After a long, hot and bird-filled journey we rolled into the lodge in the late afternoon. Our options were: (a) have a well-deserved siesta, relax and await dinner, or (b) bird the local area. A difficult dilemma, one might imagine. So by dinnertime Pale-headed Jacamar, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet and Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant among others had found their way onto the trip list.
After thoroughly sampling the full Amazonia experience, our next key target in the 2020 Colombia expedition was the Llanos – a huge grassland plain that stretches over eastern Colombia and Venezuela. About 500km of driving lay ahead of us from Bogotá. Obviously we had to look for Eastern Andes endemic birds along the way, so several days were to pass before we reached our jumping-off point in Paz de Ariporo.
We spent some time working the forests near Santa María, Boyacá, and then another couple of days climbing up into the foothills near Monterrey. I will just mention a few highlights from these stops before we get to the main event.
This is a small town (less than 5,000 inhabitants) in an out-of-the-way corner of the Andes. It had a short period of growth during the construction of the La Esmaralda dam and power plant, but has now lapsed back into small-scale agriculture and torpor, enlivened by a bit of eco-tourism. It seems that Santa María is a hotbed for arachnid species, though we did not encounter any spider tourism groups during our stay.
Development is not permitted in the forested hills surrounding the reservoir, so they are home to a large variety of birds. We managed to add three new entries to the birds-whose-names-start-with ant category, the smart-looking Golden-headed Manakin, Rufous-and-White Wren, Crested Spinetail and the enigmatic and highly prized Spotted Nightingale-Thrush. A evening of owling was quite productive. And I also saw more Cerulean Warblers in three days than I have seen in ten years in their breeding range. Photos of the more cooperative species are below.
I have been posting a bird of the day on Facebook, aiming to give friends something attractive to look at amidst the gloom of Covid news. Today’s bird is the Black-capped Donacobius, a rather charismatic bird that resides primarily in wetlands of the Amazon and Orinoco basins.
Explaining why this bird came to mind involves delving a bit into the obsessive world of bird listing, which I concluded was a bit excessive for the lighthearted intent of a social media post. So for those who might want to increase their knowledge of the eccentric subculture of birding, here is the story.
Lists and Listing
Birders, if they have bitten hard enough on the hook, tend eventually to develop into listers. The most common manifestation is the life list, which is just what it says on the tin: a list of all the birds one has seen. Deeper forms of the obsession manifest themselves in year lists, month lists, and day lists, not to mention country lists, province or state lists, and so on.
I remember in my early days heading out to Somerset in hopes of seeing a Short-eared Owl that had been hanging around a certain field. I arrive at the place and within a few minutes the beast appeared. It was a life bird for me and I was happily watching it for a while when I noticed two other birders down the road who seemed somewhat discontented. I went over to tell them that the views were better from my vantage point, but they were not mollified. It emerged that they needed the bird for their Oxfordshire year list but it was stubbornly staying on the Somerset side of the fence.
This is the second part of a trip report on our recent visit to Mitú. Part 1 is here.
Note: if are reading this on a cell phone you are getting the light version, and the images and video may be a bit wonky. If you are connected to WiFi or have a robust data plan I suggest you click on the title, which should connect you to the actual website.
Mitú Day 4 – Pueblo Nuevo
Even by birding standards it was a painfully early start, but we had a long, bumpy road to traverse on our way to Pueblo Nuevo. So after a quick coffee we were on the road at 0500. The sun came up as we rolled into the village and linked up with Florencio, a native guide from the local area. Like Miguel he is a crack bird-finder, and with the two of them working in tandem we were looking for an epic day.
Pueblo Nuevo, BTW, is remote enough to make Mitú appear cosmopolitan. Landlines and cellular signals are non-existent, though electrical power is available courtesy of a nearby hydro power plant . But between their gardens, free-range chickens and small agricultural plots cleared in the forest the people seemed to be well fed and healthy.
So we plunged off down a narrow forest trail and immediately started clocking new birds. The area is rich in ant specialists and over the course of a long morning we found four species of antshrike, two of antwrens and nine(!) antbird species. And Black Bushbird, a close relative which for some reason doesn’t have a name starting with ant.
More Antbird Photos!
On the non-ant side of the ledger, we startled a pair of Marbled Wood-Quail – a very tough bird to spot but we clocked them as they sped off at high speed. We also managed a quick glimpse of a skulking Pectoral Sparrow. A good assortment of toucans, jacamars, parakeets and woodpeckers were spotted, with a background soundtrack provided by the aptly-named Screaming Piha. So with 72 species in the bag it had to rate as a great morning of rain forest birding.
It was after 1330 when we got back to the village so lunch and a snooze were in order. We crashed in the village hall for an hour and then headed back out. Did I mention that Pueblo Nuevo does not have a Starbucks? At that point it seemed like a serious oversight. So we forged on, coffeeless.
It was a sultry afternoon – one of the hottest of the trip. The birds were a bit sluggish and so were we. We did end up tracking down a few new species for the trip list, including a nice male Blue-crowned Manakin, but we eventually called off the hunt and bumped our way back to Mitú, arriving late and hungry but happy.
Day 4 life birds: 26
Day 5 – The Jungle has its Revenge
Our fifth day started very early again as we needed to go beyond Pueblo Nuevo to the end of the road. We picked up Florencio enroute and arrived at the right bridge at the right time.
Fiery Topaz is a highly desirable and hard-to-find hummingbird, but those in the know knew that they often rested below a certain bridge at dawn before zipping off for the day. So there we were and there, eventually, it was too. But the idea that we might get a decent shot of a perched bird was not to be. The male spent ten minutes or so swooping around in the gloom before speeding away.
