as we wanted with each new species.

As we continued walking through the old, tropical woodland, we heard the calls of great kiskadees, plain chachalacas, long-billed thrashers, and golden-fronted woodpeckers.  Mourning, white-winged, and Inca doves foraged on the ground.  Up ahead the trail opened into a large, wet marsh, called Pintail Lake.  As we walked out on an elevated dike towards the water, we heard American pipits, and spotted a vermillion flycatcher and two tropical kingbirds perched on projecting sticks.  We set down our scopes and started scanning the many ducks on the water.  We quickly found 11 species, including black-bellied whistling duck, mottled duck, redhead, and the lakes namesake, the northern pintail.

As we were about to get back into the cars, a small, gray Buteo flew low over the parking lot and landed in a nearby tree.  It was a gray hawk, a lifer for most of us.

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Gray Hawk (Buteo plagiatus), photo by Theo Staengl

I had never been to our next stop, a small city park called Anzalduas, before, but I had heard it was a good place for zone-tailed hawk.  We drove there on roads on top of high dikes overlooking the Rio Grande.  Border Patrol vans were everywhere, but most just waved at us as we drove past.  When we finally got to Anzalduas, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  A far cry from most of the natural areas we were birding in the Rio Grande Valley, Anzalduas was a large expanse of sparse grass under periodically spaced trees, broken only by decrepit playground equipment.  The only other people around were twenty or so border patrol agents.

A local constable drove up and unpleasantly informed us that the road we had driven on into the park was closed to the public, despite the complete absence of signs saying so.  He warned he’d give us a citation next time.   We walked up a side road to another dike, across the park from the Rio Grande that was supposedly a very reliable spot for zone-tailed hawk, and possibly for hook-billed kite.  After several uneventful minutes, two things happened very quickly.  First, I noticed the constable’s car coming up the road toward us, and a large, thin-winged, mostly black raptor, a zone-tailed hawk, flew low over us.  We ignored the constable, and had beautiful looks at the hawk.

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Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus)

When we looked down from the hawk, we saw the constable talking with my mom and our unofficial guide, who knew the local area well.  The constable pointed to two huge signs in front of the road we had just walked up, that said “no public use.”  We had honestly missed the signs because we had approached from the side, but from the constable’s perspective it sure looked sketchy.   In the end he let us go, and we hurried quickly off the dike.  The only other notable bird we saw at Anzalduas was a house finch, locally uncommon in the Rio Grande Valley.

Forty minutes later, we pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Frontera Audubon Center’s small tropical reserve.  We walked the short, dirt trails through dense undergrowth, scanning the bushes around us for warblers and clay-colored thrushes.  As we neared a small feeder station near the visitor center, we found our first thrush flock, with about five clay-colored thrushes.

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The range of the clay-colored thrush (Turdus grayi) just barely extends into the United States in the very southern tip of Texas.  Clay-colored thrushes and many other predominantly central American species that just extend into the southern Rio Grande Valley are what makes south Texas such a birding hotspot.  These species are often referred to in the US as Rio Grande specialties, even though many of them are much more abundant further south.

We continued on the trails deeper into the woods, listening and looking for warbler activity.  That morning, someone had spotted a tropical parula there, which would be a life bird for all of us.  Soon we came to a wooden platform overlooking a small lake.  Warblers, mainly orange crowned, chipped and flitted in the dense willows.  We scanned the flock to the best of our ability, and were able to add Nashville, black-and-white, and black-throated green warblers to our day list.  We spent another hour roaming the trails looking for the tropical parula, but it proved to be a waste of time.  I was able to photograph a buff-bellied hummingbird, another fairly range restricted species, at one of the feeding stations, though.

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Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis)

As we got out of the car at Estero Llano Grande State Park, I was beginning to feel worried we had spent too much time at Frontera, and we wouldn’t have enough day-light at South Padre Island, an important shorebird spot, later in the day.  Evan so, I couldn’t help enjoying the bountiful ducks at the visitor center lake at Estero.  Wild ducks swam peacefully about, clearly used to humans being nearby.  A vermillion flycatcher foraged from a dead stick over the marsh, its brilliant red belly and crown contrasting beautifully with its brown back and eye-line.  We added cinnamon teal and least grebe to our day list.  One of the birds I was personally most excited to see here was the common pauraque, a large tan nightjar of Central and South America.  While it is locally extremely common in south Texas, it is so cryptically patterned that one could easily walk within a foot without seeing it.  We were walking along a dusty dirt road near where pauraques have been known to roost when I almost stepped on one.  Once we noticed it, we were so focused on photographing it, we failed to see two others within a yard of it until some kind older birders pointed them out.  What a weird looking bird!

