New Zealand: see birds…seabirds!

Seabirds are some of the most remarkable and wonderful avian species on earth, yet the average birder doesn’t get to see many of them. But a trip to New Zealand–in addition to introducing you to a wonderful variety of endemic landbirds, from kiwis to stitchbirds–offers an unusual opportunity. Would you like to try out a little pelagic birding with a few shorter trips on the water to “find your sea legs”? If so, our November New Zealand itinerary makes for the perfect tour.

Have you noticed the diversity of tubenoses in the Pacific (say, off California), but ever wondered, “where do they nest”? For many, New Zealand is the answer. New Zealand is among the last large landmasses to have been colonized by terrestrial mammals (including humans), and as such the islands provided some of the safest nesting grounds for seabirds in the world. Today, the many smaller offshore islands of the country are still home to huge colonies of seabirds: shearwaters, petrels, prions, albatrosses, storm-petrels, penguins, gannets, and cormorants (or as they are called by most Kiwis, shags). Our main tour of the country includes not only much wonderful landbirding but also 8 boat rides, virtually all under half a day in length, and seabirds are a major target of those outings. We have had good luck with three species of penguins (Little, Fiordland, and Yellow-eyed), at least four albatrosses (Salvin’s, White-capped, Royal, and Wandering–these last two sometimes split into additional species by some authorities, in which case we can easily add another species of Royal to the tally), several larger petrels (Northern Giant, Cape, Westland, and White-chinned, for starters), Fairy Prion, and several shearwaters (including the endemic Fluttering and Hutton’s, as well as Flesh-footed). A pelagic on our optional Hauraki Gulf extension also has been very successful in netting two storm-petrels, including the endemic New Zealand Storm-Petrel, a species believed extinct until rediscovered a little more than a decade ago!

Of course, New Zealand is more than just seabirds. As a “land of birds” for so many millennia, the islands fostered the evolution of several endemic bird families: Kiwis (of course!), New Zealand parrots, wattlebirds, stitchbird, mohouas, and the adorable New Zealand wrens. Our tour route is designed to maximize our opportunities to see members of each of these families, and we usually see them well! There are additional endemics that make for a special tour to these enchanted islands, such as the odd Blue Duck, the orchestral endemic honeyeaters Tui and New Zealand Bellbird, the dinosaur-like flightless rail–the Weka–and a host of interesting and unusual shorebirds, perhaps most notably the unique Wrybill. And of course, if you ever wondered where Alaska’s Bar-tailed Godwits spend their winter, the answer may surprise you: New Zealand. And they get there via a non-stop flight every autumn!

Yes, the country of New Zealand is a fine destination if you want to experience something quite different from your “normal,” yet it seems oddly familiar. Besides the fact that New Zealanders speak English (with a lovely twist), you may recognize the epic landscapes we pass through from several blockbuster movie sets. And there is always something to look at as we travel from the bottom to the top of this impressive country. Interested yet? If so, consider joining me this November 15 for a visit to Aotearoa (“the Land of the Long Cloud,” the Maori name for the country), and see it for yourself. And see the seabirds!

Bolivia: a stealth birding treasure

South America is universally known as the “bird continent,” and rightly so: nearly half of the world’s birds are found there alone! Five of the birdiest countries (the countries with the biggest bird lists) in the world are in South America: Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Bolivia, you ask? Who ever thinks about birding Bolivia? Well, we do! Field Guides has been leading tours to Bolivia for decades, providing our participants with great experiences in one of the world’s great unsung birding destinations. Bolivia is not yet famous for its ecotourism, but it should be–there are fabulous birds and landscapes, we can stay in comfortable lodgings in the main cities, and there are even some ecotourism-geared lodges closer to our birding destinations.

Wedge-tailed Hillstar and Black-hooded Sunbeam by guide Dan Lane
Special hummingbirds? Yes, Bolivia has a bunch, including the Wedge-tailed Hillstar at left above, and the fabulous aqua-rump-flashing Black-hooded Sunbeam at right! Photo by guide Dan Lane.
Hooded Mountain­Toucan is a large and attractive species of the humid mid­-elevation forests. Photo by participant Keith Betton.
Bolivia has some fantastic mountains! Here’s an aerial view looking west across the impressive Cordillera Real (on the north side of La Paz city), with Lake Titicaca in the background.

