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 been grounding flights and things started to get locked down, 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.

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 on arrival 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 under a single mango tree on the unpaved dusty road 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 were had, photos taken and 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 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. As we stopped to take a pic, 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 the 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 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! Yawn! 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 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 Coati’s 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 peak 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, 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 my lovely partner who allowed 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.

White-crowned Sparrows – good enough for Gambelii?

December 3, 2018

HY Eastern WCSP, Greenwich, October 2018

One of the oft-reported subspecies in New England is the gambelii subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow, colloquially known as Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrow. The main features that birders key into when comparing/contrasting with the more local eastern forms are the orange (instead of pinkish) bill and the pale lores (rather than a short dark line connecting the lateral crown stripes).

However, due to the clinal nature of the various subspecies and integration in some breeding areas of some populations, subspecific identification is often problematical or impossible.

I recommend reading this great treatise on this group – David’s Sibley’s article here.

The main forms that occur are noted below:

  • Eastern Taiga (Eastern) Z. l. leucophrys
  • Western Taiga (Gambel’s) Z. l. gambelii
  • Interior West (Mountain) Z. l. oriantha
  • Pacific group (Nuttall’s) Z. l. nuttalli group (includes Nuttall’s Z. l. nuttalli and Puget Sound Z. l. pugetensis subspecies

Essentially, in the note below, I’ll refer to them as he does, the Western Taiga (Gambel’s) and Eastern Taiga (Eastern).

I was taking a walk this afternoon after an outpatient procedure when I came across two White-crowned Sparrows feeding with other sparrows in a disused lot by the beach at Sandy Point. As always I noted the bill color and lores and was struck by the adult’s bright orange-yellow bill and what appeared to be pale lores. Because the loral feathers can often become fluffed up or displaced, I sometimes get a pale-lored impression on both adult and HY Eastern WCSP. However, on these two birds, they did appear to be as pale-lored as many known Western Taiga (Gambel’s) .

Adult WCSP showing characters of the Western Taiga race gambelii, New Haven, December 2018

It was joined during the time I watched it by a HY WCSP, which, surprisingly, also appeared pale-lored and orange-billed! In the words of wise CT birder Greg Hanisek, the words “That’s one too many!” rang in my ears. It was late in the afternoon and the pictures aren’t great (and click on them for larger images), but these two individuals seem to show characters associated with the Western Taiga (Gambel’s) form.

Adult WCSP (right) and HY WCSP (left) showing characters of the Western Taiga race gambelii, New Haven, December 2018

Adult WCSP showing characters of the Western Taiga race gambelii, New Haven, December 2018

Other features noted was that both individuals were quite greyish on the ear-coverts and throat, and had only a pale brown wash on the flanks, restricted to the rear and a bill that appeared on the small side – another pro-Western Taiga (Gambel’s) feature. The HY was quite dusky and almost montone which made the rich chestnut mantle and lateral crown stripes, yellowish bill and pale lores stand out.

Adult WCSP showing characters of the Western Taiga race gambelii, New Haven, December 2018

HY WCSP showing characters of the Western Taiga race gambelli, New Haven, December 2018

I am not making any concrete affirmations here, but I think these birds may be indicative of what people, in my opinion, rightly or wrongly, are calling Western Taiga (Gambel’s) here in New England.

Kirtland’s Warbler, Central Park, New York City, 12th May 2018

May 13, 2018

SY male Kirtland’s Warbler, Central Park, NYC (Julian Hough). Sharply demarcated earcoverts and throat with stout bill, white eye-crescents and blackish gorget all typical of Kirtland’s. (Click on images for Hi-Res versions)

It was one of those days when a spring surprise sends you into a flutter. A late afternoon text that a Kirtland’s Warbler was found in Central Park, NYC sent all birders in New England into a panic. Why? Because, of all the warblers occurring in North America, this is the rarest! It nests in only a small area of Jack Pines in Central Michigan and areas of Wisconsin. Parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds, its survival depends on continued conservation and habitat management.

