Eurasian Oystercatcher — another mega-rarity nailed!!

I was thousands of kilometres from home, leading an Eagle-Eye Tours trip in southern Ontario, when I got the news … a EURASIAN OYSTERCATCHER had been confirmed at home on “the rock”. It was painful enough that my “most wanted” bird for Newfoundland decided to show up while I was away, but it was also ~7hrs way from St. John’s and would be a challenge for me to see even if it stayed long enough for me to return home. Only a birder can understand the anxious feelings that tingled through me during the last few days of the Ontario tour 😉

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I returned home and enjoyed a much-needed holiday weekend — icebergs, ice cream, and family time. The oystercatcher was still hanging in there … but with tours booked for early in the week, it would need to hang on a little longer. It did! On Wednesday evening (May 22), long-time birding buddy Chris Ryan and I packed up and started the journey – driving as far as my parents’ house in Lewisporte for the night and continuing on to catch the first ferry to Long Island the next morning. After a very short crossing (complete with an iceberg and two humpback whales!), we arrived at Lushes Bight and scoured the small harbour. The fear of “dipping” (missing a bird) were beginning to mount after 15 minutes of not seeing it — but then it happened. I spotted a small black headed bobbing up and down behind a rock … it HAD to be!! And it was!!

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A very exciting bird to see, this Eurasian Oystercatcher is a mega Code-5 rarity in North America. A huge thanks to Marilyn Gillingham of Lushes Bight for finding it and getting the word out to the birding community! I think our visits have provided some entertainment for residents of this beautiful, isolated community!

We spent the rest of the morning sitting, watching, enjoying and photographing this ultra-rare visitor from Europe. This individual marks just the 5th North American record (all but one were here in Newfoundland; the other on the very isolated Buldir Island in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska), and the first “gettable” one in more than 20 years! Our 1100 km (return) “twitch” had panned out with incredible views of this magnificent bird!!

I guess I have to find a new bird to top my “most wanted” list   😉

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As the tide was high, the oystercatcher was often on the shoreline or rock jetties quite close to the road. We were able to enjoy fantastic looks without ever having to get out the car (which tended to make it wary). That was good news — because it was coooold!!

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The bird actually spent most of the morning sleeping — probably waiting for the tide to drop and expose some tidal pools/flats for feeding. It seemed to be getting more active just as we were leaving to start our journey home.

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On three occasions (over the course of 4 hours), the oystercatcher lifted its head, called a few times, and took to the air. It circled the harbour a few times, usually coming back to its favourite perch on a small rock jetty (but at least once disappearing for several minutes before doing so).

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Taking a short break from enjoying the bird, we also explored the little towns of Lushes Bight and Beaumont (Long Island). Beautiful Newfoundland outports, and so reminiscent of my childhood home here in Notre Dame Bay.

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It’s been a fantastic iceberg season this spring, and we spotted several on our visit to Long Island. This one was in the “tickle” as we crossed on the ferry. See the hole?? Top it off with the two humpback whales and a moose we spotted on the way home — and it was an incredible “twitch” through and through!!

 

Off The Rock: Belize & Tikal 2019

A few weeks ago (February 2019), I had the wonderful opportunity to co-lead an Eagle-Eye Tours trip to Belize & Tikal — two very exciting destinations! As most of you know, I routinely lead tours at home and abroad for this excellent Canadian company (check out the bottom of this post for some upcoming trips), sharing the magic of birds & birding with lots of great people along the way. This was just my second visit to Central America, following an exploratory trip to Honduras in 2017. Fortunately, I was joining my friend and birder extraordinaire Ernesto Carman, who hails from Costa Rica and was eager to show off this incredible little corner of the world.

This tour focuses on three superb location – Pook’s Hill & Crooked Tree in Belize, and Tikal National Park in neighbouring Guatemala. The rich mix of habitats (e.g. rainforest, pine-oak savannah, and vast wetlands) along with stunning history and ancient Mayan temples makes for a well-rounded yet nature-filled trip. Below are just a few of the many, many highlights. Be sure to check out this Flickr album for even more photos (though I apologize for the quality, since most were edited on my phone during the tour).

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We arrived and met in Belize City — a lovely hamlet of a city on the east coast of this beautiful country.

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The birding right outside our hotel offered a nice introduction to many of the common species we would see throughout the week. Gems such as Vermillion Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Carib Grackle, Morelet’s Seedeater and Tropical Kingbird were easy to spot.

 

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This Snail Kite, however, was an unexpected treat and put on a real show as it foraged land snails right along the road behind our hotel.

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Heading southwest from Belize City, we made several stops throughout our first full day. The Tropical Education Centre and nearby Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (above) provided fabulous birding – including numerous target species such as Red-capped Manakin, Green Jay, Scarlet-rumped Tanager and Yellow-tailed Oriole.

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The pine-oak savannah at the Tropical Education Centre was a perfect to spot to look for Grace’s Warbler — a species that remains poorly understood, partly due to their tendency to remain high in the forest canopy.

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This Black Orchid (Prosthechea cochleta), found growing at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, is the national flower of Belize.

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Our next few days were spent at Pook’s Hill Lodge – a beautiful forest reserve, bird sanctuary and archaeological site in the Cayo District of Belize. The birding on and around the lodge property was phenomenal – lush rainforests and a wealth of birds at every turn. Trogons, woodpeckers, woodpeckers, hawks, antthrush … the full tropical experience in a very unique setting.

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This was one of several Collared Aracari feasting on palm fruits just metres from the sitting room at Pook’s Hill Lodge.

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Toucans are an iconic symbol of the tropics, familiar even to non-birders. We encountered Keel-billed Toucans (the national bird of Belize) at several locations throughout the tour. Check out those flashy bills!

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Even the cabins at Pook’s Hill are unique – simple, traditional and blended with the nature that thrives around them.

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We found more than a dozen species of hummingbird during the trip – not the least of which was the impressive Long-billed Hermit. This was one of several visiting feeders at Pook’s Hill.

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While it was usually difficult to tear ourselves away from the birds, there was always something else to entertain and amaze. Beautiful butterflies, like this Cycadian (Eumeas sp.), were always fun to check out.

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We also made a pilgrimage to Mountain Pine Ridge – famous for its beautiful overviews and fantastic raptor watching. We weren’t disappointed! Highlights included Black Hawk-Eagle, Great Black Hawk, two White Hawks, Bat Falcons, Short-tailed Hawk, and Hook-billed Kite. Even a much-wished-for (but rather unexpected) Lovely Cotinga stopped in and provided excellent scope views!!

