Friday, 30 April 2010

A Couple Of Hours Off

Peter managed to get to Arizona on schedule with his Avian Adventures group and is enjoying some wonderful spring birding - the travel chaos caused by ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano now only a fading memory – let’s hope it stays that way!

For the past few days my only birding has been from the balcony here at home in Tavira when I have needed an occasional break from the computer. And what great birds I’ve seen: Bee-eaters, Hoopoes, Pallid Swifts, Collared Pratincole and best of all last night, a Red-necked Nightjar!

So today I took myself off for a walk around the local saltpans. Almost as soon as I started my walk I heard the unmistakable honking of Flamingos and quickly counted a dozen or so. Although the wader numbers have decreased with many heading north to breed, the ones that remain are mostly sporting colourful breeding plumage. There are black bellied Dunlin, Red ( very red) Knot, strikingly rufous Curlew Sandpipers , Little Stints showing foxy red and dark brown backs, Grey Plovers showing why they are called Black-bellied Plovers in the USA and Ruddy Turnstones also living up to their name, their normal black and white plumage transformed with a wash of tortoiseshell. Add to these the resident breeders who are all busy sitting on eggs or already have young downy chicks and you realise there is plenty to see. Whimbrels, Kentish and Ringed Plovers, Stone-curlews and Bar-tailed Godwits were fairly laid back but as usual the Avocets, Black-winged Stilts and Redshanks announced their presence with a noisy flight display.

I spent quite some time watching Bee-eaters as they hunted for insects. Their seemingly effortless flight alternating between a graceful wheeling and bursts of rapid wing-beats, as they swooped to capture their prey.

Then it was home for a late lunch and back to the computer.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Rollers Return

Several days of rain and generally unpleasant weather has meant that we've mostly been staying at home catching up with 'admin'. There have been a couple of visits to the local saltpans in between the thunderstorms but otherwise it's been an opportunity for both of us to finish writing the reports relating to our recent Avian Adventures tours.

At the same time we've been keeping an eye on news of the travel chaos caused by ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano. The impact on the travel and tourism industries that we are just a very small part of is obviously enormous. Our personal concern is the need for Peter to be back in the UK in time to fly out to Arizona on Saturday with another Avian Adventures tour. All fingers are crossed!

Anyway, the weather forecast for today was good and proved for once to be reasonably accurate - it hardly rained at all! We set off early and spent the day in the Castro Verde area. As usual, there were plenty of Great Bustards and Little Bustards, we saw a couple of Short-toed Eagles, a Booted Eagle and a rather distant Spanish Imperial Eagle, there were countless Montagu's Harriers and Lesser Kestrels and several Black Kites and Black-winged Kites. Add to that list Golden Orioles, Stone-curlew, Calandra Larks, Black-eared Wheatears and our first Rollers of the year and we reckon we had quite a good day. It was certainly a welcome escape from 'admin'.

Little Bustard - getting harder to see as the vegetation gets taller

Three Montagu's Harriers chase off a Black Kite

Roller - our first of year

Black-eared Wheatear

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Costa Rica - Part 5

There is only one place that I have stayed on every one of my fourteen tours in Costa Rica and that is Selva Verde Lodge, located in the midst of the 500-acre Sarapiquí Rainforest Preservation Area in the lush Caribbean lowlands. Not only does the lodge offer some first rate birding and other wildlife in its immediate vicinity but it is ideally situated for visits to Braulio Carrillo National Park and La Selva Biological Station, two sites that no visiting birder would want to miss. The founding of Selva Verde Lodge is a story in itself and on this visit I was privileged to meet Giovanna Holbrook who started it all more than 20 years ago.

Selva Verde Lodge - the view from the bar!

La Selva Biological Station is operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies and is one of the most important sites in the world for research on tropical rainforest. It comprises 1,600 hectares of mainly tropical wet forests and averages 4 metres (!) of rainfall annually. Not surprisingly, we needed umbrellas, ponchos and rain jackets pretty much throughout our day here.

It's the rain forest!

