Sunday, 26 February 2017

Some recent owls

This afternoon Laura and I went off in search of owls, and were fortunate with finding two species!

The first was a beautiful Long-eared Owl that we spotted near Oakville. The bird was content to watch us from eye level, and we soaked up the incredible views for half an hour. It was a new species for Laura!

Long-eared Owl - Oakville, Ontario

Long-eared Owl - Oakville, Ontario

Long-eared Owl - Oakville, Ontario

The second owl species was Short-eared Owl; a well known location near St Catharines is currently the preferred location for two individuals. When we pulled up there were about ten cars lined up along the roadside. It wasn't until most of the camo-clad photographers had departed for the evening that the owls appeared, providing great views as they hunted over the fields. Unfortunately no photos this time due to the fading light.

A few days ago I returned from 15 days of guiding an enthusiastic group throughout western Cuba for Worldwide Quest. Owls are always a big hit and this year we were fortunate to have "face-melting" views of both Bare-legged Owl and Cuban Pygmy-Owl.

Pygmy-owls are often active throughout the day, and the species found in Cuba happens to be relatively common and easy to encounter. We came across about 15 of them, however at least half of these were heard only.

Cuban Pygmy-Owl - Bermejas, Zapata, Cuba

The Bare-legged Owl, also known as the Cuban Screech Owl, is an interesting little species that happens to be the only member of its genus, Margarobyas. Bare-legged Owls have a penchant for roosting within woodpecker holes in palms, and if one knows which trees to lightly tap, the reward may be a prolonged look at a sleepy-looking Bare-legged Owl, wondering what the commotion is all about. This individual was residing within a dead palm that had broken off years ago.

Bare-legged Owl - Bermejas, Zapata Peninsula, Cuba

Bare-legged Owl - Bermejas, Zapata Peninsula, Cuba

While we did not come across Stygian Owl on this trip, it has been a species that my group has observed on both previous Cuba trips. Last year was particularly special as we were treated to views of a young Stygian Owl, roosting a few dozen meters from its watchful parent. Stygian Owl is not really common anywhere across its range, which is sporadic and disjointed but across much of Central and South America. In Cuba they are scarce at best but can be found in the Zapata Peninsula with some regularity, if one knows where to look (as our local guide did).

Stygian Owl - Palpite, Zapata Peninsula, Cuba

Stygian Owl - Palpite, Zapata Peninsula, Cuba

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Journey to the Southern Cone: Part 5 (Embalse El Yeso)

January 11, 2016

Embalse El Yeso is a reservoir set high in Andes above Santiago, formed by damming the Rio Yeso. It has a capacity of a quarter billion cubic meters of water, serving as a major source of drinking water for the city of Santiago, especially during dry periods. Among birders, however, this area is well known as an accessible spot to search for the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, a unique species of shorebird that is restricted to high Andean bogs. It also happens to be the only member of its genus, adding to its allure.

Embalse El Yeso, Chile

scenery near Embalse El Yeso, Chile

The sandpiper-plover was not the only bird on our minds this day. This would be our last chance at birding the Andes of central Chile; as a result there were quite a few species we "needed" to see here.

As we approached the reservoir early in the morning, we stopped periodically to scan and listen wherever there were tall rock faces. This is the preferred habitat of the Crag Chilia, one of the dozen or so bird species found only in Chile. We soon struck pay-dirt, finding two pairs of them scrambling over the boulders at the base of a rock face!

Crag Chilia - road to Embalse El Yeso, Chile

A pair of House Wrens shared territory with the Crag Chilias in this habitat. House Wren is a remarkable species that has managed to survive in a wide variety of habitats, from the southern tip of South America north to southern Canada.

House Wren - road to Embalse El Yeso, Chile

But our gazes were fixed firmly on the chilias. This is a type of furnariid, meaning that it is in the same family as canesteros, horneros, cinclodes and earthcreepers, among others. We enjoyed our fifteen minutes or so with this species, watching them effortlessly scouring the boulders for spiders or other insects to eat.

