Thursday, 28 March 2013

Water, Water, Everywhere...

Any concerns there might have been earlier in the year about an impending water shortage here in the Algarve can certainly be forgotten now as after several weeks with scarcely a dry day the reservoirs are full to overflowing and there’s water lying everywhere.

Quite a lot of the bird photography we do here is at ponds and puddles.  We’ve tried to attract birds by offering them food but had no success at all; they just haven’t caught on to the idea of a free meal.  However, they do love fresh water for drinking and bathing and we’ve spent more hours than we care to think about sitting by pools of water.

Obviously, this strategy works best when there isn’t much fresh water around.  Last autumn, when everywhere was parched, a burst pipe at Castro Marim resulted in a small pond forming and we were regular visitors there to photograph Green Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, Stonechat, Southern Grey Shrike and others.  In mid-February, just before the deluge started, we spent several hours at a puddle near Sagres that attracted 21 species during the time we were there.  On that occasion we were particularly pleased to photograph Ring Ouzels and Redwings.

Ring Ouzel

Right now with so much water available we wouldn’t normally consider devoting a lot of time to a single pond but yesterday we came across a Water Pipit that was feeding around the edge of a temporary pool where we have regularly had success in the past.  We couldn’t resist it!

Two hours later we came away with reasonable photographs of Yellow Wagtails and a Little Ringed Plover but less than satisfactory ones of the pipit, which just wouldn’t come close enough.  A Corn Bunting and a Meadow Pipit also popped in briefly but five species was a poor return for the time we put in.

 Little Ringed Plover

Meadow Pipit

Undeterred, we were back there this afternoon (it is only a short distance away) and after an hour or so of watching a White Wagtail and a Meadow Pipit, several Yellow Wagtails chasing each other about and the same Little Ringed Plover as yesterday, the Water Pipit finally showed up.  This time we got the photo but only just in time as the bird was spooked by a noisy Black-winged Stilt and flew into the distance – the joys of bird photography!

 Water Pipit

Yellow Wagtail

Barn Swallows and House Martins have been here in good numbers for several weeks now and there are reasonable numbers of Yellow Wagtails around but otherwise migrants seem quite slow to arrive.  Woodchat Shrikes, Pallid Swifts, Spectacled Warblers, Bee-eaters, Common Cuckoos, Nightingales and Subalpine Warblers are here but not yet in the numbers we might expect.  Maybe the Easter weekend will bring some more. 

Woodchat Shrike

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Guatemala Fam Trip - 5

After the Horned Guan trek we left behind Volcán Atitlán and headed instead to Lake Atitlán for a one-night stay at Eco Hotel Uxlabil.  American Coots were numerous on the lake and there were a few Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks but regrettably we were more than 25 years too late to see the Atitlán Grebe.  Among the many birds in the hotel gardens were Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Black-vented Oriole and Greater Pewee.

 Azure-crowned Hummingbird

Lake Atitlán

During our evening at the hotel we talked to the people involved with about their birding tours, their guiding, their website and anything else that we thought might help them.

The following morning we took a 30-minute boat ride across the lake to the Laguna Lodge Eco-Resort where we spent about three hours on the trails in their nature reserve.  There was only one target species here, Belted Flycatcher, another species with a very restricted range and eventually we were successful in seeing one.  A bonus was that we also found Rusty Sparrows, a species that is said to occur as far south as Costa Rica but which I hadn’t come across before.

After a night in the Las Farolas Hotel in Antigua we made an early start in order to catch the 6.40am flight from Guatemala City to Flores.  This hour-long flight was followed by a transfer by road to the Hotel Jungle Lodge at Tikal.  By taking this early flight and a late flight back the following day we effectively had two days to see Tikal National Park, one of the major sites of Mayan civilisation, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an important tropical rainforest reserve.

Our flight to Flores was on a TACA Airlines ATR 42 turboprop aircraft.

