Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Monday, July 29, 2013

Con Los Ojos Abiertos

Today I'm linking up with Stewart M's Wild Bird Wednesday.

What happens when the world is turned upside down?  And the familiar....gone. Not even Spanish would be of big use on this trip.  A new and empty canvas was upon me. And everyday a new bird was added to my life list, but it was a hard fought battle as both photographer and birder alike.
White-naped Brush-finch
Along the way, I met allies who would aide me in the battle behind these long windy named birds.  Take for example the White-naped Brush-finch.  4 words and one bird!  They were always mouthfuls to say during any birding outing. My first few days in Antigua, Guatemala would be overwhelming for many reasons.  Locating and recognizing calls became super difficult.  As the sun rose around the early 5 AM time, I would jump out of bed to chase the birds outside.  And they were everywhere!!!  No need for an alarm clock.
As the photographer, I had to deal with gray skies, rainy conditions and the dark woods.  I wasn't as successful my first few days with the photography bit as it was super challenging.  Manual focus and flash were a must in the dark conditions.
Blue-and-white Mockingbird
My ears would locate a call in the vast green and dark canopy.  Birds were skittish and moved off quickly.  Sometimes they would be staring right at me which brings up my 3rd issue........eyes adjusting to the greens instead of the browns of my desert.  By the time we left, I had gotten better at finding the birds, but I'm still not great at it yet.  If it weren't for my ears and patience, most of these birds would have escaped my radar!
The other issue was timing.  During our travels, I calculated staying over a several day period at each place so that I could sweep the areas properly. I'd go 4 or 5 times over the same route during a one day period. Again the birds would move around according to their own time tables......I just had to be ready for them. The unique part about this trip wasn't seeing as many places as we could but rather staying in one place and finding as much as we could in one area.   Each place had a different and common group of birds that hung around our cabins or hotel rooms. I just had to find them!
Our cabin
Many of the birds didn't respond to my pishing attempts which made me change my tune....literally.  After several weeks in Guatemala, my whistling would finally attract a few birds. Knowing the general body types would help me quickly locate a bird from my ID ap in the area. The nice thing about their long names is that they usually will include their prominent and physical features. My IPHONE, with the spotty Wifi service, helped out.  Towards the end of the trip, I began to play the calls electronically and pull the birds out.  I played the recordings only twice and never again. At that point, I had become physically and mentally exhausted searching for birds everyday. For most of them, it worked, but for some, I had to wait and return again the next day around the same time to get a photo.
Sometimes I hid in outdoor showers or toilets around light sources during the early morning.  Bugs were everywhere!!!  And so were the birds.......
White-eared Ground-sparrow
Some birds would cooperate while others fled at the slightest movement or sound.
Rufous-collared Sparrow
The early morning skies were many times gray.  On those first excursions, I would see so many birds but never be ready to capture them on film.  One such species was the Squirrel Cuckoo.  It avoided my lens 3 times!!!  The Cuckoos in general can be a secretive bunch.  Once, I had found them in the trees but they flew off into the dark canopy while I tried to focus my lens.  The second time, I was eating breakfast when one flew into a leafless tree.  I didn't have my camera with me.  And the last sighting came to me while swimming in a pool!  And I will admit, those are some of the most frustrating bits about birding. Sometimes it doesn't always work out and I had to be okay with that happening once and awhile.
Gray Silky-flycatcher
But with time and practice, the birds would begin to focus better.
Is it thrilling?  Yes.  It's like finding diamonds in a hidden treasure chest.  The difficult part about Guatemala came from the general public's lack of knowledge about birds in their area.  Generally in Panama or Costa Rica, I found people knowing much more about their local wildlife.  In Guatemala, it was patchy.  Sometimes I would luck out and find a fellow birder.  When I told others that I came to bird, they looked at me funny.  I changed my story to "wildlife photographer" and it was better received.
The shot from this post that made me happiest?  The Blue-throated Motmot.  It took me several days to finally get a picture that made me happy.  We stayed at Earth Lodge for 4 days.  It was a great place and difficult to leave because there were so many great birds.  But on my shower treks every morning at 5 AM, the Blue-throated Motmot would come to visit me.  It became semi-comfortable with my visits and allowed me to get closer.  Each day I tried getting pictures of this bird but they would turn out terrible due to the lack of lighting.  And then on my last day, I took the sports setting off and used the single picture option with flash.  Voila!
Blue-throated Motmot
And so it would go for the first week of photography practice.  As my posts will continue, you'll see an improvement in the shots.  It was definitely a learning curve.  In Arizona, we have to watch out for overexposure from the sun.  In the rain forest, it was all about lighting and quick camera focus.
Spot-crowned  Woodcreeper
The loudest calls came from these wrens below.  A lot of practice went into this one singular shot.  They flew over our cabin every morning with their loud "RATTLE RATTLE RATTLE!"  Imagine shaking an aluminum can full of pennies that owners use to shut poodles up and you've got their call:)
Band-backed Wren
When they flew, they called.  When they landed on a branch, they were silent.  These birds were difficult to capture until one morning I figured out their schedule and waited in our cabin to capture them out on top of the canopy of the trees.  My friend was very patient with me but she could also see that I had gone crazy over the years from the birds.
Meanwhile the views were stunning everyday as we drank micheladas(tomato juice and dark beer). You may say to yourself, "Nasty."  So did I until I took a sip of my friend's drink and then......Oh. My. Gods. I became a fan.
Female Rose-throated Becard
And while we were drinking, the Rose-throated Becard sat upon the bare tree.  It was my first introduction to the Becard family.  Hopefully I'll get a chance to see the male one day but it was still a cool encounter.
Bronzed Cowbird
I was always grateful for the birds I knew.  They were like gifts to me. While my friend did yoga on the hillside, I roamed around the property and searched for birds.
And when it was time to leave, I was saddened to go because I felt like I had become friends with these now familiar birds.  But there were so many more birds to discover. So many more challenges to be had.  Yet I am proud of my accomplishments as I have done all of this alone.  Many people hire guides to help them out, but I used the resources around me to help ID what I was observing out in the field.  As a quick learner into this exciting world, my advice to beginners is to just go out and explore and see what you see.  As time goes on, I am sure I will need to hire people to help me find those elusive birds around the world.   But for now, everything is new and exciting.  More posts to come......