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Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis)

We raced along the highway as the sky became cloudier and the sun sank ever lower toward the horizon.  Our rental car’s tinted windows probably did not help our feeling of impending darkness.  When we stepped out of the car at the mudflats above the South Padre Island Convention Center, wind coming off the Laguna Madre buffeted us and tore at our clothing and scopes.  We hurried over the muddy sand toward distant shorebird flocks, hoping the incoming tide wouldn’t strand us.  As soon as we could, we put down our scopes and started scanning.  We quickly found most of the common shorebirds we needed, along with two piping and snowy plovers.  It was only the second time I had ever seen a snowy plover, and it was a lifer for some of my friends.  We ran back to the cars across what were now inches of water, soaking our shoes.  We spent the rest of the daylight birding around the slightly more sheltered trails of the convention center.  Our list for the day was 126 species, the most I have ever seen in a day.

 

An Epic Bird Finding Guide

We hiked up a steep incline to arrive at a beautiful wildflower meadow.  The brilliant oranges and reds of Indian Paintbrush contrasted starkly with the bright white Beargrass.  We had chosen the Iceberg Lake trail in Glacier National Park because of the enticing description in our birding guide, “Glacier is for the Birds.”  From our lofty perch, we scanned the tops of the extensive spruce/fir forest in the valley below us.  We could see numerous waterfalls and cliff faces covered in wildflowers on the mountainsides around us.  Suddenly, an iridescent caramel-colored speck whizzed up the valley.  The male Rufous Hummingbird landed at the top of a nearby spruce, giving us fantastic studies of its sparkling gorget and back.  We were quickly distracted from our quest to get a photo that really showed the iridescence of the hummingbird by the call of a Dusky Flycatcher coming from further upslope.  We soon found the bird perched in the top of a bush, but I listened more than I looked, as Empidonax flycatchers are extremely hard to identify by sight.  “Glacier is for the Birds'” predictions were proving amazingly accurate: “As you proceed through the shrubs and until you head back into the trees, listen and watch for Dusky Flycatchers, Orange-crowned Warblers, MacGillivray’s Warblers and Lazuli Buntings,” though we still hadn’t seen any Lazuli Buntings.  After more searching of trees and listening for calls, we finally located a male Lazuli Bunting singing in a bush.  After the first one, they seemed to be everywhere, and we enjoyed many views of this spectacular bird.

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Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena)

We paused every mile or so and checked the book again, as it provided so much detail we couldn’t remember it all.  Next was “Past the Red-rock outcrop, look for Pine Grosbeaks until you are in the trees.”  As soon as we had fully rounded the next big projection of Glacier’s famous “red rock,” a male and female Pine Grosbeak flew off the path into the top of a large fir.  They stayed there only a few seconds, giving us just enough time to get a decent look, and then flew away.  That was the only time we saw Pine Grosbeaks on our trip.

My experience in Glacier National Park convinced me that a good bird finding guide is essential for travel, even though I usually rely heavily on eBird for local birding information.  EBird is a global citizen science project by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that gathers birders’ sitings into a massive database, which they make available to the public.  I have been eBirding since I started birding, and I can’t imagine birding without it.  EBird is a fantastic tool for keeping personal lists, finding target birds, and learning basic information about a location, but you still really need an actual book.  Some regions are poorly ebirded, leading to small and useless amount of data.  Some regions lack solid internet connection (like Glacier), making it impossible to use.  EBird also lacks the level of detailed information about bird finding often found in bird finding guides.    For instance, on one hike we did to find Timberline Brewer’s Sparrow, our book told us not only which trail but exactly which switchback to look for the sparrows’ territories.