Like Blackpoll Warblers, it is a long distance migrant, wintering in the Bahamas and is rarely seen on migration, seemingly making long jumps from the breeding grounds to Florida and then to the Bahamas. It has been seen sporadically in spring in Ohio and southern Canada. Needless to say, most birders, unless they have made the pilgrimage to Michigan, have never seen this species. I have been in the US since 1996 and this was one of only a couple of records in the east. A brief male in upstate NY a couple of springs ago wasn’t available to the masses, so, a chaseable bird in NYC was incredulous and only the 3rd state record. It was simply a bird that any self-respecting birder had to go for. But would it stay?

If the bird was seen the following morning, I would make a dash for it. Saturday dawned overcast and with steady rain in the forecast, it bode well for migrants not moving on. Checking my texts at 6:45a.m, the bird was still reported as still being there. Twitch on! I contacted Tina Green who offered to drive and I hastily left to meet her in Westport, only to be hampered by a crash closing down I-95. We diverted up to the Hutchinson Parkway to pick up Sara Zagorski. With me navigating, we opted to drive in and try and find somewhere to park rather than mess with the train. It was all a bit of a chaotic blur of excitement and on the fly logistics. Locating a nearby parking garage, we walked the block to the 90th street west entrance and within seconds had laid eyes on the bird feeding in the same area. It turned out it was that easy. This was a bird that had eluded me and many others for years – but the mystique had suddenly been laid to rest in an instant. But at least I didn’t have to drive to Michigan!

SY male Kirtland’s Warbler, Central Park, NYC (Julian Hough).

It was rather chaotic – many bikers, runners and police all in attendance as passers-by stopped to ask what everyone was looking at. The bird foraged high but would occasionally drop lower and lower until it fed at eye-level, only five feet away. Dayam!!

Part of what was actually a big crowd, annoying runners and cyclists ‘cos rare birds are more important than fat loss!

With overcast, leaden skies and no real direct light, photography was difficult. The bird performed well for all and occasionally belted out its short, but surprisingly loud and full song.

SY male Kirtland’s Warbler, Central Park, NYC (Julian Hough). Stocky-bodied and long-tailed it occasionally belted out its distinctive song.

Rather dull compared to an adult male, the brownish primary coverts and remiges indicated it was a second-year male. The distinctive throat patch, large size, long tail and yellow underparts with contrasting white undertail coverts were all as expected.

As rain set in, we retired to find some breakfast and headed home for a hassle-free afternoon!

Mexico-November 2017

January 6, 2018

This won’t be a great piece of  literary birding prose, but just a few notes and pix of a recent trip to Mexico for a Thanksgiving break. Ingrid and I wanted to escape the northeastern cold and so we headed for the Yucatan, Mexico for some much-needed rest and relaxation. Oh…and birding…definitely some of that!

We planned to head for Cozumel for a few days, before heading down to Tulum. The island of Cozumel has a few endemics and some local races that may be future splits (e.g., Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, Western Spindalis, Bananaquit, etc.) and also offered a chance to partake in some snorkeling.

18th -21st November –Cozumel
We landed in Cancun, headed outside the terminal and took the ADCO bus to Playa Del Carmen. The bus departed from right outside the arrival terminal. It took about 45 minutes, dropping us off a block from the ferry. We found our way to the ferry, and found that there were a couple of ferry operators. Arriving in the afternoon, there were no ferries between 1pm and 5pm which was a surprise to us, and something to be aware of, if arriving at the ferry in the mid-afternoon. The other, slightly more expensive operators offered a 3pm ferry, so we took that. Return tickets cost two of us 180 pesos total and took an hour or so. Don’t expect to see many birds on the crossing.

We were staying on the west side of the island which is the tourist strip. We were at the Iberostar, an all-inclusive hotel Ingrid had booked, which, as it happened, was right next to the road to the village of El Cedral, about 20 miles south of the ferry port. This was, by pure coincidence, a spot Chris Benesh had given me as a good spot to grab some endemics. Score one for the awesome girlfriend! The hotel was great, right on the beach and for a birder used to living on Twinkies and chips on a birding trip, this was top-shelf stuff!

