Tuesday 30 April 2019

Point Pelee weekend!

Spring is here! With the first pulse of Neotropical migrants arriving soon, I took the chance over the weekend to head down to Point Pelee. It is always fun to bird the park in late April for a couple of reasons. A nice mix of migrants are often present, rarity potential is quite high at this time of year, and there are several orders of magnitude fewer birders/photographers in the park when compared to the three following weekends.

The plan was to meet with Dan Riley and Todd Hagedorn but due to our different schedules we each drove down separately. My first stop on Friday afternoon was the Ridgetown lagoons, where not much was going on (though there was a Tundra Swan present). Dan checked Blenheim around the same time (not much there either) before we met up and motored on down to Wheatley. We had plans to camp at Wheatley Provincial Park for the weekend, but first there were some birds to see!

A flock of 44 Willets had dropped into Wheatley harbour earlier in the day and were still on the beach when we rolled in. The western subspecies of Willet migrates north through the Great Plains, but a not-insignificant number pass through the lower Great Lakes each spring. These large flocks of Willets are now an annual occurrence at Point Pelee, and rare elsewhere in southern Ontario, so are always a treat to see! The light was pretty gloomy, making photography a challenge.

Willets - Wheatley Harbour

Willets - Wheatley Harbour

Willets - Wheatley Harbour

Marbled Godwit is another primarily western species that sometimes stops down in southern Ontario during spring migration. While it is rare to see more than one Marbled Godwit in the autumn in Ontario, sometimes small flocks will touch down during the spring migration. A group of 15 had been found earlier in the day just north of Hillman Marsh along a flooded field which we checked out. Fortunately they were still there, giving great views through the scope, though too far for good photos. Previously the largest group of Marbled Godwit I had seen in Ontario was a flock of 12, also on April 26 interestingly enough (back in 2014). This is the best I could do for photos, using my phone through my scope.

Marbled Godwits - north of Hillman Marsh

There were still a couple of daylight hours remaining so we headed towards Point Pelee. The "Onion Fields" were flooded in a few areas, providing ephemeral shorebird habitat. Dan and I scoped the fields northeast of the corner of Mersea Rd E and Rd 19 and had a nice surprise as four Willets were walking around in one of the puddles, along with both yellowlegs and a Solitary Sandpiper.

Todd soon arrived and we also met up with Jeremy Bensette and Steve Pike for a stroll around Cactus Field, Tilden's Woods and White Pine to finish the day. It was a great walk, though relatively slow for birds. I did see my first Spotted Sandpiper of the year, and heard my first Yellow Warbler. There were also a couple of Nashville Warblers and I saw an unidentified waterthrush briefly at Tilden's Woods.

The boys - Point Pelee National Park

That evening we enjoyed a campfire at Wheatley Provincial Park and hung out with Ken Burrell and Lillian Knopf for a bit as well. They had heard an Eastern Whip-poor-will singing prior to our arrival but it had gone silent soon after.

The next morning we were up at 5:30 to head back into the park. It had been a cold and windy night and we were not expecting many new birds to be in, but at this time of year there is always something to look at! We started at the tip, where a good number of Chipping Sparrows, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Yellow-rumped Warblers were present. At various points we birded with Steve Pike, Jeremy Hatt, Amanda Guercio and Justin Peter in the Tip area.

Chipping Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

There are usually one or two House Sparrows in the park, and they are most often seen by the Tip (especially around the washrooms where they may have nested last year). It is certainly not a species I look at closely too often, but I could not resist cracking off a few frames of one standing on a log near the tip. It is rare to get a photo of a Black-throated Brown in a natural setting!

House Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

While we stood at the Tip, an adult Peregrine made several passes.

Peregrine Falcon - Point Pelee National Park

We birded our way towards Sparrow Field, finding a few warblers here and there as we walked. The cooler weather and north winds had stalled a lot of migration but with some effort we found around five warbler species. Two Orange-crowned Warblers in the Sparrow Field were fun to watch; a species I only see a couple of times each spring migration. In addition to the warblers, we also enjoyed picking through a big flock of swallows on the east side of the Tip with all six species represented, while we also saw a Brown Thrasher and Winter Wren in the Sparrow Field.

