Sunday, April 28, 2013

Borneo Blog: Three Days at Mount Kinabalu National Park

I finally got to Borneo, after about 60 hours of travel, with one night on the plane, another in a Hong Kong hotel, and the third in the Kuala Lumpur LCCT airport terminal. I hit the ground running and have just finished my first 3 1/2 days of birding the highlands at Mount Kinabalu, a national park right on the main highway just a couple hours from the city. Walking the roads and trails each day, I covered bewteen 8 and 12 miles in search of the endemics. It weighs on me that I missed Whitehead's Trogon (they are on nests now, so it's the worst time of year to see them), but I also saw a lot and can't complain.

The photos below include: a view of the mountain as the day's cloud buildup burns off, just one of the scads of gorgeous moths at the lights of my hostel ($10/night, just a km walk from the national park), one of the many poorly maintained trails during one of the two solid afternoons of rain, a Little Pied Flycatcher, a pitcher plant (the pitcher is an extremely highly modified tip of an extension of the leaf), and  a tiny example one of the few orchids I've seen in bloom; Borneo, especially the highlands here, is ridiculously rich in orchid species.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Magical Morass

Here’s a total of some great birds from our less than two hours at the Elim Pools of the Upper Black River Morass yesterday evening:

Spotted Rail: 1 heard
Yellow-breasted Crake: 2 heard, 2 seen
Masked Duck: 1
West Indian Whistling-Duck: 11
Caribbean Martin: 1

All great birds, most often missed on this tour. The martin was perhaps the biggest surprise, since they have become so scarce on the island in recent years (none since 2009 for me). The Yellow-breasted Crakes had been seen by some groups recently, but they are always very difficult – I’ve seen it on only 3 of my previous 13 tours here. Thanks to John Parmeter’s great eyes and fierce persistence (it was one of his most wanted birds), we saw one foraging along the marsh edge not far away, then running when another came along and chased it. Two were also calling on the opposite side of the channel but in dense vegetation where nothing could be seen.

Other fun birds here were Purple Gallinule, Least Bittern, Osprey, Northern Shoveler, Northern Jacana, Limpkin, and Barn Owl.

West Indian Whistling-Ducks

Purple Gallinule

Masked Duck

Today was our last day, and with short work of a Grasshopper Sparrow a few minutes’ drive from Marshall’s Pen, we had seen all extant endemic species and subspecies of birds known from Jamaica, the first time I’ve ever done that. Plain Pigeon and Greater Antillean Elaenia are the two most difficult (recorded only on 3 and 4 tours, respectively); only once before I heard the pigeon and saw the elaenia on the same tour.

A couple shots from Marshall’s Pen this morning:

The endemic Jamaican Mestra

Vervain Hummingbird in the garden just a couple feet from me. It’s supposedly the world’s second-smallest hummingbird, after Cuba’s Bee Hummingbird. But considering individual variation in size, I’ll bet one could find a small Vervain smaller than a very large Bee Hummer, don’t you think?

I might be a bit quiet here on my blog for some time, as I’m about to embark on a completely different sort of trip in a couple days. With just one full day at home for post-tour work and last minute shopping, I leave for Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo, where I’ll be birding and recording bird songs on my own for 13 days. It will take 3 full days to get there, and once there I’ll split my time between Mount Kinabalu and the Danum Valley (with also a quick stop in Sepilok, if there’s time). Then after Borneo, I’m headed to the Indonesian Island of Lombok where I’ll help celebrate Andrew Broan’s 50th birthday for several days.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Homerus Run in the Cockpit Country!

I'll post quick blog from this morning's outing during the afternoon break before we head out to do some late afternoon marsh birding.

We did the Cockpit Country this morning, and though many of the birds were rather reluctant to show (perhaps many are on nests now), we did hear a lot and scored big on two rarities.

This was my second ever sighting of the Homerus Swallowtail, a very scarce and threatened species.
Endemic to Jamaica, this is the largest species of swallowtail in the New World.

