30 August 2016

Zoom zoom Zona

Shortly after arriving back in the states from the Machu Picchu tour in Peru, I headed west to Arizona to attend the annual business meeting of Field Guides.  So, in the air again... St. Louis --> Las Vegas --> Tucson... and then the drive to Portal.  Of course, birders will know all about Portal, the small Arizonan town that sits in the extreme SE corner of the state.

And, as one can correctly surmise, it was hard for me to visit somewhere like that and turn a blind eye to the birds!  However, even the fun birds of Arizona couldn't keep me healthy; I had come down with some cold-like nastiness (probably from all my flying lately).  So although I wasn't able to participate in all the birding outings, I still managed to get out a few times.

One of the times I did tag along, we headed up to the Barfoot Junction area and saw things like RED CROSSBILL, GREATER PEWEE, MEXICAN CHICKADEE, ZONE-TAILED HAWK, and a whole slew of other expected species.  We had a few warblers as well including OLIVE, VIRGINIA'S, NASHVILLE, ORANGE-CROWNED, WILSON'S, HERMIT, and this GRACE'S:
Probably the highlight for me that morning was an adult NORTHERN GOSHAWK that our van saw on the drive up.  It may have been only my second ever in Arizona.

A different day in Cave Creek yielded this WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL roosting in a hole:
As it so happens, this was the first time I've ever managed a photo of this species. 

Back at the ranch, and I mean that literally (we were staying at Cave Creek Ranch), we enjoyed the numerous bird feeders that dotted the relatively-lush grounds.  Here's a panorama of the entrance area:
The variety of feeders brought in, well, a variety of birds.  Here's a male BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK that was particularly fond of the suet:
Meanwhile, the peanut butter spread on the tree was a favorite snack for this ARIZONA WOODPECKER.  Jif, anyone?
Although the flurry of 30+ people in meetings ebbed and flowed... one flurry of activity never ceased: hummingbirds!  They were a constant feature at the numerous hummingbird feeders and we tallied 8 species at the feeders on a daily basis:


One of the most common species there was BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD.  From the side this male does indeed look rather black-chinned:
However, as he starts to turn his head towards you, you can see a hint of purple starting to show in the lower throat:
As he continues to turn towards you, you can now see the gorget in full light.  What looked black from the side is now a gleaming purple:
To get a sense of the hummingbird activity, check out this blurry photo I snapped as it was getting dark:
You can see bits and pieces of 11 different hummingbirds in this one photo!  You see, we ventured to a nearby home one evening to see if a reported LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD would make an appearance (which it didn't).  Still, we were all entertained by the hummingbird activity as they loaded up on food before heading to roost for the night.  As we left this house, we even managed a BLACK WIDOW sighting under one of the deck chairs.

Less-commonly seen at the ranch were the CURVE-BILLED THRASHERS.  Although we heard them often, here's one that came in to one of the feeder trees during an afternoon shower:
There are no chickadees found at the lower elevations of Cave Creek.  Instead, that niche is partially filled by the stripe-headed BRIDLED TITMOUSE, a species found only in Arizona and New Mexico here in the US:
Although not attending feeders, I came across a couple of species of vireos foraging nearby.  Here's the kinglet-like HUTTON'S VIREO sporting its hefty bill:
As usual, birds weren't the only flying creatures around!  Here's a FLAME SKIMMER, an aptly-named dragonfly that was perched over nearby pond:
Waking up to the sounds of MEXICAN JAYS and ACORN WOODPECKERS, walking out the door of your cabin and seeing THIS... well, it's hard to beat the view as you approach the Chiricahuas during the monsoon season:
You'll want to pay attention of where you step, though!  Here's a BLACK-TAILED RATTLESNAKE that liked to spend hot afternoons under the porch of a nearby house:
It wasn't much of a threat chilling down there in the shade.  Remember, don't bother it and it (probably) won't bother you.

But, before long, my quick visit to Arizona was complete and it was time to reverse my travels.  Tucson --> Las Vegas --> St. Louis.  Here's the latter as I came in for landing:
It's been a fun year though in terms of Arizona.  I don't foresee myself visiting there again in 2016 but the few visits I've had have netted me almost 200 species in the state this year.  We'll see what 2017 is like!

28 August 2016

Peru Two!

Sorry for the 11-day delay for Part II of my Peru trip but, well, Arizona got in the way.  :-)  More on that later... maybe.  If I have time.

