Friday, December 30, 2011

The Three Corners of Rwanda

There are but three major protected areas in the little, densely populated country of Rwanda, and with several of my friends I managed to visit all of them this past week. It's been a blast.

This morning featured a short visit to Akagera National Park, an area of foothill scrubby forest and large lakes, marshes, and full of wildlife. Here are just three photos from the morning.

Levaillant's Cuckoo, a new bird for both Gavin and me.

A Sulphur-breasted Bush-Shrike, one of the more colorful members of the family.

Klipspringer, an adorable antelope of rocky slopes. Notice how they stand on the very tips of their hooves, a unique characteristic of this species.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Purple Iridescence Rocks!

Maybe my favorite bird after 12 days in Kenya was the Violet-backed Starling. They were common at the  camp a bunch of us stayed at near the Ololaimutiek Gate of the eastern Masai Mara reserve.

The real highlight so far was the most amazing wedding ceremony imaginable as 40 friends and family gathered to witness Mich Coker and Kate Galloway make their vows as Hippopotamuses belched in the river right next to us, a Green-backed Cameroptera loudly stuttered its song overhead, and a pair of hugemongous Southern Ground-Hornbills walked across a big savannah across the Mara River. (Yes, we were attending a wedding on the bank of the very river famous for the huge herds of migrating Wildebeest.) Cocktails at sunset from a hilltop perch in the middle of the wild savannah followed by a grilled dinner in a woodlot where Leopards neary could probably smell our meal topped it off. We were all blown away.

The big group has dispersed, but 19 of us have just arrived in Rwanda and are excited about the birding and tracking of Gorillas in the next couple of days.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Birding Square Pegs Into Round Holes

It's a strange feeling not knowing the bird voices around you when your usual mental map uses sounds to figure out where you fit in this world.

My instinct appears to be to sift through all the chaos to find the familiar. Since nothing is familiar, here on the lodge grounds outside of Nairobi in south-central Kenya, I'm force-hearing House Wren, Warbling Vireo, and Pinyon Jay. And I'm certain I heard the distant "pi-peer!" of a Red-billed Pied-Tanager, as well as the distinctive rollicking duet of Plain Softtail and the sad whistle of a Cinereous Mourner. All first records for the entire continent of Africa. These birds weren't really here of course, but even today I almost managed to convince Mich, Clayton, Taylor, and Jason that we were hearing a White-eyed Vireo in Nairobi National Park while sitting in our Landcruiser watching Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, Kittlitz's Plover and a muster of Marabou Storks.
Marabou Storks – standing around and mustering nothing

But then some bird song that is completely, utterly unlike anything I've ever heard before knocks me over the head and reminds me I'm on the other side of the planet, and almost EVERYTHING is different here. 

For starters, there's the incessant, knocking "giddyup giddyup giddyup giddyup giddyup giddyup" from a little bird in the trees (Yellow-breasted Apalis); a deep, pure, marimba-like "doo doo doo" coming from the dense growth on the other side of the rocky gorge below my room (Slate-colored Boubou); and the bubbly, happy "lit..lit..lit..LITERATURE!" from almost everywhere (Common Bulbul). Then somewhat recognizable is the cheerful, yodeled phrases of what surely must be a thrush that sings, typically, well before it's light – but it's not any thrush I've heard before (Abyssinian Thrush).

Still a complete mystery is the pure whistle, pitched right on G5 (thanks, Virtuoso iPhone app), and repeated about 15 times, exactly once per second. (This might be a Tropical Boubou.)

Yellow-breasted Apalis

Slate-colored Boubou

Common Bulbul

Abyssinian Thrush

Thursday, December 15, 2011

First Africa Post – Masai Lodge in Nairobi

I've been in Africa for 3 days now, and this morning my luggage finally caught up with me so I could upload some photos from the past couple of days. I'm at Masai Lodge on the outskirts of the city, right up against Nairobi National Park, and even this close to the city, it's almost an overwhelming introduction to the continent's bird and mammal life.

Since I've been going to the airport every morning to meet the 1:35 or 2:10 a.m. flight arriving from Istanbul, hoping to meet up with my missing luggage, I haven't gotten on a normal sleeping schedule, but the 3-4 hours of birding I've done the past two days have been plenty. Then early this morning my friend Cat Greene arrived on the same flight that my luggage was on, and we birded six hours starting at dawn around the lodge grounds.

Some photo highlights from the 100 or so species I've seen so far (only 4 of which weren't new):

Rock Hyrax are all over the place, waking up late and feeding on leaves in the bushes and trees planted around the reception and dining building. As I write this one is up in a tree, uttering its harsh, dry scream of a call. They are extraordinarily good climbers with special pads on their feet.

