Thursday 31 August 2017

New old photos

The last couple of weeks haven't been too kind to me from a birding and photography perspective. Many readers of this blog, at least those of you who pay attention to the "rare bird scene" in Ontario, heard about the Wood Stork that frequented Point Pelee National Park on August 12-13. Like many other Ontario birders, I jumped at the opportunity to search for this rare wanderer from the south. I wasn't able to go on August 12 as I was camping with some of my family at Long Point Provincial Park, but after hearing news that it was still at Point Pelee the following morning I jumped in my car and raced down to Point Pelee. Long story short, I missed the bird, and it was a painful one at that - if I had arrived five seconds earlier I would have seen it. In fact I was looking at Jeremy Bensette who was looking at the Wood Stork circling over the Visitor's Centre when I pulled into the parking lot, but by the time I jumped out of my car it was out of sight. A few minutes later it flew south off of the tip of Point Pelee, never to be seen again. Oh well, such is life if you chase rare birds; you can't get them all. (Update - presumably the same Wood Stork was reported by several observers flying over Point Pelee in the last couple of days...)

A few days later, my camera, complete with the attached teleconverter and 300 mm lens, was stolen off of the front seat of my car while it was parked in the driveway, likely by one of other local meth-heads that frequent this part of Niagara Falls.

Mainly due to not having a functioning camera, I have not been out taking photos lately and so the material is a bit lacking for the blog. Over the past few weeks, in between helping Laura out with all the last minute wedding planning as well as preparing for a trip to southeast Asia in October, I have been editing a few photos here and there, photos which for a variety of reasons I had not edited previously. Without further ado...

My dad has always been into photography and occasionally over the past few years we have gone out shooting together. He has really shown an interest in birds over the last year or two and on May 19-21, 2016 he joined me for our first spring weekend together at Point Pelee.

It was a great weekend of birding and father-son time, and due to the time of year (late May) the crowds of birders from earlier in May had subsided, while good numbers of migrant birds still could easily be found. One of the highlights of the weekend was watching a few young Great Horned Owls along the Woodland Nature Trail.

The shorebirds in the onion fields and at Wheatley Harbour put on quite the show. Several whirling flocks of restless Whimbrels landed briefly on the rocky breakwall, while hundreds of Ruddy Turnstones and Dunlins dodged the waves along the shoreline.

Who doesn't love Ruddy Turnstones? No one, that's who.

This Dunlin was most of the way through its pre-alternate molt, just in time to fly to the Arctic for the breeding season.

Last August two juvenile Piping Plovers spent a few days along Burlington Beach. While birding one day with Todd Hagedorn and Reuven Martin, we swung by the beach and easily located both birds. Formerly a fairly common breeding species on the Great Lakes, Piping Plover populations plummeted over much of the second half of the 20th century.  Largely due to the conservation efforts in Michigan, numbers have slowly but steadily climbed and Piping Plovers are now beginning to return to several former breeding locations on the Great Lakes. In Ontario, teams of volunteers at several of the beaches where Piping Plovers nest help protect the birds by arranging for sections of beach to be cordoned off, and by placing wire cages around active nests to limit potential depredation events from occurring. With so much negative environmental news at the moment, and with species being added to the Species at Risk in Ontario list nearly every year, it is great to have Piping Plovers as a tentative success story, so far.

I believe that these birds were identified as being born at Darlington Provincial Park in Durham Region earlier that summer, due to the unique combination of colour bands adorning its legs.

Sandhill Cranes commonly breed in the vicinity of Grass Lake, southwest of Cambridge in southern Waterloo Region. It was one of the first bird species that I really took an interest in, as a teenager with an insatiable desire to find reptiles and amphibians who largely ignored birds. To this day Sandhill Crane remains one of my favorite bird species.

Last September while on a hike near Cambridge with Laura, we came across this Eastern Gartersnake that had managed to get a hold of a young American Toad. We watched the very much one-sided battle draw to its inevitable conclusion, 15 minutes later.

Black Vultures first began appearing along the Niagara River late in 2010 and since then they appear to have taken up permanent residency in the Queenston area; currently the only place in Canada where Black Vulture can easily be seen. This individual was perching in a somewhat photogenic location near the Locust Grove Picnic Area, one of the more reliable locations to spot a Black Vulture. It was impossible to have a perfectly unobstructed view though, without any of the colourful autumn foliage getting in the way.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Niagara big year?