Crag Chilia - road to Embalse El Yeso, Chile

Crag Chilia - road to Embalse El Yeso, Chile

We continued on, stopping occasionally to identify whatever birds we came across. At one point, a Moustached Turca carrying a beak-full of grubs scurried across the road. I quickly stopped the vehicle and we managed to snap off a couple of photos through the open windows before the turca disappeared down the hillside.

Moustached Turca - road to Embalse El Yeso, Chile

Later on, an Andean Fox also made an appearance! It was a little too close for my lens.

Andean Fox - road to Embalse El Yeso, Chile

This Mourning Sierra-Finch posed nicely for us!

Mourning Sierra-Finch - road to Embalse El Yeso, Chile

We climbed higher into the mountains, eventually reaching the reservoir. A rock-strewn grassy slope near the reservoir had come alive with birdsong! Among the species here were several new ones for us - Buff-winged Cinclodes, Sharp-billed Canestero, Rufous-naped and Black-fronted Ground-Tyrants.

Scale-throated Earthcreeper - Embalse El Yeso, Chile

Sharp-billed Canestero - Embalse El Yeso, Chile

 The scenery was stunning high up in the mountains.

scenery near Emblase El Yeso, Chile

scenery near Emblase El Yeso, Chile

Some unusual calls drew our attention to a few Gray-breasted Seedsnipes along the hillsides. This was a new bird family for all of us, comprised of four species limited to the Andes and Patagonia of southern South America. An interesting bird that seems to fill a similar ecological role to ptarmigans in the northern hemisphere.

Gray-breasted Seedsnipe - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

Gray-breasted Seedsnipe - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

Rufous-collared Sparrows are one of the more widespread species in the Americas, found in almost every habitat in Central America and South America. They were incredibly common in the area surrounding El Yeso, and we estimated we saw 150 or so during the morning. However, this remains one of only two photos I have of this species in my collection. The other photo is of a White-throated Caracara taken later in the trip, and much like this photo the sparrow is out of focus in that one as well.

Gray-breasted Seedsnipe (right) and Rufous-collared Sparrow - Embalse El Yeso, Chile

With most of our target species acquired, we began searching for suitable looking alpine bogs that might provide habitat for the crown jewel, the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. The scenery was breathtaking! Occasional Andean Condors soared overhead throughout the coarse of the morning.

scenery near Emblase El Yeso, Chile

scenery near Emblase El Yeso, Chile

scenery near Emblase El Yeso, Chile

After several hours of hiking, we stopped to have a snack consisting of the terrible leftovers from the night before as well as copious amounts of sugar. Breakfast of champions.


With time running out before we had to depart the mountains (our rental was due back in Santiago in the early afternoon), we ramped up the intensity of our search for the DSP. We returned to a promising looking wetland that we had passed earlier in the morning. And then it happened...

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

I think it was Adam who first spotted the dumpy little shorebird, hiding among the grasses of the bog. Awesome!!

Much of the next hour was spent with camera shutters firing, as we watched the beautiful shorebird go about its business. We were awestruck! As we crouched in the grasses it would walk right up to us.

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - Emblase El Yeso, Chile


It turns out that this individual had a recently fledged juvenile hiding in the grasses nearby! Unlike its parent, this one had yet to be captured and banded by the researchers studying this declining species, of which less than 7000 mature individuals remain in the wild.

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

For about an hour we crouched in the bog, studying these unique birds from a relatively close distance. We were soaked and muddy by the end, but it was worth it!

photographing the DSP - Embalse El Yeso, Chile


Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - Emblase El Yeso, Chile

With the clock ticking, we eventually had to pull ourselves away from the DSPs and continue down the mountain. I gunned it on the mountain roads as fast as I could and we made it back to Santiago just in time to drop off the car. With our time birding the Santiago area now complete, we took a bus to the city and found a hostel near the train station. It felt amazing to have our first shower in a couple of days and to sit outside with some cold brews, hanging out with other young travelers from around the world and enjoying the warm evening. The following day we would be taking a bus further south to bird the Nothofagus forests home to Magellanic Woodpeckers.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Journey to the Southern Cone: Part 4 (Farellones)

January 10, 2016 (continued)

Mountains are some of my favorite places to explore. The scenery is always spectacular and the species assemblage changes dramatically with subsequent changes in elevation, always keeping things interesting. We planned on visiting two locations high in the Chilean Andes near Santiago. Our first stop would be Parques de Farellones, a popular ski resort during the winter that happens to double as an excellent birding location throughout the rest of the year. Our little Chevrolet rental car struggled to make it up and around some of the steeper switchbacks, even when I had it firmly in first gear. Slowly but surely we crawled up the mountain, stopping occasionally to enjoy the scenery while also scanning for birds. 

