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Guyana part two: central Guyanan gallery forests and savannahs: 26th February to 1st March 2020   Leave a comment

In the last post I detailed our journey around the Rupununi savanna and the gallery forest near the Brazilian border. In this second instalment I’m posting photos taken in the central part of Guyana especially around the Karanambu ranch and Rock View Lodge.

 

 

In this, the second post on my visit to Guyana we concentrate on the gallery forest and savannahs on the central part of the country.

 

We arrived at Karanambu ranch late in the day, the next morning our first target was a wonderful cotinga known as Capuchinbird (as the bald head reminded it’s discoverers of Capuchin monks). Two or three birds were present at a lek. They would puff themselves up and emit a bovine-like lowing to attract the ladies, hence an alternative English name is ‘calf-bird’. See below for recording on xeno-canto. I have seen this rare species once before in eastern Venezuela but it was as big a treat the second time as it was the first.

Recordings of Capuchinbird from xeno-canto

 

The ranch sits on the Rupununi River and quite a lot of our time here was spent on the river looking for specialities, especially the Crestless Currasow which is seldom seen anywhere else than here these days.

 

… Lesser Kiskadee, just one of a number of lookalike kiskadee species, but one that favours riverine habitats …

 

… Cocoi Heron, the South American equivalent of Great Blue Heron …

 

… and the powerful Black Caiman.

 

There were a number of raptors along the river, the impressive Great Black Hawk …

 

… the beautiful and elegant Swallow-tailed Kite (one of which has recently turned up in the Azores) …

 

… and a wintering bird from North America, an Osprey with lunch.

 

There are three species of stork in the Americas, Wood Stork which occurs in South & Central America plus the southernmost parts of the USA (see my account on my short visit to Florida prior to arriving in Guyana), Maguari Stork (see below) and perhaps the most impressive of all the enormous Jabiru (above).

 

Standing up to 1.5m tall, in South America it has a wingspan second only to the Andean Condor and some of the albatrosses seen offshore. It is the tallest and heaviest of the world’s 19 species of stork.

 

Drier areas held Green-tailed Jacamas.

 

Related to jacamas are the kingfishers. The New World has been rather short-changed when it comes to kingfishers with a mere six species over the two continents. I saw four species in Guyana, plus had a ‘heard only’ American Pygmy Kingfisher in Suriname and saw the more northerly Belted Kingfisher in Florida. This is a female Ringed Kingfisher, a super-sized version of Belted, and one of the world’s largest kingfishers.

 

The commonest kingfisher was Amazon. This, without the red band on the breast, is a female …

 

… whilst this stonker is the male

 

The size sequence of the six species (large to small) is Ringed, Belted, Amazon, Green-and-rufous, Green and American Pygmy. This is a female Green-and-rufous. Green Kingfishers were seen here but not photographed and one Pygmy was only seen, but only by a select few.

 

But our main target was the shy, rarely seen and elusive Crestless Curassow. This huge cracid has a wide range and has a IUCN status of ‘Near Threatened’ but Eustace said that it is seldom recorded away from Karanambu these days. Whether the IUCN threat level is now inaccurate or whether it has just become super-elusive elsewhere, I don’t know.

 

I have seen Giant River Otter on several South American trips but never in the numbers we encountered on this trip. We had already recorded half a dozen further south and then encountered up to 20 on at Karanambu. In addition there were some orphaned otters raised at the ranch for eventual release.

 

Nearly 2m long these are truly ‘giant otters’ and communicate with each other with a series of penetrating whistles.

 

Not everyone likes Giant River Otters and sometimes the adults are killed by fishermen and hunters. The late conservationist Diane McTurk used to take in orphaned otters at the lodge, something that still continues to this day.

 

This and the otter in the photo above are of these orphaned youngsters which will be released back into the wild in due course.

 

On our second afternoon we returned to the river, disembarked then walked through the forest to this secluded lagoon.

 

This Wattled Jacana was living up to its alternative name of ‘Lily-trotter’, running around on these giant Amazonian water lilies.

 

A Rufescent Tiger-heron stood guard …

 

… and Spectacled Caiman swam between the giant lily pads …

 

… and guess what, there were more Giant River Otters.

 

Also seen was the eponymous Tiny Tyrant-manakin, looking not only diminutive but also looking more like a tyrannulet than a manakin. In spite of 25 or so visits to the Neotropics I’m still in awe of those tour leaders who can take one glance at this type of minute sub-oscines and can recognise them immediately.

 

We returned down the river at dusk seeing good numbers of Band-tailed Nighthawks and huge numbers of Greater Fishing Bats.

 

Near the river we found this Common Potoo …

 

… we also went nightbirding in more open areas, illuminated by the inevitable savannah fires …

 

… but did reward us with great views of Least Nighthawk.

