Monday, August 3, 2015

Rain Rain Go Away!

A lovely walk in the cloud forests around Tapalapa
The clock ticks.  You either find the life birds or you don't! Some of the most difficult birding happened during our first two days on the trails in the cloud forests around the beautiful San Cristobal de las Casas and Tapalapa. 


Reserva Ecológica Huitepec
On both days, our guides Alberto and Rich, did a great job taking us around the areas.  It was wet, overcast, cloudy, and misty.  We had to keep wiping off our cameras and binoculars to get decent views of the birds.  


Female Mountain Trogon.  The secret to Trogon ID is in the tail. 
From experience, I knew that photography in a cloud forest would have its' challenges, but it still didn't stop me from becoming super frustrated. Everyone's solution, bumping up the ISO, did not work too well thanks to the rain:) I love photography so much and capturing the image of a new bird is essential.  Many of our lifebirds DO NOT have images from these days. Surprisingly, my cell phone took most of the pics you'll see today. 


Rich explains the set up of Sumidero Canyon to the group....in the rain:)
I had never birded with a large tour of 10 people before nor was I used to this "tick" listing. It goes something like this. After your observation window, you get on the bus and pull out the paper and pencil.  At that point, you check off all the birds you saw. Done. It's a different style of birding that is quite opposite of what I do at home. 


Mexican Sulfur-female
In general, birders do well in groups of 3 or 4 people. If there are too many people, the birds tend to stay away. With our group being around 50, we were all divided up into 10 people per day. Our guides had huge challenges on our daily treks. Could they find birds for such large numbers?  Eventually I got the hint, so I stepped back and just used my binoculars to look at the birds.  This group thing was a definite challenge for me.  I'm used to staying in one habitat for a week and freely walking a routine 3 times each day to document the birds. If it rains, I can go back to the same area again when the weather is better and try again. I may not get the highest number of birds but I'll have quality views and observations of the ones I do see. It just proves that birding is a lot more complicated and challenging than it sounds.

We stand tall amongst the Gunnera
I also thought a lot about the crazy stuff I was seeing.  Just a few weeks ago I was walking around in snow for a Ptarmigan.  Now I was in the middle of a gorgeous cloud forest searching for....whatever! What an amazing life! My thought was interrupted as the rain began again.  I pulled out my poncho(not a rain jacket/it's a Wisconsin thing:) and put my camera underneath. 

I fell in love with this Scottish birder. He was a kind man and his English was difficult for me to understand which really intrigued me.  
The group searched for Blue-throated Motmots and Resplendent Quetzals.  These were birds I had seen in Guatemala so I wasn't stressed about getting photos of these two species. But I was concerned about the Pink-headed Warbler, a declining species due to habitat loss. This was my only true target bird. 

Amethyst-throated Hummingbird-the ONE big bird photo from our trek
We were lucky to have Alberto with us as our guide on this trek because he had discovered these warblers on privately owned Zapotec forest land.  The Zapotec and birding community, thanks to Alberto, may one day profit from one another. Birders work everyday to educate the public about protecting habitat.  Alberto made a deal with several of the people on the property to show them that birding can bring in revenue for the group.  In return, they watched us and helped several birders carry their scopes. 


Back to the birds:) We'd get on a bird and it would start to rain!  Come on Mother Nature!  Be nice to us!  The rain did not seem to deter the birds one bit.  There goes another life bird without photo documentation.  After two days of terrible weather conditions, I unfortunately snapped at Gordon from frustration and said, "This is bull$%^!" He just happened to be the unintended victim standing there as I went crazy. I had to let off steam because I'm not one to keep it bottled up inside. Thanks for being patient with me Gordon:)  I couldn't control how I birded and that drove me crazy.  The participants were amazing as were the guides but I couldn't control when or how I was going to bird. My hands were tied.  It's now or never so get your act together buddy. This is your one shot at this bird.  So, as a birder, you are sometimes only given the time allowed and nothing more. This can also be said about our lives.  Do it now because you never know if you'll get another opportunity to do it again. 