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Brewer’s Sparrow (Spizella breweri)

Finding the Brewer’s Sparrow wasn’t the only time the guide proved so precise it made our jaws drop.  One of the few target birds we hadn’t found by the end of the trip was the Evening Grosbeak.  The guide recommended a brief hike at Goat Lick for it.  We decided to stop there on our last day heading out of the park.  That day ended up full of excitement (see previous post) and we felt like we had to skip the Goat Lick hike as we figured we couldn’t afford the time to look for the bird.  As we were driving, we saw a crowd gathered on the side of the road.  Was it a bear jam, we wondered?  Nope, it was goat jam.  A family of five Mountain Goats were standing right next to the road!

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Mountain Goat (Oreamnos americanus)

After a week of being in the park, we had seen many Mountain Goats, but they had all been distant specks way up on ridge tops.  Apparently, they come from miles away to Goat Lick to ingest minerals from the rocks like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and sodium.  The opportunity to photograph these amazing animals was too good to miss.  I didn’t even bring my binoculars, not knowing this was also the place mentioned in the book for Evening Grosbeaks.  Soon, the goats moved under the bridge and out of sight.  As we were about to go, a little yellow-and-black blob flew up the canyon, chittering wildly, and landed in a spruce near the bridge.  It was immediately followed by four more Evening Grosbeaks.  They were so close and bright, I didn’t really mind not having my binoculars.

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Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)

One of the things that made this bird finding guide so accurate was it was super up to date, published only last year.  Most of the birds he talked about still occupied the same territories they did last year, although I don’t really know they were the same individuals.  Older guides can still be useful, though.  On a trip to Florida last winter, I purchased the ABA/Lane “A Birder’s Guide to Florida,” by Bill Pranty, published in 2005.   I was saddened and disappointed several times during our trip when the birds he mentioned were gone and the described habitat looked very degraded or had even disappeared all together.   But despite being more than 10 years old, it was still full of great information, detailed directions, the authors personal advice, and great maps in a portable, accessible format.    In combination with eBird, it was very helpful in planning and accomplishing our trip.

One time in Miami, I looked on eBird for recent reports of Cave Swallows, a species that I really wanted to see.  There were no recent reports, but the bird finding guide had a nearby bridge staked out as a Cave Swallow nesting site.  Was it possible, 10 years later, that there could still be swallows under that bridge that hadn’t been reported on eBird? We drove quickly into the growing darkness to find out.  Upon arriving, my first impression was of an old, deserted bridge over a filthy canal, surrounded by busy highways.  Not a hopeful sight.  We searched the canal, under the bridge, and the surrounding area but saw no birds.  As we were getting ready to leave, my brother, lagging behind as usual, called from under the bridge that he saw a Cave Swallow.  He used his flash to illuminate the dark underside of the bridge once we were ready, and for just a second, I saw a little nest with a Cave Swallow peeping up out of it.

 

 

The Great Ptarmigan Hunt

Since I began researching birding in Glacier National Park nearly a year ago, one of the birds that I most wanted to see was the White-tailed Ptarmigan.  I liked that Ptarmigans are unusual — rare, range -restricted, cute quail-like birds.  Ptarmigans live in harsh, alpine environments far above the tree line.  Getting up to their snow-covered habitat in late June, when we were going to the park, could be a challenge.   They have thickly feathered feet and even feathers around their nostrils to help them deal with the cold.  Every winter, they molt out of their speckled brown breeding plumage into a beautiful snow white plumage for camouflage against the snow.  These specialized adaptations have helped ptarmigans survive the cold, northern winters for millennia, but in a rapidly warming climate, they could be fatal.

When I was researching Glacier, I bought a bird finding guide called “Glacier is For the Birds” by ranger and biologist David Benson, who studies the effects of climate change on White-tailed Ptarmigans in the park.  The book was very useful in learning what birds we could expect to see on the different trails, and more generally, some basic ecology of the park.  While we were at Glacier, we had the opportunity to go on a bird walk with Dr. Benson.  We had already seen all the common birds in the area of the walk, but we went for the chance to pick his brain about ptarmigans and couple of other target birds.  He told us that the best place to see White-tailed Ptarmigans in the park was Logan Pass, but that this was a difficult time of year, since the Going-to-the-Sun Road (the only way to get to Logan Pass) was closed to all vehicles due to snow.  Also, the ptarmigans don’t have chicks or flock this early in the year, so if we saw one, it would likely be by itself.  He didn’t sound very encouraging. When we pressed him about our chances, he kind of raised his eyebrows and said,  “Well, you can try ….” He said to scan every patch of exposed rock downslope from the Hidden Lake Nature Trail, and if we didn’t find ptarmigans there, to walk up and scan the higher rocky patches.