So, our Machu Picchu tour had kicked off, we had flown into Cusco, visited Ollantaytambo briefly, taken the train to Aguas Calientes, seen Machu Picchu, and we were getting ready to bird the Mandor Valley.  We were at our lowest elevation of the entire tour here in Aguas Calientes (6,693').  What that meant was we were in the elevational range of a whole slew of different species, some just reaching our elevation from the Amazon Basin to the east.  And the view in town?  It was freaking incredible.  I'll just never forget the view of the steep topography that greeted us every morning:
On this particular hike, we walked alongside railroad tracks for several miles.  We weren't the only ones though; many folks were backpacking, locals were walking to the next village, etc.  You have to remember that since there are no roads connecting some of these towns to each other, the next best way to get around is hiking along the railroad tracks:
Soon after we started on our Mandor Valley hike out of Aguas Calientes, Jesse heard a CHESTNUT-CAPPED BRUSHFINCH and he even managed to coax it out.  For being a shadow-dweller, this skulker sure is a striking bird:
Although less striking, we saw several ASHY-HEADED TYRANNULETS (a type of flycatcher) on our hike as well including this one:
This GRAY-BREASTED WOOD-WREN popped out in nice light at one point.  Although common, I wish they all perched up like that!
One of the highlights was this BLACK-STREAKED PUFFBIRD that we spotted.  This secretive species, basically a fluffy baseball, is a "sit-and-wait" hunter meaning it sits motionless for long periods of time as it watches for insect prey:
Another fun species to hang out with, and another one with "streak" in the name, was the STREAK-NECKED FLYCATCHER.  The streaked breast and gray head were dead give-aways to its identity:
One of the more uncommon species we bumped into on our hike was this female VERSICOLORED BARBET.  Can you spot it amongst the leaves?
What's cool about this species is that it specializes in foraging on clusters of dead leaves.  And then take a look again at the bird in the photo... it's doing exactly that!

About where we turned around to start heading back to Aguas Calientes, we found a loose flock of GREEN JAYS.  Of course, these are of the South American subspecies known as the "Inca" Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas yncas):
SLATE-THROATED REDSTARTS, which are wood-warblers, were abundant and probably one of the most numerous species we saw.  Here in South America, they are more yellow-bellied instead of the red-bellied variety we see up in Mexico:
Nearer town, the raucous screeches overhead gave away the presence of several MITRED PARAKEETS flocks flying around.  And nothing against the introduced ones in Florida... but these I felt GOOD about seeing.  :-)  Yes, they're native to Peru.  Here's a silhouette of a few:
The next day we birded on the grounds of our hotel, the InkaTerra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel.  The hotel, a 5-star ordeal, was a bit of paradise complete with waterfalls down the sides of the stairs, lush veg... it was just a very beautiful spot to hang out for a couple of nights.  And besides, the local LYRE-TAILED NIGHTJARS were heard calling every morning!

The birding on the grounds was productive as well and we saw several new species for the trip.  Here's an ANDEAN MOTMOT that was sitting mostly motionless:
Meanwhile, the rushing stream downhill from the hotel was host to dippers, Torrent Tyrannulets, and, maybe the coolest of them all, TORRENT DUCKS:
As most of you know, this species is a specialist of fast-flowing streams in the Andes (and it's one I have wanted to see for a loooong time).  We eventually found a pair of adults and several of their chicks braving the currents.

A pretty uncommon species that we had great luck with around Aguas Calientes is the SCLATER'S TYRANNULET.  It's a pretty drab flycatcher with subtle markings but I think I got the hang of them before I left.  Here's one trying to look like a Tennessee Warbler or something:
The RED-EYED VIREOS we had were rather interesting.  Do you see anything amiss?
So this race of Red-eyed Vireo (the "Chivi" subspecies) doesn't even have a red eye!  Maybe they'll change the name to Dark-eyed Vireo instead (not likely).

I mentioned the lush hotel grounds.... imagine our surprise when this male ANDEAN COCK-OF-THE-ROCK showed up above the pool!  What. the. what???
This giant, red, type-of-cotinga is easily one of the most recognizable birds of the South American Andes.  Because we hadn't seen one as a group yet (and because we were all split up packing for departure), I rushed around to make sure all of our participants got to see this stunning specialty.  The views were completely crippling:
The fruit feeders at this InkaTerra hotel were busy with a variety of species such as BLUE-GRAY TANAGERS, BLUE-NECKED TANAGERS, DUSKY-GREEN OROPENDULAS, THICK-BILLED EUPHONIAS, and, one of my favorites, the BLUE-NAPED CHLOROPHONIA:
Another species that was reliable here was the SILVERY TANAGER (formerly known as "Silver-backed Tanager").  You can see that that latter name was pretty accurate:
There were a variety of hummingbirds present here as well including the "GOULD'S" COLLARED INCA and this CHESTNUT-BREASTED CORONET:
Sadly, our itinerary had us moving out of the lower elevations of Aguas Calientes and back uphill to Ollantaytambo (9,160').  The last 3 days of our tour we'd spend birding the areas around Abra Malaga, an imposing mountaintop sitting amongst the clouds.

