Thursday, August 29, 2013

400 Lifebirds

 Lifebirds are getting tricky. My camera abilities are strong but my reflexes aren't always the quickest.  I have come to accept that I may not get all lifebirds with a proper photo ID.  But I sure will try! As of July, I had crossed the 400 number on my life bird list.  The "list" is sacred to many.  Some use it to boast their egos.  Some keep it secret because it's very personal. And some don't mind sharing it at all with me. When I began this bird journey, I wanted to be open and transparent about my finds from around the world. This is a great game of mind and physical exercise. Every morning I wake up asking myself, "Which bird will it be today?" If it's a rare visiting bird, I won't be able to sleep the night before. As I slowly tick off my Arizona list, I have moved into foreign and exotic landscapes which require a lot more research and investigation.  Every trip has a specific target list.  Every lifebird has a story.  And today I will share with you the journey that went into finding the birds from 300-400.   
At 300, the Zone-tailed Hawk is a bird with a disguise. It had probably flown over my head so many times while living in Arizona as a non-birder.  Many times it will fly among a kettle of Turkey Vultures.  Most people will look up, see the kettle and respond with, "Oh it's those ugly birds."  That's what this Zonie wants you to think and that's how they do so well in the wild.  But on this day near Phoenix with Gordon Karre and Kathie Brown, we stumbled upon a nest along a river.  Both hawks flew out of the tree screaming above our heads.  I would have walked passed them, but they scared the living hell out of me. Out of respect, we took our pictures and left ASAP.  These birds taught me on this very hot day to respect the wild.  There are birds on the world list that will kill or do serious damage if I do not pay attention to my surroundings better.
At 310, this drab little number flew in front of both Kathie and myself while birding at a truck stop. It's the Dusky Flycatcher.  Flycatchers in Arizona are difficult because there are so many kinds here.  I feel I have become stronger as a birder because of all the research these types of birds make me do.  Some look so similar that it comes down to sound and habitat or elevation.  I learned quickly that the easiest way for me to ID these birds is to listen to their calls and memorize them.  
At 320, I heard a strange call up on Mt. Lemmon.  It drove me insane.  It was new to my ears and I climbed and climbed up a steep hill to see who was making all that racket.  I forgot about my surroundings and found myself on a rock ledge staring at the Greater Pewee.  As I write this today, I will never forget that song.  On one particular outing, a park ranger whistled the tune note per note perfectly while having coffee with me on a bench.  I had a good laugh and shared the story of the Greater Pewee.....a Mexican migrant. Once you hear that tune, you won't forget it anytime soon:) 

