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

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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!!

Island Hopping: Trinidad & Tobago (Part 3)

** This is the third (and final) installment about the recent Eagle Eye Tours trip I co-led in Trinidad & Tobago (December 2015). Follow these links to read the first and second posts. **

Following an amazing week in Trinidad (see previous posts), we continued our adventure with a quick flight to the neighbouring island of Tobago. Despite its small size, Tobago offers an awesome array of great birding. And, despite its proximity to Trinidad, Tobago also offers a suite of birds that are either absent from or more difficult to find there. These last three days of our tour were a wonderful mix of ocean, wetland, forest edge and rainforest birding!

An iconic seabird, this Red-billed Tropicbird was one of many that we enjoyed during our visit to Tobago. Seeing hundreds of them was one of the major highlights for our entire group!

An iconic seabird, this Red-billed Tropicbird was one of many that we enjoyed during our visit to Tobago. Seeing hundreds of them was one of the major highlights for our entire group!

One of our first stops on Tobago was at a series of settling ponds at a local golf course, where we enjoyed a variety of waders and waterfowl - including our best looks at several Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

One of our first stops on Tobago was at a series of settling ponds at a local golf course, where we enjoyed a variety of waders and waterfowl – including our best looks at several Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

A number of Southern Lapwings were also present, taking advantage of the abundant short grass they like so much.

A number of Southern Lapwings were also present, taking advantage of the abundant short grass they like so much.

We also visited a private farm with an beautiful feeder set-up (and the best mango smoothies you can imagine!). Among the many hummingbirds were several classy-looking White-necked Jacobins.

We also visited a private farm with an beautiful feeder set-up (and the best mango smoothies you can imagine!). Among the many hummingbirds were several classy-looking White-necked Jacobins.

However, the clear highlight (and our main target) was the brilliant Ruby Topaz. I found it impossible to get a photo that truly captured the amazing colours of this bird, but this one comes the closest.

However, the clear highlight (and our main target) was the brilliant Ruby Topaz. I found it impossible to get a photo that truly captured the amazing colours of this bird, but this one comes the closest. The throat absolutely glowed when it caught the sunlight!

The feeders and offering of fresh fruit attracted a variety of visitors - including a pair of Barred Antshrikes. Here, the male enjoys some easy-picking banana.

The feeders and offering of fresh fruit attracted a variety of visitors – including a pair of Barred Antshrikes. Here, the male enjoys some easy-picking banana.

Personally, I found the female Barred Antshrikes to be just as (if not more) attractive than the males. This one seemed to be checking me out, although I doubt I came across as quite so interesting!

Personally, I found female Barred Antshrikes to be just as (if not more) attractive than the males. This one seemed to be checking me out, although I doubt I came across as quite so interesting!

Another interesting hummingbird that we had not seen on Trinidad was the Black-throated Mango.

Another interesting hummingbird that we had not seen on Trinidad was the Black-throated Mango.

A Blue-gray Tanager also dropped in for a visit ... always a crowd pleaser.

A Blue-gray Tanager also dropped in for a visit … always a crowd pleaser.

Equally intriguing were several very large caterpillars we encountered on the property. One even made its way on the bus by catching a ride on a participant's shirt! It appears to be a Frangipani Hawk Moth (Pseudosphinx tetrio) Caterpillar.

Equally intriguing were several very large caterpillars we encountered on the property. One even made its way on the bus by catching a ride on a participant’s shirt! It appears to be a
Frangipani Hawk Moth (Pseudosphinx tetrio) Caterpillar.

Our "base of operations" on Tobago was a small beach resort at the island's northeast corner. Here, a child plays on the beach in the nearby village of Speyside.

Our “base of operations” on Tobago was a small beach resort at the island’s northeast corner. Here, a child plays on the beach in the nearby village of Speyside.

Our motel property offered plenty of great birding. This Tropical Mockingbird was sitting across from our room door almost every time I went outside.

Our motel property offered plenty of great birding. This Tropical Mockingbird was sitting across from our room door almost every time I went outside.

Though a tad noisy at times, it was still fun to see Rufous-vented Chachalacas roaming around the area. Plus, it's just plain fun to say "chachalaca"!

Though a tad noisy at times, it was still neat to see Rufous-vented Chachalacas roaming around the area. Plus, it’s just plain fun to say “chachalaca”!

House Wrens were fairly common in both Trinidad & Tobago, but this tropical race often comes across quite different to the North American race that many of us are familiar with.

House Wrens were fairly common in both Trinidad & Tobago, but this tropical race often comes across as quite different from the North American race that many of us are familiar with.

Richard's Anole were easy to spot around the property. Males like this one were fairly large.

Richard’s Anole were easy to spot around the property. Males like this one were fairly large …

... however the slightly smaller females were arguably nicer looking.

… however the slightly smaller females were arguably nicer looking.

We also enjoyed some really great looks at a Brown-crested Flycatcher on the property. An absolutely fun bird to watch!

We also enjoyed some really great looks at a Brown-crested Flycatcher on the property. An absolutely great bird to watch!

Red-crowned Woodpecker is fairly widespread on Tobago, but absent in larger Trinidad. We were fortunate to see several during our visit.

Red-crowned Woodpecker is fairly widespread on Tobago, but absent in larger Trinidad. We were fortunate to see several during our visit.

One of the biggest highlights of the tour was a visit to the island of Little Tobago (seen here from a hilltop at Speyside). Tons of great birding awaited us after a short boat ride and somewhat adventurous landing!

One of the biggest highlights of the tour was a visit to the island of Little Tobago (seen here from a hilltop at Speyside). Tons of great birding awaited us after a short boat ride and somewhat adventurous landing!

Co-leader Jody Allair and one of our participants check out an Audubon's Shearwater, cozy in it burrow. We were very fortunatr since they are just arriving back to their breeding sites at this time of year, and this was the first report of the season!