The birds at La Selva are outstanding. In spite of the weather and an extended lunch (and drying out) break back at Selva Verde Lodge, we saw about 80 species during the day. Among the highlights were Great Green Macaws, Yellow-tailed Oriole, Pied Puffbird, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Vermiculated Screech-Owl, Spectacled Owl, Olive-backed Quail-Dove, Great Tinamou and Grey-necked Wood-Rail. The mammals are pretty good, too! They included Hoffmann's Two-toed Sloth (which should surely be called 'ten-toed'), Collared Peccary and everyone's favourite, cute little White Tent-making Bats.

Hoffmann's Two-toed Sloth

Our visit to Braulio Carrillo National Park was combined with stops at several other sites. It was good to find that El Tigre Marsh has not yet been drained and turned over to pineapple cultivation, although that is apparently still on the cards. Nicaraguan Seed-Finches were more abundant than I've ever seen them but sadly there was no sign of Pinnated Bittern or Green Ibis that I have seen there in the past. Along the Rio San José, we found a Sunbittern at a nest and also a Fasciated Tiger-Heron; at the butterfly garden of El Tapir reserve we were treated to great views of the much sought-after Snowcap.


Braulio Carrillo covers a vast expanse of lowland and highland forest much of which is virtually inaccessible. From the Quebrada Gonzalez Ranger Station we walked the 1.6-kilometre Sendero Natural Las Palmas. This is a trail where you hope to find mixed feeding flocks. However, when you do, identifying all the birds involved as they quickly pass overhead can sometimes cause even experienced birders to panic! Although we did come across a couple of flocks, we were perhaps lucky that our best experience was at a fruiting tree where Blue-throated Toucanet, Bay-headed Tanager, Collared Araçari and Speckled Tanager were all feeding along with White-nosed Coatis and Central American Spider Monkeys. It was while we were watching the two mammal species interacting that a Yellow-eared Toucanet appeared close by us. We expect to see two toucan species and two araçari species on this tour but this second toucanet is definitely a hard one to find and certainly not guaranteed!

Blue-throated Toucanet

We finished the tour with a night in the Talamanca Mountains at Savegre Mountain Hotel, situated at an elevation of 2200 metres. Sadly for most of the short time we were there it rained but we still managed to see an amazing variety of birds, many of them for the first time on the tour. My personal favourite here is always Flame-throated Warbler but American Dipper, Torrent Tyrannulet, Flame-coloured Tanager and Acorn Woodpecker were all popular, not to mention the many hummingbirds. The Fiery-throated Hummers seen on Jorge Serrano's feeders were a particular delight.

White-throated Mountain-gem

Fiery-throated Hummingbird

I have long ago lost count of the number of people whom I have taken on Avian Adventures tours to Costa Rica; I have never heard any one of them say anything bad about the country. The people are friendly and welcoming, the accommodation is of a good standard, the food is excellent and the birds are just brilliant! I'm already looking forward to the next time...

Costa Rica - Part 4

From Monteverde we travelled just a short distance to another popular tourist area - Lake Arenal and the Arenal Volcano. The road from Tilarán is another that has been significantly improved since my last visit and we were able to make much better time than expected.

The man-made lake covers an area of 33 square miles and is a major centre for windsurfing. Dependable winds have almost inevitably resulted in a windfarm development at the northern end of the lake but I understand that something like 70% of the country's energy supply is from the lake's hydroelectric dam.

Volcán Arenal is Costa Rica's most active volcano. For hundreds of years it was dormant but on the morning of 29th July 1968 a powerful eruption took place that buried the town of Tabacón, killing seventy eight people. Nowadays the activity is less damaging but it is still possible most days to hear various rumblings and explosions and at night often you can see glowing orange lava flows. Rising to 1,633 metres (5,358 ft), it has the perfect conical shape that one expects of a volcano. Unfortunately, my experience here on many visits has been that low cloud has completely covered Arenal, sometimes to the extent that I wouldn't even have suspected that it was there!

On this occasion we were lucky. Although, low cloud on the evening of our arrival limited the amount of falling lava we were able to see, the following morning the cloud eventually lifted and there it was, the classic Arenal view complete with falling boulders.

