SEVENTEEN

Whoa … does time ever fly?!?! It’s hard to believe another year has come and gone … but not without lots of adventures. The year 2017 was a very exciting one here at BirdTheRock – I was blessed beyond words to share the natural wonders of Newfoundland & Labrador with so many visitors, travel to amazing places both near and far, and experience countless special moments along the way. I have so much to tell … but as they say “a picture is worth a thousand words“, and maybe that’s the best way to share this long overdue summary of the year that was. Below are 17 photos from 2017; chosen to represent just a fraction of the many, many highlights from my year.

I apologize for my lapse in blog posts over the last few months – but be sure to follow me on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram for more regular highlights and often daily updates from ongoing tours! I’ll continue to update this blog as often as I can 😉

Like every year, 2017 started off with some excellent winter birding right here in eastern Newfoundland. I had the pleasure of sharing great winter birds such as Dovekie, Thick-billed Murre, White-winged Crossbill, Bohemian Waxwing, Boreal Chickadee and friendly Gray Jays with a number of visiting birders. This photo was taken during the annual WINGS Birding Tour – and you can read more about that in an earlier blog post here.

I also joined Instagram this past winter –  yet another great way to share photos and highlights with people from all over the world. THIS photo of a Dovekie (taken several winters ago) turned out to be my most popular photo of 2017 – not surprising given how much people tend to love these cute little seabirds! Newfoundland is the most reliable place in North America to see Dovekie and a big part of the reason why birders visit here in winter.

I was honoured this year to earn the support of Kowa Optics, and upgraded my worn-out gear with their top quality equipment. I’ve had so much fun using this Prominar TSN-883 spotting scope and Genesis binoculars – and sharing the experience with so many of my guests. The optics are amazing! Stay tuned for an upcoming review of this Kowa swag here on the blog very soon.

In March, I joined Kisserup International Trade Roots and a handful of other Canadian birding and eco-tourism experts on an exploratory “mission” to Honduras (Read the two-part blog series and see LOTS of photos here!!). What I discovered was an incredibly beautiful place with wonderful people, amazing nature and especially birds, and so many opportunities for visiting birders and nature-lovers to soak it all in. Oh … AND we observed more than 250 species of birds along the way! I’m scheming up a Honduras birding tour for the near future – so stay tuned for details!!   (Photo: Spectacled Owl, Rio Santiago Nature Resort, Honduras)

I returned home from Honduras to find Newfoundland in the cold, icy grip of the Arctic. Prolonged northerly winds were pushing Arctic pack ice much further south than usual – encasing the entire northern and eastern coasts, and even wrapping around to fill bays and coves in the southeast. While spring pack ice was a normal part of my childhood growing up on the northeast coast, it rarely reached this far south and some communities were seeing it for the first time in living memory. With the ice came lots of seals (including more northerly Hooded Seals), Polar Bears and even a very wayward Arctic Fox to far-flung places around the island. Birds were impacted too — ducks, loons and other seabirds were corralled into small sections of open water waiting for the ice to move off. The ice lingered so long on parts of the northeast coast that fisheries were delayed or even canceled, adding a very human aspect to this unusual event.

Late winter and early spring can be a challenging time for birding – many of the winter species are beginning to move on, and migration has yet to start. But there are always wonderful things to see, and a mid-March excursion to Cape Race with one group of intrepid clients paid off with this — great looks at one of their “target” birds! This Willow Ptarmigan, sporting transitional plumage, allowed us to get up-close-and-personal right from the car!

Another highlight of early spring was an exceptional few days of gull-watching in St. John’s. Not only did the elusive Yellow-legged Gull (which can be seen here sporadically most winters) become a very regular visitor at Quidi Vidi Lake, but a Slaty-backed Gull was also discovered there. The two images above were captured just minutes (and metres) apart … two very rare gulls entertaining some very happy birders! (March 25, 2017)

The pack ice may have receded as spring wore on, but other visitors from the north took their place. Newfoundland had an excellent iceberg season in 2017 – and one of the early highlights was this mammoth berg that perched itself in Ferryland (an hour south of St. John’s). Photos of this iceberg (including my own) went “viral”, showing up in newsfeeds, newspapers and TV newscasts all over the world. It was just one of many awesome bergs I saw this year … including with many of my clients!

While there was no “huge” influx of European rarities into Newfoundland this spring, there was also no shortage. This European Golden Plover was one of several reported in early May. I was also fortunate to see a Ruff, two Eurasian Whimbrel, and two Common Ringed Plovers this year – AND happy to say that I had clients with me for each and every one! How’s that for good birding?!?!

Perhaps the most exciting bird of the spring (or even year) also came from Europe. This COMMON SWIFT was discovered by Jeannine Winkel and Ian Jones at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John’s on May 20 – just the second record for Newfoundland and one of only a handful for all of North America. Cool, damp weather worked in our favour throughout the week, with this extremely rare bird sticking around until May 26 and entertaining both local birders and a number of “ABA listers” who flew in from all over North America to see it. Amazing! (Photo: May 23, 2017)

Spring slipped into summer, which of course is the busiest time of year for BirdTheRock Bird & Nature Tours. I was fortunate to host dozens of visiting birders and nature-lovers throughout the summer, sharing the many wonderful sights and spectacles that our province has to offer. This photo of Northern Gannets was taken during the excellent Eagle-Eye Tours “Grand Newfoundland” trip – one of many times I visited Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve this year. This particular tour is a great way to experience the birding and natural highlights of Newfoundland, from St. John’s to Gros Morne National Park and many points in between. I look forward to leading it again in 2018! (Read more about this tour in a blog post from 2016.)

Of course, it’s not “always” just about the birds. During every tour or outing, I make time to stop and enjoy the abundance of other gems that nature has in store. I especially like the wild orchids of mid-summer, and this Showy Ladyslipper was one of nine species we encountered during a fantastic Massachusetts Audubon tour. What an awesome time we had!

Of course, summer can’t be ALL work and no play! (Who am I kidding – my work is always fun!) I made sure to steal some time to explore both new places and old favourites with my family – including the rugged coastlines of Notre Dame Bay where I grew up and my passion for nature first took root!

In August, I had the pleasure of once again leading the Eagle-Eye Tours trip to New Brunswick & Grand Manan. While there are many wonderful places and birding experiences on this tour, one key highlight is seeing the huge gathering of Semipalmated Sandpipers in the world-famous Bay of Fundy. More than 3/4 of the world’s population stop here during migration, and flocks of tens of thousands can often be found roosting on the narrow beach at high tide or swirling over the water. This was my third time leading this tour, and you can read more about it on an earlier blog post here.

As summer fades to fall in Newfoundland, I often turn my attention to migration and the opportunity to find wayward and locally rare species right here on “the rock”. One of the most interesting birds was this very late empidonax flycatcher that showed up in November — well beyond the expected date of normal migrants and reason enough to scrutinize it. Originally found by crack birder Lancy Cheng, I arrived soon after and spent several hours trying to capture diagnostic photos amid the fleeting glimpses it gave. Based on photos from several birders and Lancy’s very important sound recording, this bird was eventually identified as Newfoundland’s first ever Willow Flycatcher! Chalk one up for the perseverance and cooperation of our local birding community!

Winter also started off with a bang, when veteran birder Chris Brown discovered the province’s first Eared Grebe on December 1. Time for birding can be tough to come by for me at this busy time of year – but I managed to sneak in a “chase” to see this mega-rarity. Read more on my blog post here.