Our cool digs at the Hotel Iberostar, Cozumel.

The grounds were well-wooded and held a good assortment of wintering warblers, the most abundant being American Redstart, Magnolia, Yellow-throated, ‘Golden” Yellow and the odd Cape May Warbler. Black Catbird was a shoe-in and Tropical Kingbirds sallied from almost every exposed perch.

Magnolia Warbler -one of the commoner neotropical migrants

An easy, slam dunk tick…Black Catbird

After a long day of travel we relaxed in our room, took in the sunset and indulged in the dinner buffet.

The sun sets on Cozumel (Ingrid Ducmanis)

19th November – Cozumel
The following day, I was excited to bird and was up at first light. Walking out along the main road, Northern Waterthrushes skulked around the parking lot, white-crowned Pigeons swooshed overhead and Summer Tanagers called from the dense trees lining the Hotel driveway.  It was birdy, with Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-faced Grassquits and Black Catbirds in the roadside trees.

Yucatan Woodpecker – smaller billed than the similar Golden-fronted Woodpecker

The track down to the beach, through low dense jungle, offered looks at both Yucatan and the endemic Cozumel Vireo, Yucatan Woodpecker, Caribbean Eleania, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, Tropical Mockingbird. I bumped into Chris Benesh and Cory Gregory leading their FieldGuides group. After exchanging pleasantries, I left them to it and carried onwards.

I made it back to join Ingrid for breakfast. We then made our way to the hotel dock and were picked up for our afternoon snorkeling excursion. We booked with Cozumel Cruise Excursions and for $50 per person, we can recommend them for a great couple of hours snorkeling – we visited three spots and saw Sting ray, barracuda, nurse shark and a variety of fish. The water was crystal clear and the snorkelling was fantastic and freshly-prepared guacomole and a beer made it even better.

Downtown San Miguel, Cozumel

Instead of dropping me at the dock, I had the boat drop me off in San Miguel where I picked up a rental car from rentadoraisis@prodigy.net.mx  The car was an old VW bug…no A/C, hand-crank windows, etc. I was unsure it would ever start back up every time I turned it off! That night, after Ingrid and I had dinner, I set off on an outing to try for some night birds. Cozumel was the only spot that seemed to have spots for Yucatan Nightjar in November, but I was unable to pinpoint any reliable spots. And, given the somewhat sketchy nature of the rental car, I was hesitant to go further afield. I headed for the nearby sleepy town of El Cedral. The road out to El Cedral started right across from the hotel. As I got into town, there was nobody around, no lights, and it was kind of eerie…like a ghost town. As I turned down each lane, dull amber light from the street lights barely penetrated the unpaved edges. The second road I turned down, I noticed the unmistakable shape of a caprimulgid silhouetted on the road. Common Pauraque. It seemed everywhere I drove in this town they danced in and out of the streetlights, giving phenomenal views!

Common Pauraques performed well in El Cedral

20th November – Cozumel
Dawn saw me heading north in the VW Bug, destined for the sewage plant area in the NW part of the island. This area was known as the best spot to see Ruddy Crake and a selection of the island endemics. The track at the north end of the island was notoriously pot-holed and in bad shape. It took me a while to navigate the road before arriving, finally, at the Water Treatment plant. Unfortunately my journey was halted by a huge flooded area that spanned the road. As I pondered what to do, the FieldGuides crew passed me by in their high-clearance vehicles, waved at me, crossed the pool  and vanished into the distance, bound for certain crake success.  As I stood looking at the pool, wondering how I was going to see Ruddy Crake now, I was more than surprised when one walked out of the roadside vegetation, looked at me, and continued walking across the road. Ree-sult!! A few other birds were seen: White-collared seedeater, a brief Green-breasted Mango, Caribbean Dove, Palm, Yellow-throated Warbler and American Redstart. Melodious Blackbirds perchedup in the distance and despite searching, no Western Spindalis (of the Cozumel race) were seen.