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Spectacular views of this Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle were a hands-down highlight of our morning at Mountain Pine Ridge – a day in which we ended up recording nearly 20 species of raptor!

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The next stop on our journey was the incredible Tikal National Park in Guatemala. The park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, preserves one of the most important archaeological sites in the Americas — the ancient Mayan city and temples of Tikal. The largest city of the Mayan Classical period, it was inhabited from ~600BC until its abandonment ~900AD and has a peak population of more than 100,000 people.

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A strange mix of bizarre and beautiful, Ocellated Turkeys are a regional endemic that is found quite easily in and around Tikal. This one was strutting around just 100m from our cabin near the park entrance.

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While it may be most famous for its ancient Mayan ruins, Tikal National Park also protects a huge swath of pristine rainforest and is one of the best birding destinations in Central America. Strolls along the park’s many trails produced great looks at prized species such as this Royal Flycatcher, Black-throated Shrike-Tanager and Chestnut Woodpecker among many others.

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Orange-breasted Falcon is one of the most prized birds of this trip, and Tikal is among the most reliable places to find it. We enjoyed incredible views of a pair making its home right alongside the ancient Mayan temples of the main plaza – including this male feasting on an unfortunate Olive-throated Parakeet.

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Temple II. Built in the 8th century AD, this is one of the more recent structures built in Tikal before its eventual abandonment ~900AD. The above photo of Orange-breasted Falcon was actually taken from atop this temple.

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Red-lored Parrots were relatively common at Tikal. This pair was also photographed from atop Temple II, looking quite adorable as they preened each other for several minutes.

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Among the other wildlife of Tikal National Park, Central American Spider Monkeys were by far the most endearing. Troupes of these social critters were often spotted swinging through the trees, at times right above and around our cabins in the park.

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Also fun to watch were White-nosed Coati – an arboreal member of the raccoon family. Their long tails were constantly held high up in the air, making them easy to spot as they roamed around the park.

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Not as cute (in the conventional sense!) but just as exciting were the few Morelet’s Crocodiles that we encountered during the tour. This one, at Tikal, was very patiently working on a large turtle that it had caught. After a few minutes, we heard a loud “crack” suggesting that the crocodile was most definitely succeeding.

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Heading back to Belize, we spent the last few days of our adventure at the Birds Eye View Lodge in Crooked Tree. This lovely Creole community is surrounded by a large lagoon and expansive wetlands – and at this time of year (especially) is abounding with birdlife.

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An early morning boat tour of the lagoon and creeks was a highlight of our time at Crooked Tree.

 

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We spotted nearly a dozen Jabiru during our morning boat trip. Hundreds of Limpkins, White Ibis, herons, egrets and other waders were feeding in the shallow waters around Crooked Tree.

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With ebbing water levels at this time of year, Crooked Tree can be a great place to look for the scarce and very secretive Agami Heron. We were fortunate to spot several foraging in the waterside tangles — certainly one of the most handsome herons in the world.

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Another secretive species, we encountered several Boat-billed Heron including this unusually cooperative one. Although I’ve been lucky enough to see this species on several occasions (and in several countries), this was the first time I ever had a full, unobscured view! Check out this large eyes – perfect for nighttime hunting.

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There were also hundreds of swallows hunting over the shallow waters and lagoon shores — including the beautiful Mangrove Swallow.

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Among the other wildlife enjoyed throughout the tour, Black Spiny-tailed Iguanas were among the most common. This one was trying to blend into the background along a trail at Crooked Tree.

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Black Howler Monkeys were possibly the most entertaining critter during our trip – their loud, guttural and downright eerie howls reverberating through the forests. This one was watching our boat as we explored a creek at Crooked Tree.

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Located in northern Belize, Crooked Tree can also be a good place to find several species that are endemic to the Yucatan region. This Yucatan Flycatcher was one of several we found in the forests there.

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Another regional endemic, this Yucatan Jay was part of a small group found following a trail of army ants. Such a lovely colour!

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The sun set on another fantastic Eagle-Eye Tours adventure. Our group had an excellent time, finding nearly 300 species of birds and plenty of other wildlife along the way. Added to the mix were the incredible ruins at Tikal, great food, amazing scenery and lots of great people!

Be sure to check out this Flickr album for even more photos (though I apologize for the quality, since most were edited on my phone during the tour).

 

For details on birding with me in Newfoundland this summer:

Newfoundland Bird & Nature Tours 2019

Catch up with me on one of these upcoming Eagle-Eye Tours:

Grand Newfoundland (June 19-30 2019)

Point Pelee & Algonquin (May 6-17 2019)

New Brunswick & Grand Manan (August 16-25 2019)

Trinidad & Tobago (December 6-16 2019)

Details on the next Eagle-Eye Tours trip to Belize & Tikal:

Belize & Tikal 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EIGHTEEN

Wow! Another year has come and gone … but not without plenty of adventure. The year 2018 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 18 images from 2018; chosen to represent just a fraction of the many, many highlights from my year.

It’s been difficult to keep my blog updated during this busy year (and even this month — it has taken me weeks to write this post!) – 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 😉

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I started 2018 with a fantastic winter tour for two wonderful clients. Dovekie was, of course, a prime target and they didn’t disappoint — we had several close encounters (some so close we probably could have touched them!), and ended up seeing dozens and dozens following a January windstorm. And so many other other great winter birds …

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Winter is also the best time to enjoy the great numbers and diversity of gulls that St. John’s has to offer. I helped host a “Winter Gull Workshop” for NatureNL in February – and despite less than ideal weather, more than 50 participants showed up to learn and share our passion for birds! It was a lot of fun, and an exciting indicator that the love of birds & birding continues to grow in our province.

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Early spring was a busy time for public engagement – I enjoyed sharing my passion and experience with some very different audiences: a public presentation at our largest library, local tour guides looking to learn more about province’s birds, and many of my tourism partners across the island. I’m always excited to talk about the wonders of birds & birding, and hope to spread the word even further in 2019 😉

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The opportunity to travel and go birding in new places is one of the perks of being a tour leader — and this year was no exception. In May, I co-led an Eagle-Eye Tours trip in southern Ontario, visiting several “bucket-list” places along the way – Point Pelee, Long Point and Algonquin Park among them. It’s a fun and awe-inspiring way to experience the excitement of spring migration!

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The “Point Pelee & Algonquin” tour was also an opportunity to see LOTS of beautiful, often iconic, species — like this Prothonotary Warbler. These brilliant birds are scarce and very restricted breeders in Canada. While I’ve been lucky to see a couple in Newfoundland during fall migration and in the tropics during winter, it was especially rewarding to see them in their typical breeding habitat.