Orange-crowned Warbler - Sparrow Field, Point Pelee National Park

We walked up through Post Woods, finding birds here and there. Blue-headed Vireo and Pine Warbler were fun to see!

Soon, our stomachs were growling and so we headed over to Birdie's Perch, aka the Red Bus. This was their opening weekend for the season and it was well worth it! With our bellies full of perch we decided to do a drive around the Onion Fields. Along Concession E we saw the Stilt Sandpiper that Ken and Lillian had discovered earlier, while we also took a look at the seven American Avocets just south of Hillman Marsh that Rick Eckley had spotted. A flock had evidently invaded the area, as throughout the weekend there were sporadic avocet sightings from several locations.

American Avocet - field south of Hillman Marsh

A large number of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were also new arrivals, while we saw one flock of Dunlin and a few Solitary Sandpipers.

Solitary Sandpiper - north of Hillman Marsh

We were discussing our next move when a message from Kory Renaud came in on the WhatsApp group. He had just seen a Pileated Woodpecker at the Tip! This bird was originally found by Paul Pratt just outside the park on April 17, then Sarah Rupert had seen it earlier on the 27th. All of the sightings were relatively brief as the bird was constantly on the move.

We got down to the Tip in good time and began searching. The bird had been seen on and off since Kory's sighting and it was constantly on the move. Near the tram loop, Todd got on it and quickly called it out, but by the time we arrived, it had flown out of sight. A bit later we heard it call from north of the Serengeti Tree, but it was not until later that evening when we had success. Dan, Todd and I were birding with Victor, a friend of ours originally from Costa Rica who lives in Leamington and is an avid birder and herper. Dan Riley spotted the Pileated flying directly towards us while we explored Tilden's Woods. We watched it land on a nearby tree and quickly take off, flying in a circle before blasting through the forest, and repeating that process again. None of us managed photos, but we had good looks at this Point Pelee rarity. It was a lifer for Victor (congrats!).  I'm sure a few hundred years ago Pileated Woodpeckers lived through much of Essex County, but apparently cutting down 98% of the natural forest cover will have an impact on forest species.

That evening Dan, Todd and I went back to Wheatley harbour for another night of camping. This time, we were in luck and the Eastern Whip-poor-will called, while we were also serenaded by two Eastern Screech-Owls doing the full assortment of trills and whinneys. The rain began late in the evening, and continued through much of the night. I was glad I decided to car-camp instead of setting up my tent...

Dark-eyed Junco - Point Pelee National Park

On Sunday morning we were back at it, heading into Point Pelee for one more kick of the can. The winds were moderate strength out of the north but at least it was sunny! The mix of birds was a little different and there were many Yellow-rumped Warblers to sift through. Black-and-white and Black-throated Green Warblers were great to see, as was our first Lincoln's Sparrow of the spring. Meanwhile, a Brown Thrasher in Sparrow Field tolerated a rare, mostly unobscured photo.

Brown Thrasher - Point Pelee National Park

We were only in the park for three hours when we heard that a big time rarity in Whitby had been re-discovered, so that was the end of our Pelee weekend! The Hermit Warbler twitch will be the subject of my next post.

Monday 29 April 2019

Guatemala 2019, Part 10: Parque Nacional Tikal

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Thorn forest in the Motagua Valley (January 18-19, 2019)
Part 3: Los Rachitos del Quetzal (January 19-20, 2019)
Part 4: Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes (January 20-21, 2019)
Part 5: Reserva Natural Atitlán (January 21-22, 2019)
Part 6: Volcán San Pedro (January 23, 2019)
Part 7: Cerro Rostra Maya, Los Tarrales Natural Reserve (January 24, 2019)
Part 8: Los Tarrales Natural Reserve (January 25, 2019)
Part 9: Los Tarrales Natural Reserve (January 26-27, 2019)
Part 10: Parque Nacional Tikal (January 28, 2019)
Part 11: El Caoba former airstrip, Tikal former airstrip (January 29, 2019)
Part 12: Parque Nacional Tikal, Uaxactún (January 30, 2019)
Part 13: El Remate and Flores (January 31, 2019)


January 27, 2019 (continued)

The afternoon of January 27 had few wildlife sightings as we drove back to Guatemala City. We spotted our only Crested Caracara of the trip somewhere along the way, and by late afternoon had arrived back to drop the truck off. With the rental sorted, we checked in to our flight and stopped by a bank in the airport to book our tickets to Tikal for the next day. Soon our flight was airborne and moments later we had touched down in Flores. 

