Archive for the ‘Black-necked Stilt’ Tag

Lesser Antilles and Trinidad part 1: Antigua, Barbuda and Montserrat; 2nd – 5th June 2017   Leave a comment

 

The islands of the Caribbean hold a multitude of birds, many of them endemic. The islands fall into two main groups, the Greater Antilles (the four large islands of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico) and the Lesser Antilles, a chain of 30+ islands that stretch southwards from Puerto Rico towards the Venezuelan cost. For the purpose of this blog and birding in general, the islands off the Venezuelan coast and Trinidad and Tobago are not considered part of the Lesser Antilles. Map of the Caribbean from Google Maps.

 

The Lesser Antilles comprise of eight nation states and seven overseas dependencies. Our tour took us all the islands that had endemic birds namely (in order of arrival) Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Lucia, St Vincent, Barbados and Grenada. We also visited Trinidad. This post deals with Antigua, Barbuda and Montserrat. Barbuda is the unmarked island just north of the A of Antigua. Map of the Lesser Antilles from Google Maps.

 

After a long flight from the UK I landed at St John’s on the island of Antigua on a rather cloudy afternoon and met the rest of the tour group at the airport.

 

Although we were tired after the long flight, after dropping the bags off at our hotel we headed out to a nearby beach.

 

It wasn’t the beach we came to see but a lagoon just inland. Access was via this dirt track, there must have been a sewage works near the start as the smell was awful. However we were soon away from that and came across some good birds like this Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

 

As you would expect from a freshwater lagoon, there were many Black-necked Stilts. This is the New World equivalent of our familiar Black-winged Stilt and some authorities treat them as conspecific.

 

All stilts noisily defend their nests against potential intruders, indeed their piping call is a familiar sound at wetlands over much of the world’s temperate and tropical regions.

 

There were several species of tern on the lagoon, by far the commonest was Least Tern.

 

Least Tern is the New World equivalent of our Little Tern. Although very similar in plumage it differs vocally. A Least Tern visited a Little Tern colony in Sussex for several years in the 90s but it was several years before it was conclusively identified by which time it was less reliable. I twitched it but dipped.

 

There were several species of wildfowl on the lake, most notable were a few West Indian Whistling Ducks but they remained in cover at the back of the lagoon. These White-cheeked (or Bahama) Pintails were more co-operative.

 

Brown Pelicans were common on the lagoon and along the shore.

 

Magnificent Frigatebirds were seen on all eleven islands that we visited and were common on Antigua.

 

After a much-needed sleep we set off by boat the next day to Barbuda. The islands of Antigua and Barbuda were British colonies but achieved independence as a single country in 1968.

 

Barbuda is a small low-lying island of about 160 sq km, about a third the size of Antigua, largely covered with scrub vegetation. Tragically three months after our visit the island was flattened by Hurricane Irma and all inhabitants were evacuated to Antigua. After disembarking we headed on foot to a nearby wooded area

 

We soon started seeing birds like the widespread American Kestrel ….

 

…. and the tiny Antillean Crested Hummingbird, a species that occurs in Puerto Rico as well as the Lesser Antilles and one we saw on every island except Antigua.

 

White-crowned Pigeon is a bird of the northern Caribbean, occurring from the Florida Keys south to Antigua, Barbuda and Montserrat.

 

There are twenty-eight species named Elaenia, mot of them nondescript and hard to identify. Caribbean Elaenia occurs in Puerto Rico and islands off Central America as well as the Lesser Antilles.

 

 

The semi-concealed erectile white crest is typical of many species of Elaenia.

 

The common and ubiquitous Lesser Antillean Bullfinch was seen on all the Lesser Antillean islands except Grenada (more about that later). This was my first life bird of the trip, being seen in the car park of the airport at Antigua on arrival.

 

The female is much drabber (again more about this later).

