Archive for the ‘Snail Kite’ Tag

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) …

 

… however a most unexpected fact is that the ‘type specimen’ of American Bittern (ie the first one to be collected for scientific reasons) was shot in 1804 at Puddletown in Dorset, UK,  just 15 miles from where I live.

 

I had the most wonderful views of American Bittern from the boat, I have seen this species before in the ABA area and the UK but never this close.

 

Another heron seen from the boat was Little Blue Heron, again this has been seen in Britain and Ireland, just the once in Co Galway in 2008. Of all the five American heron species seen in the UK and Ireland I’ve only seen two back home; Green Heron and American Bittern.

 

There were also a good number of Great Egrets on the lake. Whilst widespread throughout much of the world its only been the last 15 or so years that they have become regular in the UK. So far there’s no evidence that a New World Great Egret has made it to Britain but they are separable on bare part colouration and plumes during the breeding season and are probably a different species from the Old World ones (with the Australasian ones being a third species.)

 

There were other raptors around the lake, I usually have difficulty in identifying all the mid-sized American raptors because I mainly see them briefly when driving but here in the south the commonest species is Red-shouldered Hawk. This is an immature.

 

But there was no difficulty identifying this magnificent bird …

 

… I tend to associate Bald Eagles with boreal forests, so it was a bit of a surprise seeing two breeding pairs just a few degrees north of the tropics. I have previously seen them on the Oklahoma/Texas border but that was in winter.

 

I saw lots of other species from the boat from the ubiquitous Boat-tailed Grackle …

 

… to a terrapin with the wonderful name of Florida Red-bellied Cooter.

 

Of course no visit to a Florida wetland would be complete without views of Alligators, big ones …

 

… baby ones …

 

… and some very close views indeed.

 

There were a number of small waders out in the marsh. When I pointed them out to the boatman he replied that he ‘didn’t do peeps’ but closer views revealed them as Least Sandpipers mainly on account of the yellow legs.

 

One of the highlights of the boat trip was really close views of a nesting Sandhill Crane. This species is migratory over most of its range, wintering in southern USA and Mexico and breeding in the north from eastern Canada to eastern Siberia. However there is a resident population in Florida and Cuba.

 

The boatman convinced me that this sitting bird was used to the boats and didn’t move at all as we passed by.

 

Back on dry land there were a couple of Limpkin in a paddock close to the dock.

 

This ibis-like bird isn’t related to the ibises at all but to the cranes, rails and gallinules, thus its taxonomically closer to the Purple Gallinule above that to the White Ibis and Glossy Ibis shown earlier in this post.

 

After leaving the lake I stopped a few times along the access road seeing a range of species, Eastern Phoebe …

 

… Savannah Sparrow (I once saw an ‘Ipswich Sparrow’ a localised race of Savannah Sparrow, at Portland Bill in Dorset – first record for the UK) …

 

There were also a good number of Sandhill Cranes feeding in the fields.

 

Back in 2015 we went to Kearney in Nebraska to see the huge gathering of migrating Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River. In Florida I saw about 40 Sandhills, in Nebraska we saw 150,000!

 

From time to time I mention that this bird or the other has been ‘split’ ie is now treated as a full species when formerly it was treated as a subspecies. Of course the opposite happens, sometimes two species are found out to be a single species and are merged or ‘lumped’. This has happened since I went to Florida with the Northern and Southern Caracaras being lumped into Crested Caracara. The two former species were separated by the Amazon rainforest but as deforestation continues the two ‘species’ met and interbred. It’s likely this is a case of incomplete speciation, given another few tens of thousand years of continuous separation perhaps the speciation of the two forms would have been complete.