Bolivia is replete with incredible scenery: from the open plains within sight of the “bend in the Andes” near Santa Cruz city, to the striking arid landscapes of the intermontane valleys at the border of Santa Cruz and Cochabamba departments, to the (quite literally!) breathtaking beauty of the high Andes of Cochabamba and La Paz. Those with cameras and a good eye will have their hands full if they want scenics! These settings are a fine backdrop for the amazing biogeography that has generated the country’s avian wealth. Bolivia, near the very center of the South American continent, is also at the nexus of many of the continent’s characteristic habitats, from the Altiplano and high, snow-capped peaks of the Andes, and the humid cloudforests on the Amazonian-facing slopes, to the arid rainshadow valleys that harbor many of the country’s true endemics, to the mixture of Amazonian and semi-deciduous forests at the foot of the Andes and out into the open grasslands in the lowlands of Santa Cruz and Beni departments.

Scribble-tailed Canastero by participant Terry Baltimore
The interestingly named Scribble-tailed Canastero lives a solitary lifestyle in the high-elevation open country. Photo by participant Terry Baltimore.
La Cumbre breakfast by participant David and Judy Smith
One of our groups stops for a picnic breakfast in the stark landscape of La Cumbre above the city of La Paz. Photo by participants David & Judy Smith.
But Bolivia is not just the high Andes. As we head down the eastern slope of the mountains we’ll move through humid temperate and subtropical forests, eventually reaching the eastern palm­studded lowlands, shown here from our extension to the Beni. Photo by participants David & Judy Smith.

These habitats provide Bolivia with an extraordinarily rich avifauna that compares well to any of its better-known neighbors as a birding destination…only its lack of a coast prevents it from climbing the list into the top-most tier! “Endemism” is a term known to many world birders, and though Bolivia has not fared well “officially” in the endemism game (fewer than 20 species that are true endemics), the fact is many near-endemic species just barely spill over political borders into neighboring countries, and in many cases these species are far easier to find within Bolivia than in the remote mountains of Peru or the border regions of Brazil or Argentina. Taking such species into account, the number of specialties in Bolivia suddenly jumps up to about 100 or so — essentially stealth endemics. Plus, there are still distinct forms within Bolivia that may be separated as species and may cause the Bolivian specialties list to swell yet more.

Barred Fruiteater is another attractive species,. It is found with mid­-elevation flocks in montane forest. Photo by guide Dan Lane.
Famous Lake Titicaca, straddling the border between Bolivia and Peru and by volume the largest lake in South America. Photo by guide Dan Lane.
Gray-breasted Seedsnipe by guide Dan Lane
After we’d seen Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, one of our sharp-eyed group members spotted this pair of Gray-breasted Seedsnipe from the same viewpoint! Photo by guide Dan Lane.

The birdlife of Bolivia features some real stars that will captivate your imagination with their beauty and charm: from the mind-blowing aqua rump of the Black-hooded Sunbeam to the stealth of the Rusty-faced Antpitta, from the garrulous flocks of Bolivian Blackbirds to the solitary lifestyle of the Scribble-tailed Canastero. Bolivian birds are also quite varied in their coloration. In the dusty, semi-arid habitats such as in the intermontane valleys, humble brown and gray birds abound, such as the Bolivian Earthcreeper or Gray-crested Finch, but when you enter more humid forests, eye candy such as Hooded Mountain-Toucan and Orange-browed Hemispingus brighten up the list. Hummingbirds are well-represented, too, such as the fantastic Red-tailed Comet and the impressive Wedge-tailed Hillstar. And of course, we can’t leave out parrots, such as the endemic Red-fronted Macaw and the endemic intermontane forms of Monk Parakeet and Blue-crowned Parakeet, both of which are likely distinct enough that they will be split once research has exposed their differences from other populations of those species!