Sewage Plant
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40631877

As I headed back, I found a few Hooded Warblers in the bushes, and a few pewee sp. I was unsure what species were likely here, and given the difficulties of their id, my brief views were inconclusive. A brief stop at the El Presidente Grid – an area of overgrown roads and housing development, produced few birds.

My ISIS-sponsored VW bug birding in the El Presidente grid

Good views of Cozumel Vireo, several Hooded and Parula Warblers were had, but few birds of note were seen. I returned the car, took a taxi back to the hotel and chilled out on the beach with Ingrid.

21st November – Cozumel and Tulum
My last morning was spent birding the road down to the beach adjacent to the hotel. A confiding Yucatan Vireo fed out in the open, several Summer Tanagers flitted around with some Caribbean Eleanias, and the ubiquitous Tropical Mockingbirds and Black Catbirds foraged out on the forest edge. Yucatan Woodpeckers, a Northern Waterthrush and a vocal Northern Beardless Tyrannulet showed well, but not so the only Mangrove Cuckoo of the trip that only called once from deep within the jungle. A Tennessee Warbler was seen briefly but the highlight was walking back and seeing the familiar shape of a hummingbird perched up ahead of me – Cozumel Emerald, my last endemic and at the last hour!!

At the last hour, managed the endemic Cozumel Emerald..a female, beggars can’t be choosers!

Iberostar
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40607976

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40640063

The Watcher

We left Cozumel and picked up our car rental in Carmen Del Playa. We rented from reservas@america-carrental.com for $190 (including all the insurance necessary in Mexico) for 6 days. As many had noted when picking up a car here in Carmen Del Playa, the company is not organized, and despite repeated confirmation from them that someone would meet us at the designated spot, they never showed up and we had to call them. It all worked out, but I would recommend taking a taxi directly to the office to save aggravation. Aside from the pick-up, the car was great.The best part was that we were able to drop this off when we were leaving at Cancun airport, which was convenient.

We headed off south for the hour drive to Tulum, our base for the next 6 days. After a drive through a built up part of town, ticking off Collared Aricaris flying across the main road, we drove down a narrow coastal swathe of road and ended up at Kira’s Beach House.

Kira’s Beach House, Tulum. Incredibly chill and charming

Tulum was idyllic, quirky, charming and absolutely beautiful. The beach house accommodations were awesome and our room was surprisingly modern and spacious. The sand was like powder and the sea was warm, aquamarine and clear.

Ingrid – beautifully rocking the hat

This was just what the doctor ordered and Ingrid was more than happy – this was definitely her kind of place. She had scored two out of two on the accommodation front!

22nd November – Tulum
Spent the day relaxing with Ingrid.

Obligatory vacation selfie. Enjoying the tranquil beauty of Tulum

Doing her thang!

23rd November – Muyil
I headed off at the crack of dawn to Muyil ruins. The ruins were not open until 8 (despite other reports stating that entry was possible prior to the official opening). Heading south on Rt 307, as you enter Muyil, the ruins are on the left. Shortly after, on the left is a bus stop, and right next to that, on the left is a narrow unpaved road that runs down the western side of the ruins and ends at a boat launch. I turned down this road and parked in a gravel parking lot on the right. It was evident that this road was very birdy, with Northern Barred, Ivory-billed  and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers, two calling, and well-seen Mexican (Mayan) Anthrushes, Eye-ringed Flatbill, my first cool Yucatan Jays and a great view of a Stub-tailed Spadebill. Despite many calling, they were incredibly difficult to see. A mixed flock of warblers included Black and White and Louisiana Waterthrush, while other species included a female Rose-throated Tanager and a striking Grey-headed Tanager,

At the boat ramp, two Russet-naped Wood Rails paraded around in the open giving great looks.

Russet-naped Wood Rail showing really well at the boat launch at Muyil

Muyil
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40711921

After relaxing back at the beach house, we got dressed and walked down the beach for a cocktail before taking a Thanksgiving dinner reservation at the beach restaurant La Zebra. Amazing ambience, great food and beautiful company made for a memorable evening.

A fantastic Thanksgiving meal at La Zebra restaurant with my beautiful lady.

