Archive for the ‘Foreign Birding & Travel’ Category

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.


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.


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!


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.


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.

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


Yellow-throated Euphonia

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.

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.

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!

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.

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!

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

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.

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)


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!


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.

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!!

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!


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.

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.

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!


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!


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.

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.

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!

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!


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  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

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!


The Watcher

We left Cozumel and picked up our car rental in Carmen Del Playa. We rented from 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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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!

Back to Blighty – July 2017

July 30, 2017

South Stack Lighthouse, Anglesey, North Wales

As always, click images For Higher-Res versions

It had been a while since I had revisited the homeland. So, a summer trip to England to see my family was overdue.  Mid-July is not an ideal time to bird the best of Britain, but going in summer meant I had a chance to catch up on some birds I hadn’t seen in a while. My good friend Nick Bonomo planned to fly-out to join me. So, some meticulous planning with old friends Paul Derbyshire, Si Smethurst, Chris Mills, and Andy Culshaw ensured Nick would bag as many UK ticks as was possible.

The week leading up to departure had been rather chaotic and stressful, so I was looking forward to getting away and seeing my mum and sister. I arrived jet-lagged in Manchester on 1st July and enjoyed some r&r for a few days. Nick arrived a couple of days later and we left Bolton in the early hours of 4th July, heading for the Welsh valley at World’s End, hoping to bag some lingering “chickens”.

4th July – World’s End, North Wales
Heading through the sleepy and mist-enshrouded town of Minera at dawn, we climbed up onto the moor and within minutes found 11 Black Grouse loafing at a lek site by the road. We had great looks at these molting males before they suddenly dispersed into the surrounding area.

Black Grouse, World’s End, May 2014

Skylark and Meadow Pipits and a brief Mistle Thrush surely enlivened Nick’s morning, but the second target “chicken” aka  Red Grouse, was seen distantly as we exited the valley. We drove through the scenic Conwy valley, adding several common or garden birds to the list – Grey Wagtail, Bullfinch, Chiffchaff, Nuthatch, etc.

We arrived in Penmaeanmawr to meet up with longtime friend Paul Derbyshire. After some coffee, we all headed off to Anglesey. We stopped off en route at Aber Ogwen’s estuary and pools. A good spot that produced a number of Little Egrets – a strange sight considering this was a real rarity during my childhood birding days. Redshanks, Oystercatchers and two unexpected Greenshanks were good shorebirds for my Yankee companion. After a productive stop here, we continued on to Anglesey. With the Cemlyn Bay terns deserting the breeding grounds due to predation, we skipped that spot and headed for South Stack, Holyhead. The weather was overcast and damp, but it didn’t hamper birding. The seabird cliffs at South Stack are picturesque and buzzed with the to-ings and fro-ings of Guillemots and Razorbills and a few Fulmars. The specialty of the spot, Chough, obliged with great views. A few Puffins or “sea clowns”,  as they are known locally,  were loafing in the cove below the cliffs, while careful scanning offshore produced several Manx Shearwaters.

Heading back, a lunch stop in Holyhead for some Fish and Chips was welcomed. A stop at the Inland Sea produced several dapper Mediterranean Gulls, a top target bird for Nick and were surely breeding birds dispersing from nearby Cemlyn?

Aber Valley Falls, N Wales

Back on the “mainland”, the sun had come out and we headed for the delightful Aber Valley Falls to try for some woodland birds. Being mid-July, nothing was really singing, and birding was tough and we failed on Redstart and Wood Warbler. A nice Sparrowhawk and several Common Buzzards appeared overhead as well as a fly over Siskin. Continuing up to the falls, careful scanning of the hilltops revealed a distant raptor that both Nick and I noticed independently. It was an Osprey, carrying a fish, a good bird for this part of Wales and the first Paul had seen here.
Back to Conwy to meet up with another longtime friend Fred Fearn for dinner. We all enjoyed a nice evening at a pub by the harbor, catching up and drinking some beer!

5th July Conwy, North Wales

A flock of juvenile Little Egrets, Burton Mere, Cheshire

A nice day dawned, and we headed off to Conwy RSPB reserve which appeared dead, so we bid adieu to Paul and Fred and continued on to Burton Mere RSPB….a  nice reserve, built on the opposite side of the mere to the famous, and rarity-delivering spot of Inner Marsh Farm. Little Egrets were breeding here and recently it transpired that Cattle Egrets had also nested here…the first breeding occurrence of that species in the UK.