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Without a doubt, this Purple Gallinule was a highlight for Newfoundland birders in 2018. First discovered while I was away in Ontario (on a river just minutes from my house, no less!), I arrived home in time to enjoy this beautiful bird. Although there are a surprising number of records on the island, almost all were immature birds and/or in winter – and most have been found moribund or already dead. Not only was this a stunning adult, but the first that birders have been able to enjoy. Newfoundland can be weird, sometimes 😉 It was seen for weeks and may very well have stayed all summer! (More details here.)

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Early June brought with it an opportunity to explore my province from a different perspective – on an expedition cruise around the island. I was invited to join the crew of the Hebridean Sky as it circumnavigated Newfoundland – visiting beautiful, quaint and often isolated communities along the way. June can still be a volatile time in the waters off northern Newfoundland – and this year was no exception. Arctic ice and rough weather toyed with our plans at every turn, but we didn’t let it stop our adventure! Here I’m standing on the arctic ice floe in the Start of Belle Isle, with Labrador (and our ship) in the background.

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I was honoured once again to lead several exciting trips for Eagle-Eye Tours — a total of four in 2018! The “Grand Newfoundland” tour is always a highlight of my year, and this year it was sold out – a testament to just how popular a birding destination our province is becoming. We had a great 12 days exploring the island and its array of landscapes, birds and other natural wonders … I’m already looking forward to doing it all again later this year!

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It was a very busy summer, with lots of visiting birders and nature-enthusiasts joining me to explore beautiful Newfoundland. We enjoyed visits to spectacular seabird colonies (like Cape St. Mary’s, above), strolled through rich boreal forests full of sweet bird songs, hiked across the coastal tundra to see fossils of some of the world’s oldest complex animals, stopped to appreciate beautiful and unique wildflowers growing in the most unexpected of places, and were treated to surprises and wonderful experiences at every turn. I’m already looking forward to more in 2019!! (Check out your opportunity to join us here.)

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Nemesis down!! I’m always thrilled to help a client find a “target” bird when leading a tour, especially here in Newfoundland. However, it is extra exciting when that same bird is a target of my own. Northern Three-toed Woodpecker has been a so-called “nemesis bird” for me – one of just three breeding species on the island that have managed to elude me since I started birding ~18 years ago (the other two being American Woodcock and Northern Hawk Owl – both scarce and local breeders in the province that I just haven’t connected with yet). We found this male attending (or maybe just prospecting?) a potential nesting site while hiking a trail in Terra Nova National Park. I’m not sure who was more ecstatic – my guests or me!

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Once again, August was punctuated by the Eagle-Eye Tours “New Brunswick & Grand Manan” trip. Joined by co-leader Kyle Horner (Wild Ontario), we explored this beautiful part of Atlantic Canada. As always, a major highlight of this tour was the incredible flocks of Semipalmated Sandpiper migrating through the Bay of Fundy. We had point blank views of 35,000+ as they roosted on a narrow strip of beach at high tide. (To read more about previous tours I’ve led in New Brunswick, check out this blog post.)

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Another highlight of this trip is our visit to Grand Manan island and the wonderful birding there. I have a special fondness for seabirds, and the pelagic trip into the rich waters of the Bay of Fundy never disappoints. We has a gorgeous day for this year’s trip, encountering hundreds of shearwaters, storm-petrels, phalaropes and other pelagic species along the way – often right alongside the boat!

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In October, I was invited to join the team at Adventure Canada as their expedition ship “Ocean Endeavour” circumnavigated Newfoundland. It was an exciting opportunity to explore my home province from a unique perspective – often calling in to small, remote communities. I even got to see a few places I’d never been before, including Little Bay Islands (above) which neighbours my late grandfather’s childhood home. I was honoured to work with the incredible team at Adventure Canada, and to spend ten days with their fun and interesting guests … and I look forward to doing it again in the future.

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Sailing around Newfoundland also gave me a chance to get reacquainted with one of Newfoundland’s most enigmatic birds – Leach’s Storm-Petrel. These tiny seabirds nest in huge numbers along our coast, but usually stay far out at sea and out of sight (coming and going from their burrows only under cover of darkness). They are often attracted to the lights of ocean vessels, so it is not unusual to find them stranded on the decks during the night or early morning and in need of “rescue” (a gentle toss over the side to get them airborne). I was able to use this phenomena to educate guests and other staff not only about seabirds in general, but also the impact that our activities can have on them. After making some changes to reduce our light emissions, we saw a dramatic decrease (to nearly zero) in stranded birds during the course of our travels.

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The busyness of fall 2018 didn’t leave me with much time for birding on my own time (something I love to do in fall), but when I did I was thrilled to be joined by my oldest daughter, Emma. She seems to have caught the birding “bug” this year, and nothing could make me happier than see my kids connecting with nature. In this photo, Emma is “digiscoping” a Gray Heron in Renews – a mega rarity not only for Newfoundland, but all of North America. (Notably, Emma is using my trusty Kowa TSN-883 scope in this photo – for a detailed review of my Kowa optics check out this blog post from a few months ago).

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December snuck up on me quickly – along with a happy return to Trinidad & Tobago, leading my third Eagle-Eye Tours trip to this awesome destination. We had a great time – enjoying the amazing birding at Asa Wright Nature Centre, across the varied habitats of Trinidad, and then to more relaxed but equally bird-filled Tobago. This Guianan Trogon was just one of many many highlights! (You can find many more photos and stories from my earlier trips here and here.)

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A personal highlight from Trinidad & Tobago 2018 was an encounter with four American Flamingos (lifers!). Somewhat unusual in recent years, these were part of a group that had been hanging out around the famous Caroni Swamp, and may have arrived from Venezuela following an earthquake earlier in the year.

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Although it’s been challenging to keep this blog updated during a busy 2018, I did post lots of updates on other social media channels (see above). These were my most popular Instagram photos throughout the year (note that not all photos were actually taken in 2018). Be sure to follow along for more stories and photos this year!!

A Year with KOWA Gear

“Optics” are an integral part of a birder’s life. Binoculars and (for many) spotting scopes are without a doubt the most important pieces of equipment we use … essential for almost every birding excursion or outing we make. And the more birding we do, the more important “quality” equipment becomes. We all want optics that are durable, weather-resistant, comfortable to use and, above all else, provide a bright & sharp image for our enjoyment.

I’ve owned and used several pairs of binoculars during my ~20 years of birding … starting with my father’s old Tasco tanks, which he used mostly for the occasional moose hunting trip. I bought my own first pair in university, when my birding hobby got serious, and moved up to a “mid-range” pair a few years later. I purchased my first scope in 2003 – a quality, second-hand one that had been only used a few times and was going for a “steal”. Those optics saw me through a lot of wonderful experiences – beautiful birds, rare sightings, and travel to some very cool places.