 

Other nocturnal denizens of the night (photographed at roost in the day) included Lesser Bulldog Bat …

 

… and the little Proboscis Bat.

 

We also spent time exploring the nearby savannah regions. Unfortunately it has become custom for the locals to burn the grassland in the belief that the new grass is more nutritious for the horses. Very occasional burning may prevent the grassland turning into scrub but at this frequency wildlife cannot prosper …

 

… especially when it leaves the ground looking like this.

 

Around some of the marshy areas we found White-headed Marsh Tyrant …

 

… the seldom seen White-naped Xenopsaris …

 

… but our main target was the rare and fast disappearing Crested Doradito, a bird whose name sounds more like a Mexican snack than a tyrant-flycatcher.

 

Although I’d seen it before (indeed I’d seen all of these four enigmatic tyrant-flycatchers before) my favourite was the evocatively named Bearded Tachuri, a tiny gem of a bird.

 

Its main range is from south-east Brazil south through the pampas of Paraguay and eastern Argentina but it does have an outpost in the llanos and savannahs of the north.

 

We also saw a few Maguari Storks, the Neotropical equivalent to the Old World White Stork.

 

But perhaps the highlight of the savannah marshes was these views of Pinnated Bittern. In the same genus as American Bittern, Australasian Bittern and our Eurasian (or Great) Bittern, it can be a tough bird to find. I must have spent 35 years looking for the gem in the Neotropics before finally coming across one in Costa Rica in 2017 so seeing six in Guyana, and getting such stunning views of this one as it tried to hide in very short reeds, was one of the highlights of the trip.

 

So it was goodbye to Karanambu and a return to dodgy bridges, potholes …

 

… and the never ending dust as we made our way north to Rock View Lodge.

 

We saw big flocks of Orange-winged Parrots on route …

 

Birds seen included Black-tailed Tityra …

 

… and Green-backed Trogon (although in my photos the back looks more blue than green).

 

Our next location was the Rock View Lodge at Annai, run by an eccentric Englishman called Colin. Our main target was a cock-of-the-rock lek but we also managed to see a lek of Long-tailed Hermit (hermits being one group of hummingbirds that have a communal display).

 

Even better was the seldom seen Guianan Red Cotinga. I was very lucky to see this on the old ‘Guianan trail’ in Venezuela in 1988, but it is a hard bird to see anywhere.

 

Our destination was this rocky outcrop where the gorgeous Guianan Cock-of-the Rock breeds, indeed we saw a female nesting on one of the rock ledges but due to poor light conditions the photos aren’t very good.

 

The same fortunately wasn’t true for the gorgeous males which were lekking in an area below the caves. There are two species of cock-of-the-rock, the deep red one in the Andes and this beautiful one on the Guianan Shield.

 

Like many of the key species on this trip I’d seen it before on my visits to eastern Venezuela but seeing them lekking was one of the trips highlights.

 

From here we continued on to to two more lodges further north before we ended the Guianan section of the tour back in the Georgetown area. That will be the subject of the next post.

Guyana part one: the southern savannahs: 22nd – 26th February 2020   Leave a comment

In the last post I explained how and why I stopped off for a few days in Florida on my way to Guyana in February 2020, here is the first of several posts on the Guyana part of the trip.

Although I had been to neighbouring Venezuela twice before, including its south-eastern border with Guyana, there were still plenty of new birds in Guyana for me including two particular goals, Sun Parakeet and Red Siskin. Although Birdquest had offered tours to Suriname before, now the first time they offered a trip there as an optional extension to Guyana, making this tour combination an irresistible attraction.

As the considerable avian attractions of Venezuela are now out of bounds to all but the most foolhardy of birders, then interest in Guyana, which shares many of its avian wonders, can only increase in the future.

 

I arrived in Guyana well after dark to find that the international airport was an hour’s drive south of Georgetown, so it was quite late when the taxi dropped me off a the hotel. Georgetown is situated by of the mouth of the Essequibo River, just under the ‘I’ in Wakenaam Island in the map above. Guyana was previously under French and then Dutch administration but the British took control in 1796, it gained independence from Britain in 1966. The capital Georgetown was named after King George III in 1812 and it is the only South American country where English is the national language. Initially we flew down to the Rupununi Savanna in the south-west, from here we drove slowly back to Georgetown over the next ten days.

 

Flying in from Miami we passed the Bahamas, an island group that I’ve never visited despite having a nice range of endemic birds (one for future perhaps).

 

As I said above, I arrived late that evening with time only for a quick chat with tour leader Eustace Barnes. The following morning I met the rest of the group and we departed for the nearby Ogle domestic airport where we caught a flight to Letham in the far south.