 

I headed back south, I didn’t find any motels in the area, indeed the one I had planned to stay at was in ruins after having been hit by a truck a few months earlier. I asked about motels at a gas station but was told I was ‘in the middle of nowhere’ and not to expect such things. I continued back south on the turnpike until tiredness and hunger took over so I stopped just outside Fort Pierce. The first motel I tried was mind-numbingly expensive but I found another at a more reasonable cost. Whilst checking in I told the receptionist I was heading down to West Palm Beach the following day to look for manatees when a guy queuing behind me said ‘no need to go all that way, there’s some just down the road from here, I saw them this morning’.

So what happened the next day and the two days after that will be the subject of my next post.

 

 

 

 

Paraguay: Part one – the Chaco, 19th – 25th September 2015   Leave a comment

The post covers the first part of my recent trip to Paraguay and covers the areas to the north and west of the capital Asunción.

Apologies for not updating the blog for over a month. As we are still in the peak of autumn migration, after my return I have been ringing at Durlston as often as the weather would allow and have spent the remainder of my free time keeping the ringing paperwork up to date.

The trip to Paraguay was a collaboration between Birdquest and the Neotropical Bird Club designed to raise funds for the NBC conservation fund. There were ten participants and three leaders (two of which gave their services for free) which made it somewhat congested on narrow forest trails, but these numbers were needed to raise sufficient funds.

I arrived early and spent a relaxing day in Asunción, getting over jet lag and doing a little birding in the hotel garden. Our first destination was the ‘humid chaco’ a seasonally flooded area to the west of the Paraguay River.

IMG_9420 Chaco

To the north and west of Asunción lies the humid chaco, a region of seasonally flooded scrub, marshes and lakes interspersed with strange Bottle Trees. During our drive to Laguna Capitan we stopped many times along the main route to Bolivia for birding.

IMG_9137 Rufous-sided Crake

Among the many birds we saw was this Rufous-sided Crake ….

IMG_9152 Donocobious

…. and several Donocobious, a bird that has been moved from one family to another over the last 30 years before finally being put in a family of its own.

IMG_9277 Buff-necked Ibis

Roadside pools held the elegant Buff-necked Ibis ….

IMG_9862 Plumbeous Ibis

…. the much rarer Plumbeous Ibis ….

IMG_9201 Ibis

…. and huge numbers of Bare-faced Ibis.

IMG_9812 Jabirus

Three species of stork occurred, Maguari, Wood and the rarer Jabiru (above).

IMG_9825 Jabiru

Jabirus must be the largest and most spectacular stork in the world.

IMG_9858 imm Snail Kite

Snail Kites, which feed almost exclusively on the apple snail were abundant in some areas.

IMG_9345 Flamingos, Black Skimmer, LB Tern_edited-1

On the largest lagoons Chilean Flamingos were common ….

IMG_9348 Black Skimmer, LB Tern

…. along with Black Skimmers and Large-billed Terns. I have nicknamed the tern ‘Sabine’s Tern’ due to the similarity of their upperwing pattern to that enigmatic arctic gull. I hadn’t realised until this trip how different the skimmers from Amazonia (which winter in Paraguay) were. We saw some later near Asunción and they differed more from the regular Black Skimmer than the Indian or African Skimmers do. Time to get the DNA test kit our methinks.

IMG_9330 Chilean Flamingos

Chilean Flamingos are the most widespread of the four New World species and can be easily identified by their red ‘knees’ (actually the tibio-tarsal joint or ankle).

IMG_9258 Chilean Flamingos

Chilean Flamingos in flight.

IMG_9323 Gtr Legs

There were a number of Nearctic shorebirds wintering in the area such as this Greater Yellowlegs (the last time I saw this American species was in Hampshire this summer) ….

IMG_9272 Wilson's Phal

…. the elegant Wilson’s Phalarope. Scottish born Alexander Wilson (1779 – 1813) is considered the father of American Ornithology and his name is commemorated by a storm-petrel, snipe, plover and warbler as well as a journal of ornithology and an orthitholgical society.

