Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Ohio, Michigan, Indiana & Illinois

In recent years northern Ohio has become the most popular destination in North America for birders wishing to witness the arrival of migrant birds in the spring.  For some time we had been promising ourselves a visit there and at last this year we made it!

It did mean having to leave the Algarve much earlier than normal but the timing is crucial; after doing our research we decided that the third and fourth weeks of May should give us the best experience both in terms of the number of birds and the variety of species.  We also wanted to avoid the festival week as it attracts hundreds of birders to the area.  “The Biggest Week in American Birding” hosted by Black Swamp Bird Observatory was this year held from 3rd to 12th May; we were keen to avoid the crowds and arrived in Ohio on the 15th.


The best known site is Magee Marsh Wildlife Area located on the south side of Lake Erie.  It has become popular because the occurrence there of warblers, tanagers, thrushes, vireos and other neotropical migrants is much less dependent on weather conditions than it is at places such as High Island in Texas and Point Pelee in Ontario that were previously the two best-known spring migration hotspots.

Swainson's Thrush

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Warbling Vireo

Scarlet Tanager

American Redstart

We have been fortunate in the past to make multiple visits to the USA, including tours in Texas for the spring migration at High Island and elsewhere. As a result we were already quite familiar with most of the species we were likely to see in Ohio and being on our own for once, we were under no pressure to chase around trying to see absolutely every species on offer. This was to be a relaxing birding trip with time taken for some photography.

However, most of our trips to the USA have been to the west and there were three species that we thought should be possible on this trip, which we hadn’t seen before.  These were American Woodcock and Black-billed Cuckoo, which are very much ‘eastern birds’ and Kirtland’s Warbler, which breeds in nearby Michigan and which we would probably have to travel to find unless we were lucky enough to see a migrant passing through Magee.

Black-and-white Warbler

Also on our radar was Connecticut Warbler, a shy, skulking species which has the reputation of being one of, if not the most difficult of the warblers to see and which had previously eluded us.

We began with a six-night stay at Port Clinton, which gave us five days within easy reach of Magee Marsh and we went there for at least part of each of those days. On every visit the ‘famous’ boardwalk through the marsh was well-populated with birders and photographers but never to an extent that it felt overcrowded. The whole place was also full of birds.  We managed to see 22 warbler species and we were delighted that these included a Connecticut Warbler.  Other migrants included four vireo species, half a dozen or so flycatchers, Baltimore Oriole, Grey-cheeked & Swainson’s Thrushes and another of our targets, Black-billed Cuckoo.  Sadly, there was no sign of American Woodcock and hardly a mention of one.

Baltimore Oriole

Bay-breasted Warbler

Connecticut Warbler

Northern Parula

In the same general area, we visited Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Oak Openings Preserve Metropark, Maumee Bay State Park, Howard Marsh Metropark and Black Swamp Bird Observatory. There were other options available but Magee Marsh was excellent throughout and there were enough birds everywhere to more than satisfy us.  In fact, we even cancelled our planned trip to Cleveland and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame because the birding was so good!

Yellow Warbler

Eventually we moved on into neighbouring Michigan, spending a very enjoyable couple of hours first of all at the Motown Museum in Detroit.  Here we saw the famous Studio A where so many hit recordings were made between 1959 and 1972 by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, the Four Tops and others.  We even got to sing a long to the Temptations' 'My Girl'!

The afternoon was spent birding at Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge located five miles south of the city of Saginaw where an Orange-crowned Warbler, two Sandhill Cranes and several Wild Turkeys were among several species that we hadn’t seen earlier in Ohio.

Next we went further north to Oscoda for a four-night stay on the shore of Lake Huron.  The main birding locality here is Tawas Point State Park, another well-known site for migrants while nearby is Tuttle Marsh Wildlife Area.  Much of our time was spent visiting these two areas but we also enlisted the help of local birder and guide, Matt Hegwood to make sure we saw our remaining target species, American Woodcock and Kirtland’s Warbler.  Matt took us to various places, mostly within the Huron-Manistee National Forest and his local knowledge was invaluable.

Kirtland's Warbler

At Tawas Point we found a very similar selection of migrants to those we had seen at Magee Marsh and again in very good numbers.  Further additions to the growing list of warblers were a Mourning Warbler and a Black-throated Blue Warbler.  As well as warblers and vireos there were Bobolinks, Cedar Waxwings and Brown Thrashers and at the end of the peninsula, shorebirds, notably more than 200 Whimbrel.