Saturday, July 27, 2013


Elegant Trogon
Birders say that when one eventually finds their nemesis bird, the former nemesis will appear everywhere after that day.  For a year and a half, I chased this bird. I would dip and become frustrated every single time. If it's one bird I understand the most, it's the Trogon.  I suppose this summer has been much about Trogons as last summer was about Hummingbirds. 
Elegant Trogon nesting
The secret?  Getting up at the crack of dawn.......and listening.   It is very important to listen carefully for the various dog barking calls around canyon areas. And the other thing?  Do not let people know you are searching for the bird because it will screw up the sighting every single time. My experience with people and trogons has not been a good one.  People are too loud and do not listen. Yet they all want to see these colorful birds.  I had an experience in Patagonia this winter that made me want to cry.  Everyone was on the trail looking for the bird and before I knew it, a group attached themselves to me and I lost the bird.  Partners are okay.  People you don't know....not okay....keep it secret.
And my studies would pay off. My summer trek into Guatemala led me to more of the Trogons. Their calls are all variations of a theme except maybe the Resplendent Quetzal.
Slaty-tailed Trogon
In the darkness of Tikal National Park, I saw several of the Slaty-tailed Trogons calling.  We were alone until some loud and obnoxious tourists decided to rudely make their own bird calls.  One was a woman who just began laughing and shouting up random calls to the Trogon pair.  They flew off and I shook my head as I glared at her.  However, we had nice observations of these birds for 25 minutes prior to the first wave of tourists entering the park. I always opt out on the tour groups if I can. What attracted me to the dark leaves?  Their calls.  One must respect the privacy of the Trogon.  If you pay that respect, they will not leave you.
Black-headed Trogon
During our visit to Río Dulce in the pastures along rain forest area(away from people), I heard another Trogon-like call. This time I dealt with camera issues.....humidity on my lens!!!  The first time I saw the Black-headed Trogon, it flew above my head. My heart pounded and I missed the shot.  I followed the call until the bird had retreated too far into the forest.  So I went back the next day and continued to deal with humidity and rain.  But I heard the call again and found the bird.  We had a moment here and it was incredible!
The next bird below is the Gartered Trogon. I was sitting in my cabin outside of Antigua near an avocado farm when this bird silently flew in front of my window.  My heart beat quickly!  A Trogon!!!  This time the bird wasn't making any calls, but it quickly saw me and flew.  Luckily I had my camera ready and got this not so great shot through the window. For many years, this bird was considered a subspecies of the Violaceous Trogon, but they have since separated the species. This bird now goes by the Gartered Trogon name.  Plus their heads have a different shade of blue and their calls are different. The Gartered also has a greener back.  Hence the separation.  When I returned back to the office where we were staying, I told them about the sighting and they were shocked at the find!
Gartered Trogon
And dirt!  That post is coming up on Birding is Fun!  on August 1st.  The lesson for me? Searching for the Elegant Trogon at home helped me track these birds down better.  With practice, time and patience, even the rarest bird can be found.  Now if those Montezuma Quail would just make an appearance:)  More soon.....

