Saturday 24 January 2015

Update from Colombia

I have now been in northern Colombia for a little over a week, and type this from a hotel in Bogota as we wait to begin the Andean portion of the trip. Without a doubt the trip has been everything I could have asked for and more - the vistas are stunning, the birding is some of the best I have ever done, the people are very friendly and I've even picked up a little Spanish!

After arriving in Barranquilla on the north coast last Friday, I took a cab to the hotel where the other guys (Dan Riley, Dan Wylie, and Steve Pike)  were staying, slept for 4 hours and began the trip by birding the mangroves and nabbing all our target birds including near endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalacas and the endemic Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird at Isla del Salamanca. We made the long drive to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta; a mountain range isolated from the Andes and chock full of endemic species and subspecies. We spent four nights at the El Dorado lodge and managed to see every single one of our target species including all the "gettable" endemics and near endemics! We took a long, bumpy 4x4 ride to the higher elevations on two mornings -one of the most stunning views I have ever laid eyes upon. 

Some of the highlight birds in the mountains for me included great looks at Santa Marta Warbler, Plushcap, Black-backed Thornbill, Black-and-Chestnut Eagles, White-tipped Quetzals, 4 species of owl including Stygian (and of course the not yet described Santa Marta Screech -owl), Santa Marta Antpitta, and at least 20 species of frogs. The Band-tailed Guans around the lodge were quite approachable and one took a liking to me, following me around frequently, even to inside the lodge! 

Finally seeing an endemic Blossomcrown after quite a bit of searching (and on our last morning) will certainly go down as one of the most satisfying birds! A lowlight involved falling into a creek while night hiking and completely submerging my camera along with macro lens and external flash. Fortunately after two days of careful drying the camera and lens are functional, though I wish I could say the same about the flash.

Scaly-naped Parrot

After leaving the mountains we spent two days elsewhere along the coast including a day in the desert scrub near Riohacha. This place was a huge contrast from Santa Marta not only with the climate, vegetation and birdlife but also with how far off the beaten path it seemed. We were the only foreigners there and received quite a few stares during our time there! The desert scrub is a fascinating habitat for me and I had a lot of fun wandering about. Along with our local Wayuu guide Jose, we turned up nearly all of our target birds, near endemics that are only found in the Guajira Peninsula in Colombis and parts of neighbouring Venezuela. Our only miss was Rufous-vented Chachalaca which is much easier on the island of Tobago and parts of Venezuela. Certainly a highlight was having spectacular views of the near-endemic Tocuyo Sparrow; a very difficult species missed by most birding tours to the area. Some other highlights for me here included White-whiskered Spinetail, face-melting views of displaying Buffy Hummingbirds, Vermillion Cardinals, Green-rumped Parrotlets, Orinocan Saltators and a vagrant Kelp Gull. 

Our last night in the north was spent in the scenic Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, an area of dry to humid lowland forest right on the coast. While I only added one lifer here as there is a lot of crossover with birds in Panama, it was still really cool to have great views of displaying Lance-tailed Manakins while listening to White-bellied Anthirds everywhere! It is a stunningly beautiful park that is popular with backpackers. We ended up staying in a room only meters from the beach. 

After a quick domestic flight we are now in Bogota, having already seen 294 species of birds in the last week. I'm excited to see what the more diverse Andes will have in store for us! 

Thursday 15 January 2015

Colombia 2015 - it's on!

It is that time of year again - the days are short, the bitter wind howls, the ice-crusted snow lies heavy on the ground and the temperature hasn't risen above zero degrees for quite some time. While there certainly is a suble beauty to be found in the frosted landscape of Ontario this time of year, I usually try to migrate to warmer climes for a brief period each winter. Last year, I joined two other intrepid birders - Steve Pike and David Bell - to an excursion to the forests of central and eastern Panama (Which reminds me - I still need to finish making the day-by-day blog posts about that trip!). This year I am venturing a little further south - Colombia.

