Archive for May 2017

Costa Rica part 2: Cerro de la Muerta and San Isidro – 2nd – 4th April 2017   Leave a comment

The last post covered our trip as far as Rancho Naturalista on the Caribbean slope of the central mountain range. From here we joined the Pan-American highway and climbed back into the mountains at Cerro de la Muerta, literally ‘the road of death’ as many travellers, unaware of the cold condition that can occur at 3600m, died as they made their way to the central valley where San Jose is situated.

 

We arrived at Savegre Lodge on the mountain massif of Cerro de la Muerta on a very wet afternoon.

 

In spite of the rain and low light levels we still got to see birds like this Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush ….

 

…. and Flame-coloured Tanager (this is a female, only the males are the vivid orange that the name suggests) ….

 

…. and Grey-tailed (or White-throated) Mountain-gem which was a life bird for me.

 

The following morning we searched for the elusive Spotted Wood Partridge, we were successful but my photos were useless. However we did chance upon this suitably named Resplendent Quetzal, one of the key birds of the Cerro de la Muerta area.

 

After breakfast we were taken by jeep to the forest above the lodge and slowly walked down via a network of trails. We found these Sulphur-winged Parakeets at their nest hole.

 

We also saw them perched nearby. The sulphur colouration is mainly visible on the spread wing.

 

Yellowish Flycatchers were relatively common. This is a resident member of the genus Empidonax aka ’empids’. The migratory species from North America are particularly difficult to identify and many get logged as just ’empid sp’.

 

A particularly cute warbler was the Collared Whitestart. When British settlers colonised in North America they found a bird with a reddish-orange tail and called it American Redstart after the European Redstart they were familiar with from home, in spite of the fact that they weren’t closely related. Later other tropical members of the same genus were name ‘xyz’ redstart. Of course redstart is derived from the Old English for tail steort (which is also the origin of the word ‘startle’) so these tropical warblers were named for red tails when their tails were largely white! Recently it has been proposed that their names are changed to the more appropriate ‘whitestart’ and I’m glad to say this is catching on.

 

Another montane speciality was Blue-throated Toucanet, a member of the ever shifting Emerald Toucanet complex.

 

We also came across another male Resplendent Quetzal, this time the red belly was on show. None of the birds we saw had particularly long tails, whether they were all immatures or still growing their long plumes I don’t know, but this subspecies generally has a shorter tail than the one in southern Mexico.

 

But the best bird of the morning was the Wrenthrush also known as Zeledonia (a name I prefer as it neither a wren nor a thrush). Originally considered to be in its own family it was then moved to the New World Warblers, recent evidence has shown they were right in the first place and it really does deserve to be in its own family. Hardly surprisingly this was one of my top targets and I rated it number two bird of the trip. This skulking bird is hard to see let alone photograph and I have used this image taken by Juan Pablo Solano  and the Asociación Ornitológica de Costa Rica. Our views today were brief but we had much better views the following day near Quetzal Lodge.

 

Back at the lodge, now in good light conditions there was time to search the flower beds and bird feeders for species like ….

 

.. Acorn Woodpecker (this species stores acorns in holes drilled in a tree trunk) ..

 

…. the beautiful Silver-throated Tanager ….

 

…. and more views of Grey-tailed Mountain-gem.

 

Later we transferred to the Quetzal Lodge which is just off the Pan American Highway at an altitude of 3265m asl. On the balcony just outside the windows is a set of hummingbird feeders.

 

As usual the hummers were completely oblivious to onlookers and you could stand nearby and admire or photograph them for as long as you liked. Most are Lesser Violetears (formerly Green Violetear) but the one on the left is an Admirable Hummer.

 

Here three out of the four are Admirable Hummers. At this angle the right hand bird shows the ‘admirable’ colours of the head and throat well. Colours on hummers are produced by refraction and are only seen from a certain angles. Thus a field guide may show a kaleidoscope of colour but all cannot be seen at once, as you cannot view the bird from all angles at once.