 

Here’s the view from the light aircraft as we left Georgetown with the Caribbean in the distance …

 

… and here the view of Letham and the Rupunui River as we came into land. On route we saw the large extent of rainforest and savannah that still exists in Guyana, as befits a country with the second lowest population in South America (about 790,000) however we did see a lot a clearing made by illegal gold miners who, as well as felling trees, use toxic chemicals like mercury to extract the gold.

 

Letham airport didn’t have much going for it, but soon we met our drivers and set of in three 4x4s to the 1700 square mile Dadanawa ranch tucked away in the vast expanses of the Rupununi.

 

With an avifauna not that dissimilar to the Venezuelan llanos we had plenty to see on route.

 

Eventually we arrived at the pleasant Wichabai lodge. These savannas can flood in the rainy season hence building it on stilts.

 

Of course we saw the ubiquitous Palm Tanager around the building …

 

.. but from the upper deck we saw Long-winged Harrier (above) and more importantly four Sharp-tailed Ibis, a declining species that I haven’t seen since my first trip to Venezuela in 1988! Unfortunately, although we got good scope views, they were too distant for photos.

 

Like the llanos, the Rupunui savannahs were excellent for raptors with species like the impressive Laughing Falcon …

 

… Savannah Hawk …

 

… Black-collared Hawk …

 

… and White-tailed Hawk.

 

So it was off early the next day, driving on rough tracks to a remote part of the ranch and a very good bird indeed.

 

Red Siskins were were once widespread across northern South America are now restricted to tiny areas of Venezuela and southern Guyana.

 

 

In captivity they can be made to mate with domestic canaries to produce red variants and so are in high demand for the pet bird trade. Relentless trapping has reduced the population to a few thousand but even at this highly protected site the current situation doesn’t bode well. Our leader Eustace has commented as follows: Unfortunately, aviculturists have not only discovered this population but also discovered a loop hole in the law regarding ‘natural resource’ exploitation in native communities. It goes like this – native people (as they live in tune with nature) are allowed to carry on using resources as they have done for countless millennia [including] controlled’ burns, taking fish, hunting and it seems, now trapping Red Siskins for pets! These are then sold to the avicultural community quite legally. Can you believe it?

 

Given their rarity I didn’t attempt a close approach so I’ve supplemented my photos with (an uncredited one) from Wikipedia.

 

The road back was equally bumpy …

 

… whilst negotiating the rocks we saw our first Great Black Hawk and then  noticed some Giant Otters in the river – but more about them in the next post.

 

… and after some lunch we departed and head off to our next stay at Manari.

 

Raptors seen on route included more Long-winged Harriers.

 

We went on a drive into the savannah that evening but for some reason had to use vehicles provided by the lodge, which were some of the worse I’ve ever been in, having to be pushed to start them and basically just falling apart.

 

We carried on the following day passing open savannah and gallery woodland.

 

We checked a number of spots along the Iring River, a tributary of the Rio Branco that forms the border between Brazil and Guyana (yes, that’s Brazil on the far bank). We found the localised Hoary-throated Spinetail but despite trying over and over again there was no sign of the Rio Branco Antbird which can only be seen along the banks of this one rive system.

 

Parrots were quite common and sightings of Red-and-green Macaws occurred regularly.

I guess this cyclist was used to seeing flocks of White-faced Whistling Ducks flying overhead …

 

… but we aren’t, so a stop at this small pool was in order.

 

This area has numerous wetlands and small lakes and we enjoyed the sight of many waterbirds including the enormous Jabiru (Stork).

 

I mentioned in the Florida write-up that this is no longer Northern Caracara. Although split from Southern Caracara for a few decades the split hasn’t stood up to scrutiny and the populations north and south of the Amazon rainforest have been reunited as Crested Caracara.

 

Among the great birds we saw that afternoon were this lovely Chestnut Woodpecker …

 

… Painted Parakeets …

 

.. and Double-striped Thick-knee – a close relative of the Stone Curlews we get in the UK.

 

With both birds facing in opposite directions you can see how the ‘double stripes’ formed by the supercillium and coronal stripe wrap around the head and almost meet on the nape.

 

That evening we stayed at Karasabani, this small village of indigenous Guyanans is the focal point of efforts to save the the endangered Sun Parakeet.

 

That said they weren’t all that welcoming. In spite of the fact that we had booked the whole guest house we found we were double booked. Eventually some sort of accommodation was sorted out for some of the group elsewhere.

 

It was a noisy and fairly uncomfortable night, with some unusual co-inhabitants, but well worth it for what we were to see the next day.

 

The next morning saw us birding along the road in the forest and it didn’t take long for us to find a Ferruginous Pygmy-owl.

 

Calling in the daytime and with a range from south Texas to Argentina, this is one of the most frequently encountered owls in the Neotropics.

 

Many other species were seen including Green-backed Trogon …

 

… and a species of puffbird known as Swallow-wing.

 

It didn’t take all that long before we came across of flock of the exquisitely beautiful Sun Parakeets.

