Sunday, April 30, 2017

Birds on the WINGS Costa Rica Tour in Spring

Somehow, I ended up taking a lot of bird photos on my Costa Rica in Spring tour this past March – so many that I thought I’d do a blog with just the bird photos. I wanted to also mention that I have another, slightly shorter tour to Costa Rica this coming late July with a couple spaces still open.

This March tour stays at six different lodges, while my July tour goes to only five, mostly different ones. The one place that both have in common is the Savegre River Valley and the Cerro de la Muerte area, famous for its large population of Resplendent Quetzals. When designing this exciting summer tour a few years ago, I wanted to make it significantly different from the spring tour (one should definitely come to Costa Rica at least twice!). But I also decided one just cannot come on any birding tour to Costa Rica and miss the most magnificent members of the family Trogonidae, and considered by some to be one of the world’s most spectacular birds. This past month we saw five and heard three or four others in our one full day here.

I had a co-leader-in-training with me on this tour, Luke Seitz, even though we had only eight participants. With Luke’s extra help, almost everyone saw every bird, and Luke even had the time to take some stunning photos with his high-end photography setup.

I’ll just be posting what I got here with my comparatively crude Canon PowerShot SX60HS, such as this Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, which in the darker afternoon light and backlit sky was difficult to photograph. We saw these in several places, this first one being on the drive down the Savegre River valley our first afternoon.

Savegre Mountain Lodge had a few hummingbird feeders, but there were so many flowers blooming this year, there weren’t many birds coming to them. This White-throated Mountain-gem also worked hard to keep many of them away from one feeder.

This Spangle-cheeked Tanager kept returning to the deck outside the restaurant windows, I think to fight its reflection.

We saw several Black Guans, mostly where they belong up in trees, but a pair of them along the jeep track just above our lodge provided the best photo op.

My summer Costa Rica tour’s itinerary takes us to the Caribbean slope to four other lodges in the mid-elevation foothills of the south and north, and then to two lowland lodges on the coast and near the Nicaraguan border, all of them very exciting places to bird. But my spring tour first takes us to the Pacific Coast, which has much more pronounced dry and rainy seasons. March on the Pacific side is quite hot and dry, but bird activity is usually quite high. On the way to the southern Pacific Coast we stopped at a lodge to watch their feeders and flowers. White-tailed Emerald and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird were two really good finds here, and the fruit feeders were also a hit. This feeder has a pair of Red-headed Barbets (female back left) and three Speckled Tanagers.

One of the highlights of the spring tour is spending three days at the tiny and rustic Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge on the Osa Peninsula. It’s not super remote, just a few hundred yards beyond the power grid, but it feels like a real jungle lodge, tucked away in the forest across a small river.

During the rainy season (mostly July-October on the Pacific side) the shallow river here can turn into a dangerous torrent, but an unprecedented late and long-lasting rain this past late November reshaped the entire floodplain like I had never seen before. The owners of the lodge and other residents on the south side of Rio Tigre were trapped there for 18 days.

This is an incredibly birdy area. One morning we walked through the village (with good habitat, including small marshes, forested hillsides, and brushy lots) for about 2 1/2 hours before breakfast and saw over 100 species. Cherrie's Tanager is one of the commoner birds here.

This Bare-throated Tiger-Heron was below the bridge at Rincón, where we also saw the exceedingly rare Yellow-billed Cotinga.

Almost as white as the cotinga was this White Hawk, a pair of which flew right over the lodge buildings and landed high overhead.

We had two American Pygmy-Kingfishers at close range, but this one was mostly hidden from my vantage point.

The female Black-throated Trogon was the first sex of this species to be described, hence the scientific name Trogon rufus. The male is green above.

Several birds com to the banana feeders at Bosque del Rio Tigre, including the endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager. One of our everyday birds on the tour was the Clay-colored Thrush, the national bird of Costa Rica.

Gray-chested Dove also occasionally came for bananas.

As did Lesson's Motmot (a new name since the Blue-crowned Motmot of Mexico and Central America was split into two species; the one from northeastern Mexico is now Blue-capped Motmot).

Even Orange-billed Sparrow came to the feeders, but we saw it more often in the deep forest understory.

Slaty-tailed Trogon is audible more often than not from the trails, but they’re not too hard to see either.

We walked up the stream one afternoon, spying our only Solitary Sandpiper of the tour near some White Ibises.

This White-necked Puffbird apparently had a nest along the track above the lodge.

