Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Viruá National Park, Roraima to Cuiabá, Mato Grosso

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The eight days at Viruá National Park with my client-friend Susanne whizzed by in a flash. Each day was full of very cool sightings, and I continued to learn bit-by-bit about the mushrooms. As I expected, internet was not reliable there. As it turned out, I was able to connect using advanced secure web proxy settings provided by the staff there, but it still gave me only rare access to anything other than Facebook, and even then it would often prompt me for the user name and password on the average of once every two seconds. So I didn’t try that often.

I have many great photos of so many cool birds, bugs, plants, and other things, but maybe the most unexpected and delightful discovery was of Gray-legged Tinamous, the first for the park and the state of Roraima. I heard this bird very distant one day and shrugged it off as too far to really tell what I was hearing. But the next day it was much closer, and it was very clear that I was hearing a tinamou that was unlike any I had ever heard. It wasn’t any tinamou on the list of park, the only one of which I didn’t already know was Red-legged Tinamou, a bird I was hoping to at least hear. But I had a recording of that species in my iTunes library, and it wasn’t even close. Luckily, three things coincided: it was easy for me to mimic the whistle, the understory of the forest in this location was relatively open, and the bird was uncommonly responsive. I recited the visual marks as it approached within a few meters and I recorded its song; the grayish blue legs were the first thing I mentioned, as I was really hoping to see red legs. I managed some blurry photos in the dark understory.

A look in the field guide from van Perlo quickly led me to Gray-legged Tinamou as the only match, as the description of the voice was pretty conclusive. But with my iTunes library having over 29,000 recordings of bird voices representing more than half of the world’s 10,000 species, I had no example of the ultra-local and little-known Gray-legged Tinamou. So my guess was still tentative until Facebook communications with my friends Alex Lees and Andrew Spencer confirmed the identity of my recording as that species. We eventually heard two others, seeing one of them well, and getting a really nice recording of one, which I’ve uploaded here to xeno-canto.


This area is still not that well known, as birders first began to explore here only in 2001. But a major paper was published just last year with 14 authors providing a comprehensive bird list from the national park and adjacent areas, and no mention was made of this species. But there are three other species that I detected that would be new for national park, though not as well documented, and maybe better left for future visits. One was Orange-breasted Falcon, a calling bird that flew over the forest with something in its talons, a second was a probable Rufous-winged Ground-Cuckoo that I heard only by bill snaps on our last morning, and the third would be one of the larger, browner Chaetura swifts that are all but impossible to identify in the field. (Probably Chapman’s Swift, but who really knows the true distribution and seasonal movements of Sick’s and Amazonian, not to mention Chimney, which surely also occurs here but not this time of year?)

Yesterday, Susanne and I flew from Boa Vista to Brasilia, where we said our farewells, and I continued on to Cuiabá (and she on to São Paulo), where I have two full days to try to catch up with photo sorting, labeling, and uploading; emails; and preparing for my upcoming tour in the state of Mato Grosso. Americans unfamiliar with Brazil might not appreciate the size of this country and the huge differences in landscape and climate in the distances we covered. My flights yesterday, for example were roughly the distance equivalent of flying from Tucson to Chicago and from there to New York City – but keep in mind that we crossed the equator, traveling from the middle of the rainy season to the end of the dry season.

Here’s a view looking westward as we passed over the Amazon River about 150 miles downstream from Manaus, where the Rio Uatumã and the Amazon combine to form a waterway about 20 miles wide.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Serra do Tepequém

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We’re headed to Viruá National Park today, we might not have internet for a week. So quickly here are some photos from the past two days.

A view from the steep south slope of the mini-tepui of Tepequém, looking to the west, towards Venezuela.

Gilded Barbet. When we go to Virua, the replacement species there should be Black--spotted Barbet.

We’ve seen lots of other birds and some great fungi, but the most interesting thing was under a piece of wood along the trail – an odd ant nest (incidentally co-habited by a large spider that disappeared under the structure before I could get its picture.


The ant nest structure appears to be the fungus garden of a small-colony species of leaf-cutter or harvester ant. It was very fragile. Maybe an ant specialist will be able to comment on it after I send some photos around.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Boa Vista to Tepequem

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I’m currently leading a short 11-day, 12-night private tour with Susanne, the same mushroom and natural history-loving client who was with me in SE Peru last October and November. We’re in this northernmost state of Brazil because this is where the rainy season should be in full swing. That’s when mushroom should be at its best.