 

Lesser Antillean Flycatcher belongs in a genus known as Myiarchus With their lemon yellow bellies and grey breasts and brown upper parts members of this genus are most distinctive even if it is hard to tell one from another. Rather than using the non-specific name ‘flycatcher’ I wish they would all have the english name of Myiarchus. With over 430 species of tyrant flycatcher in the New World, then anything that makes a genus easier to remember is to be welcomed. We were only to see this species on Barbuda and Dominica.

 

Black-whiskered Vireo is widespread in the Caribbean especially in low-lying coastal regions. Its distinctive voice forms the backdrop to a lot of Caribbean birding.

 

The main reason we had come to Barbuda was to see the beautiful little Barbuda Warbler, which of course is endemic to the island. They seemed quite common and it didn’t take us long to locate some.

 

Fears had been expressed for their continual survival after Hurricane Irma but recent surveys have proved that at least some remain.

 

With our targets under the belt and with the temperature rising we returned to the dock. Today was a festival and there was very loud music playing from a beach party, most of the group kept well away ….

 

…. but I braved the deafening beat and had a wander around.

 

As we returned to the boat there were many Frigatebirds about ….

 

…. we realised why when we saw fisherman landing their catch.

 

A Brown Pelican was feeding on some discarded fish offal but this Frigatebird was hanging around nearby ….

 

….. and it quickly grabbed and stole the fish guts from the pelican’s beak!

 

Soon it was time to return to Antigua and to our hotel.

 

Early following morning we were back at Antigua airport waiting for our flight to Montserrat. One of the tour participants was Joseph del Hoyo editor of the Handbook of Birds of the World series. Joseph is keen on videoing birds and much of his work can be seen on the Internet Bird Collection/HBW Alive at  https://www.hbw.com/ibc Here Joseph is videoing a Carib Grackle that was hanging around our breakfast venue at the airport.

 

Some discarded toast would soon bring the grackle within photo range.

 

Our flight to Montserrat (a UK Overseas Territory) was in this light aircraft.

 

I have to say it was a bit of a squash inside.

 

The board outside Montserrat’s airport illustrated our reason for coming to Montserrat, the endemic Montserrat Oriole. Although we were to see the species, the most views were of females so this was our best view of the a male! When the immigration officer asked my reason for coming to Montserrat I replied ‘I’ve come to see the oriole’, his eyes lit up, they are obviously proud of their national bird.

 

Due to the flight schedule our time on Montserrat was brief. We arrived mid morning and dropped our gear off at our hotel (which had a lovely view from the rooms) and immediately went birding.

 

The so-called ‘oriole walkway’ was our best chance to connect with the island’s special birds and we spent the rest of the day there.

 

It was good quality forest growing on volcanic soil, not the sand of Antigua and Barbuda (which reduces the height of their forest cover to that of low scrub on those islands).

 

The first good bird was Pearly-eyed Thrasher, a mimid, that is a member of the family that includes mockingbirds, catbirds, tremblers as well as the thrashers.

 

We had brief views of a Bridled Quail-dove in the gloom of the forest.

 

Eventually we saw our prize, Montserrat Oriole, but only this female perched for photos. I had a brief look at a male but many of the group only saw females.

 

It was nearly dark by the time we were back at the hotel.

 

The following morning it was straight to the airport for the return flight to Antigua. Although I knew that this would be a whistle-stop tour of the islands I was a bit disappointed that we couldn’t see more of Montserrat. In particular I’d have like to see some of the lava flows that formed after the 1995 eruption and whatever remains of the capital Plymouth. Although the southern third of the island is an exclusion zone, apparently there is a public viewpoint that overlooks Plymouth.

 

The eruption of the Soufriere Hills Volcano in 1995 destroyed much of the southern part of Montserrat and buried Plymouth, the docks and the airport under pyroclastic flows and lava. The whole southern part of the island was evacuated (about two-thirds of the population) mainly to the UK and the economy was destroyed. The new airport was built in 2005 but the island economy has yet to recover. Although the volcano destroyed much of the Montserrat Oriole’s habitat, some remained in the north and it has recently been downgraded from Critically Endangered. Margaret lived on a yacht and sailed though the Caribbean in the mid 90s and has described to me the wonderful experience of passing Montserrat by night and seeing views like this (from www.sciencedaily.com).