The birding at Tikal was superb and two days were not really enough to do the place justice.  The temples, palaces and other Mayan ruins were extremely impressive and probably deserved much more of our attention but it was the birds that made this place a must-visit part of any tour in Guatemala.  More than 300 bird species have been recorded here but if I had to name just one species as the highlight amongst the many we saw it would be Pheasant Cuckoo.  I had been looking forward to seeing the Ocellated Turkeys for which Tikal is well known but they were so habituated to tourists that they somehow lost their appeal.  The Pheasant Cuckoo, on the other hand, is a bird that although widely distributed in Central and South America, in my previous experience has not given itself up as easily as two of them did here.

 Pheasant Cuckoo

Mayan temple

More Mayan ruins at Tikal

Ocellated Turkey

Before returning to Guatemala City we also visited Lake Petén Itza, where at last we saw shorebirds, terns and gulls, and Cerro Cahui, a 1600-acre forest reserve near the lake, where Mayan Antthrush, Grey-throated Chat and Northern Barred Woodcreeper among others were all seen very well.

 Royal Tern

Collared Plover

And that was it!  The trip was over all too soon.  We recorded (saw or heard) something in excess of 280 bird species in our eight days and more than 40 of them were ones I hadn’t seen before in spite of my many visits to Costa Rica and, of course, the USA.  And that really is one of the major attractions of Guatemala; it presents good opportunities to see a selection of species that are restricted to the highlands of Guatemala and neighbouring Chiapas, El Salvador and Honduras.  These include Highland Guan, Horned Guan, Bushy-crested Jay, Black-capped Swallow, Rufous-collared Thrush, Black Thrush, Pink-headed Warbler, Belted Flycatcher, Bar-winged Oriole and more.  The scenery is spectacular, the food (including the coffee and the bananas!) was excellent, the accommodation was very comfortable, the people were friendly and there was magnificent Tikal!  I’m already planning a tour for Avian Adventures.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Guatemala Fam Trip - 4

A website with the title “50 Best Birds in the World” attempts to rank birds based on how impressive, how unique, how rare and how hard to find they are.  It has the Horned Guan (Oreophasis derbianus) listed at No 6.

The Horned Guan is unmistakable in appearance with a red horn of bare skin on the top of its head; it is said that, although classified as a member of the Cracidae, it is not a true guan and it is placed in the monotypic genus Oreophasis; its range is restricted to south-east Mexico and Guatemala; it lives in remote cloud forests high on the slopes of extinct volcanoes.  Based on the stated criteria, there is clearly a good case for describing it as one of the world’s top ten best birds!

Apparently there are easier places in Guatemala to see Horned Guan than Los Tarrales and the Atitlán Volcano but that’s where we were and so when offered the chance it seemed worth a try.  I was warned that it wouldn’t be easy.

Breakfast (or at least a cup of coffee) was at 2.15am after which we drove from the reserve headquarters for about an hour until we could apparently go no further by vehicle.  It was hard to tell – it was very dark!  I was told that we were at an elevation of 1,450m and that the climb up the side of the volcano would take about three hours.

At the start it was fun walking through the coffee plantation by the light of our head torches and seeing the occasional roosting Swainson’s Thrush.  It was quite a while before any more birds were seen, although eventually there were a few identifiable sounds: the calls of Mexican Whip-poor-wills, the rattling produced by the wings of Highland Guans and the fluty song of Brown-backed Solitaires.

Before too long the climb became steeper and more difficult.  This was not one of those winding trails that makes its way gradually uphill, this was straight up, no messing!  Underfoot the ground was dry, soft and crumbly and covered in several inches of leaf litter.  It was very difficult to get any traction and a stick was essential in order to make progress.  Carrying food and drink, a Canon 50D and a 100-400mm lens didn’t make things any easier.  After a couple of hours I thought I might die; after three hours I thought dying might be the preferred option!

By 6.00am there was enough light that I could switch off my head torch.  An hour later there was sunshine but with this improved visibility came the realisation that most of the group, including three local guides, were some way ahead.  Being more than 20 years older than almost everyone else was proving to be a disadvantage.

