Saturday, July 28, 2018


One of my "unofficial" duties every year is to survey the bird life at Rancho El Aribabi during the month of July.  It is usually hot, miserable and the best time to find amazing birds!

a male Varied Bunting comes into the pasture for a drink
This year was NO exception.  Located 45 minutes south of the international border in the state of Sonora, Rancho El Aribabi holds many of the Sonoran species that we have in Southern Arizona.  This is also the land of the Jaguar and Ocelot.  While I did my bird surveys, Jim did his tracker work on the cats.  In the process, we found each other data for the ranch.  A recent report was released to the public about the recent death of the Huachuca Jaguar of Southern Arizona near our survey site. Last year, another Jaguar of the Santa Rita mountains IN Arizona, was killed for its fur without much public outcry.  How this recent Mexican kill had more traction than the one is the US is beyond me?!  The Santa Rita Jaguar was recorded by National Geographic and tracked by a UA research group, which included a dog team member. What I write here is just speculation. A poacher must have used the landmarks from the video in the Santa Rita mountains to track the animal while utilizing illegal wildlife cameras with a GPS tracking signal to find this extremely secretive cat. Once a wildlife camera is tripped, a signal is sent to the owner via wireless means. From that point, s/he can check from their computer and see where the animal had recently passed. 

a cicada sheds his form to grow wings and fly
It is beyond my comprehension why such savagery happens.  When a person, who studies cats like the Jaguars, finds one of these rare gems in the wild, it's hard to hold back this exciting information.  For every 10 great people out there, there are always 1 or 2 terrible people who will break the law.  And this is the danger of revealing this information to the public. Not everyone is a good egg.

Finding a Jaguar is a privilege and many times, quite a bit of work on the researcher's part. In my opinion, this information should be kept secret from the public.  I've only seen 2 in my lifetime but I hid their exact locations when recording the data.  The data should ALWAYS be recorded.  I do the same with rare birds.  And I am super protective of any endangered species.  In the beginning, I assumed most people were honorable.  Then I discovered otherwise.  That's when I changed as an observer. 

On my trip to the Amazon years ago, I discovered that I wanted more from my camera.  These poor photos of the Jaguar helped motivate me buy a better camera.  My 6th sense had gone off on this day.  I remember that I was on a canoe.  The small crew was quiet and I noticed two vultures curiously looking at something. As we silently floated around the bend, we found this male Jaguar along the banks for a brief moment.  Our guide was shocked. This time I was ready with my camera for the Jaguar.  Today, on the ranch, several people and organizations track these endangered mammals. Finding a Jaguar is a gift and a curse at the same time. The wildlife official knows s/he will have to release the information at some point. And when that happens, everyone wants to take credit for the person's find. Meanwhile poachers, secretly take this public information and plot a course. 

If you've seen the original Jurassic Park, you'll remember the large guy getting chased by a small dinosaur.  That was me.  This bird kept making a coo-coo call in random spots around my survey point.  It was creepy but made me laugh.  I took the coo coo call as the bird telling me there was a nest nearby.  So I carefully walked out of the area keeping my eye out for the Greater Roadrunner's nest
These are just my words, but you can read the article link above and form your own opinion. These good people are just trying to protect the corridor of these magnificent beasts from human development (and also because they are in love with the chase and possible first time discovery of these rare cats).  I'm a birder first.  I get it.  We seek the impossible.  And if we find something rare, the personal rewards from all the risk taking made the difficult trek absolutely worth it. It's like winning the lottery. You want to share your excitement, but you know that if you do, there will be consequences. 

a sexy male Rufous Hummingbird
One of the notable things we saw on this trek were high numbers of Violet-crowned Hummingbirds.  MANY people from all over the world come to Southern Arizona with hopes of spotting this beauty.  Here at the ranch, they were THE most common hummingbird at the feeders.  The Rufous male hummingbirds were also present indicating that migration has begun.  

dolphins with wings, the Violet-crowned Hummingbirds
For me, seeing a Rufous Hummingbird in July is like watching the first fall migration of Sandhill Cranes in Wisconsin.  It reminds me that seasons do change and life continues in its cycle.  The monsoon storms grew over the mountains while we were there. The firefly show blinked all around us. And even on me! Yet another sign that the "seasons" have changed in our beautiful Sonoran desert. 