IMG_9300 Collared Plover

In contrast to the shorebirds above, this Collared Plover is a Neotropical resident and was exhibiting clear territorial behaviour on the shoreline.

IMG_9437 main road to Boliviar

North of Laguna Capitan the main road deteriorated badly. Although paved, the thin veneer of tarmac had eroded away and we bumped and grinded from one pot hole to the next over a period of six or seven hours.

IMG_6470 driving in dust

Unless you were in the front vehicle (we were in four 4x4s) this was your view for much of the day. Fortunately it was my turn to be in the front on the return journey, so I had an unobstructed view for part of the time.

IMG_9472 BL Seriema

The highlight of the day, indeed one of the highlights of the trip, was great views of Black-legged Seriema. Unlike it’s red-legged cousin, this is a hard bird to see. I have heard it on two previous trips, so was very glad to get such good views. A pair strode along the roadside ….

IMG_9488 BL Seriema

…. and even stopped and displayed, uttering their unearthly wails and showing off their orange gapes. The two seriemas species are the ecological equivalent of the Secretary Bird of Africa (snake predators) but are unrelated. It is thought the seriemas are more closely related to falcons than other raptors and are the closest living relatives of the 3m tall ‘terror birds’ which were apex predators in South America until felines and canines colonised from North America after the formation of the Isthmus of Panama 2.5 million years ago.

IMG_9543 Chaco accomodation

Now in the thorny ‘dry chaco’, we stayed in basic accommodation in Enciso National Park, not far from the Bolivian border. This tree ouside our rooms was full of Monk Parakeet nests, which are made of sticks from thorn bushes. As a result it was impossible to walk anywhere without getting thorns stuck in your boots.

IMG_9513 a night in the museum

‘A night in the museum’. Temperatures were much higher than expected, reaching at least 42 and not dropping below 30 at night. When we found the rooms had no AC, some of us opted to sleep in this small museum which did. However there weren’t enough beds so I slept on a mattress on the floor trying my best to avoid the big spiders and other bugs. We stayed there two nights, so we had ‘A night in the museum 2’ as well.

IMG_9359 sunset

The high temperatures whipped up a strong breeze, which in turn lifted a lot of dust into the atmosphere. At dusk the sun glowed a lurid red in all the haze.

IMG_6461 moth in chaco

The entire trip was full of invertabrates, whether it be the unwelcome biting mosquitos, sand flies, ticks and chiggers or elegant moths, butterflies and preying mantis.

IMG_9564 Little Nightjar

Night-time birding was succesful with lovely species like Little Nightjar ….

IMG_9388 Tropical Screech Owl

…. Tropical Screech Owl ….

IMG_9376 Chaco Owl

…. and best, of all my lifer Chaco Owl.

IMG_9585 Rob Rococo Toad

Here leader and Paraguayan resident Robb Clay holds an enormous Rococco Toad.

IMG_9399 Lark-like Bushrunner

It is interested to speculate why so many Chaco birds have crests. Here are three crested furnarids – Lark-like Bushrunner ….

IMG_9520 Brown Cacholote

…. Brown Cachalote ….

IMG_9604 Crested Hornero_edited-2

…. and Crested Hornero. Hornero is derived from the Spanish for oven because of their oven-shaped mud nests and the family name the Furnariidae or ovenbirds share this derivation.

IMG_9530 chaco rd

We did a lot of driving on the chaco’s dirt roads both by day and by night looking for mammals and nightbirds. We packed into the front vehicles, either inside or on the flat-bed, and then drove two-a-breast on the deserted roads. Once another car came the other way and flashed his lights at us, our driver responded by briefly putting on the mounted searchlight, which was followed by blue-and red flashing lights from the other car – yes, it was the police! Fortunately they passed us without issuing a ticket.

IMG_9440 Pampas Fox

The tour had been advertised as one of the best in South America for mammals but this aspect of the tour proved disappointing. Our night drives failed to deliver the hoped for Tapir, Puma, Ocelot, Jagurundi, Jaguar, Geoffrey’s Cat, Maned Wolf or Chaco Peccary. Instead we had to console ourselves with views of a rather tatty Pampas Fox ….