Our train ride from Aguas Calientes back to Ollantaytambo, climbing roughly 3,000 feet, provided a 2-hour look through the countryside.  You'll see dry hillsides, agriculture, introduced eucalyptus trees, and snow-capped peaks:
Our hotel in Ollantaytambo (Pakaritampu) served as a beautiful "base camp" for the next several nights.  Even behind the hotel, for example, we found an interesting mix of birds including this BLACK-THROATED FLOWERPIERCER:
A rather brilliant species we saw several times near the hotel was the BLACK-BACKED GROSBEAK.  That name works, to be sure, but so would Yellow-bellied Grosbeak!  Awesome bird with one massive bill:
The common robin-like birds were CHIGUANCO THRUSHES, a pretty cool species to have hopping around the hotel.  I've heard them described as "sturdy" and I couldn't agree more.
The most common species on the grounds though was RUFOUS-COLLARED SPARROW (which many of you are familiar with).  However, the second-most common sparrow around was BAND-TAILED SEEDEATER.  Note the gray plumage, yellow bill, and cinnamon-colored undertail coverts:
This was my first time around this species of seedeater but I was struck by how common they were.  Seeing a dozen feeding on the mowed grass lawn wasn't uncommon.

In order to be up on the slopes of Abra Malaga at the good times of day for birding, we often would depart around 5 AM and start the 1-2 hour drive up the switchbacks in the dark.  Once it got light, though, it was a heck of a lot to take in.  Take a look at this world-renowned road:
On the first Abra Malaga day, we birded on the western slope which is fairly dry.  Dry doesn't mean bad birding though; it wasn't long before we started seeing some very unique species like this CREAMY-CRESTED SPINETAIL:
This pale-headed furnarid is only found in Peru where it's endemic to the tropical, high-elevation shrubland.

A little farther up the road we saw our first tit-tyrants of the trip.  These little flycatchers resemble chickadees/titmice (which are known in parts of the world as "tits").  Here is the TUFTED TIT-TYRANT donning its spiky tuft:
As I write this more than a week or two removed from this Peru trip, I look back and can confirm that this next sighting was one of my favorites of the trip.  It's a hummingbird, actually.  A hummingbird that is only found in Peru and nowhere else on earth.  It's called a White-tufted Sunbeam:
This Peruvian endemic inhabits dry mountainsides where we were lucky to have several encounters.  The above photo was taken with my iPhone through my spotting scope.

Instead of Chiguanco Thrushes from the lower elevations, the thrushes we saw at these higher altitudes were GREAT THRUSHES.  And great they were:
It was on this foggy, drizzly day that I saw the largest flying bird I'd ever seen in my life.  This behemoth has a wingpan that approaches 11 feet long.  Think about that for a second.  This is, of course, an ANDEAN CONDOR:
Against the jagged, enormous cliffs above us, it was hard to gauge the size of this giant but when it would float down to ridges high above us, it slowly dawned on me how large they really are.  The cliffs above us, well, they just kept rising into the clouds.  It was breathtaking (or was that the elevation?!):
We were now at elevations up to 14,000 feet.  Think the elevation of Denver... and then make it twice as high as that.  Because of the altitude, we weren't surrounded by lush, tall forests.  Instead, we were in the land of steep hillsides peppered with potato fields, puna grasslands, and stretches of bunchgrass.  It was a cool habitat that I had never been in before.

As one would expect with such an interesting habitat... it hosted interesting birds as well.  The high-elevation bunchgrass hosted a couple different kinds of canasteros.  Here's a JUNIN CANASTERO which is endemic to Peru:
In much of the same habitat, we found STREAK-BACKED CANASTERO as well:
Besides the canasteros, another family I was eager to study up at this elevation were the cinclodes.  For example, the CREAM-WINGED CINCLODES were truly abundant; we saw dozens each of our days up there:
As our Mercedes bus drove higher, the weather got nastier and nastier.  Here's our group fully bundled in raingear and hats/gloves:
When you're at elevation like that, you might not think to yourself "Hmm, this looks like good antpitta habitat"... but you should!  The rocky slopes here are home to the STRIPE-HEADED ANTPITTA, a species that is still relatively little-known.  We had success in actually seeing these guys:
One of the highlights of this Peru tour, for me at least, was watching a variety of ground-tyrants, a family I had never seen before.  These are pretty self-explanatory... they're tyrants that hang out on the ground.  Most are dully-colored in grays/browns and some have "rufousy" patches on their heads.  Here's an OCHRE-NAPED GROUND-TYRANT on some high-elevation tundra-like-stuff:
We kept climbing.  The scenery as we drove into the clouds was stunning (and the road sinuous!):
Higher yet, this one at 14,000 feet near the pass, was an ANDEAN LAPWING at home in the fog and, yes, falling snow!
If you think it has the same shape as a Killdeer, you're on to something (lapwings are in the same family as Killdeer).