Also a second for me was this Plain Pigeon, but the previous one a few years ago was just a fly-by. I had heard it only on two other tours, so this was a great find. Other birding groups before us had seen and heard it here recently, so it was almost a stake-out. But we were extremely lucky to find a tiny hole in the vegetation where we could look down into a deep valley and see the tree where it was perched.

One bird that was more obvious than usual (and was so almost every day of the tour, actually) was Jamaican Tody. I just can't get enough of this adorable thing.

There were a few flowers to look at, and even the plants not in flower are fascinating, as there are so many endemics here. One of the endemics and lovely to look at was this orchid, Tolumnia pulchella (formerly Oncidium).

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mostly Birds In Jamaica – And Cleaning Up the Endemics

We saw Jamaican Becard, the 27th and "final" endemic this morning, our 4th day of birding. Plus everyone finally got good looks at Yellow-shouldered Grassquit, though it would be nice to get better views of it and a few other things. Jamaican Euphonias have been elusive, though we all saw one well on our first afternoon, so I hope to see more of them. As far as extant subspecies goes we're missing only Grasshopper Sparrow and Plain Pigeon. The former is not too hard, but nor is it so distinctive. The latter is very rare, so not much hope there. So if you're paying attention, you'll note that yes, we did see Greater Antillean Elaenia, an oddly elusive bird. I think it just has a very small population which breeds only at high elevation, and that very small population disperses very widely throughout the island (and remains silent) the rest of the year. We saw one yesterday afternoon feeding in a fruiting tree at our hotel, Starlight Chalet (along with 4 other species of Tyrannidae), and this morning one was calling in exactly the same spot where I had one 3 years ago, and where I looked with my group in earnest this past February to no avail. We also got great views of the lovely Rufous-throated Solitaire today. We really padded the wood-warbler list with Cape May, Black-throated Green, Magnolia (rare), and Bay-breasted (rare) being new, but it was clear that the Swainson's Warblers had all moved back north.

Photo highlights from today included this Northern Potoo I spotted on its day roost – or perhaps a nest. I had heard one was in the area, but I'm proud to say I found this without having been told where to look. I last saw one here three years ago (I think), but in a different tree.

Bahama (Hill's) Mockingbirds were vocal even in the windy heat of the afternoon, some elusive, but this one very cooperative. It did several little flapping song flights just a few feet above its perch. We later saw one that was foraging silently in the understory of the dry forest at Portland Ridge.

This Mangrove Cuckoo was in the same area as the mockingbird.

We saw the endemic subspecies of Stolid Flycatcher here as well, but as I noted in my blog series at last year, I found it to not be very vocally distinct from other subspecies. As a matter of fact, a recent paper looking at Myiarchus genetics found that it should probably be lumped with La Sagra's Flycatcher – which indeed also doesn't sound all that different.

Monday, April 15, 2013

More Bugs, Birds, and Flowers from Jamaica – 26 Endemics on Day Two

We haven't had a single peep from a Jamaican Becard. But no worries mon, we'll see them. Something of a relief is that everyone had at least a glimpse of a Crested Quail-Dove that flew in without warning, perched for a full second, and then vanished, only to call back to my playback from deep within the increasingly disturbed forest on the Ecclesdown Road. We'll have to trust the better forest at higher elevation in the Blue Mountains. Most people still need better view of Yellow-shouldered Grassquit too. And we'll have our work cut out for us to get a bunch of other subspecies, such as the Rufous-throated Solitaire and Bahama Mockingbird in the next days. And who can ever get enough of the Jamaica Tody? I got some great recording of its calls today, but no luck with digiscoped photos.

After seeing the Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoos at dusk yesterday, we were glad to get great views of one this morning. They certainly sit long enough for digiscoping.

I talked about the great variety of melastome plant and flower forms today, having seen the endemic Blakea trinervia and pointing out lots of this Arthrostemma fragile on the roadsides.