Dr. Benson also pointed out that, unfortunately, there were less White-tailed Ptarmigans at Logan now than there used to be, probably because of declining moisture levels due to climate change.  At this point he thought there were only about 16 breeding adults left there, less than half the number that had been there 50 years ago.  Ptarmigans get stressed by temperatures over seventy degrees, and need snow or snowmelt to cool themselves down.  Less snow and earlier snowmelt makes it harder and harder for them to cool themselves down sufficiently.

Three days previously, we had attempted to find Ptarmigans at Piegan Pass, a high pass through the mountains separating the center of the park from Many Glacier where we were staying.  According to Dr. Benson’s book, a small number of Ptarmigans could be found along the barren, rocky top of the ridge line at the pass.  The five mile hike to Piegan Pass from Jackson Glacier Overlook where we left our car was almost deserted.  Flocks of Pine Siskins and Cassin’s Finches foraged on the clean white snow beneath the stunted forest of Sub-alpine Fir.  The mountain felt pristine and peaceful, exactly how I had always dreamed of mountainous coniferous forests.  I saw the blur of a wing out of the corner of my eye.  Turning I caught a Boreal Chickadee slipping into a fir.  Soon we were surrounded by Boreal and Mountain Chickadees, and Red-breasted Nuthatches.

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Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)

It wasn’t long before the poorly traveled trail completely disappeared into the snow.  We wandered towards the wall of mountain peaks up ahead, trying to find a footprint that might show where the trail went.  The first people we met were two cross-country skiers, apparently miffed that a family of hikers was attempting to get to the pass.  They told us that they wouldn’t recommend traveling the trail without “trekking boots” or skis.  They emphatically gestured to the snow covered treeless peaks and said the Piegan Pass trail crossed “dangerous snow fields.”  We hoped they were exaggerating.  As we continued to flounder about, trying to find the trail, we heard a loud, raucous noise from the dark sky above us.  Looking up, we saw two large, gray birds with black wings swooping between  tall spruce trees.  We felt cheered by the Clark’s Nutcrackers, another life bird to keep us going.

Upon emerging from the trees, we were surrounded by steep slopes of flaky red and brown rocks, and the occasional stunted fir that managed to survive the harsh conditions.  We could see the trail crossing the peaks in front of us – a thin, straight line, mid way up the steep slopes.  Once we had climbed up to the trail, we could see the whole valley below us, and in the distance, Siyeh Bend in the closed portion of Going-to-the-Sun Road.  Periodically, thick bands of icy snow crossed the path, from the exposed peaks down to the trees far below.   The only birds we saw were two Mountain Bluebirds huddling near the tree line.  As we crossed one of the snowfields, our shoes barely digging into the steep, slippery surface, a man carrying a large backpack came around the bend.  He was extremely exuberant and cheerful about the difficult hiking conditions, in stark contrast to the skiers we had met earlier.  He told me and my brother that the “funnest thing to do in the park” if we had snow pants and an ice axe, was to slide down the snowfields all the way to tree line and meet up with our parents at the bottom of the valley.

Continuing along the path, we stumbled and slid over three more ice sheets with the wind roaring up from the valley and pushing us against the mountain wall.  We almost made it to the pass, stopping periodically and scanning the hillside on either side of us for Ptarmigans.  We knew they might blend in perfectly with the surrounding rocks and didn’t want to miss one in plain sight.  Right before we got to the pass, a steeper ice sheet stopped us.  We were so close, but still just too far to clearly see the rocks there with our binoculars.  How infuriating!

The thought of traveling back over the exposed, icy snowfields with the wind whipping up the valley harder than ever and back down through the snow-covered forest sounded hellish.  Alas, we did not have snow-pants and an ice-axe to slide all the way down!  Still, when we peered down to the road with our binoculars it looked like if we bush-whacked straight down we would encounter a lot less snow.  Once we came out on the road at Siyeh Bend, we could walk back to our car.  We followed the trail back only until it wasn’t too steep to go straight down the mountain.  As we made our way down the rocky slope, my brother suddenly called from ahead that he saw a Gray-crownd Rosy-Finch.  I nearly broke my ankle trying to get to him before it flew away.  It was the first time I had ever seen a Rosy Finch, and I was extremely happy about it.  Several hours later, we emerged on the road, having had an adventure, but not having seen a Ptarmigan.