Broad-billed Hummingbirds sparkled in the brief moments of morning sunlight. 

the brilliant gem known as the Broad-billed Hummingbird
As a rule, we did most of our surveys in the morning when critters were SUPER active. And it was cooler.  In the afternoon, I hung out with Kathy and Mary Ann on the patio away from the intense sun and muggy conditions.  It was a special weekend as we were experimenting with a catered event provided by Carlos' sons.  They did an amazing job. And made our work easier.  Kathy, who normally did all of our food prep in the past, got so bored that she went for a hike!  

a mummified Pallid Bat
The usual birds were present.  We also discovered a grim scene inside one of the rooms.  Mummified Pallid Bats were found all around the fireplace.  I plugged my nose as Jim picked up these poor mammals.  Apparently, there was no escaping back up the chimney where they came.  

the western subspecies of the Yellow-breasted Chat
Yellow-breasted Chats were chatty.  Thick-billed Kingbirds were cheer-eeping. Sinaloan Wrens were rattling POPS! And the mournful cries of the Gray Hawk could be heard up and down the canyon. 

Thick-billed Kingbirds
I was dying from heat exhaustion. At one point, I almost passed out because I went outside of the safe zone and ran out of water. So I hustled it back to headquarters before anything bad happened. One evening in my tent, it was unbearable. I couldn't sleep at all!  I have enjoyed sleep in my a/c  run home whenever I can. For the first summer in a long while, I have traveled most of it outside of Arizona. Some of the nights were challenging in the various places. After several weeks back from this adventure, I have fond memories of our trip.  If you had asked me during this particular weekend how I felt, I might have said something else:) 

Carne Asada never tasted better
For it was on this survey that some incredible things happened.  For one, we discovered several more species for the ranch.  During a morning coffee, watching the hummingbirds, I noticed a green bunting under the feeder.  A female Painted Bunting!!!  Later Jim and I were trying to relocate a Northern Jacana that I had seen earlier in the wetlands.  I thought this bird would be rare but it turned out the Willow Flycatcher was even rarer! FITZ-BEW!  Jim was shocked.  I thought it was unusual but nothing like the Northern Jacana.  And it didn't end.  Later we found Flame-colored Tanagers along the riparian corridor!  Talk about amazing!  July is the best time to visit Aribabi and it's the reason I go every year to do my counts at the ranch.  

I call a Gray Hawk over to my location by making a mournful whistle
Every year, Jim finds some nasty bug hiding in the couch or somewhere nearby that I'd rather never know about. This trek was no different.  On this little adventure, a Windscorpion, apparently not poisonous, was under the cushion of a couch.  Gross! How is that thing not deadly?  Look at those pinchers for a mouth!

nasty alien bug from a group known as Windscorpions, not poisonous
On Saturday night, we celebrated our last finds together with a nice bottle of wine and an excellent Mexican dinner.   

For every in depth research project, there should be a fun birding expedition after wards.  Everything in my life continues to change.  Every experience away from what I know, changes me.  Nothing is black or white anymore. Over the next several weeks, we'll explore the island of Maui. 28 new bird species were added to the list towards the 1,000 bird marker I've set for this year, but what I saw, or didn't see, changed me in ways that I hope I will be able to write down properly.

Leila Empress
As I did my research for Hawaii, I made notes without any feeling. Reading about something is completely different than experiencing it. Needless to say, the experiences with birds between Trinidad and Maui were night and day and it changed me.

For the El Aribabi Report, click here. Next week we explore the beautiful world of Hawaii.  For now, I'll leave with a Sunday Morning moment I had during my survey along the Cocospera Riparian corridor. I wanted to sleep in this spot.  It was so relaxing. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Nariva Swamp

This White-fronted Capuchin defends his territory
My last write on Trinidad birding sadly begins and ends at Nariva Swamp.  This trek wasn't too popular at Asa Wright during the time I was there so I had to contract a guide on my own during my week in Arima.  