 

Formerly known as Magnificent Hummer, the species has been recently split into two; Rivoli’s in Mexico and southernmost USA and Admirable further south. There is a convention, mainly applied in the New World, that if a species is split then all the ‘daughter’ species get a new English name, so you can tell whether an English name has been applied pre or post split. That said, it means yet more names to learn and more potential confusion for the unwary.

 

The other common hummer at the feeders was the pretty Fiery-throated Hummingbird, which lived up to it name.

 

The afternoon and much of the following morning was spent walking side roads through some excellent montane forest. It was quite cold overnight and in the early morning.

 

A chilly pre-breakfast walk produced Hairy Woodpecker, a widespread North American species whose breeding range extends from Alaska to Costa Rica and western Panama ….

 

…. the rare and initially confusing Ochraceous Pewee ….

 

…. and Black-thighed Grosbeak, confined to the mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama.

 

As you can see the weather gods were kind to us. Of the many birds we saw one of the best was the Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher ….

 

…. a member of an unusual family comprising just four species most closely related to the Waxwings.

 

The Empids were with us again, this time another resident species, Black-capped Flycatcher.

 

We had been having very little luck owling. The first morning of the trip had been a complete failure and the night at Quetzal Lodge had produced good views of Dusky Nightjar, but no owls what so ever in spite of hours of searching.  So it was a great relief when we came across the diurnal Costa Rican Pygmy Owl.

 

Before we left this mountain massif we stopped at the highest point where the forest gives way to paramo. Our target was the rare and irruptive Peg-billed Finch which we failed to find (although the lookalike Slaty Flowerpiercer caused a false alarm) ….

 

…. but we did get excellent views of the high altitude Volcano Junco.

 

Leaving the cool (and now rather wet) highlands behind we dropped down to the steamy Pacific slope lowlands and the town of San Isidro. On route we stopped at a location where the beautiful and declining Turquoise Cotinga can be found.

 

Nearby in a stand of flowering eucalyptus we strained to see several diminutive hummers at the very tops of the tall trees.

 

Rather more visible was this Fiery-billed Aracari.

We overnighted near San Isidro and over the next few days explored a number of locations in the south-western corner of the country. This will be the subject of the next post.

40 years of birding: 20/05/77 – 20/05/17   Leave a comment

Forty years ago today I picked up my very own binoculars for the first time, saw a bird I didn’t immediately recognise and looked it up in my very own field guide for the first time and wrote a note of it in my very own birding note-book for the first time.

I had made the transition from being merely interested in birds to being a birder.

It was one of the best decisions in my life and I never looked back. Around 8200 species worldwide and 500 the UK, about 130 foreign trips looking for birds and countless hours in Britain and a very large part of my income later, I can honestly say that I’ve never regretted it.

Sure I’ve regretted individual decisions, but that has usually been because I’ve missed a (the) bird(s) but I’ve never regretted taking up birding. It has made me what I am and glad I’m I stuck with it and committed so much of my time and money to it.

Perhaps the only regret is that I didn’t start earlier so that I would now be celebrating 50 or even 60 years of birding.

I’d like to do an full blog post on my early birding history but I’m trying to get all my Costa Rica photos sorted and uploaded before my next birding trip in June and haven’t really got the time.

So here is a photo the species that I saw in my back garden in Leeds on 20/05/77 – one that any birder in Europe will be very familiar with, but one that a non-birder could easily dismiss as a sparrow.

Dunnock

 

Posted May 20, 2017 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

Costa Rica part 1: San Jose, Volcan Irazu and Rancho Naturalista. 31st March – 2nd April 2017   Leave a comment

This post is the first of several covering my recent trip to Costa Rica. Marketed by Birdquest as the ‘Ultimate Costa Rica tour’ it lived up to its name as I saw all but a handful of the life-birds that occur in this bird-rich country.