Juv Little Egret…long overdue back home in CT!

We did not see the Cattle Egrets, but highlights included a distant flying Spoonbill and the worst ever view of a Great White Egret, in flight heading away – only my 2nd in the UK. Little Ringed Plover and a Ruff were nice for Nick, but nothing else of note.

We headed back to Bolton, dropped off the rental vehicle and grabbed a brew before Si came by and we headed off straight for the Norfolk coast. We stopped off in East Leake, Notts in the early evening, to twitch a small group of Bee-eaters that had taken up residence at a working quarry and were showing signs of breeding – a rare occurrence in the UK.

A splash of color…this is what Bee-Eaters look like when you get close views, not like when you see them in Nottingamshire. This was one of several at Po Marshes in Italy in 2006.

Nick and Si wondering when we might get good views..

Strangely enough, they showed only briefly, so views were in flight and far from exceptional, and they showed only briefly and distantly by the time we had to leave. They are currently raising two broods! Confiding Yellow Wagtails and a juvenile Green Woodpecker were our only good views of the trip.

Pressing onwards, we had a rendezvous in north Norfolk with some heathland species, European Nightjar being a much-wanted bird for Nick. We made a quick pit-stop to pick up a sandwich, and made it onsite at dusk. Unfortunately, since it was late in the breeding season, there wasn’t much activity. As the light waned, we finally were serenaded by a churring male. It was too dark for decent views and, although it came close and wing-clapped, views in the spotlight were poor. We had other sites, but this first try was a tad disappointing.

We arrived late at our digs, driving by a Barn owl on a sign that only Si saw. Our digs for the next few nights were Deepdale Backpacker’s – a great little set-up. As Nick and I unpacked the car, Si had heard a Tawny Owl calling in the churchyard across the street. Grabbing the flashlight we headed off into an archetypal English graveyard, only to be shouted at by a local busybody from a window “’ere, what are you lot doing over there?” A quick retort of “Just go back to bed” was offered, and the night again fell silent, except for the squeaking of a juvenile Tawny Owl that we saw quickly but briefly. BOOM!

6th July, The Brecks

My longtime friend and top guy Chris Mills had arranged to meet us and give us the benefit of his local knowledge. Chris runs Norfolk Birding and I recommend anyone that wants to bird Norfolk, to seek out his birding skills and guiding expertise  (

The famous four do the Brecks. Nick Bonomo, Simon Smethurst, myself and Chris Mills scouting for Goshawks… (Ssshhhh…we can’t tell you where…)

The weather was great and we hunted down some Breck’s specialties that included: Tree Pipit, Goshawk, Red Kite, Marsh Tit, but struggled with Woodlark at a couple of spots. We had a great laugh and headed off for an afternoon at Lakenheath, our only good spot for some fenland specialties and our best shot at Bittern, Hobby, Crane and Bearded Tit. The weather at this point, suddenly took a turn for the worse and we took shelter in a blind. Si managed a brief flight view of a Bittern and we had great views of Marsh Harrier, Reed Warbler and Kingfisher. Several untickable views for Nick of Bearded Tit and  a heard-only Cetti’s Warbler were frustrating. To be honest, having lived in the US now for many years, I can’t defend how atrociously shite Old World warblers are, and it was no surprise to see Nick less than enthralled by worn Chiffchaffs and Reed Warblers!

My best-ever view of Bittern in the UK, Lakenheath, Suffolk

The rain abated and we headed back, and as the sun came out again, we were treated to a first-summer Hobby that gave good views and also superb flight views of a Bittern that crossed over the path in front of us. No cranes were around, having failed at breeding.

We left enough time in the evening to hit a spot in north Norfolk that held a pair of Montagu’s Harriers. A rare breeding bird, this site was actively monitored and we found ourselves taking position overlooking some beautiful rolling hills and fields. It wasn’t long before I spotted the female in flight. She flew around and landed in a field. Shortly afterwards, the male, tiny by comparison to the female, flew in and made a food pass. We enjoyed distant, but prolonged views of the male sat perched and in flight.