On our way north to the central Pacific side of Costa Rica, we stopped at a gas station and found this pair of Tropical Mockingbirds with a chick nearby. This species has only relatively recently colonized Costa Rica from the north.

We used to have a full day and a morning at Carara National Park, but now we see most of the southern Pacific coast specialties farther south, and recently the national park started enforcing strictly their 8:00 a.m. opening time, eliminating the best two and a half hours of birding of the day. Now we spend just one night here and have one early morning before we head farther north, so I’ve changed our plan to include a two-hour boat ride on the Tárcoles River.

It’s a really fun and very different birding experience from the rest of the tour, adding many water birds (including Southern Lapwings) and mangrove specialties (Scrub Greenlet, Mangrove Vireo, Mangrove Yellow Warbler, among others). The best bird on this year’s boat ride was this Collared Forest-Falcon spotted by one of the participants sitting quietly in a tree on the bank. It flew just as everyone got on it, usually the end of the story, but it moved to an even more open perch, and Luke got some even more outstanding photos of it.

Before continuing to Monteverde, we had lunch at Ensenada Lodge in the dry Guanacaste lowlands of NW Costa Rica. Here we saw Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, Nutting’s Flycatcher, Streak-backed and Spot-breasted Orioles, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Olive Sparrow, Banded Wren, and a few other species we don’t see anywhere else on the tour.

Then we had a full day in the higher elevations of the famous Monteverde cloud forest. We see some new birds here, such as Orange-bellied Trogon but also get a refresher of some of the species we saw in the southern highlands, such as Collared Redstart.

We also got repeat views of Resplendent Quetzal, not always as easy here as in the Cerro de la Muerte area. One sat still for a long time, and I finally acquiesced even though it was too dark for a good photo. As soon as I clicked the shutter the bird flew. A record shot at least.

But then it sat even longer on another perch, giving me time to replace the spotting scope with my camera on the tripod and take a photo with slow shutter speed.

The Plain Wren was recently split into three species, all of which occur in Costa Rica (see Patterns of genetic and morphological divergence reveal a species complex in the Plain Wren [Cantorchilus modestus] by Jacob R. Saucier, César Sánchez, and Matthew D. Carling in The Auk: Ornithological Advances, Volume 132, 2015, pp. 795–807), and we saw all three very well on this tour. This one is now called Cabanis’s Wren, formerly the nominate subspecies of Plain Wren, occurring in the highlands and on the Pacific slope south to central Costa Rica. It’s the more colorful of the three and has the highest and fastest song. I did some playback experiments with all three, and unsurprisingly they respond quite aggressively to songs of all forms, even though the main song types are recognizably different in precise pattern and pitch. But most surprising was when I played a single male’s song of Canebrake Wren (the Caribbean lowland form) to a Cabanis’s Wren at our hotel in Monteverde. Rather than reacting territorially, it actually performed a highly coordinated duet (singing the female song) with the recording (from the Ross & Whitney CD). I’ve glanced at several papers dealing with wren duets, including specifically that of the Plain Wren, and it doesn’t look like anyone has documented this bizarre behavior – one species duetting with a recording of another species.

Moving along, we had an afternoon and a morning to bird in the Arenal area, but just as we got there, it began to rain. Luke spotted this roosting Great Potoo in an area where one is known to live but chooses a different roost each day. It was already rather wet by the time he found it.

Rain continued the rest of the afternoon and much of the next morning, forcing us to watch the feeders from under a roof, to no one’s disappointment. This Great Curassow was one of three who slowly clambered up into a tree then made a huge flapping effort to get to the top of this elevated feeding station otherwise occupied by Montezuma Oropendolas and several tanagers.

Later in the morning, the rain finally stopped, and we had some productive birding on the “Peninsula Road” by Lake Arenal. This is always a good area for Long-tailed Tyrant.

This Red-billed Pigeon was at our lunch stop near La Fortuna. Note that while it’s cere is reddish, the bill itself is not – and even the specific epithet (flavirostris) means yellow-billed. So how did it get that horribly inappropriate English name, now impossibly entrenched?

We arrived at our final lodge, Sueño Azul, in the late afternoon as a large roost of egrets and herons was assembling at a small reservoir just behind our rooms.

We were rather shocked to see this immature Reddish Egret perched among them; their normal habitat is shallow saltwater lagoons on either coast, and here we were 60 kilometers inland at the base of the Central Mountains.

We had a full morning at the La Selva Biological Station, where I took few photos. These female Great Curassows were wandering along the entrance road as we waited for our guide.

