Thursday, 31 March 2011

Pratincoles; no Water Rails

This morning we were at Castro Marim. It was a beautiful, warm morning with barely a cloud to be seen. And there were plenty of birds!

Particularly pleasing to see were our first Collared Pratincoles of the year; there was a good selection of waders that included Spotted Redshank and several Ruff; Bee-eaters were numerous; several Spectacled Warblers were singing; we saw at least three Marsh Harriers and, of course, there are still a few Spoonbills around and hundreds of Greater Flamingos. Less expected species were a Whiskered Tern and a Jackdaw (only our second record at Castro Marim); totally unexpected was an Orphean Warbler.

Collared Pratincole

This afternoon we came back to Tavira and spent two hours baking in the car in the hope of seeing the Water Rail family that performed so well yesterday. Unfortunately, there was no sign of them! Instead we had to make do with a Stonechat, a Crested Lark, a couple of Barn Swallows and a Little Ringed Plover, all of which came to the water and at least provided some entertainment. Maybe we'll try again if we can find time.

Crested Lark

Little Ringed Plover

Common Stonechat

Barn Swallow

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Water Rails or the Alentejo?

Just five minutes drive away from home we have a pair of Water Rails feeding young. I spent a couple of hours in the car this afternoon watching them and trying to get some photographs. Limited success so far but there's always tomorrow! There seem to be four young and they must only be a few days old; they're just cute little black balls of fluff.

June spent the day in the Castro Verde area. When she returned home I said I was sorry she had missed seeing the Water Rail chicks. She said she was sorry I hadn't been with her to see four species of eagles, two species of vultures, countless Great Bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, etc, etc...

I guess we both had a good day!

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Avian Adventures and more

We've been busy with a week-long Avian Adventures tour here in the Algarve and with other guiding that has resulted in multiple visits to the Castro Verde area and the coastal hotspots, Quinta do Lago, Lagoa dos Salgados, Tavira/Santa Luzia and Cabo de São Vicente.

The weather has been mixed with some thunderstorms and strong winds but now seems to have settled down and currently we have a cloudless sky and a comfortable 17° C.

Here are a few recent photographs:

We managed to see 11 species of raptors during the second of our days in the Baixo Alentejo, including lots of Lesser Kestrels. It was also a day that produced more than 100 Great Bustards and a nice flock of 40 Black-bellied Sandgrouse. On our earlier visit we saw the last three Common Cranes of the winter.

We are now seeing three races of Yellow Wagtails arriving: flava, flavissima and this one, iberiae.

Also creeping about in the grass, we found a couple of newly-arrived Greater Short-toed Larks.

On the local saltpans, Black-winged Stilts, Avocets and Kentish Plovers are now in pairs and preparing to nest.

Among the many Ringed Plovers on the saltpans, we are still seeing a few Little Ringed Plovers. 'Lurps', as we call them, are already occupying breeding sites inland.

Amongst the many Common Redshanks was this one, the first colour-ringed individual of this species we have seen in the Algarve. It was ringed in the Netherlands in May 2010. We have also seen a Dutch-ringed Spoonbill and a Spanish-ringed Greater Flamingo this week.

We have seldom seen more Red-crested Pochards at Quinta do Lago than there were yesterday. Red-billed Pochard would surely have been a more sensible name!

The Avian Adventures group included some keen botanists, so we have also been looking at orchids. This one is Sawfly Orchid, photographed near Sagres where we were entertained by a flock of 40 Red-billed Choughs, saw a few lingering Ring Ousels and found Spectacled Warblers.

Hoopoe - the Avian Adventures logo and, for photographers, hard to resist.

So many birds, so little time...

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Changeover time

What a busy time for us and the birds - plenty to see and to show to people! We've had some pretty poor weather these last couple of weeks but at last, today, the sun is out again!

Lots of migrants are arriving now. A few Barn Swallows and House Martins were with us throughout the winter and we even saw the odd Red-rumped Swallow in December. Now they're all here in large numbers and Sand Martins are also passing through. Two Pallid Swifts we saw on 14th February were, it seems, the earliest on record in the Algarve. They have since been followed by Yellow Wagtails, Woodchat Shrikes, Northern Wheatears, Common Cuckoos, European Reed Warblers and more. No matter how many times we've experienced the annual return of these birds in the spring, it's an exciting time and we want to be out there welcoming them back no matter what the weather.

