Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Higher Cult of Mortals

Scaled Ground-Cuckoo

It’s amazing what you can see in just five days at Cristalino Jungle Lodge. On this private tour I’m currently leading for a Finnish couple (with their two kids and a nanny in tow), we saw and heard almost exactly 300 species of birds in just four full days at Cristalino, including some really good ones. Three of them I’d seen only once before (and two were lifers just last year in other parts of Brazil), one was a bird I had only heard before, and two were new for the private reserve’s already huge list, nearly 30 years old.

The title of this blog is stolen from a Robert Cushman Murphy quote after he had seen an albatross. But we now belong to a truly select group of very fortunate humans who have laid eyes on a Scaled Ground-Cuckoo – the bird I had heard once before while leading a tour here. Quick history on this species here, with nearly unicorn status anywhere: One was glimpsed here in the late 1980’s, and then not again until the early 2000’s. A couple more sightings followed, but it still wasn’t settled as recently as five years ago what species they referred to, so brief were these sightings (Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo is similar and also very little known). Then began Jorge Lopez’ quest to document the bird. For the past four years he and Francisco de Carvalho Souza, both fabulous local guides and boatmen who have been working for Cristalino since about the beginning of the enterprise, have been quietly and very gradually habituating these extraordinarily shy birds to a bird bath and feeding station (with earthworms). About three years ago Jorge let me and others in on his secret with the first photos. Then last year he had video to show. But he didn’t think the birds were ready to show tourists until this year, and even now it turns out to be a very iffy prospect. Apparently one bird or a pair will come in two or three days in a row, then vanish for 3 weeks or a month, confirmed with motion-sensitive camera traps. On one of our afternoons this past week, Jorge told me that his previous day’s worms had vanished, and that the cuckoos must be coming; he suggested we change the afternoon plan to boat upriver and sit still for an hour watching his feeder from a screened bench in the forest. OK, change made! We waited only 1/2 hour before we heard the bill snapping between two birds, and one came in three times to eat the worms he hung from little nooses over the bird bath. While we waited a Barred Forest-Falcon came in for a drink as well. As far as I know we were the first lodge guests to have this privilege. Jorge has taken a few of the local guides and special friends there, and until now perhaps only six people had seen them. One of the local guides has been there 10 times without seeing it. The next day, Jorge dared take a larger group of 9 well-behaved birders from a Rockjumper tour, hoping the birds would come a third day in a row. They didn’t, highlighting again for us how lucky we were. I had my spotting scope set up on the spot and digiscoped these grainy shots in the dark forest understory.
Scaled Ground-Cuckoo

Scaled Ground-Cuckoo

Scaled Ground-Cuckoo

Scaled Ground-Cuckoo

Another one of the surprise birds was a Black Manakin, a first record for the Cristalino area. We saw it briefly a couple times, Jarmo Komi snapped some photos, and I sort of forgot about it, as we proceeded to see another 75 species that day. At lunch we showed the photos to some others, eliciting mostly shrugging of shoulders. But at our evening checklist session, we came to the manakins, and that’s when it hit me what it was. Birds are known from very isolated locations about 50 km north and about 100 km south, but in both places on a very short, scrubby and viny forest on white sandy soils. This was an immature male, probably a bit lost after dispersing from one of those areas, having found a bit of similar looking habitat on the Manakin Trail. This is my photo of Jarmo’s camera screen.
Black Manakin, Jarmo Komi

Then another amazing find, right after the manakin, was this Rufous-tailed Attila, a little known bird in the Amazon Basin where it apparently winters very sparsely. In the austral spring it heads back to the more temperate SE Brazilian rainforest to breed. Stupidly, this is my third one here of about 6 local records now, to the consternation of all the local guides, some of whom have Cristalino lists larger than mine.
Rufous-tailed Attila

On our hike up the Serra, we tooted in this Amazonian Pygmy-Owl which was precisely the lure we needed to bring in the continuing female Fiery-tailed Awlbill, which we saw briefly, but didn’t get photos of. I had seen one 9 years ago, the photo of which was the first documented record for Cristalino and the state of Mato Grosso.
Amazonian Pygmy-Owl

The final “rarity” I found was a Striped Cuckoo on the lodge grounds. This is a common bird with a large range, but it is a recent invader to the shrubby pastures that were all pristine rainforest just 30-40 years ago. Well within the forested Cristalino reserve it was a big surprise. I first saw it feeding on moths and spiders on the side of the guides’ dorm, and then it flew up to the roof of the old kitchen where it sat for a couple minutes as it raised and lowered its crest while thumbing its black alula. The photo isn’t worth sharing.

