Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo

The Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo is one of the endemic species I consider "missable" with the six-day itinerary I've designed for my tours to Jamaica – one or two tours almost every year since 1999 (now 13 and looking forward to my 14th tour this coming April). I base this evaluation on the experience I had one year with several heard birds that did not response to playback at all. Finally we stumbled upon one bird perched out in the open next to the road on our next-to-last day. This year we had several cooperative birds that just appeared, no playback necessary at all. Truly a fabulous endemic.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Being Domestic Between Tours

When I'm home for just a few days between tours – this time it's five days between tours to Jamaica and Costa Rica, it's hard to catch up on my kitchen-related hobbies.

Bread-making is something I love to do, and I took full advantage of being home for several weeks this winter to try all kinds of different recipes. This was just before I left for this latest spate of tours, but it's not something I can even start on this time. Sprouting the wheat or spelt, rejuvenating the mother starter, and even thinking about baking would take more time than I have. But I promise to get started on it again as soon as I get back from Costa Rica.

But taking the next step on my limoncello is a priority today or tomorrow. This photo shows the first process, a bit different from last year's batch. Instead of gleaned Meyer lemons, where I used the entire peel, these are standard lemons, organic, from the local farmers market. (Organic to ensure no chemicals in the rind are leached into the alcohol.) Furthermore, I zested the lemons instead of peeling them, and in addition to avoiding the bitter white pith, this should shorten the time needed for maceration – with whole peel 6 to 8 weeks is recommended. Now I have to add simple syrup to the mix, but there are some recipes that recommend filtering the zest out first. What shall I do?

You'll see that I'm not wasting the lemon juice by freezing it in ice cube trays, later putting the cubes in a sealable freezer bag.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Jamaican Longhorns and Redpolls

Birds, Bugs, or Cows?

On the tour I just completed in Jamaica, I pointed out the distinctive breed of cattle from the island nation – a smallish, stocky, dark red multi-purpose animal called Jamaican Redpoll. The noisy back of the van made it hard to hear, and some of the participants thought I was jokingly referring to the Cattle Egrets in the fields by that name.

Jamaican longhorns, on the other hand, refer to beetles. For some reason, this year I was particularly struck by this family, maybe just having ignored them on previous trips, or maybe this is a good time of year for them. I already post ed one. Here are two more, the first a widespread Caribbean (also in Florida), the second an endemic.

Neoptychodes trilineatus

Leptostylopsis ornatus jamaicensis [with thanks to Francesco Vitali]

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Everything is Cool in Jamaica

I'm in Jamaica for my 13th tour here, and I'm still amazed by this place. Everything is cool. On the patio of our Port Royal hotel yesterday, I picked up this Long-horned Beetle (family Cerambycidae). Google searching quickly led me to the genus Eburia, but no perfect matches. The closest match was actually photos of a Jamaican endemic (E. jamaicae), but it's not quite right. I'll wait to hear back from one of the experts in this family.
[Update: Cerambycid expert Francesco Vitali says this is E. tetrastalacta, the most variable in the genus.]

Today was our first day in the field, but we had a slow start (everything goes slowly here in Jamaica), and we didn't actually start looking for endemic birds until we got to good habitat at about 1:30. It began raining around 3:30, and we tried to tough it out, but we finally gave in. After all, in those two hours we had seen 16 of the 27 endemic species on the island. The plant life here is also pretty amazing, and I was particularly thrilled to find this tiny, white Cranichis-like orchid. To my surprise, the photo shows a pollinator doing its job – some sort of tiny, hairy fly, probably endemic. The orchid may not be endemic – though there are over 200 species on the island, the seeds of orchid disperse well on wind currents.

We ended the day with an hour and a half of birding on the grounds of our lovely hotel where yet another 5 species of endemic birds were found, including this perfectly behaving Jamaican Owl.