 

Very popular with the pet trade Sun Parakeets (or Sun Conures) were once being trapped at the rate of 800,000 a year. There are now more in captivity than in the wild (from Wikipedia).

 

Once seen throughout the northern part of the Brazilian state of Roraima and southern Guyana, this species can now only be seen with any regularity in this tiny area around Karasabani, perhaps a couple of thousand wild birds survive.

 

From Karasabani we continued north to Karanambu ranch where we stayed for three nights, this and other areas in central and northen Guyana will be illustrated in the next post.

 

 

 

Southern Florida part two: 20th-22nd February 2020   Leave a comment

In my last post I explained that I was visiting Florida on my way to a trip to Guyana and Suriname with the primary intention of seeing my lifer Florida Scrub-jay and Manatee. The secondary purpose (apart from having an enjoyable time birding) was to add a number of species to my American Birding Association (ABA) list.

On the 19th I visited Jonathon Dickinson State Park where I saw the jay and Lake Kissimmee where I saw a wide range of species including a few that were additions to my ABA list.

Heading back south to West Palm Beach I stopped at Fort Pierce due to tiredness but heard at the motel that manatees could be seen nearby.

Whereas I wish to see as many of the world’s birds as possible, for the mammals I set my sights somewhat lower. In general I’m happy to see just one (or a few) of the different ‘types’ of mammal rather than every species, so at least one pangolin, racoon, genet or lemming for example, but one whole ‘type’ of mammals that I had failed to see anywhere were the Sirenians. The Order Sirenia comprises of two Families: Dugonidae (two species – Dugong and the extinct Steller’s Sea Cow) and Trichechidae (three species – West Indian Manatee, Amazonian Manatee and West African Manatee) in spite of spending quite a bit of time within the range of all five extant species I had never seen any.

 

I was out early and down at the marina at Fort Pierce looking for the sirenians. There was a Manatee centre, which opened at 10:00, signs saying ‘don’t feed the Manatees’ but no actual Manatees. Local dog walkers, fishermen and boatmen all said the same ‘they’re normally here but I haven’t seen any for a couple of days, probably too hot for them’.

 

One guy said the best place was at the pier on the outer banks, so I returned to Seaway Drive and crossed the bridge to the barrier islands, seeing a fairly tame Great Egret in the process.

 

Here I was at the actual ocean rather than the intracoastal waterway but there were no Manatees, just a lot of very tame Turnstones. The open ocean is in fact behind me (but there were no Turnstones in that direction).

 

Known in America as Ruddy Turnstone (because there is another species Black Turnstone on the Pacific coast), Turnstones are a bit of an enigma, found along shorelines and familiar to birders all over the world in the non-breeding season, they breed only in small areas of the high arctic, places that few people ever get to.

 

I pulled in as I re-crossed the bridge as I had seen two dots in the distance. They proved to be Magnificent Frigatebirds, another ABA area tick.

 

Not taken on this trip, but here’s a pair of Magnificent Frigatebirds taken in the Caribbean in 2017.

 

By the time I got back to the Manatee centre it was 10:00 and it was open. The lady there said that because it was so hot the Manatees would have moved out into the intracoastal waterway and the best way to see them was to join a boat trip which departed at 10:30.

 

Nice boat trip, lots of cormorants, a few shorebirds, White Ibis (above) and herons …

 

… and of course lots of Brown Pelicans.

 

I hadn’t realised that pelicans were that dangerous!

 

We had good views of Bottle-nosed Dolphins but no Manatees.

 

So now it was time to head down to West Palm Beach where I found Manatee Lagoon sheltering behind the local power station.

 

The warm water outflow from the power station attracts hundreds of them during the winter, but not today due to the unseasonal high temperatures which were being measured in 80s F not the expected mid 60s (that an increase from 18 C to 28 C for everybody who doesn’t live in the USA, Palau, Cayman Is, Belize or the Bahamas).  Apparently there were four there yesterday, which explains why I said earlier that I regretted my decision to head north after seeing the scrub-jays yesterday as there would have been time to drive south to West Palm Beach see the Manatees and get to Lake Kissimmee in time for the boat trip.

 

I did get to see a number of Barracuda and Tarpon, huge fish that were clearly visible from the observation deck, I was told Manatees might swim by just off the viewing platform, but I was there for a couple of hours and saw nothing. I left and crossed the bridge to the outer banks and headed for John D McArthur Beach State Park (that’s a hell of a long name for a park). I’d hoped to find vantage points where I could scan the lagoon but it was all dense mangroves with few gaps. I managed to see a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher but little else. I returned to Manatee Lagoon in the hope that as the day cooled they might return but I arrived at 1605 to find they had closed five minutes earlier.