24th November – Punta Laguna and Coba
An early morning 5am start today. Ingrid agreed to get up at zerodarkthirty and take a trip out with me. The Spider Monkey reserve at Punta Laguna seemed to be a good destination to do some birding and for her to see some native wildlife. We planned to stop at Coba afterwards to check out the Mayan ruins and again, hopefully add a few good species to the list. After a brief pre-sunrise, yet unsuccessful, stop to check for Yucatan Poorwill, we continued on and found the reserve quickly. I had high expectations based on previous reports but it was rather quite in the trees surrounding the parking lot. Ruddy Ground Doves and our first Green Jays were seen. Paying our entrance fees, I declined to take a guide to show us the monkeys. After 50 yds down the path, a spotted a troupe of Spider Monkeys overhead, moving quickly through the trees.

Spider Monkeys performed really well for us at Punta Laguna!

Urging Ingrid to follow me, we kept pace with them until they stopped and fed above our heads for 20 minutes giving great looks. Ingrid was thrilled. On the way back I pointed out a few birds, but I was keen to find the cave that had hosted roosting Mottled Owls in the past – although one of the commonest Neotropical owls, it has eluded me, a real nemesis bird. After some trial and error, we had just found the cave when Ingrid suddenly shouted, “What’s that…something just flew out of the cave”. Figuring it was likely a Mottled Owl, her final directions got me on a life bird…but not the one I expected. A Lesson’s Motmot, not a Mottled Owl, sat motionless on the branch, showing well, and right out in the open. I’ll take it! It would be the only one of the trip!

Ingrid made it quite clear where she was not going, but I descended into the cave and despite looking, no Mottled owls fell into the beam of my flashlight. Dang!!

“Come out, come out wherever you are!”. My descent into a cave looking for roosting Mottled Owls. (Ingrid Ducmanis)

On the way back, several skulking Green-backed Sparrows, a smart Pale-billed Woodpecker and an Eye-ringed Flatbill were seen, and then a couple of low “chup-chup” calls alerted me to my only Kentucky Warbler of the trip, seen really well, but briefly.

It was getting warm, so we headed back to the car, and made a beeline for Coba. As we left, about a mile down the road, flashes of black and orange halted our progress. Several adult male Orange Orioles, a Yucatan endemic, crossed the road but didn’t give great views. But a splendid male Black-cowled oriole did! While parked up, a small passerine flit up briefly and although I could see just the head, it belonged to a female Grey-breasted Chat! Another Yucatan endemic but hardly satisfying views.

Coba
It was unavoidable that we would arrive at the ruins later in the morning, and as expected, the place was packed with tourists. We paid our entrance fee and checked off the requisite ruins. Impressive though they are, the event was mired by the busloads of tourists.

Too many people and not enough ruins!

However, several birds made their presence known: Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Lesser Greenlet, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Couch’s Kingbird, Brown Jay, White-breasted Wood Wren and Red-throated Ant Tanager and my only Yellow-throated Euphonias.

Watching several hundred people scale the top of the highest ruin, did nothing to instill excitement, so we left and headed for the nearby lake to try for the secretive Spotted Rails.

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40733665

We drove to the end of the road on the west side and parked the car. Scanning the reed bed fringes produced nothing! A pair of Orchard Orioles, a few Groove-billed Anis and a lone Limpkin were present, while out on the lake Pied-billed grebe and Anhingas were seen.

Snail Kite showed really well by the lake edge, even taking a Snail just to show Ingrid why they are called what they are called!

Since it was midday, several vultures began to appear and scanning the distant trees, I was shocked to see the distinctive black and white form of a King Vulture. Despite trying to get Ingrid on the bird, it disappeared and never reappeared. A close vulture swooping over the water right in front of us was not typical Turkey Vulture behavior and it was quickly identified as a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture and gave great views and photo opps, as did a young Snail Kite, showing off with a Snail just to prove to Ingrid how they get their name!

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture

Adult Zone-tailed Hawk providing awesome views!

Just then, appearing right over our heads, doing its best Turkey Vulture impression was that old mimic, Zone-tailed Hawk. It gave great views before disappearing behind some houses.