This year has been a particularly great year for birding in Niagara Region. As is an annual tradition with several of the region's birders, I am participating in an informal year list competition. It is all in good fun and no one is suppressing any birds from anyone else (yet!), but it is a great way to add in a bit of friendly competition.

Magnolia Warbler - Port Weller, St. Catharines, Niagara Region (May 16, 2017)

The Niagara big year record was set by Marcie Jacklin in 1993 when she counted 251 bird species. To put that number in perspective - some years there are not even 251 species cumulatively observed throughout the region! It is interesting to look at the differences between her list and the avifauna of Niagara today. Marcie had nine finch species in 1993, only missing Red Crossbill out of the ten regular Ontario finches, while so far this year I have seen but three species. Several other species made it onto Marcie's 1993 list that one would be hard-pressed to find in Niagara today, such as Northern Bobwhite, Ruffed Grouse, White-eyed Vireo, Prothonotary Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Prairie Warbler and Brewer's Blackbird. But on the other hand Trumpeter Swan, Snow Goose, Peregrine Falcon, Common Raven, Fish Crow and Black Vulture are missing from Marcie's 1993 list, species which are nearly guaranteed these days.

Fish Crow - Port Dalhousie, St Catharines, Niagara Region (March 20, 2017)

Currently my total for this year in Niagara is 237; that includes Thayer's Gull which can still be counted in 2017, according to the ABA Big Year rules. As of next year though, this (former) species can no longer be counted. Marcie is right behind me at 233, and Jean and Blayne Farnan are at around 230.

As a "fun" way to visualize my progress throughout the year I created a coding system to categorize each of the potential species that I might encounter based on their perceived rarity in Niagara, much like how I did for my 2012 Ontario big year. Code 1 includes the guaranteed birds, such as Gadwall, Chimney Swift, Tufted Titmouse and Nashville Warbler. Code 2 are the tricky species that should all be possible during a Niagara big year, for example Rough-legged Hawk, White-rumped Sandpiper, Marsh Wren and Orchard Oriole. Code 3 includes all the species which can be really hit and miss, including Ross's Goose, Pomarine Jaeger, Long-eared Owl and Golden-winged Warbler. And finally, Code 4 includes all of the rarities; in general, species which are less than annual in Niagara. Some of the more likely Code 4 species are Cattle Egret and Black-headed Gull, while some of the more unlikely species include Yellow-billed Loon, Wandering Tattler, Prairie Falcon and Green-tailed Towhee.

Clay-colored Sparrow - Niagara Falls, Niagara Region (May 26, 2017)

If all 159 Code 1 species and 58 Code 2 species are observed, that leaves the observer with 217 species, with 34 more species required to tie the record. There are only 36 possible Code 3 species, leaving a very slim margin of error. However, for every Code 4 rarity that is observed, one of the "regular" species can be missed.  Below, here is how my list is shaping up in 2017:

Code 1: 158/159
Code 2: 52/58
Code 3: 17/36
Code 4: 10 species
Total: 237 species

Below, I've listed the ten "rarities" I have seen so far this year in chronological order.

Year list #
Black-headed Gull
January 3, 2017
Slaty-backed Gull
January 13, 2017
Barred Owl
January 24, 2017
Louisiana Waterthrush
May 1, 2017
Cattle Egret
May 17, 2017
Brown Pelican
May 29, 2017
Yellow-breasted Chat
May 31, 2017
June 16, 2017
Sedge Wren
July 17, 2017
Long-billed Dowitcher
July 18, 2017

In addition to those species, several other rarities have been reported by others this year in Niagara Region which I have not seen. These include Eurasian Wigeon, Swainson's Hawk, American Avocet, Western Sandpiper and Eurasian Collared-Dove.

Slaty-backed Gull - Thorold, Niagara Region (January 13, 2017)

The following are the species I am most likely to still add to my Niagara year list. I have listed their Code in brackets.

Broad-winged Hawk (1): For some reason I missed this species when thousands migrated through the Region in the spring. Though I was at Point Pelee for about half of the time when Broad-winged Hawks migrate through, that is no excuse for having missed it! Broad-winged Hawks take a different route during fall migration so I may have my work cut out for me over the next five weeks. This is shaping up to be an embarrassing miss...

American Golden-Plover (2), Buff-breasted Sandpiper (3): Both of these shorebirds migrate through in small numbers each autumn, with American Golden-Plover usually being seen in greater numbers than Buff-breasted. Any day now either of these species should make an appearance on one of the sod farms or ploughed fields in the Region!

