Friday, April 11, 2014

Northern Peru Hummingbirds #4

On my northern Peru tour this past February, one of the target birds that everyone knew about and really wanted to see was this Marvelous Spatuletail. It really is one of the most amazing hummingbirds. It’s now quite easy to see at the Huembo Center feeders about an hour west of the Owlet Lodge.

The feeders here had a good variety and were quite a bit different than at the Owlet Lodge (though since my last visit, the bossy Chestnut-breasted Coronets had increased here, perhaps a seasonal thing). This was the only place we had the White-bellied Woodstar, and all we saw here were males.

On the other hand, most, if not all of the female woodstars we saw here were Little Woodstar, only a little shorter-tailed than White-bellied, but distinctively rufousy throughout. (At the end of the tour, a male Little Woodstar was at the porterweed hedge at Waqanki).

While the Huembo feeders have been around for a few years, a 20 minute drive in the opposite direction from the Owlet Lodge is another bank of feeders that has been up and running for just a few months. It’s called Fundo Alto Nieva.

The stunted plant growth on sandy soils here harbors the right mix of ericaceous and melastomataceous plants for a couple species of hummingbirds that have a very patchy and localized distribution, and which have never been seen at feeders before. The most beautiful one is the all-blue Royal Sunangel (the green highlights on the left bird may be remnants of immature plumage or just the angle of the light).

The other species I saw at feeders here for the first time is this Greenish Puffleg, so little known that the available pictures in the field guides look nothing like the real thing.

We saw two other species at these feeders, this female Booted Racket-tail...

...and this Violet-fronted Brilliant.

The two guys running the simple station here are Kenny on the left, a very good birder who has done bird surveys for others in the region, and Wilmer on the right, the younger brother of Santos who runs the Huembo center for the Marvelous Spatuletail. Both of these guys know their birds well.

The other bird that this new Alto Nieva site is now famous for is the Long-whiskered Owlet. It’s a fairly easy 1-km hike up a trail to a couple of territories, about doubling the total number of this tiny owl reachable by birders. We finally saw one on our fourth try and final night, surely a result of the poor weather (raining much of the night) early on in our stay.

My next tour to this area is already set for February 19-28, 2015, with just five or six spaces left. I'm looking forward to it!

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Sword-bearing Sword-bearer

One species I left out of my last post from the Owlet Lodge was this marvelous bird, the Sword-billed Hummingbird. It has always been a very scarce bird in this area, or at least very scarcely seen by birders, and even then only very briefly amongst the lush roadside cloud forest growth. But two days before my WINGS tour arrived, for the very first time in the five years that feeders have been maintained at this lodge, this individual began visiting the feeders. It came in off and on all day long during our five-day stay.

Many hummingbirds are very inquisitive and will find nectar wherever it can be found. They just stick their bill into anything and see what it contains. That is why you can see so many species of hummingbirds at feeders that look nothing like real flowers – very close to every species that occur in an area will eventually be found at the feeders you hang there.

But a few species of hummingbirds are specialists on whatever flower they feed from and are rarely, if ever seen at feeders. I can think of a few, such as the often common Violet-headed Hummingbird, that I have never heard of visiting feeders.

This leathery-leafed, tall-climbing Passiflora vine, when open, is presumably one of the primary natural food sources for the Sword-bill here. The length and angle of the flower tube is perfect.

With its amazing bill, it's pretty obvious that the Sword-billed Hummingbird is rather a specialist, so it took an enterprising and bold (and maybe very hungry) individual to discover that these feeders, looking nothing like a long-tubed flower, had food potential.

The scientific name, Ensifera ensifera, is Latin for "Sword-bearing sword-bearer." Think of "conifer" meaning "cone–bearer" and "crucifer" meaning "cross-bearer" and you can guess that "ensis" is a Latin word for sword. Incidentally, a binomial consisting of two identical words like this is a tautonym, not uncommon in zoology, but not allowed in botanical nomenclature. My botany professor explained this with "Tonella tenella is not a total tautonym."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Northern Peru Hummingbirds #2

Our main base for the Northern Peru tour is the five-year-old Owlet Lodge at the pass long known to ornithologists at Abra Patricia. It’s owned by ECOAN, a non-profit organization for which we’re very grateful, as they purchased the surrounding large tract of cloud forest, protect it from clearing and hunting, and make it available for birders.

The hummingbird feeders here provide endless hours of entertainment and photographic opportunities. It’s hard to justify just sitting at feeders though, when you know that there are dozens of exciting cloud forest birds in mixed flocks and in the understory along the trails. But the abundant rain we had on this tour provided the perfect excuse.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet is the most abundant and aggressive species here. They have a distinctive way of holding their wings up for a brief moment upon perching.

Emerald-bellied Puffleg is also rather common, usually managing to fly under the coronets’ radar.

