Sometimes it’s just that easy!

November 21, 2020

October 29th was a shite weather day; raw, windy, and set against a canvas of an all-day deluge of horizontal rain. A good day to be inside, and that’s where I was, catching up on some adulting.  But not veteran CT birder, Frank Mantlik. He was out, “beating the bushes” around Stratford. His late afternoon text alert of a Hudsonian Godwit on the runways at Sikorsky airport, felt “right” given the date and weather. His other report of “an adult American Golden Plover with Black-bellieds” was intriguing given the date. As someone that’s tried to prime CT’s birders, and arm them with the fore knowledge to identify the confusingly similar Pacific Golden Plover, the main window of late July/early August occurrences for that species seemed firmly nailed shut at this point in time.

The initial pic (Frank Mantlik)

However, when viewing the pic he sent, an admirable feat given the conditions, I instantly spat my freshly-brewed cup of British tea all over my phone! Doug Gochfeld replied at the same time, putting words to my actions, “Pacific?”

Yes. Yes it was. The bill, the neckless-look with worn, faded wings screamed Pacific Golden Plover. Hours of pouring through golden plovers expectantly looking and hoping for CT’s first Pacific Golden had come to an unexpected end on this gloomy late October day. Panic set in. I hadn’t even finished absorbing the minutiae of the image as I did the proverbial headless chicken routine running around the house. I grabbed my gear and headed out the door, frantically urging others to do the same.

Frank had to leave, so when I arrived 30 minutes later, I was on my own. It was gloomy and the weather was atrocious. Black-bellieds were scattered across the runway, along with the Hudwit, which was quickly given the tip of the hat and then discarded in search of the bigger prize. After a panic-scan of the small group, I couldn’t find any sign of a golden plover. !!@@##. Was it the only bird NOT here? A few birders began to arrive and started to scan. Suddenly birds got up – a small mixed group of plovers and dunlin flew left and alighted on the runway some distance away. And there, in the middle of the flock, was “the bird”, “Got it. It’s in the flock on the runway. The small, dark one”. Views were horrific, but the hunched and leggy look with a somewhat truncated rear-end hinted at the identification as Pacific was correct.

Over the next hour the bird finally came closer and allowed for better looks. It still retained a decent amount of summer plumage- with black underparts splodges and the distinctive white neck stripe snaking down along the flanks ghosting the pattern of fresh adults. The worn primaries only projecting a short way past the tail tip were classic Pacific. The long bill was a good pro-Pacific Golden feature, and overall the shape was subtly different from the more long-necked and long-winged look of American Golden Plover.

Adult Pacific Golden Plover with Black-bellied Plover (Bruce Finnan). Note the long-billed, somewhat small-headed look with primaries projecting only a small way beyond the tail tip. The slightly broader nape stripe is evident here as is the longish bill giving this a subtly different gestalt from American.

Adult Pacific Golden Plover (Bruce Finnan). The pale stripe snaking down the flanks ghosts that of a fresh adult. Pacifics moult earlier than Americans and are often in full breeding plumage by April when many American’s are still in basic-type plumage. As such, that these tertials and primaries are so worn would seem to fit Pacific too and is probably a good clue in late fall. Pacifics often begin primary moult on the summer grounds, while Americans, being long-distant migrants, begin primary moult on the wintering grounds. An adult golden plover molting inner primaries in late fall would also be suggestive of Pacific. On this photo, the retained bright yellow notches to the scapulars are large and again are pro-Pacific features.


Kudos to Frank Mantlik for doggedly getting out and birding the area and locating this bird that was a long-awaited first for CT, especially since surrounding states have all recorded this species. While it was on several people’s radar, separating both species of golden plovers, as well as eliminating the similar European Golden Plover, can be difficult and luckily being aware in the moment allowed this bird to be identified within a minute and allowed a lot of people to connect.

Thinking Outside the Box

October 16, 2020
Juvenile Yellow Rail, Milford Pt, CT

Yesterday this happened.

I was cleaning the house when a text from Stefan Martin came through to say that a Yellow Rail was sitting in view next to the Coastal Audubon Center at Milford, CT.

Holy Christ! I was immediately in the car, lickety-split, bobbing and weaving (safely) down I-95 to Milford Pt. Why the excitement you ask?

This is the overview provided by Cornell University on their “All About Birds” website: A tiny marsh bird that lives its life concealed by grassy vegetation, the Yellow Rail is one of the hardest birds to see in North America. Perfectly camouflaged in complex patterns of black, brown, yellow, and white, Yellow Rails run as quickly as rodents through dense marsh vegetation. They rarely take flight, but when they do they reveal white patches in the wing.

Yellow Rails are likely annual passage migrants in CT but are essentially invisible transients by virtue of their behavior. Seeing one is a mythical challenge for most birders – many seasoned birders still need this for their life list. Seeing one usually involves a concerted effort; traveling to a specific spot, in a particular habitat, at a predetermined time of year. It may or may not involve milk cartons and rope.

This particular individual had an interesting backstory. It had been found nearby by a local homeowner who found the bird stunned in her yard and, thinking it was a “quail”, brought it to the Audubon Center. It was at that point that the “quail” made a break for it, and exited the box at breakneck speed, landing on the lawn of the coastal center where it had remained in view. I was happy the bird was present. The last “seen” one (a calling bird was found in the spring by Nick Bonomo in the eastern part of the state), was one “in-off” at Milford, many years ago, during a Big Sit. For that bird I had left Lighthouse Pt, and in basically a repeat of the above events, managed a $133 speeding ticket on the way to what was ultimately an empty bush. A bird in the bush is worth two they say – what a load of bollocks!!

Purists at this point will start pontificating on the “countability” factor of this as a valid bird on your list. I had seen Yellow Rails before, so I wasn’t concerned about the ethics of listing. I was just there to enjoy a surreal encounter with a seldom-seen species.

My life bird had been in Texas, flushed from a wet marsh on the gulf coast by 15 birders dragging a rope with a line of empty milk jugs filled with rocks attached to it. The reason for this is that the rumbling cacophony reverberates through the quiet marsh grass, causing these mouse-like rails to take flight, literally jumping onto many a life list in the process. Good deal!

Yellow Rail twitchers

Anyway, regardless that this bird had been described by one birder as being, “been boxed up like a head of lettuce” (thanks Tom Johnson!), it did not detract from the amazing experience of seeing one of these denizens of the marsh in full view. A juvenile, aged by the dull, blackish portions of the bill and barred breast sides, it just sat there quietly. As dusk approached, it didn’t look too healthy. It frequently closed its eyes and a displaced patch of crown feathers hinted at perceived trauma of hitting a window, or some other object, caused us to consider rehabbing it. At dusk, we made an attempt to catch it, but the bird perked up. We decided that it looked healthy enough from the outside, and shepherded it, in a rather comical way, into the nearby marsh edge, where we left it to do what Yellow rails do.

Thanks to Stefan Martin for being the ornithological maitre d and for getting the news out.

Common and Roseate Terns in Flight

August 17, 2020

Juvenile Common Tern (left) and juvenile Roseate Tern, West Haven, CT August 2020 (composite: Julian Hough). Note the stout, blackish bill and hood of the Roseate and the body proportions compared to the Common Tern and the paler mid-wing panel, broader white trailing edge to the primaries and the diagnostic whitish outer web to the outermost tail feather on the Roseate. Click to view hi-res.

A good number of juvenile terns are mixing in with the post-breeding flocks at Sandy Point, New Haven, CT. Juvenile Roseates are not frequently seen here, but several have been present and afforded me a nice chance to study them.

On the deck

  • Standing juvenile Common Terns have pale orange bill bases and pale orange-flesh legs with a clean white forehead.
  • Juvenile Roseate Terns have dark blackish-brown legs, a complete black bill and a finely streaked blackish forehead that often extends all the way to the bill base, giving them a characteristic “hooded” look.

In Flight

In flight, especially at a distance, they can be hard to identify in a large mixed flock of flying terns. Their distinctive, di-syllabic “Chrr-uitt” call is often a clue to their presence and it is definitely a call any would-be searchers should memorize.

In flight, like adult Roseates, juveniles often look a bit skinnier and more “pure white” compared to Common Terns. With experience, they look slightly longer-necked, narrower winged and longer-tailed behind the wing (probably due to their shorter wings than longer tails) compared with the more even proportions of Common Tern. The more whiter plumage, especially the rump and tail and the paler mid-wing contrasting a bit more on average with the dark outer wing may be noticeable. These features will be hard to discern in a mixed flock, flying around, so look for the more rapid, shallow wingbeats of Roseate that is often helpful with experience. The dark, hooded look should also be noticeable at a distance helping cement any identifications.

