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Friday, 3 January 2020

Ecuador 2019 - part I

It's been a very long time since I posted anything on this weblog. Truth be told, I've spend a lot less time birding and photographing since we moved to Houston. But, now and again, I do take my bins and camera out. And what better reason to do so when you're visiting the cloud forests of Ecuador!

The last week of December saw us spending a few days in Ecuador to enjoy the cloud forest and the tremendous biodiversity it hosts. We only had a few days, and it was not all about birding - though I definitely got my fix and am very tempted to go again soon for a few days.

There is a direct flight from Houston to Quito, arriving around midnight. After a short night in Quito we were picked up in the morning and set off to our first jungle destination, the famous Mashpi lodge (https://www.mashpilodge.com) where we would be staying the next two nights. The Mashpi lodge provides ultimate luxury deep in the cloud forests of the Ecuadorian Choco bioregion, and is one of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. Definitely one of the most high-end lodges that I have ever stayed in!

Clouds and rain are naturally abundant in the cloud forests, but we had daily dry spells from roughly 8 in the morning to early afternoon. And, if the rain wasn't hampering our vision, then the white backdrop of the clouds would make some of the canopy dwelling birds tricky to identify. This did not dampen my spirit though and the guides that we were with seemed very comfortable birding on calls only.

The very first bird we saw at Mashpi was a female Lyre-tailed Nightjar that had picked a roosting spot right at the entrance of the reserve; the males of this rare species are unmistakable, with outer tail feathers that are almost 3 times the length of their body. Quite a good bird to start with!
Female Lyre-tailed Nightjar (Uropsalis lyra)
The afternoon was spend with a very enjoyable forest hike to a waterfall. Though I did see a few birds along the way, I did not take any wildlife pictures with the exception of this female Black-and-white Becard that was foraging close during a rare instance of sunlight piercing through the clouds.
Female Black-and-white Becard (Pachyramphus polychopterus)
The next morning I got up early to do some light birding before breakfast around the lodge with Paul, our guide. It was still very dark (the cloud cover didn't help) and it took a little playing with the camera settings to photograph the birds without flash. Some great species around the lodge, like this Long-wattled Umbrellabird, a large Cotinga that is relatively rare and threatened (VU). The bird pictured is a juvenile male that is starting to develop the long "wattle" coming from the chest.
Long-wattled Umbrellabird (Cephalopterus penduliger)
 A female Zeledon's Antbird was relatively confiding in the dense undergrowth next to the trail.
Female Zeledon's Antbird (Myrmeciza zeledoni)
Not surprisingly, Trogons were always a favorite of mine in Borneo. There are a total of 39 recognized species in the Trogonidae family with the majority (24 species) found in the Neotropics. A pair of Collared Trogons were hawking insects close to the lamp posts of the lodge.
Male Collared Trogon (Trogon collaris)
The Tanagers (Thraupidae) comprise a large bird family in the Americas and they were also well represented at Mashpi. Two of the commoner species around the lodge were the Ochre-breasted Tanager and the Moss-backed Tanager. The latter is a Mashpi specialty and not that easy to find elsewhere.
Ochre-breasted Tanager (Chlorothraupis stolzmanni)
Moss-backed Tanager (Bangsia edwardsi)
In the afternoon we had some more time for bird watching and I took my son to Mashpi's butterfly center, that has a good viewing deck overlooking the valley. The short hike over was very wet, but I was very glad to see both Baudo Guan and Scaled Fruiteater. Rain and poor light made for terrible photo conditions and I didn't even try to get my camera out. Luckily, once we reached the deck the rain eased up a little and the light condition improved as well and I soon got my camera out for a few pictures.
Black-cheeked Woodpecker (Melanerpes pucherani)
Buff-throated Saltator (Saltator maximus)
Red-headed Barbet (Eubucco bourcierii)
Two feeders offered great opportunities to see both Toucanets and Aracaris up close.
Pale-mandibled Aricari (Pteroglossus erythropygius)
Crimson-rumped Toucanet (Aulacorhynchus haematopygus)
Finally, after quietly observing the feeder from a distance, a shyer Choco Toucan also made a quick dash across to fill up on the bananas.
Choco Toucan (Ramphastos Brevis)
The rain was pouring down the next morning during a little pre-breakfast walk and I did not even bother to take my camera out. After breakfast we spend an hour or so at the hummingbird garden, where a few feeders are set up to attract hummingbirds and a few other species. Feeders always give me an ambivalent feeling; while it is nice to see the different species up close (and I definitely add them to my list), that satisfactory feeling of finding a difficult bird yourself is very much lacking.