One of the hallmark birds for Cristalino is the Cryptic Forest-Falcon. They’re not rare here, but they can be very quiet and sometimes shy, unlike this bird that perched over our heads. It was here at Cristalino some 20 years ago that Andy Whittaker first recognized this as being different from the more widespread Lined Forest-Falcon, and he described it as a new species in a paper published less than 14 years ago.
Cryptic Forest-Falcon

Cristalino is so much more than just birds. This family of Giant Otters was in the river as we were arriving, and we drifted downstream with them until they clambered on this rock. What a greeting committee!
Giant Otter

Inger spotted this very quiet Southern Tamandua in a vine tangle over one of the trails one afternoon. I’ve seen only 3 or 4 here over the years.
Southern Tamandua

I went to the rocks on my own one evening to look at fish. I had never seen this long-nosed thing before, and there were several there. It appears to be a pike characine of some sort, according to Gavin Bieber.
pike characine

Gavin suggests this is an Ancistrus sp., bushy-nosed catfish, and that’s about the closest you can get to an actual name for virtually any fish here, so little known is the piscifauna.
Ancistrus sp., bushy-nosed catfish

This butterfly look-alike is actually a cane-borer moth in the family Castniidae. Best match with online photos is Castnia icarus, the prettiest I have seen.
Castnia icarus

While on the Serra we saw the usual Cyrtopodium sp. orchids, even some in bloom, but new to me was this Encyclia cachimboensis, a plant which I’ve obviously walked past several times, but never in bloom. It has a wonderful floral perfume, slightly spicy.
Encyclia cachimboensis

Encyclia cachimboensis

Butterflies on the beach were underwhelming, despite my efforts. It’s perhaps too early in the season; numbers seem to peak just before the rains in early September. Neographium thyastes, Orange Kite-Swallowtail is always a nice find though.
Neographium thyastes, Orange Kite-Swallowtail

I’m slowly trying to learn spider families, most of which can be identified simply on the basis of the eye placement. Most spiders have eight eyes, and a while back I had already identified the common large, flat spiders on the rocks by the river as members of the mostly neotropical family Trechaleidae.


This much smaller one looked very similar, but it was on a tree trunk well inside the igapó forest on the Manakin trail. A close-up of the eyes shows that it has the same arrangement so I assume it’s in that family.


A final photo of dawn at Tower 1, a memorable vista with an unforgettable soundscape.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Early Monsoon Yard Blog

I was at home just a week between tours, but I got a lot done, not just editing all the photos from the Galápagos. In the garden I sowed about a hundred black-eyed peas as a suggestion for a nitrogen-fixing green cover, and I bought another tomato plant (guess what happens when the landlord turns off the automatic drip timer and doesn’t water until it’s too late…). The first pea was out in just 4 days, a ton more after 5. It should be a veritable carpet when I get back.

I missed the 117.5°F temperature on the 19th, just as forecasted. But then we did get some nice  early rain. About 1 1/3 inches fell in a big storm the day before I came home, and then we had another 3/4 inch in two different long, slow night rains early in the week. So even before the traditional average starting date of the monsoon (July 5 in the past) we’ve received a third of the average allotment. Then again, we might night get any more the rest of the summer.

A big cholla cactus toppled from too much water, so I carefully chopped it up and worked it in into two big compost piles, layering with old straw, wind-blown leaves and bark from the Eucalyptus after the storm, and partially finished compost from the previous pile. That took parts of 3 days.

After the second long rain, this Incilius alvarius, Sonoran Giant Toad was on my doorstep eating the insects attracted to the porch light. It’s the first I’ve seen in the yard.
Incilius alvarius, Sonoran Giant Toad

This is what it left the next morning, which had Paul really guessing. It’s mostly indigestible beetle elytra and wings.
Incilius alvarius, Sonoran Giant Toad

This jeweled flower beetle is Acmaeodera gibbula, the first one I’ve seen in the yard; sadly it was dead in a hummingbird feeder moat, but there aren’t many flowers to be looking at yet.
Acmaeodera gibbula

My spearmint was doing really well, then just two days ago it suddenly looked like this, overnight.