Nariva Swamp is one of the few places on the island where people can still find White-fronted Capuchin Monkeys, Howler Monkeys, the reintroduced Blue-and-Yellow Macaws and other interesting species.

The very common Ruddy Ground-Dove
I had a guide but she didn't know her birds at all and talked a lot about herself during the trip.  On the bonus side?  She was a good driver.  They're hard to find on the island:)  The driving is quite crazy.  And the roads outside of Port of Spain are extraordinarily bad in some parts.  

Smooth-billed Ani's rule!
On my trip to Nariva, I got to study a lot of birds we had briefly seen on our Caroni trek which were really just ticks during that 23 minute walk.  Finding guides in Trinidad is not difficult, but finding GOOD guides in Trinidad can be tricky.  Some guides think birding is just pointing at the bird for the tick.  And while that may be partially true for me, it's also about understanding the history, calls and behaviors behind the bird.  Not all guides can do that.  So I had to come prepared with a list of questions for the guides.  With a little guidance, I was able to get the answers I needed. Most travelers just go to "go" on a fun trip.  I'm there to study.  And that's the difference between myself and others vacationing. 

The great big ocean world surrounding Trinidad is a fascinating one.  The Pacific side of the island is calm for sea turtles to beach and lay eggs.  It had a different feel as well. 

Black Vultures forage for opportunities
In the pic above, we'd find a lot of scavengers, like the Black Vulture, along the beaches eating broken turtle eggs or trying to eat the recently hatched turtles.

The relaxing beautiful Pacific side of the island
However, the Atlantic side was wild and windy. On the day we cruised the Atlantic side to Nariva, bikers utilized an almost abandoned road system along a large grove of Coconut palms.  The beach is deemed dangerous for swimmers as the current is strong on this side of the island.  I'd see abandoned buildings along this highway.  Apparently a tsunami hit the island several years ago and wiped out this area taking homes out into the ocean. Locals no longer live along this stretch of highway.  Coconut palms have spread and taken over the area. 

The windy brown water of the Atlantic
The ocean waters along this side of the island were also very brown.  According to the guide, she, along with many other Trinidadians, swam in these beautiful waters 3 decades ago. I suppose there is debris in this water from that tsunami that also makes the beach off limits to swimmers and surfers.

Once we passed this area, we started seeing swamp type vegetation.  The plants along the road began to close in around us until we were inside the Nariva Swamp area. 

the water highways of a mangrove swamp
The dark brackish water was home to a variety of crabs like the Blue Land Crab. 

Blue Land Crabs are caught for good eating
On our way to the boat, we observed tiny fiddler crabs defending their muddy homes in the grass. 

A Yellow-headed Caracara
At first it rained and then, it cleared up with beautiful sunny skies.  A slight breeze kept the mosquitoes from eating us alive. 

a very wet Common Black Hawk dries off
Common Black Hawks are THE hawk of the island.  I think I had at least one on almost every count.  In Arizona, they are a treat to see, but on Trinidad, they are taken for granted.  Here they feed from crabs and frogs along the mangrove and forest waters.

At Caroni Swamp, I had seen the Fork-tailed Flycatchers but they were such bad observations that I didn't count them.  I knew I'd have better chances to observe them and thankfully I did!

Fork-tailed Flycatchers are numerous in open wetland area
I'll admit something here to you all.  I'm not big on swifts or swallows, but if you're going to add them, you have to look at them.  In Trinidad, there are a number of swifts and swallows that a birder can observe.  They are not hard to find but they can be difficult to ID in the lighting conditions.  One of the swallow species that I wanted to observe well was the White-winged Swallow.  

The cute White-winged Swallows take a break on a power line
They sparkle blue in the sun with a lovely white wing bar.  They are VERY common on the island and seen all around the airport. 