 

I had to be in Miami the following morning, so with a profound sense of disappointment I joined the I-95 and headed south. Soon the traffic built up and the traffic slowed. In spite of there being six lanes progress alternated between fast and very slow. I have driven in twenty-four of the fifty states, including in the cities of New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but have never seen such driving in the USA as I as encountered that afternoon. There were regular heavy showers but that didn’t deter some from driving at 80mph weaving in and out of the six lanes to gain a slight advantage. My guide the following day said ‘you have to realise that in Miami you’re not in the USA, you’re in Latin America’! (this photo is of the highways around Miami Airport taken from the plane as I left Miami and not necessarily of the I-95).

 

Rather than try and find target species by navigating the complex intersections of Miami’s highways I had booked a tour with Nature is Awesome guide Angel Abreu, Miami is full of introduced species and probably has (along with Hawaii) the highest number of introduced species in the world. One I was interested in seeing was Spot-breasted Oriole, a species I saw in Costa Rica in 2017 but not of course within the ABA area. This species at least looks like it belongs in the USA …

 

… unlike the Mitred Parakeet of southern South America. I suppose the UK equivalent would be comparing Little Owl to Rose-ringed Parakeet the former looks like it belongs but the latter doesn’t, even if both were introduced.

 

A bird that occurs in the northern Caribbean but in the States can only be found in parts of Miami and through the Florida Keys is White-crowned Pigeon. I thought we would have to search mangrove forests for them but here were a few sitting on wires in a suburban area.

 

The immature bird on the left can be identified by its grey not white cap.

 

Speaking of mangroves we went on to an area of dense mangroves where we tried but failed to see Mangrove Cuckoo (but I have seen quite a few in the Caribbean and Yucatan Mexico).

 

One bird we did see in the mangroves was Eastern Phoebe, either an early migrant or a wintering bird.

 

We did come across quite a few Yellow-crowned Night Herons.

 

We get Black-crowned Night Herons in Europe and they occasionally occur in the UK but Yellow-crowned but as far as I know has not been recorded in the Western Palearctic except for once or twice in the Azores.

 

1st year Yellow-crowned Night Herons are quite unlike the adults but of course have a similar dumpy shape.

 

We passed a rubbish tip on the way to the coast with a huge cloud of Turkey Vultures above it. It was clear that there was a continuous stream of them arriving from the south, migrating up from their wintering grounds via the Caribbean islands.

 

There were plenty of Turkey Vultures in the trees as well.

 

Once we reached Biscayne Bay we took a walk along the shore but soon we had to retreat back to the cars due to rain associated with a fast moving cold front. The sky quickly turned dark and a number of large columns of migrating Turkey Vultures appeared, their migration no doubt interrupted by the weather.

 

By using a wider field of view you can see how huge these columns or ‘kettles’ were.

 

Once the heavy rain had stopped we visited some lakes where we saw the introduced Green Iguana …

 

… and the native American Crocodile.

 

Other lakes held Wood Storks, Blue-winged Teal and American Coot. There is a single drake Green-winged Teal in the background.

 

Most of these ducks are Green-winged Teal. They are treated as a separate species in the UK from our abundant Eurasian Teal, but not so in the ABA area because they follow the Clements Checklist rather than the one produced by the IOC. Thing is they are, at least in males quite distinctive and although a number are seen each winter in the UK and they often remain into the spring there is been little or no evidence of hybridisation. On the far right of the photo is a Mottled Duck, a close relative of Mallard but with both sexes looking (almost) the same.

 

This pair of Wood Storks were a fine sight, seen close by due to the shielding provided by the vegetation. I could watch them probing in the mud with bills open ready to snap shut on some unsuspecting prey.

 

I’ve no idea what this beautiful dragonfly is, so if anyone can enlighten me contact me directly or via the comments below.

 

We finally returned to suburbia and beautiful big houses along the Miami’s many canals, we failed to see the target munias and parrots …

 

… but we did see the localised Bronzed Cowbird in a supermarket carpark. This species is only found in the Gulf States and along the Mexican border in the ABA area, although is common further south.

 

The dark clouds of the storm soon passed and blue skies returned. There were plenty of widespread Nearctic birds around, as well as the Florida specials, like this Loggerhead Shrike. The trip had been a great success for the birds but it still looked that I would be leaving Florida without my second lifer – the Manatee. However it was Angel to the rescue as he took me to a place where there was a fresh water outflow out into the salt water channels …

 

… and there to my delight were a couple of Manatees. Ok, perhaps I’d have got a better view of them at West Palm Beach Manatee Centre where you can look straight down on them, but beggars can’t be choosers.

 

In fact if I play with another image and remove the green glare by reducing the colour saturation to zero then the image isn’t too bad. Of course I was delighted to get this last minute reprieve.