But last winter, I found myself needing to replace both my binoculars and my trusty scope. What better time for an upgrade to top-of-the-line equipment?!?! After a little research (reading reviews, chatting with a lot of birders in my network), it didn’t take long to decide that Kowa was the way to go. Kowa scopes are consistently rated at or near the top of the market for image and performance, and their new high-end line of binoculars were getting great reviews (although they hadn’t become popular in North American markets yet, so I knew very few birders who had them!). After talking with some of the lovely people at their North American offices, Kowa very generously offered to provide me with the gear I needed at a price I could appreciate. As a guide and tour leader, many birders from all over the world would enjoy an opportunity to try out, and likely be impressed by, their equipment every year.

I was like a kid on Christmas morning when the package arrived last March … and first impressions were everything I knew they would be. The sleek shape and elegant casing on both the scope and binoculars were a treat to look at, and the feel when I first picked them up were a real joy. These optics were made for my hands 😉  They had arrived just in the nick of time … I was leaving for a birding trip to Honduras the very next day, and the brand new Genesis 10.5×44 binoculars were going to get their first real test in that tropical paradise (I left the scope home for that adventure, but it has traveled everywhere with me since).

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I was honoured last 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!

I’ve been using my Kowa gear for well over a year now, so it’s time to tell you what I think. And, overall, I think it’s great! My new scope is a Kowa TSN-883 Prominar … an 88mm spotting scope that is often ranked the best in market by professional reviewers. I opted for the angled version – a switch from my old straight scope I loved so much – mostly because of  the flexibility it offers when birding with groups, as I almost always do. Angled scopes can be set up a lower level and still be accessible to people of most heights, and many birders insist that angled scopes are in general more comfortable and result in less neck strain when using it for long periods of time. It did take me a while to get used to the new perspective, but I have to say it’s been a positive change overall. That being said, the TSN scopes are available in both angled and straight models, and it’s really a matter of preference.

Despite the large objective size (88mm), the scope itself is relatively compact and light – making it easier than my previous model for both carrying and traveling. Without the eyepiece, it measures just 13.5 inches and was even able to fit in my carry-on satchel or camera bag when taking a flight (Note that Kowa also makes Prominar models in 77mm and compact 55mm sizes if travel and transport outweigh your need for a large objective). The TSN-883 has a magnesium alloy casing – making it lighter but reportedly just as strong as other brands in its class. The green finish on the casing is quite nice, although the lack of a rubber coating may leave it a little vulnerable to the elements. For added protection, I opted for a Kowa fitted scope cover which does a nice job of shielding the entire scope without making it impractical to use and has a very useful carrying strap. Of course, the scope itself is nitrogen purged and waterproof – like any optics at this end of the market should be.

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Kowa TSN-883 Prominar proudly at work … helping me score an increasingly rare “Newfoundland lifer”. Even the tiny Eared Grebe couldn’t hide on the open ocean with this beauty at my side 😉

All scopes in the Kowa Prominar line have one important thing in common – the objective lens is made of pure fluorite crystal, the standard in optical quality, and has a blend of Kowa’s special coatings to enhance both image and resilience. The result is a wonderful viewing experience – very bright, sharp and excellent colour resolution. Compared to my old scope, and most others that I’ve tried, the brightness of image really stands out when using my TSN-883 — and that matters! I’ve been able to use this scope at dusk and dawn, when many other scopes would have been all but useless. Brightness is also important when looking out over the dark waters of the ocean or on a grey foggy day (things we do a lot in Newfoundland). Birds and details appear very sharp in the scope, and focusing is fast and easy using the dual focusing wheel. Depth of field has been deep (wide?) enough that honing in on a subject isn’t impossible, but narrow enough that foreground and/or background are not too distracting. That sounds simple enough, but not every piece of optics can claim that “sweet spot” in the field of focusing. Notably, the image stays bright and sharp to the very edges of the image – something that can be annoying with lower quality lenses.

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Like all good birding buddies, my Kowa TSN-883 Prominar has been tagging along on all my adventures. Here it is trained on a Red-billed Tropicbird off the verandah of our hotel on Tobago (Trinidad & Tobago 2017)

I love the flexibility of zoom lenses, so I opted for the Kowa 20-60x eyepiece when choosing my gear. The ability to scan an area and look for birds at low magnification but zoom in on a distant target when necessary is a very useful thing – especially when you’re like me and spend a lot of time watching seabirds and shorebirds. Like the scope body, Kowa eyepieces are also nitrogen purged and waterproof – an important feature considering it is one part of the system that is always exposed to the weather when in use. The eyepiece connects easily to the body, but has a push-button release mechanism that keeps it safely in place until you actually “want” it to come off. Zooming occurs smoothly with a twist of the eyepiece, meaning its easier to stay on a target (even a moving one) when doing so. The image of course loses a little brightness at high magnifications, but less than I was used to with my old scope and zoom eyepiece … and sharpness remains surprisingly good even at 60x. I haven’t for a moment regretted my choice of eyepiece – but for those interested, there are several other options including a 30x wide angle and 25x long eye-relief models.

* Don’t just take my word for it … Many of my tour guests over the past year have commented on the clear, sharp and bright views they enjoyed while using my scope; including experienced birders who own or have used other top brands. Sometimes, it was as much a conversation piece as it was a piece of equipment 😉

As much as I use and enjoy my scope, it should come as no surprise that I (along with most birders) use my binoculars far more often. Binoculars are the essential, if not diagnostic, trademark of a birder — the one piece of equipment that makes us recognizable in the outdoors world, and allows us to enjoy our sport to its fullest. I “need” a quality pair of binoculars, and my new Kowa Genesis XD 10.5×44 did not disappoint.

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My Kowa Genesis 10.5x44s got their baptism by fire — joining me on a birding trip to Honduras just 24 hrs after they arrived. They performed exceptionally well in the humid climate and often dull understories we explored. And the birds we enjoyed together?? Wow.

The key feature of the Genesis XD binoculars is that they use the same extra low dispersion glass as the Prominar scopes, resulting in a very sharp, bright and colour-correct image. The improved viewing compared to my old binoculars was amazing – and easily compared to my experiences looking through similar high-end binoculars belonging to friends and colleagues (including Swarovski and Zeiss). I chose to go with the 10.5×44 model since I was already using 10x binoculars, and prefer the higher magnification for the amount of seawtaching I tend to do. That being said, many birders prefer 8x models for various reasons (wider field of view, less visible shake, etc.) and the Genesis 8.5×44 are equally well reviewed.