Orchids, ferns and lots of air plants
The conditions grew darker and eventually I stopped looking because I didn't want to see anymore life birds without photos.  So the question for myself on this trip was, "Why was a photo so important me?"  There are general categories of birders.  The bird photographer. I am a bit of this especially when it comes to new life birds. The birder(binos and bird). I normally play this role after I've seen and documented most of my life birds.  The tick lister(see a bird and tick it off your list.  Great observations aren't always necessary.) And the target birders(looking for specific birds). There is also a subspecies of the target birder known as THE TWITCHER(chasing a rare bird at any time of day or night; reasoning and logic are thrown out of consideration here:) The photographer in me makes me slow down and really observe the birds.  The binos help me locate the birds for the photo. My most important goal while birding?  Finding the bird and getting the best observations that I can while I'm out in the field.  I memorize their calls, watch their flight patterns and behaviors.  I memorize their habitat, etc etc. 


More rain came and what happens?  A new life bird, the Rufous-browed Wren, makes an appearance.  Of course it does:)

Rufous-browed Wren
The rain ceases until we stop to find some new hummers. And then the rain begins!  A Green Violetear shows up for a beautiful shot.  Meanwhile I navigate my camera as best I can to get the shot. 

Green Violetear
But the main purpose for our trek to this area was to find the Pink-headed Warbler or what the Mexicans call a "Chipe Nevado"(Snowy/Misty Warbler).  It didn't take long before we saw at least 6 of them dance around the branches in the rain.  At one point, one flew right over my head and it was so beautiful. 

We just give up with the cameras and pull out our cell phones:)  Gordon gets up close and personal with this ladybug
The image below is from our guide Alberto. I did not take this picture, but this was one of the warblers we saw:) As you can see, there is rain coming down in the background. It rained 4 of the 5 days for the groups.  On the "sunnier" day, the warblers weren't as cooperative which I thought was an interesting observation.  Isn't this warbler sexy?

Photo taken and used with permission by our guide Alberto Martínez Fernández of a Pink-headed Warbler
This species is listed as vulnerable as it is only found in southern Chiapas and northern Guatemala. The habitat is fragmented and shrinking thanks to......habitat loss. In Mexico, this bird is listed as endangered.  Records that date back to 1898 listed them as a common warbler to the highlands of Mexico.  Today, they can be very difficult to find.  Thanks to the guides and their hard work, we were able to observe these amazing birds.  This was definitely a positive for this whole group birding bit:)

Our crew with Alberto(far left)
Our treks into other areas would yield better photography results but it would still be difficult work ahead.  I hope you join me next time as we explore a very HOT chase into one of the most beautiful areas of Chiapas.  Until next time friends......


Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer...in the rain


Saturday, August 1, 2015

Birding Chiapas


Keel-billed Toucan NOT taken in the wild but at the zoo.  It's captive and does not count.  But gods it's a gorgeous bird! To find this bird, go to Palenque, Chiapas. 
Where do I begin?  I suppose from the start, but it will be difficult to incorporate all my thoughts into one post. Over the next several weeks, I'll be covering a lot of different topics from bird photography to group dynamics while birding. In the past, I've always planned and organized my own trips, but for this trek, I let others do it for me.  The allure?  We had great guides lined up for the tours which included some very rare birds on the endemic list.  There were two birds specifically on this trip that were important for me to observe. And one I needed help finding.  


As we flew out into the night skies above Mexico City, I felt homesick for all my friends who live in the surrounding states.  As a younger man, I rented an apartment during a summer in Mexico City, partied in amazing locales, studied at the university in Guadalajara, spent many vacations in Puebla and Tlaxcala, ate at great restaurants and discovered the wonders and beauty of Mexican culture. 


Our destination was Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas. This is a state I have never visited before so it was on the top of my list of places to explore. Instead of cultural study, as I usually do, I focused solely on the wildlife and natural parks found around the area. 

Tiger Longwing
Rain forest birding is some of the MOST difficult birding out there.  On our first day in Tuxtla Gutierrez, we were all anxious to get out into the field again and find birds!  On this trip, my friend Gordon got a taste of birding in the tropics for the first time and it was fun to be there with him as he experienced a bit of international birding.  We had many birds to find and so we headed out to the local zoo in Chiapas.  As I've previously mentioned about zoos, they are great places to find local birds within an artificially created safe zone. The birds I present to you all today are wild birds that hung around the zoo(minus the Keel-billed Toucan).  Don't ask me what critters they had in their cages because I won't remember:)  I was more interested in the wild bird population living on the property. 