Another bird in the swamp was the beautiful Southern Lapwing.  Two flew directly over our heads.

A Southern Lapwing claims the throne on top of a hill
While I surveyed the swamp, our mission was to head out to the island in the middle of the swamp. Many birds and monkeys hung out there. 

Blackbirds are really awesome.  The Yellow-hooded Blackbirds were vocal on this day along side our boat.  At one point, one came out into the open for us to observe. 

A beautiful Yellow-hooded Blackbird defends a nesting territory near the swamp
Once we left the swamp area, we docked our boat on a makeshift dock and walked through the wet trail onto the island. 

We stuck to the trails.  One little slip and we'd be in the drink!
As predicted, parrots of all species were vocal and in flight.  My "guide", or I should say driver, looked out of place with her clothing, choice of shoes and purse. The young man leading us was great and knew his birds in the area.  He was going to school to lead birding trips and it showed. 

I was hoping to view these Red-bellied Macaws and Nariva Swamp is the best place for them
The actual boat guide was perceptive and read my body language and told me that we could wait as I began observing birds of prey lifting off from the forest. 

A Savanna Hawk finally makes itself known
A similar species, the Striated Heron, looks almost like our Green Herons but the overall gray and bluish tones separate this species from its fraternal twin. 

A subtle bird in the birding world, the Striated Heron is a common bird around the island of Trinidad.  Green Herons on Trinidad are considered rare and vice versa on Tobago. 
And it was on this trip that I finally saw the American Pygmy Kingfisher.  It was a tiny little mouse flying through the mangroves!

And at last, I was able to get close enough to a Green Kingfisher for a great shot.  The bird actually sat and posed for us while we were in the canoe.

And of course, on the island, we saw our monkeys.  They were making aggressive moves towards us and dropping branches on top of our heads, but that is typical of a capuchin.  Several years ago, we had one throwing mangoes at us on Coiba Island.  And with reason!  Locals will hunt these monkeys and eat them!  Nariva Swamp is protected but poachers still do their best to hunt these areas.  Thankfully there are people watching these waters. Fines and prison terms have increased dramatically on the islands to end this age old practice. 

We saw a huge Anaconda slink into a stream on the island and I did the heebie jeebie move but it was really cool as the monster snake disappeared into the dark waters.  Maybe the monkeys were trying to warn us:)

The life long journey into birds will continue next week.  But for now, I need a shave and some rest.  I hope you've enjoyed this series on Trinidadian birding.  Here is my report from two great areas to bird, Nariva Swamp and the Piarco International Airport grounds.  Until next time.....

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Superstars of the Trinidadian Birding World

Finding birds can be a very magical experience
A lot of people asked, "Why Trinidad?"  Honestly, I don't know.  I was curious about a new culture.  But birds also helped me make the decision.  Anywhere we go, there are always "the superstars" of the birding world that we hope to observe in the wild.  Trinidad has quite a few that I was excited about observing in the wild. 

a natural stream forms a pool at the Asa Wright Centre
It was also more than just finding the birds.  I wanted to explore the habitat on my own.  For the first time in my life, I actually did some birding in a cave! 

Bearded Bellbird
The first superstar for me was this beautiful Bearded Bellbird above.  This bird feeds from fruits and berries and was rather common here in Trinidad.  If you've ever heard ANY bellbird species, you'll recognize the loud one noted almost electical sounding "BONK!" Throughout your stay at Asa Wright, you'll hear these birds often from inside the forest.  The hike on the dark emerald trail was gorgeous. We followed the "BONK".  After several moments, my eyes finally adjusted and found the bird on a branch. BONK! The "beard" is actually made up of flesh.  The better the "beard", the more attractive the mate!  

The thrill of observing one of those cartoon superstars come alive from the pages in my guide got my heart pumping.  Another journey into this dense forest was to study manakins.  They are one of my favorite groups of birds.  At Asa Wright, there are TWO species of manakin that have well established leks.  For the first time in my life, I was able to communicate with these species.  We "spoke" with one another while I watched them do their thing. 