Nonetheless, here are a few hummingbirds that we connected with at the feeders:
Empress Brilliant (Heliodoxa Imperatrix)
Velvet-purple Coronet (Boissonneaua jardini)
Velvet-purple Coronet (Boissonneaua jardini)
Violet-tailed Sylph (Aglaiocercus coelestis)
There were other good birds in the area close to the feeders. The tanagers of South and Central America don some fantastic colors in their plumage:
Golden Tanager (Tangara arthus)
Rufous-throated Tanager (Tangara rufigula)
A banana proved too much of a temptation for the Tayra, a rather large Mustelid that can be found across most of South America.
Tayra (Eira barbara)
After this it was back to the lodge, pack our bags and to set off to the next location: Mindo, which will be the topic of a future post.

Folkert, 03/01/2020.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Birding USA 2015

And another year is almost biting the dust! But before we close off this year I can just share some of my 2015 birding experiences, something that is long overdue. It'll be short though... It's been a very busy and demanding year and unfortunately most of that busy time did not involve any bird watching. That I am attempting to capture my 2015 bird watching in a single post probably says it all. Anyway, herewith a short flavor of this years avian encounters.

During the first months of the year my bird photography was mostly done casually around the house or in the parks close to our home. The  Edith L Moore sanctuary is a small park within walking distance that is managed by the Audubon society and this is a good place for a short stroll. I have seen quite a number of species here and it's nice to see the Eastern screech owls after dusk.
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis Cardinalis). 
The northern cardinal is one of the commoner and definitely one of the more conspicuous birds found in any brushy habitat. Frequently seen in our garden as well.
Green heron (Butorides virescens). 
There is a small pond in the Edith Moore park, where this small heron has been seen a few times.
Broad banded water snake (Nerodia fasciata confluens).
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). 
This small woodpecker is common in the greener parts of town. They're often seen in pairs working their way up and down a tree.

Our street had some breeding night herons and we also had a nest in a tree next to our driveway. It's nice to see these birds surviving in large urban environments - though I did curse them the first time I took note of their presence because of the large white splashes that were spray-painted across my car! Below is a pic of one of four youngsters that were seen regularly in our driveway.
Yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctynassa violacea). 
On the rare occasion I had the luxury to spend some time a little further afield and I managed to visit a few parks with family and friends around Houston, a.o. Bear Creek, Brazos Bend, Baytown and the Gulf coast. Both brown and white pelicans can be seen around Baytown.
Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis).
The ruddy turnstone had always eluded me in Brunei. They're more common at the Gulf coast.
Ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres), Surfside beach.
Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens), Baytown (photo from 2014)
Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Bear Creek park.
No crocodiles, but the alligators can still reach impressive sizes, like this one in Brazos bend park.
American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), Brazos bend (photo from 2014).

In April I luckily did manage a day at High Island, which is renowned for it's spring migration birding, see http://www.birdinghighisland.com/. High Island is about an hour and a half drive from where we live in Houston. For someone who spend the last five years in Brunei, where accidentally bumping into a fellow birder is as rare as finding a jambu fruit dove on your doorstep - I recall both happening to me once - birding in high island is quite the experience; besides birds there are birders everywhere, literally hundreds of them, all packed in a small patch of forest!

During spring migration all these birdwatchers don't seem to effect and scare away the birds. Most birds that can be seen during spring use High Island as a refueling station after having just crossed the Golf of Mexico and before moving further north. Drip feeders are set up strategically for the convenience of all the visitors, birds and humans.
The other surprise is the colors on the warblers. Compared to Asia the warblers in the new world are a bolt of colors! I did manage to rake up a good number of new birds, including more than 10 species of wood-warblers during just a single morning. Below a small sample of the warblers that were seen.
Black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia).
Bay-breasted warbler (Dendroica castanea).
Black-throated green warbler (Dendroica virens).
Yellow warbler (Dendroica petechia)
But there was more on show: catbirds, kingbirds, vireo's, brightly colored tanagers, orioles and the odd bunting and grosbeak.
Summer tanager (Piranga rubra).
And in High Island I also bumped into my first and only cuckoo this year, a new species for me nonetheless.
Yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus).
The Katy prairie is another reasonably good place to visit close to home. The draw back is that there are very few trails and these are only open to the public a few times per month. Tress passing is highly discouraged and I am not going to challenge that policy, especially when considering the Texas gunlaws! The prairie is good for raptors and I also did see a few Northern Bobwhites earlier in the year. Apparently this time of year should also be good for wintering ducks and geese, but the species variety in the ponds that I visited last week was rather low and had none of the hoped for species.
Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus).
We did have a few weekend trips this year, although none were dedicated birding trips. The most birdy was a long weekend in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and a few days in Moab, Utah during thanksgiving also brought up a few nice birds. And a spring trip to the California bay area was a good reminder to never forget my bins. But I did. I guess I just have to go back!