I looked very carefully and found three little green caterpillars, and by using the handy “site:” search feature looked for the word mint at the MPG (moth photographers group) website. After cross-checking with Bugguide, I’ve decided they almost have to be Pyrausta laticlavia, Southern Purple Mint Moth, though there are no photos of caterpillars online. Other mint-feeding Pyrausta species have similarly shaped caterpillars, though most have more distinctive stripes, and they don’t seem to be known from Arizona. In any event, I put them in a small jar with some leaf litter and sticks, capped it with cheese cloth, and will inspect it for moths when I return in 3 weeks. One had already started to pupate in a loose webbed cocoon yesterday.
Pyrausta laticlavia, Southern Purple Mint Moth

A WINGS Week in the Galápagos Islands

Just a week ago I came home from my fifth trip to the Galápagos Islands. And already I’m headed out for my next tour, a private tour to Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Everything about the Galapagos is photogenic and easy to photograph, so I came home with lots of photos. Much of the week I spent organizing and labeling them, and here are just a few from the trip.

This was the first time WINGS has chartered the Nemo III, a catamaran with eight very nice cabins. Everyone in the group gave the boat a big thumbs up.

We were on the boat for seven nights, on this particular boat’s set itinerary in the central and southeastern part of the archipelago. One of the group’s favorite activities was sitting on the bench on the bow, overlooking the ocean as we motored between islands

This is a Small Ground-Finch, the most abundant and widespread of the currently recognized 15 species of “Darwin’s finches” (they are really tanagers) in the Galapagos. Recent genetic evidence has led one group of ornithologists to recommend splitting some of the six ground-finches (genus Geospiza), making them eight species. Others have looked at the same data and recommend lumping all into one species of Geospiza with various “ecomorphs.” The problem with the first is that it doesn’t give enough thought to how much hybridization and back-crossing must go on among some forms, making a lot of the birds intermediate and impossible to identify. The second school ignores some clear cases of strongly assortative mating and complete allopatry – distinctions that are obscured if you’re not a birder in the field and obsess in a lab over numbers and letters.

These finches react to pishing by coming in close, but their reaction is very different from the noisy mobbing and scolding response you see in our sparrows, warblers, and chickadees at home They mostly don’t call, and the just fly in, perch near you, look confused, and then soon lose interest and start feeding. They don’t tend not to hop around rapidly, act agitated, or say much. Once one landed on my tripod while I was carrying it on my shoulder.

One of the more distinctive of the finches is Vegetarian Finch, though I don’t know how much hybridization it experiences. It’s currently the only member of its genus, Platyspiza, and we actually got to watch this one consume a large portion of this fern frond.

This is Española Mockingbird, one of four species of mockingbird we saw (which is all that are currently recognized). They are all quite tame, but this single-island species borders on psychotically curious.

Maybe because of worries about El Niño we had two cabins unoccupied just a couple weeks before the cruise, so WINGS offered them to any leaders who had the time free; here is Steve Howell getting friendly with an Española Mockingbird.

When I called out to Steve to pose for the above photo, a Nazca Booby flew in and displaced the mockingbird, all within about 3 feet of Steve.

Even the Yellow Warblers (an endemic subspecies) are fearless here – while they chip more and act like our birds at home, a simple pishing can bring them to your feet, such as this immature bird that I’m looking down on.

Elliot's Storm-Petrel is almost always present around the boats, whether we are between islands or anchored right offshore, but they are constantly moving and difficult to photograph.

We walked through a few different seabird colonies, and it didn’t look like the recent very strong El Niño was having much of an effect any more – water temps had returned to normal (or even a little below normal) by early April, according to, and  maybe the were able to respond immediately. This and many other Great Frigatebirds were already tending older chicks.

Blue-footed Booby displaying.

We saw 23 Galapagos Penguins one day. The island of Bartolomé is apparently now completely rat-free, and the birds seem to be having greater nesting success here.