Female Montagu’s Harrier, soaring over the Norfolk countryside at dusk…a rare sight in the UK.

Male Montagu’s Harrier, Extramedura, Spain….this is what the Norfolk bird looked like through a scope instead of a camera!

We headed back to Deepdale and treated Si and Chris to some ale and dinner at the White Horse for their hard work and organization.

7th July – North Norfolk Coast

Up early doors and out to Kelling Heath, picking up Andy en route. On the heath, a calling Turtle Dove refused to give itself up. Continuing on, looking for Woodlarks, we were surprised to bump into a Dartford Warbler without much effort.

Then, as I turned around, two small, stubby looking birds were flying past, “WOODLARKS!!”. The birds flew by, exhibiting their short tail, but against the overcast sky, looks were just silhouettes. They appeared to go down in a patchy area of heathland, so we headed over. As I skirted around a bush, I kicked up a roosting Nightjar from under my feet and shouted out in surprise. The bird, a male, flew past in broad daylight and gave good, if brief, views before disappearing into cover..awesome! Good views of Garden Warbler and Lesser ‘throat eluded Nick, still not bothered, since old world warblers really lack kerb appeal compared to our bright American wood-warblers.

Off to Cley for some tea and bacon sandwiches and a nostalgic trip down memory lane for the boys, regaling Nick of twitches here to see Greater Sandplover, Little Whimbrel and Pacific Swift. There were a couple of roosting Spoonbills out on Arnold’s marsh, but we decided to press on to Titchwell, stopping to look on the sea at the coastguards.

We had high hopes for Titchwell, one of the premier reserves on the east  coast.

Waders abound! “Twitchwell” delivers.

Even in July, it was packed with Avocets and a host of ‘common’ waders that Nick was happy to grill. Several amazing-looking Ruffs, some molting Spotted Redshanks, Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshanks, Curlew, Lapwing and Little Ringed Plover.

Avocet doing it’s thang!

Donald Trump of many killer-looking birds!

On the beach, two Ringed Plovers were good to see, especially since Nick and I had been looking for this long overdue vagrant back home in CT! That they looked like Ringed Plovers to us was refreshing and encouraging!

Scoping godwits and gulls, Titchwell

Simon “vis-migging”…it is hard getting old…

Mr Andrew Culshaw pondering if there is any upside to texting the wife from the field…

A Eurasian Whimbrel hung about on the beach, but was distant. A breeding plumage Common Gull on the beach was the best view of one that we had on the whole trip. Back on the reserve, a few non-breeding Little Gulls were mixed in with the breeding Black and Med Gulls, but little else was seen, though Bearded Tits finally gave themselves up.

Adult Med Gull..always dapper!

Bagging Turtle Dove at last in the parking lot we headed west to Hunstanton where we spent some time photographing swifts and the cliff-nesting Fulmars!

Fulmars cliff-nest at Hunstanton, Norfolk

Common Swift, Hunstanton

We then headed off to look for owls.  At a spot Andy knew of, we managed…finally..decent looks at a Barn Owl quartering the countryside, but no photo opps. As light was waning, a quick stop at a local Abbey, turned up Little Owl..squeaking it onto the list in the last rays of the day!

As usual, off to the pub for some much needed nosebag and some, as Nick put it,  “nice, but weak as piss” ale!

8th July- North Norfolk Coast

Our last morning. We opted for another bash at Titchwell, since that’s were the birds were!

Burnham Norton Abbey…there was a Barn Owl here before Andy scared it off 🙂

A brief, pre-dawn look for Barn Owl came up negative, but good views of a Red Kite overhead and some juv Marsh Harriers were nice.

Red Kite

During the previous afternoon, we had been looking amongst the ducks trying to pick out a Garganey that had been present. It was with a bit of a surprise when Si said, “How close do you want to see a Garganey?”. Confused and intrigued, we looked in his direction and that direction was down. Right outside the hide..literally in the grass was the eclipse male Garganey. Now, I’ve seen birds in Spring, and I know it was a lifer for Nick, but what a pile of shite this bird was!

Eclipse make Garganey

As noon approached it was time to bid adieu to Andy and we made our way back to Bolton, thankfully encountering no traffic.