We flew from Manaus to Boa Vista, then drove north through partially wooded to very open savanna habitat, dotted with lakes.

The general shape of the landscape reminds me of the prairie pothole region of the Great Plains, but a glance at the plants instantly erases the comparison. This pond in particular was like nothing I had seen before, the center occupied by a thicket of a tall-stalked aroid that could be a Xanthosoma.

We made one serious birding stop at the crossing of the Rio Uraricoeira.

We progressed not more than 50 yards down the road in 80 minutes with not a break in the bird activity in mid-afternoon, 32 species being my count.

We soon saw a pair of Black-crested Antshrikes, the more colorful one being the female.



This Ruby-topaz Hummingbird looked black no matter how much I overexposed the shot.

Green-tailed Jacamar

Mouse-colored Tyrannulet

We saw one of the specialties of this location, the Hoary-throated Spinetail.

Of course there was more than just birds. I was excited to see this Dalechampia species, a vine in the euphorbia family.

Then I noticed this caterpillar, probably a butterfly, feeding on the leaves – almost certainly a specialist.

I thought this flower looked like a Clerodendrum.

We made stops on the way for only important things, such as this Red-footed Tortoise.

I hadn’t seen Gray Seedeater since I was in Venezuela in February 1999.

And I don’t get to see the adorable Pearl Kite all that often either.

The best stop of the early evening was for this Giant Anteater. It was just about to cross the road; we came to a stop just past it, and I watched it out my passenger seat window just a few feet away. By the time we turned back and I could get my camera out, it had already begun its retreat back under the fence and then slowly worked its way out into the field.


We're going to be on the Serra do Tepequém for two full days, then a week at Viruá National Park. Internet may be iffy, so it might be a while before another post shows up here. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Arriaga and Puerto Arista, Chiapas

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For my last day of leading field trips for the GBNA meeting in Chiapas, I was assigned to take my group for Rose-bellied Bunting (that’s the official AOU name; many people prefer Rosita’s Bunting, but I think that follows the traditional, sexist practice in old-school ornithology of using a woman’s first name rather than her last name) and Giant Wren, two local endemics in the region.

Rose-bellied Bunting is surprisingly common in the humid patch of forest on the pacific-facing slope of the middle elevations of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Inland from here (north, in this case), the forest is too wet, tall, and tropical. Lower down towards the coast the forest is too dry. East and west on the Pacific slope at this same elevation, the inland mountains are much taller and the land mass much broader, blocking the moist Gulf of Mexico airflow, resulting in forests that are also much drier and thornier, not what this species needs. After Yellow-green Vireo, it was the most common bird here, and it was nice to be able to see birds without using playback.

I thought that seeing this male grab and then eat a green stick insect was pretty unusual (a blurry photo in the limited very early morning light), but it turns out that the previous day’s field trip led by Michael Retter saw the same thing.

Orange-breasted Bunting is also common on this stretch of road above Arriaga, but it prefers to be down lower where the forest is drier; there are a few kilometers where both buntings occur together.

The rest of our day was spent on the flat, sparsely-wooded coastal plain of Chiapas. Here we found what Steve Howell has named “Ridgway's Flycatcher,” long considered a well-marked subspecies of Nutting’s Flycatcher (at least in the museum tray), but shown by him to have a clearly distinct set of vocalizations (more like Panama Flycatcher, actually) and habitat, and occurring with just a few miles of typical Nutting’s Flycatchers. The AOU committee on taxonomy and nomenclature did not accept the suggested split, mostly because none of them have personal experience with these birds and don’t spend enough time getting to know them in the field. While it’s true that a scientific paper showing the consistent differences would be good to have, I have little doubt that if the committee members had had extensive field experience with these birds, they’d all recognize that this split is a total no-brainer and that they’d see a peer-reviewed paper to be unnecessary.

The very local but common Giant Wren was our main target, and while we easily saw just this one family group, we heard at least three others in different directions at the same time.

Their chortling duet or chorus is quite amusing. This recording is from my first visit to this area almost 10 years ago.

We had a pair of Citreoline Trogons in the same location.

Being flat and near the coast, this area is also relatively wet, with many ponds, channels, and mangroves. This pond had Northern Jacana, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, and Bare-throated Tiger-Heron.