We even caught two in the act of mating; maybe they’ve noticed an uptick in food with the dropping water temperatures.

The Waved Albatross colony on Española was doing well, with many birds incubating and some even still reaffirming their pair bonds with their fabulous, complex displays.

This close-up on the waved pattern on the side of the breast shows where the species gets its most accepted English name. (Galapagos Albatross would have been a good name too, as all but about four pairs nest on this one small island.)

Swallow-tailed Gulls were also in full breeding mode. This one may have had something stuck in its gullet, or this was a repeated yawn display that I hadn’t seen before.

We saw so much more than just birds. Snorkeling is always a major part of a Galapagos cruise, and we had five different opportunities, identifying over 50 species. For the first time I had a camera I could take underwater, but even putting it on the automatic underwater mode, my results were very mixed.

Aetobatus narinari, Spotted Eagle Ray

Holacanthus passer, King Angelfish

Lepidonectes corallicola, Galapagos Triplefin Blenny

Many islands have their own endemic lava lizard, and we saw four species. This is Microlophus delanonis, Española Lava Lizard.

There are four endemic snakes, and this Pseudalsophis biserialis, Galapagos Snake is the only common one; I had seen it twice before.

The Galapagos Giant Tortoise is now considered to comprise 17 species, five of which are extinct. This is Chelonoidis nigrita, Santa Cruz Giant Tortoise on a private ranch where a over a dozen were lounging and feeding.

This Scinax quinquefasciatus, Fowler's Snouted Treefrog appears to be common in the moister highlands of Santa Cruz. There was one in our bathroom in the hotel, and two were on the keyboard of the piano in the restaurant when I lifted its cover. It is introduced, and who knows what effects it has had on the ecosystem.

It’s amazing how fearless the animals are. On Santa Fé, we chose a spot well away from the Galapagos Sea Lions to put our shoes on. Then this one came on the beach and insisted on walking right through our group, as if we were merely bushes in the way.

One of my participants was a moth enthusiast (with a yard list in England of a couple hundred species). So it was fun to find two endemics, however tiny. This is Aetole galapagoensis, Galapagos Saltbush Moth, with it’s highly modified third pair of legs.

This colorful one is Atteva hysginiella, Galapagos Bitterbush Moth.

New for me was this tiny grasshopper, Sphingonotus fuscoirroratus, an endemic band-winged grasshopper. I’ve now seen half of the eight grasshoppers here, all endemic.

Dennis Paulson identified this Erythemis vesiculosa, Great Pondhawk for me which was on the farm with the tortoises; it was the first one I’ve seen here, and I’ve seen it also in southern Florida and NE Brazil – obviously a very wide-ranging species.

There are several endemic darkling beetles in the genus Blapstinus, which I think this one is, probably requiring microscopic inspection to identify to species.

Argiope argentata, Silver Garden Spider is a very widespread species. Spiders that spread on gossamer threads can populate even most remote islands around the globe.

This small orbweaver with a tubular house in the middle of its web is Metepeira desenderi Baert 1987, an endemic. I contacted Baert himself to get confirmation on some of my spider IDs.

This is Selenops mexicanus, Mexican Flatty, apparently introduced, and only recently reclassified as this species (originally thought to be an endemic).

One of two endemic scorpions and still the only one I’ve seen, this is Hadruroides galapagoensis, Galapagos Scorpion.

The introduced pest Polistes versicolor, Yellow Paper Wasp.

Many plants are endemic: Lecocarpus pinnatifidus, Wing-fruited Lecocarpus.

Opuntia echios var. echios, Giant Prickly Pear (this variety only on Santa Fé, where it presumably has extra tall trunks to avoid predation by the long-necked tortoises, which are sadly long extinct.)

Passiflora colinvauxii, Colinvaux's Passion Flower

Others are more widespread, found on the nearby dry coasts of southern Ecuador and Peru or even Central America. Maytenus octogona, Leatherleaf (family Celastraceae).

I would like to get to know the ferns better, as there are many species here, though not many endemic (12 out of 131). I was glad to have figured out this Phlebodium pseudoaureum, Blue Rabbit's Foot Fern, as it’s the species that the Vegetarian Finch was eating on our first day.