And I just couldn't remember the name of this flower, though I see it every time I'm here. It's Hippobroma longiflora, related to Lobelia. Its generic name is Greek for "horse food," but it's supposedly quite toxic.

This lovely, high-gloss flower chafer caught my attention. It looks to be fairly obviously a member of the subfamily Cetoniinae, but I don't know enough to get to tribe or genus on it. It reminds me of Euphoria, but that big triangle in the back seems distinctive.

Back at Goblin Hill for the rest of the afternoon we took a rest; here's the view from my bedroom window, a healthy sea breeze keeping it comfortable enough without using the AC.

From this window (while booking my final air tickets for my upcoming Borneo and Lombok trip...) I heard the screaming of a Peregrine Falcon. On our afternoon outing shortly thereafter, I walked my group down to the overlook, and there it was, perched on tree on its own little islet just offshore. We drove past it on our way to Folly Point and back, and an hour and 45 minutes later it was still there. It probably has its fill of White-crowned Pigeons every day.

There aren't a lot of moths around here, so I grabbed quick photo of this one after dinner. It looks to be a pretty widespread noctuid, Mocis disseverans.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

From Beetles to Butterflies and Twenty-one Endemics

Here's an odd assortment of stuff from the first day of six on this tour to Jamaica, my 14th to this island nation.

First of all, we saw no endemics until about 12:45 a.m. We had a very relaxed morning at the hotel in Port Royal, where the day before I found the same long-horned beetle species I had photographed in February. This one was a more typical-looking Eburia tetrastalacta.

Most of the wintering wood-warblers had departed, so the American Redstarts, Prairie Warblers, and such came in ones and twos. The best bird was a rare Great-tailed Grackle that flew over the hotel just before our very slow-paced breakfast.

It looked like they'd had some rain since February, as there were a few more flowers out. I assume this fragrant jasmine (presumably Jasminum nitidum) is an escaped exotic.

A pair of American Kestrels were breeding in the ruins of an old building next to our hotel. Most of them here are very white, while a very few are all dark rusty; this one might have the influence of a dark morph relative in its distant past, as the underparts have a few rusty feathers. But it's not quite intermediate either.

I can never remember how to tell Tropical from Mangrove Buckeye, so I snagged this quick digiscoped shot. Sure enough, the abundance mangroves indicated correctly that this was indeed Mangrove Buckeye.

We had great views of one White-tailed Tropicbird at Hectors River, with a second one coming in as we left for the Ecclesdown Road. This is where the endemics came in quickly. It didn't seem like we were being bombarded left and right with new birds, and at times it seemed very quiet. But after just four hours of walking the road we had seen 19 of the island's 27 AOU-accepted endemics (there should actually be more, with several distinctive subspecies), including amazing views of Jamaican Blackbird and a very close, singing Blue Mountain Vireo. This male Jamaican Spindalis was the only bird I managed to digiscope.

But another exciting endemic on the Ecclesdown Road was Pan Hairstreak, Electrostrymon pan, not a bug I see every year.

Finally, at our hotel, the lovely Goblin Hill, we saw a pair of Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoos at dusk and a Jamaican Owl shortly thereafter. Of the remaining six endemics, the Crested Quail-Dove always causes the most worry.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Counting Catalina Butterflies

This past Sunday I helped out on the Santa Catalina Mountains Butterfly Count, organized by my friend Mary Klinkel for the Southeastern Arizona Butterfly Association. She assigned me to a group with Dave Powell and Marceline VandeWater who had driven down from the Phoenix area. The day seemed rather slow overall, and we spent quite a bit of time in areas well up the mountain where there were no bugs to be seen at all. But in the end we had about 25 species, which isn't bad at all, though most were represented by ones and twos.