Resplendent Quetzal

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Hoot Suite

Blue-throated Hummingbird
Written the first week of June before the Guatemala trip. I should have been getting ready to pack, but instead I went into full birder mode before my trip to Guatemala. Is that terrible?  I promise those posts are coming up.  But I couldn't sleep at night knowing there were birds out there that would be gone by the time I got back.  I've noticed that the White-eared Hummingbird stops by for a brief month visit and then leaves elsewhere.  This year I didn't want to miss that visit and hung out at the hummingbird feeders.
White-eared Hummingbird (Lifebird 340)
I would have to say that this was one of my favorite days birding.  Pat was able to come along with me and see some amazing birds.  The White-eared Hummer flew quickly and near to me.  I had my eye out for this one as he would be the next new hummingbird to add to my hummingbird list.  If you'd like to see my Charm of Hummingbirds from last year, click on the link here.  You want hummingbirds?  Come to Southern Arizona.  They're all waiting for you:)
Magnificent Hummingbird
There was a man from the East coast with his wife at the CAS(the hummingbird feeder area) at Beatty's Guest Ranch.  It's the number one spot to see many of our North American hummingbirds.  Ash Canyon with Mary Jo also has a few others not seen up at Beatty's like the Lucifer Hummingbird.  Each place asks for 5 dollars to help fill those feeders etc. I sure do appreciate their generosity by allowing us a better glimpse at some of the rarer jewels found in the Huachuca mountains.  The visiting man was extremely nice and I helped him find his Blue-throated Hummingbird.  It's fun helping people find lifebirds. Normally it's the other way around:)   Their faces and expressions make me happy.  So what could be better than hummingbirds?  Do you really need to ask?
Look closely at the tree.  Past the blue throated lizard.  Beyond the gnarly branches.  Just below the second branch.
Life's little miracles.  Two Northern Pygmy Owlets are just about to explore our big world.   My smile was wide.  It was lifebird number 341.  Owls!
Northern Pygmy Owls(Lifebird 341)
For 30 minutes, we watched and watched the antics of these two little ones.
Some people find their target birds and quickly move off to see their next one.  Not me.  I watch until I can't watch anymore.  And sometimes that interferes with finding the other target birds.  There were 5 in Miller Canyon.  I dipped on the Northern Goshawk and Montezuma Quail.  I could hear them close by but I really wanted to see these Northern Pygmy Owls.
Owls make me so happy.   Like the man finding his Blue-throated Hummingbird, I smiled and smiled and smiled the whole time observing these little birds.   These owlets will grow to be just a little bigger than the Elf Owls.  Here's the Elf Owl below.  They are really tiny!  The pic makes them look bigger than they really are. I put the above shot of the tree to show you just how small these little holes in the trees can be.  The only way I can track them are with my ears.  If they don't make a sound, I'll walk right by them.
Elf Owl at Madera Canyon
There's a trick to owling.  I'm learning how to do it better.  Obviously the best(and easiest!) times to find them all are when they are nesting.  That's why this trip was important.  By the time I came back from Guatemala, they would have been gone.  These little birds are about to fledge.
I love all birds, but I am not embarrassed to say that I love owls and hummingbirds more.  Every bird has their place and beauty.  I see that every time I'm out looking for birds.  Even Turkey Vultures are majestic birds.
But there is something about the grace, intelligence, and gentle beauty of the owl that makes me fall in love with them everytime I see them.  Had Pat not spotted this Mexican Spotted Owl, I would have walked right past him:)  On this birdy outing, we had a beautiful hike up Miller Canyon.
Mexican Spotted Owl