On closer views, some minutiae, that helps differentiate these two species are:

  • the outer web to the outermost tail feather is blackish-gray in Common Tern and white in Roseate (both adult and juvenile). If the tern you are looking at has a dark outer edge of the outermost tail feather it isn’t a Roseate.
  • on Roseate, the tips to the secondaries and particularly the primaries are broadly edged white unlike in Common Tern.
  • the upperpart markings in Roseate are more contrasting, giving a “black and white” pattern formed by broad blackish “c” marks to the rear scapulars. In Common, the dark subterminal marking are less dark and often the whole mantle is washed with ochre-brown.
  • the outer primaries often contrast with a paler mid-wing panel in Roseates while in Common Tern the whole wing tends to be a more even gray.

Mexico, 24th November – 1st December 2019

April 10, 2020


Being kid-free at Thanksgiving 2019, we returned to Mexico for a week of rest and relaxation birding. Work had been hectic for both of us and with fond memories of our last trip to Tulum in 2017, we decided we’d try and replicate it. Tulum is a resort town on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, around 130 km south of Cancún. (Click on images for full resolution)

We booked the same Kira’s beach hotel. It had been taken over by new owners, but with favorable reviews we rebooked under the new name Keniza. We arrived to nice weather on the first afternoon, having hired a car from Cancun and taken a relaxing 1 1/2 hours drive south.

We arrived on Sunday 24th about 2pm and checked in to the room above where we stayed last year with a nice deck (I said deck) and views of the wonderful beach. Brown Pelicans flew by in formation and ever-present Magnificent Frigatebirds sailed high overhead. It was good to be back in Tulum!

Enjoying being back in tranquil Tulum

Heaven is sun, crystal clear water and powdery sand


It was Sunday, and the hotel next door (next door being separated by a fence nothing more than a ½ inch thick) was having a beach party. The outdoor DJ was blasting a mind-numbing bass beat.

DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP.

It was so loud and the bass so deep, my teeth were rattling inside my head. Hey, live and let live though! We’re all on vacation!

We unpacked and I wandered out onto our deck. Leaning on the railing to look down onto the place packed with folk enjoying the mind-numbing rave that was going on, I nearly had a heart-attack as I felt the railing give-away. I caught myself but the rail was completely rotten through. Jesus!! Somebody nearly had me drop into their martini!!

I returned to the room, a bit shaken and rightly stirred, to vent to Ingrid, but the incessant DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP was now driving both of us fucking insane! We’d had a long day and it was now 8pm and the walls were reverberating.

DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP. 

We enquired if this was a nightly occurrence, stating that there was no way we could relax, let alone sleep. There’s no surprise the military use this for torture!

DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP.

They said it was just tonight, but that ordinances were such that they could not do anything, but 11pm it would be shut down. 11.PM!! I’m gonna F!!@@## kill someone by that point, and it might be myself! Ingrid had had enough. She looked online, found a hotel literally down the street.

DUMP-DUMPDUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP.

We left all our gear and took what we needed. We just needed some peace and quiet. And that was how our first day started! Woohoo! And you’ve not even seen a bird photo yet!

Monday 25th November – Tulum

We awoke and had a nice breakfast and coffee on the beach at our second hotel. The weather was glorious. Like listening to the monotonous toot-toot-toot of Scop’s Owls in Europe, I swear I could still hear that bass beat in my head. 🙂

Ingrid – thankful for coffee but wondering where it all went wrong!

We had formulated a plan that we’d go back and we (me) would work out staying at Keniza for just 2 nights of the 4 we had booked. We would move back in to the current, but much more expensive hotel, for the rest of the week. I agreed we’d do that. The manager at Keniza was really great and understood the situation. I went to pay for the two nights, but when the woman at the front desk told we’d have to pay for the remainder of the stay, I said, “What the f@@### what?” She said because we booked through Expedia and were cancelling less than 48 hours, we’d have to pay a pro-rated rate. I said I don’t think so. I asked the woman on the desk if Expedia had advertised 48 hours in advance that we’d arrive to 8 hours of torturous DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP-DUMP rave-music that would be blasting into my room, and that it would go on so long, that my cavities would be jarred loose. No? Well, you can tell Expedia I’m not paying it and please can you figure it out.

The manager, to her credit took care of it and it was a non-issue. The weather was great, and we had a wonderful time chilling out on the beach. Ingrid was happy.

After the first day, the water, while warm and inviting was whipped up by the wind, so the surf was way more turbulent than the previous visit.

Turbulent surf

From a birding perspective, I’d decided I would spend time exploring other, less well-known areas on the Yucatan peninsula that were still reachable from Tulum. Tulum ruins, and some forest north at Xel-Ha, and Akamul would be explored as well as a road ½ way to Coba that looked promising. Muyil and Coba Lake would be paid a visit since birding had been good on the previous visit.

26th November – Camino Akamul XuXubi

I was up early. I had google-mapped a road that ran west from Akamul, past the Monkey Reserve. The road typically was pot-holey but drivable. I arrived at dawn and started to drive until I found a good spot or hear bird activity. As the sun rose and illuminated the top of the tress, activity increased. Flocks of orioles and Tropical/Couch’s Kingbirds passed over in small numbers. It was great to be out birding in the jungle at dawn!

Buff-bellied Hummingbird, endemic Black Catbirds, a single male Canivet’s Emerald, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Rose-throated Becard were all evident. A Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl tooted in the forest, but as usual, wasn’t seen.

Endemic Black Catbird

Driving back several orioles were feeding in a fruiting tree, including Hooded Orioles, probably Orange Oriole and nice looks at a Yellow-backed Oriole.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S61776468

Xel-ha Ruins

I then decided to return south, stopping at Xel-ha ruins. I paid my entrance fee and stopped to bird the parking area that produced Social Flycatcher, Black-headed Trogon, Masked Tityra, Yellow-throated Vireo, the endemic Yucatan Vireo and smart Yellow-throated Euphonias. The mosquitos were really bad here so I moved on picking up a scattering of neotropical warblers from Northern climates: Black and White, Hooded, Tennessee, Yellow-throated, Black-throated green, Parula and Northern Waterthrush.

Yucatan Vireo

Iguana

Yellow-throated Euphonia

https://ebird.org/checklist/S61868049

The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing at the beach with Ingrid and soaking up the sun and some cocktails.

Our back “yard”!!

The lovely lass getting bronzed!

Julian happy and enjoying our evening beach stroll (Ingrid Ducmanis)

27th Novemeber – Muyil

Ingrid arose with me at the crack of dawn for an early morning trip to Muyil, another archeological site 20 mins south of Tulum, and a great birding spot. Collared Aracari, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Bright-rumped Attila, Yucatan Woodpecker, Roadside Hawk, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Yucatan Jay, Black-cowled Oriole, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-winged Warbler, Rose-throated tanager, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Blue Bunting, Gray-headed Tanager,  Olivaceous Woodcreeper.

Muyil ruins – great birding and no people! (Ingrid Ducmanis)

Plants! (Ingrid Ducmanis)

Wintering Black and White Warblers were a familiar sight.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S61800753

28th Novemeber – Tulum Ruins

The 13th-century, walled Mayan archaeological site at Tulum National Park overlooks the sea. It incorporates the clifftop Castillo, built as a watchtower, and the Templo de las Pinturas, with a partially restored mural.

Tulum ruins (Ingrid Ducmanis)

(Ingrid Ducmanis)

(Ingrid Ducmanis)

Orange Oriole is an endemic species. Tulum Ruins is a good place to catch up with this species!

Julian photographing Orange and Hooded Orioles inside the ruins (Ingrid Ducmanis)

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Orange and Hooded Orioles and Tropical Kingbird were evident, but I was more focussed on the Ridgwayi Northern Rough-winged Swallows that were flying around the ruins. Currently a race of Northern Rough-winged, this form is quite distinct in shape with much darker flanks and a more martin-like shape with a more deeply-forked tail. Once I’d seen these, they were easy to pick up naked-eye.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S61830310

Gran Cenote

Spending most of the days at the beach was great but I get a little antsy so I coaxed Ingrid into going snorkeling at a local spot Gran Cenote. A cenote is a natural sinkhole filled with freshwater. It is formed when the limestone bedrock collapsed into the fresh groundwater. There are over 3,000 cenotes in Mexico.