My birding year ended on yet another high note: leading my third Eagle-Eye Tours adventure of the year – this time in Trinidad & Tobago! This was my second time leading this amazing tour, and I admit to being totally enamored with this beautiful place. The lush forests, open grasslands, intriguing coastlines … and, of course, the incredible birds and wildlife! This Guianan Trogon was just one of more than 200 species we encountered during the trip – many of which were equally stunning. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post about my most recent trip — but in the meantime you can check out this three-part series from my last adventure in Trinidad & Tobago. And better yet – join me when I return at the end of 2018!

What a fantastic year! Thanks to the many friends and visitors who shared all these special moments (and many more!) with me in 2017. I’m excited for 2018 and can’t imagine what wonderful experiences it might have in store! Why not join me to find out for yourself?!?!

Wishing you all a happy, prosperous and fun-filled 2018!!

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Eared Grebe – a Newfoundland first!

Nothing gets a birder more excited than a really rare bird … but sometimes, timing can be problematic. This is a busy time of year … and I’ve been splitting my time between preparing for Christmas (always busier when you have a young family) and preparing for my Eagle-Eye Tours trip to Trinidad & Tobago beginning later this week. I was kind of hoping to sneak away without any local birding distractions.

But when fate deals her hand, there’s not much we can do about it. Just two weeks ago, reports came to light of Newfoundland’s first ever Black Vulture – an unexpected vagrant, but well photographed in Burgeo on the island’s SW coast. Fortunately (?), it was a little too far to really tempt me at a busy time like this. BUT THEN, on Friday December 1, veteran birder Chris Brown spotted yet another provincial first – and this one was just 1.5 hours away. He had found an EARED GREBE at Peter’s River – a real hot area for rare birds in the past few years. While a common bird of the Canadian prairies and parts of central and western USA, it is a rare wanderer to eastern North America and until now had never been recorded in Newfoundland & Labrador.

But what a busy weekend we had planned!! After sitting on my hands all night, I decided to forego the chase and spend some quality time with my family at a Christmas event on Saturday morning — all the more important since I’d soon be leaving for two weeks. But by lunchtime, reports confirmed the grebe was being seen at the very same spot — and I decided to make the pilgrimage and see it for myself.

Peter’s River and nearby St. Vincent’s beach have been host to many rare birds over the past few years – including a variety of terns, gulls, shorebirds and seabirds. Here, my new Kowa scope stands pointed at the most recent jewel – Newfoundland’s first Eared Grebe!

After losing 30 minutes of precious time being stuck behind a Christmas Parade in Riverhead-St. Mary’s (can’t say that did much for my holiday spirit!), I finally arrived at Peter’s River a little frustrated and well behind schedule. Luckily, it only took 5 minutes for me to spot the diminutive Eared Grebe, swimming a short distance off the beach exactly where it had been seen earlier in the morning. I first enjoyed some great scope looks, then walked a few hundred metres down the cobblestone beach, rocks grinding and scrunching under my feet. Although the grebe was a little wary, some patience and stealth paid off and I eventually took in some very close looks and photo opportunities. What an amazing bird! It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas 😉

This beautiful Eared Grebe marks the first record for Newfoundland and Labrador. It is a rare wanderer to eastern North America, and should be headed for wintering grounds in the southwestern United States or Mexico instead of the cold North Atlantic.

Check out those eyes!

Pretty soon I’ll be thousands of miles south of Newfoundland, soaking in the tropical heat and exotic birds of Trinidad & Tobago. How quickly the tides turn in the life of a birder.

Off the Rock: Honduras 2017 (Part 2)

Click here to read Part 1 of my Honduras adventure.

In March 2017, I joined Kisserup International Trade Roots and a handful of other Canadian birding and eco-tourism experts on an exploratory “mission” to Honduras. The goal of this mission was to experience some of this Central American country’s fantastic birds and nature; meet local tour guides; check out lodges, accommodations, restaurants, etc.; and explore the potential for its growing birding and eco-tourism industry. What I discovered was an incredibly beautiful place with wonderful people, amazing nature and especially birds, and so many opportunities for visiting birders and nature-lovers to soak it all in. One of the challenges for Honduras’ eco-tourism sector is that it remains largely undiscovered and tourism traffic is relatively low compared to neighbouring nations. This is also one of its draws — the experiences are authentic, the wilderness still wild, and no hordes of people and tour buses at every turn. I relished in not just the birds and wildlife, but also the opportunity to enjoy it in peace and quiet and with the full attention of our excellent local guides.

All that being said, the experience was far from rustic or lack-lustre in any way. The regions we visited had excellent lodges, hotels and other accommodations to choose from. Several of the eco-lodges exceeded my expectations when it came to their facilities and accommodations (while others already had excellent reputations and delivered on them). Local tour operators and especially the birding guides we met were knowledgeable, very friendly and enthusiastic – eager to share their lives and the amazing place they live with us. Restaurants and the food they served were great – with menus variable enough to fit the needs and wants of most visitors and tour groups. So while the tourism industry has a lot of growth and development ahead, Honduras is more than ready for us Canadian birders to start making it a destination. Quick – before the others catch on!

As described in Part 1 of this blog post, we spent the first few days of our visit in San Pedro Sula, followed by the Lake Yojoa region (including surrounding areas of Santa Barbara and Cerro Azul Meambar National Parks). So, we pick up now where we left off – at beautiful Lake Yojoa and its awesome birding!

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Lake Yojoa is the largest lake in Honduras, and at an altitude of 700m it is also relatively high. Not only is the birding on and around the lake itself excellent, but it is bordered on each side by National Parks (Santa Barbara to the west and Cerro Azul Meambar to the east) – making it an ideal base for birding expeditions.

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One of the trip highlights was seeing this very (very!) secretive Yellow-breasted Crake in the marsh at Lake Yojoa. We heard it calling when we arrived on the first evening but were unable to spot it. Two mornings later, several of us made an early morning return to try again — this time (after much waiting & patience), it gingerly strolled out from the grass and within a few feet of where we were standing on a little pier. At just 5 inches, this is one of the smallest and most difficult to spot rails you can imagine!

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While waiting for the crake to emerge, this White-tailed Kite did its best to distract us. Pretty amazing to watch it expertly hovering over the marsh for minutes at a time, as if suspended by string.

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We met several local (and very excellent) guides throughout the week. William Orellana and Katinka Domen (Beaks & Peaks Birding & Adventure Tours) were with us for several days, and were fabulous hosts. Their birding skills were world-class, topped only by their kind ways and hard work to make sure everyone saw as much as possible. Thanks, guys!

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Northern Jacana were common in the marshes of Lake Yojoa, and indeed wetlands throughout the regions we visited. But it’s impossible to get bored of their flashy colours and antics. Such entertaining birds!

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Also very common around the lake were Snail Kites, like this roosting female (above). Check out the long hooked bill, suited perfectly for extracting food from the large snail shells they collect around the marsh. (Male below)

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The lake has incredible biodiversity, and more than birds are plentiful here. Fishing is an important part of the local economy, and tilapia (like this one) is a staple. Local markets are a treat for the senses – full of colourful fruits and vegetables, wonderful aromas and something to whet every appetite!

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Leaving the wonders of Lake Yojoa behind, we headed north to La Ceiba in the Atlantida region. Here, the Nombre de Dios Mountains rise steeply from the Caribbean coast and habitats ranging from coastal mangroves to lowland forests and  lush, high elevation rainforests are all easily accessible. Our base for the next few days was the beautiful Lodge & Spa at Pico Bonito. While I might not have taken time to indulge in the spa services (not really my style!), the birding and wildlife experiences were incredible. I could spend weeks here alone, enjoying nature’s jewels – such as this Keel-billed Toucan.