Co-leader Jody Allair and one of our participants check out an Audubon’s Shearwater, cozy in it burrow. We were very fortunate since they are just arriving back to their breeding sites at this time of year, and this was the first report of the season!

Another great treat was this Trinidad Motomot. This beautiful species is endemic to Trinidad & Tobago, and can be quite secretive as they sit quietly in the shady rainforest.

Another great treat was this Trinidad Motomot. This beautiful species is endemic to Trinidad & Tobago, and can be quite secretive as they sit quietly in the shady rainforest. It was a major target for the tour, and this time everyone got a good look.

Another endemic and very special critter is the Ocellated Gecko. In fact, it is thought that this species occurs ONLY on the tiny of Little Tobago! What a great looking lizard.

Another endemic and very special critter is the Ocellated Gecko. In fact, it is thought that this species occurs ONLY on the tiny island of Little Tobago! What a great looking (though small) lizard.

However, the obvious highlight (and our main reason for visiting Little Tobago) was the incredible seabird colony. While seeing hundreds of Red-billed Tropicbirds like this one was amazing, the colony also included both Red-footed and Brown Boobies.

However, the obvious highlight (and our main reason for visiting Little Tobago) was the incredible seabird colony. While seeing hundreds of Red-billed Tropicbirds like this one was amazing, the colony also included both Red-footed and Brown Boobies.

Nearby islands are also home to large colonies of Magnificent Frigatebird, and they could always be found patrolling around Little Tobago looking for a meal to steal!

Nearby islands are also home to large colonies of Magnificent Frigatebird, and they could always be found patrolling around Little Tobago looking for a meal to steal!

Co-leader Jody Allair looks back at the village of Speyside and our lodgings from an overlook on Little Tobago.

Co-leader Jody Allair looks back at the village of Speyside and our lodgings from an overlook on Little Tobago.

Back at our motel, a short hike up a nearby trail produced lots of great birds. Among the new ones was a pair of Black-faced Grassquits (male pictured here).

Back at our motel, a short hike up a nearby trail produced lots of great birds. Among the new ones was a pair of Black-faced Grassquits (male pictured here).

More secretive, though a little more flashy when seen, were several White-flanked Antwrens that we encountered during our walks. This one was unusually cooperative, though still difficult to see in the open for more than a few seconds.

More secretive, though a little more flashy when seen, were several White-flanked Antwrens that we encountered during our walks. This one was unusually cooperative, though still difficult to see in the open for more than a few seconds.

One of my favourite encounters was with this beautiful Tropical Ratsnake (Spilotes pullatus). It easily measured in at over four feet long (and possibly more) ... a stunning animal.

One of my favourite encounters was with this beautiful Tropical Ratsnake (Spilotes pullatus). It easily measured in at over four feet long (and possibly more) … a stunning animal.

It was awesome to watch this snake actively hunting, expertly maneuvering through the tangled branches with ease and surprising speed. No wonder it can sneak up on prey!

It was awesome to watch this snake actively hunting, expertly maneuvering through the tangled branches with ease and surprising speed. No wonder it can sneak up on prey!

At the other end of the spectrum was this very small Shiny Lizard (Gymnophthalmus underwoodi). It seems this species is rarely spotted on Tobago, which is not surprising considering it how tiny it was ... no more than a few inches long and no bigger than a large earthworm. We were very lucky to see it scamper across the trail and try to hid behind some small rocks. At one point, it even took shelter under my shoe!

At the other end of the spectrum was this very small Shiny Lizard (Gymnophthalmus underwoodi). It seems this species is rarely spotted on Tobago, which is not surprising considering how tiny it was … no more than a few inches long and no bigger than an earthworm. We were very lucky to see it scamper across the trail and try to hide behind some small rocks. At one point, it even took shelter under my shoe!

Yet another species found on Tobago, but not Trinidad, is the rather plain-looking Scrub Greenlet. It is part of the vireo family.

Yet another species found on Tobago, but not Trinidad, is the rather plain-looking Scrub Greenlet. It is part of the vireo family.

One hot afternoon when the birding was slow, Jody and I made the short trek to Speyside. Along the way we saw the remnant of several old mills that spoke to some of the area's economic and cultural past.

One hot afternoon when the birding was slow, Jody and I made the short trek to Speyside. Along the way we saw the remnant of several old mills that spoke to some of the area’s economic and cultural past.

Our last big outing of the tour was to go birding in the lush rainforests of Tobago's main ridge. These high elevation forests represent the world's oldest legally protected forest reserves, established for conservation in 1776! We encountered an incredible variety of birds here (most of which were impossible to photograph in the tall, thick and shady surroundings!).

Our last big outing of the tour was to go birding in the lush rainforests of Tobago’s Main Ridge. These high elevation forests represent the world’s oldest legally protected forest reserves, established for conservation in 1776! We encountered an incredible variety of birds here (most of which were impossible to photograph in the tall, thick and shady surroundings!). Blue-backed Mannikins, Yellow-legged Thrush, White-tailed Sabrewing, and even the very rare (and unexpected) White-throated Spadebill!

This was one amazing tour, shared with an equally amazing group of people. All said, we encountered a tour-record 223 species of birds, an incredible variety of other critters, wonderful people, and tons of stunning scenery. I'm looking forward to an opportunity to go back again soon!

This was one amazing tour, shared with an equally amazing group of people. All said, we encountered a tour-record 223 species of birds, an incredible variety of other critters, wonderful people, and tons of stunning scenery. I’m looking forward to an opportunity to go back again soon!

For your chance to enjoy this (or any other) incredible adventure, check out the Eagle Eye Tours website!