(Ingrid Ducmanis)

With its extensive underground river systems, the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico is the world’s best place to experience and explore cenotes. The word has Mayan origins, dzonot or ts’onot meaning well. They played a crucial role in the development of Mayan civilization as well. Since the Yucatan peninsula has very few rivers and lakes the cenotes represented the main source of water. Consequently, Mayan settlements were built next to a cenote, including Chichen Itza and  Tulum.

(Ingrid Ducmanis)

Camera settings were off on this shot, so I exaggerated the colors – yes, she does have a bathing suit on!

https://ebird.org/checklist/S61830329

That night, we explored a nice beach restaurant, enjoying some nice food. The lighting reminded me of the movie “Avatar”.

Cool lighting (Ingrid Ducmanis)

29th November–Francisco Uh Mah

This area had been mentioned to me by fellow birder Abby Darrah, who had camped here. It’s not an area mentioned in any reports and is not a spot birders go to, but on Google maps, this road penetrated prime habitat – it had to be good for birding, and only 25 minutes from Tulum, it was much closer than the 2-hour drive to the much more well-known Felippe Carillo Puerto to the south. I got here at dawn and drove/birded the long road for about 8Km.

The road in was guarded.

It was birdy but by the time I had gotten my bearings the activity was dying down. I knew on the next visit I would get further in. Some great birds here: Gartered Trogon, Lineated Woodpecker, Bat Falcon, White-fronted Parrot, Keel-billed Toucan, Spot-breasted Wren, Barred Antshrike, and Black-cowled, Yellow-backed, Altamira and Orange Orioles.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S61838852

On the way back to the main road, I stopped in the town and while looking at a Blue-Gray Tanager, I was gobsmacked to see it land in a tree that was also occupied by two Yellow-winged Tanagers – a local and not often seen species. An unexpected lifer!!

Yellow-winged Tanager!

One of the reasons I don’t bird much in the afternoon, is that the road into Tulum is a narrow road that gets very congested and it takes a while to get back down this beach road by late morning. So going out and back, fighting heavy afternoon traffic is not something I like to do. Add to this one “lane” was constantly closed for repairs and it was a driving clusterfuck coming back late each day. So I usually went out early morning and hung out in the afternoon on the beach. In the evening we visited one of our favorite restaurants “Gitano”, a wonderful, “outdoor” spot with architecture woven into the surrounding trees and awesome, but expensive (even by Tulum standards) food.

(Ingrid Ducmanis)

(Ingrid Ducmanis)

Laguna Coba

I took a long drive to Lake Coba to do some birding and check for Spotted rail but the water was high and birding was relatively quiet.

Orchard Oriole, Limpkin, Morelet’s Seed-eater, Belted Kingfisher, no Pinnated Bittern or Spotted Rail!

https://ebird.org/checklist/S61867163

Back late afternoon for some cocktails on the beach with Ingrid.

Julian photographing Magnificent Frigatebirds

Magnificent Frigatebirds – grim reapers of the sky

Ingrid in her element

30th November–Muyil

Another brief visit produced a few good birds notably, Tropical Pewee, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Black-headed Trogon, Vaux’s swift, White-tipped Dove, Lesser Greenlet, Red-throated Ant-tanager

https://ebird.org/checklist/S61867509

Back at the room we had been lounging on the beach talking to a couple that were living in Tulum and teaching scuba-diving, when we came across this baby sea-turtle hiding under our lounger. So we washed the little guy off and returned him safely back to the ocean!

1stth December–Francisco Uh Mah

I got up at stupidoclock to try for Yucatan Poorwill. I drove in the dark as far as I could before dawn. I tried playing Mottled Owl and Poorwill but the dark forest was quiet. I drove back down the road and played poorwill. I was shaken when a bird started calling back in the distance. Holy crap! Game on! I played the call again and suddenly the bird flew in and nearly knocked my head off,  but landed out of sight. Motherfather! It was so close. I tried again and this time the bird flew in and landed 8 ft away in the tree at head height and allowed amazing spotlit views. The highlight self-found bird of the trip!!

The forest quickly came alive and there were birds everywhere -I had made a good decision and scouted out the right spot. The birding was spectacular and I was still going at 11 am and I felt that I had only scraped the surface of this vast area! Other species included:  Gray-headed Dove, Yellow-lored and White-fronted Parrots, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Slate-headed Tody Flycatcher, Mangrove Vireo, Greenish Eleania, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Gray-collared and Rose-throated Becard, Spot-breasted, Carolina and White-bellied Wrens, Green-backed Sparrow, Red-throated Ant-tanager, Brown and Yucatan Jays, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S61918705

That was my last day birding. With just birding a few hours each day for 6 days, I ended up with 137 species. My two Tulum trips, doing not-all-day-birding trips, have amassed a total of 172 species. The Yucatan is an excellent spot to take a hybrid family/birding vacation and still get in some killer birding without too much effort!

Another sunset over Tulum (Ingrid Ducmanis)

Costa Rica, 11th-18th March 2020

April 5, 2020

Ingrid soaking up the sunset at Playa Hermosa

Well that’s what it ultimately felt like. The original intention had been to visit Costa Rica to meticulously target several lifers mark Ingrid’s 50th birthday milestone, but a burgeoning global pandemic of COVID-19 had threatened to encroach on our well-laid plans. (click on each image for best resolution)

11th March
We flew out of Newark at 6am, Wednesday 11th March, before any airlines had grounded flights or things had started to get locked down tight, but not before anxiety about the virus in the US had started to soar. I had my “normal” sense of denial in the face of several mouth-watering lifers on offer. (For a non-birder, “normal denial” might border on “reckless denial”, but there was no need to panic just yet, right?). Costa Rica had few coronavirus cases, so it was probably a relatively safe place to be. That’s the mantra I repeated to both of us.

Knowing that my time birding was going to be more constrained than on a typical hardcore birding trip, I had spent the past several weeks meticulously dropping markers into Google Maps and nailing down specific sites for certain key species (often to the actual tree!). My limited time in the field was going to have to be executed with military precision.

Arriving at Newark, I think Ingrid had washed her hands 95 times before we got on our United flight. The flight itself was not full, and after Clorox-wiping down our entire seating areas, I felt suitably safe. I knew in Ingrid’s heightened state of “wash down” I’d be safe by association. Glad one of us was prepared with wipes. And she brought snacks too. I love her.

We touched down under a bright San Jose sky, picked up the rental car and by 11 am we were on our way south-west towards the coast. Our plan was to spend several days at the beach at Playa Hermosa, near Liberia, before spending a few more days in the cloud forest at Arenal, under the shadow of a volcano and ensconced by wonderful cloud forest scenery. We wanted to celebrate Ingrid’s birthday in style. However, faced with a 3.5hr drive it wasn’t too appealing to me to try and get to Guanacaste the first day. I proposed, and she agreed, to break the trip and stay the first night at Cerro Lodge, near Tarcoles. This was a great little spot and being only an hour from San Jose we could still make a day of it and do “stuff”. It would also enable me to do a bit of birding in the mangrove forest and the Tarcoles river area where a couple of key birds were on offer. An afternoon relaxing river boat trip would fill out the rest of the day and Ingrid said she was “In”.

We drove through arid, California-esque rolling hills and agricultural areas before arriving at Cerro. It was already hot, but we found Cerro more expansive than it had been in 2007. The restaurant deck made for a great shady place to take a nice cheese Casado lunch before heading down to our 3:30 scenic River Boat trip from Tarcoles, or “Project Collared Plover” as it was known to me. Our cabin at Cerro was adorable with outside bathroom and shower.

As we were relaxing, Ingrid, reacting to what sounded like a Pterodactyl outside our room, said, “What on earth is that?” I knew what it was. Walking outside, we enjoyed point blank views of a huge Scarlet Macaw feeding in the trees. It was impressive and she was impressed. I’d forgotten how cool these are when you see them in the wild.

Stunning Scarlet Macaw!

Streak-headed Woodcreeper in the rain

Cerro Lodge is cute, clean and a great place to spend time. The guy Frederico, whom I stayed with on our first trip in 2007, is actually still the owner and it was nice to meet him again and see that his hard work had paid off with maintaining a great eco-friendly place. I highly recommend staying here!