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Pico Bonito also offered more opportunity for seeing other wildlife compared to other regions we visited. This Basilisk Lizard was sitting right alongside the verandah and basking in the sun after a a night of rain.

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Central American agoutis were often found taking advantage of fruit fallen from the lodge’s trees and feeders. Although a little harder to spot, other exotic mammals such as kinkajou, coatis and peccaries are regularly spotted around the lodge’s property and trails, and very lucky hikers might get to spot an ocelot or even one of the jaguar that are known to frequent the area.

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A short drive from the lodge is the beautiful Cuero y Salada Wildlife Refuge. As one of Honduras’ first protected areas, it encompasses a variety of habitats including lowland forest, old coconut plantations, and the huge mangrove swamps and waterways for which it is most famous. The reserve is accessed by a small trolley line – which not only adds great fun to the visit, but also provides some interesting birding and wildlife opportunities along the way!

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Our trolley drivers stopped several times for us to watch and enjoy the birds we spotted – including this Black-headed Trogon sitting quietly not far from the tracks.

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The coconut plantation was surprisingly hot for raptors, including Common Black Hawks, Crested Caracaras and (a personal highlight) this Laughing Falcon, among others.

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We also spotted this White-faced Capuchin during the trolley ride. It checked us out for just a few moments, then went back to eating fruit and ignoring us altogether. The mangroves are also home to Howler Monkeys, and while our group heard their eerie, guttural howls the others actually had a brief visit from one as they floated along the canal.

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The mangroves themselves are best visited by boat, and local tour operators are there to provide just that. Aboard small boats, we navigated the network of canals and calm waters, spotting a great variety of birds and wildlife along the way. The mangroves are also home to the endangered Caribbean manatee, which can be challenging to find and unfortunately eluded us on this visit.

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Numerous species of heron and egret can be found in the reserve, but my personal favourite was this Bare-throated Tiger Heron. Check out that funky patterning and “standing my ground” attitude!

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The mangroves are also a great place to find several species of kingfisher, including this Green Kingfisher. We also found Ringed, Belted and Amazon Kingfishers throughout our visit.

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Prothonotary Warblers are neotropical migrants – breeding in North America and wintering in the tropics. They are exciting to spot wherever you might be, but seeing them here in their winter digs was especially fun.

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It was also pretty fun to spot these White-lined Bats roosting on a large trunk at the edge of the mangroves. Just a few moments later, a Roadside Hawk came jetting through and nabbed one of the bats right off the tree! (Wish I’d been ready for that with the camera!)

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Our next stop was the amazing Rio Santiago Nature Resort, which borders both the Rio Santiago river and Pico Bonito National Park. It is a birder’s dream, with incredible biodiversity, excellent walking trails and one of the most amazing hummingbird spectacles you can imagine! We enjoyed dozens of hummingbirds and 11 species just during our short visit – all buzzing around the myriad of feeders and flowering plants around the property. This Crowned Woodnymph was an obvious crowd pleaser.

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Not all the hummingbirds are quite as flashy, but equally beautiful. The understated Scaly-breasted Hummingbird is local and far less common in Honduras, with Rio Santiago being among the best places to find it. Other hummingbird highlights during the afternoon included Brown Violetear, Stripe-throated Hermit and Band-tailed Barbthroat among others.

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This Slaty-tailed Trogon was a neat find during a hike along one of Rio Santiago’s trails. It sat obligingly but under the dark canopy of the surrounding rainforest, keeping an eye on us as we did the same with it.

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Perhaps the best part of our visit to Rio Santiago was spotting this Spectacled Owl – a species I had heard but never seen during my previous time in the tropics. What a fabulous looking bird!

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The Spectacled Owl was part of a resident pair at Rio Santiago, and was keeping a close eye on this juvenile sitting nearby. Initially hiding in the broad leaf trees, junior soon flew out to sit in the open and show off its overwhelming “cuteness”.

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We also enjoyed lunch at Rio Santiago, surrounded by dozens of hummingbirds (like this Long-billed Hermit) coming and going to the many feeders. This wonderful resort quickly joined my list of places to see again!

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And speaking of food … this ceviche (made with sea bass) at Pico Bonito was possibly my favourite dish of the entire trip. Overall the food was very good, and I took the opportunity to try local cuisine whenever I could.

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Back at Pico Bonito, we spent our last morning birding around the property and along a couple of its most popular trails. This White-collared Mannikin gave us a bit of a run-around but eventually sat still under cover of the forest canopy. Other highlights included distant views of the highly prized Lovely Cotinga, a pair of roosting Great Potoo, Violet-headed Hummingbird and Buff-throated Foliage-cleaner – just to name a few.

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We also enjoyed this Red-capped Mannikin, which despite being relatively common around the property was a challenge to see!

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The hardcores, birding at one of Pico Bonito’s observation towers. L-R Me, Jean Iron (Ontario), Oliver Komar (Honduras), Adolfo Fonseca (Kisserup International Trade Roots) and Angel Fong (Go Bird Honduras, Birding & Eco-Adventure Tours). A huge thanks to Angel who was a wonderful birding guide and host during our time in the Atlantida region. *The full group included several other Canadian tourism operators and representatives of Kisserup International Trade Roots.

By the end of our short week in Honduras, we had tallied 267 species of birds (!), along with other great wildlife and nature experiences and incredible scenery. We also met and made many new friends – both local Hondurans and the other Canadians I was lucky enough to travel with all week long.

I REALLY hope to get back soon, revisiting these places and people and exploring even more of this wonderful place – and especially its bird life. For now,  I hope you enjoyed my reflections. STAY TUNED as I am scheming a small-group tour that could be announced in a few months time!! If you’re interested in details, drop me a line.

Special thanks to Kisserup International Trade Roots for not only inviting me along on this excellent “mission”, but also for their hard work and planning to make it such an amazing adventure. It couldn’t have been more fun or eye-opening. I am especially thankful to our local birding guides Oliver Komar (professor, birder extraordinaire, and co-author of the essential “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Northern Central America”); William and Kotinka of Beaks & Peaks Birding and Adventure Tours; and Angel Fong of Go Honduras Birding & Eco-Adventure Tours. Their world-class birding skills, exceptional friendliness, and eagerness to share all things Honduras made this trip the wonderful experience that it was. It was a huge pleasure to meet James Adams at Pico Bonito Lodge – his help and generousity during my time there was outstanding, and the depth of both his knowledge of and respect for nature left a huge impression on me (and continues to do so as I follow his own adventures on social media!). We met many other wonderful people along the way – all of whom have left me with warm memories and a strong desire to return, revisit and explore some more. Thank you!

Off The Rock: Honduras 2017 (Part 1)

It was March 2017, but instead of being bundled up and shoveling snow like I might usually be found at this time of year, I was adjusting to a tropical heat and enjoying the flurry of brightly coloured birds flitting around me.

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Motmots are iconic birds of Central and South America, and this Lesson’s Motmot was no exception. Relatively common in most of Honduras, the beautiful colours and flashy tails of this species is always worth a stop. We encountered three other species of Motmot during our week, including the Turquoise-browed, Keel-billed and Tody.