This is a Four-toed Hedgehog, a tiny thing that rolls up into a ball to protect itself. The spines really are quite sharp, and I handled it gently, though they don't come out like on a porcupine. It was in one of the planted circles just outside of reception.

On my first morning, I forced myself to get up at 9:00 a.m. after 4 1/2 hours of sleep, went straight to breakfast, sat down, and saw my first sunbird in the tree next to my table. I had to look it up in the book, of course – Variable Sunbird. It's very common here and one of my favorites.

Today we had great views of Bronze Sunbird too. It was fun to see one foraging as a nectar thief in the giant flowers of a columnar cereus-type cactus. Kind of like the way our American orioles feed in blooming aloe.

Cape Robin-Chat is also common on the grounds, foraging on the ground or sitting on a low perch givings sweet, thrush-like phrases.

At breakfast this morning Cat and I had great views of a foraging Red-fronted Tinkerbird, a member of the African barbet family Lybiidae. It's amazingly similar to Picumnus piculets from South America, but the voice gives away a serious difference. This one sounds more like a pygmy-owl than any barbet.

Finally, one last photo of one of my favorite birds here so far – Purple Grenadier. It was one of four species of ornate little waxbills we saw this morning.

Mammals have been ridiculous too. On the way back from the airport night before last (when my bag didn't arrive again), a Cape Buffalo was on the road. Then last night, on the way to Cat's flight there were three Giraffes and a Springhare! Then on the way back from the airport we saw what I think were Kirk's Dik Diks, a small antelope.

Other highlights from this morning were a mixed herd of 55 Baboons and 25 Impalas just on the entrance road to the lodge. We were already pretty overwhelmed with the morning's birding and thought we should head to lunch when we met one of the lodge staff outside the gate who advised us not to walk any farther as two female lions had been seen in the area. O. K. – to lunch it was!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Rufous Flycatcher, at long last

This past week I was taken on a fam trip of NW Peru courtesy the Peruvian Government, along with 11 other birding guides, travel agents, and travel representatives. We actually got to do some birding along the way, and I finally caught up with the most unceremoniously named Rufous Flycatcher, a scarce endemic to NW Peru. I was in this same area with my friend Alan Grenon last year, but we couldn't find one. This is one of the birds that brought me to 1211 species in Peru, after just 5 trips in the past 2 years. What an amazing country.

Stay tuned for occasional updates from my month-long trip through Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania with friends. I'm on my way there now!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Lapland Longspur at Avra Valley

This Lapland Longspur was found by Andrew Core at the Avra Valley Waste Water Treatment plant southwest of Tucson Arizona three days ago, and has been seen by several people since then. Mich Coker and I saw it this morning, November 27, along with Bob Beatson, Randy Grohman, and Peggy Wang. Not so visible in these photos (digiscoped with an iPhone through an 85 mm Zeiss Diascope zoomed all the way in to 60X) are the strongly rufous-edged greater wing coverts and tertials. The ear coverts have more of an outline and the bill is smaller than on McCown's Longspur as well. It was hard to pick out of the many Horned Larks it was associating with – look for the smaller, darker appearance with the binoculars, while the streakiness is visible only through a spotting scope at the distance we were at.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Just finishing up with my fourth trip (and third tour) to the Galapagos. It was fantastic. I really loved seeing everything new again through the eyes of all the participants, all of whom where in a constant state of gobsmack from the experience – the incredible creatures, such as the giant tortoises; the tameness of the birds and animals; the diversity and color of the fish on our snorkeling outings; the beauty of the landscapes and the plant communities; the superb boat and excellent crew. On and on. We saw all but two of the endemic species (all we expected to see; the martin and the Mangrove Finch are usually out of reach anyway), and some fantastic mammals such as Pygmy Killer Whale and Sei Whale.

I was here for the first time with a good camera and a 300 mm lens, and I took a few thousand photos. Here was one of my favorite, a Galapagos Shearwater to the NW of Isabela Island.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Molino Basin Goodies – Poling's Giant-Skipper

Inspired by a lovely blog post by my friend Margarethe Brummerman – and then fortuitously invited by my friend Mary Klinkel – I went up to Molino Basin for a short morning this past week. I joined Mary, Karen Nickey and Elizabeth Willott primarily for a search of Poling's Giant-Skipper, a very local species that needs large stands of Schott's Agave and exists in the adult phase of its lifecycle only this time of year.

In the end, I finally had success with the skipper, a first for me. It really helped to have Mary lead us to an area where she had seen them before and especially explain to us where they like to perch, how they fly, etc. This one was territorial on exposed granite boulders.