By this time tomorrow I will have hopefully landed at the Barranquilla airport in northern Colombia; a short distance from the world renowned Santa Marta mountains - famous with birders due to its high number of endemic species. I will be meeting up with three other fine gents - Steve Pike, Dan Riley, and Dan Wiley. Steve Pike I have known for years, as he is based out of Windsor, ON and visits Point Pelee as often as he can. Visiting Panama with him last year was a riot and we had a ton of awesome birds, herps, insects, mammals and adventures on that trip. There is never a dull moment with him around, that's for sure! Dan Riley has been a good friend of mine for close to a decade. I met him back in 2005 when I was getting into the "herp scene" in Ontario, and Dan and I attended university together at Guelph. He was one of the first to get me interested in birds. I still remember how surprised I was when he told me that it was possible to see over 30(!) species of warblers at Point Pelee each spring. In contrast, Ontario has only 15 species of snakes. Dan and I have talked about doing an international trip together for some time but have never made it happen until now. Dan Wiley, not to be confused with Dan Riley, grew up in the Hamilton area but now lives in Illinois and does work with snakes, I believe. I don't personally know him well but am looking forward to getting to know him and finding some awesome herps and birds with him!

The other three guys have been in Colombia for over a week already and just finished up a week in Mitu, located in the Amazon. Here is a recent photo of them with their guide in Mitu that I stole from Steve's Facebook page. I don't think that Steve has enough gear with him...

After about a week in the Santa Marta region, we'll hop on a flight to the capital, Bogota, where we will meet up with David Bell and bid adios to Dan Wiley. I've known David since our early days at the University of Guelph and have birded throughout Ontario with him. Last year he joined Steve and I in Panama and was a big reason why we saw as many birds as we did - he's as sharp as any birder I've met! We'll spend around ten days traveling across the three ranges of the Andes in central Colombia, hopefully coming across a ton of range-restricted species, endemics, and generally just awesome looking birds and other wildlife.

It should be a blast and I'm excited to get down there and join the guys! If internet permits I may post occasional updates to the blog throughout the trip from my phone, though I imagine that posts will be sporadic at best. In such a biodiverse country as Colombia we will likely be maximizing every waking minute to finding the spectacular wildlife that calls it home!

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Netitishi Days 13 and 14

Day 1: September 26, 2014
Day 2: September 27, 2014
Day 3: September 28, 2014
Day 4: September 29, 2014
Day 5: September 30, 2014
Day 6: October 1, 2014
Day 7: October 2, 2014
Day 8: October 3, 2014
Day 9: October 4, 2014
Day 10: October 5, 2014
Day 11: October 6, 2014
Day 12: October 7, 2014
Days 13 and 14: October 8 and 9, 2014

October 8, 2014
Weather: between 6 and 8 degrees C, wind SW (light), picking up to N 25 km/h by afternoon, sun and cloud with brief periods of light rain
68 species
eBird checklist:

It may have taken a full nine days since our last bout of north winds, but finally, on our last full day on the coast, we were given some late morning and afternoon north winds. As a result quite a few birds were moving and we even added four new trip birds! But before I get to that, we had a really interesting experience with a particular owl early in the morning.

I arrived at the coast bright and early, eager to begin our last day on the coast with some seawatching, even though the winds were light out of the southwest. Kory and Jeremy had arrived a few minutes earlier and were watching an interesting bird in their scopes. I sat down at the shelter, set up my scope and scanned over the mudflats, visible at low tide, until the birds in question passed through my line of sight. There were two Bald Eagles and a Common Raven standing on the mud, at a distance of a kilometer or more, which were focused on a smaller bird flopping around on the mudflats. The eagles and raven kept an eye on the other bird, occasionally giving it a half-hearted peck. Due to the distance it was hard to get a good read on what the smaller bird was. It looked somewhat owl-like to me (I was thinking maybe Short-eared Owl), though Jeremy thought it looked more Peregrine Falcon-like because at times it appeared to have a grayish head with a lot of contrast. Our of curiosity we decided to go out on the mudflats and try to figure out what this bird was!

Shortly after we began the long trek, the eagles and raven went their separate ways. Our landmark was gone, and we had a very difficult time finding the exact spot where the birds were. Your perspective certainly changes when compared to looking at a compressed image at 60x power through a spotting scope. Despite a lot of walking around, we could not find the injured bird. Eventually we had to give up and walk back to the shoreline as the tide began coming in.