I was honoured this past winter to be invited on a Canadian “trade mission” to Honduras by the consulting firm “Kisserup International Trade Roots“. As part of their project, and the Canadian free trade agreement, the aim of this mission was to explore potential for growing the eco-tourism and birding tourism industry in Honduras – a country that has seen significant economic and political challenges over recent decades, and is now focused on rebuilding its economy. Like other Central American nations, Honduras has a wealth of stunning nature, wildlife and especially birds to showcase – but unlike several of their neighbours the tourism (and conservation) potential of this amazingly beautiful place remains grossly untapped. This is changing now, and I was excited to join a handful of other birding and eco-tourism experts from across Canada to experience some of its magic.

Honduras is a relatively large country, so our week-long “mission” focused on just two  regions – Lake Yojoa and surrounding areas (western Honduras), as well as La Ceiba in Atlantida (north/Caribbean coast). Both regions offer rich and dynamic birding opportunities and have great potential for a growing tourism industry.

This two-part blog series is a brief (mostly photographic) summary of what I can only describe as an amazing week in a beautiful country. I REALLY hope to get back soon, revisiting these places and people and exploring even more of this wonderful place – and especially its bird life. For now, enjoy my reflections and STAY TUNED as I am scheming a small-group tour that could be announced in a few months time!!

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Our visit began in San Pedro Sula – a sprawling city in northeast Honduras and described by locals as its economic (though not political) capital. Although we spent just one day here, local birding and a visit to the city centre were both eye-openers to this intriguing place that I admit to knowing very little about prior to this trip.

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We didn’t have to leave city limits to find some of Honduras’ most endearing and exotic species. This Collared Aracari was hanging out along one of San Pedro’s most popular walking trails (leading up to the city’s famous “Coca Cola” sign and some stunning views).

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Another common but jaw-dropping bird of the region is Blue-Gray Tanager – a species I was familiar with from visits to other parts of the Americas. This lovely fella was hanging out right in a city neighbourhood where our guide/driver lived and took us for some city birding.

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This trip also provided opportunities to experience local culture and traditions – and food happens to be one of my favourite lenses through which to see a new place! My first truly local food was this “baleada” – a traditional Honduran dish made with mashed red beans, cheese and spices folded in a flour tortilla. Hardy and delicious!

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Trogons are among the most prized species by birders, and always a treat. This Collared Trogon was one of many highlights of our visit to PANACAM Lodge. This beautiful eco-lodge is situated in a national park (Parque Nacional Cerro Azul Meámbar) near Santa Cruz de Yojoa, and has incredible potential as a premiere birding stop. The lush rainforests, agricultural land and protected habitats right on its doorstep offer some amazing birds and wildlife. Great hiking trails, a wonderful observation tower and excellent on-site birding all add up to a birder’s dream. The lodge itself is not only beautiful but clean and modern. I could have spent a week at this location alone!

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This gorgeous Violet Sabrewing was one of several hummingbird species buzzing around the verandah feeders at PANACAM Lodge. The many natural perches provided excellent photo opportunities, and I certainly wish I had more time here to have enjoyed them. Other highlights on the PANACAM property included Mottled Owl, Crested Guan and a very unexpected Pheasant Cuckoo – among many others!

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Perhaps one of my more disappointing photos, but certainly NOT a disappointing experience, was this Black-crested Coquette at PANACAM Lodge. Since it doesn’t tend to visit feeders, finding one of these very tiny (but also very showy) hummingbirds in a big forest isn’t easy – but fortunately our guides had a good area in mind and with some patience we were able to track it down and enjoy excellent views through binoculars and scopes as it sat on high but open perches. Score!

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It was here that we first met up with Oliver Komar – not only one of the most talented birders I’ve ever met, but also the author of the (then) brand new “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Northern Central America” (this excellent field guide is the new essential for birders visiting or even living in the region). We were blessed to have Oliver join us for the remainder of the week – his birding expertise, amazing skill, fun personality (evident in this photo!) and strong drive to build and promote birding tourism in Honduras was perhaps the most enlightening part of the entire trip. Oliver is a Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Honduras’ Zamorano University.

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Another specialty of the PANACAM Lodge was the Keel-billed Motmot. Although not quite as confiding as the more common Lesson’s and Turquoise-browed Motmots, this one finally popped out for some excellent views in the early morning light as we prepared for the day’s outing.

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Beautiful scenery and lush habitats were not hard to find in Honduras, and this beautiful stop was just minutes away from PANACAM Lodge. Fabulous birding in unbelievable settings.

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Of course, not all of Honduras is “untouched” but the opportunity to see local industries and especially agriculture in action is always an important part of visiting new places. Farming is an integral part of the local economy, and continues to be amid the immense challenges and pressures of the times. Bananas and coffee represent Honduras’ main exports, along with pineapples and palm fruit/oil; while corn, rice and sorghum are among the most important subsistence crops.

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I always enjoy seeing birds with unique nesting behaviours – and oropendolas definitely have that! Here we came across a colony of Montezuma Oropendola showing off their ridiculously cool hanging (“pendulum”) nests.

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As a lover of both coffee and chocolate, I relished our chance to visit the wonderful EcoFinca Luna del Puente. This sustainable coffee and cacao plantation not only produces excellent treats (did I mention the coffee & chocolate?!?!), but has a strong environmental mandate and maintains a large nature preserve as part of its estate. The owners welcome birders and even offer guided bird walks along the trails. The diversity of birds found in the mixed forest and plantation habitats was astounding!

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This Northern Potoo was hands-down the highlight of my morning at EcoFinca de Luna Puente — what an insanely weird and wonderful bird! As nocturnal birds, potoos spend their day roosting quietly and use their uniquely camouflaged plumage to hide themselves in plain sight. I could easily have walked past this fella, who in real life looked just like part of the branch it was sitting on.

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On the other hand, these Green Jays were anything but quiet or camouflaged. Gaudy and raucous, these brightly coloured birds looked like decorations sitting in a bare treetop.

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This Brown-crested Flycatcher sat overlooking our group as we hiked through the cacao plantation. It was just one of 11 flycatcher species we enjoyed on the estate – including Yellow-bellied Eleania, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Piratic Flycatcher, and Boat-billed Flycatcher among others. Surprisingly, despite the abundance of insect-eating birds, I hardly noticed the presence of any bothersome flies during our travels.

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An added bonus to our EcoFinca visit was the experience of “making chocolate”. The owners walked us through the entire process of harvesting, fermenting, roasting and preparing cacao to produce chocolate. It was a fun, hands-on experience and we ended up with fresh hot cacao to celebrate the morning’s birds and the new friendships we were forging. Authentic experiences such as this are integral to growing a unique & successful eco-tourism sector – and this family is getting it right!

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One of our next adventures was in the Santa Barbara Mountains, where our excellent guides from Beaks & Peaks Birding Tours (more about them in the next post) took us for some higher elevation rain forest birding. Despite some early morning rain, it turned out to be a beautiful morning with LOTS of great birds and stunning scenery. We also met local community leaders who are working with farmers to try and conserve native forests and achieve a balance between the ever-important coffee growing industry and the blossoming eco-tourism sector.

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This Northern Emerald-Toucanette was one of the very first birds we encountered, keeping us entertained as we waited out a heavy rain shower under the shelter of a local farmer’s utility shed. Making the wait worth it, we also found our first Emerald-chinned Hummingbird at the same place!

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Although somewhat distant, this elusive Elegant Euphonia showed extremely well and was a huge treat to see. Residents of the higher elevations, they can be difficult to find and much of their movements within the area are poorly understood. This brightly coloured male stood out like a shining gem across the valley. Other regional endemics seen during this hike were Bushy-crested Jay and Blue-and-White Mockingbird, and other highlights included Blue-crowned Chlorophonia, Prevost’s Ground Sparrow and White-naped Brush-finch.