As we climbed, the weather transpired against us.  Here I am at 14,100 feet, in the mist.  We decided to stop for a while to let the mist clear before driving the windy roads.
On one of our Abra Malaga days, we ventured up and over the pass and down the east slope a bit.  This side of the pass was substantially more humid, lush, and it made sense once you realized that you were essentially looking downhill at the Amazon lowlands.

One of the fascinating birds we worked on seeing here was the DIADEMED TAPACULO.  This mouse-of-a-bird skulks around and getting any clear looks at it is a challenge.  However, I was lucky to have my camera pointed at the right place when it stuck its head out:
A much more gaudy species of the humid east slope was the SCARLET-BELLIED MOUNTAIN-TANAGER.  Pretty well-named, wouldn't you agree?
One of the targets on this humid slope was the PARODI'S HEMISPINGUS:
This species has a very limited range and is endemic to Peru.  In fact, this species was unknown to science only 50 years ago!

Nearby we had another species of tit-tyrant, this one known as the UNSTREAKED TIT-TYRANT:
Just like the hemispingus, this species is only found in Peru.  It's found in bamboo thickets on the eastern slope of the Andes, between 2700 and 3100 meters in elevation.  Birding here is all about putting yourself in that right elevation!

As a brief intermission to the bird photos... here's a pic of some humid characters in a very humid setting!  Our group pictured here is trying to figure out exactly what we can pull out of the mist:
One answer to that question was this PLUSHCAP!
Although the conditions weren't great for photography, you can see the bright yellow forecrown on this bamboo specialist.

Another bird we were able to dig out of the mist was another species of tapaculo; this secretive guy is a TRILLING TAPACULO:
I was happy to gain some more experience with chat-tyrants on this day.  We had at least 3 species on tour including this BROWN-BACKED CHAT-TYRANT:
It's here that I might mention the Polylepis forests.  This high-elevation genus of tree is a dwindling habitat, threatened by the need for firewood, building material, and clearing the land for grazing of domestic animals.  However, this forest hosts a highly-specialized variety of birds found nowhere else on earth.  We targeted several on this tour and, thankfully, we connected with our targets.  That includes this endangered WHITE-BROWED TIT-SPINETAIL:
Again, this species is found only in patches of Polylepis in the high-elevations of Peru.  It's estimated that there are fewer than 1000 of these left.

A similar species found in the same habitat is the TAWNY TIT-SPINETAIL:
Although they're not considered endangered (they are more widespread, found in Bolivia, etc), they're still listed as Near Threatened and the populations are thought to be decreasing.

Saving maybe the best for last, I was extremely lucky to be nearby when Jesse called out a bird I hadn't dreamt of seeing.  "ROYAL CINCLODES!"

It was a bit panicked as we all got into position and attempted to track down the bird but, in the end, we all got looks.  Here's proof!
This species was the rarest we saw on the entire tour (and was probably the rarest bird I've EVER seen).  In fact, it's considered Critically Endangered.  It's estimated that there are between 50 and 250 of these left on earth and some way, some how, we found one!  They typically aren't found as low as we were that day but the nasty, snowy weather had obviously pushed some Polylepis species down the mountain and, well, we struck it big!  It was the only bird on the entire tour that was a lifer for everyone, even Jesse who lives in Peru and has done this tour many many times.  It's an interesting bird from a beautiful place:
Before long, it was time to leave Ollantaytambo and head back to Cusco.  Our trip had nearly wrapped up... however, the birding wasn't quite over.  For example, we stopped outside of Ollantaytambo to eat lunch... but I was rather distracted by our first ANDEAN SWIFTS of the trip!  Kinda hard to get a decent picture though:
As we continued towards Cusco, we made a few more stops at places like Huaypo Lake and snagged new species like WHITE-TUFTED GREBE and BLACK-FACED IBIS.  At one point, we stopped for an APLOMADO FALCON sitting on a telephone pole.  The falcon was cool... but so was this EARED DOVE sitting nearby in splendid light:
Anyway, I'll end the Peru blog posts here with a panoramic view as we neared Cusco.  Adios, Peru.