We had another morning at Braulio Carrillo National Park, with a short stop at a garden full of hummingbird flowers (Stachytarpheta sp., Porterweed). My favorite bird from any Costa Rica tour, if we get lucky enough to see it, is the incomparable male Snowcap.

We also had time to bird on the grounds of Sueño Azul, which was very productive. A pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds was on territory in a surprisingly open area; I’m used to seeing this species (and other relatives in the same genus) in rather dark, continuous forest understory with lots of looping woody vines. They sat long enough for me to get the camera on the tripod and take some photos stopped all the way down and at the lowest ISO setting – resulting in an exposure that took a full second. Good thing puffbirds sit so still.

I even got some video:

One of the more amazing bird sights of the tour was this migrating group of Swainson's and Broad-winged Hawks (we estimated 440 of the former and 195 of the latter in this one flock). The southern half of Costa Rica had just experienced 3 days of solid rain, so this was the result of a bottling up of migrants, and after cruising north after the rain stopped, they were just starting to descend in the late afternoon to find roosts in the forests on the property. On the next morning, our last morning of birding on the lodge grounds, Swainson’s Hawks were in trees all over the area.

The video actually captures it much better:

We finished the tour with a hike through some lovely cloud forests and along the stream at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

Our last new species of the tour was a pair of American Dippers of the rather distinctive Costa Rican subspecies – quite pale gray overall with contrastingly darker hood and wings.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Bardia National Park, Nepal – birds, bugs, plants, and TIGERS!

The Upper Mustang trip I just returned from was a huge success, but I still have a bunch of photos to share from Mich’s and my short weekend trip to Bardia National Park in southwestern Nepal.

We stayed at the very friendly and well-run Racy Shade Resort in the far western edge of the national park, the most accessible area and known for its tigers. In fact, Bardia National Park may be the best place in the world to spot a tiger while on foot.
Racy Shade Resort

We had a two guides from the resort and were on foot for our one whole day here, and we put on 11.2 miles, measured by my GPS. We were on roads, overgrown trails, and even waded across a river.

We couldn’t ignore the birds, but the main target was tiger. Early on, while walking on the main entrance road, a group in front of us had heard alarm calls from a troop of Rhesus Macaques, and they sat waiting, hoping for a tiger to cross the road. It was a false alarm.

Cutting to the chase, we saw two tigers, finally, at 3:54 p.m. We had situated ourselves at a couple likely spots along a small, slow-flowing stream and waited along with other tiger watchers, arriving at the first location at 9:45. We waited and watched, changed locations, waited again, and then heard that a tiger briefly had been seen crossing the stream just 60 meters from where we were waiting sometime shortly before noon. So we persisted, waited more, had our picnic lunch, napped, and finally gave up. We took off to totally different location on another stream at 1:50 p.m., and at about 3:35 one of our guides got a call that two tigers came out exactly were we had been waiting earlier. We were 1.3 km (over 3/4 of a mile) away, but got there breathless in 15 minutes to see two tigers up to their bellies in the stream, perhaps 100 meters away.
tiger, Bardia National Park

They rarely moved over the next 20 minutes or so, both facing away, but we were patient.
tiger, Bardia National Park

We were the first to arrive, joining the four who first spotted them. But soon a large crowd had gathered – largely foreigners, but one group of Nepali tourists, including some children, had also arrived. Everyone was thrilled.

When the big group of Nepalis left, we were a bit distracted and looked up to see that one tiger had quickly vanished. The other remained virtually motionless for another 30 minutes, but finally it showed some life, turning its head, lapping up water, and then it slowly got up and walked out of sight.
tiger, Bardia National Park

I took several bits of video over the course of our 50 minutes and was lucky to get the last hurrah.

Here are a couple happy tiger watchers.

We birded of course, tallying over 100 species in the national park, at our resort, and in the community forest across from it. Green Bee-eater was a common bird in all areas.
Green Bee-eater

We saw a few Stork-billed Kingfishers, but they were quite shy and didn’t allow close approach.
Stork-billed Kingfisher

Greater Racket-tailed Drongos were conspicuous and very noisy inhabitants of the canopy.
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo

We flushed a few wintering Tree Pipits in a grassy area, and they promptly flew up to land in trees.
Tree Pipit

White-browed Wagtails were along the rivers in the park as well as an irrigation ditch by the resort.
White-browed Wagtail

This Black Redstart, wintering here only (and breeding in the Himalayan highlands and north to Mongolia), is a very different looking subspecies (Phoenicurus ochruros rufiventris) from the resident birds I know from western Europe.
Black Redstart