Not long afterwards, as we sat in the shelter watching the tide continue to advance, I spotted a dead bird floating in the water towards us. It looked very similar to the bird earlier so Kory and I walked towards it to salvage the body. Kory ended up getting soaked for his efforts, but did successfully retrieve the bird - a Northern Hawk Owl!

In hindsight this identification certainly makes sense given our thoughts earlier when we were first observing the bird. At a distance the facial pattern/colour of a tundrius Peregrine Falcon could appear quite similar to a Northern Hawk Owl. The proportions of the bird were certainly owl-like, and Short-eared seemed like a decent fit. A Northern Hawk Owl sort of looks like a hybrid between a Peregrine Falcon and a Short-eared Owl, especially given very poor, distant views!

Here are a few photos of the bird in question, after Jeremy had taken it upon himself to clean and dry the bird's plumage. Other than a broken wing and a few small cuts, the owl was in pretty good physical condition. Trust me, the bird is actually dead...

That was certainly a very cool experience - it is not every day that one can study a Northern Hawk Owl at such close range.

I'm not sure what the Northern Hawk Owl was doing out on the flats, as this species is much more at home deep in the boreal forest along the edge of a spruce bog. This species is generally non-migratory, though some birds will move away from their territories during food shortages some winters, and I'm sure young birds have some sort of post-breeding dispersal. Perhaps it was a "migrating" bird that somehow ended up over the flats, and was hit by a Peregrine Falcon or something (hence the broken wing), and the eagles/raven were just curious? Who knows.

The rest of the day was quite eventful. Kory, Jeremy and I decided that we were going to try to do a mini "big day" and work to turn up as many species as possible, given that it was our last full day on the coast. Luckily the winds cooperated and we ended up with our highest daily total of the trip - 68 species!

Around mid-morning as all four of us were sitting in the shelter, watching the tide come in, that we felt the first hint of a north wind. Throughout the rest of the morning it picked up in intensity, and just like if a switch had been turned, waterfowl and shorebirds began migrating. Brant and Northern Pintails made up the bulk of the birds and our first few flocks of Long-tailed Ducks were seen. These become much more common late in October. Several American Wigeons and all three scoter species rounded out the duck highlights. Shorebirds remained diverse with ten species seen on the day. It seemed like the Hudsonian Godwits picked today to migrate and large flocks would pass by occasionally, fairly high in the sky. By the end of the day we had tallied around 1200! New for the trip was a flock of 65 Red Knots that winged by with a group of Hudsonian Godwits.

At one point as I was sea-watching a familiar sound echoed in the distance. I initially couldn't place it until the bird came cruising very close along the shoreline (the tide was in fully at this point). It was a Caspian Tern, scanning back and forth looking for fish and as it continued on by. It called several more times before disappearing to the east. While Caspian Terns breed on James Bay (a recent colonizer), this was certainly a very late record for the region.

Lots of other good birds were seen before the day was out. Two American Three-toed Woodpeckers and a Black-backed Woodpecker near the cabins were a treat, and the first (and last) Northern Shrike of the trip was discovered by Kory and Jeremy. Sparrow diversity remained good with seven species including a Lincoln's, and a Hermit Thrush and Winter Wren were hanging out around the cabins. We were pretty surprised at the end of the day when we tallied up the species seen and came up with 68. Our previous best was 58 on September 29! Without a doubt this was one of the more memorable days of the trip, and a great way to close out the 2014 expedition.

The following morning involved packing up, burning the remaining garbage and waiting for the helicopter to arrive. I don't recall seeing any interesting birds that day and a neglected to make a checklist, so these closing photos will have to do!

Group photo courtesy of Jeremy Bensette. This was taken at the start of the trip - it was considerably colder and snowier at the end!

left to right: Jeremy Bensette, Josh Vandermeulen, Kory Renaud, Alan Wormington

Sunday 11 January 2015

Netitishi Day 12

October 7, 2014
Weather: between 9 and 12 degrees C, wind SW to SE 10-25 km/h, most overcast with rain, at times heavy
55 species
Ebird checklist:

All things considered we ended up with a pretty decent day on October 7, despite the usual southerly winds and some periods of heavy rain. The highlight of the day came while sea-watching with Kory and Jeremy -great looks at a dark juvenile Parasitic Jaeger heading east, only about 300 m out from us. This was the only Parasitic seen on the trip apart from the two on September 28.