Photographing fast-moving birds in the half-light is… something other than fun. Even with good equipment there is always a trade-off involved. Set a wide-open aperture, engage super-high ISO, choose the slowest shutter speed you can get away with, and then try to achieve and hold focus. It’s a recipe for frustration.
However in a highly improbable combination of good luck and good camera management I did manage to snap the bird at the moment when it stopped to hover. The resulting photo has not resulted in a call from the National Geographic, but I am somewhat pleased all the same.
We then set off down a narrow forest trail. Interesting birds were calling and needed to be tracked down. But other winged denizens of the forest were also out foraging…
It had crossed our minds that the Amazon rain forest might have a few pesky insects, so we came prepared with the full arsenal of chemical defences. However the effect of tropical temperatures and high humidity was that even the best bug repellent was rapidly sweated off. And birding involves a lot of standing motionless. Not a good combination. There had been some mosquito and sweat fly action on the previous days, but on Day 5 we paid the full price. Our tormentors were:
Mosquitoes. There seemed to be at least two sizes: small nimble ones that left a typical somewhat itchy bite, and a larger type – perhaps an African killer mosquito or a mutant developed by the CIA – that left a large, very itchy and long-lasting welt. This type was our constant companion that morning.
No-see-ums. These were not exactly like the scarce Ontario bug of the same name, but more akin to small Black Flies. Their bite is like a needle stick, but doesn’t do any lasting damage.
Sweat flies. A variety of small flies that swarm around your face trying to drink your sweat. Harmless, but their persistence makes them supremely irritating.
Horse fly relatives. I have been unable to identify these beasts, but picture an extra large, red fly with the malevolent intent and near-indestructability of a Tsetse Fly. Whack these things and they just shake their heads and resume trying to bite. The locals hate them so much they catch them out of the air, pull off one wing and drop them on the ground. Harsh, but understandable.
Chiggers. The worst of all. I was emotionally scarred by my first, 400-bite experience of chiggers. If I had known they were in the area I would have taken extreme precautions. At the time of writing all but two of my 14 or so chigger bites have stopped itching. The bites were two months ago. Grrr.
So anyway we got bitten pretty thoroughly that day. But the birding was good, so it was a fair trade-off.
… and Birds
In the murky and bug-infested forest we spotted a couple of highly desirable skulkers. Musician Wren is one of those heard-but-not-seen birds that proliferate in the rain forest but after half an hour of standing motionless like a mosquito smorgasbord we spotted the beast peering out of the darkest tangle of scrub available. Photography was not an option but we had decent views .
The same patch of woods also housed a lovely Rufous-capped Antthrush. This particular individual’s superpower was ensuring that there was always a branch or leaf between camera and bird, but eventually it showed itself briefly and deigned to be photographed.
A few woodcreepers, our first Green Oropendola, Curve-billed Scythebill and some White-fronted Nunbirds rounded out the list, and we left the trail of insect perdition and headed for our lunch spot.
The road to nowhere actually ends at a good-sized hydro power plant on the Vaupés River. We had lunch at the cafeteria for the plant workers, and then while my compañeros snoozed I wandered down to the river and spied on a large roost of herons and egrets.
Stalking the Cock-of-the-Rock
Our mission for the afternoon was to try and find a Guianan Cock of the Rock. These beasts are one of the most colourful and bizarre of neotropical birds, close cousins of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock we saw in Jardin last year. They are mostly found in Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname but extreme western end of their range overlaps the Colombian border. So it was a necessary bird to see.
One male bird had been observed recently along a forest path, but we square-searched the area to no avail. So the remaining option was a long, hot scramble up a rock massif.
After checking every crevasse and valley we eventually found the charismatic orange bird in its lurking area. Then we rested on our laurels for a while at the top of the rock, with a view towards the hills that mark the border with Brazil.
A good variety of avians passed by, including a couple of needed-for-the-trip birds like Red-fan Parrot and Lemon-throated Barbet and our best view of a Scarlet Macaw. Eventually and with some regret we clambered down, bade farewell to Florencio, and headed back to town for our last night in Mitú.
Day 5 life birds: 16
Day 6 – Adiós Mitú
We had a plane to catch in the afternoon, but an excruciatingly early start allowed us to get another five hours of birding in. At that point we had seen most of our target birds but we did manage to find a couple of new additions , as well as practice some birds-in-flight photography on low-flying vultures. Then back to town for lunch, the usual excess formalities at the airport and we were on our way back to Bogotá.
So that’s the story of our great Amazon adventure. Five days and a bit, 133 life birds, a bit of beautiful scenery and a look into a remote and fascinating part of the world. If you’re interested in neotropical birds you may someday find yourself drawn to Mitú, so I hope this has given you a flavour of what’s in store.
If you would like to see more (and better!) images of the birds mentioned here, you can enter the species name under the Explore Species tab in E-Bird. But note that this is an American site so they use American spelling rules. So for “grey” you have to use the inelegant spelling “gray”. 😉
In January and February of this year I took (yet) another birding trip to Colombia. Ken Edwards and I linked up with Daniel Uribe Restrepo for an extended foray that took us to Amazonia, the Llanos and the eastern foothills of the Andes. Rather than writing a 5,000 word tome on the whole trip I’m going to break it into parts, starting with the wonderful world of Mitú.
Note: if are reading this on a cell phone you are getting the light version, and the images and video may be a bit wonky. If you are connected to WiFi or have a robust data plan I suggest you click on the title, which should connect you to the actual website.
…is a small city in the Amazonia region. It’s in the deep eastern part of Colombia, near the border with Brazil, and thus about 250km beyond the end of the road network. To get there you can either fly from Bogotá with SATENA, or… not go to Mitú. But if you’re a birder you would want to go, for its remote location in the midst of a vast, trackless and undeveloped rain forest makes it one of the few viable places to access the wild and eccentric avian life of the Amazon basin.
