Friday, 11 January 2019

Waxwings

Earlier this week we made the short trip to Hednesford, near Cannock, to see the flock of Waxwings that has been there since before Christmas.  Early reports had been of five birds but by last weekend this had increased to nine and we actually saw ten.

Waxwings or, more precisely, Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) are starling-sized birds that are regular winter migrants to western Europe from their breeding grounds in Fennoscandia and Siberia and some reach Britain most years.  Not surprisingly, their first landfall in the UK is usually in the north or east and it is not every winter that they reach as far inland as Staffordshire. 


They have a particular liking for the berries of Sorbus spp. such as rowan but also take hips, haws and mistletoe and the berries of various ornamental trees and shrubs.  They are nomadic and irruptive and in years when large numbers arrive, they quickly strip the trees and move on in search of new food sources.  They are frequently seen feeding on exotic trees and shrubs planted in urban situations such as roadside verges, supermarket car parks, the surrounds of public buildings and private gardens.


The genus name Bombycilla comes from the Greek bombux, "silk" and the Modern Latin cilla, "tail"; this is a direct translation of the German Seidenschwanz, "silk-tail", and refers to the silky-soft plumage of the bird.  The species name garrulus is the Latin for talkative and is said to be a reference to a supposed likeness to the Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) rather than to the Waxwing's vocalisations.  The English name "waxwing" refers to the bright red tips of the secondary feathers on its wings, which look like drops of sealing wax.


It is reported that in the past, the arrival of Waxwings sometimes coincided with epidemics of cholera or plague, and this led to the old Dutch and Flemish name Pestvogel, "plague bird". The juniper berries on which they fed were thought to offer protection, and people consumed the fruit and burned branches to fumigate their houses.


In past years Waxwings have often occurred in the urban and suburban areas surrounding Cannock Chase and those currently in Hednesford conform to that pattern.  Maybe the birds are initially attracted to the Chase as a safe roosting area or perhaps some birds are returning to an area where they have found good food supplies in the past.


Some years there are none here at all but the winters of 1965/66, 1995/96 and 2010/11 have all seen several hundreds of Waxwings arriving in Staffordshire.  Because the birds are so mobile, precise counts are always difficult. but in January 2005 more than 2,300 were reckoned to be present in the county, a number that hasn’t been equalled before or since. 


Most occur here between November and March but there are records as early as late September and as late as mid-May.  Often numbers increase at this time of year as more birds move west having exhausted food supplies elsewhere.  There is certainly a chance that more will arrive during the coming weeks!

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Guatemala photo trip

After returning to the UK from Texas, two days later Peter was travelling again.  This time his destination was Guatemala as the only Brit in a group of ‘nature photographers’ invited by INNATE Skua Nature Latin America to view their photographic hides and to experience other photo opportunities in a Central American country that is gradually attracting more and more birdwatchers.  Others in the group were from Belgium, France, Hungary, Italy, Spain and the USA.

Tools of the trade!

The tour began with a two-hour journey by road from the airport in Guatemala City to Monterrico, a town on the Pacific Coast.  Overnight accommodation here was at the Estación Biológica El Blanco.  The huge, volcanic black sand beaches around Monterrico are prime nesting sites for sea turtles and a reserve has been established to protect the turtles and curb the collection of their eggs, which are apparently considered an aphrodisiac in Guatemala.  We were fortunate to actually see an olive ridley sea turtle laying its eggs in the sand just outside the dining room where we were having our evening meal.  The following morning we were present when 300 tiny turtles, hatched from eggs that had been ‘rescued’, were released on the beach and made their way into the ocean.  Thousands of turtles are released in this way every year but only a very small percentage will survive to maturity and to return to the beach to lay their own eggs.

 Olive ridley sea turtle

Turtle hatchling ready for release

A morning boat trip in the nearby wetland provided opportunities to photograph a nice selection of common egrets and herons, Ringed Kingfisher, Mangrove Swallows, Northern Jacanas and Neotropical Cormorants.  Unfortunately, species such as Limpkin, Snail Kite and Least Bittern were less obliging but the highlight was a really close view of Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures.

 Little Blue Heron

 Mangrove Swallow

Northern Jacana

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture

There was another boat trip in the afternoon, this one from El Paredon, an hour away to the west.  This time we were in a tidal area and our attention was centred on a sandbank where Black Skimmers and Royal Terns were roosting together with a few Sandwich (Cabot’s) Terns, Franklin’s Gulls and Sanderlings.  As the tide came in, this refuge was slowly diminishing and the birds were restless.  However, the water still wasn’t deep enough to get the boat close to them – wading in the water was the only solution!

Black Skimmers 

Royal Terns


 Caspian Tern

 Black Skimmer

Royal Tern

From El Paredon, we travelled for our next overnight stay, at Los Andes Nature Reserve on the southern slopes of Volcán Atitlán.  To save some journey time, our bus was ferried down a river for part of the way.