We headed down to the river boat launch, a short drive from Cerro, but first we made a quick stop en route. Punching in coordinates, I stopped the car on the dusty road under a single mango tree in the middle of nowhere, to the voice of “You have arrived”. Ingrid said, ”Why are we stopping here?” I said there’s a Black and White Owl roosting in this tree. She looked at me quizzically, as if to say, “How could you possibly know that?”

We got out and started to scour the tree. Within a minute or so, Ingrid shouted, “I’ve got them!”. The best words that birders love to hear! I ran back and she pointed to a pair of close Black and White Owls, snoozing in the afternoon heat. Well done that woman! Kudos to Steve Bird and Sarah Dzielski for GPS intel! Technology is wonderful!

Black and White Owl

Crippling views. Photos taken. Then it was back in the car. Arriving at the boat launch dock, what greeted me made my heart sink! A whole busload of tourists was milling about in the gift area. Any one of them could have been carrying coronavirus. I could see Ingrid reaching for a her “hip flask” of hand-sanitizer before I had even turned the engine off. Admittedly, I think being stuck on a boat in close confinement with 30 other people was now a concern. I knew it would be difficult, with such a full boat, to employ “social-distancing” and also to persuade the captain to target areas where I would have the best chance of connecting with Collared Plover and Mangrove Hummingbird. Most bird tour groups have a dedicated boat specifically for birds, but I was not in that position. At this stage, I was a little (more?) concerned about the former part.

I grabbed a local tour guide and asked, in my charming way (stop it, you know I can be!), if there was any chance of getting on another boat since the other one “looked too full”. In a few minutes he came back and said, this is Barbara, she is training up to be a guide, she’ll take you out. So, we ended up having a boat all to ourselves and they were all too keen to help get me ticks!

Ingrid and me chilling on the Tarcoles River Boat

We had a fabulous and enjoyable afternoon cruising the Tarcoles river. Ingrid looked relaxed and was enjoying the scenery and Barbara regaled us with cool information about the American Crocodiles in the area. Temperature dictates the sex of them when hatching – warmer temperatures produced more young males, while lower temperatures produced more females.

American Crocodile (Ingrid Ducmanis)

Mangrove swallows circled the boat, Turquoise-browed Motmots looked resplendent in the riverside trees and (Mangrove) Common Black Hawk, Yellow-headed and Crested Caracaras sailed overhead. Boat-billed Flycatcher, Red-lored Parrot, Common Tody-Flycatcher and Rufous-naped Wrens were seen, while a close Bare-throated Tiger Heron gave great views.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

Crested Caracara

The boat came to a stop on the inside bend of the river. The Captain nodded that this bank was an area for the plovers. Scouring the dry, muddy area, I was distracted by a sitting Double-striped Thick-knee. Tick! And then, BOOM! Collared Plover. Scouring the river on my previous trip in 2007 and areas in San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico had made this a nemesis bird for years. But, in a short period of time, the long hunt for Collared Plover was done.

I rarely get new shorebird ticks on trips. Collared Plover had eluded me on several trips so it was good to “unblock” this!

Next, we high-tailed it back toward the ocean, and Barbara took us up an intertidal channel full of mangroves and tall trees. Beautiful habitat. They pulled in close, pointing out some roosting Boat-billed Herons, a shoebill-like night-heron that is local and uncommon. Then we drifted slowly, looking and listening. Mangrove Hummingbird is a Costa Rican endemic, and locally uncommon along the coast. They like to feed on flowering white mangrove plants but are hard to find and tough to see.  A Prothonotary Warbler popped out and two Plumbeous Kites sailed over. Suddenly, the captain and I both heard a Mangrove Hummingbird calling. We both saw the same movement first, high in a tree, the brief, almost mirage-like apparition of a hummingbird flying away. Motherfather UTV’s!!

Dusk was falling and we headed back to the dock. Under the setting sun the views and scenery of the distant hills, peppered by the sight of Scarlet Macaws flying by, was making a nice first impression on Ingrid. I was happy to get some birding under the belt, but the tour-guide side of me was equally thrilled that she seemed to be having a nice time.

Sunset over the Tarcoles River (Ingrid Ducmanis)

As we drove down the entrance road to Cerro, a nice flock of Lesser Nighthawks showed well.

Lesser Nighthawk

The setting sun over the Pacific made for a beautiful finale to a great first day. We stopped to take a pic and as if on cue a Hoffman’s Woodpecker flew in and landed on the fence post. A perfect avian addition to anchor the scene.

Our first evening at Cerro Lodge ends with a stunning sunset over the Nicoya Peninsula, anchored by a silhouetted Hoffman’s Woodpecker. (Ingrid Ducmanis)

https://ebird.org/checklist/S65749396

 

12th – Cerro Lodge Entrance Road
The plan today was to be out at 5am, walk the entrance road, come back at 7-ish, grab some breakfast and coffee with Ingrid, then blast off to nearby Carara for some intense birding and nab Royal (another nemesis) Flycatcher and Long-tailed Manakin. That would ultimately not happen. By the time I had gotten back from the walk, the heat had gotten up to 80 degrees by 8am and it made no sense to drive to Carara for what would be a very brief visit given the time and increasing temperature. I opted to relax and bird the Cerro Lodge grounds, coming up empty on any distant Yellow-billed Cotingas from the deck.

Reflections (Ingrid Ducmanis)

My plan got off to a good start with Cinnamon Hummingbird outside the room – a species I’d failed to connect with on two Mexico trips! As is often the case with nemesis birds, subsequently I couldn’t avoid this species over the next few days.  Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and a female Ruby-throated were seen along with Nutting’s and Brown-crested Flycatcher. A steady stream of Tropical Kingbirds paraded up from the coastal floodplain, while the first Streaked Flycatcher was noted. I found a fruiting tree that held a nice assortment of birds: Masked Tityra, Bright-rumped Attila, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Tropical Gnatcatcher and Yellow-throated and Yellow-Green Vireo. Best of all was great looks at a Crane Hawk, a species I had only seen once before – 33 years prior, in Santa Ana, Texas in March 1987. Today’s individual was essentially a lifer given the looks I had at the time of the Texas bird.

Walking back up the road towards the lodge, the car that had passed me earlier was now stopped in the middle of the unpaved track. Then I realized why. Where I had been standing ½ hour ago, was now occupied by a huge fallen tree.  And it was completely blocking the road! They were knackered!

Problems! Getting the car up and over the bank on the left was tricky!

So, I gave them a hand, and with a bit of Macgyver-ing, we managed to get the car up on the raised banking. Getting it off the banking was a bit scary, since the low clearance of the car and the grade of the bank to the road were unequal. At one point, with the car at 45 degrees and me pushing it back to stop it rolling over, we managed to get the car back on track – literally! Phew…they would have been there for a while. I took them up on the offer of a ride arriving back just in time to meet Ingrid for coffee before we packed up and headed towards Liberia.

A long drive, in the heat of the afternoon, passed quickly. Ingrid was tasked with one job. The open fields and roadside wires near Bagaces on our way NW was a regular haunt of my next target species – Pearl Kite. This diminutive, classy-looking kite was high on my list. Despite scanning lots of good areas we drew a blank.

We climbed over some hills before dropping down into a sheltered cove of Playa Hermosa and were greeted by the welcoming cerulean ocean that would be a nice respite from the heat. We checked in to our swanky beachside hotel for a couple of days of R&R. It was a great and tranquil spot. Howler monkeys howled, and White-throated Magpie Jays and Red-lored Parrots buzzed around the parking lot.

Dropping down into Playa Panama, Guanacaste. (Ingrid Ducmanis)

The Trancas farm fields were a set of agricultural fields a few miles inland. They were dry – so no hope of any Jabiru and few birds were seen. I was back for a late breakfast with Ingrid and we spent the afternoon relaxing at the beach being serenaded by Great-Tailed Grackles, Social Flycatchers and Kiskadees. A few hours birding in the same area produced a few more birds but nothing of note, a few Common Black Hawks, a Gray Hawk and the “usual suspects”.

That afternoon, after the heat of the day was dying down, I headed back out along the road to the Trancas farm fields. A burning sugarcane field drew my attention.