So off we went aboard a shiny-new Embraer 170, which looked a bit out of place as it rolled into the grandly-named but rather rustic Aeropuerto Fabio Alberto León Bentley. After some tedious formalities where we had to provide our full particulars to both the tourism agency and the police, we checked into the hotel and headed off for a quick exploratory visit to the village of Urania.
Or at least that was the plan. But as soon as we hit outskirts of the town great birds started to pop up. A short roadside stop yielded ten species – not too big a number but six of them were life birds for me, including the highly desirable Paradise Jacamar, Cobalt-winged Parakeet, Yellow-browed Sparrow and Chestnut-bellied Seed-Finch. This was going to be good!
We managed to tear ourselves away and eventually reached Urania, but to get to the village we had to cross a covered bridge. And the bushes and trees on both sides of the bridge were alive with good birds: Moustached Antwren, Cherrie’s Antwren, White-browed Purpletuft, Swainson’s Flycatcher, Bronzy Jacamar and a host of others. One of my most wanted birds for the trip was the Swallow-winged Puffbird, and there were lots of them perched on telephone wires in full view. Hummingbirds zipped by while Yellow-headed Vultures (Lesser and Greater) soared overhead.
The upshot of this cornucopia of creatures is that we didn’t actually get to Urania. We spent almost two hours on the covered bridge without even reaching the halfway point, before the sun set and we had to head back to town. So Urania would have to wait for another day, but after collecting 27 lifers in an afternoon one was… contented. 😊
Day 2 – Cachivera
The Amazon rain forest is a vast area with a few tracks and trails radiating out from towns and villages. Birding the area involves walking these trails, accompanied by a member of the first nations that collectively own the land. We were very fortunate to have Miguel as our guide – or rather we were fortunate that Daniel knows who the best guides are and made sure that we got Miguel. Aside from having uncannily good hearing and an amazing ability to spot small, far-away birds, Miguel is a really pleasant person and very determined to ensure that every member of the group has a good look at all the birds.
The mission for Day 2 was to walk a long trail that leads into the terra firme forest. Terra firme refers to a relatively small percentage of the Amazon basin rain forest that does not experience seasonal flooding. As a result the trees are much taller than in seasonally-flooded (varzea) forest and there is greater biodiversity. More biodiversity translates into greater bird diversity, so we were hoping to spot some bird species that are endemic to the white sand terra firme forests around Mitú.
So off we went for a short drive at the crack of dawn, and as the sun rose we were walking through a village, across another bird-infested bridge and on into the forest.
The Birding Experience in Mitú
The program for the day, and for most of the days at Mitú,
was to slowly walk along a track scanning for sounds and movement in the
treetops and deep in the forest, and then try and zero in on any birds that we
found. While not truly strenuous, it was hard work in birding terms. Bird
sounds were everywhere but catching sight of the pesky beasts took time and
patience. Most species were either high up in the canopy or skulking in dark tangles
This made photography particularly challenging: I have lots
of dodgy, highly-cropped photographs of far-away birds. Fortunately the Nikon
D500 has outstanding capability in low light, but I had to master the changes
needed to rapidly switch between bird-on-top-of-a
tree-in-bright-tropical-sunlight and bird
Moreover, like every day we spent in the area, the sun was beating down, the daytime high was in the mid thirties, and the humidity felt like about 99%. There were also a reasonable number of pesky insects, but more about them later.
By the way lest this be interpreted as whining, I want to be clear that I was in Mitú at my own request, and we had a fabulous time. But for those might want to go birding in the remote Amazon I thought I would give you an idea of what to expect.
Back to Day 2
After a few hours, despite having seen some great birds we were starting to feel a mite fatigued. But then our fearless leader’s wisdom in telling us to bring a bathing suit was revealed. Cachivera translates as “pool”, but in local usage it refers rapids in a river or stream. But these particular rapids ended in a pleasant-looking pool, so in we went.
Lolling around in the cool water was refreshing indeed, and reinvigorated we pressed on. Shortly thereafter we came upon a mixed flock high up in the canopy and managed to clock a few highly desirable species including Flame-crested, Paradise, Fulvous-crested and Turquoise Tanagers.
In the end we covered about nine km in six and a half hours that morning before retreating to town for lunch. Later on, after a much-needed siesta, we went for a stroll down the old pipeline trail, adding the much-wanted Thrush-like Antpitta, Coraya Wren, Green-backed Trogon and Yellow-billed Jacamar to our tally.
Life birds on Day 2: 37
Day 3 – A festival of Antcreatures
One of the reasons birders flock to Amazonia (groan!) is to gorge (metaphorically) on the huge variety of “antcreatures”: Antbirds, Antshrikes, and Antwrens. No, gentle reader, these birds don’t eat ants. But their favourite feeding strategy is to follow an army ant swarm, feasting on invertebrates as they try to flee the advancing ants.
These bird species are the kind of thing that hard-core birders really like: hard to find, hard to get a good look at, hard to tell apart and of course, hard to photograph. Antbirds and antshrikes are particularly cryptic: a range of small grey birds with semi-distinctive differences in the small white spots on their wings and back.
As we walked the new pipeline trail that morning we lucked upon an ant swarm with its accompanying suite of birds. Of course the ants don’t waltz down the middle of the road. They were in the forest and we needed to get ahead of them to catch the birds. This meant crossing the swarm.
I had somehow imagined army ants as large fearsome beasts, but the ones we saw that day looked like ordinary, medium-sized black ants. In vast numbers. And fast-moving too – if we stopped for even a moment we would find 40 or 50 ants racing up our legs with mayhem in mind. But it was worth the risk because when antbirds are near a swarm they are absolutely focused on feeding and you can get fairly good views without startling them.