A brief trip, it was great to spend time with family and great friends and see some birds. Thanks to Andy, Si and Chris for not just scoping out the birds, but to Si and Chris for driving us around and helping with logistics, and also for being great company!

View from Choseley..a spot were Corn Buntings often can be found…but not this morning!



Canada 2017- Part Deux

March 10, 2017

Positioning myself well, I grabbed one of the few flight opportunities of the morning as this docile bird made a short flight.

The plan was to try and work the Great Grays again this morning. I was beginning to feel better as the days progressed, but still had little appetite due to the lingering malaise. The adrenalin of seeing Chouette Lapone’s at eyeball level was helping though! We had great views of two birds at close range this morning. One bird was roosting and quite docile. None afforded the opportunities that we had yesterday. Just as we were leaving, the one bird began to get active and I managed to grab a quick series of shots as it sailed silently past.

We headed north on the two hour drive to Quebec, hoping to try for the Hawk Owl before dark. There were few birds to see on the trip, but we managed to car-tick several Northern Shrikes, a distant Snowy Owl atop a silo and a lone Rough-legged Hawk (surprisingly scarce) as we sped through open flatlands of farmland.

We quickly found the area the bird had been seen in. We bumped into a couple of NJ birders who had been there for a couple of hours and had failed to see the bird. We knew it had been seen the day before, but as the light waned and the clouds closed in we had to reluctantly give in to defeat. On the way to our hotel, we found a distant Snowy Owl (seen earlier by the NJ guys) in a tree far from the road.

The following morning we returned to beautiful blue, cloudless skies. Standing on the railroad tracks, it was only a matter of minutes before Mr. Mantlik noticed the bird perched on a tall spruce, right next to the car. BOOM! Northern Hawk Owl in the bag.

Frank is happy! After a dismal non-event yesterday, all was well this morning – Hawk Owl -crippling views! (Frank Mantlik)

Thankfully the bird flew towards us and perched in the hedgerow and allowed us to grab some shots for 20 minutes before flying back across the road –  a veritable bullet with wings.

Northern Hawk Owl, doing what Northern Hawk Owls do best this morning – be conspicuous and confiding!

Frank Gallo getting to grips. ( Frank Mantlik)

Truly charismatic birds, seeing a Hawk Owl is always a top shelf experience. We watched the bird hunting in a suburban yard, hunting in a ravine, drinking snow from the crook of a tree, and generally being inconspicuous. If this is where it was the previous afternoon, it was no wonder we didn’t find it.

Since further photo opps were not forthcoming, we bucked out of there and headed south of the river and north towards La Pocatiere, to try and spend time looking for two Gyrfalcons that had been seen in that area recently – a white bird, and a stunning, dark chocolate bird.

Nick takes up the narrative and writes, Very pleased with our morning hawk owl experience, we crossed to the east side of the St. Lawrence River and drove north another 90 minutes for our third and final leg of the trip. Two Gyrfalcons, one white and one dark, had been frequenting the agricultural fields between La Pocatiere and Kamouraska. We drove a loop through prime Gyr habitat, focusing on those areas where the birds had been seen, but came up empty. Night in La Pocatiere.

Nick scoping a birdless horizon silhouetted by a stunning sunset over the St. Lawrence

We had one last shot for the Gyrs on Tuesday morning, again greeted by beautiful light with which to work. It was very cold, down to 1 degree Fahrenheit, but the temps warmed quickly thanks to the abundant sunshine. A thick frost had coated the vegetation overnight, making for some stunning scenery.

We drove the Gyr loop again without sign of a raptor of any kind. The only bird of prey we saw on two tours through fine habitat was a single SNOWY OWL on our way out-of-town.

Distant Snowy Owl surveying its wintry home.

We were actually quite struck by the absence of bird life in general. This was not surprising given the barren Arctic-like landscape of the agricultural fields. What did surprise us was the dearth of life on the St. Lawrence River itself. Though we did not set aside much time for river viewing, we were treated to sprawling views of the mostly frozen waterway from several locations. Literally the only birds noted were a few Common Mergansers. Not even a single gull fly by!