Spotted Rail was apparently not going to show, so I gave up and we headed off into town for some lunch. We made our way back to Tulum, glimpsing several Brown Jays crossing the road as well as the distinctive shape of several Keel-billed Toucans.

Keel-billed Toucan

After a long, but successful trip, we chilled out on the beach, soaking up the beautiful weather, swimming and relaxing with a refreshing Mojito from the beachside bar. Tremendous.

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40733783

25th November – Muyil
Suffering from a head cold, I only made a brief stop at Muyil this morning, which did not provide as much excitement as before and was rather quiet. Birds of note included Brown-crested and Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, several flocks of chaetura swifts, which based on range were Vaux’s. A Gray-headed Dove, White-bellied Emerald, Yellow-backed Oriole, Red-throated Ant Tanagers and Clay-colored Thrush were easy to see, but a highlight was finally seeing a trogon – two Black-headed Trogons chased each other around the treetops giving good views. A search of the scrub and village across the road from the entrance to the ruins produced a Zone-tailed Hawk, a Swainson’s Thrush and several Hooded Orioles.

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40762418

26th November – Camino Vigo Chigia Road, Felippe Carillo Puerto
This was to be my big birding day out. Feeling much better after a good night’s sleep, I left at 4:45am to drive the hour to the area of Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve. The road that leaves the town of FCP and travels through prime jungle habitat, is well-known and probably THE best single spot for birding on the Yucatan. I left early to try for night birds. I decided to try the track that leads south into the reserve from Hwy 307, some 35 km from Tulum. I found the turn off and despite being great habitat I was bummed not to flush any poorwills off the road. After four km, I reached the unguarded entrance to the reserve and turned around figuring it wasn’t worth going any further. On the way out, just before I reached the main highway, I played the tape of poorwill and nightjar and all I heard was a distant, brief call of a Mottled owl. It neither responded nor came in! Grrr.

Boat-billed Flycatcher was only seen at Viga Chigo road.

I hurried to FCP and arrived at first light and began my exploration of the road. Despite high hopes of a birding avalanche, the area was generally quiet. I stopped at various spots and all was quiet…a Kiskadee here and a Least Fly there, but the trees were silent-ish! I stopped and walked, drove and walked, and gradually began to pick off a few birds one by one. An unseen, calling Mayan Anthrush, hinted at unseen hidden treasures deep within the forest. Two myiarchus-type flycatchers raised hopes they were Yucatan Flycatcher, a difficult identification given the similarities with the local subspecies of Dusky-capped. I had started to get my eye in and figured these were not meeting the grade for Yucatan and the id as Dusky-capped was confirmed by their mournful “weeuu” calls.

Pressing on, birds included Rose-throated Tanager, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Bright-rumped Attila and great looks at a Canivet’s Emerald and a Wedge-tailed Sabrewing. Birds were starting to add up including Ruddy and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers, White-bellied Emerald and Ladder-backed Woodpecker. At one spot, I thought the habitat looked good for Gray-breasted Chat, so I played the call and BOOM! In flies a male..awesome views and much more satisfying than the head of a female!

The heat was increasing, and as I stood quietly on the road looking at a rather barren group of trees, I noticed the silent flicking flight of a trogon – another Black-headed! I happened to turn around, just in time to see a Great Currasow walk quietly across the path, some distance away, and disappear into the forest. Further hard work finally turned up a Yucatan Flycatcher, or at least a bird I was happy fit the mold! Stopping one last time on the way out provided views of some skulking wrens, and in a matter of feet had nailed Long-billed Gnatwren, White-bellied and Spot-breasted Wrens.

I couldn’t help but stop-in at Muyil again on the way back. It was getting later in the day, but still it delivered a few birds. This was probably my favorite birding site. Small parties of chaetura swifts passed overhead, again likely Vaux’s but despite thinking they would appear different to Chimney Swifts, and knowing their size and subtle wing shape differences, I still couldn’t confidently put a name to them on sight, only on range. I’ll post some pix later.