So the ants generously provided us with a number of additions to the morning’s list, including Mouse-coloured Antshrike, and Dusky, Grey, Black-faced, White-cheeked, Chestnut-crested, Spot-backed and Scale-backed Antbirds. Or if you prefer, a bunch of LGJs (little grey jobs).
After lunch we returned to Urania/Mitusueño, and this time made it across the bridge and through the village. We piled up a good list in short order, starring Black-headed and Orange-cheeked Parrots, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, a handful of flycatcher species and Azure-naped Jay. But the star bird was Blackish Nightjar. Nightjars and their kin are hard birds to see as they hide motionless during the day and only come out to hunt after dark. They breed in the area of Urania so we hoped to catch a bird or two flying over in the last moments before nightfall.
What I did not expect is to have one creep out of the bushes so close to us that I had to back away to get it in focus! We marched back to the pick-up point that evening with another 23 bird species added to my life list. A celebration was called for, and achieved after a thorough search of the town turned up a friendly ice cream vendor.
So that’s the story of our first three days in Mitú . Stay tuned for the next installment.
Servicio Aéreo a Territorios Nacionales, a national airline operated by the Colombian Air Force, with the mission of connecting remote communities that commercial airlines decline to serve.
This article was also published in The Blue Bill, the Quarterly Journal of the Kingston Field Naturalists, Volume 67, No 1, March 2020.
If I had to pick a single technique that made a dramatic improvement to my capability as a wildlife photographer, I would choose Back-button Focus. It’s a technique used by professional wildlife and sports photographers, and can help you take your photography to a higher level.
It starts with the recognition that crisp focus is perhaps
the single most important quality of a good photograph.
Because focus is so central to photography, camera manufacturers have developed ways to make it easier to get an in-focus image. Any camera produced in the last 20 years has the ability to focus automatically – indeed autofocus is the default option, and may have to be turned off if you wish to focus manually.
Autofocus is engaged when you press down on the shutter release. This happens so quickly some beginning photographers don’t even realize it is happening, but with practise most people learn that if they depress the shutter release halfway they can focus the camera without taking a picture.
For most types of photography having the autofocus engage when you press the shutter release makes life easier – a single action both focuses the image and releases the shutter. Wildlife photography, though, has its own requirements and many wildlife photographers find that the simple shutter release/autofocus approach actually creates problems.
Instead they use back-button focus, where the autofocus function is disconnected from the shutter release and assigned to a different button.
I am not going to explain how to do this. Each camera system has its own way of assigning buttons, and you will need to consult your manual to learn how to make the change on your camera. Instead, I am going to explain why you might want to make this change.
Targets obscured by foliage
If you have spent any time trying to photograph birds in the wild I am sure you will have had this experience. You are trying to capture an image of a bird roosting in a tree within a tangle of branches, twigs and leaves. You can see the bird clearly, but frustration creeps in because each time you take a shot the camera focuses on a different one of the surrounding twigs and only occasionally on the bird.
For all the capabilities of modern autofocus systems, remember that they are not actually intelligent – they try to guess what you want to focus on but they are frequently wrong.
Using back-button focus can solve this problem. You centre your camera on the bird and engage the focus. You may have to do this a number of times until the focus point is actually on the bird. In cases where there is a lot of background clutter you may even have to use manual focus. But the key point is this: once you are focused on the right point you can shoot as many images as you want without the camera trying to refocus each time. As long as you stay at approximately the same distance from the bird it will remain in focus. The camera will not be able to “help” by randomly changing the focus point.
And even if you have to move slightly to get a better angle, if you engage autofocus again it will most likely zero in on the bird because it will be the closest object to the focus point.
I think you will find that once you try this technique you will be reluctant to go back to shutter release focus. Time that you might have wasted in focusing and refocusing can be spent on adjusting ISO and shutter speed and choosing the right moment to shoot.
Focus and reframe
Wildlife photographers often find that they want the focus point of an image to be off-centre. There are two main situations where this occurs:
Large or close-in target
Say you have a chance to see a Moose at fairly close range. You want to capture the whole beast in an image, without cutting off its tail or legs. But you also want your focus point to be on the eye, as tends to create the most compelling image. And not surprisingly, the Moose’s eye is at one side of the image.
You have a bird in your sights but you want to frame the
image so that the bird is off-centre. You might want to better show its within
its habitat, or to give it some open space in front of it, or just because
people are more attracted to images where the main points of interest are
In these situations back-button focus is your friend. It
allows you to focus on the desired point, and then without changing focus
reframe the image by moving the camera until you get the result you want.
Note that landscape and portrait photographers deal with this need by manually adjusting the camera’s focus point. In principle this would also work for wildlife photographers, but in my experience the focus and reframe method is much more intuitive and much faster to use. For subjects that tend to move suddenly and unpredictably I think it provides better results. Moreover it allows you to set your camera adjusted to centre point focus, which is the most accurate autofocus mode.
For moving targets, such as a bird in flight, holding down the back button allows you to keep it continuously in focus while you wait the right moment to shoot – such as when it banks to show its upper wings. You can also hold focus on a stationary target, and you will be in focus when it pounces, takes off, or otherwise moves suddenly. Without holding focus the camera will need to refocus at the critical moment, with unpredictable results.
In principle you could also accomplish this by holding the
shutter release halfway down, but in the real world of wildlife photography,
where you will often be wearing gloves and your hands may be stiff from the
cold, using a separate button removes the need for such fine motor control.