White-bearded Manakin
Another "bearded" named species, the White-bearded Manakin responded to a sashay two snap "giiiiirrrrrrrrl".  I'd hear the "snap snap" of the wings and snap my fingers twice.  The manakin did an elaborate dance on the ground for me.  I spent several hours with both manakin species in the dark woods forgetting about the chiggers and mosquitoes.  Big mistake on my part.  I was so focused on these birds that I didn't realize I was getting bit up.  

Channel-billed Toucan
One bird that I almost dipped on was the Channel-billed Toucan.  I went days without seeing one and then, I saw one.....for a second.  So could I count it?  Yes, but I wasn't having it.  On my last day at the centre, only one of the toucans flew out for less than a minute and gave me great looks.  Sometimes we don't always get to see our superstars. Take for example, the Purple Honeycreeper!  Not once did I see one.  I saw both Green and Red-legged Honeycreepers.....but never once did I spy the supposedly "common" Purple Honeycreeper.  Lesson for me?  Never assume I'll see the common birds. 

One of the biggest challenges was finding the critically endangered Trinidad piping-guan.  There wasn't anyone going from the centre to look for this bird so I had to contract an outside guide to drive me to the area where they were seen.  From the reports, it was hit or miss.  I think of all the birds on this trip, this was the one I wanted to see the most.  A wise woman told me once to target all the endangered birds first and this year I have employed this strategy.  The Sierra Madre Sparrow and Black-polled and Belding's Yellowthroats were incredibly special finds.  They are endangered because of habitat destruction.  The Trinidad piping-guan, the true endemic of Trinidad birding, is only found on Trinidad in one area now. Habitat destruction is not the issue.  Poaching is.  To get to the birds, we drove through miles of beautiful rain forest along the Trinidadian coast. Many of the small villages were isolated in areas that were difficult to drive.  The road was in very bad shape and it took us several hours to get to the village where there is still a stable population. 

The unspoiled beauty of Grande Riviere
We waited for an hour in the rain.  I was losing hope and then the rain stopped and a bird hopped up onto a branch.  The Trinidad piping-guan!!!! And not just one but 12!!!

Trinidad piping-guan
I put my umbrella away and began documenting the birds sipping from the rain water collected in the bromeliad cups at sunrise.  They stayed for about an hour and then disappeared into the forest to forage around the ground for food.  After seeing these birds, I felt good.  The trip in my mind was a success.  In Trinidad, there are a few species that carry the country's name.  The Trinidad Motmot was once part of the Blue-crowned Motmot complex.  I saw and heard the birds but in very dark rain forest settings.  There is the Trinidad Euphonia which is found in northeastern South America.  So while the Euphonia is listed as an endemic, it's not the same as the Trinidad Motmots or piping-guans which are ONLY located on Trinidad. 

My focus was ONLY on Trinidad because there was so much to see here.  Tobago is another trek one day.  And I plan on going with others to find that island's specialty birds. However, with that said, it is SUPER cheap to go from Trinidad to Tobago.  It's 50 bucks round trip and like a bus terminal, you just wait in the airport to get on their hourly scheduled flights.  No reservations needed unless it's a major holiday. 

The superstar bird I connected with the most was the Golden-crowned Manakin.  It has a one high pitched note that I was able to replicate myself.  Throughout my stay I was able to call them from the forest.  I'd hear one in the woods and then I'd respond.  And within moments the bird would be looking right at me.  I even called one to the deck of Asa Wright.  I heard it and then told the photographers to get ready.  And for a brief moment, the Golden-headed Manakin showed.  Manakins are life.  My license plate on my car says Manakin.  In the tropics I would study this group of birds more if I lived there.  In Arizona, I study sparrows. 

Golden-crowned Manakin
The last of the greats in Trinidad was a visit to the Oilbird colony in the caves.  They come up as rare on ebird because Trinidad is their northern most range.  Oilbirds are like potoos, owls and other nightjars in that they feed by night.  But unlike these other night birds, the Oilbird is the only flying fruit eater of the forest. They communicate much like bats but if you heard them in the caves during the day, you'd swear there were monsters lurking inside the darkness.  Their "growls" are quite intimidating. 