A sugarcane(?) field controlled burn

Pulling off the road, I scoped the edges of the burn, seeing a good number of vultures but also present were a good number of hawks, quite easily identifiable as adult Swainson’s Hawks. They were picking off insects fleeing the fire. A cool sight I had never seen before. Birding was quiet, but as I neared the edge of town, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher flew over my head. This was a new bird for the trip.

Little did I know this cracking Scissor-tailed Fly was a herald of more to come in the next few minutes as it was evident a northward movement of these was occurring.

Getting out, two more flew over, and then a third, and a fourth. It was obvious there was a small movement going on. Scanning the field they were dropping into, I was stunned to find it littered with these long-tailed tyrannids. I counted one dead tree with over 50 in it and by nightfall the total in this one field had risen to more than 120.

A field full of Scissor-taileds – nearly 90 in one tree at dusk!

https://ebird.org/checklist/S65734078

 

13th March – Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste
The dawn plan was driving the road leading inland and birding any suitable areas. There was no “prime” spot, just stopping at any habitat that looked productive. The road Pat O’Donnell recommended was the road leading east from Playa Panama out to the Trancas farm fields.

Birding this road produced Black-headed Trogon, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Squirrel Cuckoo, White-necked Puffbird, Streak-backed Oriole, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Brown-crested Flycatcher amongst others. A small wet marsh on the outskirts of Playa Panama hosted Red-billed Pigeon and Northern Jacana.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S65750228

The small area of water, known as the catfish ponds, allow access to birders. I found a gate and let myself in. Groove-billed Anis and Black-faced Grassquits flitted along the banking. Anhingas, Wood Stork and a bevvy of several hundred Blue-winged Teals and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks filled the ponds but despite a good check the duck diversity was limited to these two species.

Catfish Ponds

Black-necked Stilts were present in small numbers and a flock of 50+ Short-billed Dowitchers packed themselves tightly into the shallow water at the edge of the ponds. When I got out to grab my scope, everything took flight. I noticed a small flock of about 10+ smaller waders that were distant, but identifiable by their chunky shape and clear-cut breast band, as Pectoral Sandpipers. A distinctive “brzzzt” call gave away two Dickcissels. A highlight, and nice surprise for me, was seeing a very distant Yellow-headed Caracara being mobbed by grackles. I was shocked when I got the scope on it to find it wasn’t a caracara but my life Laughing Falcon. Get on that list!!

https://ebird.org/checklist/S65750362

That afternoon, I scoped out some scrub near to the hotel. Lesser Ground Cuckoo was a target bird I really wanted to see, but they are renowned for being uber-skulky. Birding the forest edges around Playa Panama, I had a few usual species but had Rose-throated Becard, Ringed Kingfisher, Cinnamon Hummingbird and a calling Nutting’s Flycatcher. It was while i was  looking at these that I suddenly heard the mournful note of a calling Lesser Ground Cuckoo coming from nearby roadside. I ran up the hill to where the bird was calling from, but it was in deep and it looked like it was going to remain hidden. I tried playback and the bird kept calling but didn’t seem to be getting any closer. After about 15 minutes a second bird began to call on the opposite side. I was now “piggy-in-the-middle” between a lifer! A long 25 minutes went by, and with some judicious playback, I finally got both birds to come to the edge of the road. But could I see them. Could I bloody hell as like! It was becoming frustrating and as I bent down to change perspective, I was shocked to come face to face with the Ground Cuckoo sitting 6ft away calling from the bush. Amaaazzzing views!! What a crippler – one of the highlight birds of the trip!

Elusive and skulking, this Lesser Ground Cuckoo finally gave itself up!

https://ebird.org/checklist/S65764830

 

14th March – Playa Panama and Catfish Farm Pool
The last morning was spent out at the wet ponds. En route I stopped at the area of forest on the outskirts of town adding my lifer Banded Wren, a typical bird of the NW area, several Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, Brown-capped Flycatcher and Streaked Flycatcher.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S65783955

Driving east past the Trancas farm fields, a lone raptor perched in a distant tree proved to be my only Zone-tailed Hawk of the trip. Similar species were seen at The Catfish poinds, and also present along with Summer Tanager, Black-throated trogon, Least Flycatcher, Laughing Falcon, Dickcissel, Turquoise-browed motmot were the usual two species of ducks!  A distant Roadside Hawk circled over the fields but little else new was noted.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S65794170

Again, most of the day was spent relaxing and enjoying the peace and quiet of the hotel with Brown Booby and Magnificent Frigatebirds patrolling the ocean.

Ingrid finally relaxing in her element.

On returning to the hotel, several tiny Long-nosed Sac-winged Bats were found roosting on the tree by the reception desk – not sure of the species but they were only a few inches long!

Bats!

15th March – Playa Panama
Back for a late breakfast, we packed up and made the long drive to Arenal. The first part of the trip gave Ingrid her “one job” back, but despite a false alarm posed by a Roadside hawk, we struck out again on Pearl Kite!!

The drive took us through rolling hills and some nice scenery before we climbed higher into the foothills on the west side of Lake Arenal. At this point, google maps advised us to take a left onto an unpaved road. A small sedan had gone ahead of us, but the route seemed wrong. Double-checking two apps, it seemed to be accurate. The main road continued like the curve of a horseshoe and this “short-cut” allowed us to cut off that loop. That’s why it was sending us that way. OK. That made sense (only to me). Let’s do this.

I put the car in gear and continued on, to which Ingrid anxiously questioned,“Whoa…what are you doing?”
She seemed to think it would be best to take the longer detour on a good road. The road was unpaved, with the camber dropping off sharply into small ditches on each side, but perfectly fine (In MY estimation). We seemed to be at a literal crossroads of disagreement. I said, “It’ll be fine”.

I took our dinky little Hyundai, that had no torque whatsoever, onwards along the pock-marked gravel road. We passed isolated small hamlets and chickens as we climbed higher into what seemed the middle of nowhere. I could sense Ingrid’s concern but even though I was deep in “birder driving” mentality, I considered my passenger, and offered, “We can turn around if you want? How far do we have left to go?”

“I don’t know. I can’t tell on the map”, she retorted. We were halfway there, so I convinced her it was best to carry on. My “You should have been on some of the roads I’ve taken rental cars up in my birding trips” line didn’t reassure her too much!

Up, down and around we went – both in total silence . The small sedan in front of us, pulled over to the right on a steep incline but not quite far enough, making me move over to the left as much as I could so I could just squeak by on the left. As I did, I felt both my left wheels slide into the shale on the edge of the road and I felt the cars grip loosen and shift subtly towards the ditch. I was already in second because of the steep grade, so I eased gently on the accelerator to avoid scattering all the loose shale and continued on past him and upwards. Phew!

I had gone “all-in” with my “It’s fine, the road is not bad!” so I couldn’t back down now. The road got really pot-holey at one point, and the over-exaggerated sound of a big rock smashing into the bottom of the car made even me wince a bit. Then, there was that wonderful sight of the paved road rising up to meet us.  Gazing straight ahead, with a “I’m right” smile on my face, I said, “See, I told you, we’d be fine…well, maybe except for that one part back there. I really thought we were going to get stuck in that ditch! That was a bit scary.”

The road opened up to give amazing views of Lake Arenal.

Looking east over Lake Arenal. (Ingrid Ducmanis)

We arrived, without further incident at Arenal in the late afternoon. Brown Jays lined the road and a nice female Great Currasow spotted by Ingrid was only my second, but the best ever views. It had gotten a bit misty and a quick stop at the bridge before the lodge produced a first of the  trip Black Phoebe but not the Fasciated Tiger Heron often found here.

Arenal was stunning and impressive. We were going to have a good time here. Due to COVID-19 many cancellations had ensued, and we were given the chance to upgrade from a standard room to the Smithsonian Room, which we did. One whole side of the room was glass that looked out over lush cloud forest with uninterrupted views of the cloud-topped, Arenal volcano. Crowned Woodnymphs fed on the Coral flowers outside our room and then a family party of White-nosed Coatis surrounded us and began digging for ants.

Ingrid – happy with the view from the room!

Julian – also quite happy with the view from the room. (Ingrid Ducmanis)

White-nosed Coati – our garden pals

We were floored by the beauty of this place and I was happy that both Ingrid would get to celebrate her 50th birthday here.

We changed and headed up to the restaurant to partake in the happy hour. A group of Montezuma’s Oropendolas along with a couple of Green Honeycreepers and a male Great Currasow held court at the feeders.