 

Island Hopping: Trinidad & Tobago (Part 2)

** This is the second installment about the recent Eagle Eye Tours trip I co-led in Trinidad & Tobago (December 2015). Click HERE to read the first post **

As mentioned in my previous post, much of our time on the island of Trinidad was spent on and around the beautiful (and very birdy!) Asa Wright Nature Centre. We thoroughly enjoyed the large property, incredible veranda, and wonderful trails that were available to us while staying there.

Long-billed Starthroat was one of the more uncommon hummingbirds on the island, although several could be found frequenting the feeders at Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Long-billed Starthroat was one of the more uncommon hummingbirds on the island, although several could be found frequenting the feeders at Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Crested Oropendola was one of the most abundant and conspicuous birds around the estate, and their raucous calls and behaviour became the backdrop for lots of amazing birding!

Crested Oropendola was one of the most abundant and conspicuous birds around the estate, and their raucous calls and behaviour became the backdrop for lots of amazing birding!

Despite being abundant throughout the property, and lots of other places we visited, it was impossible to overlook the beautiful Purple Honeycreeper. Centre staff said they were in larger than normal numbers this year.

Despite being abundant throughout the property, and lots of other places we visited, it was impossible to overlook the beautiful Purple Honeycreeper. Centre staff said they were in larger than normal numbers this year.

Not all the birds we enjoyed were as gaudy, easy to find or possible to photograph. Gray-throated Leaftosser is very dull, skulky and secretive - and not always seen on our tours. Not only were we able to get the entire group on one such bird, but several of us had multiple encounters and Jody & I even found a nest!

Not all the birds we enjoyed were as gaudy, easy to find or possible to photograph. Gray-throated Leaftosser is very dull, skulky and secretive – and not always seen on tours. Not only were we able to get the entire group on one such bird, but several of us had multiple encounters and Jody & I even found a nest!

And neither was the brilliance restricted to the birds. We enjoyed many beautiful butterflies, not the least of which was this amazing Blue Transparent (Ithomeia pellucida).

And neither was the brilliance restricted to the birds. We enjoyed many beautiful butterflies, not the least of which was this amazing Blue Transparent (Ithomeia pellucida).

Less endearing to some, this endemic Trinidad Chevron Tarantula (Psalmopoeus cambridgei) was making itself at home in the centre's main house. We saw it every day, although I never quite got used to the idea that it could be anywhere.

Less endearing to some, this endemic Trinidad Chevron Tarantula (Psalmopoeus cambridgei) was making itself at home in the centre’s main house. We saw it every day, although I never quite got used to the idea that it could be anywhere.

Another view of the Long-billed Starthroat. The hummingbird feeders and their many patrons never got boring!

Another view of the Long-billed Starthroat. The hummingbird feeders and their many patrons never got boring!

Though less colourful overall, I always enjoyed seeing a Spectacled Thrush and its permanently "surprised" look!

Though less colourful overall, I always enjoyed seeing a Spectacled Thrush and its permanently “surprised” look!

Going out after dark also produced some very interesting creatures, including the Trinidad Mountain Crab (Pseudotelphusa garmani). For a boy that grew up beside the ocean, there was just something strange about seeing crabs away from water and well up in the mountains!

Going out after dark also produced some very interesting creatures, including the Trinidad Mountain Crab (Pseudotelphusa garmani). For a boy that grew up beside the ocean, there was just something strange about seeing crabs away from water and well up in the mountains!

Another nocturnal creature I enjoyed seeing was the Tailless Whip Scorpion. Thee are harmless, of course, and not even a real scorpion - but a tad creepy just the same!

Another nocturnal creature I enjoyed seeing was the Tailless Whip Scorpion. These are harmless, of course, and not even a real scorpion – but a tad creepy just the same!

Asa Wright Nature Centre was also an excellent base from which to do day-trips, taking us to a range of habitats and amazing birding areas throughout northern and central Trinidad. We explored montane rainforests, grasslands, wetlands and even coastal swamps and fishing harbours – finding lots of great birds and other wildlife everywhere! And the scenery.

Birding in the rainforests and higher elevations of the Northern Range was definitely a highlight. We got to see some amazing vistas and lots of great birds along the winding mountain roads.

Birding in the rainforests and higher elevations of the Northern Range was definitely a highlight. We got to see some amazing vistas and lots of great birds along the winding mountain roads.

We regularly saw Common Black Hawks soaring overhead or down in the valley, but seeing them perched gave them an even more majestic look. Surveying his kingdom!

We regularly saw Common Black Hawks soaring overhead or down in the valley, but seeing them perched gave them an even more majestic look. Surveying his kingdom!

An unfortunate case of "Stellar bird, crappy photo"! This male Guianan Trogon obliged us by sitting right out in the open - amazing looks, but hard light for photography. Ah well ...

An unfortunate case of “Stellar bird, crappy photo”! This male Guianan Trogon obliged us by sitting right out in the open – amazing looks, but hard light for photography. Ah well …

Palm Tanagers were abundant and easily overlooked ... but this bright male was quite entertaining after taking a bath.

Palm Tanagers were abundant and easily overlooked … but this bright male was quite entertaining after taking a bath.

The lush rainforests of the Northern Range were full of life, though it was often hard to spot. Birding here was a tangled mess of fun and frustration - but mostly fun. We scored a lot of great birds!

The lush rainforests of the Northern Range were full of life, though it was often hard to spot. Birding here was a tangled mess of fun and frustration – but mostly fun. We scored a lot of great birds!

One of my favourite trees that we encounterd (though luckily never fell against!) is the Sandbox Tree. It is covered in thick, very sharp spikes, contains poisonous sap, and produces a fruit that actually "explodes" when ripe to disperse its seed! Trees can be cool.

One of my favourite trees that we encountered (though luckily never fell against!) is the Sandbox Tree. It is covered in thick, very sharp spikes, contains poisonous sap, and produces a fruit that actually “explodes” when ripe to disperse its seed! Trees can be cool.