We also thought we would stumble across flocks of finches or waxwings at some point, but we would have been completely skunked on those if Julian hadn’t spotted a group of PINE GROSBEAKS while driving through Kamouraska along the river.”

Male Pine Grosbeak!

We checked a lot of silos, but came up blank – my recent shite luck with Gyrfalcons seems to continue, this is the 8th try for 6 different birds in the last three years..what the flock!!!

Despite this, it was a truly wonderful four days, with some great birds, amazing photo opps and the experience of having one land on your tripod was out of this world! The French birders we met were so friendly and eager to share news of the local birds.

I need to give a big shout out to local Montreal birder (and ace photographer) Simon Bolyn, who was so gracious to my request for help, that it helped make the trip logistics a bit more reassuring. Brian Kulvete from CT and Justin Lawson from VT were both equally helpful in providing “boots-on-the-ground” info that helped make the trip great. Thanks guys!

Canada 2017 – Part 1

March 5, 2017
After (presumably) mistaking one of the photographer's neck warmer for some juicy, furry rodent, when she ducked, it had to re-orient and chose to do it from Nick's tripod, landing at point blank range between both of us. Bold and fearless this bird had been actively hunting, and had not been baited at all. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for all present, this moment subsequently went viral.

After (presumably) mistaking a photographer’s neck warmer for some juicy, furry rodent, this Great Gray had to reorient itself when her ‘victim’ ducked. It chose to do it from Nick’s tripod, landing at point blank range between both of us. Bold and fearless this bird had been actively hunting, and had not been baited at all. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for all present, this moment subsequently went viral. (Photos by Julian Hough. CLICK ON IMAGES FOR HI-RES VERSIONS)

Arranged with military precision, birds had been researched, their locations marked on maps with gps co-ordinates and bags were packed. However, finding myself holed up in the bathroom, less than 24 hours prior to a 4-day birding assault on Quebec, wasn’t in my plans. My son Alex had been sick with a virulent stomach bug and he had kindly shared it with me. Confined to bed and subsisting just on Pedialyte I crashed out all day. When I awoke just after midnight, I felt a tad bit better. I downed some imodium, grabbed a pillow and blanket and collapsed into the back of Frank’s car for the long drive to Montreal.

The main intent was a simple one; find and photograph Great Gray Owls near Montreal  and drive north to Quebec for Northern Hawk Owl and Gyrfalcon. In the last month, there had been a small and localized incursion of Great Gray Owls into the Montreal area

From l to r: Nick Bonomo, Frank Mantlik, Frank Gallo and myself, La Pocatiere, Quebec.

From l to r: Nick Bonomo, Frank Mantlik, Frank Gallo and myself, La Pocatiere, Quebec.

The group de force were Frank Mantlik, Frank Gallo, Nick Bonomo and myself. Nick takes up the story on his blog (
“We B-lined to Montreal, specifically to Refuge Faunique Marguerite-D’Youville south of the city itself. We were met by another birder in the parking lot as we arrived who was there the day before and informed us how slow it was on Friday – only one bird seen, and not terribly active. It had been windy and cold then. Saturday was a different story; we were greeted by sunny skies, warming temps, and zero wind. As we would soon find out, the birds would cooperate today.

We encountered three GREAT GRAY OWLS on this day at the refuge. What was supposed to be a few-hour visit turned into most of the day. We could not pull ourselves away, and who would want to? The birds (one in particular) performed above and beyond anyone’s reasonable expectations.

Crippling views! A superb Great Gray Owl. The prominent, buffy fringes to the primaries and browner secondaries, age this as a first-year.

Crippling views! A superb Great Gray Owl. The prominent, buffy fringes to the primaries and browner secondaries, age this as a first-year.



Great Gray Owl – incoming! An active bird, it allowed us to position ourselves for some potential flight shots as it hunted along a treeline- and we were not disappointed.

One particularly actively hunting individual put on quite a show for the crowd. It spent several hours searching for prey rather close to the trail and made several short flights, from perch to perch, in its pursuit of a meal. After a couple hours of watching this owl and enjoying every second, it decided to fly back across the trail, something it had done a couple times already this morning. After a couple hours of watching this owl and enjoying every second, it decided to fly back across the trail, something it had done a couple times already this morning. Rather than passing over the group to the other side, it nearly landed on a woman’s head before touching down on my tripod directly in front of me. I stood there stunned for a few moments, unsure of what exactly to do.”