Volcán Arenal

However, we weren't here to look at some volcano, we were here for the birding! And excellent it was, too. Most of our birding was in the superb grounds of Arenal Observatory Lodge and along the road between the lake and the lodge. The list of species seen was impressive but the highlight for me was catching up at last with Keel-billed Motmot, a species that had previously eluded me. Unfortunately, in very poor late afternoon light I had to push the capabilities of my 50D to the limits to get any sort of photograph of it. At the edge of its range here, the bird appeared to be paired with a Broad-billed Motmot. Thankfully the following morning, when the sun eventually appeared, photography became somewhat easier.

Keel-billed Motmot

Great Curassow

Red-legged Honeycreeper

Montezuma Oropendola

Of course, we were now on the Caribbean side of the country for the first time and even many of the common species here were new for this trip. On the other hand, there were quite a few species that we saw only in the Arenal area, notably Black-crested Coquette, Slaty Antwren, Spotted Antbird, White-ruffed Manakin, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Canada Warbler, Rufous-winged Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager and Black-striped Sparrow. It's definitely a place not to miss.

Next: Selva Verde Lodge...

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Costa Rica - Part 3

From Solimar we travelled next to Monteverde but, on the basis that you can never have too many opportunities to look at shorebirds, there were diversions on the way to the salinas at Colorado and a second visit to Punta Morales. Both sites had numerous Grey Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Willets, Black-necked Stilts, Western and Least Sandpipers and more. At Punta Morales there were 20 Marbled Godwits, not a common species here, and a Franklin's Gull, my first ever in Costa Rica.

In past years the drive from sea level up to Monteverde, located at an elevation of about 4,500 feet, has been a slow, bumpy experience but much of the road has recently been surfaced and the journey is now much more enjoyable. As we gained height, there were spectacular views over the Gulf of Nicoya. By mid-afternoon we were at our new base, the excellent Trapp Family Lodge.

The modern town of Monteverde was founded in the 1950s by Quakers from the USA. It is now a major tourist destination with the main attraction being what we have come to know as the Monteverde Crowd Forest Reserve that is said to draw around 70,000 visitors annually.

We spent what remained of the day at the Hummingbird Gallery, essentially a shop with several hummingbird feeders outside that regularly attract seven or eight species of hummers and also Bananaquits. It's a great place to spend an hour or more but for the first-time visitor it's daunting to be faced with so many new birds. With males and females of some species looking completely different, it's quite a challenge.

Purple-throated Mountain-gem

Green-crowned Brilliant

Green Violet-ear

Coppery-headed Emerald

Violet Sabrewing

The following morning we set off not to the Monteverde Reserve but to the nearby Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. However, this too is becoming increasingly popular and it's fair to say that this whole area is not the place to be if you're seeking solitude! Having said that, the birding is excellent and the whole 'rainforest experience' truly wonderful with mosses, ferns, flowers and epiphytes growing on the trees and dangling roots and vines sweeping across the trails.

Cloud Forest

Without doubt the star birds for us were the Three-wattled Bellbird and the Resplendent Quetzal, but there was a strong supporting cast that included the exotic-sounding Brown-billed Scythebill, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo and Prong-billed Barbet. We could hear the Bellbird and the Quetzal long before we saw them; in fact we spent quite a while searching for the Bellbird in the branches above our heads before finally it showed itself. Only a few minutes after that success, we located the Quetzal and truly resplendent it was, too!

Resplendent Quetzal

The other main site that we visited at Monteverde was what is now called Santuario Ecológico, formerly Finca Ecológica. This has always provided good birding with the emphasis very much on ground-dwelling species and true to form amongst a decent list of birds seen were White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Ovenbird, Black-breasted Wood-Quails and Chiriqui Quail-Dove, all of them on the forest floor.

Quite a lot of birding was also done along the roadsides where amongst the often-seen species were White-throated Robin, Blue-throated Toucanet, Slate-throated Redstart and Mountain Elaenia.

Slate-throated Redstart

Monteverde can be a wet (think rainforest) and windy place but on this occasion the weather was reasonably kind to us and the birding very good indeed.