Plain Chachalaca
Many of our new birds were ground birds like the Plain Chachalaca above.  Around southern Mexico and Guatemala, grouse make for a tasty treat. This is why the Ocellated Turkey is listed as Near Threatened. When I first went to Mexico, I discovered that the country, when compared to other Spanish speaking countries, had been terrible maintaining their wildlife populations. Some states, like San Luis Potosí, had wiped out montane forests. Similar experiences/observations in other Mexican states had me concerned. While hunting may have subsided a bit, it appears habitat loss has become the number one issue for this country. It's also an issue in many parts of the world including the U.S. (but more on that in a few weeks.) With that said, Chiapas has set aside large tracts of rain forest habitat and they currently are working on mangrove restoration along their beaches. The trash issue also seems to be a lot less than I remember!  These are all great things and I hope it continues. 

Plain Chachalaca chick
How about the birds?  Featured above are pics of a Plain Chachalaca.  I was so excited to see these "new" birds. I remember having one perch on my shoulder in Panama, but it was not wild. 



These birds were common and observed on many of our treks around Chiapas. 

Zoomat entrance
Our stop at Zoomat was productive and exciting. Our visit perhaps made us a bit cocky with our cameras.  Birds seemed easy and cooperative to document.  This would NOT be the case for the rest of our trip:) Difficulty level for birding this area: Easy. 

Crested Guan
The next bird featured is the Crested Guan.  I had seen this bird before in Guatemala and this was the ONLY time we saw this bird in Chiapas.  But in the zoo, the birds casually hung in silence above picnic tables or near restaurant stands making me think that they enjoy scraps:)


I think the iguana above was part of the zoo display, but I really don't know.  These large reptiles hang out in many different locations.  On another trek we spotted two of these large lizards in the wild at a local park.  

Green Jay
Also at the zoo?  Green Jays!!!!!!  WOW!  In Chiapas, the Green Jay has yellow eyes.  And on this trip, I learned that the Green Jays in Texas have dark eyes.  Something new I didn't know!

 Fatima Peacock (Anartia fatima)
Wrens in the Neotropical world are awesome.  They have beautiful songs and wonderful coloring. This Banded Wren was a thrill!

Banded Wren
Also very common to the Chiapas landscape?  Russet-crowned Motmots. We had plenty of opportunities to see these birds on many of our outings. 

Russet-crowned Motmot
How about a crazy bird?  This was another bird that was only seen at the zoo.  The Great Curassow is listed as vulnerable due to habitat loss and overhunting.  Here at the zoo, it casually walked the grounds without the fear of either.  Look closely at the pic below to see a young bird walking with the mother. 

Female Great Curassow with chick
It was comical watching people eat at the picnic tables with these large birds walking around them. 


Male Great Curassow versus human butt
I noticed that two of the birds at this zoo had bands on them.^  


Finally today folks, I want to share MY bird of the day along with the endemic black Agouti from the photo below.  I was SO excited to finally see the skittish White-tipped Dove out in the open.  These birds are often heard but rarely seen. It was a bird I already had on my life list but one without photo documentation. It appears that several zoo scraps were enticing enough to lure a couple of these secretive birds from the dark forest. 

White-tipped Dove and Agouti
I could have smacked the birder who said that he wasn't really interested in "doves". "They're drab and boring." I mean...I get where he's coming from here, but still, this is no ordinary dove! It's not often you see these birds so I observed for as long as I could.  Pretty epic moment!  I'm not sure I need to go to Texas anymore after this visit;)


My journeys will continue over the next several weeks.  I'll be sharing thoughts on the pros and cons of guided tours, listers, photography, and of course focusing on some of the most amazing places we stopped to bird. I'll also be featuring beautiful butterflies in several of my posts from Chiapas. So let's get this party started. Until next time friends.......