This next bird at 330 doesn't need much introduction.  It's the crowning jewel of Southern Arizona.  I spent a year and a half searching for this bird without any success.  It sounds like a barking dog and calls mostly in the early hours of morning. Miss that call and you'll have a hard time finding this bird for the rest of the day. The research and time I put into this Trogon taught me many things.  Some birds operate on time tables (and they change daily).  It is therefore important to speak with locals and research the latest reports to find this bird. Since this write, I've discovered 4 different trogons while on my travels.  Sometimes patience and research pays off.
At 340, the Northern Pygmy Owls make a show that I'll never forget.  I was with my partner Pat when we noticed two little heads peeking out of a hole at us.  I am an owl man and forever will be.  There is nothing to gain or learn from this sighting other than I just love them.  They are the birds that make me smile and dance. Anytime I get to see one, even though I've seen them before, I smile.  Perhaps it's because they are intelligent creatures and very catlike?  I don't know but ever since I've been a kid, owls have held my fascination. Mr. Rogers always had his show of "Make Believe" where an owl would peer out of a hole.  Woodsy Owl would exclaim, "Help Keep America Looking Good!  Hoot! Hoot!" Or the Tootsie Roll Pops....just how many licks DOES it take to get to the center?  The owl says, "A one, a two, a three...." And CRUNCH! Never in my life did I expect to see all of these wonders in the wild. We sat on a log until dark watching these birds while on the trails of Miller Canyon.
Now we begin the strange and exotic.  Guatemala shot my list up over 100 birds.  I cannot afford bird guides....yet.  I speak Spanish and I know enough about birds to get to the places I need to be. Imagine waking up in a new world where the bird sounds are all foreign and alien sounding.  I couldn't sleep and like an alarm clock, these Band-backed Wrens woke me up sharply at 5 AM.  My friend, who traveled with me around Guatemala, asked me what I was doing up so early on our first day.  I said, "Can't you hear them??? There are new birds out there!!!!  And I have to find them!!!"  In my pajamas, I ran out the door to hear these loud bombastic birds. They were LOUD and over-the-top!  I hid in the outdoor shower and watched them as they ate bugs around the lights.  On the first day, I missed them but I figured out their daily routine which allowed me to capture them on the canopy of these trees.  When they fly, they call.  But they are silent when still.  These birds taught me about strategy and preparation for the photography bit.  At 350, the Band-backed Wren.
Number 360 goes to the rather plain Green-throated Mountain Gem.   Yes, it's a hummingbird and it was found near the only excellent truly birder friendly place in Antigua.  They actually had hummingbird feeders!!!    If you go to Antigua, check out the Finca Pilar.  Wonderful birds can be found on the trails and around the feeders here.   On this trek, I met a young Scottish man by the name of Justin who birded alone at one of the hostals near Antigua.  Several people kind of laughed at his obsession with birds.  When I came along, we teamed up and birded together.  My friend told me that we had a bromance going on.  Whatever the case, it was so much fun to bird with someone who knew the area.  We sat down over several days looking at his Central American bird books ID'ing the birds we had seen together.  We even took trails that I wouldn't have normally gone on.  I truly appreciated our time together searching for new birds.  And I was able to introduce him to Ebird which will be a fun new program for him to use. 
370 was a big one.  The Gold medal of this journey.  It was a gamble that I took in Coban.  This time it paid off big time.  My friend was able to share the moment with me and experience the glorious Resplendent Quetzal.  A lot of work and research went into finding this bird.  So much so that after we found 6 of them, my birding energy waned for awhile.  I began to drink Micheladas and enjoy the trip more as a tourist.  I had been to Guatemala before but never as a birder. If it wasn't for the experience and research behind the Elegant Trogon, I may have dipped on this near threatened bird.  It was an exciting moment in my life.  My friend Lynda said that I had a bird boner(highlight in front of the parentheses if you want to know).  I laughed and smiled.  She isn't a birder, but the event was spectacular.  One of the highlights of my birding adventures. 
At 380, the Swallow-tailed Kite flew among....swallows and swifts.  I had seen it twice and was in awe by it's grace and elegance.  My initial reactions were, "That's a big swallow!"  Then I saw the head on this bird and realized I was dealing with a Kite.  I checked my list and saw....Swallow-tailed Kite.  The lesson here?  Use resources like Ebird to help ID the birds found in the area.  I knew most of the bird body types(there were a few exceptions of course) and I focused on what physical features made them stand out.  In this case, the tail was unique to the Kite family.  When I looked it up on the internet for ID verification, I smiled and patted myself on the back.
We spent a day in Tikal which is one of my favorite places to search for wildlife.  And on this day, we saw more creatures than all the other tourists in the park.  Why?  We avoided the tours!!!  As a Spanish instructor, I've studied the Mayan histories many times over. When my friend asked a question, I gave her the information.   Had we been with the group, we would have missed this bird. We spied this Collared Aracari at number 390 before it flew off because of a noisy tour group.  My friend now understood why I dislike people on the trails.  She began to feel the same way as we discovered together Spider and Howler Monkeys, Deer, Coati, and gorgeous birds along the trail.  
Finally at 400, we end with a Trogon.  In fact, this post has been full of them. The Black-headed Trogon was incredible.  Every morning at 5 AM in Rio Dulce, near the Caribbean side of Guatemala, I would walk into a buggy open pasture along a stretch of untouched rain forest.  The bird, much like the Resplendent Quetzal or Elegant Trogon, moved in a similar fashion.  So why the bad shot?  Here's the story. We stayed in an A/C unit because travel was taking its toll on both of us. Well the A/C fogged up my lens every morning and by the time, I saw the Trogon in the rain and fog with my clouded lens, wasn't a great shot.  So I Instagramed it and added a little artsy look to the shot.  I am now working on my 500 list.  Life is wonderful.  So is the experience behind birding, travel and photography.  I hope you enjoyed this little jaunt back in time.  Until next time.......

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Test of Time

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,

By caves where never sun has shone,

By streams that never find the sea;

Over snow by winter sown,

And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

    J.R.R. Tolkien-Lord of the Rings

As I explore the life around me, I begin to understand those innermost feelings tucked away deep inside.  Tikal National Park will do that to a person.

Slaty-tailed Trogon
Among the ancient trees with their dark shadows, I began to see.   Every drop of water, moving leaf....every vibration.  By this time on our trip, we were onto the secretive critters!

Spider Monkey.  As he put his back lazily on the branch, his tongue caught of drop of water from the leaves.  Incredible!
I was reminded of my own mortality as I walked among the great Mayan pyramids.  And it kept me present. How many people over the course of time have walked these trails and thought these same things?
Red-brocket Deer
We walked gently on the paths before us under the overcast skies.  So many things crept before our eyes. We were not alone.
Emerald Toucanet
The tour groups were still far off.  "Would we like a tour guide?", they asked. Never.  I am now trained in the way of scouting for wildlife thanks to birding.  We silently walked the ancient paths. And we saw life everywhere!  Will humanity ever learn from the mistakes of past civilizations?  The Mayan civilization collapsed under its own weight.  They didn't just disappear.  Overpopulation was the main reason for their downfall in Tikal.  The rain forest couldn't sustain this large city. It makes me think of today's increasing world population.