A close-up of a Northern Jacana, showing its long toes.

We had a great auditory experience with two Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters countersinging from opposite sides of the road at very close range. One was an adult male, the other a young male in a female-like plumage.

Then rather have our third lunch of rather boring tamales and juice from the back of a bus in the hot sun, I made the suggestion of sitting down in a palapa on the beach to have a cold beer or soft drink, and everyone was on board with that.

In fact, everyone ordered from the menu, with shrimp and fish being popular. I ordered fish tacos, even though it was not on the menu. But it turns out that the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is not only a biogeographical barrier, but also a culinary one. This is what they brought me; even our driver, originally from Mazatlan, laughed at how ridiculous they were.

It was refreshing to just sit in the ocean breeze, but some people, like Kristie, just couldn’t sit still until she got wet.

This Willet walked by as we were having lunch.


Next blogs will be from Brazil!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Sumidero Canyon National Park

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On my fourth day of leading field trips here, I did the nearby Sumidero Canyon, allowing me to sleep in a couple more hours. The nearly sheer faces of the canyon down to the Grijalva River reservoir offers one of the most impressive geologic vistas I’ve ever seen.

The birding here is interesting, with some dry forest and humid forest things, as well as some local specialties, such as this Bar-winged Oriole, the only one we saw.

A very scarce and local bird in Mexico is the Blue Seedeater, and this singing bird was in the same place where Michael had it yesterday.


Yet another specialty here is the odd but pretty Belted Flycatcher.

There are lots of orioles here, the favored host of Bronzed Cowbird, so one sees them all along the road.

At our last stop a lively Canivet's Emerald came in to my Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl imitations.

We saw lots of other cool things. This wooly caterpillar will eventually become a probably drab moth.

This tiny black metalmark was one of about seven that were only briefly landing on the upper leaves of a small tree, then taking off and chasing around others, sometimes all together in a whirring ball of energy. When they landed, they opened the wings flat to grab the morning sunlight, and this is all we saw; they matched nothing in the field guide.

So I sent the photo to Jim Brock who recognized it as a Sarota, and he reminded me we had seem some do this at Cristalino Jungle Lodge seven years ago. The vast majority of the time they are encountered, they perch on lower vegetation with their wings closed and look like this, my photo of Sarota myrtea, White-cheeked Jewelmark from SE Peru.

One of the participants spotted this stunning green grasshopper at the canyon vista, a nymph of the very diverse genus Melanoplus. Thanks to my contact Ricardo Marño-Pérez for the ID.

Also at the canyon vista was this Chlosyne theona, Theona Checkerspot.

What looked like a scar on a tree trunk turned out to be a group of roosting 15-cm long morpho caterpillars – perhaps White Morphos. During the night they climb to the canopy to feed on foliage, then retreat before sunrise to avoid birds that prey on them.

This leaf-mimic katydid with a horn on its head is reminiscent of the genus Copiphora, but the flattened legs and odd behavior suggests it might be something different. While slowly walking it swayed to and fro, much like an American Woodcock. This is surely a tactic to avoid notice by a bird, such as a trogon, who might take it for a swaying leaf.

On a later afternoon stop we encountered the mother of all puddle parties. I estimated 20 species of butterfly in this one group.

Most of them were Chlosyne erodyle, the Guatemalan Patch or Erodyle Checkerspot, like the one in the lower left, but I got only a couple photos of those I didn’t recognize right away. This unusual medium-sized satyr is Taygetina kerea, Kerea Satyr.

This boldly marked skipper is Antigonus corrosus, Small Spurwing.

It’s been a pretty good trip for orchids. Thanks to my contact Gerardo Salazar, who is working on a book of orchids of Mexico, I now know this as Dichromanthus cinnabarinus. It looks very similar to a couple other unrelated orchid genera that have independently evolved to attract hummingbirds as pollinators (such as this Sacoila lanceolata), which we know thanks to an amazing research paper that looked into the genetics by Gerardo and others.

Gerardo also identified this orchid as a rarely seen Triphora debilis, which was growing right in one of the trails. Even Gerardo has never seen one live, and the university museum where he works at UNAM even lacks a specimen!


By the way, Eric, who led the Tapalapa field trip today, came back with a report of as many as six Mountain Elaenias.