Ingrid’s favorite – Green Honeycreeper

Montezuma’s Oropendola

We stood in silence, cocktails in hand, looking south towards the coast. As the sun set behind a glistening Lake Arenal, the clouds phased from shades of yellow, into mauve and purple. The vista was vast and spectacular, and we stood and watched in silence as the sun’s last rays set over the Pacific.

The expansive view from the Lodge deck. (Ingrid Ducmanis)

A stunning finale to the first day (Ingrid Ducmanis)

16th March- Arenal Observatory Lodge

Happy 50th Birthday Ingrid!!! Up early at 5:30 am and off down the waterfall trail. I thoughtfully placed a card by her phone, knowing she would wake up in her own time, but without me and I wanted the day to start of somewhat special.

It was a bit overcast and the air was filled with light, intermittent showers. The tree outside the reception was flowering and several birds were coming in and out. Summer Tanager, Stripe-breasted Flycatcher, Green and Red-legged Honeycreepers and Scarlet-rumped Tanagers all showed well.

Julian on the Spider bridge at Arenal. Ready to do some ticking! (Ingrid Ducmanis)

The gardens on the way were a prime site for Black-crested Coquette – one of my chief “must see” birds. I lingered here, distracted by the dogfighting of several hummingbirds, that included Violet-Headed, Rufous-tailed, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Scaly-breasted, Green Thorntail, White-necked Jacobin, Blue-throated Goldentail and my only Brown Violetear of the trip.

The tiny Violet-headed Hummingbird

After 30 minutes, there it was. Black-crested Coquette, feeding in its characteristic “slow and smooth” hovering. What amazing birds. A female came in briefly, but despite nice views, they were hard to photograph. A quick walk around the Saino trail produced a staked out Great Potoo, only my second ever.

The amazing-its-real Black-crested Coquette

With that under the belt, I carried onwards to the waterfall trail. The viewing was difficult – dark cloud forest, thick tangles all made for dark silhouettes flitting back and forth. A small wave of birds was evident, the buzzy sounds of tanagers rocketing up the slope, wrens singing, but nothing was showing well. Then, three Russet Ant-shrikes, Buff-throated Foliage Gleaner, Spotted Woodcreeper, several Carmisol’s Tanagers, Streak-crowned Ant Vireo and then, flitting about in the leaf litter, was the unmistakable blue orbital ring of a Song Wren! Excellent.

Another of Ingrid’s amazing flower shots-reminds me of a Phoenix rising up. (Ingrid Ducmanis)

Ingrid – doing her thang!

I spent the rest of the day birding on and off, notching up Rufous Motmot, my first Golden-winged Warbler in a decade, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, White-crowned Parrot, Stripe-breasted Wren, and Pale-vented Pigeon. I again paid a visit to the Waterfall trail again in the afternoon, but it was rather quiet except for Golden Hooded, Emerald and Bay-headed Tanagers feeding in a flowering tree and a brief, calling Collared Trogon. Wedge-billed Woodcreeper and Slaty-capped Flycatcher and a nice look at a posse of Spider Monkeys with baby in tow rounded out the day.

Nice looks at a Spider Monkey troupe.

On the way back, a small pod of White-collared Swifts rocketed over and a small warbler in the pines by the reception turned out to be a female Cape May Warbler – a species scarce at Arenal.

We had another great dinner at the restaurant to celebrate Ingrid’s 50th birthday, again under a beautiful sunset and under the shadow of Arenal volcano.

Birthday dinner with my lovely lady at Arenal!

https://ebird.org/checklist/S65888641

 

17th March – Arenal

The last morning! I was up again early to make the most of it. A dreary day made for a lot of silhouettes skulking in the trees and the distant calling of the impossible-to-see Thicket Antpitta. Buff-rumped Warblers, Golden-crowned Warblers and as lone Louisana Waterthrush flitted along in the gloom on the path ahead of me. Keel-billed and Yellow-throated Toucans and Hepatic Tanagers were seen. Black-crested Coquette showed well and overall it was a quiet morning. A leisurely breakfast ensued, and we packed our gear, opting to take advantage of a late checkout. During this time, I noticed some activity in the trees below our room. Orange-bellied Trogon, Least Flycatcher, Green Hermit, Gartered Trogon, Piratic Flycatcher, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Rufous Mourner, Lesser Greenlet, Tawny-crowned Euphonia, Buff-throated Saltator, Band-backed Wren, Great Currasow and a few Golden-hooded Tanagers were evident but quickly and frustratingly moved away and out of view.

At about 11am, I asked Ingrid if she’d take a walk with me along the trails. This proved a good move. I asked an older couple if there was “owt about?” expecting to be told “nothing unusual”, they responded in an animated fashion, “Oh..yes! We just had a tremendous experience with some birds at the ant swarm down the trail!” What the bloody what???!!! Ant swarm??!!!  Panicked, I asked which way and how long ago. She replied, “Oh, only about 5 minutes ago”.

I basically dragged Ingrid by the hand in the direction, and within a minute we came across a “beehive” of ants, with attending Bi-colored Antbirds basically feeding on the path in full view. Spotted Antbirds appeared quickly, but I knew this was the chance for the big one – the one that had eluded me on previous trips. And then, almost as I thought it, an Ocellated Antbird, complete with bright blue facial skin and brown back, was filling my bins!! Yess!

Bi-colored Antbirds showed no fear

Ocellated Antbird – the holy grail of antbirds!

A female Great Antshrike appeared but kept low and at the back, not venturing out to the forest edge. We watched in amazement as these seldom-seen birds showed amazingly at our feet. We had gotten lucky. With all the numerous trails, coming upon an ant swarm was not expected on such a short stay. Seeing these species generally would have been impossible.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S65958229

We packed up and headed south, stopping to tick off Green Kingfisher on a river crossing but again failing to connect with Fasciated Tiger Heron.

We drove down RT 126 towards are evening destination of San Jose. The road runs down the west side of a stunning and deep valley, completely covered in prime forest habitat, complete with stunning waterfalls. Our mid-day stop was at the Mirador café at Cinchona known locally as Colibri Café.

We arrived late afternoon and had the deck to ourselves. It looked out over the steep and lush valley and provided a spectacular backdrop to the feeders and various hummingbirds coming to visit. The owners have kindly stocked these feeders and birders are urged to patronize the place to give a little back. We ordered a Casado lunch of rice, beans and plantains and a salad. It was hard to concentrate on eating with hummingbirds whizzing by your heads within inches.

The stunning view from the Mirador Cinchona. (Ingrid Ducmanis)

Our main stop here was to try for Buff-fronted Quail Dove and Black-bellied Hummingbird – both scarce and hard to find species. White-bellied Mountain Gem also occasionally shows up here, but again, being a scarce and uncommon species I didn’t expect to see one.

The light under the roof rendered a lot of the hummingbirds hard to assess, a lot of them were backlit or in shadow – tough when you are looking for a species with an actual black belly. A couple of the species were new for the trip – Coppery-headed Emerald, Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Green-crowned Brilliant and Violet Sabrewing.

The large and stunning Violet Sabrewing glistened in the shadows.

Coppery-headed Emeralds, like Black-bellied, have white tail sides, so it took a while to get my eye in and note their small, compact size and down curved bill. Between eyeing the amazing Blue-throated Toucanet and Silver-throated Tanagers feeding on the remaining vestiges of fruit, and my only Tennessee Warbler of the trip, I was eagerly trying to sort through 20 or so hummingbirds zipping about, looking for “the one” when…BOOM! There it was! Black-bellied Hummingbird – straight bill, black belly and little chestnut epaulettes. Get on the list!  Getting up to peek over the railing onto the path below the deck I was shocked to see a lone Buff-fronted Quail Dove, nonchalantly walking around in the open instead of skulking in deep, dark forest understorey. BOOM#2!

We finished out lunch, and Ingrid was a trooper, letting me hang-out and bird for a while. I headed for the bathroom, and turned to Ingrid and said, “All I need now, when I come back, is the White-bellied Mountain Gem, and I’ll have a trifecta!”

As I walked back from the restroom, I heard a loud, repetitive and unusual “chip” coming from a hummingbird on the first feeder on my left.  Raising my bins towards the unusual sound,  I was gob-smacked to see a White-bellied Mountain Gem filling my retinas.

“Bloody Hell!! Ingrid, that’s It!! White-bellied Mountain Gem! The big one on this feeder!!!

White-bellied Mountain gem

I couldn’t believe it. It allowed a few pics before disappearing into the surrounding trees. BOOM#3!