Montezuma Oropendula
But my mind was constantly distracted by all the life around us.....hidden in the dark canopy.  It was there!  My friend Lynda did some amazing spotting.  Together we found so many critters.  Meanwhile the tour groups were getting louder in the early morning hours. They were coming our way!

Howler Monkey
Above or below, the creatures of Tikal roamed about us silently.  This wasn't a zoo.  This was wild. And it felt real.

We are so fortunate to have these places preserved so that future generations may witness a piece of history with both its current and former inhabitants.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker
We continued our treks into an area known as the "Lost World" or as we say in Spanish, "El Mundo Perdido"

The ruins were covered for centuries and today, archaeologists from around the world continue to excavate new areas.

The incredible part?  Every niche had a different group of birds and mammals!  As the tourists began to filter in more with their loud voices, we countered opposite into the silent corners of the park.

Crested Guan
Some birds silently stalked us like this Collared Aracari.  But a massive group of tourists came by with their loud voices and scared this bird away.  While viewing a Trogon only meters away, a woman and her posse spotted both Lynda and myself observing the birds up close.  She thought it would be fun to "CAW CAW!" at the male and communicate with the pair.  They flew away immediately and I threw the lady a look that could kill.

Collared Aracari
We headed towards the exit after a wonderful morning and afternoon at the park.  The pic below made me smile.

This is one of my favorite National Parks of the world. And it's Guatemala's number one tourist destination.

White-collared Seedeater
I had too many pics from our outing here and so I will break this up into two posts. The second will include a rare falcon sighting!

Social Flycatcher
In so many ways, the ancient Mayan culture was not so different from our own.  It certainly made for an exciting outing.   My friend Lynda introduced me to a new program on my cell phone known as Momentsia.

Ocellated Turkey
Here is a collage using that program with some of the work from Tikal.  My mother told me when I was young that I was the storyteller of the family.  I didn't know what she meant, but while in college, she did a crochet of me and framed it with the word "Storyteller" below. Today it hangs in our humble home. While I review Guatemala, I'll be continuing my adventures in Colorado, Arizona and Wisconsin. With migration happening this month and next, things will become very busy around Southern Arizona. So there's much more to report:)  Birders rarely get to sleep in these days:)

Today's post is linked with Wild Bird Wednesday!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Cherry on Top

Sometimes, it's not about finding a new bird. Sometimes it's about something more.

    It's not about the elegant Ibis.

 Or the tattered gull........

 Or the scenic views.....

Or the millions of Sandpipers which included Bairds, Semipalmated, Stilt, Least and Westerns!

    Yes, it was ID hell:)  But worth the effort.......but it wasn't about that either......

Or the Dowitchers......

Not even the Curlews......

Or the plovers......

But this one was cool:)  Here's a closer shot.  Different bird but still a Semipalmated Plover. 

Or even A RARE(for the area) Common Nighthawk.......!  That was a WOW moment for both Kathie and myself.

It was about this turtle that crossed the road.  The world sped by not really noticing how special this gal was.  Teenagers and other drivers carelessly drive around Lake Cochise, Willcox to drink their beer or just ride their trucks and dirt bikes. This little turtle was in the middle of the road.  Kathie stopped the car and I got out to make sure she wouldn't get run over.  I left when I knew she was safe.  I told another driver about the turtle and she seemed to shrug this turtle off for she was there to film the Wilson's Phalaropes. Everyone went on their merry way.  I went home and looked up the turtle more.

The Ornate Box Turtle is near threatened(more so in Arizona) and one of the most difficult turtles to find out in the wild.  Much like the Montezuma Quail, Elegant Trogons or Flammulated Owls, you have to be in the right place at the right time to see them.  I'm no reptile expert so I couldn't truly appreciate the experience.  If you live in Arizona and find this turtle, please go to this website here and help the folks out. There are paper reports you can fill out, but I just emailed the sightings with these pics answering the paper form questions.  They'll document the rest.  I was asked if there had been rain the night before and the location of the turtle. Other questions were "What was the turtle observed doing?" and "What was the weather like?" One thing to note (and I found this extremely important to share)....  NEVER pick a turtle up!  One. They have bacteria that can be harmful to humans.  And two(most important).  If a turtle is picked up, it will many times urinate or rid itself of liquid which will many times dehydrate the turtle. Finally, never bring these turtles home as it is against the law. We have such an easy way to count birds instantly but as for everything else, it's still a little old fashioned.  The data is important to scientists and other herpers(the reptile people)

A special "thank you" goes out to my FB friend Tonia for alerting me about this rare find and leading me through the proper channels for documentation. As Kathie puts it, the birds are what we do, but everything else is like the cherry on top.  She thought our Great Horned Owl find was the cherry on top.  Is there a limit on how many cherries one can have?
As you can see, this summer has been full of wonderful herpe surprises. This is just a small group of all the lizards, snakes, frogs, toads and turtles.I've seen on the trail.  More exciting reports coming up......