Red-eyed Vireo

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Tuttle Marsh also produced a very worthwhile selection of birds including Barred Owl, American Bittern, Golden-winged Warbler, Virginia Rail, Bald Eagle (at one point mobbed by an Osprey), Belted Kingfisher, Wood Ducks (18 in one tree) and Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Virginia Rail

Matt very soon found for us a pair of Kirtland’s Warblers that we were able to see at very close range.  Almost extinct 50 years ago, this species has recovered well as large areas of its favoured jack pine forest habitat have been managed to meet its needs and large numbers of Brown-headed Cowbirds have been removed.  It is reported that in the 1960s, 70% of warbler nests were parasitized by cowbirds reducing the number of warbler chicks to fewer than needed to perpetuate the species.

During our time with Matt we also saw Pine & Palm Warblers and Northern Waterthrush, bringing the warbler total to 29 species, seven woodpecker species, White-breasted & Red-breasted Nuthatches, Merlin, Northern Harrier, Red-shouldered Hawk, Golden-crowned Kinglet and lots more.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

That left just the American Woodcock to find, which Matt duly did although it did take two attempts.  Eventually, we saw and heard the display flight and heard the strange ‘peent’ call of a bird on the ground just a short distance along the track from where we were standing.  All this was, of course, at dusk in fading light; while we were waiting for the action to start we watched Common Nighthawks overhead and then, just a few yards away, an Eastern Whip-poor-will began singing.  All in all it was a memorable experience.

After ten days birding in Ohio and Michigan we moved on again and enjoyed two visits to Indiana Dunes State Park, situated on the shores of Lake Michigan but, of course, in the state of Indiana.  Just to confuse things further, we stayed overnight in Michigan City, which itself is in Indiana!

Although we enjoyed a few sunny days during the trip, we also had our share of cold days and rain.  The most extreme weather came while we were in Michigan City in the form of a severe thunderstorm and a tornado that eventually passed by about five miles to the south of us leaving all sorts of damage in its wake.

Indiana Dunes State Park was excellent.  As well as more than three miles of beach and towering sand dunes there is visitor centre with bird feeders and a network of forest trails where we found lots of interest.  Highlights among the birds were again the warblers including Mourning, Prothonotary, Magnolia and two additions to our list, Worm-eating & Cerulean.  On our second morning there we ran into Kyle Wiktor who had been carrying out a visible migration count, which had included a remarkable 8,681 Cedar Waxwings!

 Downy Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Cedar Waxwing

Prothonotary Warbler

From Indiana we drove into Illinois to stay with family for a week.  During this time there was a day trip to see the sights of Chicago but the birding continued.  We were staying within easy walking distance of Burnidge Forest Preserve and made four visits there.  The area has a nice mix of habitats that includes oak woodland, marshes and restored prairie.  The birds were mostly species we had seen before on the trip but at last we got good looks at Eastern Towhee and Field Sparrow and it was good to have both Alder and Willow Flycatchers singing.  By now it was early June and there wasn’t much evidence at this inland site of any migration in progress.  Obviously, it was time to come home! 

 The Windy City

Field Sparrow

Red-winged Blackbird

American Robin

Grey Catbird

Thursday, 21 March 2019

India photography tour

Recently I (Peter) spent a week in India photographing birds and mammals.  Like my visit to Guatemala last year, this trip was arranged by Skua Nature INNATE.  Again I was the only Brit in a multinational group with representatives from Australia, Belgium, Italy, Norway, Sweden and USA.

The week began with a flight to Delhi and then transfer by road to Bharatpur in Rajasthan where we stayed at The Bagh, a very comfortable hotel located just 4 km from Keoladeo National Park.  The National Park, formerly known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, is an artificial, man-managed wetland that protects the city of Bharatpur from frequent floods and formerly was used as a waterfowl hunting ground. Known locally as Ghana, the 29 sq km reserve is a mosaic of dry grasslands, woodlands, woodland swamps and wetlands which are home to 366 bird species.  It is a World Heritage Site and is designated as a wetland of international importance under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.  With transport around the site by cycle rickshaw, it is also a great place for photography!