In 1981 I had made arrangements to visit the Middle East in late March but just a month or so before I found that the trip had been cancelled. With the leave already booked I looked around for an alternative. I found a tour to Costa Rica that went on the same dates, a little more expensive, but I raised the money by selling some of my photography gear. I didn’t even know where Costa Rica was, I had to look it up in the atlas, but that tour changed my life and opened my eyes to the wonders of tropical birding and as soon as I was earning enough to do so I went to the tropics every year.

With a previous visit to the country, three tours of Mexico and two each to Venezuela and Colombia you would think that I wouldn’t get many life birds on a return visit. However birding in the country has developed so well in the past 36 years that nearly all of the ‘goodies’ are staked out and I saw an astonishing 87 lifers. In fact Costa Rica, a tiny country little bigger than Ireland, has the best ecotourism industry in the world and is leader in the use of sustainable energy and resources. (as well as having the biggest bird list for any country of its size).

It was a highly enjoyable trip and I intend to share some of my many photos on the blog over the next few weeks.

 

I arrived in the capital San Jose just before midnight on 30th March and transferred to the hotel getting to bed by 0200. I spent much of the morning birding in the extensive gardens.

 

There were plenty of birds typical of the Central Valley in the gardens, such as these Rufous-backed Wrens.

 

The ubiquitous Tropical Flycatcher ….

 

…. Social Flycatcher ….

 

…. and Great Kiskadee.

 

Along with Greyish Saltator ….

 

…. and the beautiful and much scarcer Lesson’s Motmot.

 

The group gathered in the evening but had an early night as it was a 0300 departure the next day for the slopes of Irazu Volcano. Once there we had about an hour pre-dawn to try for nightbirds which proved to be most unsuccessful with nothing but a distant song of Dusky Nightjar to show for our efforts. However once it was light we had great views of ….

 

…. Sooty Thrush ….

 

… the perky Sooty-capped Chlorospingus (formerly Sooty-capped Bush-tanager) ….

 

…. and my first life bird of the trip – the exquisite Flame-throated Warbler.

 

The range of this beautiful bird is restricted to the mountains of central Costa Rica and Western Panama.

 

A hike down this slope failed to get us views of the rare and seldom seen Buffy-crowned Wood Partridge, but we continued to score with other montane goodies. We reached an altitude of 3600m that morning, it was cold at dawn but soon warmed up. Later we commenced our descent into the eastern flanks of the central mountain chain.

 

A short detour gave us wonderful views of Cabanis’s Ground Sparrow, a recent split from Mexico’s Prevost’s Ground Sparrow, but time was short and we couldn’t linger.

 

I keep wanting to call this beautiful bird Cannabis Ground Sparrow, but of course it is named after German ornithologist Jean Louis Cabanis and not some entry-level recreational drug.

 

The reason for our leader’s haste soon became clear, we arrived at our next destination, the pleasant Rancho Naturalista with about an hour of daylight remaining. We hurried to a lookout above some pools where a series of hummingbirds, including the exquisite (a word that I am in danger of over-using in this post) Snowcap. Of course in the gathering gloom I couldn’t get photos of rapidly moving hummers but I did capture a bathing Tawny-throated Leaftosser – a bird that is likely to be split in multiple species in the near future.

 

The following morning just before before dawn we had a look at the moth trap.

 

A stunning array of moths had been drawn to the light, including this huge hawk-moth in the centre of the photo.

 

Even whilst it was dark birds such as this Brown Jay (looking green not brown as the trap’s UV light has tinted my photos) came in snatch moths from the sheet.

 

This might have been rather unfortunate for the moths but it allowed us to see a range of species including the rare Tawny-chested Flycatcher.

 

Our time at Rancho Naturalista was all too short and after several hours on the trails and several life birds later we were on our way again. We paused on route for the tricky White-throated Flycatcher (my photos of this ’empid’ were rather poor) and the above Grey-crowned Yellowthroat in an area of rank grassland.