 

I had a few hours on the 22nd before I flew to Georgetown in Guyana and Angel suggested I visit Key Biscayne, an island to the south-east of Miami at the north of Biscayne Bay connected to the mainland by a bridge.  When I arrived at dawn it was raining but that soon cleared. This early in the year I hadn’t expected passerine migration but that’s just what I got, it was classic ‘fall’ conditions after all (I mean classic conditions for a fall-out of migrants, not that it was like autumn!). The bird in the photo is an introduced Egyptian Goose. I hadn’t realised that they and domestic type Muscovy Ducks would be common all over the city.

 

Most of the warblers I had seen so far could be considered winter visitors, but as the rain eased the park was full of passage warblers daring about from tree to tree and steadily making their way north. As is always the case in a ‘fall’ of migrants they had all gone within the hour. Palm Warblers were the commonest with perhaps 200 seen …

 

… I also saw about 100 of the delightful Parula Warbler (above) and small numbers of Myrtle Warbler (formerly Yellow-rumped Warbler until it was re-split into Myrtle, Audubon’s and Goldman’s), the lovely Black-and-white Warbler (nicknamed the ‘humbug warbler’ back home), Prairie Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart and perhaps best of all – the stonking Yellow-throated Warbler.

 

With the migrants moving on I headed for the nearby beach. looking for shorebirds, gulls and terns.

 

One of the first birds I saw was this Fish Crow. I had seen many crows whilst driving over the last few days but I was unsure if they were the largely coastal Fish Crow or the very widespread American Crow. This bird was making the characteristic nasal ‘cah’ so there was no doubt of its identity.

 

There were quite a few waders/shorebirds on the beach, (Brits say waders, Americans shorebirds, but there are waders that don’t wade and plenty of other birds that aren’t waders that do, similarly not all shorebirds are found on the shore and plenty of birds that aren’t shorebirds are). This is a winter plumaged Sanderling, like Turnstone it can be found on the shorelines of most of the world during the non-breeding season but only breeds in a small area in the very far north.

 

The commonest wader on the beach was Semi-palmated Plover, a close relative of our Ringed Plover. Differences in face pattern and the small ‘semi-palmations between just two of the toes are hard to pick out and as far as I know all UK records of this species have been first located by its very different call.

 

With the Semi-P Plovers were a small numbers of the delightful and much rarer Piping Plover.

 

Also with the plovers was this ‘peep’. In the field the legs looked greenish and due to that and the very small size, I presumed it was a Least Sandpiper, although the legs were nowhere near as yellow as the ones I saw on Lake Kissimmee. If I’ve got this wrong please let me know in the comments.

 

Also seen were was a number of Wilson’s Plovers (foreground), their large bills making them easy to identify.

 

In the ABA area this species is confined largely to shorelines from the Carolinas to Texas.

 

Of course there were gulls on the beach. Always tricky to age and identify this was a good opportunity to photograph some of the American species starting with a 1st winter American Herring Gull, the diagnostic all-black tail can be seen clearly …

 

… and can also be seen in this photo. This species is most easily identified in first year plumage and nearly all the UK records are of first years. I’m surprised the AOU continues to lump this with European Herring Gull when genetic analysis clearly shows it to be more closely related (and possibly conspecific with) Vega Gull of eastern Siberia, rather than European Herring Gull.

 

A bigger surprise was the numbers of Lesser Black-backed Gulls. A common breeder and wintering species in northern Europe (a lake near us has at least 2000 coming to roost in winter). I knew that a few, perhaps Greenland breeders, wintered in eastern North America but I hadn’t expected to see five or more in one place. This of course is in full adult plumage.

 

This appears to be a 3rd winter Lesser Black-backed (right) with an 1st winter American Herring Gull.

 

Another 3rd winter with two 1st winter American Herring Gulls showing the lack white tips to the primaries in some birds of this age.

 

Ring-billed Gull, (a Common Gull sized species) was common as well. This species wasn’t recorded in the UK until 1973, once ID criteria were widely known the number recorded annually exploded and it was soon dropped of the official rarity list. However by the start of the ‘naughties’ UK numbers sharply decreased and you’re no longer likely to just bump into one in the course of routine birding

 

In this phot there is (right to left at the back) an adult LBBG, two Laughing Gulls, an abundant species along the east coast, adult American Herring Gull and a rather small ‘large gull’ who’s identity I’m not sure of but could be a 2nd winter LBBG. In the foreground are a flock of Royal Terns, recently split from their African counterpart (which has now been renamed West African Crested Tern).

 

Among the Royal Terns was one that was colour ringed (thanks to Martin Reid of Texas who noticed the colour ring) and I sent the details off to the USGS who administer the bird ringing/banding scheme. I got this rather nice ‘certificate of achievement’ which showed that it was ringed as a pullus in Virginia in 2018. I’m afraid I couldn’t find a way of converting the pdf they sent me to a jpg for this post so I ended up doing it the old fashioned way – printing it and then photographing the print, hence the slightly lopsided and unevenly lit appearance).