American Pipit (2), Snow Bunting (2), Lapland Longspur (2). Each of these three open-country passerines are fairly common autumn migrants that I should catch up with, though the latter two species may be a little tricky.

Parasitic Jaeger (2), Pomarine Jaeger (3), Long-tailed Jaeger (4): I am fully expecting to see two out of the three possible jaeger species, but if I am really lucky all three are possible.

Black-legged Kittiwake (3), Sabine's Gull (3): Both of these highly-desired gulls are seen each autumn during lakewatches; it is just a matter of putting in the time. Maybe one individual will spend some time below the Falls, as occasionally these species are known to do.

Common Redpoll (2), Red Crossbill (3), White-winged Crossbill (3): Many finches are quite nomadic, moving around based on the availability of their preferred cone crops. Each of these three species may migrate into or through Niagara this autumn and winter, while Evening Grosbeak and Hoary Redpoll are also theoretically possible. If I am lucky I may add two more finch species before the year is over.

Greater White-fronted Goose (3), Ross's Goose (3), Brant (3): October through December is a great time to find the rarer geese species and I expect to add one of these three (two if I am lucky).

Wilson's Phalarope (3), Red-necked Phalarope (3), Red Phalarope (3): Wilson's Phalarope is a scarce but fairly regular fall migrant in Niagara. With individuals showing up all around Niagara, it is just a matter of time until one is discovered locally. The latter two species of phalaropes are more easily seen during lakewatches, and hopefully I will luck into two species before the end of the year.

Long-eared Owl (3), Northern Saw-whet Owl (3): I put in some time and effort unsuccessfully searching for these species in the early part of the year. Both of these owls migrate through and some will overwinter, but roosting owls aren't exactly easy to find (if you are me).

Franklin's Gull (4), California Gull (4). Niagara has the well-earned reputation as the gull capital of Ontario, and while both these species are rarities, they are seen nearly every year in the autumn and early winter; however, California Gull has been absent the last four winters.

Golden-winged Warbler (3), White-eyed Vireo (3). While I had these species listed as Code 3 due to the potential that they may still breed in the Region, no birds on territory were discovered this year. One individual of each was observed by others during the spring but I doubt either will make an appearance this fall. There is still time, but my hopes aren't too high.

Golden Eagle (3), Northern Goshawk (3): Both of these raptors are scarce migrants that are not reported each fall. Geography has a big part to play, limited autumn raptor migration in Niagara.

Whimbrel (3): Very few were observed during the spring, and its not a species I often see in the autumn. I don't have very high hopes...

Scarlet Tanager - St. Catharines, Niagara Region (May 9, 2016)

So there you have looks like it will probably come right down to the wire. Of course, there are a couple things which will prevent me from maxing out my species total throughout the rest of the year. In particular, I will be heading to Asia for most of October, the time of year when most of the remaining species are the easiest. This will likely give Marcie and Blayne/Jean an opportunity to squeeze past. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the year plays out!

Saturday 19 August 2017

Brambling twitch to Brockville

"Lord I was born a Brambling man,
Trying to make a living and doing the best I can,
And when it's time for leavin'
I hope you'll understand
That I was born a Brambling man"

-Dickey Betts, The Allman Brothers Band 

I had always wanted to be a Brambling man, or at the very least have Brambling on my Ontario list, and a few months ago I finally had that opportunity. Back in December 2016 a Brambling made an appearance at a lucky birder's feeders . It hung around for a few hours but was not seen on subsequent days unfortunately. Several months later what was likely the same Brambling reappeared, this time at a different bird feeder about 10 km from the original location. The homeowner was gracious in allowing several birders to visit her house to look for the bird, but due to the circumstances the word was not made public to the birding community. I was fortunate in being one of the lucky few invited to see the bird, an opportunity that I could not pass up.

I was up early in the morning to carpool with several others, and by mid-morning we had arrived in the Brockville area to stake out the bird feeder. We were informed upon our arrival by the homeowner that the Brambling had been at the feeders already once that morning. This was excellent news and we made our way over to where there was a good view of the bird feeders.

It was a cool late March day, but the sun was shining and the wind was very light making it quite comfortable. We waited for a while, keeping a close eye on the bird feeders while checking out the other species in the yard. We did not have to wait long - after about 40 minutes an interesting looking finch flew over and landed in the trees on the far side of the property - it was the Brambling!