Julian more than happy with a trifecta of grippers during lunch! (Ingrid Ducmanis)

Totally satisfied, we paid, left a donation for the feed and headed south.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S65989675

The scenery was spectacular. We stopped at the next bridge to the south that was flanked by a stunning waterfall, to check for Green-fronted Lancebill, another uncommon river-loving hummingbird, but struck out.

Waterfall mania!

White-collared Swifts hawked the valley, but little else was seen.

A hulking White-collared Swift

We arrived at Villas Ignacio, just north of the airport by nightfall – a great little spot close to the airport. I downed a couple of Margaritas and had a brief foray around the grounds, hearing a brief, distant and uncooperative Mottled Owl – another nemesis bird.

 

18th March – San Jose -Newark
We returned the car early doors, and flew back to Newark, without incident to the COVID-19 chaos that was unfolding in the US and the rest of the world – cancelled flights, closed borders and travel restrictions.

Had we scheduled this a few days later, we would likely have cancelled, but we managed to squeak this trip in. And what an amazing and enjoyable experience it was!! Despite this being a short trip with Ingrid with the intention of being a 50th Birthday trip, I still managed to amass 201 species in a week. Ingrid had a great time and celebrated her milestone in style. I know, based on her feelings about Costa Rica, we’ll be back sooner rather than later!

Acknowledgements
Steve Bird and Gina Nichol, Sarah Dzielski, Dani Lopez Velasco, Jim Zipp, Tom Johnson, Vince Elia, Anthony Arce, Alec Humann and Pat ‘O Donnell all provided intel and I am very grateful to Pat in particular for fielding incessant questions about certain spots and species. All helped optimize my birding. And to Ingrid for allowing me the time and space to lose myself in my passion. Thank you!

 

Lost Travelers from the West

February 17, 2020

A quarter of a century ago, in late February 1995, my 28-year old self, en route to Cape May for the weekend, emerged from a subway station in Brooklyn, New York. Locating the street information given to me by friends, I soon found myself furtively skulking around some block of flats in a sketchy area of Flatbush Avenue. With a variety of colourful characters peppering the neighborhood, I felt quite anxious to say the least. With my bins hidden under my jacket to avoid being a mugging victim, I tried to blend in and look confident that I had some purpose for being there. I couldn’t help thinking, “What the bloody hell was a Varied Thrush doing HERE!!”

There were no trees in sight in this urban jungle of masonry and high-rise tenements. A mild stench of a mixture of exhaust fumes, urine and garbage pervaded the air. I thought about just calling it quits and high-tailing it to perceived safety, but there was a bird to chase. I wandered around for a little while, turning down an alley between two buildings, not really having any idea of where to look for a rare thrush from the West coast. Of all the places for a denizen of lichen-clad Ancient forests to find itself, this spot seemed the exact opposite. This one’s wiring was certainly knackered to say the least.  As I emerged from the alley, I looked across two fenced off areas. At the back, was a tall tree, silhouetted against the sky. At the top of it, was a lone starling, sitting upright.

Looking around, I unzipped my coat and discreetly raised my bins to look at the Starling, since something looked a bit “off”. I was more than shocked to find the Starling was orange and black. “Holy crap…that’s it!!”

It was distant, but there was no mistaking the clear lines of a male Varied Thrush. The black mask and breast band contrasting sharply with orange supercilium, wingbars and underparts – a stunning thrush!

Male varied Thrush, Brooklyn, NY, Feb 1995.

I soaked up the bird but a minute later, and without warning, it dropped from the treetop and disappeared out of sight. Job done, I decided not to tempt fate with any further exploration and high-tailed it out of there.

Life is indeed strange and often circuitous. Fast forward to today, February 16th 2020, and for the past four years, Brooklyn has strangely become my second home of sorts, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time driving down Flatbush Avenue, often within a few blocks of that sighting all those years prior. This past weekend, while hanging out at the apartment of my partner, Ingrid, I took the opportunity to head a few blocks up to Prospect Park, where another Varied Thrush had been hanging out. I had tried for it back in December, but the bird was elusive and I had dipped. It had become a little more cooperative in the past few weeks and while far-ranging, it was favoring leaf-littered slopes around the Nethermead Arches.

As luck would have it, as I left the apartment, I got a text that the bird was showing. I was onsite quite quickly and met Brendan Fogarty who had seen it briefly but had since lost sight of it. I wandered up and down the path along the ravine and pond on the south side of the bridge, but ½ an hour of looking drew a blank. There was bird activity and the thrush had been hanging around with Blue Jays and White-throated Sparrows, so I felt encouraged that the bird was still around. A quick call from Sean Sime helped flesh-out the favored areas in the immediate vicinity to check. There were no other birders around, and the area was clogged with people and dog-walkers. On the other side of the pond, I could hear some American Robins, so I walked over and found a few feeding in the leaf litter. A glance through them twice revealed nothing. I continued to watch from this one spot. Scanning again, I was jolted out of despair by the bold white supercilium and orange underparts of the Varied Thrush tossing over leaves. Boom! Light was great and the bird was close, giving great views. Suddenly something spooked them and the bird flew up, perching thankfully in good light. I hastily squeezed off a few shots before the bird dropped and flew out of sight.

Female Varied Thrush, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, Feb 2020

I spent a few hours in that area, and twice more the bird came back to the same triangular area of leafy understory and I was able to get a few other local birders onto it. It was quite obliging and performed well.

Female Varied Thrush, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, Feb 2020. The greyish-brown earcoverts and greyish breast band sex this as a female. The tail was brownish-grey, and with no obvious moult contrast in the wing-feathers, I felt ageing it accurately was not possible.

My second Brooklyn Varied Thrush under the belt. This one though was a female – quite killer looking, but not as crisp and dapper as the previous male.

Cold had penetrated my bones at this point so I left to get some lunch and try for the Painted Bunting at Brooklyn Bridge Park, again only a three minute drive from the apartment. I was not so lucky with that, views being the arse end of it flying away never to be relocated. However it was a good opportunity to check out Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Brooklyn Bridge park against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.

10/4/2019 Lighthouse Point Park and Ecology Park, New Haven County, CT

October 6, 2019

Juvenile male Northern Harrier sneaking in low off the beach at Lighthouse.

A slow-clearing cold-front with strong 18-38 mph NW winds meant that Friday was setting up for a good hawk flight. The rainy overnight conditions didn’t bode well for a big diurnal movement of passerines, so I opted to go in to work early and take a half-day. I arrived at Lighthouse at 10:15 am ready to do some birdspottering.  Nick Bonomo was at Ecology Park, 10 miles or so to the east and said birds were moving in good numbers. I texted him and said, “It’s a perfect day for a Swainson’s”. This buteo was a nemesis bird for both of us. Not even annual in the state, they are hard to catch up with!

The strong winds kept birds in the low airspace and great views were had of all the local suspects, and it was obvious it was a big Osprey and kestrel flight.

Today was a river of kestrels

Nick left at midday to fulfill social obligations and I decided to change it up a bit and head over to Ecology Park to see what was happening there. First I needed to stop and pick up lunch.

Cooper’s Hawks, gave some close fly-bys

A falcon “two-fer” – male American kestrel being harried by an adult male “Bluejack” Taiga Merlin

With scope packed, and coat thrown in the back seat, I was climbing into my car when I looked out over the distant trees and saw a buteo. Instinctively raising my bins, I saw the bird, a large buteo and thought, “Damn, that looks like a Swainson’s!” The bird was distant and I couldn’t make much out since it was silhouetted and side-on, so any gestalt-laden clues were off the table. I still had my camera in my hand so I rattled off a few frames for insurance purposes. It looked dark below, but the distance, and shadow made any plumage marks hard to discern. At that moment the bird kited up and hung in the wind like a Red-tailed. What?! Really?  It then flipped over and again, I registered a Swainson’s-like tail, before it rose up hung in the wind, with wings pulled in and no features visible. It ducked behind the trees, leaving me wondering which impression was right, but in those brief seconds the hovering had suggested the bird, weirdly was perhaps a Red-tail. It happened in a matter of about 30 seconds and the bird had been lost behind the trees.