 

Well that was the end of a very enjoyable few days in Florida with almost all targets under the belt. I caught the flight to Georgetown, Guyana in the afternoon and arrived that evening.

 

So let’s end the photos with a one of the best birds seen on that final morning, a lovely breeding plumage male Piping Plover.

 

However I have one final comment, this is taken from my notes written at the time:

 Miami has the reputation as one of the least friendly airports in the world. Having taken off your belt and shoes, emptied your pockets, placed all your stuff on the scanner conveyer, to be shouted at ‘did I give you permission to move?’ is downright rude and unnecessary. I’ve travelled through many hundred airports in something like 130 countries and have only seen that low level of service in the most remote parts of Russia.

Although I’ve only birded in Florida twice, I’ve passed through Miami airport a number of times on route to or from the Neotropics and have always felt that customer service is rock bottom. I have said that this aggressive attitude wouldn’t stop me visiting Florida, but it certainly means that I would route a visit to the Neotropics via some other hub like Madrid.

 

Southern Florida – part one: 18th-19th February 2020.   2 comments

Back in late 2019 I had no idea of the impending storm brewing in China and couldn’t imagine that within five months international travel and indeed most travel, would be banned for a year or more.

I was looking for a bird tour in late February/March and whittled down the possibilities to two; either remote and little visited areas of Borneo or Guyana and Suriname in northern South America. In the end I went for the latter which was a good idea, because as far as I can tell the Borneo trip didn’t go, whether that was from lack of bookings or cancellation due to the pandemic I don’t know.

So what’s this to do with Florida? I have paid a number of visits to the USA but my only time in Florida was limited to a few hours on the way to and way back from my first trip to Costa Rica in 1981. Florida has a number of bird species found nowhere else in the ABA area (USA, Canada and Greenland as defined by the American Birding Association) but all but one, the Florida Scrub-jay can be easily found in the Neotropics. But although I don’t make a habit of visiting the ABA area just to up my ABA list, whilst I was there I thought I might as well target the ABA ticks as well.

But the question was when to go, there were two bird species and one mammal, the bizarre Manatee, that I really wanted to see. If I went in the summer I could see Antillean Nighthawk, a bird that I have missed on all my trips to the Caribbean (as it doesn’t arrive on the breeding grounds until late April) and the Scrub-jay – but the Manatees would be well offshore in the warmer weather. If I went in the winter I could see Manatees and the Scrub-jay but not the Nighthawk. Margaret had no interest in going as she had lived in Florida for several years in her previous life, so I couldn’t turn it into a family holiday.

In the end I decided the best thing to do was to visit Florida for a few days on my way to Guyana this February and hope I could see the Nighthawk on a future visit to the Caribbean, so I planned for three and a half days birding in southern Florida.

 

The direct flight from Heathrow arrived in the late afternoon, which was of course, late evening UK time. All of the eastern cost of Florida encloses the Intracoastal Waterway. In fact this sheltered waterway can be navigated from Brownsville in Texas all the way up to Baltimore. When Margaret first visited the USA she lived on a 33ft yacht in which she journeyed all the way from Fort Lauderdale to Baltimore.

 

Accommodation on these islands and on the outer banks of the lagoon is reserved for the ultra-rich. Initial driving in the USA is always problematic as you adjust to driving on the right (or is it wrong?) side of the road. But exiting the airport at dusk into a multilane highway system in the rush hour was always going to be a bit of a nightmare, but I soon found my rather shabby motel. I was later told this was the type of motel that you could book by the hour for whatever nefarious deeds that you had in mind, but that didn’t matter, it was a convenient place to rest. Due to the time difference it was only 2030 when I went to bed but I was away by 0430 the next day and on the road north.

I drove 88 miles north to Jonathon Dickinson State Park, which I had been told was a good site for the jay, but I arrived far too early. Whilst waiting for it to open I birded along the road seeing species like Palm Warbler (above), Pine Warbler and Myrtle Warbler – a species I’ve seen on Scilly in the UK in the distant past.

 

Another common species was Northern Mockingbird. Amazingly one of these turned up in Devon in the UK this February but we were in the middle of a Covid lockdown at the time. Some chose to break the rules but I stayed put until they were relaxed and visited just before Easter. This was the third British record of this species (almost certainly ship-assisted) but the other two weren’t twitchable and so it has generated a lot of interest. Unlike the individual in the photo the one in Devon had a normal shaped upper mandible! Postscript – after writing this earlier today I heard that the Mockingbird has left Devon and has been relocated an equal distance to the east of me in West Sussex!

 

Once in the park it only took about 30 minutes to find a pair of Florida Scrub-jays.