Nick and I were stunned to be literally face to face with this amazing beast!

GGOW up close and personal (Frank Mantlik)

GGOW up close and personal (Frank Mantlik)

“Before you go on assuming that this bird was lured in with pet store mice, you would be mistaken. That sort of behavior is highly frowned upon at this refuge, and we chose to come here largely based on this. Through a day and a half there with three owls we didn’t see any sign of anyone doing anything like that. A local birding couple that walks here once or twice per week has never seen anything of the kind here either. The refuge staff patrols the trails here, and everyone’s behavior was top notch. Nobody even ventured more than a couple feet off the trail, as per park rules. It was impressive. We had been following this bird for 2+ hours at close range before this happened, and it only approached us this once…the bird was in heavy hunting mode and seemed to use the tripod as just another survey post for a few minutes before moving onto the next treetop. Even after it landed on my tripod it spent most of its time looking away from the humans onto the ground for prey as it was doing from the trees, with only the occasional head turn towards me or the crowd. Certainly didn’t feel like it was looking to us for food at all. These are notoriously tame birds to begin with, so I don’t entirely understand why some photographers feel the need to bait them. You obviously don’t need to feed GGOWs to get killer photos!

Before we knew it, it was 2pm and we were dehydrated and sunburned. We left the refuge on a major high from our experience there. After some regrouping and refocusing, the last couple hours of daylight were spent unsuccessfully searching fields to the west of the city for Snowy Owls and other open country birds like Gray Partridge, etc. We did stumble across this Barred Owl in a farmhouse backyard. Night near Montreal after celebratory beer & food!”

A nice backlit Barred owl at dusk posed for some photos by the road.

A nice backlit Barred owl at dusk posed for some photos by the road.


Thanksgiving – Puerto Rico Style!

December 2, 2016
Great looks at Puerto Rican Screech Owl

Great looks at Puerto Rican Screech Owl

“$150? That’s not right”,  I said indignantly. “It should be $105.”

“Yes, but with the taxes and insurance, it comes to $150”, said the clerk.

“But I don’t need insurance, it’s covered by my license and credit card…what insurance are you talking about?”, I asked, obviously confused.

“Ok, if that is the case, then you can choose to not add it for $105, or add it for $150 –there’s not much difference in price- the choice is up to you”.

“Apparently, the choice isn’t up to me if you already added it without giving me the option first. And you didn’t disclose the fact to me just now that you added on extra stuff. I spoke to your associate Carlos yesterday who confirmed the breakdown of what I would be paying upon arrival and it doesn’t match”.

”Oh..that’s because he wouldn’t have been able to see the contract – I can see that now the reservation is being processed.”

“Well, that makes no sense. Regardless, I didn’t ask you to add insurance, so take it off please.”

Such fuckery by car rental agencies always irritates me. However, once that was rectified, Alex and I piled in and we were on our way to Fajardo, waved off by Greater Antillean Grackles and Gray Kingbirds.

Ubiquitous Gray Kingbird

Ubiquitous Gray Kingbird

A quick 50 minutes later, buzzed by Caribbean race Cave Swallows (much darker rumped than the Texas birds) we pulled into our resort for the week – the El Conquistador at Fajardo, perched expansively on the steep cliffs of Puerto Rico’s north-east coast.

Alex was keen to hit the pool, and it seemed like the thing to do. Ingrid and Indra arrived later that evening and we all chilled out.

The week consisted mainly of chilling by the pool, hot tub and beach-bumming it on nearby Palominas Island. The kids had a blast.

Alex and Indra enjoying the infinity pool

Alex and Indra enjoying the infinity pool (Ingrid Ducmanis)


Although not a birding trip, there was some endemics to be had in the nearby areas surrounding El Yunque rainforest.  Dull weather and a general low density of birds made it difficult place to bird in the short periods of time I had.

Time to nail some rainforest endemics...