Of course you could just “spray and pray”, firing off twenty
images at high speed and hoping one of them works. As long as you don’t mind
everyone nearby assuming that you are clueless. 😊
Back-button focus – further advantages
While the above points are the key reasons for adopting
back-button focus, there are a few minor advantages as well:
If you are using manual focus, you won’t then risk spoiling your
own efforts when it’s time to press the shutter release.
Use of back-button focus reduces battery drain somewhat. Unlike
shutter release focus it doesn’t automatically engage the lens’s image
stabilization/vibration reduction motors.
Back-button focus is possible on most DSLRs and mirrorless
cameras, but it may not be possible if you are using a bridge or superzoom
camera. Check your manual to see if you can use this function.
And if you ask someone to take a picture using your camera, don’t expect great results. You can explain carefully the need to press the focus button and then press the shutter release, but I find that most people don’t “get” this and the images tend to be out of focus.
I recently started teaching a Birding 101 course at the Seniors’ Centre in Kingston. Since the students are like me – late-onset birders – one of the points I wanted to focus on is how to accelerate their acquisition of birding skills and knowledge.
Most of my birding friends have been “in the game” since childhood, and they have often lived in the same area for many years, so their knowledge of everything bird-related is vast. They know all the calls, squeaks and squawks of birds both common and scarce, they know where and when to look, and their skills at identifying birds are honed by many years in the field.
Every time I go out birding with these people I learn something new. But how does someone become a good birder if they haven’t yet become friends with one of the Jedi Masters?
The obvious answers are (1) do your homework (study bird books, listen to tapes), and (2) spend a lot of time in the field. But I am a firm believer in my #3 recommendation: find a good birding guide and join some of their trips. I think this is one of the best and fastest ways to improve your knowledge and birding skills.
Think of birding guides as the personal trainers of the birding world. You wouldn’t start golfing without a few lessons and tips from the golf pro, nor would you take up skiing by reading a few books and watching YouTube videos. So why wouldn’t you take advantage of expertise in the birding world?
For overseas trips, this is a no-brainer. Local guides know where to go, recognize calls and habits, plan for food and accommodation, provide a vehicle, know how to drive in the environment, know the history and current events of the country, and non-trivially, recognize warning signs and know where not to go.
The advent of E-Bird and other bird-finding services means that you could travel to foreign lands without local knowledge, and some folks do. If your group includes a couple of burly and fairly menacing lads, so much the better. But when you look at the cost of flights, living expenses, and vehicle rental, and then calculate that you are likely to see twice as many species if you have a guide, to me the extra outlay makes sense. If I were 25 and had a full lifetime ahead of me I might think about this differently. But I have more money than I did when I was 25 and fewer years ahead in which to enjoy it, so guided trips are the way forward.
Closer to home…
Many people happily attend birding trips in their local areas organized by nature clubs, but I often get a puzzled look when I suggest that they should also consider working with a professional guide – as if “guide” has to exist in the context of travel to exotic lands. But for the beginning or intermediate birder, many of the same benefits that come from using professional guides apply equally to birding trips in their home province.
Guides have extensive knowledge of where to go and when to go there to maximize opportunities. With guides I have visited a number of little-known but productive sites for hard-to-find bird species in Ontario, and these trips were scheduled to coincide with the times when the bird was most likely to be seen.
Good guides also have an uncanny ability to recognize that an important bird is nearby, and great skills at locating it. Equally importantly, a good guide will ensure that everyone in the group has a chance to see the birds. This is not always the case in non-commercial birding trips, where beginners in particular may be frustrated by the tendency of the expert birders to speed by the more common species in search of more interesting fare.
The best guides are true “bird nerds”, and are willing to share their knowledge of all aspects of avian ecology, including feeding habits, breeding behaviour, and migration patterns. I have learned a lot about birds from people whose obsession is even greater than mine.
Finding a guide
So how to find a good guide? Personal recommendations are the most reliable method and I will give you a few of mine in a moment. But failing that, as with all things, Google is your friend. Search terms like “birding Ontario” or “Puerto Rico bird guides” should get you on the right track.
The websites of good guides and guiding organizations tend to contain the same sorts of information. You should expect to see specifics on their tours (dates, itinerary, costs). There should also trip reports from previous tours, ideally with trip lists (lists of species seen). You can also check the web for ratings, bearing in mind the usual caveat that some people are very hard to please.
I tend to favour guides from the country I am visiting, if for no other reason than the fact that their overhead costs are lower: when you bird with one of the large American or British companies you are paying for a leader’s flights and living expenses, and then they will often rely on the services of a local guide. If you can find that local guide you can cut out the middleman.
At the end of your search you have to make a leap of faith that your guide will be a good one, but I know of only a few cases where people were seriously disappointed. A poor guide will not last long in a competitive business. And part of the reason that the large global birding companies – operations such as Field Guides and Birdquest – are popular is that the likelihood of a poor experience is very low.
Let me save you some searching effort by suggesting these people, all of whom I have birded with and highly recommend. (And note that I do not receive any benefit for listing them here – though I am open to any free birding trips that might be offered. 😉)
Daniel is my guy in Colombia. I have been birding with him on four trips for a total of about eight weeks. Expert birder, safe driver, super organized and good company. My Colombia life list of 882 species speaks for itself.
On a trip to Tucson I had only one day to dedicate to birding. Melody led me on a fast-paced adventure to see a large number of Arizona specialties. Expert birder, safe driver… do you detect a theme here?
Josele was an outstanding guide but sadly I have just learned that for health reasons he has had to stop leading tours. This is a great loss. I believe he still operates his guest house in the Pyrenees where a number of great birds can be seen.