It was on the slopes of Volcán Atitlán that I had trekked in search of a Horned Guan during my previous visit to Guatemala in 2013.  Thankfully, there were no plans to repeat that this time!  Instead, we used 4x4 pickup trucks to climb part way up the slope to see two photo hides that are being developed – one to attract forest birds, such as tanagers, toucans and the like and the other where it is hoped that Turkey Vultures and perhaps some other raptors will come to feed.  Resplendent Quetzal and Azure-rumped Tanager are high on a list of sought-after species here.

Turkey Vulture

To get there we drove through plantations of coffee (for Starbucks), macadamia, tea and cinchona (quinine).  Now and again we heard loud rumbles coming from nearby Volcán de Fuego, which we could see just 40km away.  Both Atitlán and Fuego are active volcanoes but Fuego had been erupting for some time and back in June many people were killed.

Coffee growing on the slopes of Volcán Atitlán

The accommodation here was very comfortable indeed and being able to photograph hummingbirds, orioles, tanagers, euphonias and several other species from the veranda was also nice.  Sadly, it was for just one night.

 Casa Oliver at Los Andes

 Yellow-winged Tanager

 Baltimore Oriole

Clay-colored Thrush

After a night back in Guatemala City at the Hotel Stofella, we headed next to the Caribbean coast where we took an afternoon boat trip to look for manatees.  This proved unsuccessful but it did provide further opportunities to photograph Ringed Kingfisher, Northern Jacana, Neotropic Cormorants and Brown Pelicans.  We spent the night at the Hotel Amatique Bay in Puerto Barrios.

 Ringed Kingfisher

Green Heron

Another day, another country – a three-hour boat excursion took us to Sapodilla Cayes, a group of small uninhabited islands located in the Gulf of Honduras that are generally regarded as part of Belize (although also claimed by Guatemala and Honduras).  Getting there and back obviously took up a big slice of the day but the time spent there was well worth the effort.  There was an opportunity to photograph Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds from the boat but the sky was overcast making most of the images rather disappointing.  Some of the group even went into the water to take photos but I was a bit too precious about my camera gear to risk that!  We went ashore for a late lunch on Lime Caye where some went snorkelling and others went birding.  The birders were rewarded with Magnolia, Black-and-white, Black-throated Green, Hooded & Myrtle Warblers, an Ovenbird, several Wood & Grey-cheeked Thrushes, ten or more Grey Catbirds, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a Merlin!  Were these birds wintering there or still on migration?


 Brown Pelican

Magnificent Frigatebird

Grey Catbird

After a night in Livingston, at the Hotel Villa Caribe, we took a boat next morning to Las Escobas Tropical Rainforest Trail in the Cerro San Gil where another photo hide has been built.  Again this is still being developed but there were hummingbirds to photograph, including Long-billed Hermit, and it looks to have good potential.  We also had a chance here to photograph a couple of snakes and a tarantula, which had temporarily been deprived of their liberty.  I’m not sure that this was really ‘nature photography’ but they were interesting creatures to see up close, nevertheless.  There was also time for a short walk along the trail where Gartered Trogon, Kentucky & Worm-eating Warblers, Northern Royal Flycatcher and White-whiskered Puffbird were amongst the species seen.

From the hide at Las Escobas


Fer-de-lance ?

After lunch in Rio Dulce, there was a five-hour road trip to Tikal, welcome time to deal with emails and to catch up on sleep!  We stayed overnight at Tikal Jungle Lodge where I had stayed before in 2013.  We arrived late and left early next morning for just a half day around Tikal National Park.  This is one of the major sites of Mayan civilisation, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an important tropical rainforest reserve.  The temples, palaces and other Mayan ruins are extremely impressive and really deserved much more of our attention but it is the birds that make this place a must-visit part of any tour in Guatemala.  More than 300 bird species have been recorded here and amongst many others we did see Orange-breasted Falcon, Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Plain Xenops, Spot-breasted & White-bellied Wrens, Mayan Antthrush, Bay-breasted & Yellow Warblers and Sepia-capped Flycatcher.  With more time there are great opportunities for photography.  As it was, I managed only a few photos, including the Ocellated Turkeys (that are very much habituated to tourists), a Rufous-naped Wood Rail and an Erato Heliconian butterfly (also known as the Red Postman).

Ocellated Turkey

 Rufous-naped Wood Rail

Erato Heliconian

There followed another long journey, first by bus, then by pickup truck and finally by boat which brought us to the Estación Biológica Las Guacamayas, located near the edge of Laguna Del Tigre National Park.  Again it was just one night here but it clearly somewhere that one would ideally like to stay much longer.  Next morning there was another boat trip, which among others produced Green, Amazon & Ringed Kingfishers, White-tailed Kite, a pair of Bat Falcons, a Sungrebe and a Black-and-white Hawk Eagle.  Then there was time for more hummingbird photography and another different selection of species such as Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, Green-breasted Mango and Scaly-breasted Hummingbird.

