24 May 2017

Grousin' around in Colorado

As I prepare to leave for another tour (Maine, this time), I realized that I'm actually two tours behind here on my blog!  Unfortunately, this looks to be a reoccurring theme.

Anyway, I present to you a few photos from a tour to Colorado that Tom Johnson and I led (oh, if you're behind in the times, not to worry... I work for Field Guides Inc., a company based out of Austin, Texas.  And, actually, you can find my upcoming schedule here).

Colorado is, without a doubt, the best state to go looking for a good variety of sage-grouse, prairie-chickens, grouse, quail, etc., and this tour was focused mainly on those species.  The "chicken trip", some call it.

Our first "chicken" of the trip came in Kansas (yes, our tour swings into Kansas) where the threatened and vulnerable LESSER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN is the main target.  Roadside prairies in Kansas?  One of my favorite things.  Here's sunrise:
... and here's the prairie-chicken dancing, stomping, and displaying within view:
No, those aren't ears sticking up... those are neck feathers called "pinnae" that are erected when the grouse display. 

We had some other good lookin' birds early in the tour too including this YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD looking as sharp as they ever do:
It was especially fun being in Colorado during migration because species like FRANKLIN'S GULL were moving through in large numbers.  Here's a look at one complete with the black hood:
After our Kansas stint, we headed to Wray, Colorado.  It was there that we had private access to a beautiful lek of GREATER PRAIRIE-CHICKENS (a "lek" is a staging ground where birds gather to display to females).  Very similar to the previous species, these were bigger, with different vocalizations, and orange neck sacs instead of the reddish ones you see above.  Here is a male with his air-filled neck sacs inflated:
I especially enjoyed watching the interactions between rivaling males.  Here's one that got lunged at... and rocketed upwards:
As we departed that lek, we found ourselves face-to-face with a GREAT HORNED OWL on a nest:
It also might be worth repeating... those "horns" ARE NOT EARS.  Those are tufts of feathers; the ears, which are on the sides of the head, are not visible.

Leaving the prairies behind us, we headed west up into the mountains.  Although we were en route to somewhere else, we stopped to do some birding and ended up snagging some really nice species including this WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER:
While on the subject of cool woodpeckers, here would be a good spot to add in this image.  It's a LEWIS'S WOODPECKER which, in terms of woodpecker coloration, has to be one of the more unique ones out there:
We also had killer looks AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER on this tour.  Here's a male with the yellow cap:
But the main target high in the mountains (and yes, fairly high, higher than 11,000 feet) was to try for the WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN, a camouflaged denizen of some extremely harsh terrain.  In fact, at this season, they're completely white!  Anyway, after quite a search (yes, we were getting worried), this distant white blob materialized on a ridge top about a mile away!  The pictures aren't grand but the feeling sure was!
Once we retreated to lower elevations, we were able to catch our breaths (literally) and then headed for the town of Gunnison.  It was there that we had another grouse in mind, the endangered GUNNISON SAGE-GROUSE.  Sadly, only about 5000 of these are left on earth... but luckily, we were at the best spot to see them!  We spent a couple of predawn hours in the blind waiting for it to get light but once it did, we spotted these distant sage-grouse on the ridge.  Again, the photos aren't going to win any competitions but we felt very lucky to be able to see this rare species at all:
Near there, up in Crested Butte, the folks in my van were lucky to watch this Coyote do a "mouse pounce":
This is a hunting maneuver where canines like dogs, Coyotes, and foxes jump up in the air and then pounce down with their front feet to break through the snow and to pin down prey.