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Border Crossings

Five-striped Sparrow  Can you see it in the pic?:)
In the days after my trip to Guatemala, my studies would continue into the northern part of the state of Sonora, Mexico. I'll be alternating my local treks with the Guatemala posts to keep everything current. The trip had been planned two months in advance and would include all kinds of wildlife enthusiasts like wildlife trackers, birders(3 of us), and a herpes guy.  Well I guess the official title would be herpetologist or person who studies snakes, lizards, frogs, etc. not herpes.  I still laugh each time I hear that word.
Rancho Aribabi
I wish I could play it serious on these hikes, but the simple fact is that while on these adventures, I feel like a kid again.  New territory.  New lands.  New birds.  New experiences. And the possibility of finding that rare unicorn!  Oh it's out there folks!:) On a journey with Gordon Karre from Birding Adventures and crew, we explore Rancho Aribabi in the neighboring state of Sonora, Mexico.
Green Kingfisher
Every adventure reveals a new challenge with great rewards. 4 new life birds would be gained on this trek.  The above shot is one of them.....the Green Kingfisher.  If it hadn't been for Gordon's ear on this call, we may have dipped!  It's always good to have another birder along.  2 sets of eyes scanning the same area are much better than one:)
Violet-crowned Hummingbird
It was wonderful to observe Varied Buntings, Yellow-breasted Chats, Summer Tanagers and Vermilion Flycatchers out in full force. They were in great numbers around the property and river.
But it was this Five-striped Sparrow that won me over.  Lately I've really been into sparrows.  As you'll see in the Guatemala travels ahead, sparrows were some of the most interesting birds out there.  On this weekend venture, I added this sparrow to my lifelist.
Many times I go on hikes with people and forget to look up.  It would prove wise for me to keep my eyes on the ground as well during this trip. Snakes, ants, horse piles, and other things were found all along the path.  Here Gordon and I both hunt for birds with our cameras in this beautiful riparian area along the Cocospera river.
Turkey Vultures 
On one of our walks we could smell death.  It's not a pleasant smell, but the vultures surrounded whatever it was that decayed along the river.
Black Vulture
I found these birds quite fascinating.  We tried to observe what they were feeding on but never found the carcass.
The Black Phoebe always lightens the heart after a long hot and muggy walk.  It was cooler in this area during the morning but as with the monsoon season, the humidity and heat intensity increases by early afternoon.  This should be a time for cool down.  We chilled on the patio and watched the active hummingbird feeders and tree canopy above the river.
Black Phoebe
The clouds build.  The heat is nasty.  The birders are restless.  It's 4 PM.  Must continue......somehow.
A short jaunt from the ranch house and we spot a Thick-billed Kingbird.  The 3rd lifebird on this trip.  Note the white throat and thick bill.
Thick-billed Kingbird
It was a large kingbird as it flew off of the branch. It was a nice find around the pastures near the ranch.
Other cool finds came in the form of Gray Hawks in flight.  I love love love these birds!!!  I don't know why but I just do.  Nothing gets the heart pumpin' faster than a Gray Hawk flying over my head.
Gray Hawk
This post is pic lengthy so I'm trying to keep the commentary down.  The Yellow-breasted Chats were everywhere!  I've found this bird in Arizona around waterways, and the same was true at the ranch.  However, the numbers were shocking!  I've never seen so many flying around one place. 
Yellow-breasted Chat
A nice thing about having a professional herpes man with us is that he knew all the names of the frogs, toads and snakes that slithered and jumped about us. Snakes make my skin crawl.  But after I'm done with that sensation, I fall in love with their color, design and mystery.  I can be a stinker as well sometimes.  Sometimes I'll just say the name wrong to watch people correct me 5 million times.  I think that comes from my family, but the joy of saying frog instead of toad just to have them say, "It's a toad! Not a frog!" made me laugh.  I do it with birders as well:)
Lowland Leopard Frog
Anyhow, I don't mind touching frogs and toads, but remember to wash your hands after holding them before you eat.  That's all I'm going to write on this matter:)