Las Guacamayas

Wedge-tailed Sabrewing

We finished with a flight from Flores to Guatemala City, an overnight in the very nice Hotel Intercontinental and then return flights home the next morning, mine via Houston and Frankfurt to Birmingham.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable whistle-stop tour, which achieved the aim of showing the participants as much as possible in a very short time.  Guatemala undoubtedly has much to offer to birders from Europe including quite a number of species such as Horned Guan, Black-capped Siskin, Pink-headed & Goldman’s Warblers and Azure-rumped Tanager that are not easily seen elsewhere.  It also looks set now to become an attractive destination for bird photographers.  My thanks go to everyone at Skua Nature for inviting me along and to my multinational travelling companions for making it such a fun trip.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Avian Adventures in Texas

Our recent visit to Texas was Peter’s eleventh Avian Adventures tour in the Lone Star State and June’s third but for both of us it was the first there for several years.

We travelled from Manchester to Houston with Singapore Airlines, which was still a 10-hour flight but better than most transatlantic crossings we have experienced with a variety of other airlines and, of course, it avoided what for us is the tiresome journey down to Heathrow.

Unfortunately, we arrived in Texas to find that it was cold, windy and raining – not at all what we had hoped for!  It wasn’t heavy rain but persistent drizzle and it continued through the following morning.  It was a miserable start, horrible conditions for birding and we struggled to find many birds in W Goodrich Jones State Forest.  A lone Pileated Woodpecker made our excursion there worthwhile but only just! 

When we moved to the Gulf Coast, the rain had stopped but the wind was even stronger and it was really cold.  Rockport and Fulton had been severely damaged by last year’s Hurricane Harvey and we began to imagine how awful that must have been.  It was no surprise that our boat trip from Fulton was cancelled – it simply wouldn’t have been safe to go out. 

Instead we had a day birding around Rockport and Goose Island State Park, mostly from our minibus.  We counted more than 30 Common Loons (Great Northern Divers) off Rockport beach and in the town’s Beach Park there were a few terns and waders taking shelter.  Herons and egrets were everywhere, we saw a variety of duck species and there were Turkey & Black Vultures, Osprey, Northern Harrier, Cooper’s & Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrel and Crested Caracara.  However, there were precious few small birds in evidence anywhere.  Our total for the day barely reached 60 species.

 Long-billed Curlew

 Turkey Vulture

Common Loon

Things improved when we moved to the Rio Grande Valley – the weather was better and during our several days there we visited five out of the nine sites in the area that have rather irritatingly branded themselves as the ‘World Birding Center’: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Roma Bluffs and South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center.  We also travelled west to Falcon State Park and on the way popped into Salineño for the feeders and the trail alongside the Rio Grande.  In addition, we went to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, now it seems safe from the threat of having a Border Wall built through it, and to Frontera Audubon Thicket, where a rare Golden-crowned Warbler had been seen recently.  There are quite a few other sites that we could have gone to if time had allowed and one has to admire the effort that has been made in recent years to promote birding tourism in this area and to develop some excellent sites and facilities.

 Yellow-rumped Warbler

 Least Grebe

White-tailed Kite

On South Padre Island, as well as the Birding & Nature Center we went to Sheepshead Street and to the Pier 19 Restaurant.  Sheepshead Street is an unlikely birding area at first sight but one that has a record of attracting unusual migrant and wintering birds.  Land on either side of the street was acquired about 15 years ago by a local conservation group and has since revegetated, providing resting and feeding habitat for birds that have few other options in this mainly built-up area. 

At the Pier 19 Restaurant, a Masked Booby had been hanging around for several weeks and was being fed with fish by restaurant staff who are now well used to showing it off to visiting birders.  When we turned up there with binoculars we were quickly walked through the dining area out to the back where this bird was standing behind a slatted gate looking through to see whether we were bringing food.  Masked Booby is a species of the tropical oceans that is rarely seen from the mainland and it’s certainly a rarity in North America so it was fun to see it even if the circumstances were a bit bizarre.

Masked Booby

Each site we visited had something to offer and, of course, the Rio Grande Valley is home to a number of birds that are not easy to see elsewhere in the USA, which is why we were there.  We should also mention that we saw a good selection of butterflies, including a great many Monarchs that were on their migration to Mexico.  Conditions were not always good for photography but here are a few images taken during the tour.

 Monarch

 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

 Green Jay

 Plain Chachalaca

 Osprey

 Anhinga

 Alligator

 Eastern Collared Lizard

 Great Kiskadee

 Solitary Sandpiper

 Yellow-crowned Night Heron

 Clay-colored Thrush

 American White Pelicans

 Greater Roadrunner

Altamira Oriole