I've included this little informational video on these birds from the Asa Wright grounds.  While the narrator is speaking, listen to the sounds in the background.  Every year, the team surveys the caves and counts the birds. Several have trackers and at first many had believed that these oilbirds were faithful to these caverns but from a conversation I had with one of the guides, they've discovered that these oilbirds will fly as far as Venezuela for several weeks to feed. 

In the darkness at "5, 4, 3, 2, 1", our guide, Yosanna gave us a cue to be ready with our cameras. Then there was indirect light on the bird. And at "5, 4, 3, 2, 1" the light went off the bird. Several growls could be heard from deep inside the cavern. 

These birds were surprisingly large! Today they are listed as "least concern" but still protected as their specific habitat, caves, need to be preserved. In the video, it's mentioned that their numbers had decreased due to people taking the babies from the nest.  What I'm about to write will sound barbaric but it's what people did. If you don't want the gruesome details, just skip to the next pic. People from days yonder would collect the babies that are much larger than the adults. Their body fat is made mostly of palm oil(one of their food sources).  Their heads would be cut off and the the people would light the birds up.  It is said that the light would last 3-4 hours long.  They would also use the oil to cook as well.  

This was the last of my true target birds.  Everything else was just a fun find.  On this gorgeous trail into the cave area, it began to rain.  I wore all my proper birding clothes and even with all the proper preparation, I managed to slip into a spiny palm and stab myself good.  I brought an umbrella and I wore hiking shoes with grips.  There were railings on certain parts of the trail but there were also poisonous tarantulas living inside the hollows of the rails.  And unlike the tarantulas here in Arizona, they would attack if you got too close. This hike was the last "deep" hike into the forest as the last wave of chiggers killed my legs.  They have sulfur powder for you to put on before hiking but it didn't work for moi.  Long pants prevent much of the biting but I was still bit up pretty bad. There is something about my blood, even with sprays and powders and the proper gear, that bugs love.  

Gail survived.  She was a trouper. Her focus was photography and being from Canada, she was challenged by the humid and slickery conditions of the Trinidad climate. 
Birding is not easy. I mean, it can be, but often, it is challenging both mentally and physically. The Oilbird trek is an easy to moderate one depending on the rain. We had a really nice lady with asthma almost pass out.  She slipped on the trail but friend and Asa Wright guide Yosanna came to the rescue. I felt safe with Yosanna as she is a snake person. Many times Fer-de-lance vipers hang out on that trail camouflaged among the leaf litter.  Yosanna's eyes scanned our path to the cavern. If anyone would step on a snake, it would be me.  I've almost done it twice over the years.  Had it not been for others stopping me, I might have stepped on the poor things. 

During the rainy season, always pack an umbrella
So wherever you go, always check for the "special" birds like the endemics or endangered species.  Some places are easier than others to see certain species. Every place has their "superstars".  With a little research and luck, you'll hopefully get to observe them in the wild.  Sometimes, you work with others.  And other times, you work alone. That's the beauty of birding. 

I have one more write coming up from Trinidad on another cool hotspot.  Then we'll be heading to Mexico to investigate a recent killing of a jaguar just across the border.  He was known as the "Huachuca" jaguar.  That makes TWO illegally poached situations both in Arizona and Mexico.  Then it's off to Maui, Hawaii where we'll search for some of the fun birds found on that island. In August, I'll be guiding 2 day treks with Tucson Audubon's Southeast Birding Festival.  I'll be back teaching again and juggling my dual lives. There's so much in store for this year so stay tuned for more!  Next week, it's Nariva Swamp.  Until next time.....

Look at my hair!!!  I'm a huge disaster!  The humidity and rain just killed my "look"  Yosanna, however, remains fashionably cool.  But no matter what, the birds and company are most always excellent!