In Steamboat Springs I did connect to good number of new species, even though I hardly any pics to show for it.
Rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus)
Evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)
Colorado chipmunk (Tamias quadrivittatus)
The landscape around Moab is truly spectacular and just driving around is fantastic. The dinosaur footprints made a big impression on my sons imagination.
Canyon-land park, Utah.
In Moab I hardly saw any new birds, but we were treated to a spectacular gathering of base jumpers that were all showing off there courage and skills. We hung around for a while and saw a lot of jumpers taking the plunge. Not a sport for the faint of heart!
Base jumping in Moab
Common raven (Corvus corax).
So, that was a short summary of my 2015 birding. I do have some good intentions for the next year; Costa Rica is taking shape on my calendar and I am planning a few other short trips as well. I'll make some effort to document some of it right here!

All the best for 2016!

Folkert, 28/12/2015

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Birdwatching in Brunei Darussalam

Finally! It has taken me way too long, but last week I managed to put the finishing touches on my Brunei birdwatching documentation. 

Based on my experiences in Brunei between 2010 and 2014 I've attempted to provide a description of some key Brunei birdwatching sites that I've had the good fortune to visit and enjoy. I believe that Brunei has a lot of good birding to offer for the adventurous birdwatchers - and I hope that this overview proves useful to anyone that visits the smallest country on Borneo! And who knows, it may even trigger some interest with others as well…

The document can be downloaded by following the link on the top-right corner of the embedded PDF. 

Happy birding!

Folkert, 16/07/2015.




Saturday, 14 March 2015

Last pics from Brunei and some American raptors

A second post from the USA, this time with some American birdlife as well. We recently moved into our new house, after 3 months of temporary accommodation. Last weekend I hooked up my desktop computer and finally downloaded some pics that had been filling up the memory cards over the past few months. There were still a few pictures from Brunei on these. After too many banded krait roadkills, I was very happy to see a live specimen crossing the road on my penultimate night drive in Brunei. Unfortunately I only got one picture in before the snake disappeared in the grass. These snakes are relatively common in Brunei and this is one of the more, if not the most, venomous terrestrial snakes in Borneo. Luckily they are typically not aggressive.
Banded krait (Bungarus fasciatus)
During my final evening in Brunei I took the car for a very short spin around Panaga and snapped a few last shots of the commonest night bird that can be found in the coastal grasses: the large-tailed nightjar.
Large-tailed nightjar (Caprimulgus macrurus)
And now over to you, Houston. It's been quite busy here these last few months; the new job, house and a toddler require a lot of my time. But I do try to have my camera close by and there has been the odd  occasion to snap some of America's birds. And what better bird to get on camera than a national symbol of the USA: the bald eagle! This individual we saw on a trip to a very cold Wisconsin in early December.
Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
This wasn't the only individual we came across. On one of the fields we drove past some carrion had been put out and attracted around 15 eagles. 

In Brunei I had always found raptors relatively scarce and good picture opportunities hard to come by. Here it seems quite the opposite. Perhaps it is beginners luck. Another obliging raptor was seen during a walk in one of Houston's parks; a juvenile Cooper's hawk. These 3 different mugshots are hardly cropped.
Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
This Osprey was seen in Baytown, a good birding area close to Houston. The subspecies carolinensis that is found here is different than the cristatus subspecies that is found on Borneo. It appears that carolinensis is much easier to see up close.
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
I'm looking forward to the next weeks; spring is knocking on the door and that means loads of migrants passing through Houston.

Folkert, 14/03/2015