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With so many new and exciting birds, it was easy for me to overlook the abundance of butterflies that we encountered.

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The lovely scenery and opportunities (however brief) to see how local farming families lived  in this mountain region was a valuable addition to our visit. While life is undoubtedly challenging for these hard-working people, they are at the same time blessed to be living in such an amazing place.

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Our home base for the next two days was alongside beautiful, and birdy, Lake Yojoa. We took some time to explore the rich marshes and coastlines of this lake, and enjoy the great variety of birds that call it home. These Black-necked Stilts may spend the winter here, but would soon be heading north to breeding grounds in North America.

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One of the more secretive and cryptic species found at Lake Yojoa, we were fortunate to spot this Pinnated Bittern fly past and land in the tall grass. We watched it stalk slowly through the marsh for a few moments before disappearing completely right under our noses.

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Snail Kites, like this classy-looking male, are common around Lake Yojoa and always fun to watch.

Click here to check out Part 2 of my visit to Honduras. We pick up right where we leave off, here at Lake Yojoa, before heading north to the Atlantida region (including the famous Pico Bonito Lodge) for more awesome birding and wildlife experiences!

 

 

Birding on the Edge: A Small Group Tour

Bird⋅The⋅Rock is pleased to announce a brand new tour this summer: Birding on the Edge!

July 30-31, 2017 (or on special request pending availability)

edge_banner1DID YOU KNOW that Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula is home to one of the world’s southernmost sub-arctic habitats? The “Hyper-Oceanic Barrens” of the southern Avalon are a rare and unique place, consisting of rocky coastlines, towering cliffs, barren heathlands and vast bogs. Life on these barrens is reflective of northern tundra – including Woodland Caribou, Willow Ptarmigan, Short-eared Owls and Horned Larks among many others. Alpine-arctic wildflowers and carnivorous pitcher plants dot the landscape. The rugged coasts provide valuable nesting habitat for seabirds such as Atlantic Puffin, Common Murre, Razorbill and several species of gull. And the rocks themselves hold ancient secrets, including fossils of the oldest complex life-forms found anywhere on Earth.

Willow Ptarmigan ... just because I figured I HAD to have a bird photo in here somewhere (Not to mention, they're delicious!).

Willow Ptarmigan … just one of the special birds we will be searching for during our exploration!

Come visit “The Edge of Avalon” with us, for a two-day bird and nature tour like no other! We’ll explore Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve – seeing fossil evidence of the creatures that lived here 565 million years ago, as well as those that call it home today. Horned Larks twittering on the open barrens, Willow Ptarmigan hiding in plain sight, Whimbrel feasting on berries, and shorebirds foraging on wave-lashed beaches. With luck we may even spot the world’s southernmost Woodland Caribou, a lumbering Moose or Humpback Whales frolicking in the ocean. And no doubt we’ll stop to admire the region’s subtle beauty – sweeping landscapes, dainty orchids and carpets of fresh berries. We’ll also visit two of the island’s most iconic lighthouses, including Cape Race which has appeared on maps since 1502 and figured prominently in the final hours of the doomed Titanic.

Starting and ending in St. John’s, we’ll spend one night in beautiful Trepassey.

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Highlights:

  • Two days exploring one of Newfoundland’s rarest and most special habitats – the eastern hyper-oceanic barrens. This amazing landscape can be eye-opening for visitors and residents alike!
  • A guided visit of Newfoundland’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site – Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve (including a short hike to see its famous fossils).
  • Leisurely birding against beautiful backdrops of ocean, tundra and coastal “tuckamore”.
  • Opportunities to see other natural highlights of the area – including caribou, whales and unique wildflowers.
  • Comfortable accommodations and wonderful food at the Edge of Avalon Inn (Trepassey).
  • A bird list will be provided, and we will review and discuss all our sightings at the end of each day.

Price
$450 /person (taxes included)
Single occupancy supplement (private hotel room): $60

Includes:

  • Transportation throughout the tour, starting and ending in St. John’s
  • One night accommodations at the Edge of Avalon Inn
  • Two picnic lunches and one breakfast (evening meal not included, but we will dine together at the excellent Edge of Avalon Inn)
  • Expert guiding services
  • Guided hike to Mistaken Point fossil site with a local interpreter

** This tour can be combined with other small group tours on July 28 & 29 **

Contact Bird⋅The⋅Rock for more information or to REGISTER FOR THIS TOUR now!

Hawaii – The Most Bittersweet Adventure

Hawaii is an incredibly special place … steeped in beauty and a wealth of nature, but with a very sad tale to tell. Any visit to see its remaining (and extremely threatened) native birds is a bittersweet one – but this visit was especially so.

It was December 4 2016, and I had been in Hawaii less than 24 hours on a fast-paced, impromptu birding blitz with ABA Big Year birders John Weigel and Laura Keene (more on this below). We were waiting for a flight from Honolulu to Kahului when I was overwhelmed by an urge to check in with my family. My dear, wonderful grandmother had been in hospital for the past few weeks and I felt her tugging on my spirit. Despite the late hour at home in Newfoundland, a text to my sister got a quick response that the family had been called in and she wasn’t doing well. Within an hour I received the very sad news that she had passed away – thankfully surrounded by loved ones. I’m proud to say that I was very close to “Nan”, and that I was blessed to be able to spend lots of time with her in recent years. Being halfway across the world at this very moment was difficult, but my family urged me to carry on with my plans in Hawaii – it was certainly what Nan would have wanted. She was so proud of all her children and grandchildren, and encouraged us to explore the world in all the ways that she never could. The contrasting emotions of the week that followed are something I will never forget – the irony of seeing and celebrating beautiful birds that are so endangered they could go extinct in my lifetime; and the “highs” of daytimes doing and sharing what I love versus the “lows” of evenings spent grieving with my family from afar and trying to write fitting tributes to a beautiful woman that I’d never see again. Bittersweet, to say the very least.

Nan Seymour (pictured here with Susan and our two girls, Emma & Leslie) loved her family and was very proud of her grandchildren. She was a beautiful person who lived a generous life. She also worked hard for most of it, without many of the freedoms and blessing that we enjoy. She always relished in the fact that her grandchildren were able to go off on adventures and explore the world, and she would have loved to hear about my most recent Hawaiian trip. But I also felt her presence more than once and am sure she was there with me in ways I'll never understand.

Nan Seymour (pictured here with Susan and our two girls, Emma & Leslie) loved her family and was very proud of us. She was a beautiful person who lived a generous life. She also worked hard for most of it, without many of the opportunities that we enjoy. She always relished in the fact that her grandchildren were able to go off on adventures and explore the world, and she would have loved to hear about my most recent Hawaiian trip. But I also felt her presence more than once and am sure she was there with me in ways I’ll never understand.

But this was also a week to remember for the adventure we had. As you may know by now, John Weigel was on a birding rampage in 2016 – having already blown away the previous ABA Big Year record and leading a pack of three other birders out to leave their mark on the landscape of North American birding. But the landscape itself was changing too, and the legacy of the marks they were making now stood in the balance. The American Birding Association (ABA) had recently voted to add Hawaii to its official area, and starting in 2017 the playing field for Big Year birders would be significantly different. Dozens of new species would be up for grabs – and as incredible as the new 2016 records were looking, the “head start” that Hawaii would give future competitors would render them relatively easy to surpass.