A few other birds were migrating past including a big flock of Hudsonian Godwits, numbering 130 individuals. I have to say it is a pretty cool sight to see a distant flock of shorebirds come closer, realizing they are a huge group of Hudwits as they approach within identifiable range. The black and white wing/tail pattern is striking. After leaving James Bay, these big flocks of godwits will gain elevation and, if the weather remains suitable, may fly all the way to South America in one go. It really is remarkable how shorebirds can sustain flight for so long. Single Hudsonian Godwits are uncommon in southern Ontario, and big flocks are almost unheard of. Usually severe weather may cause a group to touch down, but even then it is usually just a brief layover for the godwits. This photo below was not taken at Netitishi; rather I snapped these photos of molting Hudsonian Godwits at Longridge Point, further up the west side of James Bay, in August of 2012.

Hudsonian Godwits - Longridge Point (August, 2012)

Hudsonian Godwits - Longridge Point (August, 2012)

Other interesting birds seen on the day included a group of four Ruffed Grouse between the cabins and the coast, the largest number of Dunlins seen so far on the trip, and a Cackling Goose sitting on the water with a small group of Canadas - likely the same bird that we had seen previously.

One last full day remaining on the coast.

Tuesday 6 January 2015

Netitishi Day 11

Day 1: September 26, 2014
Day 2: September 27, 2014
Day 3: September 28, 2014
Day 4: September 29, 2014
Day 5: September 30, 2014
Day 6: October 1, 2014
Day 7: October 2, 2014
Day 8: October 3, 2014
Day 9: October 4, 2014
Day 10: October 5, 2014
Day 11: October 6, 2014
Day 12: October 7, 2014
Days 13 and 14: October 8 and 9, 2014

October 6, 2014
Weather: between 8 and 12 degrees C, wind S 20-30 km/h, overcast with brief showers, clearing in the afternoon
46 species
Ebird checklist:

October 6 was a relatively warm day on the coast for the date and as a result quite a few insects were flying (I'll be making a post about the dragonflies of Netitishi eventually). Birds on the other hand were few and far between, and yet again sea-watching consisted of just that - watching the sea. Personally I saw only fifteen individual waterbirds on the day!

Eventually, Jeremy, Kory and I made the usual trek down the coast to the east. The sun came out for a few hours , illuminating the attractive coastline.

Instead of looping back after a few kilometers, we decided to cut inland to explore an area we had not been to yet. The spruces dominated this section of forest, and right on cue we spotted a female Spruce Grouse sitting quietly on the ground.

On my first Netitishi expedition in 2012, Alan and I only came across one Spruce Grouse, while in 2013 they were seen around the camp almost daily. For some reason, this year was a repeat of 2012 as we just couldn't turn them up for some reason. This grouse was a welcome sight, especially for Jeremy and Kory who do not see too many in the province due to where they live.

Grouse are often quite tame (= dumb), and this girl tolerated our close approach for photos.

She even perched up photogenically on a log, though the vegetation prevented clean photos for us.

The grouse was certainly the highlight of the day for us, though other semi-noteworthy birds included the continuing Winter Wren by the cabins (getting late in the year for one) and two Lincoln's Sparrows.

Only two more full days remained for us on the coast!

Friday 2 January 2015

2014 in review (part 2)

The month of July was also a busy one for work, between daily breeding bird surveys in southern Ontario and a 12 day work trip to central Ontario. Photo opportunities were somewhat limited as I usually did not carry my camera with me in the field. While driving along a lonely highway somewhere north of Thessalon we encountered this very curious Black Bear; one of my favorite species that calls Ontario home.

Black Bear - Aubrey Falls P.P., Ontario

Insects steal my attention for a few months each summer when the rush of spring bird migration is over. There is just so much to know, and so little time...