Another notable feature of these binoculars is the 44mm objective lenses (vs 42mm in most similar models). The difference may seem minimal, but is actually quite significant – the additional light produces a brighter image that really adds to the overall viewing experience and makes the binoculars usable in slightly dimmer situations (dawn, dusk and foul weather) than they might otherwise be. Interestingly, the objective lenses are threaded to allow the use of 46mm filters – not something that birders tend to do, but could very useful for those who (also?) use their binoculars for viewing the night sky. Combined with the larger magnification and objective size, I imagine these are ideal binoculars for people who dabble in both birding and stargazing.

The one down-side of the increased magnification and objective lenses is that it results in a somewhat larger, heavier pair of binoculars – in fact, they are notably heavier than most similar models. To be honest, I knew this before choosing them and was expecting it to be an issue (if minor), but have to admit that it has not. Even though I still use a traditional neckstrap, I have not noticed any neck strain from long period of use (note that I use an off-brand, cushioned strap that I have loved for years, and have not actually tried the Kowa strap that came with the binoculars). They do feel a bit heavy after holding them up for long periods, but they are so well shaped and comfortable to hold that the weight becomes an after-thought. All that beings said, the additional weight might be consideration for those who prefer lightweight optics, have strength/endurance issues with their arms, or tend to experience some shaking when using binoculars (I don’t like to say it, but especially “older” birders). Like the Kowa scopes and most high-end brands, the binoculars themselves are nitrogen purged and fully water/fog-proof for use in the real world.

Focusing with these binoculars is impressively smooth and comfortable – the central focusing wheel is large, well textured for gripping your finger, and adjusts both quickly and easily. Fine adjustments are easily made, but at the same time I don’t find it “too” sensitive – which can sometimes lead to frustration as you try to get the focus just right. As a birder with interests in broader aspects of nature, I often use my binoculars to look at wildflowers, butterflies and other things during my explorations — things that are sometimes relatively close. I have been very impressed with the “close focus” of these binoculars – coming in at well under 6ft (5.5ft in the specs) and as good as any binoculars I’ve used. In my opinion, this is a very important (and often under-rated) feature that helps set the best binoculars apart from others. If you’ve never enjoyed a colourful spring warbler at full frame in your binoculars, you’re missing out!

The Genesis binoculars have sturdy twist-up eye cups, which I have found to be very useful and stay in place when I’ve set them (an issue I have had with other pairs, when I would sometimes raise them to my eyes and discover one eye cup in the wrong position – occasionally making me miss a flitting bird!). The diopter (used for individually focusing each eye) also has a locking system that prevent it from changing unexpectedly – an issue I have also had with many other pairs. The reported eye relief on this model is 16mm – just on the verge of what most manufacturers/users would consider to be “long eye relief”. This makes them quite comfortable to use with the eye cups fully extended (which I prefer to block out peripheral light), and should be fine for users wearing eyeglasses (something I’ll learn more about over the next few months as I have just started wearing my first pair).

Kowa has also put a lot of thought and effort into the field of “digiscoping” (i.e. using their high-end scopes in combination with digital cameras and phones for photography and/or video). I hope to experiment with this more in the future!

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My Kowa gear has made a huge difference not only to my birding experience, but especially to that of my many clients throughout the past year. Many dozens of birders and nature-lovers enjoyed seeing some pretty fantastic things through my scope & binoculars — including life birds & spectacular displays of nature! A huge thanks to my friends at Kowa for helping me provide them with a top-notch experience.

Finally, a quick comment on customer service with Kowa – which I’ve had opportunity to experience twice since receiving my new optics. Although they have no Canadian offices (a slight inconvenience for us Canadian customers), folks working at their North American offices in California were quick to answer my questions and help in any way. After realizing a small piece (diopter ring) on my new binoculars arrived broken, they expedited a replacement piece to me that arrived within a few days. I also had a very unfortunate incident with my scope, causing the mount to break (due to a significant impact, and not due to any defect or shortfall in the scope itself). The service department at Kowa took care of it quickly, receiving and returning the perfectly repaired scope in excellent time (considering it had to go all the way to California). They have been wonderful to deal with when I need to (although I always hope I don’t!).

 

 

 

Coming down, catching up …

I know, I know … you don’t need to remind me. It’s been a while since I updated this blog.

This summer was incredibly fun … and busy … and fun. Once again, I was privileged to share beautiful birds, nature, places and experiences with many visitors — from spectacular seabird colonies to quiet walks in the forest; from the rugged shores of Newfoundland to migration hot spots in the southernmost reaches of Ontario. Since the beginning of May I’ve led tours in three different provinces (Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland), spent a week exploring our beautiful coast and isolated communities aboard an expedition cruise ship, and of course spent many days showing off the amazing birds, wildlife and scenery of my island home to dozens of BirdTheRock clients and guests. It’s a blessed life.

As the busy summer comes to an end, I’m looking forward to catching up on my photos, sharing the stories, reliving the memories, and planning for many more adventures. Stay tuned! For now, here are just a few of my favourite photos from Summer 2018:

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In early June, I was invited to join the crew of the Hebridean Sky as it circumnavigated Newfoundland – visiting beautiful, quaint and often isolated communities along the way. June can still be a volatile time in the waters off northern Newfoundland – and this year was no exception. Arctic ice and rough weather toyed with our plans at every turn, but we didn’t let it stop our adventure! Here I’m standing on the arctic ice floe in the Strait of Belle Isle, with Labrador (and our ship) in the background.

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There were so many amazing birding experiences, it’s hard to choose even a few top highlights … but a close encounter with this Short-eared Owl has to be one of them. This magnificent bird circled around us just a few miles north of Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve. What a looker!

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Speaking of Cape St. Mary’s — as always, this spectacular seabird reserve was a favourite with our guests. Words and photos cannot truly capture the awe that I experience every time I visit. If you’ve never been there (or even if you have!), be sure to join me sometime. Our Summer 2019 schedule will be available soon.

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Nothing can prepare you for a visit to Newfoundland’s largest seabird colonies, and I never tire of seeing the look on my guests’ faces as they soak in the spectacle of Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Hundreds of thousands of Atlantic Puffins, Common Murre, and many other seabirds swarm around us. The incredible numbers in the air and/or on the water is often just as amazing as the  close-up views we enjoy while cruising past the islands.

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Of course, Newfoundland birding is not “just” about the seabirds. Our boreal forests are home to a diversity of birds, and we spent lots of time enjoying them this summer. Some, like this Wilson’s Warbler, only grace us for a few short months and are already heading south for another winter – while many others stay year-round to keep us company in the colder (but equally exciting) months.