We found this well-camouflaged Streaked Flycatcher while birding along the Blanchisseuse road. Amazingly, everyone got great looks!

We found this well-camouflaged Streaked Flycatcher while birding along the Blanchisseuse road. Amazingly, everyone got great looks!

Another striking butterfly, the White Lycid (Arawacus aetolus) has very differeny patterning above (white) and below (beautifully and colourfully striped).

Another striking butterfly, the White Lycid (Arawacus aetolus) has very different patterning above (white) and below (beautifully and colourfully striped).

While all of our excursions were exciting, there is always something special about night birding. We visited an agricultural centre one evening to look for nocturnal species and were not disappointed. The first birds we found were a pair of Tropical Screech Owls - one of which sat obligingly for a few minutes before heading off to hunt. We also spotted a Barn Owl nearby.

While all of our excursions were exciting, there is always something special about night birding. We visited an agricultural centre one evening to look for nocturnal species and were not disappointed. The first birds we found were a pair of Tropical Screech Owls – one of which sat obligingly for a few minutes before heading off to hunt. We also spotted a Barn Owl nearby.

We also found a number of Common Pauraque (above), White-tailed Nightjars and one Common Potoo hunting and sitting on various perches.

We also found a number of Common Pauraque (above), White-tailed Nightjars and one Common Potoo hunting and sitting on various perches.

A daytime visit to the same area produced a good variety of grassland and wetland species, including the very classy-looking Southern Lapwing.

A daytime visit to the same area produced a good variety of grassland and wetland species, including the very classy-looking Southern Lapwing.

We found a pair of Pied Water-Tyrants in the wet, muddy fields of the agricultural centre. The male looked quite dapper, I thought!

We found a pair of Pied Water-Tyrants in the wet, muddy fields of the agricultural centre. The male looked quite dapper, I thought!

Cattle Egrets were abundant in the wet open fields of Nariva Swamp. What do you think that one egret is looking at?

Cattle Egrets were abundant in the wet open fields of Nariva Swamp. What do you think that one egret is looking at?

We also encountered a few Spectacled Caimen, including this fella chilling out near the road in Nariva. The name comes from a bony ridge between the eyes, which can give a spectacled appearance.

We also encountered a few Spectacled Caiman, including this fella chilling out near the road in Nariva. The name comes from a bony ridge between the eyes, which can give a spectacled appearance.

While Pinnated Bittern was one of our prime targets in the Nariva Swamp, finding one can be a real challenge. We were fortunate to spy this one sticking its head up out of the tall grass.

While Pinnated Bittern was one of our prime targets in the Nariva Swamp, finding one can be a real challenge. We were fortunate to spy this one sticking its head up out of the tall grass.

Equally exciting, though much less expected, was this Rufous Crab-Hawk sitting in the open. What a beautiful bird, and very uncommon to see!

Equally exciting, though much less expected, was this Rufous Crab-Hawk sitting in the open. What a beautiful bird, and very uncommon to see!

Another beautiful raptor of the lowlands, and much more common, is the Yellow-headed Caracara. We spotted this one having lunch on an ocean breakwater.

Another beautiful raptor of the lowlands, and much more common, is the Yellow-headed Caracara. We spotted this one having lunch on an ocean breakwater.

We were lucky to have great looks at several Great Antshrikes during our time on Trinidad, including a pair that could often be found near the parking area at Asa Wright.

We were lucky to have great looks at several Great Antshrikes during our time on Trinidad, including a pair that could often be found near the parking area at Asa Wright.

Woodpeckers run the gamut from drab & boring to bold & colourful. This Golden-Olive Woodpecker is definitely among the latter - what a looker!

Woodpeckers run the gamut from drab & boring to bold & colourful. This Golden-Olive Woodpecker is definitely among the latter – what a looker!

A visit to the west coast of Trinidad gave us an opportunity not only to find some great birds, but also check out some cultural and scenic sites. The "Temple in the Sea" at Waterloo is a beautiful spot, and a real monument to both human spirit and the country's rich Hindu culture.

A visit to the west coast of Trinidad gave us an opportunity not only to find some great birds, but also check out some cultural and scenic sites. The “Temple in the Sea” at Waterloo is a beautiful spot, and a real monument to both human spirit and the country’s rich Hindu culture.

The coastal scenery was also dotted with birds - many of which we wouldn't see elsewhere. Here, a Brown Pelican sits on a local fishing boat moored in the bay.

The coastal scenery was also dotted with birds – many of which we wouldn’t see elsewhere. Here, a Brown Pelican sits on a local fishing boat moored in the bay.

We also enjoyed watching a flock of Black Skimmers working cooperatively to find and catch food. Notice the outskirts of Port-of-Spain (Trinidad's capital city) in the background.

We also enjoyed watching a flock of Black Skimmers working cooperatively to find and catch food. Notice the outskirts of Port-of-Spain (Trinidad’s capital city) in the background.

We also took time to visit the nearby Dattareya temple, which is home to an 85ft Hanuman murti (statue) - the largest outside of India.

We also took time to visit the nearby Dattareya temple, which is home to this 85ft Hanuman murti (statue) – the largest outside of India.

A late afternoon boat tour into Caroni Swamp proved to be both fun and birdy. Among highlights were our only Green-throated Mango, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, and Masked Cardinals. We also spotted this large Tree Boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii) taking a nap in the mangroves.

A late afternoon boat tour into Caroni Swamp proved to be both fun and birdy. Among highlights were our only Green-throated Mango, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, and Masked Cardinals. We also spotted this large Tree Boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii) taking a nap in the mangroves.