The impressive Cream-­backed Woodpecker is one of more than twenty species of woodpeckers possible on our tour. Photo by guide Dan Lane.
The habitat in the dry intermontane valleys around Comarapa features complex stands of cacti. Photo by guide Dan Lane.
White-collared Jay by guide Dan Lane
The nominate form of the lovely White­-collared Jay is nearly endemic to Bolivia, occurring only in neighboring Peru. Photo by guide Dan Lane.

We’ve revamped our Bolivia tour with visits to a few more foothill localities that should increase our chances at finding rare specialties such as Bolivian Recurvebill and Ashy Antwren, at the same time getting us out of the bustling cities and closer to our birding sites. We still offer an extension to the Beni, a region of incredible diversity with habitats similar to the llanos or Pantanal, but with birds all its own such as Blue-throated Macaw, Unicolored Thrush, and endemic forms of Plain Softtail and Velvet-fronted Grackle, as well as a huge potential list of other open country and gallery forest species!

Why not join us to discover Bolivia’s bird bounty? Our tour this year is scheduled for September 3-19, with the optional pre-tour to the Beni beginning on Aug 29. There are still a few spaces left to join me!

Read more about Dan and his upcoming schedule on his bio page.

Central Peru’s High Andes: Adventure Awaits!

Did you know our Central Peruvian Endemics: The High Andes tour will run this summer (Jun 5-21) and then not again until 2018? Guide Dan Lane takes us through the highlights below with some great images. Check out our tour page for more info and contact our office to hold a space.


Peru is a magical place. It combines so many climatic extremes into a remarkably small area. It has (as most Peruvians will proudly inform you) three main regions: the Coast, the Mountains, and the Rainforest.

Huascaran National Park
The spectacular Andean scenery of Huascaran National Park (Photo by guide Dan Lane)

This actually over-simplifies the variety of habitats, climates, and elevations you can find within the country. It is a place where, to understand it well as a birder, you will need to visit more than once—happily, we offer just such opportunities here at Field Guides!

White-cheeked Cotinga by Ken Havard
The endemic White-cheeked Cotinga (Photo by participant Ken Havard)

Peru is home to a remarkable 100 (approximately) endemic species, many of which are located either on isolated ridges in the high Andes or in intermontane valleys separated from others by those ridges. More than a third of these endemics (and a few “waiting to happen”) are found in the area of Central Peru covered by our tour. What’s more, Peru is ranked in the top three countries worldwide for overall number of bird species!

White-bellied Cinclodes by Dan Lane
The lovely White-bellied Cinclodes, another high-elevation Peruvian endemic (Photo by guide Dan Lane)

With a little challenge to our hemoglobin count will come the rewards of high-elevation sites where fabulous birds such as White-cheeked Cotinga, Plain-tailed Warbling-Finch, and Striated Earthcreeper occur, not to mention the incredible panoramas of the valley at Huascaran National Park and its beautiful Polylepis forests where jewels such as Tit-like Dacnis and Giant Conebill play, or the windswept puna where White-bellied Cinclodes, Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, and Olivaceous Thornbill eke out a living under challenging conditions.

Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager by Dan Lane
The spectacular Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager, an endemic with a small range in central Peru. (Photo by guide Dan Lane)

To get the most out of our quest for the areas fabulous birds, our itinerary includes two nights of outfitted camping under the stars and the hunched mass of Unchog peak. It will be here that we’ll have an opportunity to encounter the legendary endemics of the region such as Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager, Bay-vented Cotinga, Pardusco, Large-footed Tapaculo, and several others.