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I was especially fortunate this year to co-lead an Eagle-Eye Tours trip in southern Ontario in early May. This tour is timed to coincide with peak songbird migration across the Great Lakes, and we visited migration hot spots such as Point Pelee, Rondeau and Long Point, as well as Algonquin Park. We encountered many migrants and a number of scarce/rare breeding birds in Canada — including several Prothonotary Warblers like this one. A very, very fun birding trip for everyone involved!

Stayed tuned for more photos and updates. In the meantime, follow along on Twitter, Facebook and/or Instagram for regular photos.

And … be sure to join me for an adventure real soon!

 

Trinidad & Tobago 2017: Part 2

This past December, I returned to Trinidad & Tobago to lead my second birding tour there with Eagle-Eye Tours. These two islands, located off the coast of Venezuela, provide a great introduction to the incredibly diverse birds and other wildlife of South America. Given the relative small size of the islands, we are able to stay at just two places for the entire tour and enjoy a relaxed pace – but with no shortage of great birds and other highlights!

Below are yet another sample of photos & highlights from our 2017 adventure. If you haven’t already, be sure to check Part 1 of this blog post here. Details about upcoming trips can be found on the Eagle-Eye Tours website (link above).

As I mentioned in my last post, I remember first learning about Trinidad & Tobago when I discovered some stamps from there in a collection given to me by my grandfather. Here is another one of those beautiful stamps (c. 1969). I never became much of a stamp collector, but also never imagined at the time that I’d find myself wandering exotic places all over the world searching out birds and nature!

For most people, parrots are an iconic image of the tropics … and we encountered several species during the tour. Orange-winged Parrots were both the most common and the most noisy. This was a part of a small group that hung out around Asa Wright Nature Centre, sometimes giving great views off the verandah (This photo, and the video below, was taken using my phone and Kowa scope).

While it wouldn’t be easy to choose the “most” beautiful of all the birds that we enjoyed from the verandah at Asa Wright Nature Centre, no doubt the male Violaceous Euphonia is a top contender. These brilliant birds were a regular, if not constant, visitor at the feeders and fruiting trees that surrounded us there.

And of course, it’s not just the birds but other wildlife that makes a visit to Trinidad & Tobago so much fun. Keen eyes can spot a huge diversity of life, such as this male Ameiva – perhaps the most common lizard on the islands.

A lot of life in the tropics comes out after the sun goes away, so we took several evening strolls to look for a variety of wildlife. This Ratonel (aka Moon Snake; Pseudoboa neuwiedii) was a special treat during one of our night walks along the driveway at Asa Wight Nature Centre. Snakes are not always easy to find, so we were fortunate to spot this one before it disappeared into the underbrush.

One of the scarcer, but spectacular, hummingbirds we encountered during the trip was this Long-billed Starthroat. Even though we only saw one most days, this individual was a reliable visitor to the feeders at Asa Wright Nature Centre and always a joy to watch.

Despite all the brilliant colours of the tropics, some birds really do rock the black & white palette – and White-headed Marsh Tyrant is a shining example. These beautiful birds were one of many highlights during our excursions to wet, lowland habitats on Trinidad.

Many of the birds in these grassy, marshy habitats tended to be drab – but no less lovely. This Yellow-chinned Spinetail was part of a pair that gave us uncharacteristically great views at one of our stops.

We did find a splash of colour in the same marsh, when several Yellow-hooded Blackbirds emerged from the grass to check us out. How’s that for golden locks?!?!

Coastal birding made for an interesting change after several days in the mountains and rain forest. Here my co-leader Ernesto and some of our guests check out the shorebirds and pelicans at Waterloo, on the Caribbean coast of Trinidad.

With high tide greeting our arrival, hundreds of shorebirds were gathered on a small point of land and allowed us some amazingly close looks. This flock of “peeps” (mostly Western Sandpipers, but also several others) burst into flight when a Peregrine Falcon whipped through in search of lunch.

This lone Wilson’s Plover (right) was a great find – unusual enough that it was a “lifer” for one of our very experienced local guides (Charan). Yet, it was just a stone’s throw from where I saw my own first just two years earlier! (Semipalmated Plover, to the left)

Ever get that feeling you’re being watched?? We spotted several mudskippers in the shallow waters around Waterloo. As amphibious fish, we also saw a number of them “crawling” on the beach at another nearby location – such cool critters!

This very obliging Bicolored Conebill was a nice surprise – coming in very close in a small patch of trees at the water’s edge. This was by far my best ever looks at this often skulky mangrove specialist.

Several immature Scarlet Ibis were feeding on a beach at one of our stops – the closest views we had of this incredible bird. Of course, even these close views had nothing on the spectacle we would enjoy at the end of this day (keep reading below).

This Hanuman Statue and its associated temple was a popular cultural stop during our excursion to the coast. Standing 85ft tall, this is the tallest monument to this Hindu god outside of India and beautiful place to visit. (It didn’t hurt that we saw Fork-tailed Palm Swifts flying around the statue and a Pale-breasted Spinetail around the corner!)

Our last afternoon on Trinidad was spent exploring the famous mangroves of Caroni Swamp – a highlight of each and every trip. The great birding began right in the parking lot and included several mangrove species such as this Masked Cardinal.

We also spotted this Straight-billed Woodcreeper and a Greater Ani from the roadside – although we did see one or two more of each while cruising through the mangroves on the boat.

Caroni Swamp is a huge and internationally important wetland – more than 5600 hectares of mangrove forest, marsh and beautiful estuaries. Cruising through the inner channels, under the canopy of red mangroves, is just the beginning of a surreal experience.

Several species of heron and egrets are encountered in these mangroves – including Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron (pictured), Tricoloured Heron, Night Herons, and even the amazing Boat-billed Heron (which we did find tucked away in a very sheltered spot!).

The absolute, hands-down highlight of the day (and maybe the trip?) was the spectacle of thousands of brilliant Scarlet Ibis (along with several species of herons) coming in to roost. The serenity of relaxing on a boat in the middle of a beautiful estuary with the stunning Northern Range mountains as background to this “National Geographic” moment was just icing on the cake. Guests always count this among the most amazing experiences of their birding lives, and with very good reason!

After a magical end to our time in Trinidad, we took a quick hop over to Tobago for the last three days of our tour. Our first stop at some local lagoons immediately produced several species we hadn’t seen on Trinidad – including this Least Grebe pretending to be an aquatic plant. The lagoons were also home to numerous Common Gallinules and Wattled Jacanas, among others.