The climax of this boat trip, and a major highlight of the entire tour, was seeing hundreds of Scarlet Ibis (and many other herons/egrets) flying into roost on a single island before dusk. What an amazing, colourful spectacle!

The climax of this boat trip, and a major highlight of the entire tour, was seeing hundreds of Scarlet Ibis (and many other herons/egrets) flying into roost on a single island before dusk. What an amazing, colourful spectacle!

 

What a great way to end the Trinidad portion of our tour! Stay tuned for the next installment and our visit to Tobago!

What a great way to end the Trinidad portion of our tour! Stay tuned for the next installment and our visit to Tobago!

 

 Click here to read Part 3 of our adventure in Trinidad & Tobago!

Island Hopping: Trinidad & Tobago (Part 1)

A few weeks ago (December 2015), I was honoured to co-lead yet another trip with Eagle Eye Tours … this time, their annual adventure in Trinidad & Tobago! If you’re not familiar with this company, please check them out – they are a great Canadian company that offers amazing trips to many of the world’s best birding locations and I always enjoying working with them. They are also committed to being environmentally responsible and giving back to birds & conservation programs wherever they travel!

Trinidad & Tobago provides a great introduction to the birds of South America … it has a selection of almost every bird family found in mainland countries, but in a smaller and easier to navigate setting. In fact, we birded many habitats across much of the country while staying at just two locations … and we saw a LOT of awesome birds and other wildlife!

This funky-looking Tufted Coquette was just one of many awesome birds that we enjoyed during the 2015 Eagle Eye Tours trip to Trinidad & Tobago.

This funky-looking Tufted Coquette was just one of many awesome birds that we enjoyed during the 2015 Eagle Eye Tours trip to Trinidad & Tobago.

On the larger island of Trinidad, we stayed at the famous Asa Wright Nature Centre, where incredible birding was literally right at our doorstep! This centre and lodge was a pioneer in the world of ecotourism, and remains one of the best places for birding in the tropics. Whether relaxing on the veranda, walking the trails or taking a day-trip to nearby parts of the country, we encountered awesome birds,wildlife and scenery at every turn. Not to mention great people, delicious food and an endless supply of wonderful, locally grown coffee!

The view from the veranda at Asa Wright Nature Centre looks down over a lush valley in Trinidad's Northern Range. Lots of great birds and other wildlife in there!!

The view from the veranda at Asa Wright Nature Centre looks down over a lush valley in Trinidad’s Northern Range. Lots of great birds and other wildlife in there!!

A portion of the proceeds from this tour went to support the great work of both Bird Studies Canada (represented here by my friend & co-leader Jody Allair, centre) and the Asa Wright Nature Centre. Our group REALLY enjoyed their stay!

A portion of the proceeds from this tour went to support the great work of both Bird Studies Canada (represented here by my friend & co-leader Jody Allair, centre) and the Asa Wright Nature Centre. Our group REALLY enjoyed their stay!

Using the Asa Wright Nature Centre as our base, we explored a variety of habitats throughout northern and central Trinidad – mountain rainforests, grasslands, wetlands and even coastal swamps and fishing harbours. And during our “down time” we enjoyed the incredible birding available on the centre’s large estate – much of which remains wild and natural rainforest. The large veranda at the main house is alive with birds – dozens of hummingbirds, tanagers, orioles,  honeycreepers, oropendolas and many more beautiful species taking advantage of a rich offering of food!

Some of our best birding was done right from the veranda! Dozens of humming bird feeders and a buffet of fresh fruit brought an amazing variety of birds right to us.

Some of our best birding was done right from the veranda! Dozens of humming bird feeders and a buffet of fresh fruit brought an amazing variety of birds right to us. Here, some Bananaquits enjoy a juicy chunk of melon.

Plenty of other birds were spotted in the canopy surrounding the nature centre, including this beautiful Channel-billed Toucan.

Plenty of other birds were spotted in the canopy surrounding the nature centre, including this beautiful Channel-billed Toucan.

The estate offers lots of great birding right on site - property around the lodge, amazing trails, and even the road.

The estate offers lots of great birding right on site – property around the lodge, amazing trails, and even the road.

And it's not just birds. Trinidad has an incredible diversity of butterflies, including the large and beautiful Blue Morpho (known locally as the "Emperor").

And it’s not just birds. Trinidad has an incredible diversity of butterflies, including the large and beautiful Blue Morpho (known locally as the “Emperor”).

One of the most awe-inspiring birds found in the Northern Range is the Bearded Bellbird. Even more amazing than its wattled "beard" is its incredible call - something that has to be heard ot be believed. (Apologies for the poor photo - they are well concealed in the forest canopy and we were fortunate to have such great looks at this one!)

One of the most awe-inspiring birds found in the Northern Range is the Bearded Bellbird. Even more amazing than its wattled “beard” is its incredible call – something that has to be heard to be believed. (Apologies for the poor photo – they are well concealed in the forest canopy and we were fortunate to have such great looks at this one!)

Of course, hummingbirds are huge part of any visit to the tropics, and there is no shortage here! White-chested Emeralds were among the most confiding at Asa Wright's very busy feeders.

Of course, hummingbirds are huge part of any visit to the tropics, and there is no shortage here! White-chested Emeralds were among the most confiding at Asa Wright’s very busy feeders.

Less common at feeders but fun to watch were the hermits, like this Green Hermit. Despite being larger than the other hummers, they were often bullied away from the food and fed with interesting strategies.

Less common at feeders but fun to watch were the hermits, like this Green Hermit. Despite being larger than the other hummers, they were often bullied away from the food and fed with interesting strategies.

Many wild mammals in Trinidad are secretive and rarely seen, but the Red-rumped Agouti has adapted well to human settlement and enjoyed the fresh fruit being offered to birds at the nature centre.