We were lucky to see a lot of SWAINSON'S HAWKS on tour; many of them were just arriving from their wintering grounds in South America.  It really is a nice-looking bird if you see them well:
After leaving Gunnison, we made a special stop for yet another interesting grouse species... the DUSKY GROUSE.  We found one in short order and, thankfully, it hung around for all to see:
Many of you are probably familiar with PINE SISKINS... a small but widespread finch.  Here's one that posed for a bit showing its pointy bill, brown streaks, and notched tail:
The DARK-EYED JUNCOS are pretty cool looking in that part of the world too.  This is the "Gray-headed" subspecies:
In western Colorado, the scenery changed into a more red-rock, canyon-land type habitat.  The scenery was great!
The dry and scrubby habitat hosted GRAY FLYCATCHER, PINYON JAY, BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER, PLUMBEOUS VIREO, BEWICK'S WRENS, and many others.  Mixed in was this sky-blue MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD trying to blend in with the sky.  :-)
This GAMBEL'S QUAIL also felt comfortable enough to perch up and sing which we all enjoyed...
We eventually wound our way up to northwest Colorado where we were targeting yet another grouse.  A sage-grouse, to be exact.  We had already seen the Gunnison Sage-Grouse... so it was time for its bigger cousin, the GREATER SAGE-GROUSE.  We positioned ourselves predawn and man, what a show unfolded in front of us:
 Here's a closer male that was displaying right next to our van!
Ha, no, those aren't yellow boobs.  That's a male with inflatable sacs that he pumps full of air and thrusts out during his display.  When you stand back and try to take it all in... that's one CRAZY looking bird!

Our last chicken of the trip required us to visit a new part of Colorado, a gorgeous part of the state with mixed prairies on the sandhills:
It was here that we connected with the SHARP-TAILED GROUSE:
Can you see the pointy tail sticking up?  That's the "sharp" tail.

Anyway, after cleaning up the chickens, it was time to make a dash to the Pawnee National Grasslands where we had a couple of targets in mind.  One of them materialized right on the side of the highway... the regal FERRUGINOUS HAWK (my favorite buteo, if I had to choose):
The main draw for our quick side-trip to the Pawnee?  This drab little shorebird called a MOUNTAIN PLOVER:
It had somehow eluded us earlier in the trip and so the special council (ahem... Tom and I) decided it was worth a try.  In the end, we're glad we did!

Once again, here's a photo of our fun group birding the prairie (we were enjoying the above species at that moment).  If you're able to find beauty away from oceans and mountains (I know I do), you might really love this part of Colorado:
Some of our best finds weren't even planned!  For example, we bumped into this LONG-EARED OWL at an oasis of trees during a bathroom stop:
Again, the tufts aren't ears.

So after it was all said and done, it really was a fun trip full of amazing and unique species (and hey, all within the comfort of Mercedes-Benz vans!)
Maybe I should mention.... Tom and I will be leading this tour again in 2018!  Woooo!  You can find more info about this tour on the Field Guides website here.  You can click around to find more images, a map of our route, and even past triplists.  Enjoy!

27 April 2017

Classic Costa Rica

Holy moly, it's been a busy last month or two!  I can see already that when I have several tours back-to-back, updating this blog will be a lot more problematic.  Hopefully you all don't mind a little delay...

After my quick strike to Colombia in March, I had just a few days to reorient myself for a return trip to the tropics, this time to Costa Rica.  True true, I had already spent 2-3 weeks in Costa Rica earlier this year (the "Edges" trips) but this was a different tour altogether.  Our tour ran from 20 March to 2 April and this time to I got to lead it with Jay.