Yellow Wagtail

At the same time, we are seeing waders such as Black-tailed Godwits starting to acquire their colourful breeding plumage while for some resident species the breeding season is already well underway. Some already have young in the nest.

Black-tailed Godwit

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Many of our winter visitors are still here: we are still seeing Short-eared Owls, for instance, and there are still plenty of Chiffchaffs around and Bluethroats are still occupying their winter territories.

Short-eared Owl

The saltpans still have lots of waders and those that have wintered here are being joined by more that are on their way back having ventured further south. All too soon there will be a mass exodus as all these birds fly north to their breeding grounds. Our consolation is that we will have Bee-eaters, Golden Orioles, Nightingales and others to replace them!


Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Rio Branco & Los Nevados

The Rio Branco Reserve is located in the Colombian Central Cordillera, 3 km northeast of the city of Manizales. It covers some 4,343 hectares, 75% of which is forest. As many as 364 bird species have been recorded and although the main purpose of the area is to supply water to the city it is increasingly a centre for ecotourism.

We spent two nights at the lodge here and I was able to renew acquaintance with local guide, Sergio Ocampo. I had been to Rio Branco before, about two years ago, and since then seen Sergio when he came to the Birdfair at Rutland Water.

The lodge at Rio Branco Reserve

Much of our time at Rio Branco was spent watching and photographing antpittas. We saw several Chestnut-crowned and endemic Brown-banded but Bicoloured and Slate-crowned were only heard. These birds have been habituated to humans and come out twice daily to be fed on worms! They really are rather odd-looking creatures, known locally as “eggs-on-legs”, an apt description.

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta

Brown-banded Antpitta

In spite of spending so much time with the antpittas, we managed to see something like 70 species during the day and many more were heard. It is difficult to pick out highlights but, as its name suggests, the Powerful Woodpecker was impressive. I was also pleased to find a Masked Trogon in more or less the same spot as I saw one on my last visit here. Superciliaried Hemispingus won today’s prize for having the most outlandish name; a Broad-winged Hawk the prize for being the most easily photographed bird.

Powerful Woodpecker

Masked Trogon

Broad-winged Hawk

Just before dinner, as the light was fading and we were listening for Rufous-banded Owls, we were lucky to see and hear three Rufous-bellied Nighthawks that flew close and at times quite low and directly overhead. This was a first record of this species on the reserve and a great end to the day.

The following day we visited Los Nevados National Park, which involved driving up to almost 3,000 metres above sea level. The landscape here was stunning. At this high elevation we were in páramo, a neotropical ecosystem that consists of grasslands, peat bogs and a variety of shrubs, notably the succulent, Espeletia hartwegiana. All this against a backdrop of snow-covered mountain peaks, including Nevado del Ruiz, the 5,321-metre volcano that in 1985 erupted, killing an estimated 23,000 people in the town of Armero.

The surprising variety of birds here included Andean Duck, Andean Teal and Andean Condor, Bearded Helmetcrest, Viridian Metaltail, Shining Sunbeam, Stout-billed Cinclodes, Sedge Wren, Tawny Antpitta, Andean Tit-Spinetail, Pale-coloured Seedeater, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant and Rufous-fronted Parakeet. The Andean Condors were re-introduced into the area about 12 years ago and are thought to have bred for the first time in 2010.

Stout-billed Cinclodes

Shining Sunbeam

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Yellow-eared Parrots

Not much chance to work on the sleep deficit as once again we made a 4.30am start taking breakfast with us.

Our destination this morning was the Reserva del Loro Orejiamarillo. It was a sign of things to come that in place of yesterday’s minibus we were now using two Jeeps. Our journey in the dark on a rough winding road was punctuated by mudslides and rockslides which soon began to present something of a challenge even to these tough 4 x 4 vehicles. Eventually we reached a huge mudslide that had completely destroyed the road. It was time to start walking!

Once we had negotiated the mudslide and set off uphill, it took an hour or so to reach the reserve, an hour during which we were, of course, stopping regularly to look for birds. Species seen included Collared Inca, Amethyst-throated Sunangel, Tourmaline Sunangel, Buff-tailed Coronet and Tyrian Metaltail (all hummingbirds) plus Ocellated Tapaculo, Blue-capped Tanager, Lachrymose Mountain-Tanager, Tanager-Finch, Stripe-headed Brush-Finch, Slaty Brush-Finch, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, Golden-fronted Whitestart and Citrine Warbler. What wonderful names some of these birds have!