Many wild mammals in Trinidad are secretive and rarely seen, but the Red-rumped Agouti has adapted well to human settlement and enjoyed the fresh fruit being offered to birds at the nature centre.

While some birds are well camouflaged for life in the forest, others are brilliant. Violaceous Euphonia is certainly among the most colourful!

While some birds are well camouflaged for life in the forest, others are very colourful. Violaceous Euphonia is certainly among the most brilliant!

Some birds advertise themselves in much more elaborate ways than colour. Male White-bearded Mannikins perform very entertaining courtship dances at leks, and we got to enjoy the show on a couple occasions. This little fella has his beard puffed out (some might joke that I've been known to use a similar strategy!).

Some birds advertise themselves in much more entertaining ways than colour. Male White-bearded Mannikins perform elaborate courtship dances at leks, and we got to enjoy the show on a couple occasions. This little fella has his beard puffed out (some might joke that I’ve been known to use a similar strategy!).

Here, another White-bearded Mannikin poses during part of the performance, showing a little less of the beard.

Here, another White-bearded Mannikin poses during part of the performance, showing a little less of the beard.

Frogs were often heard but rarely seen on our hikes, but we were fortunate to find a chorus of Trinidad Stream (Yellow-throated) Frogs. These tiny but very noisy critters are endemic to Trinidad, making it an extra special treat to see!

Frogs were often heard but rarely seen on our hikes, but we were fortunate to find a chorus of Trinidad Stream (Yellow-throated) Frogs. These tiny but very noisy critters are endemic to Trinidad, making it an extra special treat to see!

Even more fortunate was this sighting of another endemic species - Urich's Litter Frog. These tiny frogs are nocturnal, and we found one sitting on a leaf during a night stroll.

Even more fortunate was this sighting of another endemic species – Urich’s Litter Frog. These tiny frogs are nocturnal, and we found one sitting on a leaf during a night stroll.

Tufted Coquettes are stunning, but somewhat scarce in Trinidad. One or maybe two pairs can be found at Asa Wright, and photographing them was one of my "goals" during our visit. It proved a little tougher than anticipated since they never visit feeders, are extremely fast and active, and can be a bit elusive. It took a few days to figure out the feeding patterns of this male, but it eventually paid off with some decent photo opportunities. I love this bird!

Tufted Coquettes are stunning, but somewhat scarce in Trinidad. One or maybe two pairs can be found at Asa Wright, and photographing them was one of my “goals” during our visit. It proved a little tougher than anticipated since they never visit feeders, are extremely fast and active, and can be a bit elusive. It took a few days to figure out the feeding patterns of this male, but it eventually paid off with some decent photo opportunities. I love this bird!

A friend of mine described the male Tufted Coquette as the "David Bowie of hummingbirds", and here you can see why.

A friend of mine described the male Tufted Coquette as the “David Bowie of hummingbirds”, and here you can see why. Check out that crazy costume!

There are lots of other beautiful creatures to be found, including this Variegated Gecko which occurs only in Trinidad and northern Venezuela.

There are lots of other beautiful creatures to be found, including this Variegated Gecko which occurs only in Trinidad and northern Venezuela.

One of the most special experiences we had was a trek to see the Oilbirds at Asa Wright. These almost mythical birds are the only nocturnal flying fruit-eating birds in the world, using a combination of echolocation (just like bats!) and specially adapted eyesight to navigate in the dark. They live in caves, and produce the most guttural, haunting sounds you can imagine. Visiting the cave is a surreal experience, to say the least!

One of the most special experiences we had was a trek to see the Oilbirds at Asa Wright. These almost mythical birds are the only nocturnal flying fruit-eating birds in the world, using a combination of echolocation (just like bats!) and specially adapted eyesight to navigate in the dark. They live in caves, and produce the most guttural, haunting sounds you can imagine. Visiting the cave is a surreal experience, to say the least! We were also fortunate enough to spot four flying over the the valley in search of food one evening.

Another colourful visitor to the Asa Wright property is the Yellow Oriole ... what a great looking bird.

Another colourful visitor to the Asa Wright property is the Yellow Oriole … what a great looking bird.

Equally colourful, though of a very different hue, is the Blue-gray Tanager. These beautiful birds were regular visitors to the veranda feeders, yet I somehow came away with out a single unobscured photo!

Equally colourful, though of a very different hue, is the Blue-gray Tanager. These beautiful birds were regular visitors to the veranda feeders, yet I somehow came away with out a single unobscured photo (but I do like this one!).

One of the more understated birds that frequent the fruit trays are White-lined Tanagers. They were, nevertheless, very entertaining!

One of the more understated birds that frequent the fruit trays are White-lined Tanagers. They were, nevertheless, very entertaining!

In addition to great bring, we also took opportunities to learn about the local culture and economy. Trinidad is well known for its cocoa, and here our group is learning first-hand how it is traditionally harvested and processed.

In addition to great birding, we also took opportunities to learn about the local culture and economy. Trinidad is well known for its cocoa, and here our group is learning first-hand how it is traditionally harvested and processed.

In addition to cocoa, you can often find coffee growing throughout the landscape. Nothing goes better with a day of birding at Asa Wright than a great cup of coffee that was grown, harvested and roasted right on site!

In addition to cocoa, you can often find coffee growing throughout the landscape. Nothing goes better with a day of birding at Asa Wright than a great cup of coffee that was grown, harvested and roasted right on site!

Among my favourite hummingbirds were the White-necked Jacobins ... very classy!

Among my favourite hummingbirds were the White-necked Jacobins … very classy!

We had no trouble spotting a few Golden Tegu Lizards. At nearly a metre long, the largest of these critters could appear a little menacing and I usually gave one the right-of-way if I met it on a path!

We had no trouble spotting a few Golden Tegu Lizards. At nearly a metre long, the largest of these critters could appear a little menacing and I usually gave one the right-of-way if I met it on a path!