Then came the good news that a Horned Guan had been sighted.  The bad news was that in order to try and see it I would have to leave the trail and make my way through dense vegetation across a steep slope.  This was even harder than before and more than once I found myself clinging to a branch or a root to prevent sliding down the mountain side.  But this was to see one of the world’s best birds, I kept telling myself.

At last I saw Eduardo Ormaeche.  He was sitting on the ground and looking through a telescope presumably at a Horned Guan.  He was no more than ten metres away.  Then, as I struggled to join him and get a look at the bird, he turned, looked at me and quietly said, “It just flew off”.  My heart sank.  In dense forest there was no possibility of seeing where or how far it had gone.  After four hours of effort, I had missed seeing it by no more than a few seconds. 

The choices now were either to continue uphill and hope to re-locate the bird (or find another one) or instead give up and start the long downhill walk.  We were now at 2,100m, I had climbed something like 650 vertical metres.  It didn’t take much thinking about.  After eating the breakfast I had carried with me, I joined the others and downhill we went.

It was three hours before we reached our vehicle.  By then I had seen Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, Black Thrush and Blue-crowned Chlorophonia that I hadn’t seen before and that was some consolation.  I often hear it said that if birding was easy, we wouldn’t be doing it and I’ve no doubt that’s true.  In spite of not seeing the bird I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the Volcán Atitlán experience.

I shall hope to see a Horned Guan on my next visit to Guatemala but I will make sure to look somewhere other than Los Tarrales!    

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Guatemala Fam Trip - 3

Two nights at Las Nubes gave us just one full day’s birding there.  It began at 5.30am with a return up the same rough track that we had been on the previous evening to find the Fulvous Owl.  Our main target now, however, was Resplendent Quetzal, a species I have seen many times in Costa Rica but one which certainly lives up to its name and I was more than happy to see it again.  Those in our group seeing it for the first time were well impressed!  This is the national bird of Guatemala (Costa Rica for some reason chose the Clay-coloured Thrush - go figure!), it appears on the national flag and they even named their currency after it (currently 1 US Dollar = c. 8 Quetzales).

Resplendent Quetzal

Guatemalan national flag

The supporting cast included Mountain Trogon (lifer!), Elegant Euphonia, Flame-coloured Tanager and Crested Guan but by 10.00am the weather was just too miserable for us to stay out.  Although we tried again later, there was more rain and it turned out that we had had the best of the day’s birding in those first few hours.  The one exception was after dinner when a Mottled Owl at first gave us the run around but eventually allowed everyone with the necessary persistence to see it well.

Accommodation at Las Nubes

We heard Resplendent Quetzal the following morning but, like so many brightly coloured species, it's a bird that needs to be seen; its unmusical call has been likened to ‘a whimpering pup’.  One Mayan legend claims that it used to sing beautifully before the Spanish conquest but has been unable to do so since – an unlikely story but I understand their point!  With better weather there were plenty of birds but limited time before we had to leave.  An Azure-rumped Tanager was the highlight, not because it is a particularly striking bird in its appearance but because it has a restricted range (southern Mexico and south-western Guatemala) and is classified by BirdLife International as Endangered.   

Next on our itinerary was the Los Tarrales Reserve, located close to the Atitlán Volcano (last eruption in 1853) but again we were limited to a one-night stay where we might have wanted longer – such is the nature of these trips.  Los Tarrales stretches from the lowlands at 750m elevation to the top of the volcano at 3500m, an altitudinal range that has resulted in more than 340 bird species being recorded there.  We arrived in time to have lunch before spending the afternoon birding with local guide, Josué de León Lux, on a loop trail much of it through a shade coffee plantation.  Highlights were Scrub Euphonia, Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow, Yellow-winged Tanager and Grey-collared Becard (lifer!).

One of the high altitude attractions at Las Tarrales is the Horned Guan, more of which later… 

Guatemala Fam Trip - 2

My visit to Guatemala began with flights via Seville, Madrid and Miami to the country’s capital, Guatemala City.  There followed a drive to the picturesque town of Antigua for the first night’s stay at the very nice Hotel Casa Santa Domingo.  The nearby Volcán de Fuego is famous for being almost constantly active and its orange-red peak glowed in the night sky.  I finally made it to bed at 12.30am, roughly 29 hours after leaving Tavira!