I left the park to get a sandwich from the local deli. As I was leaving, I get a call from a local birder, “We just had a Swainson’s Hawk come right through the park!” Mothershirting !!@@@##$$$$. I rushed outside and being north of the park, I gazed skyward in vain. I drove to the overpass on i-95, and watched birds track up the shoreline – Bald Eagle, Turkey Vulture, Boad-wing…but no Swainson’s. Nothing.  At that point, I figured the coincidence of a bird being seen 20 minutes after I had seen what I thought was one was too much. I checked and zoomed-in on the images, and sure enough my instincts had been right. Although distant, two shots sure indeed showed the bird to be a juvenile, intermediate-type Swainson’s Hawk. Reeesuullt!

Optimized digital shots of the distant bird…check out the ebird checklist from shots 20 minutes later!

Ebird checklist with images:

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S60351089

This bird was almost identical to a bird myself, Richard Crossley and Dave Sibley had seen back in 1988 that dropped out of the sky at the Cape May meadows one September. It unfortunately dropped right into Chris Schultz’s banding station and we got to see it up close and personal.

Juv dark/intermediate morph Swainson’s Hawk, Cape May, sometime in September 1988

20 minutes later, I arrived at the top of the defunct landfill at Ecology Park. Birds were everywhere…at 3:00pm, at a time when the flight is usually slowing, birds were still going!!

360 degree view from Ecology Park

Bald Eagles came thick and fast with up to 7 in view at one time!

Red-shoulders were more prevalent here than at Lighthouse

A count of birds from 3:30-5:00pm yielded over 230 birds:

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S60381000

An excellent, bird-filled day!

Nemesis Bird

May 14, 2019

Hammonasset SP, 13th May

Getting a lifer was not on my radar today, but when Russ Smiley posted images of a rail in the marsh at Hammonassett SP that showed a stunning and bright King Rail, it presented the opportunity that I finally might be able to blunder into a nemesis bird, and by blunder I mean take a short drive there after picking up Alex from school in nearby Guilford. The queue in the hairdresser’s was long enough that we bailed on that, much to his (and my) relief, and after a short stop to pick up a burger I arrived, in foul weather conditions, at the blind at the bottom of Meig’s Point, Hammonassett.

King Rail, Hammonasset SP, 13th May 2019 (courtesy of Russ Smiley)

The bird – a big, ball of honey-buff– was immediately visible, hunkered down  in a sea of green and withered marsh grass. I ran back to the car to get my beat up spacemaster to get better views, but when I returned the bird had slinked off. Within minutes, it showed again, very well. And what a stunning looking bird it was -incredibly bright and richly colored, a deep, saturated honey brown color with distinctly streaked centres to the mantle and wing feathers, and broad black barring on the rear flanks.

The small marsh at Meig’s Point, Hammonasset SP (Julian Hough). The bird was hanging out in the centre here near the small channel.

After living here and travelling extensively in the US since 1987, I had never encountered a King Rail. I had never put that much concerted effort into looking for one, expecting to find my own or stumble into one during a sojurn in the field. Alas, it was never meant to be. But today, after 30 years, it was that easy.

Fall In Spring – Part Deux

May 13, 2019

Two stunning Black-throated Blue Warblers fed at knee level. Blackish-blue primary coverts and large white wing panel age this as a AHY.

May 11th – Brooklyn, NY

Similar meteorological conditions to those in CT last week, presented themselves this weekend. I was at Ingrid’s place in Brooklyn on Friday night and a band of weather across Manhattan and south-west CT boded well for downing northward-bound migrants.

My choices were to bird either Prospect Park or Greenwood Cemetery. Prospect always produces birds, but on a weekend, the amount of people and dogs really detracts from the birding for me and I prefer the less well-watched Greenwood Cemetery…a beautiful and often productive spot. But, I opted for Coney Island Creek Park, on the western end of Coney Island.

A small swath of coastal trees flanked by water to the north and urban development to the south, birds concentrate there in fall, moving south then west along the dunes. It was the spot I had one of the most exciting fallouts I have ever seen last October and figured the topography would work well in concentrating birds in spring.

Coney Island Creek Park, Brooklyn, NY. Looking east from the tree edge where it meets the creek. Birds head along this narrow dune line.

Figuring it would have birds, and would be under birded, I made the easy 20 minute drive from Park Slope and arrived at 7am. I got out of the car and it was quiet, with no sign of any migrants. However, after several minutes, warbler chips emanated from birds coming in high from over the water and were dropping into the trees. Game on! They were coming in hot, and it was evident a fallout was happening – birds coming in high from the south-west and other birds seemed to be coming in from the east, presumably birds that had made landfall and were following the east-west dune line that terminated at the creek where I had positioned myself. Birds were clearly jumping off from the trees here out into the bay. Birds increased by the hour and being a small green oasis surrounded by geographical and man-made barriers, it concentrated the birds here. Again, surprisingly, I was the only birder present to enjoy this exciting 2-hour blitz.

It was a big flight of Blackpolls this morning. Males dominated, with just one female seen. The grey crown, brownish alula and primary coverts, and what seems to be a molt contrast in the greater coverts (older, narrow retained outers and fresh inners) age this as a SY.

Parulas were the other numerous species, showing really well in the small shrubs and trees at the western end. Dark bronze in the breast band makes this a male. The primary coverts are blue-grey and don’t contrast much with the greater coverts suggesting a AHY, but the worn tertials and brownish alula suggest SY. So, not sure on the age of this one.

Another equally confiding male BT Blue. The brownish wing feathers and smaller wing patch age it as a SY.

Ebird checklist here:

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S56123576

Swainson’s Thrush, Greenwood Cemetery. A much more peaceful and enjoyable spot to bird than the neighboring Prospect Park.

Greenwood Cemetery held a few birds but nothing special…several Swainson’s Thrushes and Veeries and a few of the expected warblers.

Fall in Spring – Part 1

May 12, 2019

May 2nd New Haven, CT

Ad male Blackburnian Warbler, Lighthouse Point Park, New Haven. The epitome of a crippler! This retina-wrecking male foraged at head height giving amazing views!

(Click on images for hi-res versions)

Predicting “good” warbler days in spring is tough. Weather to the south and to the north of your locality, along with wind and precipitation combine to make forecasting migration events difficult. Throw in obstacles to time in the field such as work and adulting and Spring migration can be over before it even starts. But, May 2019 started off in great fashion. Southerly winds and a band of precipitation downed birds in an impressive coastal “fallout” in western CT on May 2nd.

A previously discovered Prothonotary Warbler at East Rock Park, New Haven performed well in the morning and it was evident that there were a few more migrants around.

SY male Prothonotary Warbler, East Rock, New Haven, May 2019. A bright bird, with contrast between the yellowish head and green back and grey-blue wings. The olive tinge to the head and slightly browner primary coverts point to a SY rather than AHY male.

AHY female Prothonotary Warbler, Long Point, Ontario, Canada, April 1991 (Julian Hough). Lack of contrast between the head and the mantle (with obvious olive tones) and restrictive yellow on the underparts suggest female. The blue grey primary coverts suggest AHY.

It was also evident that northbound birds were reorienting and dropping into coastal habitat downed by a band of inclement weather. Nick Bonomo had been scouting the coast and discovered the woods at Lighthouse Point Park, on the eastern edge of New Haven was particularly “hot”. So, after work I joined him and spent an enjoyable bird-filled couple of hours. The north woods held an assortment of warblers, down in diversity and numbers from earlier, but there was still more than enough birds to keep my retinas flushed with color! The highlight for myself included two adult male Blackburnian’s feeding at eye level and often watched foraging on the ground.

Ad male Blackburnian Warbler, Lighthouse Point Park, New Haven. Blackish remiges and primary coverts not contrasting with greater coverts age this as a AHY male.

 

AHY male Black and White Warbler, Lighthouse Point Park, New Haven. Good numbers of this amazing looking tree crawler! The black throat and ear coverts sex it as a male and the blackish primary coverts similar in color to the greater coverts make it a AHY

 

Black auriculars and throat sex this as a male. Brownish primary coverts (as opposed to blackish) contrasting with the blackish-centered greater coverts would imply this as SY. Milford, May 2011

Veery, Lighthouse Point Park, New Haven. One of several birds, this one was particularly confiding and was seen in company of Swainson’s and Wood Thrushes.

Chestnut-sided Warbler, East Rock, New Haven. Bright yellow crown and well-marked plumage with extensive chestnut on sides sex it as a male. The slightly browner primary coverts and alula, brownish remiges and slightly worn and pointed tertials and central tail feathers point to a SY male.