The last time I had seen John was in Newfoundland in October – right before the ABA decision to add Hawaii was formally announced. After chatting about my previous experience in Hawaii (check out those much more detailed blog posts here), John began scheming to go there himself and “pad” his ABA record with some of those amazing Hawaiian birds. Although it might not be part of his “official” record, he also wanted to put forward an “unofficial” total that would be tough to beat! We sat on the idea for several weeks, exchanging ideas over email while he was off chasing rarities across the continent (literally – he was in Alaska, Massachusetts, Florida, California and places in between during our sporadic communications!). It was the end of November when John pulled the trigger – telling me to make my plans, gather my gear, and prepare for a Hawaiian voyage!

A view of Mauna Kea, taken from the Puu Oo trail. This is a fabulour hike through some very interesting landscapes, not to mention some very hot birding!

The Hawaiian Islands are a beautiful, magical and struggling place. The array of landscapes, habitats and awesome scenery make it a wonderful place for birding – but it also has a darker, sadder side. Many of the unique bird species that evolved in these far-flung islands have already gone extinct due to pressures of habitat loss, the introduction of alien predators (especially rats and mongoose), invasive plant species that compete with integral native plants, and the arrival of mosquito-borne avian malaria. Most of the remaining native birds are in serious decline, and many are facing a very uncertain future and possible (probable) extinction. Local conservation groups are working hard to save these birds, and I encourage you to follow the links at the bottom of this blog post to learn more. Please consider supporting them and their critically important work. (Photo: Mauna Kea, viewed from a kipuka on the Puu’oo Trail during my visit in 2014).

I arrived in Honolulu on December 3 to meet up with John and fellow Big Year birder Laura Keene (who by this time had also broken the previous record with > 750 species!). Our goals were very lofty but our strategy solid – three islands (Oahu, Maui and Hawaii) in six days, with a shot at every endemic and the many exotic species that each had to offer. Unless they had a reason to race back to the mainland, John & Laura could stay a few days after I left to clean up on misses and/or take a shot at remaining targets in Kauai. As it turned out, there were NO misses!! We cleaned up, seeing a total of 74 species during those six days. Of these, we encountered ALL 17 endemic landbirds present on these islands, as well as nearly 30 other species that would not be found in the remainder of the ABA (note that the official list of species that will be “countable” has not been published by the ABA yet). With a little work and lots of planning, we found virtually every exotic/introduced species, including some of the more difficult ones such as Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (Hawaii), Lavender Waxbill (Hawaii) and Mariana Swiftlet (Oahu). It was a fun, fast-paced and extremely successful adventure! Just don’t tell my family I got a taste for Big Year birding 😉

This critically endangered Palila offered one of the most memorable experiences of the trip, as it honored us with a very close encounter. One of my favourite birds in the world, this beautiful creature is the only remaining species of

This critically endangered Palila offered one of the most memorable experiences of the trip, as it honored us with a very close encounter. One of my favourite birds in the world, this beautiful creature is the only remaining species of “grosbeak honeycreepers” and feeds almost exclusively on the seed pods of Mamane trees. Restricted to a relatively small forest on the western slopes of Mauna Kea, a single fire or natural disaster could spell an end for this very vulnerable bird.

I was blessed to share that week with two such wonderful people and excellent birders. I was also honored to contribute to both of their awe-inspiring and record-breaking years. It truly was a week, and an adventure, that I will always cherish. Despite the sadness that came with the loss of a beautiful person from my life, I know she would have been proud – and she would have loved to hear the stories and see the photos. Despite being halfway around the world, I often felt as close to her as I ever could at home. Memories of her were made all the more special as they mingled with beautiful and bittersweet experiences. I love & miss you Nan, and always will.

* John and Laura continued on to Kauai after I left on December 9. Although it was too late in the year to see a handful of seabirds, they did extremely well with the other “ABA” targets. John ended the year with an incredible 780 (+3 provisional) species in the traditional ABA area, and an even more impressive 838 species in the expanded ABA area (including Hawaii)!! Laura set an equally amazing record, having photographed 741 species in the current ABA region (not sure what her total for the expanded region was, but not much escaped her camera in Hawaii)!!

Our first stop was Kapiolani Park in Honolulu (Oahu). It was a quiet Sunday morning and a leisurely way to start what would be a very busy week of birding!

Our first stop was Kapiolani Park in Honolulu (Oahu). It was a quiet Sunday morning and a leisurely way to start what would be a very busy week of birding!

One of our main targets here was White Tern, which nest in the park and forage along the nearby coast. We encountered nearly a dozen throughout the morning. Such beautiful birds!

One of our main targets here was White Tern, which nest in the park and forage along the nearby coast. We encountered nearly a dozen throughout the morning. Such beautiful birds!

Like most of Hawaii, the park is also home to many exotic species, such as this Red-crested Cardinal. Birds from around the world have been introduced in Hawaii - usually to make up for the lack of songbirds at lower elevations where native birds have gone extinct.

Like most of Hawaii, the park is also home to many exotic species, such as this Red-crested Cardinal. Birds from around the world have been introduced in Hawaii – usually to make up for the lack of songbirds at lower elevations where native birds have gone extinct.

Our other key targets on Oahu lived at higher elevations. An late morning hike through more native forests produced both Oahu Elepaio and Oahu Amakihi, as well as plenty of other birds.

Our other key targets on Oahu lived at higher elevations. A late morning hike through more native forests produced both Oahu Elepaio and Oahu Amakihi, as well as plenty of other birds.

Even here, introduced species were relatively common. Red-billed Leiothrix (above), White-rumped Shama, and Japanese Bush Warbler were among the highlights.

Even here, introduced species were relatively common. Red-billed Leiothrix (above), White-rumped Shama, and Japanese Bush Warbler were among the highlights.

Another highlight here was spotting several Mariana Swiftlets - a new bird for me! Oahu has proven to be a refuge of sorts for these aeiral artists, which are now threatened in their home country of Guam.

Another highlight here was spotting several Mariana Swiftlets – a new bird for me! Oahu has proven to be a refuge of sorts for these aerial artists, which are now threatened in their home country of Guam.

Our next stop was the island of Maui, where we visited the lush rainforests of Haleakala.

Our next stop was the island of Maui, where we visited the lush rainforests of Haleakala.

I had managed to arrange a visit to the closed Waikamoi Nature Preserve with Chuck Probst (who volunteers with the Nature Conservancy). This reserve is home to two of Hawaii's most endangered birds, the Maui Parrotbill and Akohekohe. Fortunately we encountered both during our hike, and although we didn't get to see the Parrotbill we heard one singing just metres away. This reserve is a magical place and one of the best protected areas in the state.

I had managed to arrange a visit to the closed Waikamoi Nature Preserve with Chuck Probst (who volunteers with the Nature Conservancy). This reserve is home to two of Hawaii’s most endangered birds, the Maui Parrotbill and Akohekohe. Fortunately we encountered both during our hike, and although we didn’t get to see the Parrotbill we heard one singing just metres away. This reserve is a magical place and one of the best protected areas in the state.

We also found a number of Alauiho (Maui Creeper) during our hike. This one was playing

We also found a number of Alauihio (Maui Creeper) during our hike. This one was playing “hide-and-seek” with us for several minutes.

Several other native birds such as I'iwi, Apapane and Hawaii Amakihi (pictured above with nesting material) were relatively common in the preserve - an important stronghold for these struggling birds which depend on the preservation of native trees.

Several other native birds such as I’iwi, Apapane and Hawaii Amakihi (pictured above with nesting material) were relatively common in the preserve – an important stronghold for these struggling birds which depend on the preservation of native trees.

Following our hike through the rainforest, we birded more open country of Haleakala National Park. Among other birds, we found numerous Eurasian Skylark which seemed quite at home displaying over the fields.