Smaller, but still a little menacing, was the Trinidad Chevron Tarantula. We spotted several of these, including this large female during a night stroll. Another (apparently a male) was making itself at home in the main house of the Asa Wright lodge. I hardly ever sat down without checking for it first!

Smaller, but still a little menacing, was the Trinidad Chevron Tarantula. We spotted several of these, including this large female during a night stroll. Another (apparently a male) was making itself at home in the main house of the Asa Wright lodge. I hardly ever sat down without checking for it first!

As you can tell by now, night time can be just as exciting as daytime when looking for life in the tropics. We saw or heard five species of owl in Trinidad, including this cooperative Ferruginous Pygmy Owl.

As you can tell by now, night time can be just as exciting as daytime when looking for life in the tropics. We saw or heard five species of owl in Trinidad, including this cooperative Ferruginous Pygmy Owl.

Stay tuned for more photo highlights in Part 2 of our adventure in Trinidad & Tobago!

 Click here to read Part 2 of our adventure in Trinidad & Tobago!

Newfoundland’s Codroy Valley – Beautiful AND Birdy!

I spent most of last week visiting one of my favourite places in our beautiful province – the Codroy Valley. Located 900 km away in the very SW corner of the island, it’s not a place I have the opportunity to go very often … but I cherish every chance I get. Being much closer to the Maritime provinces both geographically (it’s a mere 150 km from Cape Breton) and ecologically, it is home to the greatest diversity of landbirds in all of Newfoundland. 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 pocket of Acadian forest habitat. There are easily a dozen species that you can expect to find here but nowhere else in Newfoundland!

There is stunning scenery at every turn in the Codroy Valley. This beautiful vista across the estuary and marsh, with rolling fields and the snow-capped Long Range Mountains in the background, was right from our cabin window!

There is stunning scenery at every turn in the Codroy Valley. This beautiful vista across the estuary and marsh, with rolling fields and the snow-peppered Long Range Mountains in the background, was right from our cabin window!

I was invited to participate in the Feather & Folk Nature Festival – a relatively new and growing celebration of birds and culture. My dad joined me for the visit, and we soaked in the solitude, abundant nature and breathtaking vistas for four full days. I shared a selection of photos and interesting tidbits about birding in Newfoundland during a public presentation, led five fun outings with a group of eager birders, and chatted with locals about their wonderful piece of the world. I even enjoyed an opportunity to chat about the future of birding tourism both locally and throughout the province with representatives of the tourism and business communities.

Great Blue Heron is the unofficial mascot for the Codroy Valley. It is the only place in our province that this species is known ot breed (although anecdotally it may be spreading). This one greeted us from a treetop overlooking the estuary at sunrise.

Great Blue Heron is an unofficial mascot for the Codroy Valley. It is the only place in our province that this species is known to breed (although anecdotally it may be spreading). This one greeted us from a treetop overlooking the estuary at sunrise.

It was a fantastic trip … amazing birds, stunning scenery and so many wonderful people! The lush forests here are full of birds – and it is apparent as a rich chorus of song bubbles out from the tangled mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees at every stop. The large estuaries of the Grand Codroy and Little Codroy rivers are home to the island’s best variety of waterfowl, and the sandy beach at the river mouth is home to several shorebirds including the endangered Piping Plover. There was never a lack of birds or adventures … only a lack of time. I’m already looking forward to next year!!

*** I am planning to offer a week-long birding tour of Western Newfoundland (Codroy Valley & Gros Morne National Park) that will be scheduled to take in this excellent festival — details to be announced soon!! If you might be interested in joining me, please let me know and save the dates of June 1-7 (exact dates TBD). ***

The forests of the Codroy Valley seem more alive with birds than anywhere else in the province. Even relatively common species like this American Redstart seem to be present in far greater numbers.

The forests of the Codroy Valley seem more alive with birds than anywhere else in the province. Even relatively common species like this American Redstart seem to be present in far greater numbers.

Some species are considered to be

Some species are considered to be “Codroy specialties”. Blackburnian Warbler breed in several areas of tall spruce forest here, but not elsewhere in Newfoundland. We managed to find at least three during a morning walk along Brooms Brook Road.

Brooms Brook,  called

Brooms Brook, called “warbler alley” by locals, is known for hosting several species of warbler that are more typical of the Maritimes and not found elsewhere on the island.

Another local

Another local “specialty” is the Bobolink. This species was once more widespread across the island, but has seen drastic population declines in recent decades is now considered a “species at risk” in our province. Its last real foothold in Newfoundland seems to be a few hay fields in this beautiful valley.

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Colours really seem to pop here on the southwest coast ...

Colours really seem to pop here on the southwest coast …

Sometimes the view can distract me from the birding! I had to stop just after sunrise to take in this beautiful scene over the estuary.

Sometimes the view can distract me from the birding! I had to stop just after sunrise to take in this beautiful scene over the estuary.

Philadelphia Vireo is another species that occurs more regularly here than the rest of the island - it is scarce at best in other parts of western Newfoundland and rare anywhere else.

Philadelphia Vireo is another species that occurs more regularly here than the rest of the island – it is scarce at best in other parts of western Newfoundland and rare anywhere else.

Eastern Kingbirds are regular visitors from the Maritime provinces in spring, and may even breed here sporadically. A number were spotted last week, including this obliging bird in Upper Ferry.

Eastern Kingbirds are regular visitors from the Maritime provinces in spring, and may even breed here sporadically. A number were spotted last week, including this obliging bird in Upper Ferry.

My birding group enjoying looks at the flame-orange undersides of a Blackburnian Warbler, singing from the top of a black spruce.

My birding group enjoying looks at the flame-orange undersides of a Blackburnian Warbler, singing from the top of a black spruce.