 

It was back to Antigua in the small plane ….

 

…. we had time before our onward flight to visit the lagoon once more, go into St John’s for lunch (this is St John’s cathedral) and visit a new site a bit to the south.

 

Getting the lake by the Cocos Hotel took longer than expected so it was a quick scan, a few photos and then on to the airport.

 

There were a few new species like American Coot and Pied-billed Grebe plus a chance to photograph Great Egret ….

 

…. and Tricoloured Heron.

 

So for the third time we said farewell to Antigua and headed off in the late afternoon to Dominica.

 

The next post will cover Dominica and the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Costa Rica part 5: waders/shorebirds at Punta Morales Saltpans; 10/04/2017   Leave a comment

This post covers a couple of hours visit to a single site, the commercial salt pans at Punta Morales in north-western Costa Rica. As waders (or shorebirds as they are known in the Americas) have a universal appeal to birders I have dedicated an entire post to this short visit and have attempted to illustrate every wader seen plus a few of the terns. We visited some salt pans in this area in 1981, possibly the same place. Nearly all the species would have been lifers then, now none of them were, but I enjoyed seeing them just as much as I did the first time.

 

An early afternoon visit to the salt pans was most successful. Unfortunately we only had two scopes between us so initially it was a slow process getting onto all the waders. However as we walked around the pans we found we could get close enough to most birds for decent photos and indeed I think I managed to photograph every wader present.

 

Many birds were on the bunds between the pans, others were wading in the brine. This mediocre photo has been included as its the only photo I took of Grey (or Black-bellied) Plover, seen in the top right.

 

There were large numbers of Black Skimmers present. A not particularly appropriate name as all three species of skimmer show a similar black and white plumage and this is no more black than the other two. These aberrant terns feed by flying low over water with their long lower mandible just below the water’s surface (the so-called ‘unzipping the pond’), if the lower mandible encounters a prey item the upper mandible snaps shut to secure it.

 

With the skimmers was a small number of Royal Terns. Recent genetic work was shown that the African and American forms of Royal Tern have diverged sufficiently to be considered separate species,  but as yet I haven’t heard of any reliable ways of separating them in the field, not has this discovery been taken up by mainstream world checklists.

 

At the back are three black-billed Cabot’s Tern’s named after  American physician and ornithologist Samuel Cabot III. This is a recent split from the Old World Sandwich Tern, although the American checklist committees SACC and NACC have yet to ratify this (but the IOC and BOU has). In the foreground is a ‘Hudsonian’ Whimbrel. This larger, more strongly patterned, dark-rumped version of our Eurasian Whimbrel has been treated as a separate species by the BOU, but not by the IOC or other world checklists. As the BOU will adopt the IOC checklist as the basis of the British List as of 01/01/18 then we will lose this one from the British List (there have been a few records of this American form in the UK including along-stayer in Cornwall).

 

Most of the species of wader present have occurred as vagrants in the UK at some time or other (hence British birders interest in American waders) but one that hasn’t is Wilson’s Plover which has a more southerly distribution than most.

 

Also known as Thick-billed Plover this species breed from SE USA to Belize and the West Indies and winters as far south as Brazil.

 

Another species that has not made it to the UK is Marbled Godwit which has an interior distribution in North America and doesn’t make any of the major ocean crossings that seems a prerequisite for regular trans-Atlantic vagrancy. A single Whimbrel is the middle of the flock facing left.

 

Here Marbled Godwits can be seen with Black-necked Stilts, Stilt Sandpipers and a single Willet.

 

Marbled Godwits in flight, unlike the other three species of godwit they don’t show either white wing-bars or white rumps..

 

Yellowleg species were surprisingly scarce on this trip. perhaps they had already departed for their breeding grounds in North America. This is the Greenshank-sized Greater Yellowlegs. I saw my second UK Greater Yellowlegs in Hampshire in 2015 but Lesser Yellowlegs is much commoner, one stayed at our local patch for seven months from September 16 and eventually departed after I had left for Costa Rica in late March.