Brambling - Brockville, Leeds and Grenville United Counties

Eventually the bird made its way over to the feeders where it gorged itself with seed for a good five minutes before flying away, offering excellent views and prolonged study. It was a little too distant for good photos but we were happy to even manage some "record shots".

Brambling - Brockville, Leeds and Grenville United Counties

Brambling is a Eurasian finch, a species that frequently wanders to Alaska and down the west coast of North America. Prior to this bird, Ontario had eight records of Brambling, a relatively high number for a Eurasian songbird! Seven of these eight records pertain to birds that hung around for at least three days. I had previouslylooked for one Brambling in the province, an individual that was found in North Bay in November, 2014. Dan Riley and I chased that bird on the third day it was seen, though we ended up missing the bird. In fact, I was standing right beside a gentlemen who was looking at the Brambling, but by the time that Dan and I had re-positioned ourselves to see the spot where he was looking, the birds all flushed and we never did get on the Brambling. It was never seen again...

Brambling - Brockville, Leeds and Grenville United Counties

Seeing this Brambing was certainly a nice bit of redemption! Spurred on with our success we continued onward, making a few more stops on the way home. In the Brighton area Doug McRae tipped us off to some locations where Great Gray Owls had recently been seen. Our luck this day continued as we located a single Great Gray Owl perching on a utility wire.

Great Gray Owl - Brighton, Northumberland County

We watched it hunt for a while and were lucky in watching it land on a Meadow Vole and swallow it in one gulp. There were too many branches in the way for a "clean" photo, but it was a great experience watching the owl hunt.

Great Gray Owl - Brighton, Northumberland County

Great Gray Owl - Brighton, Northumberland County

Great Gray Owls are one of my favorite bird species and we were thrilled with a chance to view this one up close (especially since it was a species that I had missed on my northern trip a week or two earlier).

Great Gray Owl - Brighton, Northumberland County

Great Gray Owl - Brighton, Northumberland County

Saturday 12 August 2017

Journey to the Southern Cone: Part 15 (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

January 8, 2016 - Santiago area, Chile
January 9 and 10, 2016 - Quintero pelagic, Parque Nacional La Campana, Chile
January 10, 2016 - Farellones, Chile
January 10-11, 2016 - Embalse El Yeso, Chile
January 12-13, 2016 - Nothofagus forests in Talca, Chile
January 14-15, 2016- Chiloé Island, Chile
January 16-17, 2016 - Chiloé Island penguins, Puerto Montt, Chile
January 18, 2016 - Patagonia: Puerto Montt to Sierra Baguales, Chile
January 19, 2016 - Patagonia: Sierra Baguales to Tierra del Fuego, Chile
January 20, 2016 - Patagonia: Tierra del Fuego, Chile
January 20-24, 2016 - Punta Arenas, Chile to Puerto Deseato, Argentina
January 25-26, 2016 - Valdes Peninsula and Las Grutas, Argentina
January 27-28, 2016 - San Antonio Oeste, Punta Tombo, and Bahía Blanca, Argentina
January 29-30, 2016 - Buenos Aires, Argentina

January 29, 2016

It was hard to believe, but I was down to my last two days in Argentina. These trips always go by too quickly!

Buenos Aires is one of the most populous cities in the western hemisphere. Its metropolitan area contains between 13 and 17 million people depending on the criteria that are used, making it the fourth or fifth largest metropolitan area in the Americas behind São Paulo, New York City and Mexico City, and possibly Los Angeles.

Since I was flying out of Buenos Aires anyways, we decided that it would be easiest to just stay in the city for two nights as opposed to renting a car to leave the metropolis. One factor behind our decision was the presence of a large man-made ecological reserve that had been built along the waterfront, known as Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur.

While popular with joggers and other pedestrians, the many trails weaving through the reserve and the abundant tall trees and diverse environs provide habitat for a wide range of species. Currently the eBird hotspot for the reserve has 341 species listed, many of which would be new for us due to the much different ecozone surrounding Buenos Aires.

Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Our hostel was located a short walk from the entrance of the park and by 7:30 AM we were coming across new species around every bend!

A marshy canal separates the park from the city. Ducks, wading birds, coots, grebes and more were easily observed from the adjacent promenade, and within minutes we had seen our first Silver and Ringed Teals and White-faced Whistling-Ducks.