This Snowshoe Hare was munching grass along the roadside during my first morning out. I saw numerous during the week, suggesting it has been a good spring for them.

This Snowshoe Hare was munching grass along the roadside during my first morning out. I saw numerous during the week, suggesting it has been a good spring for them.

Yellow-bellied Flycatchers were calling at many locations, although most refused to cooperate for photos.

Yellow-bellied Flycatchers were calling at many locations, although most refused to cooperate for photos.

We were fortunate enough to find a pair of Piping Plovers on the beach at Searston - the female tending to a nest. Every nest is a positive sign for this endangered species, especially in Newfoundland where appropriate habitat (large sandy beaches) is somewhat rare in its own right.

We were fortunate enough to find a pair of Piping Plovers on the beach at Searston – the female tending to a nest. Every nest is a positive sign for this endangered species, especially in Newfoundland where appropriate habitat (large sandy beaches) is somewhat rare in its own right.

Another locally uncommon shorebird is Willet. Although a small number do breed a at one or two locations further north along the coast, spotting one in the Codroy Valley was notable.

Another locally uncommon shorebird is Willet. Although a small number do breed at one or two locations further north along the coast, spotting one in the Codroy Valley was notable.

The low cloud and threatening rain over the Long Range Mountains was a beautiful sight ... even if rain was the last thing we wanted!

The low cloud and threatening rain over the Long Range Mountains was a beautiful sight … even if rain was the last thing we wanted!

Typical of the region, a band of rain hanging tight to the mountains was clearing as we drove north from the Cape Ray area, and much nicer weather awaited us back in the valley.

Typical of the region, a band of rain hanging tight to the mountains was clearing as we drove north from the Cape Ray area, and much nicer weather awaited us back in the valley.

Northern Parula is another Maritime species that hs expanded across the Gulf of St. Lawrence and now seems to breed regularly (though in small numbers) in the Codroy Valley.

Northern Parula is another Maritime species that has expanded across the Gulf of St. Lawrence and now seems to breed regularly (though in small numbers) in the Codroy Valley.

“Mainlanders” laugh at will, but Red-winged Blackbird is actually a good species to see in Newfoundland. They are sparse at best, and may not breed regularly away from the island’s SW corner.

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A Gray Catbird was a good find on our last morning outing. This species seems to occur here in small numbers each spring, although breeding status has not been confirmed.

A Gray Catbird was a good find on our last morning outing. This species seems to occur here in small numbers each spring, although breeding status has not been confirmed.

Mourning Warblers are always fun to see, despite being a little more widespread than some of the other Codroy species. This one was actually photographed in central Newfoundland on the way home.

Mourning Warblers are always fun to see, despite being a little more widespread than some of the other Codroy species. This one was actually photographed in central Newfoundland on the way home.

We were lucky enough to bump into this Olive-sided Flycatcher along the Wetland Trail on our very first group walk. It wasn't calling, but seemed at home on top of a large dead snag. This species is another provincial

We were lucky enough to bump into this Olive-sided Flycatcher along the Wetland Trail on our very first group walk. It wasn’t calling, but seemed at home on top of a large dead snag. This species is another provincial “species at risk” – one of four such species we saw last week!

And there is always something more to see than

And there is always something more to see than “just” birds. American Toads are not as well established in eastern Newfoundland, so it was fun to see several here in the Codroy Valley.

This young Baltimore Oriole was visiting a hummingbird feeder in Millville ... another Maritime species that occasionally makes its way to the Codroy for a visit in spring.

This young Baltimore Oriole was visiting a hummingbird feeder in Millville … another Maritime species that occasionally makes its way to the Codroy for a visit in spring.

Cedar Waxwings were abundant in some areas of the valley this spring.

Cedar Waxwings were abundant in some areas of the valley this spring.

The towns of Codroy and Cape Anguille in the northwest part of the Valley are more typical of coastal Newfoundland -- rugged coastlines and lovely ocean vistas.

The towns of Codroy and Cape Anguille in the northwest part of the Valley are more typical of coastal Newfoundland — rugged coastlines and lovely ocean vistas.

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There were a few early butterflies enjoying the sun, including Spring Azures like this one.

There were a few early butterflies enjoying the sun, including Spring Azures like this one.

Two Eastern Kingbirds even dropped in to visit us at our cabins, flycatching from the fence in front of our deck. Goes to show that you don't have to look hard to find great birds in the Codroy Valley!

Two Eastern Kingbirds even dropped in to visit us at our cabins, flycatching from the fence in front of our deck. Goes to show that you don’t have to look hard to find great birds in the Codroy Valley!

It was an awesome visit and a wonderful festival. I can't wait to go back next year. Want to join me???

It was an awesome visit and a wonderful festival. I can’t wait to go back next year. Want to join me???

A big thank-you to the wonderful people of the Codroy Valley for making us feel so welcome, and to the Codroy Valley Area Development Association for inviting me to participate in this excellent festival!!

Feather & Folk Nature Festival, Codroy Valley

I recently received an invitation to participate in the Feather & Folk Nature Festival. Saying “Yes” was a pretty easy decision … not only do I enjoy sharing my love of birds and birding with others, but this festival is located in one of my favourite places on the island. The Codroy Valley, located in SW Newfoundland, is home to the largest diversity of songbirds in the province, the only known breeding population of Great Blue Herons, endangered Piping Plovers, scads of waterfowl, and many other gems. All in some of the most scenic setting around … lush forests, sandy beaches, rich estuaries, and the beautiful Long Range Mountains looming in the distance.

It is a delight to go birding there in spring – something I haven’t been able to do a for a few years now. I’m itching to get back, and looking forward to a great few days of birding and socializing! Check out the festival website for a full slate of activities – from guided bird walks to photography lessons, and kitchen parties to art exhibits. It’s going to be a great time!

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