 

Now away from the high mountains and at mid altitude on the Caribbean slope we saw a number common open country birds such as this Groove-billed Ani ….

 

…. and the ubiquitous and rather ugly Turkey Vulture.

 

At a nearby river bed the first bird we laid eyes on was this immature Black-crowned Night Heron, but this wasn’t the reason for our visit.

 

Our local man had a pair of the wonderful Sunbittern staked out. Although I have seen this species on five previous trips, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so well or for so long.

 

The reason they were sticking around was that they had a nest with two well-grown young overhanging the river.

 

Also along the river were several Black Phoebes ….

 

One of the Sunbitterns seemed to take exception to the Phoebes occupying its bit of the river and opened its wings in a threat display. Pete, our tour leader, was better positioned to capture this moment and has an absolutely stunning photo of this event. If I can get a copy and with his consent I’ll post it here in due course.

 

From here we climbed back up the mountainous ridge that forms the backbone of Costa Rica and in deteriorating weather conditions headed for Cerro de la Muerta, literally the ‘road of death’. This will be the subject of the next post (when I’ve edited the photos that is).

Bob Dylan concert: 4th May 2017   1 comment

This short post covers a Bob Dylan concert that Margaret and I attended in Bournemouth on May 4th.

    Of all of the famous artists of the 60’s there few who have had a greater impact on modern music than Bob Dylan. His amazing songs with their wonderful lyrics were the soundtrack to my youth. Having said that after Nashville Skyline in 1969 I didn’t actively follow Dylan’s career. Although I have obtained a number of his later albums, if I wish to listen to Dylan I always turn to Nashville Skyline, Blonde on Blonde, one of the many ‘Best Of’ albums or to my favourite – Highway 61 Revisited.

 

I have always wanted to see Bob Dylan in concert. I wanted to go the 1971 Isle of Wight festival but was working at the time and couldn’t go. Several work colleagues saw him in Bournemouth in 2006 but I was away when tickets went on sale and they had sold out when I returned, so when I heard that he was playing in Bournemouth again this May we jumped at the chance.

 

Unfortunately by the time we got tickets only one from the back of the upper terrace were available. From this distance it was hard to even make out which one was Dylan, especially as he was seated at the piano for much of the time and his features were hidden by a wide-brimmed hat. Fortunately I had brought my camera and took some (not especially sharp) telephoto shots.

 

So what of the performance itself? Dylan never played the guitar or harmonica, never even spoke to the audience, introduced a number or the band or even said farewell. Most of his lyrics couldn’t be heard and apart from some covers of songs by Sinatra, I only recognised three numbers (although that’s my fault for not getting to know his post 1970 work better) ….

 

…. that said, the band were awesome and played very well and it was great to see a true musical legend …. 

 

…. but perhaps it would have been better if I had seen him in 1971.

By the way this post is my 500th since I started the blog on my retirement in June 2011.

Posted May 9, 2017 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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The old ones are the best!   Leave a comment

STAR WARS DAY

Sorry, I couldn’t resist it.

Posted May 4, 2017 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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Connecticut, USA: 23rd -28th April 2017   2 comments

This post covers five-day spent visiting my friend Patty Scott who lives in Wilton, Connecticut. During that time we did some birding or banding as it is known in the New World and a little birding.

I have recently completed a 23 day birding trip to Costa Rica. On the way back I broke the journey in the USA in order to see Patty. I have over two and a half thousand photos from Costa Rica to sort, edit and label so I thought I would post a few from Connecticut first.

I first met Patty in 2012 when we both participated in a Birdquest trip to some of the remoter parts of Papua New Guinea. Sharing a number of interests, including ringing/banding birds we have made kept in touch since and Patty has visited me at least twice in the UK and we have also met up in New York and on the 2016 Birdquest reunion in Mallorca. Here Patty is holding a tame Blyth’s Hornbill in a PNG village.

