Sunday 28 February 2016

Home from Cuba

I have just returned from another excellent trip to Cuba, guiding for Worldwide Quest Nature Tours. This was my first time as the solo guide for Worldwide Quest and I have to say that it was a success! Together with Esmerido, the local guide from Gaviota Tours who accompanied us the entire time, we traveled through much of western Cuba, experiencing the natural areas, wildlife and culture of Cuba. Esmerido and I were fortunate to have such a great group of clients join us. Amazing moments searching for wildlife are that much more rewarding when you can share it with others.

As there were a number of keen birders on this tour, birds were of course high on the list of target species. Given our route we managed to squeeze out every possible endemic, many which gave excellent prolonged views for the group!

Perhaps one of the best moments of the trip was watching about six Bee Hummingbirds feed, fight, and flit about mere inches from us. We all came away with excellent photographs of this species, the world’s smallest bird and a tough endemic to get in Cuba. I was particularly pleased to photograph some of the males with their gorgeous gorgets, as my lone previous sighting was of a less flamboyant female.

Bee Hummingbird

Another great moment was watching a pair of Blue-headed Quail-Doves feeding in the open only a few meters from us. This endemic species to Cuba, classified as Endangered globally, has recently become reliable at Cuevos los Peces, a restaurant and popular snorkeling spot east of the Zapata Swamp. We ate lunch here and were called over by the staff when the Blue-headed Quail-Doves appeared for their daily feeding(!). This was a species that we had missed last year on our tour.

Other bird highlights, which I’ll detail in future posts, included a flyover Gundlach’s Hawk, all four Quail-Doves, hundreds of American Flamingos, a baby and adult Stygian Owl (the baby was perched at eye-level!), great looks at Cuban Pygmy-Owl and Bare-legged Owl, and a whole host of other species including the colorful and spectacular Cuban Tody, Cuban Trogon, and Cuban Green Woodpecker. Additionally, with the assistance of local guides we came across two groups of the rapidly declining Cuban Grassquit, totaling almost 20 individuals.

Cuban Grassquits

While we did not discover any birds rare enough to match last year’s sighting of the Townsend’s Warbler (1st record for Cuba), we did come across some scarce birds for this time of year in Cuba including Orange-crowned Warbler Great Crested Flycatcher and Blue Grosbeak.

Birds were just part of the highlights on this tour – insects, reptiles, plants and marine life also provided their fair share of highlights. I was particularly thrilled to see two individual Antillophis andreae of two different subspecies, both spotted by clients on this tour. Having the extra pairs of eyes certainly helps with finding wildlife, as I am often scanning the treetops for birds! We also encountered a single Cuban Racer, about a dozen species of lizards, and quite a lot of marine life for those who ventured in the Caribbean with snorkels and masks. The plant life of Cuba was mentioned frequently in our numerous hikes and Esmerido and other local guides shared some of their vast knowledge of the flora of Cuba.

Zebra Longwing

Our tour also took in some of the history of Cuba as we visited Old Havana, Trinidad and Santa Clara. It was interesting to hear local perspectives on the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Revolution, individuals such as Jose Marti, Ernesto “Che” Guevera and Fidel Castro, as well as the current state of the country. Cuba is a country slowly but methodically experiencing change evident all around us during our tour, and we felt privileged to visit at the time that we did.

Once the tour concluded I flew east to the city of Camaguey with hopes of finding a few more of the specialty birds of eastern Cuba, birds that we were not able to target during our tour. I was unable to book neither a car nor accommodations ahead of time, but managed to hitch a ride to Rancho La Belen, located an hour and a half southeast of Camaguey. I stayed here for three nights to take in the birds of the area. Despite a bout of illness that put me out of commission for most of my time here, I did find all of the birds I was hoping to, including the endemic Cuban Palm Crow, Cuban Parakeet and Giant Kingbird, along with Plain Pigeon and the possible future split “Cuban” Meadowlark. Barn Owls and Cuban Nightjars were easy around the lodges during the night, along with the always present Cuban Pygmy-Owl.

Cuban Pygmy-Owl

I will have more posts about this trip appear on the blog sometime in the near future. Winter in southern Ontario is nearly over and the days are slowly growing longer, so hopefully I will have some local content for the blog soon as well!

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Back from Chile and Argentina!

After an overnight flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago to Toronto, I am back home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, re-acclimating to southern Ontario winter (though the temperature has been equivalent to parts of Patagonia, reaching 15 degrees recently). The trip was a lot of fun, as Adam Timpf, David Bell and I explored the deserts, mountains, coast, steppe, grasslands and pampas of southern Chile and Argentina.

mountains near El Yeso, Chile

campsite under the stars near Torres del Paine, Chile 

On my previous two birding trips to the tropics (Panama in 2014 and Colombia in 2015) I was limited to two weeks. To pack in as much as possible we had a vehicle/driver with us for almost the entire tim for both those trips. Argentina and Chile can be expensive countries to travel in, especially for Canadians due to the current weak Canadian dollar. Combined with the long distances we traveled and somewhat longer itinerary than the Panama/Colombia trips, we tried to save costs when we could by using public transportation. Fortunately our longest stretches of travel occurred during the night, such as an internal flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, or with the myriad of overnight buses. This allowed us to wake up in a new place, ready to bird all day, but we learned several times that the bus schedules don't always line up and inevitable "travel days" occur. Relying on public transportation without booking accommodations in advance can be less expensive, but more time is needed when delays or mishaps occur. In several locations we rented vehicles for 1-4 days. This allowed us to thoroughly explore hard to access areas, as well as cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

Many-colored Rush-Tyrant - Maipo river mouth, Chile

Some of the allure that draws birders to this part of the world is the number of unique or iconic species found nowhere else in the world. What Patagonia lacks in diversity it makes up for with quality! We succeeded in finding most of our big targets, including all 8 (9?) Chilean tapaculos, Greater and Lesser Rhea, Magellanic Plover, Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, Chocolate-vented Tyrant, all five sheldgeese, Snowy Sheathbill, Humboldt Penguin and King Penguin, among many others.  