Pink-edged Sulphur - near Matheson, Ontario

Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) - near Parry Sound, Ontario

Racket-tailed Emerald - near Parry Sound, Ontario

One weekend, Todd Hagedorn and I took a boat over to Georgian Bay Islands National Park and camped on the island for a few nights. Our main goal was to look for reptiles, of which the islands never disappoint!

Red-bellied Snake - Georgian Bay Islands N.P., Ontario

Gray Treefrog - Georgian Bay Islands N.P., Ontario

Northern Leopard Frog - Georgian Bay Islands N.P., Ontario

A family camping trip to eastern Ontario was a huge success, as I was able to find a Gray Ratsnake (only my second ever in Ontario) with Laura and my brother Isaac. 

Gray Ratsnake - Charleston Lake P.P., Ontario

Isaac and Laura with a Snapping Turtle - Charleston Lake P.P., Ontario

Northern Watersnake - Charleston Lake P.P., Ontario

By September I turned my main focus to birds once again as migration was in full swing. My good friends Jeremy Bensette and Steve Pike found a Eurasian Collared-Dove near Leamington (it turns out there were two of them), a species which I was happy to add to my Ontario list. Not to be outdone, a White Ibis was also discovered at Wheatley Provincial Park which was too good of a bird to pass up!

Eurasian Collared-Doves - Leamington, Ontario

White Ibis - Wheatley P.P., Ontario

Laura and I made the most of the few weekends we had together this particular highlight was visiting a beautiful area near Gravenhurst one afternoon. While the Massasaugas eluded us, this Smooth Greensnake did not. 

Smooth Green Snake - Muskoka District, Ontario

In what has become an annual tradition I visited Laura in Nova Scotia for a week in early September. There is something to be said for breathing in that fresh ocean air! The most memorable day for me was a visit to Borgles Island located along the east coast of the province. We had the rugged island all to ourselves and enjoyed hiking and tide-pooling.

Borgles Island - Nova Scotia

Flounder sp. - Borgles Island, Nova Scotia

In late September, Jeremy Bensette, Kory Renaud and Alan Wormington joined me on an expedition to Netitishi Point on the shores of James Bay. This was my third trip there in three years with Alan, and the inaugural visit for Jeremy and Kory. Even though the weather did not cooperate for most of the trip a few good birds were sprinkled in here and there. Even apart from the birding, just enjoying the peace and solitude of a remote area like the southern James Bay coast has been a huge highlight for me over the last few years. 

Netitishi Point

Netitishi Point

Peregrine Falcon - Netitishi Point

Lapland Longspur - Netitishi Point

Where I live in Aurora the birding leaves a lot to be desired. However, Lake Simcoe is only about 45 minutes away, allowing semi-frequent visits whenever time permits. The biggest highlight on the Lake this autumn was the Pacific Loon that David Szmyr and I discovered, which was soon joined by at least three more. Little Gulls can also be found by the dozen, and even a Black-legged Kittiwake lingered for a few weeks. 

Little Gull - Barrie, Ontario

A late October Point Pelee visit was in the cards this autumn. While most birders visit Pelee in the spring, I much prefer it in the autumn. The crowds are non-existent and the birding can be just as spectacular. One of my favorite moments of this visit was watching this young Golden Eagle with Jeremy Bensette near the Tip. While Goldens are uncommon but regular migrants in Ontario from October through December, it is rare (for me at least) to have such great views of one. 

Golden Eagle - Point Pelee National Park, Ontario

A mid-November Pelee trip lined up nicely with the arrival of a few Cattle Egrets to the Tilbury lagoons which are located about 45 minutes north of the park. One of them was kind enough to hang around for my visit. 

Cattle Egret - Tilbury lagoons, Ontario

The year ended with a fantastic bird - one which I certainly did not have on the radar. A Eurasian Kestrel, only the 3rd such individual of this species to be seen in Canada, was discovered about 30 minutes from Laura's place in Nova Scotia. My visit coincided perfectly with the news of the discovery of the kestrel, and though it took two tries, eventually Laura and I were treated to great views as it caught a vole. 

Eurasian Kestrel - Hartlen Point, Nova Scotia

2014 was a great year filled with a lot of fantastic memories with friends. I am looking forward to what 2015 has in store!