The Collared Inca is larger than the coronets, but was quite shy and didn’t seem to like all the commotion.

The interesting Bronzy Inca (few hummers are so drab) was also not as aggressive as the coronets, but they managed to hold their own.

The Long-tailed Sylph is one of my favorite hummingbirds of all. They came and went as they pleased and weren’t bothered much by the more aggressive birds, preferring to chase each other.

We saw Speckled Hummingbird only a few times, when it would perch between the feeders and waited for a gap in the buzzing activity. It looks vaguely like a hermit but is not related to them.

This Amethyst-throated Sunangel demonstrates how the feathers of the gorget and forecrown are actually black. Only when the light is refracted through the external structure of the feathers at just the right angle do the fabulous colors show.

The banana feeder right next to the hummingbirds was probably originally erected to attract tanagers, but now it’s frequented by a couple of Tayras, a large, omnivorous neotropical weasel.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Northern Peru Hummingbirds #1

Even though I’m nearing the end of my six weeks of “vacation” in West Africa (Ghana, Togo, and Benin), and have lots of great photos to share, I’m going to catch up on some photos from my Northern Peru tour last month.

One of the most striking changes in South American birding in the past decade has been the appearance of hummingbird feeders. Northern Peru is no exception, and we took advantage of three feeding stations that have been operational for about the past five years only and were surprised by the addition of two more within the past year. This allowed us to tally 41 species in just 9 days, an unthinkable total just a few years ago.

One of the new sites was a short drive from our first night’s city of Tarapoto. The star hummer here was Koepcke’s Hermit, a Peruvian endemic that occurs nearly throughout the length of the country, but only spottily in low-elevation foothills at the outermost fringes of the Andes. In this area, one could only hope for a quick glimpse at a stand of Heliconia flowers before these feeders came to be.

Another good one at these feeders was this Gould’s Jewelfront. Interestingly, the only other feeders in the world I know of that host either of these same two species also host both of them, at Amazonia Lodge in southeastern Peru, hundreds of miles away. (It remains to be seen if the new lodge at Villa Carmen nearby will also have them.)

 The first hummingbird we actually tallied on the tour was a female Black-throated Mango that was attending this nest on a power line right over the airport parking lot. I have seen this species nest in similar, very open situations, such as on a twig of a fallen tree in the Cristalino River, Brazil.

 At the end of the tour we caught up with a few male Black-throated Mangos at the feeders of Waqanki Reserve, now branding itself as Fruiteater Lodge.

The feeders here were simply amazing. White-necked Jacobins, now regarded as one of the most primitive of hummingbirds, were in all sorts of plumages, this one an adult. (Some females look just like males, so I'm guessing one can't tell the sex on this one.)

It’s so cool to see hermits come to feeders, and one of the prizes at Waqanki is this furtive Black-throated Hermit – always at the feeders hanging low in the dark shadows.

We were just high enough in the foothills here for Sparkling Violetear and low enough for Golden-tailed Sapphire.

The rarest one was this Many-spotted Hummingbird, which came in only 2 or 3 times briefly. They are usually a bit higher in elevation than this (where there are no hummingbird feeders...yet).

One of the best birds here is always Rufous-crested Coquette, with several birds present at the feeders and in the Porterweed (Stachytarpheta) hedges.

In addition to the 15 species we saw at the feeders, three came only to flowers: A male Little Woodstar (very rare this side of the Andes), several Blue-tailed Emeralds, and a scarce Violet-headed Hummingbird. The only species we missed that had been reported recently was a Rufous-throated Sapphire.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Crocodile Watchman

My burgeoning backlog of bloggable booty is growing daily, and I may soon get to it all. But first I must share today's exciting find. Mich took me to a site in south-central Togo where he found Egyptian Plover a couple months ago, and this was my most-wanted bird on my six-week visit here (shockingly already half over).

Check out this beauty!

This bird is common nowhere, and most birding tours spend at least a couple days to drive to where they can see it. Where we saw this bird and three others (!) is a mere three-hour drive from Lomé, the capital of Togo Рwhich may make it the easiest place to see it anywhere. One of its English nicknames, Crocodile Bird, echoes the German name Krokodilwächter, from old, unreliable observations that they picked teeth of Nile Crocodiles. It does look kind of like a plover, but is only distantly related and is now in its own family, Pluvianidae.

It used to be considered a relative of pratincoles and coursers, and at the very same reservoir we had about 200 or so Collared Pratincoles in all directions, once a large group in a single flock. Like a cross between a swallow and a shorebird, these are also handsome birds.

These fine birds came at the end of what had already been a fantastic day of birding on our way home from what were an incredible two days at Pendjari National Park in far NW Benin (another blog or two to come). We stopped at a rocky ridge south of the Togo city of Kara just to poke around and found six lifebirds for me, including these gorgeous Violet Turacos. Even Mich had never seen them perched.