Earlier in the week, a ranger told us that we could hike four miles from the road closure up to Logan Pass along the Going-to-the-Sun road on weekends, but not on any other days (due to work crews on the roads).  Since we were flying home on Sunday, this meant that if we wanted to go to Logan Pass, Saturday was our last chance.  We got to the Jackson Glacier Parking lot before almost everybody else Saturday morning.

Starting out on foot, the road was wet with dew and early morning rain.  Suddenly, I heard something rustle in the brush to the side of the road.  I drew back as a mother Grizzly Bear and her cub walked across the road.  I was so intent on watching them that I forgot to reach for my camera until it was nearly too late.  I did manage one good shot of the cub as they disappeared into the trees on the other side of the road.

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Grizzly Bear Cub

We enjoyed the views of the many valleys, mountains, streams and glaciers as we walked.  The only people we saw were a few bikers.  The four miles went by surprisingly quickly, and we soon found ourselves at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, which was closed.  The mountain air was clean and sharp.  The 8 foot high Sub-alpine Firs that had been growing over the last half mile of the road finally stopped, giving way to pure, white snow.  A four foot snow pack covered the ground, running from the visitor center all the way up and over the giant mountains in the background.  Every so often, a small patch of rocky alpine vegetation poked out of the snow.  The White-tailed Ptarmigans live in these patches, apparently very rarely walking on the snow or in vegetation taller than themselves (thank goodness!).  We followed the rough location of the Hidden Lake Nature Trail by walking on top of the snow, which was frozen enough to hold us up.  With excitement mounting, we began to search the lower patches for Ptarmigans.  White-crowned Sparrows and Slate-Colored Fox Sparrows foraged in the melting snow on the edges of the rocky patches, along with American Pipits, Cassin’s Finches, and Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, which finally let me get them in good lighting for photos.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis)

After thoroughly scanning the lower patches, we headed up the trail toward the towering peaks and large alpine slopes.  After having searched for over an hour and not having had any luck, I was beginning to get discouraged.  Climbing over the snow up the mountain was hard work.  The sun had come out, and it was getting hot, and since we were on snow, it was also getting extremely, glaringly, bright.  I decided that if we were going to search thoroughly, somebody should really go up above the rocks and check them from the top.  Climbing the mile or so it took to get there was probably the hardest hike in my life.  My boots dug into the slippery snow down to a good six inches and it got steep.  There would be an extremely steep segment and then it would level out again for awhile, before getting even steeper.  I was hiking over four feet of snow in a short-sleeve shirt.  As I got closer to the rocky patches, I could see the little dots that were my family far below me.  Looking out over the snow plain below me from 7,250 ft above sea level, I could see far beyond the Logan Pass visitor center and into the valley beyond it.

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Logan Pass Photo Credit: Galen Staengl

I began scanning every rocky patch for Ptarmigans and working my way back along the ridge toward the pass.  Soon, I had thoroughly seen every bit of four of the rock piles, so I started making my way toward the fifth, a small cliff like face further out in the sea of snow.  My dad, who had been scanning through our spotting scope, suddenly yelled, “I see one!” I began skidding down the mountain toward my family faster than I ever would have without such incentive.  When I got to the scope a few minutes later the Ptarmigan hadn’t moved (of course it hadn’t, it was sitting in a little indent in the cliff face and nonchalantly pecking at the dirt in front of it).  As I looked at the cute little bird, I felt that I could finally let our trip be a success. We had seen our three most important targets, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Boreal Chickadee, and White-tailed Ptarmigan.  We had also seen many other beautiful new birds and endless gorgeous scenery.  I wasn’t able to get a very good photo at that distance, but my brother got some decent ones.

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White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura) Photo Credit: Theo Staengl

We watched the bird for a half-hour, and then headed back toward the road to get to Kalispell so we could get a good night’s sleep before our 5:30am flight home the next day.