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Into the Mists

About an hours trek south of Coban, we found the wonderful Biotopo Del Quetzal.  It's a reserve that has its roots connected to Mario Dary Rivera.  It was established in 1977 to protect Guatemala's quickly vanishing cloud forests.  He was murdered for his efforts and by his death, kept the logging companies out.  Today several of these reserves are run by a local university attracting birders from all around the world.  It's a wonderful park full of fantastic surprises.....and home to the rare Resplendent Quetzal.
My first trek to Guatemala back in 2006 didn't allow for a stay in Coban.  We had seen the city, but skipped it for the trip to Semuc Champey. I had wanted to visit the Biotopo Quetzal but I have to admit, I didn't like the area too much.  Many travelers will skip this spot and head straight to the much more popular Semuc.  As a birder, this was no longer an option.  The Resplendent Quetzal was found in this area and we had to stop. In fact, the Quetzal can be found in Coban, Semuc Champey, etc, but they are much more reliably seen near the Biotopo del Quetzal.

Rufous-collared Sparrow
Coban is still developing its tourism sensibilities and can be seen by some as "rough" compared to the much more accommodating services provided in Antigua or nearby Flores.  Many times birders are told that it's much easier to spot the Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica or Panama, but I was in Guatemala and wanted to try my hand again at this bird.

Fern Frond
The Biotopo is truly an exciting place full of botanical finds.  The paths are clear and steep but many times, we took it slow and stopped often to look at all the incredible vegetation found in the area.

Yellow and Red Thorn Spider
My friend asked me to go forward.  I quickly realized why.....spider webs!:)

Sneaky sneaky.  We had been the first ones to arrive at the reserve and I cleared the paths for all those who would hike later:)

It's also amazing how fast most people will walk up the trails.  We took our good natured time.  There was so much to see including a lovely waterfall and beautiful overlook!
Overall, the birds were very difficult to spot in this reserve.  There were a lot of birds here that were calling but overall, it was super difficult to find them.  I've heard and read several reports similar to this from other birders.  But it doesn't make the trek any less beautiful.  We still made unexpected discoveries....
A strange thing happened.  I believe that the bird I present today is probably our strangest find on this entire trip.  Not much information can be found on Unicolored Jays except that they live in the cloud forests.  And it was only by accident that we actually got a picture of this bird. A Montezuma Oropendula was moving around and caught my eye.  This is probably the most basic Jay I have seen. Apparently there are about 5 subspecies of this Jay resembling our Pinyon Jay in Northern Arizona. I enjoy reading about the birds discovered, but this one continues to make me raise an eyebrow! Fascinating!

Unicolored Jay

Of course, we spotted the bird below at Ranchitos Del Quetzal next door to the park.  While the birds actually live in the Biotopo del Quetzal, they are super difficult to find inside the canopy of the trees. Open from 6 AM to 4 PM, the Biotopo del Quetzal does not disappoint.  60 Q(around 8 US dollars) is the entrance fee. 
The Resplendent Quetzal
We had a successful day finding the target birds and the trip to Coban was well worth the stop.  We stayed at Hostal Luna and enjoyed our visit there.  The owner knows quite a bit about birds and has a list of them hanging on the wall.  There is a fantastic restaurant right across the street from the place.  And there are many more places to bird around the area.  We just hit the target spots as we were only there for a brief two nights. The journey to and from the Biotopo del Quetzal was an exhausting one.  There's nothing like finishing up a long hike and getting stuck on a crowded tiny bus back to Coban.  It's difficult to stay patient when I see a girl almost strangle a poor dog in a box(that has also gone to the bathroom) while trying to stand holding onto the bars with my neck crooked at an unnatural 90 degree angle because there were no seats available, and still keep an eye on my camera while sweating up a storm. Yeah it's a run on sentence.  What are you going to do about it?:)  That's exactly how we both felt.  When we arrived back at our hostel, we crashed onto our beds and took a nap! What we do to see these rare birds!!!  They certainly make for great stories, but at this point, I began to miss birding back home.  It seemed so much easier.  Our trip would only become much more difficult in the days that followed. 
But when it's all said and done, the bad things seem to be forgotten with the positive standing out.

And as you can see, we had some fun photo shoots to let the eyes relax a bit before searching for more birds. That's also a part of what birding is all about....enjoying the moment. Stay tuned for more.....