Following our hike through the rainforest, we birded more open country of Haleakala National Park. Among other birds, we found numerous Eurasian Skylark which seemed quite at home displaying over the fields.

Before leaving Maui, we also spent a day searching out exotic species such as Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Chestnut Munia. Maui also hosts several excellent wetlands, which are home to both migrant waterfowl and shorebirds as well as resident birds such as the Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilts.

Before leaving Maui, we also spent a day searching out exotic species such as Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Chestnut Munia. Maui also hosts several excellent wetlands, which are home to both migrant waterfowl and shorebirds as well as resident birds such as these Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilts.

As the sun set on our very successful visit to Maui, we headed south the

As the sun set on our very successful visit to Maui, we headed south to “Big Island” (Hawaii) for three days and brand new list of birds.

Driving up a forest access road on the western slopes of Mauna Kea, we encountered a noisy little group of Hawaii Elepaio. These spunky little flycatchers are always fun to watch, and these ones gave us plenty of entertainment.

Driving up a forest access road on the western slopes of Mauna Kea, we encountered a noisy little group of Hawaii Elepaio. These spunky little flycatchers are always fun to watch, and these ones gave us plenty of entertainment.

As mentioned above, the critically endangered Palila is especially vulnerble due to its reliance on a dry forest habitat. Here you can see damage from a fire that wiped out a large swath of Mamane forest ... another like this could put the Palila's very existence in extreme peril.

As mentioned above, the critically endangered Palila is especially vulnerable due to its reliance on a dry forest habitat. Here you can see damage from a fire that wiped out a large swath of Mamane forest … another like this could put the Palila’s very existence in extreme peril.

A key part of our plan was a visit to Hakalau Forest Reserve on Mauna Kea's eastern slopes. Joining Hawaii Forest & Trail guide (and fellow Canadian!) Gary Dean, we had high hopes of seeing the full array of endemic songbirds that this beautiful forest has to offer. And we did!!

A key part of our plan was a visit to Hakalau Forest Reserve on Mauna Kea’s eastern slopes. Joining Hawaii Forest & Trail guide (and fellow Canadian!) Gary Dean, we had high hopes of seeing the full array of endemic songbirds that this beautiful forest has to offer. And we did!!

Unfortunately, Hawaii's native forests now face a another threat - a fungal disease called Rapid Oia Death that is killing one of the islands state's most important native trees. Precautions are being taken to help prevent its spread both on Big Island (such as the spraying of John's boots seen here) and to other islands (which is why we visited Maui and Oahu before Big Island, and John and Laura wore new boots and thoroughly cleaned clothes when visiting Kauai).

Unfortunately, Hawaii’s native forests now face a another threat – a fungal disease called Rapid Ohia Death that is killing one of the island state’s most important native trees. Precautions are being taken to help prevent its spread both on Big Island (such as the spraying of John’s boots seen here) and to other islands (which is why we visited Maui and Oahu before Big Island, and John and Laura wore new boots and thoroughly cleaned clothes when visiting Kauai).

Despite its bright orange flare, this Akepa proved to be one of the more challenging birds to find. We also enjoyed finding plenty of I'iwi, Apapane, several Hawaii Creeper, and our big target of the day - Akiapola'au (which got us nervous by waiting until the end of the hike to show up!).

Despite its bright orange flare, this Akepa proved to be one of the more challenging birds to find. We also enjoyed finding plenty of I’iwi, Apapane, several Hawaii Creeper, Omao, and our big target of the day – Akiapola’au (which got us nervous by waiting until the end of the hike to show up!).

Hakalau forest is also a great place to spot I'o (Hawaiian Hawk), and we were fortunate to see at least three.

Hakalau forest is also a great place to spot I’o (Hawaiian Hawk), and we were fortunate to see at least three.

Hawaii's state bird is the Nene (Hawaiian Goose), which seems to be doing well with a growing population. We saw them at numerous locations both on Maui and Big Island.

Hawaii’s state bird is the Nene (Hawaiian Goose), which seems to be doing well with a growing population. We saw them at numerous locations both on Maui and Big Island.

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Learn more about the important conservation work ongoing in Hawaii by checking out these hard-working organizations. Please consider supporting their important efforts to save some of the world’s rarest and most vulnerable birds.

The Nature Conservancy (Hawaii)

Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project

Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project

Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project

Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project

American Bird Conservancy (Hawaii)

Hawaii Audubon

Pacific Rim Conservation

US Fish & Wildlife Service

2016: A Year in Review

I’m happy to say that 2016 was a fun, productive and busy year both for BirdTheRock Bird & Nature Tours and for my own birding adventures. I was fortunate to share my province’s amazing birds and nature with more than 70 visiting birders (!), added five new species to my own Newfoundland “life list”, and found myself on an impromptu excursion to Hawaii at the end of the year. Below are a few of the many highlights from 2016:

I always look forward to hosting the annual WINGS winter birding tour, and last year was no exception. A group of four visiting birders from the southern USA enjoyed some great “cold weather” birding and lots of excellent winter birds. An abundance of Dovekie, finches and of course a great selection of northern gulls were all part of a fantastic week! Check out this blog post to see more highlights.

WINGS tour participants scan for seabirds at wintery St. Vincent's beach on January 15.

WINGS tour participants scan for seabirds at wintery St. Vincent’s beach on January 15.

The first big rarity of 2016 was an unexpected one … an immature Sabine’s Gull discovered at St. Vincent’s on January 31. This species is virtually never recorded in the northern hemisphere during winter, let alone Newfoundland. I had never seen a Sabine’s Gull, so after a few painful days I finally made the trip to see it on February 4 – enjoying it immensely despite some wicked weather! You can read more about my encounter with a “Sabine’s in the Snow” here.

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This Sabine’s Gull was not only unexpected but “off the charts” for January in Newfoundland. It should have been somewhere far, far away from the snow squall I was watching it in!

The winter excitement continued when a Fieldfare was discovered in Lumsden (northeast coast) on February 6. This mega-rare European thrush was a bird I had been waiting to see here (I saw TONS when I lived in Finland in 2005), so I once again braved some nasty and very cold weather to track it down. We worked hard for this one, and the end result was a not only a new “tick” but a lot of time invested for a lone obscure photo of its rear-end. Read more about this eventful chase here.

The business end of a mega-rare Fieldfare that has been hanging out in Lumsden on the northeast coast. While we did get some slightly better looks this morning, this was the only photo I managed to get! "Arse-on", as we might say in Newfoundland.

The business end of a mega-rare (and very elusive!) Fieldfare in Lumsden on the northeast coast. While we did get some slightly better looks, this was the only photo I managed to get! “Arse-on”, as we might say in Newfoundland.

After an unexplained (but not unprecedented) absence, this Yellow-legged Gull showed up in mid-February and was a fixture for local gull-watchers for a few days. It is likely still around.

Mid-February saw me catching up with an old, familiar friend – a Yellow-legged Gull which had been elusive the past few winters.

This female Bullock's Oriole (2nd provincial record) was visiting a private feeder sporadically during late winter 2016. I finally caught up with it on March 23 - a great bird!

This female Bullock’s Oriole (2nd provincial record) was visiting a private feeder sporadically during late winter 2016. I finally caught up with it on March 23 – a great bird!

Spring birding is always a “mixed bag” here in Newfoundland – you never know what you’ll see. I enjoyed one very interesting day of birding with Irish birders Niall Keough and Andrew Power in early May – finding great local birds such as Black-backed Woodpecker and Willow Ptarmigan, as well as rarities such as Purple Martin, Franklin’s Gull and a very unexpected Gyrfalcon! You can check out more the day’s highlights here.