 

Patty picked me up from the airport at Newark, NJ in the afternoon of the 23rd. We hit heavy traffic crossing the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan but once clear of New York we had an easy ride north to Wilton.

 

Patty has a beautiful house in dense woodland in Wilton. Even though Wilton lies some 600 miles or 9 degrees south of Dorset the season is about a month behind and the trees were only just beginning to come into leaf.

 

 

From the picture windows we could look over the pool to the woodland beyond were such goodies as Wild Turkey and Pileated Woodpecker occur. Patty has even seen a Black Bear from her house.

 

The feeders were topped up ….

 

…. and we sat on the deck and enjoyed the show.

 

By far the commonest bird in the garden was American Goldfinch with up to 15 on the feeders at any one time. There was a bewildering variety of plumages, with adult males and females in both winter and breeding dress and a fair few first year birds as well.

 

Downey Woodpeckers would appear to be the ecological equivalent of our Lesser Spotted Woodpecker but are about a thousand times commoner and far more approachable. At least two pairs, maybe more, were coming to the feeders.

 

When seen climbing a tree the name Red-bellied Woodpecker seems a complete misnomer as the red is not visible. Seen here at the feeder a red smudge on the belly can be made out (just).

 

Of course the main reason for visiting Connecticut in spring was to take part in some ringing (or banding). Whilst me ringing a few birds in the USA or Patty ringing a few in the UK won’t make much difference to our respective scientific programs, this sort of exchange of personnel improves a ringer’s knowledge and experience and can only benefit the ringing schemes in the long run. Patty bands at the Birdcraft Museum which is housed at the Fairfield Audubon Sanctuary near the coast some 30 minutes drive from Wilton.

 

Where as we usually have to base ourselves around an outdoor picnic table when ringing, they have a comfortable ‘lab’ with heating and a coffee machine!

 

The sanctuary is in an urban setting with the I-95 running along side and is open to the public. Much of the reserve is taken up by a lake that has breeding Tree Swallows and Red-winged Blackbirds along its shores.

 

Unfortunately I arrived just a few days too early. The spring migration hadn’t really reached Connecticut and a huge blocking low pressure over the Carolinas meant that very few spring migrants arrived during my stay. Most of the birds handled, like this gorgeous Northern Cardinal (which has a very powerful bite) were retraps. In the USA, as at home, collecting data by retrapping already ringed birds is as important (if not more so) than ringing them in the first place. I was to handle eleven species during my stay, six of them newly ringed and five of them retraps. All but one, an American Robin, are illustrated in this post.

 

Another retrap was this Carolina Wren. Whilst we have only one species of wren in the entire Old World the New World has 87, with 10 in the USA alone

 

Our Eurasian Wren is one of the smallest of all the wrens so my reaction of ‘Wow, just look at the size of that!’ when I took the Carolina Wren out of the bag greatly amused the other ringers.

 

I haven’t seen a Cardinal or a Carolina Wren in the UK but I have seen a White-throated Sparrow, once in Lincolnshire on New Year’s Eve 1992. They are common in winter throughout much of eastern USA and breed mainly in NE USA and Canada.

 

New World Sparrows are not related to Old World ones like the familiar House Sparrow but are included in the family Emberizidae that contains the New World Sparrows, Brushfinches and the Old World Buntings (181 species in total). About 45 species of this family occur regularly in the USA, but few are as widely distributed as White-throated Sparrow.

 

A familiar bird through much of the New World is the House Wren, because it ‘does what it says on the tin’ and lives near human habitation.

 

A smart male Mourning Dove (named after its mournful vocalisations not the time of day it appears) was a surprise. Common to abundant in North America it is a very rare vagrant to Europe and one I have never seen in the UK.

 

A larger version of the familiar tits and chickadees, this Tufted Titmouse is essentially sedentary.

 

Of the four mornings I spent in Connecticut I was able to go ringing three times, the other day it rained and rain also cut short our second attempt. The last morning was by far the best, as we caught several new species including this handsome Blue Jay.