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

600 Life Birds

Oh the road can be sooooo slow!  Life birds?  What are those?  Last year in April I was at 500 life birds.  Throughout the year, I added birds regularly every month.  This year it has been a trickle:) I suppose it gives me a chance to absorb all the amazing observations of the birds without feeling rushed.  I do hope to make up for the birds down in Mexico this year. Will I be able to make it to 700 by the year end?  Here are the stories behind each of the top ten birds.

Monk Parakeet
The Monk Parakeet was seen downtown Ft. Myers, Florida near a swimming pool.  I grew up with these birds at home as they are sold in the pet trade as Quakers. In fact, this is how they invaded the US! Loud, ruthless and quick to multiply, the Monk Parakeets have become established in many US communities which include cities like cold Chicago and tropical Florida.  My bud Sydney and I played a hunch and followed the human trail to several nest sites and voila! There they flew in great numbers with twigs and branches making nests around power lines and palm trees.

Wilson's Plover
The Wilson's Plover was number 510.  I went to Bunche Beach, Florida to count hundreds of shorebirds only to come out with thousands of chigger bites!  It took nearly two months for my body to heal!  It rained after I heard and saw the bird.  I was able to help several birders get their scopes on the this plover.  Later in Mexico, I would see this bird once again under much better circumstances.  Sunny and bug less! It's call is distinct and easy to pick out.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
At 520, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak made its way into Willcox, AZ.  I went to chase the bird and hung out in a very kind man's backyard.  There we watched this beautiful bird feed off of his fruiting mulberry tree.

Bobolink
By life bird 530, I was in Maine visiting Kathie.  Together, we went to a field near her home and discovered the magnificent Bobolinks.  There they called and collected caterpillars for their young ones. This is one unusual and gorgeous blackbird.

Black Guillemot
Life bird 540 happened near Eastern Egg Island.  This Black Guillemont went after what looked like twizzler's licorice.  I braced myself on the rocky boat as I snapped off several shots of this bird flying near the side of our boat.  At this point both Micheal and Kathie were under the weather and very seasick!  Now THAT was an adventure I won't forget anytime soon:)  Nor will they.

Blue-headed Vireo
In the dark mossy forests of Maine, we discovered a Blue-headed Vireo.  This lovely bird graced the branches while we sweat it out in the woods:)  This bird made 550 on the list. 

Prairie Warbler
At 560, the Prairie Warbler made its swirly call as the rain began to fall.  I was able to briefly see this bird before it went back into hiding as two young morons revved up their truck and sped past us on the dirt roads of Maine. 

the exotic Northern Red Bishop
At 570, I was alone again in California.  Here I spotted the exotic invading Northern Red Bishop.  What a beauty!!!

Wrentit
By December, it all began to slow down.  Again, I returned to Southern California where I stood silently near a city park lake and watched the Wrentits move around me.  This was Life bird 580.  


At 590, the Black-throated Blue Warbler was a real shyster. Not all life birds play nice.  We sat and waited and waited for this warbler to come out.  When he did, the tiny warbler was so far away! I finished in the US with number 599, the Painted Bunting.  But I wondered which bird would mark the magical 600.  Drum roll...............


Green Parakeets
We flew into Southern Mexico during the night hours.  At dawn, the first bird that made itself known was the Green Parakeet. They seemed to be flying everywhere around us.  And so in my life, number 600 marks the Green Parakeet. The adventure continues next week as we begin our exploration into Chiapas, Mexico. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Mogollon Rim



Hello everyone! Today we visit the lovely Heber-Overgaard area along the beautiful Mogollon Rim. Over the past week, I've gone on several treks with Gordon to do a dry run before our big Mexico trip!  As of this write, we are both very excited about discovering new birds again. When we come back, I'm sure we'll have lots of stories to share. 

Canyon Creek Road
We weren't chasing any birds on this weekend as we just wanted to bird.  It was wonderful finding all the wildflowers growing around the area. In fact, I found myself looking at the plants and bugs more on this trek.  