A very common passerine in all woodland types here is the Common Iora, a pair of which was building this very tidy nest in a tree across the drive from the Racy Shade.
Common Iora nest

A fruiting fig tree near the resort hosted many birds, including a couple pairs of the common Coppersmith Barbet.
Coppersmith Barbet

The community forest was great for woodpeckers. First we had a few of these Black-rumped Flamebacks.
Black-rumped Flameback

But the one prize bird I had hoped to see eventually showed well when we found a family group excavating a nest cavity: The world’s largest woodpecker, Great Slaty Woodpecker.
Great Slaty Woodpecker

The cavity was about 3/4 the way up this tree on the right edge of the trail.

Besides Tiger, we noted a few other mammals. Indian Muntjac is probably the tiger’s main prey.
Indian Muntjac

I mentioned Rhesus Macaque, but the more attractive monkey here is the Terai Gray Langur.
Terai Gray Langur

This Indian Rhinoceros appeared at the same location as the tigers, and as soon as it emerged from the forest, an Indian Jungle Crow (clearly different from the highland Large-billed Crows, though some lump them) landed on it.
Indian Rhinoceros

I was able to put names to all of the butterflies I photographed while waiting for tigers to show. The Asian tropical regions have a very high diversity of Lycaenids – blue and hairstreaks. The one on the left is Megisba malaya, the Malayan, and on the right is Lestranicus transpecta, White-banded Hedge Blue.
Megisba malaya, the Malayan (left), Lestranicus transpecta, White-banded Hedge Blue (right)

Prosotas nora ardates, Common Lineblue
Prosotas nora ardates, Common Lineblue

Jamides bochus, Indian Dark Cerulean
Jamides bochus, Indian Dark Cerulean

Ypthima inica, Lesser Threering, a typical looking satyr
Ypthima inica, Lesser Threering

This stunning brushfoot is Cyrestis thyodamas, the Common Map.
Cyrestis thyodamas, the Common Map Butterfly

This dragonfly is Trithemis aurora, the Crimson Marsh Glider.
Trithemis aurora, the Crimson Marsh Glider

Very common along the forest trails well away from water was this Neurothemis fulvia, Fulvous Forest Skimmer.
Neurothemis fulvia, Fulvous Forest Skimmer

The name suggested on for this fungus is Trametes betulina, but I’m not convinced that is correct.
Trametes betulina

Adding a wonderful fragrance along all of the trails in the park was this Clerodendrum infortunatum, Hill Glory Bower.
Clerodendrum infortunatum, Hill Glory Bower

I recognized this Calotropis gigantea, Giant Milkweed, from having seen it in Jamaica, Hawaii, and Indonesia.
Calotropis gigantea, Giant Milkweed

This epiphytic orchid was common in the community forest, and it appears to be Vanda tessellata.
Vanda tessellata

A typical scene while were birding in the lands near our lodge.

We had a late afternoon flight from Nepalgunj to Kathmandu, so we had much of our last day to stop along the drive and look for birds. We drove though lots of agricultural land and around noon arrived at the little-known Blackbuck Conservation Area, a tiny reserve. And indeed here were many rather tame Antilope cervicapra, the Blackbuck, a species that would have disappeared from Nepal without this reserve.
Antilope cervicapra, the Blackbuck

Our prize find here were seven Indian Coursers, an extremely scarce and amazingly attractive bird of open country.
Indian Courser

Blue-tailed Bee-eaters were also at Bardia, but they were particularly common here.
Blue-tailed Bee-eater

Crested Lark is a very rare bird in Nepal, and this was Mich’s first in the county; I had seen it only in western Europe before.
Crested Lark

Yellow-wattled Lapwing is yet another very hard bird to find in Nepal, but there were several in the reserve.
Yellow-wattled Lapwing

Long-tailed Shrike is common in lots of habitats in much of the country; this is the subspecies Lanius schach erythronotus, lacking the black crown of birds from eastern Nepal.
Long-tailed Shrike

I scooped Mich on this Indian Hare which darted off and disappeared before he could see it.
Indian Hare

Lizard diversity doesn’t seem so high here, and Calotes versicolor, the Oriental Garden Lizard seems to occur everywhere.
Calotes versicolor, the Oriental Garden Lizard

We made a short stop at a bridge on our way to Nepalgunj and I added two lifers: Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark…
Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark

…and Bank Myna, both of which are common in much of India but only barely make it into this part of Nepal.
Bank Myna