Predators was the local subcontractor for our trip to Tanzania, and they planned and executed a great trip. Joseph was one of our driver-guides and if you decide to go with Predators you should ask for him. Expert in all types of wildlife in the area, but he definitely has an eye for birds
I have not birded with the Burrell brothers (Mike and Ken) but they are expert birders and good folk so I am very confident that their trips would be excellent. They are co-authors of the recent book Best Places to Bird in Ontario.
Jim Palmer is a young biologist just starting out in the guiding business. I have good reports about him. email@example.com
E-Bird tells me I saw 665 bird species last year, a new personal best. Many excellent birds went into this list: gaudy tropical beasts like Motmots, skulking antbirds, and glorious migrant warblers. But what stands out most in my memory are the bird experiences – those special birding moments where everything comes together to make a truly memorable sighting. Herewith are my top ten birding moments in chronological order.
January 26, Amherst Island, Ontario
I was out looking for winter birds with Bruce Kirkland and Rachel Sa. We were stopped by the side of the road to look at a flock of Redpolls when Rachel saw something that looked like an owl fly into a tree. We got the scope out and sure enough we could see a small owl head peering out of the bush. High fives were in order – Short-eared Owls are not an easy bird to see in Ontario. Then a Bald Eagle passed over and all hell broke loose. Nineteen(!) Short-eared Owls exploded out of the tree and swirled madly around for a couple of minutes before settling down, each one to its own fencepost. It turns out there were over 50 Short-ears on the island, feasting on the plentiful voles, but to see nineteen at once was a special birding moment.
20 March, Ecolodge la Minga, Valle de Cauca, Colombia
The first stop on our Colombian expedition was this homey lodge in the foothills of the Western Andes. We spent the morning walking the entrance road and saw plenty of great birds, but then we arrived at the lodge. All thoughts of lunch were quickly pushed to the side as we drank in the hordes of avian jewels feasting on the flowering plants and fruit that the owners had provided. Within minutes I had seen my target bird for the whole trip – Multicolored Tanager, so everything after that was gravy. And very tasty gravy at that!
21 March, Bosque de San Antonio/Km 18, Valle de Cauca, Colombia
Sometimes great birding moments come in retrospect. We had heard Nariño Tapaculos calling at Ecolodge La Minga, but Tapaculos are small, dark, mouse-like skulking birds of the undergrowth so one rarely gets the chance to actually see them. But at this legendary birding site I managed to catch a quick glimpse of a calling bird. Not a big deal in itself, but the great birding moment came at my desk at home, when I worked out that this was life bird #1500 for me.
22 March, RN Laguna de Sonso, Valle de Cauca, Colombia
A great day at this very birdy marsh was capped off by a brief but clear look at a Sungrebe as it snuck across a short channel and disappeared into the reedbed. Sungrebes are uncommon and extraordinarily shy. Ken Edwards is a much more experienced tropical birder than I, and Daniel Uribe Restrepo is an ornithologist and full-time guide who has spent his entire life in Colombia, and yet this was a life bird for all three of us. Happiness abounded.
28 March, PNN Los Nevados, Caldas, Colombia
When I was studying field guides for my first trip to Colombia the Black-chested Buzzard Eagle caught my eye, and I added it to my mental most-desired list. In 2017 we spent some time in the right habitat, but no Buzzard Eagles were forthcoming. Cut to this year and we are 14,000 feet up in the Central Andes, waiting for a Buffy Helmetcrest to show up. In the far distance we spot two large raptors soaring. Scope views allow us to ID them as Black-chested Buzzard Eagles, but after a while it becomes clear that they have no intention of moving any closer.
So it’s a solid “tick” but a better view is needed to quench my Buzzard Eagle longings. Maybe next year. Or maybe later that day! Just before quitting time we were scanning the paramo looking for small seedeaters and looked up in time to see two majestic buzzard eagles silently cruising by about 20 feet above our heads. Gob-smacked we were. A great finish to that day’s excursion.
1 April, road from Riosucio to Jardin, Antioquia, Colombia
This was not a fun day as Montezuma was busy having his revenge on me. I tried to keep my whimpering to a minimum as we clambered up a steep mountain trail in the company of Doña Lucía, a local farmer. Years of patient work had allowed her to convince some Antpittas that she was a reliable and non-threatening source of their favourite delicacy: earthworms. So we got to the right spot, she called, and after a bit a couple of Chestnut-naped Antpittas emerged. Antpittas are proper unicorn birds, and any sighting is great, but to see them hopping onto peoples’ hands to nab worms was epic. Sadly I could not participate in the actual feeding as I needed to be able to dash into the bushes at a moment’s notice, but I got some really great still and video images, and even better memories.
1 April, Jardin
Later that day we made our way into the city of Jardin to visit a Cock of the Rock lek. This did not exactly test our birding skills – we went to the house, paid our entrance fee, and wandered down to the lekking trees. But the sight of those bizarrely gorgeous birds hopping, bowing, squawking and shrieking, all in hopes of impressing the ladies, was truly fine.
9 May, Point Pelee National Park, Ontario
The great Reverse Migration. A truly epic experience as thousands of birds, fleeing an incoming storm, streamed by on their way back to the US. Photos and the full story are here. I can envision a day twenty years from now where a group of birders encounter a gruff, grizzled bloke with weather-faded gear and a thousand-yard stare. They will say in hushed voices – “he was at the reverse migration of 2019”. 😊
4 July, Cape St Mary’s, Newfoundland
For my first trip to Newfoundland I was strongly advised to visit the Northern Gannet colony at Cape St Mary’s. It was a bit of a hike, but I am quite partial to Gannets so it seemed worth checking out. So after doing a bit of whale and Puffin watching in Witless Bay we headed south to the end of the road. Cape St Mary’s lived up to its billing as the best site anywhere for viewing Gannets at close range. Over 20,000 pairs nest on the sea stack and surrounding cliffs, and they are supremely not bothered by people staring at them from 30m away. Also crammed onto every available ledge were thousands of Guillemots and many hundreds of Razorbills and Black-legged Kittiwakes.