Guatemala has about 30 volcanoes but only three have erupted this century.

The following morning I was up at 4.00am, earlier than necessary but made easier by the six-hour time difference.  The first birding of the day was in humid broadleaf forest at an elevation of about 1,600m at nearby Finca El Pilar.  Although a small area of organic coffee is grown here the finca is mainly dedicated to conservation activities with birding trails and hummingbird feeders.  Highlights for me were Black-headed Siskins, Rufous-collared Thrushes, Brown-backed Solitaire, Grey Silky-flycatcher, Black-capped Swallows, Rufous Sabrewing and Blue-tailed Hummingbird, all of them ‘lifers’.  Although familiar from many tours in Arizona, a Red-faced Warbler was also very nice to see.  The Slate-throated Whitestarts here had underparts that were almost red, very different from any I had seen before further south.

A roadside stop to buy bananas that haven't been shipped half across the world 
- my ulterior motive for visiting Guatemala!

In the afternoon we transferred to Patrocinio, another private nature reserve and coffee farm with areas of subtropical humid forest.  The birds here were mainly ones that were familiar to me from time spent in Costa Rica; species such as Long-tailed Manakin, White-throated Magpie-Jay, White-fronted Parrot, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Black-headed Saltator, Lineated Woodpecker and Gartered Trogon.  It was good to see those again and there were a few new ones such as Yellow-winged Tanager, Highland Guan and White-bellied Chachalaca.

Accommodation at Patrocinio

We stayed overnight at Patrocinio and after early birding there the following morning left at about 9.00am for Fuentes Georginas where we were to look for Wine-throated Hummingbird and Pink-headed Warbler.  Unfortunately, in the short time available, the hummingbird eluded us but we had great views of Pink-headed Warblers, possibly the bird of the whole trip for me.   It is endemic to the highlands of central and eastern Chiapas in Mexico, and to western Guatemala and currently is placed in the genus Cardellina alongside Red-faced, Wilson’s and Canada Warblers.

Pink-headed Warbler
Next stop was Tak’alik Ab’aj Archaeological National Park where we arrived in the heat of early afternoon with low expectations with regard to the birding.  How wrong we were!  The place was jumping with birds and we could only imagine what it might be like early in the morning.  And we got to see our first Mayan ruins.  Guatemala is a great place to see motmots (six species occur) and here we saw both Blue-diademed and Turquoise-browed amongst a host of other species.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

From there we went on to Finca Las Nubes, another coffee plantation cum nature reserve, where we were to stay for two nights.  Soon after arrival, a half-hour drive up a bumpy track was well worth any discomfort producing as it did excellent views of a Fulvous Owl, a species with quite a limited range that is in the same genus as Tawny, Ural, Barred and Great Grey Owls among others.

 Fulvous Owl

More on Guatemala to come… 

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Cream-coloured Courser

A Cream-coloured Courser (Cursorius cursor) that was first seen at Alvor here in the Algarve on Friday, 8th March was thankfully still present there this morning.  Presumably it has been deterred from trying to find its way back to North Africa by the consistently awful weather that has been suffered here since even before it arrived.

June managed to see it on its second day, making the trip to Alvor with Ray Tipper while Peter was in Guatemala.  When we went together on Thursday (Peter’s first day back) to look for the bird, there were five or six feral dogs running all over the area where it had been and it was nowhere to be found.  There had also been a change in the wind direction and we wrongly assumed that it had gone.  The truth is that we didn’t have much time available for a search as we needed to be back in Tavira to take delivery of a bag that hadn’t made it the previous day on to the flight from Miami to Madrid!

And that was that until news came yesterday that the bird had been re-located and only a short distance from where it had been seen originally.  So, in spite of what turned out to be an accurate forecast for early fog and rain, we went back this morning and quickly located it.  We saw it well through the Swarovski ‘scope but there was no question of getting close to it and the quality of the photograph tells its own story, both about the distance and about the light conditions.