Red-spotted Toad
I remember catching frogs and toads when I was a kid.  And then being the little demon that I was, I'd get close to people who disliked them. While they were drinking beer around a campfire, I'd sneak up on them:)  This was in Wisconsin of course:)  Then the frog would mysteriously jump out of my hand onto the person's chest and all chaos would begin.  Beer splashed all over as people tried to pull themselves together. Today, I'd like to apologize to those tormented by my antics. I love you Evie.  She is a dear friend of the family and in many ways is like our Aunt who just happened to be our neighbor.  Gone are those days with coffee cake on Saturday mornings.  I so do miss that time period when neighbors were friends.  As for the frogs, I would retrieve them quickly so they weren't hurt and release them back into the water areas where we found them.  Today, the world is a different place.  I teach my nephews and nieces that when we want to hold a frog or toad, we must put them back in the same place we found them.  And let's continue the theme of touching toads....
The Sonoran Desert Toad
During the monsoon, the Sonoran Desert Toad(also known as the Colorado River toad) appear out of nowhere.  They spend most of their life cycle buried in the desert, but when the hot and moist conditions arrive, these toads come out in full force.  And they get quite large. My desert tip to pet owners.  These toads are poisonous to dogs.  Don't kill them.  Move them out of the area and wash your hands after touching them. DO NOT let your dog out of your sights during the evening hours when these toads are especially active.  One lick or chomp from your dog with this toad and it's bye bye Fido.  Keeping them out of your yard is nearly impossible so it's especially important during monsoon to keep an eye on your pets while they are outdoors. But still.....this is one cool toad. For more information on what to do if your dog gets a taste of this toad, check out this post from The Firefly Forest.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Another lifebird was this Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Although I first found it in Sweetwater several days previous.  Last year I knew nothing.  This year I would not miss out on this bird again as it only comes to visit during our summer months.  And I now have this bird memorized by sight and call.  It is great at hiding in the middle of a tree.  They have a creepy call, but I love it!  We saw and heard plenty of these birds around the river by the ranch house.
Javelina with babies
But my real story comes from this above pic.  I've had a lot of wildlife encounters but none that scared me like this one.  My body is exhausted from the month long hikes around Guatemala and Arizona.  On this day I limped down the dark road alone barely awake and yet aware that there were new birds to be found.  A pack of javelina crossed this road.  I kept my distance as any good wildlife photographer would do.  It was 5:30 in the morning.  I waited until they all rushed across the road.....or so I thought.  I waited several minutes and then continued my walk forward.  Suddenly a mother and her babies popped out from the trail.  We were just a few meters from each other.  I froze as did she.  And she growled at me.  I had previously found a cement block to climb in case I was attacked by a jaguar, mountain lion or in this case.....a javelina.  All three have different attack patterns.  In the case of the javelina, they have a poor sense of sight so I was prepared to jump up on that block in my pajamas. If I shouted, I would alert the entire pack.  So I backed away.....slowly.  And she still growled at me.  Never turn your back on a wild animal and NEVER break eye contact with a mountain lion or it will be your doom. I have been reading about these types of experiences and glad I did.  Never in my life did I expect to have it happen to me!  Thankfully, the Javelina continued across the road with her two babies. By this time I was quite alert and awake. It was also the end to my early AM bird search:)
Canyon Towhee