 

Originally considered one species the ‘Scrub Jay’, it has now been split into four with Island Scrub-jay only on Santa Cruz Island off California, California Scrub-jay in the westernmost Lower 48 and Baja California, Woodhouse’s Scrub-jay in interior western USA and central Mexico and this species which is confined to south-central Florida. Clearly there is a research program going on here as both birds were colour-ringed.

 

I spent some time looking around the rest of the park hoping to see a variety of birds, I had some success eg with this Anhinga but I was later to regret that I didn’t drive back south and go for the Manatees at West Palm Beach.

 

I had booked a boat ride on Lake Kissimmee, a few hours drive to the north, for 1500 so to allow plenty of time I set off early. I arrived with loads of time to spare and birded along the access road and around the dock for a couple of hours.

 

Eastern Meadowlarks and …

 

… Loggerhead Shrikes were easily seen along the access road …

 

… and lots of American Kestrels.

 

Along the shore of Kissimmee Swamp I saw …

 

… Great Blue Heron …

 

… and Wood Stork bathing in the hot sunshine. The former of these two birds is common throughout the Nearctic region but the Wood Stork is (outside of Florida and southernmost California) almost entirely Neotropical. However I already had the species on my ABA list as many years ago, circling over Miami after a trip to the Caribbean, I saw a flock out of the plane window!

 

It wasn’t just the herons and storks that were sunbathing in the hot temperatures, a flock of Ring-billed Gulls had all turned to face the sun and were panting in the high temperatures, either that or I had chanced on a Ring-billed Gull choral group! This species has turned up so regularly in the UK in recent years that it has been dropped as an official rarity. I’ve seen 22 in the UK and it could have been a lot more if I’d have put the effort in.

 

A Forster’s Tern perched on sign, another species I’ve seen in the UK but only four times.

 

White Ibis fed around the margins of the lake.

 

This is a widespread species in Central America and Mexico, the Caribbean and northern South America but in the ABA area its confined to the Gulf Coast, Florida and the coast north to the Carolinas.

 

The related Glossy Ibis is more widespread being found in many parts of the Old World from Europe to Australia, including these days, occasionally in the UK.

 

However in the Americas it is largely confined to a narrow strip from Maine to eastern Texas. As there is another closely related species, White-faced Ibis further west then it may be that Glossy Ibis is a relatively recent colonist of the New World.

 

Ubiquitous throughout the whole of the Americas is the rather ugly Turkey Vulture.

 

One of my first big twitches in the UK occurred in 1979 when I went down to Cornwall to see the UK’s first Belted Kingfisher which over wintered on the River Camel. This species can be sexed by presence (female) or absence (male) on a chestnut belt on the breast, which isn’t much help here as the breast is hidden.

 

There are four species in the family Anhingidae, the ones in Africa, the Orient and Australasia use those geographic terms along with the name Darter, however the one in the Americas takes its name from Brazilian Amerindian for ‘snake-bird’ – Anhinga. This group of birds differs from cormorants by their long necks which can be shot forwards at great speed to spear rather than grab fish.

 

Soon it was time to head out onto the water …

 

… earlier there had been a question as to whether the boat would go or not as I was the only person interested, but another couple had booked, so it was ok. The boat, a sort of hovercraft with a huge fan at the rear, could skim over all the marsh vegetation in a way no normal boat could, but it was mega-noisy hence the ear protection.

 

With my lifer (the jay) under-the-belt it was time to look for some of the species that makes visiting Florida essential for ABA birders, starting with Purple Gallinule.

 

Not to be confused with what used to be called ‘purple gallinule’ in the Old World and which is now treated as six species of ‘swamphen’, this bird is a colourful cousin of our Common Moorhen. I’ve seen it before in Texas and many times in the Neotropics but these were the best views I’ve ever had of it.

 

Another widespread bird that is only found in Florida outside of the Neotropics is the Limpkin. Limpkins have an unusual flight style in which the wing is usually held above the horizontal and the up-stroke is faster than the down-stroke.

 

Perhaps one of Florida’s most iconic birds is the Snail Kite, (once known in the States as Everglades Kite, but as it occurs as far south as Argentina it’s not a very appropriate name).

 

The kites were visible almost constantly whilst I was at the lake.

 

Males have this slate grey plumage – note the thin and highly curved bill …

 

… that has evolved to winkle apple snails out of their shells.

 

This Snail Kite with a very broad supercillium and spotted breast is a juvenile. Females are similar but with a narrower supercillium and heavily streaked breast.

 

Other species commonly seen included Great Blue Heron …

 

… and Snowy Egret which differs from our Little Egret by its bright yellow iris and lores, yellow on the feet extending up the tarsus and even (as can be seen here) the tibia and more but shorter plumes on the head. There has been one record of the species in the UK, in Scotland in 2002, whilst there has been two records of Great Blue Heron both on Scilly (2007 and 2015) …