There have been only six previous records of Cream-coloured Courser in Portugal, three of them in the Algarve including the most recent, which was at Ludo in April 2001.  However, there have been breeding attempts in recent years nearby in Spain.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Guatemala Fam Trip - 1

Peter writes:
I'm just back from the Central American Republic of Guatemala where I've been on a nine-night familiarisation tour.  It's a country that I've long wanted to visit and at last the opportunity came following an invitation received from Bitty Ramirez-Portilla of Guatemala Nature Tours.  I first talked to Bitty about Guatemala at the British Birdwatching Fair back in 2008; it’s taken a while for me to get there but I’m pleased to say that it was well worth the wait.

The main purpose of the visit was to research the possibility of AvianAdventures offering a birding tour to a country that is comparatively little-known to UK birders and one that is trying very hard to develop its tourism industry.  Research of this kind involves looking at all aspects of a potential tour including such things as accommodation and transport as well as sampling some of the main birding sites and meeting and birding with local guides.  When I take a group of birders on a tour anywhere in the world I want to know as much as possible about what I can expect!

 Pink-headed Warbler

On this trip I was one of a small group that comprised Carole Sevilla Brown from Philadelphia, PA, Eduardo Ormaeche of Lima, Peru and Mike Nelson of Knoxville, TN.  Together with Bitty, their company and good humour helped greatly to make the trip the success that it was.

I have been involved in similar situations in the past in several other countries that have been trying to develop the potentially lucrative birding tourism market or break into it for the first time.  Amongst them, Uganda and Colombia come to mind as examples of countries that have had to overcome a negative image that has resulted from serious long-term security issues.  Both of those countries are now very much open for business and it is to be hoped that over the next few years Guatemala can follow suit. 

Ocellated Turkey

Another important aspect of these trips is the opportunity to give help, advice and sometimes training to the people who are involved in trying to attract visiting birders and those who will be guiding them and catering for them.  Birders have a few particular needs that make them different from most other tourists.  For instance, we keep unsocial hours and want to have breakfast when other tourists are still on their way back from partying!  The fact that INGUAT, the Guatemalan Tourism Ministry, covered the cost of my return flights from Portugal is an indication of the value placed on this advice and wherever I have travelled in this capacity I have found people extremely keen to learn.

Just as a very simple example, one piece of advice that we gave to the Guatemalans was to focus in their advertising on the important bird species that are likely to attract visitors.  In other words, to give people a really good reason to visit their country as opposed to Costa Rica or Panama for instance, which are their two main regional competitors in the birding market.  Examples would be range-restricted birds such as Pink-headed Warbler, Fulvous Owl, Ocellated Turkey, Orange-breasted Falcon, Horned Guan and Belted Flycatcher.  If these featured birds can also be brightly-coloured and easily recognisable, so much the better.  There is little point in highlighting widely distributed species that can be seen in many other countries.   It's obvious if you're a birder but maybe not if you simply own a hotel or lodge.

Portugal and particularly the Algarve is also looking to further develop birding tourism but it's disappointing that, in complete contrast to what I have seen elsewhere, the tourism people here don’t seem to be getting, or at least acting on, advice from anyone who knows about birding.  The result is that we have recently seen plans that will waste scarce financial resources on erecting hides, boardwalks and information panels that are mostly unnecessary and in some cases wholly undesirable.  Their advertisement last year in the UK's Bird Watching magazine attempted to entice people here with promises of "kingfishers, chickadees, herons, bee-eaters and elusive otters".  One protected area in the Algarve already has a sign at its entrance telling visitors to look out for "Capped Herons and Blue Hummingbirds" and some time ago information leaflets were on display in tourist offices that featured species that have never been recorded in Portugal!  As for the hides in the Algarve, there is scarcely one that is well-designed and most are also very poorly located.  I could go on but by now you will have the picture!  And, of course, it isn't that we haven't offered help.

Every country is different but there are aspects of birding tourism that are common to all.  At the moment, the main difference between Guatemala and Portugal is that one of them realises they need advice and is prepared to go out and get it.

More about Guatemala very soon...