 White-throated Kingfisher

 Indian Pond Heron

 Little Cormorant

 Bronze-winged Jacana

Sarus Crane

The hotel was also excellent for photography.  The Bagh is set in 16 hectares of grounds where up to 200 bird species are said to have been recorded.  Several hides have been built here specifically for bird photographers.  They are constructed from traditional materials, overlook differing habitats and vary in capacity for two to eight people.  So we were able to divide our time between the National Park and the hotel gardens with plenty of subjects to photograph at both.

 White-breasted Waterhen

 Rufous Treepie

Shikra

After briefly sampling the delights of Bharatpur, we took a flight from Delhi to Raipur and from there travelled by road to Kanha.  Again the hotel was The Bagh, this version located in the rolling Maikal hills of Madhya Pradesh and very close to Kanha National Park that provided inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s classic “The Jungle Book”.

Our main aim at Kanha was to see and to photograph Bengal Tigers but the 1,005 sq km National Park is home to many other mammals as well as 300 bird species.  Although our time here was limited and photography in mainly forest habitat was more difficult (as it was mostly carried out from the back of a 4x4 Jeep), we had good success.  This was my first experience of Tigers and I was seriously impressed!

 Bengal Tiger

Again the hotel was excellent and there were more specially constructed hides for bird and mammal photography.  The star attractions here were Jungle Cats but we all enjoyed the enormous Flying Foxes, one of the world’s largest bats.

 Flying Fox

Jungle Cat

Jungle Cat

All in all, this was a very enjoyable trip and Avian Adventures will plan to offer a similar but rather longer photography tour to India in 2020 based on my experience.  Thanks go to Skua Nature INNATE and to the Exotic Heritage Group, operators of The Bagh hotels.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Moustached Warbler twitch

There have been only a handful of records in Portugal of Moustached Warbler (Acrocephalus melanapogon) and only two in the Algarve, the last of them in 1998.  So a report of one near Vila Real de Santo António last Wednesday was bound, you might have thought, to result in a big twitch.

However, this has not been the case.  In fact, we have spent more than five hours trying to see this bird and during all that time there have been no more than two other birders present.  For long periods we have been there on our own! 

Apart from the fact that there are relatively few resident birders here, it’s not really a time of year when we expect many visiting birders and in any case visitors are not usually bothered to chase local rarities and often are not even aware of them.

Another factor is that the location is in the extreme south-east corner of the country about 300km by road away from Lisbon.  Also, it’s been an extremely difficult bird to see.  Although it has been singing from first light until about 9.00 am, it wasn’t until this morning, on our third visit, that we at last managed a few brief glimpses of it!  Such limited prospects of success don’t really encourage any but the very keenest to embark on a long journey.

 The bird has been singing from within this reed bed.

The location is close to the main railway line.

Something for the trainspotters!

The site is a wetland close to the Castro Marim Nature Reserve and immediately adjacent to the main railway line that serves the Algarve.  Fortunately, for us it has required a drive of only 20 minutes.  Early mornings have been chilly and sometimes breezy but it’s been sunny and generally quite pleasant and while we’ve been waiting for the bird to show itself there have been plenty of other species to see.  Our bird list from this one spot has included Greylag Geese, Greater Flamingo, Red-crested Pochard, Water Rail, Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzard, Booted Eagle, Osprey, Western Swamphen, Glossy Ibis, Great Egret, Caspian Tern, Water Pipit, Black-winged Stilt, Greenshank and Green Sandpiper.  Numerous Common Chiffchaffs have been hawking insects around the reeds and tamarisks and Barn Swallows and a few House Martins have joined with the many Crag Martins finding food overhead.

Sadly, we have no photographs of the bird but this was an occasion when even seeing it was an achievement.  If you are unfamiliar with Moustached Warbler, it can best be described as a Sedge Warbler lookalike.  It is actually very slightly bigger than Sedge Warbler and has a whiter supercilium.  Its song, with which we became quite familiar, is typical of an Acrocephalus warbler and similar to both Reed and Sedge Warblers but includes some Nightingale-like whistling notes.

How long it has been present is impossible to say.  The site isn’t one that any birder visits regularly and it’s amazing that the bird was found at all let alone identified.  Credit for this goes to Rui Rufino and Ricardo Silva whose first report suggested there might actually be two birds present although we haven’t seen any evidence for that ourselves. 

It isn’t hard to imagine the crowds that would turn up to see a Moustached Warbler in the UK.  In the past, the species has been the subject of controversy and is no longer on the British list.  You can read about that here.  Anyway, we dread the thought of trying to manage a twitch next to the unfenced railway line!

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.