Next: would we see the Arenal volcano or would it (as so often) have its head in the clouds?

Monday, 12 April 2010

Costa Rica - Part 2

On the fourth full day of our tour in Costa Rica we headed for the hot and dry Guanacaste region in the north-west of the country where we had a two-night stay at Hacienda Solimar.

We made several stops on the journey north including one at the salinas at Punta Morales, a habitat that was 'home from home' for me. However, most of the birds were different from those I see on the saltpans here in Tavira with Black-necked Stilts, Western and Least Sandpipers the most numerous shorebirds. One bird familiar from the Algarve was a Caspian Tern that somehow, after a prolonged struggle, managed to swallow a fish so big that it would have made a meal for me!

Salinas at Punta Morales

Hacienda Solimar is a working cattle ranch adjacent to Palo Verde National Park. I've no idea how many Brahman cattle they have here but it's quite a lot! They are beef cattle, said to have a greater ability to withstand heat than European cattle and to be more resistant to parasites and disease. In short, they are ideally suited to the Guanacaste climate. Perhaps not surprisingly one of the most numerous birds at Solimar was Cattle Egret!

Brahman bull

Hacienda Solimar

Cattle Egret

The lodge offers simple, family-style accommodation and some excellent birding in gallery forest, tropical dry forest and extensive wetlands; local guide, Demetrio, knows the area like the back of his hand and helped us find a remarkable variety of bird species.

For me, the highlights of our morning in the gallery forest were White-necked Puffbirds, Laughing Falcon and Great Black-Hawk but for some of our group the Mantled Howler Monkeys were equally popular.

Probably the 'star' bird at Solimar is Jabiru, a large stork that actually stands more than four-feet tall. We managed to see two of them as well as a variety of other wetland species in the same area: Wood Storks, Northern Jacanas, White Ibises, Roseate Spoonbills, hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Blue-winged Teal and several shorebird species, notably Solitary Sandpiper and Southern Lapwing. It was good for raptors, too, with Harris's Hawk, Snail Kites and a Peregrine Falcon. And not surprisingly, where there were Snail Kites, there were also several Limpkins, another bird that feeds largely on molluscs, particularly apple snails.


Northern Jacana

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron

There was also plenty of bird interest just around the lodge. Both Spot-breasted and Streak-backed Orioles were regular, Yellow-naped Parrots were usually heard before they were seen, a family of Pacific Screech-Owls were roosting in a tree by the main driveway and a Barn Owl was also nearby. In the evening, Pauraques could be heard and seen right by the lodge. And the wildlife interest isn't restricted to birds - just as in the rest of the country, butterflies, mammals, reptiles and amphibians mean that there is always something to look at.

Yellow-naped Parrot

Black Iguana

Pacific Screech-Owl

For those whose perception of Costa Rica is simply as a country of tropical rainforest, Solimar comes as something of a surprise but the variety of habitats and wildlife for me make it an essential element of any tour here.

Next stop: Monteverde...

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Wagtails, Whinchats, Wheatears and more

This morning, after a brief look at the many migrating waders now congregating on the saltpans here in Tavira, we spent an hour or more in the car, parked in the corner of a field at the edge of town.

From that one spot we watched numerous Northern Wheatears, Whinchats, Yellow Wagtails (of three different races), four Greater Short-toed Larks, a Common Redstart, a Tawny Pipit, Bee-eaters, a pair of Woodchat Shrikes, a couple of Hoopoes and several Crested Larks. At the same time, two Common Quails were calling.

Yellow Wagtail

Woodchat Shrike

Northern Wheatear


Yellow Wagtail

It was quite a sight and we enjoyed it so much that we returned in the afternoon to take another look! Presumably the easterly wind that has been chilling us for a few days has also held up some of these birds on their way north.

Also this afternoon we went and checked on the small local Bee-eater colony where we watched four pairs of birds apparently preparing to nest. It looked as though the Stone-curlews in the same area may already have nested - both birds were standing in the middle of a field in full view. We were already having a good day but it was rounded off by the unusual sight of nine Purple Herons flying east over the Tavira saltpans.