IMG_9428 Grey Brocket Deer

….and a fleeting glimpse of a Grey Brocket Deer.

IMG_9506 Turquoise-fronted Amazon

Birds did not disappoint however. Here is a selection of Chaco specialities: Turquoise-fronted Amazon ….

IMG_9547 Green-barred Pecker

…. Green-barred Woodpecker ….

IMG_9268 RB Peppershrike

…. a relative of the vireos, the Rufous-browed Peppershrike ….

IMG_9427 Woodcreeper sunbathing

…. a sunbathing Scimitar-billed Woodcreeper ….

IMG_9610 FT Fly

…. the ubiquitous, yet beautiful Fork-tailed Flycatcher. This species is an inter-tropical migrant and sometimes overshoots and turns up in North America, having got as far north as Canada and once reached El Rocio in Spain!

IMG_9198 White Monjita

Another beautiful tyrant flycatcher was the White Monjita

IMG_9185 Guira Cuckoo

The ‘punk-crested’ Guira Cuckoo was common. Apparently the original collector asked the indigenous Guanari what they called it, they replied ‘Guira’ which is guanari for ‘bird’ So really its a ‘bird cuckoo’.

IMG_6478 tropical rattlesnake

A Tropical Rattlesnake provided some entertainment.

IMG_9635 Crowned Eagle

We had a distant view of a pair of raptors that might have been the huge Crowned Solitary Eagle (that’s almost an oxymoron), so we were delighted when on our way back south we had cracking views of one on a roadside post.

IMG_9851 Rally

The area was gearing up for a major car rally and we met processions of super-chargers racers going in the opposite direction.

IMG_6479 3x4

Our Paraguayan drivers, Toni, Dani and Franci were all ex-rally drivers but it wasn’t their driving, but the appalling state of the road that cause this wheel to fall off. Incredibly a part was sent out from Asunción, the drive shaft and brake lines were fixed by the driver at the roadside and the car was with us the following day! We started with four 4×4 but had to put up with three 4x4s and a 3×4 for 24 hours.

IMG_9433 4 pack bottle tree

On the way north we detoured to a spot where our local leaders knew of a nest hole of the huge yet rare and elusive Black-bodied Woodpecker. The nest hole was easy to find – adjacent to this four-pack Bottle Tree.

IMG_9412 White Pecker

However the large hole had been taken over by a pair of much smaller but more aggressive White Woodpeckers. We headed north knowing that our best chance to see the rare Black-bodied had been lost.

IMG_9710 BB Woodpecker

But on our way south we gave it another go and after about an hour the Black-bodied arrived and was promptly chased off by the White Woodpeckers. However it settled down not far away and we go some great views.

IMG_9722 Chaco Peccaries

There had only been a brief sighting of peccaries by a couple of the group at dawn. So we took a chance to visit a centre where the endangered Chaco Peccary is being bred for release in the wild. Unusually this species forms a defensive formation when threatened, which means that if one is shot by poachers then they can all be easily shot. Hopefully education will teach the hunters how endangered this species of wild pig really is.

IMG_9732 Collared Peccary

Also held captive was the much more widespread Collard Peccary, an animal I have seen as far north as Texas.

IMG_9744 White-lipped Peccary

But the White-lipped Peccaries amazed us. Far more aggressive than the other species Whitelips have been known to kill dogs and even people. The males would rush at the fence that separated us from them, baring their teeth, making a loud clicking sound and releasing a pungent scent. As in the wild they can go round in herds as big as 150 individuals, they are clearly not to be messed with.



From here we overnighted in a town originally established by Mennonites of central European descent before returning to Asunción. The second part of the trip to areas east and south of Asunción will appear as soon as I have edited the photos.