As with the other tours we run in Costa Rica, we used the very nice Hotel Bougainvillea as our base when close to San Jose.  One perk of staying there is the old, overgrown coffee plantations down across the street.  Jay and I checked it out before the group arrived and boom, my lifer PREVOST'S GROUND-SPARROW was waiting for me:
Once the group arrived in the afternoon, we ventured out for some owling and caught up with this TROPICAL SCREECH-OWL on the grounds:
GROOVE-BILLED ANIS were also common around the hotel.  Although Smooth-billed can be found elsewhere in the country, only the former is present in San Jose:
But before long we were off to our first destination, the very birdy La Paz Waterfall Gardens.  We had a couple of key species to target there and we found them without trouble... the striking BLACK-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD was a main one:
Another specialty of the area is the COPPERY-HEADED EMERALD.  This species of hummingbird is endemic to Costa Rica.  What a stunner, right?
And hey, when you see a fresh PALM TANAGER up close and personal, they're actually not all that bad looking either (although it's a cruel joke to follow up an emerald with this)!
One of our first major destinations on this tour was in the Caribbean lowlands... the famed La Selva.  Although we battled rain there almost constantly, we still found a couple hundred species of birds!  One of the highlights near La Selva was soaring overhead... my lifer KING VULTURE!
Along the same road, we eventually caught up to this GREAT GREEN MACAW, a rare and hard-to-find species.  Although my digiscoped photo doesn't do it justice, it was a true highlight for many folks:
A nearby flock of swifts was worth looking at as well.  With the help of these photos, we were able to confirm that there were some SPOT-FRONTED SWIFTS mixed in including this one:
CHESTNUT-COLLARED SWIFTS were present as well.  In good light, it's not too hard to pick them out:
This Chaetura swift was also mixed in; a GRAY-RUMPED:
Along the same road as the swifts was this heavy-billed, glossy thing... a THICK-BILLED SEED-FINCH putting on quite a show:
One of the great things about birding with a keen bunch of birders is how many eyes we have looking for targets.  For example, someone picked out this distant WHITE HAWK at one of our stops:
La Selva Biological Station is well-known for its biodiversity.  We got to sample things firsthand as we birded the trails.  Not all of our neat sightings were birds though; here's an EYELASH VIPER that was perched in a tree along one of the trails:
If you've been to La Selva, I'm sure you'll recognize this bridge.  Here's our group watching a Golden-winged Warbler:
Although not at La Selva proper, we did enjoy scope views of this tree branch stump... or is it?  
Of course that's a bird perched there... a GREAT POTOO!  They rely on their camouflage to stay unbothered during the day. 

Somewhere along the line after leaving La Selva, we stopped at an old garden and scored this little hummingbird with a white crown... it's called a SNOWCAP:
A common species in those parts is the PALE-VENTED PIGEON; here's one that posed nicely at a feeder setup that we visited:
The same area gave me a chance to photograph a species I hadn't photographed yet... a MELODIOUS BLACKBIRD:
... although I'm guessing this GREEN HONEYCREEPER was more popular with the group:
We stayed at Rancho Naturalista for a couple of nights and the feeders there provided more chances for new birds.  For example, this GIANT COWBIRD dropped in.  What a bird!  It's a cowbird that's the size of a Great-tailed Grackle:
The GRAY-HEADED CHACHALACAS were often causing a ruckus around the lodge too.  Somehow this photo shows one without its mouth open!
This BLACK-CHEEKED WOODPECKER came in to snack a time or two too:
Several of the species we saw will migrate to the USA/Canada to breed.  Included in that subset was this WOOD THRUSH:
We birded down the road to target a few new species and came away with this RED-BREASTED MEADOWLARK.  It's in the same genus as ours but.... red.  Bizarre thing... I love them.
Not too far from Rancho was a stream that we wanted to stop at.  The reason was simple... SUNBITTERNS had a nest there!  We found it and enjoyed amazing scope views (and photos) of this odd tropical species:
One of the highlights of the whole trip for me was this BARE-SHANKED SCREECH-OWL, a species I had yet to encounter despite previous attempts.  Not only did we hear it well, we saw it exceptionally well too!
As we climbed in elevation towards Cerro de la Muerte, we found this BLACK-BILLED NIGHTINGALE-THRUSH down a side road.  These guys are more fond of the higher elevations than other nightingale-thrushes:
By far the most popular target bird on this trip was the RESPLENDENT QUETZAL.  We went out our first morning in the Savegre Valley and found this dazzling male high above us with his amazing tail feathers:
Of course, when a target bird like that gets found... EVERYONE rushes to see it.  Here's the crowd that was gathered at the quetzal first thing in the morning:
Thankfully we later found quetzals that posed nicely... no crowds involved!
This OCHRACEOUS PEWEE was both a surprise and a stunner.  I had little hope of seeing this rare flycatcher but we had intel on a good spot... and good spot indeed!
The Savegre Valley hosts a number of fascinating species that we weren't likely to see anywhere else.  One such species around our lodge was the SLATY FLOWERPIERCER:
Usually a skulking species, we were fortunate to see this LARGE-FOOTED FINCH out in the open just up the road!
Of course, the color of the male FLAME-COLORED TANAGER was hard to beat:
High up near the radio towers at Cerro de la Muerte, we eventually found a couple of VOLCANO JUNCOS, a species restricted to highlands of Costa Rica and Panama.  As you can see, we had good views!
... of course, most of that came in between views of the Turrialba Volcano that was in the process of erupting (or, at least, releasing some gas/ash):
We eventually ended up in the Carara area in the lowlands to the west.  Although warm and sticky during the afternoons, the birding was phenomenal.  Well, I might be biased but seeing things like this ORANGE-COLLARED MANAKIN really struck a cord for me:
... not to mention a chance to see more manakins like this RED-CAPPED taking a bath in a stream:
Back at the lodge, we all enjoyed views of this young SPECTACLED OWL from our dining hall:
And yep... an adult was nearby too!
Another destination on our Costa Rica tour were the dry woodlands to the west where we tapped into a whole new suite of potential in this different habitat.  An added bonus there was this CRANE HAWK that flew overhead:
However, the highlight for me was watching this LESSER GROUND-CUCKOO strolling around!  I couldn't believe our luck:
That dry region hosted a few other new species for us including this STRIPE-HEADED SPARROW:
A few joined us on a quest after dinner to try to find some owls... we were rewarded with awesome looks of this STRIPED OWL:
We still needed WHITE-NECKED PUFFBIRD though and so we stopped at a roadside stop and our lead guide got out to look around... he had intel on one of these maybe nesting in the area.  Guess what... it was still there!
Down the road a bit we birded at the Guacalillo Bird Observatory.  The nice thing about it was that they had hummingbird feeders attracting quite a number of birds.  Of course, we were especially pleased when this MANGROVE HUMMINGBIRD came in:
This little hummer is found in no other country on earth (it's endemic to Costa Rica).