We have plenty to look for in our next five days. There are not only six more endemic species, most of the group certainly want better and repeated experiences with some we saw today, plus there are all the endemic subspecies, many of which will certainly be elevated to full species eventually, and plenty of other Caribbean specialties.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Whale of a Time

Today we took a 3 1/2-hour boat ride from Puerto San Carlos to the mouth of Magdalena Bay and had amazing encounters with some playful Gray Whales, Eschrichtius robustus. A trio of whales had been playing with a cavorting California Seal Lion, but then they came over to us and let us touch them, and one even nudged up against the boat a bit. Perhaps they found us dull, as after a while they returned to the sea lion who again did acrobatics while the whales rolled and wallowed near the surface. In the meantime, one could look in most directions and see multiple spouts from dozens of whales within a mile of our boat.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Baja Has So Many Birds!

The birding here in Baja's Cape Region is so fun. There are just so many darn birds. This view from this morning was on the outskirts of the busy city of La Paz (note to self: do not book future tours here the six days before Carnival). The only species you might recognize (even if you click on it for the larger size) is American Oystercatcher. But there are also: Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Curlew, Whimbrel, Willet, Greater Yellowlegs, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Dunlin, Semipalmated Plover, Black-bellied Plover, and a few others.

Each year is different, and that's why I like leading tours to the same places each year. I never thought I'd see an inflated Magnificent Frigatebird on a wire, like this one at the same place as the above – with a Monk Parakeet sitting next to it a little while later.

This year the habitats are all still lush and green from what was a banner rainy season last year (June-October). And as a result there are butterflies everywhere. We scarcely had any butterflies at all last year (11 species), and we've had well over twice as many species and hundreds of times more individuals. More amazing is that two of the most abundant butterflies this year, Dorantes Longtail and Texas Crescent, were completely absent last year. My favorite so far is the Silver-banded Hairstreak, one I've long wanted to see. We had one yesterday and one today, this one out on a concrete jetty past the frigatebirds, amongst clouds of Western Pygmy-Blues.

I've always wanted to see this place during the summer rainy season, and I'm actually offering a tour here on special request this coming August 18-22. Sure, it will be hotter, but it should be even more lush, there could be a lot more butterflies, and it's the season for exotic waterbirds to be feeding just offshore, and that's the main point of the trip. It's a quick three full days of birding, including most of one day on a boat trip out of Los Barriles on the 20th (where targets might include Pink-footed Shearwater, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Black-vented Shearwater, Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, Black Storm-Petrel, Least Storm-Petrel, and Red-footed Booby). We still expect to see the three AOU-recognized endemics (Belding's Yellowthroat, Gray Thrasher, and Xantus's Hummingbird), but we will also have a chance look for some of the others, such as the American (San Lucan) Robin, Northern (Cape) Pygmy-Owl, and Acorn (San Lucan) Woodpecker, as well as migrant shorebirds at La Paz. The group will have a maximum limit of 6, but we only need a couple more people for it to go. There will likely be some spaces on the boat for those who just want to do that as well. Just get in touch with me if you might be interested.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Baja California Sur: Fancy Lizards and a Yellow-throated Warbler Double-Take

After a splendid morning of birding in the gulf-coast deserts (Gray Vireo, Gray Thrasher, many others) an easy afternoon outing yesterday to San Bartolo didn't result in many birds, but these two lizards were accepted heartily as more-than-suitable replacements.

This one is the Cape Spiny-tailed Iguana, a rather large animal.

Much smaller, but many times more colorful is the San Lucan Rock Lizard. This is about as dull as they get; animals in breeding condition almost glow.

Today was a superb day of birding in the higher elevations. We started with a super rare Pine Siskin, though no one really got excited about that. Then on our way up to look for a Northern Pygmy-Owl (Cape) that had been tooting away during breakfast, I found a Yellow-throated Warbler. There are probably only around 10 records for the region.

Finding the owl wasn't so hard – it was at eye level in the trees downslope from the road and was utterly unperturbed by our presence (or the occasional mobbing Warbling Vireo, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, or Black-throated Gray Warbler).

We continued birding downstream, finding the Yellow-throated Warbler again but 300 meters away from where we had seen it. Then another 500 meters downstream we found it again! Or did we? Luckily I took photos of the birds at all sightings, and this lower bird turns out to be a second individual. Crazy.

Later, back upstream the car, we refound the first individual, but this time only 125 meters from where we had first found it.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Baja Costa's Hummingbird

Tomorrow is the first day of birding on my 7-day Baja California tour. This charmer was just down the street from our hotel.