Golf clubs can also be excellent places for birds, so we stopped briefly to check out the ponds at one local club. The highlight was definitely a group of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, although several Anhinga, Southern Lapwings and a Spectacled Caiman were also fun to watch.

After lunch on a local beach (beaches are a big part of culture and life in Tobago!), we spent the afternoon at Adventure Farms – a private farm and nature preserve known both for its busy feeders and its leisurely birding. The fresh mango smoothies were an added perk! This is the Tobago life.

Dozens of hummingbirds were coming and going from the feeders all afternoon. White-necked Jacobins are certainly among my personal favourites, and were a fixture both here and back at Asa Wright Nature Centre.

That being said, the showy (and usually harder-to-see) Ruby Topaz Hummingbird was a crowd pleaser, with several zipping around and showing off those amazing colours. These otherwise understated birds have to be at just the right angle to the sun for their bright iridescence to shine – and when they are, its spectacular. (But it’s also VERY hard to capture with a camera!)

A lot more than just hummingbirds visit the garden at Adventure Farms. With plenty of flowers and fruiting trees, many other birds drop in for a taste. This was the first of several Red-crowned Woodpeckers we encountered – one of several species that occur here but not on Trinidad.

Another such species is White-fringed Antwren. We found a pair of them during a stroll around the Adventure Farms property – the male showed exceptionally well for such a skulky species.

One of our group’s favourite birds to see and watch was the beautiful Rufous-tailed Jacamar – of which we found several. This one was very obliging as a small group of us strolled through the Adventure Farms property, even flying towards us and landing quite close. Relatives of Kingfishers and Bee-eaters, these birds can be a lot of fun to observe.

Our accommodations on Tobago offered very different, yet equally beautiful, views than our mountain perch back on Trinidad. Our rooms and restaurant overlooked this lovely beach, glistening ocean and beautiful islands off the northeast coast – perfect for relaxing, swimming, snorkeling and (of course) birding.

Our hotel grounds also provided some excellent birding … including several unmistakable Rufous-vented Chachalacas. Another species that occurs here but not on Trinidad, we enjoyed their antics and even their raucous calls. Here, you can also see the large & colourful Frangipani Hornworms (caterpillars of the Frangipani Sphinx Moth) that were also fun to find.

Trinidad Motmot, a species endemic to this country, does occur on both islands – but are much less shy and easier to see on Tobago. They were a regular sight around the hotel property, although we could never get bored of them!

Another fun critter to spot around the grounds was Richard’s Anole – a relatively large anole that is endemic to the Caribbean and was introduced to Tobago from the Grenadine Islands.

We found several Black-faced Grassquits during our meanders on Tobago – including this male on the “Starwood Track” above our hotel. From a North American perspective, I’ve always found that these birds give a very “junco” impression.

Our next excursion was to go birding at Gilpin Trace – a popular hiking trail in the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. Check out that lush rainforest!

The Main Ridge Forest Reseerve was first proclaimed in 1776, making it the oldest protected area in the world! Several hiking trails makes this tract of pristine, native rain forest very accessible.

One of our targets here was the Blue-backed Manakin (absent on Trinidad), like this male that showed surprisingly well in a fruiting fig tree. You can see that it was banded – likely part of ongoing research to help understand, monitor and protect this interesting species.

This vista from the “Starwood Track” (above our beachside hotel) shows the beautiful view over the water and two nearby islands – Goat Island and Little Tobago, the latter of which was our destination later that day.

A visit to Little Tobago island is always a highlight of our trip. We made the short crossing on a glass-bottomed boat, stopping to check one of the coral reefs and its abundant marine life along the way.

Seabirds were the main reason for our trip, and we weren’t disappointed. We saw dozens each of Magnificent Frigatebird (pictured), Brow Pelican, Brown and Red-footed Boobies.

The crown jewel of Little Tobago, however, is a spectacular colony of Red-billed Tropicbirds. From our perch near the top of the island, we overlooked a glistening bay and dozens of these beautiful birds soaring above, below and right in front of us. Both species of booby were also nesting there.

Several Red-billed Tropicbirds could be seen nesting on the ground just metres from our lookout, while another resourceful individual was nesting directly under the wooden platform we were standing on – just inches from our feet and apparently unfazed.

Another, often overlooked, treat on Little Tobago is a chance to spot Ocellated Gecko. These small and very cryptic geckos are considered endemic to this tiny island. We spotted two (both apparent females) on our hike back down to the boat.

And with that, the sun set on yet another amazing tour to Trinidad & Tobago. It was a wonderful adventure, with wonderful birds & wildlife and an even more wonderful group of participants. I can’t wait to return again! Who’s coming with me??

We finished our tour having observed an incredible 216 species of birds, lots of other exciting wildlife and highlights of nature, as well as a ton of fun! I’m already looking forward to our next adventure there! Check out the details on the Eagle-Eye Tours website, and/or let me know if you have any questions.

 

 

 

Trinidad & Tobago 2017: Part 1

I remember the first time I ever heard about Trinidad & Tobago. When I was a young boy, my grandfather gave me a stamp collection that he had started … the pages of those albums contained mementos from countries all over the world, many of which I had never known existed and I could only guess where they were or what they were like. For some reason (fate?), the island nation of Trinidad & Tobago caught my attention in a way most others didn’t. I remember letting the name roll off my tongue, then looking it up in a copy of the 1987 World Almanac that I kept in my room – learning all kinds of interesting facts that formed the first picture of this exotic place in my imagination. Little did I ever think that I might one day travel to these beautiful islands – let alone lead regular birding tours there!!

This is just one of the stamps from Trinidad & Tobago (1969) that caught my attention as young boy (not all of them had birds!). It’s amazing that this birding paradise is now a regular destination for this lucky tour leader!

This past December, I returned to Trinidad & Tobago for my second birding tour with Eagle-Eye Tours. These two islands, located off the coast of Venezuela, provide a great introduction to the incredibly diverse birds and other wildlife of South America. Given the relative small size of the islands, we are able to stay at just two places for the entire tour and enjoy a relaxed pace – but with no shortage of great birds and other highlights! Below are some of the photo highlights from our 2017 adventure – and check out Part 2 of this blog post here.     (You can also check out lots more photos and details from our 2015 tour on an earlier blog post here.)

For the first week of the tour, we stayed at the world-famous Asa Wright Nature Centre. The view from the verandah, looking down over a mountain valley and the distant town of Arima, becomes the backdrop to so many of our great birding experiences.

The incredible number, diversity and brilliant colours of the birds visiting the gardens and feeders all around the verandah can be overwhelming at first. Purple Honeycreepers are one of the first birds that most guests notice – and for obvious reasons!

