In January I like to put together a post about the birding highlights of the previous year. This time around it has been a bit slow in coming. Somehow it’s hard to get excited about a year spent mostly at home under the spectre of a pandemic.
With trips lined up to Colombia and Argentina, and with a cottage booked for two weeks next to Point Pelee, I had been harbouring wild thoughts that if all went well I might see 1000 species of birds in 2020. And it started out so well…
However, the point of this blog is to focus on the positive, and when I thought about it in those terms I started to see that there had been a few good things amidst the bad. (Spoiler alert – I had to set the bar fairly low. Not everything here would make the cut in a normal year 😊). Here’s the first installment.
A new year means a new year list. For birders, that is the incentive that gets us out on the land when the days are short and the weather is less than optimal. If you have been in this game for a while you probably keep lists, and the advantage of a year list is that it starts at zero. So while new birds for my Ontario life list are very hard to come by, starting another year list means that even the humble Starling and House Sparrow become new sightings.
In a normal year I would expect to see about 50 or 60 bird species in January – 50 or so in the local area and another 6-8 from the annual winter pilgrimage to Algonquin Park. However in 2020 a combination of good luck, persistence and a few extended twitches bumped that number upwards.
Early in the month I heard some intriguing reports on the grapevine of a covey of Grey Partridge near Ottawa. I had seen this species a few times in the UK but it would make a nice addition to my Ontario list. So the first twitch of the year was a round trip through Nepean, Carleton Place and Ault Island near Morrisburg. This pleasant drive in the country netted the partridges as well as a Northern Hawk Owl and a Harris’s Sparrow. So far, so good.
Twitch #2 followed rapidly, as Erwin and I hunted down a Mountain Bluebird near Pickering and a Purple Sandpiper at Presqu’ile, with an incidental find of Iceland Gull enroute.
I had agreed to lead a KFN field trip to Algonquin Park in mid-January and that worked out very well. We nabbed all the winter finches including both species of crossbill, plus the obligatory Canada Jays, and by virtue of a slight detour picked up the long-staying Varied Thrush at Bark Lake – a lifer for most of the party.
2020 Part 1
So the upshot is that by the time I left for Colombia on the 25th I had already set a personal best for January in Ontario with 77 species. That 1000 species goal was well on its way. Or so it seemed…
In the previous post of this series I explained what happens in a digital camera – how a batch of photons is converted into a digital file. This post will cover how to use that file to create an image which can be displayed electronically or printed. This activity is called post-processing, because the initial processing of the image is done by software within the camera.
For wildlife photography, I believe the aim of post-processing is to produce a final image that replicates what you saw as closely as possible. And by “what you saw” I mean what you saw with your eyes through your binoculars, and not what the camera thinks you saw. Modern cameras are extremely capable, but their abilities are vastly inferior to those of the eye, especially the eye aided by precision optics. Occasionally the camera will manage to capture an image exactly the way you wanted it, but most of the time, especially in wildlife photography, the raw material produced by the camera will need some help.
The above images show the out-of-the-box version (Dusky Antbird 1) and the final version after post-processing (Dusky Antbird 2). Which would you prefer?
The next stop on my world tour of great birding sites is Hato la Aurora. I posted about this site a few months ago, so I won’t repeat all the detail – you can read about it here. Suffice it to say that the Llanos region of Colombia and Venezuela is a must-see for world birders. And why take just my word for it? The Colombian newspaper El Espectador recently rated the site as one of their seven top places to see birds in Colombia.
The next in my personal list of top birding sites is one that’s on every British birder’s bucket list: Fair Isle.
Fair Isle, Scotland
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Fair Isle is a small island, about 5km long and 2.4 wide, with a population of about 50 people. It sits roughly halfway between the most northerly island in the Orkney archipelago and the southern tip of the Shetlands.
Fair Isle is legendary as a place where rare birds can be seen. Not necessarily rare as in endangered, but rare as in almost-never-seen-in-Western Europe. Why these birds choose Fair Isle is not entirely clear, but every September and October birders flock there in hopes of adding exotica to their British bird lists. In 2012 I had the chance to go there as part of an Army Ornithological Society expedition, ably organized by Tim Cowley and Andrew Harrison.
The Fair Isle Experience
Birding Fair Isle is not without its challenges. It’s not an easy place to get to, and once there the only place to stay is at the Bird Observatory Guesthouse. Not that this was a hardship – the meals were excellent and the beds were comfy. But there is limited capacity so rooms have to be booked well in advance.
And on the subject of the Lodge – in March 2019 the Observatory and Guesthouse suffered a catastrophic fire. It is now being rebuilt, and if all goes well it will reopen in the Summer or Autumn of 2021.
The daily routine on Fair Isle begins before dawn with a walk to check out one of the areas where migrant birds collect. Then back to the lodge for a hearty breakfast. By then the wardens will be in the midst of their daily rounds and reports will be arriving about what birds are being seen and where.
After breakfast it’s back to patrolling. The Observatory staff will make a couple of runs to drop birders off at their desired locations, which is handy because otherwise all travel on the island is by shank’s mare. Then walking and birding until lunch, then more walking and birding, then dinner, followed perhaps by a pint at the bar. Then rest and repeat.