One adorable bird after another would come to our porch.  The Canyon Towhee didn't mind at all that we watched them jump around searching for food.
Sinaloa Wren
The most rewarding find for me was this Sinaloa Wren.  It was a bit of effort. Gordon went to one side of the tree and I to the other. The bird was loud and at first I thought it sounded like an Oriole because it was a song we didn't recognize.  But when it flew out of the trees, we noticed that it was way too small.  There wasn't any internet connection to play a bird call. And the bird was moving fast out of our area.  So I began my Snow White calls.  Everytime the bird made a call, I repeated its call with my whistles. Eventually I pulled this wren out of the dark shadows and snapped several shots.  We were super thrilled to add this bird  onto our lifelists and I hit one of my target birds!  But........
There was the one that got away.  The Rose-throated Becard. I found this bird in Guatemala but it was the female who decided to visit me.  The male is quite different looking and had been seen by several people in our troupe:) The heat and humidity was out of control by the time I got around to finding this bird.  I attached my water pack to head to the river where the nest was hanging.  But a certain horse blocked my path.  After my javelina adventure, I decided not to push it and be happy with our finds for the weekend.
Rufous Hummingbird
Our final parting gift at the ranch came from these migrating Rufous Hummingbirds.  It was wonderful to see these birds again and it was also a sign that we are at the midway point of summer.  These are some of the earliest birds that begin their migration back to Central and South America.
I joked with Gordon about his ice cube consumption because they are a must on his birding adventures during this hot time of year. So I tried the ice cubes in my water pack and I have to admit, it made those nasty hot hikes so much easier.  I don't know if the cold water plays with the mind or it just makes everything better but it did feel good drinking something cold. Refrigeration with much of our Guatemalan trip was not an option.  Finding clean water took priority. I just got used to the idea of having a supply of tepid and safe water. And I soon found out that Ms. Brown also needs ice cubes and cold drinks for these summer treks.  A birder must?  Since this trek, I've purchased several bags of ice and now use them on our walks and.....I have been converted. Another note worth mentioning......I will not eat anymore beef for the next several months.  I love the taste but it wreaks havoc on my stomach.  Normally I eat a lot of veggies, but we had some of the most delicious hamburgers on this trek.  Not smart.
One of the Kino missions on our way back home.  But I imagined it as a place where elves used to gather .  Magical.
One final note.  I will be trekking with Ms. Kathie Brown, Ms. Gaelyn Olmsted and Mr. Gordon Karre again. We are scheduling more hunts around Arizona and surrounding states over the next several months. I'd also like to thank Kathy Cooper for her incredible organization and planning for this epic Mexican trip.  I have been in conflict about Mexico over the past several years.  As a Spanish teacher and friend to the country, I doubted the conservation efforts.  After this trip, I can see that efforts are being made. I've also realized there are a lot of hidden gems that are still found around Mexico.  This trip has wet my appetite to explore Sonora and surrounding areas more. In fact, there is a parrot that once roamed Arizona and can only be found now in one state of Mexico. I'd also like to thank Kathy for the wonderful lunches and dinners she put together.....especially that pot roast!  And the refreshing watermelon and cilantro combo!  Delicious!  For more information on Rancho Aribabi, click here.  Carlos is the contact person.  The ranch is a jaguar tracking station but it's also home to so much more.  The firefly show was incredible!!

I'm also linking up with Stewart M's Wildbird Wednesday.  It's a great way to learn about birds seen around the world.  And also dream about new places to explore.....:)