I look forward to getting in a few more mornings of birding in while here in Togo, but now it's back to catch-up time on the computer while Kate and Mich are at work.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

From Hummingbirds to Sunbirds

I will will will write something substantial here soon. I've just come home from a successful Northern Peru tour, where everyone got multiple lifebirds (including me – I think I had four, some had over 200). Hummingbirds were a huge part of the trip, with five feeding stations, two of the new in the past year and all of them newer than about 6 years.

Here's my one Marvelous Spatuletail photo that wasn't bad enough to trash. It was one of 41 species of hummingbirds we had on the tour, and probably the most-wanted hummer for all birders that come to this region.

I'm home for three nights before I head to western Africa for a 6-week vacation (but yes, I'll have my laptop with me to catch up on lots of work). I'll be in Ghana for 1 week and then Togo for 5 weeks, staying with my friends Kate and Mich. No hummers there, but the nectar-feeding sunbirds are at least as gaudy with their iridescence. I'm told that Johanna's Sunbird is a good possibility – and I'd never even heard of it before this morning.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Sage, Sagebrush,or Saltbush? Sparrow or...?

This last week I birded the Santa Cruz Flats of Pinal County with my close friends and birding guides Keith Kamper, Jake Mohlmann, and Gavin Bieber. We tallied 67 species of birds, including Bendire's Thrasher, Ferruginous Hawk, American Pipit, and Horned Lark, but after many stops to look at weedy fields, brushy hedgerows, and well-watered sod farms, we stopped at a patch of native habitat that hadn't been plowed, graded, or watered – a rare thing in this valley. We were looking for Sage Sparrows.

The name Sage Sparrow is a bit misleading on two counts. It doesn't occur in sage and it's not a sparrow. With Sage Sparrow being officially split into two species this past year, we are now a bit closer to the truth, Sagebrush Sparrow being the name of the Great Basin breeder now known as Artemisiospiza nevadensis. That's its winter habitat in Pinal County, Arizona above. The other half of the split is Bell's Sparrow, Artemisiospiza belli, which has two subspecies.

Here are some definitions to help you understand.

Sage = Salvia. A genus belonging to the mint family, formerly Labiatae, now Lamiaceae, with the familiar square stems, opposite leaves, bilabiate flowers, and a fruit comprising four nutlets. It's a very large genus that includes the common kitchen herb, among many other aromatic plants.

Sagebrush = wormwood = mugwort = Artemisia. A genus belonging to the aster family, also known as composites, formerly Compositae, now Asteraceae, having many tiny flowers in compact heads, all with inferior ovaries, each with one-seeded fruits. Another huge genus, not used commonly in cuisine in this country as far as I know, even though very aromatic, but at least one is used in the classic version of Absinthe. Notice that the new genus of Sagebrush and Bell's sparrow, until recently part of Amphispiza now gives a nod of recognition as this plant being the favored habitat.

Saltbush = shadscale = Atriplex. A genus of plants related to spinach and beets formerly in the goosefoot family and now lumped into the huge amaranth family with very small flowers lacking typical petals and sepals, also with odd fruits bearing large bracts.

Passerellidae = the newly named family of New World "sparrows" or "buntings" formerly lumped with the Old World bunting family Emberizidae, and also not to be confused with Passeridae, the original sparrows such as House Sparrow and the petronias. This hasn't been adopted by any of the taxonomic committees yet, but it's inevitable.

One problem is that the subspecies of Bell's Sparrow (A. b. canescens) that breeds in saltbush desert in the Mohave Desert and San Joaquin Valley looks extremely similar to Sagebrush Sparrow – so much so that field identification is not a sure thing. It is a short-distance migrant, mixes in winter with Sagebrush Sparrows, and has been known to occur as far east as where we were. (The other Bell's Sparrow, A. b. belli, is non-migratory in California's chaparral where its favorite plant is Chamise, Adenostoma fasciculatum, in the rose family, and it looks and sounds quite different.)

In winter, Sagebrush Sparrow leaves the freezing Great Basin and Colorado Plateau sagebrush steppe and winters in lower elevation saltbush desert. Here's the habitat in south-central Pinal County. Scattered mesquites and wolfberry break up the monotony of the saltbush.

A closeup of Desert Saltbush, Atriplex polycarpa.

Thanks to the long, soaking rains we had in late November and early December, the Fremont's Wolfberry, Lycium fremontii, is in full bloom. A Costa's Hummingbird staked out one as his territory.

With pale malar streaks and obviously streaky backs, most if not all of the sparrows we saw were probably Sagebrush Sparrows, though I can't swear we didn't see some canescens Bell's Sparrows. More study needed.