Birding the village area across from the ruins entrance produced Brown Jay, Masked Tityra, Grayish and Black-headed Saltator and a small flock of Northern Rough-wingeds that didn’t show characters of Ridgway’s Northern Rough-winged.

Muyil
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40779768

Back at Tulum, I was happy to chill out and relax on the beach and enjoy some r&r, a highlight being my only Cave Swallow of the trip flitting over the rooftop. That evening we ate at the nearby La Onda restaurant for another fine Tulum meal.

27th November – Tulum to Cancun
The last morning Ingrid and I rose early to watch our final Tulum sunrise and what a spectacular send off we had.

Enjoying a pre-coffee sunrise outside our room (Ingrid Ducmanis)

We drove back to Cancun, dropped off the car and headed home, An amazing trip, an amazing place and great birding. Even though I was only birding for a few hours a day, some good planning and hard work managed to produce 90% of the birds a full-on trip might record, so I was happy with over 130+ species, despite missing some wanted birds such as Mottled owl, Yucatan Poorwill and Yucatan Nightjar.

Probably one of the nicest beaches we’ve been on..powder-soft sand and warm, crystal clear water made for a chill time!

I can’t recommend the Yucatan enough as an affordable destination for a birder/non-birding couple. Ingrid had a fantastic vacation and we both got to do the things we both enjoyed. We will be back! Thanks to Megan Crewe, Chris Benesh, Abby Darrah, Larry Sweetland and Niels Larsen for pre-trip help!

Snowy Owls 2017

December 14, 2017

(Click on images for larger, hi-res versions)
Arriving back from Mexico, it was evident there was an incursion of Snowy Owls Into CT. A widespread arrival across the Mid West had hinted at an irruption year and several birds were found at Long Beach in Stratford – a typical “go to” spot for this species.
Alex and I took a ride down and immediately found a bird sat on one of the closest jetties giving great looks in the scope and decent photo opps. (A dark, female- type bird had accompanied this bird but had been flushed twice by a woman with a point and shoot camera. Grrrr!)
A week later, with continued reports of multiple individuals, I made a predawn assault and obtained some decent shots of both individuals. The birds attracted a lot of attention!
 
Studies by Josephson (1980) and others (see below) have outlined the difficulties in ageing and sexing Snowy Owls. Birds after their first year are in first Adult plumage.  According to studies of known returning birds, it may take four-five years for an adult to reach a definitive basic plumage.
Ageing and sexing Snowy Owls is clearly difficult. In December, First-year (first-basic) males and adult females can overlap in plumage but first-year (first-basic) females are often the darkest and adult males the lightest. However, while that simplistic general wisdom may hold for many birds, some known-aged females never got darker with age, while some known-aged females became as white as older adult males –  clearly field sexing will lead to some mistakes!
Even I had published a note on ageing and sexing them based on a bird seen in Lincolnshire, UK in 1991 (Hough, 1992). In hindsight, and with a lot more Snowies under my belt, that note was perhaps a little simplistic in dealing with ageing and sexing…it is way more complicated than I could ever have known at that time.
While many individual birds won’t be able to be confidently aged and sexed in the field, studies done on the breeding grounds (Seidensticker et. al) and of museum skins hint at certain helpful criteria to focus on:
  • vermiculations on the scapulars, primary tips, and inner greater coverts.
  • barring on the nape
  • presence of barring or spotting on the inner secondaries
  • number of tail bars
  • any molt contrast in the primaries
  • density of barring on the upperparts and crissum
While it is clear that field views may not provide accurate clues to age and sex, some birds can present with enough features that a good guesstimate of age and sex can be attempted.
First-basic birds sport primaries and secondaries of the same generation and have relatively pointed primaries. Tail is similar, though many of these young birds can show growth bars that while visible in the hand, are not visible under normal field conditions. Males generally show spot-like markings on the secondaries that do not touch the rachi, while females tend to show more bar-like markings, often broader and blacker. Males show 2-3 broken tail bars while females typically average more, usually 3-6.