 

Although of a similar size to our Eurasian Jay, the bird was nowhere near as aggressive. Although the crow family overall originated in Australia and has a mainly Old World distribution, there are 39 species of jay in the New World compared to just 8 in the Old.

 

This Blue Jay can be aged as a second calendar year bird (age code 5) by the contrast between the blue greater coverts and the grey juvenile primary coverts.

 

Another highlight of the final day was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. This very small migrant in the same genus as our Goldcrest and Firecrest and from this angle looks not unlike our familiar ‘crests’ ….

 

…. but side on it shows unexpectedly long wings and tail giving it more the appearance of a Phylloscopus warbler. The almond-shaped bare area around the eyes and the wing bars are reminiscent of some of the tyrannulets I’ve seen in the Neotropics.

 

Of course what everyone wants to see in North America on spring migration are the New World warblers. Some come in a riot of colour, but even the plainer ones like this Northern Waterthrush are much sought after. Most of the eastern North American warblers have strayed across the Atlantic at some time or another and at least a dozen have occurred in the UK. I have even seen a Northern Waterthrush in Dorset

 

The similar Louisiana Waterthrush can be excluded by the leg colour, supercilium shape, flank colour, spots on the chin and markings on the undertail coverts.

 

The best bird of my trip to Connecticut was this gorgeous adult male Black and White Warbler.

 

We were able to do a bit of birding when ringing wasn’t possible. At Sherford Island we saw a flock of Brent Geese (or Brant as they are called in North America). Brent Geese are a regular wintering species in Poole Harbour but have just about all gone by the end of March. Our wintering birds are of the nominate race known as Dark-bellied Brent which breeds in NW Siberia but here the Pale-bellied Brent from the Canadian Arctic is found.

 

Some advocate splitting Brent Goose into three species, Dark-bellied, Pale-bellied and the east Siberian Black Brant, but the situation is more complicated, with at least two separate populations of Pale-bellied and the yet undescribed ‘Grey-bellied Brent’ needing to be taken into consideration.

 

Offshore we saw Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers, birds typical of mid-winter at home not late April. That said, Great Northern Divers (above) can be seen in Dorset (usually flying past headlands on their way to breed in Iceland or Canada in early May). In North America this species is called Common Loon; surprisingly ‘loon’ predates ‘diver’ in British usage, originating from Old Norse lomr meaning to moan, a description of its evocative wail. This diver might be ‘greater’ than Black-throated or Red-throated, but its breeding range is more southerly! I’m ambivalent as to which name should be used, but when in North America I try to use their names (if I remember).

 

A walk around the fields and woods in Wilton brought a few more birds but the only one I managed to photograph in the dull and often wet conditions was this Chipping Sparrow.

 

Patty took me to some nice restaurants in Wilton, which unlike most fast food joints in the States served some excellent food. Instead of giving you a couple of mints or chocolates after you paid your bill, this one delivered a glass of candy floss instead.

 

Soon it was time for Patty to take me back over the Hudson and the George Washington Bridge to Newark airport for the overnight flight home. I arrived very jet lagged early on the 28th and was home by mid-morning. Many thanks to Patty for hospitality, good company and taking be ringing and birding, I hope to go back some time in the future, but this time at the peak of migration in mid-May.

 

POSTSCRIPT. No sooner had I got home then I was out again to Longham Lakes, a 20 minute drive away, where a first winter Bonaparte’s Gull had been recently found. Named after ornithologist Charles Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon, this was one American bird that I didn’t see in America, having to wait until I was back home to connect. Superficially it is like a Black-headed Gull, but smaller with a black bill and a white underwing that does not highlight the white wedge in the outer primaries the way that the dusky underwing of a Black-headed Gull does. Although I have seen Bonaparte’s Gull occasionally in the south-west of the UK over the years, the last time I saw one in Dorset was in 1981! This photograph was taken by Paul Morton.