Parques de Farellones, Chile

Since this was out first time visiting the Andes on this trip, we added quite a few new trip birds - 22 in total - of which 20 were life birds for myself. An enjoyable morning of productive birding, and a great taste of what the Andes had to offer.

We were successful in finding a Chilean Tinamou that was calling persistently from a distant hillside, and scored some other great birds including Cordilleran Canestero, Dusky Tapaculo, several species of sierra-finch and Chilean Flicker.  We also spotted an Andean Condor soaring way up in the sky, several kilometers away. Fortunately we would see many more later in the day.

Dave and Adam at Parques de Farellones, Chile

Rufous-banded Miner is the default miner species in these mountains. They proved to be abundant around every turn when we were in the right elevation range. We tried to turn some of them into the similar looking but extremely localized Creamy-rumped Miner, to no avail.

Rufous-banded Miner - Parques de Farellones, Chile

Our little Chevrolet struggled but eventually made it all the way to the top and we parked near the ski resort. We walked around for a while, looking for ground-tyrants and other high elevation birds. Due to the altitude it was hard catching our breath, and we needed to stop several times when climbing a small rise.

birding - Parques de Farellones, Chile

We were successful in turning up a handful of ground-tyrants, including Ochre-naped and White-browed, while Greater Yellow-finches flew overhead and flitted along the mountain ridges. We also spent some time watching the antics of a colony of Coruros, an interesting little rodent endemic to Central Chile.

White-browed Ground-Tyrant - Parques de Farellones, Chile

At the ski resort we were surprised to see Andean Condors sitting on the roof of the hotel! I guess they are pretty tame here. It was pretty spectacular watching these giant birds soaring only a few meters from us. 

Andean Condor (on roof of hotel) - Parques de Farellones, Chile

Andean Condor - Parques de Farellones, Chile

Andean Condor - Parques de Farellones, Chile

A walk along a flowing creek proved to be ridiculously birdy and we added quite a few new species here. Among them were Magellanic Tapaculo,Spot-billed Ground-Tyrant, Scale-throated Earthcreeper and White-sided Hillstar. Looking back, I do not have photos of any of these four species, which is really too bad, looking back. I guess I must not have taken my camera with me. We eventually encountered Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, Gray-flanked Cincoldes and Dark-bellied Cinclodes in this general area as well.

It was a successful few hours in Parques de Farellones, though we did not come across Creamy-rumped Miner and Mountain Caracara, two of our main targets here. Can't get them all I guess!

Since we were doing this trip without the use of any local guides and we had limited amounts of time available to search each location, that ultimately meant that we would miss some target species. However the slight drawbacks are worth it in my opinion, as there is a sort of satisfaction that you get when you do your own research and come across a difficult species without having to rely on someone's guaranteed spot. It is a lot cheaper too! That being said, it is a little painful when you miss out on a few target species because of this strategy.

Andean Condor - Parques de Farellones, Chile

We ascended back down from the mountains and drove across to Santiago, where we had hoped to find a place to stay in the southeast portion of the City; a suburb called Puente Alto. We stopped for some Chinese food at a little restaurant in town. Unfortunately it was some of the worst fake-Chinese food I had ever eaten. After filling up on our yearly dose of MSG we drove around for a while, trying to find a hostel or somewhere to stay. Asking for directions in a gas station, we were informed that there were not any places to stay in this area and that it can be dangerous at night. The city did not look too welcoming so we decided that the option of sleeping in the car in the mountains sounded more appealing.

We found a nice secluded spot and prepared for our first night of camping. Fortunately I had decided to pack a thermorest and a light sleeping bag, so I slept outside under the stars while Dave and Adam cozied up together in the car.

camping along the road to El Yeso, Chile