Time to nail some rainforest endemics…(Ingrid Ducmanis)


El Yunque Rainforest

El Yunque Rainforest (Ingrid Ducmanis)


Big tree Trail, El Yunque

Big tree Trail, El Yunque (Ingrid Ducmanis)

Two visits, one pre-dawn (to try for Puerto Rican Screech) and an afternoon visit were brief, bur fortuitous in locating a good number of the expected species, but given that I only spent a total of 2 ½ hours actually birding (rather than driving up and down trying to find suitable areas or flocks) I was happy with the bounty. A drive around the Fajardo environs brought home the fact that there was no decent areas to bird, the main highlight was scoring good looks at Green-throated Carib on the grounds of the Fajardo Inn. My other possible “get” – Antillean Crested Hummingbird – proved difficult, although I really didn’t spend time looking for it.

The large and stunning Green-throated Carib

The large and stunning Green-throated Carib

Birding around the private Palominas Island consisted of feeding French fries to Pearly-eyed Thrashers, fly-by Zenaida Doves and small numbers of Brown Boobies offshore . The marshy, tidal area that flooded behind the miniature golf course hosted Black-bellied Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, a distant, brief Sora (difficult in PR) and a nice, surprise tick in the form of 7 White-cheeked Pintails.

Pearly-eyed Thrasher

Pearly-eyed Thrasher


Goin' Fishin"

Goin’ Fishin”


Ingrid relaxing at dusk on Palominas Island.

Ingrid relaxing at dusk on Palominas Island.

Frustrating to find four calling screech owls at El Yunque at dawn on 22nd and not be able to see them in the huge clumps of bamboo close to the entrance to El Portal Visitor center. A late evening trip to Ceiba Country Inn was more successful. Within minutes of arriving, a calling bird was seen well, at close range and spotlighted..awesome bird!

eBird checklists can be found here:

22nd November –El Yunque

Palominas Island

23rd November – El Yunque

PR Oriole
PR Tody
PR Screech Owl
PR Bullfinch
PR Spindalis
Green Mango
PR Vireo (heard, seen briefly in flight)
PR Lizard Cuckoo
PR Tanager
PR Woodpecker
PR Flycatcher

Other New Birds:
Zenaida Dove
Green-throated Carib
White-cheeked Pintail
Scaly-naped Pigeon


Planned It! Booked It! DID IT! California September 2013

October 17, 2013

Alvaro Jaramillo (centre) holds court on the “New Captain Pete” as we hit the continental shelf off of Half Moon Bay.

After a nice early breakfast courtesy of the Fairfield Inn, Phil Rusch, Nick Bonomo, Simon Harvey and myself found ourselves at dawn in Pillar Point Harbor, all prepped for a pelagic out of Half Moon Bay, San Mateo County run by an old acquaintance, Alvaro Jaramillo. I had done several trips out of Monterey in the late 80s and mid-90s with Debi Shearwater but had never ventured out of Half Moon Bay, conveniently only 35 minutes drive from SFO airport! This particular tour of duty involved a couple of Debi’s trips but while birding was OK, for seasoned veterans it was lacklustre. It seemed all the most interesting birds were being seen in Half Moon Bay this fall! So Saturday 14th September so us ready to rock and roll…and roll we was a bit bumpy on the way out!

It was great to see Alvaro and catch up a bit – we had first met when I was a research assistant at Long Point, Ontario in 1991 and he was living in the area. A great, incredibly knowledgeable guy, well-respected in the field community for his field skills he had recently left Fieldguides Inc. to go solo with his travel company Alvaro’s Adventures,  and part of his operation includes running several CA pelagic trips throughout the year that have produced a burgeoning list of seabirds that have included such vagrants as Hawaiian Petrel, Short-tailed Albatross, White-chinned Petrel, Great-winged Petrel and MANY Laysan Albatrosses.

One of the first notable differences from the other pelagics, was complimentary coffee and croissants on the boat as we waited to get underway..nice touch! Alvaro ran a nice trip, engaged with all the participants and gave an educational running commentary about the birds and marine life of Half Moon Bay. A nice trip with a great selection of birds, and I would thoroughly recommend anyone taking a trip out west to take advantage of the convenience of Half Moon Bay trips with Alvaro.

To book e-mail :;  or call 650-504-7779.