Bosque Unchog by Dan lane
Our camp at Unchog with the namesake rock formation in the background — a beautiful spot to wake up to! (Photo by guide Dan Lane)
Huascaran scenery by Dan Lane
Not a bad spot for a picnic lunch, right? (Photo by guide Dan Lane)


Huascaran peaks by Dan Lane
Sunrise with Huascaran (Photo by guide Dan Lane)


Giant Conebill by Dan Lane
Giant Conebill, a specialist of the Polylepis groves (Photo by guide Dan Lane)

At lower elevations, we’ll be looking for antpittas, tyrannulets, tanagers, hummingbirds, and other Andean gems on the Carpish Tunnel and Paty trails of the Carpish mountains, and even enjoy the oxygen cocktail at sealevel at coastal wetlands around Lima, where seabirds and shorebirds abound, and the unusual lomas habitats in the hills not far from the city, where endemics such as Thick-billed and Peruvian miners, and Cactus Canastero mingle with the likes of Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Mountain Parakeet, Burrowing Owl, the glowing Vermilion Flycatcher, the rude Croaking Ground-Dove, Least Seedsnipe, Tawny-bellied Dotterel, and others, forming a rather unlikely avifauna.

Black-breasted Hillstar by Dan Lane
A male Black-breasted Hillstar shows off his fine emerald gorget. (Photo by guide Dan Lane)
Junin and Slivery grebes by Dan Lane
A group of three Junin Grebes with a smaller Silvery Grebe (Photo by guide Dan Lane)
Lake Junin by Ken Havard
Sunrise at Lake Junin (Photo by participant Ken Havard)
Flame-faced Tanager by Dan Lane
Flame-faced Tanager (Photo by guide Dan Lane)

The birding on this tour offers many rewards as you can see! So, if you feel up to the high-elevation birding and a couple nights of outfitted camping to reap the benefits, contact our friendly Field Guides office and reserve your space on our tour for this year. The next opportunity isn’t scheduled until 2018… that’s a long time to wait to see these fabulous birds.

I look forward to seeing you there! –Dan

New Zealand: Birding the edge of the world

Imagine standing in a humid temperate forest dominated by towering Nothofagus beech trees. An immense moa browses the leaves overhead as a smaller kiwi nearby probes into soil for earthworms. In the background the amazing piping of a talented Tui adds atmosphere to the misty air. A shadow against the sun, initially ignored by the monstrous moa, grows larger until it takes shape as a gigantic Haast’s Eagle stoops on the larger herbivore. With bone-crunching power, the eagle takes down the moa, and mantles it with its wingspan of more than eight feet — almost the size of the giant eagles who repeatedly rescued the protagonists in the Lord of the Rings movies!

Milford Sound
Milford Sound, photographed by participant Diana Bradshaw
Tui (or Parsonbird, for that neck tuft) by guide Phil Gregory
Tui (or Parsonbird, for that neck tuft) by guide Phil Gregory

This scene is not fiction however; it no doubt happened more than once before the islands were first discovered by the Polynesians who colonized them over a thousand years ago! Of course, shortly after humans arrived, they probably decided that a high priority was to eliminate a predator that had evolved to eat six-to-ten-foot-tall bipedal organisms! So we won’t have to be looking over our shoulders as we bird the islands. But still present in this island paradise are a number of impressive and unusual birds that evolved in isolation from terrestrial mammals — and indeed in many cases, evolved to fill the niches normally held by mammals!

New Zealand, now famous for being the backdrop for the scenic and absorbing Lord of the Rings movies, for producing the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords (if you haven’t already heard of these guys, do yourself a favor and look them up on Youtube!), and for having a lot of sheep, is an important destination for birders.

The "cheeky" Kea, by participant Linda Nuttall
The “cheeky” Kea, by participant Linda Nuttall

Nearly all of its landbirds, and many of its waterbirds, are endemic. Kiwis, Stitchbirds, and Saddlebacks (in endemic families!), and Yellowheads and others are viewable on offshore islands from which various introduced mammalian predators have been eliminated. Meanwhile, on the main islands, flightless Takahe (a husky Purple Gallinule relative) and Weka (an oversized rail) still patrol the understory of woodlands where the beautiful voices of Gray Gerygone and Bellbird pierce the silence.