And as it turns out, also one lone Thick-billed Murre, at the far southernmost end of its breeding range. I saw a slightly odd-looking Guillemot and suspected that it might be a ringer Knowing that Thick-billed Murre was possible, I decided to wait until the sleeping bird raised its head from under its wing so I could see the diagnostic mark on the bill. For a full 45 minutes the pesky creature didn’t budge, but finally it took a look around and revealed its thick-billedness. So a day that started with Humpback Whales and Puffins and ended with epic views of Gannets and their pelagic friends was capped off by a new life bird. Not to mention a tasty lunch at St Bride’s.
31 December, Presqu’ile Provincial Park, Ontario
For reasons that are not entirely clear I have an inordinate fondness for Purple Sandpipers. Perhaps it’s because they are scarce and a bit elusive; perhaps because my first sighting was special. We were on a very pleasant driving tour through Scotland and I stepped out of the B&B on Islay to see two of the blighters playing in the kelp on the other side of the road. In any case I like them and was keen to add them to my Ontario (and Canada) list.
Typically that means wading out to Gull Island in late November in the hopes that this is the one day when a small southbound flock will stop for a snack. This year there were tantalizing reports of a trio hanging out at Owen Point. Family and social responsibilities kept me away, but finally on the last day of the year I decided to give it a shot. I arrived to a bleak and windswept scene populated by five long-tailed ducks and a Herring Gull. I scanned the area thoroughly with no luck. Then a snow squall kicked in. With melting snow starting to infiltrate my pricey camera equipment, and no reasonable prospect of success I considered packing it in.
Then fate intervened in the guise of one Kyle Horner, who had seen the birds earlier in the morning and posted a report on the OntBirds bird alert site. Knowing that they were likely still around, I redoubled my efforts and soon spotted small bird-like heads popping up and down behind an algae berm. Shortly thereafter the birds emerged and good views were had. After snapping off a number of shots I took a deep breath, remembered my own advice, and set a shutter speed fast enough to capture them as they frenetically dashed about. The results are below in all their rain-spattered glory. And just to cap off this tale, the Purple Sandpipers were the 300th bird species I have seen in Ontario.
So for all the great birds I was privileged to see last year, it is these birding moments that will remain clearest in my memory. Thanks to the birds, and thanks to the companions who shared the moments with me.
A large population of Emerald Shiner minnows migrates through the Niagara Gorge in December, seeking the warmer waters of Lake Erie. This concentration of tasty treats attracts an influx of predators, including Steelhead, Brown and Lake Trout, Pickerel and Muskellunge. It also forms a buffet for vast swarms of gulls, and when stormy weather drives birds in off the lake it is often possible to pick out rare and exotic gulls lurking amongst the hordes. And swarms of birds attract swarms of birders.
The Approach March
The first weekend in December 2019 was cool, with high winds and freezing rain in the forecast. Sensible people were staying indoors, but fifty or sixty hardy birders descended on Niagara Falls to take part in the Ontario Field Ornithologists’ (OFO) annual Gull Weekend. There were gull lectures, gull quizzes, an advanced gull identification workshop, and of course, lots and lots of gulls.
For the second year running (which qualifies it as an annual tradition) I linked up with Bruce Kirkland to make the trek to Niagara. We made a brief stop in Burlington to seek out a lone King Eider that had been hanging around with Long-tailed Ducks at the lift bridge. The eider was eventually spotted, though I was insufficiently organized to get a photo before it blended in with the 2,000 other ducks loafing in the ship canal. However I did get some smashing photos of Long-tailed Ducks and a decent shot of a Surf Scoter so all was well. Or so we thought…
Our next stop was Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s a small tourist town with more tweeness per capita than anywhere else in Canada, thus normally to be avoided, but it sits at the mouth of the Niagara River so it’s an ideal spot to watch gulls as they stream out at the end of the day to roost on the lake. A rare vagrant Black-headed Gull was known to be in the area so it seemed a likely spot to try our luck. And sure enough when we arrived there were ten or so birders peering intently over the water.
Traditionally there is no more dreaded phrase in the birders’ lexicon than “you should have been here ten minutes ago”. This signals that the bird you were after has decamped, probably never to be seen again. However with the advent of modern technology, including time/date stamps on camera images, we can now state with some bitterness that “you should have been here four minutes ago” is infinitely more painful.
We dutifully set up our scopes and peered into the gloom for 45 minutes. Thousands of Bonaparte’s Gulls streamed by, which would normally be a wonderful spectacle but we were not to be mollified. There were even a few Little Gulls among them, which we could pick out by their very dark underwings. Little Gull sightings are not easy to come by in Ontario – these were my first ones in 2019 – but still we remained dejected. One fewer red light on the way and we would have had our quarry.
When it was finally too dark to see we repaired to the Sandtrap Pub and Grill for dinner. After a couple of pints of very pleasant Niagara College Butler’s Bitter I adopted a more philosophical attitude. The bird was still extant; we just had to find it in the next 36 hours.
The plan for Saturday had been to join the Peninsula Field Naturalists for a birding walk in the Welland area. But Bruce and I were now seized with the desire to “get” the Black-headed Gull so we set off to do the Niagara stations of the cross – a series of viewpoints where you can stand in the cold wind and stare down into the Gorge, searching among the Larid multitudes for the one slightly different bird.
The weather was decent – sunny, but with the usual cold wind ripping down the gorge. We visited such delights as the whirlpool, the Adam Beck power plant, the Queenston Heights lookout, the Queenston boat dock and the upper control gates, and carefully scanned thousands of gulls for the slight variation in field marks that sets apart a Black-headed Gull from its Bonaparte cousins.