Click Images for original size


Several dapper, pterodroma-patterned Buller’s Shearwaters were seen in good numbers


Great looks at this Pomarine Jaeger with “spooners”. Being a rather northerly wintering jaeger, Pomarines, unlike Parasitic and Long-tailed, begin primary moult in the early fall – this bird is moulting its inner primaries. Dark underwings lacking any barred feathers suggest it is an adult and the breast band and barred flanks suggest it is a female.


An adult Parasitic Jaeger attempting to kleptoparasitize a worried adult Sabine’s Gull!

Killer looks at many Black-footed Albatrosses

Killer looks at many Black-footed Albatrosses

South Polar of two birds seen that unfortunately did not come into the boat and did a hit and run!

South Polar Skua…one of two birds seen that unfortunately did not come into the boat and did a hit and run!

Pillar Point, near Half Moon Bay.

Pillar Point, near Half Moon Bay.

Species List:
Black-footed Albatross
Pink-footed Shearwater
Buller’s Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Manx Shearwater
Brandt’s Cormorant
Red-necked Phalarope
South Polar Skua
Pomarine Jaeger
Pomarine/Parasitic Jaeger
Common Murre
Rhinoceros Auklet
Western Gull
California Gull
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel
Ashy Storm-Petrel
Black Storm-Petrel
Red Phalarope
Pomarine Jaeger
Common Murre
Cassin’s Auklet
Rhinoceros Auklet
Sabine’s Gull
Western Gull
California Gull
Arctic Tern
Pacific Loon
Common Loon

Pacific White-sided Dolphin
Northern Right Whale Dolphin
Humpback Whale
Ocean Sunfish Mola mola


July 3, 2013
Buller's Shearwater

Buller’s Shearwater

CALIFORNIA FALL 2013 – A Plethora of Pelagics – West Coast-style!

Phil Rusch, Nick Bonomo, Simon Harvey and myself are planning an assault on the wilds of north-central California in September, centered around some pelagics out of Monterey and Half Moon Bay.

I have never been out of Half Moon Bay, a place I have visited before but never from a pelagic perspective. We are taking to the seas from here courtesy of an old friend Alvaro Jaramillo, known to many as a well-respected field birder and all-around top-man!

He recently set up his own tour business, Alvaro’s Adventures, and part of his operation includes running several CA pelagic trips throughout the year that have produced a burgeoning list of seabirds that have included such vagrants as Hawaiian Petrel, Short-tailed Albatross, White-chinned Petrel, Great-winged Petrel and MANY Laysan Albatrosses.

Albatrosses HMB AJ1

Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses – the latter is my nemesis bird!

To book e-mail :;  or call 650-504-7779

Check out a pelagic slide show here:


Scripp’s Murrelet

Pink-foot AJ

Pink-footed Shearwater

Similar birds can be seen out of Monterey, 2 hours to the south, but the proximity (30 minutes to an hour depending on traffic) to San Francisco airport is a huge plus for out-of-towners like us that need to do a pelagic then catch a red-eye back to the east coast.

Death of a Needletail

June 27, 2013


Back in the mid-80s, in my teens, a group of us were birding in Norfolk, UK on 27th May 1985 when news was phoned into the grapevine of a White-throated Needletail Swift – a huge, Asian swift only recorded a handful of times in the UK – at Fairburn Ings, Yorkshire. Usually only an hours drive away if we had been home, we left a trail of burning rubber as we exited Norfolk on a nail-biting, 4 hour drive to Yorkshire.

The bird had been forced down by an advancing storm, which had cleared before we got there and to our dismay, the bird was never seen again! To make matters worse, it later transpired that an old friend of mine known to many, Mr. Steve Dudley, had been volunteering there at the time and was one of the lucky few to see it!

Although I have seen them in Australia and China, It remained one of my most sought after birds that I wanted to see in the UK but never have. Now living in the states, I had to live vicariously through birders when news broke this week of one of these stunning birds hurtling around cliffs on Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

This startling news propelled birders north and some great photos by Josh Jones can be seen here:

Unfortunately, today sad news dominated the headlines of the birding world, when this bird, capable of speeds up to 112 kph, and being watched by a group of birders, collided with a wind-turbine and died..a truly sad end to an amazing species. See here for pictures:

Several birders were able to make it to the far north in time to be amazed at how close and well this bird showed before its untimely demise.