Dozens of hummingbirds can be spotted buzzing around the many feeders and flowers – often just inches from the happy faces of birders. Copper-rumped Hummingbirds are the most abundant and while they may seem a little less flamboyant than some of the other species, they sure can look amazing in the right light.

Here, my co-leader Ernesto Carman holds a Copper-rumped Hummingbird that I “rescued” from the verandah. There are lots of fun learning opportunities in the tropics!

Bananaquits are no doubt the most common bird we see in Trinidad & Tobago. Here they are enjoying some fresh fruit provided by the AWNC staff. Many birds come to partake in these sweet offerings.

And it’s not just the birds … butterflies, Red-rumped Agoutis and menacing-looking Golden Tegu Lizards (like this one) can often be found hanging out around the feeders looking for fallen treats.

The abundance of flowering plants around the property also attract many birds – some of which avoid feeders altogether. The tiny (yet showy!) Tufted Coquette is one of the most sought-after hummingbirds in South America, and we encountered several visiting the abundant vervain flowers at Asa Wright – perhaps the best and most reliable place to see them anywhere.

Somewhat less expected, but equally stunning, was this brilliant Ruby Topaz Hummingbird we discovered just outside our cabins. This incredible species is uncommon on Trinidad at this time of year, although we do expect to see it on Tobago. This one is showing off its amazing colours on a very sunny afternoon.

The lodge and property also has great walking trails through the forest. Here you can see our wonderful group taking a  break after some fantastic birding on the Discovery Trail (and yes – we found the Bearded Bellbird!).

Bearded Bellbird is one of the most exciting birds that can be found on the AWNC trails. Considered the loudest bird in the world, their deafening “gong” calls travel for miles and can often be heard echoing up the valley. We had the great fortune of finding this one on a relatively low perch, where we learned just how loud its voice could be!

Check out this short video I took of the Bearded Bellbird giving its loud call:

Another fun bird that can be found on the local trails is Bearded Manakin. Like other manakins, these spunky little birds have very entertaining courtship displays, and we really enjoyed watching several males making their “click” sounds (like fingers snapping) and buzzing around the local lek.

We also found several Golden-headed Manakins nearby, but they stayed in thick cover and were a challenge to photograph. Next time 😉

There are always lots of interesting plants and flowers to see, as well. One of my favourite flowers found along the trails is Psychotria poeppigiana – playfully called “hot lips”. Can you see why?

When birding in the tropics, we are always on the lookout for army ants. The frenzy of other little critters trying to escape an army ant swarm often attracts a variety of birds – so besides the already cool experience of watching these tiny gladiators at work, it can also lead to a great birding experience. I ran into two such swarms this trip – and one of them was being attended by some great birds.

Here’s a short clip of another Army Ant swarm that I found myself nearly stepping in:

One of the many tropical bird species that specialize in following ant swarms is the Great Antshrike. This male was part of a pair hanging out near the main lodge at Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Another common hummingbird at the ever-busy verandah was White-chested Emerald. Beauty in simplicity.

This short video gives a glimpse of how busy the hummingbird feeders are — all the time!

Even after dark, the verandah can be a great place to hang out. As the birds disappear, Long-tongued Bats show up to take the night shift at the hummingbird feeders. Check out that tongue!! It’s amazing how adept these bats are getting at the sugar-water.

Exploring after dark in the tropics can be just as exciting as daytime. One great find was this large (probably female) Trinidad Chevron Tarantula – an endemic species to the island.

Among several species of frogs seen at night was this tree frog (species TBD) – a tiny little thing no bigger than 15mm.

Lunchtime! A Harvestman is enjoying a late night snack.

The Trinidad Motmot is an endemic species, and its “whoop” calls are very recognizable when heard. These shy birds can be a challenge to spot on Trinidad itself, but are surprisingly much more cooperative on Tobago (although we encountered them in both places). Check out that tail … and the serrated bill! Motmots can and will eat just about anything from fruit to snakes.

Another common (and noisy!) visitor to the gardens at AWNC is the Crested Oropendola. These raucous birds are named for their hanging “pendulum” nests, which we spotted at several locations during the week.

The varied and bubbly calls of Tropical Mockingbirds were also a common sound during the trip – not just at Asa Wright, but pretty much everywhere.

We found eight different species of tanager throughout the trip – six of which could be spotted right from the AWNC verandah. While White-lined Tanagers were not the most colourful, they were certainly the most common and widespread.

One of the most unique experiences of the tour was our trek to the Dunstan Caves, which are home to a colony of amazing Oilbirds. The hike itself is beautiful, but the surreal birding experience that awaits is unlike any other.

Using a flashlight, we were able to spot several Oilbirds roosting just inside the cave entrance. These almost mythical birds are the only nocturnal 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. What a surreal experience – and a highlight of any visit to Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Just outside the cave, we spotted numerous Trinidad Stream Frogs. This is an endemic species, and always a treat to find. It was our second sighting of the week!

Trogons are highly prized by birders, and we were fortunate to see all three species that live in Trinidad & Tobago. By far the most photogenic was this male Guianan Trogon which sat out in the open for several minutes, probably just as curious about us as were of it.

Green Honeycreepers might be overlooked amid a flock of more brightly coloured birds, but they certainly hold their own in the “classy” department. These beautiful birds were daily visitors throughout the tour.

A Ferruginous Pygmy Owl could be heard calling around the Asa Wright Nature Centre every night and early morning, but it wasn’t until one of our excursions that we saw our first one. This little owl seemed completely unfazed by the frenzy of smaller birds mobbing it – a flurry of activity that helped us find it hiding in the trees.

We also encountered stately Savannah Hawks during our excursions to lower elevations. As their name suggests, these lovely raptors are denizens of large open areas and grassy fields, often associated with agricultural operations.

Much more difficult to spot was this female Silvered Antbird. This is a very shy bird of the mangroves, and we were very fortunate to have a pair show themselves for us on Trinidad’s eastern coast at Nariva Swamp.

Just across the road, we found this other mangrove specialist – Northern Scrub Flycatcher. This section of mangrove produced a number of other great birds during our visit – Red-rumped Woodpecker, American Pygmy Kingfisher, and Black-crested Antshrike among them!

It was hard to ignore the butterflies, including this Two-banded Satyr that we found on one of our hikes along the Discovery Trail. Life abounds everywhere you look in the tropics.

One of the most spectacular butterflies we found was the large Illioneus Giant Owl – aptly named not only because of the large “false eye” it uses for disguise, but also because it emerges mostly during the dark hours between dusk and dawn.

Check out Part 2 of this blog post for lots more photos and highlights from the rest of our amazing tour!