The unique Rifleman and the mischievous Kea are found in treeline habitats of the picturesque Southern Alps. Seabird colonies on the coasts and offshore islands still teem with breeding penguins, albatrosses, shearwaters, and petrels. Coastal estuaries of the islands are of global importance as wintering sites for Palearctic (and even Nearctic) wintering Bar-tailed Godwit, and also host several endemic, or nearly so, oystercatchers, gulls, terns, stilts, the unique Wrybill, and even the attractive Royal Spoonbill.

White-capped Albatrosses, by participant Diana Bradshaw
White-capped Albatrosses, by participant Diana Bradshaw

Of course, a highlight is the opportunity to participate in what may be the “easiest” pelagic trips in the world — where we are only on the water for a few hours, but can see several species of albatross, including several forms of the Royal and Wandering species complexes, among the largest flying birds in the world), petrels, and perhaps (if really lucky) the New Zealand Storm-Petrel, a species thought to be extinct for about a century!

As if all this were not quite enough to tempt birders to visit, New Zealand also has famously friendly people who speak English (of a different subspecies!), serve sensible tea, provide very hospitable lodging, and offer some delicious food! Now, what more can you ask? Doesn’t spring (ahem, “autumn” for those of us from the Northern Hemisphere) in New Zealand sound like a great getaway? Come join me in this land at the edge of the world in November, and we’ll explore it together!

Join Dan in New Zealand November 3-21 this fall. Visit our tour page for more information, including a complete itinerary and past triplists.

Landscape near Homer Tunnel on the South Island (Photo by participant Linda Nutall)
Landscape near Homer Tunnel on the South Island (Photo by participant Linda Nuttall)

“Manu Manu” (as Mork might have said…)

If Mork from Ork descended to Earth in a spaceship, I’d put my money on him checking out Manu before he headed to Boulder, Colorado, to hook up with Mindy and have a hit 70s sitcom. Why Manu? Because there’s a whole lot of life there! I’m sure you’ve all read several times about how western Amazonia has some of the highest biodiversity of terrestrial organisms anywhere on earth. There are now several lodges where you can see this diversity up close and personal, and the Manu area of southeastern Peru hosts some of the best.

From the cloudforests of the Andean slopes to the lowland rainforest with intermittent patches of Guadua bamboo, Manu encapsulates the phenomenon of ‘ridiculous biodiversity,’ and we run two separate tours into the Manu area: one, Mountains of Manu, that concentrates on the cloudforests and foothill forests along the Manu Road, and the second in which we spend about a week at the comfortable Manu Wildlife Center and explore the many different habitats available in the rich lowlands along the Madre de Dios River.

Just a few of the birding delights from our past Mountains of Manu and Manu Wildlife Center tours: Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Amazonian Umbrellabird, Hoatzins, Paradise Tanager, Plum-throated Cotinga, Semicollared Puffbird, and Rufous-crested Coquettes (Photos by guides Dan Lane and Richard Webster and participants David & Judy Smith)

Consider your chances to see incredibly attractive tanagers, cotingas, toucans, and barbets from canopy platforms; to see tens of species moving through the understory or canopy of rain- or cloudforest in mixed-species foraging flocks; to see hundreds of parrots (including macaws) squabbling for the best positions at a clay lick. For that matter, you could see quetzals lazily cranking their heads around as they wonder how in the world everything was so GREEN where they live! Or a troop of Wooly Monkeys watching us (and, probably checking us off on their mental checklists) as intently as we watch them.

Now, if these possibilities make you think “huh, yeah, I can see myself doing that!” then ask yourself “why not now?” What else are you doing this summer that offers you these possibilities? Would it help if I added that this will be our last offer of the Manu Wildlife Center tour for a while? Or that the accommodations on both our Manu tours are very comfortable, offer fine food, and that there’d be zero chance that your office can call you to ask you for a favor while you’re on vacation? Come on down to Peru and join me on a visit to this incredible area! You and Mork will have something in common to discuss…should you ever meet!

Tour dates are July 2-14 and October 13-25 for Manu Wildlife Center and July 21-August 5 for Mountains of Manu. Come check out the ‘ridiculous biodiversity’ — and some fantastic birding — for yourself!