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover with jewelery - El Yeso, Chile

There are approximately 222 species which are restricted to the "Southern Cone" area of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and parts of southeastern Brazil, southern Bolivia and Paraguay. Of these 222 species, 4 are limited to the Falkland Islands, 3 are only in northern Chile and/or southern Peru, 4 are only in the Juan Fernandez Islands, and 61 additional species we did not have a shot of, mainly because they are found further north in Argentina than where we would visit (while I only had just over a week in the southeast part of the country). This left 150 Southern Cone specialties that we had a shot at given our route. Of these, we came across 133, so a pretty decent ratio! Many of our misses are easier to find elsewhere in Argentina and beyond, though a few still sting (Pincoya Storm-Petrel, Creamy-rumped Miner and Rufous-tailed Hawk come to mind). Since Dave and Adam are still in Argentina they will pick up many of the additional species that I didn't have a shot at.

sunset in Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire

Seabirds, cormorants, penguins, etc were not in short supply on this trip and we were treated with birds more-or-less restricted to the Humboldt Current (Peruvian Diving-Petrel, Humboldt Penguin, Inca Tern, Peruvian Booby, etc), species found in the far south of Patagonia and beyond (King Penguin, Magellanic Diving-Petrel etc) and a wide variety of other interesting birds, such as Southern Giant-Petrel, Salvin's and Black-browed Albatrosses, and various shearwaters and other tubenoses. Our pelagic off of Quintero, located just north of Santiago, was relatively slow but still provided an abundance of awesome sightings including our first albatrosses. 

Salvin's Albatross - pelagic off Quintero, Chile

As far as its birdlife is concerned, tapaculos really help put Chile on the map. Eight species (or nine depending on your thoughts on Magellanic Tapaculo) grace Chile's borders, including some of the most interesting members of the tapaculo family. We managed to find all of them, though Chestnut-throated Huet-Huet remained "heard-only". While endemic to a small part of Chile, Moustached Turca proved to be reasonably common in the right habitat and instantly become one of my favorite birds!

Moustached Turca - Embalse El Yeso, Chile

Of course no trip to Patagonia is complete without visiting one of the many Magellanic Penguin colonies, some of which also contain small numbers of the similar-looking Humboldt Penguin. In recent years a King Penguin colony has grown in number down a long dusty road two hours south of Porvenir in Tierra del Fuego. We saw three species of penguins on this trip, and it would have been four if not for the inclement weather shutting down our boat trip to the Southern Rockhopper Penguin colony near Puerto Deseado, Argentina mid-journey. The King Penguins, located at the very furthest south location we visited, instantly became a favorite.

King Penguins - Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Reptiles and amphibians were in short supply during this trip, as it was a birding-centric adventure with most herps found incidentally while on the trail of a bird. Some of the most interesting species for me included Argentine Black-and-White Tegu in Buenos Aires, Jewel Lizards (Liolaemus tenuis) in central Chile, and this Chaco Tortoise in southeastern Argentina. 

Chaco Tortoise - Las Grutas, Argentina

The same caveats about reptiles and amphibians also apply to mammals. We were still able to observe some pretty interesting ones, including the world's largest animals - Blue Whales. While scoping the seabirds off Isla Chiloe in central Chile we were surprised to see some distant Blue Whales spouting from the horizon. This is a popular summering spot for Blue Whales and despite the distant views we were pretty excited to have glimpses of this enormous cetacean. One day I will have to get in a boat to view them from close range! 

We also identified three species of dolphins, including Commerson's, Chilean, and these Peale's Dolphins. Some of the other interesting mammals we came across include Patagonian Mara (think of a weird hybrid between a rabbit, antelope, capybara and kangaroo), Humboldt's Hog-nosed Skunk, Coruro, and of course the ubiquitous Guanaco (precursor to the domesticated Llama), common throughout southern Patagonia. 

Peale's Dolphin - Porvenir, Chile

Our last two days were spent in the hot, humid and busy environs of Buenos Aires before I said goodbye to the guys to catch my flight back home, while they continued northward in Argentina. We were finally at the edge of the forested areas after several weeks predominately in grassland and Patagonian steppe. The lifers came hot and heavy at Costanera del Sur near downtown Buenos Aires and we racked up close to forty in a day and a half. 

Guira Cuckoo - Buenos Aires, Argentina

After a short layover in Canada I am off to Cuba on Monday and I likely won't have internet access during that time, so additional photos from Chile/Argentina will have to wait until March. I hope to put out a series of posts detailing the trip sometime this spring.