This male Willow Ptarmigan was very cooperative, even if the weather wasn't. The female was spotted sitting on a rock just a few yards further up the road.

This male Willow Ptarmigan was very cooperative, even if the weather wasn’t. The female was spotted sitting on a rock just a few yards further up the road.

This young Beluga Whale was easy to find at Admiral's Beach, where it had been hanging out for several weeks. It turned out to be a huge highlight for my Irish friends, and an excellent end to an awesome day out in the wind & fog!

This young Beluga Whale was easy to find at Admiral’s Beach, where it had been hanging out for several weeks. It turned out to be a huge highlight for my Irish friends, and an excellent end to an awesome day out in the wind & fog!

This Cave Swallow, discovered at Quidi Vidi Lake (St. John's) by Alvan Buckley on May 29, was not only the province's second record but also one of just a few spring records for eastern North America.

This Cave Swallow, discovered at Quidi Vidi Lake (St. John’s) by Alvan Buckley on May 29, was not only the province’s second record but also one of just a few spring records for eastern North America.

In early June, BirdTheRock hosted its first tour to the Codroy Valley. Nestled away in the southwest corner of Newfoundland, this lush valley is easily one of the island’s most beautiful places – and it is also home to the province’s greatest diversity of landbirds. A number of species wander there regularly that are otherwise very uncommon or rare in the rest of Newfoundland, and a few have pushed the limits of their breeding range to include this small region of our island. There are many species that you can expect to find here but nowhere else in Newfoundland! Read more about our very fun tour here (and contact us if you’re interested in the 2017 trip which will be advertised soon).

The Piping Plover has experienced drastic population declines in recent decades, due mostly to habitat disturbance. Unfortunately, human activity on sandy beaches (and especially the use of ATVs on local beaches) has created a lot of problems for these little birds.

The Codroy Valley is one of the last footholds of the endangered Piping Plover in Newfoundland & Labrador. We enjoyed seeing several during the tour – a good sign for this vulnerable species.

The view from our accommodations included not only the internationally recognized Great Codroy estuary, but also rolling fields, lush forests and the majestic Long Range Mountains (a northern extension of the Appalachians!). It was a treat to start and end each day with this beautiful vista.

The view from our accommodations included not only the internationally recognized Great Codroy estuary, but also rolling fields, lush forests and the majestic Long Range Mountains (a northern extension of the Appalachians!). It was a treat to start and end each day with this beautiful vista.

The rest of summer was blocked full of tours and adventures with friends and visitors from all over the world. One of the biggest highlights was the “Grand Newfoundland” tour I designed and hosted for Eagle-Eye Tours. This epic, 11-day tour started in St. John’s and hit many great birding and natural history sites across the province, before ending in Gros Morne National Park. This was hands down one of the best tours and most amazing, fun-loving groups I have ever led – I can’t say enough about the great time and experiences we all had! Read more about this fantastic tour here (and check out the Eagle-Eye Tours website if you’d like to find out more about the upcoming 2017 trip).

While I've always been blessed with excellent groups, this one was especially great - energetic, easy-going and always up for some fun!

While I’ve always been blessed with excellent groups, this one was especially great – energetic, easy-going and always up for some fun!

One obvious highlight was our boat tour to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, where we experienced (not just "saw"!) North America's largest colony of Atlantic Puffins. It never disappoints.

One obvious highlight was our boat tour to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, where we experienced (not just “saw”!) North America’s largest colony of Atlantic Puffins. It never disappoints.

The beautiful sunset even provided nice light for a quick game of twilight mini-golf. Here's Jody honing his his other set of skills.

I was happy to be joined by my friend and co-leader Jody Allair – someone who has no trouble finding a way to have fun on every day of every tour!

After the tour, Jody and I joined Darroch Whitaker for a climb to one of Gros Morne National Park's lesser visited summits. Here we found several Rock Ptarmigan - a new species for both of us, and one of just a few breeding species I had left to see in Newfoundland.

After the tour, Jody and I joined Darroch Whitaker for a climb to one of Gros Morne National Park’s lesser visited summits. Here we found several Rock Ptarmigan – a new species for both of us, and one of just a few breeding species I had left to see in Newfoundland.

Two rare terns shows up on the southeast Avalon in late July. Although I missed one (Royal Tern), I did catch up with a Sandwich Tern – my fourth new species of the year! On the way back, Alvan Buckley and I discovered another great and unexpected rarity – a Eurasian Whimbrel! Although not my first, the mid-summer date made it especially notable. You can see more photos of these unusual visitors here.

This SANDWICH TERN was just the sixth record for Newfoundland, and a first for me! There is an ongoing discussion about its origins - is it American or European? (My very instant photo doesn't add much to that conversation - but it sure was great to see!). July 28, 2016, St. Vincent's NL.

This Sandwich Tern was just the sixth record for Newfoundland, and a first for me!

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The European race of Whimbrel (centre) is most easily distinguished from it North American cousin (left and right) by its large white rump.

One iconic Newfoundland species that I had several wonderful encounters with this year was Leach’s Storm-petrel. Despite being very abundant breeders and at sea, it is actually quite unusual to encounter them from land. This year I was fortunate to help several clients see this elusive bird, enjoy hundreds myself during a northeast gale, and even rescue one stranded at Cape Race lighthouse. If you’d like to learn more about these enigmatic little seabirds, check out this blog post I recently wrote about them.

We rescued this Leach's Storm-Petrel after finding it stranded at the base of Cape Race lighthouse on September 25. Although stranded birds may "appear" injured as they sit motionless or sometime flop around on the ground, in most cases they are healthy and simply cannot take off from land. We released this one over the water at nearby Cripple Cove.

We rescued this Leach’s Storm-Petrel after finding it stranded at the base of Cape Race lighthouse on September 25.

Few birds are as legendary in Newfoundland as far-flung western warblers, and Hermit Warbler is one of those gems that I’ve been wishing (though hardly expecting) to see here. But even more surprising than the fact that one was found on November 11, exactly 27 years after the one and only previous record, was that I had virtually conjured it just 12 hours earlier! It was my fifth and final new species for 2016. Read more about this incredible rarity and my wild prediction here.

This HERMIT WARBLER will no doubt be the highlight of November - and maybe of the year. Bruce Mactavish discovered it in Mobile on November 11 Newfoundland's one and only other record (Nov 11 1989)!

This Hermit Warbler was no doubt the highlight of November – and maybe of the year. Bruce Mactavish discovered it in Mobile on November 11.

I wrapped up my birding year with a fun and very impromptu adventure in Hawaii. I had the very great pleasure of helping ABA Big Year birders Laura Keene and John Weigel “clean up” on the amazing birds of Hawaii last month. Although the recent addition of Hawaii to the ABA region didn’t take effect until 2017, these intrepid birders decided to include it in their own big year adventures. We had an amazing time, saw virtually all the species one could expect in December, AND set a strong precedent that future Big Year birders will have a tough time topping! I’ll post a short write-up about that adventure, and its deeper meaning for me, in the very near future – so stay tuned!

Palila is just one of several endemic (and critically endangered!) species we encountered while visiting the Hawaiian islands. This particular bird is among my worldwide favourites, and the time we spent with this one is an experience I'll forever cherish.

Palila is just one of several endemic (and critically endangered!) species we encountered while visiting the Hawaiian islands. This particular bird is among my worldwide favourites, and the time we spent with this one is an experience I’ll forever cherish.

Best wishes for a healthy, happy and adventure-filled 2017!!