Ringed Teal - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Limpkin and Wattled Jacana - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Over the course of our first day at the reserve I added 33 life birds (94 total species) - the second highest tally of the trip, after the 38 life birds during our first day of the trip near Santiago, Chile. Without describing in detail every species, below are several photos from the day, as we explored the reserve on foot.

Yellow-browed Tyrant - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Brown-chested Martin - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Gray-cowled Wood-Rail - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Nanday Parakeet - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chalk-browed Mockingbird - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Masked Gnatcatcher - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Gray-cowled Wood-Rail - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

White-eyed Parakeet - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

We returned to the hostel by mid-afternoon, happy with our extremely productive morning of birding. That evening we hung out with some of the other travelers staying at the hostel and experienced our only Argentine Asado of the trip - better late than never! We splurged on some decent wine and enjoyed our last night together in Argentina.

January 30, 2016

After a somewhat delayed start to the morning we returned to Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, hoping to add a few more species before I needed to depart for the airport.

Certainly one of my highlights from the morning was observing a few Southern Screamers. While not a particular uncommon species over most of its range, this was my first screamer of any species.

Southern Screamer - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Hummingbirds are absent over much of the area we covered during this trip. Feeling a little bit hummingbird-deprived we enjoyed the numerous Glittering-bellied Emeralds as well as a single Gilded Hummingbird.

Glittering-bellied Emerald - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Exploring the reserve proved successful on our second day. New species for us included two Solitary Black Caciques, a few Sulphur-throated Spinetails, a distant Brown-and-Yellow Marshbird, and a pair of confiding Black-backed Water-Tyrants.

Tiger-herons never fail to disappoint. This Rufescent Tiger-Heron was roosting in a tree at eye level, providing incredible views.

Rufescent Tiger-Heron  - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

With our stomachs rumbling we returned to the concrete promenade that lined the canal separating the park from the rest of the city. A number of food trucks were set up which we took full advantage of! Best sausage on a bun that I have ever had, complete with dozens of toppings including a variety of different salads.

This Argentine Black-and-White Tegu was cruising along the edge of the canal, likely looking for something to eat. A pretty impressive species to see in such an urban setting!

Argentine Black-and-white Tegu - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

One of the guys (I can't remember who) made a great spot with this Stripe-backed Bittern, skulking along the edge of the marsh canal, as we scanned from the adjacent promenade.

Stripe-backed Heron - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Even though it was around noon the overcast conditions were not terrible for photography.  The most common species were Rosy-billed Pochard, Silver Teal, White-faced Whistling-Duck and Yellow-billed Pintail, but we also found Brazilian Teal, Ringed Teal, Masked Duck and a pair of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks. The Fulvous Whistling-Ducks were a long overdue life bird, the very last of the trip for me.

female Rosy-billed Pochard - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

male Rosy-billed Pochard - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Ringed Teal - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Guira Cuckoos are hard not to like. Something about their boldness combined with that hairdo!

Guira Cuckoo - Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

With the clock ticking it was time to call it a day since I had a flight to catch. Dave and Adam would continue on for the next month-plus to see more of what Argentina had to offer, but I had to return back home (the joys of a full-time job!). 

For those scoring at home, we finished with over 330 bird species as a group, of which I counted 327. The 210 species in Argentina narrowly eclipsed the 201 found in Chile. All told I added 245 life birds, or roughly 3/4 of all the species we observed. 

The trip was awesome, filled with incredible highs contrasted with some lows, but overall it was everything we could have hoped for. I am sure I will be back at some point in the future! 

Journey to the Southern Cone: Part 14 (San Antonio Oeste, Punta Tombo and Bahía Blanca, Argentina)

January 8, 2016 - Santiago area, Chile
January 9 and 10, 2016 - Quintero pelagic, Parque Nacional La Campana, Chile
January 10, 2016 - Farellones, Chile
January 10-11, 2016 - Embalse El Yeso, Chile
January 12-13, 2016 - Nothofagus forests in Talca, Chile
January 14-15, 2016- Chiloé Island, Chile
January 16-17, 2016 - Chiloé Island penguins, Puerto Montt, Chile
January 18, 2016 - Patagonia: Puerto Montt to Sierra Baguales, Chile
January 19, 2016 - Patagonia: Sierra Baguales to Tierra del Fuego, Chile
January 20, 2016 - Patagonia: Tierra del Fuego, Chile
January 20-24, 2016 - Punta Arenas, Chile to Puerto Deseato, Argentina
January 25-26, 2016 - Valdes Peninsula and Las Grutas, Argentina
January 27-28, 2016 - San Antonio Oeste, Punta Tombo, and Bahía Blanca, Argentina
January 29-30, 2016 - Buenos Aires, Argentina