Even with just that one species, it was a spectacularly successful morning, but we saw lots of stuff – most of which I finally have names for:

The buprestid beetle Acmaeodera solitaria

Giant Agave Bugs, Acanthocephala thomasi, feeding on the sap from Agave schottii flower stalks

Gray Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca nitens

Snakeweed Grasshopper, Hesperotettix viridis

Great Spreadwing, Archilestes grandis

Unknown robberfly, genus Efferia

Mating robberflies, Promachus atrox. Notice that the female is feeding.

caterpillar of the White-lined Sphinx, Hyles lineata, feeding on buckwheat

unknown caterpillar in the genus Cucullia, feeding on either Aster or Erigeron...this is possibly C. postera, since that species is known to feed on Aster.

Western Pygmy-Blue, Brephidium exilis

Mormon Metalmark (or "Sonoran Metalmark"), Apodemia mormo

Monday, October 24, 2011

Morpho Metamorphosis

While at Cristalino Jungle Lodge these past couple of months one of the things we local naturalist guides made a point of showing the clients were these gorgeous caterpillars.

There was only one group of them right next to a trail, just 100 meters down from the boat dock, but there were others on more distant trails or visible from the river. They roosted near eye-level during the day, and sometime between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. would ascend to feed on leaves in the canopy.

Word had been passed down that these were morpho caterpillars, but there are probably 7 species in this genus at Cristalino, and no one I asked knew which species they were. I suspected that they weren't any of the three common very blue ones we see everywhere in the forest, such as this Morpho helenor.

Or this Morpho menelaus – the most blue of all the common ones.

Here I snapped the shot a fraction of a second too late, but you can see the stunning color.

What I noticed was that all of these caterpillar colonies were located on a trunk of a large vine that seemed to grow only in the seasonally flooded forest close to the river. And there was one species of Morpho I knew that flew only near the river, usually near the tree tops, and only in the late morning – but I hadn't seen any during my weeks at the lodge. It was Morpho telemachus and it's not one of the blue ones.

Then in mid-September, the colonies started shrinking, and we started noticing stray caterpillars walking on the forest floor. While with some clients, we saved one from the river, and I took it in, putting it in a ziploc bag with some vegetation. In three days it had formed this chrysalis.

Then on October 7, I saw my first Morpho telemachus – flying near the river at 9:30 a.m. as expected. They were emerging! The very next morning, I checked my chrysalis and it was empty. And bingo – in the bag was a fully formed Morpho telemachus. I took a few photos and let it go. It took just 18 days from caterpillar to butterfly, an astounding metamorphosis.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

My Buddy, the Violet-crowned Hummingbird

My friend since February 2008 has returned for what will be his fifth winter here in my north-central Tucson backyard.

He seems to show up about 5-6 weeks earlier every year, and stay longer and longer as well. Last year the date was October 16, so this year I though he might show up in September. But I was gone in Brazil until October 15, and I took down all 14 of my feeders (including his favorite against the west fence just south of the big wolfberry bush) last May just before I embarked on a long series of tours, scouting trips, and personal trips that took me to SE Arizona, Oregon, Alaska, Washington, British Columbia, Peru, Costa Rica, then Brazil.

I got home last Sunday, October 16. It took me until mid-day Monday to put up a few feeders – using the last bit of sugar water I had left in the fridge, and hadn't yet gone to the store for more sugar. Then Tuesday morning, there are hummingbirds all over in the yard, including Mr. Handsome. His crown really shows up well in the morning sun.

Also in the yard are several male Broad-billed Hummingbirds, lots of Anna's Hummingbirds, and the presumed female Black-chinned x Costa's Hummingbird hybrid which has returned also for her third winter.

This young male Anna's Hummingbird is molting in his gorget in an interesting way. I assume those grayish feathers below the bill on either side of the throat will be replaced with iridescent red ones soon. What's interesting is that this bird has a band – Larry Norris has come here twice to band hummingbirds, but I don't know is this is one of the birds we banded. The numbers I could see in a couple photos indicate that it might actually be a bird from somewhere else.

I think these show the band number to be L500122. I'll post here when I know more.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Leaving Cristalino

I'm about to depart for the Alta Floresta airport, followed by five flights back home. I'm sad to leave Cristalino, the birds, the butterflies, and the people who have become my friends. Here are a few photos from this morning – my last outing at 3:00 with Feline Night Monkey, continuing through dawn chorus and an early metalmark at the Saleiro (don't know which species yet, looks like Panara), and the girls back at the lodge – cooks and maids.

Update: This butterfly is the metalmark Chamaelimnas tircis