Just down the road from our Mangrove Hummingbird experience, we were face-to-face with a gorgeous lagoon full of shorebirds:

We tallied more than a dozen species of shorebirds including some uncommon ones like AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVER, RUDDY TURNSTONE, SANDERLING, and a few PECTORAL SANDPIPERS.

Our Field Guides group enjoyed a leisurely boat ride through the mangroves near the Rio Tarcoles one afternoon/evening.  Although we tallied a nice 50 species, there were a couple of photographic highlights.  This GREEN IBIS showed particularly well as we cruised up to it:
This BOAT-BILLED HERON (basically a night-heron but with a monster bill) was my first and long-awaited:
These SCARLET MACAWS though were especially popular.  Yes, they're wild, gorgeous, and very easy to spot!
Anyway, we eventually departed the Carara area and headed uphill to Monteverde.  One of our main targets there is the impressive and fascinating THREE-WATTLED BELLBIRD (said to be the loudest bird on earth).  Although they were barely back in range (they winter in the lowlands), we tracked one down and, I have to say, it was one of the most memorable moments of tour for me.  Here he is with his three wattles hanging down from his face:
Of course, it's hard to beat such an emblematic species like the bellbird... but the LONG-TAILED MANAKINS were pretty sharp too!
The hummingbird feeders at Monteverde were productive as well hosting things like PURPLE-THROATED MOUNTAIN-GEM, MAGENTA-THROATED WOODSTAR, VIOLET SABREWING and this STRIPE-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD:
The trails through the forest reserve hosted quetzals, spadebills, and this SLATY-BACKED NIGHTINGALE-THRUSH.  Oomph, I really like nightingale-thrushes!
Sadly, after Monteverde it was back to San Jose to head home.  It was a great tour though and we were all treated to new life birds.  Major thanks to Costa Rica Gateway (you should check them out if you go to Costa Rica) and all the fun participants we had on board this year.

Whew, after it was all said and done, it's been a busy year for me in Costa Rica.  Our tours somehow tallied more than 570 species in the country this year and I ended up spending more than a month there!  I already look forward to returning in January with Tom (you can find more info about that tour on our website here).