Wildflowers, top to bottom and left to right
Wild Sunflower, Bristly Pricklypoppy, Indian Paintbrush
Wild Rose, Purple-fringe, Heartleaf Arnica
Both of us had several places in mind that we had wanted to check out.  We stopped at Black Canyon and Wood's Canyon Lake for some fun finds.  On our return trip back, we made a stop at the Canyon Creek Fishery.  It turned out to be my favorite spot to explore. I had wanted to check for possible American Dippers but it's really not the correct time for them to be there in this location. This was more of a scouting trek. However it is winter habitat for the Dipper!  So I'll be making a trek up again. 


We had some great finds at Wood's Canyon Lake where there were nesting Bald Eagles!  Two juveniles were seen standing on the nest and that was great news!  While we were there, we watched both the Eagles and Ospreys grab fish from the lake.


Wood's Canyon Lake-best place to bird even with a billion vacationers 
We even watched a Great Blue Heron grab a fish in flight.  Gordon has the pics for that action set.  It was a pretty awesome observation and a first time that we've both seen that kind of behavior from this bird.  


Western terrestrial garter snake
My snake detector went off when I saw a head swinging back and forth.  It seems this Arizona subspecies of the Garter Snake was looking for food.  Gordon was very excited about the find and shared it with the girls playing in the water below.  I watched them freeze and had a good laugh.  "This one is safe. Snakes are cool.", Gordon said happily.  My response was, "Yeah, but they're still snakes:)"  I have learned to appreciate them from a distance, but you won't catch me picking one up anytime soon.  Still.  It was a great find on an already awesome birding trek. 



I'm sure many of you were asking by this point in the blog where the photos of my birds were:)  Don't worry, I've got one for you.  At Wood's Lake, we discovered lots of recently fledged Steller's Jays hanging out around a pine tree. The adults were feeding them while they were getting a sip from the puddles in the rocks.


Anyhow, my focus was a bit scattered on this trip.  Therefore the pics were a little "off".  The heat was still intense at the higher levels on this weekend and made for an impatient me.  At the time of this write, June 30th, a woman was killed by a lightning strike along the Rim.  If you do visit during our monsoon season, whether you're local or visiting, please make sure you're safe.  If you see lightning or major dark cloud build up in Arizona, get inside a secure building.  Our storms here are NO joke. 

A happy Gordon along the Rim and a random butt shot behind:) It's a popular place!
However take a look at the amazing views from the Rim!  The Mogollon Rim is an important geographical feature for Arizona....especially southern Arizona.  During our monsoon season, storms will build along the Rim and blow south into Tucson and surrounding areas giving us much needed rain. It's also a place for many Phoenix residents to escape their personal hell. Phoenix is eternally hot. Recently on a trek outside of Phoenix, it was 94 degrees at 3:30 in the morning!!!  In Tucson, it gets down into the 60's at that time! You may spy an innocent and peaceful Tucsonan up there, but if you hear loud people who like to drive dangerously, they are from the Phoenix area;) As birders, we always know that any form of exercise away from tourist hotspots like piers, restaurants or shopping centers will always get us away from crazy.  So overall, it was a beautiful and quiet weekend until we drove the highways back.  I'd like to say that Tucsonans are better, but I don't think I can:) Anyhow, here's a little fun bird bit for bird and Nightjar lovers!



On a chase to find a rare male Painted Bunting, a young talented birder by the name of Walker found something very sacred at the Tres Ríos Wetlands near Phoenix.  Here is a rare look at a Lesser Nighthawk nest.  Can you see the two eggs?


Okay.  Let's move closer.  These birds are notorious for blending in with their backgrounds.  So anyone who is daring enough to explore the desert in summer, keep your eyes open while you're walking.  At first glance, the desert looks like it is a lifeless region but I assure you that it's full of incredible things. Just remember.  Go early and drink PLENTY of water!  Also have a cell phone on your being.  Watch out for snakes in the shade and if you see lightning, find cover!  


As for the bird responsible for these two eggs?  Here's a pic below from a trek I took a couple years ago to the Salton Sea.  I found a couple of these birds camouflaged on a mesquite tree limb.  Anyhow, they are VERY cool birds!


Las Aventuras takes a turn for the tropical as we head down to Southern Mexico to find our world's 10,000 birds. Join us as we explore Chiapas, Mexico for Chapter Two of the "Americano" Saga. Until next time friends.......