January 27, 2016

We had done quite well over the previous days exploring the Valdes Peninsula as well as the Las Grutas/San Antonio area, yet a few main target species still eluded us. Olrog's Gull was our main priority on the morning of January 27 as we birded the estuary near San Antonio Oeste under cloudy skies. We discovered a decent concentration of Kelp Gulls and a few Brown-hooded Gulls, as well as a few species of shorebirds, but in the hour that we devoted to this area we could not turn up any Olrog's Gulls.

That evening our rental car was due back in Puerto Madryn, located about three hours to the south. With most of our target species wrapped up, we made the somewhat crazy decision to drive almost six hours to the south to Punta Tombo, overshooting Puerto Madryn by three hours, since this is a location where White-headed Steamer-Ducks are found with some regularity. If all went well we would have an hour or two of time to search for the ducks; at which point we would need to drive back to Puerto Madryn  to return the rental car, hopefully before closing time.

scoping a White-headed Steamer-Duck - Punta Tombo, Argentina

White-headed Steamer-Duck is the least common of the four steamer-duck species. Likely less than 3000 individuals can be found in the wild, all of them limited to a section of coastline in southeastern Argentina. After previously missing this species on the Valdes Peninsula, this would be our remaining shot at them.

The drive went pretty smoothly and by late afternoon we had arrived at Punta Tombo. The problem was that the only way to access the bay often frequented by the ducks was to pay to enter a colony of Magellanic Penguins, thereby gaining access to the cove. While I've never been known to turn down an opportunity to visit a penguin colony, the entrance fee was quite steep and we had limited time before needing to backtrack to Puerto Madryn. Despite our best efforts we were unable to convince the gate attendant to let us in for just a couple of minutes. We just wanted to run down to the cove, see the duck, and head back (good twitchers that we are).

Plan B was to attempt to scope the bay from a distance. After approaching as close as possible, we set up Dave's mini-scope on a sign for stability and took turns intently staring through the optics towards the direction of the bay. In the image above and below, Adam is acting as a wind shield for Dave (did I mention that it is always windy in Patagonia?). Despite our unconventional methods we were able to observe a distant duck swimming in the bay that appeared to be a steamer-duck, complete with a light-colored head. Success, though far from "crippling" views!

scoping a White-headed Steamer-Duck - Punta Tombo, Argentina

Feeling a little bit of shame because we had just driven six hours to twitch a duck whose field marks could barely be discerned, we jumped back in the car and turned down the long dusty road which would take us towards the highway, and eventually Puerto Madryn. As the car rumbled down the bumpy road I reflected on our time in this part of the country over the previous three days. We had done quite well with most of our target birds, even though we missed a few species including Olrog's Gull and Rusty-backed Monjita, as well as the Sandy Gallito which only Dave heard. We also missed Chocolate-vented Tyrant, a Patagonian specialty which was one of my most-wanted birds before the trip began. That evening we would be taking an overnight bus further north east, finally taking us out of the range for Chocolate-vented Tyrant. All things considered this leg of the trip was one of the better ones filled with many highlights, even though we missed a couple of species. As they say, it's just another reason to come back.

But wait, what was that, flying over the road? I brought the car to a halt while the other guys got on the bird....a few choice words later and we were staring at a Chocolate-vented Tyrant!

Chocolate-vented Tyrant - road to Punta Tombo, Argentina

We could not believe our luck. After passing through thousands of kilometers of suitable grassland habitat over the previous week without success, here we were, looking at one face to face.

Chocolate-vented Tyrant - road to Punta Tombo, Argentina

Already running a little late, the Chocolate-vented Tyrant added another 20 minutes to our arrival time but we did not care as we soaked up the views. A fantastic end to this portion of the trip!

January 28, 2016

The rental agency had closed by the time we rolled in to Puerto Madryn but after some asking around we were able to get in contact with them, return the vehicle, and settle up. We walked to the bus station and arranged  yet another overnight bus to take us further northeast.

