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!!

Geese, Herons & Quality Time

I was thrilled this weekend to spend a fun morning birding with my oldest daughter, Emma (9) … a morning which quickly turned “epic” as we ended up scoring two ABA (North American) rarities together!

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Emma enjoying the second of two ABA (North American) rarities of our morning – a Gray Heron hanging out in Renews. A lifer for her, my second for Newfoundland, and just the ~5th record for the province and Canada.

It’s not always easy to find balance in life as a birder, professional nature guide and a parent of two busy girls. I have no shame admitting that I spend far less time birding “recreationally” for myself these days (I do, of course, spend a lot of time birding with tours and clients – but as fun as that is, it’s not quite the same) … and I spend most of my other weekends involved in an array of family activities. I encourage my girls to appreciate and explore nature and (especially) birds, but I have never pushed it on them. Much to my glee, Emma has been expressing lots of interest lately and has even been asking me to take her to see two rare PINK-FOOTED GEESE that showed up in St. John’s recently — something I was excited to make happen. We got up early on Saturday, grabbed a “birder’s breakfast” (Tim Horton’s muffin and coffee/hot chocolate!) and made the short drive across town under cover of darkness. The geese have been spending nights in a city pond, but consistently fly off within minutes of sunrise to spend the day at a currently unknown location — so the key to seeing them is to be early.

We were able to spot the two Pink-footed Geese, along with more than a dozen Canada Geese, through my Kowa scope while it was still quite dark. Joined by another local birder, we walked along the trail for a closer vantage point and waited for the light to trickle in, eventually enjoying longer and better looks. True to form, the entire flock of geese picked up shortly after sunrise and flew off over the nearby neighbourhood – no doubt to a farm field in nearby Kilbride or Goulds. The hadn’t stayed long enough to allow for decent photos, but our views has been excellent!

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Two Pink-footed Geese have been hanging out with a small flock of Canada Geese in Mount Pearl (just outside St. John’s) since at least October 24. As on most mornings, they flew off before the light got nice enough for decent photos, but still provided some great views.

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Emma celebrating her “lifer” Pink-footed Geese, spotted with the help of my Kowa scope well before the sun came up.

We still had the full morning ahead of us as we arrived back at the car, and were looking forward to some more birding … maybe driving around the local fields looking for the geese or a wayward Cattle Egret (numerous had been reported in eastern Newfoundland the past two days). Suddenly my phone buzzed with a message that an intriguing heron in Renews from the evening before had been confirmed as a mega-rare GRAY HERON and was still there this morning. Emma was gung-ho for the adventure, so we hit the highway south for what has always been one of my favourite birding locations. We chatted non-stop for the 1.5 hour drive (mostly about birds), and Emma even honed her eBird skills by entering a checklist all on her own.

We arrived at Renews to find fellow birder Peter Shelton looking at the Gray Heron on a rock across the inner bay – distant, but well within scope range. Emma was also thrilled to find a Harbour Seal on the rocks much closer to us. Eventually the heron picked up and flew around the harbour, eventually landing a little closer to the road on the other side where we enjoyed somewhat closer views … and met up with lots of other birders as they began to appear. Emma was in her glee enjoying the birds, meeting the other birders (although a little shy, I think she liked the attention she garnered as they youngest birder there!) and trying to photograph a very rare heron.

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My poor record shot of this huge rarity from Europe – a Gray Heron. Very similar to its North American cousin, the Great Blue Heron, it is distinguished using several key features such as clean white (versus rusty) thighs, lack of rufous in the leading edge of the wing, and even more subtle differences in bill and plumage patterns. Even in my less-than-ideal photos you can see the overall gray appearance of this bird, lacking the bluish tones of Great Blue Heron.

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Though pressed for time (afternoon obligations – did I mention our girls are busy?!?!), we made a few quick stops on the drive home enjoying other notable birds such as a beautiful Bald Eagle sitting right beside the road, a late Greater Yellowlegs, and even Emma’s first ever Mourning Dove (not overly common in these parts). All in all, it was incredible morning of birding and one of the most memorable adventures I’ve had the pleasure of sharing with Emma. I think she’s hooked, so I look forward to many more 😉

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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!

 

Very Lost! A Purple Gallinule in Newfoundland

I was leading an Eagle-Eye Tours trip in Ontario (Point Pelee, Rondeau, Long Point & Algonquin) when I first heard the news … a brilliant adult PURPLE GALLINULE was discovered roaming on the Waterford River in St. John’s – just minutes from my house!! Despite the fact I was enjoying awesome birds & birding in some wonderful places, there was still a sting to knowing I was missing such a great bird on my home “patch”.

As luck should have it, this colourful visitor from the south decided to stick around — and I arrived home in plenty of time to catch up with it on May 16. What a stunner!

After missing this bird on my first attempt to see it on May 15, I was very happy to spot this bright purple head poking out of the grass the following morning. What a sight in urban St. John’s!

After a few minutes, this beautiful bird graced me by wandering out of the grass to forage along the river bank, sometimes in plain view and other times disappearing into the grass. It was wary, but not frightened by my presence as I sat quietly nearby.

Purple Gallinules are residents of marshes and other grassy wetlands from the southern United States to South America, so very much out of place on a river in eastern Newfoundland. In fact, before this I had only seen this species in Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago! This individual may have arrived on strong southerly winds of late April, which also brought warm weather and numerous herons/egret to Newfoundland at that time. With its secretive habits, it could easily have went unnoticed for the next few weeks until it was reported by some fishermen on May 12. It seems to be healthy and doing well, still present as of at least May 23 (although I imagine it has struggled with the cold weather of the past 24 hrs as I write this).

Surprisingly, the gallinule even flew up and perched in a tree above the river for several minutes – something I haven’t heard other observers report during its nearly two weeks so far. What a wonderful experience!

Incredibly, Purple Gallinule is a more regular vagrant to our shores than you might expect. This bird represents ~30th record for the island, but the first that has “chasable” by local birders and/or has been seen for more than one day. Most records are in late fall or winter, and the majority of those immature birds that are more prone to vagrancy. Many have been found moribund or already succumbed to the elements and its long journey north. A bright spring adult was a real treat — and a great “welcome home” surprise after my own wanderings!

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!