Dan and I had booked a rental car with Hertz ahead of time for our four days in northern Guatemala. Originally our plan was to refrain from booking a rental to save money, since we would be staying at the Tikal Inn for all four nights and could arrange a shuttle to the lodge from the airport. However, the price for the shuttle was 60$ USD (each way!), which almost paid for the price of the rental car by itself. We decided that the extra few dollars would be well worth it for the freedom that having a car afforded, as it also meant that we could check out other areas including the Flores waterfront, the El Caoba area, or anywhere else we desired. 

We stopped at a grocery store near the airport which was the first one we had seen all trip. I had never been so excited to see fresh produce and meat before! We loaded up on supplies to last us during our time in Tikal, figuring we would save over 100$ in costs since the only dining options at Tikal are the overpriced hotels. Soon we hit the road north, passing through several small communities on the way to the park gates. 

We checked in with the guard on duty at the gates, located approximately 15 km south of Tikal. The guard confirmed that we had a reservation at the Tikal Inn and let us through. Immediately we were surrounded by beautiful forest as we were within the protected area. While we were eager to reach our destination we still made time for a few stops along the way, hearing a Yucatán Poorwill at one point. 

We reached the Tikal Inn, checked in and were shown to our room which was located in a separate building about a five minute walk from the main building. We were right in the forest! That evening we slept well, with anticipation for what the next few days would bring. 

January 28, 2019

Dan and I were up well before dawn and exited our hotel room just as the first Plain Chachalacas began firing up. As the Tikal Inn is only a few hundred meters from the reserve it did not take too long until we were exploring the area, being some of the only tourists here at this early hour. One of our first exciting finds was a few different Ocellated Turkey groups! This is one of two species of turkeys found in the world, the other being the widespread Wild Turkey. Ocellated Turkeys are found in the Yucatán Peninsula and are an utterly spectacular species! Photos were tough in the dull early morning light but fortunately we would have a proper photo-shoot with Ocellated Turkeys later in the trip.

Ocellated Turkey - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

While Tikal is a spectacular location from an archaeological point of view, it is also a must-visit destination for birders. The ruins of Tikal are spread out over a very large area. Some of these ruins have been excavated and restored, while others still appear as huge triangular mounds covered by trees and rocks. The entire area is heavily forested (and protected), meaning that one can spend all day strolling through the primary forest between different clusters of ruins. Birding can be spectacular here with many iconic species present - Ocellated Turkeys of course, but also Orange-breasted Falcons and Great Curassows among roughly 400 other species. Birding Tikal at an early hour has its advantages. The large buses of tourists do not arrive until mid-morning, meaning that for the first few hours we had the entire place to ourselves. This is fortuitous as it allows for photos of the ruins without other people in the images, while it also increased our odds of coming across the shy Great Curassows. Dan and I were in luck as we spotted a trio of Great Curassows around the grassy edge of one of the ruins!

Great Curassows - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

And just a few shots of the restored ruins. I am not much of a "cultural heritage" guy, but even I had to admit that this place was breathtaking.

 Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

 Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

 Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

First order of business was to stake out some of the temples where Orange-breasted Falcons sometime perch early in the morning. This is the main target species for most visiting birders to the area, as Tikal is one of the few easily accessible places in the world where Orange-breasted Falcons can reliably and consistently been found. I would wager that more birders see their lifer Orange-breasted Falcon at Tikal compared to any other locale.

We climbed the steps of Templo II as the sun rose. Red-lored Parrots were certainly the most dominant avian feature in this area as dozens flew around the open areas and even landed on the temples.

Red-lored Parrot - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Red-lored Parrot - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

From our perch on top of Templo II, we watched a White-nosed Coati sniffing around a tree.

White-nosed Coati - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

A pair of White-fronted Parrots flew past, the red and royal blue of their wings quite striking when viewed from above.

White-fronted Parrot - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

We also spotted a pair of Yucatán Flycatchers from the tower! I had really hoped to see this Yucatán specialty during our time at Tikal and was happy to knock it off the list only an hour into our first day.