The next morning we awoke to the sights of the countryside outside of Bahía Blanca, an important port city located in southwest Buenos Aires province. The windswept grasslands of Patagonia had been replaced with agricultural fields, pastures, and even copses and hedgerows. We were now on the edge of the pampas region of Argentina; vast fertile plains which provide suitable conditions for agriculture, but which also provide habitat for a unique suite of species, some of which we were hoping to cross paths with.

countryside near Bahía Blanca, Argentina

Our plan for the Bahía Blanca portion of the trip was to only spend one day here. With only three days remaining until my flight departed Buenos Aires to return home, it seemed like a better decision to spend one day in the pampas surrounding Bahía Blanca, followed by two days in the bird-rich environs of Buenos Aires.

We found a car rental agency and half an hour later had hit the road, meandering through the city to reach the countryside. As the car was a stick shift like most of the rentals in South America, I was the designated driver once again.

Our first stop was an accessible portion of an estuary on the edge of the city. Here we spotted a Gull-billed Tern and our first (and only) Snowy-crowned Terns on the trip, while we also noted our first Picazuro Pigeons, a common species we had not previously been in range of.

We motored on a paved road through the countryside to the northwest until we reached an area near Chasico. Based on trip reports and eBird checklists, this seemed like a good area for many of our targets - Grassland Sparrow, Spotted Nothura, Great Pampas-Finch and Pampas Meadowlark among other species.

The lifers came hot and heavy and over the course of several hours we found everything we had hoped to, and more. Several Pampas Meadowlarks, a Vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List, were a big highlight during the late morning. Most Pampas Meadowlarks can be found in the Pampas region of southeastern Argentina while a small isolated population subsists in southwest Uruguay. Formerly this species was quite common in southern Brazil, much of Uruguay and east-central Argentina, but its range has decreased by over 90% since the year 1900.

Pampas Meadowlark - Chasico, Argentina

A big surprise was finding a group of Pampas Pipits performing flight displays over a field. We assumed that we would miss this specialty of the region since few eBird records could be found anywhere close to where we were birding. A nice way to finish off a solid morning of birding!

That afternoon we returned to the estuary around Bahía Blanca, with one bird on our mind - Olrog's Gull. From what we had read it appeared that Olrog's Gulls are often observed on the mudflats of the estuary since a productive colony of these birds can be found further within the Bahía Blanca estuary, representing about 70% of the species' population.

birding the Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

crab at the Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

Almost immediately upon arrival we struck pay-dirt! At least a dozen Olrog's Gulls could be seen scattered over the flats, while several were feeding on crabs in the mud close to the shoreline. I guess we shouldn't have worried so much about this species earlier on the trip!

Olrog's Gull - Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

Eager to view the Olrog's Gulls from up close, I took off my hiking boots and squelched my way through the mudflats towards one individual that was pre-occupied with a small crab. Eventually I was close enough to manage some reasonable photos, though the mid-day light was harsh.

Olrog's Gull used to be conspecific with Belcher's Gull, a species found on the west coast of South America from southern Ecuador to central Chile. Olrog's Gull is found only in the coastal areas of central Argentina and Uruguay, though individuals will wander further up and down the coast during the non-breeding season. Olrog's Gull is listed on the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened due to its small number of breeding colonies and the highly fluctuating numbers at these colonies.

Olrog's Gull - Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

Olrog's Gulls feed primarily on crabs, a behaviour that has been speculated to be caused by direct competition with the larger and more aggressive Kelp Gull. During the non-breeding season they become more opportunistic, eating other mulloscs, small fish, and snails as well as crabs.

crab at the Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

Dave had some intel on a good location for Dot-winged Crake in a seasonally flooded, grassy area near the estuary. The grasses were dry at the time of our visit and we spent some time in the mid-afternoon trying to tease one out of the vegetation. Eventually we gave up due to the heat of the day. We decided to venture into the near town of Punta Tomba to have a late lunch as well as find wifi. After a couple of hours we returned to the grassy area to try for the crakes once more.

Great Pampas-Finch - Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

This proved to be a worthwhile strategy as a Dot-winged Crake responded to our playback immediately, and occasionally vocalized over the coarse of the hour that we spent in the marsh. Try as we might we were unable to get a visual; this species rivals the Black Rail in its secretiveness. I took the image below as the three of us were listening to the Dot-winged Crake.

Dot-winged Crake location - Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

With time running out, we gave up on actually seeing the Dot-winged Crake and drove back towards Bahía Blanca to return the rental car. It had been a busy but productive day! That evening we grabbed another overnight bus, this one taking us to Buenos Aires. It was here that we would spend two days before my flight departed, while the other guys would continue further north into Argentina.