The routine is broken if a mega-rarity is seen. In that case the Observatory van goes careening around the island flying a red flag. All available souls pile in and then van heads for the site where the bird was last seen.
Rarities and Mega-rarities
We spent five days on the island and had an amazing haul of really good birds. The truly exotic finds (given with their normal ranges) included: Paddyfield Warbler (India, Bangladesh, and Kazakhstan); Lanceolated Warbler (Russia to Japan); Pechora Pipit (between Kamchatka and Indonesia), and Arctic Warbler (Northern Russia to Alaska, wintering in Southeast Asia). We also had great views of some Western Palearctic species that rarely venture as far as Britain: Red-backed Shrike, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Bluethroat being highlights.
Sadly, my visit was in my pre-photography days so I just have a few cellphone pictures to add – you will have to Google the rest if you want to see them. Start with this beauty.
PG Tips. But the mega of megas was a sighting of Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, known to British birders as PG Tips. To give you an idea of the grip this bird has on birders, one fellow who was at the lodge while we were there said that he had come every October for 20 years hoping to see one. It breeds in places like Siberia and Manchuria and winters from India to Indonesia.
I’m not sure why this one species has so captured the imagination, but as luck would have it one dropped by during our trip. Like all Old World warblers it is a skulking bird with cryptic plumage, but it was relocated in a field full of long grass. Eventually everyone present managed to get a brief view, but when the wardens decided to ring the bird we were all hoping to get a closer look.
And we did. Hosanna!
How to get there
First, you need to get to Shetland. Loganair flights run from places like Aberdeen to Sumburgh Airport, and an overnight ferry service runs from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Once on Shetland mainland you need to make your way to a little airstrip (Tingwall) outside Lerwick where a worryingly small Airtask aircraft makes the hop to Fair Isle. Alternately, if you are keen on adventure and regurgitation, the Good Shepherd IV, a fishing boat, will take you from Grutness near Lerwick to the island over some of the roughest seas available.
Fair Isle airport is a single gravel airstrip, so if the wind is too far off from the axis of the runway aircraft cannot land or take off. Your plans need to be flexible enough to allow for being stuck on the island for extra days (yay!) or stuck in Lerwick waiting for a flight (boo!).
Would I go back to Fair Isle? In a heartbeat. Is it likely to happen? Hard to say, but if not at least I got a chance to live the Fair Isle experience. 😊
Cape St Mary’s, and its Québec cousin Bonaventure Island (still on my to-do list), are without doubt two of the best places in the world to see one of the world’s great birds: the Northern Gannet.
These mighty pelagic birds spend most of their lives out at sea, but once a year they come to land to nest. Their preferred nesting area is a sea stack – a pillar of rock with no connection to the land, so their chicks can be safe from terrestrial predators.
Most of the big Gannet colonies such as Ailsa Crag give good views of flying Gannets but aren’t accessible for close-in views. But the sea stack at Cape St Mary’s is very close to the land. We were able to stand and view the Gannets from about 30m distance, close enough to observe their nesting behaviour and the tenderness with which they treat their mates. And needless to say the photographic possibilities are awesome.
The cliffs around the sea stack also provide nesting opportunities for Black-legged Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and Black Guillemots, as well as the occasional Thick-billed Murre. We also saw some interesting birds in the grassy fields around the visitor centre, including American Pipits and Horned Larks. (Though not, as the Visitor Centre suggests, Water Pipits. Were a Water Pipit to show up in North America it would be the first, and would be pursued by hordes of birders from across the continent).
With 77 Ontario species in the bag by the end of January, followed by a three week Colombia trip, 2020 was shaping up to be a particularly good birding year.
And then came the pandemic…
One by one my planned excursions, both local and international, fell off the schedule and I was left during the lockdown with only virtual birding.
So it was a good opportunity to catch up on birding homework. My Covid projects have included tagging and organizing all my bird photos across several platforms, converting my life list to taxonomic order, and setting up a secure backup process for the images. All very geeky stuff but it has helped fill the birding void.
Going through my photos and records did cause me to remember some of great birding experiences I have had and the great places I have been privileged to visit. So I thought I might share the best of them in a series of short posts so that other birders can be inspired to plan their own visits.
To be clear, this is not a list of the top ten sites in the world. To begin with there are some legendary places that still remain on my wish list: the Okavango Delta, Cape May, Stewart Island, the south Texas coast, Iguazu Falls, South Georgia and coastal Chennai just to name a few. Rather, these are the top ten sites that I have visited, all of which I hope to re-visit in the future.
Great Birding Sites
What makes a great birding site? Great birds, evidently. Great quality or great quantity, or both if possible. If it is located in an area of natural beauty so much the better. Given a choice I would prefer rustic and rudimentary over comfortable and commercial. Crowded places will never be my favourites (hello, Point Pelee). If the site is remote, then basic but decent accommodation and good local food options are desirable. But really, it’s all about the birds.
I would be hard pressed to decide among these sites which is the best, so here they are in alphabetical order:
Cape St Mary’s, Newfoundland, Canada
Fair Isle, Scotland
Hato la Aurora, Casanare district, Colombia
Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Cerro Montezuma, Risaralda district, Colombia
Presqu’ile Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada
Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada
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”. 😉