Yucatán Flycatcher - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

But our main goal here was of course the Orange-breasted Falcons. We were in luck as they returned to the familiar perches on Templo IV, the tallest of the structures at Tikal. Awesome!

Orange-breasted Falcon - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

The rest of the morning was very enjoyable. Dan and I strolled around and marveled at the ruins while paying attention to the sounds of birds, in hopes of finding mixed flocks. This was our first morning the lowlands of north Guatemala so many species were trip birds. Dan had visited the Yucatán before, but for me, many of the birds were new ones. I was already up to 16 lifers before we left the park around lunch time.

Brown Jays - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Lesson's Motmot - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Of course not all of the bird species were unfamiliar. This is a Worm-eating Warbler, a species that was reasonably common at Tikal. Other familiar faces from Ontario included Hooded Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrushes, Kentucky Warblers and Black-and-white Warblers, to name a few.

Worm-eating Warbler - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Worm-eating Warbler - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Some of the main highlights for us included a Black-headed Shrike-Tanager, Stub-tailed Spadebills, Olive-backed Euphonias, and Green-striped Sparrows, all of them new.  Primates were also quite prominent and included Central American Spider Monkeys and Yucatán Black Howler Monkeys.

Central American Spider Monkey - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Dan photographing a Central American Spider Monkey - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

We enjoyed watching this Bright-rumped Attila smash a butterfly to a pulp before choking it down. I usually see these species high up in the canopy and this was the best look either of us had had of one. 

Bright-rumped Attila - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Bright-rumped Attila - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Bright-rumped Attila - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Bright-rumped Attila - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

We exited the park by late morning, just as the crowds began to filter into the park. A few mixed flocks just inside the park entrance held our first Blue Buntings among many other species. Several ponds near the main entrance were also quite birdy and we had soon added Olive-throated Parakeet, Russet-naped Wood-Rail and Couch's Kingbird to our lists.

Red-throated Ant-Tanager - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Tropical Kingbird - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Little Blue Heron - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Russet-naped Wood-Rail - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

We relaxed at our room for a few hours. We had expected that this part of the trip would be difficult due to the hot temperatures and high humidity that the area usually experiences. Fortunately for us, the cold air masses that were currently present over North America affected this area too, as the temperatures were well below average seasonally. This was great news for us since it meant that the birding remained steady all day long! While we ate our lunch just outside our room, we watched many birds moving through, including an Eye-ringed Flatbill and several trogon species.

Black-headed Trogon - Tikal Inn, Petén, Guatemala

That afternoon we returned to the National Park since our bracelets gave us access all day. The birding was a bit slower in the afternoon though our first Pale-billed Woodpecker put on a show near one of the temples, and we also had much better views of several species we had seen or heard in the morning. 

Pale-billed Woodpecker - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

The spider monkeys were a riot...

Central American Spider Monkeys - Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Below is another pano of some of the ruins. Like I said, this place was mind-blowing!

 Parque Nacional Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

It was nearly sunset by the time that we walked back out of the park. We had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and had found 112 bird species as well. An excellent day!

That evening we went for a short night-hike to the Crocodile Pond located a short walk from the Tikal Inn. This area is known for the numbers of Morelet's Crocodiles that inhabit the waters, while it can also be a very productive birding location. The night was cool but we were hoping that the presence of open water may concentrate some of the herp species.

Unidentified moth - Crocodile Pond, Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

While snakes eluded us, we had fun finding lots of cool invertebrates!

Unidentified wolf spider - Crocodile Pond, Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Pale Owl Butterfly - Crocodile Pond, Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

The Morelet's Crocodiles were fun to watch as well. Several big individuals kept a very close eye on us as we traversed the perimeter of the wetland. A couple of very cute youngsters were present in the shallows as well; perhaps the reason for the adult crocodiles' concern.

Morelet's Crocodile - Crocodile Pond, Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Morelet's Crocodile - Crocodile Pond, Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Morelet's Crocodile - Crocodile Pond, Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Morelet's Crocodile - Crocodile Pond, Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

On our walk back to the Tikal Inn we spotted the eyeshine of this Common Pauraque. It had been a great first day in the lowlands.

Common Pauraque - Crocodile Pond, Tikal, Petén, Guatemala