 

Closely related to the Old World Black-winged Stilt, the Black-necked Stilt of the Americas was common on the saltpans. There are four ‘black-and-white’ stilts worldwide differing only in the precise pattern of black and white on the head, neck and back and there is a good argument for lumping them all together.

 

Joining the Stilts, Godwits and Whimbrel in this photo is a single Stilt Sandpiper in the foreground and four Willets. This omnatopoeic bird surely consists of two species, Eastern and Western Willet (these are all Western Willets) and a proposal to split the two forms is being considered by the NACC currently, here is a summary taken from the proposal: The Willet (Tringa semipalmata) includes two broadly allopatric subspecies that exhibit morphological, ecological, vocal, and genetic differentiation. The eastern subspecies (T. s. semipalmata) breeds almost exclusively in saltmarshes and brackish coastline habitat along the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and certain localities in the Caribbean In contrast, the western subspecies (T. s. inornata) breeds in brackish and freshwater wetlands in the Great Basin as well as prairies in the north-western United States and southern Canada. The western subspecies winters along rocky habitat on the Pacific coast from the north-western United States south to Chile. While the two species may co-occur during migration and on certain wintering grounds, pair bonding occurs on breeding grounds which are allopatric between the two subspecies. For more see: http://checklist.aou.org/assets/proposals/PDF/2017-A.pdf

 

There were a number of Short-billed Dowitchers on the pans. This is a difficult bird to separate from the similar Long-billed Dowitcher (and no, bill length isn’t much help) especially if they are silent. Long-billeds are regular if scarce in the UK but Short-billeds are mega rarities, the one at Lodmoor, Dorset in 2012 was only the 3rd for the UK.

 

Here is a better portrait of one species that has appeared in the background in previous photos – Stilt Sandpiper, (not to be confused with the unrelated Black-necked Stilt at the back). A regular migrant in the Americas, this is a very rare species in the UK although I have seen three in Dorset or west Hampshire over the years.

 

Here a Ruddy Turnstone, a very common species in the New World and the Old, perches behind the New World Spotted Sandpiper.

 

The New World Semi-palmated Plover is very similar to our Ringed Plover. Small differences in the bill and facial pattern separate the two and of course there are the semi-palmations between the toes for those with very good scopes and perfect viewing conditions. But the best way to locate a vagrant Semi-P Plover is by call.

 

It’s now time to look at the smallest waders, the so-called ‘peeps’. This, a Semi-palmated Sandpiper, was by far the commonest.

 

Semi-P Sandpipers and a Semi-P Plover. with a single Least Sandpiper at the far right.

 

A flock of Semi-palmated Sandpipers beautifully reflected in the brine solution.

 

This flock of ‘Semi-P Sands’ is joined by a single Stilt Sand and a Semi-P Plover. Notice the bird in the far lower left, the long curved bill means that this is almost certainly a Western Sandpiper on route to Alaska or far-eastern Siberia. Relatively easy to separate in juvenile or in breeding plumages, winter plumaged adults can be very tricky. They winter further north than Semi-Ps, a lot of them within the southern USA and they were much rarer than Semi-Ps in Costa Rica.

 

Perhaps the rarest bird at the pans and one that had never been recorded by Birdquest on their many trips to Costa Rica was this Wilson’s Phalarope.

 

There were relative few non-waders/terns at the pans but this Great Egret posed for its portrait. The taxonomy of the species isn’t settled either with the small far-eastern subspecies modesta probably deserving species status, whilst the New World alba differs from the Eurasian form in bare part colouration, breeding plumes and display.

 

As was always the case we didn’t have enough time to really study all the subtle features of these fascinating waders and soon it was time to leave the pans and head for Hacienda Solimar which will be the subject of the next post.

 

…. but we’ll end this post with a portrait of the world’s smallest wader, the appropriately named Least Sandpiper.