First time to Peru? Try Machu Picchu & Abra Malaga

I’m often asked, “Which is the best introductory tour to Peru?” Given the variety of landscapes and birdlife in this my favorite country, there’s no easy answer…but I have, nevertheless, settled on a definitive one: Machu Picchu & Abra Malaga.

“Why?” you might ask. Well, for one, it’s a relatively easy tour, accommodations and food are great, the birds include some real “stonkers” (including about 15 possible Peruvian endemics) but are more manageable than the mega-diversity of the lowland rainforest, and, as you no doubt guessed, we’ll enjoy a two-day visit to the world-famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, where we’ll be accompanied by our local guide for our own personalized tour of the ruins.

Moisture-laden clouds from Amazonia wash up the lower slopes of the Andes below Abra Malaga (Photo by guide John Rowlett)

The Cusco Andes of Peru comprise a great destination to get to know the birds and culture of this large and varied country. Here we can experience several different habitat types—from arid temperate valleys to open puna to humid temperate and subtropical forests—and the birds that inhabit them. And of course, we can also enjoy learning a bit about the history of Peru, the cradle of one of the three most important pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas both in the context of pre-conquest times (before the arrival of the swashbuckling Spaniards) and the present.

Traditional customs and dress are in evidence everywhere in the Cusco region. (Photo by participant Francesco Veronesi)

In so many ways, the people of the region have maintained many aspects of their pre-Columbian culture despite centuries of “westernization”… some still speak only Quechua and farm potatoes and raise sheep and alpacas for wool. (Okay, so I admit the sheep would not be part of the pre-Columbian culture, but you see what I mean.) We are able to enjoy delicacies that are based on native crops (quinoa, potato, maíz), and some more daring participants have even been known to try alpaca and cuy (guinea pig), though if these are too exotic for your palate, never fear, Peruvian cuisine can cater to nearly any taste.

The birds? Lots of fabulous ones! Highland Motmot by guide John Rowlett

On this tour we see the southern Peruvian Andes in all their glory: from the arid intermontane valleys to the puna to the humid slopes cloaked with temperate and subtropical forests.  And, gosh-durn-it, those habitats are just full of birds!

Lovely and colorful gems such as the hummingbirds and tanagers abound both at the feeders and in the forests where big mixed-flocks break the apparent stillness, causing a few minutes of chaotic birding.  In the drier and more open country, some of the birds of interest have more muted colors, but many of these are endemics and fascinating in their own right.

If 20th-century road engineering to reach the ruins from the railroad below was this extreme, how on earth did the Inca ever build Machu Picchu (partly visible behind the road)? (Photo by guide Rose Ann Rowlett)

The scenery—as you might expect—is breathtaking, especially on the train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu and also on the Abra Malaga section of the tour.  At 14,200 feet, Abra Malaga is the low point, or pass, along a ridge of rugged peaks called the Vilcanota Mountains separating elfin treeline and humid temperate forest on the northwest from the dry, shrub-covered slopes of the upper Rio Urubamba Valley.  Buffering the upper limits of these habitats is the starkly beautiful puna grassland dotted with llamas, alpacas, and the very occasional cluster of stone houses, corrals, and fences erected by Quechua-speaking families who are somehow accustomed to prospering in what seems to most visitors an inhospitable environment.

So if you’ve been thinking of visiting Peru and have been wondering which of our many tours to take first, I’d recommend starting with this one, Machu Picchu & Abra Malaga, Peru.  We have two departures scheduled this year, June 25-July 4 and August 7-16 and you can read more and download a tour itinerary from our website.  Just head to the Machu Picchu & Abra Malaga tour page.  Once you’ve gotten a toehold on the avifauna and culture of this large and varied country, we’d love to show you more of it.  So come along with Jesse Fagan and me this summer-and don’t forget your binoculars!

Click the start arrow below to enjoy some images from our tour page’s slideshow!
(Place your cursor over the image and use the buttons to pause or change images at your speed…)