Apparent first-basic male Snowy Owl, Stratford, CT, Dec 2017

Apparent first-basic male Snowy Owl, Stratford, CT, Dec 2017 (same bird as above). a) Pointed primaries with slight mottling; b) three tail bars; c)brownish mottling on tertials and spot -like markings on secondaries.

To summarize, while the darkest, heavily marked birds are likely to be first-basic females, first-basic males can be variable, being dark first-years or light first-year birds. These birds typically have mottling in the scapulars, tertials, greater coverts, and between the bars on the primaries, that will help separate them from adults.
However, some first-year birds may show reduced mottling – a lack of such markings may not indicate that the bird is necessarily an adult.

Apparent first-basic male Snowy Owl, Stratford, CT, Dec 2017 (same bird as above). A rather pale bird, with unmarked nape, narrow barring on underparts, rather extensive white bib (compared to female). Mottling on rearmost scapulars, tertials and primaries suggest a first-basic bird.

I’ve included a few pictures of the recent birds, and past birds from neighboring states that may be helpful. The captions hone in on certain aspects of plumage that may hint at age and sex, but these are by no means definitive and I welcome comments on anything here that is incorrect. Again, these are just suggestions based on the current literature.
 

Apparent first-basic female Snowy Owl, Stratford, CT, Dec 2017. Larger size, typical of females was apparent in the field. Very heavily barred with reduced white bib, brown mottling on tertials and heavily barred nape. Barring extending onto the vent is also typical of females, especially first-basic individuals.

Apparent first-basic female, Stratford, Dec 2008. Note a)densely barred nape; b)extensive mottling on greater coverts, tertials and some rear scapulars;c) bar-like markings on secondaries; and d) 5 tail bars, with barring extending across both vanes.

Apparent first-basic female, Stratford, Dec 2008. (same bird as above).

First-basic Snowy Owls retain their primaries, tertials and tail until the early summer when they are essentially one year old. By the time we see these birds in Nov/December, they will be second-basic plumage having completed or nearly completed their first primary moult (usually starting with p7). Older birds (e.g.,third-basic) subsequently follow the same molt schedule with p7 being one of the first to be replaced.
So, how do you know in December, if the bird is a first-basic or older? Looking for visible signs of a first-year (see above) and then examining the primaries to see if there is any molt contrast between new, replaced primaries (typically p7) and secondaries. Apparently the differences are subtle, but possible on good close up images of the wing. Also, the newer primary tips often show a more rounded shape with a wider, white terminal fringe.)

Apparent first-basic male Snowy Owl, NY, December 2008. a) Pointed primaries with dark bars reaching to tip; b) spot-like markings on secondaries; and c) three narrow tail bars, Also, shows a noticeable white bib and unmarked vent, further pointers towards a male.

The following references conatin a wealth of information, but as Snowies seemed to be still showing up, hopefully this will help point people in the right direction if they are interested in trying to age/sex birds.

References

Cramp, S. (ed.) 1985. Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Volume 4 – Terns to Woodpeckers. Oxford University Press.

Hough, J. 1992. Snowy Owl plumages. Birding World 5(3): 96-97.

Josephson, B. 1980. Aging and sexing Snowy Owls. Journal of Field Ornithology 51: 149-160.

McGowan, K.J. 2001. Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca): some recent visitors and thoughts on aging and sexing [online]. Available from: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/crows/snowy.htm [Accessed December 2009].

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification guide to North American birds – part 1. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas CA. 

Sangster, G., Collinson, J.M., Knox, A.G., Parkin, D.T. & Svensson, L. 2004. Taxonomic recommendations for British birds: second report. Ibis 146: 153-157.

Witherby, H.F., Jourdain, F.C.R., Ticehurst, N.F. & Tucker, B.W. 1952. The Handbook of British Birds, Volume 2. H.F. & G. Witherby Ltd., London.

 Mathew T. Seidensticker, Denver W. Holt, Jennifer Detienne, Sandra Talbot, and Kathy Gray. 2011. Sexing Young Snowy Owls. Journal of Raptor Research 45(4):281-289. 2011  https://doi.org/10.3356/JRR-11-02.1