Gull ID 101
In winter plumage the differences between these beasties are:
The Black-headed Gull is slightly bigger: its wingspan averages 100cm vs 84cm for a Bonaparte’s. This sounds like a lot, but when viewing moving gulls at a slant range of 300+ metres the difference does not exactly jump out at you;
The bill of the Black-headed is red in the summer and reddish-black in the winter whereas the Bonaparte’s bill is black year-round; and
The Black-headed has a greyish smudge on the underside of the primary flight feathers. This is absent on the Bonaparte’s. The field guides show this diagnostic mark as a black wedge, but as the picture below depicts on a winter-plumage gull it can be a lot less evident.
A whole day devoted to gull voyeurism netted us lots of good looks at gulls and a few other avian creatures, but our target remained elusive. Sunday would have to be the day, but the weather reports were ominous. A heavy lashing of freezing rain was not going to make life easier.
First light on Sunday saw us back on the trail. Scattered reports from the day before led us to conclude that the whirlpool might be our best bet, so we started the morning vigil as the first wave of freezing rain descended. We gutted it out for a couple of hours before retreating to the hotel for an IHOP breakfast. It was only when we started the move that we realized how thickly the roads and sidewalks, not to mention our gear and clothing, were coated in sheet ice.
This made things slightly awkward, and after sliding safely into the hotel parking lot we learned that the QEW was closed and we weren’t going to make it back to Toronto and Kingston that day. So we reasoned that there was nowt else to do but go back out for another dose of eyestrain.
And so it came to pass that on Sunday afternoon about 1320 we closed with our prey. I was scanning gulls on the water, hoping for one of them to lift its wings and show the dark primaries. The mighty Vortex Razor HD telescope should have been annoyed at me for letting it slam against the ground an hour or so earlier, but instead it allowed me to detect what I thought was just a hint of red on the bill of one specimen.
It was hardly a slam-dunk view but it was suspicious enough that as it lifted off I tracked it while shouting directions so that others could get onto it. The gull wheeled to dive on a minnow and as it did I did not see the hoped-for black wedge, just a slight darkening. It really didn’t look like the guidebook image at all, and I hesitated about whether I had seen enough to make the call. Fortunately, the third person out braving the whirlpool gale was one Jeremy Bensette, a crack birder who among other things set the new record for bird species seen in Ontario in a year. He had gotten onto the bird and confirmed its Black-headedness. So we spent the next ten minutes enjoying the view of this rare visitor, whilst dutifully getting the word out on e-Bird and the OFO listserv.
At this point, having seen all the possible target species, and with our way home blocked by weather, we concluded that the best course of action was a wee nap, a glass of wine, an excellent dinner, and then a leisurely gull-sated departure on the morrow.
Niagara Gull Weekend – Bag List
Gulls seen on this trip:
Little Gull (3)
Black-headed Gull (1)
Bonaparte’s Gull (~6,000)
Ring-billed Gull (~100)
American Herring Gull (~600)
Iceland Gull (2)
Glaucous Gull (1)
Lesser Black-backed Gull (6)
Great Black-backed Gull (9)
Most of the world’s 55 gull species are members of the genus Larus.
Flushed with success at our capture (metaphorically speaking) of the Harris’s Sparrow, when a vagrant Spotted Towhee showed up at Prince Edward Point this week it seemed clear that we ought to go and pay this rare visitor to Southern Ontario a visit.
The bird met two of my three criteria for an off-year twitch: it was local (about an hour and a bit away). And it seemed likely to stick around. The finder – Paul Jones – had been observing it for a couple of days and it was making regular appearances to feed on some seed that Paul had thoughtfully provided.
The third criterion – that the bird be a lifer – was… problematic. I have seen the bird in its natural stomping grounds near Tucson, AZ. However, since this species had never been seen before in the Kingston 50km Circle, on mature reflection and in the interests of ornithology, and with no hint of self-interest, I waived the final requirement. And we were off.
The search party – Jim Thompson, John Licharson and me – made good time and arrived at the designated spot at about 08:30. Two birders were already in position and another showed up at the same time we did. There was still seed on the road, the winds were light and variable, the temperature was somewhat clement at +30 C, and though cloudy there was no indication of rain. Now all we needed was for the bird to show up and all would be well.
So we waited.
And we waited.
Heat, and optimism, seeped gradually out of our bodies.
After about 90 minutes the aforementioned Paul Jones showed up. He showed us some photos he had taken of the bird at 06:45 that morning, and then noted ominously that up until now the bird had been showing up every 45 minutes or so.
So we waited some more.
Finally we heard, off in the distance, a Spotted Towhee’s distinct call (which of course we had dutifully boned up on the night before).
The calls started getting closer and we moved out on an intercept course. The beast was spotted in a tree. We had time for quick looks and poor photographs as it carried on towards its target. We scampered back to the road just in time to see a pair of Merlins swoop low over the road.
Merlins, as you may know, are small falcons who primarily prey on small birds. So suddenly our heretofore highly vocal Towhee was silent, and we all envisioned it skulking off ne’er to be seen again.
So we waited some more. To keep up morale I recounted the time I stood for five hours in a freezing wind waiting fruitlessly for a Ruff. Judging from the reaction this story was not as uplifting as I had hoped.
Finally, at about 10:56, the Towhee made its entrance. We had a few minutes to admire it before it retired into the scrub to digest its meal.
So all in all this turned out to be a proper twitch. We had a longish and fairly uncomfortable wait, events seemed to conspire against us, but then through a combination of perseverance and luck we got the sighting and went home happy.
Two epic birds in two weeks. What’s next, you ask. Stay tuned!