Golden-fronted Whitestart

Tourmaline Sunangel

Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant

We had climbed to about 2,900 metres above sea level. We positioned ourselves where we could see over a wide area of the reserve and then waited for our target birds to appear. Loro Orejiamarillo is Spanish for Yellow-eared Parrot and the reserve is part of the remarkable conservation success story that surrounds this species which for many years was thought to be extinct.

Yellow-eared Parrots live among wax palms (Ceroxylon quindiuense), the national tree of Colombia, a species which itself is threatened. They nest in the hollow trunks of the palm trees. The story of their decline is a familiar one, involving hunting and habitat destruction, particularly the harvesting of wax palms, which are traditionally cut down and used each year on Palm Sunday.

Following the rediscovery of a small population of Yellow-eared Parrots in 1998, a combination of measures has seen the population increase significantly to the point where the species is no longer considered Critically Endangered, simply Endangered! These measures included habitat protection, a nest box scheme and a campaign to reduce the use of the wax palm for Palm Sunday celebrations.

We didn’t have to wait too long. First, five birds were seen at quite some distance but they dropped into the forest and promptly disappeared. Then two birds flew more or less over our heads and landed on a bare snag, again some way off but allowing reasonable views through a telescope. And then another bird flew by not too far away. It had been a struggle to get there and see the birds but eventually they were seen well, it had been a worthwhile climb; we called it a “landslide victory”!

Yellow-eared Parrot

We also saw three other Psittacids here: Scarlet-fronted Parakeet, Blue-headed Parrot and Speckle-faced Parrot.

After lunch back in Jardín we set off on the long road trip to the Reserva Natural Rio Branco, located near Manizales. That we arrived there later than planned was due in part to a small diversion along the way to look for Greyish Piculet and Apical Flycatcher, two more endemic species. It wasn’t that it took a long time to find them, it was the fact that we also found many more birds in the same area and stayed much longer than we had intended. Amongst them were Scrub Tanager, Moustached Puffbird, Bar-crested Antshrike and the more familiar Bay-breasted Warbler, a migrant that I’ve seen often in the USA.

Moustached Puffbird

It had been another long day. I didn’t need much rocking, as they say.

More to come…

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Bogotá - Medellín - Jardín

Although there are a great many good things to say about Colombia, if there is a downside it’s the time it takes to get there. I started my journey from Stafford and it ended at the Hotel Habitel in Bogotá; from door to door it took something like 22 hours! I reached the hotel at about 8.30pm.

The following morning, it would have been nice to have a long lie-in to recover from the travelling and the jetlag but instead we left the hotel at 4.30am to go birding at La Florida, a park located quite close to the airport which is a well-known site for the endemic Bogotá Rail, classified as Endangered by Birdlife International. By the time we had eaten our snack breakfast on the car park it was light enough to start looking for birds. Already, Great Thrushes were singing.

Great Thrush - rather like a Blackbird but bigger

Because of its convenient location, the park is well-visited by birders and it seems that the Bogotá Rails are no longer responsive to playback - “taped out” in the current jargon. We actually had better views than I have managed previously but later in the week at another site we had much better success and even watched a pair copulating! As that site becomes better known, probably the birds there will also learn to ignore the repeated and largely unnecessary playing of recordings.

Bogotá Rail - looks much like a Water Rail

Other species at La Florida included Subtropical Doradito, Spot-flanked Gallinule, Southern Lapwing, American Coot, Bare-faced Ibis, Andean Siskin, Brown-bellied Swallow, Yellow-hooded Blackbird and the ubiquitous Rufous-collared Sparrow.

Yellow-hooded Blackbird

Our time in the park was limited because of the need to catch a late morning flight to Medellín, the country’s second largest city, situated in the Aburrá Valley, just 50 minutes away by air.

From Medellín, we travelled by road to the attractive little town of Jardín. Here we stayed at the Hotel La Casona, located close to the town centre which is dominated by the distinctive neo-gothic styled Basilica Menor de la Inmaculada Concepción.