Actually, it wasn't quite rounded off because on the short drive home we had nice views of a Water Rail!

Friday, 9 April 2010

No Longer Jynxed!

It was a cool morning with quite a stiff breeze but the sun was shining. By way of a change, our given target today was Wryneck. To look for one we went to Ludo and Quinta do Lago.

As usual we started the day with a nice selection of raptors. An Osprey, two Marsh Harriers, three or more Booted Eagles, a Common Buzzard and a Black Kite were all seen soon after we arrived.

It was an excellent morning for migrants; Whinchats, Northern Wheatears, Common Redstarts, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Garden Warbler, Turtle Dove, Common Cuckoo and flava Yellow Wagtail were all seen.

Dunlin, Kentish Plovers, Ringed Plovers and Sanderlings were the most numerous waders but there were also Greenshanks, Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints and a Spotted Redshank, some of which were beginning to show really nice breeding plumage.

There weren't too many opportunities for photography but the Purple Swamp-hens, White Storks and Red-crested Pochards were hard to resist.

Red-crested Pochards

White Stork

Purple Swamp-hen

Wryneck? Yes, of course we found a Wryneck! And everyone went home happy.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Costa Rica - Part 1

I've just returned from leading an Avian Adventures tour in Costa Rica, my 14th visit to this wonderful Central American country that always seems just full of colourful birds. My locally-based guide and co-leader on this occasion was Jason Horn who I last worked with here back in 2006.

After a first night in the country spent at the Orquideas Inn, just a short drive from the airport, next morning we headed for the Pacific Coast. As usual, we stopped on the way in the town of Orotina where for several years now Black-and-white Owls have been a feature in the small town-centre park. Owls are always popular and not for the first time we were able to get the tour off to a good start.

Black-and-white Owl

Next stop was at the bridge over the Rio Tarcoles where huge American Crocodiles are a regular tourist attraction. Unlike most of the other people who were there, we also found quite a lot of birds, mostly wetland species but also a lovely little Pearl Kite, a bird that is becoming increasingly widespread in Costa Rica.

Central American Crocodile

Our base for three nights was Hotel Vila Lapas and after lunch there we spent the afternoon getting much closer to the egrets, kingfishers, herons and shorebirds by taking a boat trip on the river. This also gave us great views of some of the specialist birds of the mangroves, including Mangrove Vireo and Mangrove Black-Hawk.

Snowy Egret

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Green Heron

Hudsonian Whimbrel

Collared Plover

The hotel is conveniently located close to Carara Biological Reserve, a 4,700-hectare reserve that occupies a unique position at the transition zone between the dry forests of the northwest and the tropical wet forests of the Pacific lowlands. We spent a full day in Carara where, particularly along the Sendero Natural Laguna Meandrica, the birding was excellent although trogons, woodcreepers, flycatchers, antbirds, manakins and hummingbirds proved to be something of a challenge to those of our group who were in the Neotropics for the first time! Brightly-coloured, wing-snapping Orange-collared Manakins at a lek were most people's favourites. I was just as taken with the rather dull and difficult to see Scaly-throated Leaftosser!

Orange-collared Manakin

Black-headed Trogon

A morning was spent along the road to Guacalillo where at the lagoon an Elegant Tern, a Gull-billed Tern, two Common Terns and several Black Skimmers were found amongst the many Royal and Sandwich Terns and Laughing Gulls. Searching through flocks of gulls, terns and shorebirds isn't everyone's cup of tea but I really enjoy it. Off-shore fishing boats attracted Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans and one or two Brown Boobies.

Spot the Brown Booby!

There was the usual evening excursion to Jacó to find a Striped Owl and, of course, it wasn't hard to find Ferruginous Pygmy Owls during the daytime.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl

Raptors were also a feature with Turkey, Black and King Vultures, Double-toothed and Plumbeous Kites, White Hawk and Short-tailed Hawk all seen particularly well.

Plumbeous Kite

Short-tailed Hawk

Next - we head north to Hacienda Solimar...