We started the morning in Sabino Canyon, taking one of the side trails through nice desert where the butterfly action was dominated by Tiny Checkerspots, presumably so abundant because of the prolific Dicliptera resupinata, Arizona Foldwing, a probable food plant for the caterpillars.

The first thing I got a photo of here was a Greater Earless Lizard, perhaps a female. We later saw some absolutely stunning males, but they are among the most skittish of our lizards. You need a telephoto lens and much patience to get good photos of them.

The only Dotted Roadside-Skipper of our day was in Rattlesnake Wash, a tributary of Sabino.

Higher up the mountain, in Upper Bear Canyon, we spotted a few more butterflies, but I managed shots only of a Brown Elfin (one of 3 or 4 we saw) and our only Arizona Hairstreak, a very lovely bug.

We ended the day higher up at Summerhaven and Incinerator Ridge, adding a few more butterflies such as Comma Satyr and Painted Lady, but my attention was frequently turned toward other things. One was this odd, golden-green fly, somewhat resembling a kelp fly but with the stance of a robberfly. It turns out to be a totally new family for me, Scathophagidae, easily found in Kaufman & Eaton's Insects of North America guide, and also on It certainly even looks like the genus Scathophaga.

And at the end of the afternoon, this young Greater Short-horned Lizard caught my eye.

Baby Birds in the Yard

This weekend saw fledging of noisy, begging Lesser Goldfinches (which apparently have no fear of humans – this was taken with a small camera) and hatching of Mourning Doves in the back yard. The dove nest was found a week and a half earlier by Marvin, visiting from Germany. The parent must have been incubating eggs then, as the shell in the nest shows the second one hatched shortly before I flushed the parent off the nest Sunday morning.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Biggest Gopher Snake EVER

On the way up the Slavin Gulch Trail in the Dragoon Mountains with my friends Greg Corman and Deb Vath today, I spotted a huge Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer, also called Bullsnake) basking under a Beargrass clump. I called the others back so they could see it, but before I could get some satisfactory pictures, it slithered down a large hole.

On the way back down, Greg spotted it under the same Beargrass (Nolina microcarpa, family Asparagaceae, not the lily known by this English name in the genus Xerophyllum in the Cascades), and I was not only able to get a nice photo of her sitting quietly, but she allowed me to handle her with no perceptible agitation. This was by far the biggest Gopher Snake I have ever seen and handled, and that's many – dating back to before I can remember. We suspect she was about 6 feet long. (She: because the tail was short and abruptly narrow posterior to the vent; males have a longer, more graduated tail that is not obviously narrower starting at the vent.)

Garden Update: First Sweet Pea at 118 days

It seems like it took forever. But finally, on day #118, the first Pink Cupid Sweet Pea (variety introduced in 1901) opened today. It smells heavenly. Slightly bitter, ethereal, and just like spring.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A Passion for Flowers

I thought I loved passionflowers – the family Passifloraceae. I still do, but after getting comments on my  photos posted to Flickr, I realized there are others who are quite a bit more fanatical about them. Thanks to these experts, I've been able to put names to many of these beauties.

These are from my recent tour to Costa Rica.

In the Talamanca Highlands was this amazing vine, drooping down from a Costa Rican Oak. It is Passiflora membranacea, which I should have recognized, having seen in growing in the highlands of Oaxaca just over a year ago.

This one from the Osa Peninsula is a bit harder to confirm, given that I didn't take photos of the leaves. But at least on the La Selva flora website the only match is Passiflora vitifolia. Given that that species also occurs into Panama and NW South America, that's probably also what this one is, but I suppose it's also possible that the Osa Peninsula has its own species. Deep in the understory of the rain forest, this one attracts trap-lining hermits.

Finally, this adorable one was on the entrance road to our lodge near La Selva, SueƱo Azul. It's a good match for Passiflora biflora on the La Selva flora website (which should pretty much share everything with this property), but there's also the very similar P. nubicola which could cause confusion; I suspect that one is found at higher elevations.